Thursday, November 29, 2018

The People God Uses

I mentioned in a previous post that attitudes in the Majority community in Indonesia have been hardening towards the gospel.
I will try to write about three contrasting and instructive stories I heard during my stay in Jogja (as people usually call Yogyakarta). Each is representative of a type of witness being undertaken by brothers and sisters with a heart for those who do not have much access to the gospel. 
Firstly, the couple I mentioned here are working among hard-line reformists in one of the other large islands. They have pursued their ministry in a traditional way, despite the opposition from their Arabising neighbours, talking directly with them of Allah (as both Christians and Muslims alike call God), sin, Christ, and salvation. 
“Many of the women have a full veil,” the wife told me, “but I am not afraid of them.” “They tell me, ‘You Christians are better than we are. We hide our discontentment under our veils. Inside we are angry and are always fighting with our husbands, not like you people.’” 
I was humbled at their love for the Lord, their evangelistic zeal, and their evident love for the people, all far more important than strategy and methods of cross-cultural communication. It is easy for someone like me, who thinks a lot about evangelistic approaches, to miss the significance of ordinary believers taking steps of faith in difficult situations with their limited understanding. 
“But,” as the Apostle Paul tells us, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor 1:27-29). We need to ponder that regularly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Hardening of the Categories

Technological progress in Indonesia has had a big impact on lifestyle, especially, as in other parts of the majority world, in the cities. Over the past few decades, and in response to that change, the Majority community and the Christian minority have reacted largely in opposite ways: the one retrenching and becoming more fundamentalist and the other largely capitulating to modernity. I think there are multiple reasons for this. For one thing the Chinese community (represented disproportionately in the churches) is overwhelmingly urban.
But this alone is not sufficient to explain the difference. Despite its Reformed roots, the evangelical church in Indonesia is ill-equipped to engage with culture. The reason for this, I think, should be found in the theology of religion espoused by the Dutch missionary Hendrik Kraemer, who advocated, in the 1930s, for a compete break from traditional culture by the Indonesian church. It was, if I understand correctly, his emphasis on the ‘antithesis’ – the conflict between, as he saw it, two incommensurable systems – that led to this ideology. The consequence is that people coming from traditional religions have had to adapt to foreign ways of worship and witness. And as changes to lifestyle come along, they are ill-equipped to critique those changes and the philosophy that has given rise to them. Is this why nearly all the Christian meetings I went along to were characterised by megadecibel poppy praise songs, some complete with smoke machines? Such an uncritical acceptance of the new is surely a capitulation to modernity. It is hardly surprising that the preaching of the Word left much to be desired: I am not talking about heresy, but I am talking about error.
The Majority community are horrified. So, they get their women-folk to wear the hijab (a recent development) and chant all the more vehemently through the loud-speakers adorning their mosques. Members of one family went even further and blew themselves up in three churches earlier in the year. I am not saying that suicide bombing is the churches’ fault. I am saying that it does not all come down to satanic fanaticism.
There has been, then, a hardening of the categories. Reaching out to the Majority community has become fraught with difficulties. The days of the largely folk-religious turning to Christ, with little societal opposition, may have largely gone. It is not all bleak, however. Followers of Christ have sought to respond to this new situation in creative ways. But more of that later.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Needed: Integrative Theology

