Monday, January 21, 2013

Really Simple Church

Our church staff at Central has recently been discussing the book Simple Church -- we have had a great discussion thus far!  I believe that this book is one critical piece the Holy Spirit is putting in place in order to change the leadership culture of Central.  The idea, simply put (!) is that churches usually make their ministries complex because they are not intentional about a clear process by which their church seeks to "make disciples."  So if a church has defined a clear process for making disciples, and then aligns their ministry with that process, the life of that church will naturally become simpler.

The trick is, churches by nature don't drift toward simplicity -- churches naturally drift toward complexity.  We start traditions, programs, and events, and then those things simply cannot be allowed to die.  So our calendars and our closets become cluttered with stuff that doesn't really push us toward our Jesus-given goal of making disciples.

This discussion of Simple Church is an intentional move to 1) define our discipleship process at Central, and 2) to streamline what we do to align with that process.  So far we have hammered out the process by which Central makes disciples.  There are four steps:

1. Be connected to Jesus.
2. Grow together as disciples.
3. Serve our neighbors.
4. Share the good news of Jesus.

This four-step process is both descriptive and prescriptive.  The goal is that when we see what we're doing, we will evaluate it through this four-step grid, and that we will change the details of our ministry so that this grid becomes more and more descriptive of Central.  It may require changing our staffing, our programs, how we spend our time, the events on our calendars, and more.  But we're convinced that these four steps are the right four things for us to be pursuing in order to make disciples.

(A word of definition: A "disciple" is simply one who follows Jesus.  Peter and Andrew, in Mark 1, took a few steps down the beach when Jesus said, "Come, follow me ..." and at that point they were disciples.  People may be interested in Jesus or apathetic toward Jesus, and they may even believe in Jesus, without being disciples.  A disciple is not one who has arrived at some standard of holiness.  Not at all!  Rather, a disciple is one who has begun the process of trying to align their life with the pursuit of following Jesus.  Simple.)

Some of our staff have noted the irony that when you go looking for the book Simple Church, you find dozens and dozens of resources.  Simple Youth Ministry.  Simple Life.  Simple Church for Small Churches.  Simple Church for Churches With Red Carpet.  Simple Church for Churches with Middle-Aged Male Pastors Who Like Golf.

Okay, I made a couple of those up.  But you get the idea.  They've complexified Simple Church.

We went looking for Simple role models.  Jason, our tech guy, went looking for "simple" websites from other churches highlighted as simple churches.  He found churches "programmed up the wazoo" to borrow his colorful phrase.  Churches that advertise themselves as "simple" have page after page of programs, calendars cluttered with all kinds of stuff.  Not inspiring, even if that plethora of programs are all organized by a three-or-four-step process of some kind.

At Central, we are trying to do something that takes us beyond this way of being simple.  Part of what has the potential to make Central different, I think, is that over the last several years, God has led us through a transition to focus more on people than programs.  So we've recognized that it might be a bad idea for the staff to teach more classes -- that might just be another way to clutter up people's lives, even if the various classes offered all fit within some understanding of a discipleship process.

So the reason we're headed toward something different is that prior to doing Simple Church we've also turned the corner from investing in programs to investing in people -- the shift toward investing in the people who will lead Pastorates and D4D groups is a truly revolutionary shift that allows "simple" to become a reality.  At least potentially.

You also see this in our staff as we discuss "simple" and what it could mean at Central.  We're much more willing to cut programs or combine programs because we recognize that the real task is not to protect our programmatic turf, but to build up people who can then disciple others (2 Timothy 2:2).

I have to admit that I have high hopes that Central's ministry may become truly simple -- not in a way that just masks and organizes our clutter, but in a way that gets people's focus back where it should be -- on loving God with all their hearts, connecting with other believers in a way that spurs growth, and in loving this world in a way that meets people's needs and communicates the amazing love and power of Jesus in a concrete way.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Sufficient unto the day ... (Mt. 6:34)

There's something just right in January about having a day off.  Oh, there's still a few things on the list I need to do -- a couple emails that need a response today, and some background thinking about Sunday's sermon that needs to be pondered.  Those things will take some minutes here and there.

