Evangelism in the 21st Century is intriguing subject. In a society so often at odds with Christianity - for a whole host of reasons - how can and should we envision this “sharing of the good news” so implicit to Christianity?

In this age of expertise there is a tendency to seek just the right techniques or strategies in an effort to “maximize the return” on our evangelistic efforts. Thus for many people, evangelism often elicits a negative image or idea encountered or participated in (e.g. door-to-door ministry or sharing your “testimony” with a stranger). These stereotypes, however, are part of what makes it hard to envision evangelism in our time. Stuck with stereotypes, evangelism can seem anything but sharing good news.

I’m convinced that the “how-to” of evangelism can’t be about technique or expertise. Evangelism is the creative process of God’s people living out the good news in concrete ways - loving God and neighbor in whatever time, whatever country, whatever way. Which is why a recent look at stories of evangelism in history has given me hope - good news comes in many forms through many people. Take a look:

Polycarp of Smyrna - evangelism unto death: He led a church under the persecution of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. Facing martyrdom, he asserted: “80 and 6 years have I served him, and he never did me wrong; and how can I now blaspheme my King that has saved me?”

Saint Francis of Assisi - evangelism in all of life:
Simplicity and devotion were his good news to others. He was even known to preach to animals!

“Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words” (attributed to Saint Francis)

Dirk Willems - evangelism by love of enemy:
Fleeing his persecutors across frozen water, he turned around to help a soldier drowning in the frigid waters. He was arrested and shortly after executed for not renouncing his Anabaptist Christian faith.

Nikolaus von Zinzendorf - evangelism in joy:
He emphasized the joy of the Lord in the all of life. He displayed a zealous, if not naive, optimism in dreaming as a boy that the ‘pagans’ wouldn’t all convert before he got a chance to convert the rest. “My joy until I die...is the win souls for the lamb.”

John and Charles Wesley - evangelism as marathon:
I’m not a fan of statistics evaluating faithfulness, but these at least reflect an immense commitment and effort in sharing their faith: John - 250,000 miles (most on horseback), 40,000 sermons, 200 written works; Charles - 8989 hymns.

William Wilberforce - evangelism as justice:
His faith led him to work tirelessly in the British parliament towards the abolition of slavery. “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

These stories should be our evangelism handbook - a testimony of the saints through ages seeking to share of the good news of Jesus for their time and for their place. As Jesus would say, “go and do likewise.”

"let's give them cookies"

I consider peace and nonviolence a central part of what it means to follow the way of Jesus. I don’t hold this belief lightly and realize how complex it can be (ignorant to some) to maintain such a position in such a violent world. It’s hard to live nonviolently. Just ask my 3-year-old son.

It was storytime last week and my son picked a bible storybook - the Easter story. We got to the part where there were soldiers guarding the tomb and he asked where Jesus went. He was genuinely concerned. “Where’s Jesus?” I told him not worry, Jesus was coming back (I’m such a pastor, I know!). This was his immediate response:

“And I’m gonna fight the soldiers!”

What!?! So much for a teachable moment on eschatological hope!

It seems whatever the age, nonviolence is not natural.

“Now what?” I thought.

Thinking on my feet as any good pastor should do in a theological emergency I brought us back to an earlier part of the story. “I think Jesus would rather we washed their feet” I suggested.


“That’s what Jesus would want us to do.”

That was enough for him. He got excited. He liked my idea! Phew... I’d quelled the violent tendencies of my 3-year-old. “I showed him nonviolence!” was my mental pat on the back.

“Goodnight son” (more mental pats on the back).

Not so fast.

“Let’s give them cookies too, Dad.”

“Um, yeah, of course.”

Of course.

My moral superiority met genuine generosity. Roles reversed. I wanted to be a good dad, to limit my son’s violence. My son wanted to be a good person, to expand his generosity.

At their innocent best, kids don’t easily draw lines or limit their generosity (unless toys are involved). If we’re going to wash their feet (i.e. “love our enemies”), well, obviously we’ll give them cookies. In my son’s mind, loving the bad people shouldn't have limits.

How true.