As I fly home, I want to write down a few reflections on my time while the memories are still fresh. It’s been a privilege to have had these two weeks. I have enjoyed my time in Indonesia very much. My hosts in both places were very kind and went out of their way time and again for me. Indonesia reminds me of South India and Sri Lanka with its tropical vegetation and hot and humid climate. The people are friendly, always ready to smile, and a smile goes a long way in Indonesia: they say you will be forgiven many a mistake with a smile and a simple ‘sorry’. A ‘nice’ person is a good person. I wonder how that affects notions of sin and guilt, justice, crime and punishment.
Bandung Theological Seminary was founded, with the help of missionaries, by leaders of churches with a Reformed emphasis. These churches are dominated by Chinese, who form a significant proportion of the evangelical movement in the archipelago. My impression was that the seminary and denomination are well-heeled, being sponsored by wealthy businessmen. The students are well educated, their facility in English giving them unparalleled access to theological resources in their 60,000-volume library. Some of the students in my class are in ministries in which they might find it hard to benefit from my teaching, struggling with nominalism and apathy in the Christian community, rather than the joys and complexities of interaction with those of other traditions. Other students, however, seemed to find the challenge to their theological paradigm of religious pluralism very stimulating, and are considering how it might impact their ministries, especially among the Majority community and modern, secularised city dwellers.
Many of the students at ETSI in Yogyakarta, by contrast, come from far-flung, technologically less developed islands, with, I was informed, a corresponding inferiority complex. Relationships between faculty members struck me as very warm and collegial. I had lunch with the principal and two other faculty members one day. All three had turned to Christ out of Islam in their youth, when to do so did not usually carry with it the same social stigma as it does today (not that it was easy for them). All had gone through the rigorous system of the seminary and had the stories to share. Many of them had done their PhDs in American seminaries, with Dallas having quite an influence.
My approach to the course in both institutions was to give a lesson in contextual theologizing – that is, reflecting critically on modern thinking as it is expressed in both the West, from where the tradition of academic theology has spread across the world, and in Indonesia, where the national ideology of Pancasila stands over its six official ‘religions’.
Many seemed to find my approach stimulating. I was told that the leadership of the seminary in Bandung had revised the curriculum in order to get the students to think theologically on current societal issues but have found it difficult to recruit teachers. The lecturers are happy to teach systematic theology (both Berkhof and Ryrie are in Indonesian) or books of the Bible but don’t want to take on the challenge of more integrative courses. This fits in with some previous encounters with theological education in Asia. Taking on a new module and preparing it from scratch demands a lot more thought than going through notes from one’s own training. But the more I learned about the religious context in Indonesia, the more concerned I became that even seminary lecturers seem not to want to do the creative work. The missiological dimension is crucial in this. If we are going to reach the large number of people who have little or no access to the gospel, including in the Indonesian archipelago, we must do the hard work. Neither Berkhoff nor Ryrie, I ventured to guess, had much to say about honouring ancestors, spirit possession, or idolatry.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

More Notes from Indonesia

I’ve been in Yogyakarta for a week now, teaching at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Indonesia, and what a joy it has been. In contrast to the class I taught in Bandung, few students here have much facility in English. I had 28 men and women, and what a variety of faces in the room: Indonesia really is a land of diversity, ethnically as well as linguistically and religiously. There were students from nearly every corner of the country: a Batak tribal from Sumatra in the west, three men from Papua, two or three thousand miles to the east, and others from many of the islands in between: Borneo, Sulawesi, Maluku, Nusa Tengara, and of course Java, where the seminary is.
The seminary, and Immanuel Christian University that shares the campus, were started by a dynamic Indonesian leader called Chris Marantika in the 1970s. His vision was that the seminary would be a hub for church planting across the archipelago. Students would go each weekend to outlying places to share the gospel and gather believers into churches. They would not be allowed to graduate until they had baptized 15 people from unevangelized communities. They saw tremendous fruit for years and even multiplied seminaries in far-flung locations to extend the work.
In recent years, however, resistance from the majority community has made it difficult to function quite so openly, so students often work within already established churches, though other, more sensitive work has also begun.
I taught, as in Bandung, on Biblical Perspectives on Pluralism, only, this time with translation. The first day, we looked at the question of theological method, or how we go about addressing the question of pluralism, focussing on what we mean by terms like ‘religion’, ‘religions’, and ‘pluralism’, and exploring the influence of the Enlightenment on Western thought and how that has had an impact even in a place like Indonesia. The students were patient, but I think they found it heavy-going. 
Day two, and we looked at a number of relevant texts of Scripture, such as those that tell us about creation and fall, Babel and Melchizedek, Peter with Cornelius, and Paul in Athens. This was more up their street. They were brighter and more attentive, reading out the texts in Indonesian and asking intelligent questions.
On the third day, we looked at how we might respond missiologically to the context here in the light of the way religions are lived out, focussing on Primal and Majority communities. The students were so receptive and gave me such warm appreciation when we finished (as well as presenting me with a fancy batik shirt).
During the week I met with some of the students and faculty and heard so many extraordinary stories. I cannot begin to recount them all, and some are so sensitive I have to think carefully before sharing them at all.
For now, two related stories will suffice. I met a brother who works in Palu, Sulawesi, which was where the earthquake and tsunami occurred at the end of September. Sadly, he lost nine of his extended family as their house was swallowed up by the earth in that terrible soil liquefaction. Being a follower of Christ does not automatically protect you from danger. My friends here have been able to channel aid to this family and a whole lot of others.
The second, really remarkable story came from a married couple of master’s students. In March, as Febee told me, her three children each had a vision. They were not dreaming, it was in broad daylight, and all three saw it. In the vision, the children saw what they thought was a woman with long hair and in a dress - their mother perceived it to be an angel, carrying a scroll, tied with a red ribbon. The angel threw down the scroll, which then turned into a bowl and landed upside down on the earth. The children and their parents were much affected by the vision, though their father, who had been away at the time, was cautious about its significance. Their mother, on the other hand, felt at once that it was a warning of impending disaster and immediately began to visit her neighbours, to recount the vision and pass on the warning.
In August they moved here to Java for their studies, with one of the children, leaving the other two in … Palu. Imagine their horror as they saw the news and tried to find out if their other children, staying with grandparents, were safe. Thankfully, they were all saved from tragedy, experiencing a dramatic near miss from falling furniture. What effect has it had on the community? That, sadly, I could not find out. Perhaps they also do not yet know, as they have not yet been able to visit. I am a sceptic at heart but find it very difficult to dismiss such a story. Nor do I think it is necessary: God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. Pray for them and for their community. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Notes from Indonesia

