In the church, we handle glory on a regular basis. Every time the church gathers, we talk about topics like: the greatness of God, the fact that God became a human being, our longing for redemption and our inability to save ourselves, the fact that Jesus has conquered death, the reality that God himself lives inside of our human bodies through his Spirit, etc. In other words, the church’s conversations are about the most profound, awe-inspiring, life-transforming, tear-inducing, joy-invoking topics imaginable!

And yet we are numb. The fact that I could type the above sentences without falling on my face and/or break dancing means that I’ve grown callous to truths that ought to be overpowering me at every moment. Think especially of what this is like for pastors: They stand in front of the faithful week after week and talk about the greatest mysteries, struggles, and triumphs in the universe. How can we keep these powerful truths fresh? How can we continue to see and value the glory that the Christian life puts us in contact with at every moment?

Makoto Fujimura: Consider the Lilies

Makoto Fujimura: Consider the Lilies

One significant answer is this: we need artists in our churches. We don’t need only artists, but we do need artists. Art is a gift that God has given humanity so that we can explore the significance of life. Textbooks and newspapers present us with the facts of life; art presents us with the meaning and significance of those facts. If art is God’s gift (it is!) and if this is what art does (it does!), then how can we afford to ignore the role of art in our churches? (We can’t!)

Pablo Picasso: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

J. R. R. Tolkien: “We need to clean our windows so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”

Madeleine L’Engle: “Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in such a new light that the old becomes new.”

As a Bible college professor, I spend a lot of time in classrooms talking about theology and life and ministry. But some of my richest times in those same classrooms come when I teach my class on Christianity and the Arts and my students share the art they’ve created. It takes those same powerful truths we talk about and pushes us to view and handle and (almost) taste them in ways that bring them to life again. The insightful artist can, in a sense, restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, feeling to the numb.

Speaking as a pastor to other pastors, Eugene Peterson says:

“Everyone needs artists. Pastors especially—and especially this pastor—need them, for we spend our lives immersed in forms of glory, in the world of salvation become incarnate in Jesus. If because of overfamiliarity and too much talking about we no longer see the glory contained in the form, no longer touch the salvation in the body and blood of Jesus, we are no longer pastors. I want to tell all my pastor colleagues, ‘Make friends with the artist. Let him rip off the veils of habit that obscure the beauty of Christ in the faces we look at day after day. Let her restore color and texture and smell to the salvation that has become disembodied in a fog of abstraction.’”

I do think that some churches try too hard in incorporating art into their services. I often get the impressions that churches “get artsy” just so that they can appear “relevant” or “with it” to younger generations. I’m not advocating that we drape every inch of our church buildings in art or that pastors don skinny jeans and adopt the persona of a bleeding heart artist (but it’s okay if your pastor does).

Donal J. Forsythe, "The Long Night," 12 box construction. (http://www.donaldforsythe.com/boxes/longnite1.html)

Donal J. Forsythe, “The Long Night,” 12 box construction. (http://www.donaldforsythe.com/boxes/longnite1.html)

I actually don’t think that incorporating art into the life of our churches should be all about what happens on Sunday mornings. Perhaps it should mean hosting artistic events. Certainly it will mean giving artists regular opportunities to share their art with people in the church. It’s really not about a strategy or a model; it’s about valuing and discipling the artists in our midst and imploring them to use their God-given gifts to enrich our lives and our worship. We should also go so far as viewing our artists as missionaries and sending them out into the world with Bibles and paintbrushes for the sake of our common mission.

Becoming a more artsy church is a lame goal. But acknowledging the power of art and the value of artists is essential. And until our churches figure out how to incorporate the gift of art and the gifts of artists into our common life, we will be depriving ourselves of a powerful means of tearing away the veil and bringing ourselves into regular contact with glory.

For more on this, click here.

For an extended list of solid books on the subject, click here.

iV

Mark Beuving —  October 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

When I teach my Christianity & the Arts class, the students have to create and present artistic projects. These are always a high point in my semester. We spend weeks talking about art, how it relates to God and the Bible, and the role it plays in the mission God has given us; then the students put their God-given creativity to work. These are some of the richest, most challenging, and most worshipful times I ever spend in our classrooms.

