I walked past a cult church today. Well, OK, “cult” is a subjective labelling. I walked past a sect today. I was out with Caitlin wandering through an area of town that was new to me, and came across a sign on a building proclaiming “Jesus Christ!” Once again, I wondered what I was doing here as a church planter - Japan already has a local church and there are a reasonable number in my area - until I realised that the church was one that I had been warned against by a local pastor here.
How do you tell when a church becomes a sect? The obvious answer is in its teachings, and yeah, this one in particular is pretty off the wall, but in general it’s not so easy to say; there’s a huge diversity within Christian teaching and the boundaries are fuzzy. It’s easy enough to use proof texts from the Bible to pull down other Christians and call them nasty names, but I can’t help thinking that isn’t what the Bible is for.
But there is an easier way to tell. A sect is sectarian; it’s a church that has decided that it already has as much of the truth as it needs, and that it need not learn from any other Christians. We’ve got the Bible, we’ve got the Holy Spirit - we don’t need anything else. It’s a misunderstanding of that same Bible which always talks about greeting one another, teaching one another, learning from one another, having mutual concern for one another, encouraging one another and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, but there you go. That’s what a sect does: it rejects the gift of one another that God has given us. So because it thinks it doesn’t need to learn from other Christians, it closes itself off, to the point at which it simply doesn’t have the opportunity to learn from any other Christians, and so will never know when it’s becoming idiosyncratic or heretical. In that sense, ecumenism is a mark of the Church. Churches that don’t work with other churches are sects.
I suppose the logical conclusion of this is that an awful lot of Evangelical denominations are sects. Hmm. Read more about We ghettoize ourselves
Our mission agency is currently trying to convince us all that we need to write job descriptions for ourselves. I’m not sure what I think of this idea. I don’t feel particularly warm to it, but I don’t know if that’s just because I’m a typical gen-Xer* who prefers having freedom to being nailed down and put into a box, or because I’m against bureaucracy in general, or because I’m against managerial missiology in all its forms and I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe a bit of all of the above. On the other hand, I am in favour of missionaries being self-evaluative, and thinking about whether what they’re actually doing relates to what they think they should be doing.
But there’s another reason to be in favour of job descriptions for missionaries: it helps to remind us that there’s no such thing as a typical missionary. Yeah, it’s something that we say: “I’m a missionary.” But it’s like saying “I’m an office worker.” It doesn’t communicate at all what you do. There are missionaries who are Bible translators, and some who are pastors, and some who are preachers, and some who are musicians, and some who are IT consultants, and some who are development workers, and some who do disaster relief, and get this, there are some who are not pastors or preachers or church workers in any sense, and yet they still get lumped in with this general category of “missionary”, which makes people think that they are church workers.
There are some senses in which “missionary” is a useful word, but on the whole I am starting to wonder if we’re better off without it. Read more about What is a "missionary"?
Suppose you heard this:
The UK is a white country. It is easier for those of other races to be here when Britain has confidence in its white identity.
How would you feel? How would you feel if you weren’t white? Would that make things “easier” for you? Or would it make you feel like you were a (possibly unwelcome) guest in a country that isn’t yours and doesn’t really value you. Read more about Christian countries
I get really incensed when people call Japan a “difficult” or a “slow” country. It really isn’t the Japanese people’s fault that they aren’t buying what we’re selling. It may be that we’re not selling it all that well. Gilbert Arland’s quote seems relevant:
When an archer misses the mark, he turns and looks for the fault within himself. Failure to hit the bull’s eye is never the fault of the target. To improve your aim, improve yourself.
But at the same time I will admit the equally prevalent saying that Japan is a “missionary’s graveyard”. Things just don’t happen very quickly here, or at least as quickly as we would like. It wears us down. Perhaps that just speaks about our impatience. I don’t know. What is interesting to me, though, is how different missionaries deal with this. Read more about Working the Graveyard Shift
When I went to Bible college, we were taught about a variety of theological viewpoints, with the implication that you would pick the one you liked the look of, since, you know, we’re all Protestants and so there’s nobody to tell you which one you should choose. (Although we will happily treat you like a heretic if you choose the wrong one.) And in terms of learning to work in multi-denominational teams and whatnot, that was all very useful to help us understand each other and, hopefully, not treat each other too much like heretics.
But we were also taught about contextualization and about presenting the Gospel in ways that make the most sense to the recipient, and so now when I come back to this idea of choosing which theological camp you belong to, I can’t help thinking, “Do I only get to choose one?” Read more about Can we be theological chameleons?
A funny thing happened last week. One of the communities that we’re part of here, a deaf signing group, went on an outing. The plan was to visit a deaf school, walk from there down the hill through a temple to view the autumn leaves, and catch the bus home from the bottom of the hill. Because of having Caitlin with us, we came by car, which messed everyone up. (Rule one of Japan: Don’t be different.) So the group leader, being a good Japanese leader and so knowing that the most important thing is to keep the group together, did something very clever. Read more about A sign that divides
Something in the newspaper the other day got me thinking about apologetics and the tradition of Christian debating. The more I think about it, the more I think that Tertullian was right: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It seems to me that Christian apologetics is a losing proposition, for several reasons. (Some of which I’ve written about before.)
I don’t tend to go in for apologetics per se because if you’re trying to convince someone of the reasonableness of your position, you’re already on the back foot. It’s basically like trying to convince people that you’re sane - if they don’t think you are, arguments won’t help. But there is another aspect about the way that most proponents today go about apologetics that makes me think that they’re doing it wrong, wrong, wrong. Read more about Apologetics these days
It’s now clear that we live in the proverbial interesting times.
Long-established dictatorships in the Middle East crumbled within a matter of months in the face of mass non-violent assembly - although nobody is yet sure quite what happens next. That doesn’t happen all the time. Entire European economies are failing in slow motion. Tens of thousands of people are currently right now in protest at… well, basically at the whole way Western society works. Sure, that happened to some degree with the student protests in the 1960s, but this is global. The relationships and even the rules of international diplomacy are being rewritten as a result of a small bunch of volunteers who believe that information wants to be free, and they’re not alone in that belief.
Each of those is a once-in-a-generation thing, and they’re all happening at once. I think all this means that we’re sitting on an inflection point, the kind of thing that keeps the history books interesting. Read more about Interesting times
Many of my friends are also missionaries, and missionaries tend to communicate with each other and with their friends “back home” by sending out newsletters. You know like those “family news” letters that people put in with their Christmas cards, the ones you never read or regret it when you do? Those. I feel like I ought to care about what these people are doing, especially if they’re my friends, and yet I end up binning most of these newsletters either totally or partially unread.
Now there could be several reasons for this. It could be because I’m a cold, uncaring person with a miniscule attention span. I am willing to give that possibility a lot of thought. But I think there are other potential reasons that aren’t due to my own narcissism: Read more about Why I didn't read your newsletter