If the church could take a selfie

DSCN3653Admit it. You’ve done it. You’ve snapped a photo of yourself – a “selfie” – at least once. Maybe you’ve even gone to the next level and bought one of those trendy selfie sticks, a trick to make a selfie appear like someone else took it.

Sometimes I wonder: What if wasn’t just individuals who took selfies?

What if the church could take a selfie?

What would she see? A better question might be: What should she see?

These are the kinds of questions that more than 300 Nazarene thinkers asked at the March 2014 Global Theology Conference, held in Johannesburg, South Africa. In a summation, Dr Thomas Noble, Professor of Theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary concluded:

The church must be God-glorifying, Christ-centered, and Spirit-filled.

Dr Thomas Noble, Nazarene Theological Seminary
Dr Thomas Noble, Nazarene Theological Seminary

The statement is strong for several reasons. First, it is brief, making it more memorable. Secondly, it is Trinitarian, focusing equally upon God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That is no small virtue at a time when so much of our worship music centers on Jesus to the point that the Father and the Spirit are in danger of being eclipsed. Finally, it is not a halfhearted suggestion. It breathes urgency by using the word “must.” To neglect any of three characteristics is – in some sense – to cease being the church.

But let’s unpack the parts of this triplet.

The church must be God-glorifying.

Worship is the church gathered, but what is the purpose of worship? Pastor Victoria Osteen, Co-Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, was roundly criticized following her remarks in a widely-circulated video. She opined:

When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?

Self-absorption runs counter to Christ’s call to a life centered upon God and poured out in service to the world. Self-glorification is the antithesis of the two Great Commandments, loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). John Calvin (1509-64), the great Reformer from Geneva, noted regarding God the Father: “As all good flows, without any exception, from him, so ought all praise deservedly to return to him.” (1) Beyond worship, if the church receives human praise for a work of charity, shall she accept the credit for herself or deflect it back to the Father, the source of all that is good?

The church must be Christ-centered.

If God the Father is the one who to be glorified by the church’s worship and deeds, this does not dismiss the importance of Christ in all  that we do. To be Christ-centered as a community of faith means above all never losing sight of Christ crucified. In his self-giving love at Calvary, we behold the exemplar of who we are called to be both individually and corporately. In The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann observed:

The gospels intentionally direct the gaze of Christians away from the experiences of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit back to the earthly Jesus and his way to the cross. They represent faith as a call to follow Jesus. The call to follow him (Mark 8:31-38 par.) is associated with Jesus’ proclamation of suffering. To follow Jesus always means to deny oneself and to take ‘his cross’ on oneself. (2)

Christ crucified is the antidote to the narcissistic ethos of our time. As the church contemplates the self-giving love of Christ most excellently displayed in his death, she will be disgusted by every ingrown, time-consuming program that makes the church a comfortable club for the saints instead of a rescue squad rushing to the aid of those sick and dying from sin.

The church must be Spirit-filled. Make no mistake: This is not just any spirit, for the New Testament recounts the life-sucking and malevolent presence of evil spirits in the cosmos (Ephesians 6:10-20). Rather, God calls the church to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Wesleyan-Holiness teaching has emphasized the need for God to pour the Holy Spirit out like a river upon individual believers. Too often, we forget the corporate nature of this filling as exemplified on the Day of Pentecost. On that momentous occasion, it was the church gathered together in prayer that experienced the miraculous descent of the Dove (Acts 2:1-4). Only through the ongoing effusion of the Third Person of the Trinity is the church unified, cleansed, gifted and empowered for her outwardly-focused mission. Clark Pinnock explained:

God did not pour the Spirit out for us to exult in it as a private benefit. The purpose was ( and is) to empower witnesses to God’s kingdom (Acts 1:8)…God wants a community that, like Jesus, gets caught up in the transformation of the world. (3)

The Holy Spirit is the dynamo of the church (Acts 1:8). Though potentially dangerous if overdone, the metaphor of spiritual warfare demands reliance on the continual protection and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. This is especially important when the church begins living out its call to pierce the darkness by loving the last, the lost and the least, resulting in fierce push-back from the Enemy. Only the Spirit can instill courage amidst the fight, filling the church with stubborn love toward all even if she is at times the target of undeserved hate. Only the Spirit can energize the People of God to advance the Kingdom of Heaven, often against seemingly impossible odds.

If the church took a selfie, I wonder what she’d see? Would she capture the image of a community of faith that glorifies God, is centered on Christ and his selfless example, and overflows with the power and love of the Holy Spirit? Give me that kind of a church and we’ll change the world.

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Notes:

(1) John Calvin, in I. John Hesselink, Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Prss, 1997), 9.

(2) Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 54.

(3) Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 141.

