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:
- 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
- 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
- Belief before belonging: A person needs to believe the correct theology before they are welcomed into the church
- 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
- Ineffective preaching: The preacher is the fountain of all knowledge and therefore he is the only one who speaks
- Weak ecclesiology: The church is more concerned with form than mission. It cares more about institutional survival than being the sent people of God
- 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.
We live in a very small town, but today it is almost impossible to move around in the business area. Everybody seems to be doing their last-minute Christmas shopping. Those planning to spend Christmas with their relatives, are stocking up on food to ensure that there will be enough to eat. People are coming out of liquor stores after they’ve ensured that there will be enough to drink over the weekend. Those with money have bought the latest gadgets to be handed out as Christmas gifts. The main road leading from Johannesburg to the North Coast (with some of the best fishing areas in South Africa) passes straight through our town and huge 4 x 4 vehicles towing even larger fishing boats or trailers are moving non-stop through the town. Many of the trailers have an off-road quad-bike latched onto it – quite often two or even three so that there will be no need for people to take turns in riding the quad-bikes over the sand dunes.
How did we move from the story in the Bible of a mother and father who had to stay over in a stable, from a mother who gave birth to a Son who later declared that He did not even have a pillow to sleep on, to where we are today? I’m certain that we’re missing the real message of Christmas.
And I can’t help wondering what the millions of people living in extreme poverty will be doing on Christmas this year. In Swaziland I know that the majority of the people have nothing extra to give to their children for Christmas. No presents. Nothing special to prepare for dinner. Those relatives coming home, although welcome, will more often than not stretch the budget even further. Tomorrow, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, at least 6500 families will be gathered around the deathbed of a relative who had died of AIDS of which at least 4500 will be found in sub-Sahara Africa.
The purpose of this post is not to attack those with money. But I do have a feeling, as I observe what is going on around me, that Christ will not be found in the stores and in the exotic vacation venues on this Christmas day. If I had to search for Him tomorrow, I would rather start my search in a humble hut or in a mud house, where there are no flickering lights or a special Christmas dinner, but where He is being honored as the King of kings and the Prince of peace – the way in which He was honored just after He was born.
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?
No, I didn’t stop blogging. I’ve just been through an exceptionally rough time and when I did get a chance to relax, blogging was fairly low down on my priority list. But now that I’ve reached most of the deadlines that were stretched out before me, I should be able to do a few things that I neglected over the past 6 – 8 weeks, including blogging.
One topic that has been on my mind quite a lot lately, is the influence of prayer on mission. A lot has been written about prayer and I hardly consider myself as an expert on the topic. In fact, I’m usually the first one to admit that I have no idea how prayer works. That’s not the same as to doubt whether prayer works. It’s just that I have no special formula that I can use to guarantee that things will happen in the way we want them to if you keep to certain rules. I do also know the truth of what Søren Kierkegaard once wrote: “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realised that prayer is listening.”
What I do realize, the longer that I’m involved with mission, is the essential role of prayer in this work. Just looking at our own ministry in Swaziland, Shiselweni Reformed Home-Based Care, and the way in which God has provided in our needs after people prayed about something, has made me realize that, statistically, it would be virtually impossible to say that it was purely by chance that things had happened, sometimes within an hour after praying about a matter. It could happen once. It could happen twice. But when you have ten, twenty and more stories to tell of how people prayed about a certain matter and an answer came, then you have to admit that something supernatural is happening.
We have a large number of prayer supporters all over the world. Not nearly enough though! But those who are praying for us, form an essential partnership in our ministry. Some pray daily. Some pray on a specific day in the week for Swaziland. But without prayer support, we, who are working on the inside, know that our attempts to do what we do will never rise above mere humanitarian assistance.
We can do lots of good things for God, but to rise up to a higher level, every mission ministry needs consistent prayer support. Perhaps Acts 1:8 could be our guide for prayer for mission: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth. If every Christian could start praying consistently for four mission ministries – one close by, one a bit further away, one even more further away and one really far away – who knows what we might see happening in the world.
Two weeks ago the director of an organisation known as Sceptic South Africa stirred up a hornets’ nest when he revealed his intention to go to court to force schools in South Africa to stop propagating religion during class time in schools. Those interested in his arguments, can read it here: Public schools flout national laws on religious instruction.
