More on Protective vs. Transformative Social Action

Yesterday, I posted about how evangelicals have succumbed to a “protective social action” rather than following the Lord’s calling of a “transformative social action.”

I said, “Evangelicals move toward social action when a James Dobson says something in the humanist/secular culture is a threat to Christian values – for instance, gay marriage. Our political involvement has been impulsive based on fear of a threat to our values. It is a political action based on fear: ‘We must protect ourselves from this threat!’ However, as a result of this protective social action, any injustice in the public sphere that is not seen as a threat to evangelicals is left unnoticed by them.”

I just watched this past weekend’s Ethics and Religion Newsweekly on PBS, and the evidence of what I wrote is there in the words of Focus on the Family's James Dobson and his lieutenant, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Watch this video, and listen carefully to their words. Do you hear a “transformative” social agenda, or do you hear a “protective” social agenda, one that mobilizes when there is a perceived threat?

(Click on image to activate, then press the play button)

What is the Emerging Church?

It seems that there is still a lot of stereotypes and misinformation out there in evangelical world about the Emerging Church Movement (EC).

(ADDED: I wanted to edit this a bit, because I hadn't been fair to many of the pastors in the EFCA, a group that I highly respect and love - Thanks to Pastor Matt for the loving heads-up on this).

In the denomination in which I used to pastor (Evangelical Free Church of America), most some pastors seem to have swallowed D.A. Carson's book on the subject hook-line-and-sinker. Since Carson is perhaps the most highly respected scholar at the EFCA's seminary, all some of these pastors are doing is listening to his single voice on the subject (and any other voices that may agree) and just leaving it at that. This is a shame, for Carson misses the point severely about what the EC is, reducing his punditry against it in terms of epistemology and railing against Brian McLaren (as if he represents all in the emerging conversation) and Steve Chalke (as if he is even remotely associated with the EC in the UK).

(Of course, this is not the case across the board in the EFCA. There are a few pastors that are exploring the EC's ideas and are critically engaging the movement in a very healthy way. And there at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Carson's home seminary, the rising star and a leading new voice on Theology that actually sympathizes with postmodernity is Kevin Vanhoozer).

Thank God for the persistence of Scot McKnight. He has once again done a fine job clearing the air of the stereotypes and myths that surround the EC. Last week he presented a paper at Westminster Theological Seminary entitled, "What is the Emerging Church?"

For anybody truly interested in understanding this movement, this is a must-read.

The audio of the "Emerging Church Forum" is available from WTS here.

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Moving From Protective to Transformative Social Action

Evangelical political action in the 20th Century (and even into this century) was marked by a protective ideology.

In the world of “Left Behind” (and before that, “The Late Great Planet Earth”), Christians have had an escapist and defeatist attitude toward the world around them. The thinking is this: "Until the return of Christ, social reform is ultimately futile and a waste of time."

But this has not stopped evangelicals from being politically active – it has just skewed the way we have done it. For the escapist/defeatist, social and political action is motivated by a protective ideology that tries to keep the secularists from hurting the Christian way of life. Social action is not meant to be transformative, just protective. Social action is seen as a defense of Christian values for the sake of the Christian community rather than as a redemptive power for the good of all in society (though this defense of Christian values is seen as what is good for all society since it reflects God's will). The Religious Right that sprung up in the late 20th Century epitomized this protective political action.

This is why we see evangelical Christians so active for creationism to be taught in schools but not very active for the plight of the poor and oppressed in the world.

Evangelicals move toward social action when a James Dobson says something in the humanist/secular culture is a threat to Christian values – for instance, gay marriage. Our political involvement has been impulsive based on fear of a threat to our values. It is a political action based on fear: "We must protect ourselves from this threat!"

However, as a result of this protective social action, any injustice in the public sphere that is not seen as a threat to evangelicals is left unnoticed by them.

In this election season (especially here in Ohio), we have seen it all over again. the “Evangelical Base” is targeted by Republicans to “get out the vote” for the sake of issues like gay marriage and abortion.

We need to move from a merely protective social and political action into a more transformative social and political action. We are taught by the New Testament NOT to hope to escape this world or to have a defeatist attitude toward the world.

