April 2010


Our pastoral staff had lunch with N.T. Wright (Yes, I like my job!).

Scott Arbeiter asked the Bishop of Durham what blind spots he observes in the American Evangelical Church.

As a good historian, Bishop Wright responded to the question by naming two periods of American history: The 1770s and 1860s.

The 1770s

Americans not only revolted against the British government,  they also rejected the Anglican Bishop’s authority over the Church. This may seem natural to Americans, but Wright noted two unhealthy trends in American Evangelicalism which he traces back, at least in part, to those events.

1.   Isolation of Our Faith from the Global and Historic Church. Wright believes that church unity must transcend place and time. He sees much of American Evangelicalism indifferent to the church outside of itself.

2.   Isolation of Our Faith from Our Public Life. Wright notes the tremendous influence of the Enlightenment upon the founding of America. This philosophy drives the idea that we can separate religion from institutions.

The 1860s

The Civil War has left a profound divide in American culture, and the Evangelical Church is not immune. Wright sees the Mason-Dixon divide as one of the roots of the culture war in modern America. He identifies two ways that this has harmed the American Church.

1.   Limitation of Our Church Unity. Wright believes that Church unity is a centerpiece of the scriptures. However, the American church is almost as divided as the rest of the nation in our ongoing culture wars.

2.   Limitation of Our Practice, Proclamation, and Discernment of Truth. Many Americans are so entrenched in their side in the culture war that they are not able to identify reality. Christians on the Left and Right often place a higher value on their team’s position than the teachings of scripture.

I have spent some time prayerfully thinking about this friendly critique and it’s implications for me, our congregation and the movement. It seems profound and urgent to me.

What do you think?

Where is this an accurate description of American Evangelicalism, and the American Church in general?

What can we do to (W)right the ship?

One of my favorite lectures at the Wheaton Theology Conference was by Jeremy Begbie.

By “emerging churches” Begbie is referring to movements in the UK and USA that seek new ways of thinking about and practicing church. He is supportive of both N.T. Wright and these emerging church movements.

5 Elements of N.T. Wright’s Work that Emerging Churches often Embrace

  1. The Centrality of the Church in God Saving Work: God’s plan to rescue that world has always been focused on a Community, first Israel, then the Church.  In the scriptures, salvation and community are not separate. When we separate them, Church becomes either institutional or optional.
  2. The Future Nature of Church:  Our thoughts and practice of the Church should start from the end of the biblical story. We look forward to what it will be when all is right with the world. The Holy Spirit enables this kind Kingdom-centered living, worship and mission.
  3. The Cosmic Nature of the Church: God’s saving work is cosmic. God is rescuing all of creation. The Church is not only recipients of that salvation, she is also an active participant of the redemption the world.
  4. The Materiality of the Church: Wright rejects the dichotomy between abstract concepts of the Church and the physical Church. The true Church is located in space and time. The true Church has flesh and blood.
  5. Improvisation in the Church: Wright’s work on the Church combines reverent obedience to scriptures with flexibility on methodology for Church practice in our ever-changing culture.

3 Elements of N.T. Wright’s Work that Emerging Churches often Neglect

  1. Ascension of Jesus: Jesus, the risen Messiah, is standing over the Church. The Church is not filling the void of Jesus. Remembering this reality prevents both triumphalism and disillusionment. The Holy Spirit is the key link between the Church and the risen Messiah.
  2. Israel:  The Church must understand the story of Israel to ground us in the appropriate context.
  3. Catholicity of the Church
    1. Qualitative – The Church transcends all social, cultural, and natural divisions. Jesus gives a new way of relating to each other.  Unlike consumerism which segments people, the Church includes all kinds of people are included.  The victory of Jesus over the powers of darkness is shown in an inclusive Church.
    2. Extension – The Church is comprised of all believers in all places in all time. The united Church must have some physical presence beyond clusters of homogeneous units. There must be some kind of institution.  Many in the emerging church view institutionalism as the enemy, but avoidance of institutions is often an attempt to avoid the pain of Church unity.

