How do you do Bible study? I suspect that for most of us it’s actually quite superficial. When did we last have an experience that might be described as “going deep into Scripture” or “being immersed in a book of the Bible”?
This spring, May 1-7, there is an opportunity to encounter Scripture—which is to say to encounter Jesus in Scripture—which will be unique and life-changing. My friend Dr Al Anderson has for some years taught a one-week intensive course on the Gospel of Mark for IVCF students from across Canada. The more I have heard about it, the more I have coveted (I hope in a good sense) this experience for Wycliffe students. Through this past summer and Fall, Al and Marie and I have been figuring out ways whereby Wycliffe (and other TST) students could take this course and get credit for it. This has now happened, and the course is available—thanks be to God!
So how does the course work? Here’s how Al describes it:
Over the course of seven days we will study half of the Gospel of Mark. Students will spend over 40 hours in study time, first in individual study, then in small groups and finally as a whole group. An inductive method is used, following a “manuscript” version of the text (that is, printed on 8 x 11 sheets without chapters or verses). The emphasis is on asking questions of the text and wrestling together to come to answers. The process is exhilarating, refreshing, and tends to unlock insights in the passage that have never been seen before. Ultimately it is life changing, as the new understanding of scripture tends to change students’ viewpoints and lifestyles.
I think you can tell from that that this is not like a NT course. Nor is it like a group Bible study, nor is it like listening to a sermon, nor is it like following a study guide. If it is like anything, it’s most like a week’s immersion course in a foreign language—except that the language is scripture.
So . . . what’s not to like? Well, the price, that’s what. One of the requirements is that you live in community for the week—at Glendon College (on Bayview in Toronto). This costs a further $500 on top of the College’s charge for the course. Oh wow. So I guess that means you can’t do it after all, even though it sounds really good, right? Almost $1,000 for a one week course? Get real!
But wait a minute. Doesn’t God come into this equation somewhere? I love what I’ve heard Peter Patterson, Business Director of the College, say more than once: “If we think God wants us to do this, we’ll find a way to pay for it.” (Not many business managers talk that way, trust me.)
The first question is not, “How would I ever pay for it?” The first question is, “Does God want me to do this?” If the answer to the second is Yes, then the next answer (also a prayer) is, “How on earth are you going to enable me to pay for it?”
It might be one of those occasions when a cheque appears out of the blue. (“I felt the Lord wanted me to give you this. I don’t know why, but maybe you do.”) Such things do happen. There might also be some “natural” ways to think about this. When people ask you what you want for Christmas, why not say, “Well, as you know, I’m an impoverished student. Money is actually the most helpful thing!” Or what about your church? Many churches have discretionary funds for people in particular need, or for students, or for youth ventures. James warns us, “You have not, because you ask not.” (James 4:2)
I hate to say it but, in the large scale of things, $500 is not that much. You will have greater needs at various points in your life. Not bad to start developing that muscle of faith now with some relatively small exercises, so that it’s strong when the real needs come along.
One of the formative experiences of my life was at the age of twenty, when I spent a summer for working for Operation Mobilisation, selling Bibles door to door in rural France. It was formative in many ways, most of them good, but in particular for the discovery that God can answer our prayers for money. Sounds so crass, doesn’t it?
The way OM worked was simple. We were sent off all over Europe in teams of a dozen or so with several boxes of Bibles and other Christian books, which we then went door to door trying to sell. If we sold enough books, we had money to buy our daily bread. If not, not. So we prayed, and we went door to door (with our halting French—using phrases I still remember), and we sold books. And each day we had enough to buy food and other necessities. So far, so good.
But the exercise got more complicated towards the end of our time, when we needed not only enough food for one day but for three days, since we were heading back to HQ in Belgium, a drive that would take two days, during which time we would not be stopping to sell books. Added to that, two of our team had to leave early, so we needed extra money to pay their train fares—and lost two of our modest sales force. Then, on top of that, on the last day, we only had half a day to go selling before we had to leave. All this meant that, in a shorter time than usual, with fewer team members than usual, we were in need of three times our daily income. Suffice it to say: our prayers were answered. Suddenly everyone wanted to buy Bibles. We were all amazed. And (as you gather), I have never forgotten the experience.
