Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Sharing at Q. TEA Peace Talks

Last Saturday I took part in an interfaith event organized by Q Commons Singapore. My fellow presenters were Md Imran Md Taib (Muslim interfaith activist), Isa Kamari (acclaimed Malay poet), Chew Lin Kay (humanist interfaith activist), Jason Leow (Zen practitioner), and Aaron Lee (prize-winning poet and Christian activist).

I presented on a theology of peace which revolved these three points:
  1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
  2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
  3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
The presentation might not be clear. So, here is the tidy version.

1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
The world is filled with competition for sovereignty. Everyone wants to be sovereign. We see this competition in four domains:
  • First, the international domain. Major superpowers contesting over global hegemony. Previously, between the western and eastern blocs. Now it is between USA and China. The recent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is but one example.
  • Second, the national domain. Different political, ethnic, and religious factions contesting over governance within the country. (Certain national contest extends over into the international domain, such as the call to establish Islamic caliphate across the globe by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.)
  • Third, the communal (and domestic) domain. We see competition within a community that is based on differences such as gender and individual interest. Dispute within church, sibling rivalry, and marriage commotion are examples.
  • Fourth, the personal domain. This is the competition experienced by individuals within. We find in ourselves conflict between our ideal self and our base self. To use psychoanalysis term, it is the competition between our id and superego. Very much like what Paul wrote in Romans 7:15: "…what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."
When mismanaged, the competition in each domain can lead to violence and chaos. The international conflict leads to war, national to riot and coup, communal to separation or felony, and personal to mental breakdown and suicide. The competition in these four areas are perennial. Thus, the need to pursue peace.

2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
What can Jesus teach us about peace in a world where the competition of sovereignty is perennial at these four areas?

Jesus introduced the idea of the kingdom of God that is already here and now but not yet completely manifested. In Christian theology, this is known as the "already but not yet" kingdom. The idea of kingdom is also an idea of sovereignty that also promises peace into the world.

But what kind of "peace" that Jesus promised? The idea of peace is commonly understood as the peace of empire. In Jesus' time, it was known as Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. When Japan was conquering Asia during the Second World War, they promised to bring "great peace". 

The peace of empire is a combination of military and political power. They are intrusive in nature. The peace of Rome brought heavy taxation and political subjection. The so-called "great peace" of Japan brought massacres and sub-standard living. Therefore the peace of empire provokes hostility and insurgency. People rebelled against such peace.

Jesus promises peace, but what differentiates his version of peace from that of the powers in the world? There is degree of ambiguity on this. For even in Jesus’ time, not everyone understood peace the same way as Jesus did. He knew that his peace would come across as division to some (John 16:33 contra Luke 12:51-53).

Nonetheless, I think here are some characteristics of the peace promised by Jesus:
  • Jesus' peace is not the peace of empire. It is not military or political. Although it has a skewed view on military force and has something to say on the political, it is not a peace to be established by weapons and parliament.
  • Jesus’ peace is not primarily concern over the competition of sovereignty in the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal). Jesus’ peace addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God. He is concerned over the conflict between the empire of humanity and the kingdom of God. Violence, greed, oppression, and transgressions of all kinds and forms are manifestation of humanity's challenging God's sovereignty. Sometimes these competitions are carried out in the name of religion. At other times, in the name of humanistic ideals.
  • Jesus saw humanity's rebellion as futile and will be ended by God. This is so by the principle of justice. If humans are not made to rebel against God, then it is only right that God corrects this error by unmaking them, that is to destroy them. The only way to escape this without deviating from the cause of justice and still preserves humanity is through the sacrifice of a scapegoat that can represent humanity.
  • Jesus saw himself as that scapegoat. He willingly set down his life as the sacrifice on behalf of the human race to fulfill the required divine justice while preserving humanity. Through his sacrifice, the ultimate destruction of humanity is averted. This is the peace that Jesus brought. His is not the peace of empire spread by weapons and sustained by force, but the peace through the cross that addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God.
What then does this peace have to say to the competition in four domains today?

