Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The church at risk

My boys and I enjoy trying to conquer the world. There are few moments quite so peace-filled at our house as a cold winter’s day gathered around a game of Risk.

It’s interesting watching the cognitive tendencies and development of my boys as they learn the strategy of world domination one role of the dice at a time. Along the way we discuss this flat world we are vicariously crisscrossing. They learn geography, and about different peoples and their sordid and sad histories. They talk about the type of ruler they would be—always a stark reminder that boy dictators should be on very short leashes! They learn how to make peace when confronted with a sibling who is also a rival. And they learn that unless they have an eye for protection they will very quickly possess only the eyes of a spectator.

Some churches are masters at protection. My eldest son’s approach to Risk fits this category. He collects pieces and keeps collecting. Only very conservatively and cautiously does he look toward advancing. Similarly, a protective church works diligently to keep everyone feeling safe and secure. They know each other well, occasionally too well and in too closed a circle. Their programs tend toward in-house events for the already-at-home.

There can be great strength in this, just as there can be in my son’s approach to Risk. However, he never wins. While he usually outlasts his brother, eventually his unwillingness to take chances results in the steady dwindling of his resources. Soon it’s just a frustrating matter of time.

Likewise, many protective churches are now finding out that the jig is up. Others will only realize this in the next decade. This type of church needs to hear the words of Wilbert Shenk, “[T]he church is most at risk when it has been present in a culture for a long period so that it no longer conceives of its relation to culture in terms of missionary encounter.” Is this the risk your church is taking?

Some other churches are masters of advance. My youngest son’s approach to Risk fits this category. The game begins and he bolts forward in all-out attack. Try as I may, there is no convincing him that a little consolidation and patience would be wise.

He is usually the first to be swept off the board, his empire banished to the annals of board game history. After first of all making great gains—but without getting grounded or leaving himself with little to protect—he may as well have not even started.

Churches that only think about advance have an incredible way of connecting the gospel to their world. They advance with ease, but quickly discover that their inability to protect well has created a disastrous vulnerability—shallow disciples who are more culturally, rather than biblically, shaped. This type of church needs to hear the words of Leslie Newbigin: “A preaching of the gospel that calls men and women to accept Jesus as Saviour but does not make it clear that discipleship means commitment to a vision of society radically different from that which controls public life today, must be condemned as false.” Is this the risk your church is taking?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I remember the moment like it was yesterday. Our family had moved to a new community and I had a new job with less pay. We had downsized of our own free will because of what we believed to be the will of our Heavenly Father.

To top it all off we were a single income family with one child and another on the way. But, not just any lovechild freely conceived in a fit of logic-suspending passion. Oh no, the critter on the way was being adopted internationally. This was family addition that had turned into calculus. Not only had we chosen to adopt because of another of God’s clearly cloudy calls, and to pay handsomely for it, but we had just accepted that his will meant having less money to do it all with. Who had spiked the tap water?

And so it was I came to that dark day sitting in my new office all too keenly aware of our lack. Fees were due to bureaucracies without sympathy and lawyers with more than enough. The cash simply was not there. To be honest I was a mess as I stared out the window unable to focus on the day’s tasks. My wife and I had been praying, scrimping, scrooge-ing. Neither God nor we seemed to have a solution. The lottery seemed temptingly to have better odds.

My glazed gaze was interrupted by a knock on the door. I opened it to the welcome sight of a friend and mentor from our previous community. He was passing through and thought he’d stop by. Long time no see. A sight for sore eyes. I wanted to spill all my angst, anxiety, and anger. Which, of course I didn’t. I was too manly for that; too blessedly proud and pompous.

Instead, we talked over a whole host of things. The job. The weather. Politics. Church. Faith. Family. Sports. We ran the gamut, but never got to the core of my pain and anguish. Eventually he rose to leave. As he approached the door, however, he stopped. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he reminded himself and reached into his jacket explaining that he and his wife had been praying for us. Then, rather unceremoniously, he placed a wad of rolled up bills in my hand. Five hundred dollars. Enough to cover this round of dues and fees. Enough to keep moving forward in faith. Silence. Gratitude. Tears. Enough.

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So quotes the New Testament writer of Hebrews (13:5). We tend to apply these words to only the lonely. We elicit them to comfort the afflicted and discouraged. This is all well and good and wonderfully Hallmarkish. But. But, the context of these words is startling given these days of economic upheaval and the rash worship of accumulation in our culture. “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you….” God’s promise to be present is a knock-on-the-door reminder to flee our fretting over and infatuation with money. Money comes and goes; God does not.

Pushed further we discover that this quote is pulled from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. There, Moses is passing his leadership mantle to Joshua. The wizened saint encourages his people and protégé, because they were as nervous as we can be in seasons of transition and tumult, “…he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Dt.31:6.8). The Israelites were about to enter a new land, with new uncertainties and potential risks and loses. What should have been the glorious fulfillment of God’s promise and leading presence was turning into a fret-fest. How would they ever survive? The wilderness can be hard to live in, but it can be equally hard to leave.

He will never leave. We are not forsaken. He is present. Be content. Love the Lord alone. Be free. God knows. He is not flummoxed by what is seemingly spinning out of control. He knows what we need, and when. He keeps his promises. Our quandaries are no surprise to him. All may appear empty, but he will be Enough.

I remember that day like it was yesterday and it frees me. He is Enough. And his enough beckons me to greater contentment, adoration, and risky faith because he has promised....