The power of modeling

DatsunThe stick shift stood tall, like a bully daring me (the punk) to step over a chalk line. Sure, I had my driver’s license, but I had passed my road test with our family car, an automatic. This was different. At 17, this was my first car, a 1973 Datsun 610, and this was no automatic. This was a four-on-the-floor. The price had been reasonable and the decision to buy the economical two-door sedan seemed wise at the time, but now I wondered: What had I done?

It was Sunday night. Early Monday morning, I was to report to the grocery store across town for my first day on the job. Thankfully, all is not lost when you have an amazing Dad. With me riding shotgun, he drove my Datsun to the empty parking lot of a nearby department store. He could have immediately switched spots and told me how to drive a standard, but for now, he had a better plan. “Watch me, Greg” he advised. Then patiently he modeled how left leg and right hand work together to clutch and shift. First he showed me, and then later – behind the wheel myself – I imitated his actions. A punk no more, an hour later, I drove us back home. The bully had been defeated.

Driving stick shift isn’t the only area in life where modeling is powerful. It is just as important when it comes to Christian faith. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, was direct: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, NIV). Youth are meant to observe those who are older. The sobering question is:

What are we modeling?

Foul language, harmful habits, and infidelity play out on the family stage. The saying is true: “Little pitchers have big ears,” but children also have open eyes. When they see us modeling negative things, they will pattern their own lives accordingly. The apple rarely falls far from the tree.

Thankfully, the power of modeling can be turned in a positive direction. Riding along with his parents, a six-year-old boy piped up from the back seat. “Daddy,” he said, “I’m going to be just like you. I’m going to be a Christian, and I’m going to be a pastor.” A smile came across the young father’s face. I felt honored to witness a sacred moment.

Singing about a father’s influence on his son, Philips, Craig and Dean pray:

Lord, I want to be just like you, ‘cuz he wants to be just like me.

Mothers also model confident living for their daughters. Providing a pattern of egalitarian marriage is a godly heritage that young girls can admire. They in turn will seek out men who understand and practice the mutually beneficial synergy of teamwork.

As for families, so for faith. St. Francis of Assisi reminded us: “Preach always. When necessary, use words.” We learned in first grade during “show and tell” that showing beats telling every time.

Who’s watching you? What are you modeling? May God give us grace to lead lives that others will want to imitate.

On Houston airports and Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown, a well-loved cartoon character created by Charles Schulz

Charlie Brown, a well-loved cartoon character created by Charles Schulz

We theologize a lot about prayer. It touches so many aspects of who God is and God’s interaction in the world.

Sometimes we say that God responds “yes, no, or wait.” But have you ever had a moment where “no” or “wait” simply weren’t going to cut it? You had to have “yes” or else something irretrievable would be lost?

Times like that are faith building.

In Matthew 7:7, Jesus made it simple:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you”(NASB).

What prayers have you whispered – or shouted – in desperate moments, and God replied with a resounding and timely “YES!”?

Here’s my story. Share yours in the comment thread.


In March 2009, Amy and I were about to move to Kenya following a 3 year hiatus in our missionary service. I was asked to come to Nairobi for the Africa Regional Leadership Conference. At the same time, our younger son, Brad, was in his senior year of high school in Bethany, Oklahoma. He had already participated in several school plays, but this time was different. The play was “You’re a good man, Charlie Brown,” and he had the lead role. He was Charlie Brown.

Thankfully, I was able to book my return plane flight to be back home in Oklahoma City just in-time for the final performance. Little did I know that the airline had other ideas. At London Heathrow, the plane was delayed for almost 2 hours. What was to be an easy connection in Houston, to catch my final plane back to OKC, now would be hopelessly tight.

Many hours later, we landed in Houston and pulled up to the jetway. I looked at my watch. I had exactly 30 minutes until the connecting flight to OKC took off. Waiting nervously for the carousel at the baggage claim to start moving, almost in a panic – How could I miss his last performance? This was my son! – I prayed a hurried prayer:

“God, you know that I NEED to be at that performance. Smooth the way in this airport. Help me to make that plane!”

No sooner had I prayed when the belt started moving, and the very first suitcase that came out? It was mine,  unheard of on a crowded international flight. Score one for God.

Excusing myself profusely, and explaining that I had to make my son’s final high school play performance, I elbowed my way to the front of the long line in the passport control area as people gladly let me pass. They seemed to understand. I told the immigration officer why I was in such a desperate hurry and to what terminal I was headed. He glanced at his watch, stamped my passport, and handed it back to me with these words:

“You’ll never make it.”

