The Suffering and Advancing Church: A Look at Matthew 11:12

NASB: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.”

NIV: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”

Is the Kingdom of heaven suffering violence under the hands of those who wish to destroy it, or is it forcefully advancing, extending the claims of Christ’s Lordship into a lost world?

The word translated by NASB as “suffers violence” and by NIV as “has been forcefully advancing” is the word BIAZOMAI – it can be equally translated as passive voice, i.e. what is being done to the church or middle voice, what the church is doing.   There is no way to decide, thus two translations come down differently.

Is the church of Jesus Christ gloriously advancing into the world, or are we defensively just holding on until Jesus returns against the onslaught of the world, the flesh and the devil.  Are we “suffering violence” or are we “forcefully advancing”?  Or, perhaps, is the duplicity actually the whole point, that the church is experiencing both at the same time.

A similar tension is found in Matthew 16:17-19 at Caesarea Phillipi -  in Jesus’ response to Peter’s famous declaration:  You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Jesus calls Peter blessed and in verse 18 says, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” – We have spent so much time as a church analyzing the first part of the phrase “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” – often neglect the latter part – which is quite fascinating.  Jesus says to Peter about the church, “the gates of Hades will not overcome it” – it can equally be translated “the gates of Hades will not prove stronger than it” – and there are again.  Is the expression “gates of Hades” a metaphor for the powers of Hell which are attacking the church and the church prevails even against the onslaught of the hell itself.  Or, is it the Church of Jesus Christ which is forcefully advancing against the gates of hell, and the gates of Hell cannot withstand the onslaught of the church as it forcefully advances Christ’s claims into the world.

Suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Advancing powers of Hell not overcoming the church  or  Powerful advance of the church which prevails against the very gates of Hell itself?

Once again Jesus leaves it somewhat ambiguous.

It happens again in the 24th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is questioned by his disciples about the end of time.  They ask him “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  Jesus begins in verse 4 with a long litany of terrible things that will happen to the church.  The church in Matthew 24:4:13 is a picture of a church “suffering violence” – The onslaught of the enemy is vividly portrayed and graphically described.  There will be wars and rumors of wars, nation rising up against nation, kingdom against kingdom.  There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.  Many will turn away from the faith,  and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.  There will be an increase in wickedness and the love of most will grow cold.  This is the picture of a church “suffering violence” against the onslaught of the enemy, it is a church which is holding on against the advancing powers of Hades – verse 13 seems to be the concluding comment by Jesus which confirms this defensive posture when he says, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved” – it sounds like we’re just going to hold on.

Then Jesus utters what is the most remarkable verse in the whole passage, especially if it is read in the context of this litany of the world’s advances against the church – persecutions, people being put to death, others turning away from the faith and so forth… suddenly, like a light bursting forth into a dark room Jesus says, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

Jesus, in effect is saying, that even while the world and all the host of Satanic darkness is making their most forceful advance against the church – even while it seems as if the church is on the defensive.. even though to the un-spiritual eye the church can, at best, just hold on and wait out the storm of ever increasing darkness – even then, at that moment, like leaven working in the loaf, like seed silently growing under the surface of the soil, like a woman in darkness searching for a lost coin, or an impoverished man plowing in the hard, unyielding soil only to discover his greatest treasure – so we see that God’s triumphant, victorious advance into the world happens right when things seem to be at their worst.  At the moment the host of darkness makes its most powerful assault…. At the moment the kingdom seems to be suffering the worst violence the world has to offer. It is then that the Lord makes His move, overturning his foes and demonstrating the prevailing power of the gospel.  This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations!

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised.  After all, isn’t this what God did at Calvary?  As the beautiful Easter hymn declares, “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed”.  As Jesus hung upon the cross of Calvary, the powers of death had done their worst.  Darkness, it seemed, had prevailed.  The Son of God, God’s gracious gift to the world had been cruelly nailed to a rugged cross.  Who would believe that at that very moment when it seemed as if darkness had triumphed – at that very moment when the powers of hell had so surely secured their victory – at that very hour of darkness – a great light was bursting forth onto the world.  In the very act of our greatest rejection of God, it turns out, in fact, to be God’s greatest embrace of us.  Nailing Jesus to the cross was our great “No” to God -shaking our closed fist in the very face of God.   It is our way of saying “God, we don’t want you in our lives or in our world” – Yet, our great “NO” and closed fist in the face of God, becomes in the mystery of the cross, His great “Yes” to us and His open hand extended to you and to me.  Our greatest act of rejecting God, becomes at that very moment simultaneously His greatest embrace of us.  In the cross, our greatest act of alienation, becomes His great act of reconciliation.  As the Scripture says of that hour, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting against us our trespasses, but nailing them to the cross.”   Man’s worst hour, nailing God to a cross; becomes God’s greatest hour, nailing our sins there.  The ugliest, darkest, most revolting symbol of humanity – a cross used for crucifying men – symbol of hate and torture,- becomes the greatest symbol of love and light.  You see, this is the way God is. Death itself is swallowed up in His victory, how much more so all the other lesser trials of life.  The last seven words the world ever spoke to Jesus were spoken in a mockery of smug triumphalism – those last seven words the world ever spoke to Jesus:  He Saved Others, He Cannot Save Himself.  But never forget that it is God who has the last word – and three days later, it was He who announced the first seven words of resurrection morning:  HE IS NOT HERE, HE IS RISEN!  God will not be outflanked. He didn’t just work up to that at Calvary, this is the way God is.