I got up this morning and had a cup of coffee in my Recliner Of Meeting, read another chapter of Matthew and pondered that for a bit.  Puttered around the house for a bit while my wife was still sleeping, then got workout clothes on and went to the gym.  Worked out pretty hard, but not too hard as I'm planning to be back there tomorrow morning again.  Now I'm at Dunn Brothers in Elk River while my wife has lunch with a few friends.  It's a pretty laid back day.  Later on a friend and I are going to see if we can fool any coyotes into thinking we're wounded rabbits.  I haven't been coyote hunting in years.  Kind of excited about it.

There are metaphorical thunderheads on the horizon, of course.  Pastorally I'm flying solo on Sunday morning -- though of course I'm not solo because there are lots of other people who carry various parts of Sunday morning worship on their shoulders.  Our upcoming mission trip to Honduras is coming like a freight train, and I'll have to figure out what to bring for that adventure.  I also need to look through devotional plans for that week, as I've been leaning pretty hard on the rest of the team for the other details of the trip.  Not shirking, I hope,  but certainly not leading.  Fortunately there's a great group of dedicated people handling the details.  Certainly there might be other crises that come up in the coming days while the other pastors are still away from Central, but I can't anticipate those until they happen.  Then next week we've got a two-day staff retreat that bumps right up against departure for our Honduras trip, so I'll need to get focused before that.

I think sometimes about the old "Flinstones" show -- I was never much of a fan.  Gilligan and Col. Hogan had my loyalty.  The one image I find handy is Fred Flinstone looking in the closet for his bowling ball.  Without fail, whenever he opened the closet door, a mountain of stuff came spilling out.  Life is like that sometimes.  Today is a day when I'm leaving the closet door closed, for the most part, and taking a deep breath.  Without overstating the case, I think it's kind of a spiritual discipline.  I know people who just can't stand to leave that closet door closed, can't stand not to deal with whatever problems are on the horizon while they take a deep breath.

Not me.  I'm enjoying today.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Pneumatology is the study of the Holy Spirit.  This, too, has until recently been a little-explored backwater of Christian theology, left mostly to the Pentecostals and the Charismatics, by which we usually mean those who favor speaking in tongues and who like to talk about the Holy Spirit and who make the rest of us uncomfortable.

In the first 400 years after the Protestant Reformation, the epistles of Paul -- especially Paul's letter to the Romans -- were the reigning monarchs of Scripture.  These were the documents by which we assessed and filtered everything else in the Bible.  We based our faith on Romans and fit everything else into that structure.  One of the main divides within Christianity in the 20th century grew out of the fact that the epistles of Paul give little emphasis to the believer's experience of the Holy Spirit.

When, in 1906, a group of Christians on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, CA, experienced speaking in tongues and other supernatural phenomena, a wave of Christian expression broke out that was radically different from the Enlightenment-based Protestantism that had dominated Western Christianity for the previous four centuries.  The "Azusa Street Revival" spawned what have come to be called "Pentecostal" churches.  Pentecostalism, however, is more than just an emphasis on speaking in tongues.  It has much more to do with our expectations of whether and how God will act in the present.

In a fascinating lecture (click on the link and scroll down the page to Mark Noll's talk; this portion of the talk starts around 45 minutes into it) on the expansion of Christianity in the world of the 21st century, Mark Noll makes this observation (I am quoting at some length):

