Monday, September 17, 2007

CARE ~ "Unto the least of these..."

Lausanne World Pulse (LWP), an online magazine focused on missions and evangelism, is published as a joint effort between the Institute of Strategic Evangelism, Evangelism and Missions Information Service (Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, USA) and Lausanne.



Executive Summary
News Briefs

This issue, the focus is on ministry "unto the least of these." When Jesus ministered to the poor and disadvantaged, the widow, the blind or the leper, he did so both in word and in deed. God's kingdom broke into the "here and now" through the ministry of his Son.

Articles this month include:
  • "God speaking through Jeremiah tells us that defending the poor and needy is what it means to know him. This work of mercy and justice may distinguish the Church more than anything else from every other institution," writes Lon Allison, LWP co-publisher. Read
  • "Only five to ten percent of the world's disabled are effectively reached with the gospel, making the disability community one of the largest unreached or hidden people groups in the world," says Joni Eareckson Tada, founder/CEO of Joni and Friends Int'l Disability Center. Read
  • "As Christians, we need to move away from the place where our attempts at compassionate ministries degrade poor people by turning them into beneficiaries, and we must embrace poor persons in relationships that affirm their identity and dignity," reinforces Christopher Heuertz, int'l director of Word Made Flesh. Read
  • "The 'systems' of the world often treat the poor as less than human. The Kingdom of God offers a very different perspective on those in need. God's heart is on the side of 'the least of these,'" reminds Alan Andrews, US director for The Navigators. Read

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

SHARE ~ Is Your Gospel Simple or Simplistic?

How Reductionism Impacts Evangelism


John H. Armstrong



Last week I wrote about the problem of reductionism. I argued that reduction itself is a necessary part of our being human, thus it does not necessarily need to be a problem for faithfulness to the message and work of Christ. But it can easily become a problem precisely because of our sinful human desire to control the message and all things associated with it. This leads to what Nietzsche called "the will to power." We may reject much of what the radical anti-Christian philosopher had to write, but in this case he is more often right than wrong. We have a deep desire to control and to make sure the outcomes are what we want them to be.

This desire for control often leads us to reduce the gospel to our own way of expressing it, to our desire to take the measure of its place in our lives and in culture, and to our particular system of thinking about it. There are a number of ways this happens with regard to evangelism, but there is one that I want to address with a very sharp point. This problem impacts every group I know that is committed to aggressive and active evangelization.

The way I expressed it last week is found in a simple equation, one which helps to make clear what I am attempting to argue in this week's article.

Reduction + Control = Reductionism

The gospel requires us to translate and thus to reduce it some ways just to communicate it. This is human and necessary. What invites the problems is our desire to "control" the outcome. When we do this we turn the process into reductionism.

As in last week's article I drew heavily from Darrell L. Guder's work in his great book, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). Guder also edited a classic book, which includes similar scholars providing insightful chapters touching upon the same issues. This book is: Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). It should be kept in mind that most of the major thoughts expressed in these two articles are taken directly from Guder, and thus I seek to attribute this to him at every point along the way.

The Evangelical Problem

Darrell L. Guder states the problem that I've seen for a lifetime when he writes:

Those groups that practice aggressive evangelism are, upon closer examination, also proclaiming a very reductionistic gospel. While they claim to be opposing the secularizing tendencies of modern humanistic skepticism, they too often define the gospel in terms of happiness and evangelize for success, counting upon their mastery of method to produce results (The Continuing Conversion of the Church, Darrell L. Guder. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, page 118).

Reformed writer, Merwyn Johnson, has stated the basis for this problem clearly: "Modern Protestants typically set the agenda for evangelism in terms of Paul and the Philippian jailer" (cited by Guder on page 118).

The aim of this approach is very simple. Get everyone you possibly can to face the question, "What must I do to be saved?" Then help the unbeliever calculate the benefits of answering that question in the right way and responding to the answer with a positive, prayerful commitment to Christ.

You say, "What's wrong with this approach?" I answer, "A great deal actually."

First, the evangelist does not need to talk much about the cross-bearing part of the gospel message in this approach. This is an extra, or an add-on, presented later and then as a part of the neat little package we have made of sanctification. Justification is accepting the good news with a positive response, period.