That only motivated me more. Pulling my two bags, I ran all out-of-breath to the train that connects the international to the domestic terminal. After only 1 minute, the train pulled up and I climbed on. Exiting the train, I dashed to the escalator to the lower level, realizing I had a mere 6 minutes before the plane off. They were announcing the final call for my flight.

At the bottom of the escalator, one of those motorized cars for the elderly and disabled was waiting. Though I’m neither elderly nor disabled, I explained that I was on the OKC flight. The driver threw my suitcases on board, and told me: “Hop on!” Horn blaring and red beacon flashing, we hurried to the gate. Thanking the driver, I handed the agent my boarding pass and rushed down the jetway. Stepping onto the plane, there was only one seat left empty, my own. As I collapsed exhausted into my seat,  the plane door closed and we began to taxi. I  made it! A sincere “Thank you, Jesus” quietly escaped my lips.

Any one of those quickly executed steps along the way in that busy Houston airport that March day would have been surprising enough, but only a loving and powerful God could have orchestrated them together, and all so that a proud Dad could make the final play performance of his amazing son.

Christian perfection review: a response from Dave Stark

David Thomas Stark

David Thomas Stark

Last week, I posted a review of David Thomas Stark’s 2011 Manchester thesis on John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection. Read the full review here.

David was my classmate at Manchester, and we always enjoyed good discussions. So, it’s no surprise that he gave a thoughtful e-mail response to my review, which I’ve posted below with his permission.

We live at a time when what God’s grace can accomplish in our lives is too often downplayed. Yet Stark helps us understand that the remedy to one extreme is not going to the other. The “credibility gap” that Mildred Wynkoop first mentioned is often laid at the feet of the American Holiness Movement. But, in-light of Stark’s thesis, it may be asked: Did Wesley sow the seeds of the “oversell” of our doctrine, claiming too much for it?

Let the reader decide.



Thank you for this review and reminder that I should at some point pursue getting my work published. You were as engaging and complimentary as you were critical, and I appreciate that. You seem to understand the importance of amissibility in Wesley’s logic and in early Methodist spirituality. Allow me a few further points of explanation, which I don’t necessarily expect you to readdress in your review:

1) You’re correct that much discussion has been made about Methodist identity within or without the Church of England, but I believe I am the first to hammer home that it was specifically because of the doctrine of Christian perfection as prioritized in the context of holiness revivalism in the early 1760s (albeit an arguably failed first experiment) that early Methodism made some of its most momentous and official, legally-binding steps towards securing what would ultimately become its independent, denominational status (i.e. increased licenses under the Act of Toleration, The Model Deed and The Deed of Declaration during this period or its aftermath). I don’t gather that you’re of the camp much bothered much by the fact of Methodist dissent, but there is a growing batch of scholars (Jeremy Gregory, David Rainey, and Joseph Wood – all who I knew from my studies in Manchester) who I think are trying to re-peg Wesley back into an Anglican identity which he necessarily left in actual practice, even if he couldn’t bring himself to admit it. Wesley and the early Methodists could be regarded as “faithful dissenters”, in that they imagined themselves in line with earlier strains of Anglican renewalist thought (Richard Hooker, for example), but they were dissenters nonetheless, as is proved by every legal document they signed describing themselves to be as much. That agenda, I think, is based on a current “identity crisis” of sorts (as Christianity Today most famously put it about a decade ago) by those in the COTN or other offshoot groups from Methodism to normalize and formalize their organizations’ existences within a more consistent tradition of faith rather than the lonely and compromised strands of splinting denominationalism and sectarian association which have more historically been its reality. If “second blessing” holiness revivalism as actually taught by John Wesley was the catalyst for a distinct Methodist identity as I argue, then it makes sense that movements which were defined for over 200 years by this “distinguishing doctrine” or “peculiar doctrine of Christian perfection” as Wesley called it but no longer maintain it with Wesley’s unique and original radical semblance, would have no problem recasting themselves in a congruent chain with Establishment. Whether or not the Established Church is as interested in such remains suspect.

