Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When Helping Hurts - A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is a fantastic resource for ministers and lay leaders who are both beginners and experienced veterans of community and mission work. The theologically conservative writers begin with a strong case for evangelicals to engage in community work. For moderates, this can be a helpful resource for communicating with conservatives on justice issues. The authors distinguish between old models of charity-based work versus new methods of promoting leadership and empowerment in poor communities through asset-based community development (ABCD). This holistic method of approach allows for a thoroughly coherent and helpful guidebook that people of all theological backgrounds should be inspired to use.
The authors start with a biblical basis for justice. In short, Jesus declared that the kingdom is both now on earth and in heaven. If Jesus is Lord, we should take his commands and lessons on the treatment of the poor seriously. Because the Church is supposed to follow the mission of Christ on earth, engaging our communities should be central to our narrative. Many times, the Church is sidetracked with personal piety issues (much like the Pharisees) and are distracted from its real mission. Fikkert, the main writer, quotes Scripture after Scripture on the poor and oppressed, and uses wealth and poverty statistics to bolster his point:
“Economic historians have found that for most of human history there was little economic growth and relatively low economic inequality…by the year 1820…the average income per person in the richest countries was only about four times higher than the average income per person in the poorest countries. Then the Industrial Revolution hit, causing unprecedented economic growth in a handful of countries but leaving the rest of the world behind…while the average American lives on more than ninety dollars per day, approximately one billion people live on less than one dollar per day and 2.6 billion—40% of the world’s population—live on less than two dollars per day. If God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments were to have a concern for the poor during eras of relative economic equality, what are we to conclude about God’s desire for the North American church today? (page 42)"
He cites the divide in the church between liberals and conservatives in the early 20th century for why evangelicals focused more on salvation than justice, and criticizes some government methods that have actually kept people in poverty. He condemns the old system of welfare for punishing those trying to work and affirms welfare reform.
Most practically, Fikkert tell stories about his own personal failings and long path toward realizing the best methods of community engagement. Fikkert talks about the difference between asset-based and needs-based approaches. The needs-based approach can enforce negative cultural assumptions that people who are both white and economically advantaged should be in charge. White, affluent outsiders tend to approach a situation by stating what a community, family, or person doesn’t have and what they need to obtain. This approach fails to encourage empowerment and leadership development. The asset-based approach starts by finding out what assets and skills a community has and builds on this information. He states that you should "not do things for people that they can do for themselves (pg 115).” Many times, a neighborhood can organize to find solutions that outsiders try to find for them.
He encourages churches to work with microfinance professionals who lend money, time, and business training to poor individuals to help them start businesses. He also encourages the “Business as Mission” model where small business can be used for ministry (see CBF’s work with Ben Newell and Delta Jewels, a mission where women earn their own college tuition while learning business skills). He gives less ambitious suggestions as well, including helping with job training and financial education.
Fikkert affirms the need to give immediately in crisis situations. For instance, when Hurricane Katrina hit, people needed rescue, medical care, debris clean-up, and more. Years later, he shares the example of a mission team that visits and paints houses while the owners sit back and watch. This approach reinforces the idea that outsiders are the only ones who can help, when the reality is that organizers could use empowerment to encourage leadership from within that community. Outsiders in these situations should plug-in only as secondary helpers to internal community leaders.
Fikkert’s approach is innovative and one that more churches and mission leaders should be willing to engage and discuss. Fikkert questions whether some missions work is really effective in the long run or only makes us feel good for getting something done quickly. His ideas of people-development over task-oriented missions have the potential for long-range, effective, and sustainable ministry. I urge you to read this book and have a discussion with your friends and church members!
Find out more about “When Helping Hurts” and related materials at this website: http://www.whenhelpinghurts.org/

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lord, I believe! But help my unbelief! -- Making Room for Faith, Doubt and Cynicism in Youth Ministry

By Andrew S. Tatum

Often I think ministers, and ministers who work with young people, are pressured to be dispellers of doubt in the people with whom they minister. In both our cognitive work (i.e. doctrinal instruction) and our relational / spiritual work, it is thought that orthodoxy in belief and practice should be the primary goal for the people of our communities. In other words, we assume that in order for faith to be strong, genuine and generative there can be little room for doubt and no room at all for cynicism.

I cannot account for the experiences of others in this regard but I can share my own and recently, I have had many experiences that left me scratching my head and wondering where I went wrong.

The first of these came during a recent youth Bible study in which we were studying the "basics" of the Gospel message - i.e. sin & salvation through Christ. I found that the young people with whom I work genuinely believe the "facts" about the Gospel: that human beings are sinful and that Christ lived, died and was resurrected to bring a new kind of life that seeks God and serves others through the power of the Spirit. What is troubling, however, is that often it seems that this good news is received with glazed over looks and shrugged shoulders. In other words, many of the youth with whom I work genuinely believe the Gospel but they don't see where such belief makes a practical difference in their lives. Others of them, I am sure, "believe" the Gospel - i.e. they know the basic narrative and they can tell me all about it - but they are not fully convinced that it is true.

Another recent experience happened in discussing the fall of man and God's compassion and judgment for human disobedience. One of the young people in the room looked me in the eyes and - with a little laughter in her voice - said, "You mean God fixed the game." When asked her to clarify what she meant, she replied, "You're telling us that God created us for his glory and so that we could have new life in him and that the only way for that to happen is through Jesus?"

"Right," I said.

"Well, why didn't God just make it right from the beginning? It's like he wanted sin to happen so that he could show us how bad we are and teach us that we can't have life unless we follow Jesus. Did he send the serpent to us? I mean, did God make us fall?"

Of course, my outward reaction was to correct her and say something about "mystery" and God's "love" in general. But I have to admit that my inward thoughts turned immediately to David Bazan's song, "When We Fell" where he delivers a one-two punch of doubt and cynicism:

"When you set the table
when you chose the scales
did you write a riddle
that you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
so they would tell the tale?
Did you push us when we fell?"

I know at least a handful of youth pastors who heard these lyrics and cringed. One of them even said, "If we let our youth hear this, we're screwed!"

What I'm getting at is this: when Christians begin being cynical and expressing doubt, are we doing them any favors when we try to suppress these doubts and feelings? For my part, I don't think that suppressing these sorts of thoughts and feelings is very helpful at all. Indeed, it may even be unfaithful.

Douglas John Hall once said, "I am not very much worried about the reduction in numbers where Christianity ...[is] concerned. I am far more concerned about the qualitative factor: what kind of Christianity...are we talking about?"

Indeed, what are we helping to create when we teach young people and adults that faith is about the suppression of doubt? What are we doing to the minds and hearts of young people when we don't honor their cynicism and encourage them to continue to question received tradition so that they can "own" the faith that they profess? I think we're creating individuals who do not know how to express their faith in meaningful ways because they have never had to grapple with its claims on their lives. We're creating religious people. However, we are not in any measurable way creating disciples of Jesus by telling young people and adults what they must believe without making space for them to express and grapple with their unbelief.

Paul Ricoeur wrote of a "second naivete" that comes only after one has both accepted and criticized the foundations of their world view. He wrote:

I]n every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men, aim at a second naivete in and through criticism. In short it is by interpreting that we hear again."

A man came to Jesus whose son was afflicted by an evil spirit. This spirit had "often thrown him into fire or water to kill him." The man asked Jesus, "Lord, if you can do anything take pity on us and help us."

"If you can?" Jesus replied. "Anything is possible for the one who believes."

The man replied, "Lord, I believe! But please help my unbelief." (From Mark 9)

I think that our young people need us to help them question their faith - to become believing unbelievers - so that they can live into genuine faith in Jesus because such faith is not easy and it will call them to do hard things for the rest of their lives. If the people you serve all believe easily and if they all believe without question, then I would say that perhaps you need to "help" their unbelief along. For it is by not believing, for a time, that we come to believe in ways that are good, true, beautiful and - most importantly - real.

I am not saying that we ought to help young people become atheists or agnostics - to actively give them questions and doubts that they may not already have. That, I think, would be
manipulative and just as unfaithful as suppressing doubt. What I am aiming it is simply the creation of imaginative space in which young people and adults can ask real questions about the truth claims of the Gospel and their practical significance - and yes, even to express doubt - without judgment or fear of disappointment on the part of their families, ministers and peers.

Lord, we believe! But help our unbelief!

Andrew Tatum is the Director of Youth Programs at Centenary United Methodist Church in Smithfield, North Carolina, and a graduate of Campbell University Divinity School. This post is originally taken from his blog. You can find out more about Andrew on his website: http://www.astatum.com/

Monday, March 14, 2011

Give Me Some of That New-Time Postmodern Religion

by Rev. Laura Barclay
On Ash Wednesday, I happened to tune in to both Conan and The Colbert Report and was not all that shocked to see a fairly usual sight. These Generation X and Y icons were humorously addressing Lent. A word of warning – some content may be seen as objectionable by certain viewers.
Conan's Ash Wednesday Play (skip to the 5 minute, 30 second mark):

Colbert gives up Catholicism for Lent:
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Stephen Gives up Catholicism for Lent
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

At first glance, their portrayals could be perceived as irreverent, but I, and others in my generation, see a kind of genius in their humor. Some religious establishments can be seen as self-righteous and unwilling to engage in a meaningful discussion on ideological differences. I believe that this seemingly reverent ban from the public sphere of comedy has actually done a disservice to the faith in terms of accountability. Younger generations communicate through humor and sarcasm and wisely do not trust entities that aren’t willing to be subjected to comedic scrutiny. Such jokes actually serve to shine a light on the tragic, corrupt or negative elements of religion, while lifting up the gospels. Catholic comedians Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert will rightfully mock the bad: sexual abuse, authoritarianism, discrimination, and hypocritical theology. Simultaneously, Colbert has done some hard-hitting segments that highlight Jesus’ gospel teachings and ethic of love, and has even addressed Congress to expose the conditions of migrant workers in the name of his faith.
Because these comedians keep religion on the table to be humorously discussed, they are more likely to be trusted by younger generations. In fact, Colbert has become a Catholic icon on college campuses and is generating excitement for the faithful. Jesuit priest Rev. Martin says, “He manages to raise the big questions very deftly. I think that is a great catechesis for many people because he might be reaching Catholics who never go to church and he is speaking to them in language they can understand.” I would add to Martin’s statement that he’s speaking to all young adults who are searching for meaning and showing them how to be faithful in a postmodern age where the rules have changed. In using their language of humor, he’s able to affirm viewers’ legitimate concerns about religion while also encouraging them to discuss their doubts and hopes with one another (doubting is another topic off-limits in many churches). These conversations are exactly what should be happening in the church, and my hope is that we can find ways to connect with younger people who expect the space to question, hope, doubt, and find humor in just about everything. We must be willing to listen and communicate in new ways with Generation X and Y. Not only are they our future, but they may have good reason to be reluctant to set foot in church.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Into the Wilderness - A Lenten Reflection

by Rev. Laura Barclay
Matthew 4:1-11 - Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
We are beginning the 40-day period of Lent, when Christians begin a period of reflection and strive for spiritual growth leading up to Easter. For a brief history of Lent, check out my post last year, where I also suggested a resource for prayer and meditation.
In the text above, Jesus has not yet begun his ministry, yet is confronted
with temptation. Material wealth and coercive power are offered if Jesus will just change his path. Instead, Jesus is steadfast in his ways. He recognizes this as petty bribery and knows that he is destined to help God’s people. Often Jesus is pictured as above, a powerful image of a good man versus an ugly demon. I actually prefer the image to the right, with a fatherly looking figure talking to a young man, as if offering him something harmless. It seems to reflect reality and something we might face, making the biblical narrative more approachable. The painting illustrates that our seemingly innocuous decisions can have a large impact, for good or bad.
I wonder what this looks like in our own lives. Have you ever faced a time when you knew you were coming to a crossroads--that you could either go down a path of self-destruction and selfishness or follow the path of love shown to us by Jesus? Perhaps these are dramatic events like career changes or altering one’s worldview, or perhaps they are small, everyday occurrences like stopping to talk to someone who’s lonely, depressed or in trouble. Maybe it’s re-prioritizing our lives to attempt to make the needs of others more important than ourselves. Whatever that might look like, silence, prayer, and reflection could only help to sort out our confusion and make sure we are living for God and neighbor rather than living only to build wealth and fame for ourselves.
Spirituality and active love are interconnected. Only when we are striving for good practices of silence, meditation, or prayer, can we stop to hear the cries of others, as Jesus did. Most of us are used to a busy pace, so perhaps we would be more comfortable with a walking prayer. During such an active prayer, we can intentionally walk around our cities, towns, and neighborhoods, observing both needs and assets. As we go, let us give prayers of thanksgiving for community assets and ask God how we can help organize those assets to do the greatest good. This kind of walking prayer can be done with family, friends, or church members, and sharing what you discover with them and others might spark something –a new ministry, partnership or sharing of information that could better the community.
May your time of reflection lead you out into the world to join God’s good work.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What Is the Church to Do in Rapidly Changing Times?

by Dr. Roger Gilbert

I think we all are keenly aware of the fact that our world is rapidly changing and that the changes impact all of life, including the church. Many of us grew up with the church being the center of the community and our family life. There was no question about what we did on Sunday morning. Likewise, the community around us was careful not to plan events that would conflict with church schedules. All of that has radically changed. So has church attendance and involvement.

What is the church to do? It is not likely that the culture is going to revert back to the way it was in the 1950’s, or even the 1990’s. There are a lot of different ideas about what should be done. One approach is to use the marketing techniques of the business world and remold the church so as to be attractive. There is validity in seeking to better understand our world and better relate to the people so we can share the gospel with them. There are also dangers in that approach. One danger is that the church may lose its distinctive as the church and simply become a reflection of the culture. That is already a reality to some degree. A second danger is that in an attempt to attract people we may use gimmicks with nothing more than shallow, short term results.

One of the difficulties within the church is that we are products of our culture and tend to measure “success” by numbers: membership, attendance, budgets, etc. While those factors are important, the calling of the church is to be the Body of Christ. We are to follow the example and teaching of Christ in loving and serving. We are to be faithful in using our gifts of time, talents, and resources in ministering to people and bearing witness to the gospel. Our attention is not to be directed toward tangible measurements of success but toward faithfulness to Christ.

Nearly a year ago nine of us pastors from across the state were on a retreat. While talking about similar issues, one of my good friends made reference to a saying that was popularized by Henry Blackby. He said, “discover what God is doing and join Him.” Since that time I have been intentionally asking questions and listening to what people are saying about both the needs in our community and the potential in our church. There are some exciting possibilities. I believe God is at work in a variety of ways in our community and may be inviting us to join Him in some of them.

I have shared some of this with our Church Council and asked for their input in how to involve the larger congregation in this conversation. In the months ahead we expect there will be some small group as well as large group participation as we seek to perceive where God is working in our community and how First Baptist Church can join Him. We are asking our members to think about the both needs and resources that God has given to our congregation. If one new ministry is the result of this process, it will be well worth the effort!

Roger Gilbert is the pastor of First Baptist Church, Mount Airy, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, "The Announcer."