God’s Not Dead: A review

God's_not_deadFull disclosure: I’m not a big fan of Christian movies. Generally, I find them preachy, poorly acted, and – produced on a shoe-string – it usually shows.

So, I went to “God’s Not Dead” (2014) ready to hate it, and surprisingly, I didn’t.

The plot centers on atheist Professor Raddison (played by Kevin Sorbo), a philosophy professor who urges his freshmen students to write just three words on a piece of paper: “God is dead.” If everyone in the class will do this and turn it in to the prof, the unit on metaphysics can be skipped. There wouldn’t be a story to tell if all the students did so. One student – Josh Wheaton (played by Shane Harper) – is a Christian, and refuses to sign. As a result, the sincere but apparently outmatched Wheaton must give a presentation during three class periods, attempting to prove God’s existence.

The movie requires the viewer to suspend belief, at least to some degree. The veteran Radisson grows more agitated as the movie goes on, apparently troubled by the mounting evidence presented by the neophyte Wheaton. However, in real life, would any of these arguments have caught a philosophy professor worth his salt so flat-footed?

As the movie progresses — SPOILER ALERT! – Wheaton wins not by playing the philosopher, but by putting on his counselor’s hat. Radisson is not an atheist based upon reason as much as emotion, residual anger at God for taking away Radisson’s mother from cancer when he was only 12 years old. Seizing on the moment, in front of the class, the freshman chides: “How can you be angry at someone who doesn’t exist?”

“God’s not Dead” will convince no hardened atheists, but the plot twist – shifting the ground to the question of disappointment with God – may help explain its success. Produced for a mere $ 2 million U.S., it has made more than $ 60 million, a cool thirty-fold profit. Hardly a new film, it still generates lively discussion on  IMDB.com where some threads host conversations on the relationship between science and faith. Much to their credit, the writers of “God’s not Dead” avoided having their young hero take a narrow stance on the “how” of divine creation. Insisting only that God is Creator, they left room for either YEC (Young Earth Creationism)  or other viewpoints, such as OEC (Old Earth Creationism) or theistic evolution, i.e. that God created but has used and still uses evolution to do so.

Sometimes the movie gets it wrong. A young Muslim girl who is a student at Josh’s university is careful to put her head covering back on when around her father, but leaves her arms bare and sports hip-hugging blue jeans. Anyone concerned about covering her head would likely not transgress these other Islamic family norms.

On the positive side, if you’re a “Newsboys” fan, you’ll love the ending, though as time passes, they may have to change their name to the “Newsmen.” But most of those who were watching with us were teens, and they obviously enjoyed the upbeat music.

With the success of “God’s Not Dead,” expect to see more movies like it. If they generate good conversations about Christian faith among those who normally wouldn’t engage and manage to do it in a reasonably believable and quality way like this film did, then count me it.

MY RATING: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Photo credit: IMDB.com

Strong theological education, strong church

Dr Crofford teaches a course on John Wesley's theology to students in Benin

Dr. Crofford teaches a course on John Wesley’s theology to students in Benin

Though my calling is to vocational Christian ministry, there have been transition times when I was very glad for my bank teller skills. It was honest work, and it provided for my family.

Working as a bank teller required specialized training. Tellers must know how to process deposits, withdrawals, account inquiries, loan payments, and more. Banks hire trainers who show new recruits what to do and how to do it.

Like banks, the church also recognizes the value of training. God-called pastors require certain skills. They must know what to do and how to do it. This includes the preparation and delivery of a sermon, baptizing those of all ages, serving the Lord’s Supper, making hospital visits, conducting funerals and weddings, providing pastoral counseling, and a dozen other tasks. These are vital skills for any pastor to be effective, and local churches expect that their pastor is able to perform them to an acceptable level, knowing that with time they will become more adept. In short, training is important.

Regarding business products, Simon Sinek observed:

People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.*

What is true for business is true for Christian ministry in all of its forms. It is not sufficient for a member of the clergy to know what to do and how to do it; he or she must also know why they believe what they believe. This belief, owned through long study and sometimes even spiritual anguish, will in-turn inform why they do what they do in ministry, helping them stay-the-course when difficulties mount, critics are many, and friends are few.

Are we as a church effectively addressing this more advanced aspect of purpose?

