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Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective
The techniques for evangelism known as the Church Growth Movement, were first introduced to North America in 1961. I use the word techniques deliberately, as the movement sought to use sociological research to select social groups that could be reached through the use of modern marketing methods. The key assumption of the movement was that people are most likely to feel comfortable with and trust people like themselves.
Does this sound like an opportunity to share the gospel more effectively?
Or does it sound like a description of the problem that we should expect the gospel to overcome?
Why are churches still the most segregated places in North America?
Has the Church Growth Movement done anything to heal tensions between ethnic groups?
How many close friends do you or I have who are of a different skin colour or different ethnic origin?
How open are we to changing that?
This is where we need to accept that the best way to change the world is to start with ourselves. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. If we are to make any lasting friendships with people who are not just like us, we are going to learn that we have not always been such nice people as we thought we were. That might be painful, but it can be liberating, too.
Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Colossians 3:11 (Substitute the peoples in your city for the underlined words.)
“I have a dream!” As Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior spoke those words in 1963, millions around the world dared to dream with him of a better day; a day when outward differences would lose their power to divide us; a day when we could all join hands to work together, to pray together.
That dream frightened some people; on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet ended Reverend King’s life. That assassination happened in Memphis, Tennessee, the hometown of Elvis Presley. Two months later, Elvis used his prodigious talent to rekindle the dream, recording the song “If I can dream,” echoing Martin Luther King’s dream of a better land where there was peace and understanding.
What happened to that dream? Why is there still so much prejudice, so much fear? Why is it still possible to say that the most segregated place in America is a church on Sunday morning? I am a Canadian; we like to say we do not have the race problem that exists south of our border. When I lived in Montreal in the 90’s maybe 5% of the city’s population was black and it looked like every one of them was heading to a church on Sunday morning. And it looked like about 5% of the white population were also on their way to church. But they went to different churches, sometimes the same denominations, but different churches.
The dream is essentially a Christian dream. If it will come true anywhere, it has to happen first among Christian people. What is our problem?
I could blame the Church Growth Movement. One feature of their mission strategy was to use the marketing methods of the world to divide people into natural affinity groups and tailor the gospel message to appeal to each group. I thought the gospel was supposed to unite people, not divide them.
But the real problem is our fear of getting to know people different from us. Ignorance breeds mistrust. We have been taught what was right, and it is so plain that there is something evil about a person who does things differently. If we step out of our comfort zone and meet some of those other people, we risk the pain of having to re-examine our preconceived ideas.
It is worth the risk, and the pain. Most likely, we will find that our ideas are not quite the same as God’s ideas; our traditions have bent, not only the way we perceive other people, but the way we perceive what God is telling us in His Word.
We will not change the entire world. All God asks of us is to see our little corner of the world in a new light, the way He sees it. That is enough. It will make a difference.
I was looking for a home—a family. An inner longing was pushing me to search for a church where there would be truth and warmth. Sometimes in my mind I thought I had found it, but that inner longing told me—No, this isn’t what you need.
I met many good people along the way, picked up little pieces of truth that I hadn’t known before, but always the emptiness within remained unsatisfied. Sometimes I visited a church once, sometimes I stayed for a year or two, but each experience ended in disappointment.
I reached the end of my search, was almost ready to give up. I had never thought the picture in my mind of what the ideal church should be was a problem. Then God told me I needed to give up that picture and allow Him to show me what I needed and where I should look.
From there on it was easy. Well, at least it was easy to find the church that was exactly what I was looking for. I had known of this church for years, but never gave it serious consideration because it did not fit the picture in my mind. Once I had checked out all the alternatives, God led me to take another look at this church. This time I knew it was where I wanted to be, where God wanted me to be.
My mind was at rest, my heart was at peace. This was the home for which I had searched. The doctrines of the church were Biblical, solid and complete. Brotherly love was genuine, not an act. Ministers were untrained and unsalaried, yet better able to discern between the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of the world than any others I had met. All the members were born again. I did not meet any who thought they had just grown into salvation, or who thought showing the requisite level of enthusiasm, or wearing a certain unique cut of clothing, was evidence of the new birth.