He has in the meantime apparently decided not to go to court. While one can never be 100% sure about the outcome of a court case, I doubt whether he would have been able to win this one. South Africa has an extremely liberal constitution, probably one of the most liberal in the world. But this is a blessing in disguise, because the constitution guarantees that nobody will be discriminated against for whatever reason, including religion. Furthermore, the school act allows the school’s governing body to determine the ethos of the school as well as the predominant religion of the school, with the clear understanding that there will be no discrimination in whatever form against people who do not follow this religion.
Formerly, in the pre-1994 years, all government schools were Christian. One could not be appointed as a teacher within the Education Department if one was not (at least on paper) a Christian. During my school years, we had Bible periods which were mostly a waste of time. These periods were mostly used to do homework. With the exception of my last year at school when we had a wonderful teacher for our Bible period, I learned absolutely nothing in these periods and it did not help me to grow closer to God in any way.
The school where my youngest two children attend and where my wife is also teaching, start and end each day with prayer. Nobody is forced to partake in these activities. People with strong objections are allowed to be out of the classroom during these times. What the director of Sceptic South Africa intended, was to stop any form of practising religion within school hours, which would make any prayer during school time illegal.
I don’t get overly stressed about things like this. History has shown time and again that any attempts such as this to stop the influence of Christianity, leads to the strengthening of the church. It was Tertullian who said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” After all missionaries were forced to leave Mocambique during the Frelimo period, the church, instead of dying, became stronger. But I also realise that, should this case go to court, then I do not have the ability to make any change to the final decision. I can pray for the outcome, but that is more or less as far as it will go. Even lobbying for a certain cause, is not supposed to have any influence on the outcome of a court decision.
However, I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two weeks. With all due respect, I think anyone thinking that they will stop the influence of Christianity by forbidding religion in schools, still has a lot to learn. Most probably, should this case go to court and even more so if they should win the case, there will be a huge rise in people professing their faith (good), but there will also be a rise in extreme Christian fundamentalism (not so good) and both of these are going to be totally counter-productive towards the purpose of the sceptics who, it seems to me, want to eradicate all forms of religion as unscientific and therefore untrue.
But, speaking from my experience as missionary, I believe that the sceptics are also missing another extremely important point, which is the influence of African churches in Southern Africa. As the White population seems to be focussing increasingly on physical science and less on God, the opposite seems to be happening amongst Black people. Last week I was at a school in Swaziland around the time that they closed for the day. All the children gathered outside the building (they don’t have the luxury of an assembly hall) where a few closing remarks were made by the principal before the day was ended with a prayer. Because most Black churches are poor and cannot afford full-time pastors, they often make use of dedicated Christians in other occupations (tentmakers) to lead their congregations. We have at least four school teachers in our church (which is a very small church) who are tentmakers. I cannot for one moment think that these people will stop Scripture reading and prayer at their schools, even if they should be forbidden by law to do so.
I hope this doesn’t lead to a court case, as the only people who will win in the process, are the lawyers. But if it should reach that point, it will be interesting to see how the people of South Africa are going to react.
Some time ago a friend passed on some DVDs to me which he wanted me to evaluate. The person speaking used to be a member of one of the large mainline churches in South Africa, at some stage decided that ths wasn’t the place to be and eventually, as far as I know, formed his own faith community which is not linked to any existing church. He tackles a few issues (I can’t even say hot issues, as for the most part I have never heard anyone discussing this in the past) such as sun worship and Freemasonry (which the church I belong to is officially against but which has not been on the agenda of the church for years, mainly because there are much more important things to discuss.)
This guy is absolutely fanatic about these topics. A round window in a church building indicates that the specific church is a sun worshipper (serious!) Any picture of the sun in a church indicates that the church worships the sun instead of God. A tower at a church says the same. And so on and so forth! He sees himself as a modern-day prophet called by God to warn the modern believers about the sin in their midst. I was preaching in a church in Pretoria just over a week ago and couldn’t help noticing the round window with a sun beautifully made in coloured glass. The inscription in the window comes from Malachi 4:2: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” According to the speaker on the DVD, this window indicates that this congregation is actually worshipping the sun. The way I see it, is that this window illustrates a wonderful promise from God which has nothing to do with worshipping the sun.
I didn’t bother to watch all the DVDs. I came to the point where I decided that I had much better things to do with my time. But watching part of the DVDs did get me thinking about the difference between people who are passionate about something and people who are fanatic about something. I know many people who are passionate about some cause. I, for one, am passionate about seeing the lot of people with HIV & AIDS being improved. And as I thought about this topic, I asked myself whether I would be regarded as a fanatic about AIDS. I hope not, as I see fanaticism as something negative.
