The Marks of a Missional Church

In the last Focus I introduced the term “Missional.” It describes a church (or other community) that is intentionally outreach-oriented. To be missional is to be intentional about connecting with people in your community, in your neighborhood, who may have very little exposure to the Christian faith, and very knowledge of the Bible, and perhaps none at all. A missional church is one that recognizes that the church exists entirely to put into practice the mission of God in the world, namely, to make disciples. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, identifies six main characteristics of a missional church in an online video that I recommend. He goes deeper into these themes in his book Center Church, a textbook for urban church planters. His points apply just as much to a suburban church, though in some ways, suburban ministry might be even more challenging, because people tend to be isolated from each other. Here are Keller’s six marks, which I am examining in more depth in our Sunday evening teaching services:

1. A Missional Church Knows the Idols of the Culture. In other words, a missional church is aware of what it’s up against. And a missional church understands that the world’s leading idols (sex, money, and power, according to Keller) are not just problems for unchurched people. Believers bow the knee to these idols as well, just as the Israelites were tempted to worship Baal on the side. And so, as closet idolaters, we should sympathize with our neighbors, not just judge them.

2. A Missional Church has to Contextualize and Speak in the Language of the Culture. A missional church needs to know the culture well, and also love and respect people outside the church subculture. To “contextualize” means to translate the gospel into terms that our unchurched neighbors can understand. (In doing so, by the way, we also come to better understanding of our faith and our God.) It means knowing about what people are reading, what shows they watch, what movies are popular. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should watch Game of Thrones, which seems to glorify the idols of our culture (I have never seen it, but the show is notorious for its explicit content and brutality). But it doesn’t hurt to know what the show is about (getting ahead by any means necessary), and that it is wildly popular.

3. A Missional Church Equips Believers to Live their Faith in a Secular Culture. Instead of being a fortress to protect ourselves and our children from the world, a missional church views itself as a training ground for incursions into the world with the message of the gospel. For example, I believe good Christian schools can help equip our children and youth to be missional; but there have been times when people experienced them as a way to protect our children from the outside world (the fortress mentality). And even as we promote and support Christian schools, we must respect families who choose public education and not treat them as second class.

4. A Missional Church has a Reputation for Being Both a Contrast and a Servant Community. This is important. We should critique what’s wrong with our culture, but not in a self-righteous or arrogant way that disrespects people or comes off as judgmental. People will listen when we show that we care about them, when we act as their servants, and not as judges.

5. A Missional Church Conducts its Events Deliberately Expecting and Speaking as if Non-Believers are Present. Ok, maybe not council meetings, but most of our activities. We can’t assume our neighbors know the stories of the Bible. We can’t assume that people believe in God or an afterlife the way that was more common just a generation ago. And we should try to avoid churchy jargon that unchurched people don’t understand (and probably our kids don’t, either). And avoid simplistic clichés, like “God has a reason for everything.” That might be true in some sense, but we often cannot see any plan or purpose in our times of pain. Or: “God will never give you anything you can’t handle.” Try telling that to someone suffering from extreme anxiety, or recovering from a nervous breakdown. On second thought, don’t!

6. A Missional Church Practices Unity on the Local Level as Much as Possible. If the main message that comes through in our church life is how other Christian are wrong, and if we act as if we represent the only legitimate form of the Christian faith, that’s a bad witness. Working together with churches and Christian faith traditions is a great witness. That does not mean that we fail to teach, treasure, defend, and even celebrate our own tradition, our own denomination, our own congregation. Older evangelism strategies encouraged our churches to downplay the Christian Reformed part and try to be more like non-denominational churches. That’s a game we lose just by playing, because, frankly, we stink at being non-denominational. It’s not who we are. Tim Keller does not hide his denominational ties (Presbyterian Church in America), and that didn’t stop his church from growing to 5200 members. He does not downplay what is distinctive about the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition of Christianity. It does mean that we shed the older attitude that we are the only true church. It means openness to learning from and being enriched by other Christian traditions in the one, holy, catholic (universal) church, and working together in matters of common concern, such as supporting the local food bank. One of my favorite events in the small town of Barrhead, Alberta, was our ecumenical Advent service, which included the local clergy, choirs, and music groups of the various churches. It was a visible manifestation of our unity, and it had a great impact on many people in the community.
(First Cutlerville CRC Focus, September 2014)