The simple demography of the world situation today forces -- or should force -- Christian believers in the West to reexamine questions that they may not have thought of for quite some time.  
I'm a Presbyterian.  Presbyterians are defined by:
A. Resistance to change,
B. A desire to have lots of committees, and
3. An inability to move past a mile or two an hour on any kind of conceptual issue. 
The world -- the Christian world we live in today is not a world made for Presbyterians.  It is a world changing fast, that's demanding Christian and theological reconsideration.
For example, how close is the world of spirits to the world in which we live?  In other words, what is to be made practically of the traditional Christian belief in the supernatural?  All Christians in one variety or another believe in forces beyond nature, in a God who acts for his own purposes when he wishes.  In most of the Christian world today, however the abstract belief in God's ability to act supernaturally is connected to a strong belief that God acts supernaturally, practically, in the world almost all the time ...  
[Noll describes a work by a Canadian author on images and experiences of Jesus in West Africa, and the sophisticated theological reflection that grows out of these images and experiences.]  What I was impressed by was how standard, how ordinary, the expectation that God would normally, often, in the regular course of things, act for his own purposes, to bring about physical healing ...  
[Noll next describes a friend of his who leads seminars in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world on Bible reading.]  I asked John, "Now, how many of the people who come to your seminars -- and they would be Baptists, they would be Presbyterians, they would be Nazarenes, they would be Catholics, as well as many from independent churches -- how many of these people would be Pentecostal and charismatic?" He shakes his head and he says, "Every single one."   
They all are.  They all are expecting God to act immediately. 
Well, I don't.  I'm an academic Christian who thinks through things, and I want the Lord to kind of take his time.  But on such questions, it actually might not mean a whole lot what I think, very very soon.
Mark Noll has his finger squarely on one of the most important divides in Christianity today.  Christianity is not divided so much between Catholic and Protestant, or rich and poor, or Arminian or Calvinist.  Those divisions are real, but less important than this simple question:  Does God act freely, commonly, often, even daily, by his Spirit, to intervene for his own causes in the created world?  Those Noll labels "Pentecostals" would say a firm "yes!" to this question.  The rationalist protestantism I grew up with might more likely say a cautious, "Maybe."

Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds across the globe.  Much of this growth is happening in Africa and in China.  The growth that is happening, whatever denominational label it has, is a "Pentecostal" kind of Christianity in this specific sense: It is a Christianity that expects God to act immediately, supernaturally, in tangible ways.  It is a Christianity that is filtered more through the book of Acts than the book of Romans.

In 2011 Pastor Paul Johansson from Central spent some time in Ethiopia and Tanzania as part of his sabbatical.  One of the conversations he had during that time included observations about the Lutheran churches in Kenya and Tanzania.  In the 1960's, a charismatic revival broke out across the globe, including East Africa.  The Lutherans in Kenya discussed the revival and said, "This is not what our Lutheran churches are about."  They rejected this revival, and the Lutheran church in Kenya today has a few hundred thousand members, much the same size today as it was in the 1960's.  Next door in Tanzania, the Lutherans -- about the same size in the '60's as the church in Kenya -- embraced this charismatic revival as a legitimate work of the Holy Spirit.  The church began to grow by leaps and bounds, and today there are more than five million Lutheran Christians in Tanzania.  The Lutheran church in Tanzania continues to be Pentecostal in its expectation that God will act in a daily, supernatural way.  It continues to grow like mad.

Those who are doing cutting edge work in theology today have to speak about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the world.  We cannot cling to a rationalistic, Enlightenment-based distortion of Christianity that we think somehow reflects the Protestant Reformation, but that loses the heart of the New Testament.  Theology today must find a way to speak with clarity about this kind of expectation, this kind of Pentecostal expectation that God will act.  This is pneumatology, the study of the ways of God's Spirit and the difference that this Spirit makes in the life of the believer and of the church.  If Noll is right -- and I believe he is -- then this expectation cuts across every denomination, every tradition.  Expectant Lutherans have far more in common with expectant Catholics than they do with more rationalistic Lutherans.  This Pentecostal expectation has not exactly undone the Protestant Reformation, but it has certainly created a new watershed within Christianity.  On one side of the divide, the church is growing deeper and wider.  On the other side it is shrinking.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Third post

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten my promise to complete the three-part series on theology and how it's changing.  I have a post on pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit) that is in process and will be posted shortly (likely tomorrow or Tuesday).  I just couldn't resist commenting on the Death Star thing.

Should we build a Death Star?

This article is a good example of why the whole "governing by petition" thing that's recently become popular is a bad idea.  Somebody has to read, evaluate, and respond to any petition that gets more than 25,000 signatures -- not a very high threshold.  It seems funny at first, and in some ways it is, but responding to this kind of thing really does require government resources that could be spent on worthwhile things.

