Theological pilgrimage

I have blogged about this matter in the past but only very briefly in passing.   After many months of self-reflection and getting resettled, I now have more time to reflect upon my journey and share with  readers here (and anyone else who may be interested).

Since November of 2011, I have made a journey that has brought my family and I to a new denomination, and to another province.  As  some of my old readers may know, I began serving as an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. My family and I decided to leave the Lutheran church for various reasons–partly for family and ecclesiological reasons.  The ELCIC denomination (Canadian equivalent to the ELCA) in which I was a part of had made big changes in the summer of 2011 in the way it treated marriage between two people of the same gender.  I believe its interpretation of Scripture had gone awry and I know that this goes against the popular beliefs in society today. The atmosphere in this denomination made it very difficult for pastors to speak their mind (despite what they may say).  After some time praying and reflecting upon this, as a family we decided that it was better just to leave rather than remain within the system.  The theological currents within the ELCIC was too powerful, especially in its leadership level, so I was under no deception about this.

Despite these huge changes, many of my former fellow colleagues in ministry chose to remain in the same denomination (since they are mostly life-long Lutherans).    I know how hard it is to leave a denomination they have known all their lives.  It takes a lot of courage, perhaps too pressure to stand alone for most.  [but to my Lutheran colleagues and brothers and sisters who choose to remain, I pray for them God’s richest blessings. ]

For me, it was a much easier decision to leave because I was already very familiar with the evangelical church.  I had grown up a classical pentecostal assembly (PAOC) in Vancouver, and was baptized by immersion in a Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) Church in Ottawa in my early 20s, and had fellowshiped in evangelical churches most of my life.  (…yes, I’ve been on a theological-ecclesiological journey.)  So to return to the evangelical fold was no problem at all.  Our family packed up our belongings and moved from the prairie towns to the Greater Toronto Area in eastern Canada.  We finally feel more settled now.  We’re recently in the middle of a transition, but overall, this move has been a spiritual pilgrimage back to our evangelical roots.  In looking back I think this pilgrimage has also stretched me in  ways to become a better pastor. I have recently served as a pastor in a Baptist Church (CBOQ).

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Keeping a “wall of separation” between Church and State

President Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson

Baptists had a very important role in the formation of the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state”. Thomas Jefferson made this phrase famous, and in part, it was due to the influence from the Baptists. Jefferson had written two letters. The first of the two letters was addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802, in which he mentioned this concept of a “wall of separation between church and state”. This letter was written in response to alleviate concerns that Baptists may have had about any creation of an official State Church. Baptists were not anti-religion (as some secularists may prefer to portray). Baptist believers loved religion and their Christian faith. What they abhorred was one official state religion, for fear that the State’s politics would interfere with the church’s affairs and cause corruption.

President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Baptist Association of Connecticut dated January 1, 1802.
President Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Baptist Association of Connecticut dated January 1, 1802. It was a letter in response to concerns raised about creating an official state church.

Today, some misinterpret the phrase “wall of separation” to mean that we are to keep all religious involvement outside of the public square for fear it might be perceived as it being sanctioned or approved by the state (example). However, this was not what Jefferson had intended; what he had intended was exactly the reverse. This revolutionary concept of having a “wall of separation” between church and state was made in response to the State’s intrusion upon the church’s right to determine its own affairs. It had over-stepped its bounds, as proven in the Crowns persecution of Baptist and Quaker believers. The one and only intent for this conceptual wall was to keep the government’s hands completely off how churches and what Christians believed and live out their faith.

After stating all of this, I would also opine that the State does have  place to maintain religious liberties and freedoms for its people. Today, our courts have done a disservice by deconstructing the precedent of an accommodationist approach historically established by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the framers.   The separationist approach will completely distance any concepts of religion from the public square; whereas, the accommodationist approach will not prohibit or inhibit religious ideas and speech from flowing freely in the public square (e.g., public prayer, reading of scripture, etc.). Personally, I prefer the accommodationist approach over the separationist approach.  Keeping religion actively flowing freely in the public square creates a healthy religious atmosphere in society, which I feel would still be a good thing for today’s seemingly over-secularized western society.

Is church membership important anymore?

Joel OsteenIn some churches,  50% of those in attendance might not be official members of the church.  In some evangelical mega-churches, and in many cases in large church, there are many attendees who are not members. What could this mean?  …that some go church-hopping and never become an official member of that church?  …that there’s a lot of seekers in attendance?… or that the pastors do not stress on the importance of membership.