There shouldn’t be limits to loving with peace and nonviolence. It’s a whole way of life as we live and relate to a violent world. Peace, after all, is giving them cookies too!

mainstream Anabaptism is an oxymoron

In my previous post, responding to The Naked Anabaptist, I asked this question: what to do when a fringe movement becomes mainstream and relevant - when its' “time has come” as seems to be the case for Anabaptism?

As I continue through the book Murray hasn’t explicitly answered my query. But as I reflect on his proposal of popular Anabaptism today, a thought came out of his discussion of post-Christendom that addresses my question above (ch. 4 - "After Christendom").

You see, my question above assumes that popularity will change Anabaptism as it evolves into more prominent forms of organization and authority (e.g. Mennonite World Conference or the Anabaptist Network). Basically, fame comes with a cost - Anabaptism will change.

But there's a problem with my line of thinking. The question assumes categories incongruent with the Anabaptism Murray describes. The assumptions that popularity and growth must be managed and organized assumes that Christian faithfulness in the world be achieved ourselves - achieved if we only try a little harder, or exert our influence a little more. This type of language, however, represents the Christendom (Christian culture) model that Anabaptism has so ardently opposed in its 500 year history. It’s hard to apply the language of the majority to a minority. Never having been the majority Anabaptism (in theory) doesn’t have this default desire to maximize popularity or ascend the ladder of cultural influence. In a sense, Anabaptism, even if gaining popularity, will never be “popular.” Or at least it shouldn’t be.

I see Murray’s emphasis on the shift “from control to witness” as one reason Anabaptism can avoid the pitfalls associated with being mainstream. In leadership speak, control involves strategies that maximize effectiveness. With this mindset churches compete for the market share so to speak (i.e. people’s allegiance). Witness, however, has a different vocabulary and basis - and thus a different approach altogether. Murray comments that “Anabaptism, at its best, offers a model of peaceful witness that integrates words and deeds, personal and communal testimony, listening and speaking.” Instead of strategies for faithfulness the focus is on stories of faithfulness - the ongoing act of the church “witnessing to our story and its implications” in the world we find ourselves.

These are just some musings - I still have some reading to do. But essentially this is what I’m considering: mainstream Anabaptism is an oxymoron.

Next question on my radar is this: is the language of "witness" just semantics, or does the church's role in the world significantly change once we accept our role as witnesses in our post-Christian reality?

Mainstream Anabaptism

I’m finally reading Stuart Murray’s Naked Anabaptist. It’s a great little book giving an overview of the “bare essentials of a Radical faith,” as the subtitle suggests.

In a world increasingly at odds with organized religion and in a time of waning Christian influence in Western culture, Anabaptism is gaining popularity in many places. To quote Gregory Boyd’s forward,
While the mainstream church has, to a significant degree, unwittingly absorbed the values of intense individualism, consumerism, and materialism, more and more post-Christendom disciples in the West are becoming convinced that these values are at odds with everything Jesus was about. They are realizing that we are called to live in community with others, to live simply, humbly, and justly, and to share our lives and our resources with one another an with all who are in need.
At it’s core, Murray presents Anabaptism as a history and tradition of people - oftentimes struggling on the fringes of society and culture - committed to follow in the way of Jesus, not just believe in him. Part of the attraction, Murray suggests, is that Anabaptism cannot be represented by one organization, church, or denomination. It’s diverse in expression, yet united in values. He ponders:
Why are Anglicans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and others interested in the Anabaptist tradition? Most are not searching for a new denomination to join or looking for a way to leave their own. They are seeking inspiration, resources, and fresh perspectives to enrich and enhance their own lives, local church, or denomination, and tehy suspect that the Anabaptist tradition might have something to offer. Because Anabaptism is a tradition rather than a denomination, [people] can explore it without feeling disloyal to their own community.
By appealing to a tradition - stories of faithfulness - Anabaptism can offer an alternative to the church shopping mentality seen in church and theology, where success comes through competition and relevance usually wins the day. Anabaptism, in this regard, holds values all can learn from.

