Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Ed Stetzer & Mike Dodson: Comeback Churches

I’ve just finished reading Ed Stetzer & Mike Dodson’s book: Comeback Churches. The sub-title is: How 300 churches turned around and yours can too. This book reminded me somewhat of Jim Collins’ book: From Good to Great, although the method they used in doing their research is totally different. The two authors made use of questionnaires which was sent to churches. The criteria which was used to determine whether a church is a comeback church are:

  1. The church experienced five years of plateau and/or decline since 1995 (worship attendance grew less than 10% in a five-year period)
  2. That decline or plateau was followed by a significant growth over the past two to five years which included:

2.1 A membership to baptism (conversion) ratio of 35:1 or lower each year and
2.2 At least a 10 percent increase in attendance each year

I am fully aware that one cannot necessarily determine a church’s spiritual status by looking at attendance. Our own church attendance in Swaziland is fairly low, for various reasons, mainly because we are “competing” against traditional churches where cultural traditions tend to take a higher priority than Biblical truths. But this research was done in the USA where increasingly, as in most first world countries, church members tend to leave the church. Comeback churches are those churches that are doing something to win people back into the church (and obviously to Christ), not by harvesting from other churches but by reaching people who are not traditionally church members (any more).
A few encouraging things I read in this book is that comeback churches are not restricted to churches with a certain type of worship, nor are they restricted to a certain type of pastor or pastors of a certain age. God can use any type of pastor and any type of church to reach people and the church can start growing.
The three factors that were dominant in the more than 300 churches that effectively turned around, were:

  • Renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church
  • Renewed attitude for servanthood
  • More strategic prayer effort

The two other factors that followed in line were:

  • Setting goals
  • Valuing Relationships and Reconciliation

Going into more detail, the authors said that comeback churches were characterised by:

  • Growing deeply in love with Jesus
  • Growing deeply in love with the community
  • Growing deeply in love with the lost
  • Comeback leaders turned their churches outward
  • Comeback churches led people to care more about their communities than their own preferences

Looking at churches today, the focus seems to fall increasingly on larger buildings, more “wow” things, bigger and better bands, better video material, better sound systems. And although all of these things can play a role in the bigger picture, it does seem to me that we need to return to basics if we want the church to have an influence in the world.

  • Love Jesus
  • Love the community
  • Love the lost

Compare this with the attitude that we often find amongst Christians:

  • Love Jesus
  • Tolerate the community
  • Condemn the lost

This is a book that any church leader can benefit from, if they are serious in leading their churches to become the type of church that God intended it to be.

Monday, June 22, 2009 Posted by | Book Review, Building relations, Church, Culture, Evangelism, Jim Collins, Leadership, Mission, Swaziland, Vision, Worship | Leave a comment

And what if revival comes?

A number of years ago, one of our dear friends, living in the same town where we stay, made a remark which more or less said the following: “I’m praying that God will bring revival to this town and that at least 2000 people will come to repentance.” To which I replied (to her shock): “I’m going to start praying that it will not happen.” After she recovered from the shock of hearing blasphemy from the mouth of a pastor, I explained to her why I said this. At that time we were just not ready to receive 2000 new believers into any (or all) of the churches in the town. The new believers would be neglected. They would probably starve (spiritually) and eventually many of them will leave the church and return to their old lives.

Even now, when I do evangelism training in churches, I tell the people that they must not even start with an evangelism program, unless if they have everything in place to receive and support the new believers. This is almost like preparing the unborn baby’s room in anticipation for the birth that will take place.

During this past week I realised once again how unprepared most churches are for new believers. And this time it was my own congregation in Swaziland that I had to admit is still not ready for any form of revival. Since we started with our AIDS Home-Based Caring ministry, I believed that people will be affected by the caring attitude coming from the church. Our aim was not to attract new members for our own church, but we did hope that people in the communities where we work will start realising that God actually loves them. From time to time individuals did decide to join our church.