After a whole chapter devoted to the resurrection of Christ and the hope of resurrection for believers, the Apostle Paul does not end by saying, “Therefore, hope that you’ll escape this wretched earth. It’s going to hell-in-a-handbasket, so working for transformation in this world is all in vain. Christ is coming soon, and therefore just wait for that.”

No. Look at his words: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1Cor 15:58)

Also see: More on Protective vs. Transformative Social Action for a video that proves my point!

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The Australian band Sick Puppies have a very popular video on You Tube, featuring Juan Mann trying to show people love at a busy Sydney shopping mall.

It's very moving to see people at first shy away from this strange man holding up a cardboard sign advertising "Free Hugs."

But then it brings a tear to the eye to watch people warm up to the idea, as you watch the joy that comes simply from the innocent hug of another human being.

See the video here (click on the box to activate it, then hit the play button):

The story behind the music video can be seen here:


the sol café, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

The Organic Church On-Line Tour
featuring the insights of Bob Whitesel

Reaching a new generation in a postmodern culture will take creative thinking outside the standard church box. This is what Rob and Debbie Toews, Steve and Anika Martin, and Dave Wakulchyk have done by starting an internet coffee shop for the spread of the gospel – the sol café.

“Edmonton is cold in the winter,” says one of the leaders, “and the sol café provides a warm cup of coffee, good conversations, and time to reflect on life.”

Starting an internet café is a risky venture, and so when Rob Toews and another couple bought this business, working 2-3 shifts per day during the week to make it financially viable (while selling coffee, they were developing relationships), they had no idea how it would make it.

Here's some lessons that Whitesel provides for us:

Lesson #1: Let the worship emerge from your ambience. When going to a worship experience at the sol café, you’ll find low lighting, candles, hot brewed coffee drinks, soft music, and comfortable chairs. There is no announcement that worship has started, just a slow movement from instrumental music toward some singers, and then toward a time of joining in with singing and prayer and personal introspection. Bob Whitsel says that the emphasis is on “establishing an authentic and unhurried connection, first among musicians, then among attendees. Unveil rather than unleash.”

The teaching time is interactive. Rob Toews says, “At the sol café, interaction and asking questions are expected.” Bob Whitsel, in his analysis, writes, “Routinely, the organic church encourages didactic interaction, recognizing that young people want not to be lectured, but to be engaged.”

Lesson #2: Use self-sustaining venues, realizing profitability may sustain the venue but probably not pastoral staff. We are seeing this more and more in outreach ministry: Bookstores, Tea Bars, Art Venues, Music Shops, Coffee Houses, and more are being used as the base for outreach ministry in the urban setting. This is a difficult way of doing ministry for young pastors trying to raise families. “The sol café was able to pay our baristas $7 an hour,” recalled Rob. “But a pastor with a family is not going to live on that.” Rob now has another job as the director of a Christian retreat center. I think that denominations need to set up funds to supplement salaries of new church planters so that they can be able to do this kind of engaging ministry.

Lesson #3: The sol café literally “faces” its mission field. As the speaker sits on a stool and interacts with the people in the café, behind him is a large window that looks out onto the street. As people walk by, some gaze into the window, wondering what’s happening inside (some even walk in and order a coffee). The setup is intentional: it reminds those who have made the commitment to Christ that they are supposed to be reaching those out there on that street…that the purpose of the sol café is to be a missional community.

Bob Whitesel suggests, “Although a backdrop of street-facing windows may be impractical for many organic congregations, live video images from the street outside or nearby can suffice…(or) unfocused images behind the words of songs…can remind attendees of the daily activities and travails that go on concurrently with our worship celebrations.”

See Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations by Bob Whitesel (Abingdon, 2006)

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The Tension between the “Pastoral Context” and the “Missional Context”

Having planted a church, I’ve become convinced of something. New churches in North America must move from a purely pastoral mindset into a missionary mindset. However, in the evangelical sub-culture, the leader of any church, including a church plant, is supposed to first be the people's “pastor”... that is, the church-planter is not supposed to be first the leader of a band of missionaries to affect a culture for Christ, but rather the care-taker of the people in the church.

This is a tension for church planters.

