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The Shallow Small Group Bible Study

Because when things get too deep, people drown.

HT Ed Stetzer

Should we teach classes on how to speak Christianese? (Light from the Dark Ages, part 1)

Church is boring.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from one of my high school students. Probe them a bit, though, and you’ll discover that the problem isn’t just that church isn’t exciting like a video game, an action movie, or a first date. Instead, the problem is often that they don’t understand what’s going on or what it has to do with “real life.” Listening to the songs and sermons, the language seems so odd, so removed from everyday life, that they struggle to understand why any of this matters.

And, like most of us, when faced with an hour or more of something they don’t really understand, they get bored.

And, if we’re honest, teenagers aren’t alone in this. Many people have a hard time understanding “church language.” Faced with words like “sanctify,” “redemption,” or, heaven forbid, “ebenezer,” they feel like they need their own personal translator just to keep track of what’s happening.

Indeed, some people have grown so accustomed to not understanding church language that they don’t even notice anymore. I’m sure I could drop “image of God” into a sermon and it wouldn’t even phase most people despite the fact that they probably have no idea what that phrase even means.

What do you do when the average person doesn’t understand the language of the church?

That is exactly the problem the church faced during its transition into the early middle ages. After the fall of the Roman empire in the West, the church had to deal with the fact that most people no longer spoke Latin, the official language used in all church services. In such a situation, what should the church do? Should it retain its traditional language, or should it try to translate itself into its new linguistic context?

In the early middle ages, the church opted to maintain its language. And, I think that we’re all aware of at least some of the consequences. Few people ever learned Latin, meaning that they often had very little idea of what was taking place in the service. And, as a result, the worship service often became something that the priest did for the people, rather than something that the people actively participated in. Indeed, regular attendance at church services declined significantly as people came to think that even their presence was unnecessary.

When we choose not to translate the language of the church, we risk alienating God’s people from God’s worship.

But, what about the other option? It’s easy to criticize the church for making what looks like an apparently obvious mistake. Why continue worshiping in a language that people don’t understand? But, what if the church had chosen differently? Suppose that it decided to recognize its new context and translate its worship into the various languages of the people. Although I think this would have been a good idea, we should recognize that the church had good reasons for concern.

  1. Something always gets lost in translation. Just ask a translator. It’s never quite possible to capture everything when you move from one language to another. And, when you’re talking about important truths, losing something along the way is never a good idea.
  2. The church risks its “catholicity.” The early church was deeply concerned to emphasize that regardless of what part of the world you are in, you are still part of the one church of Jesus Christ. That is the church “catholic” (i.e. the church in its unity). And, for them, common worship practices and a common worship language were powerful and visible declarations of our Christian unity.
  3. You may end up with a lowest-common-denominator Christianity. If our focus is on what the “average person” is able to understand, and if our goal is to make sure that our worship makes sense to that person, do we not run the risk of “lowering the bar” so much that we lose some of the depth and substance of Christian worship?

So, faced with a difficult situation, the early medieval church had two choices, both of which came with significant risks.

And, both sets of risks are worth keeping in mind as we deal with a similar situation today. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we too struggle with a “church language” that most average people find hard to understand. What will we do?

  1. Will we choose like the medieval church to retain our language, convinced that it conveys important theological truth and maintains our connection to one another and to the broader Christian tradition? If we choose this path, we need to understand that we’ve got our work cut out for us. We must do the hard work of educating our congregations to understand that language, or we risk alienating them from the worship life of the community, leading them to grow frustrated, disconnected, and bored. And, we should also recognize that the tide flows against us in this task as the biblical/theological knowledge of the average person today continues to recede.
  2. Or, will we choose to translate our worship into the language of “the people”? Down this road likes the possibility of greater engagement and understanding. But, I’ve attended worship serves at many churches who opt for this path, and we should also be aware that this can be a road that leads to a theologically shallow spirituality that tries to develop in isolation from the broader life and language of God’s people through time.

As with most difficult decisions, I don’t think a simple either/or will suffice; the truth certainly awaits us somewhere in the middle. Our task is to recognize the dangers on either side and address the challenge with eyes wide open. And, that’s most easily done when we seek to learn from those who have navigated these difficult waters before us.

[This is the first post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]

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Discipleship test – Can your church produce apostates?

Could apostasy actually be a sign of a healthy church?

