Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

Practical Immigration

February 8, 2017

Much has been said about hypothetical immigration and immigrants.  I prefer to wonder what my role can be in this complex issue.  Certainly leading a Christian institution, I would consider it our duty and honor to be a blessing if there were immigrants in our midst to minister to.  Particularly if those immigrants were actively seeking us out not just for material assistance but spiritual sustenance.  But how complicated the matter would become were politics also part of the picture – as it almost inevitably would be.

So I found this letter from the Lutheran pastor of a church in Germany who is dealing with this issue firsthand eye-opening and more than a little terrifying.  In Germany, those seeking asylum are evaluated as to their suitability for integration with German culture and society.  One of the evaluation points centers on their faith.  Christians are at least in theory given points in that they share a faith with the historic faith of German culture.

This creates a complicated situation.  How do you tell if someone is simply calling themselves a Christian in the hopes of improving their odds for acceptance permanently in Germany, as opposed to someone who genuinely has converted to the Christian faith?  It’s a question that the Church has had to deal with for two thousand years.

But in Germany, it is politicians and bureaucrats that are deciding who is and who isn’t Christian, and by some accounts, without an ability for themselves to understand what the basic tenets of Christianity even are for themselves.  The result, according to the letter, is that those who have converted to Christianity and received baptism in the Church are being declared non-Christian by the State and slated for deportation.  Despite the fact that some of them are enduring persecution for their conversion from militant Muslim refugees, and despite the reality that they will face greater persecution in their homelands for converting.

How do you sort out a Gordian Knot of this scope and scale?  As a pastor, my emphasis and priority would be on preaching and teaching the Word so that people might come to faith regardless of the repercussions in their lives.  But what a terrible thing to be blessed to proclaim Good News to a people who have been oppressed and persecuted for so long – by their prior fellow-adherents! – and then watch those children of God ordered for deportation.  How awful to be privileged to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, only to have these converts deemed non-Christian, oftentimes by people who are not even Christian themselves but have inherited the blessings of being born in a traditionally Christian culture!

What a terribly important ministry evolves then, the ministry of preparing these people for whatever may come down the road because of their conversion.  The ministry of distinguishing between the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the bad news that inheritors of Christian benefits won’t recognize these converts.

Is it a good idea to make Christianity a determination point for asylum seekers?  It’s a logical one I suppose.  Certainly there will be some percentage of people who claim to have converted but haven’t really, and who will take up their Muslim faith again as soon as they are safely settled for good.  But Christianity has always dealt with those who seek the status of the faith when it mingles with cultural and societal status and ambition.  The Church must be discerning to the best of our ability, but our discernment is necessarily imperfect and limited by sin.

How do I determine whether a person is Christian or not?  I begin by acknowledging this ultimately is not my job but Christ’s.  For the purposes of my work, I look for signs of the faith in a person’s life.  Have they been baptized?  Are they regularly in worship and hopefully also communal Bible study?  Have they been instructed in the basics of Christian doctrine as outlined in the Ecumenical Creeds?  I would not resort to some sort of Christian or Bible trivia game, asking for obscure details from the Bible or complex explanations of Christian doctrine.   If someone comes to me seeking Christian instruction, and after receiving it indicates that they believe this and wish to become a Christian and want baptism, I will baptize them.  If they continue coming to church (or I know they are attending elsewhere regularly), and if they are taking seriously the teaching of the Bible in terms of how they live their lives and make their decisions, then I acknowledge them as a brother or sister in the faith.  My evaluation of that may be off the mark, but it is an evaluation with some solid criteria to recommend it which relies on something beyond an overly simplistic mastery of basic data.

The Church’s long history of discernment on this issue might be of use to the State in seeking to determine who is authentic and who is not.  Again, the results will not be perfect, but they are likely to be better than having the State arbitrarily determine what makes a person Christian or not.

Knowing Jesus

January 5, 2017

I know Jesus.  At least the Jesus in the Rose Bowl Parade.  We were at Sem at the same time and he serves two congregations about 70 miles south of me.  We see each other about once a month at our pastoral Circuit gatherings.  He endures a great deal of good-natured ribbing for his recurring role!

