May the Force be with you…

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Star Wars is back!  This week the eagerly anticipated resumption of the epic double-trilogy starts with episode 7 –  Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is widely expected to become the biggest-grossing film of all time.

Since the ground-breaking arrival of the first film in 1977, Christians have argued over the content and symbolism.  Those in favour will claim that the Force represents the power of the Holy Spirit, Obi Wan Kenobi’s self-sacrifice and apparent survival beyond death (kinda) is a significant nod to Jesus, and Darth Vader is a clear manifestation of everything we think of as evil, from his character to his stereotypical dark clothing, and even he can be redeemed.  Others will argue that the Force can be used for good or evil, which is not part of a Christian cosmology.  There is no clear redeemer figure and no communication of the love of God or the depravity of humanity.

But the real issue is not whether the films reflect a Christian message or not, but the fact that they reflect a postmodern worldview which Generation X and Millenials have bought into in a way that an older generation can’t comprehend.  Millenials in particular think in a way that is in line with the underlying assumptions of the Star Wars galaxy, for example:

  • There is a spiritual aspect to life which we do not understand but we can tap into if we choose
  • Trade corporations are inherently evil and not to be trusted
  • Most politicians are selfish and will easily turn to the dark side
  • I have the ability to achieve much more than simply being a cog in the system

Contrary to popular belief, millennials are not antagonistic to Christianity (as long as it not prejudiced and bullying).  They are suspicious of organised religion but open to personal spirituality, and are open to following Jesus if he is presented to them appropriately.  The success of many vibrant, new church networks is partly due to numbers of millenials attracted to a warmer, livelier, less-structured style of church that helps them feel that they belong and are significant.  These movements often intentionally plant (or re-plant) churches that look in very different ways to tradition ones.

The problem is that most millenials have not heard of Jesus.  Unlike previous generations they were not taken to church or Sunday school as children, religious assemblies in school are discouraged, with the result that this generation is the least evangelised European generation for 1500 years.

Some of us may be aghast at that thought.  But the flipside of it is that they are also the least prejudiced.  They haven’t been bored to death by stories of Noah’s Ark and Goliath.  They haven’t been made to follow a lot of life-crushing rules.  They come to Jesus with a completely clean sheet and no preconceptions.  They don’t have problems with the existence of an unseen world or a benevolent force pervading the universe.  Ironically, this is probably the generation most open to the gospel in over a millennium.

May the Force be with you as you tell them the good news.

Come over here and help us

Paul's Macedonian Vision

Paul’s Macedonian Vision

Paul’s vision of a Macedonian man (Acts 16:10) asking him and his co-workers for help initiated Paul’s ministry in Europe.  It is also an excellent paradigm for modern global mission.

It is at the invitation of the local believers, not the instigation of the mission workers.  Today, except in frontier missions where we have no knowledge of local believers, we should be seeking to partner with indigenous churches, agencies or believers.  How often do we go to a local group with a good idea and sell it to them, and they are too polite to say no even though they don’t want it and they know it won’t work?  It is much better for us (and more empowering for them) to go and sit at their feet, and ask them ‘What do you want for your community, and how can we help you achieve it?’  We need to seek their guidance and advice, respect their decisions, submit to their leadership, and be ready to leave when they feel that we’ve done what they need us to do.

We are invited to help, not take over.  It seems that we often marginalise the local believers and do all sorts of things for them, when they may be capable of doing things for themselves.  We turn up with our education, technology, and Biblical understanding, but leave our respect behind.  A genuine partnership asks ‘How can we do this together?’, and seeks to release everyone into the ministry that God has for them.  In many cases we may bring skills and resources which they do not have, but that does not entitle us to take control.

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

Our work should be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Paul hadn’t even thought of going to Macedonia.  He and his friends had tried several times to go into different parts of what is now Turkey.  In this vision, God expanded their boundaries.  He took them into something different.  How willing are we to contemplate doing something different rather than doing the same old thing in the same old way?  Let us be open to the Holy Spirit guiding us into God’s appointed ministry for us.