Blog Reboot; And, The CRC and Science

I originally created this blog to chronicle my sabbatical during the summer of 2009. I am now rebooting it for occasional musings for the First Cutlerville CRC community and anyone else who might be interested. Like a question that I just received from a member (I will always keep your information private); but this is a general question that other members may be interested in as well.

The enquirer reports that some of his friends think that the Christian Reformed Church is either apathetic or antagonistic when it comes to reconciling science and the Christian faith. To which I reply, “Say what?!” The CRC has been a leader in tackling these issues, though there is considerable diversity of opinion among CRC members, and we have also seen significant controversy in the CRC over issues of how the Bible and science are related. Faculty members of Calvin College have often been at the forefront of investigating this relationship, and also, not surprisingly perhaps, at the forefront of the controversy as well. The CRC position on Creation and Science is summarized as follows:

All of life, including scientific endeavor, must be lived in obedience to God and in subjection to his Word. Therefore we encourage Christian scholarship that integrates faith and learning. The church does not impose an authorized interpretation of specific passages in Scripture; nor does it canonize certain scientific hypotheses. Instead, it insists that all theological interpretations and all scientific theories be subject to Scripture and the confessions. Humanity is created in the image of God; all theorizing that minimizes this fact and all theories of evolution that deny the creative activity of God are rejected.

In the 1980’s, a number of professors of the science department began investigating this relationship and published a number of books, which were met with a mixed reception. Astronomy Professor Howard J. Van Till published his book The Fourth Day in 1986 to considerable controversy, not least of all for an unfortunate analogy whereby he compared the Bible to a granola bar: one takes off the wrapper (which corresponds to the Biblical form and genre) and throws it away, and consumes the nourishing content, whatever that content may be. Thus the literary form of the early chapters of Genesis could be dispensed with in favor of the theological content.

The problem is that one cannot so easily separate form and content; the content is determined by and communicated through the form. The book was condemned by many who held to a young earth, literal six-day creation perspective as nothing but godless liberalism. It was embraced by many others as a shining example of Reformed engagement with the sciences. Others welcomed the idea of engaging the issue with rigorous thought, but were less satisfied with Van Till’s method and result. This was my assessment, and that of my seminary professors at the time. When I studied this book in the late 1980’s, I found that it was strong on astronomy (as far as I could tell) and exceptionally weak on theology, Biblical studies, and Biblical hermeneutics (the theory of interpretation). During those years I sometimes got the impression from a few scientists that, while one obviously needs a PhD to be an astronomer or physicist, any amateur can be a theologian. And today some scientists still presume to be able to dictate what is or is not possible theologically on the basis of the present state of scientific knowledge. The former Prof. Van Till, it seems, has moved beyond orthodox Christianity and appears to have embraced some kind of pantheism and/or deism. There is probably a lesson somewhere in that fact, though people will draw different conclusions as to what it means.

Another thing that is quite unhelpful is a lack of sensitivity among some Christian scientists in the manner that they raise these issues. I have encountered a few professors over the years who seemed to take an unholy pleasure in demolishing the childlike faith of their students under the guise of educating them. One, in Alberta, wrote of children’s education about the Bible and science: “The ark should float in Grade 1, and by the time students leave Grade 12 to meet me at university, someone has to have sunk the ark for them!” What he fails to notice is that this kind of cavalier approach might make a shipwreck of a young person’s faith. A similar lack of sensitivity was likely a factor in the latest outbreak of controversy at Calvin College a few years ago, when two professors, this time from the Religion department, suggested that science proves that there is no Adam or Eve. This resulted in the departure of one of the professors from the Calvin faculty. These are extremely sensitive and momentous issues, and one should employ maximal caution and humility in the claims one makes.