When it comes to pastors, do we recognize the need to move beyond the “what” and “how” of training to the “why” of theological education? Churches need not only pastors who are trained to perform ecclesiastical tasks. Churches desperately need pastors who love learning of all kinds, deep women and men capable of theological reflection in the midst of the task, letting that prayerful reflection modify how they practice ministry.

The dangers of only training pastors and not educating them to think critically are real. Some years ago, a conservative Christian mission agency based in the United States sent missionaries to a West African nation. The mission agency equipped local leaders to plant churches throughout the country, in big cities and small villages. Within 15 years, their members numbered nearly 50,000. Over time, the mission’s priorities shifted, so they re-assigned the missionaries to other countries, leaving leadership of the churches in the hands of one of the local leaders who had proven himself capable. One day, he came across an attractive pamphlet about Jesus Christ. He read how Jesus is not God, but the first and highest being created by God. The leader began teaching what he had read inside. The growth of the church stalled and began to decline as 1/3 of its pastors left the denomination, not wishing to be part of a group that had unwittingly begun to promote a false belief. A key leader had been trained for a task but had apparently not received adequate theological education. Consequently, he was unprepared to critically engage with a contemporary manifestation of the ancient heresy of Arianism.

"History and Faith of the Biblical Communities," at Mount Vernon Nazarene University

“History and Faith of the Biblical Communities,” at Mount Vernon Nazarene University

The “what” and “how” of training are not sufficient. Pastors must understand why they do what they do, itself a natural outgrowth of studying and determining over time why they believe what they believe. Africa is awash in a sea of quasi-Christian teaching that has at-times incorporated elements of African Traditional Religion (ATR) into its thinking, particularly in how it presents the work of “prophets” who end up serving the same function as shamans. We need more than just a handful of theologians capable of separating theological wheat from chaff. Every individual – male or female – who expresses a call to ordained ministry must be given both training and theological education. They must be taught not only the content of faith but how to reflect theologically in-light of both what Scripture says and what the church has historically understood Scripture to mean. Only then can the church stay on-course through the rough seas and high winds of false doctrine. In-turn, pastors – effectively trained and theologically educated – must equip lay leaders in the church in the “what” and “how” of ministry, all the while carefully helping them to understand the “why” of our practice and belief. Orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxy (correct practice) go hand-in-hand.

The training only model, however well-intentioned, is inadequate. One of my supervisors told me soon after I took up my missionary teaching task: “Just give your students the information and make sure they give it back to you correctly on the exam. That’s all they need to do.” At the time, it seemed like good advice, but was it? An African teacher lamented: “The first missionaries came and gave us a book. We learned everything inside and began to teach it. Later, other missionaries came and gave us a second book that said different things than the first. So, we want you missionaries to tell us: Which book is correct?” Though the teacher was well-trained to do the work of a pastor, he was not able to critically reflect for himself and arrive at his own conclusions. He was helpless in the face of contradictory ideas advanced by writers of equal academic qualification. No amount of training could make up for the absence of critically reflective theological education.

Denominations that are growing and stable have understood that education – both in theology and the other academic disciplines – is not an enemy of faith but its enabler. Bertha Munro, the late long-time Dean of Eastern Nazarene College, was fond of telling her students: “There is no conflict between the best in education and the best of our Christian faith.” A tradesman teaches an apprentice what to do and how to do it. That is admirable and needed, yet education delves deeper, helping the student understand the rationale for belief and practice, no matter the field of service, creating a strong foundation on which a solid building can be erected.

Those who think that training ministers is enough may misunderstand the rationale behind theological education. For a student to construct a theology that is his or her own, sometimes he or she – under the gentle probing of a Seminary or University teacher – must set aside long-held beliefs that do not hold up under the closer scrutiny of a more careful reading of Scripture. To construct a durable and biblically faithful theology, some deconstruction often has to take place. This can be a painful, confusing time, but the student who perseveres will come away knowing not only what to do as a pastor and how to do it, but also why they believe what they do. That strong belief, hard-won through prayer and the wrestling of careful reflection, will undergird a ministry that lasts a life-time. Like a weight-lifter, muscle must be broken down before it can be built back up, stronger and more resilient in the process. When applied to Christian faith, this is the sacred task of theological education, a task that is sometimes called “constructive theology.”