God led me to my earthly spiritual home. But a spiritual family is much like a natural family. We are different people, with different tastes, different ways of doing things, different stresses in our life. Sometimes someone else steps on my toes, my feelings get hurt. I need to forgive; it wasn’t deliberate—I don’t know how many times I have stepped on someone else’s toes; I didn’t intend to, it just happens. I don’t know because they have forgiven me and got on with living.
Some are weak among us, they need help. Sometimes help comes in the way of correction, sometimes in practical help. We always offer help in kindness. Some are new in the faith, they need encouragement. Some make mistakes, they need forbearance. We are family, when one member is hurting, we all feel the pain.
Some members have come from different cultural backgrounds, some have not come from happy homes. Sometimes the help we offer is. Sometimes we don’t quite understand what is going on. But we are still family and we do our best to love and support one another as the Holy Spirit leads.
Time was that most Canadians attended a church where Christian values were taught and claimed to govern their lives by those teachings. In such circumstances governments found it expedient to pay lip service at least to Christian principles and to legislate accordingly.
Times have changed. A survey several years ago found that 16% of Canadians attend church each week and only 5% of us read the Bible daily. 55% have never in their life opened a Bible and read a few words in it.
The few of us who still read, believe and endeavour to live by the Bible are left in disarray by this shifting of the ground beneath our feet. It’s all the fault of the government, we say. This was once a Christian country, but it doesn’t feel like it anymore.
We are avoiding reality when we say such things. The government did not create the situation we find ourselves in and has no ability to remedy it. Political activism is a snare for the Christian, a means of diverting us into fruitless activity while the world around us pursues its downward course.
Another danger for Christians is to draw apart from the troubles of the world and concentrate on being ready for our Lord’s return. But this is just the self-centred attitude that has allowed the society we live in to drift into its present situation.
For as Christians we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens. Jesus said we are the salt of the earth. He was talking of salt as a preservative, the only means available in those times to prevent food from spoiling. What good is salt if it is deposited in little piles that have no contact with what it is supposed to preserve?
He also said we are the light of the world and warned us not to hide our light under a bushel. If we cannot talk about our Christian faith in terms that are readily understood by others, isn’t that hiding our light under a bushel? Worse still is to think we don’t have to say anything, people will observe us and be drawn to enquire about our faith. Really? When we don’t even know how to articulate that faith?
When the people of God were taken captives to Babylon, the Holy Spirit inspired Jeremiah to tell them to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”
Paul told Timothy: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”
Can we say that we love God with all our being and our neighbour as ourselves if we decide the best thing for us to do is live in peace and quietness and let the world go on its merry way to destruction?
That wasn’t the way the early Christians thought, nor the Anabaptist martyrs whom we call our forefathers. There is no such thing as a Christian country. Never has been. There used to be Christian people. Do they still exist today? Do our neighbours know anything about them?
What picture comes to your mind when you think of Africa? A remote village of mud huts with scantily clad people scratching their subsistence from the soil with hand tools? Or modern cities with skyscrapers, factories, hospitals and universities?
Both scenarios exist, but far more people live in the cities. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, with the largest population. There are 20,000 millionaires in Nigeria nd 20 billionaires.
The wealthiest man in Nigeria is Aliko Dangote with interests in the manufacture of cement, sugar and petroleum products. The fourth wealthiest person in Nigeria is Folorunsho Alakija, a lady who started out as a fashion designer and now also has investments in the oil industry. She has created a foundation to help widows and orphans through scholarships and business grants.
Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of university graduation. Emigrants from Nigeria are among the most successful immigrants in Canada, the USA and the UK.
I believe it was at least 10 years ago that someone said that the heartland of evangelical Christianity is now in Africa, not North America. Nigerian churches see North America and Europe as mission fields. In Saskatoon, our nearest city, there are five or six congregations of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, including one French-language congregation. There is also a congregation of the Deeper Christian Life Bible Church. The Anglican churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America have severed all ties with the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the USA and are now guiding the establishment of a new Anglican movement in North America that is more true to the Bible, especially in the area of morality.
What is true of Nigeria is also true of other African countries in varying degrees. It is true that there is still much poverty in some places, but economic growth rates are astounding.