All this meant that when I joined IVCF staff in 1973, and was told that staff were only paid whatever was sent in for their support, that didn’t seem as scary as it might otherwise have seemed. And, in fact, during 25 years or so of working for IVCF, there was only one month when I received less than I was supposed to receive. (There was a salary scale, but of course it was more of an ideal than a guarantee.)
I told my spiritual director about this a little while back, and his response was interesting: “Oh yes, that kind of thing has always been a part of the training of the Jesuits. They would be given $5 and sent off to find their way to the other side of the country.” As with Operation Mobilisation (in some ways the opposite end of several spectrums from the Jesuits), the intention was that Christians learn in very basic and practical ways what we say we believe: that God takes care of us.
Not everyone is called to live this way in the long term, though undoubtedly some are—I think as a witness and reminder to the rest of us and to the world. But I believe all of us would be more confident in our discipleship, not to mention more joyful in our witness, if we each had at least one notable experience of having God very obviously provide for our needs when there simply was nowhere else to turn.
This would change the way we approach regular congregational life, where there are always financial stresses; and it’s even more important in pioneering ministry where there isn’t (yet) a faithful congregation you can simply appeal to to dig a little deeper.
God loves us. It’s the most basic of Christian claims, isn’t it? But in what concrete (and financial!) ways have we actually experienced the love of God? Something to ponder. And pray about.
When I worked for IVCF, the question was often raised: Are IVCF chapters churches? The answer was always a resounding No: we do not practise sacraments, nor do we have ordained leadership. Both staff and students were expected to be members of a local church off campus.
But if we were not a church, what were we? I was greatly helped, as were many of my colleagues, by an article written by Ralph Winter of Fuller Seminary, entitled The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission. (You can read it in many places online such as here.)
His basic argument is that, throughout history, both in Scripture and in the centuries since then, there seem to be, well, two structures to God’s mission. In the Old Testament, they were (a) the priestly (concerned for the weekly life and worship of God’s people) and (b) the prophetic (wild men—usually—often living outside the community, sometimes in bands, and swooping down periodically to announce a Word from the Lord). Both were necessary: the priestly for the maintenance of regular community life, the prophetic to prevent complacency and to recall people to their mission. Winter calls the first the modality, the second the sodality—but don’t worry about it.
In the New Testament there is a parallel structure: the local communities led by elders who pastored and taught; and travelling bands of apostles and prophets. You see the pattern most clearly in Acts.
In the centuries following, the prophetic and apostolic were replaced by the monastic orders. (Winter notes that most popes have come out of the orders, not from the parish stream.) And since the 19th century, the second stream has taken the form of missionary societies and what we have come to call “parachurch” (literally alongside-the-church) organisations—like IVCF.
One thing I am seeing today as we realise more and more the missionary challenge that lies before us in the west is groups seeking a revival of the second stream, the sodality. For some, this means living in intentional community in order to engage in mission; for others, it means a looser association of likeminded but scattered individuals who join a mission Order. St Thomas’ Crookes, a huge and mission-minded church in Sheffield UK, has The Order of Mission (TOM for short—see here). The Church Mission Society has recently turned itself into just such a mission Order and invited others to join. (See here.)
These Orders are voluntary, and include men and women, lay and ordained, “paid” and “volunteer” members. They often include a Rule of Life—not to replace other such, but to supplement them with mutual support and prayer for members and other resources.
If Winter is right in his observation, I would suggest that the church in Canada (across the denominations) has majored on the modality (the parish structure) and neglected the sodality (the mission Order). The strength that comes from such a voluntary association could greatly enhance our efforts to grow a more missional church.
Think about it, and let me know what you think.