God is already at work and lets us join in.  The spread of the gospel in any country will have started before we get there.  Paul didn’t bring the gospel to Europe; there would have been several small communities of believers which may have traced their roots back to the crowds of Jewish worshippers who had flocked to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot (Acts 2:10).  God was already on the move and gave Paul and his friends a chance to join in.  Let us not be so arrogant as to assume we are taking God in with us.

West isn’t necessarily best.  In large parts of the world Christianity is seen as a western faith.  Yet this incident reminds us that the gospel was originally brought to Europe by people from the Near East.  Europeans would still be pagans (and in many respects we still are!) if mission workers from another continent had not come to teach us.  Let’s remain teachable.

Who is today’s Macedonian?  Who today is calling us to go and help them?  We looked at some of the options a few weeks ago – and they include remote unreached tribes, people in the 10/40 window, and urban slum dwellers.  Are we open to the possibility that there are people hungry for the gospel who we haven’t even considered?

Paul’s vibrant and controversial ministry opened up a new mission field right across Mediterranean Europe.  He was driven by the desire to preach the gospel where it had not been preached before (Romans 15:20).  Let’s follow his example and seek out new frontiers for the kingdom!

The crack in the wall

Cracked wall25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall was breached.  Few of us alive at the time can forget the emotional scenes of Germans from both sides of the barrier greeting each other freely, without risk of being shot.  The Wall had divided the city since 1961 and was a symbol of the Cold War division of Europe into two ideologically distinct halves.  The fall of the Wall was a dramatic change in European geopolitics which had been unthinkable only a few months before.

Berlin was a microcosm of global issues and the fall of the wall was a turning point in modern European history.  It brought down with it the Iron Curtain, and shortly afterwards the Romanians overthrew their dictator, and other communist regimes fell in eastern Europe.  Within a few years, The Czech Republic and Slovakia had parted company, Yugoslavia had violently fractured and the Soviet Union broken up.  The impact of those events still affect millions of people today – just think of the current conflict in Ukraine.

Berlin itself wasn’t the start.  The roots of the popular overthrow of communist regimes across eastern Europe began with the election of a Polish pope in 1979, which gave a new legitimacy to the Roman Catholic church in Poland.  The trades union Solidarity stood up to the communist government.  Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika.   Prayer meetings started in East Berlin.

Gods_smuggler_headerChristians played a significant part in this movement and continue to do so.  New liberties allowed Christians to meet freely and take the gospel to their neighbours.  Western mission agencies and churches could enter countries freely where only a few years before Brother Andrew had been smuggling in Bibles in his battered VW.  Protestant churches were planted where previously there had been no evangelical witness.  Church buildings were reconsecrated and put back into use.  Eastern Europe began to send its own mission workers to other countries, and today it provides the world with significant theologians and leaders.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

At this time there will be many retrospectives.  The current issue of Vista has an excellent review.  Syzygy is proud to be helping the European Evangelical Mission Association run a conference called Revolutions in European Mission, which will take place in Bucharest in two weeks’ time on the anniversary of the Romanian revolution.  Not only will it review the successes and failures of the last 25 years of mission, but it will ask important questions about how we do mission in the future.  You can read more about it here.

Today a million tourists have taken away most of the Berlin Wall, though its location is remembered in the paving on the Berlin streets where it once stood.  On this important anniversary we rejoice with the people of central and eastern Europe, recognise what it cost many of them to gain their freedom, and pray that they will use it well.

St Patrick – the man who saved Civilisation?

st patricksToday is St Patrick’s Day.  A visitor to this planet could be forgiven for thinking Patrick is the patron saint of green wigs and black beer, but the Irish national festivities bring colour to a celebration of the life and work of a highly influential missionary without whom the history of Europe might have been very different.

