Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What is American evangelicalism like?

I’ve been a little surprised to hear this question asked in various forms in a number churches. It surprises me on two fronts. First, I’m a little surprised that a startling number of people may be aware that American evangelicalism has it’s own unique twist. On the other hand I’m, perhaps naively, surprised at how many people don’t. I’m often asked, “So what do you notice most about being back in America” or variations like “What do you notice about the church in America now that you’re back.” Those are a little tough to answer.

Christopher Little, writing in Evangelical Missions Quarterly (subscription only) gives some good insight into answering this. While Little is writing about a better way for American missionaries to think about their work, he makes some good observations about the American church. He opens by commenting:

…there is indeed a distinct variety of American evangelical Christianity which has booth strengths and weaknesses. It is tremendously creative, efficiently organized, strategically oriented, highly energized, incredibly diverse and endowed with seemingly boundless resources…Yet is also exhibits serious shortcomings.

That’s a pretty striking statement! In truth, there are up-sides and down-sides to the way Americans “do” church. Little offers five, which are listed below. The bold titles are his, the comments after are mine. I’ve also added a sixth to his list, just to add a little personal investment into the issue.

1. Americans have a systematized theological perspective. Our culture is deeply rooted in modernism, the scientific method and critical thought. Synthesis and analysis (making a whole of its parts and breaking down a whole into its parts) are a normal part of our everyday lives. As Americans we often want a degree of theological precision that sometimes isn’t supported by the Bible. Last week I was in a Sunday School class were we discussed the make-up of humanity: is humanity spirit-soul-body or body-soul/spirit, etc. It’s a good discussion to have, but this bit of analysis (again, breaking the whole down into its parts) is very typical of American Christianity. In college I, like most theological students, study “Systematic Theology” which breaks down theology into the study of God (theology proper) Soteriology (salvation), Christology (the study of Jesus Christ), etc. There’s nothing wrong with this, but we need to understand that this is a very Western approach for studying God. What’s the downside? The downside is that theological students believe that they “know God” because they’ve studied systematic theology. Theology is divorced from spiritual development and character development.

2. Although Americans did not invent the “professionalization of ministry,” they have taken it to new levels. We’re struggling with how to do leadership development in the Balkans. What defines a pastor? What kind of school should he have? Earlier in my career I served for six years in another denomination and couldn’t be titled “pastor” (even a youth pastor) until I’d graduated from seminary with my Masters, even though I had a BA from a gen-u-ine Bible college. The early church was essentially a lay-movement. We are educationally driven, degree driven. I’m all for education, and I’m all for pastors that can organize, manage and lead a church. But that’s our way of doing it. The downside is the people of deep character, deep communion with God tend to be overlooked and undervalued.

3. American Evangelical Christianity is extremely anthropocentric. This one is a little scary. I sat in a men’s Bible Study this morning watching a DVD of a very gifted speaker. The video happened to have been shot at Christmas time and I sat stunned as he said, “Jesus isn’t the reason for the season, WE are the reason for the season.” He went on to make a decent point Scripturally, but he also serves as a great example. In the West theology and practice begins and ends with us. As Little says, “…the American Gospel starts with humanity’s need and invites God to meet it.” In our individualistic culture God is all about us. God’s agenda is all about my self-actualization, my self-improvement, my climbing the ladder. Does God love every individual person on the earth? I believe he does; I also believe that the thing most important to God is God.

4. American-style Evangelicalism has been thoroughly McDonald-ized. Calling it “unrestrained pragmatism,” Little criticizes the American church for its emphasis on program, large staff, complex facilities and big budgets. In many ways he is right on. We live in, not just a consumer-oriented society, but a consumer-centered society; the business without customers dies. The church has to function within that culture and will naturally reflect it. At the same time, it is a uniquely American tendency to franchise the effective ministries of another church. Books are written, seminars are held to duplicate effective models of doing church. There are upsides to this tendency, the downside is that we place an emphasis on reproducible human dynamics and less on sovereign movements of the Spirit of God.

