Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

A Modern-day Parable for the Church

There was an ambitious businessman in a certain city who had built a huge grease factory. People from all over the world came to view this factory once it was completed and in full production and the ambitious businessman was only too pleased to show the visitors the entire process, from the point where coal was offloaded from ships to the point where the grease was eventually pumped into huge tanks.
One day a visitor arrived and asked whether he could be taken on a guided tour through the factory. The owner of the factory escorted the visitor to the outside of the factory where coal from a ship was being offloaded, making use of enormous machines. The coal was then placed onto conveyor belts running on thousands of rollers. From there the coal was dropped into a mill where the large pieces of coal was broken up into smaller pieces. From there the coal ran on lengthy conveyor belts, once again supported by thousands of rollers to the next process and from there to the next and then to the next. The visitor marveled at the conveyor belts crisscrossing throughout the factory with millions of rollers on which these long belts ran.
He also marveled at the huge machines used to break the coal into increasingly smaller particles and the other chemical processes used to eventually convert the coal into usable grease and he marveled at the size of the tanks used to store the grease. He had never seen anything like that in his life. It was mind-boggling.
Afterwards, having a cup of coffee with the owner, the visitor was however puzzled by something. “I’ve seen how the coal is offloaded. I’ve seen the processes through which the coal had to go until it finally became grease. I’ve seen the tanks into which the grease is pumped. The only thing I haven’t seen is your facility from where the grease is dispatched to the consumers.”
“You clearly don’t understand,” the ambitious businessman answered him. “Didn’t you see those huge machines and the millions of rollers on which the conveyor belts run? They need to be greased often to keep them running efficiently. We don’t have any grease left to dispatch!”
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Monday, March 15, 2010 Posted by | Church, Mission, Theology | 6 Comments

Patrick Lencioni: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

One of the questions that I’m frequently asked when people hear about the work of Shiselweni Home-Based Care in Swaziland, is: “What’s the secret of your success?” Although the question might be flattering, my standard answer is: “I really don’t know.” (And this is not false humility!) God has been extremely gracious towards us and this, more than anything else, has been the major key to success. But then I do know that we also did certain things “right” which contributed towards our success. Through a number of – mostly negative – experiences in my life and more especially in church ministry, I decided many years ago that I’m not going to follow the leadership hierarchy approach in my ministry (or, in more Biblical terms, the shepherd / flock model) where everything that needs to be done in church has to be channeled up the hierarchy to the top in order to get approval and then channeled down again. In church the result of this approach is usually that the pastor is totally overworked as he / she tries to control everything happening down the line. I opted for the “body of Christ” model where I consider each church member to have certain gifts which they can and should use in service of Christ. And regardless what the gift is, if it is important to God, it is important to the church. This, I think, is the only way in which church members can fully function as a team. This does not make the role of the leader redundant. There are times when tough decisions need to be made and there are times when someone has to take responsibility when the buck can no longer be passed, but within a team approach this happens much less often than within the strictly hierarchal model.
The truth of this was further confirmed when I did some training on personality testing many years ago and realized that most business companies would probably be able to function far more productively if every employee was encouraged to use their strong personality traits (spiritual gifts and talents in the church) as part of a team, rather than one person making all or most of the decisions while the employees sit around waiting for someone to tell them what to do.
When a friend recently advised me to read Patrick Lencioni’sThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team” I had mixed feelings about it. (Raise your hand if you enjoy hearing how and where you are dysfunctional!) But I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I love his writing style. The book is written in the format of a fable, taking a real-life situation which is all too commonly experienced in the corporate world (as well as in the church), and applying certain principles in the fable to better help the reader to understand where things could be improved and what the best method would be to do so.
Lencioni goes out from the premise that there are basically five things which can cause a team to become dysfunctional, (with the actual problem causing the dysfunction in brackets):
  1. Absence of Trust (Invulnerability)
  2. Fear of Conflict (Artificial Harmony)
  3. Lack of Commitment (Ambiguity)
  4. Avoidance of Accountability (Low Standards)
  5. Inattention to Results (Status and Ego)
Through the fable, the reader gets the opportunity to fully understand how and why the problem leads to the specific dysfunction and obviously methods are explained and demonstrated through the fable on how these dysfunctions can be addressed – even to the point of having to fire someone who, although that person might be an excellent employee, does not serve the interests of the team any longer. The book ends with a more formal discussion on different methods that can be used to improve on the team’s productivity.
This is a book I can recommend to anyone working with teams and I would especially want to recommend it to any church leader, as many churches still fail to understand how to make teams work.
As I finished the book, I mentally evaluated Shiselweni Home-Based Care. After more than four years as project manager of this team, I still have to find a more dedicated and loyal team of volunteers to work with. Honestly! The problems we have are mostly minor. Through the grace of God, more than through my own wisdom, the team is functioning well. But as I thought about what Lencioni had written, I could see potential cracks. For one: Within the Swazi tradition, conflict is usually avoided. But gossip is not avoided! And gossip leads to a lack of trust. As I plan to start using this book with our twenty two coordinators, we will have to plan for a session on conflict management – and the only way to do this will be to teach and allow them to speak openly about frustrations they may experience with each other. But I’m excited to take this group of dedicated people up to an even higher level of productivity by focusing on still greater teamwork.
A great book that I absolutely enjoyed reading with great potential to make a bad team function properly and to make a good team function even better. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 Posted by | Book Review, Building relations, Church, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Leadership, Mission, Swaziland, Unity | 2 Comments