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Image credit:

Dr Thomas Noble: NTS.edu

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The church and “we”: God’s holy people

Benin_2007_9L’unité fait la force – Unity is our strength. This national motto of the West African country of Benin is a window into the larger sub-Saharan African worldview. Individuals are not unimportant, yet they find their deepest identity not alone but as part of a people.

This collective cultural value shows up in pagne, the colorful cotton material locally woven and sold in many places across Africa. One popular pattern shows cracked fingers, separated one from another, dry,  lifeless, and empty. Next to them are hands, healthy and strong. All five fingers are connected, grasping pieces of gold that could only be gathered as they worked together. The Ivorian proverb reinforces a similar message: “You can’t pick up a grain of rice with just one finger.”

Modern individualism notwithstanding, historically, the United States has shared such a collective vision. Our tragic Civil War was fought from 1861-65 in part over the issue of whether we would be a single people. Prior to that conflict, it was common in writing to say: “The United States are.” Now we say “The United States is.” The Latin phrase, E plurbus unum – one from many – appears on the seal of the nation.

This longing to be part of a people is no stranger to the pages of Scripture. Peter wrote to the diaspora, believers scattered over five provinces of the Roman Empire:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

It is with the community of Christian faith – the holy people of God – that any study of how we can positively impact the world for Christ must begin. The church was here before any of us were born, and it will continue when we are gone. The words of the well-known African saying – “I am because we are” – are no less fitting when it comes to matters of belief. So while we will later look at our individual response to Christ’s call to follow him, we purposely begin with a more important concept than “me.” Let us begin with “we.”

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Introduction: Christlike Disciples, Christlike World

Christ-3It was 1972, and the Presidential race was on.

The 20 minute bus ride home from school was a raucous affair. Toward the front of the bus were the Nixon supporters; at the back congregated those who preferred McGovern. Like opposing sides in a volleyball game, we’d chant back and forth:

“Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man.  McGovern belongs in the garbage can!”

Of course, the erstwhile supporters of the Senator from South Dakota substituted the President’s name and rocketed the ball back to their 5th grade enemies at the front of the bus.

And so it went.

I soon learned that while the bus was an O.K. place for politics, the sacred halls of the church most definitely were not. If someone brought up the election at church, it was in hushed tones in the foyer, never publicly. On the few occasions where a brave soul ventured further, they were beaten back with an all-purpose proverbial stick, an elder gravely intoning:

“Religion and politics don’t mix.”

So when it came to deciding what our country would look like, venue was important. This 5th grader learned his lesson well. Bus? Good. Church? Bad.

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Belonging and believing: Baptism and the People of God

978-1-426-71137-4Helen came 15 minutes early to Sunday night service. “Pastor,” she said, “I have to get saved!”

What was up with Helen?

This seventy-something Missourian certainly hadn’t stopped by my office on the spur of the moment. Her coming to Christ was like a pot on slow boil, and the “flame” had been two years of friendship from others in the women’s ministry group. In short, women in our church loved Helen to Jesus.

I thought about Helen when reading George Hunter III’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again (Kindle edition; Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2000, 2010). Hunter reports on John Finney’s 1992 study, examining how people come to faith in Christ. Finney discovered that most people today come to faith gradually, as they are folded into the life of the Christian community. Hunter calls this the “ongoing contagious life of the congregation” (location 795) in contrast to “special event preaching.” Summing up this philosophy, Finney uses just four words:

Belonging comes before believing.

Yet Finney’s and Hunter’s insight has implications not just for adult conversion but for how we bring up our children in Christian faith. The Anabaptist view dominates in North America, reversing the “belonging/believing” order to “believing/belonging.”  It reserves the waters of baptism (the sign of belonging) for children old enough to make a conscious decision about their faith. Practically, this means most children aren’t baptized until at least ten or older. It is an essentially individualistic view, where the person is seen as prior and superior to the group. (Contrast this with the dominant African ethos, which says: “I am because we are.”) Whether intentionally or not, does this give the message to our children: “You don’t really belong to the church until you believe”?

Surprisingly, many Nazarenes coming from a Baptist background do not realize that our DNA includes a strong strand of the Finney/Hunter “belonging before believing” idea. This is passed down to us from our Methodist heritage and the covenant theology espoused by John Wesley. A newborn child (as symbolized by infant baptism) is early folded into the loving community of faith. Later in childhood, he or she through careful Christian education, including catechism, comes to a personal understanding of saving faith. Just like circumcision “marked off ” the Jewish male as part of the faith community, so baptism “marks off” the male and female infant of Christian parents as belonging to the covenant New Testament People of God (Colossians 2:11-12). It announces to one and all:  “This child, through prevenient grace, belongs to the church, even before he or she believes.”

Hunter and Finney (location 797) contend that the postmodern mindset is much more receptive to the belonging/believing pattern than the dominant evangelical opposite. As Wesleyan people, are we not well-positioned to appropriate the best from both Evangelical and covenant traditions? We must continue to invite unbelieving adults to a place of personal conversion followed by baptism. Likewise, we encourage those bringing up their children in the Nazarene community of faith to present their infants for baptism. Baptism (like circumcision) is a one-time sign of initiation. Whether later as an adult or earlier as a little child, it’s an amazing thing to belong to the People of God. Let’s joyfully celebrate it!

