Thursday, December 11, 2008

Our Family With Our Thursday Night Hype Family

Here is the Shaffer family with our family from Thursday Night Hype. As our kids grow older, our entire family (rather than just me) is able to take part in serving the 'hood. We took this picture and others to give to those whom we are reaching out to that are in jail and prison.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review of "Theological Implications of Hip-Hop Culture"

I just ordered William "Duce" Branch’s Masters Thesis off the internet and read it yesterday. For most people, his name doesn’t mean anything, but for those who know Holy Hip-Hop, you might know him better as “The Ambassador” from the Cross Movement. That’s right...An emcee from one of Christian Hip-Hop’s foremost, progressive groups earned his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary, including composing a seventy-nine page thesis. It is appropriately titled, “Theological Implications of Hip-Hop culture.”

Although I was somewhat skeptical of its contributing value to scholarship with its generic title, Branch gradually won me over. I believe “Theological Implications of Hip-Hop Culture” lays a solid workable foundation for the development of mission theology within the context of Hip-Hop culture. Duce constructs a compelling case for Hip-Hop culture as a legitimate culture, rather than a passing fad or remote subculture as some might argue. As part of developing this case for Hip-Hop culture’s validity, Branch relies heavily upon Hip-Hop scholars such as Bakari Kitwana and Michael Dyson, and some of Marvin Mayer, writer of "Christianity Confronts Culture.” Furthermore, he keenly traces the historical development of Hip-Hop culture over the past forty years to support his assertion.

Another positive aspect of “Theological Implications….” is when Duce develops a Christian perspective of culture, he rightly roots his theology of Hip-Hop culture in the doctrine of creation, centering upon the implications of the cultural mandate, including the insights of Reformed theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd. Moreover, Branch perceptively points out the value of Hip-Hop culture in relationship to the church. He makes an intriguing comparison between Hellenistic culture of the first century and Hip-Hop culture of 21st, which I would like to see further developed.

However, “Theological Implications….” covers too much territory and too many themes. Consequently in my humble opinion, it did not go quite deep enough (although it goes deeper than the majority of available literature that attempts to address a theology of Hip-Hop culture). Yet maybe this was Branch’s intention from the beginning. By pressing the reader to think through the many theological implications of hip-hop culture, those who take both urban ministry and theology seriously might feel obliged to further unpack the plethora of themes that Duce alludes to within his thesis.

Overall, William Branch does the church and its theological community an invaluable service by doing theology that intersects with hip-hop culture. Not only have I enjoyed listening to “The Ambassador” as a hip-hop artist, but I also enjoy reading “The Ambassador” as a theologian doing mission theology within the context of Hip-Hop and the church. I look forward to reading more of William Branch's mission-theological works in the future.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Dr. Wittmer finally enters the Blog World

My former professor and friend of mine from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, Dr. Michael Wittmer, has finally created his own blog site,appropriately named, Don't Stop Believing. You can access it here. The Blog site is named after his upcoming book, which provides a thoughtful, balanced critique of several influential authors from the emergent church.

Dr. Wittmer already has begun stirring the pot in his first post by pondering whether the influence of Plato on the Worldview of Christians played any part in the economies woes. My favorite line from this post occurs in his ending as he reiterates the importance of Jesus being the Lord of our Money.
"So let’s hear sermons on greed and the sin of excessive consumer debt. Let’s talk to each other about the forgotten value of thrift—not just so we can protect our own nest egg, but as a practical way to love our neighbor. We may end up with less, but we will flourish more."

Another post coming from Wittmer provides links to a couple of critiquing articles that he wrote which addresses the theological deficiencies of the emergent church (while at the same time commending them for their Jesus lifestyle). I especially enjoyed the one from Western Theological Seminary's journal where he compared J. Gresham Machen’s critique of yesterday's theological liberalism to certain emergent author's beliefs of today.

Thanks Mike for joining the blog world. Your voice needs to be heard.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

About David "Day-Day" Witherspoon

It grieves me to tell all of you that one of UTM’s most faithful students, David “Day-Day” Witherspoon, was gunned down on the streets of inner-city Grand Rapids Friday afternoon. Because we were close friends with his extended family (his grandmother was our next door neighbor), Sherilyn and I had known David since he was a toddler running around in diapers in our neighborhood. Throughout his childhood, Day-Day faithfully attended our ministry programs, including cross-trainers, tutoring, Berean Baptist church’s Wednesday youth night, the Rock, and Thursday Night Hype. What’s more, David braved campouts throughout the wilderness of Michigan, took part in several sleep-overs at our house, and enjoyed KAA sports camp. Now at the age of sixteen, he has left this earth and joined his Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

At this time, we do not know all the details with the shooting but make no mistake, Day-Day was not a trouble-maker and did not have police record. In fact, David was one of the nicest, kindest students that I’ve had the privilege to know who didn’t have an enemy in the world because he treated everyone with respect. In fact, because he was well-liked by just about everyone, David hung out with people from all walks of life, not only did he often spend time with his peers at church, but he also at times hung out with gang-members. Unfortunately, as in Day-Day’s case, if you hang out with the wrong person in the ‘hood, it could cost you your life. Nevertheless, Day-Day was a follower of Jesus who loved God and loved others. He was much more ready to meet Jesus than those gang members that the bullets were meant for.

Although Sherilyn and I have lost count as to all of our students who have been shot and killed on the streets of Grand Rapids, this one hurts the most. We are still in shock and find ourselves going from crying, to numbness, and then to anger. However, we are clinging to our Savior Jesus Christ in this tragic ordeal. We know that God is good and we continue to trust Him through all of this, even when we don’t understand why such a senseless tragedy could take place.

Please pray for our students who are involved in UTM through the ROCK and Thursday Night Hype. Most of them were very close to Day-Day. On Friday evening Sherilyn and I took fourteen of Day-Day’s friends who attend Thursday Night Hype out to Denny’s to eat and spend time listening, loving, and comforting them. Even during such a sad occasion, it was encouraging to witness the maturity of several or our students leading a prayer meeting at the restaurant and comforting each other through this horrific tragedy. On Saturday, when I shared at the ROCK about Day-Day’s life and devotion to God, I challenged almost 100 of our students to get right with God because of life’s shortness. Several of them responded to the message and our staff and student leaders spent the rest of the evening counseling and praying with about two dozen of our students. One of the positive outcomes of this meeting was that it has restrained several of Day-Day’s friends and relatives from taking revenge on the alleged suspect. One of our student leaders, Davien Fizer has been particularly helpful in talking down several of our male students. In closing, pray for David’s twin sister Danielle. She is taking it pretty hard because her twin brother had always been one of her best friends. Pray for David’s mother, Nyree as well. Although she is a strong woman, it has devastated her beyond comprehension.

For those who desire to know more information about Day-Day’s murder, here and here are some of the links to articles from the Grand Rapids Press.

Thank you so much for supporting Urban Transformation Ministries as we continue to serve Jesus and the inner-city in all of these circumstances. Please uplift us in your prayers.

By the way, I will be the preacher/comforter/speaker at Day-Day's funeral, which will be held at Berean Baptist church. However, the times of his visitation and funeral is still pending.


Update of the funeral:

Last week was the most difficult time that we have experienced in all of our years doing urban ministry. As you know, David “Day-Day” Witherspoon was shot and killed on the streets of Grand Rapids on September 26th, 2008. Day-Day was a long-time active member of UTM programs such as Thursday Night Hype and the ROCK, in partnership with Berean Baptist church. Over the past week, Sherilyn and I spent numerous amount of difficult hours counseling many of our students who were grieving as well as talking down several of our male students who wanted revenge. Sherilyn, Jim Bartels (who is Berean’s Jr. High youth pastor) and I organized the funeral with the Witherspoon family. Because of our close relationship to the Witherspoons (we lived next door to Day-Day’s Grandmother for eleven years), they asked me to preach at Day-Day’s funeral and committal service. Over 1,200 people attended the funeral at Berean Baptist, half of whom were urban high school students from Creston and young college age adults. Since people from all over the city packed out the church beyond its capacity, they had to set up two large overflow rooms to accommodate the standing-only crowd. Besides sharing several fond memories of Day-Day, I also spoke words of comfort from Psalms 23 and preached the gospel message. I was amazed at God’s sufficient grace, especially during this time, as I am still grieving. I can truly confirm God’s words when he says to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Continue praying for the many students that are affected by this tragedy. While our students within Thursday Night Hype and the ROCK continue to struggle with the pain of losing a close friend, our student leaders are stepping up and reaching out to their peers with the love of Christ. We find that while most inner-city students feel uncomfortable opening up to a counselor with whom they have no relationship, they will open up to their peers and adults when there is a relationship of trust already present. This means that there is much follow-up for Urban Transformation Ministries to do among the many students and their families who are hurting.