Last night, one of my students, Emily Scheibenpflug, shared a project that “speaks” eloquently to one of the issues I revisit from time to time on this blog: our relationship with technology (here’s a recent one). Without further ado, here is Emily’s drawing, which I have presumptuously entitled iV (the lowercase i is intentional).

iV

I’m sharing the drawing here because I believe it merits contemplation. It forces us to wrestle without offering a simple answer to the dilemma. As I’ve said in past posts, we are rightly uneasy about our relationship with our devices. I’ll leave you to do the actual contemplating, but here are some questions Emily’s drawing raises for me:

  • How digitally connected am I?
  • How digitally connected should I be?
  • Could this be my arm, or is this merely a warning/question for others?
  • Is the iPhone giving or taking from my personhood?
  • What is the iPhone putting into or drawing out of my arm (assuming the image fits me)?
  • Do the suggestions of a hospital setting indicate health or addiction? Is the iPhone there medicinally, or am I needing some sort of amputation?

All of these questions are extremely important for us to consider on a regular basis with respect to our electronic habits. This drawing moved me because it eloquently addresses all of them, without providing any specific answers. And this is the power of art: it suggests, asks, and challenges. What the art “does” to me depends on what is going on in my life at the moment.

So what do you see? And how should you respond?

 

 

In this post, I’m going to argue that the Church ought to be (1) a place to feel at home and (2) a place to feel like a foreigner or a pilgrim.

WelcomeGod has so constructed the Church, created as it is through the building material of the gospel, that we can feel fully at home in the Church. There are many places in our modern world where we feel out of place. (I would guess that you’d feel out of place in at least one of these locations: a court room, a bar, a black-tie event, or a boxing match.) But the Church is no such place. The Church is a place to feel at home, to know that we are accepted, to know that we belong.

This complete acceptance is because of what God has done for us in Jesus. We are accepted regardless of what we are or who we’ve tried to be. It is a gospel fact that Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). The gospel grabs hold of us gently and declares that we are washed, cleansed, re-created. It places us within the Church as full members of the Body of Christ.

Through the gospel, we’re not just given a seat at the table, so to speak, but we become indispensible members. Paul argues that we are such a part of the Church Body that if one of us were missing, the Body would be crippled (see 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4:12–16). We belong in the Church.

The same can also be said cross-culturally. No one needs to leave their culture at the door when they enter the Church. This question was settled in Acts 15 when the apostles decided that Gentile converts did not need to first become Jewish (culturally) in order to be Christian. The gospel cannot ever be expressed without culture (we must use cultural forms like language), but the gospel is not bound to any one culture. The gospel can be fully at home in any culture, so we as gospel-made people can be at home in the Church regardless of our culture.

Missiologist Andrew Walls calls this concept the “Indigenizing Principle.” Throughout history, the Church has made itself a place where people can fully belong.

And yet the Church is also a place to feel like a foreigner. This is what Andrew Walls refers to as the “Pilgrim Principle,” and it stands in tension with the Indigenizing Principle.

While the Church truly is a place to be at home, to fully belong, the Church always calls us to change. We are fully accepted in the Church, yet we are always being called into something deeper. While we are accepted as we are through the gospel, the gospel also transforms us ever more into the image of Christ.

Traveler

This, too, can be viewed cross-culturally. Every culture is equally at home in the Church, yet every culture will be called to some sort of transformation through the Gospel. For example, we can be American and fit fully within the Church. But the Church will call us to lay down some aspects of American culture. The Church, when functioning properly, will always be making us feel like foreigners, like pilgrims, in the midst of our world. Being at home in the Church will always mean being at least slightly out of sync with the world around us.

This tension is real, and we must feel this tension constantly if we are going to life faithfully in the world as the Church. Andrew Walls insists that while the Indigenizing (at-home) Principle and the Pilgrim (out-of-sync) Principle are in tension, we shouldn’t be trying to find a balance between the two, as though we should be less than fully at home in the Church, or only sometimes out of sync with the world around us. We can never have too much of either principle, we can only have too little of one or the other.