I am in Indonesia for two weeks as a guest of a couple of seminaries. My first week here has come to an end and I am on the train from Bandung to Yogyakarta, sitting next to a pleasant Muslim lady in her headscarf. The train preparation staff all stood in a line and bowed to us as we pulled out of the station – match that Bridgend! We have been passing through recently-harvested paddy fields and villages. Banana, coconut, papaya and bamboo and some other tropical trees are growing between the fields, and the long train trip gives me an opportunity to reflect on the week. 
This is my first visit to the country and the first time I have crossed the equator. I was a little fearful I would find it too hot, but Bandung is very pleasant, being about 3000 feet above sea level. It has rained almost every afternoon in typical equatorial fashion, sometimes hard with lightning and thunder. So that has kept the heat down too. And I have never been far from air conditioning. So, it has been easy, actually.
I have not found the seven-hour time change easy at all. Several nights I had only two or three hours of proper sleep. I hope my teaching did not suffer too much. It is better now.
I have been staying in the guest lecturer’s room at Bandung Theological Seminary. Each morning I have been going for a walk in the neighbourhood. I like getting out of the compound to see the life of local people, and exchange smiles and greetings. Bandung is a city of three million people. It has an old colonial centre with grand buildings and pleasant boulevards. Out of the centre, the few main roads with their shiny office blocks and hotels are terribly congested and the people live in densely packed neighbourhoods of one- and two-storey houses with neatly swept but tiny courtyards, beautiful cage-birds singing, cats prowling, small shops selling fruit, cigarettes and other necessities and, seemingly, a small mosque on every corner. The narrow streets and tight lanes of my morning walk throng with women and men going to work on their scooters and motorbikes – nobody seems to walk or cycle if they can avoid it –, uniformed children being taken to school, hawkers selling foodstuffs from their trolleys, the old lady selling ghastly-looking medicines, the man directing traffic at the junction and collecting coins from drivers for his pains, and rubbish collectors. Given the conditions, it is remarkable how clean and orderly the neighbourhood is. But I have yet to see one item being recycled: like many other developing countries Indonesia clearly has a garbage problem and one I hope they get on top of soon.
On Thursday my hosts, Dwi and Shanti took me for a trip to the local volcano. At around 6000ft the air is cooler. To my surprise there was a car park at the crater rim – it last erupted in 2013. From there we walked around the rim of the main crater and then down into one of the others. The smell of sulphur was powerful. Amazingly, trees and other plants grow even in the dusty ash soil of the crater. The Minahasa tree is amazingly resilient – its bark gets burnt black by the fumes, but it still produces tasty fruit – a good sermon illustration I reckon.
I was invited to teach a module on Biblical Perspectives on Pluralism on the MTh course. Dwi and her co-leaders there have recently reshaped the curriculum, putting more emphasis on interdisciplinary studies appropriate to their context. Sadly, they couldn’t find anyone in the region to teach the pluralism course (something I didn’t realise until I arrived and very disturbing) and hence the invitation. I spent two months in preparation and found it both challenging and rewarding. I was afraid I had bitten off more than I could chew and would not be very helpful, especially when I discovered that pluralism is a central cherished plank in their national ideology, expressed in the motto ‘Unity in diversity’!
I had 13 students: 10 men and 3 women. All with significant ministry experience, several pastors (one with a congregation of a thousand!), two lecturers, one woman working in conflict resolution, coming from various islands of the archipelago.
We spent a total of 25 hours in the classroom together. The first day we focussed on how we go about creating a theological foundation for addressing the topic. This was vital for what we were about to do as it forced us to ask critical questions about our pre-understanding – What do we mean by ‘religion’? and so on.
We then worked through various key biblical passages interacting with significant theologians as we went. Then we sought to answer some central theological questions that had arisen from our studies: Can anyone be saved without conscious faith in Christ? Can we learn anything from other religious traditions? etc.
Finally, we addressed missiological consequences of our studies, focussing on (by their choice) ministry in Muslim and secular societies.
I found the students very attentive and a joy to teach. They taught me much too. Some struggled to work in English. Others engaged very well; they are very well-read and familiar with nearly every author I would mention – Carson, Grudem, Bavinck, Conn, Keller, Stott, McGrath; the Reformed heritage is strong. Some are in mainline denominations, battling liberalism, others in evangelical churches that are the product of a movement to Christ in Java among the Chinese two generations ago, supplemented by a huge influx of people escaping the anti-communist death squads of the 1960s (you avoided suspicion by identifying yourself as a Christian). Nominalism is rife. Nevertheless, the desire is there to reach out to other communities who are largely untouched by the gospel – the main area in which I sought to help them.
I have a week in Yogyakarta now, where I have been invited to teach three evenings to a mixed group of MTh and BTh students. I am also to speak in the chapel of Immanuel Christian University on Monday.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Biblical Perspectives on Pluralism