3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
First, Jesus' peace is not established by military or political powers, therefore Christians should not think that we are doing God a favor by using empire's apparatus to establish God's kingdom. If Jesus’ peace is coercive, his servants would have fought to prevent his arrest (John 18:36).

When Jesus was about to depart, he said: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

So, let us freely, without trouble and fear, continue to make peace, build peace, and sustain peace in this chaotic world. But with the way of the cross, not the means of the empire.

Second, Jesus' own example as peacemaker between humanity and God is a model for peace-making. Our pursuit for peace must prioritize justice and the preservation of humanity.

By framing conflicts in term of the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal) is not complete without also seeing them as subsets of the war humanity waged against God. Without the latter, justice is factional and open for re-definition by the competing parties. And preservation of humanity then becomes preservation of human beings who are on our side.

Between justice and preservation of humanity, we cannot choose one over the other. And when we had to, self-sacrifice is an option. Striving for justice and humanity's peace (instead of factional justice and self-preservation) is imitating Jesus.

Third, Jesus taught the importance of peace-building in relation to religious identity: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9)

Interestingly it is not the other way around. Jesus didn’t say, blessed are the children of God (that is those who see themselves as religious) for they will be peacemakers. Jesus didn’t start with who we think we are, and then we have to go and make peace. He started with those who are already making peace, and declared that they will be called children of God.

Therefore let us not get caught up with solidifying our exclusive socio-religious identity that we forget that those who will be called children of God will not be those who are busy identifying themselves as such but those who are actually pursuing peace.

Monday, May 04, 2015

A word on church growth methods

Christianity is a missionary faith. It aims to make everyone into Christ’s disciples. Thus, numerical growth is a major characteristic of the faith since its beginning. All believers are to share the gospel to everyone they know in order to increase kingdom membership. However, this is so much easier said than done.

The difficulty is not so much in how to increase numbers but in what numbers we want to increase?

It is not difficult to achieve numerical growth because there are time-proven methods that guarantee increased membership. This is the good news.

As found in various studies, there are three ingredients which are empirically demonstrated to boost membership effectively.

The first ingredient is “spiritual entrepreneur”. Most congregations that achieve exponential growth within one generation have a celebrity Senior Pastor.[1] 

The Senior Pastor is a highly popular, eloquent, and innovative person who runs the church like an entrepreneur would a company (which Presbyterian’s Elders-Deacons system does not allow). In fact, the Senior Pastor is the brand of the church, as how Steve Jobs is to Apple Inc. 

Not convinced? Well, think of all the big churches you know—most of you probably do not know anyone else from those churches except their Senior Pastor, right?[2] Just like everyone knows Steve Jobs but most has not even heard of Jon Ive, who designed Apple’s revolutionary products.  

The second ingredient is the “deployment of marketing strategies, technologies and consumerist ethos” for the church.[3] Churches that adopt this method “draw on popular culture and a consumerist logic in order to attract an audience more familiar with rock and roll, shopping malls, and self-help culture than with traditional church liturgies, hymns, or symbols.”[4] 

The relationship between church and members is viewed through the relationship between a company and its customers. The church produces messages and experiences that are consumer-driven, which is effectively presented via marketing techniques and technologies to capture the populace’s interest. 

Emphasis is placed on making the church “seeker sensitive”, which often means toning down the inherited religious symbolism and rituals. The sermon has to be TED-like, that is topical in addressing popular needs rather than expository in seeking God’s prophetic voice in the Bible.

The third ingredient, which is related to the second one, is to provide a range of services cater for the members. The church invests in programs that address the various needs of the members and allow them a few varieties to choose from. Church is structured like a shopping mall that has “something for everyone”.[5]

These three ingredients guarantee numerical growth. 

However, there is not-so-good-news. Like all methods, these three come with pitfalls as much as promises.

When churches that grow due to a celebrity Senior Pastor often cultivate a personality cult following more than a congregation that gathers for a communal spiritual journey. 

Mars Hill Church was founded in 1996 by its Senior Pastor Mark Driscoll, who is famous for his Reformed preaching. The church deployed effective marketing strategies and technologies to maximize its outreach. The church is ranked by Outreach Magazine as the third-fastest growing church in 2012.[6] At its peak, it had 14 branches with weekly attendance of 13,000. 