The goal is to see the Church as a place where we can be fully at home—fully accepted, fully interconnected—regardless of our past, or our culture, or our personalities. And the goal is also to be constantly challenged by the Church to perpetual growth, to never-ending transformation, to the perpetual renunciation of idols that we have subtly soaked up from our culture. We always need both.

This is the mystery and miracle of the Church. The Church is a place to be part of the family and a place to be a pilgrim. It’s a place that reassures us that who we are is enough while also calling us to be more than we ever thought possible. It’s a place of comfort and belonging to a tired and hurting world, and a prophetic voice calling the world to repentance and change. Nothing in this world can be or do what the Church is and does. And this is why the Church is and always has been indispensible.

Translational Living

Mark Beuving —  October 19, 2015 — Leave a comment

Theologians and missiologists often use an important but difficult-to-understand concept: “incarnational living.” Using terms like “incarnational” sometimes makes important concepts like these unnecessarily difficult, so I want to reframe this concept using terminology that will hopefully be a bit more familiar.

“Incarnational” refers to the “incarnation,” the act in which Jesus took on flesh. (You can think of carne asada, grilled meat, and make the connection that Jesus wrapped himself in meat—a gross visual, but pretty literal). With the birth of Jesus, God was becoming man, the Divine Being was embodying himself—taking the form of humanity—and thereby revealing himself to us in a new way. This is the significant even the author of Hebrews praises at the beginning of his letter:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our father by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1–2).

There is something unique about God speaking not in words, but in the human (and yet still divine) person of his Son! And in this miraculous event we have a powerful model of what it looks like to speak to our world about Jesus. So now, in an effort to make sense of what this would look like, let me switch from “incarnation” language to “translation” language. (And in doing so, I’m adapting some thoughts I gleaned from missiologist Andrew Walls.)

When Jesus lived amongst humanity, his very life was an act of translation. He was Immanuel, God with us, the very presence of God in human form. To look at Jesus is to realize, “This is what God is like.” We can use many words to convey what God would be like in human terms, or we can simply look at Jesus. Jesus was God’s greatest act of translation.

Hebrew BibleIn translating the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek in which it was originally written, translators have to ask which words in the new language (let’s just say English) fit with the words in the original language. And this is extremely difficult. For example, Greek has 3 words for “love,” and English has only one word to carry the meaning of all three words. Plus “love” in English is pretty slippery, covering everything from our “love” for breakfast food to our “love” for God. So translation carries all kinds of dangers and possibilities: We can express truth about God in new and exciting ways, but we also run the risk of mis-expressing something about God.

When God translated himself into human form (in Jesus), the translation was perfect. We look at Jesus and see God precisely as God would look were he to live as a human being in the first-century Greco/Roman/Jewish world (which is precisely what was happening).

So God translated himself in Jesus. But Christianity is a faith that requires constant translation. (This, by the way, is entirely unique. For Muslims, reading the Qur’an in a language other than Arabic is not truly reading the Qur’an. Sometime after Jesus, at least some branches of Judaism decided that a non-Hebrew Torah was not truly a Torah. But the Christian faith has had translation at its heart from the very beginning because the entire faith is grounded in God’s act of translation through Jesus.) That means that we must always be translating Jesus into our own context and for our own neighbors.

Suburban StreetYou and I are, in essence, walking translations of what God has done in Jesus. We stand in the midst of our neighborhoods and workplaces and friend-groups as an embodied statement: “This is what Jesus is like.” And just like translating the Bible, this is an extremely difficult task. It requires continuously deepening knowledge of who God is, thorough familiarity with our culture—including its interests, thought forms, and means of expression—and a commitment to “being Jesus” in a deep sense in every situation.

It has been said that you and I are likely the only Bible our neighbors will ever read. And that’s true, but not in a resigned, I-guess-that-will-have-to-do, sense. It’s actually true by God’s design that our neighbors will learn about him through the translation of our lives. You and I are acts of translation. We are God-made-flesh (not exactly like Jesus, but much like him) in the specific culture, setting, and relationships of our moment and our day.