And then, in 2007, I received an invitation from one of Swaziland’s Members of Parliament in an area known as Lavumisa, to start conducting church services in his area. He opened his home to us, invited people to come and things started happening. I myself went there on various Sundays and when Tim Deller was still in Swaziland, he also went there regularly. He mentioned this a few times in his own blog, and I also blogged about it, amongst others in Starting a new church at Lavumisa.

There is, however, one big problem about conducting services at this place, and this is the distance which I have to travel to get there. It is almost 160 km (100 miles) from my home, meaning that, to go there, implies a round trip of more than 300 km. But then I also have other places which I need to visit on Sundays and furthermore I’m also invited at times to preach in other churches. From the start I realised that it would not be possible for me personally to take responsibility for this area. After the people indicated that they wanted our church to continue working in the area, I took the matter to the church council and asked them to discuss ways of helping these people. I sensed a reluctance amongst some of the church council members, but they eventually agreed that they would arrange that people in the vicinity of Lavumisa would help with church services. Unfortunately, it seems as if they did send people there a few times and then stopped going.

Last month we trained a group of caregivers in an area known as Qomintaba, which is about 20 km (12 miles) from one of our existing churches at Matsanjeni. I was totally unprepared for what happened next. On Wednesday I heard that the headman of the area had come to repentance. We didn’t speak to him about Christ. But he was so touched by what he saw the church doing, that he decided that he wanted to accept this Christ we are preaching and now he, and a large number of the caregivers, want to join our church. I know that most people will say “Halleluiah” when they hear this, but this is becoming a logistical nightmare. Once again, we don’t have people in that area that can take responsibility to do the work. But then the church members at Matsanjeni made their own plan. They would drive down to Qomintaba on a Sunday morning, help them with a church service at 9, then drive back to Matsanjeni to have another service at 11.

And then, on Wednesday, I had a long discussion with one of our church elders, and found that he was actually irritated by this. His first remark was that I’m putting him under stress because he feels that it is his responsibility to care for these people. In fact, he told me that we should just forget about them. (Wow! I can now understand how Peter felt when he returned to Jerusalem after Cornelius had accepted Christ in Acts 10.) I could understand his point of view. But I also realised that he was still not ready for God to do big things in the church. He was still feeling that everything is his responsibility. Eventually I (hopefully) convinced him that not I nor anyone else was expecting him to conduct services at Qomintaba on a regular basis. I would love to visit them in the near future. I would love him to visit them as well. But we need to respect the church at Matsanjeni who have taken this responsibility upon their own shoulders, encourage them, supply them with the basic needs and then allow them to do this work. This, I think, is probably fairly close to the New Testament model of the church.

But I couldn’t help wondering what would happen in most churches, my own included, if a real revival starts taking place.

Friday, June 12, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Church, Disappointments, Evangelism, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Leadership, Meetings, Mission, Social issues, Support teams, Sustainability, Swaziland, Theology, Worship | 1 Comment

Cheap grace (or Easy Discipleship)

