Category Archives: church

Alternative Approaches to the End Times

left behind

As I wrote last week, the “play-by-play” approach of end-times is not working for everybody. The speculative nature of dispensational theology is highly problematic even if its simplicity and relevance is very attractive. Attractiveness comes from the perception of connecting Scriptures with current events. The hearer is offered an interpretative paradigm from which he or she can make sense of the world around us. This is especially true, when the hearer already aligns with an Anglo-American conservative view of reality.  It is also attractive because, on the surface it appears to be the most literal reading of Scripture, and therefore the “safest” way to read Scripture.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that to challenge the dispensational view requires a wholesale challenge to one of the central tenets of evangelical theology, namely, its approach to Biblical interpretation.  I do not have the time or the intellectual energy to do at this point. Suffice it to say that popular evangelical approach to interpretation lacks a basic awareness of different literary genres in the Bible. This is well manifested in this end-times theology debate. Most of the passages used come from either the prophetic books of the OT and Revelation. Occasionally there is a use of some of Paul’s letters and the Gospels. The problem lies primarily in the use of the first group – the prophetic and apocalyptic books of the Bible. For these books, the plain sense or literal interpretation falls apart because they are filled with symbolic language. Instead, what is passed for literal reading tends to be highly speculative. Symbolic language is not meant to be read literal so we need to find other ways to approach it. What is missed is the fact that Revelation and the prophetic book was written in a time and meant to be understood about the hearers of that time, not a secret key to the future.  Therefore, these texts are best treated with caution and historical awareness rather than coordinates for wars to come. It does not mean we ignore them but we approach them with humility and avoid speculation.

A better alternative would be to approach end-times starting with the gospel and the letters of Paul and Peter. The Olivet discourses found in the synoptic gospels (Mat, Mark and Luke) provide a general view of the topic without trying to give details. It then becomes a thematic approach that can be summarized in a few points:

Jesus will return to Earth – It is hard to read the NT and not get the sense that this is a central belief of the Christian faith. It is also present in the early Creeds giving it a strong witness for its validity.

We should be ready to meet him – The parable of the virgins is instructive here. The point is not whether we know when he comes but that we are ready to meet him, being through death or through eschaton.

There will be judgment and wrongs will be put to rights – Here is a point that gets missed a lot. The whole point of Jesus return is to establish justice, to right the wrongs. This is where our eschatological thinking should run in parallel with kingdom of God thinking in the NT. We long for justice and we have the audacity to believe that our Lord will bring it to the Earth.

This is not a novel approach but one that continues to be espoused by mainline Christian denominations. Sure this is a lot less sensational and will not sell many books, yet it closer to mainstream Christian tradition than dispensational approach. Maybe it is time we in the neo-Pentecostal movement get off our prophetic hubris and start listening to our brothers and sisters from these denominations.

I add below a link of NT Wright speaking on the rapture providing a through explanation of the imagery there. This is worth considering when examining eschatological interpretations. To be fair, dispensational theology does not have to necessarily lead to political inaction as Wright is saying here. Unfortunately that is often the case well exemplified in how Anglo-American evangelicals refuse to deal with climate change.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvOig4sH6Ic

Discipleship is NOT what it used to be

I confess that discipleship is one of these words of “Christianese” that have to come mean so many different things that it is almost useless. For this purpose, I will define it as the process through which Christians learn and grow spiritually. I much rather the “spiritual formation” term, yet this one is also facing a similar fate as discipleship and becoming a commodity word. I am focusing on discipleship because it entails a mentorship relationship between a mentor and mentee. In the New Testament, it is best model in Jesus relationship with his disciples and the apostles teaching to the young churches. My argument is simple: discipleship is moving away from mentor-mentee relationships to more friendship relationships. Spiritual guidance is done now less in a top-to-bottom fashion and more in a lateral fashion. Even spiritual leaders are accommodating to this reality.

Echoing from my previous post, spiritual leadership is changing from being directive to being influential. Being directive means you tell people how things are and what they should do. You do so not expecting your authority to be in question. Being influential means expressing advice as to what they can face challenges. You shy away from telling people what to do but instead suggest what they should do. The more skilled leaders go a step further and teach people how to think which empowers them to figure out the right decision on their own.

Certainly this new environment of ministry has its share of problems. I am sure a lot of pastors would love to tell lay people to get a grip and grow up. This type of tough love is at times necessary but unfortunately is becoming less and less the norm. The reality is that the relationship between mentor and mentee is so transient that it cannot withstand these confrontational moment. Most mentees will just leave and find a mentor that tells them what they want to hear.

