Author Archives: John

About John

Figuring out organic, missional church life with my beautiful wife and 2 boys

There has got to be a better way?

“There has got to be a better way for wealthy churches to partner with churches that are in deprived communities. You know a number of years ago I heard an African-American gentleman who is the head of a ministry that is in a deprived community and he was speaking to the leadership of a very white very wealthy church and this African-American leader said to this very wealthy church that was supporting his ministry I need to confess something to you. I’ve been lying to you for the last ten years. Because you folks want to send short-term teams into my church and into my community and I make up stuff for you to do. I’ve had you paint the walls of my office so many times that the paint is starting to chip off and you folks go out into the community and you do all kinds of crazy things that I spend weeks mopping up after you because of the chaos you’ve created and I keep on telling you that I want you to do this stuff because quite frankly I need your financial support.”

Watch the rest of this challenging video clip from Brian Fikkert below.

Brian is the co-author of the book When Helping Hurts. You can download a free e-book version here.

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Book Review: The Poverty of the Nations

First sentence confession and disclaimer all in one; I chose to order and review this book from Crossway’s Beyond the Page blog reviewers section expecting to disagree with it. I was fairly sure that I would find myself uncomfortable with some of the conclusions of the authors but because I value listening to voices other than my own or those in my camp I resolved to challenge myself with what appeared to be some thoughtful arguments on Christianity and the value of Free Market Capitalism.

How wrong can one man be? I downloaded this book months back and despite being an avid reader I plodded through this book a few pages at a time finding any reason to read anything else but this. If I had not agreed to write this review in exchange for getting a free copy of this book I am confident I would have recycled this book months ago. Honestly I have plenty of stuff on my book shelves I don’t agree with but which pushes my thinking, challenges my assumptions and helps me organise and develop my own thinking better. But this is poorly written, filled with mad tilts at straw men and stingy representations of opposing arguments.  It almost reads like a propaganda document for the free market system rather than a well thought out and reasoned piece of writing by two well-respected professors in their fields.

I grew up in and completed ¾ of my schooling under the apartheid schooling system. As a result I am well versed in this kind of one-sided, parochial presentation of the virtues of a particular system, whilst never allowing the recipients to examine the full range of data for themselves. If you read this book with no prior thought to economics or economic systems (and I am no economist) you can only conclude that anyone who does not support the free market/ capitalistic system is a complete idiot. There is little generosity to the opinions of others; lampooning and presenting the worst or weakest side of opposing systems are common in this book. There is no concern to honestly examine the strengths of for instance democratic socialism or the very obvious weaknesses in the free market system that a growing number of reputable voices are raising. At times it felt like the book was caught in the Cold War or the Middle Ages, arguing against Soviet style communism or feudalism. Which are useful as examples but are hardly the economic questions that the majority of the books audience are wrestling with. Furthermore the almost canonisation of the Industrial Revolution and the economic growth of the Far East without so much as a footnote to the hugely destructive social issues and dehumanization arising from the triumph of greater economic growth left me cold.

Four final thoughts before this descends into the level of a rant…too late you say?

1. The book’s claim to be a Christian book is only borne up at times by an horrific use of out of context verses. A blatant desire to conflate the free market system with biblical economics is deeply disturbing. Even if you do not think the free market/capitalist system does not go against the Bible it is still a rather large leap of justificational logic to imply that it is a biblical system. The “economic system” we see in the Bible is far more nuanced than any one system, and if anything has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized rather than the increased creation of wealth for the already wealthy.

2. On that point just recently, I heard Professor Piet Naude from the University of Stellenbosch Business School suggest that we have to examine the assumption that “all the boats in the harbour” rise with the creation of wealth. The free market he said has been excellent at creating wealth but very weak in distributing it. This is not an usual insight but a widely acknowledged, contemporary challenge to the free market system. Yet Grudem and Asmus all but ignore it and write instead as if the free market is the saviour of the poor. History simply does not bear that up, even in the United States. I cannot believe the authors are unaware of this. Is their commitment to free market capitalism so deeply entrenched that they are able to simply waive this aside as a petty criticism not worth engaging in?

3. The pro-American bias of this book is hugely off-putting. God Bless America we have the worlds best economic system if only the poor Africans would listen to us. They might not have said this, but I heard it loud and clear. If I was reading a hard copy of the book rather than my kindle I would have been sorely curious to have tested the aerodynamics of this patriotic drivel at times.

4. No matter what the merits and advantages of a free market system are, and I am convinced there are many, this book sadly merely demonstrates for me the problem of allowing privileged westerners with unchallenging assumptions to write books. I have greatly benefited from many of Crossways resources but this is not one. It is poorly argued, parochial and almost without merit. The few thought-provoking moments that I did encounter in the book were so overpowered by the negatives that at 400 pages it just was not worth it.