Many years ago, our professor in New Testament urged us to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, The Cost of Discipleship. It was amazing to see how he explained the consequences of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) for today. That book had a profound influence on my own life, even though I know that I continually fail to live up to God’s standards. One concept which he introduced in the book was the term, Cheap Grace, by which he meant that Jesus had to pay the highest price in order for us to be saved, but that we sometimes seem to think that, even though we receive grace free of charge, it also cost God nothing.
I’m presently busy reading Alan Hirsch’s book, The Forgotten Ways, (and when I’m through I’ll definitely write more about it). On page 104 he makes an important remark: “…many of our church practices seem to be the wrong way around … we seem to make church complex and discipleship too easy.” The context of this remark is that he is discussing the reason for the growth in the early church, in which, he says, church was simple and discipleship was hard – so hard, in fact, that people who became active followers of Christ often paid with their life for this decision.
I’m convinced that there is a lot of truth in this remark. We have a certain way of doing things in church. We have a certain vocabulary (which I’ve named “Christianese”), things are done in a certain orderly way (and this is true regardless of whether we attend an Orthodox, mainline or charismatic church) and in general for the non church attendee, I have a feeling that it is not easy for such a person to feel comfortable in the church. And then there’s classes and training and Bible Study and catechism – all aimed at making this person a better church attenders. But in my experience little is being done to make church attenders better disciples. In fact, in most cases I know of, if a person’s name is on the register (and we have a rightful claim on their tithe), then we are happy.
I’m not against training and Bible Study and catechism, but let this not be an indication of the commitment of a believer towards God. When we are selling cheap grace, then we say to people that God expects nothing from you in return for being saved. When we proclaim the message of Jesus, then we are offering God’s grace free of charge but also telling people that God asks everything in return. This is what Jesus tried to tell us when he said in Luke 14:28, that we need to calculate the cost before building a tower. This has nothing to do with earning salvation. But it has everything to do with informing people beforehand about the cost of discipleship.
I don’t think I have the answer yet, but I do believe that what Hirsch is saying is true for most churches today. And then we don’t need to be surprised that Christianity in general doesn’t have a very good image in the world.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 Posted by | Church, Evangelism, Grace, Mission, Worship | | Leave a comment

My World AIDS Day Church Service

Today is (or was, depending on where you live on the time zone) World AIDS Day. Churches are encouraged to devote the Sunday before or after 1 December for this cause. I was preaching yesterday in a church in South Africa and made full use of the opportunity to devote the entire service to the AIDS issue.
I took my Scripture reading from James 1:19-27 with my main focus on the first part of verse 27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress”
I then proceeded to show an AIDS Photo montage which can be downloaded, free of charge from http://www.willowcreek.com/grouplife/aids_day.asp
As introduction to my sermon I used a parable which was once told by the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard. There are a number of versions of the parable, but the one I used goes like this:
Imagine that geese could talk, Kierkegaard once said, and that they arranged things so that they too could have their Church services and their worship:
Every Sunday they would assemble together and a gander would preach. The essential content of the sermon was the exalted destiny of the geese, the exalted goal for which the creator had destined geese (and every time his name was named all the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed their heads). With the help of their wings they could fly away to far countries, blessed countries, where they really were at home; for here they were just like exiles. And so every Sunday. Then the gathering broke up, and every goose waddles home.
Then the next Sunday off they went to the service again, then home again. That was all. They throve and grew fat, they became plump and tender… that was all. For while the sermon sounded so exalted on Sundays, on Mondays they would tell one another of the fate of the goose who wanted to take his destiny seriously, with the help of the wings the creator had given it. And they spoke of the horrors it had to endure. But they prudently kept this knowledge among themselves. For, of course, to speak of it on Sundays was most unsuitable, for as they said, in that case it would be obvious that our service would be a mockery both of God and of ourselves.
There were also among the geese some that looked ill and thin. Of them the others said, “You see, that’s what comes from being serious about wanting to fly. It is because they are always thinking of flying that they get thin and do not thrive, and do not have God’s grace as we do. That is why we get plump and fat and tender, for it is by God’s grace that one gets plump and fat and tender.
(This also motivated the theme for my sermon: Do you want to waddle or do you want to fly?)
I then asked someone with whom I had arranged beforehand to give a short testimony of what she had seen and experienced in homes where people are living with AIDS.
In the second part of my sermon I spoke about the widows and the orphans, in Biblical times and then also in modern times. I ended this part of the sermon with something that I realised as I had been reading Jeremiah recently in my personal devotions, that God was angry with the prophets and the priests, some of whom were actively involved in exploiting the widows and orphans, but He was also angry with the “good” prophets and priests, because although they themselves did not exploit the widows and orphans, they refrained from speaking out against it!
I then showed a short clip from the excellent South African movie “Yesterday”. If you haven’t seen it, beg, steal, buy or borrow a copy! It is available on Amazon.com as well as Kalahari.net. I showed the part where Yesterday goes to a clinic to be tested for HIV. Then I asked a Swazi woman to tell the congregation how it feels to live with HIV.
In the next part of my sermon I spoke about the fact that the church in general still seems to live in denial of the enormity of the problem of AIDS and that the situation calls us to act. I also included the words of Helder Camara, a priest in Brazil who once said: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” We need to address the reasons why AIDS is such a huge problem. Is it just by chance that the countries most affected by AIDS are the poorest countries, the countries in which the greatest discrimination takes place against women, the countries with the lowest education level?
My last video clip was The hidden face of AIDS, which can also be downloaded, free of charge, from Willowcreek’s website. There is a shorter and a longer version. I used the shorter version.
I then ended by asking those who had come to church whether they were going to waddle back home or whether they were going to fly home, because they had decided not only to listen to the Word of God, but to DO what He wants them to do.