God faces that which is worst in us and in this world and transforms it into a testimony of His grace.  The Apostle Paul calls himself the Worst of Sinners, but by God’s grace He, of all people, becomes the Greatest of God’s Apostles.   Paul’s greatest act of defiance and rebellion was when he set out down the road to Damascus to vent the venom of his hatred against the Church of Jesus Christ.  Yet, it was on that road, that road which would gone down in infamy as the road of death and destruction for God’s people, but instead became the place where God met him and said I will show you how  much you must suffer for my sake, as you forcefully advance the gospel.  You see, this is the way God is.

It was when Patrick finally escaped from years of Irish slavery and finally made it back to his home in England that God spoke to him and said, Patrick I’m sending you back to Ireland, back to where you were enslaved  – but this time, not as a slave, but as my Apostle.  This land which you have cursed will be land that you will love for the sake of the gospel…. If time permitted, I would love to take you on a trip down through the chapters of this great story called the Church of Jesus Christ!

My brothers and sisters, I want you to know that God is in the midst of what seems like an ever encroaching spiritual darkness, secular humanism, post-modern cynicism,  all of which shrouds our lives and like a deep fog seems to encroach upon us and seep into every open crack.   At times when the church is suffering violence… and it seems as if the church can no longer prevail against the onslaught of evil..  You should be aware that even as we speak this morning, God is moving in the world today in ways which are absolutely unprecedented in the history of Christianity.

Prior to the morning of June 6, 1944 – the famous D-Day – It appeared that Hitler would be triumphant  – He seemed invincible as he swept through Europe, drinking champagne in Paris as German bombs continued to rain upon London, but underneath the early morning fog of June 6th something else was underway – while Hitler was off celebrating his birthday, the Allies were quietly launching the decisive attack.

Likewise, underneath the fog of this world, many are unaware of God’s work in the world.  This gospel of the kingdom is being preached and sent forth to all nations in a way unprecedented in the history of the church.

In China, in 1949 there were only 1.5 million Christians in China.  Despite remarkable persecution – which continues to the present day – darkness has set its face against Chinese Christianity… but, once again, the blood of the martyrs has become the seed of the church.  Today, there are well over 35 million Chinese Christians.  I was teaching in China the summer of 1993.  I had the privilege not only to lead several new Chinese to Christ and to baptize one in the Yangtzee river, but to meet many Christians who are determined to give their lives to extend the message of Christ into China – and to do it, even in the midst of growing darkness and government hostility.  The powers of hell hath done their worst, but Christ their legions still doth disperse.

In India, beginning in 1973 the Indian government refused to grant any new visas to Western missionaries.  The number of foreign workers dropped from over 12,000 down to less than 200 today.  But for every missionary that was forced to leave India, God has raised up not one, but two Indians who have given themselves to full time Christian expansion to bring the gospel to the unreached peoples of India.  For ten years I have gone to India regularly to teach in a college which is dedicated to training young men to take the gospel and plant churches in unreached people groups of India.  I was just there last month, and how thrilled I was to hear the latest report.  The men trained at this school have now planted 103 churches in villages and cities of N. India – all 103 cities/towns and villages – all of which have never had a church in the history of the world.  God is moving.

Hebrews 11, the chapter of faith,  continues – If I only had time to tell you about Matthew Vargheese, and I.D. Suna and Lamuel Pattanick and Kuriokos and so many other Indian church planters that I know who have faced the worst darkness that Hinduism and the darkness of the world can throw their way, and they have planted the flag of the church in Indian soil.   Men of whom the world is nor worthy.  Praise be to God for His unspeakable gifts, most of which, like Jesus Himself on that dark night in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, only silently emerge in the world.

In Africa on this day as well as every day this week 16,000 people will come to Christ every single day.  That is how quickly the church of Jesus Christ is growing in Africa.  South American, for centuries so solidly Catholic, has experienced in this century a growth of evangelism from 69 million to over a half a billion evangelicals.