2) Per you criticisms in final paragraph starting with “A final preoccupation”, I would point at that I did state “Previous paradigm suggestions for the chronological development of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection that have argued its shape only reached maturity in the mid or late 1760s or later [so after the context of holiness revival] reflect more of an agenda to disassociate the MEthodist leader from the excesses of perfectionism mangiest during the early 1760s than a historically accurate review of his presentations” (bottom of page 200). There I was referencing, but yes, would have been better to specifically point back to, my section from pages 38-42 titled “Survey of Date-Based Paradigms of Development in Wesley’s Doctrine of Perfection”, which includes the likes of Outler, Maddox, Watson, Moore, Fraser, Gunter, Peters, and NTC’s own Olson. The point I attempted to make is that the holiness revival is not something that the “Mature” John Wesley emerged out of, but rather something which the shape of the mature Wesley’s doctrine and pastoral practice actually inspired and should be accountable and accredited for. In fact, I think the strongest language that Wesley every used to describe the secondness of entire sanctification as deliverance from the “evil root and inbred sin” (all aspects emphasized most prominently in the American Holiness experience) occurred in 1767- well after he should have “corrected” himself from the doctrine’s excesses. In the sermon “The Repentance of Believers” (1767), Wesley argued for the spiritual importance, if not even salvific importance, of a second event of grace with such assertation as to make it impossible to regard secondness as replaceable in an authentically Wesley’s understanding:

Then only the evil root, the carnal mind, is destroyed, and inbred sin subsists no more. But if  there be no such second change, if there be no instantaneous deliverance after justification, if there be none but a gradual work of God (that there is a gradual work none denies) then we must be content, as well as we can, to remain full of sin till death. And if so, we must remain guilty till death, continually deserving punishment.  (JW, “The Repentance of Believers” (1767), Works [BE], 1:346.

Referring to Wesley as an “occasional theologian” proves helpful for dismissing problematic arguments like the above from his corpus, even if they occurred so late in his ministry. But there are definite hamartiological weakness, overemphases and downright inconsistencies in Wesley. And not to nitpick, but as quickly as he said he never used the term sinless perfection, he followed up in the next line that he does not object against it either. His constantly playing this game of semantics is why I called it “qualified sinless perfection”.

3)  And to the larger point of new “approaches”, I would refer you back to my concluding remarks on pages 210- 212, including footnote 24, 30, and 31, in which I list at least five writers by name At the end of thesis I was bookending my introductory statements in the section on Methodist Ideal and Identity in Contemporary Dilemma from the middle of pages 13-16. The mistake I made in not continually reciting these scholars by name- the likes of Outler, Maddox, Noble and other well known and much loved scholars in the Methodist and Nazarene tradition I will not re-mention here by name was intentionally done out of a sense of reverence for my heroes at the time than a mistake or omission. It is a very understandable that modern day committed Methodists, Wesleyans and Nazarenes would want to disassociate his teachings from more problematic areas of its more recent activities, but my point is that there is much more in common with radical Wesley and the American Holiness Movement, just as there was with Wesley and the radicals Maxfield and Bell, than there was difference. Further study could use my thesis as a reference of dialogue with more specific examples of authentically Wesleyan language and practice in the 19th century Holiness Movement and, say, the 20th century Holiness movement abroad. I’m find with what you said — that Wesley can and should be always improved upon. No doubt, he will need to be improved upon by his followers to maintain his relevance in each new and increasingly distanced generation. I just prefer that when this is happening that those points of improvement on Wesley are clear and not casted as the founder’s original thoughts or intentions. After years of learning about John Wesley in college and grad school, I personally was shocked to encounter the real, decisively indecisive, consistently inconsistent and ever elusive John Wesley during my PhD studies when I set out to find him in his own words and in the words of early Methodist spiritual autobiographies and testimonies, which I researched extensively at the Special Collections of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (transcribing for my own purposes more than 90 of the 153 letters in the Early Methodist Volumes at the time). Ultimately, It bodes better for the Wesleyan tradition, and all religious traditions for that matter, to acknowledge the gaps that exists within what its founders wrote and meant and what its modern adherents may wish they had or hadn’t. A more general question that I pondered as I wrote my thesis was whether it is better that a religious movement and tradition lives and dies on the thoughts, principles, and practices it was originally founded upon and clearly proclaimed, or if it should be improved upon through the ages to the point of missing much of its original point in the first place. Is it not more faithful to eulogize than it is to re-imagine, especially when it is clearly more intellectual honest to do so?



PS: For any of this blogs reader’s who are more interested in my arguments, a link to my extended abstract can be found on: I can be reached at

Another look at John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection

David Thomas Stark

David Thomas Stark

John Wesley (1703-91) spent much energy explaining and defending his understanding of Christian perfection. The term has since proven no less easy to explain even though it is a biblical one, appearing in passages like Matthew 5:48, where Jesus calls us to be “perfect,” even as our Father in heaven is perfect.