Without creating an ideological straitjacket, we also have to navigate what it means to have a confessional college that affirms the Reformed standards of unity. Our college is not a secular university; its constituency and its stakeholders are (at least to a large extent) the church. On the other hand, I largely appreciate the efforts of many scientists in the Reformed tradition who seek to integrate the faith into their discipline in a responsible and sensitive way. I very much appreciated the book Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work With The Church, put out by the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, part of a project they call The Ministry Theorem. I do not necessarily endorse everything in the book or on that site; but I endorse the project of keeping the conversation alive between scientists, on the one hand, and theologians and pastors on the other.

If the CRC has erred, it is not in being disengaged or hostile toward science. It would be in the opposite direction, of sometimes equating the results of science with general revelation–a serious mistake that elevates scientific findings and theories virtually to the level Holy Writ. (On this point, see the incisive critique of the 1991 synodical report on creation and science by Nicolaas Gootjes, “General Revelation and Science: Reflections on a Remark in Report 28,” Calvin Theological Journal 30 [1995]: 94-107). Our Kuyperian heritage, with all its robust intellectual richness and curiosity, has at times led us to be triumphalist about our endeavors, and to forget the noetic limits that result both from our creaturely finitude and human sin.

Thus one must be exceptionally cautious about pronouncing on the impossibility of an original human couple, or declaring doctrines such as original sin to be outmoded by recent science, as a retired CRC pastor recently claimed in The Banner. Unfortunately, this caution and humility seems to be lacking lately. At the same time, we in the CRC do have members who understand little about science and who do seem to be antagonistic toward science, often because of a certain political agenda. Thus we see members  dogmatically deny the possibility that the millions of tons of fossil fuels we burn every day could have an effect on the climate, and instead desperately cling to those on the fringes of the scientific community who deny this effect. More humility all around would help.

Answers in Genesis
Answers in Genesis mocks other views of the relationship of creation and science as un-Christian.

This does not mean that I am sympathetic to the so-called “Creation Science” phenomenon, which is really a kind of fringe conspiracy theory that denies the validity of mainstream science, claims human beings frolicked with dinosaurs, and tries to understand sedimentary rock formations with appeals to the biblical Flood; I am not. I think that movement (represented by organizations such as the Creation Research Institute and Answers in Genesis) represents a fatally flawed, and peculiarly North American, form of fundamentalism that is a rather different animal than Reformed orthodoxy. I would guess that the majority of CRC pastors and scientists would judge that it represents neither sound theology nor sound science. Whatever reservations I may have had with The Fourth Day, I  was completely on board with the critiques by Calvin College science professors of the “Creation Science” perspective, which tends to label all differing views as apostate, and not authentically Christian, and engages in attacks and mischaracterizations of opposing views that are uncivil and intellectually dishonest (as in the comic to the right, which clearly implies that those who do not hold to a young earth creationist view do not believe the Bible). Let me be perfectly clear: this viewpoint does not represent the Reformed faith. It does not do justice to God’s Word in Scripture, because it fails to interpret it on its own terms and with appropriate attention to biblical genre, among other things. And, ultimately, it makes God out to be a liar. It undermines the veracity of God (i.e. God’s truthfulness) with such claims that God created the earth and the universe with the appearance of billions of years of age, when in fact the earth and the universe, they claim, is only six thousand years old. But why would God create an earth that appears to be that old, an antique reproduction rather than a genuine antique, so to speak? These claims are completely incoherent; they are not supported by the vast majority of scientists who are also Christians, and they have serious negative ramifications for the Christian doctrines of God and Scripture.

Leading Reformed theologians of a century ago, such as J. Gresham Machen and B. B. Warfield, did not hold these views. In fact, John Calvin himself, in his biblical commentaries, warned against reading the Bible as if it were an astronomy textbook. In his day, astronomers had discovered that some heavenly bodies such as planets were actually larger than the moon; yet the Bible describes the moon as the greater light and the stars as the lesser lights. Calvin does not smugly deny the findings of the astronomers and arrogantly declare, “Well, I believe the Bible.” Note his comments on these passages:

Calvin on Genesis 1:6 (the creation of the sky or firmament):
“For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. [i.e. how the world looks to us, from our perspective]. He who would learn astronomy, and other difficult arts, let him go elsewhere.”