Graduates of the ITN Diploma in Theology program, Bukavu, DRC

Graduates of the ITN Diploma in Theology program, Bukavu, DRC

Though theological educators walk alongside students who are coming to understand what they believe and why, the process is not without boundaries. Dr. Thomas Noble has noted that theologians are first and foremost “theologians in service to the church” (Global Nazarene Theology Conference, Guatemala, 2002). They hold in-trust the church’s doctrinal heritage, helping reproduce it in the next generation of its clergy. For this reason, teachers of Bible, theology, church history, Christian ethics and related disciplines are carefully vetted and continually responsible to both fellow educators and church leaders who offer guidance and (when necessary) censure. Well has it been said: “While orthodoxy is not a straight line, it is a fenced-in area.” At the same time, the church must give leeway and space to theological educators, allowing them the academic freedom to carry out their calling in creative ways, always adjusting their methods to fit the changing needs of changing times, yet simultaneously maintaining the underlying integrity of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3, NIV).

Now more than ever, when it comes to raising up the next generation of leaders in the church, we need both training and theological education. Our pastors must know what to do and how to do it, but let us also remember the “why.” Only when we give students space – exercising patience and trusting God the Holy Spirit to guide them as they make the Christian faith their own both in heart and mind – will we reap the long-term benefit of strong clergy equipped to lead a strong church into an uncertain future.

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* Thank you to Anita Henck, for pointing me to Simon Sinek’s idea.

Resurrection: Putting all our eggs in one basket

eggs-in-a-basketThe old proverb warns: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Mark Twain retorted: “Put all your eggs in one basket, then watch that basket.”

There’s no question that for followers of Christ, the basket has a label: RESURRECTION. But have we been watching that basket, keeping it strong, or allowing speculative, fanciful views about “Heaven” to weaken it?

Ancient Jewish views on life after death and resurrection

The first followers of Christ staked their lives on the claim that God had raised Jesus of Nazareth to life. But what was the context of that claim and what made it so extraordinary? As Jews, they had been brought up learning swaths of what Christians now call the Old Testament. Importantly, this part of our Bible gives little hope for life after death, wavering between death as either non-existence or (at most) a shadowy and undefined abode.

Job 14:1-14 (NIV) is a good summary of the non-existence view. In v. 14a, Job asked:

If someone dies, will they live again?

That the answer to Job’s question is “no” may be concluded from the preceding verses. There we read phrases like these:

“Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble. They spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure” (vv. 1-2).

“A man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more” (v. 10).

“As the water of a lake dries up or a riverbed becomes parched and dry, so he lies down and does not rise;
 till the heavens are no more, people will not awake or be roused from their sleep” (vv. 11-12).

King David models this hopelessness. In 2 Samuel 12:14, Nathan the prophet had announced that the child born of David’s illicit affair with Bathsheba would die. However, David attempted to change God’s mind by fasting and showing his repentance, lying on sackcloth for several nights. Seven days later, the child died. When David heard the news, he got up, washed and ate food. When asked about his sudden return to normal behavior, the King replied (vv. 22-23):

While the baby was alive, I fasted and wept because I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let him live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I’ll go to him, but he will never return to me (HCSB).

When David said “I will go to him,” what did he mean? It is a simple acknowledgment that he, too, would one day die. As Ecclesiastes 3:2 teaches, there is a “time to be born, and a time to die.” The location where the dead reside is sheol, the grave, a place that the Psalmist – in a parallel phrase – compares to destruction:

“The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me” (Psalm 18:4-5, ESV).

At best, sheol is a place of shadowy existence. Isaiah 14:9-10 pictures the kings of the earth: “Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will answer and say to you:
‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!’ (ESV).

While the majority report in the OT gives no promise of meaningful life after death, there is a minority report. One might think that the minority report would speak of disembodied souls surviving death, yet this is not the case. The Hebrew worldview can conceive of no meaningful life apart from the body. It is no surprise, then, that the minority report – Daniel 12:1-4 – frames hope in terms of renewed bodily existence:

At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.  Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.  But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge (NIV).