While there are clearly exceptions to Begbie’s generalizations about new church movements, the picture of a Church that he painted (via N.T. Wright) was both inspiring and challenging.   That is the kind of Church that I want to work toward! What do you think?

To listen to Begbie’s talk, and other presentations, at the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference click here.


Below are Notes from N.T. Wright’s Chapel Address at Wheaton College on April 16, 2010

Six Verses in Ephesians to Shape us for the Future

1:10 – God’s plan was to gather together all things in heaven and earth under Jesus.  There is no dichotomy between heaven and earth, no split level living. Jesus enables us to live the life of heaven and earth as a reality here and now.

2:10 – We are God’s art work. God created us to bearing fruit, to be co-creators in this world. God gives each of us  a calling to bring to the world unique thing(s) that only we can do. We are each playing a real role in heaven and earth.

3:10 – The Church is called to be a diverse and counter-cultural community so that the wisdom of God might be known by the principalities and powers of the world. The very existence of the Church testifies that Jesus is the true Lord.

4:15 – The Church is called to hold to the truth in love, growing up into one, connected with the head, Jesus. This is  not about us. We are growing together with the Church, under the authority in into the likeness of Jesus.

5:14 – The resurrection of Jesus displays the power of God to change our way of life.  We do not have to live the old way of life. There is hope for a new way of life because of heaven and earth’s union in Jesus.

6:13 – We must put on the full armor of God. This is a battle. The powers do not want to submit to the just and righteous rule of Jesus. We are to live out the way of God’s Kingdom in the face of powers’ resistance to the true King.

Easter Appalachian Trail Run  4/4/10

– By Don Vining

Arising, arising, arising

Lofty perch for miles and miles

Lower than clouds, higher than graves

Lover of trails and private treasures

Trickling cold streams

Soothing spring sun

A mountain commander

Speaking without words

Soaring without flying

Singing without music

Beauty without flowers

Poetry without books

Birthing without pain

And time…

Time to be alive

That was enough.

On  Good Friday I participated in one of the most meaningful experiences of my years  in ministry.

At the conclusion of Elmbrook’s Good Friday service the congregation went to cross stations. When a person arrived at the station, a pastor marked their arm with a marker attached to a metal spike. This act symbolized the act of crucifixion.  While marking their arm, the pastor looked into the person’s eyes and repeated Jesus’ declaration, “It is finished.

Initially I was unsure about this experience, but I was quickly struck by its power. I looked hundreds of people in the eyes (Dancing eyes. Tearful eyes. Relieved eyes. Thankful eyes.), take their arms (White arms. Brown arms. Small arms. Bulging arms. Arms with cuts.), and proclaim God’s grace.  I saw God’s grace deeply move people.  I was also able to receive that grace myself.

I did not want those moments to end … but the service concluded.

Here are a few ways to continue living in the beauty and power of “It is finished.”

1. Personally Engage Others: There was something powerful about touching a person’s arm and looking them deep in the eyes.  All of us are made for deep connection. Yet, we often just pass by people while hurrying on to the next thing. We can break that pattern by intentionality looking into the eyes of others.

2. Extend God’s Grace to Others: While saying “It is finished” to people at the service, I was proclaiming that the grace of God has taken care of their “it.” We all an “it” that is weighing us down. This weight visibly lifted from many people as they heard God’s grace proclaimed. We do not have to wait until Good Friday to proclaim this good news. The grace of God should flavor our conversation.

3. Remember God’s Grace is for You: Part of the beauty of seeing the grace of God relieve others was that I had a deeper realization of that grace for myself. I often pick up burdens of  anxiety, pressure, guilt and shame. I need reminders of the good news, “It is finished.” That old way of life is dead. I do not have to bear the weight any more. I can live in freedom, even after Good Friday.