Monday, December 1, 2008 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Health, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Movie Review, Poverty, Social issues, Stigma, Swaziland, Theology, Worship | Leave a comment

Marketing your Church

A few days ago someone sent me a link to a Youtube video clip with the title: What if Starbucks marketed like a church? I was able to watch it then, but unfortunately it seems to have been removed from Youtube in the meantime. (It’s worthwhile to go to http://eugenecho.wordpress.com/2008/11/12/what-if-starbucks-marketed-like-a-church/ On this blog the video clip still seems to be working and there’s some great comments written about the clip.) It’s really quite funny and although it’s obviously exaggerated, the message comes across. If we want to market the church, we have to get more professional about it.
But then I thought that the title of the clip could also be put the other way round and someone innovative would probably be able to manufacture an equally funny clip: “What if the church marketed like Starbucks?” I’m all for becoming more professional in the church. I’m all for making use of certain business principles in the church. I believe that a vision and mission statement can really help a church to get focussed. But I’m not convinced that churches should be run entirely in the way that a business is run. (By the way – I had a cup of coffee at Starbucks at Cairo airport earlier this year, and not only was the coffee terrible but the atmosphere was even worse with a group of teens shouting and screaming at two in the morning, while I had only one desire – to get some sleep while waiting for a connecting flight. That morning I felt as if I would never set my foot in a Starbucks again!)
Let’s get back to the analogy of Starbucks. What do they want to do? Starbucks’ vision reads as follows: “Establish Starbucks as the premier perveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles while we grow.” I can immediately sense a problem if we start marketing the church in this way. In fact, many churches do exactly this: “Establish XYZ Church as the premier perveyor of the gospel.” I read Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church not long after it was first published, and one of the things I remember is his attitude that there are many churches doing wonderful work. At their church they have a certain vision and a certain way of doing things. People who feel that they do not fit in, are free to worship at another church. Saddleback isn’t in competition with other Christian churches. Starbucks, on the other hand, is in strong competition with all other coffee shops and have to ensure that their standard is at such a level that people will prefer to drink their coffee instead of going to their competition. To achieve this aim, they do things in a certain way: Buy the best coffee beans. Install the best coffee machines. Give the staff the necessary training to make and serve the coffee.
The church, even though it needs to be run in a professional way, has an entirely different way of doing things. The church isn’t there to market the gospel or to market Jesus Christ. The church, one could say, is demonstrating what it means to live under the authority of Jesus Christ. The church, contrary to Starbucks, isn’t the place which I visit when I have a “thirst” or a desire for a good sermon. The church is there to change my entire focus on life, to change me (mostly focussed on myself and my own desires) in such a way that in my family life, my business life, my recreational life and wherever I am, I live as a changed person, now focussed on God and His desires, which means that I’m not in the church business because it makes me feel good, but because I know that this is what God wants from me. Contrary to going to Starbucks, I’m not part of the church to have a good feeling about myself, but to willingly go through the process of dying unto myself so that God can live through me. And this is not always an enjoyable process!
As I said: I’m all for churches being run more professionally. But I know of churches which are run extremely professionally but which still fail to get the main message across of a changed life, focussed on God and on the world for which Jesus gave His life.