David Thomas Stark has written a cogent and illuminating inquiry on this challenging topic, entitled “The Peculiar Doctrine Committed to Our Trust: Early Methodist Ideal and Identity in the First Wesleyan-Holiness Revival, 1758-1763” (PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 2011). He examines this pivotal time in the history of British Methodism, a period when John Wesley defined Christian perfection in a way that made it more immediately accessible to the average Methodist yearning for a deeper work of God in heart and life. It is this new emphasis – paraphrased in Stark’s words as “an instantaneous but amissible second work of growth in grace producing qualified sinlessness, available now!”(p. 69) – that opened the door to more than 600 professions of entire sanctification in all parts of England. At the same time, Wesley could be inconsistent in how he presented Christian perfection. Stark identifies some of those problematic areas, especially weaknesses in Wesley’s harmartiology (doctrine of sin).

As one who grew up questioning the validity of “once saved, always saved” doctrine, I was pleased to see that John Wesley did not adopt a “once entirely sanctified, always entirely sanctified” posture. To be “amissible” means able to be lost, and this important caveat has made its way into the creedal statements of denominations that follow in Wesley’s footsteps, including Article X in the Articles of Faith of the Church of the Nazarene. This admission protects those who teach a second work of grace from falling into an “I’ve arrived” posture, thereby cutting themselves off from the ongoing need for the kind of self-examination implied in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, ESV).

Stark’s thesis is structured in a way that keeps the reader engaged.

Chapter 1 examines the development over time of John Wesley’s idea of Christian perfection. Though Wesley’s default position in theological debate on many topics was to claim that he was merely teaching what he had always taught, Stark identifies important shifts in Wesley’s Christian perfection concept, discerning four distinct stages. These culminated in the position outlined above, a position that – contrary to the denial of some modern interpreters – Stark convincingly demonstrates that Wesley maintained from 1757 until his death in 1791.

Chapter 2 transitions to a recounting of the first (and only) Wesleyan-Holiness revival that occurred in John Wesley’s lifetime. Though some of the ecstatic manifestations from the earliest years of the Wesley brothers’ preaching in the 1740s are well known, it was surprising to find a May 1759 account from Wesley’s Journal that included mention of listeners laughing uncontrollably. This evokes the so-called “Toronto Blessing” of the late 1990s. More surprising still is Wesley’s forbearance toward this kind of chicanery. Stark observes that – contrary to Wesley’s earlier impatience with such examples of “enthusiasm” (fanaticism) – Wesley now appeared “more open to these kinds of displays” (p. 74). If Wesley evolved in his view of Christian perfection, then here is another area where the more mature Wesley appears to have attenuated his stance. This area merits additional digging in the primary resources to clarify the issue.

For those who imagine a lock-step agreement between John and Charles Wesley on most issues, Chapter 3 and 4 confirm conclusions previously drawn by John Tyson. In fact, what John celebrated as a moving of the Holy Spirit between 1758-1763, his younger brother, Charles, critiqued as instances of enthusiasm bound to discredit the Methodist cause. Central to this period were the hundreds of testimonies to Christian perfection, a state of victory over sin that is the bi-product of a deeper divine work commonly termed “entire sanctification”. The brothers’ disagreement hinged on the timing of the attainment of Christian perfection – not so much the positive aspect of perfect love – but the negative consideration of deliverance from all sin. Charles was skeptical of this work of grace happening earlier in life, postponing it to the time immediately before death. For his part, John increasingly saw such a postponement as a de facto enthronement of sin as the norm for the Christian rather than the life of holiness. Stark adds texture to this important discussion between the brothers. Further, he examines the brothers’ ecclesiology and how Charles’ unwavering commitment to the Church of England made him far less receptive to the pragmatic adaptations that his brother made as the new wine of Methodism gradually burst old ecclesiastical wineskins.

Chapter 5 rounds out the thesis, narrowing the focus to the more extreme manifestations of perfectionism. Chief among these was the prediction by London Methodist preacher George Bell of the end of the world, scheduled for February 28, 1763. Besides teasing out overlooked nuances between Bell’s behavior and the more reasoned involvement of Thomas Maxfield, Stark makes a case that in nearly all particulars other than amissibility, Bell and Maxfield were merely following the logic of their mentor, John Wesley. This was implied in the deliberate way that Wesley handled the affair, only reluctantly expelling them. Though Wesley took pains in writing to distance his views from theirs, one is reminded of the saying: “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.” New to me was the emphasis that Bell and Maxfield placed upon Wesley’s non-profession of Christian perfection. Stark clarifies: “They truly believed that they were living in the promised land of Christian perfection that Wesley, a type of Methodist Moses, had only led the people towards but never entered himself” (p. 177). Stark makes a modern application, observing:

It is odd that later denominations that look to Wesley as a namesake and primary influence would necessitate testimony of Christian perfection as a prerequisite to ordained ministerial service since Wesley himself never made any such claim or made it necessary for early Methodist ministry (p. 203).