I have been invited to teach at two seminaries in SE Asia on Biblical Perspectives on Pluralism. I thought I would share a stack of some of the books I have been interacting with in my preparation. Along with these there was a bunch of books and dissertations at the library and some articles online.

I have found all the books here helpful to varying degrees. I have read everything I can find on the context - it is not well served in English.

A recently discovered gem is David Clark's To Know and Love God: Method for Theology. I have also just received Margins of Islam: Ministry in Diverse Muslim Contexts, edited by Daniels and Farrah, hot off the press. Haven't read much yet but looks very good.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Sharing Jesus with Hindu Friends

You have started life at your new university. Despite your nerves, you make an effort to meet the other students on your corridor and discover you are next door to a Hindu. Raj is from the Midlands; his parents moved to the UK from India before he was born. Raj is easy to get along with; in many ways he seems just like any other student. But there is no getting away from the fact that there are differences too. There are images of Hindu gods on the shelf in his room, he bows to his parents when they visit, and talks with them in Gujarati.
You have always wanted to share your faith with people from other religious traditions but now that you have the opportunity you wonder where to start. How can I avoid causing offence? Can I talk about ‘God’ if his beliefs about God are different from mine? How should I present the uniqueness of Christ?
This article has been written to help you begin to answer those questions, calm your nerves, help you understand your friend, and give you some tips on how you can share your faith.
Read more here.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Thinking Mission Symposium

I had the privilege to be at this gathering in London on Tuesday. It had been arranged by Global Connections to discuss Mike Stroope's important book, Transcending Mission, which I reviewed last year. In God's providence the author was already planning to be in the UK so Mike was able to attend. (In what follows I beg forgiveness if I misrepresent any of the contributors and will revise it if an error is pointed out.)

Mike gave an introductory paper, telling us a little of his ministry story as well as informing us of the thesis of the book and of the reactions it has received. I was fascinated to hear that he had had a significant part to play in the SBC International Missions Board's leadership in the 1990s, a story told by Keith Eitel in Paradigm Wars. I had been in Nepal at that time and had seen some of the fruit of the machinations in the organization that Eitel documents. (I asked Mike about it at the end of the day but didn't have enough time to really interact. Suffice it to say that those events had a significant impact on the development of my missiology so I do hope I can interact further before long.)