Second, the evangelist presents the benefits of the message and stresses the risks of not believing it. Thus there is a blatant appeal to human sensibility, which in the American context we call "common sense." Smart people will accept this reduction and people who are foolish will reject it. This means the evangelist can convince people if he/she is really good at mastering the technique. This creates a huge amount of guilt for those who undertake any missional work at all. It also creates what some have called "Christianity lite."

Third, with this particular approach the believer, or the new convert, must do it all. Jesus has done what he can do so now it is up to you to do the rest. Repent, believe and then go out and live for Christ! It is all rather simple. We even call this the "simple gospel plan." Merwyn Johnson gets it about right when he says, "Naturally he/she is going to take credit (blame) for whatever is done" (cited by Guder, page 188).

There is perhaps no better example of the way the American Church has reduced the gospel in this manner than the way most churches treat evangelization itself. It is "a program assigned to one of several committees" (Guder, page 136). We do not need to take responsibility for mission in most of our churches since a committee, and particularly those who are gifted and inclined, do this work. Evangelism is one of many programs in most churches and this is the clear result of reductionism.

The Emergence of Evangelistic Organizations

Some who read what I am now going to say will not be happy with me. They will very likely miss the point unless they follow the argument very closely.

In the twentieth century there has been a boom in organizations whose sole activity is evangelism. This has had some positive effects for sure, in keeping alive the mandate to make new disciples, but the negative effects have increasingly outweighed the positive in the last several decades. Let me explain.

American Christianity has produced hundreds, likely thousands when you count all the small ministries, of organizations whose sole purpose is to win people to Christ. These are often called "para-church" ministries because they exist alongside the church. Guder argues that this definition is still accurate but there is also a

. . . . prophetically accurate reduction in the prefix, since it implies that the evangelistic mission of the church can be separated out from the rest of the institutional church and function as its own distinctive ministry (Guder, page 138).

This works well if the gospel is reduced to a message solely for individuals, a message about the personal and the private choices that consumers make about their salvation. The gospel is about you, in this scenario, not about God's good news and the glory of his Son.

Many para-church groups stress the need for the local church for sure, but this rings quite hollow in the end since the big thing is "getting people saved." In this context saving souls is a separate, vitally important, "reductionistic" enterprise. What has been happening more recently is that such ministries have begun to start their own churches so that their converts have a church home, thus further dividing the church into more and more consumer groups vying for the Christians in a particular region. (This in no way denies the fact that many such start-up churches do a far better job in reaching lost people than many traditional older churches.)

Salvation as Gift Is Linked with Our Vocation to Witness

The famous Karl Barth argued that the gift of salvation was necessarily linked with the vocation, or our call, to witness. If this is true, and I think it is nothing but good biblical theology, then it is impossible to separate evangelistic ministry from the life and work of the total Church, even in its presently divided and polarized state. We have, simply put, no right to divide the Church further, even if the call is to something as noble as evangelism. Guder summarizes my point well when he concludes:

The call to Christ must be a call to his mission. The reason Christians are formed into communities is because God's work is to make a people to serve him as Christ's witnesses. The congregation is either a missional community-as Newbigin defines it, "the hermeneutic of the gospel"-or it is ultimately a caricature of the people of God that it is called to be (Guder, page 136).

Guder further argues that gospel reductionism "is a constant drive among sinful Christians to bring the gospel of God's sovereign love under human control" (page 136-37). That says it in a clear way.

In the Middle Ages the Church became an institution that dispensed salvation through its system and it rites. In late-modern America it has become an agency that supports evangelism through missions and mission programs that work alongside, and outside, the Church. Both are evidences of forms that represent what I am calling reductionism.

The community that Jesus intended the Church to be was one in which every aspect of the life of the community had a direct bearing on its witness to the world. "Its message was never understood as simply a verbal communication about which one might argue, and for which mere mental consent was sought" (Guder, page 137). This community is meant to be "in but not of the world," a text we have reduced to individuals alone. When we miss the point of such a text we attempt to bring the Church under control and make it work like a good business or organization. We promote management and leadership as a business would, as the means to the end of growing the Church. But in the process we lose the distinctiveness of the Church and what emerges is the fruit of full-blown gospel reductionism.

Salvation Is Communal

The New Testament makes it abundantly clear (Ephesians, Romans and Colossians come to mind here) that God saves individuals, but only in a community. The reason the letters of Paul are filled with exhortations to work out our human problems in relationships within the Church community is precisely because the world will only see and hear the witness of the Church when we are "one" (John 17).