Yet, in 2014, Driscoll resigned. Following that, it was announced that all Mars Hill churches will dissolve by 2015.[7] Another similar example is Robert H. Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral. Therefore, it would not be too imaginative to suppose that the same would also happen to many local big churches with a celebrity Senior Pastor.

Aligning churches along the consumerist logic to be “seeker sensitive” and as centre that has “something for everyone” raises serious questions on what disciples are we making? 

The Willow Creek Community Church has congregational size of 24,000 and listed as the most influential church in America. Outside its founding Senior Pastor Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” The church invested millions of dollar annually to provide many types of programs for members to participate. 

This reflects the church’s ministry philosophy, as its executive pastor Greg Hawkins said, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.”[8]

Then around the middle of 2000s, the church engaged an external agency to conduct a multiple year qualitative study of the church. The findings were unexpected—63% of the church’s most active and considered spiritually matured members were actually contemplating leaving the church! 

The multimillion-dollars-programs the church invested in to cater for all its members and its “seeker-friendly” culture could not retain members. The turnover rate was high. This corresponds to what we see in local “seekers sensitive” churches.

Furthermore, in a separate study, it is found that today’s young Christians (18-29 years-old) are more appreciative of liturgical religiosity: 78% preferring quiet church than loud church, 67% describe their ideal church as “classic” rather than “trendy”, and 77% like church with a sanctuary than church with an auditorium.[9]

My point is this: There is no perfect church growth method. Each comes with pitfalls and promises. As churches embrace the method of their choice, they also must prepare to brace themselves for the pitfalls. Indeed, these methods guarantee numerical growth—of personality cult followers and high turnover rate in church membership. Therefore, the difficulty is not on how to increase disciples, but what kind of disciples are we making?

Recognizing where the real difficulty lies helps us to see ‘doing church’ in a way that is freed from the shadow of surrounding churches with exponential growth. Only then can we begin to understand the bearing of disciple-making.

A pastor friend once told me that his ideal church size should be about 200 to 300 members. That is a good size to build community that is socially viable, where most people can get to know most other people as how they should be as a spiritual family. Any number beyond this should be directed for a new church plant. (This is of course another easier-said-than-done issue as small congregations have difficulty getting venue for their activity. Yet, the suggestion rightly prompts us to rethink the purpose of the church.)

[1] Scott Thumma, “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2003, http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/thumma_article2.html
[2]  Jeaney Yip and Susan Ainsworth, “’We aim to provide excellent service to everyone who comes to church!’: Marketing mega-churches in Singapore,” Social Compass, vol.60:4 (2013):508.
[3] Terence Chong and Daniel P.S. Goh, "Asian Pentecostalism: Revivals, Mega-Churches, and Social Engagement," in Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia, eds. Bryan S. Turner, Oscar Salemink (Routledge, 2015), 407.
[4] Stephen Ellingson, “New Research on Megachurches: Non-denominationalism and Sectarianism,” in The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, ed. Bryan S. Turner (Blackwell, 2010), 247.
[5] Thumman, Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena.
[6] Brendan Kiley, “Mars Hill Announced the “Third Fastest-Growing Church” in America,” dated 24 September 2012, The Stranger, http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2012/09/24/mars-hill-announced-at-the-third-fastest-growing-church-in-america
[7] Ruth Graham, “How a Megachurch Melts Down,” 7 November 2014, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/11/houston-mark-driscoll-megachurch-meltdown/382487/
[8] “Willow Creek Repents? Why the most influential church in America now says “We made a mistake,” 18 October 2007, Parse: Leadership Journal, http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2007/october/willow-creek-repents.html?paging=off
[9] Stephanie Samuel, “Study Shows Millenials Turned Off by Trendy Church Buildings, Prefer a Classic Sanctuary,” dates 14 November 2014, The Christian Post, http://www.christianpost.com/news/study-shows-millennials-turned-off-by-trendy-church-buildings-prefer-a-classic-sanctuary-129675/