There are acts of terrorism in various places by hard line Islamists. I have no prophetic vision of how this is all going to play out in coming years, but I wonder if these acts might not a last ditch attempt to hold back the tide that they see sweeping over Africa.
Is it time to take a fresh look at Africa and African people? The evidence shows that these black-skinned people are in no way inferior to white-skinned people. We are equals, in intellect, in faith, in management ability, and we should respect each other as equals.
International aid has done more to hold Africa back than to help it move forward. Emergency aid in time of disaster is always in place, but it would probably be best to have it administered by local people as much as possible. Sending used clothing and mosquito nets may give us a worm glow, but does it undercut the local production of those goods?
Surely it’s time to revamp our selection of mission hymns. The idea of carrying the gospel to “every dark land” has always given a skewed idea of mission work; we need to find better ways to describe the practice of being ambassadors for Christ. The call to proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints and to make disciples in all the world has not expired. But we render ourselves unfit for the task if some illusion of superiority still lingers in the way we relate to others.
Once upon a time a family was given a wonderful elixir that would cure every disease of mankind. They bottled it in plain brown bottles and offered it for sale to others. The price was very high and it didn’t taste very good, but it worked.
As time went on the descendants of this family developed different points of view on how best to make this elixir available to others.
Group one was very careful to guard the original formula of the elixir. The size and shape and colour of their bottles varied from time to time and place to place, but it remained just as expensive and just as bitter tasting. And just as effective.
Group two thought the bottle was too old-fashioned, let’s make it more eye catching. And something needs to be done to make it taste better, so they added new ingredients. And the price is too high, it turns people off, so the elixir was made of less costly ingredients. There were many disagreements about the best way to make the elixir appeal to the greatest number of people and there began to be many variations of the product on the market.
Group three thought that they dare not tamper with the elixir, so they went to great efforts to obtain bottles that looked just like the originals. They thought they remembered what the formula was, but there was disagreement among them and soon there were many variations of the elixir on the market, all in bottles that looked pretty much the same, each claiming to be the original.
It didn’t take long for people to discover that the elixirs offered by groups two and three did not really work. Soon people began to doubt if there ever was an elixir that did work. They observed that those in group one seemed much healthier than others, but attributed it to factors other than the elixir.
This is an allegory of the churches of our day. Each one claims to be the most trustworthy steward of the faith once delivered to the saints. The world around us expects that if the faith is what Christians say it is, they should be able to see some results. Far too many have given up on Christianity altogether, deeming it to be a fraud that cannot deliver what it promises.
Nevertheless it does work for some. Why not for everybody? Isn’t it because so many who claim to be Christians seem to be more interested in how the bottle looks, the outward appearance, than what is in the bottle, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. (Galatians 5:22-24)
Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. (Romans 8:9)
I believe it was G. K. Chesterton who said “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and therefore not tried.”
I really thought that spring would be here in just a day or two. The sun shone warmly on Saturday, the few patches of snow left were becoming smaller and smaller, we heard of birds coming back to a place just a few hours south of us.
Alas, it was but a dream. We awoke Sunday to a thick covering of fresh snow and rapidly cooling temperatures. Today the wind is blowing fiercely, cleaning the snow from open places and packing it into firm drifts in other places. The forecast doesn’t offer any hope of warmer weather until the 21st when spring officially begins.
No wonder the Romans named this month after Mars, their god of war. Many of the worst blizzards I have experienced arrived without warning during this month.
Wouldn’t it be better to live in a part of the world that never has winter? That sounds like a good idea on days like today. But – I have visited Arkansas and Mississippi at the end of March, when the weather was beautiful and I don’t know how I could survive a summer in those places. Besides, winter provides us with an all natural, ecologically safe barrier to things like fire ants, brown recluse spiders, Burmese pythons and other such creatures. Tornado season here is much shorter and less destructive.
I could go on, but you get the picture. I am accustomed to the hazards of living in this climate and know how to cope with the unpleasant aspects of it. If I moved somewhere else to avoid those issues, would I know how to cope with unfamiliar and unexpected aspects of the new locale?
A Saskatchewan politician visiting in British Columbia once said “A lot of Saskatchewan people move to B.C. because of the climate. Most of them move back because of the weather.” My father-in-law was one. He got so depressed by week after week of clouds, rain, and no sunshine in B.C. that he came back to Saskatchewan.