Jesus and Paul on resurrection

Fast forward several hundred years. In the time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, the doctrine of the resurrection gained ground, so much so that we see the doctrine believed by some ordinary Jews in the Gospels. For example, when Jesus told the grieving Mary that her brother, Lazarus, will rise again, she replied: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24, NIV). To this, Jesus answered (vv. 25-26):

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? (ESV)

Note where Jesus lodged Mary’s hope. It was not in disembodied existence as a soul, but renewed bodily existence possible only through the resurrection power of God in Christ. He brought comfort not by saying: “Mary, don’t you know that Lazarus is in a better place right now?” Rather, he anchored Christian hope solidly in the resurrection.

Jesus was not alone in this approach. Paul taught the same thing in multiple passages, but the strongest is found in 1 Corinthians 15:12-14. To those who denied Christ’s resurrection, he replied:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (ESV).

The communion ritual has it right when the people respond: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” In that response, we direct people back to one of the main themes of the New Testament, the place where our hope for the next life is found, namely, the resurrection (John 5:28-29, 1 Thess. 4:13-18).

Challenges raised by the notion of disembodied existence after death

There are a few passages in the New Testament that suggest believers who have died have conscious existence now, awaiting the resurrection at the return of Christ. In Philippians 1:23, Paul talked of his desire to “depart and be with Christ”(NIV). Likewise, to be “away from the body” was for Paul to be “at-home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8, NIV). The problem with dwelling on these passages – and taking them to the next level by speculating, as books like Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real have done- is that they provoke a set of parallel questions about unbelievers. These include:

1) If believers are with Jesus, then where are unbelievers?

2) Do rewards and punishments begin immediately at death? If so, then what purpose does the final judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10, Revelation 11:15) serve if God at death has already passed out rewards and punishments?

3) If unbelievers are now in “torment” (as some interpret Luke 16:19-31 to teach), then in what sense can a disembodied, non-physical spirit suffer physical torture? How could flames harm a soul that has no more substance to it than steam that rises from a tea kettle?

Anyone who emphasizes what happens immediately after we die (continued existence of a soul) and not what happens when Jesus returns (bodily resurrection) will be forced to answer these questions in more detail.

Whispering and Shouting: Getting it backwards

The Old Testament writers were careful not to speculate unduly about the abode of the dead. In the same way, the New Testament gives very little information on where the righteous are prior to the resurrection at Christ’s return (1 Thess. 4:13-18) and less still about the current location of the wicked. Put in other terms, regarding the intermediate state – “life after death” – the New Testament only whispers, yet regarding the resurrection – what N.T. Wright calls “life AFTER life after death” – Scripture SHOUTS!

megaphoneBut what do we find today?

The problem with most current popular books about the next life is that writers have gotten it backwards, shouting where Scripture only whispers. What we end up with are books about Heaven based mostly upon individuals who claim to have left their body and gone to Heaven. How can such claims be verified? We’ve seen some unscrupulous individuals ready to sell their fabricated story to people anxious to know more than Scripture itself teaches, books like The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, co-written by Kevin Melarky and his son, Alex. A decade later, Alex admitted that he had never gone to Heaven, that it was all made up. LifeWay books has since pulled all books from its stores that recount such stories.

Instead of speculating harmfully about where Scripture only whispers, isn’t it time that we get back to where Scripture shouts?

Pastoral practice at the time of grieving

Theory meets practice most directly at the funeral. Here, our theology must put its overalls on, ministering to families when they are grieving the loss of a loved one. Sometimes, people will ask: “Where is my loved one now?” Here are a few guidelines for those confronted with this heartfelt query:

1. If a deceased individual was a unbeliever, refuse to speculate on their current state. That is truly only known to God. Instead, we should emphasize that God is loving, merciful, and just. We can simply say what is true for everyone:

“They are in God’s hands, awaiting the resurrection.”

2. On the other hand, there are some who lived a righteous life and had a clear Christian testimony. Even there, let us not embellish what Scripture affirms. Do not speculate about activities in Heaven that require a body by saying things like “Uncle Harry is teeing off on Heaven’s 18th hole” or “I’m sure Grandma is having a good time baking cookies with Aunt Sally.” Such comments cheapen the resurrection, weakening the “basket” in which Christianity has confidently put all of its “eggs.” Also, avoid speaking of the resurrection in present terms. The resurrection is still future, happening at the return of Christ, so to attribute bodily activities now to those who have not yet received a resurrected body is confusing. Even if human beings have souls that outlive bodies – and some Christians teach otherwise – at very least, we should not go beyond what the New Testament allows us to say, simply affirming instead:

“They are now with Jesus.”