In some other churches (e.g., mainline churches (e.g., Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, etc.; and even the Southern Baptist Convention), it’s quite the opposite.  The church membership roster might be twice or 3x greater than the actual attendance.  What could this mean?  that people have just stopped coming to church, period?  Or that they switched to different churches or denominations?  Or that they stopped coming to church the day after they got baptized or became a member?

In either case, church membership doesn’t seem very important to more and more people today, especially to the Millennial generation.  Why isn’t it important anymore?

News of my family’s life-changes

Grace and peace to readers of the New Epistles blog.  It’s been a while since my last blog post. In this month of November, our family has been undergoing a big life-change. We have moved to new place (Brampton, Ontario located in the Greater Toronto Area). This change was stressful at first but we are getting used to it. There are different things to deal with: new environment, new home, planning on a new school for our daughter, new church, new working relationships, etc. We have been finding ways to cope with the new changes of living in a new place and getting to know new faces and names. Such life changes are never easy so I have empathy for anyone who has gone through this.

The reason for our move is that I’ve taken on a new call in a new congregation and denomination. I’ve moved from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada to the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. This means some different ways to “doing” church. At the outset, it may also seem like different ways of “thinking” church, but for me personally, it won’t be that different since my spirituality is rooted in evangelicalism. There will be some things I will definitely miss (e.g., Apostles’ Creed, church seasons, etc.).

On a sub-note, we will be recognizing the start of Advent with the lighting of the advent candles this coming Sunday (which I learned was a recent tradition that was started in this congregation about four years ago). It may even be addressed by someone one of these Sundays during our childrens’ talk (if not by myself).  This Sunday, I will be preaching on Isaiah 64:1-9  and will be titled: “We are the work of God’s Hands”.  I hope to challenge my congregation to think of God’s work in our lives as a vital necessity in our spiritual lives.

The theological language between the two churches may be a little different but through my years worshiping and growing in the Lutheran Church and evangelical churches, I feel that I’ve have been stretched. My wide exposure and experience have challenged me to use theological-speak without losing the crux of the theological idea. I have found that being trained in various ecclesiologies and theologies has broadened my scope of ministry methods. It has enabled me to become more versatile in ministry, leadership, and in communicating the gospel, and sometimes, find myself searching for different ways to bridge the gap of understanding.

I am sure there are many other Christians who have traveled between various denominations. There differences may seem big at first, but as one becomes accustomed to the differences, they seem to shrink as time goes by.

Anyone else out there who has, or is, going through similar life-changes?

The Mushy Middle series: on church life

… a series of posts on politics, church life, culture, theology-discipleship, and ministry

It seems that it’s not only the mushy middle in politics that is being pushed out, but also the mushy middle in church life.  Take a look at the life of the established (or rather, de-establishing) mainline churches.  The United Church and Anglican Church have been the fastest dying churches in Canada for years. The Lutheran Church is also headed in a similar direction today.  The United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA), amongst others, are also quickly emptying out in America (see 2011 Yearbook).  Today, there is a feeling of desperation—a desperation to find a last gasp of air before easing into oblivion [maybe this is an exaggeration, but it’s only to make a point].

Soren Kierkegard, a Lutheran religious philosopher, railed on the wishy-washiness of the spiritual state of cultural Christians and state-run Lutheran church in the 18th century (Attack upon Christendom).  Today’s state of Christendom in the northern hemisphere is in a similar state—a state of death and dying.  The numbers of young people attending historic mainline, and some mainline evangelical churches, are decreasing each year (Hat Tip: Rev. Tim Keller).  The mushy middle within church life today is too comfortable.  There is no need to have a clear conviction in one’s personal religious beliefs or any need to live as devoted disciples of Jesus Christ. Many pastors are no longer preaching Law and Gospel. Their faith does not really mean very much to them, and lacks any sense of urgency or intent.  If you’ll allow me, I wonder what would happen if our churches were to burn down?  Would it upset many Christians who are in the mushy middle?  I suspect that it might not affect many in “Christendom”  This explains today’s closures of our mainline congregations.

As a result, generations of children of unchurched families rarely ever darken church doors (except for the occasional wedding, funeral, confirmation, and infant baptism).  Spirituality in their eyes is privatized and is not lived out in fellowship/communion with other Christian believers.  Today, as a result of generations living the mushy middle life of “church-ianity”, people have either become atheists/agnostic, or living like as if they were one.  This is why there is an increasing number of people who are declaring themselves as ‘non-religious’, ‘agnostic’, or ‘atheist’.  The alternative, which is increasingly more popular today, is that they are rejecting the wishy-washy ways of their parent’s past life, and are seeking to live a more devoted Christian life, and are attending church more often and regularly. This explains the growth of evangelical churches.