My thought for the week this time is not a reflection but rather an invitation. As you will see from the attached, Alan Hirsch will be speaking at Tyndale next Monday afternoon and evening (Nov 21st). He is the author (among other things) of The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, which was for some years the basic textbook in the first-year Leading Missional Congregations course.
You will get a sense from the Wikipedia entry here of why he is an important person in the present international missional church scene. Among other things he is the founder of the Forge Mission Training Network, which is now taking root in Canada, headed up by my friend Cam Roxburgh, a Baptist church planter from Vancouver.
If you would like to come for the day, I will be driving from the college around noon, and coming back after the evening session. The cost is $15 for students. If this is prohibitive, let me know as there may be help stuffed away in an old sock somewhere. The publicity says nothing about supper, so I guess people have to find their own meal. (I would be perfectly content with a Timmy’s.)
Please let me know ASAP, since I only have room for three (or four if they’re skinny) in my car. I suggest you then register individually via the Forge website.
As you may know, the sixth annual Vital Church Planting conference is coming up in February 2012—Thursday 2nd to Saturday 4th. I hope you will be able to make it for at least part of the time. The last few years, George has kindly agreed to cover half the cost for Wycliffe students. See the great new-look website, designed by Wycliffe grad Ryan Sim, here.
A couple of times recently, people have said to me, “Why don’t you drop the term ‘church planting,’ and just call it ‘the Vital Church conference’ or something like that?” I guess their thinking is that so much about the conference is applicable to any church looking for renewal and revitalization. So why not broaden the appeal by dropping the idea of church planting, or at least moving it to the margins, since so many don’t see it as relevant?
So far we have resisted the idea, and I’ll tell you why. The goal of Fresh Expressions is simple: it is to start new Christian communities which we trust will grow in time into mature churches. Pete Atkins, a medical doctor and a leader of Fresh Expressions in the UK, says, “Fresh Expressions is really just a name for church planting in a post-Christendom world.”
(If we just called it “church planting,” people would assume we meant putting up new buildings in new subdivisions, putting in a priest, beginning services and hoping that, since we have built it, they will recognise their responsibility to come. The term “fresh expressions of church” avoids that danger.)
Of course, the fact that the term “fresh expressions” is not well-known or understood is part of the problem. It has been applied to everything from the introduction of a coffee hour after a service to the replacement of an organ with a music group (“a fresh expression of organs” as Rowan Williams has joked). Although that kind of change may be helpful to the church’s mission, the term is most authentically applied to fresh expressions of CHURCH.
What the VCP conference offers—and which is unique—is the insight that many Canadians (perhaps most?) will never be reached by existing churches, however missional and outward-oriented, and that they will only be reached by new Christian communities which are formed by and within their culture, not ours. (Those of you who have read Vincent Donovan will understand this, since it is what he was aiming at among the Maasai.)
Rowan Williams affirms this distinction when he says:
“Renewal for the Christian community is never simply a matter of doing the same things better, though that is an essential part of it; it’s also about finding what new shapes for our life together are created under the pressure of mission. New wines and new wineskins, you might say; the idea is firmly rooted in the Gospel itself.” (My emphasis. See his article in Mixed Economy: the Journal of Fresh Expressions here.)
This is why we have had speakers at VCP who have actually planted new churches, like Beth Fellinger and Pernell Goodyear and Connie denBok, and (this year) Dave Male from Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Because they are experienced practitioners, they are able to hold our feet to the fire on this issue.
If we changed the name—and the focus—of the conference, it would become yet another conference to help churches become renewed, revitalized, and missionally oriented. That is worth a million dollars, of course, but there are ALREADY all sorts of resources for doing that, from the Alban Institute to Al Roxburgh’s Missional Network, and there have been such for over 25 years.
So, for the time being, at least, the conference will remain the Vital Church Planting conference and will encourage and equip people to begin fresh expressions of CHURCH. I hope to see you there!
I have been struck recently by the incredible power of books to shape us.