I gave it one star on Amazon simply because there was no category for “makes excellent recycling.”

The Geography of Power and Privilege

First pile of books plundered from library

First pile of books plundered from library

This is the year I have finally started my Masters in Missiology (the study of missions or the study of “what the heck are we meant to be doing and how should we do it” as I prefer) through the University of Stellenbosch. I have harboured a deep desire to study further for many years but due to time, finances and circumstances this has never been an option. Until now… so due to a happy confluence of circumstances (Sovereignty if you will) I am able to dedicate a significant portion of my time to academic study of the next two years.

Although these things are notoriously fickle at the hands of supervisors and further reading here is my first attempt at articulating the area I hope to look at in my research.

“The effects of the apartheid system continue to affect the mission and the life of the church in Cape Town. In particular the long-term structures around which our city was re-engineered through the group areas act continues to entrench the division of races and economics in our city. The flow of power and of privilege very much follows the geographical contours of inequality in our city. The church has had a chequered history with these divisions at times supporting it, at times opposing it but mostly a quiet acquiescence through the development of a parallel structure of power and geography that mirrored, upheld or even enhanced the division of race and power. The post 1994 changes have mostly not brought about any significant changes in the geography of privilege and power. The evangelical church, by nature conservative lags behind entrenching often unwittingly the now traditional structures of power that so divide our city. What can the church do? Or perhaps more significantly what will the church do? Will we meekly wait for the city and the world to slowly and grudgingly change (if indeed we can even truly see our city redeemed) or will we act in spite of what we see, will we become a people of hope, willing ourselves to run counter cultural to the well established lines of privilege and prestige in our city. How can the church be a movement of hope in overcoming the geography of power that shapes and moulds our city still today?”

What’s in a blog anyway?

763255266_612a967d6e_oIt has been 113 days since my last post.

And you know when you don’t blog for so long you get thinking. What is it all really about anyway? What is the point of carrying of on? Perhaps enough is enough. Time to shuffle off this digital coil and whisper sweet goodbyes to this cruel yet beautiful world of words and wordpresses we so lovingly refer to as blogging?

You see blogging has changed for me. Once blogs were a slightly subversive space on the edge of the internet. A place to scratch some words on a web log, a place to think out loud, a place to find through the words of others expression for those things that I felt deep inside but did not yet have a language for. Blogging shaped me, it changed me and I fell in love. Not with blogs per se but with the art of writing. I have always loved reading words and, when I have needed to be, I have been quite proficient at expressing myself in writing.  But suddenly I found a love for the actual construction of a thought, the turn of phrase, the searching for just that right word. The exhilaration of that perfect phrase. And the agony of the finger poised above the delete button knowing that favoured phrase has to go.

But now it feels like everything has changed not only does every corporate and institution have their own perfect, shiny, soulless, tin-man blog. The Big Brother blog if you will. But as strangely complementary allies in the quest to destroy the soul of blogging, every mommy, pastor and pulse-having creature who can turn on a computer now fancies themselves as a writer. Yes, the Brave New Worlders are here too flooding the internet with noise and banality.

So is that it. Blogging… “real blogging” has had its day? Do we concede the ground to the upswell of the legit and the deluded? We abandon writing and instead become bitter cynics criticising all the commerciality and sloppy sentences. I’m tempted. It’s hard work writing. Writing well. Or trying to write well at any rate. It would be easier to do what I used to do just slop words on the screen. And let the vowels fall wherever they may. And often they did.

But no; somewhat cynical, somewhat deluded, I choose to once again lay my inarticulate fingers upon the keyboard and press into being new footprints on the old and worn paths of human searching and articulation. I will write because it brings me joy. It is my sincere hope that somehow in my faltering words you too will find joy.

Photocredit: N00 via Photopin

The Silence of Cheap Grace

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“If we communicate only that part of the gospel which corresponds to people’s “felt needs” and “personal problems” (‘Are you lonely? Do you feel that you have failed? Do you need a friend? Then come to Jesus!’), while remaining silent on their relationship to their fellow men, on racism, exploitation and blatant injustice, we do not proclaim the gospel. This is the quintessence of what Bonhoeffer has called ‘cheap grace’. After all, ‘(God) is especially moved to wrath when his own people engage in such practices. It makes them disgusting in His sight, an offence to His nostrils; and in the face of this evil-doing He cannot stand their religious posturing. He cannot bear to hear their prayers; hates their festivals; is weary of their hypocritical sacrificings; views their faithful attendance at His house with loathing, as nothing more than an uncouth trampling of its precincts: “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly”‘

David Bosch: Witness to the World p206

Photo Credit: joybot via Photopin

Sacrificing your kids on the altar of missions?

origin_6989065271What’s the best thing about having kids?