Thursday, November 13, 2008 Posted by | Alternative Society, Building relations, Church, Humour, Mission, Theology, Vision, Worship | 7 Comments

Becoming a church for and in your community

This past Sunday I was invited to speak at a church on the outskirts of Johannesburg. A few years ago this was an exclusively White community and church membership and attendance clearly indicated the demographic pattern of the community. This was the situation all over South Africa before 1994. But with the new democratically-elected government which came into power in 1994, things started changing. Exclusive White communities in certain areas, especially within the centres of the larger cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban, started being replaced by other ethnic groups. This had a great effect upon churches, as churches which catered exclusively for the needs of White, Afrikaans-speaking people, experienced a sudden and tremendous decrease in church membership and attendance. Churches which had thousands of members and packed buildings during their regular worship services on a Sunday, suddenly struggled to survive. After a time the inevitable happened when the church buildings were sold, sometimes to shop owners needing storage place and even to people of other faiths which then changed the buildings to make it a place of worship for people of their religion.
One particular church in Pretoria has always been a sad example for me of how a church failed to use the new opportunities that had come their way. This particular church followed the route described above. Fortunately, when they decided to close doors, they sold the church building to a another evangelical church group which then opened the doors again and started to cater for the needs of the people who were then occupying the apartments in that area. And as far as I know, the church is doing well. It’s not a White, Afrikaans-speaking church anymore, but then, the community does not exist out of White, Afrikaans-speaking people anymore!
On this past Sunday I spoke at a church which, if the leader had not persevered, would probably also have had to shut doors a number of years ago. Except for the fact that he saw the change in demographics, not as a threat but rather as an opportunity. When I entered the church, I was immediately struck by the multi-cultural atmosphere within the church. People from different ethnic groups mixed in a friendly and comfortable manner. The church leadership also reflects the diverse cultures of the area. They have two worship services – one in Afrikaans and one in English. The second service was, in a sense, even more diverse than the Afrikaans service. Those attending were mostly non-South Africans. They included people from countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and other African countries. But they also come from a diverse religious background, including Roman Catholic and even traditional African religions. Some came in the traditional clothing of their own country. The only common denominators are that they are all interested in the Christian faith and that they all understand English.
When I left the church after speaking at both these worship services, I thought about Eric Bryant’s excellent book, Peppermint-filled piñatas, which I had reviewed here. And I thought about lost opportunities, where churches had been sold to shop owners or to people from other, non-Christian religions, while many people who are still interested in Christianity have nowhere to worship on a Sunday. Which further led me to the topic of this blog: Becoming a church for and in your community!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008 Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Evangelicals, Hope, Indigenous church, Mission, Racism, Theology, Unity, Vision, Worship | 1 Comment