Calvin on Genesis 1:16 (on the greater and lesser lights, i.e. moon, planets, stars):
“Moses wrote things in a popular style which all ordinary persons who have common sense are able to understand without additional instruction; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the wisdom of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be rejected, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons tend to boldly reject whatever is unknown to them.”

Calvin on Psalm 136:7 (He who made the great lights, his love endures forever):
“The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and, in presenting instruction meant to be shared by the simplest and most uneducated persons, he had Moses and the other Prophets use popular language…”

In other words, Calvin says, the Bible describes things as we experience them on earth, and its purpose is not to give us scientific information about the universe.

Tim Keller, the solidly Reformed pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has written a paper entitled: Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople. It is well worth reading on this subject. And it is particularly relevant to the latest controversies regarding the historicity of Adam and Eve. Keller (as well as other scholars such as NT Wright) rightly warn against mythologizing everything the Bible says about the origins of humanity. His conclusion (which also represents the mainstream of the CRC) is sober and balanced: “Christians who are seeking to correlate Scripture and science must be a ‘bigger tent’ than either the anti-scientific religionists or the anti-religious scientists.”

On Religion, to its Uncultured Pomo Despisers

Some people are wondering why I wrote that article in the January 2k10 issue of The Banner. Well, I wrote it because they asked me to write something, and they didn’t tell me what to write, which is a pain, because then I have to think of something.

So what I came up with was a defense and exposition of the term “religion.” Why? Because religious people who think they’re not religious say silly things about not being religious. And not only in popular stuff like The Shack, or in too-hip-for-my-haircut Emergent communities, but even among learned and respected persons. The one I have in mind is one of my favorite authors and pastors, Tim Keller. Love the guy. Wish I could have gone to his church when Sandy and I were in Manhattan. Love his book/DVD The Prodigal God, and used it for a teaching series in our church. Love his The Reason for God, and his YouTube defense of the Christian faith to the employees of Google. Love his new books that have come out that I haven’t read yet.

But he said something surprising on his website promoting The Prodigal God. And I quote:

“Religion operates on the principle: I obey, therefore I’m accepted. But the gospel operates on the principle: I’m accepted through what Jesus Christ has done, therefore I obey. So religion isn’t just a little bit different than the gospel; they are diametrically opposed. And unless you actually invite people into the gospel, in distinction from religion, if you just call them to give their lives to Christ in some general way, they’ll think you’re calling them into being a good person; they’ll think you’re calling them into being an elder brother. So you have to always distinguish the gospel from religion and irreligion and as you preach, because our churches are filled with elder brothers, and they don’t know they are. All they know is God isn’t very real to them, and their faith is a kind of a drudgery to them, and unless you preach to them the difference between religion and the gospel, they aren’t going to get renewed by the Holy Spirit; they’re not going to find the gospel beginning to transform their lives. One of the best ways to do that is by preaching the parable of the prodigal son. This parable will help us live out the implications of what it means to be gospel-transformed people. Not elder brothers, not younger brothers, but people living as images of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ.” accessed September 10, 2009, under the “Message for Pastors” link.

Surely, Tim knows better than that, since he must be pretty well acquainted with John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and the concepts therein like the semen religionis and the sensus divinitatis. But I presume he uses this language for strategic purposes. I just don’t think it was a good strategic choice, because it’s not entirely honest, and it creates problems when one tries to explain Paul’s arguments in Romans 1 about how all people are religious, and his own evangelistic strategy in Acts 17:16ff., and the fact that religion pertains to the fact that humanity is created to relate to its Creator. I just wish he had specified that what he’s talking about is “works-centered religion”or “human-centered religion,” otherwise the statement can sound potentially shallow or misleading.

That’s why I love it that there’s a Facebook group called “I am religious but not spiritual.” And yes, I’m a fan.