No, not the cute antics or the learning to speak or walk or the hugs or total undying obedience to your every whim (ok I made that part up)…

Body shields!

Kids make the most incredible body shields.

When you don’t want to seriously consider or God forbid, actually do something that makes you feel scared or uncomfortable just hide behind your kids!

Imagine this highly improbable, never happened to me before situation… You are enjoying a nice robust discussion over a drink of your choice with a sincere and thoughtful Christian friend. The discussion turns to the issue of say… I don’t know… public schooling, urban mission, downward mobility… Good, healthy discussion ensues.  But then the debate starts to spiral dangerously out of control… out of the theology books…off the blogs…into our city…into our lives… But don’t fear good citizens our intrepid Christian has packed with him his trusty “Get out of Jail Free” card. With a merry glint in his dilated pupil he pulls out of his back pocket the trump card, the discussion-ender, the obedience crusher and with great relief places on the grand table of ideas “Yes I see the importance of these things but really I am not about to sacrifice my kids on the altar of missions!”

*crickets*

*awkward*

End of discussion

I mean who can possibly be in favour of child sacrifice right?

If the alternative is say dead kids or public schools then lets rather keep our kids alive right?

But honestly what does this quasi-spiritual, pious sounding phrase actually mean? Oh I know we have all met the kind of pastors who are so busy running around with their underpants over their trousers trying to save the world as some kind of subordinate Holy Spirit that they give off the impression that kicking a football with their kids is somehow beneath their high spiritual calling.

So perhaps if at this point we can all just start off by agreeing that kids are important. And looking after your kids in a healthy environment is important too… right… yes… we all heard that. I am firmly in favour of loving and protecting your family! I love my family and am truly humbled and shocked that God would entrust such an incredible responsibility to a knucklehead like me. I get it… I’m terrified I’m going to get it horribly wrong and screw them all up… badly…

But where does this fear come from? For that is surely what underlies this non-offspring sacrificing purported spirituality? Fear of obedience. Fear of public schools. Fear of messing up our kids. Fear of our kids getting hurt. Fear that we won’t be able to protect them. Or give them all the stuff we never had. Fear that they won’t follow Christ. Fear that they will get confused. Fear that we may have to sacrifice our own comfort or respectability. Fear of… trusting God with our lives, our family, our future…

I am by no means suggesting that all of the issues raised above are not real, complicated and nuanced. Nor am I suggesting that there cannot be legitimate reasons to answer questions of schooling, housing or area to live in either way. But please let’s stop hiding behind our kids as some kind of get out of conviction free card.

It is arrogance to think that you can protect our kids through home schooling. It is foolishness to think that you cannot equally sacrifice your kids on the altar of suburbia or comfort or status or achievement.

We, as a family, have made our choices about where live and where to school our kids. We want to be self-aware when it comes to the choices we have made. I want to deal with my idols and my fears when making decisions for my kids. It is difficult some days to send my kids to public schools in our area. I envy my friends whose choices have allowed them to send their kinds to private Christian schools. But I am not sacrificing my kids. We are intentionally choosing as a family to engage on mission in this community and that means going to the schools the kids in our area go to.

When we decided to follow Jesus we did decide to “sacrifice our lives” on the altar of mission. Our lives are now caught up in God’s greater, bigger and more beautiful story. This is what it means for us to no longer be king of our own lives. This is what it means for us to no longer idolize family. We have intentionally chosen to sacrifice some of our preferences and comforts in order to serve others. So no we don’t get to sacrifice our kids but we are as a family called to model and practice sacrificial living.

Honestly I am not sure how else I raise kids to be live sacrificially, generously or intentionally except by living, sacrificially, generously and intentionally myself. How else do I show them the character of the King who gave up all the glory of Heaven to serve and redeem us? How else do I teach my kids that Jesus came to rescue us and liberate us from our own selfish desires except by daily choosing to put to death my own desires for comfort, security and playing it safe? How else do I teach my kids that we find life when we give it away in service to the weak, the poor, the lost and the broken except by doing just this? How else do they fall in love with the beauty, grace and passion of God’s mission except by tasting it and living it?

We spend our whole lives protecting our kids, serving them, providing for their needs and their desires. Keeping them safe, comfortable and happy. And then we wonder why they grow up to be exactly what we trained them to be.

And they walk away from a Jesus who does not serve them…

Or they apathetically warm a church building designed to serve them…

And their children…

And the world dies a little bit more each day.

Photo Credit: rejik via Photopin

Princes and Thieves

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“Paupers and kings, princes and thieves

Singers of songs, righters of wrongs, be what you believe

So saddle your horse and shoulder your load

Burst at the seams, be what you dream, and then take to the road.”

Journey of the Magi – Frank Turner