Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: evangelism

Collateral damage – or the real target?

I have been musing about the Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe and North America; who are these attacks really targeting? Is it the terrorists goal to make Western nations more favourable to the aspirations of Muslim people and nations around the world?  I think we can give them credit for being smart enough to know that isn’t going to work.

Our governments have shown admirable restraint in the comments they make about the supposed religious motivation of these attacks. The same cannot be said about all the citizens. There is a portion of the populace who have voiced suspicions about all the Muslims now present in our nations. Often it goes beyond mere suspicion to statements that no one if the Muslim faith can be trusted. Some of these statements are coming from people who self-identify as Christian.

Is this perhaps the real goal of the terrorists? To make Muslims in our countries feel marginalized, to fear that they will never be accepted and trusted? That makes fertile ground for Islamist propaganda among Muslim young people.

How are Muslims going to know that love permeates the foundation of the Christian faith,if supposedly Christian people are actively promoting distrust of Muslims?

Earlier this year, after a shooting at a mosque in Québec City, Philippe Couillard, Prime Minister of Québec told people that words matter and that we should endeavour to get our facts straight before we speak and write. He also spoke of the need to talk to each other and suggested: “The next time you walk past someone of the Muslim community, why don’t you stop and say hello?” That’s good advice.

Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus and Answering Jihad gives the same kind of advice. He advises Christians to reach out to the Muslims around us and develop friendships, but not to expect overnight conversions. It will probably take years for a Muslim to make the step of trusting Jesus rather that Allah. But many have done that, including Qureshi himself. First we have to convince them that Christians are not their enemies, even if we do not worship Allah.

Have we misdiagnosed the problem?

It is at least 50 years since C.S. Lewis wrote: “The greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin . . . We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect then to welcome the news of the remedy.” (from God in the Dock, published by Eerdmans.)

The evangelism methods of 100 years ago still work quite well in many places in third world countries. Not so well in North America and Europe. In fact, hardly at all. Why, they don’t even seem to have a lot of impact on children raised in Christian homes.

Evangelicals have responded in various ways: We have to try harder; We have to make our approach more seeker-friendly; We have to avoid those parts of the gospel message that people find offensive.

Have we misdiagnosed the problem? People have been told for the last 100 years, by people calling themselves Christian, that it is the society around us that needs fixing; people aren’t sinners, the world we live in is sinful. Fix the world and we can all live like Christ wants us to live.

There is now a continual hubbub around us of people trying to save the world. And it seems that they are in a constant state of outrage towards those who don’t wholeheartedly endorse their project for fixing the world. If one steps back a moment to observe, it all goes to prove that people are indeed sinners. The anger, hatred, harassment and violence that comes forth from attempts to save the world actually prove the need for the message of the gospel.

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.  But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. (James 3:13-18)

Food for the hungry

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).

The key to success or failure in missions

This is from a book first published in the 1920’s.  I first posted this excerpt in 2013 and believe it deserves a repeat.

“From what has already been said it is manifest that St. Paul did not go about as a missionary preacher merely to convert individuals: he went to establish churches from which the light might radiate throughout the whole country round. The secret of success in this work lies in beginning at the very beginning. It is the training of the first converts which sets the type for the future. If the first converts are taught to depend on the missionary, if all work, evangelistic, educational, social is concentrated in his hands, the infant community learns to rest passively upon the man from whom they receive their first insight into the gospel. Their faith having no sphere for its growth and development lies dormant. A tradition very rapidly grows up that nothing can be done without the authority and guidance of the missionary, the people wait for him to move, and, the longer they do so, the more incapable they become of any independent action. Thus the leader is confirmed in the habit of gathering all authority into his own hands, and of despising the powers of his people, until he makes their inactivity an excuse for denying their capacity. The fatal mistake has been made of teaching the converts to rely upon the wrong source of strength. Instead of seeking it in the working of the Holy Spirit in themselves, they seek it in the missionary. They put him in the place of Christ, they depend upon him.”

(Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?  page 81.  Roland Allen, U.S. edition © 1962.)

Is your church a theology-free zone?

I became aware of the declining interest in theology on the part of most churches shortly after my conversion and marriage. Both happened in 1970 and I mention my marriage because it was only after we were married that my wife and I began to attend church and look for spiritual fellowship.

There was the Western Canada Revival that swept through the prairies in the early’70’s, uniting all evangelical denominations in sponsoring city-wide meetings where revival was preached in bigger and bigger venues. This co-operation was achieved by a tacit agreement to avoid denominational distinctives in doctrine.

