All posts tagged “church


The Church Among the Poor

I’ve said it before, but Jayakumar Christian is one of my enduring heroes. His now out-of-print book, God of the Empty-Handed, transformed the way I think about the interplay between poverty, power, and the kingdom of God. Then I met him in person, and I learned even more about the stewardship of power on account of his humility and graciousness in a time and place that, to my mind, would have warranted the opposite.

While Jayakumar isn’t a household name by any stretch, a lot of folks were introduced to him by Andy Crouch in the pages of Playing God. Indeed, the title itself comes from this humble hero of ours. “The poor are poor,” Jayakumar told Andy, “because someone else is trying to play God in their lives.”

I thought some of you might be interested in this talk Jayakumar gave earlier this year at the International Society for Urban Mission Summit in Kuala Lumpur, which covers a lot of the material found in his book—and in Andy’s, for that matter!

Photo via Baylor Lariat

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Christian Political Witness

An Anabaptist, a Presbyterian, and an Anglican walk into a bar…

Okay, wait, let’s start over. Every year, Wheaton College hosts a theology conference. This year, it was on Pentecostalism and the Holy Spirit, and in 2015 it will be on “The Image of God in an Image Driven Age.”

9780830840519As I noted last year, while armchair theologians like me might not be able to justify making the evangelical hajj to Wheaton for the annual event, InterVarsity Press does its part to loop us in by publishing a compilation volume each year comprised of essays that began as presentations at the conference.

The most recent volume is Christian Political Witness, drawn from the 2013 conference. While packed with heavy-hitters, this compilation is remarkably accessible and engaging, even for the laymen and -women among us. And while the contributors span the theological—and yes, political—spectrum, I found that the project nonetheless hangs together fairly cohesively.

Presumably in keeping with the conference, the book is framed by a litany of big questions:

What might a distinctively Christian witness mean in an increasingly polarized climate where the immensity of the challenges governments face seems matched only by the partisanship of the political system? What is the proper Christian response to unending wars, burgeoning debt, disregard for civil liberties, attacks on the sanctity of life, and economic injustice, not to mention ongoing challenges to traditional understandings of sexuality and marriage? Are Christians anything more than an interest group, open to manipulation by those who most enticingly promise to preserve a certain way of life? And how will Christians respond to their increasingly marginalized status in the West, where Christendom is at least on the wane, if not, as some have suggested, proceeding to its slow and final death?

Depending on where you sit within evangelicalism, or within Christendom,  for that matter, you’ll answer those questions differently—or at least your answers will reveal different nuances. But hearing how different sorts of folks grapple with these big, important questions while drawing upon the resources of their respective traditions can be a remarkably fruitful exercise. There are four essays that stood out to me in particular.

Church as Polis

Stanley Hauerwas, for his part, reiterates the Anabaptist vision of the church as polis that he and William Willimon laid out a quarter of a century ago in Resident Aliens. He writes, “Christians no longer believe that the church is an alternative politics of the world, which means they have lost any way to account for why Christians in the past thought they had a faith worth dying for.” He goes on to assert, in a feisty, quintessentially Hauerwasian way, that the confession “Jesus is Lord” isn’t simply a personal opinion. On the contrary, he says, “I take it to be a determinative political claim.”

Biblicism and Ethics

Meanwhile, the religious historian Mark Noll offers a measured analysis of biblicism as it pertains to Christian ethics and political witness. Here he covers a lot of the same ground he did in another book, which earlier this year prompted some reflections from me on the public consequences of haphazard theologies. “Biblical rhetoric can strengthen political speech, but there are great dangers in using such rhetoric,” he writes. “Reliance on Scripture is imperative, but naive biblicism is dangerous.” The Bible best serves “the healing of nations,” he continues, when believers see to it that its message is “appropriated contextually, culturally and theologically.”

Against Violence

I rightly expected the Anabaptists in these pages to make an unwavering case for nonviolence; I was surprised to find that the strongest such argument came from Peter Leithart, a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). “One does not have to be a pacifist,” he writes, “to be alarmed at how much of our university research, our intellectual energy, our economic inventiveness and productivity, and our enormous material resources are devoted to keeping us on a war footing. If this is not the modern equivalent of ‘multiplying horses and chariots,’ I cannot imagine what is.”

Daring To Ask “Why?”

The book concludes with a winsome, pastoral letter from the late David Gitari, who was Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Gitari emphasizes the key distinction between social work and social transformation—a distinction that essentially boils down to the willingness to ask why. “Those in authority welcome our humanitarian activities,” he writes, “but they do not like to hear the question ‘why,’ because that is a political question. So sometimes we need to go beyond social activities to transformation of societies to find where the root cause of the problem is—and this is taking political action. We cannot avoid social-political action when there is something that must be done.”

Those are just quick snippets from four of the book’s dozen essays, but they’re enough, I hope, to intrigue you. There’s a lot of chaos in this world, and speaking personally, it’s tough to know how to navigate the ethical and political quandaries I encounter. That’s why I’m grateful for these scholars and their careful, prayerful thoughts on the relationship between faith and ethics, between mission and politics, between church and state.