Jim Belcher: Deep Church – A third way beyond emerging and traditional

I’ve just finished reading Jim Belcher’s book, Deep Church. Although I had heard a lot about postmodernism during the early to mid-nineties, I was really introduced to the topic of postmodernism while my wife and I attended a course in children’s evangelism in 1999 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. An extremely bright young New Testament professor (whose name I forgot) spoke to us on a number of occasions during the course of the training to open our eyes to the postmodern view of life to help us to understand that youth need to be approached in a different way than when we were their age. On his recommendation I later bought D A Carson’s The Gagging of God which extensively researches the topic of postmodernism.
Over the past few years I read a number of books from so-called emerging church authors and a lot of what they said impressed me – authors such as Alan Roxburgh, Brian McLaren and many others. From many of these books I could sense a desire for the church to reach its full potential as described in the book of Acts. But there were also things that I felt uncomfortable with, almost as if some of them wanted to apologize for being a follower of Christ. When I recently read a review on Jim Belcher’s Deep Church, I ordered a copy and immediately felt that I could resonate with his way of thinking. Starting with a discussion of the main points of concern that the emerging church has against the traditional church, Belcher, who comes from a Presbyterian background, then proceeds to discuss these points of concern by critically evaluating both the traditional view as well as the emerging view and then merging (no pun intended!) the positive points to come up with what he describes as a third way or the way of the deep church, a term borrowed from C S Lewis who described the body of believers committed to mere Christianity as “Deep Church”.
With positive reviews from leading authors such as Tim Keller, Scot McKnight, Mark Driscoll, Dan Kimball and Rob Bell, this is a book which cannot be ignored.
One of the concerns that Belcher has with certain proponents of the emerging church (not all of them) is that they recognize the problem of the postmodern world view which the church needs to address, but their solution is that the church itself and its message also needs to become postmodern. So instead of making adjustments in the method in which the message needs to be proclaimed, the message itself needs to be adjusted.
The seven points which Belcher identifies as the main points of concern that the emerging church has with the traditional church, are the following:

  1. Captivity to Enlightenment rationalism: The church had no way of standing apart from the world view of the culture which resulted either in a social gospel or fundamentalism
  2. A narrow view of salvation: The church focused too much on how an individual becomes saved and not enough on how such a person lives as a Christian
  3. Belief before belonging: A person needs to believe the correct theology before they are welcomed into the church
  4. Uncontextualized worship: Music and traditions that are hundreds of years old are used in the church and it does not speak to the present culture
  5. Ineffective preaching: The preacher is the fountain of all knowledge and therefore he is the only one who speaks
  6. Weak ecclesiology: The church is more concerned with form than mission. It cares more about institutional survival than being the sent people of God
  7. Tribalism: The church is known more for what it is against than what it is for. It has lost its ability to model a different way of life.