Lauren Winner of Duke Divinity School recently considered the situation of writer/director Paul Haggis’ defection from his faith. Haggis bitterly – and publicly – left the Church of Scientology because of his disagreement with them over gay marriage (turns out Scientology is not a fan).  Haggis now counts as an “apostate” from Scientology because he has renounced them and their teachings.  So why does Winner care at all about any of this?  Because it helps her think about her own church (Episcopalian) and the rigor (or lack, thereof) it takes to be a part of it.  She writes,

So while I appreciate that my church makes room for patchwork, for doubt, for moving in and out, some days I think: Would that America’s Protestant mainline could produce an apostate. For one might say that a group that lacks the necessary preconditions for making apostates can’t make disciples either.

Now this is a fascinating angle to get at thinking about discipleship – a group isn’t really much good, or good for you spiritually unless it is demanding enough of you that you might leave (or even be pushed out).  So…is she on to something?  Or is she really romanticizing a certain “rugged” view of Christian community that in fact is coercive and harmful?  What do you think?

Flotsam and jetsam (2/8)

HT James McGrath

Motivation matters here. Yes, personal blogs may be a tool of self-promotion. That’s a given. But if the blogger is motivated solely by the desire to self-promote, then the blog is about building a readership for the blogger’s benefit rather than for the reader’s benefit.

For some, the term “apologetics” has taken on too many negative connotations to continue to be useful. They believe it is time to dispense with the term altogether. I am not convinced. Saving the term, however, is less important than revitalizing and re-contextualizing the concept. Christians need to continue to talk about the best way to communicate the heart of the gospel and the saving message of Christ in compelling and coherent ways. To that end, apologetics (or whatever one may call it) should be evangelistic, integrative, holistic, communal, and contextual.

Because we worship our way into sin, ultimately we need toworship our way out.

Wandering in the Wilderness: The Impossibility of Theological Education

[This is a slightly altered version of a devotional I recently presented at a dean’s conference (yes, there are conferences for deans) on why the task of raising future leaders for the church is impossible.]

Course evaluations can be fun to read. You probably don’t believe me, but it’s true. Every now and then, you run across a student with something particularly insightful to say. For example, I recently saw one that read something like, “This professor is brilliant. I’m just not sure what he’s talking about.”

Oops. Obviously, there’s a disconnect here between the brilliant insights of the professor and the practical issue of making sure people can actually do something with them.

The same thing can happen with our “core values” and “mission statements.” They sound good, but what exactly do they mean? For example, one of the core values of Western Seminary is “truth.” (I’m pretty sure that was put in there to distinguish us from all those other seminaries who are committed to “deceit.”) That’s nice, but what do you do with it? How does that guide the everyday life and behavior of the institution beyond a minimal commitment not to lie to our students—unless we can present it creatively enough to call it “marketing”.

Sometimes we find ourselves flying at 30,000 feet when the people and issues we’re trying to address are down at sea level.

There are times when I feel like Paul could use some help landing the plane too.

2 TIMOTHY 2:2

I have always loved 1 Timothy 2:2. It’s a classic verse for Christian ministry and a great description of what we’re trying to do as theological educators.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

What a fabulous verse with a clear principle for effective leadership development: pass along what you have received to others who will do the same. That’s great. But, how do you do this? How will you actualize this? What are your specific learning outcomes? Where’s your strategic plan?

If we continue for a bit in the passage, we’ll find that Paul really never answers these questions.

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. (vv. 3-6)

These are all terrific images for Christian ministry. I’ve used all of them in my teaching and preaching many times. But, when it comes to specifics, they’re still not very helpful. Doesn’t Paul have anything more to offer?

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (v. 7)

Gee, thanks. So now I’m either stupid because I haven’t bothered to think about what Paul was saying, or Jesus doesn’t like me and hasn’t given me understanding. Neither of these options is terribly encouraging.

Come on Paul. What’s the plan? Where’s the blueprint? How exactly do you do this thing we call “developing leaders”?

Instead of answering the question, we’re left with this grand vision of preparing the next generation for effectively leading God’s people with little in the way of specific guidance.

Thanks Paul.

OUR CHAOTIC CONTEXT

And, that becomes a real problem when you consider the chaotic context in which we find ourselves trying to carry out this tremendous responsibility.

Look at the challenges that seminaries face: limited finances, increased competition, contrary constituencies, nosy accreditation agencies, and governmental regulation, among other things. And, that’s not even counting issues that arise from our broader cultural context: new technologies, changing educational paradigms, increasingly diverse communities, decreasing biblical literacy for incoming students, and more.