David Stark has done a commendable job of re-examining John Wesley’s developing doctrine of Christian perfection. Though a good deal of what he writes can be found in other interpretive sources – particularly his treatment of Methodism’s growing breach with the Church of England – his deeper investigation of the Bell/Maxwell saga within the context of the 1758-1763 revival contributes an improved understanding of that painful event.

A second area of originality is his fascinating discussion of what some – though not Wesley – called a “third work of grace” or the “sanctification of the mind.” Through an examination of Wesley’s 1762 Wandering Thoughts, he shows how close Wesley came to affirming that subsequent to entire sanctification is a work of God that can even prevent stray thoughts from entering our consciousness. Stark ably places mind sanctification within the context of the lofty claims that some Methodists made at the time.

A final preoccupation in the thesis is re-visiting one area of division between classical Wesleyanism and the American Holiness Movement over the nature of Christian perfection. According to Stark, it has been argued that John Wesley modified his doctrine after the disastrous Bell/Maxfield episode, softening his claims for Christian perfection. Starks observes: “Though it can be said that early Methodism was in an experimental phase during 1758-1763, to argue that any major changes in Wesley’s teachings on the substance or structure of Christian perfection were introduced after this period is a groundless argument” (p. 200). Unfortunately, the reader is left to wonder exactly which modern interpreters are making this argument as none – other than Albert Outler, in passing – are referenced here nor at the end of chapter 5, where Stark (p. 212) speaks vaguely of “approaches” intended to “lift Wesley and his doctrine from the limitations of his context.” Here, he provided no specific quotations from modern Wesley scholars to illustrate. Revisions of the thesis would do well to shore-up this weakness.

Other times, Stark goes along too readily with those who criticize Wesley’s supposed promotion of “sinless perfection,” a term Wesley never used. For example, after citing a passage from Wesley’s 1784 On Patience, Stark quotes (without critique) Victor Shepherd, who asks: “If this is not sinless perfection, then what would sin-free perfection be?” However, in the passage quoted, noticeably absent is what Wesley commonly called “infirmities,” which may include mistakes of various kinds. For example, forgetting one’s spouse’s birthday is technically a falling short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), yet would not be a sin “properly so-called,” to use the term from Wesley’s 1766 treatise, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. A rebuttal of Shepherd’s critique in this instance would have strengthened Stark’s analysis.

Those who espouse what Collin Williams called the Wesleyan “optimism of grace” should be thankful for investigations that identify problematic areas in Wesley’s teaching. It is always possible to improve upon Wesley. Stark’s “The Peculiar Doctrine Committed to Our Care” helps the reader identify areas where such improvement is needed. As of this writing, it has been 4 years since the thesis was approved and the PhD awarded to David Stark. It is unfortunate that the thesis has yet to appear in monograph form, for it deserves a broader reading by those committed to promoting the message of holiness.

30 Minutes Avec Dieu now available as free PDF download!

30MinutesThere’s no substitute for a time each day talking with the Lord and learning from Scripture. Unfortunately, there have been few choices for a daily, 365 day devotional guide for readers of French. 30 Minutes Avec Dieu (30 Minutes with God) aims to help fill that gap, and does so from a Wesleyan-Holiness perspective.

The Wesleyan-Holiness Digital Library (WHDL) has just made 30 Minutes Avec Dieu available as a FREE PDF DOWNLOAD. You can access it by clicking here.

Some who don’t read French have asked whether the book will be available in other languages. I’m pleased to say that it is currently being translated into English, so I’ll let you know when it is done. Plans are to eventually have it translated into Portuguese as well.

May the Lord use this simple tool for the strengthening of Christlike disciples and the advance of the Kingdom.




Supernatural Jesus…and why it matters

stormDoes it matter whether Jesus is “supernatural”?

I ask because of the following anonymous words, reportedly taken from a social media conversation between a member of the clergy and an unidentified correspondent:

You are having difficulty accepting that I don’t see Scripture as a bunch of threats, rules and facts. I find the truth in the book, but not necessarily factual accounts. It’s hard for me to embrace a ‘magical’ God or even a supernatural Jesus.

See for the fuller context.

But back to the question:

Does it matter whether Jesus is supernatural?