In the second part of the book Belcher looks at each of these points, both acknowledging the truth of the emerging church’s protest but also looking critically at its solution and indicating the weak points in their solutions – a method which I personally like to use when evaluating something. (At least this gives me the impression of greater objectivity.) Belcher’s solution then is to search for the “Deep Church”, through Deep Truth, Deep Evangelism, Deep Gospel, Deep Worship, Deep Preaching, Deep Ecclesiology and Deep Culture.
An excellent book as far as I’m concerned with serious challenges both to the traditional church as well as the emerging church.

Monday, January 11, 2010 Posted by | Book Review, Church, Evangelism, Mission, Theology | 5 Comments

Rethinking Marriage on the eve of World AIDS Day

On the day before World AIDS day, it is appropriate to blog about something related to this topic. UNAIDS recently published their latest epidemiology report on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. You can download the full report here.
While, for most of the readers of this blog, this report contains statistics, for every person personally involved in the fight against the AIDS pandemic, these numbers and percentages represent people. There are some positive things included in the report. It is clear that ART (anti-retroviral therapy) is helping many people to live longer. According to the report the number of new infections are coming down slightly. But in a country like Swaziland with a population of less than 1 million and with the highest infection rate in the world (according to the report Swaziland had an estimated adult HIV prevalence of 26% in 2007, but antenatal surveillance found an increase in HIV prevalence, from 39.2% in 2006 to 42% in 2008, among female clinic attendees), I wonder if it isn’t a matter of “too little too late.”
In a newspaper in South Africa it was reported that the Dutch Reformed Church (N G Kerk) which is also the church that sent me as missionary to Swaziland in 1985, might be rethinking it’s attitude towards cohabitation as an alternative for marriage. The irony was that the immediate following report told of the alarming increase in HIV infections amongst the white, the rich and students in South Africa (three groups that form a large part of the membership of the Dutch Reformed Church.) In the report it says that the South African Blood Transfusion Service had to reject 25% of blood donated by students at a specific university, due to it being HIV-positive.
One of the reasons, I believe, why Swaziland has such a high rate of HIV infections, is because marriage has to be postponed. Swaziland has a lobola system, where a man who wants to get married, has to discuss a form of bride’s price which needs to be paid before they can get married. One of our church members was involved in such a discussion over the weekend and eventually it was determined that the young man had to give his future father-in-law fourteen head of cattle! Keep in mind that this man and the girl are deeply in love. They are emotionally and physically ready to get married. But they can’t, not unless the man can find a way to pay at least part of the lobola. It is no wonder that very few Swazi girls (or men, for that matter) enter into marriage as virgins.
In 2005 I was in the Netherlands at a meeting of the Reformed Ecumenical Council and was chairperson of a committee that had to write a document on the church’s response to HIV and AIDS. I am extremely proud of the product that we presented to the meeting. (You are welcome to download a copy of this document with the title Towards a Theology of Hope in a Time of HIV/AIDS.) As we worked on the document, thinking and rethinking through every sentence, I was challenged by a young woman from the Netherlands. She asked me whether I wanted the document to be accepted by the Reformed churches all over the world, or only in Swaziland? I had felt for a more conservative approach, but was eventually convinced that this would lead to the document never being acceptable in churches in Europe, where sex before marriage and homosexuality are issues which are totally acceptable in most churches. (Once we had agreed on our approach and reformulated one or two sentences, I came under strong attack, especially from churches in Nigeria, when I had to defend the document.)
But I then wanted to know from some of the people in the Netherlands, why cohabitation was so acceptable to them. The answer I got from some church members, was that people had to wait until they were older before they could get married. Typically, they would wait until they were around thirty before they got married, regardless of when they started dating. And when I asked why they waited so long, the answer was that they had to collect money first before they could get married.
And this is where the link with the lobola system in Swaziland comes in. In South Africa people also tend to get married at an older age. The arguments I hear is that they have to buy a house and furnish the house before they can get married. In other words, the problem in Swaziland and the problem in South Africa (and Europe) boils down to the same thing: a materialistic approach towards life. And this is where I feel that the church is failing it’s young members. Instead of giving the go-ahead for cohabitation, shouldn’t the church rather address the problems that are causing young people to opt for cohabitation instead of getting married? Shouldn’t the church rather speak out against the ridiculous extravagance of wedding ceremonies? (I recently heard of someone we know planning to get married, who’s invitation cards costs more than my son’s entire wedding had cost!) Shouldn’t the church say to young couples that it’s fine to rent a cheap apartment with only the most basic things to survive (which they need in any case, even if they live together). Shouldn’t the church say to young people that it’s really not necessary to buy a five carat diamond ring in order to get engaged?
I remember a story which was once told to me of a town high up in a mountain with an extremely dangerous road leading up to the town which frequently led to accidents and severe injuries. As the authorities debated a solution for the problem, they eventually decided to build a new hospital in the town in order to treat the victims of the accidents.
Is this perhaps what the church is doing?

