Category Archives: theology

The Charismatic Experience

These are the days I am grateful to be studying in a seminary like Fuller. In a class of systematic theology focused on  Christology, Soteriology and Pneumatology (for those of you wondering what they mean, the first is pretty obvious, the second is salvation and the third is about the Holy Spirit), we have spent a week talking about healing and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Our professor, a respected Pentecostal Theologian, really did great justice to these controversial topics. When they come up, it is easy to fall on two extremes. One of them is to simply ignore them and pretend that they should not be part of serious theological discussion but something that happens “over there” with those “crazy Pentecostals.” I would venture to guess that the majority of evangelical seminaries in the U.S. would take this position. The other extreme, is the Pentecostal-Charismatic position that focus primarily on the experience. In other words, they have a point to prove and hope that you will also experience these topics first-hand. What this position lacks is a serious theological reflection on how the Baptism of the Spirit and healing fit into a larger theological framework.

The class online forum led me to reflect on the importance of these two in my Christian formation. The experience of the gifts of the Spirit were with me from an early age. Being brought up in a Brazilian Charismatic church, they loomed large in my experience and imagination. I never experienced the baptism of the Spirit in the classical Pentecostal way, that is through imposition of hands. If was not this dramatic experience in which I fell into a transe of speaking in Tongues. I did witness that happen but that was not the path for me. That is why, I was glad to learn about a more balanced view put forward by both Charismatic Catholics and Protestants. That is, they do not see the baptism as an event in which the Spirit “falls” but more like an activation of what is within. That is, the Spirit, that was already there after salvation, endows the believer with charismatic gifts. This can include the gift of tongues or others.

This balanced view both emphasizes the importance of the charismatic experience without boxing into specific visible signs (which is what the classical Pentecostal view argues). Instead,, it connects the Charismatic experience with a larger experience of regeneration that starts in salvation. Instead of being a separate “second-blessing” type experience, it is an important step in the journey towards union with God (an orthodox view of spiritual formation). That is, the charismatic experience is not there just to unleash power so the believer can reach the world but also to deepen intimacy with the Trinity through the work of the Spirit. I am grateful for the Pentecostal idea of empowerement. Yet, I believe that does not paint the whole picture. God does not just want us to be super-Christians to heal the sick, reveal prophecies or speak of the unknown. He wants to commune with us in the charismatic experience.

This possibility excites me more than any miraculous demonstration. To know God intimately is the desire and the design of our whole being.

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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?

 

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.

Doing theology is like playing with Legos

As a dad, I enjoy playing with my children. My oldest, Sophia  loves building castles with plastic pieces. She always asks me to join her in this playful task. As we build together, we discuss every step and detail. I put a structure together and she expresses approval or disapproval. We then imagine together what the castle we are building looks like trying to reproduce it with the pieces we have at our disposal. They come in different shapes, sizes and colors allowing us to combine them in a myriad ways. Sometimes, I may have a picture of what I want to build but at the end the building happens through our interaction. While Sophia loves building castles, a big part of the fun is to tear them down. We then go back to pieces spread out on the floor ready to start on a new castle. We both find satisfaction in what we build and then are eager to show others. It is the joy of a creator looking at his or her creation and saying “this is good!”

 Our time of play is a good image for doing theology. Theology is about building a model by using the sources we have available to us to explain the Triune mystery. In our imagination we have an image that we translate to building with the pieces we have. The final product is not a perfect reflection of the original concept yet it is a faithful model of that picture.

 Whenever we try to articulate our ideas about God, we are doing theology. Because of the limitations of our pieces (i.e.: tradition, Scripture, experience, community, culture, etc.), our final product can never be a perfect picture but only an approximation. This reflects the potential and the limitations of theology. The potential is that indeed we have enough materials to make a faithful representation of God. The limitation is that this representation will always fall short of our inspiration. In light of that, it sounds rather foolish to wage battles about our Lego castles with each other. Yet, we have much to gain in learning from our different castles.