The challenge, which I hope Murray addresses, is what to do when a fringe movement becomes mainstream and relevant - when its' “time has come” as seems to be the case for Anabaptism? And Murray realizes a generalized Anabaptism can lose some of its force if only an "idealistic or disembodied" vision. Mainstream Anabaptism faces some obstacles, no doubt.

I look forward to reading more.

"I will remember"

Starting a new year always brings reflection and anticipation, memory and foresight. Here in mid-January, as the buzz of New Years’ resolutions quiets (or disappears altogether!), the year ahead can seem daunting, a blend of uncertainty and excitement.

Looking ahead to a new year can be one of those things that keeps us up at night - job, relationships, money, contentment (or lack thereof) burdens our already busy and wearied selves.

And this is okay. Or, at least it’s important to honestly face.

Psalm 77 speaks of this restlessness:

“I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted” (vv. 1-2)

Restlessness can and should direct our relationship with God. In the Bible, worship is honest whatever the situation. So it should be for us.

Perhaps you need to ask, then, what’s daunting in the year ahead? (i.e. what keeps you up at night?)

But lest we get stuck in despair, like the Psalmist we need to think beyond the stress and uncertainty even in the midst of it. We need to remember the bigger picture of our lives.

“I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds” (vv. 11-12).

So easily we forget the past. We forget the stories of God’s faithfulness, where uncertainty switched to clarity beyond anything we could have imagined. Sickness gone. A relationship restored. A new job. In these past times we remember how God’s presence was tangible - thankfulness came easy, natural. Such remembering can bring hope to an uncertain future.

We need to remember. A good memory helps us move forward.

So, consider this January - with a full year in view - what do you need to remember?

Yes, I’m blogging about Tim Tebow

Football fan or not, you’ve likely heard of Denver Bronco's quarterback Tim Tebow in recent months. If not, well, you probably have this week!

Tebow, outspoken about his Christian faith, has endured criticism for being too outspoken about his beliefs. Add to that one of the worst seasons for a quarterback in NFL history and it’s no wonder many people remain miffed at the attention Tebow gets. He’s got two things going against him: public faith and mediocre ability (supposedly).

But there is one thing in sports culture that cuts through religion and athletic ability: winning!

Again and again, Tebow has proved he’s a winner. And so he won’t go away.

Usually, in the face of such winning, criticism would fade away. Not so for Tebow.

You see, there is the suggestion that Tebow gets his success directly from God - for some serious, for others a joke. Kneeling to pray at every opportunity, wearing “3:16” eye strips, and “thanking the Lord” in every interview can leave the impression that Tebow’s thinks his religion leads to his victory. In a culture as secular as ours, it’s not surprising people find this ridiculous. I know I do. We all know God doesn’t have have a favorite team.

But after this past Sunday’s game, the Tebow saga has become almost comical. Tebow threw for 316 yards and a 31.6 yard average in Sunday’s dramatic victory. It’s like God is gloating! Maybe Tebow is God’s quarterback! (just google “Tebow god” to see what I mean for this line of thinking). I find it all quite amusing to watch how people react.

But cut through the polarizing hype and there is a lesson here.

First, we need to concede that Tim Tebow is God’s quarterback. But then, so is Ben Roethlisberger. And Tom Brady. And Drew Brees. And the back-up no one knows. Before Tebow’s favorite verse says “whoever believes in him” it says “for God so loved the world" (Jn 3:16). Christians, and perhaps even Tebow himself, revel in the fact they are the “whoever” - they are “in” with God. But such a view, far from the interests of NFL football, skips the most important part: God loves all.

But that’s not controversial. That’s not newsworthy. That’s maybe even offensive to some who prefer Tebow’s public displays of piety over the struggles of someone like Ben Roethlisberger. I mean, really, how do we pick sides if God loves everyone? Who’s the hero? We want winners and losers. Sports gives us that. And for many, religion does to. Doesn't God want winners?

