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Archive for the ‘Mission’ Category

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The church is Jesus’s body on earth. So we should be continuing Christ’s ministry on earth. Feeding, healing, blessing, lifting up the broken and marginalised. We are his body. Not just preaching at people – that would mean the church is just one big mouth – we need to be Jesus’ hands and feet to go to go to the needy and hungry and broken and care for them. That is the church’s mission.

Is that true?

Well there’s plenty of good sentiment in there about having compassion for the needy and marginalised. As John Piper said at the last Lausanne conference if we don’t care about physical suffering we’ve got defective hearts. We should be like our heavenly Father who sends rain on the just and the unjust and like the Son who blesses even his persecutors (Matt. 5:44-45). I find that very convicting.

But are we right to say that this is the church’s mission? I.e. what we are commissioned to go out into the world to do not just as children of God but as a church? In particular, can we draw this mission stuff out of Paul’s teaching that the church is the body of Christ?

As I’ve looked at the ‘body’ passages over the last week or two I’ve noticed that they have particular purposes:

  • Romans 12:3-8 – Do not be proud. There is diversity and unity. Use your gifts. (Most of the gifts seem to be for use within the church. ‘Ministry’ and ‘mercy’ are probably also within the fellowship given the immediate context (v9-13) but could be outside (v14,20) or both.)
  • 1 Corinthians 6:15-17 – Your bodies are members of Christ. Do not unite with a prostitute.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:17 – Unity in our communion with Christ.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 – There is unity and diversity. Jews and Greeks are one. In your diversity of gifts do not have an inferiority complex. Do not be proud. You are needed by one another within the fellowship (v21-22). There should be care for one another within the fellowship (v25-26). (And in chapter 14 we find that the diversity of gifts/members is for building up the church (14:4-5,12,19,26 cf. 12:7)
  • Ephesians 1:22-23 – The headship of Christ for the church. The exalted position of the church in union with Christ.
  • Ephesians 2:15-16 – Reconciliation with God and with one another – Jews and Gentiles – through the Cross.
  • Ephesians 4:11-16 – The five-fold or four-fold (whichever you prefer) Word-teaching gifts are for equipping the whole church for works of ministry – not ministry out in the world so much as to build up the body of the church (v12). And this building up means not so much numbers but unity in the faith, knowledge of the Son and corporate Christlikeness (v13-15). Each part of the body is to work together to build up the body/church (v16).
  • Ephesians 5:23-32 – Christ saving, loving and nourishing the church.
  • Colossians 1:24-25 – The church suffering as the body of Christ. (cf. Acts 9:4)

The main ways the body picture seems to be used are:

  • Union with Christ, salvation
  • Union with one another, unity in diversity, serving one another and building one another up

I don’t see much mission here. Nothing about being Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Paul could easily have extended the metaphor in that direction but he doesn’t. The only explicit mentions of contact between the body and the outside world are about sin and persecution. When Paul talks about his mission – it’s all about preaching the gospel (Rom. 15:14-21; 1 Cor. 1:17; 9:16; 2 Cor. 4:1-6; 5:20; Col. 1:25-29; 4:3-6). When he talks about us doing mission together he uses metaphors of farming, building, business and warfare (1 Cor. 3:6-15; Phil. 1:5, 27; 2:25; 4:3; 2 Tim. 2:2-6) but not the body. Which is not to say that Christians shouldn’t be involved in alleviating all kinds of physical suffering etc. but it’s a reminder:

  1. that we need to be careful about our categories and vocabulary (esp. ‘mission’) and not press justifications for social action from texts not talking about that;
  2. that we need to look for the purpose of biblical metaphors and be careful not to cut them free of their context and run with them in all directions.

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Blessing

Galatians 3 gives a great definition of the gospel:

8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

Clearly there’s a very important connection between Abraham and blessing and gospel. Now there are various ways you can go from here…

One way is to go back to Genesis 12 and say, look at the blessings Abraham was promised – “I will bless you and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2) – and look at all the physical ways in which he was blessed: “Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (13:2 cf. 24:35). So it’s very simple, the gospel is being blessed with lots of camels.