I think that applies to other aspects of our life. Someone grows frustrated in his job, his marriage, his church, the place he lives, and thinks a change will make things better. (I used the masculine pronouns because that is what I am and what I am most familiar with, not to imply that persons on the feminine side may not have the same temptations.) Most often the result is not what was anticipated.
Often a person will explain the change in one of these relationships by his need to get away from persons who are causing him trouble. Oddly enough, the same kind of persons, causing the same problems, are usually found in the next job, church, town, or marriage. And the next one after that.
If we take an honest look at ourselves, we are apt to find we have a full time job looking after the troubles caused by our own attitudes and actions. If we occupy ourselves with that, we will usually be quite content to stay where we are.
Sometimes there are legitimate reasons to move on, other than discontent with the people we have to do with. My wife and I tried out a number of churches years ago. We met a lot of fine people, but not the spiritual fellowship that we longed for. We have belonged to the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 37 years now. That doesn’t mean we have found nicer people, or better people, it just means that we are content that we are where God wants us to be.
Here in the Swanson congregation we have been trying for over a year to decide what to do about our aging church building. Such a situation provides endless possibilities for conflict. But it also creates possibilities for confession and apology when attitudes and words have been uncharitable. It feels like this process is drawing us closer together.
I remember the exact moment when I realized I was edging into the senior ranks. It was in 1992 and I was explaining to a younger friend how things had been when I was a boy. All of a sudden there was a little voice in my head saying, “Wait a minute! What’s going on here? It used to be that only old people talked like that.”
Twenty-five years have gone by since then; there’s no use trying to deny it any longer — I am officially an old codger. Today I am 75. And I am not 75 years young — I am not going to play that game. According to Moses, “ The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” By that reckoning I am five years past my best before date.
I have accumulated a ton of stories and anecdotes and some of them are even interesting to my grandchildren. My hope is that they will remember some of those stories in later years and realize that there are life lessons to be learned from the experiences told by the older folks. Lessons like the following:
The good old days weren’t always that great.
• Does anyone today remember tuberculosis and polio? There were epidemics of those diseases, and many others, when I was young.
• Does anyone remember dust storms that reduced visibility to zero and seeped into the best sealed houses? When I was a boy, most farmers had one piece of tillage equipment, a one-way disc harrow. They used it for seeding and for summerfallowing. The soil dried to a powder that would travel with any breeze. Today’s tillage equipment and farming methods conserve soil moisture and nutrients, making possible crop yields that were unthinkable years ago.
• Volunteer fire departments in small towns did their best, but they were untrained and under equipped. A grocery store in our town caught fire, someone rang the bell on the town hall and soon the volunteers were on the scene with the town’s fire equipment. In their rush to fight the blaze, they got the fire hoses tangled up. By the time they got them untangled it was too late.
New doesn’t always mean better
• Teachers are better trained, schools are bigger and better equipped, the curriculum is constantly being upgraded. Illiteracy rates have exploded, store clerks haven’t a clue how to make change if the computerized till breaks down, and people don’t know what country Ottawa is in.
• Thalidomide was used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. Thousands of babies were born with missing or malformed arms and legs. Thousands more did not survive. Seldane was a marvellous new non-drowsy antihistamine. It caused me to have heart palpitations, a few people died — it is no longer available. My wife was prescribed Vioxx to treat her arthritis. She had heart palpitations while taking the drug; it also is no longer available.
• Time was when most people went to church on Sunday. The Word of God was read, moral principles and respect for others were taught. Of course there were a lot of half-hearted Christians and outright hypocrites in the churches. But has abandoning the churches made our world a better place?
• There is no such thing as normal weather, at least not where I live. When I was five there was a blizzard that closed roads for days and almost buried a passenger train — the town people carried food out to the train until it could be dug out. In the early fifties southern Saskatchewan had summer temperatures up to 105° F and winter temperatures down to -50° F . I don’t believe we have ever experienced those extremes in following years.
• Saskatchewan is more familiar with drought, but in the past five or six years we have had a series of summers with much higher than average rainfall.