A generation ago, if you wanted the government to do something, you called your representatives in Congress.  Or you wrote to them.  Maybe we should start doing that again.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


I did my time in seminary from 1995-1998.  And at times, yes, it felt like "doing time."  I went into the institution of higher learning with a bad attitude, prepared to do whatever I needed to jump through man-made hoops in order to be allowed to serve as pastor of a Lutheran church.  God, in his wisdom, used that time -- in spite of me, and sometimes in spite of the institution -- to do his amazing work.  He shaped, informed, and reformed me in many ways during that time.   It was hugely valuable to me!

During that time, "systematic theology" was my least favorite thing to study.  It felt too contrived to try to systematize God.  It seemed to me that systematicians were trying hard to get out of their own context to make an eternal statement about the things of God, and the more I studied the more convinced I became that context is a GOOD thing.  If Jesus' incarnation happened in one particular place during one particular moment in history, shouldn't I respect the fact that God has planted me as a theologian in one particular place, in one particular moment in history?  So I came to believe that all theology is profoundly contextual, and that this is a GOOD thing.

Back to my systematics class.  The systematics classes I took at Luther Seminary used a two-volume set called Christian Dogmatics.  The set was organized by topic, so the units in volume one include (after the obligatory "Prolegomena to Christian Dogmatics" -- I am not making this up) the following topics:

The Triune God
The Knowledge of God
The Creation
Sin and Evil
The Person of Jesus Christ

These were the exciting areas of theology to study.  If you were talking about Christology -- the nature of Jesus, and the relationship of his divinity and his humanity, and what it means that he died on the cross -- then you were working at the heart of theology.  This was the apex, the really good stuff.

Much later, about halfway through volume two, you would run across another unit entitled simply, "The Church."  Paging through my dusty copy of Christian Dogmatics, I find no notes in the margin, no bookmarks left in this unit, no carefully scrawled notes tucked into the text as I find in some of the earlier sections.  I wonder, reading a few of its lengthy Latin-laced lines, whether we actually got around to studying it at all.  In most theology textbooks, the "Ecclesiology" section (meaning, the study of the church) contained a few dry reflections on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, ordination and clergy, and maybe something about the priesthood of all believers.  Yawn.

You see, in those days few theologians were thinking seriously about the church.  The church just was.  It wasn't something you had to think much about.  "Ecclesiology" was still the ugly stepchild of theological reflection.  Certainly no one at Luther Seminary was taking seriously the rising tide of books written about the church.  These were not "theological" books, books quoting from Latin texts and French philosophers, but they were what our profs demeaningly called "church-growth literature," written by common pastors (and even non-pastors!) for use by common pastors (or even non-pastors!).

The tide kept rising.  Rick Warren wrote The Purpose Driven Church, which became the precursor to his wildly successful book The Purpose Driven Life a decade later.  In the early 1990's Loren Mead was writing about The Once and Future Church and Transforming Congregations for the Future.  Carl George wrote Metachurch about this time, and a little later Michael Slaughter wrote Spiritual Entrepreneurs.  Even a few Lutherans got into the act eventually -- I remember reading Mike Foss' book Power Surge and Tim Wright's Unfinished Evangelism among others.  

But these were not theology books.  Theology was written by academics, and certainly theology was not released in paperback.  These were just church leadership books.

Over time, though, something began to happen.  Somewhere along the way, we (and by we I mean I) began to realize that these writers were slowly reshaping our (my) understanding of what the church was, why it had been created, and how God wanted it to function.  It was not that the message of the gospel had changed.  Scripture hadn't changed.  Jesus certainly hadn't changed, and the Holy Spirit hadn't changed.  But the culture was changing, and fast!  The church was the intermediary -- the delivery system -- between the gospel and culture, and as the culture changed, the church scrambled to adapt.  Churches were changing, and no one quite knew what to do with that fact.  Not coincidentally, about this time we started to hear from seminary graduates who lamented that "the seminary didn't prepare me for the realities of serving in the church!"  Academia was lagging far behind the needs of the local congregation.  Those on the front lines of bringing the gospel to the culture needed advice from others from the front lines.  They did not need a dry theological reflection about abstract realities.