Despite such a horrific tragedy, we were encouraged by the pro-active, generous response from Berean Baptist church. Hosting a funeral of this magnitude takes a lot of help and we were amazed at how quickly the church organized over one hundred of its members to assist us in so many different ways. In fact, several who attended the funeral, especially from the Witherspoon family, commented that they’d never experienced a church that was so helpful and generous. Through the programs of UTM such as the ROCK and Thursday Night Hype together with the active partnership of Berean Baptist church, we are thrilled to help extend Berean Baptist Church’s reputation as a neighborhood church who actively loves its community.

However, Urban Transformation Ministries finds itself in a difficult situation. Even as God is opening up doors into the lives of several hundred more at-risk inner-city youth and their families, UTM is limited by what it can do because of the lack of adequate funding. While several other urban ministry organizations of comparable size employ between five to ten staff members, UTM can only financially compensate me as its executive director. We cannot continue to operate this way or I will burn out. Please pray and take action. If you are not a regular financial donor, please build UTM into your monthly budget. Or please talk to the appropriate pastors, boards or committees so that UTM is placed into your church’s missions or outreach budget.

Thank you again for praying “in the Spirit on all occasions, with all kinds of prayers and requests” for the Witherspoon family, our inner-city students, as well as for our family.

Serving Jesus in the hood’

Joel Shaffer, Executive Director
Urban Transformation Ministries

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Piper's View of Piety..."Should Produce a Passion for Social Justice and Practical Mercy "

Here's yet another reason why I love John Piper. Yesterday morning I clicked onto the blog "Desiring God" for my daily dose of John Piper. On this day, Piper summarizes one of his sermons from a few years back about what true piety should produce in us, that is "a passion for social justice and practical mercy." Preaching from Isaiah 58, he lists five needs that Isaiah and Jesus are passionately concerned about. (1) the need for freedom from bondage and oppression (2) the need for food (3) the need for housing (4) the need for clothing (5) the need for respect. The longer version of this sermon is even better, where he makes assertions such as "Piety that does not produce a passion for God-exalting social justice and practical mercy is worthless." and "I want to remind us as a church that we have been saved for the sake of God-exalting good works. We have been saved not merely to avoid evil, but to do good. Therefore the people of Christ should not be known primarily for what we don’t do, but what we do do."

Two months ago, I blogged here about a distorted piety being a fallacy that prevents today's evangelical churches from embracing its God-given responsibility to the poor. Since so many of these churches are children of the enlightenment (modernity) with their pie-in-the-sky dispensationalism, their church-growth/marketing pragmatism, their soul-saving dualism, their idol of consumerism, and of course their misplaced pietism, I've sort of wrote off the church in America (although my obedience to Christ and my calling has kept me within the church). Because Piper is such a towering, influential figure among fundamental and conservative evangelical pastors, maybe pietism in the evangelical church will begin to be restored to its proper place, which is producing a passion for social justice and practical mercy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The best book on Mission Theology....

Yes, I am going to make a claim, which I know is purely subjective. C.H. Wright's magnum opus, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative, is by far the best, most comprehensive Mission Theology work that I have read to date. In my opinion, it supersedes such celebrated books on mission theology such as John Piper's "Let the Nations be Glad," David Bosch's "Transforming Mission," Lesslie Newbigin's "The Open Secret."

Don't get me wrong. These books by Piper, Bosch, and Newbigin are incredible masterpieces in their own right. I personally have been blessed by Piper's Doxology of Mission, Bosch's historical development of mission from the New Testament times to the post-modern, and Newbigin's emphasis on a Trinitarian nature of Mission. However, the breadth of C.H. Wright's narrative development of mission, from Genesis to Revelation, is simply amazing. Since Wright is also an O.T. Scholar (having written books such as "God's People in God's Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament," "Walking in the Ways of the Lord: The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament," "Old Testament Ethics for the People of God," "Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament," ), he brings to light themes such as the Exodus, the call of Abraham, Year of Jubilee, the land, to show how the narrative missionally unfolds. Furthermore, his Biblical articulation of the relationship between evangelism and social action is the best that I have read and heard, even so that several from a group of fundamental-baptist (GARBC) pastors in their discussion of this book were compelled to admit that their previous thinking about mission was distorted and they were trying to figure out how their churches might embrace both evangelism and social responsibility (such as poverty issues). Yes, pigs are now flying in Grand Rapids!!!

One of these days, I may attempt to articulate a detailed review of this book, but for now, let me link you to several sites that I believe will wet your appetite to digest this book.

To hear an audio of Dr. Wright give a summary narrative of Mission of God and answer tough questions such as the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility within God's mission and God's sovereign purposes in judgment, listen here.

To follow Dr. Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed discussion on this book, click here, here, here, and here.

To read a excerpt from C.H. Wright that helps summarize what this book is about, including the missional nature of the Bible and a mission-centered theology of the cross, click here.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Improving the Words of St. Francis

“Preach the gospel always. If necessary use words”. Urban legend has it that the source of this profound little saying was St. Francis of Assisi. Yet it finds a powerful affinity among younger evangelical twenty and thirty somethings in today’s culture. Quoted by younger adult Christians on facebook and Blogs everywhere, this quip is firmly entrenched in the worldview of an entire generation of American Christians. And understandably so. With such looming hostility towards Christians in general, many evangelicals under forty believe that the integrity of Jesus is at stake and therefore self-consciously have become “deed-based,” emphasizing social action duties such as feeding the homeless and building houses for the poor to counter this hostility.

This antagonism towards Christians has a political underpinning. Since media types and political commentators have wrongly generalized Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists as a religious right voting block intent on imposing a Christian Theocracy on the rest of the country, the same people have also confused aggressive evangelism as a recruiting tool for the evangelical’s political agenda.1 Yet I can understand their misjudgment. We Christians often make Jesus look like a politician who is running for office, dispersing pamphlets and literature, knocking on doors, and holding large rallies, all in the name of Jesus!

As a college student rebelling against my fundamentalist-Baptist upbringing, I had my fill of this type of evangelism, designed to mass-produce as many Christians as possible in the shortest amount of time. Something seemed terribly wrong with the methods that our spiritual forefathers taught us, including handing out tracts at restaurants to waiters and waitresses who didn’t want them and going door-to-door calling/witnessing to people who really had no desire to talk with strangers about their spiritual destiny. In addition, we were encouraged to bring as many people possible to Christian concerts and youth rallies where we heard passionate stories, designed to scare people into heaven-such as the heart-breaking account of a teenage girl who did not give her life to Christ in time, but instead died in a car wreck, which sent her to hell. “Today is the day of Salvation,” the evangelist would cry out. Next, scores of teenagers, manipulatively fraught with fear, rushed down the aisles to make sure they were going to heaven when they died. They had promoted a packaged, fire insurance for the future life as the essence of the Christian faith. Just as bothersome were the gospel presentations that I was taught. Romans Road, Four Spiritual Laws, the EE questions, and many others did not do justice for the gospel that I was slowly rediscovering. Rather these presentations reduced the gospel to a set of dry propositions that only seemed to pay lip service to the greatest story ever told.2

Fast forward twenty years later and I wonder if we’ve swung the pendulum to the other side. In lieu of past damaging misconduct by the Jerry Falwell’s, the Pat Robertson’s, and the James Dobson’s in the public square, it appears as if younger generations of Christians have self-consciously gagged themselves from speaking the name of Jesus in public. For instance, lets examine Rob Bell’s public interaction in a panel discussion at the “Seeds of Compassion” interfaith conference this past April. While Rob Bell displayed authenticity combined with his immaculate story-telling ability, he purposely avoided using the J word in a faith environment where Jesus is not a dirty word to the vast majority of people. Even as the Muslim scholar referred to teachings of the Koran and the Sikh holy man cited ancient Hindu wisdom, Rob Bell’s moving story about why we should forgive climaxed with, “Because it is the right thing to do!” Although a very true statement, the forgiveness that Jesus offers (which allows us to forgive each other and even forgive our enemies) is so much more than the shallow moralism that Rob alludes to in the discussion, which even most atheists could claim. As a result, the generic genuineness of Rob Bell’s interfaith dialogue did little to enhance the reputation and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. When I brought up these arguments on the blogosphere, almost every one who defended Rob did so based on not wanting to offend those who had written off Christianity because of the negative reputation of its followers.