A few years later there was the “I Found It!” outreach, which included an even wider group of churches to encourage the people around us to seek some kind of meaningful encounter with Jesus Christ. The nature and significance of this encounter was purposely left vague in order to involve as wide a range of professing Christians as possible.

I’m sure that many lives were touched and changed by both of these movements. Nevertheless, they did something else – they sowed the seeds of a belief that theology is divisive and a hindrance to reaching unbelievers with the gospel.

What are we then left with? A belief in a benevolent Deity who wants us all to get along and who wants to help us when we are in trouble. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not enough. Does anyone really believe there is power in moralistic, therapeutic deism to rescue us from our sins? Does anyone believe in sin anymore?

What happened to truth? Where is it to be found?

No doubt some of the old denominational distinctives were somewhat off the mark. But there was a day when people believed fervently in them, and quoted chapter and verse of the Bible to support them. Were they worse off spiritually than the bland, theology-free folks of today?

Do we search the Bible for truth today? Or do we search for encouraging, heart-warming verses that don’t ask too much of us? I believe that God had more than that in mind when He gave us the Bible. and the Holy Spirit, to guide us into all truth. I believe that truth is necessary for our salvation in the present time and for eternity.

Any church, preacher, or book that doesn’t in some way encourage my search for the truth is subtly deceiving.

Strange ideas about strangers

“If a white person marries a black person,” my father said to me one day, “their children will be born with one black leg and one white leg, one black arm and one white arm.” I was still in my early teens but I didn’t think such a thing was possible and I told my father so. Then I asked him if he had ever seen anyone like that. He didn’t answer, but he never again brought up the possibility of people having Holstein markings.

Not all strange ideas like this should be labelled prejudice. If someone grows up only hearing thinking like this and never has opportunity to see whether it is true or not, they are just uninformed. In times gone by, when there was less opportunity to meet people who were different from yourself, these ideas might last a lifetime.

My father grew up in the USA around the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. He absorbed the prevailing attitude toward black people of that era and never encountered anything in his adult travels in the USA or Canada to contradict that attitude.

My mother grew up in a very conservative Plautdietsch speaking home, yet she was much more open minded in her attitude toward other people. It seems that she learned that from her father. Before he was married he had worked in a community where there lived a black man who had been born in slavery and moved north to Canada. Grandpa learned some of the old Negro Spirituals from this man and taught them to his 14 children. While they lived in Manitoba, their home was a place where Indians often stopped for a drink of water, a bite to eat or just a place to rest on their journey. They knew they were welcome at the Henry Letkeman home.

Grandpa was blind, in more ways than one. My mother grew up in that setting and told those stories to me. One of my cousins lives not too far away. Our fathers were brothers, our mothers were sisters. He worked for years with First Nations (Indian) people in housing projects, and in evangelism. I observe his attitude towards people who are different and I know that he did not learn that openness from his father.

We both owe a lot to our mothers – and to Grandpa Letkeman, who we never met. He died before we were born. But, thanks to the attitude he inspired in our mothers, we did not grow up with strange ideas about strangers.

Monoculture

Monoculture is a term used in agriculture to describe the planting of  a single crop in a field. It is also used in a narrower sense to describe the widespread planting of a single cultivar. This is the sense which I will refer to.

This kind of monoculture results when a cultivar is developed which combines high yield potential with resistance to current insect and disease threats. The danger is that some new threat may come along to which this cultivar has no resistance, resulting in widespread crop failures.

Such was the cause of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 – 1852. One third of the Irish population had become dependent on potatoes for year round sustenance, and only one variety of potato was grown, the Irish Lumper. When the potato blight appeared in Ireland and devastated the crop at least one million people died. Another million emigrated to North America.

Gros Michel was the dominant banana variety until many large plantations were devastated around 1950 by a fungal disease. The bananas we eat today are of the Cavendish cultivar, but this too is threatened by disease and may soon disappear from our supermarkets.

At one time 90% of the corn grown in the USA was from one type of hybrid. Almost 50 years ago this crop suffered reduced yields due to leaf blight.

Nevertheless, about 50 years ago a new teaching appeared in evangelical Christianity that promoted monoculture as a marvellous new tool for church growth. The idea was to target groups of people who had a natural affinity and endeavour to plant a congregation among these people. The affinity could be based on ethnic origin, the means of earning their livelihood, or economic status. Such people would understand each others jargon, aspirations and lifestyles., thus eliminating many barriers to unity within a congregation.