Thoughts upon a massacre

Last week in Garissa, Kenya, 150 university students were slaughtered by terrorists, many of the victims Christians, some who were in the chapel praying when the shooting broke out. The resurrection of Christ, on the third day after Jesus was unjustly stripped, whipped, and nailed to a shameful cross, tells us:

Evil will not have the last word.

Followers of Christ who died that day in Kenya are now with their Master, but most importantly, the One who made them will one day re-create them! Jesus has risen, and so we shall rise at his return when the Lord inaugurates his kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth.

In the face of unthinkable actions by evildoers, this is not the time to soft-pedal the resurrection. It is the basket where we have placed every last egg. Instead, let us keep the basket strong, affirming once again the timeless words of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. AMEN.”

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FOR FURTHER STUDY: See Pastor Matt O’Reilly’s video at Seed Bed, sponsored by Asbury Theological Seminary. Also, I highly recommend N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperCollins, 2008).

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Image credits:

Eggs and basket – Pengjoon.com

Megaphone – Wattpad.com

Barnabas, the man with the yellow cap

yellow_capEdward de Bono has written about six thinking hats. In Bono’s analysis, for efficient and productive meetings, the leader (the “blue hat”) must encourage a mix of contributions from the others:

white hat: seeks facts, data

red hat: senses the emotion involved

green hat: contributes new ideas and perspectives; creative

black hat: sees the potential pitfalls and dangers of a idea; pessimistic

yellow hat: highlights the possibilities in proposals and people; optimistic

My adulthood has been a quest to toss away my black cap and doff a yellow one.

People who wear yellow hats are sunny, bright, optimistic. Those words hardly described me in high school, where my black cap was firmly in-place, so much that my 10th grade American History teacher – word-playing on my name, Gregory – called me “drudgery.” In retrospect, he did me a favor, sowing a seed that later produced a desire to change, to let God’s grace change me.

Emphatically, I reject the determinism of our day. Are temperaments immutable, “once a black hat, always a black hat”? Followers of Christ committed to a Wesleyan-Arminian theology should know better. We believe like John Wesley (1703-91) that God graciously enables individuals to choose. Therefore, whatever my innate inclinations or childhood conditioning toward pessimism, I have a choice. For my part, I’ve consciously decided to belt out Annie’s “The sun will come out tomorrow” ten times for every one time I (might) listen to Gary Jules’  “Mad World.” Black cap? Been there, done that. With the Holy Spirit’s help, every day, I’ll choose the yellow one instead.

Barnabas, the son of encouragement

Barnabas, the son of encouragement

Part of wearing a yellow cap is a firm resolve to encourage rather than discourage others, and no Bible character modeled yellow-hat-living better than Barnabas, the “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). When the believers in Jerusalem were rightfully wary of Christian-persecuting Saul’s “conversion,” it was Barnabas who convinced the church to accept him as a genuine brother – Paul, no longer Saul – transformed by the grace of God (Acts 9:27). Later, when John Mark disappointed Paul and Barnabas by abandoning them on the first missionary journey, Barnabas stood staunchly by the youthful John Mark, setting out with him as a new duo. Why? Paul – once burned, twice shy – refused to allow John Mark to journey with them the second time around (Acts 15:37-41). It was providential that yellow-hatted Barnabas was there for John Mark at a very fragile moment. Today, many consider Barnabas’ protegé the author of the Gospel of Mark. Even Paul eventually had a change of heart, asking Timothy to bring John Mark with him, because “he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).

Encouragers do not live in denial, as if evil and suffering don’t exist. Rather, because they know all too well that these results of the Fall are rampant, yellow-capped disciples of Christ purposefully lean into optimism, underscoring the possibilities of the grace of God to redeem both individuals and communities.

It wasn’t just the church of the first century that needed encouragers.  The people of God in every age must have a healthy number of them for its own equilibrium and flourishing. But I wonder:

When it comes to the church and her prospects today, where have all the yellow hats gone? Like honey bees, are they mysteriously dying off?