Considering this situation as well as many other conversations with my fellow Christians, I am beginning to believe that my generation and younger have developed a shame complex of their fellow Christian brothers and sisters and have lost confidence in the word of God, the living (Jesus) but especially the written (the Bible). Maybe this is why we so readily embrace the supposed words of St. Francis “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words” as our modus operandi of mission? Whatever the reason, its time we get back to using our words to proclaim the gospel along side of our actions. Just as there is something terribly wrong with a gospel that only proclaims words, there is also something inherently wrong with the “Preach the gospel, if necessary use words” way of thinking. It presupposes that proclamation is just an option of the gospel, whereas Romans 10:14 pictures the apostle Paul passionately posing the question “how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Even as the gospel travels through relationships (as opposed to impersonal methods such as door-to-door witnessing, handing out tracts, and manipulating people at concerts and rallies), the gospel must be communicated through our words so that people can respond with repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

So I have a proposal that will make this statement from St. Francis more in line with the Biblical narrative. Lets replace the “if” with “when.” Then it will state, “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.” By substituting “when” with “if,” suddenly our words are no longer just an option, but a significant aspect of our gospel witness. Moreover, lets not forget that our radical sacrificial love of the poor and needy as well as our holy living (Read James 1:27) will distinguish us from so called Christians whose actions give credence to the stereotype of a loud-mouthed bigoted fundamentalist-evangelical. Therefore, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can ungag ourselves and then tell the gospel story with confidence and clarity as an obedient response to God’s grace.

1To get a feel for the roots of fundamentalists and evangelicals, read George M. Marsdent's Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991). By explaining their socio-religious history in the 19th and 20th centuries, one can understand why there is a tendency by fundamentalists and evangelicals to attempt to turn back the American social clock to the previous generation. This is their primary reason for engaging in the social aspects of politics, not to build a Christian Theocracy as many contemporary, paranoid political writers would have everyone believe.
2This statement does not mean that I am against propositional statements. Throughout all of scripture, its narrative makes propositional declarations. One example is found in the first statement of Genesis. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Since about 78% of the entire cannon is narrative, shouldn't we Christians attempt to master the art of story telling, especially the gospel?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fundamental/Evangelical Fallicies Part 2: Pietism

Keeping with the “isms,” the second fallacy that keeps the evangelical church from embracing their God-given responsibility to the poor is Pietism. This may seem unlikely, since aspects of pietism within the church of America during the 19th century actually inspired Christians to serve the poor and take on injustices such as slavery. Nevertheless, in the 20th century, when the diabolical twins of modernity-reason and science, were at the zenith of their dominance within Western civilization, the American church responded by adding some traditional dispensationalism (which cares little for the social world of today) and some platonic dualism (which treats the physical world as separate and subordinate to the spiritual) to their piety. Before we identify pietism's potential poison of today, let us explore a little of the historical context of this religious phenomenon.

The roots of Pietism go all the way back to seventeenth century Germany when certain church leaders such as Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke, tired of cold, stifling, faith of the Lutheran church, began to emphasize pietistic activities such as Bible study, prayer, and religious experiences as a way of reigniting a passion for Jesus Christ. For the next couple hundred years, pietism spread throughout Europe and America, influencing a variety of the protestant groups such as the Mennonites, Moravians, Brethren, Covenant, Puritans, and Methodism.

Fast forward to the early twenty-first century, pietism in its most popular form, mutated into a Purpose-Driven-Life formula, emphasizing five purposes that drives a Christian. According to best-selling author and pastor, Rick Warren, our five purposes in life are worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and mission. Regrettably, Warren did not look to Genesis 1 and 2 to discover who we are as humans and what purposes God assigned the first humans as a foundation to PDL. He might have discovered the multi-dimensions of imago Dei and the creation mandates given to God’s image bearers. Maybe Warren would have viewed this earth as more than a “dress rehearsal” for heaven, which provides very little motivation to help the poor here and now. Maybe Warren would have realized earlier our God-given responsibility to the poor, which finds its roots in the cultural mandate. Even with its emphasis on fellowship, this form of pietism leads to an individualistic, otherworldly gospel that divorces loving God from loving our neighbor.

For instance, growing up in several fundamentalist-Baptist churches, my spiritual formation revolved around piety activities such as studying, reading, and memorizing the Bible, praying, fellowshipping, and evangelism. Never once was I ever encouraged to reach out to the poor. Never once did our youth group ever serve at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, nor did I hear anything taught from the Bible that mentioned the Christian’s responsibility to help the poor. Yes, I understand that today’s fundamental and evangelical churches do try to include a service project to a soup kitchen now and then and maybe a short-term mission trip that reminds them of how blessed they are here in America. But by in large, the pietistic practices of prayer (including all-night prayer meetings), singing praise and worship songs in church or at Passion worship events, Bible study, revivals, and evangelism that takes place today are not inextricably practiced together with sacrificially loving the poor and oppressed. Hence, the body of Christ appears to be primarily a mouth without any legs and arms.

Thankfully, in the case of Rick Warren a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa caused him to rethink his purposes. After visiting some of the shantytowns and connecting with churches that were housing widows and orphans from AIDS victims, Warren began to reexamine the scriptures in light of the poor and oppressed. “I found 2000 verses on the poor. How did I miss that? I went to Bible college, two seminaries, and I got a doctorate. How did I miss God’s compassion for the poor? I was not seeing all of God’s purposes.” Now am I holding up Rick Warren as the prototype example for evangelicals to follow? No and Yes. I prefer that he communicate a more robust gospel, taking the foundation of creation more seriously (read Wittmer’s Heaven is a Place on Earth) and calling more attention to the devastating consequences of the fall and our depravity as humans (read C. Plantiga’s Not the Way it’s Supposed to be). This leads to a larger view of redemption (including people and all creation), with a response of repentance and belief in Christ (rather than Warren’s “whispering a prayer that will change your life” of “receiving and believing”). Why do I even mention Warren’s view of the gospel? Since he is on the front-lines attempting to equip an army of Christians from all over the world to help solve global poverty and hunger, a PDL surface view of sin, depravity, and evil will never get at the root causes of poverty. Without addressing complex structural systems of evil as well as the deep-seated sin within the hearts everyone, including the poor, the oppressed, and the oppressors, all of our efforts to make a dent in the battle against global hunger and poverty amounts to be as Ballington Booth once said, like trying to “bail the ocean with a thimble.”

Nevertheless, we also need to commend what Rick Warren is doing as well. For instance, by putting the majority of his millions that he made from the sales of Purpose-Driven-Life into charitable foundations that address global poverty and hunger issues, he is living out the apostle Peter’s command to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Our pagan culture is taking notice, having a difficult time arguing against all of the good that Rick Warren and Saddleback church are doing for the poor and oppressed. This can only lead to enhancing the reputation of Jesus Christ. 21st century piety is a mixed bag, but can overcome its faults by embracing a full-bodied gospel of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration which can only lead to the Lordship of Christ in every aspect and arena of our lives. May our sacrificial service to the poor and oppressed also compel non-Christians to pronounce, "Soli Deo Gloria!"

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Poster Boy for Grand Rapids Theological Seminary

Can you believe it? The seminary that almost dismissed me for bad grades and taking too long to complete my degree (it took me 14 years) has me on their web page. You can find it here. Actually, I feel really good associating myself with GRTS. They are in the process of developing an urban ministry emphasis with their intercultural studies program, tapping into two very highly reputable and qualified teachers (from urban Grand Rapids) in Dr. Rik Stevenson from City Hope Ministries and Reggie Smith from Roosevelt Park CRC. Their knowledge and experience of doing ministry in the 'hood is second to none.