Monday, November 30, 2009 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Church, Culture, HIV, HIV & AIDS, HIV/AIDS Documents, Swaziland, Theology | 8 Comments

Being in the world without being from the world

I’m busy working through the book of Revelation (again!). Contrary to most people I speak to about this book, I find this to be one of the most comforting books in the Bible. I recently purchased a new commentary on this book and although I don’t agree with everything the author says – one point being that he disagrees with the fairly general viewpoint that the Christians in the time when Revelation was written was confronted with great opposition from the Roman empire and that martyrdom was a reality with which they were confronted – I thoroughly enjoy reading through this book.
In the letter to the church in Pergamum, the author notes a few interesting issues. This church is commended for the way in which they took a stand against the worshipping of the emperor – something which was common in those days. Revelation was probably written in around 95 AD, in the time when Domitianus was emperor of Rome. He commanded that the people refer to him as deus et dominus – our lord and our god. However, although they took such a strong stand against this ungodly practice, within the church itself there were serious problems. Apparently there was a group of Christians (church members) who did not consider it inappropriate to take part in heathen festivities. These festivities were usually characterised by various forms of immorality. In this letter to the church in Pergamum, it is said that Jesus holds it against the congregation that there were people within the congregation who took part in these festivities, with the implication that the church did nothing to change their viewpoint.
This brought to mind two questions: Does the church have anything to say about the personal life of church members and does God have anything to say about the way in which I conduct my personal life – or, to put it in other words, is it possible to be in the world without being from the world? When I was much younger, the church in South Africa that we belonged to, had endless rules and regulations about what members could do and could not do, what was sin and what was not sin. These rules didn’t help much, because people still tended to do whatever they wanted – they just ensured that the church leaders didn’t catch them doing this.
In Swaziland, as I suspect in most non-Western countries, this is still true to a great extent. A former colleague of mine used to be a missionary in Zambia and he shared a story with us of how one of their male church members wanted to get married. His only means of transport was a bicycle and he picked up his future wife at her homestead and travelled with her through the forest (a fairly long distance) until they reached the church where they wanted to get married. Once at the church, the local church members decided that he couldn’t get married before being put under church discipline for some time, because nobody knew what had happened while the two were travelling by bicycle through the forest! The amazing part of this story is that the couple accepted their “punishment” and put off their wedding until the church discipline had run its course.
In most churches in Swaziland there are certain things which are absolutely considered as taboo. Smoking and drinking are non-negotiable. I’ve found the same in the church in Russia. I suspect that it would be true for many countries in Africa. These churches come from a background where people would drink until they fall down. When people accept Christ, they have to follow a totally different lifestyle to distinguish them from those who are not Christians. And this is the reason why things like smoking and drinking are such huge issues for them. In their eyes, people smoking and drinking cannot be Christians. Compare this with Indonesia, where I attended church and then, as soon as the service is over, people start lighting up their cigarettes, even while still in the church building. Granted: their buildings are totally different due to the extreme heat, which is more like an open space covered by a roof, but still…
The problem of breaking totally from your old lifestyle is that it becomes increasingly difficult to have an influence on non-Christians. And this brings me back to the main question: How to be in the world without being from the world? The answer is not easy. Few people are capable of doing this, without eventually making important sacrifices. This is apparently what had happened to some Christians in Pergamum.
What are your feelings about this?

