Sunday, April 27, 2014

Don't Give Answers to Questions Nobody is Asking: Church Planting in the 21st Century

The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada have announced a campaign to increase their membership to 350,000 in 1,500 churches by 2020. (In 2009 they had 234,385 members in 1,077 affiliated churches.) Their ambitious goal reminded me of a column I wrote in The Mennonite back in 2010 about church planting—and how, according to veteran British church planter Stuart Murray, it has to be done differently today if evangelism is to be successful at all.

In 1992, churches in Great Britain launched a plan to plant 20,000 new churches by 2000. 

There was some success; several hundred new churches did result. But it was not the thousands that were hoped for. Of those churches that were planted, many struggled and some closed after a few years. Others persisted, but did not thrive. Few inroads were made into the communities they wanted to serve. 

Looking back, veteran British church planter Stuart Murray wondered what went wrong—and what could be done to avoid repeating those mistakes. Planting Churches in the 21st Century: A Guide for Those Who Want Fresh Perspectives and New Ideas for Creating Congregations  is the result.

"I think the main problem was that people focused on speed and quantity rather than quality,” says Murray, who helps direct the Anabaptist Network in Great Britain. 

“We were more interested in how many churches we could plant, not what kind of church various communities needed.”

Church planting "isn't just about numbers," he says. "It's about the renewal of the church and the development of new ways of being the church that are biblically rooted and contextually appropriate."

Not all church plants will succeed, he points out. But whether they grow or fail, "there are lessons to be learned."

One of those lessons is that Christianity has to be presented differently today. 

"In the past, we could assume that people we wanted to reach with the gospel knew the story," he says. 

"But we cannot make such an assumption today. Here in Britain, the cut-off point for knowing the Christian story is about 35 or 40 years of age. I assume that something similar might be occurring in parts of North America."

Another lesson, he notes, is that living faithfully—in the hope that others will notice and then want to know more about Jesus—only works if people are familiar with the Christian story.  

"Many church leaders in Europe and North America have told me their members are more comfortable living faithfully and distinctively in the hope that others will be challenged by their example and drawn toward faith," he says.

"While there is much in this that I affirm, living out faith only works where people actually know what that faith is actually all about."

A third lesson for church planters is the importance of discovering "what aspects of the gospel connect with people today," he adds. 

For a long time "evangelists used guilt and death to connect with people, with forgiveness and the hope of eternal life as the good news,” he says. 

“But many people today don't feel guilty, and many are not particularly interested in life after death. It's no longer a starting point for a conversation about faith."

For Murray, starting points that might work for conversations about faith today include alienation, loneliness, a search for meaning and purpose, interest in spirituality, and ways to live meaningfully and with purpose in this life. 

"The gospel can meet all human needs, but we need to listen carefully to our post-modern and post-Christendom culture to learn what they are," he says.

"We don’t want to give out answers to questions nobody is asking."

As an Anabaptist, Murray believes that tradition brings a special gift to the church planting enterprise.

"Anabaptism has historically emphasized the importance of telling the story, of community and the centrality of Jesus, along with the importance of following Christ in life," he shares.

"Many people today want to know how they can make a difference and be fulfilled in this life—not just in the life to come. The Anabaptist emphasis on service and living the life of faith may prove to be an effective starting point."

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Mary for Evangelicals: A Musing on the Canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII

On April 27 the Roman Catholic church will elevate John Paul II and John XXIII to sainthood. All the attention on their canonizations reminded me of a column I wrote in 2007 about how Protestants really don't understand the idea of saints, and we might want to take something like the veneration of Mary, Jesus's mother, more seriously.

The past couple of decades have seen some remarkable changes in the relationship between evangelicals and Cath­olics.

Where the two groups once viewed each other with suspicion, today they have found common ground on things like abortion, end-of-life issues, the definition of marriage and the role of religion in society.

Where the two groups once viewed each other with suspicion, today they have found common ground on things like abortion, end-of-life issues, the definition of marriage and the role of religion in society.

But one area of disagreement continues to be over Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Catholics venerate her, believing she was born without sin and raised into heaven at the end of her life. Evangelicals, however, mostly tend to see her as a bit player in the larger Christian story, when they think of her at all.

Tim Perry, Scholar in Residence at St. Margaret's Anglican Church in Winnipeg, and a Professor at Providence Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Man., thinks that’s wrong.

He’s set out to change the way evangelicals think about Jesus’ mother in his book, Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord. 

“Most evangelicals think of Mary as someone who belongs to the Catholic church, but Scripture says a lot about her,” he says. “If we take Scripture seriously, we can’t pass over her.”

In the book, Perry provides a biblical and historical argument for giving Mary a higher place in evangelical churches. “Thinking about what God has done in the incarnation will inevitably lead us to think about the person in whom God chose to become flesh,” he says.

He adds that the early church held the mother of Jesus in high regard. 