Time does not permit to tell you of the remarkable things God is doing in the former Soviet Union – Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan – unbelievable, in E. Europe.  I know of one university that had a department of Atheism that is now the Department of Christian Studies.  I could go on and on.  But the point is – the church is forcefully advancing, even while many fall away, lose the faith, and their love grows cold.  The question becomes where are we in this great move of God in the world.  Are we going to participate in this great advance which is silently slipping across the world beneath the fog of so much else that catches the world’s attention.  Are you as a church going to continue to fulfill your God given mandate.  I trust as you prepare for your missions conference that the soil of your hearts will be prepared and you will be not spectators, but participants in what God is doing.

Is the kingdom forcefully advancing or suffering violence?  It is experiencing both, one to purge and to cleanse, one to equip and send forth.  May you be a part God’s great forceful advance into the world. 

The Translatability of the Christian Gospel

The following is a message that I gave at Asbury’s Fall Convocation.  You can download both the audio and the video of the message for free on iTunes.

In April of 1739 John Wesley was preaching in an upstairs room in London.  About halfway into his sermon the supporting post which held up the floor of the room collapsed under the sheer weight of the number of people who had gathered to hear Wesley.  Wesley remarked in his journal that the supporting post fell with a great noise.  The floor sunk, but it didn’t cave in and, to Wesley’s own amazement, everyone settled back down and he was able to finish preaching.

What do we do when it seems like the very floor under our feet is giving way?   Many of the traditional props and supports which have long given stability to the world of theological education have fallen away with a great crash – what are we to do?  How do we live in a time of disequilibrium, of uncertainty and of change?  Never in history has the church undergone such dramatic growth and change so quickly.   When William Carey went to India in 1793, 99% of all Christians in the world were white and lived in the western world.  Today, the vast majority of Christians live outside the Western world.  We are witnessing multiple centers of Christian vibrancy, even as we see the western world re- emerging as the world’s fastest growing mission field and the home of the top most resistant people groups in the world.  In contrast, all of the top most gospel receptive people groups in the world are found in either India or China.  We live in an upside down world:

  • Christianity Today reported a few years ago that eighty-five percent of the members of Yale University’s Campus Crusade for Christ chapter are Asian, whereas “the university’s Buddhist meditation meetings are almost exclusively attended by whites.”[1]
  • The World Christian Encyclopedia records that more Anglican Christians worship in Nigeria in any given week that all the Episcopal and Anglican churches of Europe and North America combined![2]
  • An examination of World Christian Trends reveals that there are now more evangelical Christians in Nepal than in Spain.[3]
  • The historic William Carey Memorial Church in Lester, England is now a Hindu temple while the church in India, the traditional home of Hinduism, sends out over 41,000 cross-cultural missionaries, a movement which I have given 21 years of my life to encourage.
  • China can now boast of the fastest growing church in the world, with an estimated 16,500 new Christians every day.  Africa, once called the missionary graveyard, can boast of the fastest growing church for any continent as a whole, 24,000 new Christians ever day.[4] The most representative Christian in 1909 was a 47 year old British male.  The most representative Christian in 2009 is a 24 year old Nigerian woman.

The support post upon which was written:  “you are the center of the ecclesiastical universe” has collapsed and we have to regain our footing in this new world we inhabit and think afresh about what this means for theological education in North America.  None of these developments were predicted fifty years ago.  Today, as I survey the landscape of ecclesiology and theological education in the western world  it is clear that we are living in a time of unprecedented crisis.  This is not to be overly negative or alarmist, for I am reminded of the great Dutch missiologist, Hendrick Kraemer (1888-1965), who famously commented that “the church is always in a state of crisis; its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it.”[5]

The floor is creaking beneath our feet. What does this mean for Asbury Theological Seminary in the 21st century?  I will make three observations.

1. EMBRACING CULTURAL AND THEOLOGICAL TRANSLATABILITY

First, we must understand afresh the profound translatability of the Christian message. Christianity is the only world religion whose primary source documents are in a language other than the founder of the religion.  In other words, the NT texts are not in Aramaic, but in Koine Greek.  This is unique among world religions.  Muhammad spoke in Arabic and the Qur’an is in Arabic.  The Brahmin priests in India spoke Sanskrit and the Vedas and Upanishads are in Sanskrit.  However, in the New Testament, Jesus spoke primarily in Aramaic, but the primary documents which record those sayings are in Koine, Greek.  This makes a vitally important theological statement which so dramatically contrasts, for example, with Muslims who maintain that the Qur’an is untranslatable and the Word of Allah can be conveyed truly and fully only in Arabic.  In contrast, at the very outset of the Christian message the translatability of the gospel is enshrined in our primary source documents.