While there may ultimately not be a right theology, it is not all subjective. For a while when I played with Sophia we would get stuck not knowing what to build. Our play would eventually end because we ran out of ideas or could not quite build something we wanted. A couple of months ago my niece stayed with us and built some really awesome structures with our Legos. This improved our skill and spurred our imagination to be better builders. Therefore, in the process of theology it is important to learn from those who are better skilled than us. This can come from many sources: books, conversation, email exchanges and experiencing worship with communities outside our tradition. We need these interactions to improve our abilities to articulate the God reality.  

Finally, in theology the process matters as much as the outcome. We don’t build castles alone. The beauty of our Lego experience is both in the final product and in the process of building it. We start with different ideas but as we interact a castle is built which is better than both of our ideas. Above all humility is needed or else the whole process breaks done and nothing valuable gets built. We must enjoy tearing down our castles every once in a while. The goal is not perfection but enrichment through mining the boundless God.  

 

Responding to an evangelical review of the Noah Movie

When you live close to tinsel town, somehow you start paying more attention to movies. Believe me, it is inescapable. I often get notices at work of streets closing because of some filming event. I never watched (or really cared about) the Oscars yet watched the whole thing last Sunday (and actually enjoyed it a little).  So, I was intrigued by a recent review of the upcoming movie Noah posted in Christianity Today. In it, Dr. Johnson outlines five negative features of the film. His review exposed more his own theological assumptions than the problems of the movie itself. Let me explain.

His first claim is that the movie’s portrayal of Noah, “does not ring true.” Dr. Johnson takes issue of when the movie shows a “darker” side of Noah who is struggling with the evil of humanity. In the theologian’s view, this does not sound like the Biblical Noah who is called “righteous” in the Bible. This then begs the question: Do righteous people never struggle with sin and or anger against evil? It sounds like the Noah does not fit the “Sunday school” picture of Noah as opposed the true biblical Noah. Now really, if the Bible is not shy in showing the sins of the righteous why are we so worried about portraying them as perfect?  So, instead of asking whether the movie’s Noah rings true, I start wondering if Dr. Johnson’s Noah is true.

His second negative feature is that the “environmental agenda is overdone.” That is, the movie shows Noah more concerned with environmental degradation then moral sins (sex and violence). What I find profoundly ironic (and a little sad) was the theologian’s inability to connect violence and environmental abuse. To quote him: “The textual emphasis is on “violence.” Not a word about hunting or mining; knowing this, the environmental agenda feels phony.” Really? So violence against humans is a sin but against the environment is not? Could it be that the movie is shining a light on a blind spot of our Western colonial theology that believes that one should respect human life but has no concern for any other type of life? I found it intriguing how he could not connect hunting and mining with violence. Not to say that these are sinful practices yet their abuse certainly constitute a violence of the worst kind; one that has implications not only for the environment but for humans as well. Maybe God is also concerned about the environment.

I could go on, but in trying to keep these posts under 600 words, I’ll stop here. I guess, what I am realizing is that God can speak through unlikely sources. I am not a defender or even a fan of Hollywood. To me, it is an industry beset by the same problems as any other. Yet, I wonder if God could be using prophets within culture and the arts to speak to us about what we have neglected for so long. Could it be that our theology is too small to accommodate a serious critique of environmental degradation as a sinful practice? Are we too busy making Biblical characters look like safe image while at same time denying the reality that they (and we all) struggle with sin?

I have not watched the movie and may change my mind afterwards. I am sure, I’ll find things I don’t like in it. Yet, is that really the point? I would love for any cultural means of art and entertainment to spread Godly ideas and encourage virtue rather than destruction. Yet, does that mean they have to agree 100% with my own evangelical theology?

The Practice of Unlearning

I love to see my children learn, they are like little sponges. Sophia, our 4 year-old, will diligently repeat every new word we teach her sometimes with her own pronunciation. This is quite an exercise for her as we are teaching her to speak words in two languages. She is great with one or two syllable words but has more difficulty with anything larger. So chocolate, becomes “chocate” and so forth.

There is however one advantage she has over us: she learning most things anew. At this point she is only learning while we adults are doing a whole lot of unlearning while attempting to learn new things. In an age where is information is so readily accessible, true learning requires a good amount of un-learning first. Let me explain. While we have a tremendous capacity to process (or digest which is a more humane way of seeing this process) information, most of it does not really stay with us. There is only a limited amount of information, skills and habits we can retain and use on a day-to-day basis. Thus, in order to truly learn something new we must first let go of the old.