Some of you know that my wife Deborah is an English professor, and she can be quite evangelistic on behalf of the benefits of reading fiction. One book she uses as a text-book (Literature through the Eyes of Faith, by Gallagher and Lundin) says things like:
“In and out of literature, stories tell us who we are and what we might become.”
“Reading literature can help us to love others and to construct a world that demonstrates that love, because one of its functions is to increase our knowledge.”
“Encountering new ideas in a text may allow you to understand your neighbour but also may allow you to understand yourself more clearly in juxtaposition.”
When you read a novel, you encounter people and situations in places you will never yourself experience, and your imagination and your heart expand as a result.
The same is true for Christian biography. As I look back, I realise how profoundly I have been shaped by reading the biographies of great Christians, not least pioneers in overseas ministry. When we were undergrads in IVCF at Oxford, we were encouraged to read such things, and I really believe those books shaped—and continue to shape—our understanding of the Christian life and what it means to “live for Jesus,” even though we were reading about people and places we would never experience directly.
One of the first I read was Shadow of the Almighty, by Elizabeth Elliott, about her husband Jim, who was one of five young missionaries killed by Auca Indians in Ecuador at the age of 29. I still remember his words, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” That book was the first I remember finishing and immediately going back to the beginning to read it again.
The Cambridge Seven by John Pollock was also very influential at that time: the story of seven young men (yes, a lot were about men, even though so many women were missionaries!) who gave up fame and fortune to serve the Gospel in China with Hudson Taylor, pioneer of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship.
Henry Martyn by Constance Padwick was about another Cambridge student (not a lot of Oxford people for some reason)—a brilliant mathematician this time—who gave up his career and the woman he loved to be a missionary in the Middle East. He translated the whole of the New Testament into Urdu, Persian and Judaeo-Persic. Then, like so many of these folk, he died at an early age—31.
My two favourite stories of women missionaries (yes, I have read some) were The Little Woman, by Alan Burgess, about Gladys Aylward, who was refused by Hudson Taylor—but went to China by herself anyway and spent most of her life there; and A Passion for the Impossible, by Miriam Huffman Rockness, about Lilias Trotter, who gave up fame and fortune and a promising career in art to serve the poor of Algeria for forty years.
More recently, I have become interested in Jesuit missionaries at the time of the Protestant Reformation. (Why did it take so long for Protestants to develop such a passionate, dedicated missionary movement?) Ignatius Loyola’s own biography (by Philip Caraman) is fascinating , but so is A Pearl to India by Vincent Cronin (the story of Robert deNobili, whom you may have studied in Foundations). And I have just found second-hand online (for the princely sum of 99 cents) The Memory of Palace of Matteo Ricci (the pioneer Jesuit missionary in China) by Jonathan Spence.
The creativity of these people, and what they were prepared to put up with for the sake of the Gospel!
Being a pioneer is not just a matter of learning strategies and analzying cultures and reading Lesslie Newbigin, good though those things are. It is also a matter of having our hearts strangely warmed by the examples of those who have pioneered before us—often in contexts much tougher than we will ever face.
And those stories can indeed “tell us who we are and what we might become.”
My thought for the week follows on from last week’s but it needs to be repeated: pioneers need extra resources.
Example: Graham Tomlin, who heads up St Milletus’ College (an offshoot of Holy Trinity, Brompton, home of Alpha, and a fully-accredited seminary, specialising in pioneer training) said to me, “Pioneers need more theology, not less, than regular pastors.” (I told him, “That will make my boss very happy.”)
It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? If you go into an existing congregation, however dispirited or dysfunctional, there is some theological tradition present: people who know the prayer book and the hymn book, and have at least heard much of the Bible over the years. Theology (even bad theology) is impregnated deep in the woodwork, however unconsciously. And, as pastor, you can draw on that, expand it, deepen it, even (where necessary) correct it.