Moreover, GRTS is putting their money where their mouth is. They are offering a 32 hour tuition free Masters degree in Ministry leadership to inner-city pastors/ministry practitioners with 4 or more years of full time inner-city ministry experience (12 at a time, cohort style). In the past, I've heard people complain and even make snide remarks about the lack of theological competence among inner-city pastors (think of all the storefront ministries in urban communities that come and go). However, there are many of us inner-city ministry practitioners who fight tooth and nail to raise funds not only to take care of our family needs, but also to help with needs in the community. Therefore, attending seminary is not even on the radar screen. I know if I had this opportunity ten years ago, it would have relieved much of our family's financial stress over the past several years while I paid about 2000 a year to take one seminary class per semester. I believe this program could go a long way in helping mature ministries in urban Grand Rapids and throughout the Midwest. Thank you GRTS for tangibly modeling to other schools what it means "to act justly and to love mercy."

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Tribute to Paul Gordon

Paul Gordon, chairman of Gordon Food Service and a personal friend of Urban Transformation Ministries, died last Tuesday. You can read all about his legacy here. Over the past twelve years, he was such an encouragement to both Sherilyn and me. He was one of my favorite people at Berean and his humility, generosity, joy, and friendliness was contagious to be around….

I remember one time while running one of our inner-city youth programs, running into him while he was dropping off some books at the church. At the time, I was in the process of dealing with a student who had just threatened the life of another kid in our programs as well as threatening me. Once the youth left the church, Paul asked me a couple questions, put his arm around me, and encouraged me in my ministry.

For many years, he anonymously gave to missions locally and globally, providing the resources to many different mission initiatives. I remember having a conversation several years ago where he took the entire Gordon family (several generations) to Africa and for two weeks they spent their Christmas serving impoverished people with Aids. As I read more and more from people all over the world, that was a normal occurrence. His motto was, "We are here to expand God's Kingdom!" Thank you so much for helping us at Urban Transformation Ministries expand God's Kingdom in the 'hood!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Fundamental/Evangelical fallacies (that prevent churches from truly embracing ministry to the poor) Part 1

My last post, Uneasy Consciousness, was actually a prologue to a series that I’ve been thinking about for some time. At first, I was going to name this series “top ten excuses as to why fundamental and conservative churches do not make the poor a priority. But it sounded too wordy and seemed too shallow. However, since most of these churches are children of the enlightenment, I will attempt to expose some fallacies of modernity that still linger among the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches. Regrettably, these fallacies prevent them from fully embracing their God-given responsibility to help the poor and needy. At the same time, I must resist the temptation of painting these churches with a broad-brush stroke. Surprisingly, I am finding more and more of these churches seeking ways to live out the 2000 verses in the Bible that speak of God’s heart for the poor and needy. For instance, I’ve witnessed genuine conversations unfold among fundamental church leaders and pastors on internet forums such as Sharper Iron as they discuss and debate what their church’s responsibility should be to the poor. This has been a source of encouragement to me. Even so, I can honestly say as an insider that the fallacies I name are in fact keeping many of these churches from embracing ministry among the poor as part of their mission.

My first fallacy has been everybody’s whipping boy, dispensationalism, which grieves me because this theological construct does contain some points to consider. In recent days, however, dispensationalism has been linked to just about every fault and blemish that fundamentalists and evangelicals possess, which I believe is unfair. But like most things, dispensationalism is comprised of the good, bad and ugly. For those who are not familiar with the term, dispensationalism refers to an understanding of the Bible that divides the relationship of God to humanity throughout redemptive history in sharply separated epochs. What separates them from the rest of Christendom boils down to two things: their literalness when interpreting the Bible and their sharp distinction between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church. Although the theological construct of dispensationalism has only been around for less than two-hundred years of the church’s two-thousand year history, it really took hold among fundamental and conservative evangelical churches within America during the first half of the twentieth century. Much to the surprise and even the chagrin of many of my non-fundamental-evangelical friends, I still hold to a form of dispensationalism, albeit a very broad and progressive one (one of these days, I’ll post why I still see myself within the dispensationalist camp-although on the edge).

However, dispensationalism in its more traditional, historic form has deceived its followers into believing that certain passages of scripture do not really apply to our current dispensational time period. For instance, according to traditional dispensationalists, the “least of these” within the Sheep and Goats judgment passage of Mathew are Jews who experience persecution during the seven-year future tribulation. Therefore, they disregard this vivid picture of final judgment as relevant to their lives because they interpret the story to be about judgment of nations treating persecuted Jews rather than how the current church must treat the “least of these,” right here and right now. The same goes for kingdom living in the Sermon on the Mount. In their view, due to the Jewish rejection of Christ as their Messiah, Jesus postponed His kingdom rule of the Jews until his future millennial reign. Therefore, the ethical demands of the Sermon on the Mount for these dispensationalists represent how God’s people will live under Christ’s rule during his future, literal 1000 year reign on earth (so if this is true, will God allow face-slapping while reigning “with a rod of iron” since we are told to turn the other cheek?)rather than how God's people should live in the here and now. Hence, these scriptures have no bearing on how we are to live today. The same even goes for the Old Testament prophets that pronounced judgment against those who withheld justice for the poor. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.

Proponents of this view defend dispensationalism by declaring that their interpretation springs from a literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic of the entire Bible. Yet could it be that their rigid commitment to this type of hermeneutic created a system of interpretation that depends way too much on modernity’s twin nemesis of rationalism and science? Isn’t it ironic that in their desire to stay faithful to Scripture through a rigid adherence to its hermeneutic may in fact have led them to the edge of theological liberalism? Just as Modernity’s rationalism and darwinistic science influenced many North American mainline churches to embrace liberalism by denying certain doctrines of the faith, has Modernity’s rationalism and Baconian scientific method led certain dispensationalists to render large portions of the Bible meaningless due to their unswervingly rigid embrace of an interpretative method? What is the difference between a person who denies the validity of certain scriptures like Thomas Jefferson who cut and pasted the parts of the Bible that he disagreed with and a dispensationalist that fails to acknowledge the present application of large portions of scripture because he places its primary meaning and application into a future dispensation of time? I’ll let you figure out that question.

What's more, the outworkings of this dispensational hermeneutic has led to an imbalanced view of God’s kingdom, centering most of its attention on a future kingdom with little emphasis on the present. While a person’s entrance into the Kingdom of God receives attention, its ethical responsibilities are minimized. While future events of the escaton dominate its worldview, present kingdom activities are questioned. In addition, with its emphasis on the sharp discontinuity between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church, dispensationalism presents a truncated social ethic, especially in regards to its view of the church’s role helping the poor and oppressed. Their interpretation allows them to make excuses for not helping the poor such as, “Why rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic?” “Since this world is going to hell in a hand basket, shouldn’t we primarily focus on what’s really important, which is evangelism?” “Doesn’t focusing on the needs of the poor take away resources for missions and church planting?” “I don’t see any New Testament mandate for alleviating poverty, therefore, why even bother?” Believe me, I've heard them all and debated each and every one of them.

On the other hand, when Christians are not so rigid in their literal, historical, grammatical interpretation of the Bible, but rather take in account the diversity of literary genres that comprise scripture such as narrative, law, poetry, prophesy, parabolic, and apocalyptic, suddenly the kingdom of God (present and future) is brought back into a more balanced “already, but not yet.” When Christians emphasize the unity of the entire cannon, especially with more continuity between Israel and the church rather than making a sharp distinction between the two, the church understands its mission to include more than just evangelism. It incorporates both the good news of the gospel and good works, both the cultural mandate and the redemptive mandate, as they bring the Lordship of Jesus Christ into every arena of life.

This post may be a hard pill to swallow for some of my dispensational friends, but I feel that I must question their theology just as much as I've questioned the sacramental theology of the poor embraced by Shane Claiborne. Have fun unpacking this post!!!

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Uneasy Conscience of a (Post) Modern Fundamentalist

For the past eighteen years, I’ve felt several overriding tensions as I live out the gospel in the ‘hood. In some ways it is an “uneasy conscience” as Dr. Carl F.H. Henry described a half a century ago. For me, this uneasiness surfaces from the tension between the false antithesis of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, specifically as it relates to the faith community’s responsibility to help the poor. The more that I ponder my fundamentalist-Baptist upbringing, the more I realize how this heritage played a part in creating the tension.

