XSI in Review

Last week over 50 from our fellowship made the annual sojourn to their Mecca in Columbus for the Xenos Summer Institute. With an impressive line-up of speakers ranging from professors to practitioners and the timely topic of being “True to the Word, True to our Mission,” the 2008 conference promised to deal with the tensions of being biblically faithful and culturally relevant in our postmodern world.

Dennis McCallum, about 20 years ago

The first night Dennis McCallum delivered sobering statistics about the American church’s failure to get the job of reconciliation done. He left the audience with several keys to victory: forsaking political agitation which comes to be identified with Christianity, abandoning legalism which is both unbiblical and unattractive, making real friendships with non-Christians, unapologetically preaching the Word, and making disciples via real engagement with people’s lives. “It’s not a popularity contest,” he concluded about church growth.

Next up was Mark Driscoll, the ex-emergent “swearing pastor” of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Most of NeoXenos sat right next to where he stood offstage.

“Oh my God! It’s him!” Mike Huddock squealed like a teenage girl at a Backstreet Boys concert.

Passionate Pastor Mark Driscoll

Driscoll did not disappoint. His edgy teaching, sprinkled with sarcasm and pop-culture-filled rants, described missional ministry, a precursor to evangelism in which we get a read on the culture. Working from Acts 17, he laid out four principles of missionary ministry: Go, See, Feel, Do. Rather than outline the somewhat rudimentary concepts, I will highlight his most insightful ideas. Driscoll argued for the strategic importance of doing church in cities, as that’s where culture is made. Usefully, he referred to idols as “functional saviors,” stating that “behind every idol is a need for the gospel.” He followed with a list of soul-convicting questions to unveil our personal idols and emphasized repentance as vital to the gospel. He argued for seeking to reach Jesus needs rather than felt needs. And he used the illustration of wielding a closed hand for the big issues we’re willing to contend for, and maintaining an open hand for showing how the gospel is relevant through contextualization.

The next morning’s sessions could have been titled “Emerging Church 101” as Driscoll and D.A. Carson both delivered their assessment of the emerging church. In short, evangelicals agree with emergents that there has been a transition toward pluralism and that we need to assume a missionary posture in our home culture, but we disagree about the changes we should make. Emergents are open to changing their message and methods, while evangelicals will only move on the latter. In short, emergents are mainly ex-fundies who, disenchanted with the legalism and consumerism of the traditional church, are creating their own structure of pick-and-choose spirituality. “Same whore, new dress,” Driscoll described their reworked consumerism. Driscoll ended with a call to humility and repentance regarding the truth in emegents’ critiques.

D.A. Carson, My Hero

Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, followed with revisions to his Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church and a call to “be faithful to what the Bible says are ‘matters of first importance.’” His most valuable point, which coincides with our desire for a grace awakening, was to be careful what we’re passionate about, because that’s what people learn. “If you assume the gospel but become passionate about apologetics of cultural sensitivity,” Carson says, we’re in trouble. He left with a challenge to study the word gospel throughout the New Testament to regain a thoroughly biblical understanding of the familiar term.

In the well-attended breakout session “Emergent Meets Evangelical Dialogue,” Dennis McCallum conversed with two people from the Central Ohio Emergent Cohort. The session was frustrating because of the guests’ ambiguity, but it is perhaps the best way to understand the nature and dangers of the movement. Their conversation is built on false dichotomies: between omniscience and any capacity to know, between theology and praxis, between truth and experience. This last was most effectively refuted in Carson’s plenary session Thursday night.

Listen to Carson’s “Biblical Reflection on Truth and Experience.” Take notes. Listen to it again. It is at once intellectually demanding, hermeneutically rigorous, and substantially practical. He takes the audience from Hebrew poetic parallelism through a seventh-grade gum-chewing reprimand to the ethical-ontological paradoxes of 1 John. He acknowledges the cultural baggage we bring to a text, one of postmodernism’s best points, and looks to genre as a key to unlocking meaning in the Bible. In the polarities of wisdom literature we can see the absolutism of God’s nature (truth), while in narratives we are reminded of both our brokenness and usefulness to God (experience).

Scott Arnold, who leads an urban sphere in Xenos, followed with content that pierced the heart of the emergent’s complaint that evangelicals don’t practice the gospel by caring for the poor. His teaching was mostly descriptive and historical, but provided a valuable context to Gary DeLashmutt’s closing address Friday night.

Mark Mittelberg

Mark Mittelberg, co-author of Becoming a Contagious Christian and author of Choosing Your Faith, offered useful categories for understanding how people choose a worldview and strategies for reaching them. In his second session, he laid out eight basic beliefs we should operate from in evangelism. He illustrated with the classic Bridge to Life drawing, but added a cultural chasm, among other elements. The teaching was solid and served as a good reminder of familiar fare for Xenoids.