Yet, teachability is not the only issue here. The reality is that mentors are many times ill-prepared to help mentees to navigate their world. It is not that they are poorly trained but they just have not lived through it. The speed of change can at times make one’s experience seem irrelevant to the present generation. A more adequate approach is for the mentor to walk together with the mentee and collaborate in navigating the challenges he or she may be facing. It is not that the mentor and mentee are equals in knowledge but they are not as distant as they used to be. It is the job of the mentor to evaluate his or her experience in light of the mentee’s new situation. It is the job of the mentee to listen but also participate in this evaluation process.

Discipleship in this environment looks more like a partnership than an apprenticeship. It is less about spiritual directing and more about spiritual companionship. It forces us all to be humble and it also takes away the pressure of the mentor to have all the answers.

These types of spiritual companionships are difficult to foster but are absolutely essential if we are to face the ever-changing challenges in this century. Spiritual mentors need to learn to be facilitators rather than manufacturers of spiritual growth. Spiritual mentees need to take ownership of their spiritual health rather than relying on a leader to have all the answers. We must all humbly seek the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us through this messy process.

 

 

Pastoring is NOT what it used to be

There was a time when pastors were true shepherds of souls. They were sought after as the spiritual guides who had access to privileged spiritual information and therefore could speak authoritatively into people’s lives. They were the moral upholders of community, able to act as the voice of society’s conscience. Their primary job was to connect a community with God through preaching, counseling and teaching. Their position was undisputed and trusted. They were role models of morality, family values and model citizens. They were in charge of small communities, knew most of his parishioners by name and were there in the most important events of their lives: birth, baptism, marriage and death.

How the world has changed! If pastors can still be seen as spiritual guides so are Oprah and Deepak Chopra. If before they had access to privileged information, now anybody can access the Internet for Greek dictionaries, books and most other resources that in the past was only available to a few. If in the past they were the sole spiritual gatekeeper for a small community of believers, now they compete with many voices that are constantly speaking into the parishioner’s life. Not only that but their sermons are being scrutinized by society (case in point, a former pastor in Pasadena just got fired from this public service job because of a YouTube video of a past sermon in which he denounced homosexuality). Congregants now will listen to the pastor on Sunday and their favorite preacher’s podcast in the week. If they are curious about theology, they will buy books, read articles or enroll in seminary themselves. Many may already have some theological training through Christian college.

The role model piece is also being re-defined. While most pastors live upstanding lives, the high-profile scandals taint their reputation in society. Yet somehow, the expectation of perfection continues. The reality is that given  the current set up, the only image people get of pastors is who they are in the pulpit. Then, it is no surprise that when they get to know them better the reality falls short of the pulpit image.  This would be the case with any politician, artist or any other celebrity.

Pastors don’t counsel anymore. They leave this to therapists who many times have little training to address spiritual issues that come enmeshed in psychological issues. The current dominant church model defines the pastor’s job on a 45-60 minute sermon on Sunday and the administration of the church. He or she is judged by her weekly performance. On the administration side, most pastors struggle.  They tend to be poor administrators. Pastoring and managing require very different and at time diametrically opposed skills. The good administrator is rarely the compassionate type.

Then there is the constant comparison to the successful mega-church pastor. North American evangelical society projects the image of the successful CEO in every pastor. Well attended conferences teach the “how-toss” of building a mega ministry. Books tell tales of success affirming that if so pastor made it so can any pastor who follows these steps. They are to strive for the success portrayed by large and wealthy ministries even at the expense of family and spiritual health. Even those who are immune to this comparison trap face the harsh reality that their small or mid-size church is competing with mega-churches for the same parishioners in the area.

It is no surprise that many pastors are quitting their jobs. This is not only true for the small church pastor struggling to make ends meet. It is becoming a reality for even high-profile preachers.  The recent resignation of high-profile preachers like Francis Chan and Rob Bell is an intriguing turn of events. No, these guys did not step down because of moral failures. They simply walked away from highly successful ministries to pursue different opportunities. Another bizarre twist was a Swedish mega-church Pentecostal pastor stepping down and “converting” to Catholicism. While these pastors may be unique, you have to wonder what would drive successful pastors to step down. Are those anomalies or symptoms of larger problems in the church system?

