Black Friday is...

Honest questions: how can or should Christians understand and approach Black Friday (or Canada’s corresponding Boxing Day/Week)? How do these mass movements of (excessive) consumption relate to biblical teaching on justice and stewardship?

I see a few common options (all of which have biblical support of some sort):

Black Friday is…
  • a chance to make frugal/wise use of our money - saving is good, right!?!
  • not related to faith and spirituality whatsoever.
  • okay as long we’re not greedy.
  • should be avoided altogether (even if we then buy the same products another time, perhaps at another sale).
  • okay as long as we give on Tuesday as a way to assuage the guilt of overspending on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
  • should lead us to speak out against economic injustice and inequality.
I'll admit, I don’t have a clear sense of how to respond to cultural events such as Black Friday. I lean towards not being greedy and speaking out when possible (hence this blog post!). But saving money is good thing, right? But is it the only thing? Maybe another question is to ask what are we saving money on? Are we buying into (literally) an unjust economic system of excess that is contrary to the way of Jesus? Stewardship, then, isn’t just about saving money, but having a posture of trust in God and care and concern for others, themes emphasized consistently throughout scripture (e.g. Micah 6:8; Isaiah 58:6-12; Mt. 6:19-34; Mt. 19:16-22).

I’ll conclude with a thought-provoking (and convicting) quote from the book Kingdom Ethics (while written in an American context, the ideas apply far beyond the U.S):

“Christians living in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, the powerhouse of global capitalism, are daily subjected to the most sophisticated enticements ever devised--enticements not just to buy certain products but to buy into a certain way of looking at and living life. It is a way of life that ascribes inordinate value to the acquisition of material goods and indeed thrives based on the creation of new ‘needs’ and then cut-throat competition to fulfill those ‘needs.’ If Christian ethics is following Jesus, it must involve a clear-eyed analysis and finally repudiation of an economic ethos that ratifies the ‘deceitfulness of wealth’ and makes Mammon a national idol.

This is no mere theoretical preference. As I write I think of lives ruined by this ethos: those who deteriorate into essentially soul-less creatures pursuing the latest goodies with zombie-like intensity; those who have no access to adequate work and no way of provide for their families; those around the world who live in squalor and misery; those whose lives could be turned around by a small commitment on the part of unhappily prosperous people who will never pause from their quest for the latest redemptive gadget to consider the needs of the least of these. This latter is a condition that has been called ‘affluence,’ and according to Jesus, it is terminal.”
Glas Stassen and David P. Gushie, Kingdom Ethics

Theology Through the Arts
Anneke Kai - "Psalm 24"
Art and theology have an interesting and interconnected history. Visual arts, for example, has interacted with faith and theology in many ways over the centuries. From ancient depictions of various gods, to the Renaissance portrayals of the biblical narrative, to devotional art of the greeting-card variety, to the mystery of the divine in modern abstract paintings, we see that theology and the arts go together.

Part of the interplay between theology and the arts is how we understand the relationship between the two. Jeremy Begbie, professionally trained musician and theologian at Duke Divinity School, reflects on two common ways we can articulate the connection between the two (see video below for more):

One approach utilizes theology for the arts. We understand art in light of a Christian worldview. An example of this would be the website Plugged In, which examines types of art in popular culture from a specific Christian and biblical perspective. Theology informs how we interpret the arts. Art is deemed good or bad depending on how it lines up with biblical teaching. 

Another approach utilizes the arts for theology, a perhaps subtle, yet important switch from the previous approach. Here Begbie describes how the arts can help us "unlock the great Christian truths." Good art points beyond itself as a symbol of truth and reality. In this sense, the arts become "vehicles of discovery" as we understand more about how God is present in the world. The arts inform how we interpret theology.

Begbie's work reflects this latter approach, what he calls "theology through the arts." His books Sounding the Depths and Beholding the Glory are great resources that reflect deeply on this dynamic. The arts aren't  mere tools or simple illustrations used to serve theology. Rather, the arts in all their beauty, honesty, and wonder, are integral sources and inspiration to see the beauty of incarnation ("God with us") in our midst.