You would under-realize this point if you only see this as the necessary green light to translate the Bible into every known tongue in the world – in other words, linguistic translatability.  It is, of course, that, but it is also the more profound translatability of culture. Indeed, it is this larger point which is the reason why the NT is not in Aramaic.  In the Book of Acts we are witnessing a massive cultural translation between a church which is predominantly Jewish in its historical and cultural context and one which begins to be received and experienced by Gentile Christians who bring new questions and new vocabulary to the table.  Do we have to be circumcised? they asked.   The amazing shift from Jesus as Messiah – Jesus Christ -  to Lord Jesus quietly occurs.  The Jerusalem Council decision in Acts 15 was certainly one of the most profound moments in the history of the early church.  They choose, quite intentionally, to honor their Judaic roots (thereby the restrictions) even while encouraging the gospel’s transmission into the Gentile world.  Those first century believers were full blooded Jews by faith, culture and experience, but they choose under God to not absolutize that culture or that heritage and they choose to not insist that it be normative for all future believers.  That is why we can be here today.

This cultural translatability has profound implications for our work in every discipline in our school, but, for sake of time, I will focus on the work of theology.  Theology can no longer assume that all the questions which could be asked have been asked and posed to the biblical texts.  As new cultures in non-Christian and multi-religious contexts come at the text from outside the walls of historic Christendom, they are becoming eager readers of the Bible and they are posing new questions which have not previously been asked.  This is an exciting day to hammering away in God’s theological workshop.  The global church will continue to insist that theology will become more closely aligned with ethics in a way which we have not seen since the patristic era.   [A global vindication of Wesleyan theological impulses which are deep in our DNA but we’ve been too distracted in recent decades to properly celebrate.]  Theology will become more missiological in a way which we have not seen since the writings of St. Paul.  Theology will become more ecumenical, without losing sight of the kerygma in a way which we have not seen since the Carolingian commentaries.  This is because theology will become simultaneously more diverse and more global while, at the same time, becoming more fully orthodox and centered on the kergyma.

2. EXPANDING OUR ECCLESIASTICAL CARTOGRAPHY:  The Role of the West in Global Christianity

The second implication of this new world we inhabit is the need to expand our ecclesiastical cartography. Can you picture in your mind one of those old world maps produced in the Middle Ages?  Maps of the world produced by Europeans during the medieval period reveal much about their worldview. Europe and the Mediterranean (from medius terra, meaning “middle earth” – this is before we had discovered Hobbits!) are situated at the center of the map. The maps were filled with striking details of Europe and the Mediterranean beautifully adorned with various Christian images. However, most of Africa and Asia is not even represented, and the few distorted land masses that vaguely represent the southern continents tend to blend hazily into the margins amidst drawings of savages, dog-headed kings, and grotesque demons.

These maps reveal as much about European theology as about their cartography. In fact, it was from the lips of Jonathan Bonk, director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, that I first heard the phrase “ecclesiastical cartography” as a reference to how the church views the world.[6] Undoubtedly, our cartography has improved dramatically over the years, but it seems that our theological analysis of the world has not kept pace.  In my earlier point I noted that many of us still see the West as the ecclesiastical center of the world, even though the vast majority of Christians in the world today are located elsewhere.

However, as the sun rises on the Majority World Church there is a second problem which  we face here in the West.  Sometimes the emphasis on global Christianity and directives to notice what is happening in the global south or, as I prefer, the Majority World Churches, has caused westerners, especially white, European descent Americans to feel like God is moving everywhere but here – the shifting center of Christian gravity has moved beyond us and we are, if I can use the phrase in a different context, “left behind.”  There was a period in theological and missiological literature which framed it in this way.  We found ourselves in the ecclesiastical equivalent of the wood shed.  We were left hanging by a thread as an embarrassing, post-colonial whipping  boy, a poster child for everything that the church has done wrong.  Mercifully, thanks to the work of the Gambian scholar Lamin Sanneh, among others, we are now making further adjustments to our ecclesiastical cartography by realizing that there is a vitally important distinction between a post-Western Christianity and a post-Christian West.  Christianity may, indeed, by emerging as a post-western faith, but the West is also experiencing renewal as it rediscovers Christianity in the West as a post-Western faith.  Far from being “left behind” God is shaking us free from our ecclesiastical provincialism and our equating Christianity with the western forms of it and we are beginning to explore a new, previously unexplored country. In the 19th century God commanded us to Christianize Africa.  In the 21st century He may very well be calling us to Africanize Christianity.  In His sovereignty God may have permitted the decline of Western Christianity in order to shake us free from the weakened, domesticated version which became the standard bearer of Christendom.  Today the West is re-discovering the vibrancy of historic, Apostolic Christianity with all of its prophetic surprises and anointed vibrancy.