• Forty years ago there was a suspicion that the Soviets were using nuclear tests to manipulate our weather and cause unusual storms. There were serious scientific attempts to explain how this could be done. Years of living here have convinced me that every year brings something we haven’t seen before and yet it is all part of the normal weather cycle. There is no need to look for a human cause.
There were frequent nuclear bomb tests in the late fifties when I was in high school. The media kept us informed when the cloud of radioactive dust would pass over our area. One morning Jack Dosko came to school and reported: “ The nuclear fallout passed right above us in the night and this morning I saw little pock marks all over the windshield of Charles Kennedy’s pickup. I wonder what else we will find.” Sixty years have passed and I still see windshields like that. I think it has something to do with our gravel roads.
Let’s not get too excited when we hear scare stories. This too shall pass.
Back when we were living in southwestern Ontario we made the trip back to Saskatchewan every two years. The trip was 3,000km and took 3 days each way. The first two days we tried to get an early start and got our meals at fast food restaurants to save time. When we stopped for gas we would load up with pop and snacks to keep us going. By the third day, we were all tired of fast food and junk food and knew we had to stop for one real meal before we got to our destination.
We still enjoy fast food and junk food, more often than we should if truth be told. But we know that we cannot live on a diet like that. Even fast food restaurants are advertising healthier meals, with more fresh, natural ingredients and fewer additives.
But there are still far too many churches out there trying to feed their congregations with fast food spirituality. They offer contemporary music that is initially fresh and attractive but provides very little nourishment. Then they add “seeker-friendly” messages that intrigue but don’t satisfy. And they wonder how they can keep their young people from wandering off in search of the world’s amusements.
People want to be fed, need to be fed. Preachers need to spend less time studying psychology and more time in deep study of the Word of God, less time trying to adapt marketing methods to evangelism and more time in prayer, less time trying to get new people into the church and more time feeding the souls of those who are already in.
That last point may seem counter-intuitive, most of us agree that churches today need to be more evangelistic in their home communities than they have been in past generations. But – the preacher is not the church, the people are. Feed the people, show them how to find solid spiritual nutrition for themselves, then let them invite others to the banquet.
“Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
One hundred years ago, settlers came to the flatlands of Saskatchewan. No need for axes and saws to fell trees, just a team of oxen and a plough to turn the virgin sod and prepare it for a first crop. Of course, the lack of trees also meant a lack of building materials, so the first home was often built of strips of sod laid one on top of the other.
The lack of trees on the open prairie also meant that you were fully exposed to the wind. And wind is an almost constant, though invisible, feature of the prairie landscape. So the settlers planted trees – poplars, willows, caraganas, Manitoba maples. Folks today consider those trees to be almost weed species, but they were the ideal trees for creating a shelter from the wind. They grew quickly and they were tough enough to survive during the dry spells and the winds. The poplars grew tall and strong, with massive trunks.
Now those poplars have grown old. Long ago, through damage caused by rodents, birds, insects and weathering, a fungus had penetrated the protective shell of the bark. Slowly the fungus worked on the inside, while the tree still appeared healthy and strong. Branches began to die and be broken off in the wind. Finally, the inner strength was gone and the trees began to fall, one by one, during windstorms. One tree was almost dead, yet one branch still produced fresh green leaves in the spring. Then one day, without a breath of wind, the tree fell. There just wasn’t enough sound wood left to bear the weight of the massively tall tree.
One hundred years ago, the settlers brought with them a faith in God. There were different varieties of faith, some seem to have been more vigorous and sturdy than others. Their faith gave them strength to persevere during the hardship of the pioneer years. Churches were established that appeared strong and substantial, able to stand for generations. Today, one by one, those churches are closing their doors.
The cause is the same: somehow a foreign life was allowed to enter in. New doctrines, new ideas, new methods of working. They didn’t seem dangerous, but the decay set in and no one knew the source, or what to do about it.
Many Christians and churches remain, but not all have a strong connection to the source of truth and life. In many places the decay is still very active and there is much confusion about how to arrest it. Some still seem healthy and strong, but how long can that last if they only want to save themselves from the decay that is evident in others? Do they perhaps have another type of decay that will eventually bring them down, too?
Only God can save His people. Will they hear His call, or will they let the opportunity to save themselves and others from the wrath to come pass unheeded?