 

My journey with church

Let me return to the series on the changing landscape of spirituality. After the first part where I described some current trends in church attendance, I now turn to my own experience with the church. My dad probably preached a sermon in the week I was born. Heck, I might have been born inside a church building considering how central this institution has been in my life. One of my first social memories was in church. That was the first place, outside my family, where I found my place in the world. In many ways, it was a second home. There I felt loved, accepted and understood – until everything changed.

In my early adolescent years, this world collapsed. My parents informed me that the church which we have been part was dissolving. Being not just a member but in the pastor’s family meant our lives were about to change drastically. In a year’s time, we moved to the United States to a whole new culture that also included a whole new church environment. No longer I was the preacher’s kid in the church of my childhood. I was now a Brazilian charismatic Christian teenager trying to find a place in the Southern Baptist Caucasian American church. What a shock! My experience in the mega-church youth ministry was bizarre. It really felt like a whole different gospel. While I met sincere believers along the way, my impression overall was of a shallow Christianity. We were not being nourished, we were being entertained.

Then came the college years. This is a time where your mind is stretched, your world is re-interpreted and your faith is deeply challenged. In the midst of that, I struggled again to find a place in the student ministries available on campus. I sensed the similar shallow youth group approach and just could not connect with Christians at the school. Thankfully, I did find a home church with a pastor willing to take me in and help me find Christian community again. For a while it felt familiar –here I was in a charismatic church that operated in similar ways to what I had grown accustomed to.

Yet, this sense of familiarity would soon grow into restlessness. After college and now married, I found myself feeling out of place again. The evangelical theology that raised me seemed now utterly inadequate to address the challenges of married life and vocation. Church services were endless searches for the supernatural with little connection to daily life. There was also very little incentive to think through these issues and a lot of emphasis on unquestioning belief. I felt depressed. For months, I would dread the weekend knowing we would have to go to church. This went on for years. At this point I came to settle in this strange position of loving the universal church but believing I would never find a true home church again.

Finally, a glimmer of hope appeared. In my late twenties, I found a church that made me believe in church again. The worship, the message and the environment exuded freshness. For the first time in over a decade, I had found a home. I found fellow believers struggling to work their faith through a changing environment with the courage to ask the unspoken questions. Yet, God is never satisfied to leave us at awe of anything but Him. Soon came crushing disappointments, unfulfilled promises and a growing sense that it was time to leave. This was a slow but painful process that would eventually send us across the country to California for a new beginning.

My story is somewhat unique, yet the themes are very common.  The evangelical bubble burst, and we had to learn to find God in new ways. By God’s grace, I never left the faith. Yet many of my on-fire fellow teeange believers have become jaded adults, skeptical of church, faith and at times even God. I would not have survived have it not been for a disciplined devotional life that carried me to God’s arms when the church could not do so. More recently, I have also learned the power of Christian community when I myself could not do it on my own.

To me this is not just a topic of study. It is deeply personal. I do it not in a desire to expose the failings of institutional church but hopefully to help those who have grown disillusioned with it. It is only through study and prayer that I have come to see the universal and timeless bride of Christ. Thorough this perspective I am learning to love her with all her faults. Yet, I also believe we are in a time of transition. A time in which the Church may not be contained only in the human organizations we built to contain her. What does that look like and how will it take form?

Like the people of Israel, we too are experiencing exile. The familiar is no longer certain, but only a vague memory of a country we left behind. What will it take to be faithful to Christ in the Babylon of fast change? These are the questions I am concerned with.

 

Why we are sponsoring a child with World Vision

Before I go back to my series on quitting church, I wanted to weigh in on a current controversy that still lingers. I know that for some this is old news but late in March, World Vision announced that it would start hiring individuals in same sex relationships. Two days later, the organization reversed its decision after the uproar in the evangelical community against it. You can read more about the controversy here.

Today, I stumbled upon this podcast in the Gospel Coalition site where a pastor re-tells how he and his congregation reacted to the controversy.  To be fair, the podcast had some positive points. If you are looking for hatred or caricature image of conservatives you will not find here. Here was a pastor looking to engage people with same-sex attraction, while still holding a biblical view of marriage.

However, what was sorely missing from this discussion was any allusion to the impact this controversy had on sponsorships. The pastor did encourage people to sponsor again but this was a very short portion of the broadcast. Maybe, this was a tacit show of priorities in the evangelical mindset right now: fighting culture wars first, helping the poor second.  Some estimates claim that as high as 10,000 lost sponsorships. This is when I decided to write something about it. I honestly find it tremendously un-biblical (to say the least) to neglect the poor in such manner. What was missing from this podcast was that this was not about cultural wars but about helping the most vulnerable in the world. Both presenter and the pastor totally neglected this very important point.