On top of this tension, most denominations want to see rapid growth from their church plants, which usually means that the church-planting pastor has to make compromises to the mission-mindedness of the project so that the church can attract Christians from other churches in order to grow quickly.

The tension is between the "pastoral context" of modern evangelicalism and the "missional context" needed to reach new people with the gospel.

True missionary work takes time and it takes sacrifice. A church planter must make mission the priority, even at the risk of not being as pastoral as most in the congregation would like.

I felt this tension. As I pastored a new church, attempting to reach a new group of people with the gospel of Christ, some of the key people in the core group of the church began to demand that I be their “pastor.” I was supposed to care for the needs of those in the church – providing programs for youth and providing teaching and worship expriences that would be pleasing to the standard evangelical ear.

The question underlying the church-planter’s calling is this: Do you care more about those “out there” than you do for those “in here?” If you appear to care more for those "out there," the evangelicals in your midst will soon resent you.

Now, here’s where the tension was found for me. I actually wanted to be their pastor, and yet I was attempting to create an environment where we would all see ourselves as missionaries. I wanted to be able to accomplish both, and my negotiation of this tension left a lot to be desired. In the end, I’m afraid I did both tasks poorly.

It takes a special person to be the leader of missionaries as well as be the pastor of a church. Perhaps this is why church planting is a unique calling. Perhaps this is why you need more than one person at the point - a team of people to perform all the nuances of church-planting ministry. Perhaps this is why so many church plants fail – denominations do not see church plants in the same light as over-seas missions and are failing to think in innovative ways to make new ventures successful in reaching people. Funding is set up poorly, long-term viability is not pursued.

The church needs to think in missionary terms instead of pastoral terms to reach a postmodern American culture. And yet, the people in the church that is being established need to be pastored.

This is the tension of church planting. Any suggestions?

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St. Thomas' Church, Sheffield, England

The Organic Church On-Line Tour
featuring the insights of Bob Whitesel

“Our story is really the story of a missional church with a clustered structure,” explains Mike Breen, former rector of St. Thomas’ Church and co-author (with Walt Kallestad, Senior Pastor of Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz.) of several books that have grown out of the St. Thomas’ discipleship training, A Passionate Life, and The Passionate Church: The Art of Life-Changing Discipleship.

Innovation #1: Clustering Small Groups

While most European and Anglican churches do not grow to over 1,000 attendees, St. Thomas’ has over 1700 people (most under 40) attending. The growth came through the normal mega-church model, but the maintenance of their size came through a strange turn of events. St. Thomas’ branched out and began meeting in a large disco in town, the Roxy, featuring contemporary worship that would attract a young crowd (the stately old St. Tom’s continued to offer a standard Anglican service as well as a more contemporary one). This sounds very much like any other mega-church growth story, with all its trappings: “We filled the Roxy but were really just like most mega-churches with brittleness and disconnection,” recalls Paul Maconochie, who is now the team leader at St Thomas' Philadelphia campus.

When the lease ran out at the Roxy, it forced the leadership to think creatively. They had already established small groups of 7-12 people, so their idea was to “cluster” small groups together into missional communities. These “clusters” combined 2-7 small groups together based on demographics and similar interests (for a total of about 25 to 85 people) so that they could do several things: (1) Instead of a large impersonal congregation that meets in a large venue like the Roxy, the church now meets at 17+ locations throughout the city. St. Thomas’ now looks more like a network of small churches meeting all over Sheffield. (2) These clusters provided just the right size for service to the community – Mick Woodhead, current rector (having just took over for Mike Breen) says, “Clusters are adaptable in the times they meet, the places they meet, and the ministries they undertake. And clusters are small enough to share a common vision, yet large enough to do something about it. If a small group undertakes community service, some people won’t show up and the group will be shorthanded. Soon, the small group gets burned out. But clusters of small groups can staff and maintain community ministry longer because of their size.” (Read more about clusters here.)

Innovation #2: Using Symbols for Retention and Comprehension for Discipleship Concepts

Breen and Kallestad have developed a discipleship plan that uses simple geometric shapes to train people in discipleship (See the shapes here). The thinking is that in an “icon-driven” society, young adults can latch onto these shapes and remember the implications and requirements of discipleship. The Lifeshapes© discipleship methodology has now been published for other churches to implement into their churches.