Deep Justice

One of the biggest challenges to addressing social issues in our culture is what I’ll call the “pat on the back” mentality - the tendency to offer charity and handouts that meet someone’s immediate needs, but are as much about our own desire to feel good about ourselves then it is about genuinely helping others.

Giving money to a homeless person; volunteering at the food bank; sponsoring an impoverished child - all great things! - become a matter of checking off the “loving my neighbor” box of Christian faithfulness. The result is a segmented life where loving others is only something we do occasionally instead of an overall posture to life in the world. I think it’s clear that we need more.

In her book, Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, Mae Elise Cannon cites this helpful distinction between service and justice.

Not-So-Deep Service
Deep Justice
  • Service makes us feel like a ‘savior’ who rescues the broken.
  • Justice means God does the rescuing, but often he works through his great and diverse community.
  • Service often dehumanizes (even if only subtly) those who are labeled as receivers.
  • Justice restores human dignity by creating an inclusive environment which all involved ‘give’ and ‘receive’ in the spirit of reciprocal learning and mutual ministry.
  • Service is something we do for others.
  • Justice is something we do with others.
  • Service is an event.
  • Justice is a lifestyle.
  • Service expects results immediately.
  • Justice hopes for results some time soon but recognizes that systemic change takes time.
  • The goal of service is to help others.
  • The goal of justice is to remove obstacles so others can help themselves.
  • Service focuses on what our own ministry can accomplish.
  • Justice focuses on how we can work with other ministries and accomplish even more.
  • Service is serving food at the local homeless shelter.
  • Justice means asking why people are hungry and homeless in the first place – and then doing something about it.

Missional Megachurch?

I've spent a fair bit of time (on this blog and elsewhere) reflecting on the concept of the missional church. A common theme in the discussion is contextualized ministry - engaging the specific needs and issues of a particular place. As a result of contextualized ministry, there is great diversity in what being missional looks like. House churches, church plants, multi-site campuses, traditional, liturgical, denominational, and nondenominational can all be successful contexts for missional identity. It’s the missional paradigm that counts, whatever the context.

Yet quite often in the missional discussion, megachurches (weekly attendance of over 2000) are left out. In fact, megachurches can easily become the prime examples for everything missional churches are not. It's assumed that all megachurches emphasize only attractional outreach (programs inviting people to the church building) and operate largely to sustain themselves as an organization. Stereotypes abound. Unfortunately, such stereotypes can fail to notice megachurches that do work towards adopting the missional paradigm.
This week I took my class for a tour of Northview Community Church (Abbotsford, BC). While there is no shortage of common megachurch characteristics (e.g. dynamic preaching ministry, excellent children's programs, and a state-of-the-art facility), being a megachurch doesn't disqualify them from being missional. It's quite the opposite. Are there still challenges to being missional and a megachurch? No doubt! But for Northview, embedded in the general megachurch ministries is a deep engagement with contextualized ministry. For example:
  • They acknowledge the challenges of their location at the edge of town, focusing on relational connection into congregants' neighborhoods.
  • They have a ministry for families with special needs children which allows families to engage in worship together as a family (as opposed to one parent staying home).
  • They have an open-concept office space where everyone shares the same space (including the lead pastor) as a way to symbolize their unity and maximize collaboration across departments and roles.
  • They partner with several organizations in Abbotsford to help meet needs of the community.
  • They are exploring ways to serve the community with their property.
  • Their primary evangelism strategy is relational, where all people in the church are encouraged and equipped to share Jesus within their spheres of influence.
There are still challenges to being a missional megachurch. But there are challenges towards being missional for all forms of church, from house church to megachurch. But as Northview illustrates, challenges shouldn't disqualify any one form from the missional discussion.

Related: "The Missional Megachurch" by Ed Stetzer

Finding Resurrection

At the recent Survival of the Weakest Conference, Shane Claiborne pointed us to imagine signs of resurrection in daily life as illustrated by The Simple Way’s inspiring project of turning guns into garden tools. To see redemption in such a practical symbol moved us as a group. In fact, as we arrived in downtown Seattle we decided to spend some time observing the city through the lens of Claiborne’s phrase, “signs of resurrection.” We wandered the streets observing and taking pictures that pointed to life, to resurrection. It was beautiful to find so much life amidst the bustle and buildings of downtown. These are just a few examples of where we saw signs of resurrection:

Recycled seats
Piano on the sidewalk
The famous gum wall

Bird watching and paying attention to God

Bird watchers see birds everywhere. And not just birds in general, but they see the various species in a way that the untrained eye doesn’t notice. Becoming attuned to such detail is a skill developed over hours and hours of diligent observation and study.

