Who is my neighbor?

‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’

And then the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

On Saturday I experienced a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. After spending the morning doing various things to serve our downtown community, members of our church went out and invited everyone they met to have lunch with us. Many came.

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It was a powerful experience that taught me several lessons about myself, humanity, the gospel, and the church:

  1. Myself: My fear of being patronizing often causes me to hold back. I deeply desire to encounter those with  fewer resources, less cultural power, and (perhaps) greater physical need as equals. This can be difficult to do, and so the fear of perceiving myself as a savior often causes me to miss out on deeper relationships with those who are different than myself.
  2. Humanity: All of us are united both in our dignity and our degradation. The photo above is linked to a collection of portraits of homeless people. As I clicked through the gallery, I was struck by the juxtaposition of dignity and degradation. Stare into the piercing gazes of these people and you will see their dignity. Eyeball don’t age, do they? Yet, those same eyes are set in a deteriorating and unwashed body. It’s no different for me. The form may be different, but I too combine dignity and degradation.
  3. The Gospel: The invitation to the banquet only deeply resonates with those who recognize their need. Those who respond to the message of the gospel are those who see their need. Those who joined us for a simply lunch of sloppy joe’s and potato salad where those who recognized and admitted their need for a free meal.
  4. The Church: The church is a parable of Jesus and so together our story has to mirror Jesus’ story in the gospels. It’s quite difficult for anyone to encounter Jesus in abstraction. Most of us will encounter Jesus through a message-bearer. As the church, we are the bearers of the message that there is free grace offered to us by God through Christ.

Let’s be clear, I’m no Mother Theresa. I am, at best, an apprentice at loving my neighbor. However, God met even me in the simple act of sharing a meal with those in our downtown neighborhood.

 

The Celtic Way of Evangelism – A Review

George G. Hunter, III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. 10th rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010). 130pp.

A single question is central to the mission of the local congregation: how can we translate the gospel message for our context? The answer to this question will have implications for every part of our life together. It will influence our discipleship, and it will shape our engagement with our city.

The last sixty years have witnessed significant change in American society. In 1953 few would have anticipated an African American President, the legalization of same sex marriage in several state, or the church being moved to the margins of society. Yet, these are the days we have been given and our commission is to faithfully and effectively communicate the gospel in this new milieu.

George Hunter’s book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism offers insight into how the Christian community can engage these new realities. To do so he draws on the Irish mission work of Saint Patrick, a British Christian who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. He escaped and years later returned to engage in a highly effective apostolic mission to the land of his captivity.

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Hunter provides a significant amount of historical background that helps the reader come to know Patrick as well as the key distinctions between the Celtic and the Roman expressions of the Christian faith.

This book does not contain a strategy so much as express a vision of what the Christian community can be, and must be, in order to do effective mission in our post-Christendom culture. Hunter identifies ten characteristics of Celtic Christianity the translate to characteristics of effective missional communities today. I will highlight four: contact, community, contextualization, and conversation.

Conversion almost always happens in the context of a relationship (i.e., contact) with both an individual Christian and a community of Christians. Authentic, trusting friendship with a Christian is often a key avenue through which the Holy Spirit draws a not-yet Christian into the kingdom. Relationships–with all that is entailed with sustaining them–were central to the Celtic way of evangelism. Are you intentionally nurturing an authentic friendship with a not-yet Christian?

A unique understanding of community marked the Celtic approach to mission–belonging preceded believing. Celtic communities were hospitable to people, encouraging them to become a part of the community without the expectation that they change in order to be welcome. This is an echo of the gospel–God doesn’t require us to change before he welcomes us. Instead, he welcomes us in order to change us. As a church, are we welcoming strangers and people who aren’t like us? Or, do we inwardly expect people to change (learn “Christian etiquette) before they become part of our community?

Christian missiologist David Bosch informs us, “the Christian faith never exists except as ‘translated’ into a culture.” The job of the church is to work to effectively and faithfully ‘translate’ the message so that it can be heard by the members of our culture, one in which the Christian worldview is no longer ascendent. At the very least the work of contextualization requires taking seriously the changes in assumptions that are now evident in culture. For one, there is no longer an assumption that everyone ought to at least publicly give lip service to the Judeo-Christian ethics. If we start by assuming traditional ethics, our witness to the gospel will go nowhere fast.

Celtic Christianity placed a high value on conversation as opposed to presentation. Conversation is bilateral; presentation is unilateral. The ministry of conversation is central to becoming a new creation in Christ since we encounter the gospel most fully through relationships. Conversation is also significant for discipleship. Celtic Christianity emphasized the role of “spiritual friends” as companions as we follow the way of Christ–people who help us to live out the message in the midst of the realities of life in a broken world.

The Celtic Way of Evangelism is a helpful book that offers much to prayerfully consider as we collectively try to discern what it means both to love God ourselves and to lead our city to God as well.

Is missional the church’s Vietnam?

The Vietnam War was one of the most unpopular wars ever fought by the United States. It cost a lot of lives. It cost a lot of money. It ended unsatisfactorily. It never should have happened as it did. And while it might seem strange to point to Vietnam as a case study for mission in contemporary America, I think it’s apropos. The Vietnam War demonstrates what happens when leaders confuse tactical change with adaptive change. That is to say, the war in Vietnam turned out the way it did because its military leaders (with the prodding of their political leaders) tried over and over again to what they already knew how to do, only harder. If the church attempts simply to do what it’s already doing, only harder, don’t be surprised if the outcome is similar.

General William Westmoreland
General William Westmoreland

According to Thomas Ricks in his magnificent book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012) the strategic failure in Vietnam took place because the senior military leader, Army General William “Westy” Westmoreland, had neither the intelligence nor the imagination to understand the type of war that he should have been fighting. 

He failed to grasp that anything other than the force on force warfare of World War II and, to a lesser extent, Korea could be effective in achieving the strategic aims of the United States in Vietnam. In his defense, it seems that successive administrations had failed to successfully define those aims.

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Marine General Victor Krulak

 

At the same time a different branch of the armed forces, the Marine Corps, was employing a remarkably different strategy. By the late sixties the Marine Corps had determined that a counter-insurgency strategy was the only option that would provide anything other than minimal results with a high price tag. They had learned this lesson both from French forces who fought in Indo China and the British campaign in Malaya. Writing in 1967 Marine Lt. General Victor Krulak wrote, “The Vietnamese people are the prize” rather than simply taking possession of territory or killing a certain number enemy combatants.

Westmoreland and other senior Army leaders failed to consult the French or the British in their planning. They derided the Marine Corps as avoiding the fight. As (Army) Maj General Harry Kinnard put it, “I did everything I could to drag them out and get them to fight….They wouldn’t play.”

The Army strategy in Vietnam was to envision it as a continuation of World War II only in a different place. This view is nicely summarized by one of Westmoreland’s commanders who said, “The solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm…till the other side cracks and gives up.” The other side never cracked.

If the church insists that all we need to do is keep doing what we have been doing for the last fifty years, but harder or with better style, we will miss the great opportunity this present moment is giving us to move mission from the periphery of the life of the church to its very core.

Some authors who write on this topic suggest that almost all of our current ways of understanding and practicing being the church must be redefined or rejected. Sunday worship? Church buildings? Ordained clergy? All can be done away with according to these writers. The church can become a diffuse organic network of related Christ-followers spread throughout a city and living their lives in mission. This is a wonderful part of the story of being the church, but its just that–only a part of the story. 

We have the chance to rediscover the many resources and ways of worshipping practiced by the ancient (pre-modern) church that will prove to be indispensable as we navigate into our postmodern world.