What are the signs of this?

Sign #1: The ethnic diversity of the global church is moving rapidly into North America.  Global Christianity is not just about Africans and Koreans and Chinese and Brazilians and Indians and a host of others “over there”, but these are the new realities in our own towns and  cities.  The largest churches in Western Europe are pastored by African Christians.  The fastest growing churches in North America are the ethnic churches.  Global Christianity is actually the greatest force for renewal in the North.  Yes, we are finally discovering the truth of that wonderful phrase which is the slogan of the Lausanne movement:  The whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.  Or, to use the words of Samuel Escobar’s excellent little book on this subject, The Gospel from Everywhere to Everywhere.  John Wesley said, “the world is my parish.”  Today, we could easily say, “the world is in my parish.”  Today if Dorothy in the wonderful book and movie, Wizard of Oz, had left 1934 Kansas and instead of being whisked away by a tornado to the land of Oz, she would have come right back down to Kansas, but in 2009, she still would have looked around and said, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas, anymore!”

 

Sign #2: We must recognize the unique place we are in as Christians in the 21st century.  Christianity, unlike Hinduism or Islam, has had serial, not progressive growth.  In other words, what was once a vital center of Christianity vitality later has languished while the center of the world Christian movement has constantly moved.  We can trace the shifting center of Christian vibrancy from Jerusalem to Rome to Alexandria to Constantinople to Western Europe and so forth.  The shifting of Christianity to a new center of cultural vibrancy is not now.  What is new today for the first time in history is that we are not seeing the emergence of a single new center of Christian vibrancy.  Instead, we are witnessing the simultaneous emergence of multiple centers of vibrancy… in China.. in India.. in Korea… in Brazil…. And, yes, here in the US.

The United States will continue to be one of those centers of vitality….  Even as late as the year 2050 the United States will still have more Christians than any other country.  However, we will be closely followed by China, in Asia and Brazil, in Latin America.  We are experiencing the dawn of a truly global Christian movement – more indigenous Christians firmly rooted in more places than at any time in the history of the world.

Sign #3. We must understand the center of Christianity only refers to the aggregate of all Christians everywhere.   This says nothing about the center of gravity for financial resources for global Christian work.  This says nothing about the center of gravity of graduate level theological education programs.  This says nothing about the center of gravity for the availability of Christian books.  More Christians globally praise God in Spanish than any other language, including English.  However, there are far more books about Christianity written in English than any other language.  The center of gravity for graduate level theological education will remain in North America for the entirety of your generation.  Thus, we have a global disparity between where you can get graduate level theological training and where the most Christians actually live.  I noted earlier that the most representative Christian (globally speaking) would be a 24 year old Nigerian woman.  However, the most representative graduate student of theology remains overwhelmingly white and western, although the Africans, Indians and Koreans are making excellent progress.  This makes Asbury Theological Seminary uniquely poised to assist in the training and equipping of the global church and, speaking frankly, to be trained and equipped ourselves by the global church.  We need to receive a new wave of Majority World scholars and we need to find ourselves in the training centers of the global church.  Asbury, in all of its manifestations as embodied in Wilmore, Orlando and ExL, must become gateways to the global church and the traffic must be two-way.

3. SERIOUS REFLECTION IN A WORLD OF TWITTER

Finally, my third and final point is the necessity to reaffirm the seriousness of our task.  We need to re-affirm serious reflection in a word of twitter.  Julius Caesar famously said in the wake of his stunning victory in the east:  veni, vidi, vici – I came, I saw, I conquered.   That famous phrase veni, vidi, vici has become almost the summarizing motto of the ancient world, especially the confident, unbridled triumphalism of the Roman era.  If their motto was  “I came, I saw, I conquered” what would be the 21st century North American counterpart?  I think the 21st century counterpart would be… I came, I saw, and I twittered.  Think about it, twitter only allows 140 characters… everything must be said in 140 letters or you can’t say it.  What an apt metaphor for today!   We live in a reductionistic world with little time for serious reflection.  Indeed, if the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ can be reduced to Four Spiritual Laws, then surely we can do graduate theological education in a few long weekends, right?

We live in a world which is inundated with information, but most of it is trivial.  We live in a day which eschews serious, long-term, reflection.  In short, we live in a world where the overwhelming mantra of theological education is “make it cheap, quick and easy” or we’ll go somewhere else; impatient student shoppers roaming through the market-mall of theological education.    If we were graduating Masters in sacred twiterology we could do it; a few basic twitorials and you’re on your way.  Most of you grew up in the Nike generation of “just do it.”  However, you are training to go forth and inhabit the blogosphere world of twittering and face book where “just do it” has been replaced by “just say it.”   WWJD what would Jesus do… has been quietly supplanted by WWJT… what would Jesus twitter?