The way reductionism works here is very obvious once you grasp my point. We allow divisions and strife. We believe that these problems can be managed by counsel and strong leadership so long as we continue to do evangelism and conduct worship services. The two are often about staging attractional events than about mission and corporate worship. The goal is to grow the Church numerically. People problems are tolerated, or even pushed aside, so we stress getting on with reaching new people with the gospel. This approach grows out of reductionism, the human connection between translation (necessary) and sinful power (not necessary).

Conclusion

The danger I face in the above comments is that I, too, can reduce the Church's real problems to simple solutions just like the next person. The real problem is a spiritual and theological one, not a management or programmatic one. This calls for spiritual and theological solutions, not pat answers. This frustrates busy, pragmatic Americans who want programs that will solve their problems. Thus the reductionistic problem just keeps getting recycled over and over again.

The place we must begin to counteract this reductionism is in seeing that our mission is not merely an activity of the Church, but rather that the Church exists for mission. Mission is the result of God's activity within the world and that mission is to restore and heal creation. The Church is a community of the redeemed and exists to serve that mission. This is the meaning of John 20:21. God is a missionary God and we, as his people, are a sent people. The Church is not the purpose of the gospel, or even the goal of the gospel. The Church is the instrument and witness of the gospel. Only when we get this right will be begin to be the community that God intended for us to be.

This might sound easy. It is not. A major spiritual effort is needed to oppose the reductionism of our age and to call the Church back to this right understanding of its place and purpose. This is the reformation I live for. This is what fires my soul with passion every single day. How can I help people and churches, one-by-one, reclaim the gospel in its power and deep spirituality? How can I be an instrument of renewal in giving back to the Church in America its place and purpose under God?


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Reports from some "LC2C Cities

THE PRAISE & PRAYER REPORT for The Mission American Coalition!

-- PRAISE GOD that He indeed is always calling us to come to Him with all of
our praise -- and all of our needs -- as we kneel before Him - "Oh Come, let
us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker." (Psalm
95:6)

-- PRAISE GOD for the outstanding meeting at the United Nations of the
International Prayer Council in New York City where Paul had the privilege
of speaking!

-- PRAISE GOD for reports of people coming to faith in Christ throughout our
LC2C ("Loving Our Communities to Christ") efforts. (Phil Miglioratti; MAC
Nat'l. Coordinator of LC2C Pilot Cities)

-- PRAISE GOD for great times of Training in our Pilot Cities. Two weeks
ago Cedar Rapids trained Church Leaders in the concept of Affinity
Evangelism. Last Monday evening we had over 15 Churches represented at the
first of two sessions of Relational Evangelism Training. (Dallas Anderson;
MAC Nat'l. Facilitator; Evangelism)

-- PRAISE GOD for the planning process for the Charleston, West Virginia
City Transformation Summit with Dr. John Perkins on September 18-20.
(Jarvis Ward, Nat'l. Facilitator; City/Community Ministries)

-- PRAISE GOD as we had a wonderfully successful back to school give-away
with over 300 teachers that came through and over $50,000 of supplies given!
Supplies were donated by many churches in Benton County, businesses and
individuals. We had several more churches join in participating this year.
Five years ago this began and was in one small room with 13 teachers. This
year it filled the auditorium at Linus Pauling. Now we see that seed in full
bloom! See what God has done? His Light in us, is shining brilliantly!
Praise God for the generosity of this community and for believers who want
to make a difference! (Tom White, LC2C Pilot City Coach, Frontline
Ministries, Corvallis, Oregon)

-- PRAISE GOD for how He is working in El Paso to create unity and prayer
among youth of different churches, and as El Paso women begin to seek God to
gather women together in prayer. Ask, with us, that the Holy Spirit would
call Christians in our region together to pray in unity! (El Paso, TX/Las
Cruces, NM & Juarez, Mexico Pilot City)

-- PRAISE GOD for an excellent meeting with pastors in San Bernardino,
California. [Not an "LC2C" City at this time] God is certainly doing a great moving
there in that community-- all to the praise of our gracious God.
(Larry DeWitt; MAC Nat'l.Facilitator; Pastoral Ministries)