Judging by what I read on the internet, there must have been a sale on black caps. Lots of people – especially bloggers – are busy lamenting the church’s decline, writing her obituary, as if the church can do nothing right. You’ve seen the posts: “10 blunders that…” and “5 mistakes that…”  As one who has worn the black cap too often myself, I realize the danger of that kind of unchecked pessimism. Black-hatters, I challenge you:

Come with me on my quest for the yellow hat.

There is a place for caution. The church cannot do without some black hats, but does she now have too many? More than ever, the church needs upbeat people like Barnabas, sons and daughters of encouragement. You know you want to sport that yellow cap! It’s stylish and comfortable. Enough already with the over-the-top negativity. Together, let’s make the choice – by God’s grace – to be possibility thinkers.

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Image credits:

yellow cap: Augustcaps.com

Barnabas: The Faith Pal

Heaven: Starting the song all over again

trumpetMr. Taylor was my first band conductor.

Conducting a 4th grade band takes a special kind of patience. Every child is new at his or her instrument, be it the flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, drums, or a dozen other things that make noise. And let’s face it, for 4th graders, about all we could was make noise. Like my brothers before me, I played the trumpet, or at least I tried.

Our first concert came at Christmas time. By then, all of us had a grand total of 3 months of experience, practicing twice per week in the band room. Parents and siblings gathered in the cafeteria and waited for us to file in. At last, all of us were in our seats and Mr. Taylor stepped up to the small platform, took his conductor’s baton, and raised his arms. We all snapped to attention and raised our instruments, ready to play.

I’m not sure what happened, but only about half of us began playing when his arms came down, signalling the start of the song. Were some still trying to spot where their families sat in the audience? Maybe others were still adjusting their music on the stand or simply daydreaming, but whatever the reason, it was a poor start.

Mr. Taylor then did something that surprised us. He suddenly stopped directing the song, tapping his baton several times on the music stand. We all ground to a halt, not knowing what to make of it all. Slowly, he turned around and addressed the audience:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had a very poor start to the song. Please forgive us. We can do better. Now, we are going to start all over again.”

And that is exactly what we did. I’m glad to report that the second time went much better, and when we were done, the audience applauded with gusto.

That’s what Heaven will be like. Heaven is New Creation. Heaven is God starting the song all over again.

The first time through, the song has been marred by sin, off-key. God knows we all can do better. One day, he will tap his baton on the music stand and we will all begin again.

John described it this way: :

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).

More and more of those who have played their instruments with me in the band are now silent, awaiting that second chance to perform. On that day, the band will once again assemble. All who have played before us will be present, gloriously resurrected by the Lord in new, durable bodies. What a grand reunion that will be as Jesus raises the baton and we start the song all over again!

How about you? Will you be in the band? This life is only the poor beginning to the song, but a new, better beginning is coming. Don’t miss out on it. Keep your instrument in-tune. What a performance that will be!

From conditioning to encounter: A response to Aldous Huxley

huxley2

Aldous Huxely (1894-1963)

The interface between theology and psychology has always intrigued me. Yesterday, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The 1932 classic from the British novelist and philosopher presents a vision of a far-off future where humans no longer fulfill the role of “father” and “mother.” Instead, reproduction is carefully engineered by the State, social classes predetermined from fertilization and gestation in closely-monitored bottles.

There are many themes to explore in the book, and the dystopian vision still resonates well at a time when The Hunger Games is all the rage. Allow me to focus this brief essay on a single topic, namely, whether we believe in God only because others have conditioned us to do so.

Conditioning is a psychological technique whereby humans are molded to think and act in ways determined by the person in control. Brave New World portrays a system whereby young children are spoon-fed ideas while they sleep, messages repeated over-and-over through tiny speakers hidden under their pillows. In this passive way, the various classes – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon – acquire their worldview, especially their prejudices toward members of other castes.