Mike spoke graciously and humbly, admitting that he had had some pretty strong negative reactions to his argument. That is to be understood as the book really calls much of the modern missions movement into question.

David Smith's Mission after Christendom was a tremendous help to me when I arrived back in the UK after 20 years in Asia. David was asked to prepare a response to Mike, which he did ably and winsomely. Sometimes there can be a hard spirit in such gatherings, where egos seem to count more than truth and the good of the church and the glory of Christ. Not so here. David expressed his admiration for the book, situating it in a line of very significant works such as Cragg's The Secular Experience of Christ, Bosch's Transforming Mission, and the work of Andrew Walls (David's mentor), and suggesting that Stroope's book extends the long-running disputes of those authors.

He then highlighted three issues that the book throws up:

1. The relationship between mission and colonialism

The modern missions movement had an ambivalent relationship with the colonial project. There was significant overlap without a doubt, though this is often overplayed. David then argued that Mike's book misses out on the very important role that missions had in the emergence of World Christianity and even of the revitalisation of cultures in places such as Africa.

Furthermore, Protestant mission movements were not monolithic. Many early pioneers, such as William Carey (1761-1834), were dissenting Baptists. Far from being at the centre of power, they were at the margins. Carey's approach towards Hinduism was respectful: hardly a colonialist attitude and very different from the high period of colonialism of a later generation.

2. The relationship of terminology and concepts of mission and the Bible

Stroope argues that mission, missions, missional, etc have become sacred rhetoric with no biblical foundation. Smith challenges this main assertion of the book in two ways:

a) How, if we cannot employ such a concept as mission, can we explain what Paul had in mind when he instructed the Roman church to support him in his vision to go to Spain, a challenge that would have necessitated a two-step process of translation to Latin and Iberian languages (Rom 15:23-24)? Paul was a model for what might be done by other disciples of Christ. How do we talk about that? What language should we use? Furthermore, Paul, as has been pointed out before, was reaching out from one marginal position to another, not from a position of power.

b) Is the 'pilgrim witness' language that Stroope argues for, the most appropriate? And what do we mean precisely by the 'kingdom of God'? [My notes are a bit incoherent here!] David questioned whether the missions movement was really subverting the kingdom of God, as seems to be suggested. There are clearly examples of unrighteous acts done by some missionaries (and here Smith mentioned the missionaries of one particular country, who are the subject of a PhD dissertation which he recently examined). But there are very many examples of good work going on too. Moreover, we need to note the emphasis on human agency that Carey asserted in his Enquiry, in the face of a hyper-Calvinistic challenge. 

3. The use of 'transcendence' - what might it look like?

Are we now moving beyond Bosch's liminal stage? Smith here mentioned Walls' recent Crossing Cultural Frontiers and his discussion of migration. Surely both persuasion and demonstration are important in the work of witnesses. Here David also referred to an article on 'Theological Method' in the Global Dictionary of Theology and Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God.

Further interaction

Two shorter presentations were also given - by Rosalee Veloso Ewell, giving a female and global South perspective, and by a Redcliffe College student, Aaron, giving a Millenial perspective. Short opportunities for interaction were given after each presentation.

Mike Stroope gave a final reaction to the day in which he informed us he was working on a follow-up book expanding on the epilogue of Transcending Mission

My reaction

The audience gave a sympathetic and respectful hearing to the argument and responses. I found the day very stimulating indeed. I was heartened at the spirit of interaction, especially by the two main speakers. I think the concerns with the book that I expressed in my review were shared by others. Although I think Mike's thesis is basically correct, I continue to believe he overstates his case. I find it difficult to see how vast chunks of humanity will be exposed to the glorious person of the Lord Jesus without a more intentional approach.