Due to my father’s ministry job as a worship pastor, I grew-up attending several different Fundamentalist-Baptist churches of the GARBC for the first twenty-two years of my life. During those two decades, I don’t ever recall hearing a message from any of the pastors or a Bible study from any of the Sunday School teachers that called attention to the plight of the poor and the Christian’s God-given responsibility to help them. Even though I frequented these churches every time the building was open, including every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, and every Wednesday night, I never heard anyone refer to any of the 2000 or so Bible verses throughout both testaments that implore God’s people to help the poor. So when I began serving the poor at a little store-front church in the inner-city as a college student, I suddenly became acutely aware of how God’s concern for the poor permeated the entire narrative of Scripture. With some mentoring from Servants Center's director Don Tack, I also realized the futileness of pious activities such as street evangelism among the homeless population compared to building relationships and doing holistic ministry among them. Unfortunately, when I switched ministries to become a manager of a homeless shelter (under the direction of Don Tack) that emphasized holistic ministry, my home church in Indiana responded by dropping my missionary support. Later, word got back to me that they believed I had embraced the “social-gospel,” which is sort of like the Scarlet letter of Fundamentalism. My name and ministry suddenly became synonymous with words such as neo-evangelical, compromise, liberal, and social-gospel.

There is pain in rejection, especially from such a grave misunderstanding by my ecclesiastical heritage. I was just as committed to the gospel as I’d ever been. In fact, out of the 21 men that benefited from the homeless shelter during my two years as its supervisor, eleven graduated into self-sufficiency with full-time employment and secure housing. Several men trusted Christ for their salvation and to this day, continue to serve Christ in their church. In comparison, when I was doing street evangelism, several made dramatic professions to Christ, but every single one of them fell away because their “conversion” wasn’t the real thing.

What’s more, I was just as committed to sound doctrine as I’d ever been. I embraced historical fundamentals such as an infallible, inerrant Scripture, Christ’s deity, Christ’s substitutionary atonement for our sins, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and Christ’s imminent return. Yet to the leadership from my former home church, my actions proved otherwise. How twisted the logic of their thinking! That somehow because I added social and economic activities such as job assistance, mentoring, and budget counseling to evangelism among the homeless poor meant that I no longer held to a high view of the Bible and Christ. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t those who hold to an inerrant and infallible view of Scripture be passionately and actively living out what the Scripture actually says? Since they believe the Bible to be true, shouldn’t the fundamental and conservative evangelical churches be most concerned about living out the 2000 or so verses about the poor and oppressed that demand a response from God’s people? Regrettably, this has not been the case. If our treasure is where our heart is, many of the yearly budgets from these churches reflect more of a concern for bricks and mortar, professional pastoral staffing, and quirky Christmas and Easter programs than responding to the needs of the poor.

From that moment fifteen years ago, I realized that an essential part of urban ministry must also include educating the church about ministry among the poor. Therefore, for the past fifteen years of our ministry to at-risk youth and their families in the ‘hood, we have served the church by offering workshops and seminars such as: “how to redemptively assist the poor without creating dependency.” This has been my little way of influencing fundamental and conservative evangelical churches, countering the lack of theological reflection that I’ve observed when addressing current social and economic issues that affect the poor. It has also done wonders when confronting the tension that I feel as a "post-modern" who believes and lives out the fundamentals.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Happy Birthday Tiera Michele Shaffer!!!!

This is my oldest daughter, Tiera(T.T) who just turned ten today. Sometimes Sherilyn and I are amazed at how God has wired her. She is one of the most compassionate people that I've ever met. In her 4th grade class, her way of "loving her neighbor" is reaching out to classmates that have the least amount of friends. As we take care of Sherilyn's mom who has Parkinson's and Sherilyn's Grandma who is 93 years old, she helps us out by being Mom jr. She's always looking for opportunities to help with her special needs five-year old sister (Ashlyn) and her youngest sister (Sahara) as well.

Besides her compassionate side (in which I could brag all day), she loves to play soccer, play the piano, sing, read, read, and read (did I mention she loves to read?). She loves God and loves to pray for the needs of others. The other day, she asked how God calls people to do missions. She then told me about her interest in doing inner-city ministry. Whether she follows us in doing ministry in the 'hood or not, we are so thankful to God for such a beautiful and special daughter as our T.T.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Happy Birthday Jalen Truth Shaffer!!!!

This is my son Jalen holding his baby sister, Sahara. Jalen turned eight years old today. Since he is my only son, we share a special bond together, tackling each other while playing football, shooting hoops in basketball, playing PS2, and singing praise and worship songs. His favorite song is Blessed be your name (by Beth and Matt Redman). As a person, he is a loyal friend to his friends and family, quiet at times but spazy in his humor, overly competitive, creative and sensitive to God and others, Jalen, you have been the best son I could have ever asked for. Thank you for your love, respect, and friendship. I pray that I can continue modeling and teaching you what it means to grow up to be a godly man who passionately loves Jesus and who loves others.

Friday, April 11, 2008

For Those of You Who Freaked Out about Obama...

when his former Pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was all over the news and Youtube espousing Black liberation theology, "miss the mark and expose general ignorance about Protestant liberalism and mainline black churches," according to an insightful piece by Anthony Bradley. You can read all about it here.

I concur with Professor Bradley that we ought to be debating his economic policies (and social policies), not his ties to Rev. Wright. Although I am more in agreement with the free market than Obama's plans for government intervention and redistribution when it comes to economic policy, I think Bradley's comment about Obama resurrecting Karl Marx is definitely an exaggeration. What do ya'll think?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Playing Race Cards in the Church

This past weekend I took fifteen high school and young adult students to a Word of Life basketball tournament in the rural town of North Branch, Michigan, on the east side of the state. Besides our students, only one other team out of thirty-eight was comprised of mostly African-American players. By far, both our teams had the most talent, but anger won out causing many of our students to lose the mental aspect of the game. Consequently, neither team made it to the finals.

In the last game, one of my students named Ed loudly blamed his skin color as the reason for the ref calling so many fouls on him. For whatever reason, throughout the tournament our teams had twice as many fouls called against us than against any other team. Immediately, several white people from the audience vocally berated him for his comment. One man even lashed out at him, calling him “boy,” a major cultural taboo for Caucasians interacting with African-Americans. Even when I intervened, they defended their actions, not heeding to my appeal. Finally, in order to silence them, I strongly warned them to back off my player. At the same time, I did not let Ed off the hook. I pulled him out of the game and scolded him for playing the race card no matter how unfair it seemed. After the game, I found out that the white folks weren’t the only ones who would not listen. Several of my students were so emotionally rattled that neither Davien nor I could help them work through this issue until a few days ago.

By the way, I am not going to cry foul play for what happened in North Branch. My students played lousy defense and lost their heads when things didn’t go their way. When they surrendered their mental toughness, it was all over for them. Moreover, this situation could have been a character-building opportunity for them. What a chance for our students to overcome an enormous obstacle, even when it seems as if everything was against them!

Nevertheless, now that I’ve had a chance to mull over this situation, I wonder how my fellow Caucasians would have felt if the roles were reversed. What if every referee, every Word of Life leader, and parent in the entire tournament was black? What if only three teams playing were Caucasian, thirty-five teams were African-American, while the majority of calls made by the referees favored the African-American teams? Might the white players feel the same way? Out of frustration, would one of their players have “played the race card” when everything seemed overwhelmingly stacked against them? I guarantee they would be just as acute to the situation as were my students.

This has also caused me to pondor extensively about how the early church handled ethnically charged conflicts such as this. How the Greek-speaking people complained that their widows were being ignored by the majority culture within the church. How the church responded by appointing seven godly Greek-speaking deacons to oversee their feeding program so that the elders could devote their time to prayer and the preaching and teaching of God’s word. How their redemptive awareness and sacrificial love for one another became the catalyst for addressing the problem, rather than ignoring the issue at hand. How maybe if the WOLifers want a diverse group to preach the gospel to, building relationships with urban ministries, recruiting a few godly people of color to referee games or as the special speaker might be a starting point for including groups such as ours.