I think the difference may lie in the approach. A fanatic – the way I experience it – seems to present a totally unbalanced viewpoint about a topic. In order to get their point across, they tend to lose focus on other issues which may be equally or even more important. They deliberately exaggerate in order to bring their own viewpoint across with greater authority (“Any church with round windows worship the sun”, or “If you raise your hands during worship and the palms are shoulder-high, then you are actually worshipping the sun!) They redicule people who dare to differ from them. They also deny that anyone who may feel differently about their viewpoint, may also have an equally strong viewpoint. I am pretty sure that, should I contact this person and tell him that I think that he has an unbalanced view about sun worshipping, that he will most probably attack me verbally.
But I know a lot of people who are passionate about certain things. One is passionate about prayer. The other is passionate about helping orphans. Another is passionate about peer educating (people teaching their peers about AIDS), another is passionate about helping less privileged people to be trained. The difference between them and the fanatics is that they see their passion as part of a much larger plan. The one who is passionate about prayer has often asked me to attend a prayer group as they want to pray for our work in Swaziland. The one who is passionate about helping children often contact me to find out whether they could help us with anything. Last week I was invited to speak to a group of 68 peer educators about our work. A few weeks ago I was asked to present a class on home-based caring at a training session for pastors.
I feel uncomfortable when I’m with someone who is fanatic about something, but I love being in the midst of someone who is passionate about some aspect of the work of God.
In my previous post on Being in the world without being from the world, I tried to explain how people from younger Christian communities (Africa and Eastern Europe specifically) tend to make rules in order to counter the lifestyles from which they had previously come before accepting Christ. I had a lot of very positive reaction on this post (positive in the sense of people contributing towards the discussion, although not everyone agreed with the viewpoint of these Christians.) Some people did remark that this may become extremely legalistic, even Pharisaic. To which I absolutely agree.
The point I tried to make though, was that these Christians, coming from a predominantly un-Christian background, felt that they had to do something to prove that they are no longer in the world, but that they have stepped into a new world with new rules. In Swaziland where drinking until you’re blind drunk is a fairly normal part of the culture (and the same can be said about Russia), it does make sense to expect of Christians to break completely with this habit.
But I have often thought whether there are things within the Western culture that Christians will need to break from if they want to make a real stand for Christ. Many of the laws in the Old Testament, which may seem senseless to us today, were specifically proclaimed by God in order to distinguish the Israelites from the other heathen nations. One example comes to mind. Many (probably most) of the heathen nations had a multitude of gods which they worshipped. These gods were present in certain places (mostly “high places”) and in order to appease these gods, the people had to do all kinds of acts, including things like self-mutilation or even sacrificing their own children. When God saves the people of Israel, He makes new laws. He is the One and Only God and they are not allowed to worship any other. He is the One who made heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, the stars and the planets, the trees and the mountains. The “holy” places of the heathens, the places where their gods would be found or the things which they worshipped as gods, were in fact all created by Jahwe. The God of Israel will not be appeased through self-mutilation or the sacrifice of human beings, but when people have sinned, they sacrifice an animal. (Obviously, later this animal sacrifice is replaced by the sacrifice on the cross.)
We had a remarkable professor in Old Testament who regularly told us to search for the reason why these laws were made. He maintained that Leviticus is just as relevant today as any of the letters of Paul. Because if we understand the principle behind the law, we will find that the principle has never changed.
How will Christians set themselves apart from the non-Christians in today’s world? Some things are easy. Honesty is not often found in the corporate world and definitely a place where Christians should live differently. But the answers are not always as clear. As I see more and more people caught up in the race towards greater wealth, moving from one home to the next larger house, buying bigger and more luxurious cars, buying larger and larger plasma screen TV sets, I’m wondering if this is not the place where Western Christians need to say: “Enough is enough!” In a world where millions of people are dying of hunger, where injustice takes place on a huge scale against the poor and the needy, should Christians not seek the principles laid down by God and reach a point where they say: “As a Christians, I have to make a stand for what is right!”
This may sound legalistic. But is there any other way in which we can prove in today’s materialistic world that Jesus not only came to save me for eternal life, but that He saved me from these powers that threaten to take over our lives completely.
This is not the only thing which we as Western Christians need to be saved from. Where do you think we need to make a stand if we want to convince the world that Christ truly made a difference in my life?
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?