the blessing: worship, mission, politics

We arrived a little late to the party, but it was worth the wait. The Blessing Aotearoa New Zealand is exquisite as an expression of worship.

Beautiful though it is as worship, I was even more stirred by its possibilities for mission. Not only was I stunned to see it on the news at the end of the week, the way it was reported was so positive. Our leading news channel had this as its header: “Christians united in song deliver beautiful blessing over Aotearoa”. Did you hear that? Usually portrayed as being divisive among ourselves, Christians are described as being united. Usually portrayed as judging everything and anything that moves in society, Christians are described as being a blessing.

What is going on? 

There is some curiosity, isn’t there? 

People are intrigued by this song and the people who sing it. They are surprised by what they see. In societies hostile to the gospel, as Aotearoa-NZ is (even more so, in my view, than Australia, the UK, or the USA), mission is helped by making people curious. In societies that trumpet their high ‘no religion’ statistics at Census time, mission is helped by being intriguing. It is the logic of the song from childhood: ‘twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.’ It is the logic of the Newsboys’ song from a couple of decades later: ‘Shine, make them wonder what you’ve got’.

‘Shine’ takes us back to Jesus’ elemental teaching on mission in his use of the metaphors, salt and light. [NB: I love the wry comment by Chris Wright: ‘We often sing, “Shine, Jesus, Shine”. I sometimes hear a voice from heaven muttering, “Shine yourself, why don’t you?”]. Although it is a bit simplistic, salt is about being incarnational, being involved in society. Light has a different dynamic because it is more attractional, being distinctive from society. As has often been the case, I started with John Stott here: being light reminds us of the danger of worldliness, while being salt reminds us of the danger of unworldliness. They pull in different directions. There is a bit of tension going on. Whenever there is tension, it helps to visualise that tension with two axes and four quadrants. Twenty five years ago I developed this little diagram which I’ve used countless times ever since…

It is a simplistic way of auditing mission activity in terms of the level of its salt:light content. Q1 has low-salt and low-light content. Q2 is high-salt and low-light. Q3 is low-salt and high-light, while Q4 has high-salt and high-light content. What I loved about seeing The Blessing Aotearoa New Zealand reported on the news in the way it was, is that I glimpsed Q4:intriguing happening. Maybe not for everyone, but some cynics and skeptics were intrigued. Mission in Western countries, like Aotearoa New Zealand, needs to reflect more deeply on the role of intrigue in mission. [NB: this was the topic of my doctoral research, considering how the parable genre assists us with becoming intriguing, especially in our communication].

Whenever I come back home I am amazed afresh at the energy, the creativity and the commitment that local churches give to ministries which build bridges into their local community. It is incredible. I remember visiting a large church a decade or so ago that had more than 50 such ministries. I know of no other country quite like it. But here is the concern. It is easy to assume that a ministry is Q4:intriguing when it is no more than Q2:relevant. Is it really shining the light of the gospel of Jesus, or is it more of a valuable social service?!

Being relevant is not enough…

This has been a blindspot for a generation, or two.

The staggering influence of the church in the early centuries was due to them ‘fitting in and being different‘ (Hurtado) and having ‘a faithful (to God) presence in the world’ (Hunter). Or, as I read just last night in a new book summarizing the convictions of John Stott: 

We are called from the world for the world. We come out of the world to worship and then are sent back into the world in mission. We must be distinct from the world yet, at the same time, embedded in it. If we lose our holiness, we will have nothing to say – we will just echo the world. If we lose what Stott calls our wordliness, we shall have no one to say it to – the church will become an enclosed echo chamber. (Tim Chester, Stott on the Christian Life, 162).

Or, the guru himself, Rodney Stark: ‘a successful religious movement must retain a certain level of continuity with its cultural setting, and yet it must also ‘maintain a medium level of tension’ (Stark) with that setting as well … there has to be a clear difference between being an insider to the group and an outsider’ (Hurtado, 7). 

Yes, we need more energy, more creativity, and more commitment to help turn our relevant ministries into intriguing ones, finding ways to shine the light of the gospel of Jesus into everything we do. Afterall, we are churches, for God’s sake. Even more, we are churches for God’s sake. Many years ago I remember having this conversation with Jo Hood, the founder of Mainly Music. Although I’ve lost touch with this ministry, by living overseas, I remember being so impressed by the changes she made in wanting to move from relevant to intriguing.