Here’s my point.  The mushy middle in church life seems to be in the process of being weeded out.  People who do want a new way of living in spiritual/faith community will find it.  They want to be a part of a spiritual Christian community in which they are challenged to live as devoted disciples, othewise, they may choose to have no part of the church at all. Wishy-washiness should no longer be tolerated.  It’s time to say bye bye to the mushy middle attitude.

The Church: always forming and reforming

Throughout my seminary career, I’ve heard professors being openly critical of other churches, especially those that practice different methodologies in ministry.  Both mainstream evangelical and confessional mainline churches are continually criticizing one another’s methodologies, and even, critiquing one another’s motives in ministry.   I have had a foot in both camps for a while now so I can totally understand where the two are coming from, and also feel torn between the two.

In our mainline confessional churches (e.g., Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic), we seek to maintain the confessions of the historic church in order to preserve the truths.  This explains why the growth in or historic confessional churches tend to be stagnant.  However, the upside is that historic positions of the Christian church are maintained and preserved.

In our evangelical churches, we are constantly trying to change in order to be missional.  This explains why our growing evangelical/charismatic churches tend to re-invent ourselves all the time (e.g., new forms of worship).  The upside is that there is growth in evangelical churches (especially worldwide Pentecostalism and charismatic churches).

On the missional church, Craig van Gelder describes the church as: always forming (missional), and always reforming (confessional).

    He says that in this polarity lies a healthy and dynamic tension between change and continuity, and between mission and confession.  This forces us to be challenged by a need to recontexualize a congregation’s ministry while maintaining the truths of the historic Christian faith.

    Can there be a “Third Way”?  I have come to position that in order to survive and even thrive as a Church, the ministry of the Church must begin to practice what I call the “Third Way”.  In my pastoral ministry, I have been trying to implement and meld some of the accepted methodologies of mainstream evangelical and historic confessional churches because that is the only way to be dynamic and growing, while maintaining the established Christian truths.  I believe that we need to be challenged by one another.  Those who do not submit to learning one another’s differences will never understand the advantages of the other methodologies of ministry.  I do hope that we can all, one day, come to a more common understanding of ministry.

    Your Church is Too Small

    Zondervan, 2010

    Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church
    Author: John H. Armstrong
    Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010
    ISBN: 9780310321149

    First, I wish to thank the good people at Zondervan for sending me this book to review.  This book is likely the challenging book I’ve read this year.  It is a book on the unity of the church.  This book managed to touch on many issues that I have thought about over the years but needed to reflect more deeply about. Thanks John.

    John Armstrong, was a church planter adjuncts at Wheaton College Graduate School, and is founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for equipping leaders for Christ’s mission.  In ch. 2,  Armstrong explains his personal journey into catholicity, beginning with his three conversions, of which I can totally relate with.  He also relates the unity of the church as being vital to God’s mission.  For Armstrong, to best serve Christ’s mission, Christian believers must minister out of spiritual unity and be rooted in core orthodoxy. This is profound for many evangelicals but it is true.  Much of our contemporary evangelical churches have rejected tradition and anything remotely related to tradition.  We tend to view anything old and archaic as a hindrance to the growth of God’s mission in the church.   However, there is a growing trend in new evangelicals of a wind of change.   As in Armstrong,I also used to think of Christian tradition as something as old, archaic, and useless; but today, I have come to love tradition.  I believe it has a valuable part to play in the modern-day church of today.  Armstrong teaches us that we need to embrace tradition if we are to move forward as a church in Christ’s mission.

    Why the title?: “Your Church is Too Small?  Armstrong says that our contemporary churches have settled for a small view of the church—divided and fractured—and it has spread like a pandemic across the world.  His thesis is that a “small” view of the church harms the mission of Christ because it spreads the seeds of sectarianism and forces us to choose our enemies and friends based on whether or not we are in complete doctrinal agreement. We need a larger view of the church. Armstrong says: “When core orthodoxy, as represented by the Apostles’ Creed, is not of primary importance, the result will always be a small view of the church” and will be driven by personalities.

    Even though I agree with this, it causes me to ask the question if denominationalism is the enemy here.  Can we have denominationalism without sectarianism?  I think the author gives an affirmative answer.  He does believe that diversity is a good thing.  Relational unity is something that many post-modern evangelicals, including myself, can support. What is relational unity?  It is a unity between persons that are rooted in their relationships with one another. This kind of unity is both spiritual and visible.  A visible unity is not necessarily a structurally united church, but it is one that is united in spirit without an organic union.  It is not unanimity, uniformity, nor union.  I like Armstrong’s statement: “This Christ-centered unity is not found in man-made structures or efforts to achieve oneness.  It is the fruit of our nearness to Christ and is modeled on the unity that Christ experienced with the Father.  It is a relational unity, experienced and revealed through shared mission.” (p.64).  The 20th century ecumenical movement failed because it tried to force an agenda based on theological unity, and was even politically fuelled by socialist and liberationist ideologies, says Armstrong.  There was also an absence of evangelicals and Roman Catholics.  Relational unity does not try to unite the church based on theology but on mission.