Little remains in verifiable fact about Patrick’s life.  He was born in late fourth century in Britain in the dying days of the Roman Empire, though the date and location are unclear. Even his given name is uncertain – Patrick may actually be a nickname given him by his captors – ‘posh kid’ – as in the Roman Empire a patricius was the opposite of a ‘pleb’, a commoner.  Nearly all of what we know about him comes from two documents which are believed to have been written by him, one a ‘confession’ which was written towards the end of his life.

Despite this, modern mission workers can draw inspiration from this brave man who was so used by God:

ShamrockCross-cultural mission.  One legend is that Patrick used the shamrock as a means of explaining the Trinity, its three-lobed leaves representing the godhead with each lobe distinct but part of the whole.  In fact, the shamrock was already a sacred symbol of rebirth in Ireland, and the Morrigan was portrayed as a ‘trinity’ of goddesses in pagan Irish religion.  He picked up on features within Irish culture which would help him communicate his message.

The role of suffering in our lives.  When he was 16, Patrick was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland where he was sold as a slave.  He spent six years there before escaping and returning home.  He later claimed that this experience was critical to his conversion to Christianity.  Although he grew up in a Christian family, he had never personally accepted Christ.  He felt that through his capture was God disciplining him for his lack of faith, and as a result he became a Christian while working as a shepherd.

A sense of calling.  Having returned home, Patrick writes in his confession that he became a missionary in response to a vision calling him over to Ireland, rather like Paul’s Macedonian vision.

Perseverance in adversity.  As a foreigner, Patrick did not enjoy the protection of Irish kings like some other British missionaries did.  As such he knew beatings, imprisonment and theft.  He also was accused of financial impropriety by other Christians, possibly jealous of his success, and he also felt lonely.  He commented “How I would have loved to go to my country and my How_the_Irish_Saved_Civilizationparents, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord!  God knows that I much desired it but I am bound by the Spirit.”

Patrick planted churches, baptised thousands of converts, and as bishop appointed church officials, established councils, founded convents and monasteries, and laid the foundation for Christianity to take root in Ireland.  He was also, notably, the first great celtic missionary, unlike others at the time who came out of a continental catholic background.  As such he was the direct ancestor of that great missionary movement which came out of Ireland to take the gospel to the Scots and from there to the pagan Anglo-Saxons.  And as we all know, the Irish missionaries didn’t stop there but went on to save the whole of Civilisation .

Urbanisation: the city of God?

Sao Paulo – one of the world’s largest cities

I have been to three conferences on urban mission in the last nine months, with one more scheduled for August.  Urbanisation is a current theme in missions, as churches and mission agencies slowly wake up to the fact that for the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas.  This means that the seething masses of unsaved humanity are predominantly to be found in cities, and increasingly in mega-cities, so it is there that we should concentrate our efforts to reach them.  Agencies such as Urban Expression, Redeemer City to City, Urban Neighbours of Hope and Eden Network are to be commended for spearheading this drive.

Many Christians avoid cities.  Biblically, cities can represent bad news: the first city, Babel, was a monument to human pride and self-sufficiency (Genesis 11:4) that remained a cipher for ungodliness right through to the last book in the Bible.  Cities are the opposite of the Garden of Eden to which we strive to return.  Even when we do move to cities, many Christians tend to congregate in the leafy suburbs rather than engaging with the inner city sink estates or peri-urban shanties.

The new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven…?

At conferences on urbanisation at least one speaker points out that the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city, as if this makes urbanisation the will of God.  Yet this simplistic reading of Revelation overlooks the fact that the imagery in this book is primarily pictorial or allegorical and is not necessarily to be taken literally.  The city in Revelation has nothing to do with urbanisation.  In Revelation, Babylon is a trope for a humanistic, materialist, decadent and oppressive world system, and the New Jerusalem represents a restoration of theocratic shalom in which God is immanent.