Planting a new church

In a previous post I wrote about the possibility to start with a new church in the area known as Lavumisa in Swaziland. This was due to an invitation by the local member of parliament (MP) in that area from whom we have had tremendous support for our work amongst those infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Yesterday Tim Deller (my friend from the USA) and I travelled to Lavumisa for our first meeting. In a recent post David Watson shared his view on finding the person of peace. He bases his convictions on various parts of Scripture (Matthew 10 & Luke 10) where Jesus tells His disciples to enter a city and to find a person of peace. Obviously, this person would not necessarily be a Christian, but it would probably be someone with authority and integrity within the community, who would be able to make it possible for the early disciples to share the gospel in that area. I have found a number of people who believe that this method of evangelisation has a longer-lasting effect than older methods where the gospel was shared at random, hoping that it would fall on fertile ground.
Well, Tim and I discussed this issue at length and decided that we are going to give this a try. Finding the person of peace was not really an issue, because the MP was adamant that we would be gathering at his homestead. To decline his kind offer would have been very insensitive and would have closed doors for us. When we arrived at the homestead (about 100 miles from my home) we found a number of people already waiting for the church to start. Amazingly, at least ten men were present. I immediately realised that they were there, most probably because the MP had invited them to come. Chances are that if I myself had invited them, that they would not have come. Now, Swazis have their own time. Most don’t have wristwatches and I think they work more or less according to the sun! Although Tim and I were there at 11, we stood around, chatting to people and waiting for some people who had promised to come but had not yet turned up. It was closer to 12 when we actually started, and even then quite a number of people joined us later during our gathering. Close to 45 people turned up – about 30 more than I had anticipated.
Instead of starting with the gospel (which most have probably heard at some time or another), I started by telling them about two ideas which people have of God and which are both wrong. One is the concept of God as a grandfather, lovingly smiling at us and patting us on the head, regardless of what we had done (in other words ignoring the wrong as if it never happened.) The other concept is God as a policeman, always on the lookout for anything which we do wrong so that we can be punished. In the Swazi context where people are often filled with fear that the ancestors might punish them in some way and that they therefore need to be appeased on a regular base to avert their anger, this second concept is quite relevant. I then went on to explain, according to Genesis 1 & 2 how great God really is – Who can, with a single word create heavens and earth, Who can, with a single word create light (even though the sun was only created later), Who can, with a single word create animals, fish and birds and Who can, by using some dust, create a human being, with a heart, lungs, a brain, eyes, ears and everything else necessary to survive. This same God can, by using a rib, create a woman to live beside this man. And this God, Who is so huge that He can fit the world in the palm of His hand, knows me by name and He loves me. This God, Who knows everything about me, the good and the bad, Who even knows things that I think and do that nobody else knows about, loves me! He loves me in spite of the things that I do and think and say and don’t do, that nobody else knows about! (Isn’t this incredible?)
Well, I ended off by reminding the older people (the younger ones don’t have to be reminded) how they felt when they first fell in love. With a smile, even the older people acknowledged this. I then told them that the God to Whom I want to introduce them, can have the same effect on us, that our hearts start beating a bit faster and we get a feeling of joy coming all over us when we realise how much He loves us.
For the next few Sundays I won’t be able to attend church at Lavumisa. This coming Sunday Tim will be there to tell them some more about God. Where this is going to lead to, I have no idea, but I’m willing to go with the flow to see what will happen.

Monday, February 25, 2008 Posted by | Africa, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Evangelism, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hospitality, Indigenous church, Mission, Swaziland, Theology, Worship | 3 Comments