Over time these paperbacks began to take on more depth, to do more reflecting on who God was and how God was involved in this interface between church and culture.  Sociologists and historians got into the act, not as primary authors most of the time but as consultants and specialized voices to lend perspective to the discussion.  Spirituality became an important topic within this body of literature.

Over time we began to read more from people who were reinventing their churches.  This was more than the trite advice to church councils (Who Moved My Church was one lamentable takeoff on the slightly popular leadership text, Who Moved My Cheese) and began to delve into truly new ways of doing ministry.  What was happening was this:  As the church didn't function the way we thought it should function, as it failed the task of speaking relevant good news about Jesus to the culture, some thoughtful people went back to scripture.  They started reading their Bibles and asking, "What is the church supposed to look like?"

The answers were shocking.  In that Bible, they found no mention of pews or church bells, no mention of special buildings.  There was precious little about clergy or church councils or sacraments.  It was tough, in scripture, to find advice for how to preach the various portions of the church calendar.

What these thinkers found in the Bible was a description of a church that was less like an institution and more like an extended family.  The Bible recommended outlandish practices like sharing resources, bearing burdens, and letting the Holy Spirit guide an orderly form of worship in which each person was a participant, not an observer.  So some of these people started "doing" church just the way the Bible described it.

Lo and behold, they found that the culture was strangely drawn to their outlandish way of doing church.  You see, one of the hurts in the surrounding culture was that almost no one lived with what everyone was hungry for -- something called "authenticity."  Hypocrisy was rampant, and so people became jaded but inside they were desperately yearning for something that they could trust, something that they could believe in.  No one wanted to get burned, though.  But when they saw these groups of Jesus-followers living together in authentic community, many in the world were drawn to the church.

Ecclesiology today is one of the most fascinating areas of theology, and the best theological reflections about the church are being written by those who are actively leading churches.  This is not just literature about how to make your church grow; it is careful, thoughtful reflection from people who are leading life-giving churches during the week with their Bibles wide open.  As they lead and reflect and write, we discover stuff we never knew about God.  I would suggest Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace? and Timothy Keller's Prodigal God as two examples of books that start to get at some of this practical reflection about God that makes a real difference in the real world.

So to start moving toward some kind of conclusion of this rambling post, the bottom line (though we're nowhere near the bottom of this shift yet) is that the location of theology has been changing from academia to the local congregation.  This is one of the main reasons why, when I have been asked recently whether I want to get a Ph.D. and find a job teaching in a seminary or university, I've smiled and said no.  As tempting as it is to think about teaching full time, I firmly believe that the best theological work needs to be in a church, not in a school.  I certainly can see myself teaching part-time or, as I've done the last few years, taking a week here and there to go somewhere (notably the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute, where I'll be a visiting instructor again in March) to teach in an academic setting.  But I want to be interacting with the living, breathing church as it adapts and changes to bring the unchanging message of Jesus Christ to a changing culture.

That's one reason I'm so thankful to have been at Central for almost ten years now.  This church is working hard to hear the Holy Spirit's voice and follow where we are led.  In the last ten years it's meant radical changes to our children's programming, adult programming, student ministries, models of leadership, and much more.  It's nowhere near perfect, but an exciting place to work.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Epistemology is not a word that gets used very often in day to day conversation.

One of the foundations of the Reformation in the 1500's was the idea of "sola scriptura" -- Latin for "Bible alone."  Sola Scriptura was the reformers' answer to the question, "Where does the church's authority come from?"  The Roman Catholic Church's answer to the authority question for centuries relied on an appeal to the church's tradition -- basically this meant that the Church hierarchy, especially the pope, had authority to interpret the Bible and history and current practice to declare what was in and what was out for western Christians.  When Luther and the other reformers faced questions about how to do ministry, how to set priorities, how to make decisions, they turned time and again not to church tradition or to human reason but to the Bible.  If the Bible said something was true, that was enough.

Martin Luther, on trial for his life before the Diet of Worms (love that name, but it just means a gathering of the ruling nobility of Germany -- a "diet" -- in the German city of Worms) famously said that unless he was convicted by "scripture and plain reason" he would not recant his teachings.  "Scripture and plain reason" became the standard of Protestant Christianity for the last five hundred years.  So we have relied on the Bible's clear word, interpreted without a lot of scholarly sleight-of-hand.