UPDATE: There has been some excellent feedback to this piece over on Naznet.com. The “nub” of the debate is this: Does a Baptist -like ecclesiology really reverse the order from belonging/believing to believing/belonging? Not everyone accepts this premise.  Is it simplistic for me to call this ecclesiology “individualistic” and that represented by baptizing young children “corporate”? What do you think?

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Image credit: The Good Book Stall

Our visit to All Saints’ Cathedral (Anglican Church of Kenya)

The church building was erected in 1917, but the church isn’t really the building, is it?

We’d been told the service started at 11 a.m., but it actually started thirty minutes later. No problem — That gave us the time we needed to find a spot in the very crowded parking lot. As we waited on the porch for the 9:30 a.m. service to conclude, I poked my head inside. There wasn’t a space to be had in the spacious cathedral! The congregation sang “In Christ Alone, My Hope is Found” as words were projected on multiple T.V. monitors mounted on the stone support columns. All the words were correctly spelled in English, and scrolled in time with the music. A large choir in colorful robes sang, as robed clergy distributed Eucharist by intinction to believers filing by the communion table.

Soon, the service ended, and the crowd dispersed at 11:25 a.m. When they’d cleared, we walked in and found places to sit in pews made of old polished wood. We’d received a program at the door, four pages carefully typed, clearly laying out the order of worship. Three pages of announcements testified to a congregation deeply involved in community life: relief for the poor, care for the aged, baptism courses for new believers. Between old hymns, we recited responsive readings and read prayers. Two women participated as Scripture readers, one reading the O.T. passage from Genesis, and another the N.T. Epistles passage from Galatians. The words from the Bible were projected on the monitors which most followed, though a smattering of churchgoers read from Bibles they had brought to church.

The pastor smiled in his white and green robe, later leading an extemporaneous prayer of intercession. Afterward, he invited a team of young people to come to the front. They carried a banner they promised to plant on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro when they trek there next week. Hikers solicited sponsors as a fund-raiser to finish construction of the church’s youth center.  When they’d returned to their seats, we all stood again to share the “peace of Christ,” greeting each other with handshakes.  At the instructions of the pastor, all who were not there for the first time sat down, and visitors (like us) he  asked to remain standing. They then officially welcomed us as a group, and applauded. “That’s a nice twist,” I thought. “It’s much easier to have the regular attenders sit down than to have the newcomers stand up.” I made a mental note to tell my pastor when I see him next.

The theme of the day was harvest, and the service revolved around praise to God for rain, crops, and bounty. A Kenyan T.V. station was present, as this service kicked off the week-long Nairobi trade fair, which begins tomorrow.  The “message” (not a sermon, the speaker insisted) came from a Baptist pastor from the other side of town. It was refreshing to see that kind of ecumenism on display. The preacher had us laughing with stories from his past, punctuated with phrases that underscored his evangelical credentials. When he finished, I realized I could have listened for longer. He was anointed.

After the offering, the clergy and choir recessed down the middle aisle. Though there had not been a single “chorus” or contemporary song, a quick glance around at those in attendance revealed a broad age range, from the early 20s upward. (Children and teens had their own services in a separate location). It got me thinking about whether young people will reject a service format that only has hymns. Obviously, they were passing a legacy on to the next generation and at least two lengthy Sunday morning services were packed to the hilt with seekers of all ages, coming to the spiritual feast.

Whither Nazarene ecclesiology?

As a Nazarene, I am aware of our denomination’s  search for an ecclesiology, a doctrine of the church and a self-identify of who we are as a community of faith.  The late William Greathouse in a theology conference underscored this task as a priority for our church. At times, we seem to be an empty vessel filled by whatever the dominant way of doing church is in a given country. If that dominant mode is Pentecostal, then we act like Pentecostals (minus the tongues, mind you). If it is Baptist, then we are de facto Baptists. The revivalism in which Nazarenes were born in early 20th century America has worn thin. In Africa, it can seem like a foreign plant trying to take root.  (For example, the altar has been dutifully constructed in many Nazarene buildings, but its use has been less than effective. Does it fit?)

Because I find the Pentecostal way of doing church shallow, participating in deep and carefully planned worship like we experienced today was a breath of fresh air. What’s more, our own forebears, at least some of them, trace their roots back through Methodism and — via the Wesley brothers — to Anglicanism. An evangelical Anglicanism like that on display at All Saint’s Church would appear to provide a meatier model for how worship could be effectively done in the Church of the Nazarene. The Holy Spirit can move hearts through structure, and such carefully conceived and well-executed times of celebration could be just what we need.