A dated picture of Gary DeLashumutt

DeLashmutt closed the conference with a dynamic call to “Adorning the Gospel.” He dubbed the emergent church the “unpaid bill” of evangelicals in reference to social engagement, and confessed the discovery that Xenos does not have a good reputation in many communities. Then he followed the theme of good deeds throughout Titus, with Titus 3:14 as the key verse: “Our people must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful.” His balanced handling showed good deeds affect the spread of the gospel as they enhance the attractiveness of its message, just as cosmetics draw attention to natural beauty. His practical suggestions should be considered by each of us as we seek to be faithful to God’s Word and fruitful in ministry.

In conclusion, the resolution to being culturally relevant without compromise was the same in every teaching: the gospel is still relevant. God’s Word is always true and always powerful. Thoughtful communication and compassion demonstrated in good deeds can portray God’s love to people at odds with truth, and God honors biblical faithfulness. As Dennis pointed out, “church is not a popularity contest,” so thankfully Christ promised: “I will build my church.”

Why I Can’t Wait for the XSI

Since we’ve established that we should go to the Xenos Summer Institute after all, let’s get informed, too. The topic is being culturally relevant in an age when claiming the Bible’s authority seems the greatest sin of all. And D. A. Carson, who teaches theology at Trinity Evangelical School, should offer biblical, intellectual, and workable ideas on how we can be “True to the Word, True to our Mission.”

If you haven’t yet read Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, you should. Even if you’ve never heard of the emerging/emergent church movement, or you’ve never personally encountered it, this book is a worthwhile read for any thinking Christian. Carson articulates postmodernism’s strengths, weaknesses, and permutations with his usual impressive yet accessible prose, and also communicates the emerging church’s evaluation of and response to our culture.

In essence, the emerging church seeks to reach postmoderns by abandoning the institutional church, seeking authenticity through service and integrity, and questioning the Enlightenment’s tradition of epistemology (how we know things). None of that sounds too bad on the surface, which is why disenchanted fundies devour the clever writings of McLaren, Miller, et al like donuts in the fellowship hall. The danger lies between the lines of their manipulative language, where they effectually deny biblical truth, or at least our ability to know it, and question the exclusivity of the gospel’s promises.

From the title on, Carson shows a subtle and balanced understanding of both our culture and the emerging church, the leaders of which prefer to call their movement a “conversation.” For those of us who don’t have time to study the growing body of emerging literature ourselves (although I think I will read at least one of McLaren’s books), Carson offers a sampling of quotations and arguments from the emergents, along with his analysis. I don’t wish to outline his book here, but I want to share what is perhaps the most helpful point for dealing with postmodernism and the emerging church:

“So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? . . . Love or integrity? Study or service? Evangelism or discipleship? . . . Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate false idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Postmodernists rightly observes that we are inevitably products of our culture (a truism in itself), which means we have different perspectives and experiences that restrict our ability to know truth. The soft postmodernist may leave the discussion there, and I would agree. But the hard postmodernist presses further to argue that because our viewpoints are culturally determined and we are finite beings, we cannot know objective truth. Carson points out that while we cannot know perfectly, completely, i.e. omnisciently, we can know something of reality. We can asymptotically approximate knowledge of the truth in many matters. And this is the false antithesis hard postmodernism asserts and the emerging church tends to buy. It’s all or nothing when it comes to the truth, and since knowing all is obviously impossible, we are left with nothing.

I think this book is especially valuable for those entering college as they are about to confront postmodernism in a more philosophical and pervasive way than ever before, and will probably meet with all sorts of biblically shifty campus churches and ministries, too. It’s one of Carson’s shorter works at just over two hundred pages, and he is careful to explain theological and philosophical terms he uses. So check it out and join the conversation.

Should We Skip the XSI?

While reading a very good article in Christianity Today, I was shocked by a statement from the renowned William Lane Craig: “The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth.”

“What?!” I thought as I read on. After all, William Lane Craig is no schmuck. He’s a professor of philosophy alongside J.P. Moreland (see Joel’s most recent blog) at Biola University. In the dialogue with the “new atheists” he is one of the chief defenders of our faith. To his collection of well-respected books he recently added Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.

So is postmodernism “a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture” as he claims? Had I, along with fellow Christian thinkers, been misreading the culture for years? I considered myself lucky to have learned about the pitfalls of postmodernism my freshman year of college, which allowed me to survive an English education degree (two very affected fields) without becoming another brain-washed, politically correct, inanely tolerant convert.

Unsettled, I knew I needed to think through his reasoning. With the Xenos Summer Institute just weeks away the question was especially important. The conference’s theme “True to the Word, True to our Mission” points to the challenge of being relevant in today’s culture. But the keynote speakers respond to a postmodern culture. Meanwhile Craig’s article, “God is Not Dead Yet,” claims that “we live in a culture that remains deeply modernist.” If this is so, the XSI will be a waste of time this year.