One concept that seemed to have achieved virtual consensus in the papers and discussion is that of World Christianity. I whole-heartedly agree that we need to be learning from each other across the cultural and continental divides. However, there seems to be little or no awareness of the fact that there is a growing body of followers of Christ who do not identify themselves as belonging to World Christianity. We may listen to Christians in their countries and still be way off really understanding our other brothers and sisters. And we will remain just as handicapped in our efforts to reach out to the vast numbers who, while open to considering the person of Christ would find World Christianity far too alien.

On a personal level this book challenges me to reflect on my words, my actions, and my character, as I continue to seek to work out how the Lord would have me continue to use my gifts, experience, and energies for his glory.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Taxonomy of Church & Ethnic Engagement

As there is a fair pit of dialogue on twitter at the moment on multiculturalism in churches I thought I would post some material on the issue.

Some years ago in teaching on urban contextualization I came up with a taxonomy of how churches engage with the existential issue of living in a multi-cultural or multi-ethnic society (I use the terms synonymously). This is not to make a judgment on one approach or another but simply as an analytical tool. The taxonomy is based on two axes: the horizontal (x) axis on multiculturality and the vertical (y) axis on philosophy of engagement. This is what it looks like:

The table below shows how churches of the four types differ from each other.


Affirmation of communal identity 
Communities meet separately in one local church 
Communities gather in one congregation 
Translation in services 

Advantages of each type:

clear expectations of what is expected of everyone

easy for majority community to accept outsiders from minority communities 
all groups are encouraged to express themselves according to their cultural norms
single local church expresses multicultural reality of universal church in relationships between congregations of one church
all groups are encouraged to express themselves according to their cultural norms

single local church expresses multicultural reality of universal church in vivid public form 
all groups are encouraged to express themselves according to their cultural norms
relations between local churches expresses multicultural reality of universal church
outsiders readily feel at home 

Disadvantages of each type:

not easy for minority communities to adjust to culture of majority church
for those from minority communities, bridges to unbelieving relatives and friends are broken, passively by neglect or actively by insistence on leaving former lifestyle
sense of unity of local church is threatened
communication between congregations is complicated
outsiders may still feel the congregation is not for them because the ownership of the wider group is multicultural, especially if the senior leaders are from the majority community
no community feels entirely at home in the congregation
communication is complicated
outsiders may still feel the meeting is not for them because the identity of the minority group is subsumed under that of the majority 
image of unity of universal church is threatened
postponement of ethical awareness
communication between churches is complicated

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Christ-Centred Hindu Community

Review of Disciple Making Among Hindus: Making Authentic Relationships Grow by Timothy Shultz (Pasadena: William Carey, 2016).

The title of this review will likely grate in the ears of many readers. ‘Christ-centred community’ you get; ‘Hindu community’ you also get. But ‘Christ-centred Hindu community’ sounds like an oxymoron, like heavy feathers or hot ice. Before you leave this page, judging it as the ravings of a weirdo, allow me to inform you that no less a man than the pioneering missionary to India William Carey talked about ‘Hindu Christians’. Timothy Shultz would not be comfortable with that terminology but not for the reasons you might expect.

Read the rest of this review here.

I have 6 copies of this book. To get your copy, send me a 'large letter' stamped addressed envelope (the book is 21.5 x 14cm) with £1.26 of stamps and a cheque for £10. Get my address and check I have stock first by emailing me ( or tweeting me @drmarkpickett. UK only.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Reflections on Student Ministry 2018

I have once again had the privilege to be involved in student ministry over the past month, first in Cambridge and then in Aberystwyth. Here are some observations and reflections now that I have recovered!

1. Student ministry is fun. I know that that is not the highest virtue but it really is fun to be around students and experience their energy and enthusiasm in seeking to share Christ with their fellow students. I was going to say friends but if each student who is a disciple of Christ were to witness to their friends only, a huge chunk of the student body would be left out. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Student ministry is exhausting. I went out with the students each morning to hand out flyers on campus. Most students accepted a flyer (in marked contrast to the way the general public react on the High Street) so this was a key way to publicise the events of the day and week. It was good to see the students go out of the comfort zones and invite passers-by to events. Posters, social media, and flyers all work hand-in-hand reinforcing the message that has to compete with a thousand other messages in order to be heard. The most effective method of getting people to events, however, once again proved to be personal invitation. It is great to see students bringing class-mates along. Some seemed to bring along different friends every day - very impressive. The great advantage of a week of events is the continuity that it enables. Though numbers picked up during the week, as usual, it was amazing to see the same people come back again and again. Some Polish students at Aber came to every one or nearly every one of the events! The intensity of the week, however, can't be sustained throughout the year - the students do have other things to do after all! But the efforts leading up to the week and the follow-up events going on in subsequent weeks all combine to maximise the opportunity that the week brings.