Monday, September 7, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Church, Culture, Humour, Indigenous church, Mission, Russia, Swaziland, Theology | 23 Comments

Could the local church be the hope of the world?

Bill Hybels, pastor at Willowcreek, has a saying: The local church is the hope of the world. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Worldwide it seems as if the local church is becoming smaller and playing a less prominent role. Many people – committed Christians – have left the church, either for nothing or for a small group. These are people who have given up hope for the local church (although many still haven’t given up hope for God.)
Frankly, we (that is, our family) are hyper-critical about the local church. We experience extreme arrogance, a lack of leadership, a total lack of commitment towards those outside the church, an unwillingness to change effectively and a whole range of other issues. I’m not referring to a particular church, but rather to a whole range of churches which I see around us. I have a dear friend who is pastor in a very small local church in the town where we live. This man has vision and dreams which you rarely observe in any pastor. But his congregation doesn’t support him. He’s on his way out – going to retire and live somewhere where he won’t need to worry about things like this anymore. And the church he is leaving behind is going to become even smaller than it already is!
Most local churches are fast declining in numbers. This is often blamed on the changing environment in which we live, the post-modern outlook on life, the old-fashioned way of worship which exist in many churches, the judgmental attitude of many Christians, and the list could go on. But I’m still not convinced that these are the real reasons why people leave the church. I’ve seen a number of people in our town who left very modern-style churches to join the Anglicans (old-fashioned with a strict liturgy). I’ve been in a Presbyterian church in Rotterdam which seem to have nothing flashy in terms of worship teams, sound systems and lights, but this church is growing, in spite of most churches in Europe declining in numbers. I believe a lot has to do with people finding that they are making a difference by being part of the church.
When people step into a relationship with Christ for the first time, they need the church to bring change into their own lives, but in my opinion, as they grow in their relationship with God, their needs (should) change, so that they can become a blessing for others. I don’t often have the chance to attend church as spectator. On most Sundays I have two and sometimes three services where I have to preach. But a few weeks ago I attended church with my family and when I left the church I was overwhelmed with the feeling of: If I have to do this every Sunday and this is all that church is about, I’ll die! And this, I believe, is the reason why churches are dying: because people cannot get the impression that it makes any difference whatsoever whether they are part of the local church or not.
Coming back to what bill Hybels said: The local church can only become the hope of the world if it gets involved in the community and the people where it is situated. People need to experience that the church is offering something that they cannot find elsewhere. Probably the church will not be able to compete in terms of financial resources when real disasters strike, such as 9/11, Katrina or with a pandemic such as AIDS. But I am sure that there are hundreds of survivors of 9/11 or families who had survived Katrina who would be able to tell stories, not of what the government had done for them, but of what churches had done for them. When I was in Chicago last year, I stayed over with a family that had just returned from New Orleans where they had helped people to rebuild their houses. I cannot for one moment think that those people, whether they are Christians or not, will see the church as being irrelevant. In Southern Africa, where the AIDS pandemic is at its worst, governments of all countries are giving out billions of dollars to help control the spreading of the disease and to ensure that people are tested and will receive medication. But the real stories of hope come when people tell how the church has reached out to them. There are wonderful stories of how the church brought hope into people’s lives. And it is when I see this happening, that I know that the time of the church is not over yet. The time for ineffective churches may be over, but the world will always need hope. And nobody can bring more hope than the local church which has, itself, experienced hope through God’s love.

Saturday, August 22, 2009 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Alternative Society, Bill Hybels, Church, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Hope, Indigenous church, Leadership, Mission, Short-term outreaches, Social issues, Support teams, Theology, Vision | 7 Comments

Mission outreaches, again!