Absolutely. It matters. If Jesus is not supernatural – but more than that, if Jesus is not fully God and fully human, as orthodox Christology teaches — then Christians are nothing more than idolaters, worshiping the creature rather than the Creator, a breaking of the First of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3).

Yet there is ample evidence that Jesus is God. On one occasion, Jesus is portrayed as calming a storm, stretching out his hand over the troubled waters. “Peace, be still,” he said. “Who is this man?” his disciples asked in amazement. “Even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mark 4:41, NASB). A storm was a natural enough phenomenon, but what Jesus did wasn’t. What he did was supernatural, a word defined by the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature.”

This is only one miraculous incident among dozens peppered throughout the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus of Nazareth is presented as one who taught, forgave sin, who healed the lame, the deaf and the blind, who cast demons out of people, and who bent the laws of how things work in the universe, changing water into wine and multiplying fishes and loaves of bread to feed hungry people.

For the sake of argument, we could concur with our aforementioned anonymous member of the clergy that it is “hard to embrace” a  “supernatural Jesus” or a “magical God.” But if we were to concur, let us be clear that we would be parting company with the first Christian eyewitnesses. In fact, miracles played a key role in persuading them that Jesus was the long-awaited Anointed One of God, the Messiah, the Christ.

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter – a fisherman who had traveled with Jesus for three years – gave the first Christian sermon ever recorded. Here’s what he concluded in Acts 2:22 (NIV):

Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

Later, in v. 36, he adds: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (NIV).

For Peter and the early Christians, miracles were spiritual credentials, a solid proof of divinity. For more on this, see also Hebrews 1, esp. the “powerful word” by which the Son of God “sustains all things” (v.3).

As the one who desires only our good, Jesus loves us unconditionally. Yet this love is not a weak love, a mere sentimentality. It is a robust love backed up by the ability to fend off those who would do his beloved harm. The love of Jesus is not only a holy love but a powerful love, and so we pray in the strong name of Jesus.

Jesus does not have a corner on the market when it comes to power. There are many powerful individuals in our world. Likewise, angels, the devil and demons occupy – to use the term of missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert – an “excluded middle” or forgotten realm of beings created by God as part of the natural world, spiritual beings more powerful than humans but inferior to God. Though they are sometimes referred to as “supernatural,” it’s an unfortunate designation, dignifying them with a word that should be reserved only for God. (If the devil is called “supernatural,” then at least we must say that Jesus Christ is Supernatural, to designate his surpassing greatness). As the Second Person of the uncreated Triune God, there is no equivalence between his power and that of created beings. He is the ultimate authority before which all petty authorities must bow.

A memory from my youth illustrates the ultimate nature of this power. As a 13-year-old boy, I got caught up in the Citizen’s Band (CB) radio craze that swept the United States in the mid to late 70s. Saving up my money from the lawn mowing business my brothers and I ran, I finally had enough to buy the high powered “walkie talkie” I’d wanted. The problem was, the company that made it sold me a lemon. It was defective, so I took it back to the store and asked the salesman to trade it for a new one. He refused, but I didn’t give up. I asked to speak with the store manager, but he also refused. Frustrated, I talked with my dad about the problem. He suggested that I write to the President of the company, which I did. Two weeks letter, I received a typed letter from him, containing instructions for me to take the letter and to show it to the store manager. The letter – signed and sealed by the President – gave clear instructions for the store manager to replace my defective walkie talkie with a new, fully functioning unit. His power was ultimate, exceeding that of the store manager. An hour later, I had a new CB!

Imagine that the letter instead had said something like this: “Dear Mr Crofford, I’m very sorry for your problem, but there’s really nothing that I can do about it. I may be the President of this company, but each store manager can do what they want. My hands are tied.” How impressed would I have been with such a so-called “President” of that technology firm? Not at all! Instead, I would have probably called him a PINO – President-in-name-only, a fake President, a puny President, or something of the sort.

A Jesus who is only a natural Jesus and not a Supernatural Jesus wouldn’t be worthy of me addressing to him my prayers, any more than a powerless President of a company would be worthy of me addressing to him or her my letter of complaint. Why bother? This is the logic behind the observation from the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6, NIV).

Someone who “rewards” those who seek him is one who has the power to reward. When Jesus bade his disciples farewell before ascending to heaven, he made a sweeping claim:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, God and make disciples of all nations… (Matthew 28:18-19, NIV).