Here at Asbury God is calling us to remember the kind of robust, muscular, Apostolic Christianity which is required to face the challenges of our day.  It will not be quick or easy and you already know without me telling you that it will not be cheap.  It will take sacrifice and some long nights of holy lamenting.  You must wake up to the new reality that you are preparing to enter one of the toughest mission fields in the world – North America.  North America is on the verge of the most stunning collapse of churches in the history of our country.   Brothers and sisters, the church of Jesus Christ is indestructible!  However, the various organizational manifestations of it are very destructible.  The United Methodist and the PC (USA) were just the first to set the pace, but there are hundreds on their way, most of them today’s megachurches.  We are just one generation away from a mega-collapse.  Nevertheless, and please hear me, North America is also, simultaneously, moving into one of the most dynamic phases of fresh church planting in our history.  The last time a generation of Americans will have seen the pace of fresh church planting which you will see would have been the days of Francis Asbury.  In the past only 2% of our graduates went out to plant a new church.  In this generation that needs to rise to at least 20%  and when you add those who need to do new church planting  within existing structures and denominations, it will rise to over 50%.  However, throughout this new phase, we will increasingly be occupying the margins, not the center of the culture.   That means we have to reclaim our prophetic role.  We also have to reclaim our role as evangelists and church planters, not just pastors and teachers.

This transition cannot be negotiated by a business-as-usual approach.  This transition cannot be negotiated by a pastor-as-comfortable-career-option approach.  This transition cannot be negotiated by a “I’m going to spend my time preoccupied with my salary, my pension plan and my parsonage” mentality.   This transition cannot be negotiated by a “climb the denominational ladder” strategy.  Those days must be relegated to the rear view mirror as we encounter the sunrise of this new day.  We now occupy the rugged frontiers, not the comfortable couches of the heartland.  God is calling you to be street lights, not sanctuary lights!

These are the days of Perpetua from Carthage who, although nursing a child, was willing to face the lions in the arena, rather than bow to the false idols of her world.

These are the days of Athanasius, the great Alexandrian bishop who saw the whole church embracing Arianism and he stood up for God’s truth – Athanasius contra mundum, Athanasius against the world.  Some of you will need to stand up and say lovingly to the church, “you’ve got it wrong, let’s go back to the text again!”

These are the days of Augustine….  The whole empire was collapsing, Rome is sacked and somebody has to write the City of God.   May someone in this room write that text for our day.

These are the days of Martin Luther when the church has lost its way, lost its prophetic voice.  In our day the church has been swept down the stream of uncritical populism and positive thinking and niceness and “three-stories-and-a-joke.”  This new generation cannot be reached that way.  Luther had the courage to wade out against the current and declare, “here I stand, I can do no other.”  May God give some of you that kind prophetic courage.

These are the days of Wesley who preached himself out of every pulpit in England and, in the process, reminded us that “the world is our parish.”  Here at Asbury we are on a mission and it is not a mission rooted in Nashville or New York, because we have lifted up our eyes to the harvest and it’s a global mission.

In  the midst of the twitterization of our sacred work, God will raise up men and women who are prepared to move beyond “quick, cheap and easy.”   This is not something you or I can orchestrate.  It takes a renewed discovery of the call of God to something better:  The call of God to be better readers of the Holy Scriptures, better reflectors on the true nature of worship, better proclaimers of the eternal gospel.  We are those who have been called and summoned into the presence of the Risen Christ and called into His service.  We have been delivered out of the world, only to be sent back into it.

 

Augustine was happy chanting psalms in the monastery when the people of Hippo rushed upon him, picked him up on their shoulders and shouted… :Episcopus, Episcopus, Our Bishop, Our  Bishop”…

 

Calvin planned to spend only one night in smelly Geneva, when he was confronted by the steely eyes of Frenchman Gionne Farrell who said to Calvin, “stay with us in this work.”

 

John Wesley went unwillingly to that Moravian prayer chapel at Aldersgate and his heart was strangely warmed and soon the whole world was set ablaze….

They were seized and summoned by God for a work which was much bigger than they were.

Christianity is not about fast, cheap and easy.   Our DNA is actually on the side of the ledger, however unpopular… it is about bloody sacrifice, costly kenosis, and, praise God, profound transformation.   On the anvil of Asbury Theological Seminary you will learn that the most important work of your life cannot be achieved in a single lifetime.  We are those who live in eschatological hope, caught between the “already” and the “not-yet.”  We live in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who came before us and will follow after us.  We also looking for that city whose maker and builder is God.  We await the new creation and the consummation of the ages.