Or maybe I focus on Gen. 12:3a: “I will bless those who bless you and him who dishonours you I will curse”. You can clearly see this worked out in the life of Abraham (e.g. Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18) and his descendants. So then the gospel is victory over your enemies and favour with the powerful.

Or a slightly different way to go is to focus on “and you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2) or “in you all the nations of the world will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b). This can then become the lens through which we view the whole Bible story – it’s the story of God bringing blessing to the whole world. That’s the gospel and that’s our mission, to partner with God in extending this ever-spreading blessing to the world. And the word ‘blessing’ here often becomes a very broad, flexible, catch-all category – it’s about ‘transformation’, ‘happiness’, ‘shalom’, ‘healing’, ‘redeeming the whole creation’.

The problem with all this is that Galatians has been left behind. Surely the best commentary – the divine, authoritative interpretation of Genesis 12 – is Galatians 3. If we’re not careful we start looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Instead of Galatians 3 being our lens on Genesis 12 (and in fact most of the Torah), Genesis 12 (and not a particularly careful contextual reading of it) becomes our lens (or rather filter) for the whole of the rest of the Bible.

What does Galatians 3 say the blessing of the gospel is?

  • Justification. “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Gal. 3:8) The blessing is being declared righteous. Not by works but purely by faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 2:16). The old sinful nature crucified in Christ’s death and a new life and status in Him (Gal. 2:20-21). And Abraham is the great example for us – because of his wealth? because of his victory over enemies? because of his obedience? No – because “he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6). In an earth-shaking statement for a Jew, Paul continues: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Justification by faith.
  • In Christ. In Galatians 3:10-14 Paul turns to Deuteronomy and Leviticus, showing their fulfilment in Christ taking (in fact: becoming) the curse of the Law on the Cross. “So that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (Gal. 3:14). The promised Abrahamic blessing is found in Christ. It is not so much something given to us by Christ, an object external to him, a package of benefits that you get when you sign up to Christ – No – it’s about being found righteous and uncondemned in Him; it is about being blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms.
  • Sons of God. “For in Christ you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ… and if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal. 3:26-29) These verses join up a lot of stuff: justification through faith, Abrahamic promise and Sonship. The premier blessing received through faith, the premier blessing in Christ, is to be sons of God, adoption. The blessing in Christ is to be in Christ. With the same status as Christ. With the same love from the Father as Christ. These are unbelievable things to say. As sons we are heirs to the Abrahamic inheritance (3:29; 4:1,30) – that is the inheritance of the kingdom of God (5:20) – but that is for the future (note: ‘will inherit’). The blessing for now (and eternity) is to be called children of God, one with Christ, participating in the Godhead, filled with the Spirit who calls out “Abba”.

A couple of things that flow from this:

  1. The prosperity gospel is onto something very important. It is wrong to fix on physical blessings as the main thing. And it fails to read Scripture as all about Christ. But it is  absolutely right to insist that the gospel is blessing. The good news is actually good news. In our concern to avoid the prosperity gospel and stick to the ‘old gospel’ we can end up saying, “Look, you don’t want to go to hell do you? So believe in Jesus and you won’t go there. Following him is going to be really hard and you might have to stop doing lots of fun stuff but at least you won’t go to the hot place when you die.” I caricature. But there is a real danger that we actually buy the devil’s ancient lie that God is not really good, the world is good, sin is fun, God might be necessary but he’s not really that great to be around. So you might as well wait till your death bed to convert. That’s a lie. Jesus is really really good. The gospel is about blessing – the sweetness of complete forgiveness, being saved by Jesus and united to him, being utterly known and utterly loved as God’s children.
  2. Mission is not about bringing some vague blessing to the world. If we are New Testament believers, it is about bringing the gospel of Jesus to the world – the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. This will in turn lead to a lot of transformation on every level of society, but the cutting edge of mission is the proclamation to fellow sinners of Christ crucified.

Discuss…

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Covered all sorts of stuff today. Praise God for teachable humble engagement with the Word. The theme that seemed to emerge through the day was about our wretchedness and Christ’s wonderful salvation.