It may just be me, but these all seem pretty daunting. Many times I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness of theological education. Paul has shown us the promised land—just entrust this message to godly men and women who will take up the mantle of leadership for the next generation. See, the promised land is right there. But I don’t know how to get there. For all my planning, plotting, striving, and strategizing, I still find myself wandering in the chaos and confusion of the wilderness.

I feel like one of the ten spies who have gone into the land and have come back saying that it can’t be done. The obstacles are too great. Go home.

THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE

And then I pause and consider what it must have been like for those who have gone before.

Consider poor Timothy as he reads these words. He’s in a hostile cultural context with no books, no schools, very little money, few churches, and leaders who are still fairly young spiritually themselves. What is he supposed to do with this?

Consider the early church it expanded into new worlds: Greece, Rome, Africa, Gaul, Asia. Imagine how they must have wrestled with what it takes to raise godly leaders in these new contexts with all of their cultural diversity, religious plurality, and philosophical complexity. How hard must that have been?

Consider the church of the Constantinian era as it struggled with training the next generation from a posture of relative affluence and influence, along with growing nominalism and institutionalism. Now how do you raise godly leaders?

Consider the medieval church as they tried to develop new institutional educational structures called “universities” to accomplish this daunting task of training new leaders. Imagine the uncertainty. Will this work? Or, will it just turn pastors into professors, leaders into lecturers?

I could go on. God’s people have always struggled with understanding precisely how to raise the next generation of leaders in the midst of many difficult and daunting circumstances.

And, none of them have gotten it “right.” Although every generation approached the task of leadership development differently, each produced more than its share of broken leaders who led broken churches in a broken world.

There’s a vision, but no blueprint. There’s a plan, but there are always problems.

Apparently the wilderness of theological education has been with us for a while now.

OUR IMPOSSIBLE TASK

So, my happy thought for today is:

1. We’ve been given a grand task with almost no instruction for how to carry it out.

2. Every prior generation found this task to be nearly impossible.

Thanks Paul. Don’t you have anything to offer that might be a little more helpful?

To be fair, I probably should have started in verse 1.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

Ah, there it is. That’s what my reflection has been missing. Grace.

For this to work, we need to realize that this story is not about us. If it was, this story would have ended a long time ago. Every generation of Christian leaders laments the difficulties of raising godly leaders in their context. And every generation is right. We’ve been given a seemingly impossible task with no blueprint for success.

And that’s okay because it’s not about us anyway.

We will never build perfect seminaries that produce perfect leaders to lead perfect churches. If that’s your promised land, I hope you enjoy wilderness.

That’s not what we’ve been called to do. Perfection is not our goal, faithfulness is. We will always build broken schools that produce broken people to lead broken churches. But, we serve a glorious God who will always be gracious to his people and faithful to his plans.

Our task may be impossible, but that’s not a problem for God.

This isn’t a call to quietism. The fact that we can’t be perfect doesn’t mean that we stop striving to be as creatively faithful as possible. Maybe Paul didn’t give us a blueprint because there isn’t one. Maybe each generation has to be willing to put its models of leadership development on the table and ask afresh if this is the best way to be faithful to the task in this time, with this people, facing these challenges.

Will we fail? Yes. At least, we will fail at being flawless. But, we need not fail at being faithful – if we can rest in the grace and goodness of God and remember that this is his church, these are his people, this is his story, and he will ensure that our efforts are not in vain.

In the face of our impossible task, Paul invites us to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

And, to that we can only say a humble “amen.”

Flotsam and jetsam (9/24)

Okay, I tried “Morning Links” for a while, but that’s just way too boring for me. Besides, Esteban has been riding my case, and I’m afraid he might turn violent if I don’t switch back soon. So, “Flotsam and Jetsam” it is.

Desiring the Kingdom 9 – concluding reflections

We’ve been discussing James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom for a while now, and I wanted to wrap everything up by offering some concluding reflections. Let me begin by saying that I thought this was an outstanding book that was well worth spending some extra time on. Here are some of the things that I appreciated in particular.