So, welcome to the opening of the 2009-2010 academic year at Asbury Theological Seminary.  The floor beneath our feet may be creaking.  The familiar supporting post may have fallen away,  but the preaching goes on!  So, welcome Asbury Theological Seminary – God’s holy workshop!  God is at work in your lives and in the world, so let’s get to work, shall we? Amen.


[1]“Go Figure,” Christianity Today47, no. 7 (June 2003): 13.

[2] Christopher Wright, “An Upside-Down World,” Christianity Today, 51, no. 1 (19 January 2007): 42.

[3] David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Trends, AD 30 – AD 2200:  Interpreting the Annual Christian Megacensus (Pasadena, CA:  William Carey Library, 2001), 415, Table 12-1.

[4] David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing, “Missiometrics 2008:  Reality Checks for Christian World Communions,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 32, no. 1 (January 2008):  29, Table B.

[5] As quoted in David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 1991), 2.

[6] Jonathan J. Bonk, “Ecclesiastical Cartography and the Invisible Continent,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 28, no. 4 (October, 2004): 153–58.

Honest Theology

Many years ago I took a course on the theology of missions.   It was in the opening lecture of that course that the professor, a very wise and seasoned missionary practitioner turned scholar, said, “missions is what keeps theology honest.”  It is an insight which, I think, is self-illuminating for anyone who has actually taught in a Seminary.  The point, of course, is that theological reflection has a tendency to drift towards the safe harbor of theoretical abstractions rather than stay out on the rough sea of real life application.  This overly theoretical theologizing is sometimes called disdainfully, “ivory tower” theology.  Bolaji Idowu, the Nigerian scholar, calls it “book theology” as opposed to a “living” theology about the living God in meaningful interaction with the His creation.  This is not a criticism of the vital role theologians play in articulating and defending historic Christian doctrines.  It is simply acknowledging that theological reflection must always serve the church.  Theology cannot exist in some hermetically sealed vacuum, blissfully ignorant of the real and difficult cultural and contextual particularities of our world.  Thus, one of the great ways that missions has served the theological community is by forcing theologians to address real challenges and answer many new questions which we might otherwise find more comfortable to simply ignore.  Thankfully, the missionary community keeps bringing these thorny, sticky issues to the theological table.  It is this great service of missionaries to theologians which is the basis for this wise professor saying that “missions is what keeps theology honest.”

The World is IN my Parish

It is not uncommon to hear complaints about the lack of connectivity between ministerial preparation and the actual ministry settings our students our entering.  For example, David Tracy laments what he calls the “three great separations of modern Western culture,” all of which have served to separate the task of theological education from actual ministry contexts.  According to Tracy, these three “fatal” separations are the “separation of feeling and thought, the separation of form and content, and the separation of theory and practice” (1998, 325).  However, postmodernism and globalization have created complex new forms of connectivity in which to reflect on the training for and context of ministry.  Christian ministry has never occurred in a vacuum, but the forces of globalization have created a situation in which every local context is today informed by the larger global context.  Globalization has been summarized as a complex connectivity whereby local events and social relationships are influenced and shaped by distant events (Tomlinson 1999, 2).  This complex connectivity has influenced every sphere of life, including politics, social relationships, economics, technology, science, culture, and religion.  Today, even if you are the pastor of a small church in Kansas, you still cannot think about your ministry apart from the larger global context.  Indeed, part of the power of globalization is our increased awareness of complex connectivity.

We live in a world of iPods, instant messages, YouTube, chat rooms, MySpace, and Facebook.  Such a world has produced a new kind of global connectivity that is very different from the metanarratives of modernism, which produced a single grand canopy of meaning.  The church and the message of the gospel are often reduced to just another message among thousands that might give meaning to a person’s personal narrative.  They can no longer pretend to be a normative claim for the world.

Globalization has also brought the world into a new kind of connectivity that our parent’s generation could hardly have imagined.  Dramatic new forces of migration, especially since 1965, have brought thousands of new peoples into the Western world.  Many of these ethnic groups represent the fastest-growing Christian groups in the West.

John Wesley said, “The world is my parish.”  Today we must amend that by saying, “The world is in my parish.”  The challenge for theological education is to learn how to teach for this kind of ministry.