Today we face a crisis that affects Christianity from many directions, but one dimension is certainly this question of authority.  "The Bible tells me so" doesn't carry weight with a great deal of the population anymore.  People are jaded to the Bible because they've seen Christians use the Bible's teachings to justify racism, homophobia, greed, lack of compassion for the poor, abuse of women, and much more.  (It is worth pointing out that those who justify these abuses in the name of Jesus have not understood the fullness of Jesus' message and have missed large swaths of the Bible's content.)  The world outside the church has pretty much thrown the baby of the Bible's teachings out with the bathwater of the church's institutional hypocrisy.  You won't sway public opinion by quoting the Bible these days, I guarantee.  Most Christians still hold the Bible in high regard, but even within Christianity there are huge differences in how much authority we ascribe to the Bible.  Outside of Christianity, though, the Bible doesn't carry a lot of weight.

No, the question is not about what has authority in the culture.  Postmodernism has stripped away any sense of shared authority in the surrounding culture.  But the church desperately needs to figure out the question of authority for our own sake.  If we don't understand our worship, teaching, evangelism, and service in terms of some legitimate authority, we will fragment and decay.  You can see this happening in much of Christianity already today.

Epistemology is the study of what we believe and why we believe it, and how it has been transmitted to us.  So for the last five centuries in Protestant circles at least, epistemology has mostly been about the Bible.  We know the message because of the Bible.  We believe it because of "sola scriptura."  It has been transmitted to us by means of textual transmission and translation (both of which have been important sciences in the last few hundred years).

Today epistemologists face a difficult task.  Within Christianity, the Bible still holds various degrees of authority.  Some Christian denominations treat the Bible as a history-bound book that points us toward our own search for God.  Other Christians take the Bible literally, claiming "verbal inerrancy" as an official doctrine.

(Verbal inerrancy, by the way, teaches that every word, every number, every "jot and tittle" to quote Jesus, of the Bible is divinely inspired and without any error.  Because there are obvious errors in our best manuscripts today -- e.g., the accounts of the same census or battle in Kings and Chronicles might list different numbers of people -- those who hold to verbal inerrancy generally say that the manuscripts are without error "in the original manuscripts."  Conveniently or no, we don't have any of the original manuscripts of the Bible.  So verbal inerrancy becomes more of a faith statement, saying that we have faith in the Bible, more than it is a useful doctrine of how we treat the Bible today.)

The question is about what has authority within the church.  I don't think we'll come to any agreement about this authority in my lifetime.  Other historians have pointed out that we're in a period of flux, a major transition time that will likely last about a century before we have any consensus about what is really authoritative.

I believe, though, that we are already seeing indications of where this authority might come to rest.  One possibility is that our postmodern thinking recognizes the need for the message to match the messenger.  We sometimes say, "What you do speaks so loudly that I can't hear your words" and we scoff at those who seem to say, "Do as I say, not as I do."  The message has to take concrete shape in the life of those who bear the message.  So I suspect that one place the authority of the Christian message will come to reside is in relational communities of people intentionally living biblical values.  As communities of people strive to know the Bible's message and to live it out, the intersection of their words and lifestyle carries an authority that is hard to dispute.

This need for consistency, for authenticity of life informed by the news about Jesus, is one reason I'm excited about pastorates at Central.  As these bigger-than-small-groups meet together, share life together, care for one another, minister to hurting people within and outside their groups, and strive to grow deeper into Jesus and into the Bible, they appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Epistemology today cannot be studied most effectively in academia.  It needs to be lived, or the people speaking and writing about it will be ignored.  The person who can tell the story of the group that has met in their house for the past five years has more authority to talk about the authenticity of this faith than the researcher who has collected statistics all over the globe.  The researcher may be able to tell us about trends, but the practitioner can tell us about transformation.

This is another epistemological key -- the authority of the Christian message will rest largely on its real power to transform.  Christian faith cannot be about theory; it is life change.  This is not speculation; it is experience.