This was essentially adapting market research techniques to evangelism. It wasn’t a good match and hasn’t turned out all that well. Yet  many churches do exist that fit those criteria. Are they healthy churches?

I fear that the same dangers exist for monoculture churches as for monoculture agricultural crops. There is a danger that fellowship may become based more on common ethno-cultural traits than on a deep and meaningful relationship with the Saviour. Some teaching may come along that seems particularly appealing and many may not have the Christian foundation to resist it.

Another thing that happens in churches that have not had a recent addition of members from other backgrounds is that they begin to speak in a language that is not accessible to outsiders. They develop slogans and code words that are commonly understood by those inside. Yet they may quite easily forget how to explain what these words mean to others who are not insiders. Thus they lose the ability to relate in an evangelical way with their neighbours and eventually conclude that their neighbours are just not interested.

This in turn is apt to lead to a stagnation of spiritual life and an inability to share their faith in an inspiring and meaningful way to their own children.

I am convinced that it is good and healthy for Christians to regularly interact with people who will challenge them on the reality of their faith and move them to seek ways to explain their faith in words that will be understood by others.

Holdeman Mennonites

I have been a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for half my life (in a few weeks it will be 37 years out of 74). The church name is a bit of a mouthful. Ideally we would like to simply call ourselves the Church of God, but at least 50 other denominations have had the same idea.

Some denominations seem to have tried to pack their doctrinal statement into their name, for example The House of God, Which is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Inc. I’m not trying to make fun, that’s just an illustration of how difficult it is to come up with a name that clearly differentiates one church from another.

There are those among us, at least in Canada, who would like to drop “Mennonite” from the church name. The problem with that is there is already a Church of God in Christ and it happens to be the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S.A., claiming 200 times as many members as the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Besides, they were using the name before we were. So that’s definitely a no go.

Early copies of the church periodical gave the name as the Church of God, a Branch Mennonite. That sounds suspiciously like it may have originally been written in some other language (namely German) and awkwardly translated into English. The current name was adopted about 100 years ago.

Do we object to being called Holdeman Mennonites? Well, we do it ourselves, at least in casual conversation, so we can’t very well object to others doing it. But there is a little problem with both words: neither John Holdeman nor Menno Simons considered themselves to be the founders of a church.

Menno Simons was a 16th century Roman Catholic priest in Holland who experienced the new birth and began preaching evangelical sermons in the Catholic church. After a year he withdrew and began to associate with the remnant of the Anabaptists, who had been scattered and demoralized by persecution. Soon he was asked to become a minister. He wrote extensively to explain and defend the faith to others. Soon his name was indelibly associated with the faith and all who were of the same faith were considered followers of Menno. Which wasn’t exactly true, there were other prominent leaders, but Menno was the name best known to those outside the church.

John Holdeman was a 19th century member of the Mennonite Church who felt it had drifted away from the historic faith . His intention was not to start a new church but to encourage the Mennonites to return to the Old Ground and Foundation (that was the title of his first book). No such return happened so a small group of Mennonites, at three different locations, began holding separate services. John Holdeman was the main leader in the early years, but as the church grew many others worked along side of him.

Thus it is not wholly inaccurate for us to be called Holdeman Mennonites, though I am quite sure that neither John Holdeman not Menno Simons would approve.

[By the way, I have added a Contact Me page with my gmail address and questions are welcome.]

In the world, but not of the world

With the launching of the New Testament vision a new idea was being launched; the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine. The New Testament conceives of humanity as a composite thing ̶ that is, composed of factions. It expects that some men will glory in the very same cross over which other men stumble. . . . And it assumes that such diversity on the plane of religion does not imply cacophony on the square. It thinks that even though men differ basically and radically at the shrine they need not clash in the market place.

In this novel view it is plainly implied that there are resources in the as yet not regenerated human heart . . . that are adequate for the affairs of the state, loyalties that are adequate for the political level.

In the New Testament vision, that which we today call the State and that which we now call the Church are agencies that cater to different loyalties. The state demands a loyalty that man can give, irrespective of their religious orientation, the Church demands a loyalty which only he can give that believes in Christ. The State has a sword with which it constrains men, coerces them if need be, The Church has a sword also, but it is the sword of the Word of God, a sword that goes no farther than moral suasion.

The New Testament envisions no trouble in the outworking of this division of labour – as long as both sides play to the register intended for them; it envisions trouble only if and when either of the two goes outside its province, as for instance when, as in Acts 4:18, men in the uniform of the State tell people whether they are to preach and what. The New Testament implies that as long as Church and State weed each in its own garden there will be a tolerable modus vivendi.