“Daily I abhor my sin. Daily I adore my Saviour.” (John Stott)

“I remember that this: that I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.” (John Newton)

In the morning Bible studies we were encouraged by Paul’s Christian experience in Romans 7: “Wretched man that I am! …Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord”. Then in Isaiah 6 we saw the prophet having a similar experience: “Woe is me!” (cf. the 6 woes in the previous chapter) as he see the Lord (Jesus) high and lifted up (cf. John 12) in the place of atonement.

In Job 2:11-3:26 we saw the wretchedness of Job – this time not a wretchedness from guilt but suffering as the blameless servant of God – an honest window into the dark night of the soul and ultimately a picture of Christ in Gethsemane with his useless comforters, of Christ on the Cross, enduring the forsakenness, the hopelessness of hell, suffering worse than death.

Christine introduced Augustine in 30 minutes and it came out clearly that most of the heresies the great pastor-theologian fought (Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism) had an insufficient appreciation of human (and Christian) sinfulness (and there are certainly assumptions in that direction in our Kenyan context). Augustine, through his reading of the Scriptures and his own experience knew the true wretchedness of the human condition.

Then Harrison led the most meaty session of the day as we grappled with the doctrine of salvation, especially from Ephesians 2, seeing again the wretchedness of our natural state and the wonder of our sovereign deliverance in Christ – from hell to heaven. (Harrison’s paper on the doctrine of salvation written when he was an apprentice himself in 2006 is here).

After a Jinsi Ya on Interview Preparation Skills, Sammy gave us some very helpful guidance on being Steadfast in the workplace.

Finally we looked again at Ephesians and found that Paul’s mission was…

  • simply “preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8);
  • inextricably linked with the Church – the spectacular wisdom of God, the body of Christ, the unity of Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 3:10);
  • inextricably linked with suffering (Eph. 3:1, 13).

Pray for today (Wednesday):

  • That these doctrines would not puff us up but do their real job of completely humbling us and turning us to rejoice in Jesus.
  • For James Wainaina, myself and others speaking on Pastoral Ministry, Shaping a Sermon and lessons from Luther and from the East African Revival.
  • That the apprentices would be seeing things for themselves from the Word.
  • That there would be plenty of relaxation and fun too (we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously!)

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target diagram

The ‘target diagram’ has been a staple of evangelical wisdom for a long time. It is a pattern of priorities – Jesus first, then marriage, then children, then work – and it’s a model of healthy Christian living – my relationship with Jesus overflows into my relationship with my wife; our marriage relationship overflows into our parenting; our family life overflows into our work. If the core is healthy then so are the outer layers and the opposite is true.

Recently the target diagram has been criticised recently in some quarters – and certainly it shouldn’t be taken as a simple formula for making every decision – but basically it holds up as a very helpful model. For one thing it closely resembles the way Paul orders his letter to the Ephesians – first Jesus and the church (Eph. 1:1-5:21), then wives and husbands (Eph. 5:22-33), then children and parents (Eph. 6:1-4), then slaves and masters (Eph. 6:5-9).

Even more significant than just the order in which Paul deals with these things in his letter are the differences between the permanence, commitment and nature of the different relationships which form a sort of hierarchy:

  1. Jesus & The Church – The relationship between the church and Christ is eternal and indestructible. We have been chosen in Christ before creation. In his death he has destroyed all dividing walls, uniting us to himself, to God and to one another. The ‘calling’ in Ephesians (4:1) is simply this calling of the gospel. One of the main arguments of Ephesians is that the Christ-Church union is the great reality that will one day fill the universe. So this Christ relationship is the central, unbreakable one and it is not just about solo quiet times it’s about being part of the church united together to him. There is no higher or more lasting ‘belonging’ than this.
  2. Marriage – The relationship between husbands and wives, unlike that between Christ and the church, is temporary. We all start life unmarried, it is dissolvable by the death of one member and there will be no marriage in heaven or the New Creation. Some Christians will not get married at all. Unlike the Christ-union it is not essential to be a fully whole human being and child of God. However, it is next in rank to the Christ-Church union for the very reason that it is modelled on it (Eph. 5:32). It is to be absolutely faithful, exclusive, complete commitment, full of whole-life-laying-down love, oneness.
  3. Children – Parenting is also a temporary thing. It begins at the birth of a child (or adoption) and is ended by death. In fact the intensive responsibility of ‘discipline’ and ‘instruction’ lasts only while the child is a relatively young child (though of course there is an on-going dimension to parenting). Parenthood is not essential to a marriage in the sense that a marriage is still a valid whole and complete marriage before, after, and in the absence of children. Furthermore, the child-parent relationship doesn’t have the oneness of marriage. However, it is a tremendously important unconditional commitment of love-obedience, a great privilege and joy, modelled on the relationship between Father and Son in the Godhead, never to be abandoned.
  4. Work – Last of all comes work. Noble though it is. God-like and God-given as it is. Essential though it is for those who can to work hard and provide for their families and serve others. Work is for a season of life – we don’t expect babies and the elderly to work. It can also be prevented by illness or disability. And it is for only part of each day, part of each week, part of each year. It is taken up and laid down. It is not essential to our identity. It is not our ‘calling’. We are to work at whatever we are doing (whether church work or cleaning or carpentry) with all our hearts, loyally, lovingly but unlike Christ, the church, marriage and parenthood, it is permissible to walk away from a job (1 Cor. 7:22).

There are obviously a lot of implications that flow from this in terms of ministry, mission, family life. One that was noted by a commenter on this blog a while ago:

One high-profile church leader I knew used to say to his wife, ‘If you feel I am not looking after you because of my ministry, I will hand in my notice.’ Others I know neglect their wives (in my opinion) because they have a ‘calling’ from God to a specific ministry, and all else must be sacrificed for that. Which is right?

What do you think? What other challenges are there for us in our context and cultures? If we were to draw the diagram in terms of our actual priorities and level of commitment, how would it look?

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I’ve been loving the parable of the sower and sharing it in a few contexts recently. My excitement was really sparked by Michael McClenahan’s brilliant talk at the John Owen Centre’s ‘Adam in the Bible, the Church and the World’ conference last year (all the stuff there is well worth downloading). If you listen to McClenahan’s talk there you can see how much I stole from him for this sermon (edited down version of talk given in Chelmsford):

I expanded this stuff on Matthew 13:1-23 for a session on mission at Cornhill Northern Ireland a couple of weeks ago. Here’s the outline:

Bookends of Matthew: 1:3, 5, 6 (nations); 2:11-12 (nations worship); 28:16-20 (worship, all nations); “Mission exists because worship doesn’t.” (Piper, Let the Nations be Glad)

Question: How is Matthew 13:1-23 normally taught in your context?

The focus is not on the soils but on the Sower – a) 13:37, b) 13:16-17 (cf. 12:41-42), c) the parable is an answer to ch. 12:14,24; d) the pattern of Adam/New Adam