Thanks to Becky for pointing me to this news article that summarizes some of the responses the float – and Jesus on the float – elicited on Twitter.  I have to say that I share some of the mixed feelings of the responders.  Admittedly I’m not a big parade person and therefore don’t share the same enthusiasm that many others do for this parade in general or the Lutheran Hour float specifically.  But having a Jesus imposter on a float does seem to create more than a little room for criticism or at least confusion.


The Kids Are Not All Right…

September 28, 2016

…and it’s our fault.  How’s that for a bitter pill?

Thanks to Ken for pointing me to a Washington Post article that references a new Pew Study demonstrates a correlation between children of divorced parents versus children of parents who remained married.  If your parents divorced when you were younger, odds are greater that you’re not Christian now, even if you (and they) were then.  Examining the report itself reveals other interesting tidbits as well that are worth your perusal, including:

  • A five-fold increase in the religiously unaffiliated – from 5% of the population in 1972 to 25% today
  • Every single age group demonstrates growth in religious unaffiliation
  • If you were raised without a religious affiliation, odds are you will remain without one as you age

Lots of other interesting tidbits in there as well if you enjoy that sort of thing!

In regards to divorce, we need to quit believing the lie that divorce really isn’t that big a deal for the kids.  It’s a huge deal.  It may still be necessary in some situations, but we can never pretend that it isn’t a big deal for everyone involved.  For those who have divorced, we give thanks for the forgiveness of our Lord and Savior, and we seek in whatever ways we can to address the faith lives of our children, knowing that the divorce can severely impact their faith.  Parents in the midst of divorce should also take seriously working actively not just with counselors but with their pastor to ensure that their children are ministered to during this bewildering time.  And pastors need to be proactive in reaching out to families in their congregation if they know that divorce has occurred or may be on the horizon.

There’s too much at stake to just pretend everything is going to be all right.



Modern Evangelism

August 8, 2016

I think this is a fascinating little strategy for evangelism:  drop tiny Bibles from drones into ISIS territory.

The tone of the article (or at least the headline) is rather jaunty and supportive.  I’m sure the editors would take a more disdainful tone if the Bibles were being dropped into some other Muslim enclave, say, Saudi Arabia.  And there appear to be questions or concerns about the nature of the group behind this plan, but it remains an interesting – and modern – way of getting the Word of God into an area where it otherwise wouldn’t be accessible.

Jesus Loves the Little Children

July 9, 2016

…so why don’t we?

That’s the basic thrust of this video.  Warning – if you’re prone to epilepsy or have other issues with choppy graphics, close your eyes and just listen.

This guy is part of my denomination.  We actually overlapped at Seminary, but I don’t think I ever met him.  He was producing videos back then that were even more frenetic.  He has an in-your-face sort of fervency that is refreshing but also can be difficult to watch – though certainly no more difficult than the in-your-face fervency so prevalent elsewhere in our culture in directions I disagree with.  This guy serves in a relatively small congregation in North Dakota, but he produces these videos that reach lots and lots of people.  At least I hope they do.

I don’t always agree with everything he says or how he says it, but this video is helpful in two ways.  First, it addresses a critical issue in American Christianity – namely the decline of American Christianity – from a perspective that you don’t see in many books or other debates (namely because you don’t make a lot of money by telling churches that the key to increasing their membership is to have more children).  Secondly, this is an example of what you can do with technology, something our own congregation is discussing as a future focus of our ministry.

I can’t (and won’t) do what this guy does, but it’s a good demonstration of what can be done, in some manner, through a well-edited online video.  Concise teaching in an accessible format.  He makes a point, makes it strong, and then it’s done.  Hey, wait…maybe I should do more sermons like that.  Hmmm.  Nah.

Trying to solve the dilemma of shrinking churches without acknowledging in some ways the shrinking demographics of our population as a whole seems unwise at the very least.  God does like babies.  We have been taught many erroneous ideas about them – that they’re a drain on resources, that the world is in danger of overcrowding/overpopulation, that there isn’t enough to go around, that education and the debt it now requires is more important than starting a family.  We need to question our presumptions and assumptions about how we decide how many kids to have.  I don’t think this is the only solution, but it certainly is part of the mix.