In response, I will be shooting off an e-mail to the WOLifer missionary who organized the event. Their leaders showed an extraordinary amount of love and patience with our groups so I am cautiously optimistic that they will be receptive to any ideas we may bring to the table. As we work to resolve certain racial issues, I pray that no one in the future will feel the need to stoop down to the world’s standards and play the race card.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Shane Claiborne-Part 3

Although I’ve been giving Shane Claiborne a lot of props for exposing the idols of patriotism and consumerism, I need to shift our attention to a few of his views that have dire theological consequences, primarily centering on his sacramental view of the “least of these.” Taken from the Sheep and Goats passage of Matthew 25, according to this interpretation, not only does Jesus incarnate himself in the poor, but also that his presence within them should act as a motivation for Christians to serve the underprivileged throughout the world because we are in essence serving the mystical presence of our Lord Jesus. It is not surprising that he passionately holds this belief since his two mentors, the late Mother Teresa and Tony Campolo, propagate this view throughout their speeches and writings. While Mother Teresa was alive, she insisted on the belief that the dying, cripple, unwanted and unloved are actually “Jesus” in disguise. Tony Campolo has even called for evangelicals “to develop a theology that Jesus is waiting to be encountered in the poor and the oppressed.”

Consequently, many of my (evangelical) urban ministry colleagues have answered this call because of their sacramental view, including the influential, simple-way voice of Shane Claiborne. Throughout his book Irresistible Revolution, Shane shares stories of God’s grace and mystery when serving the poor, whom he assumed was Jesus. At times, he interchanges the phrase “God’s image in the poor” to communicate the same idea. The phrase “God’s image,” can be a much better term with one major distinction. That is, the image of God in humans was severely broken by the fall, whereas Jesus Christ embodies the perfect image of God because he is God-in-the-flesh. However, because all of us humans possess a depraved, sin nature and Jesus does not, we cannot claim that the presence of Jesus somehow dwells in the poor (or all human beings), unless they have repented and believed the gospel.

Let me share a few stories that might shine some light on this issue. Over three years ago, while driving through my neighborhood, as I paused for a stop sign, a young drug-dealing “thug” on the corner pulled out his gun with a laser scope, and aimed its red dot at my forehead. With a pull of his trigger I would’ve been a dead man, but out of sheer terror my body jolted with fear, which caused him to double up with laughter allowing me to drive away. The man with the gun was not a high-level pusher we see in movies or music videos with flashy clothes, a hummer, a “crib” mansion, and an assortment of scantily clad women by his side. Rather, he was like many other young adult men in our community: jobless, desperate, a high school drop out lacking marketable skills, and most likely addicted to the substance that he was selling. In other words, he also fit the description of being poor. So that begs the question, if, as Shane Claiborne insists, the presence of Jesus mystically resides in the poor, was this drug-dealer, who threatened my life, actually Jesus in disguise? Would Jesus have terrorized me in this manner and then mocked my fearful response?

Here’s another scenario. Fifteen years ago when I was the live-in manager at a transitional homeless shelter for men, I spent some of my time connecting with homeless people living under freeway overpasses, in refrigerator boxes, and along the river. While the homeless population, especially those who are mentally ill, are most vulnerable to physical assaults on the streets, much of the public do not realize that it often occurs by the hands of other homeless individuals. Not only were several of my homeless friends victimized by other homeless people, but also I remember helping break up a fight where one street person was beating another street person half-to-death. Here’s the million dollar question. If the mystical presence of Jesus somehow resides in the least of these, was Jesus as a homeless person actually physically assaulting and beating Jesus as the other homeless person? If we believe the nice “least of these” to be Jesus, shouldn’t we believe the nasty “least of these” to be Jesus as well?

Let’s be honest with ourselves and the Biblical narrative. Sin despoiled all people and all creation, including the poor. Unfortunately, those holding to the sacramental view tend to overlook the sin nature within the “least of these.” Yes, they are vulnerable and victimized. Yes, they often have been and continue to be sinned against. Yet like the rich, the middle-class, or any other human being (however they are classified by the world), at the core of who they are, is a selfish, rebellious sin problem. When we view the least of these as the mystical presence of Jesus, we often come away with a delusional, romanticizing outlook of the poor and oppressed.

For the sacramental view of the poor to coincide with orthodoxy, the Campolos and Claibornes ought to address (from the entire Biblical story, not just the red letters) how Christ can somehow mystically reside in the unregenerate poor, especially those who are downright evil. If they don’t, their other alternative might be to swim among the murky waters of universalism.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Gambling over Jesus' Clothes

A couple of nights ago, I caught two of my students “shootin’ dice” in a corner away from everyone at Berean after our Bible study. Seems they had some unfinished business from playing basketball at Coit Park. On a side note, basketball at Coit Park in Grand Rapids resembles the movie, “White men can’t jump.” Often you have to put up money to play on the court, or you don’t get to play. Anyways, on the eve before Good Friday, they were so desensitized to the passion story of Christ, which J.T. alluded to in his Bible discussion, that they were able to shoot dice without any respect or regard to Christ and his work on the cross, our Thursday Night Hype program, and the church building in which we meet.

As I read the Easter story today, after Jesus was beaten, scourged, and finally nailed to the cross, I was reminded that roman soldiers gambled for his clothes. Like our students, they were callous and hardhearted to the execution of God-in-the-flesh, insensitive enough to cast lots over his garments. Here we have the God of the universe as a man experiencing excruciating torment, suffering physically through beatings from the palace guards, the horrific scourging that ripped apart the skin of his back, and the impact of weighted iron spikes driving into his wrists (which even pales to the untold suffering of having God the Father turn his back on him while deflecting the Father's wrath, taking on the penalty and guilt of our sin so that we could become the righteousness of God). Were the soldiers that anesthetized to death and violence that they would gamble over the clothes of Jesus?

Yet so many times, like my students I play the role of the roman soldier, desensitized to One who has purchased me with His blood. Do I find myself only reflecting on Christ’s death and resurrection during the Lord’s supper and Easter? Here is a song called “Clink of the Nails” from the Cross Movement that visually guides us in reflection of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Shane Claiborne-Part 2

Confronting the idol of consumerism is another important aspect of Shane Claiborne’s writing that he gets right. Through his unique story-telling gift, Shane points out our materialistic sins without resorting to manipulative guilt tactics. Even more, his simple way of following Jesus actively protests against the social order of materialistic greed that most of America embraces. By living out kingdom values in a communal setting within the “badlands” of Philadelphia, their community resembles the early Christians from the book of Acts. Like the early Christians, these believers (meet) together constantly and shared everything they had. Like the early Christians, they (sell) their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. Like the early Christians, they worship together… each day, meet in homes for the Lord’s supper and share their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the good will of the people (Acts 2:44-47.) The alternative community that Shane and his cohorts model is so selflessly contrary to American consumer culture, even the pagans take notice and give glory to God for their good works (I Pet. 2:11-12).

Nevertheless, despite outside comparisons to medieval monasticism, Claiborne’s simple way lifestyle rejects vows of poverty. Rather he and his companions articulate and live out a “theology of enough,” which compels them to redistribute their resources and share them with the poor. On top of that, Shane demonstrates from scripture that a large percentage of Old and New Testament giving was actually devoted to help the poor. However, instead of griping about the twisted stewardship values of American churches that give minimally to help the poor while spending much of their resources on elaborate buildings and extra staff, he and his group model a solution called the “relational tithe.” By pooling together 10% of their income (assumes one giving to the church first and scaling down of their lifestyle), people connected to Shane were able to meet many needs of the poor in their own community and throughout the world.

I am intrigued by the idea of a local church voluntarily tithing an extra portion of their income (besides what they normally give to the church) to redemptively help the poor. Maybe it would dispel the stereotype that one student of mine articulated at Thursday Night Hype last week of an inner-city church in the neighborhood (not Berean). He spoke of a neighborhood church pastor lining his pockets with cash from poor single mothers in the church, while the church did nothing significant about the condition of these poor people within the church and in the community. To him, why should he stop stealing stuff “to get his” when this certain pastor “steals” from the poor “to get his?”

In the end, Shane Claiborne helps us remove the blinders so we can finally see the idol of consumerism that holds sway over our lives.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tony Campolo's Illegal Alien Proposal

Given that the brawling between the political left and right over our country’s illegal immigrant problem has accomplished virtually nothing, I get excited when someone proposes something that actually makes some sense. Tony Campolo, a Christian evangelical who polarizes the heck out of my emotions (I either strongly back his views or come out strongly against them), has carved out a middle-of-the-road argument that embraces both law and grace.

Click this link to read his entire article.