A closer look at Craig’s argument reveals that postmodernism is not dead yet, either. His first point is that a postmodern culture is impossible because people are not relativistic in matters of science, engineering and technology. They are only relativistic when it comes to religion and ethics, which was true of modernism as well. I think he made several mistakes already:

First, under modernism, people didn’t play the picky-choosy, mix-and-match game about religion and ethics that we see today. It was a question of epistemology, how we know things: “Is there hard evidence that undeniably proves the existence of God?” a hard-core modernist would ask. If not, they would choose not to believe, not because they preferred it, but because they believed it was unilaterally untrue. If they disagreed with someone they didn’t take the stance of “whatever you believe is true for you.” Their position would be “you’re wrong,” whether expressed gently or viciously.

Second, Craig oversimplifies by creating a seemingly all-inclusive dichotomy between math/science and religion/ethics. He doesn’t acknowledge the man other affected fields, including social sciences such education, psychology, sociology, and linguistics, as well as humanities like history, literature, and art. Relativism has infiltrated fields where it was never seen before. For example, education is largely postmodern, which means the way kids learn math and science have changed. The current god of the education world, Howard Gardner, was quoted as saying that the laws of physics, like gravity, aren’t true until the individual experiences and understands them. Would-be English teachers are taught that all interpretations of a text are equally valid, or least somewhat valid. Which means The Cat in the Hat could be about abortion.

Third, as Neil pointed out, science isn’t so objective anymore. This was true in modernism, too, since the theory of evolution isn’t nearly as evidence-based as our biology books would have us believe. It’s actually quite lacking in evidence and requires more faith, i.e., “this is what I want to believe,” than believing in God.

Craig’s next big reason is that the new atheists, such as Dawkins, take a modernist approach. If this is a postmodern culture, he reasons, their literature would have fallen on deaf ears. He’s right that Dawkins comes from a modernist perspective, which isn’t surprising because he’s old; he’s from the modernist generation. And regardless of the culture, scientists are more likely to think in “modernist” terms like logic and truth. (Why do you think so many engineers get saved around here?) Dawkins and the like believe they’re right and we’re wrong. But ultimately his appeals aren’t logical, so the postmodern generation has no problem with that. Realistically, anyone who doesn’t want to believe in God, whether because their grandma died or they deeply cherish their autonomy, will latch onto anything that supports their preference.

Ultimately, Craig’s argument is motivated by a valid concern about the emerging church. He isn’t taking issue with churching like Xenos or Mars Hill that want to be “True to the Word, True to our Mission.” His warning is against Christians who “advise that we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it,” because he fears “Christianity will be reduced to but another voice in a cacophony of competing voices, each sharing its own narrative and none commending itself as the objective truth about reality.” Agreed. He says “tailoring our gospel to a postmodern culture is self-defeating” because he’s afraid the church will abandon apologetics altogether. While his conclusion is false, his concern is legitimate.

So don’t run to get a refund for your XSI registration fee. We need to know the truth more than ever in a culture where truth, not God, is dead.

The Secret

According to the Chicago Tribune’s feature on Christianity in China, “Christian churches, most of them underground, now have roughly 70 million members, as many as the [Communist] party itself.” Today the Chinese church is among the fastest-growing in the world, and it is safe to call this an outgrowth of Hudson Taylor’s pioneer missions work spanning the latter half of the 19th century.

Though his methods were brilliant and biblical, it was Taylor’s character that sustained his work and led to fruitfulness during continual “conflicts without, fears within.” At the heart of his maturity was his “spiritual secret.” Far from the esoteric enigmas of Gnosticism, his secret is found plainly in Scripture:

“Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:37-39)

In total surrender to God, he found only one place to meet his needs. His letters describe his response to this passage:

“No matter how intricate my path, how difficult my service; no matter how sad my bereavement, how far away my loved ones; no matter how helpless I am, how deep are my soul-yearnings—Jesus can all, all, and more than meet. He not only promises me rest. . . . He not only promises me drink to alleviate my thirst. No, better than that! ‘He who trusts me (who believeth on me, takes me at my word) out of him shall flow…’”

The overflow of Taylor’s life has far outlived him as he sought fulfillment in Christ alone. But how did he experience fullness in Christ when his life was one of such difficult circumstances? His study of a Greek verb tense further revealed the secret:

“’Come unto me and drink.’ Not, come and take a hasty draught; not, come and slightly alleviate, or for a short time remove one’s thirst. No! ‘drink’ or ‘be drinking’ constantly, habitually….One coming, one drinking may refresh and comfort: but we are to be ever coming, ever drinking.”