Joyeux Noël / Merry Christmas

Earlier today we watched the movie Joyeux Noël. (Hey, I’m on leave, so I’m entitled to watch some movies 😉
Joyeux Noël is based on an historical event which happened on 24 December 1914 when the French, the English and the Germans, who were at war with each other and were fighting from trenches during the First World War agreed to a cease-fire on Christmas eve. I’ve heard of this remarkable event before and have even used it as an illustration in a sermon. When I heard that an excellent movie had been made about this, I tried my best to find a copy of the movie, but failed. And then last night I read that the movie was going to be screened on a French cable TV channel and I recorded it to watch it today. Ok, this wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds, because the dialogue was partially in English (which I understand 100%), partially in German (which I understand about 10%) and mostly in French (which I understand about 1%) – and to top it all, the movie made use of subscripts – all in French! (I was able to locate an English copy today which I have now ordered to fill in all the little pieces where we had to guess what was going on.)
On 24 December 1914, as the soldiers were lying in the bitter cold in their filthy trenches, the Germans started singing Christmas carols (in the movie the English soldiers start singing, but apparently this isn’t correct.) Then the soldiers from the other countries also started singing along from their trenches. Eventually they all got out of their trenches and met each other on no-man’s land where they sang together. Then the English chaplain served mass to all the soldiers. On Christmas day they maintained the cease-fire and even arranged a soccer game between the opposing countries. This went on throughout the day after which they all returned to their own trenches and the war proceeded! But those soldiers could never be the same again.
Many of the soldiers were court-martialed because of subordination. The priest who had served the communion was also disciplined by his church for serving the mass to the enemy. What amazed me was that the church as well as the army leaders were unable to recognise the miracle which had taken place on that day – that the message which the angels had given to the shepherds, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men, wasn’t just a dream or a pie in the sky. On Christmas eve in 1914, God proved that Jesus really was the Prince of Peace.
The movie left me with a feeling of hope. Many of the things going wrong in the world (and probably in the church as well) are caused by leaders who are more interested in their own positions and more concerned to promote their own causes than in doing that which will be to the benefit of the people or the world. But at some point people will start seeing the senselessness of things that are wrong and they will attempt to change it. Then we will also be able to experience the promise of peace that God gave us.
But the movie also created an extreme sense of sadness realising that during wars, very often, brothers are fighting brothers (in Christ) – mostly without even realising it.
I think that this will be one of the movies that I will be viewing more than once to really experience the impact of this story. If you are interested in getting a copy yourself, you can find an English copy here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007 Posted by | Hope, Mission, Worship | 2 Comments

In awe of God’s presence

Last night I was watching a DVD which I had borrowed from a friend. The title is Common Ground and the subtitle is What Protestants and Catholics can learn from each other. Father John Ricardo of St Anastasia Roman Catholic Church and Pastor Steve Andrews of Kensington Community Church, both from Troy Michigan, (just north of Detroit), were trying to find common ground between their religions. It was really intriguing to watch, in spite of a number of things I could criticise.
It was good to hear why the Roman Catholics believe what they do believe and although I realise that there is a huge division between us in doctrine, it was good to see that there is also a lot of common ground. I remember as a student that we visited a Roman Catholic church once as a class and afterwards I mentioned to a friend that I had heard a more evangelical sermon that morning than I was used to hear in the church I normally attended as a student.
At one point Pastor Andrews was trying to verbalise what he truly appreciated in the Roman Catholic church and this took my mind back to 2005, when I had the opportunity to visit Germany for two days. Two places I really wanted to visit while I was there were the university city of Heidelberg as well as the town of Worms. Worms is the town where Martin Luther was excommunicated from the church and where the Reformation in a certain sense was born. I rented a car and three friends and myself took the road.
Standing in the cathedral in Worms was quite an experience. One of my friends with me is a pastor in a charismatic church. So this was quite something: Myself from a Reformed background and a pastor from a charismatic church and together we were standing in a Roman Catholic church – quite an ecumenical experience! As we stood there, watching people come in, lighting candles, kneeling before the crucifix, sitting or kneeling in the benches to pray (it was not a Sunday), I felt an overwhelming presence of the Lord. And at that point I mentioned to my friend that I wish that we could feel the presence of the Lord in our churches in the way that I felt it there. I sensed the holiness of God in that church as I had seldom sensed it before.
In the DVD this is also said. Pastor Andrews mentions at one point that, instead of making Jesus our friend (as He wants to be), we had made Him our buddy. Obviously Jesus came close to us and as Hebrews tells us we can now have direct contact with God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but when I read the Bible and especially the book of Revelations, then I sense something of the awe that the Bible authors had for God, even though He had come so close to us. And this is something which I sometimes miss in our own churches – something which I felt I could learn from the Roman Catholic church.
Possibly we have become so used to God and what He had done (and is still doing) for us, that we seem to have lost that awe. Perhaps something needs to happen so that we can once again appreciate who God really is.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007 Posted by | Church, Evangelism, Grace, Mission, Prayer, Theology, Worship | 7 Comments