Religion at Work

April 11, 2016

Thanks to my friend JP for linking me to this brief report today.  The article itself is woefully brief, and in that respect does more harm than good.  The headline is blatantly misleading, given the fuller circumstances that can only be glimpsed by  reading the actual report of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (there is a link to this report in the third paragraph of the article and it’s worth perusing).

More at issue than proselytizing is the matter of the relationship between superiors and subordinates within the workplace.  What might be intended as good-will and personal conversation by a higher-ranking employee might be interpreted as unwanted pressure which could have negative impact on the subordinate’s job security and advancement.  Unfortunately, the full report doesn’t give much detail about the subordinate’s allegations in the matter, and the Tribunal rejects the idea that the subordinate – given the situation – should have resorted to less formal conversations rather than a formal complaint against her superior.

This is an awkward situation, to say the least.  It could easily be construed as someone being castigated for sharing their faith while at work, something that isn’t expressly illegal (yet).  But the line between what is a mutually agreed upon discussion with a subordinate and what is unwanted pressure or “grooming” can be dangerously thin.  It can be easy to assert that the subordinate acted unnecessarily and should have responded conversationally to indicate she wasn’t interested.  But I can understand the fear that woman might have had that rejecting the discussions of the superior employee might jeopardize her employment or advancement opportunities.  And it should be remembered that people don’t always respond well when they are stressed out and worried.

It seems like an unfortunate situation all around.  I trust that the superior employee was well-intentioned in sharing her faith.  I trust that the subordinate really did feel unduly pressured.  But what results is a piece of legal paperwork that will have a further chilling effect on religious dialogue in the workplace.

Sharing our faith with someone else can be a tricky undertaking, particularly with someone that we don’t know very well, or may only know in a professional context.  People (irrespective of religious belief) need to work hard to maintain a professional environment that is both personally satisfying as well as aware of the many varied personalities and beliefs of their co-workers.  Particularly, Christians of rank in an organization need to be aware that increasingly their beliefs are both foreign to those around them, and that some people find them offensive.  Picking up on non-verbal cues becomes critical to navigating a professional relationship that may offer the opportunity from time to time to transcend into personal realms.  Some of these non-verbal cues:

Does the person identify themselves as a religious adherent?  The subordinate employee seems to have indicated to the superior employee that she was a practicing Muslim.  That’s very different from someone who claims no religious affiliation or a nominal, non-practicing relationship.  Someone active in their religious practice is going to be less open – as a rule – to proselytizing from another religion (Christian or otherwise).  When someone tells me that they’re active as someone in another religion (or denomination), I presume that at best, we might be able to engage in dialogue about our beliefs, but barring some very blatant and obvious signal, I won’t invite them to attend worship with me.

How does the person respond to religious discussions/actions?  The superior employee provided reading material and prayer for the subordinate, actions which were clearly a source of angst for the subordinate employee.  I prefer to ask someone if they would be interested in a bit of literature rather than simply handing it to them.  And I work hard to read body language (posture, facial responses, voice inflection) as well as verbal cues (negativity, ambivalence, disinterest, etc.) to determine whether or not to move ahead.  I would definitely be very cautious in praying with someone who has already indicated that they do not share my religious beliefs.  Nothing prevents me from praying for them, without their knowledge (and which does not require their permission!), but asking them to participate in the prayer and initiating physical contact, that’s a big difference.  Given the increasing levels of intolerance and discomfort evidenced by people to things outside their known or preferred views, I think it’s not very wise to pray with someone unless they have specifically asked for that.  Even then, there’s no guarantee that after the fact they aren’t going to change their minds and potentially accuse me of doing something they weren’t comfortable with.

Proselytizing vs. Vocation.  As Christians we are not required to share our faith.  There is no mandate that puts our faith or salvation at risk if we don’t actively reach out to other people.  Throughout most of human history and in most parts of the world, such activities have been tacitly outlawed or extremely difficult.  Do we hope that others will come to saving faith in Jesus Christ, particularly those that we may see more than anyone else in our lives – our colleagues?  Of course!  But whereas proselytizing can be difficult and complicated in the workplace, living out our faith in how we engage our work vocation should be easy.