Scholars on Fire

Have you ever read something that you knew the minute you read it, you would never forget it.  I had that experience almost thirty years ago.  I read a statement in Christianity Today which I have never forgotten.  It was a letter to the editor.  Apparently, in a previous edition of Christianity Today, an article had appeared concerning some of the liberal scholars’ latest doubts about the authority of the N.T. and the historical Jesus.  The statement which riveted my attention was found the following month on the editorial page.  Some dear saint had written in a reply to Christianity Today. He was clearly upset with all of these so-called “findings” of enlightened liberal scholarship.  In his letter to the editor he shared that he was just a simple believer.  He remarked, I don’t know any Greek or any Hebrew or any of that stuff, he exclaimed, but I know these liberal scholars are dead wrong.  And it was then that he made his riveting statement which I’ve never forgotten.  He said, and I quote, “To these scholars, I’m probably just a simple-minded fool, but I’d rather be a fool on fire, than a scholar on ice“!  I’d rather be a fool on fire for Jesus than a scholar on ice!  I think many of us can appreciate and feel his angst.  But his choice is a tough one isn’t it… a fool on fire, or a scholar on ice… it’s like being given the choice to live in Hiroshima in Aug. of 1945,  or on the Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912.

But his statement reveals an assumption that is all too often made in Christian circles.  The idea is that devotion to God often leads to a warm heart and an empty head.  The life of the mind is suspect and we should avoid scholarship in the interest of devotion to Christ and personal salvation:   Better to be a fool on fire, than a scholar on ice.  We forget that God has called us to something greater, something which transcends these kinds of classic divides and tensions.

Brothers and sisters, welcome to Asbury Theological Seminary – where scholarship is on fire… where the life of the mind enlarges the heart… and the devoted heart helps us capture the mind of Christ.   Welcome to Asbury Theological Seminary where the phrase “the mind and heart go hand in hand” is not just a slogan, but a description of who we are.  Welcome to the world of John Wesley where sound learning and vital piety are wedded in a nuptial embrace.  Welcome to scholarship on fire!

Someday, if you earn the privilege of earning a graduate degree from Asbury, you will be a thinking, thoughtful reflective Christian, with a heart on fire for Jesus Christ!   Indeed, this rare, but blessed bond of head and heart is precisely what God has called you and me to be.  You are not being called at Asbury seminary to check your brain at the door… you are not being called to give up your devotion to Jesus.. your love of Jesus… your desire to spread the good news….  To spread scriptural holiness throughout the world….  To be educated…   You’re not being called to keep the two in balance….  We’ re not talking about balance… but a  marriage… that was Wesley’s genius… the marriage of heart of head… Having, to use his words, “hearts aflame with the love of God” and a having “the mind of Christ.”  Your intellect and your affections are knit together in a holy matrimony with Jesus Christ.  Any man who gets up and reads Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ in the morning and the Greek New Testament in the afternoon and still be at the brickyards to preach at dusk is my kind of man, how about you?

This is an excerpt from a message given by Dr. Tennent at the Fall ’09 New Student Orientation.  

to listen to the entire message.

Ordinarily Extraordinary

I follow the church year.  The very idea of re-tracing the life of Jesus during the course of the year absolutely sets my heart ablaze.  It is one of those great “checks and balances” which lovingly reminds the church to remember – and to remember well.   In today’s world of emails, Facebook, blogging, twittering, IM, etc.. it is easy to get awash in a download of information and not take time to stop and remember.  G. K. Chesterton once said that “tradition is the greatest form of democracy.”  What he meant, I think, was that if we only listen to the voices which are clamoring around us (and with twitter we can now be in the constant presence of hundreds of voices!) then we shut ourselves off from the most important voices of all; namely, those who have gone before us.   Every generation has its share of blind spots.  When we include the voices and perspectives of those from the past, they expose our blind spots and, even more importantly, point their finger at the latent heresies which so easily shroud what we so glibly refer to as our “Christian” lives.

This blog is devoted to thinking about things.  I hope to allow the perspective of the church throughout the ages to weigh in regularly.

Oh, by the way, we are now in the season which the Methodists call Kingdomtide.  However, I like the older term, Ordinary Time.  For me, it reminds me that the lives we live are often in the “ordinary” zone rather than the “extra-ordinary” zone.  Blogs and twitters are one of the best reminders as to just how ordinary our lives can be.  Yet, this is the very context where the gospel must penetrate.  Just as the church year spans the “waiting” of Advent or the glorious “celebration” of Easter, it also reminds us of the ebb and flow of Ordinary Time – the time between the end of Pentecost and the beginning of Advent when we just have to follow Christ in day to day living.  All human enterprises, however noble, always end up slogging their way into the swamps of idolatry.  It is so easy – even in the church – especially in the church – to end up in the “swamp” even while we sing praises and go through all the motions.  Ordinary Time reminds us of the importance of walking with Christ each and every day.  Ordinary Time reminds us to be vigilant and spiritually awake long after the initial glory and victory of Easter begins to pass.  So, join me in the journey…I’m looking forward to it.