5. American Christian exhibits a dichotomistic world-view. Because of our analytical orientation on life we tend to see everything as contrasts between poles. Little gives the following examples: sacred/secular, church/state, church/parachurch, clergy/laity, faith/works, evangelism/social action, sovereignty/free will, natural/supernatural, literate/illiterate and form/meaning. We might add Calvinist/Arminian, hymns/praise-choruses and liberal/conservative. These constructs aren’t necessarily wrong, but they can be misleading. Few of us would be comfortable at either pole in the above list. We generally live somewhere on a continuum though we tend to think in dichotomies. People who both think and live on continuums don’t quite fit.

6. American Christians usually assume that bigger is better than smaller and faster is better than slower. The pastor of our national partner church made his first visit to America a few years ago. When he returned he commented on how everything is big in America. From cars to bathrooms to bathtubs things just keep getting bigger and bigger. As Americans we tend to assume that bigger and faster are inherently superior to smaller and slower. Interestingly, when I make this observation to fellow Americans I’m often met with a grin and a wink…yeah, isn’t it great. The pastor, however, didn't think it was inherently good. The further away we get from an agricultural basis of our culture the further we get away from a deep understanding of national processes that cannot be hurried or magnified.

All of the above characteristics have up-sides and down-sides. Every national church assumes some of the characteristics of its host culture. This is normal and has always been the case. This isn’t an attempt to criticize the American church, but to try and describe it for those who ask.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The clock is ticking...and it's about today.

Jason Womack. one of my favorite productivity bloggers, wrote about his visit to the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO. 

One thing I wanted to share via this blog today was this quite that is up on the walls of the facility, as well as on the business cards of everyone working there. Here it is:

"It's not every four years, it's every day."

And, the two athletes I met, as well as the dozens I watched that morning, seemed to exhibit this sentiment.

I took the tour, and along the way met a gymnast and skeet shooter. They were there, in residency, both preparing for China. What I find so impressive (and inspiring) is that EVERY day they practice, they are visualizing their upcoming events, half a world - and more than two years - away!

That visit last September changed me. I'm much more interested in making each day the best it can be. I've got today, and what happens today will ultimately manifest into what shows up in my life... I don't have a countdown like our Olympic athletes do, but I can use their motto. It's not just once a lifetime, it's every day of that lifetime... 

The thing that struck me when I saw this is that there really is a clock pruning.  It’s not a clock on the Olympics, or a performance clock in any usual sense of the word.  But the clock is ticking.  Jesus, the Christ, really is coming back…maybe not too far in the future.

If we had a countdown clock on his return, how would we live our lives differently?  To whom would we speak?  In what would we involve ourselves? This isn’t supposed to be a guilt thing, but the clock is running down.  It’s not just once every two (or three) thousand years, it’s today.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Meanwhile, while you were gone for four years....

This post is a bit off the beaten track, but a lot can happen over four years.  Laws change, credit cards offers endlessly arrive at our state-side addresses.  Bill come and are paid (hopefully) by those we’ve asked to care for those things.  And so, even while we’re gone, the US financial-legal system continues to churn away.  Most of us, myself included, have no idea what’s happening to our credit rating while we’re gone. 

While driving in the car the other day I happened to catch about five minutes of the Clark Howard radio program.  While listening I was reminded that each of us is entitled to an annual free credit report.  I had actually tried to figure out how to do this while overseas but never figured it out.  It’s actually much easier than you might imagine.  In other words, I have not idea why I didn’t do this much earlier.

If you’re interested in checking your credit report go here.  You’ll be guided through an encrypted online process were you can view and print your credit report.  I did it and, while every thing was in order on my report, I was surprised to see a couple of things I’d entirely forgotten about and probably need attention.