It should be remembered that historically Revelation was written under the shadow of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome (= ‘Babylon’) and the martyrdom of many thousands of Christians in the Colosseum, so the document reflects the desire among believers, both Jewish and gentile, for a place in which they could be enfranchised and safe.  Revelation does not describe the houses, transport hubs, offices and warehouses of the new city.  It simply states that there won’t be a need for a temple, and in a conscious reference back to the Garden of Eden, tells us that there will be life-giving trees and a river, and (most importantly) that God will live there among God’s people (Revelation 22:1-5).  Urbanisation is not the important issue; restoration of life and relationship is.

Restoring humanity to urbanity?

At one recent conference, Brazilian theologian Dr Rosalee Velloso Ewell asked participants to write down three words that described a city.  I imagine that most of us chose words reflecting a city’s creativity, industry and dynamism, or that described the noise, dirt, pollution and congestion.  Later in her presentation, she asked us how many of us wrote the name of a person.  Cue stunned silence.  One of the huge problems with cities is that they can become impersonal.  Cities have turned homes into housing and turned communities into districts, and we should remember that our missional work can become equally objective and systematic when it needs to be subjective and relational.

God does not love cities because God is in favour of urbanisation.  God loves people, and since people are congregating in cities, God’s love is concentrated in cities, not on cities.  Why should God not have mercy on millions of people who ‘do not know their right hand from their left’ (Jonah 4:11)?

But how many Christians are called like Jonah to the city, yet head for Tarshish instead?

City to City Conference

Last week Syzygy was at the City to City Conference in Berlin, where the headline speaker was pastor Tim Keller from the US, supported by a number of well-known church-planting specialists from a variety of European countries.  It was great to hear so many practical success stories and to meet so many young people all enthusiastically involved in church planting across the continent.  25 different countries were represented, and although some of their contingents were small, it was good to hear positive feedback from people from Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Russia, not countries normally associated with church-planting success.

Tim Keller was eloquent, thought-provoking and provided significant insights into a traditional-style church plant.  He has clearly thought through what he has done at Redeemer in New York and gave some detailed but necessarily condensed tips, particularly about understanding and engaging with city dwellers as opposed to suburbanites.  The most significant one was also one of the most obvious: if you do not really love the city you’re called to, the locals will see through you and not respond.

City to City Europe is a network growing out of Redeemer City to City, the international ministry of Keller and others, and has a vision for planting churches in city centre communities rather than the suburbs.  Their style is fairly traditional although their methodology is not, and if you are looking to plant an urban church anywhere in the world, you will find resources and networking opportunities through them.  They have on board people who know what they are doing, and to demonstrate it they have put on youtube some good quality videos about their churches in several European cities. Click to see the Dublin one.  I chose this partly because it’s in English, but also because I spent some time talking to Rob Jones at the conference and heard a lot more about his work, which sounds really good.

Although this conference was all about Europe, Redeemer City to City is active in some major cities of other continents and may well be of interest to those already at work in an urban context.

 

 

Guest blog: Mission initiatives in Bulgaria

Celebrations in Bulgarian churches? (source: www.freeimages.com)

This month’s guest blogger is Valentin Kozhuharov, who lectures in missiology at the University of Plovdiv and is a consultant on missions to the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Since the changes of 1990 (and before that no religious life was possible in Eastern Europe because of the persecutions the communists systematically carried out against Christians and any other religion), the church in Bulgaria has grown rapidly and fruitfully.

The Orthodox church has mostly been occupied with restoring its internal ecclesiastical life, so mission has not been its main goal of church work, but anyway this church organised a nationwide network of Sunday schools, undertook various charitable activities and started (only in the last 7-8 years) mission in prisons, orphanages, old people’s homes and other social institutions.  It even started “external” mission by sending a priest to South Africa in July 2010 to plant an Orthodox church in Pretoria.

The amount of mission work, which has mostly been done in a bit chaotic way, needed systematisation and theoretical-practical foundations, and in the diocese of Veliko Tarnovo a mission department was opened in January 2010 and a missionary document has been developed: “Principles of mission for the Bulgarian Orthodox church”.  In June 2011 the Principles were considered by the Holy Synod, and now in several diocesan centres the bishops have appointed mission educators to further develop mission strategy in their dioceses and to practically carry out missionary activities.

The evangelical churches in Bulgaria have been more active in the so called “social mission” where they carried out mission work in almost all social institutions in the country dealing with children and the disadvantaged (children’s homes, prisons, orphanages, old people’s homes, hospitals, etc). In many areas the Orthodox church and the evangelical churches have competed with each other in these mission fields, and often they would oppose the mission work of the “other” church; in some instances the Orthodox church used the authority of the state to oust the “sectarian” Christian organisations (as they treated the evangelical churches in the country).

This made Christians of both the Orthodox and the evangelical churches to think, and to come to practical recommendations, about mission of Christian unity where all the churches in the country are able to combine resources and efforts in their God-commanded mission work in society.  In the last two to three years, in many social institutions these Christians work together with the same marginalised and needy people and children.  Still the day when they all will be working together in one spirit and one heart is far away, but a good start has been made.

Valentin Kozhuharov

Bulgarian missionaries take part (and some of them took the leading role) in the newly-established Orthodox Mission Network which aims to increase mission awareness within the Orthodox churches in Europe and to initiate true missions on their territories.  Bulgarian missiologists develop theoretical issues of mission, and for the first time missiology has been taught as a theological discipline since February 2011 in one of the university theological faculties.  These missionaries and missiologists cooperate with many other missionaries and missiologists both Orthodox and non-Orthodox and both in Europe and worldwide.

Please pray:

  • for Valentin as he lectures on missiology and stimulates a passion for outreach among all Bulgarian denominations
  • for the gospel to flourish in Bulgaria
  • for more mission workers, both foreign and local, to train and inspire the church

For more information about praying for Bulgaria visit the World Prayer Map

Researching mission in Europe

Despite the prevalent perception that Europe considers God is dead, and that churches are in terminal decline, there is much going on in Europe for us to be excited about.  Many postmodern young Europeans have a willingness to explore their spirituality and engage with God in a way that would puzzle the preceding two generations, who have mainly felt that Christianity is increasingly irrelevant and discredited.  A new generation however, being largely unchurched, has no such reservations and is often interested in the Christian faith while being untouched by the cynicism of their predecessors.

The upshot of this is that there is a great deal of evangelism, mission and church-planting going on right across Europe.  Much of this is carried out by small mission organisations, simple churches, independent mission workers and informal networks.  Often focussed tightly at specific groups – young people, bikers, Moslem-background believers, ethnic minorities – these many, diverse operations add up to an evangelistic explosion across the continent.  While established denominations and sending agencies also see significant growth, diversity and informality have been particularly effective.  More evangelistic activity is taking place now than at any time over the last 50 years.

The result is that the picture of evangelism in Europe has become so localised and complex that no single person or organization has an overall picture of all the developments, initiatives, networks or new organizations even in an individual country, still less across Europe as a whole.   For this reason Syzygy is pleased to be co-operating with Eurochurch.net, Nova Research Centre and Springdale College: Together in Mission to undertake research that will identify the significant missional organisations and networks functioning within the nations and across the continent of Europe, and determine in what ways they can be more effective either by being part of an existing network or by tacit co-operation with other networks.

It is our conviction that this information is crucial to academics, church leaders, networks and agencies for forging strategic alliances which will facilitate the work of mission throughout the continent.  The objective is to produce a comprehensive directory of all churches, agencies and individuals involved in church planting in Europe.  That knowledge will be used to form a map of activity which will then be made widely available to denominations, churches, organisations and individuals who would find it helpful to know what it happening.

The preliminary results of our research will be presented at a seminar at Hope II in Budapest in May and there will continue to be follow-up consultations in a variety of European locations to determine with other participants how better to foster cooperation between the various agencies, individuals and groupings involved in this massive task of taking the good news back to the least reached continent.

If you are involved in any way in European missions and are willing to spend just five minutes completing an online form to help with our research, please contact me on tim@syzygy.org.uk.