What makes really upset is that even after the policy was reversed, past sponsors have not returned.  World Vision probably considered this decision not because of pressure from society but by realizing that to hire the most competent people; they may need to consider those in same-sex relationships. Honestly, if this is the standard for doing business with a company then evangelicals should not buy anything from most Fortune 500 companies. The majority of them already hires and provides benefits for people in same-sex relationships.

I hope evangelicals who oppose same-sex marriage will realize that the child in Kenya needing help is more important than a political statement in the US. This is an example of trying to win a battle while missing its impact in the overall war. I do not have space in this post to list all the verses in Bible in which points toward caring for the poor and or God’s negative view of those who do not.

After this controversy, we decided to start sponsoring a child ourselves. We thought we needed to put our money where our mouth is. I encourage all of you to consider doing as well, REGARDLESS of your thoughts on same-sex marriage. For Christ’s sake, let us never forget the least of these.

 

Why do we go to church? – When church attendance hinders faith

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation outside of the church)

The statement above summarized the belief the Medieval Western church held in regards to the importance of the church. For centuries, Christians have attributed the local church as the center of salvation and spiritual growth. There were exceptions, as the monastic movements in the early 2nd – 4th century reminds us, who believed spiritual vitality was to be found in the desert. Yet, for most of church history, the focus has been on institutional participation. There is much to be said about finding spiritual nourishment outside church services. But what if church participation actually hampers and limits spiritual growth?

Let me explain. In the last weeks I’ve been looking over two books that shed some light in the current transition in the North American church. The first one is the The American Church in Crisis which summarizes current trends based a 200,000 church database research. The second one is Quitting Church in which a journalist compiles the stories of people who have recently left the church. The picture painted by these books is revealing and cannot be ignored any longer. Let me quickly summarize them in a few bullet points pertinent to our topic above:

– Every denomination in the US is currently undergoing either decline or slowing growth. While some churches are growing, the overall trend is clear: a smaller % of the US population will be attending churches in the future.

– While there is a net growth (opens minus closures) of 300 churches in the US, this is far below what is needed to keep up with population growth.

– Single women, people over 35, influential people, mature Christians and even charismatics are leaving the church in significant numbers. The millenials are in no hurry to get and in and single men stop considering it an option a long time ago.

– People that left the church over time show little sign of missing the experience and some have found alternative ways to fill their spiritual needs.

As one who works with data for a living, I appreciate both these authors research and reporting of their findings. Their analysis of the problem is right on. Yet, both seem to ask the same question as the next step: “What can churches do to get them back?” Usually, the answer goes: plant more churches. Now, you have to ask, is the approach to current problem to do more of what has not worked in the past? I understand the value of church plants and how they tend to grow (or die) faster than established churches. But really, is that the best we can do?

A group who is not captured by these statistics is those who stay but struggle. Given my personal experience and those around me, even married couples with children (for long the prime demographic of church attendance) are starting to have doubts. I am also overwhelmed by the stories of hurt from  church plant experiences – life plans shattered, families falling apart, promises un-kept, depression, financial ruin to name a few. I hear a lot of things from seminary friends these days but planting a church is not one of them. This is not a good sign, possibly foreshadowing a future decline beyond the current trends. When you see so many faithful and strong Christians struggling to stay in the very institution designed to help them grow, you have to wonder: Maybe the surprise shouldn’t be why so many people are leaving but why so many have stayed.

What if the right question is not how to get them back (or keep them in) but how to help them thrive spiritually wherever they are? Much of the books written on the topic seem focused on helping churches become more efficient organizations so they can grow enough to make up for their losses. This is a business mindset way to address the problem that can only do so much. You can market a product in a 1000 different ways, but it will still not sell if people don’t want to buy it. And by the way, word on the street is that customer service is very poor. Certainly, this is not just a business problem but an issue of institutional survival.

What if the problem is more systemic? What if the local church centered system has become obsolete and believers need new ways to fill their spiritual needs? What if the church can thrive outside of the “church” instead of confined in it? What if the local congregation is no longer the center of spiritual growth and formation? What would this world look like and how would it function?

In the next blogs, I would like to explore this topic that has occupied my thoughts lately. I hope to provide some good information and insight but above all to start a conversation. I welcome your feedback and comments: positive or negative.

I don’t claim to be an expert on this but intend to become a disciplined learner.