  1. The importance of the Doctrine of GodWhat sort of God do you see in Matthew 13:1-9? (One brilliant answer from one of the Cornhill guys – “A God who gets his feet dirty”).
    1. Common mission motivation techniques: Whip them or whip them up.  Best motivation is knowing a gospel-shaped God – revealed only and fully by Jesus (e.g. Matt. 11:27).
    2. If we take the concept of ‘God’ for granted, Christians and even whole churches can easily inadvertently be worshipping Baal (the distant, hard to please, amoral, prosperity god).
    3. In evangelism to unreached people groups and in Bible translation there is the whole question of whether to take the people’s vernacular word for the supreme deity / sky God and try to redefine it, or whether it is safest to introduce a new, unknown God. Whichever way, it needs to be clear that the people have not been worshipping Yahweh in ignorance but have been worshipping false gods, demons and idols from which they need to repent. (I know this a contentious point – maybe we could take it up on this blog.)
    4. In reaching muslims, we are not trying to convince them that Jesus is Allah but that God is Jesus.
  2. The importance of sovereignty, history and heart
    1. Sovereign grace – (Matt. 13:11-13, 16; 12:25) – In the East African context, partly through the influence of pentecostalism with its roots in the holiness movement and partly through the influence of the East African Revival with its roots in 1960s Keswick theology, there is a strong emphasis on total consecration, making a decision, committing your life to Christ, giving your life to Christ. There is far more emphasis on me and my choice than on God and his choice of me. A greater emphasis on sovereign grace – you were blind and God opened your eyes, you were dead and he raised you to life – is a humbling but freeing gospel that would lead to much greater assurance and focus on Christ.
    2. History – (Matt. 13:14) — The parable of the sower is first and foremost about a particular historical situation: as Jesus walks around Israel the Pharisees and teachers of the Law have massively rejected him; vast crowds follow but their faith is shallow and they will quickly fall away; there is some good soil – in particularly the apostles (13:11). The parable is not so much timeless principles as about what is happening in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. When the gospel becomes a now-focussed message of personal transformation, we need to recover the historical gospel.
    3. Heart. Humans are passion-driven. Heart leads to behaviour (Matt. 12:34; 15:18-19). The order in 13:14-15 seems to go heart then mind/understanding then repentance/behaviour. The heart is responsive and is drawn to what it sees as valuable, what excites (Matt. 6:21, 24; 13:16-17, 22). Implications for mission:
      1. Emotion, feeling not a bad thing – answer is not less emotion but get emotional about right thing.
      2. Remember you are always preaching to the heart, whether you know it or not – that is entry point into the human person (Matt. 13:19). What we need to do is present Jesus as incredibly valuable and good, so hearts are captured by Him. Richard Sibbes: “woo for Christ, and open the riches, beauty, honour, and all that is lovely in him.”
  3. The importance of the WordMatt. 13:19-23. The Word does the work. A few implications for mission:
    1. It’s the “Word of the kingdom” (v19). Kingdom is a massive theme in Matthew but what is kingdom all about? Compare 13:11, 13:16-17 and 12:42 – the ‘secrets’, the ‘something’ can only be the ‘greater Solomon’ – the KING. So we mustn’t separate ‘kingdom mission’ from ‘gospel mission’ – they are the same thing – preaching the gospel of the King of Grace (e.g. Matt. 18:23-27). (Again – I know this is a contentious point.)
    2. Jesus’ mission strategy is God’s word to God’s World – and that continues to be his strategy in Acts and today. Obvious but worth underlining because it is rare on the mission field. Not many mission societies are completely focused on this. So easy to be distracted.
    3. The ‘mile wide inch deep thing’ is a bit misleading.
    4. Not only in evangelism but also in discipleship (for those who already have open eyes and ears) let’s preach the gospel – Jesus – union with him, the Cross, the great exchange, being clothed in him, adopted…

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At the August ‘First Priority’ prayer meeting we read 2 Chronicles 18 – the gripping story of the faithful prophet, out-numbered 400 to 1, standing before the kings of Israel and Judah. Harrison provoked us to think through a number of questions:

  1. Why are we seeking the Lord’s will?  Jehoshaphat has just led a greater revival than his father Asa (2 Chron. 17) but now he’s throwing in his lot with the terrible apostate king of Israel Ahab (2 Chron. 18:1-3). Unlike the northern king, Jehoshaphat is still concerned to “Enquire first for the word of the Lord” (v4).  But why?  Is he really willing to obey it?  It turns out later that he is not (v28).  Are we looking to God’s Word to rubber stamp what we already think and want?  How different are we from Ahab who’s main concern is for someone to tell him something good about himself (v7)?
  2. Who is our master?  For the 400 prophets it’s pretty clear who’s the boss – the king – their pay master general.  For Micaiah it’s also clear – “As the Lord lives, what my God says, that I will speak” (v13).  What about for us?  Who are we ultimately trying to please – our mentor/supervisor/senior pastor/bishop, our congregation (what their itching ears want to hear), ourselves, or “the Lord sitting on his throne” (v18)?
  3. Are we more concerned for passion or for truth?  Zedekiah ben Chenaanah has a very powerful message. He ‘goes symbolic’, he declares “Thus says the Lord”, what he says is followed by multiple ‘confirming words’ (v10-11)… but it is just hot air.  What do we mean when we say that a sermon was “powerful”?  Do we want preaching that blows the roof off and sends us out pumped up to take on Ramoth-gilead or do we want the truth?
  4. Are we willing to be unpopular?  The 400 prophets have strength in numbers and the favour with those at the top of society.  Micaiah is pressurised (v12), slapped in the face (v23) and imprisoned (v26). The same happens to Jesus and then Paul and then to thousands of those who have preached the pure Word of God through the ages.  Much as we pray and work with all His energy for a revival of faithful Bible teaching we had better get used to the fact there will always be great resistance and very rarely will faithful prophets be in the majority.
  5. Are we under judgment?  When we look ‘behind the scenes’ and see why the 400 prophets are united in false prophecy (v18-22) we have to face the possibility that a rise in false teaching may be a judgment from God. Praise God that even in judgment he remembers mercy and has his true prophet in place (v7), responds to the desperate cry of the Davidic king (v31), preserves a remnant (1 Kings 19:18) and soon brings a new revival (2 Chron. 19-20).
  6. What kind of message do we have?  At first sight (or hearing) the message of the 400 prophets sounds like good news (v5-11) while Micaiah’s message sounds like bad news (v16-22).  We might start thinking, “So the prosperity gospel preachers have got all the good news and we just have bad news to tell people?” But look closer and follow where it leads and you find a different story. The message of the false prophets is, “You strive and God will give you victory” – and it leads to destruction (v34). The message of the true prophet is, “God is desperately concerned for his sheep and their shepherd who are heading for disaster and he’s graciously giving you this warning ahead of time” (v16) – all you have to do is believe this message and sit still and you will live. The words of the false prophets tie on heavy burdens and make empty promises.  But the faithful preacher has the words of eternal life, the voice of the Good Shepherd, grace and safety – words that sting at first and cut down pride but only to heal us and free us and lift us up to the throne of grace.

At the same ‘First Priority’ we looked at the country of Germany – where the Reformation began 500 years ago. We could see various parallels between Micaiah ben Imlah and Martin Luther.  Both massively out-numbered – almost lone voices preaching the truth in the midst of thoroughly corrupted and twisted religion. Both preached the inability of man and the sovereignty and love of God.  Both hauled up before the authorities (having been lent on very heavily to just go along with the official Church view).  Both declared their consciences bound to the Word of God.  And both suffered for their stand. 

Latest estimates suggest that in Berlin today only 0.1% of the population are evangelical Christians.  There is great need of a new revival, a rediscovery of the power of the Word of God, the beauty of Jesus, the good news of grace alone, justification in Christ.

  • For a good brief profile of the German mission context see here.
  • For more prayer resources on Germany see here.
  • For an example of mission from Kenya to Germany see here and here.

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Loots Lambrechts recently raised the issue of the orality movement.  Here are a few thoughts but please add your own below, particularly if you have experience in this area. I’m very aware of how little I have…

A few things are clearly true:

  • around 5% of the world’s population is illiterate;
  • perhaps 70% of the world population are functionally illiterate or at least much happier with oral than written/read communication;
  • it is vitally important that unreached oral people groups hear the gospel;
  • missionaries must seek to lay down their cultural preferences and to accommodate their communication style so that God’s Word can be heard clearly.

The question is whether ‘storying’ – that is selecting a number of Bible stories, crafting them to be heard well within a particular oral culture, and then telling or performing them (often in chronological sequence, i.e from Genesis onward) such that they can be reproduced and passed on – whether that is the best or only way to evangelise and disciple oral learners.