Which brings me to politics…

Yes, if we are talking about the church being influential we need to talk about politics. It is election season in two parts of my identity. [About half my education was within an American framework and so it is a big part of me]. I find election time to be difficult. Every twelve years it becomes doubly difficult because the elections in the USA (on a 4 year cycle) and the elections in NZ (on a 3 year cycle) converge. Well do I remember the last time there was convergence, in 2008. It is like yesterday. I was watching a debate between Obama and McCain where each was arguing that he was the better Christian because they knew that was a vote-winner. Then I switched channels and stumbled on a debate between Key and Clark where each was arguing that they were the lesser Christian because they knew that it was a vote winner. Are the differences in religio-political contexts always recognized as much as they should be?!

Like I say, I find election time to be difficult. I become disappointed with fellow Christians, for two reasons. One is the ease with which they make a decision to go Right or Left. The other is the hope they place in the political process to bring about change. For me, the decision between Right and Left is hard and the hope placed in the political processes to bring about enduring and transformational change is miniscule. 

For example, I feel sick to the stomach hearing what Democrats (and Labour) tend to think about the beginnings and the endings of life. They trumpet their commitment to the vulnerable, but so often they don’t speak for the very ones who cannot speak for themselves. How can the dignity and sanctity of life be so mismanaged? Then I feel sick to the stomach when I watch the Republican National Convention. It reeked of privilege, demonstrating so little empathy and understanding for the poverty and the racism which, for many, describes all of life between the beginning and the ending! What about the idolatry of nationhood? In a speech, listened to in its full context, I heard ‘the American spirit’ being equated with the ‘spirit of God’ … and ‘evangelicals’ are sitting idly by? How can this be?

The choice becomes difficult not just because, at their worst, both options are ugly but because, at their best, both options have merit. I pray that Christian women and men will sense the call of God to a career in politics, occupying both sides of the political aisle, leavening their side with wisdom and godliness, grace and courage. But I ain’t gonna place all my hopes for transformational change in what they do. If those little churches in the early centuries, feeling the heat of the Roman empire, could still be the agents of transformation in their society, I am confident that little churches today who follow their example can yield the same outcome, whether the empire is led by a Trump or a Biden, an Ardern or a Collins. 

Back to Hurtado’s book (the author, sadly, died earlier this year)… The church needs to be a third way that is neither Right, nor Left. This is partly because the analysis of both the Right and the Left is, ultimately, too shallow. Both struggle to address sin and evil in a radical enough manner. Hurtado shows how the early church ‘took to the streets’ with a ‘novel social project’ (181). Yes, a third way, if you like. They intrigued others with their grander vision, one with bits of today’s Left and Right in it! Ahh, now we are talking sense… A heart for the poor and the marginalized? Tick. A multi-racial and multi-ethnic identity? Tick. A life of forgiveness and reconciliation? Tick. A championing of the rights of the unborn, the infant (in an age of infanticide) and women? Tick. A purity in their sexual ethics? Tick. 

Here’s hoping that voting will be diffcult for you as well, as you remember that real hope lies beyond the political processes and within communities who live intriguing, transformed lives in the power of the Spirit because of Jesus.

nice chatting

Paul

PS: Another delightfully intriguing story popped into my in-box yesterday. It is a mural in Otara, South Auckland. The civilian in the picture has some mental health issues, living a life damaged by drugs. He was wanting to kill himself, with some sort of weapon on him. The cops are called. He won’t let go of his weapon. He speaks of demons being everywhere … and this cop gets on his knees and prays for him! The demons depart and the man went with the cop to get the help he needed. Intriguing, eh – and hope I got the story correct too?!

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About Me

paul06.16

the art of unpacking

After a childhood in India, a theological training in the USA and a pastoral ministry in Southland (New Zealand), I spent twenty years in theological education in New Zealand — first at Laidlaw College and then at Carey Baptist College, where I served as principal. In 2009 I began working with Langham Partnership and since 2013 I have been the Programme Director (Langham Preaching). Through it all I've cherished the experience of the 'gracious hand of God upon me' and I've relished the opportunity to 'unpack', or exegete, all that I encounter in my walk through life with Jesus.