3. Student ministry is people ministry. Students are human, after all, created in God's image and fallen and on a highway to eternal judgment without a gracious intervention by the Holy Spirit. The stakes cannot be higher. It was lovely to see in the corporate praying and in the effort expended each day that there was a sense of urgency. This is something we all need challenging in regularly.

4. Student ministry is Word ministry. The message of Jesus, that is central to the Bible, came across clearly and winsomely in both weeks. It was a joy to hear the claims of Christ proclaimed so publicly and unashamedly. These were no mere thought for the day; some talks were an hour long and the students listened attentively. Not every preacher could pull that off but I never noticed anyone yawning out of boredom. When the gospel is preached faithfully, clearly, creatively, and warmly it connects. 

5. Student ministry is fruitful ministry. There were professions of faith in both weeks. I personally talked with two young women who told me that they had asked Jesus to be their Saviour the night before. One had questions! So we chatted over a cup of tea in the adjoining cafe for an hour. Though she had little exposure to the truth before, she had been invited to church and CU by her new friend back in October as a fresher and had been going ever since. It all became clear to her in the previous evening's event and she had committed her life to Christ. Such a joy to hear her story and help her sort out further questions. 

6. Student ministry is conflicted ministry. I am going to be critical here. It was encouraging to see some churches praying earnestly and supporting their students in their joint effort to their peers. Some churches released half their staff to help out for the week. But apparently not all were so positive about the week's events. I was deeply disappointed to discover that one church continued their weekly student seeker group on a night that Michael Green was preaching just down the road. Another, too, had a notable outside speaker for an event that would have been so much better timed if it were a week later. If you are responsible and happen to read this drop me an email. I want to talk.

7. Student ministry is sensitive ministry. There are so many messages out there in our culture and on our campuses that shape students' minds. When they encounter, for instance, the exclusive claims of Christ, it is bound to produce a reaction. This brought to me again the importance of being alert to their sensitivities. I have much to learn in this area. Certainly those involved in full-time in student ministry are much more attuned to these sensitivities. It was a joy to work with the main speakers (as last year, Michael Green, Lindsay Brown, and Michael Ots) as well as UCCF staff (William Zong, Mike Hood, and Rachel Ward) and student-focussed staff from local churches. I learned from them all. But I will continue to bang on about our global insensitivity to those of other religious traditions. Why, oh why, do we come across as promoting 'Christianity'? Many would not see an issue with this. Surely it is good to be clear about what we believe in contrast to what we do not believe and using the terms Christian and Christianity are a useful shorthand for our position. If that were all it was then I would happily keep quiet. But I think that that is not what is being heard by the majority of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and others. It was quite striking how few visitors were from other religious traditions. Yes, we had quite a few Roman Catholics, so clearly it was not being promoted as in-your-face Protestantism. But even here there was sometimes a lack of clarity - 'So are Catholics Christians or not?' I answered, 'Well, it depends...' and several of us spent hours going over the issues. But I think the issues can be clarified from the front too. I am not sure this was done as well as it might have been. And the notable non-attendance of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists? I definitely met some on campus. But very few came along. I think there is a serious disconnect. They think these events are not for them. We think they are. But we are not getting that across.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Billy Graham

I have just sent this off to Wheaton College to go into the book of condolences to be presented to the family of Billy Graham (lightly edited):

My wife Becky (WCGS '92) and I would like to express our profound thanks for the life and ministry of Billy Graham. We are thankful for his humility, his consistency of holy living, and faithfulness in gospel proclamation. His life is a wonderful example to us all. I was a Billy Graham International Scholar in 1992 doing the MA in Intercultural Studies. It was tremendously helpful for my wife and me when we returned to our field of ministry in Nepal in 1993, where we stayed until 2005. Since then we have continued to serve in Wales, UK, where we are involved in many areas of ministry including work on campus, from where I write this note, late at night after a full evening of gospel proclamation and counselling.