Innovation #3: Allow for Diversity of Sub-Congregations, While Maintaining Cohesiveness

Organic Churches, according to Bob Whitesel, embrace the idea of having multiple sub-congregations in order to carry out mission to the sub-populations in their community. What many modern churches seem to do is identify themselves by a particular style of ministry, limiting the number of people they can reach. The clustering format of St. Thomas’ Church allows for several different styles of churches to meet under the unified banner of St. Thomas’ Church. “Outreach thus trumps comfort.”

In order to keep cohesiveness, they schedule multiple pan-congregational unity gatherings (including a weekly Sunday evening worship event).

See Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations by Bob Whitesel (Abingdon, 2006)

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The Organic Church Tour

Coming Soon:

The Organic Church Tour, featuring the insights of Bob Whitesel.

A new book has been published by Abingdon by a disciple of church-growth guru Donald McGavran (Bob Whitesel, head of Creative Church Consulting, Intl.). For each of the twelve emerging churches he profiles, Whitesel offers three leading lessons other innovative churches can learn from their model.

Churches we'll visit in the virtual reality of blogdom:

  • St. Thomas' Church, Sheffield, England
  • the sol cafe', Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  • Mars Hill, Grandville, Michigan
  • The Bridge, Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Vintage Faith, Santa Cruz, California
  • Freeway, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Church of the Apostles, Seattle, Washington
  • One Place, Phoenix, Arizona
  • Scum of the Earth Church, Denver, Colorado
  • Bluer, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Tribe of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California
  • Solomon's Porch, Minneapolis, Minnesota



What gets you through the hard times

As I approached this recent surgery, friends would ask me, "Tell me, what are you learning? What is God teaching you through this trial?"

My answers to these kinds of questions seemed to be disappointing to some. They wanted to hear a tremendous new revelation, something direct-from-Godish that would be earth-shaking.

The simple answer: My theology is getting me through this hard time.

In an age where Joel Osteen smiles and blinks (a zillion times) into the camera and says that “God didn't make a mistake when He made you. You need to see yourself as God sees you” (see more Osteen quotes here), my theology of Creation-Fall-Redemption got me through.

Why is that?

Because the simplistic worldview that many Christians buy into (echoed in Osteen) is to emphasize only one of the parts of the story. If we simply believed that “God makes no mistakes in making us,” then why did I have an aortic dissection that nearly took my life back in February? Though the doctors are still unclear as to its cause, they are sure that it was caused by a congenital defect (that is, something present at birth) in my connective tissues coupled with an insufficient aortic valve.

If God “makes no mistakes,” then what the heck happened here? Saying "God makes no mistakes" does not satisfy the reality of life.

Some other Christians have another simplistic worldview: We and our world are fully evil (depraved) and under the righteous wrath of God. Under this umbrella statement, God’s good Creation is no longer good, must be destroyed, and we must escape this worldly existence into a spiritual existence. This worldview has more in common with Greek philosophy (Plato) than with the Bible. When we fail to separate out the Creation from the Fall (conflating the two into one ontological entity), our theology suffers.

My theology of Creation-Fall-Redemption got me through this trial. As my pastor prayed with me the night before the surgery, I asked him to do something that helped so much: I asked him to reaffirm with me that God is good, and that what he created is good. I asked him to help me remember that the Fall causes terrible suffering, from a crazed man killing Amish girls to Hurricanes to aortic aneurysms.

And then I asked him to pray for redemption to take place:
  • That we could see in the here and the now a glimpse of the full redemption to come.
  • That this aortic aneurysm will not win this time.
  • That Christ's redemptive power will win this time.
And redemption did win this time. Redemption in the form of a successful surgery to overcome the effects of the Fall. This is gospel; this is good news. We overcome the Fall by being redemptive in all aspects of life - be it in helping the poor, caring for the victims, feeding the hungry, sharing Christ to the lost, making people aware of the trappings of materialistic consumption, bringing comfort and healing to the sick and dying (especially those with HIV/AIDS in Africa), and, of course, through medical advances that allow for a St. Jude mechanical valve plus a synthetic replacement of my ascending aorta.