Are we sources of peace in our workplace or irritants and agitators?  Do we hold ourselves out and away from the water cooler gossip or are we known for having the latest dirt?  Are we a source of encouragement and support for our colleagues or known as a ruthless cutthroat always seeking our own personal advancement?  Do we do our work well or are we sloppy?  Are we punctual and professional or always leaving others in the lurch due to our lack of attention?  Do we see our job as a gift from God, a means of supporting ourselves and loving our neighbors by providing desired goods and services, or are we always complaining about our work and deriding it?

How we approach our work is not the same thing as sharing the Gospel.  Being a good employee and colleague is not the same thing as sharing about our hope in the resurrected Christ.  But our attitude and reputation in the workplace can open doors to conversations with other people who see our attitude as different and commendable, worthy of emulation and a source of further investigation.  Some jobs make this easier than others to be sure!  But if I pray that a colleague come to faith in Christ, I need to demonstrate in very real and practical ways my love of neighbor which is sourced in and informed by my love of God, and more importantly, God’s love of me.  Just because we (currently) have the luxury of engaging in workplace discussions about our faith doesn’t mean this is a requirement.  There are many people around the world who have just as deep a faith in Christ as we do but do not have that luxury.  I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit can use them in deep and meaningful ways as witness to the truth of Christ, and that this begins long before they ever confide to a co-worker that they read the Bible or go to church.


How Did It Go?

September 18, 2015

I get this question often – understandably – from different people who know I’m spending three hours a week on our local community college campus.  There’s a sense of excitement that is natural to a new undertaking, and much room for prayer is needed.  But it’s a question that inevitably also causes me some anxiety.

I liken it to mission work.  And I suppose there is a tendency at some level for someone preparing to go into the foreign mission-field to assume that they have a good handle on what they’ve let themselves in for.  They’ve done their homework.  They’ve researched and read the history of other missionaries in that region.  They’ve boned up on the culture and have made beginnings in the language.  Part of the mission-preparation (I would imagine – maybe some of my missionary friends can vet me on this one) ought to be preparing the missionary for the shock that will come when their superficial understanding of another culture and region and weather-system and currency and fashion are ground up by the relentlessness of simply being someplace for a long time that is not home.  You can know a lot, but knowing isn’t being, nor is it, specifically, the difficulty of not-being, of becoming a foreigner when all you’ve ever known is being in the majority.

I could say that with 20 years of campus ministry experience I understand what I’m doing and how to go about it.  The truth is I don’t.  It’s been over 10 years now since I left my little campus ministry, which itself has now been destroyed by the foibles and politics of near-sightedness and larger, more pressing issues to be dealt with.  Ten years as well since I was actually teaching in college classrooms and interacting directly with college students instead of teaching them via the Internet.  A lot happens in ten years, or at least it seems to in our century.

So I have tried to assume that I don’t know anything.  I know what some other campus ministers do, and I know that such tactics can vary greatly in their success or failure.  I know I have to figure out what is natural for me.  And all of this takes time.  How long before a missionary to a foreign land can actually have a meaningful discussion with a native about Jesus without talking like a 2-year old?  I can’t imagine that frustration, and the patience required.  Or perhaps I can, dimly.

But I don’t know if others can.

For all the talk about how much our culture has changed, I don’t think people really understand what this means in terms of cross-generational work.  What it effectively means is that things take time.  I’m impressed, frankly, with the number of contacts I’ve already made sitting at a rather bare table next to the student cafeteria.  Yesterday I had five different conversations over the course of three hours, which I think is phenomenal!  The week before I only had two brief interactions.  People are beginning to expect me sitting there, which is a good thing.  But it doesn’t sound like much is happening.

Or at least I worry that’s what other people will think.  Nobody coming to church yet.  Nobody coming to midweek activities yet.  Just some conversations and reconnections.  Just some opportunities to demonstrate that I was serious about what I said – that I really would be there the following week at the same time and location.  I’ve gotten two e-mail addresses and have already begun correspondence with two of the students and that’s pretty exciting.  But it’s slow going.  Very slow going.

So, it went well.  And thank you to those who ask.  Please do keep asking!  But if I hesitate in my answer, this is why.  God is good and the Holy Spirit is at work, I trust.  But I may not have much tangible to sustain that trust.