May the Lord comfort you in your loss with his warm presence. And may the Lord find us all faithful in our day, just as your beloved father, grandfather, mentor and friend was in his. 

So Spirit, come put strength in every stride,
Give grace for every hurdle,
That we may run with faith to win the prize
Of a servant good and faithful.
As saints of old still line the way,
Retelling triumphs of His grace,
We hear their calls and hunger for the day
When with Christ we stand in glory.
Stuart Townend & Keith Getty


Mark Pickett

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Heart Cry for Reality

Review of Messy Spirituality by Mike Yaconelli (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) 187pages.

I was visiting one of my heroes, George Verwer, the other day and as I left he gave me a bunch of books and asked me to let him know what I thought of this one in particular. So here are some reflections.

This is Yaconelli’s last book. Originally published in 2002, this edition has a moving foreword by his widow, Karla. (Mike Yaconelli died in a car accident in 2003; he was 61.) The foreword prepares us for what is ahead as Karla draws a picture of the man she loved, ‘warts and all’. And it’s the warts and all that Mike delights in sharing with his readers as they follow his thinking on what it means to be spiritual.

The central concept of the book and of Yaconelli’s approach to knowing God, is that we all need to get real with God. He is sick and tired of phoney religion, which he seems to find especially in American conservative evangelicalism. Karla tells us that, though he had grown up in those circles, a series of life-changing events led him eventually to drop the ‘conservative’ from his identity, “launching him straight into the heart of God’s amazing, inexplicable, and unfathomable grace” (14).

It is also clear, however, as you read the book that the life-changing events themselves were the occasion rather than the cause of his rejection of his conservative roots. The cause, as he declares over and over, in each chapter, was rather the irritation at the unreality he saw around him and the apparent inability of churches and organizations in his circles to cope with the mess he had made of his life.

Out of the pain of rejection Yaconelli offers up a visceral cry to be accepted. He freely acknowledges that he made a mess of his life: “his divorce from his first wife, … the fallout of his divorce on his children, his community, his business partners, and his ministry” as Karla puts it, as well as his “scandalous” relationship and subsequent marriage to her (14).

And so, through eight chapters and an epilogue, Yaconelli argues that real spirituality is messy spirituality and needs to be embraced as such. He is a good story teller and propels his thesis forward with the art of the narrator. He uses story, then, including clips from Jesus’ own life, to demonstrate the shape of that spirituality. But sometimes, ironically, he makes stories up, sacrificing reality, to make a point: I was disappointed to find, in an endnote, that one rather stirring story he tells in chapter 6 is in fact a montage, “not an actual story but a composite” (186).

Furthermore, Yaconelli seems to make messy reality not just an important aspect of true spirituality but the only aspect of true spirituality. And that, it seems to me, is what happens when you base your understanding of spirituality on your experiences, including your experiences of a rather narrow range of Bible stories, rather than on a full-orbed, rigorously biblical theological framework. Many of Yaconelli’s impulses are indeed right: he emphasizes, among other things, acceptance of the broken (chapter 4), the trap of busyness (chapter 6), the significance of faithfulness in the small things (chapter 7), and grace (chapter 8).

Yaconelli rightly locates the central issue as one of desire for God (82). He could have got this from any of the great writers of Reformed spirituality, like Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Packer, Bridges, or Piper, but does not seem to have been exposed to the riches of their writings. It is understandable that he reacted against the community he was brought up in. Some sectors of evangelicalism in the States are shallow and legalistic. Such populist ugliness can be little better than Oprah or Osteen with Bible verses. But I can’t help thinking that he cut himself off from more robust influences that would have been more helpful than Henri Nouwen and John Eldredge. And that is why he can write approvingly of such psychotherapeutic tricks as visualization (76-77) and of elders (called to protect their flocks from wolves who seek to devour them) who keep their pastor in the pulpit for three years while he sorted out whether he still believed the gospel (122).

Yaconelli, like all of us who have tasted that the Lord is good, was a work in progress. Now he is in glory his spirituality is no longer messy. But it is more real than ever before. And that is what we all look forward to even as we “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” relying on the energies of “God who works in [us] to will and act in order to fulfil his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13).