While this may seem like a high bar for Christians to leap, moving from doctrine to transformation, it is really simply an opportunity to return to our deepest roots.  In the marketplaces of the ancient Roman empire, no one would have looked twice at Christianity if they had not seen Christians living out their faith.  It was not a doctrine about Jesus' resurrection that drew people to this new faith; it was the power of Jesus' resurrection demonstrated in the lives of his followers that drew them.

Yes, friends, theology is changing.  It's exciting to me, however, that the first glimmers of an epistemological future that I can see from here look a lot like the first few chapters of the New Testament book of Acts.  I think that's not a bad direction to be moving at all.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Theology today

I had a fascinating conversation with my daughters the other night.  We sat up for a couple hours talking about their sense of where God is leading them and how that may or may not involve theological study.  As we talked I reflected, not for the first time, about the way theology has changed in the last couple generations.

When thousands of young GI's returned from Europe and the Pacific after World War Two, many of them became pastors, and some of them chose to enter seminaries or universities to teach theology.  The cutting edge work in theology was being done in biblical studies, especially in New Testament studies.  Theological work on biblical studies, already a focus because of the "historical Jesus" work of the early 20th century, grew out of two major discoveries in the 1940's -- the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library.  The first was a collection of documents probably stashed away by a group of Jewish recluses called Essenes. The Nag Hammadi library was a collection of Gnostic documents from the late 2nd century that broadened our picture of the religious world of the early Christian period.

During that generation, as we came to grips with the horrors of war, a lot of theological work also focused on questions of theodicy, which asks how God is related to suffering and evil.  Not surprisingly, these were the same questions that engaged theologians after the First World War.  For a century or longer, biblical studies and theodicy were the driving questions in the field of theology.  Cutting edge theological work was done by careful thinkers and researchers and textual analysts in universities, seminaries and divinity schools.  People who had been marginalized in the field of theology (notably women and people of color) made inroads into this field by becoming established as faculty in prestigious seminaries.

In the waning years of the 20th century, the theological playing field began to shift.  Instead of wondering about ancient documents or the questions of God and suffering, the cutting edge work of theology began to happen in response to a major cultural shift.  The prosperity of the 50's, the sexual revolution of the 60's and the disillusionment of the 70's began to accelerate American culture's movement away from any sense of loyalty to the institutional church.  Many writers have chronicled the demise of "Christendom" and the renewed marginalization of the church in western culture.  As that marginalization happened, however, three new concerns have begun to emerge in theological work:

1. Epistemology
2. Ecclesiology
3. Pneumatology

For the next three posts on this blog, I'm going to take a stab at the concerns of each of these branches of theology.  Interestingly enough, none of these three was considered very important among theologians a hundred years ago.  Looking at history, however, I guess that makes sense.

The bigger shift that I want to mention in this post is that the location of theological work has changed.  Instead of the careful thinker in the ivory tower of academia, today the best theology in these three fields is being done in local congregations by those who are on the front lines of ministry.  Increasingly the best theological thinking comes from those who are struggling to live at the cutting edge, not just of theological thought, but of the church's mission in the real world.

I believe that's one of the most encouraging developments of my lifetime, and it gives me great hope for the future of Christianity.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


One of the real gifts of the Christmas / New Year holiday season is the gift of connecting to people.  We had a weekend of celebration with Julie's family before Christmas, the standard massive Christmas Eve with hundreds of people at Central, a quiet Christmas Day with our nuclear family plus my nephew, my niece, and her husband, and yesterday most of my siblings and families were at my house for several hours of games, food, digging into old family history, and telling stories about the way things used to be.

It's been a good season.

Times like this are such an important reconnection.  Entering into a new calendar year is a lot easier if you know your roots.  Looking at Adam in the freshly created, unstained Garden of Eden, God said to himself, "It is not good for the man to be alone."  We need community, and part of the reason is that community and rootedness happen together.

Roots are not so much about what happened back then.  Or rather, roots are about a community of people with a shared history AND vital connections in the present.  This is true of families and of congregations.

I pray that you have deep roots that continue to grow in 2013!