 “By reminding people that Jesus had a mother, she was a corrective against views that Christ was not really a human being,” he says. “She functions in Scripture as a sign of Christ’s humanity. The early church fathers return to this time and again.”

Perry is especially drawn to how Mary is portrayed in the Gospel of Luke. “She’s an example to us not because she is semi-divine but because she persists with Christ, even when she doesn’t understand what is going on,” he says.

What about praying to Mary? Perry himself doesn’t do it. “It’s foreign to my tradition,” he says. 

But he understands why it is meaningful to those who see her like a sympathetic earthly mother, asking her son to show mercy and compassion. He thinks that it makes sense theologically to believe that Mary, like other departed saints, may be able to intercede on behalf of Christians today.

“We believe that the church is one body that transcends everything,” he says, citing how people in North America pray for people in Africa and believe that their prayers have an effect. Likewise, he says, the church is “not bound by time and space,” making it possible for those who have died to intercede before God on behalf of the living.

As for the doctrine of Immaculate Conception—the idea that Mary was born sinless—Perry says it “goes farther than I am willing to go.” 
But he notes that the idea did not originate in 1854 with Pope Pius IX, as some believe. 

“That belief existed as early as the second century,” he says, adding that Pius merely “limited what could be said about it.”

Perry also isn’t willing to speculate about what happened to Mary at the end of her life. “I am content to follow the silence of Scripture on that point,” he says.

As for his own beliefs, he says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that there is room in evangelical piety for Mary. She leads me to Jesus in terms of devotion. As I have come to bless Mary—as Scripture says I should—I have come to find my love for Jesus strengthened, even reawakened. She steps aside in order that I might not dwell on her, whether in my head or in my heart, but on her son.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Other Victims of Crime: Family Members of Criminals

In April the Canadian government tabled Bill C-32, the victim’s bill of rights. It is designed to provide victims of crime and their families with "courtesy, compassion and respect."

This is a good thing. But there’s another group of people out there who also need assistance: Family members of criminals.

In 2013 I wrote about my friend Bill, a deacon in a Roman Catholic parish in Quebec, who was charged with manufacturing and distributing child pornography. In February, he plead guilty to the charges. He will be sentenced in May.

I am sorry for Bill, and for his victims. But as I wrote back then, I feel sorry for his family, too. Bill’s life is now in the hands of the justice system. He has people checking on him, evaluating him, maybe even trying to help rehabilitate him. But who will attend to the needs of his wife and children? As it turns out, there’s not much available for the other victims of crime—the criminal’s loved ones and friends.

What do you do when a friend is accused of a crime? And what if that crime is creating and disseminating child pornography?

Before Christmas, I learned that one of my friends was arrested and charged with that crime.

The news came as a shock. Although he lives in another province and we haven’t communicated for a long time, I have always admired his skills and abilities and valued and appreciated our conversations.

But now he faces very serious charges—and I'm conflicted. On the one hand, how can I not be repulsed by what he is accused of doing?

On the other hand, I want to reach out, to be of support in some way, let him know that I still value our friendship.

But if I do that, will people think I don't take the crime of child pornography seriously? Will I be judged for wanting to still be his friend? Worse, would I be considered guilty by association?

And what about my friend's wife and childrenhow do they feel? Are they getting the support they need?

It was while pondering this that I realized that crime involves more than just the offender, the victim and the victim's family and friends. It happens to the offender's family and friends, too.

The difference is that while there are services and supports for victims and their families, there isn't much to help people whose loved one commits a crime.

When it comes to support for families of people accused or convicted of crimes, "there isn't much available," says Joan Carolyn, director of Winnipeg’s Circles of Support and Accountability, a church-supported program that helps sex offenders reintegrate into society.

A few services exist, she says, but they are "usually parts of other programs, a subsection of working with offenders."

The result, she says, is that families of the accused or offenders are on their own, struggling to find ways to support their loved one but still take the crime seriously.

One person who knows only too well what it's like to go through this is Canadian Shannon Moroney.  In 2005 her then-husband, Jason Staples, was arrested and jailed for sexually assaulting two women.

Following her husband's arrest, Moroney found herself on her own, the target of accusations, judgment and blame.

“I even lost my job,” she says. “Police victims' services turned me away. Upon learning that I had visited Jason, some people demanded to know what was wrong with me."

Of her experience, Moroney says that families of offenders face an uphill battle to overcome the stigma of guilt by association, and to regain control of their lives.

“At times I felt so vulnerable and desperate that I wished I could trade places with Jason—that I could have 24 hours a day in solitude, a place to think and three meals a day delivered to me—instead of having to mop up the disaster he had left behind," she says.

All this makes me wonder: Is there a place for faith groups to step up and provide a hand? Or even just a listening ear—some way of helping family members cope with the huge disruption in their lives. 

Meantime, I will pray that my friend’s family will find the support they need during this difficult time. I will also pray for those victimized by child pornography.

And I will pray for my friend, too.