This season has been on of unlearning for me. As I worked in business for over a decade (and got a MBA along the way), I am now starting to un-learn the business mindset. While this may not be evident to many, many business practices are grossly incompatible with the spiritual life. Ideas like efficiency, expediency, drive for success, pursuit of profit now have to be re-evaluated if not thrown away altogether. Not that they are intrinsically evil, yet an unquestioning adoption of them can be deadly to the soul. One remarkable new concept is the idea that the best things are formed slowly through time which is completely at odds with a culture that drives for speed and instant results.

Another unlearning I am going through is the idea that it is best to lead life and make decisions through reason. This is a hard one to let go. While I always recognized the role of the Spirit in life major decisions, my main default was reason and rationality. A cool, well articulated argument was always to be preferred over an emotion-filled plea. Through years, I learned to suppress and ignore emotions in the altar of reason. To go through life thinking that it was all about making the right choices that only can be arrived through by careful reasoning and deliberation. I am learning that the Spiritual way is altogether different and a lot less by ideas an a lot more by feelings and hunches.

From the beginning, I suspected that the most important aspect of this time would be what God would be doing in me. That is, it would not be about what I learned but what I was to become. Part of becoming is slow, long and arduous process of un-learning.

The biggest aim of the Spiritual life is not success, knowledge or even wisdom but discernment. Yet, how can we discern if our very mindset is bent on suppressing the very channels God wants to speak to us through. Do we have ears to listen to what the Spirit is saying? May our emotions, reasoning, and all our senses be open to capture the wind of the Spirit? 

Doing Theology in (truly) Global Contexts

I haven’t been doing much blog lately as classes, work and life are a little overwhelming. Yet, I wanted to leave a quick imprint of this time for those of you who are praying and thinking of us from afar. Our time here has been quite an adventure and I am grateful every day for the gift of being here.

In the beginning of every quarter, I put myself through this grueling ordeal. I attend three classes and then force myself to drop one (as keeping 3 with a full-time job would be simply insane). The difficult part is having to drop a class after being there for the first day. So far, this is the second quarter and in both quarters I ended up changing my mind in the first week. “Doing theology in Global Context” was a wildcard class, an elective, that I added just because it sounded interesting. In my mind I was set on taking Biblical studies class and a Spiritual practices class (both that were required for

 my degree). Yet, after my first visit to DTGC, I was undone. I HAD to take that class. The professor was good and topic interesting but the real gift of the class was my fellow students.

Let me describe my class yesterday. In the first part, we gathered in groups to discuss our readings. We had 5 people in our group, literally representing almost every continent on the Earth. We weren’t just discussing theology in a global context; we were DOING theology right there in a very global context. It was beautiful to see how God’s Spirit was weaving common themes in the narratives of our very different lives. The only bad part was that after 15 minutes we had to stop.

In the second part, we watched a video of Asian-American theologian reflecting in his experience within Western theological circles. His main argument was to encourage Asian-Americans to start reflecting theologically WITH their cultural heritage rather than in spite of it. This resonated well with me as I struggle to do theology as a Brazilian-American-Charismatic-with-Anglican-leanings in a Western seminary like Fuller.

In the last part, we actually divided in groups based on geographical region to discuss a reading on Philippine Catholic theology. I felt at home sitting with a fellow Brazilian, a Uruguyan and a Chilean brother as we discussed what it meant to be evangelical in our cultures and our relationship with Catholicism. At the end we mused about what would it mean to develop a theology around “El Chavo / Chaves”(a Mexican comedy show that is known by just about every Latin American that grew up in the 80’s).

This is WHY we moved to California to be at Fuller. It is not just to get an education but be immersed in Global Christianity with fellow believers from all the parts of the world. This is where I feel most alive, right there basking in the beauty of the diversity of God’s people as we grapple with what it means to theologize in an ever changing world.  As our world gets bigger, we also catch a glimpse of the vastness of our boundless God.