In all, the process took about ten minutes (mostly because my printer is so slow).  Ten minutes every 2–4 years is a pretty small price to pay for ensuring my financial ‘i’s’ are dotted properly.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The problem with Scripture memorization…

I believe in Scripture memorization…I’m just horrible at it.  Seriously, I believe that the Word of God is eternal and that I both ought to and want to know it much better than I do.  The problem with Scripture memorization is that it’s really hard and I am not good at it.  I’ve tried a number of different methods in my life but haven’t really had much success.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve memorized a lot of random Bible verses in my life.  I’ve even, at one time or another, memorized whole books (Philippians and James).  But they never stayed put in my mind for very long.  Before too long the passages would fade in to my “steel-sieve”-like mind.

Then two years ago a colleague of mine, Brenda Knopp, explained to me a method of Scripture memorization that she’d come across.  At the time Brenda was working on a memorizing a section of Romans and once I heard about it I was hooked.  I started with the book of Hebrews and memorized about the first five chapters over the next several months.  Then I ran out of gas and stopped. 

Fast-forward a year and a half.  A couple of months ago I really began to yearn to commit more of the Scripture to memory and I picked up my copy of method again.  This time on I decided to work on the book of 1 John.  I figured that a shorter book would be better.  One of my problems with Hebrews was that it: a) was just too honkin’ long to be the first book I memorized this way and b) I was so focused on “getting it done” that I tried to go too far too fast and burned out.  By last week I starting into Chapter 3 of I John and I figured it was safe to blog about it.

There are two keys to this method of Scripture memorization.  The first is that it focuses on memorizing large blocks of texts.  The second is that it focuses on mastering what you’ve already memorized, not in the all-out pursuit of new material.  This answers the two dilemmas that I’ve always faced in memory work.  Working with large blocks of texts give my mind more “mental scaffolding” on which to hook passages.  I need big strong beams and posts to put the verses on.  Verses isolated from their contexts just don’t do it.  Oh, I can memorize John 3.16 without any trouble; it has enough other mental scaffolding around it to keep in place.  But other important passages don’t.  By memorizing longer passages (paragraphs, chapters or whole books) the scaffolding that the author envisioned is preserved and it’s much easier to memorize.

Secondly, this method focuses on mastering material that you’ve already memorized.  Okay, ideally you memorize one new verse a day, but the bulk of one’s memory work is devoted to working to retain what you’ve already learned.

Dr. Andrew M. Davis, the author of the method, explains it well.  Before diving in, give his webpage a thorough read.   I’ll give you an overview here, however.   Imagine, for example, that you are going to memorize the book of Ephesians.  Here is the gist of the method from Dr. Davis’ site:

1) Day one: Read Ephesians 1:1 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

2) Day two: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:1 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:2 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

3) Day three: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:2 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Ephesians 1:1-2 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:3 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

4) Day four: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:3 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Ephesians 1:1-3 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:4 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

Here is what I like about his method:

1.        You focus on retaining what you’ve already learned.  There are days when I don’t try to learn the next verse, I just recite the verse I’ve learned or focus on the most recent verses.  This is sometimes a challenge for me because I want to move forward and get it done.  But there are days when I my brain just seems stuck or saturated and I only review what I’ve already learned to that point.

2.       It’s do-able.  This only takes 15-20 minutes a day.  Frankly, I often feel like I’ve grown more doing this than from my daily Bible reading, which I do separately.  It’s not a major time commitment, it’s just a shorter daily time commitment over a longer period.

3.       Learning larger blocks of Scripture really gives your mind things to chew on during the day.  It really helps me meditate on what the Scripture is saying.  When I’m stuck in traffic or standing in a line it’s easy to start pondering the meaning of some particular verse or section.  The larger structure of a passage becomes clearer as I work my way through it.

4.       It makes the Scripture more applicable.  Last weekend I finally got around to watching “The Da Vinci Code.”  Verses like I John 2.22-23 popped right up in my mind.

5.       I think it trains my mind to remember things more easily.  It’s great mental work-out that helps my mind memorize things in other contexts more easily.

Scripture memorization will probably never be easy for me, but this is the first approach I’ve ever used that brings tangible, long-term results.  Give it a try and let me know what you think.