I’m not dead and I haven’t been seriously ill. I just did not have the time to blog the past few weeks. Since the beginning of July I’ve first had a single girl who came to join us for a week in Swaziland, to experience what our caregivers are doing in an AIDS-infected community. While she was here, three medical students also arrived for five days, wanting to combine compulsory practical work with a medical outreach to the community. While they were around, my friend Tim Deller (http://swazilandexperience.wordpress.com/) and his dad arrived back in Swaziland, to visit many of his old friends. While they were still around, the two leaders from a team from Fresno, CA, arrived and then a few days later the rest of the team arrived and we spent a great time together in Swaziland. You can read about their experiences on their blog: Summer in Swaziland
Yesterday, as the team was preparing to return to the USA, we had a long time of debriefing, rethinking and evaluating the previous two weeks. Someone asked me a question: “This trip had cost us around $36000 (traveling, food and on the ground expenses). Do you feel that you received $36000 worth of help? Shouldn’t we rather have sent you the money and remained at home?” I had to think a few seconds before I answered: “First of all, twelve people would probably not have been able to raise $36000. Secondly, how do you determine the value of deep relationships – the type of relationships that were formed while they were in Swaziland the past two weeks? How do you determine the value of encouragement given to caregivers, working in fairly hopeless conditions, when someone from affluent USA says that she is willing to get into a taxi with a caregiver (twenty one people in a twelve-seater mini-van), walk along sandy footpaths to reach a homestead in order to apply the most basic care?”
And then the person who had asked the question, added that the spiritual growth that had taken place in the team also had to be taken into account. Probably the greatest moment, as far as I’m concerned, happened yesterday morning when one of the team members, who had never prayed in public before, voluntarily prayed while the whole group was listening. I wonder if I’ve ever been more touched by a prayer. It was an amazing experience for all of us!
I met early this morning with a group of men, some of whom are presently attending group sessions every evening focused on their own spiritual growth. Without wanting to discredit what they are doing at their church, I am absolute convinced that the spiritual growth that had taken place in the lives of most of the members of this outreach team, surpasses what will be obtained by attending lessons about the topic.
Short-term outreaches can lead to serious problems, one of the greatest probably being that the people being visited become dependent upon the outreach teams. There are many horror stories of outreach teams eventually realizing that they had been pumping money into a community, only to find that they had not been assisting the community, but had rather led them on the road of greater dependency. I still find it very difficult to know where one should help and where one should deny help. Or to rephrase: Where one should assist directly (giving something which is needed) and where one should find other means to give assistance such as helping certain forms of development to take place. I’ve made enough mistakes in my own life where I gave help in the wrong way. However, I’ve also seen the results when two groups of people from different cultures come alongside each other, the one rich (according to African standards), the other extremely poor (according to Western standards) and where they work together to address the real needs and not only the perceived needs.
I asked the group a question: “Is it necessarily wrong for people to live in a house built of mud, where they sleep on a thin grass mat on the floor and where they have to go down to a river to fetch water?” Obviously, if you had never had to stay in such circumstances (except possibly when going on some kind of exotic vacation), you would feel that it is wrong. But for those growing up in such conditions, it is fairly acceptable. To move into a community such as this, building a new home for one person (usually someone that the group had become attached to) is probably not going to be a good idea, as the neighbors are bound to wonder what that person did to deserve a new home.
Ten days ago we were part of a community project to help a certain community to get clean water. I have three basic requirements when starting any such project: It should be affordable, sustainable and duplicatable. (These are a sort of rule-of-thumb for myself and there are times when I would ignore one or more of these requirements, but then I need to make a deliberate decision that, within the circumstances, it is acceptable to do so.) The community has a real need for more clean water. The Swaziland government had installed a communal tap, but the water flow is so slow, that it takes ages to fill a container with water. After discussing a plan with the community, they came together to dig a hole in the ground. We supplied a plastic barrel (costing R300 or $40) and the community helped us to bury the barrel in river sand which acts as filter, so that eventually clear water will accumulate in the barrel through fine holes we had drilled into the bottom of the barrel. This is affordable, sustainable and duplicatable. In fact, this is the second similar project we have done.
Did I need a team from the USA to do this work? Of course not. But I’m sure that for some time to come, every team member will think of that community whenever they open a tap and see clear water running into a glass. And the community will remember that the group of people came from the USA, not to give out huge sums of money, but to address a real need that they had been struggling with for some years.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Dependency, Giving, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Partnership, Poverty, Prayer, Short-term outreaches, Social issues, Support teams, Sustainability, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment

My conversation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses

We live in a small town in a quiet little road with few cars and even less pedestrians moving around on our street. Whether this is the reason, I don’t know, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to target our area for their visits. When I was still at school, our pastor told us that you never allow a Jehovah’s Witness to enter your home, you never give them money and you try and get as much literature from them that you can, which you burn as soon as they had left. Among my friends there are only a few that would get into a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness. We, on the other hand, have made a decision many years ago that we will invite them into our home and allow them to speak to us and that we will try and keep the conversation as civil as possible. What’s the use of saying that we are Christians, only to be known as someone who sets their dogs on the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
On Tuesday I had a visit from two Jehovah’s Witnesses again. Having trained a great number of people in personal evangelism, it was interesting to me to see these two men doing virtually every mistake in the book in their approach. I opened the door and greeted them (they were standing outside the security gate) and even before I could open the gate, the one man, who was obviously the leader, started speaking. I invited them in and he went on speaking. One thing I try not to reveal when speaking to them, is that I’m a pastor, because then they will definitely not be willing to speak to me if they knew that. I felt a bit trapped when the man mentioned that he was surprised that I was at home. Before I had time to think of a reason why I could be at home without telling a lie and without saying that I’m a pastor, he went on with the conversation, hardly ever allowing me to interrupt him.
His approach, as many before him, was to prove to me that we are living in the end times – something which they seem to be amazed at when I agree. The only difference is that I have good reason to believe that we had been living in the end times since the birth of Christ and not only since 1914, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
They base their argument on the following: The last king of Judah was dethroned in 607 BC (according to them). This happened at the start of the Babylonian exile. What I’m still wondering about is how they came to choose that date as the start of the exile, as all history sources show that it happened in 586 BC and not 607 BC. Dan 4:10-16 speaks of seven times. Revelation speaks of “a time, times and half a time” (12:14) which is equal to 1260 days (12:6). Seven times should therefore by 2 times 1260 which equals 2520. According to Num 14:34 the Israelites were punished one year for every day that they used to explore the promised land. So now the 2520 days becomes 2520 years!
607 + 1914 = 2520 – that is, if you believe, as they do, that the exile started in 607 BC and that there never was a year 0. And therefore, with the start of the First World War, the end times began. Thus saith the Jehovah’s Witnesses!
What does the Bible actually say about the end times: It tells us that Jesus had come in the end times (Heb 1:2; 1 Pet 1:20), that the Holy Spirit was given in the end times (Acts 2:16-17), that the apostles lived in the end times (1 Cor 10:11) and that Timothy also lived in the end times (2 Tim 3:1-5).
If I had to believe this guy, then we don’t have to worry that Jesus would come unexpectedly. According to him, the United Nations still have to collapse before Jesus can come again. Surprisingly, I had asked him a few minutes earlier whether he believed that Jesus could actually come today, to which he agreed. But then he later contradicted himself by saying that Jesus actually could not come before the United Nations had not collapsed.
Perhaps we should be thankful that their arguments are so totally illogical and that they do not have the faintest idea of how to approach someone whom they want to convince. No wonder people are chasing them away from their homes. But next time, when they come knocking at my door, I’ll invite them in once again. Perhaps the day will come when I will have the chance to share with them the gospel of God’s grace.

Thursday, July 9, 2009 Posted by | Church, Eschatology, Evangelism, Grace, Mission, Theology | 39 Comments