In Praxis, we’ve been focusing on learning to pay attention, learning to see the world around us with all its intricacies, absurdities, and wonder. During our tour of Seattle I asked Tim Soerens, co-founder of Parish Collective, if there is something in terms of faith and life he wished he had known earlier in life (yes, typical teacher question, I know :-). He shared about a friend who is a bird watcher, and then connected it with faith. For all our attempts to serve God faithfully we can forget to attune ourselves - to pay attention - to what’s happening around us. And like bird watching, this takes time and practice. Too often we dream big for God in the world, when what we really need are the eyes to see God’s dream for the world around us.

Property in process at Emerald City Bible Fellowship
Tim took us to the Rainier neighborhood of Seattle, telling the story of Emerald City Bible Fellowship. Today they are an inspiring example of faithful presence in a community, partnering to build an affordable housing complex, running a health club in one Seattle most overweight neighborhoods, and utilizing space to foster creativity and the arts in local youth. But the story really began over 20 years ago, where for years they persisted in their life together as a church. Their current achievements are no result of a flashy community development project or hyped-up vision, but the sustained discernment of people seeking the good of their neighborhood. The church has patiently sought to discern God’s dream for the community, seeking ways to be a part of that dream. Tangible results haven’t always been clear. Obstacles have been clear. All this to say, paying attention to God’s dream takes time. Paying attention takes patience. But ask this church and they’d say paying attention is an essential practice. 

A bird watcher can’t see a bird without knowing birds. A church can’t serve a neighborhood without knowing a neighborhood. We can’t see God without paying attention to God’s dream for the world.

Peace: "relationships"

With Remembrance Day and Veterans Day happening this week, as well as MCC’s Peace Sunday, I’ve been reflecting on peace. Oftentimes peace has remained an idea for me, as violence has had little impact in my life personally. In this sense, peace is a good idea, but an impersonal one. Reflection is the only peace I know.

This week I had the opportunity to meet Molanda Jimmy Juma as he’s been on a speaking tour in Canada with Mennonite Central Committee. Peace is anything but an idea for Jimmy. He grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and now teaches and works in the area of peacebuilding in South Africa and the surrounding region. Yet peace is not his story. His past is full of heartbreak and violence, where at one point his village saw 1000 people massacred in two days. If anyone is justified for rage and violence, it’s Jimmy. 

Yet he seeks peace in all he does. He shared his story with a gentle clarity - not weakness, but assurance in something beyond the cycle of vicious violence so characteristic of African life. Where I would be personally affronted, he forges ahead in the way of peace. Hearing him I was perplexed. Why peace, I wondered?

So I asked him.

And as I anticipated some spiritual wisdom or complex description of sustainable peacebuilding, Jimmy had one word for me: “relationships.” As he personally connects with individuals, knowing the burden of brokenness and violence, peace is found. Peace is personal. And no, this does not peace is easy or always achieved. Jimmy was honest to relate how reconciliation is hard work, at times feeling like one is “sewing on stones.”

Any progress towards a hope of peace comes through sustaining relationships. It’s villagers who commit to joining peace clubs. Enemies who meet face to face to share their stories. Friends who stand up to injustice and march boldly unarmed towards perpetrators of violence (something Jimmy has done often). Such peace is no mere idea, but a peace sustained through connecting people, the ministry of reconciliation at work in our world, one relationship at a time.

Peace Sunday: "Peacemakers wherever you are"

Today is Peace Sunday, commemorated by peace church around the world as a witness to the way of peace in a world of violence.

Read some other posts on peace and remembrance:

From House-church to Megachurch

There were a few questions that guided our weekend in Victoria and Seattle:
  • What is church in a city?
  • And what does church/community look like in a city?