He proposes that the United States have a “high-wall but a wide gate.” In other words, we need to do everything we can, including the idea of a high wall, to protect our borders from potential drug dealers, criminals and potential terrorists, yet widen the gate so that the poor have every opportunity to come to America regardless of their income status.

Moreover, he proposes some practical solutions for those who are already here without sending them back. “When it comes to dealing with those who are already here, I agree with those who claim that amnesty is not a good idea. These illegal immigrants did break the law, and amnesty would likely invite others to do the same. Law breakers should be dealt with seriously. Allow me to suggest some solutions to this predicament. I propose that undocumented entrants be granted green cards as soon as possible, but they should be required to pay a hefty fine for having broken the law. Also, they should be required to pay back taxes on their past earnings. But, knowing that it would be unlikely for them to have the money to cover these expenses all at once, I suggest that they have as much as 10% of their income deducted in the years that follow until such time as these fines and back taxes are paid off. Those who earn the higher salaries would pay off what they owe sooner, while those with lower salaries would have to take longer to fulfill their obligations.”

For those of us who take the Bible’s commands to help the poor and the alien or stranger seriously, yet understand that we need a solution that discourages law-breaking, Tony Campolo’s proposal brings together the best of both worlds. Let the public discourse begin!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dr. Grier

Since I am somewhat ADD with my thought processes, if I am doing a series on a subject, that does not mean that I can't interrupt it to post something different-like putting on hold my Shane Claiborne series to blog about something else. Although I represented UTM at a ministry conference yesterday, more importantly I had the chance to reconnect with one of my former profs from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (also the former dean of the seminary as well), Dr. James M. Grier. He's been retired for some time now, but maintains a rigorous preaching and teaching schedule throughout the world.

I attended the two workshops that he taught, both of which intersected with post-modern thought and the emergent church. The first one, Certainty about Uncertainty, dealt with the ongoing conflict in Evangelical circles about the certainty, assurance, and confidence of truth. Dr. Grier has a unique gift of rising above all the noise of the debate, pointing out both the veracity and the errors that each side is making, and then presenting the orthodox position with a fresh new viewpoint. In this presentation, he tore down the modern idols of rationalism and empiricism that permeate Foundationalism, but steered away from replacing them with the post-modern idols of social relativism and pluralism, which regrettably, many emergents have allowed to seep into their epistemology. Even as Dr. Grier pecked away at more of the enlightenment's cancerous influences of the late 20th century and early 21st century (non-emergent) evangelical church, he makes clear God's self-disclosure as through nature, the scriptures, and the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. In fact, he makes Scripture the central aspect of our Epistemology and ultimate standard of truth demonstrating how it can interpret and give significance to all of reality around us. If you are interested in hearing a longer, drawn out version of this presentation, download it from his website.

His second presentation, The Missional Church, really stepped on some toes. Since much of the emergent church has been associated with the term missional, he begins by identifying several characteristics of the emergent church, taken from Bolger and Gibbs book, Emerging churches. As he walked through these characteristics of the emergent church, he took aim at some of the sacred cows that exist in the typical evangelical church of today. For instance, while describing the characteristic, transforming secular space, Grier bemoans the fact that churches throughout North America have locked their resources into building programs and buildings that they use only a couple times a week. However, by transforming secular space, emergent churches free up more resources for the kingdom. At the same time, he feels that much of the emergent church has capitulated itself to post-modern culture, which is just as wrong. Instead, he proposes the church as an alternative community living out Missio Dei as a sign, instrument and foretaste of the kingdom of God.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Grier exposed the same idols as Shane Claiborne when explaining the church as an alternative community. With indignant disgust, he exhorted our group to get the American flag off the platform and out of the church so that people don't confuse kingdoms. He also exposed the idol of consumerism, including a modern day story of the rich young ruler. A man requested Dr. Grier as an accountability partner in the areas of purity, marriage, and devotions. Dr. Grier responded by asking to trade 1040 tax forms and the man retorted that his finances was his private business and thus withdrew his request of accountability.

Finally as Dr. Grier fleshed out a kingdom theology of the church, he took the evangelical church to task for their lack of commitment to God's mission in our nation's urban centers. Of course I was shouting Amens to that until the people around me gave me more than a few dirty looks.

Thank you Dr. Grier for continuing to articulate a scholarly, Biblical theology of these different issues in such a way that refuses to bow down to either the modern idols nor the post-modern idols.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Shane Claiborne-Part I

During the fall of 2006, I was introduced to the writing of Shane Claiborne through his book, “Irresistible Revolution.” As I scrutinized the ideas behind his story, I found myself at times shouting “Amen and Halleluiah” at the top of my lungs in agreement, while other times I was throwing it against the wall, voicing my opposition. Even though irresistible revolution generated such conflicting responses within me, I am convinced that its story and message needs sharing with the evangelical church-at-large through out America. I will begin by pointing out areas where I believe Shane Claiborne is right.

First, he exposes the idol of patriotism. By sharing experiences spanning the globe (from evangelical churches in America to the cities and churches in the war zone of Iraq), Shane brings to light how our recent misplaced allegiance to country, especially during war, has harmed the reputation of Christ and his church. While I am at odds with his pacifistic stance, he does make a compelling argument. Christian evangelicals allowed patriotism during our nation’s crisis to shape our worldview rather than a seeking a Biblical view of social-political issues (such as war) that centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Much has been made of how the evangelical church as a whole in America wholeheartedly supported the recent invasion of Iraq and to "stay the course." Perhaps our devotion to the interests and values of our country played a part in diverting our attention from objectively viewing the war from a Biblical and Christological lens.

I know I am guilty as charged. For instance, right after 9-11, I proudly displayed a “Go get’em George!” bumper sticker on the back of our family’s mini-van. In response to the terror attacks, I was ready to support any action the president made, even if the end justified the means. However, once we invaded Iraq, I realized I needed to develop a theology of war because several of my students were questioning its biblical rationale. In my study, I not only examined the scriptures, but I also read Yoder’s “the Politics of Jesus,” which argues for the pacifist position. Yet I did not stop there. I delved into Darrell Cole’s recent defense of just-war theory, “When God says War is Right,” and then unpacked “War and Christian Ethics: classic readings on the morality of War,” which highlights two-thousand years of writings from philosophers and theologians pertaining to war. Although in the end, I do hold to a just-war position, I am convinced that certain aspects of the current Iraqi conflict cannot be justified by just-war theory (torture, pre-emptive strike, etc…). At the same time, certain aspects of the war could coincide with a just-war position, such as the liberation of a severely oppressed people. However, it is suspect…because only when our government could not find weapons of mass destruction that they began to articulate a “liberation” rationalization for the war.

Regardless of your position whether you support the current Iraqi conflict or not, what makes Shane Claiborne’s message significant and right about the idolatry of patriotism is that he compels Christians to question where their loyalty and allegiance ultimately lies. May it always be with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Events of Steve's Funeral

Steven and his daughter, A'zharia

Well, I am delaying my Shane Claiborne posts again for a little while longer, due to unforeseen events. Yesterday, I went to the funeral of one of my former students, Steven Ivy, whom I mentioned was gunned down last Friday. Last week I didn’t know much of the details, only that Steve, who was the cousin of a student that I mentor, was shot and killed in the house next to my church, Berean Baptist. However, after doing a little bit of research, I realized he was one of my former students when I ran the after-school program at Coit School for Camp Fire Boys and Girls about ten years ago and at the Rock when he was around sixteen or seventeen. Having worked with over two-thousand inner-city youth with the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation, Camp Fire Boys and Girls, Servants Center and Urban Transformation Ministries during the past fifteen years, sometimes I mismatch a few names and faces.

About four hundred people packed themselves into Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. At least thirty of them were either current or former students of mine. During the first hour, people paid their last respects to “Coo.” Since his father shared Steve’s testimony as someone who believed and had a relationship with Christ, his wish was to celebrate his life rather than mourn for him. Sadly, there was a lot of mourning and wailing among his friends, especially from his baby’s mamma and another girl that Steve knew well.

There was one very tense moment during the service. One of his friends wrote a poem about Steve, celebrating his life. The majority of the poem was very moving, speaking of who Steve really was as a person. However, the last part talked about “poppin’ bottles” which refers to partyin’ and drinking, which some knew was a part of Steve’s life, albeit a small one. Steve’s Grandmother went hysterical on his friend yelling, “I didn’t raise my grandson like that! “Who does he think he is?” And so on as she was accompanied out of the service until she calmed down. Pastor Jones, who resided over the funeral, used the “poppin’ bottles” as an illustration of what not to be or do, and then pointed young people to accept Jesus. Since almost half of the people in the service were teenagers and young adults, Reverend Jones also took advantage of the opportunity several times to rebuke young folks for thinking that they know everything, that they do not listen and obey their parents, and that they live for money and pleasure rather than for Christ.