Living as a missionary in Africa is a huge privilege. The faith of the church in Africa by-and-large is not philosophical or speculative. The hardscrabble nature of life in many parts of the continent makes Christian faith here very  practical. With that in mind, here’s what I responded on a forum to the paragraph from the anonymous member of the clergy quoted above, with his (apparently) non-supernatural Jesus:

His comment would be largely incomprehensible to 95% of our African Nazarenes. If Christianity is not supernatural, then what’s the point? Jesus is Christus Victor, the One who – in power unmatched by any other Being – has overcome sin, death, and the devil. Hebrews 2:14-15 is amazing, and strangely neglected:

“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who has the power over death – the devil – by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.” – Common English Bible

Philip Jenkins has written about the “New Christendom” that has emerged in the Global South. While I definitely see some theological inaccuracy as well as excesses in the neo-Pentecostalism that is growing quickly in Africa and elsewhere – esp. the nature of tongues and the so-called prosperity gospel – the reason neo-Pentecostalism is so attractive is because it approximates the very nature of Christ’s powerful ministry on earth as displayed in the Gospels, addressing the full gamut of human need, including both physical and spiritual deliverance.

Any denomination that overtly or even quietly adopts an anti-supernatural way of thinking is a denomination that has written its own obituary. It has relegated itself to irrelevancy. As the French proverb puts it: “Le chien aboie, la caravane passe” – “The dog barks while the parade passes it by.”

Say what you might about our doctrine of entire sanctification, it reflects a supernaturalist worldview, for we believe that only an all-powerful, Triune God -as revealed in the Old and New Testaments – is capable of the greatest miracle of all, namely, transforming the human heart. Give me that kind of faith, and – as John Wesley said when he wished for 100 godly and fully-committed Methodists – we’ll storm the gates of Hell.

May God spare us from an anemic strain of faith. Give me a muscular, robust, Supernatural Jesus and not the watered-down soup being dished out in too many quarters these days.


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Passing the faith along: all ages on the journey together

Greg and son, Brad, at a park in Albertville, France

Greg and son, Brad, at a park in Albertville, France

We were lost in Versailles.

Sure, we had the address of the congregation we wanted to visit, but somehow got all turned around. With the 10 a.m.  service time fast approaching, my wife and two young sons followed nervously behind me. On the corner, a Roman Catholic nun waited to cross the road. In my best French, I greeted her then told her what church we were trying to locate. “Turn right at the next street,” she advised. “I think it’s just a few hundred meters down on the right hand side.” Thanking her, we followed the directions and soon found ourselves walking in the front door of the church. Simultaneously, twenty gray-haired worshipers turned to see who had come to visit. When they discovered a young family with children, their eyes lit up and smiles beamed. Unfortunately, their pleasant surprise didn’t last long. We were at the wrong church! Reluctantly, the usher directed us to the next street where he assured us we would find our denominational tribe.

God loves the elderly, yet churches that have only older folks know that their days are numbered. In nature, a failure to reproduce can spell the end of a species. It is no different for communities of faith. A failure to pass along a Christian faith to the next generation will inevitably lead to a church’s demise. Well has it been said that the church is always only one generation away from extinction. To endure, she must reproduce. This happens in two important ways.  First, we share our faith with those outside the community of faith, inviting them to put their faith in Christ, to join their story to the story of God and God’s people. A second way is by nurturing faith in our children, passing our faith to the next generation. It is this second way that concerns us here.

How can the church more intentionally and effectively pass Christian faith along to children and youth, making their commitment to the people of God lifelong and not just something they grow out of as they come into adulthood?

A lesson on the importance of inclusion comes from the Xhosa and Zulus of South Africa. When a serious matter affecting the community arises, or a dispute, the chief may call an indaba, a meeting where everyone has a voice. Traditionally, the youngest speak first, followed by those older. Finally, the elders speak.  All the while, the chief listens carefully, taking into account all points of view before rendering a verdict on the matter-at-hand. As a Xhosa, this is the inclusive leadership style that Nelson Mandela brought to the South African presidency. It helped heal wounds festering from decades of racial segregation. It brought together black, white, colored and Indian,  young and old into a national indaba that allowed a nation to begin to turn the page on a dark chapter and imagine together a brighter and more hopeful future.

Among the people of God, indabas can take the form of prayer meetings. In our church, my parents went to adult choir practice at 5 p.m. and the evening service didn’t start until an hour later. At 5:30 p.m. some of the old saints not in the choir would gather for prayer in the “upper room” over the gymnasium. Tired of running around in the hallways with my brothers, around 12 years old, I climbed the stairs to the upper room one Sunday evening and asked if I could pray with them. They welcomed a boy when they could have chased me away. I remember the prayers of those saints, as they prayed for the pastor, cried for lost loved ones, and asked God to send a revival to our church. Those prayers from Mr and Mrs Whitman, Mr and Mrs Laird and others impacted my young life. They taught me to trust God for things small and large.