1. I loved his emphasis on embodied practice. Too much evangelical worship focuses on the “intellectual” and/or “spiritual” dimensions of the human person, with an almost total neglect of our physicality. What little we do get tends to be nothing more than you could hear from any non-Christian health expert (e.g. eating better and getting more exercise is good for you). Smith presses us to realize that what we do regularly with our bodies actually shapes and forms who we are as people. Our bodies matter.

2. Like the critique of worldview. Wonder if he hasn’t gone a little too far, but still very important.

3. I really enjoyed his discussion of cultural liturgies (e.g. the mall). I thought his discussion of the formative nature of such practices was much more insightful than the usual discussion on the “worldview” lying behind them. I find that many people seem to think that as long as you are aware of the underlying worldview, you don’t have to worry about participating in the practice. And, we are often too quick to suppose that we can “baptize” a cultural practice by infusing it with a Christian worldview and then participate in it without harmful effect. On both points, Smith’s argument suggests otherwise.

4. Along the same lines, I appreciated his view of Christian worship as “counter-formation.” He paid close attention to the ways in which the practice of Christian worship works (or should work) against prevailing cultural forces. And, as he points out, the formative nature of Christian worship practices has particular value for understanding how these practices shape the lives of those with limited cognitive ability (e.g. children).

5. Finally, I liked his argument that we can shape our hearts and desires through formative practices. I’ll raise a question about this in a second, but for now I’ll just say that I think one of the weaknesses of some Augustinian anthropologies is that they can leave you feeling like you have no say in what kind of person you will be. In these anthropologies, the heart is the basic force that drives human behavior, and it is fundamentally mysterious and uncontrollable. After all, how can you make yourself “want” or “love” something. Although this may be true with respect to some things (e.g. loving God), it is clearly not true with respect to others. As many marriage counselors will tell you, one great way to begin loving your spouse more is to start acting more lovingly toward your spouse. We are embodied beings, so what we do with our bodies does have an impact on how we think and feel.

Having reached the end of the book, I am still left with a few questions. 

1. What is the relationship between practice and cognition? Smith places almost his exclusive emphasis on the formative nature of practice. And, though I agree that practices can and should be formative, if we don’t emphasize the importance of reflective practice, I think we’re missing out one something. (I don’t think Smith would actually disagree with this; it’s not just a prominent part of the book.) I’m concerned that some might take these ideas and concludes that practices alone are sufficient. Instead, we should see them as fundamental, but recognize that something important is added when we are able to reflect on the significance and meaning of the practices (among other things) as well.

2. What is the relationship between practice and the empowering work of the Spirit? Will Willimon raises this concern in a Christian Century article, arguing that too strong an emphasis on human practices can lead us to “take control” of spiritual formation and worship, losing sight of God in the process. In other words, he seems concerned that an emphasis on practice will lead to a naturalizing of the Christian life. I think this is a legitimate concern and should serve as a warning against those who might press Smith’s arguments in a direction that he never intended (see Smith’s response to Willimon here). Nonetheless, we need to be careful about thinking that emphasizing the role of the human in spiritual formation necessarily excludes the role of the divine. Although I think Smith needs to do more work unpacking the relationship between these, as evidenced by the near lack of discussion about the role of the Spirit in formation, I don’t see anything in his approach that necessarily naturalizes spiritual formation.

3. Finally, and related to my first point, how do we reflect critically on our worship practices? Smith helpfully takes us through the different elements of his church’s worship life, showing how each serves to shape the human person toward being a lover of God’s kingdom. That’s nice, but what’s to prevent us from simply taking an aspect of the service and reading into it a formative significance that really isn’t there (or missing a negative formative influence that is there). I think a good example of this is his discussion of the practice of “greeting the person next to you.” He offers an interesting discussion of why he sees this as forming us for the kingdom, but wouldn’t it be just as easy to offer an interpretation that sees this practice as an expression of the shallow community so often on display in the evangelical church? By what criteria and through what process do we evaluate our worship practices? Unless we have some discussion of this, we run the risk of assuming (or worse, justifying) the rightness of our worship practices.

Nonetheless, as I indicated at the beginning of this post, Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is an excellent book for reflecting deeply on the nature of humanity, culture, the church, discipleship, and education, among other things.

Next week I will begin my long-awaited review of David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence.

Desiring the Kingdom 8

Moving into the final chapter of the book, James K. A. Smith deals with the question of what all of this emphasis on “liturgy” has to do with Christian education. He begins by continuing his critique of the traditional “worldview” approach to education. He sees this as trying “to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy League and state universities do, but who do them ‘from a Christian perspective’, and perhaps with the goal of transforming culture or redeeming society” (218).  But, he thinks that this approach leaves their desires untouched. ” So, he asks, “Could it be the case that…while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?” (218).