But God plays by different rules. Winning isn’t a competition, but a gift - a gift of love for all. And we don’t accept this gift - become part of the “whoever believes” - because we are winners, or spiritually mature, or a limited group of special recipients of God’s favor. That just makes choosing God a competition. Faith isn’t football. No, accepting God’s love means realizing love is at the core of being human - to love and be loved in all we do. We can't compete for such love. No, with the gift of God's love, we can all be winners, Tim Tebow and all.

new years presence

Okay, now Christmas is over.

Officially, Christmas ends with Epiphany, a celebration marking the journey to worship of the Magi - a story paralleled by the violence and control of Herod.

These stories illustrate how varied our response can be to the Christmas reality of God in our midst - and how challenging it is to integrate the awe and wonder of the Nativity into a new year.

Really, the account of the Magi and Herod is a story of dichotomies.

While they both have the same initial experience – hearing the news of Jesus’ birth and going about searching for the baby - Herod and the Magi both have very different responses.

Herod is scared. Closed-fisted as he grasps to maintain control of his position, doing whatever it takes eliminate any threat to his power. His response to Jesus is one of fear and distance.

How different from the Magi!

The Magi display an openness in their journey of discovery - a journey of giving and receiving. They travel miles and miles, not for themselves, but to pay homage to a king - to worship. It’s not about them. Their response to Jesus is one of journey and welcoming presence.

The week of Christmas, the Magi are inspirational - we are on holidays and such actions are befitting of holiday life. But with a new year - and holidays over - comes new challenges. How quickly we find ourselves more in the shadow of Herod’s grasping than the light of the Magi’s worship. Uncertainties produce fear which produces a desire for control and distance. We feel the pressure to “keep it together.”

This dichotomy in the story of Herod and the Magi has led me to ask several questions relevant to a new year. I hope we can all accept the journey of the Magi as our own. Consider for 2012:
  • What would it look like to adopt a posture of openness in relationship to God and others, even amidst fear or uncertainty?
  • Where, when you are tempted to eliminate whatever danger or uncertainty you might face, do you need to worship instead of control, to pray instead of fight?
  • Where on your journey can you seek presence with God and presence with others instead of distancing yourself when difficulties come your way?
May 2012 bring New Years' Presence!

still christmas

For the second year now I’ve hung the Christian Seasons Calendar on my office wall. In case you don’t know, the calendar follows the church liturgical calendar, not the typical 12-month dating system. For example, here’s the current page:

While at times confusing in the weekly life of church ministry (I’ve gotten more than a few confused looks as people try to locate a date), I’ve found the calendar to be a helpful reminder in prioritizing what directs my life - not my schedule!

And in the a time when many are looking back at 2011 and looking forward to 2012, my calendar tells me it’s still Christmas (until the 5th anyway). The story goes on.

Upon entering a new year - re-entering the life of routine that January often brings - it’s amazing how quickly the Christmas story fades away. The wonder and mystery of “God with us” gives way to meetings, work, preschool, swimming lessons, exercise (I hope!), NFL playoffs, rain (or snow), and on and on and on...

Each January I find myself looking back at Christmas and thinking, “whoa, that was a blur.” It’s a good blur, don’t get me wrong. I love the celebration with family and church. But my memory of the week is a sort of hazy jumble of one event after another. Christmas, I tend to think, is over. It was last week. Now it's a new year.

But my calendar says Christmas isn't over.

Thank goodness!

What was marked by our celebration last week is not limited to last week. Again, the story goes on. And it should. Perhaps like Simeon and Anna in the weeks following Jesus’ birth, the reality of Christmas doesn’t meet us at the moment marking Jesus’ birth. If we're honest, this is probably true for many. We are still waiting for “God with us.” We still need Christmas.

In fact, once January settles in, we likely need Christmas more than ever. Behind the January routine lies deep longing and expectation that the feelings of Christmas could extend beyond last week. We want wonder and mystery, peace and goodwill, all the time. We need a Simeon-like encounter where we can see God’s salvation in our midst (Lk. 2:30) even in the most unexpected moments of the grey winter months. Here, early in 2012, we need to remember: Christmas isn’t over.

This January, then, may we join Anna and give thanks to God (Lk. 2:38)! It's still Christmas after all.

Merry Christmas!