The danger of the “grown up table” and the “kids’ table”

At large family gatherings at holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, children are sometimes segregated at the “kids’ table.” In Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Zondervan, 2011), Kara Powell and Chap Clark lament that too many churches follow that kind of separation between the ages when it comes to church. With good intentions, have we allowed children’s programs, youth programs and adult ministries to function independently with little time to mix between generations? Why are we then surprised when youth find it difficult to transition to adult membership in the community of faith? The gap is huge and – while they may have come to the same building for years – they are virtual strangers to each other.

Recognizing the high church dropout rate of young adults, Powell and Clark give many ideas of how families can instill lifelong faith and church involvement in their children. For our purposes, let’s talk about inter-generational worship, service, laughter and play.

Worshiping together

We need not repeat insights about worship detailed in an earlier chapter. Here, the focus is on all ages worshiping together. North Americans used to do this better than we do now. Somewhere along the line, we’ve grown more impatient not only with crying babies but with wiggly toddlers. Yet even toddlers and young children are picking up more during a worship service than we think. As a pastor, one Sunday night I received a drawing from red-headed 8-year-old Amy after the service. She’d drawn a picture of me while preaching. The picture was detailed, including my mustache and tie, but what encouraged me most was the the Bible reference she’d scrawled at the bottom, my sermon text. That little girl hadn’t just been drawing. She’d been listening!

A church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe included all ages in a raucous Sunday morning worship service. People came from distances and weren’t tied to the clock. Three hours together gave ample time to get up and move, as the worship team encouraged us to dance to the lively praise music. That day, I saw a 60 year-old grandma move out into the aisles right next to 5 and 6 year old boys and girls. There was no “adult table” and “kids’ table” that day. We were in it together, and having exercised well during the music and offering, adults and children sat still and listened well to a 50 minute sermon preached in English and translated into Zulu. It was a fine spiritual meal enjoyed by all ages.

Serving together

The Puritan proverb warns: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” Wholesome work gives human beings dignity, and working together side-by-side – young and old in service to others – builds character and fosters Christian community.

While in seminary, my church took a mission trip to the Bahamas. Our task was to help finish off the inside of a new church building, putting up dry wall and installing a suspended ceiling. The trip was life-changing in many ways, but one special dynamic was the broad age range of the participants. There were several grandpas and grandmas on the team, along with twenty-somethings like myself, all the way down to 16 year old “Eric.” Eric was new to the church and had no profession of faith. As he began to feel more comfortable with us, he began to open up about his troubled home life and some of his destructive addictions. For the first time, Eric felt like he had a family as he saw the love of Christ lived out before his eyes, both in our love for him and the Bahamians to whom we had come to minister. By the last day, he had prayed to confess his sins and invite Christ into his life. I’ll never forget the joy on Eric’s face when we went down to the beach and our pastor baptized him in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There’s something about an activity where those of all ages work together that binds us together with cords of love. Youth see that Christian faith is for the long-haul and appreciate the listening ear and wisdom they receive from those much further along in the journey. It’s not showy but it is solid, and that’s winsome.

Laughing and playing together

Life was never meant to be serious all the time. Victor Borge famously said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” and he’s right.

One of the mainstays of our bi-annual family reunions is the night when we settle down after a good meal and someone starts to tell the old stories. “Do you remember when….?” And even though most everyone has heard the stories before, they never fail to evoke laughter. When they hear the harmless antics – and sometimes a bit of mischief – my nieces and nephews think it’s hilarious what their mom or dad did, and who better to tell the story than their uncle or grandma? In the same way, the church does life together, and stories of embarrassing mishaps from mission trips, Vacation Bible Schools or Bible Quiz meets get trotted out, a telling of the inter-generational story that binds us together.

In South Africa, churches love to host a braai (barbeque). Often there are games with young and old taking part. Playing and eating together as the people of God makes memories and builds relationships. Braais are an all-day affair. It’s a time to slow down and get to know each other better in a relaxed setting. It’s a place to belong.

Summing it all up

The church needs its children and youth. They are both her present and her future. For Christian faith to be both winsome and “sticky,” being intentional about all ages worshiping, serving, laughing and playing together is key. As older believers invest in the lives of children and youth, commitment to Christ and Christ’s community – the church – becomes a cherished legacy that young adults will long to pass along to their own children. Having studied the people of God, let us in the next section of Christlike Disciples, Christlike World sharpen the focus to this question: What is the church’s mission?