Though the novel never explains exactly how the rulers of the “brave new world” condition people’s thinking about God, the Divine Being comes up at the end of the book in a conversation between the Savage and Mustapha Mond, the Controller (p. 183):

The Savage interrupted him. “But isn’t it natural to feel there’s a God?” “You might as well ask if it’s natural to do up one’s trousers with zippers,” said the Controller sarcastically. “You remind me of another of those odd fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reasons for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons – that’s philosophy. People believe in God because they’re conditioned to believe in God.” (italics added)

There’s some truth in what Huxley says. Can there be any doubt that Christian education – what Huxley would no doubt consider a form of conditioning – affects a child’s worldview, like a hand imprint left in wet cement? Children who have not yet learned to reason are particularly open to whatever teaching is given, positive or negative, whether it is training to be an altar boy or a child soldier.

Yet Huxley’s critique leaves unaddressed other considerations, particularly the role of religious experience. This experience is both individual and corporate. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Scripture may be considered largely the experience of the divine as lived across time by persons and peoples. Further, it is not a mystical experience devoid of any historical reference, but experiences that transpired in real time. Isaiah saw the LORD lifted up, but it happened “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 1:1). Likewise, The Apostles’ Creed assumes historical reality, portraying a Saviour who “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

More than any other Christian tradition, evangelical faith has discerned the importance of moving past conditioning to encounter. John Wesley (1703-91) had been conditioned by his father and mother to believe that God existed, to pray and to read the Bible. Yet on May 24, 1738, Wesley recorded his personal experience of God’s grace, that his heart was “strangely warmed” while listening to someone read the introduction to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. Whether we call this his “evangelical conversion” or simply the moment of the assurance of faith matters little. The point is that – to use Wesley’s later term – he moved in his own self-perception from having the faith of a “servant” to that of a “son.”

Religious experience is always a slippery subject to discuss. Any faith – to be held as true by its adherents – must account for the religious experiences of those who espouse other faith traditions. Why should our community of faith’s experiences be considered more valid? Further, what one calls “God” the skeptic might call hallucination, but at least now we’re having a conversation not about “brainwashing” but something empirical, experiences that can to at least some degree be analyzed and evaluated.

The power of encounter should never be underestimated. Saul had been conditioned to believe certain strict tenets as a boy who grew up under Pharisaical teachings. It was only later, however, when conditioning met encounter in the person of the Living Christ on the road to Damascus that his vision was transformed. Through a radical experience of the transcendent, some of his conditioning was modified. No longer would he seek out Christians to imprison them as enemies of the Jewish faith. Instead, he now became one of their key leaders. Experience trumped conditioning.

Yet one must be careful. God exists independently of our experience of God. One might be tempted to conclude: “For you, God exists because you’ve experienced him, but for me God does not exist since I have never experienced God.” Yet the tree that falls in the forest still makes a sound, whether or not I am close enough to hear it. What matters is that the effects of encounter are measurable. Like a strong wind topples a tree, the fallen tree serves as evidence of an invisible reality. So it is in the spiritual realm. Lives transformed from drunkenness to sobriety, husbands who stop beating their wives, children who were before disobedient to parents who suddenly become more compliant and helpful, these effects and many more testify to a Cause, and that Cause is God. When it happens to enough people, we call it a religious awakening.

Brave New World is a fascinating book on many levels. Aldous Huxley has  done Christ followers a favor by forcing us to begin to think through our assumptions, including how we have come to believe what we do about God. But what do you think? Is Christian faith – or any faith – no more than the result of conditioning? Weigh-in below in the comment thread.

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Photo credit: Diccionari Cultural

District Assembly Line? Why we need District Conference instead

assemblyHenry Ford invented the assembly line. His efficiency experts determined that to produce the maximum number of quality cars, workers should be stationed along the line, each one performing a given task.

But what works well for putting together cars is a failure when it comes to people. Having attended many District Assemblies in both the United States and in Africa, I wonder:

Do we now have District Assembly Lines?

Assemblies have become efficient, but less-and-less relational. The focus is on getting the church’s business accomplished in just a few short hours – a morning or an afternoon – but in the efficiency, have we surrender relational effectiveness?

It wasn’t always this way. We used to have District Assembly, which really were District Conferences. When I was boy on the Upstate New York District, we used to have a full two days given to Assembly. Pastors reported at-length on both victories and struggles. We took time to pray for each other. Resolutions were made from the floor, and we took the time to listen to both sides before going forward together.