As I observed the nodding and obvious vocal support of the forty and older crowd for what Pastor Jones was saying, and then observed the stone face response of the teenagers and twenty-somethings, it reinforced a reality that among African-Americans there is a noticeable gap of worldviews between the older and younger generations. The civil rights or soul generation valued the authority, and therefore the message of this larger-than-life saint, Reverend Jones, who has pastored for some sixty or so years (give or take) at Pilgrim Rest Baptist church. However, the hip-hop generation seemed more in tune with the poet friend of Steve’s, who not only looked like an MC, but who also kept it real by juxtaposing the glory of God and “poppin’ bottles” without seeing any conflicting message between the two.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect was an old Helen Baylor song sung at the funeral, “Can you reach my friend?” To me it represents the desire of one generation who has the answer in Jesus, but has lost touch with its younger generation.

I got a call from an old friend. We laughed about how things had changed.
But I could tell things weren’t going as well as he claimed.
He tried to hide his feelings, but they only gave him away.
The longer I listened, the more I kept wishing that I had the right words to say.

Can You reach my friend? Bring his searching to an end.
Lord, I know you love him, Help him understand.
Can You reach my friend? You’re the only One who can.
Help him give his heart to You.

We talked for more than an hour, I smiled when he mentioned Your name.
I said that I knew You.
I told him the difference You made, but he never though he would need You
But may he’s changing his mind, As we said goodbye Lord
He told me that I had found something he’d like to find


Maybe he’s ready tonight. Lord, he said that he might need to call You
Help him give his heart to you.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another Killing in Grand Rapids

Sometimes ministry can be depressing. The cousin of Greg, one of my students that I mentor, was shot and killed Friday night. Here is the link to the story.

It will be interesting how my church, Berean Baptist, handles the situation. The murder took place in the house next door to the church, which it owns. In the past several years, Berean has developed a very positive reputation in the Creston neighborhood by loving the community in a variety of ways. However, it has not had to deal with some of the crime and violence that UTM has experienced. I am praying that the violence will not cause them to waver from reaching its community, even if it is dangerous. I remember a line from, Living Dangerously in the Hands of God," a song that Steve Camp penned almost twenty years ago. In the middle of the song he proclaims,

"There is safety in complacency. But God is calling us out of our comfort zones into a life of complete surrender to the cross. To live dangerously is not to live recklessly, but righteously. And it is because of God's radical grace for us, that we can live radically obedient for Him."

Another reason not to waver is because people are hurting from the violence. For example, as I was taking one of my students (Derek) home from the ROCK, he shared with me that his Dad had died (not sure from what), three of his brothers had been shot and killed, and his other two brothers were serving life prison sentences. Now his mom is fighting cancer. He tells me, "If she dies, than I am the only one left in my immediate family. And I just turned 18. " Thursday Night Hype and the ROCK has become his extended family where several of our students and staff show him constant love and support. Many of the students can comfort him because they too have gone through the same loss as Derek.

Berean Baptist can use this incident to embrace the neighborhood people who suffer from pain that violent crimes produce. I pray that their love will help turn a horrible situation into something good and redemptive.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Why I am blogging about Shane Claiborne

I had a great mini-vacation with my family and our very good friends, the Vanderkolks. We spent most of our time at Ludington’s Best Western Hotel relaxing around the pool, waterslide and hot tub. As I mentioned before, my goal over this break was to read Walker Wink’s “Powers” trilogy. I read Engaging the Powers and sparsely read Naming the Powers and Unmasking the Powers. The books were stimulating, but it was like eating a whole chicken. There were a lot of bones to spit out in order to get to the meat. I spent much of my time having to sort out his liberal assumptions before I could really take in a few of the good points that he makes. To sum it up, these books really didn’t help me as much as I’d hoped in understanding Shane Claiborne’s beliefs, but they did help me understand where he got some of his practical ideas in responding to violence non-violently.

After taking some good advise from Sherilyn (my wife), I need to clarify why I am even spending time blogging about Shane Claiborne. For the record, UTM sentiments is not a “gossip” blog where people pool their ignorance in order to form some sort of united consensus of criticism. Unfortunately, the Cedarville cancellation due to the buzz from the “angry bloggers” put Shane Claiborne in a negative limelight, where he took some unfair shots from his critics (slanting the truth, pronouncing him guilty-by-association, conveniently leaving out certain facts, etc…).

My purpose for writing has more to do with clearing up the fog concerning his worldview so that fundamental and evangelical churches are neither labeling him as a heretic nor remaining in the dark about some of his beliefs that are outside the realm of evangelical theology. Since Shane Claiborne’s influence among the younger evangelical world has exploded due to the success of his book. irresistible revolution, and the fact that he is in constant demand speaking about urban ministry and social justice issues at churches and college campuses all over North America, it is natural to engage into a conversation about his worldview on UTM Sentiments. In my coming blogs, I will explain where I believe Shane Claiborne is right, where I believe he is wrong, and where I believe he is partly right.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Going on a Mini Vacation!!!!

Since my oldest two, Tiera and Jalen, are on a mid-winter break at their school, today my family and I leave for Ludington Michigan for some R and R. This will give me some time to read a trilogy of books by Walter Wink. These books, “Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers,” address the concept of structural sin and evil as well as a Biblical response, which Wink contends is non-violent. If you have heard Rob Bell or Shane Claiborne speak of “the myth of redemptive violence,” you are in fact hearing the influence of Walter Wink. This will help me put my arm around the worldview of Shane Claiborne so that I can provide a more accurate picture of his beliefs when I unpack his teachings in the next few weeks or so on this blog site.



Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Drama of Cedarville, Shane Claiborne, and the "angry" bloggers

I am feeling sorry for Cedarville U. these days. In response to a swell of pressure from concerned parents, alumni, and bloggers, Shane Claiborne’s February 11th lecture to the students of Cedarville was canceled. According to Dr. Carl Ruby, “There was a tension between my desire to use this even to challenge students to take a closer look at a very important social issue, and the need to protect Cedarville’s reputation as a conservative, Christ centered university. There can’t be any confusion about our commitment to God’s Word and our historically conservative doctrinal position.” You can read more about it on this link to Christianity Today.

From the blogger’s viewpoint, bringing Shane Claiborne to speak before the student body is unthinkable because his theology and leftist politics embodies the emergent liberal. In their mind, Shane’s conversations will only lead Cedarville students away from orthodox Christianity because they assume that the majority of them are not grounded in sound doctrine. Here is a typical blogger who apposed Shane Claiborne’s visit to Cedarville.

Reflecting on the Cedarville incident, Shane Claiborne blogged to the world that Christians should not fear disagreements, and invited the bloggers to have a public conversation, and share a meal or even communion together.

For the record, I do have some serious disagreements with some of Shane Claiborne’s theology, but I am going to side with him on this one. University students should be exposed to different faith perspectives than their own, especially since Cedarville concentrates a great deal of attention helping their students form a Christian world and life view, which in turn helps them discern truth from error. Then again, over the past few years, Cedarville has had a public relations nightmare such as the GARBC vote to disassociate itself from the university over its relationship with Ohio Southern Baptists as well as the controversy in its Philosophy and Bible department over the certainty of truth vs. assurance of truth.

Maybe the best way to handle a “controversial figure” like Shane Claiborne without appearing to compromise their historical doctrinal position would have been to invite Shane as part of a forum to discuss social issues that affect urban ministry. Include a few more urban ministry leaders that are more conservative in their theology, but who are as passionate about evangelism and social justice as Shane is. Let’s have a real “conversation” where we evangelicals, who hold to differing viewpoints, can actually talk to and with each other, rather than talking past each other.

At least Dr. Ruby didn’t get fired. In the early 1980’s, Grand Rapids Baptist College (now Cornerstone U) invited Tony Campolo for their Staley lecture series, but because of the public outcry from certain fundamentalist pastors, uninvited him and then fired the Dr. Veldt, who was responsible for the invitation.