Instead of this “domestication of Christianity” (220) that does little to disrupt or transform our way of being in the world, he argues that Christian education should have the same goal as Christian worship: “to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being god’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor” (220). Thus, Christian education needs to be seen as “extensions of the mission of the church.”

He then walks through three specific practices that he thinks would help make this happen. First, we need to reconnect “Church, Chapel, and Classroom.” Tapping into his argument that we are shaped by liturgical practices, he sees the chapel as an excellent way to connect the practices of the church with the everyday world of the university, so that Christian teaching is formed by “a Christian social imaginary” (225).

Second, we need to reconnect “Classroom, Dorm Room, and Neighborhood” as providing the proper environment for learning. He argues that residential universities provide unique opportunities for creating “intentional communities” shaped by “full-bodied Christian practices,” which could then be extended into the surrounding community. In this way, what is learned in the classroom stays vitally connected to the lived practices of people in community.

Third, we need to reconnect body and mind. He doesn’t comment on this one very much because it’s really been the argument of the whole book. We don’t learn as disembodied minds, but as embodied persons. A truly Christian education should be shaped by this anthropology.

When self-control just isn’t enough

“I’ve just started reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Toward the beginning of the book, they use the analogy of a man riding an elephant to explain human behavior. The man represents our more rational side and the elephant our passionate, emotional side. They go on to explain:

 Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmached.

This is actually a bit overstated because the authors go on to argue that if the Rider pulls on the reins hard enough, he can get the Elephant to change directions temporarily. But, eventually the Rider will grow tired and the Elephant will go its own way. In other words, we can rationally conclude that X is in our best interests, and exert significant will power to achieve X, but if our passions and emotions really want Y, we’re in trouble. If you’re riding on an Elephant that’s going the wrong way, the solution is not a stronger Rider. The solution is convincing the Elephant that it really wants to go the other way.

What I found particularly interesting about this analogy was the way that they applied it to the use of self-discipline. They pointed to a study that placed two groups of college students in two different rooms, who were told that the researchers were studying “taste.” In each room they placed  a tray of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of radishes.  One group of students was told to eat several cookies and no radishes; the other group was told to eat several radishes but no cookies. Despite the temptation, and probably because they knew the researchers were watching, the second group resisted the temptation to eat any of the cookies. After a while, the students were informed that the study was done, but they were now invited to participate in another, “unrelated” study. The students were given a puzzle that was impossible to solve. The researchers then counted how many attempts each student made before giving up. The chocolate chip cookie group made an average of 34 attempts (19 minutes) before giving up. The radish group, on the other hand, gave up after only 19 attempts (8 minutes).

Why did they quite so easily? The answer may surprise you: They ran out of self-control. In studies like this one, psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource….The radish-eaters had drained their self-control by resisting the cookies. So when their Elephants, inevitably, started complaining about the puzzle task – it’s too hard, it’s no fun, we’re no good at this – their Riders didn’t have enough strength to yank on the reins for more than eight minutes. Meanwhile, the cookie-eaters had a fresh, untaxed Rider, who fought off the Elephant for nineteen minutes.

So, when we exhort people to change through appeals to their self-discipline, we are actually encouraging them down a road that leads inevitably to exhaustion, frustration, and failure. Instead, they argue that the real path to meaningful change requires educating the rider and motivating the elephant.

This has interesting parallels to the argument that we’ve been following in James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. Although Smith uses very different language, he is also arguing that the elephant runs the show more than we like to belive. So, instead of focusing all our efforts on educating the rider, we need to train the elephant. And, how do we do that? Liturgies, of course. You train your elephant – your passionate, affective, desiring, side – through regular, formative practices that shape your desires toward good ends.

Right now my elephant is telling me to get some ice cream. I’d resist, but I did that earlier today when my elephant wanted another piece of cake. Clearly my self-control is worn out after all of that elephant-wrestling. So, it’s really out of my hands.

Discussion on the use of the languages in preaching

Bill Mounce liked the discussion that we had earlier on “Biblical Languages in Life and Ministry,” so he reposted it on his Mondays with Mounce blog at koinoniablog.net. Feel free to join in the discussion. There are already a number of good comments worth checking out.