It must be said at this point that the orality / storying movement is diverse and often much more nuanced than its attackers allow. I’ll interact below mainly with the seminal Lausanne 2004 paper ‘Making Disciples of Oral Learners’ (called ‘MDOL’ below). The document is clearly full of a heart for Christ and the lost and full of good stuff. To dispel a few myths:

  • MDOL is not against propositional truth statements (as some in the ‘emerging church’ are): “propositional beliefs are generated by and reflected in the core stories.”
  • They talk of ‘crafting’ stories to be ‘sensitive to worldview’ but they seem to mean this mainly in terms of the communication form and style because they also talk about the importance of overturning untrue worldviews. There is an explicit and recurrent concern to counter syncretism and to check the oral Bible stories “to ensure biblical accuracy’”.
  • Furthermore they don’t want to downgrade the importance of literacy and Bible translation: “We wish all peoples had the written translation of the Scripture in their heart language… A Bible translation program that begins with the oral presentation of the Bible through storying and continues with a translation and literacy program is the most comprehensive strategy for communicating the word of God in their heart language… We do not want our call for oral approaches to be seen as setting oral and literate approaches in opposition to one another. It is not a matter of “either-or,” but “both-and.”

Some strengths of the movement

  • The great thing about the orality movement is the concern to convey the gospel and the Word of God as the chronological Bible story of God’s redemption work. There is huge power in this. I know a brother and his wife in Dar es Salaam who have welcomed many Muslim ‘Nicodemus’s into their home at night for 1-to-1 chronological Bible reading – going through the key Bible stories in about a dozen sessions – often leading to faith in the true God of Abraham.  And it is very helpful even in nominally Christian contexts.  Instead of many gospel outlines that are simply four or five abstract propositions to grasp and which give an individual-centred “How to save my soul” version of the gospel (which can easily lead to a “Ticket to heaven in my pocket” understanding of Christianity), the story method wants people to be gripped and changed by God’s story.  Rather than putting me or my problems or my behaviour at the centre it says, “Just listen to the story of God.”  Instead of confronting behaviour or beliefs it strikes at the deeper level of worldview.  This surely is the key not only for evangelism but also for discipleship – getting the Bible story deeper and deeper into us till it flows through our bloodstream.
  • It is quite evident that the apostles and early church did not always open and directly expound the Scriptures in the course of evangelism – they very often do (Acts 2:14-36; 17:2; 28:23) but not always (Acts 10:36-43; 17:22-31). Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 and Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 quote some Scripture but also retell Bible stories in a rather free way. When you look at the way the NT authors quote the OT there’s often a certain freedom or paraphrasing going on (e.g. Matt. 2:23). John Dickson surely gives good advice when he recommends ‘gospel bites’ – responding to questions or challenges from non-Christians with a story about Jesus (e.g. sharing the story of the thief on the cross with someone who thinks Christianity is all about keeping the rules).