-- PLEASE PRAY for a mighty work of the Holy Spirit during the City
Transformation Summit September 18-20 in Charleston, West Virginia. Pray
for the Lord to anoint and use Dr. John Perkins in a powerful way. Pray for
the Holy Spirit to draw the right people to attend and then later apply what
the Spirit imparts. (Jarvis)

"Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything
that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven." (Matthew
18:19)

The Mission America Coalition
PO Box 13930
Palm Desert, CA 92255
760.200.2707
macnationaloffice@missionamerica.org

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Friday, September 07, 2007

SHARE ~ Reductionism Our Witness

The constant danger the Church faces is reductionism.
We reduce the gospel to a message that fits nicely with our culture, our categories, our list of special beliefs and core issues.
This reductionism closes the Church to fresh winds of the Spirit
It kills missional Christianity.

The primary way evangelicals do this is to reduce Jesus and the good news to a message that is "a set of ideas, an intellectual system" that is directly connected to the way we, and/or our particular church, codifies these things and celebrates them in our rites and worship.

John Armstrong

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Why LC2C Is NOT A Program or Curriculum

ACT 3

Most of our modern evangelical practice tells new converts to:

(1) Find a good church where they can get fellowship, and;

(2) Get under a ministry of good teaching so that they can grow. But being a disciple means so much more than being taught correct content and good material from the Bible so you can grow. In many ways this is such a distortion of what teaching is that it is crippling the Church hazardously.

May I suggest that we stop thinking of a classroom ...? Don't get me wrong. I am a teacher and I love classrooms and classes. But the teaching Jesus gave to us is meant to teach us to think like him, to live like him and to follow him wherever he sends us. The classroom of Jesus is not so much a place where we gather but the whole world. And that world should be interpreted through the whole Word, not just through favorite proof texts taken from here and there. This is why I believe real reformation will always be anchored in the whole of Scripture as the primary witness to the Living Word, Christ. This is also why I am calling Christians to a gathering in November where the only book we use in our discussion will be the Bible...

I have little or no interest in some things that continually present themselves to me as important for this ministry. I have no interest in:

1. Creating and marketing a new curriculum to solve church problems. Denominations and parachurch groups have been doing this for decades, and it has done very little to really make the kind of disciples that we encounter in the New Testament.

2. Putting together a systematic teaching formula that is my own and that promises more than it can actually deliver, since it is the Spirit through the Word who makes real disciples.

3. Mass marketing my insights and solutions for all kinds of problems in the family, the Church or the culture. Sorry, but I have no cool plans for how to get the ACT 3 message out in ways that will sell and work like the modern approach promises. And I do not plan to write a book on marriage and family either since we already have more of them than we need and we know far more about these issues than we actually practice. The problem, as this simple illustration proves, is not in giving out good content and in making it available. It is that we do not obey what we already know. We have missed the core, bought into a system that tells us how we grow, and then processed a reductionistic brand of Christianity that doesn't deliver.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

6000 Kids & Parents @ Pilot City KidsFest

Here in Sonoma County we just finished our KidsFest, the annual event in which the Christians bless kids and their families as they prepare to return to school. We had over 2000 kids pre registered. On the day itself, last Saturday, August 25, the city officials present estimated that there were over 6000 kids and parents present during the course of the day. We had a 40% increase in the number of participating ministries and churches. There was a midway with various games and prizes, plenty of food, drama and music presentations of the gospel, face-painting, sno-cones, dunk tanks for celebrities, a book giveaway, haircuts, back-to-school backpacks(1865 given away), t-shirts, Bibles, and a lot of joy, all of which was free. Our school(Santa Rosa Christian) manned the prize booth in which 15 kids gave out over 2100 stuffed animals from 9am to 5 pm. The presence of the Lord filled the park as many were introduced to Him for the first time.

Prayer requests: 1) Resources to flow out of our county in people and other treasures from heaven – let the pipeline be opened!

2) Businessmen with open hearts to allow former gang members a new chance to work(Hope Works).

3) Increasing mobilization and commissioning of watchmen and intercessors in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sonoma, and Windsor.(4 leading prayer towns in the county)

4) 2 plane tickets to KC for the 8th and 9th of October prayer meeting.

5) More students with willing parents at Santa Rosa Christian School.

Thanks, Harry Skandera

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