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!!!