Part of the problem is a good problem. In my life-time, we have more than doubled in number, from under 1 million to 2.3 million. This means that General Superintendents now are jetting around the world to hold District Assemblies. Since they are the only ones authorized to ordain elders and deacons, necessarily their stays are shorter.

Yet our sense of connection as local Nazarene churches is weakening. To reverse this decline, it’s time for us to get creative at the district level, and maybe the regional conference can guide us.

We have just finished a 5 day regional conference in South Africa. The incredible joy that I’ve seen on the faces of our delegates from southern Africa and lusophone Africa has done my heart good. We had time for each other. Around the breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables, we laughed and cried, renewed friendships and made new ones. In extended sessions, we discussed challenges in the church and shared possible solutions. Because it was a longer period, we had time for three nights of holiness preaching. Helpful workshops were the order of the day. We finished the week united in our common mission and feeling connected.

Singing during evening worship, Africa Regional Conference (Johannesburg)

Singing during evening worship, Africa Regional Conference (Johannesburg)

Yet the regional conference is expensive. We come from long distances, and these are just representatives. Many more who would have profited from the relationship building could not attend, and even if they had been available, what venue is large enough? Further, the regional conference is only every four years, hardly frequent enough for most.

The question is:

How can the relational emphasis of the regional conference be brought to the district level on an every year basis?

1. Take time together, several days annually, to build connection. The word Conference has a rich heritage within Wesleyan-Holiness circles. It was John Wesley (1703-91) who convened in London the very first Methodist Conference in 1744. John Wesley reported regarding this Conference:

In June 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those who heard us. After some time, I invited the lay preachers that were in the house to meet with us. We conferred together for several days and were much comforted and strengthened thereby.

Wesley noted that they were “comforted” and “strengthened.” It also did not happen in a half day of hurried business. Rather, they were together for “several days.” It takes time to bond and build a team. What was true in 18th century England is no less true for human beings today, no matter their cultural background. Have we forgotten this relational truth?

2. Change our language from “Assembly” to “Conference.” Words matter, and the term “Assembly” has come to be associated only with church business. Let’s get back to our Wesleyan roots and speak of Conference. If need be, we can carve out three hours from the Conference and call it “district church business session,” but let it not be the primary focus. Our main purpose should be connecting.

3. Remind the District Superintendent and his or her team that they have great freedom to organize this annual event and to use their creativity. District Conference could be the most anticipated event of the year. As it currently stands, districts seem to feel like they cannot do much without the presence of the outside church higher-up, whether that’s the General Superintendent or whoever may have been appointed to preside in his or her place. If the “district business meeting” and the ordination service are the only two events requiring the presence of the G.S., then there is great latitude to plan other events around those times, events more conducive to team-building and making connections between local churches on the district.

4. Don’t forget the children, teens and twenty-somethings. On the planning team, there should be representation from teens and those in their twenties. Inter-generational events should be the norm and space given to participation in both planning and on the platform by these three often forgotten age categories. Let us enfranchise all ages at the District Conference, including children. Only then can we reverse the lamentable trend where the average age at what we now call District Assembly is certainly above 50 and perhaps higher.

In the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” the character played by actor Tom Hanks comes in to the neighborhood and builds a “big box” location of his chain book store. When the home-grown bookshop owner complains, he remarks:

“It’s not personal, it’s business.”

And that’s the problem with our current District Assembly Lines. They’re not personal, they’re just business. Assembly lines in the auto industry make for high efficiency, but in the church they’re destructive. It’s time to disassemble our annual District Assembly Lines and move to an annual District Conference, fostering over several days greater levels of connection while still accomplishing the church business that we must. 

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UPDATE:  Twenty-four hours after posting it, this article has been viewed almost 400 times, which is more than 4x my usual traffic. Thank you to Dr. Eugenio Duarte for his comments at Africa Regional Conference this week, about connection really being our fourth Nazarene Core Value, i.e. Christian, holiness, misssional, and connectional. My essay is nothing more than reflecting on what he said and attempting to apply that principle in a particular case. I’m late to the party, as conversation on FaceBook shows some districts have already been re-thinking District Assembly in creative ways to combine it with other events (NMI, NYI, camp meeting) to make it longer and more relational. May this trend take hold. 

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Image credit: F.R. Milovan Blog