The Death of a Celebrity

Since last week, after the death of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, a lot has been said about the death of celebrities. Even people who would under normal circumstances not believe in heaven, have made remarks and written on their blogs that they believe that MJ is in heaven, is moon-walking in heaven or has joined the heavenly band. OK, I admit that I’m too old to be able to appreciate his music. A friend of mine mentioned on Facebook that MJ had “one or two good songs” and was heavily criticized for saying this. But to be honest, if I had been on “Who wants to be a millionaire?”, I wouldn’t be able to name a single song that he had sung, without using a help-line – not even one or two!
So, this is not about MJ of FF or whoever. It’s about the emotions that are stirred when a celebrity dies. And perhaps, more importantly, the emotions that are NOT stirred when other people die. We’re confronted daily with death in Swaziland. I recently blogged about The innocent victims of AIDS. After I wrote about the baby who had died, one of a triplet, I heard on Sunday that a second baby had also died. In sub-Sahara Africa, around 6000 people die every day due to HIV and AIDS! Those who are dying leave behind families who need to be cared for. Very often, the people who are dying in these countries, are the breadwinners of their families. When the breadwinner dies, the family is effectively doomed. There is no estate from which the family can be cared for.
I can understand that the death of a celebrity will always wake up strong emotions with the public, but surely something is wrong if the death of one pop-star dominates the news for days on end (and we’re still waiting for the funeral!) while news about the innocent victims of AIDS, slavery, warfare, poverty, malnutrition and so much more, will hardly ever be mentioned in any newspaper, let alone make it to the headlines.
It was ironic, back in 1997, when Lady Diana and Mother Teresa had died within days of each other, how the people almost deified Lady Diana while Mother Teresa’s death, compared to Lady Diana’s, was rather unimportant.
In the Belhar Confession, one of the sentences read: “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged”. When I see the way that the world, the church as well as individual Christians reacted upon hearing of MJ’s death, that sentence may well have read: “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the famous, the rich and the celebrity.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Church, Death, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Mission, Poverty, Swaziland, Theology | 3 Comments

Doctrines and salvation

I’m part of a male prayer group meeting every Wednesday morning, VERY EARLY! (Those who know me, also know that I’m not at my best at five in the morning!) The group consists of a variety of people, some more mature (both physically and spiritually) and others much younger (also both physically and spiritually). I admit that I have made the sacrifice to be there every Wednesday morning, mostly for the benefit of a group of men who have recently started on the road of faith.
This morning someone mentioned that a prominent South African rugby player will be visiting our town to share his testimony. To encourage the men to attend, he added: “This man is not concerned about doctrines. He’s only interested in serving the Lord.”
I’ve heard the same words or words to the same effect for thirty years or more. It seems as if people want to say that, if you are still an immature Christian, then you will be concerned about doctrinal issues. Once you’ve grown spiritually (received the Holy Spirit!), then you will no longer be concerned about doctrines.
I remember, shortly after I arrived in Swaziland in 1985, that one of the leaders in our church broke away from our church. He also used the argument that he no longer wanted to concern himself with doctrinal issues. The words he used was: “I take the Bible as it is.” Strangely enough, the reason why he broke away, was because of doctrinal differences, particularly regarding his understanding of the sacraments!
I respect people who say that they are not concerned about doctrines. But quite frankly, I don’t believe them. My understanding of salvation (which will probably be fairly close to that of the speaker mentioned) is based on doctrine. This is based on various discourses and explanations found in the gospels, the epistles of Paul as well as other parts of the Bible. Roman Catholicism, as other faiths such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, differ from my understanding about salvation. We differ, mainly because this is a doctrinal issue. All that anyone is saying, who tries to convince others that he is not concerned about doctrines, is that “he’s right, and he isn’t willing to discuss any possibility of being wrong.”
Paul was a theologian, even before he met God on the road to Damascus. He developed an immense understanding of doctrines and the law during his training as Pharisee. The problem with him, as with the other Pharisees exposed by Jesus, was that the laws and the doctrines were all that were important. The intimate relationship with God was exchanged for a life dictated by laws and doctrines which became more important than love for God and other people. After Paul came to repentance, he was still a theologian. Most of his epistles consist largely of theology (doctrinal issues). But what sets him apart from many theologians today, is that the doctrines which he developed became practical in the way in which he devoted his life to God, to the church and to other people. Doctrines enabled him to come closer to God, to understand God more.
I fully understand what people are trying to say when they maintain that they are not concerned about doctrine. But I do think we need to find a better way to formulate this. Not only is it not the truth, but it is also extremely judgmental. And it won’t help to draw people to Christ.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 Posted by | Building relations, Church, Evangelism, Grace, Mission, Swaziland, Theology | 5 Comments