A few comments and questions

  1. The Bible is already oral.  One of the big aims of the orality movement is to select between 100 and 200 Bible stories, rework them to make them more easily heard by the particular oral community and then compile them into an ‘oral Bible’.  This has the advantage of standardisation and stability – i.e. the stories don’t gradually change out of all recognition. But I think I’d want to say that the whole Bible is already an oral work for oral cultures.  Very large chunks (e.g. much of the Prophets, Deut., Jesus’ discourses) were originally spoken and only later written. The vast majority of the Bible is in forms usually thought of as ‘oral’ – narrative, proverb, song, poetry. The Scriptures are designed to be read out loud – think of the commands at Deut. 31:11-13 and 2 Tim. 3:13, the all-age Bible reading at Nehemiah 8, the instructions to read out the NT epistles (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; Rev. 1:3).  Increasingly, Bible commentators are recognising how many of the ‘literary’ features of the Bible – the repetitions, recapitulations, bookends, summaries, word plays, spiral or numbered structures – are oral features – designed to help the ear and the memory of an oral listener rather than the eye of a silent reader (even private reading in the ancient world would have been out loud – e.g. Acts 8:30). So it is questionable whether the Bible needs much re-working or ‘crafting’ to be heard in an oral culture.  While oral cultures obviously differ, they have much in common.  A friend working on Bible translation in Mozambique finds that the oral culture there is far better at hearing the Bible narratives and understanding the implicit message than Western culture. Other friends in Kenya, working with oral learners, are preparing discipleship materials using relatively short Bible stories with hardly any modification and finding that they are both meaningful to those hearing and ‘reproducible’ – i.e. can be memorised and retold – a key aim of the orality movement.  In fact the extent of allusion and free quotation throughout the Bible and the degree to which phrases from the Bible have entered into the English language is testimony to how memorable (‘reproducible’) this book is. A brother reminded me recently that we need to have more confidence in the clarity and power of God’s Word on its own – it is often fine just to read the Bible in church and let it speak for itself – to be devoted to the public reading of Scripture (but that’s a whole issue for another post).
  2. Is the orality movement a challenge to expository preaching or a critique of bad preaching?  “Literate approaches rely on lists, outlines, word studies, apologetics and theological jargon… They use the printed page or expositional, analytical and logical presentations of God’s word…  Instead of using outlines, lists, steps and principles… oral learners “enter” the story and as they absorb sensory data they live the story in the present tense — seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling what the persons in the story are experiencing” (MDOL).  This seems to be a critique of the sort of preaching that reduces every story to three propositions (I fear that I have done that twice just in the last week!), that is Western-individualistic (just about relaying information to an individual), and is ‘bookish’ (heavy on jargon, boring historical detail, pretentious discussions of the Greek and Hebrew, abstract argument). But that is simply not good expository preaching. Let’s get away from this idea that expository preaching is a style – a wazungu, 3 point, academic form.  Hapana! Expository preaching is simply preaching that is driven by the text. If the text is a gripping story then faithfully preaching that text will mean re-telling it in a way that brings out all the twists and turns – that does let the hearer “enter into” the story and live it and feel the tension and emotions.  Expository preaching should be relational and corporate and concrete.  It should never be about steps and principles (I’ll leave that rant for another post too!) and using jargon is inexcusable (I realise I’ve probably done it a dozen times in this article) – we need to crucify our style. The text gives us the content but as for style we can jump up and down or shout or sing or whatever comes naturally to us and (more importantly) will get the message across to the hearers.  Which leads me to another question…
  3. Is what the orality movement means by ‘storying’ not quite similar to good expository preaching just leaving out the primary text?  When I read stories in MDOL of pastors and missionaries taking on the role of village storyteller and communicating the Bible stories as vividly as possible with great sensitivity to the ears of the hearers – it sounds to me like the very best sort of narrative expository preaching. Isn’t that what happens in Nehemiah 8 – “the Levites helped the people understand… they gave the meaning” (v7-8). The only difference is that with storying you don’t have the opening of the Bible and reading it clearly (Neh. 8:3,5,8). As mentioned above, maybe that’s fine in first-contact evangelism but there are dangers if it becomes the regular pattern of a ministry or a church. Where is the authority? With the speaker or with God’s Word? How can you have Bereans checking out the message (Acts 17:11) if you haven’t first been reasoning from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2)? Is there a danger of a Medieval church where only the priest (or the pope) is allowed to handle the original Biblical text while the masses must rely on the reworked message that is served up to them? The issue here is that a reworked/crafted Bible story is not “pure”, free of “interpretative baggage” (MDOL) – it is an interpretation or exposition of the original text in the same way as a sermon (hence my point – aren’t they basically the same thing?). When you retell a story you are making interpretative decisions about what you think the emphasis is, what it’s teaching, how it fits into the big Bible story.  Anyone who has compared a few different children’s Bibles knows that it makes a big difference how you retell the story (is the feeding of the 5000 all about the little boy sharing his lunch?).  MDOL insists that the recrafted story should be carefully checked to ensure “accuracy” but who does this checking? Presumably an ‘expert’.  As mentioned above, MDOL does talk about bringing in Bible translation and literacy work after initial evangelism but as it talks later on about the value of oral Bibles in discipleship an leadership and discusses the increasing functional illiteracy in the West there is a bit of ambivalence on the question of whether bringing people to the text of the Bible itself and helping them read it for themselves is a priority.

I’ve got a bit more to say but this is already far too long so I’ll stop now.  Over to you – what do you think? Very open to correction and really appreciate any feedback on this…

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