Total surrender means total reliance on God. Like Paul, Taylor found the secret of contentment by entering God’s rest:

“How little I believed the rest and peace of heart I now enjoy were possible down here! It is heaven begun below, is it not? . . . Compared with this union with Christ, heaven or earth are unimportant accidents. . . . He is our power for service and fruit-bearing, and his bosom is our resting placing now and forever.”

His joy in Christ was so all-consuming he lived Paul’s words: “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17, 18). During terrible trials he wrote of “the joy of knowing the living of God, of seeing the living God, of resting on the living God.”

www.omf.org/

Hope was indeed the bridge from Taylor’s faith in God to his labor of love in China. He knew with Christ carrying the yoke alongside him, his sacrifices were worthwhile and bearable. He believed God would provide in every way because of His promises and demonstration of faithfulness. And he looked forward to an eternity where Chinese believers would praise the Lamb with him.

Hudson Taylor presents a formidable example of radical dependence on God. Though I’m light-years behind him in spiritual maturity, I still want to learn the secret of entering God’s rest by continually satisfying all need in Christ. From there the rest takes care of itself, as Taylor illustrated: “If you are ever drinking at the Fountain with what will your life be running over?—Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”

Osnos, Evan. “Jesus in China.” The Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2008. .

Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Sweetness

In 1849 a British teenager gave his heart to the Lord. But unlike those who seek salvation for “fire insurance” alone, James Hudson Taylor truly committed his whole life to God. After offering himself to his Savior he wrote, “For what service I was accepted I knew not, but a deep consciousness that I was not my own took possession of me which has never since been effaced.”

He spent the next four years studying medicine under a Christian doctor, but he was also preparing for a life work in China. There God had called him to the “unreached millions” and as a result he sought experience ministering to the poor and downtrodden. Much of his free time was spent preaching the gospel in the slums and praying for the people’s needs. He also found ways to test his faith which we might view as silly today, but which proved to be an effective exercise in depending on the Lord for every need.

Such faith was critical when he sailed for China in 1953 with the Chinese Evangelization Society. There he faced trials beyond what we can imagine in a place where Westerners were few and unwelcome, lodging was scarce, and funds were perpetually low. The needs were also overwhelming as people lived in bondage to fears and superstitions, grinding poverty, and constant wars.

What is most remarkable about Taylor is not his bravery in facing such challenges, his formation of a new missionary society when his senders went into debt, or even his persistent sacrifice after losing his wife and three of his children to the hardships of the land. Thousands of English missionaries made such sacrifices during the nineteenth century. The reason Taylor stands out as the foremost pioneer of the second era in Protestant missions is his unusual insights which indeed form the basis of missionary strategy today.

First, he longed to go inland, to the “unreached peoples” as we call them today. He wanted to go to China to reach those who could not possibly hear the gospel where they were. And once he got to China, he wanted to go where no Westerners had gone before to the isolated villages that could only be reached by river or canal. He didn’t think in terms of people groups but he was strategic in his planning and prayer for workers in every unreached province. At the foot of his bed hung a map of China with these provinces marked out, for which he raised up hundreds of missionaries. This is why he formed the China Inland Mission, which continues today in the form of Overseas Missionary Fellowship.

Second, he was the first in China, and one of the first in the world, to become “culturally relevant.” Despite the scorn of other foreigners, he dressed as the Chinese did so that he would be more accepted by the people. He even adopted the local hairstyle, shaving his head save a single ponytail at the top. In local dress he found that people were more attentive to the gospel than his foreignness. He also learned Chinese, translated the Bible into Chinese, and taught new believers how to read so they could understand the Word for themselves. While such steps may seem second-nature today, they were radical and even scandalous, but ultimately much more effective in communicating the gospel without cultural barriers.

Third, Taylor balanced social relief with the preaching the gospel. His medical training gave him many inroads to people’s hearts as he demonstrated the love of God through prayer and practical service. Teaching the illiterate was also both a pragmatic and spiritual effort. While theologians debated the continuum of social work and evangelism, Taylor and his workers practiced both in tandem.

Fourth, he actively promoted women’s work in missions, sending his own wife as one of the movement’s pioneers. Though he bore much criticism for this, he helped pave the way for females and married couples to work overseas. This is especially significant because experience has shown women are often more effective at missionary work than men, and are critical in reaching women and children where it might be inappropriate for men to make such contacts.

Fifth, he counted on indigenous leaders to continue the work. Today we speak of native leadership as if it were a new revelation, but from the start Taylor trained converts to reach their people. About native believers he wrote, “the hope for China lies doubtless in them.” Indeed, he raised up many native missionaries who played vital roles in leading the Chinese church, especially when foreign policy during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 forced many missionaries out of inland China.

Read the book. They have it at the Akron Public Library (as soon as I return it!)

But these many and far-reaching contributions to missions work are not Taylor’s greatest secret to success. Stay tuned for “Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret”….