This was a novel insight, so novel as to be revolutionary. The world had never seen the like of it before. For all pre-Christian society is sacral. By the word sacral we mean bound together by a common religious loyalty. By sacral society we mean society held together by a religion to which all the members of that society are committed.

It was because the Jews of Jesus’ day were pre-Christian, and therefore sacralists in their conception of things, that the problem, “whether it is lawful to pay tribute to Caesar” seemed to them to be an insoluble problem. How could a man, they asked, be loyal to the political community by paying his taxes, without thereby being disloyal to the religious community, the Church. They, sacralists that they were, knew no answer to this question. It vexed them every time they tangled with it. And for that reason they confronted the Master with it, so that He too might be embarrassed by it and be hopelessly pinned in a corner. How great must have been their surprise at the ease with which Jesus, acting on the new insight He had come to convey, sailed through the dilemma with “Render unto Caesar the things that ae Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” In His way of thinking there wasn’t even any problem.

It is implied in the New Testament vision that Christianity is not a culture-creating thing but rather a culture-influencing one. Wherever the Gospel is preached society becomes composite; hence, since culture is the name given to the total spiritual heritage of an entire people, there can never be such a thing as a Christian culture; there can only be cultures in which the influence of Christianity is more or less apparent. The New Testament does not pit a “Christian culture” against a non-Christian culture; rather does it introduce a leaven into any existing culture into which it insinuates itself.

Early Christianity acted on the insight that Jesus had come to create “a people within a people”; it realized that it is by the act of faith that men become the Sons of God, with a sonship that is not simply continuous with the sonship that is by nature. . . Early Christianity’s world was peopled with folk who witness and folk who were witnessed to. It therefore conceived of a composite society, not a monolithic one.

Quotes from Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. © 1964 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

The half-converted farmer

Years ago, there was a farmer in our neighbourhood who lived a simple life. He had no need of electricity, running water or a lawn mower. He didn’t seem to have a need for a wife either, though it was rumoured that once long ago there had been a lady of the house. Perhaps the rustic simplicity of the homestead soon lost its charm.

This rustic farmer had a simple approach to farming as well. In the spring he seeded his wheat and in the fall he harvested his wheat — as much as his equipment could capture. For you see, the fields produced a much greater crop of weeds than of wheat, in such a manner that the wheat that did grow was short in stature. What is more, there were many prominent rocks throughout the fields that needed to be avoided in seeding and in harvesting. As we passed by his fields after harvest we saw much wheat still standing, waiting to be gleaned by the birds, mice and gophers. The proximity of these heads of wheat to the rocks or to the surface of the ground had made them inaccessible to the harvesting machinery.

Then came a day when the farmer announced that he had seen the light, from henceforth things were going to be different. He purchased top quality seed and fertilizer, enough for all his fields. Nevertheless, he chose not to attempt to remove the rocks and the weeds. The good new seed, he said, with the help of the fertilizer, would produce such vigorous plants that they would choke out the weeds and grow so high the rocks would not be a problem.

Unfortunately, the bad seeds far outnumbered the good. With the help of the fertilizer, they grew taller that year than ever before. The wild mustard plants did indeed resemble small trees. I did not ascertain if the birds of the air built their nests in these great shrubs , but I did observe them flitting joyfully from branch to branch.

Harvest that year was neither better nor worse than in previous years. Whereupon the farmer declared that scientific farming was a fraud designed to separate gullible farmers from their money. He would never again believe a word of it. And the latter end of that farmer was worse than the first.

I have observed people who approached Christian life in like manner. They are convicted of the futility of their old ways and resolve to follow the way of Jesus. They begin to read the Bible and attend church, and verily their countenances are changed. They have hope.

Still, there are all the hurtful things they have said and done in the past, and perhaps dishonest things as well. These are great rocks in their life and the problem of removing them seems insurmountable. The cost and effort of confession and restitution is higher than they are willing to pay. Thus the rocks remain, ever a hindrance  to the trust they desire from others.

Worse yet, their tendencies to hurt feelings and flare ups of temper still remain and get in the way of the good they try to do. An apology would be too humiliating, better to wait and hope people forget. They are keenly aware of other people’s faults, and quite blind to their own. Such thorns in their personalities choke out their good intentions. After a time, they conclude that Christianity was only an illusion and return to their old ways.

It need not be that way. But too many well-meaning evangelists neglect to explain that one cannot live a fruitful and fulfilling Christian life without removing the rocks and the thorns.

%d bloggers like this: