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Asking Better Questions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by John Vest

Whenever I give a talk or lead a workshop on evangelism I begin with the same exercise. I give people a minute or less to write down a 2-3 sentence answer to this question: What is the gospel? This usually catches them off guard, but I don’t stop there. I go on to ask them to find a partner and read to each other what they wrote. After they squirm around in their seats and chat uncomfortably for a bit—and there are usually a handful of people who refuse to do this exercise altogether—I make a blunt statement: if this is hard for you, especially if you are a church leader, we have a problem.

john vest evangSophisticated, well-educated Presbyterians tend to think that the gospel is too complex to reduce to a mere two or three sentences. We’ll spend thirty minutes on caveats and qualifications before we dare say something simple and straightforward about what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ. We’ll tweak our language and nitpick details. We’ll offer substitute motions to substitute motions before calling the question, before answering the question: what is the good news?

And when Presbyterians finally get around to answering this question, it often comes in the form of theological statements, sets of core beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, or confessions. This is the language we speak. But it might not be the language the world needs most right now.

Implicitly or explicitly, the faith question Presbyterians most ask each other is this: What do you believe? It’s the basic question behind our Sunday School learning outcomes, our lists of things we want children to know before confirmation. It’s the question we ask confirmands as they present statements of faith and publically profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. It’s the question in worship that prompts our recitation of the Apostles Creed or some other affirmation of faith. It’s what we ask candidates for ordination. It’s the reason that half of our constitution is a book of confessions.

But a better question is this: How do you know God is real?

In response, many people will say that we can’t really know God is real. There’s no way to prove it. We just have to believe. It’s why we call it faith.

I don’t think this is a satisfactory answer. Faith isn’t about believing an unbelievable story. It isn’t about believing something that can’t be proven. If that’s all it is, why choose one unbelievable story over any other unbelievable story? After all, every religion—and most non-religions—tell unbelievable stories.

Mature faith and transformative spirituality is rooted in experience. Evangelism is the art articulating that experience in compelling ways that just might resonate with other people.

To encourage this kind of faith-talk, we need to ask each other better questions than we are used to. Instead of “What do you believe?” or even “What is the gospel?” we need questions like these:

  • How have you experienced God’s presence in your life?
  • Where do you see God in the world?
  • What difference does following Jesus make in your life?

In the Unbinding the Gospel series, Martha Grace Reece notes that people who do evangelism well—regardless of theological orientation—have more complete, integrated, and faster answers to questions like these. Yet for many of us, these are difficult questions to answer. This is probably not the way were raised or trained to talk about faith.

Before we can ever say what evangelism is and how we ought to do it, before we develop strategic plans and programs, before we have any chance of successfully reaching out to new people, we need to learn—or relearn—how to talk about faith in meaningful ways with each other. We need to be evangelized by each other. We need to understand what’s at stake in the world and in our lives and how the gospel addresses these needs. We need to be able to articulate why Jesus matters.

This isn’t just head work. This isn’t simply a matter of getting our theology or our polity right. The gospel isn’t a doctrine to believe or an ethic to follow. It has to be more than that. It has to be a spiritual transformation grounded in experiences of the living God. Within our churches, this will require a significant culture change. Perhaps we might even be bold enough to call it an awakening—or a revival.


vest picJohn W. Vest is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. You can learn about his various ministry activities at johnvest.com and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. An enthusiastic pitmaster, John dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.

Post Christendom or A Dying Church

By the Revitalization Team at Community Presbyterian Church in Southern California

 

From John Vest’s video, “What is Post-Christendom” we learned about Post-Christendom and now a message from a Millennial “To the Dying Church…”.

A Millennial is commonly defined as someone who has come into young adulthood around the year 2000.  Wikipedia states, “There are no precise dates when the generation starts and ends. Researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.”

Christendom is often referred to as a time when the Christian Church or the Christian world represented a geopolitical power.  Or we might look at it as where and when the Christian Church is the dominant power.  Times have changed!

Here are some thoughts from a Millennial – Brandon Robertson from his article on the Sojourners blog.

“…what we have been witnessing in the West is not, in fact, the death of the church at all. Instead, we are experiencing the death of Christendom.”

“For centuries, Christianity has dominated the Western world. … With this kind of position and privilege, we have seen great masses of people flocking to our communities — not necessarily because they sought to commit their lives to the way of Jesus, but rather because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do.”

“So the good news is that you are not dying. While the studies indicate that organized communities of faith are in decline, the amount of men and women who are seeking and finding a radical faith in Jesus is increasing. God is still at work in our world and is still bringing people into this rag-tag family called the church. My generation, the millennials, are also not walking away from their faith in Jesus, but are walking away from the modernized, politicized, sterilized, Europeanized version of Christian faith. Organic, grassroots communities of faith are forming all across our nation without buildings, without marketing, without ordained clergy, without 501(c)(3) exemptions, and without the privilege that most institutionalized churches have enjoyed for so many decades. These communities are simple: spiritual seekers, followers of Jesus, coming to express their true questions, thoughts, and experiences, seeking to be encouraged and empowered to live out the radical way of Jesus in their communities, cultures, and world. These communities aren’t recognized as a church, but as a way of life, a tribe of friends who are working and walking with one another to change the world and establish the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.”

“God is re-revealing to us the radical message of our Lord — a message of transformation through service, sacrifice, and selfless love for our neighbors, enemies, and selves. A message of humiliation and simplicity as the way of abundance and eternal life… a Christianity that is given worldly power is not Christianity at all. Christianity is the religion that proclaims a God who humbled himself and entered into creation, taking the form of a servant —who touched the untouchables and spoke sharp truth that exposed those in power. Christianity is a religion centered the subversive power of love and sacrifice, not power and wealth.”

Now that we are beginning to understand ourselves in a post-Christian era and away of a generation of millennials, the question before us is how to do choose to respond and engage?

 

From Thanksgiving to What’s Next

by John Vest

During this week we are reminded of the many things for which we are thankful. When it comes to the church, even though I am passionate about moving us forward into God’s future for us, I am also deeply grateful for the gifts we have inherited from our predecessors in faith. Whatever it is that we may contribute to the emergence of God’s kingdom in the world today, it will rest on the foundations of the past. Even when we can recognize cracks in those foundations, we wouldn’t be where we are today without the faithful work of our spiritual mothers and fathers.

I once heard Richard Mouw describe mainline churches as repositories of historic tradition that are necessary elements in the dialectic work of reimagining what church can be. Phyllis Tickle has famously described historic transitions in church and culture as “rummage sales” in which we sort out what it is from the past that we need to hold on to and what we can jettison. These tasks are critical for us as we imagine what is “next” in God’s vision for us.

It seems to me that if mainline Protestantism has a particular charism in the far-reaching revolutions taking place in Christianity today, it will involve the discerning work of recognizing the gifts of our inherited tradition and how it is that God is calling us to adapt these resources and develop new ones as we seek to faithfully respond to the rapidly changing contexts of ministry in today’s world. Some have called those who attempt such work “loyal radicals,” a label I wish more of us would embrace.

Last week my congregation, Fourth Presbyterian Church, dedicated a major building expansion. The Gratz Center is a thoroughly contemporary building that reflects the bold architectural styles of Chicago. The building committee and architects knew that there was no way we could build something new to match our iconic gothic sanctuary and original structures from a hundred years ago. Our new church campus therefore reflects two critical postures: our embrace of the past and our commitment to the present and the future.

 

When it comes to ministry in my local context, I hope that our congregation can live up to this exegetical interpretation of the buildings we inhabit. My hope is the same for the PC(USA) as a whole. I pray that we might find a way to gratefully embrace where we’ve been yet boldly follow Christ into God’s future.


John VestJohn Vest is the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He blogs at johnvest.com<http://johnvest.com> and is working on a DMin at McCormick Theological Seminary. He dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.

What has Chicago to do with Dubuque?

by John Vest

Last year, as part of my work on the General Assembly’s Mid Councils Commission, a colleague and I paid a visit to an assembly of the Synod of Lincoln Trails. The gathering was in Philo, IL, a small farming community about 150 miles south of my home in Chicago.

Early that morning I stopped by my downtown office to collect some materials for the meeting. I serve a large, cathedral-like church that happens to sit on one of the busiest corners of the nation’s third largest city. The church where the synod gathered in Philo is a much smaller building in the midst of farms and fields.

This massive stone cathedral and this modest white church-house—and the communities in which they are located—could not be more different. Yet both congregations are part of a single church communion. In fact, the very work that brought me to both places that day was an exploration of our church’s deep connectionalism. Still, given the obvious differences in our ministry contexts, I couldn’t help wondering what it is that binds us together and how we might have meaningful conversations about our common call to ministry in the world.

I am an adult convert to Presbyterianism who wasn’t raised in this church. I mostly grew up in the South in Southern Baptist churches. I experienced quite a bit of culture shock when I transitioned from my conservative Baptist background in the South to more progressive Presbyterianism in a big Midwestern city. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand these cultural differences. And as I’ve traveled around the country for conferences and meetings, I’ve taken those opportunities to learn as much as I can about local expressions of Presbyterianism. There is indeed a great diversity within our national church.

Last week I had the opportunity to make a presentation at a regional NEXT gathering in Dubuque, IA. Once again, I found myself in a setting very different from my ministry context in Chicago. As I contemplated what I would talk about, I wondered to myself, “What has Chicago to do with Dubuque?”

I often wonder such things. When I speak with youth workers from various ministry contexts, for all of the similarities in our work, there are as many differences that result from the uniquenesses of our particular contexts. And much of the youth ministry literature and curricula out there doesn’t quite seem to fit the progressive mainline Protestantism and urban setting of my ministry.

What I am searching for is some common ground for the church—across all of our regional differences—to talk about how to move forward into the rapidly changing contexts for ministry in which we find ourselves. I am increasingly convinced that attention to the various post-Christendom realities we face might provide such a shared sense of what binds us together in mission and ministry in 21st century North America.

For centuries, Christian religion and culture dominated the Western world. This was especially true in American culture up through the middle of the 20th century. But this is no longer the case. Christianity in general—and, for Americans, Protestantism in particular—is no longer the definitive center and shaper of culture. “Christendom”—the triumphal reign of Christianity in Western culture—is over.

Every community in North America falls somewhere along what I am calling the post-Christendom continuum. In some places—like rural communities and communities in the American South (where I grew up)—Christianity is still part of the dominant culture. But in other places—like urban centers (where I have spent my entire adult life)—Christianity is no longer embedded in culture as it once was. What will ministry look like in these diverse contexts?

Last night I spent some quality pub time with old and new friends who were in town for the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. From the experiences of those gathered around that table, we could connect the American South, rural Pennsylvania, Chicago, the Pacific Northwest, and the United Kingdom. It was clear that each of these contexts occupies a distinct place along the post-Christendom continuum. We talked about shared ministry challenges and contextualized our work accordingly.

In our increasingly pluralistic society, as the divides between urban centers and rural communities continue to widen, and as minority populations gradually overtake the majority, post-Christendom realities bind us together into a shared missional context that is regionally differentiated. Reflection on where our particular communities are located on the post-Christendom continuum will help us effectively contextualize our ministry while also framing our dialogues with colleagues and partners in very different contexts.

The challenge for us all is to rethink Christianity in these new post-Christendom contexts. As many theologians and missiologists have suggested, post-Christendom provides the church with exciting opportunities to reimagine itself, return to some of its more humble roots, and recast contemporary culture as a mission field ripe for harvest.

What do you think? Is post-Christendom a helpful way for us to think about our shared mission while also accounting for our real differences?


John VestJohn Vest is the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He blogs at http://johnvest.com and is working on a DMin at McCormick Theological Seminary. He dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.