    In coming from an evangelical Reformed background, Armstrong understands that evangelicals tend to be “satisfied with informal person-to-person expressions of oneness.  Because they tend to view the church as a voluntary association, they see no need to seek unity with other churches.”  I think he is right.  Ch. 11 talks briefly about this new ecumenism.  If the future ecumenical movement is to be based on ideology, it will fail again.  The CCT-USA, which includes Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Evangelicals and Orthodox churches, is the start of a new movement that can give our ecumenical discussions a fresh start.  The World Evangelical Alliance, which gives evangelicals an identity for over 420 million evangelical Christians, can strengthen the missional thrust of evangelicals.  But evangelicals must continue to work with other denominations to further the work of the mission of Christ.

    Armstrong does not seem very sympathetic to church splits but I’m a bit more sympathetic.  Due to the hardness of our hearts to accept diversity, these movements and church splits were necessary and healthy; but this is my own view and not that of the author.  Sometimes, the harder we try to hold onto our own doctrine, the weaker the unity becomes.  Our unwillingness to diversify is why we had a Reformation in the 16th century, and the last three great awakenings, and the charismatic movement this century.  Throughout history, the Western Church has blamed the Eastern Church; Roman Catholics have blamed the Reformation; the Church of the Reformation has blamed the Mennonites; Evangelicals have blamed Pentecostals and Charismatics.  Due to the unwillingness to make room for differing views, I believe that some church splits were inevitable and were even necessary to the health of the church.  Today, God can still redeem the church and unite us.

    Due to church growth through church-planting, evangelical and pentecostal-charismatic churches remain very much distinct in their diverse denominations.  However, I believe that their distinctiveness have been a natural outcome of growth in evangelical and charismatic churches.  Armstrong sees the pluriform of denominations as a negative thing because he sees no biblical basis for this way of thinking. Well, it may not be biblical but it might have been what actually happened in the first century church.  Church-planting via intentional church splits may have produced some of the largest churches in the world; but the real problem, he says, is that sectarianism creates an attitude of exclusivity.  I would agree with him but I think that church-splits are not the real problem. When this happens, it may also be a symptom of a deeper problem—the problem of not allowing a plurality of theological beliefs, as I mentioned earlier.

    I am glad to see the author’s support for catholic diversity.  He states: “I do not believe we have to give up our theological distinctions to pursue unity.  In fact, any pursuit of unity that denies our uniqueness and diversity is not positive…But I believe there is a better way—the pursuit of catholic diversity, a diversity that fosters vitality.” (p. 93).  Catholic diversity: I like this term and he does try to flesh this out a little more in ch.10.  He describes what it is not by describing what sectarianism is.

    The ecumenical movement of the 70s and 80s had died, but with Armstrong’s passionate writing in this area, I have learned that perhaps a new ecumenism is arising.  The idea of church unity within young evangelicals might kick-start this.  If what Armstrong suggests is true and “the influence of the fiercest forms of separatism seems to have waned in the last two decades in America” and that younger Christians are tired of it (156), then there is possibly a place for this new ecumenism.  The author sounds optimistic that this is the case and he would suggest that the answer to our ambivalence regarding this possible new direction is to recover classical Christianity in all of its paleo-orthodox forms and that this recovery of classical Christianity must proceed in the context of missional-ecumenism.

    This book has been challenging and I am sure it will be so for all readers.  You may get angry and put it down because it can be a bit much for the average evangelical; but if you’re into ecumenism, you will love it and say “amen” to much of what Armstrong has to say.  I am sure that most readers will enjoy this book and gain a bigger view of the larger church.  Our church has been too small for too long.

    It is available through: CBD, Amazon, and Zondervan in various formats: electronic, hardcover, and audio

    Is there hope for Christian unity?

    This cartoon reflects the current condition of the Church. I hope things can change in the future.

    When there’s a lack of communication because of theological-intellectual-spiritual pride or lack of humility, a huge divide becomes even deeper.  We need to suck in our pride and talk to one another as equals and try to become friends with one another.

    Cartoon is by my favorite cartoonist, Jon Birch, at asbo jesus.