But in a pioneering situation—perhaps doing missional discernment for a year, perhaps serving needs or building relationships with folk unconnected with a church—you are IT. You are (forgive the pomposity of the phrase) the Sole Bearer of Theological Tradition. You had better know your theology because no-one else will (expect perhaps—hopefully—your team). There is no woodwork for the theology to be deeply impregnated in. Actually, there is no woodwork. So the theology needs to be deeply impregnated somewhere else—to be precise, in your mind and heart.
Well, you get the point.
This post is really about another resource pioneers need, however, though it relates to the first: and that is the resource of spiritual direction. Hopefully in your pioneering situation you will have a coach—a buddy who can walk alongside you, advise you, laugh and cry with you, help you troubleshoot, tell you when you’re doing well and when you’ve blown it. (That’s a subject for another week.) But you also need someone whose concern for you is primarily your relationship with God: a spiritual director.
I have been seeing the same spiritual director for ten years, roughly every five weeks, and it has become an anchor of my spiritual life. Jack does not advise me about my ministry or my relationships, although we talk about those things. What I go to him for is to talk about my relationship with God—where I am seeing God at work, where I wish I were seeing God at work, and how I am responding (or not) to God.
Personally, I think most Christians could use spiritual direction, but pioneers need it more than many—and the reason is the same as the need for strong theology. In a regular parish placement, there are things in the culture that will (hopefully) sustain and nourish your relationship with God—daily and weekly worship in community, the fellowship of at least few mature Christians, perhaps a pastors’ fellowship group, and so on.
But in a pioneering situation, those may be few and far between. And having a reliable spiritual director whose wisdom and insight you trust, can keep you growing in your relationship with God when the actual pioneering situation is tough and not particularly nourishing, when it takes more than it gives.
My suggestion is that you try spiritual direction now, while you are a student, rather than waiting till you graduate and have more time. (A commonly held myth.) Annette has a list of spiritual directors who make themselves available to Wycliffe students, and she would be happy to advise you.
Far be it from me to suggest that Wycliffe College has any shortcomings. But I have to be honest and tell you (if you hadn’t figured it out already): five courses in the pioneer stream is not enough to train you for ministry as a pioneer! It is a beginning. I believe it lays some good foundations. But it really is minimal. Maybe this will change over time, but this is where we are right now.
So I would encourage you to be on the lookout for other resources to supplement your Wycliffe Pioneer Stream diet. This may be things like:
* peer mentoring groups
* visiting a new church and talking to folks.
Will you get credit for this? No. Will it help you prepare for your ministry? Of course. Will you do it? I certainly hope so, as and when you are able.
And if you need suggestions for any of the above, just ask.
All this is a lead-in to telling you about some upcoming events that may be of interest to you. Some are distant and would require a car and travel time to get there. Nevertheless any or all of them would be highly worthwhile.
* Wednesday November 2nd: Alan Kreider will be speaking at the Wednesday event. He is a Mennonite missional thinker from the UK. Mennonites have not suffered the effects of Christendom in quite the same way that mainline denominations have done, and they have something to offer us. (You will find an outline of his bio on Wikipedia.) This is the easiest: travel time 1 minute or less.
* Thursday evening, November 3rd and all day Friday November 4th: Alan Kreider is speaking at Tyndale on Worship and Mission after Christendom. See here. (Incidentally Marie Soderlund’s nephew Glen Soderholm, is leading the music!) Thursday night is free; Friday is $20 for students (if that is a hardship, scholarships can be found). Tyndale is half an hour’s drive away.
* Saturday November 5th: A Learning Party, organised by a group called the Cultivate Network, taking place in London. The organiser, Pernell Goodyear, has spoken at the Vital Church Planting conference, started a Salvation Army church plant in Hamilton some years ago, and is now helping a “formerly Baptist church” in London become missional. He describes a “learning party” this way: “it’s designed to be everything good about a conference without the usual rigmarole… and much more fun and interactive.” I’ve been to one of these, and they are unique, not least as a chance for people at various stages of pioneering to learn from one another. Cost $35 (again, scholarships can be etc.). London is a two-hour drive.