“Christians must remind themselves that the primary locus of Christian political activity is the church,” write the editors. “The shape of our corporate life should therefore reflect above all else fidelity to [Christ], and not just identity politics or pragmatic concerns.”

Header photo by Sergei Grits/AP via Huffington Post

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Book Review: The New Parish

From the beginning, Christians have recognized the call to love our neighbors as central to following Jesus. More recently, many of us have started to wonder how that command relates to our neighborhoods as well. Some have even begun to talk about “a theology of the city” and to consider how that theology might translate into the choices that give shape to our common lives.


These developments inevitably lead to a new set of questions: Does God care about the engineering of municipal plumbing systems? Does it bother him if street-corner utility boxes are drab eyesores? Does he care about the physical, social, economic, and spiritual well being of those on both sides of the tracks? Does he call people to run for city council?

I’ve come to believe that questions about the ways we inhabit and give shape to the places where we live, work, and play are integral, not incidental, to the mission of God. And I’m certainly not alone. Many of you are familiar with Christianity Today’s This Is Our City project, which aimed to spotlight how Christians were “responding to their cities’ particular challenges with excellence, biblical faith, and hope.”

NewParishBookCover4Last spring, I was part of Common Good PHX, an inspiring two-day event at which a diverse swath of folks gathered to collectively dig deeper into what it would look like for our city and our neighborhoods to truly flourish. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of similar gatherings and initiatives where you are.

As more and more of us have been asking these questions and working to discern tenable answers, three consistently thoughtful voices in these conversations are Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen, who together have written The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community.

Sparks, Soerens, and Friesen (referred to henceforth as “the authors”) open the book by making their case for something they call “the new parish” (a theme we’ll return to in a moment). They go on to describe it as a place—and just as important, a people—of faithful presence, with an ecclesial center, and a fresh understanding of what constitutes “the commons.” Next, they get down to discussing such things as rooting, linking, leading, and “presencing” (which may or may not have anything to do with what Otto Scharmer talks about here). The authors lay their cards on the table early:

It is our conviction that humans are meant to share life together, to learn to fit together as a living body in relationship with God, with one another, and for the place to which they are called. We think that entering into these common relationships with growing faithfulness and fidelity is what it means to be human. The gospel of Jesus enables us to live toward this full humanity. And the local church is a body that bears witness to this way of becoming human in Christ, through both manifesting that growing reality of our lives together and becoming those who see and proclaim the signs of this work happening in the people and places around us.

You might say that the authors are trying to give the concept of parish a facelift, as something more friendly than the “lingering conceptions” people have of an arrangement through which, we’re told, manipulation, hierarchy, patriarchy, abuse, oppression, fear, and control are given free reign. In contrast to all of these nasty descriptors they see the new parish more happily characterized as bottom up, organic, relationally defined, and ecumenical.

While I find their overall vision for the new parish to be compelling—and I should emphasize here that I really do—I’ll admit that at one point they left me scratching my head. Now, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the kinds of people who will read this book are not, for the most part, folks for whom the concept of “parish” is any sort of a hang-up. Rather, I’d hazard a guess that the authors are writing to an audience well acquainted with (and perhaps a bit disillusioned by) a kind of church that by its very definition is anti-parish—a kind of church without any sense of place beyond that which relates to zoning permits, traffic patterns, and the demographics of potential tithers.

Again, the authors lay out a compelling case, and in many ways I consider it a step in the right direction. But I wonder if there’s a grain of truth to the idea that, to tweak (or, I fear, to maim) G.K. Chesterton’s line, “The old parish ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and—at least in our contemporary Protestant context—left untried.”

I make that suggestion because, in my reading, the vision for the new parish presented in these pages is not really an attempt to reform and revive the old model; it’s rather a stab at creating something new, while appropriating and redefining the term. And that’s perfectly fine as far as I’m concerned. But I’m left wondering whether the authors also see a place for Christians to breathe new life into more traditional parishes, or whether new entrepreneurial ventures and missional urban communities are rendering the “old wineskins” redundant. If they get at that in the book, I’m afraid I missed it.

I’ll conclude by saying that what I appreciated most about the vision for the so-called “new parish” is its consistent emphasis on rootedness and relationship as the context for transformation. Throughout the book, the authors do a wonderful job of inviting us to look beneath the surface and to see past façades. Flourishing doesn’t always announce itself on billboards, after all, or through the proliferation of restaurants with valet parking in the hip part of town.

The authors of The New Parish invite us to see our neighbors and our neighborhoods anew, to experience their joys and their sorrows as our own, and to celebrate signs of life wherever we find them. Whether we consider that vision new or old, it’s a vision I’ll gladly get behind.

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All together guilty, all together forgiven

In the presence of the cross there are no innocent parties and no innocent classes. And there is no body which can make this witness except the church, defined as it is simply by its acknowledgement of the supreme Lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus. We are all together found guilty and all together forgiven. The church is called to be the place where that is actually happening.”

– Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History