The point is, be a good translation. Be a living, breathing example of what it looks like to be Jesus in your location in the 21st century. Call it incarnational living, call it translational living, call it whatever. God has something to say to the people he has placed around you, and he wants to say it through the details of your life.

Small Cloud RisingI recently came across Dave Gibbons’ small book, Small Cloud Rising. I know nothing about Dave Gibbons or his ministry aside from the little I gleaned in reading the book, but I’ve been blogging about a “post-consumer” version of the Church, and I want to interact with some of his ideas as a means of continuing that discussion.

Gibbons’ book is clever, thought-provoking, and engaging. The book uses clouds as a metaphor for our approach to “doing church.” Gibbons uses Babel as a symbol for a typical consumeristic church, the kind of church that he had originally set out to create. Babel builds a tower up through the clouds in order to make a name for itself, in order to build an empire. He contrasts this approach of rising through the clouds in greatness with the story of Elijah waiting for rain to end the drought in Israel. The answer to Elijah’s prayer came with a small, barely noticeable cloud on the horizon. Gibbons uses this image of a small cloud to represent God’s people joining together to flow out into the world and bring God’s blessing.

Gibbons says that he had tried to build a grand church around his dream of what a church could do in his town. But he became uneasy with this approach, realizing that it would require the mass-production of church members in a one-size-fits-all pattern.

“Instead of rallying people around the pastor’s dream, I wondered: What if we equipped our people to discover—and live—each person’s God-given destiny?

This is an important question to ask. It’s not wrong for church leaders to have a vision for their churches, but Gibbons’ question pushes us beyond what we might like to see our churches accomplish, and invites us to dream about what the unique people that God has brought around us might accomplish if we equipped them according to their gifts and callings. He continues:

“The effort to build more walls required a one-size-fits-all training manual focused on unleashing the power of the mass. Names are not really necessary for achieving the success of someone else’s dream. In a nameless culture, everyone began to:

Look the same.

Do the same.

Require the same.

Conform to the norm.

It was all the same kind of same in a place without names.”

Gibbons became very concerned about knowing people’s names, knowing their stories and abilities and passions, rather than simply calling them to fall in line with church-created programs designed to mass-produce disciples in a common mold. He confesses that the church had originally functioned this way:

“Instead of knowing their names, we asked them to sign up.”

“Nearly all of our job descriptions engaged projects and programs inside our walls. We asked an entrepreneur to lead a church Bible study and requested an artist to paint crosses in the nursery. Most of our resources went to creating spectacle and precious little into shaping lives. By failing to know and equip our people, one creation at a time, we defrocked them of their priestly roles in the real world. We began to witness mechanically and call that evangelism. Because we looked more and more the same, we branded others because unique people scared us.”

I want to be clear that I don’t know enough about Dave Gibbons or his ministries to know whether or not I would advocate the solution he came up with. But I do find his questions and many of the concepts he wrestles with in Small Cloud Rising compelling. We might find Gibbons’ probing questions threatening, as if he’s saying that all of our hard work in creating programs to minister to people is worthless or harmful or self-focused. But I don’t think we need to take it that way. Instead, I think we should take this as a challenge, and we should push ourselves to dream a little. Don’t start with the logistics, just dream about what could be:

  • What if we could get to know the individual people in our churches?
  • What if we could find those areas in each person’s life where they are unusually gifted and passionate?
  • What if we could find a way to equip each person according to their unique situation?
  • What if we could send people out of our church walls with an understanding of the mission that God has given them and how that fits with their unique talents, passions, and experiences?
  • What if we could resource our people as we sent them out, so that every time they hit a snag in furthering God’s kingdom beyond the church walls, the pastors and the rest of the church body were right there, offering support, creative solutions, and a never-ending supply of encouragement?

The truth is, we can be overly critical of our churches. Our churches are not doing everything wrong. But I love these sorts of challenges. I love calls to dream about what the church could be. I love imaginative suggestions as to how we might embody discipleship in our churches and how that might flow out into the surrounding communities. If we would all engage in this imaginative process more often, we would find it easier to move beyond the consumeristic rut that many of our churches have fallen into.

 

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