Connecting to God

On Thursday morning, a few minutes after last posting on my blog, all outside communications in the area where we live went down. A road, not far from our home is being rebuilt due to damage caused by heavy trucks travelling through our town every day and in the process of digging up the old road, the main water line was ripped up together with the main telephone cables. The water pipe was repaired within a few hours but it seems that it will still be a few days before there would be any hope of having communications again. In fact,up to now, nothing has been done yet to start repairing the damage. Fortunately, at the school where my wife is teaching mathematics and computer science, they still have telephone connections and they have graciously given me permission to go to the school to check my e-mail and to do other work on the internet. So here I am, in a school classroom, posting this message!
I’ve just finished reading Bill Hybels’ book, Courageous Leadership. I will definitely be coming back to a number of things he said in this book, but probably of all the things he wrote, the one chapter which touched me the most is his chapter which he calls The Leader’s Pathway. I have dear friends over a fairly wide spectrum of spirituality. On some issues we agree, on some issues we argue and on some we agree to differ. One of the problems with such a diverse group is that all of them believe that they have found the ultimate way of connecting to God. Some of my friends believe that the only way in which one can connect to God is through worship. Others believe that small groups (or cell groups or caring groups or whatever one wishes to call them) is the only true way of connecting to God. For others it is an hour or more of “quiet time” with the Lord everyday. I have a friend who is absolutely diligent in his daily quiet time, just reading through the Bible (and making me feel guilty that I’m not as diligent as he is)!
What Bill Hybels says, and this is exactly how I’ve experienced it in my own life, is that different people connect to God in different ways. I’ve heard it so often that people say that, in order to connect to God you have to be up at (or before) sunrise, giving the best part of the day to God. My problem is, I’m a night-owl. If I have to get up before sunrise I will only be sleeping 3 hours a night! But I’ve had wonderful experiences with the Lord through my study of the Bible at 1 in the morning. And I’m at my happiest learning from the Word of God if I have my Bible open, surrounded with a number of other books which will help me to understand the message in a certain portion even better. Rather than reading 10 chapters a day, I will struggle with a paragraph trying to find the message from God in this paragraph through whatever means I have at my disposal. But some of my friends cannot for the life of them understand how it is possible to hear the Spirit speaking if you’re not in a secluded spot, preferably somewhere in nature: only you, your Bible and God – nothing else!
For many years I’ve had this gut feeling that people are wrong who prescribe how one should connect to God. It was encouraging to read the same in a book of someone with Hybels’ knowledge and experience. He lists a number of possible ways in which people connect to God. Although he admits that the list is not exhaustive, he mentions a number of, what he calls, “pathways to God” such as:

  • The Relational pathway (serving God with others)
  • The Intellectual pathway (studying the Bible with the use of other theological books)
  • The Serving pathway (people who cannot be happy unless they serve others)
  • The Contemplative pathway (being alone with God and contemplating on His Word)
  • The Activist pathway (people who cannot be happy unless they are doing something for the Lord)
  • The Creation pathway (serving God in and through nature)
  • The Worship pathway (using worship as the primary method to connect to God)

In a missionary setup I have often found that missionaries start teaching new Christians about spiritual growth but then using their own preferred method as the ultimate (and only) way to connect to God. And I’m as guilty as anyone else, who have made efforts, especially in my early years in Swaziland, to obtain secondhand commentaries and other theological books to hand out to people to help them in their spiritual growth. But for many this just does not work. Even if their lives depended on it, they still cannot hear the Spirit speaking through a commentary! They need other ways to connect to God.
This gave me much to think about – one question being how much effort I am willing to put in to help people to find their personal way of connecting to God. After reading through this chapter I just felt a wonderful sense of awe in God who created each of us in such an unique way.

Saturday, September 29, 2007 Posted by | Bill Hybels, Building relations, Indigenous church, Mission, Prayer, Short-term outreaches, Swaziland, Theology, Worship | 1 Comment