6 Comments

  1. Ken Keyte on August 31, 2020 at 11:43 am

    I really appreciated this post Paul, especially as I consider how and what to preach on that might help our congregation caste a Christ-minded (Phil 2:5) vote. I've been wondering about how Michael Gorman's "narrative patterns of cruciformity" (Cruciformity:Paul's narrative spirituality of the cross) might inform our vote casting? He identifies four master patterns of the cross from Paul's writings on the cross (especially Phil 2:6-11), which are: Faithful obedience; Self-giving love; power through weakness; reversal as preview of the resurrection. To be Christ-minded is to practice similar patterns of cruciformity in our daily living (which I think should also result in your quadrant 4 behavior).
    As subjective as this may be, I'm pondering upon a Christ-minded voter being someone who castes their vote according to how well a political party's policies and practices (as secular as they are) represent: faithfulness to God and the people they govern; self-giving love for all peoples; power displayed through weakness; and reversal as hope for our future. I'm also thinking that Christians on either side of the left and right political divide might be able to identify common ground of "Cruciform" and "un-cruciform" policies and practices in each of the parties. This could help us see that it is possible for two Christians to vote for a different political party yet both have caste a Christ-minded vote. What do you think about this?

  2. Ben Carswell on August 31, 2020 at 2:16 pm

    Thanks for articulating all this so well, but particularly on being intriguing & relevance & then also on politics. I can't begin to describe how difficult (impossible?) this election is for me as a Christian.

  3. the art of unpacking on September 4, 2020 at 11:26 am

    Still absorbing these thoughts, Ken. I know of this book by Gorman but have not read it (although I appreciated greatly his book on Revelation, even reading parts of it aloud to Barby while in transit in Melbourne airport at 2am some years ago!).

    I understand what you are trying to do – namely, fashion a framework by which Christians can weigh the merits of voting one way or the other. That is laudable in itself. Moreover the four areas have real merit. But I guess where I am a bit stuck is how you actually discern that a 'secular' position held by a political party can be cruciform. It doesn't seem to me to be a descriptor that will work, especially if we are referring to Jesus' cruciformity as the model. Should we even try to look for it in that place and then, if we find it, will it be authentic enough to be useful?

    Maybe others can comment … I guess I am still wary of placing too much hope in the political powers and processes. What do you think? I am all for local churches demonstrating this cruciformity authentically and see what happens because that is where the example of Christ is designed to be and to have its impact.

    Paul

  4. the art of unpacking on September 4, 2020 at 11:31 am

    Pleased to read that you also are finding it difficult, Ben…

    One of the reasons why Aotearoa-New Zealand needs a strong, effective Christian tertiary work (with TSCF front and center) is that this is a key context in which Christian leaders in the public world can be shaped … and it is Christians in that public world, like politics, where we desperately need to see the intriguing, appealing behaviour and ideas that reach beyond mere relevance.

    Stick at it!

    Paul

  5. the art of unpacking on September 4, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    Someone sent this to me after I posted this blog.

    It is seriously wrong in what it is doing and it comes from someone who so many laud as a believer, Mike Pence, the VP candidate for the Republicans. As I always say, this is not evangelicalism – this is fundamentalism and a particularly unattractive and dangerous variant of it to boot…

    "Let's run the race marked out for us. Let's fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let's fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let's fix our eyes on the author and perfector of our faith and freedom and never forget that where the spirit of Lord is there is freedom – and that means freedom always wins."

    Yikes!

  6. Ken Keyte on September 14, 2020 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks Paul, for your reply and word of caution, I'm still weighing up whether Gorman's four patterns of cruciformity might be helpful for casting a Christ-minded vote (or not). I may well be overly optimistic about our politicians! On the other hand, since scripture tells us that our rulers and authorities have been established by God and that everyone (even politicians) bear the image of God (as fallen as that may be) and that 'the one in authority is God's servant for your good' – then patterns of faithfulness, self-giving love, power in weakness and hope as reversal should be discernible in our political parties' policies and practices. If they are discernible, then these could help us caste a Christ-minded vote rather than a selfish – what's best for me vote?

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