Pangea Communities
We experienced diverse expressions of Christian community. From house-church to megachurch, we saw no shortage of variety in the body of Christ.

Saturday evening was spent with a house-church movement called Pangea Communities in which we experienced a dinner and communion service - a sort-of hybrid of their typical gatherings. Warm hospitality and connection was coupled with a new experience for all of us: “Anabaptist Liturgical Charismatic worship” (as described by leader Kurt Willems). It was rich.

Mars Hill Church Downtown
Sunday was met with sunshine and more diversity of Christian community. In the morning we attended Mars Hill Church Downtown, a campus of the famed megachurch led by Mark Driscoll (who preached live at the service we attended). I was grateful he didn’t talk about pacifism (!!!) Students were actively processing the contrast of the mega church service with the house-church experience of the night before. We had (and continue to have!) lively discussion on this topic. Sunday afternoon we wrapped up our trip with a neighborhood tour with Tim Soerens of Parish Collective, an organization focused on networking and training Christians who are engaging their local neighborhoods. Here we encountered the diversity of Seattle’s neighborhoods, discussing a range of issues from gentrification, affordable housing, youth ministry, and multicultural church. It was primarily a time of hearing stories of God’s people asking the question, “What’s God’s dream for our neighborhood?” It was stimulating to say the least.

All of these churches emphasized community and relationships as integral to faith and following Jesus. From sharing a meal, to strongly emphasizing home group ministry, to church-run community centers, it was clear that following Jesus was more than just about “me.” It was interesting, however, to observe how and where community fit into each particular expression of church. As a house church, everything Pangea Communities does flows from relationship together as sisters and brothers in Christ, to the point of where any language spoken in the group is intentionally corporate (e.g. “I” is changed to “we” in familiar songs). For Mars Hill Church, preaching and singing focus on the profound meaning of personal faith and life in Christ, with the value on community mentioned in announcements following the service. 

It was clear that both groups firmly believe community is important for Christians. Community is a gospel truth in this sense. But how we emphasize community will invariably influence how we practice it. The medium (i.e. how community is presented) is the message. In a house church gathering, the very practices of eating together and having open discussion reflect a centrality of faith and community. In a megachurch gathering, a format of teaching and singing that aims at developing a vibrant personal faith has community as an extension of such faith.This isn't a right or wrong issue. But it is different. 

Overall, I appreciate the diversity of church, and enjoyed experiencing this variety on our trip. But I’m left wondering: does how we talk about and experience community - this “medium” for faith - impact the depth of our fellowship together? (cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Jn 1:1-4). From house-church to megachurch alike, such a question is essential in seeking a deep faith and life together.

Overcoming One-Sided Christianity

As I anticipated, this past weekend was indeed full. And good. There is much to process and reflect on what we heard and experienced. And so I begin...

Ron Sider is a legend of sorts for social-minded evangelicals. His book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was first published in 1977 and has sold over 350,000 copies. He’s also the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. So hear him speak in person was a privilege, as his story and message is one that’s proven in a variety times and places.

Sider addressed how in an age of polarized Christianity, particularly among evangelicals, there is a constant tendency to emphasize evangelism (word) and social justice (deed) over against one another. Addressing this dichotomy, one word stuck out to me from Sider’s presentation: “Both.”

Profound, I know!

Sider doesn’t suggest we order or prioritize, or somehow better understand the particular dynamics of how word and deed relate. Going beyond nuance, he asserts plainly that we need both. “People need Jesus and a job” Sider quipped. Not one then/or the other. Both.

In the process, Sider doesn't avoid important topics often used to affirm these typically polarized ideas. Sin, humanity, salvation, and the gospel need to be addressed. Sin is both personal and social. People are both individual and community. The gospel - the good news of Jesus - doesn’t polarize but reveals the fullness of God’s kingdom in a world and in our lives in which Jesus is Lord. The gospel is about transformative salvation of whole persons achieved in the cross and resurrection. 

If we accept polarizations, Sider may sound too socially minded to some and too Christ-centered to others. But by saying we get both word and deed in the gospel, polarization is no longer an option. How do you polarize “both”?