Engaging Culture

Engaging Culture

Certain words overtime become less and less useful. There has been a great deal of discussion around the word “Evangelical” in Ireland and in the US as many think of it referring a certain brand of politics than a certain type of Jesus follower.

Missions is another of those words. For many, missions is about people who move overseas, or into a specific people group to share the good news. There is often a “romanticised” notion of the the word that proves unhelpful. For those not in the church, missions often conjures up the idea of one civilisation imposing its culture on another. 

Thankfully many parts of the church have begun recapturing the idea that God is a God of mission, and if we are followers of his…regardless of where we reside, we are part of that mission. Missions and missionary seem like words it might be time to retire.

When Elizabeth and I first moved Ireland, we made a conscious decision to take at least two years to learn Irish/Dublin culture, explore the city, and simply become part of the neighbourhood. We could have tried to start a church like the one we planted in Ithaca, but we knew it would be something that would likely never connect to the larger culture in Dublin. It would always be ‘foreign’. 

In the recent Christianity Today article on Netflix and missions, the author argues that things like Netflix and Facebook (among other technologies) were new challenges for those who want to connect to a new culture. (I agree).

But, that desire to connect to a new culture has been one of the biggest, and most positive shifts over the past few decades. The simple desire to connect with and become part of a new country and culture hasn’t always been a priority.

Let me share two stories.

In 1990, we were part of a short term missions team in The Philippines. At one point the pastor who was hosting us took us to visit a church led an American pastor. He pastored a poor church in the Cebu area. He himself lived in a gated community some distance from the people in his church. And while most of his congregation spoke no English, that was all he spoke. The host pastor wanted us to learn something from that experience. 

Flash forward twenty years. 

Shortly after moving here we met an American family who lived near us. They were part of a of team trying to church plant in the same area we were. One night Liz and I went to dinner with their team and while we enjoyed our time, we left with a few concerns about the team leaders. 

The wife told Elizabeth that everyday she has to tell herself, “TINA”. This Is Not America. She explained that nearly every encounter she had in Ireland made her wish she was back in the States. As you probably guessed, they moved back to America within a couple years. On the one hand, she was clearly correct. Not only is Ireland a small island in Europe, they do many things differently they are done in the States. Having just gone through getting a mortgage and buying a house, I would much prefer the American system. And don’t even get me started on Irish banks. But when it comes to the medical system…specifically when you have a kid with special needs…I’m picking the Irish system just about every time…And our kids will graduate from Iris universities with no student loans. 

There is so much to love and enjoy about Irish culture. But imagine moving to a place and every day your focus is on how much better you think the old place was rather than looking for the places of beauty in your new home…simply practising gratitude. You’ll simply be miserable…until you leave.

That is one of the ways things like Facebook or FaceTime can make enculturation difficult…it allows us to stay connected…although tangentially to our home culture…which can make it less necessary to fully live in your new home.

The organisation that Liz and I are part of, Communitas, is a good example of the transition that has taken place. When Communitas began 50 years ago, their vision was to plant international churches (English speaking) in major European cities. They did and many of them grew. Not a bad thing, but if you are an American, think about it in reverse. A group of Germans move to your town and plant a German speaking congregation. How do you see that going? Who is drawn to them?

Currently, while Communitas still plants churches, they place now place a much larger emphasis on embedding in culture. Learning to listen and engage with culture, and become a part of it. It was actually that idea of embedding that drew Liz and me to Communitas…We often struggled to explain to people why we wanted to take a couple years to learn the city and the culture. This gave us language for that.

Embedding in a culture is an ongoing process. You always have more to learn…and culture is always shifting. At times it is a challenge, but it is rarely boring!

Posted by bob in culture, 0 comments
Netflix and Missions

Netflix and Missions

Yesterday I read Rachel Kleppen’s article in Christianity Today entitled, Netflix Is Making It Harder to Be a Missionary. Kleppen is a missionary in Taipei, Taiwan and the article was and focused on how the internet and social media (among other advances) make being a missionary challenging.

There was a lot of great stuff in the article and I want to use it as a jumping off point to share a number of things I’ve been working through since our family landed in Ireland 7 years ago. If you haven’t read it, I invite you to do that before reading any further. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

The article has started a bunch of thoughts and ideas bouncing around in my head. I won’t get to them all in one post, but I do want to share a few of them over the next week or so. However, I need to start with my one frustration and get it out of the way…

Let me say at the start that I in no way take issue, with anything Kleppen wrote. Again, I thought it was a great article on an important topic. That said, I do want to challenge the title of the article “Netflix Is Making It Harder to Be a Missionary.”

Netflix is not making it harder to be a missionary.

Netflix and social media are a new challenges that missionaries face. In many ways they present challenges…but they also provide opportunities. Since Netflix is ubiquitous, it can serve as a point of connection and a conversation starter, and even an opportunity to discuss spiritual themes in some of the shows.

While I found the headline frustrating, I assume that as with newspapers, the writer didn’t write the headline. There was nowhere in the article where Kleppen indicated she views missions today as harder. In fact she points out that there were some things that previous generations had to go through that we don’t. Sadly headlines often have far more weight than they should.

The Apostle Paul shared the gospel in a Gentile world that had never heard of Jesus…and as he wrote, it was often seen as foolishness. We share the gospel in a world that believes they already know all there is to know about Jesus, and can point to some pretty horrific things people have done in his name.

We can agree they are very different challenges without getting into which is harder.

So clearly I can learn a lot from what Paul did and said. But I have to take his context and mine in to consideration. We simply have different challenges (one of my challenges being that I am not Paul).

Like I said…there was a lot in the article that got my brain moving…I’ll share more soon. But for now, I need to do some enculturating and watch the All-Ireland! (Up the Dubs!)

Posted by bob in culture, 0 comments
I Heard You The Third Time

I Heard You The Third Time

Confession time.

I sometimes have difficultly visiting other church services. I’ll talk myself up before I go: “Don’t be critical. See what God says and don’t stress about the stuff you normally stress about.”

There are certain aspects I love. I enjoy worshipping with a group of people…regardless of the songs or the quality of musician (well, to a degree:). I can easily join in. 

Liz , is occassionaly distracted by the quality of the music… not because she is critical, but because she is a good musician. She recognises an appreciates good music. And certain types of bad music feel like nails on a chalkboard.

While there are some songs that wreck my head, my challenge is usually with the preaching. When I was preaching/teaching on a regular basis, I put a lot of effort into improving. I would read books about preaching and public speaking. I would listen to sermon podcasts of good speakers. When that was the role God had me in, I took is seriously. 

In the past several months, I’ve experienced one of my biggest preaching pet peeves a couple times. The is teaching. Everything seems fine. And then the speaker gets to the verse that the sermon has been building towards.

Now, it could be anything:

“Store up treasures in heaven,”
“Resist the devil and he will flee,”
“Build your house on the rock,”
“Build on the foundation, that is Christ Jesus,”
“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”

Those are all great biblical exhortations that we should definitely put into practice. But instead of explaining how this looks in practice, they get to their key phrase, and then repeat it. 

Over and over and over and over. 

Almost as if they believe that if they say it enough times, people will understand what it means.

But that isn’t how it works. It isn’t how we learn. If your math teacher stood up and said: “A squared, plus B squared equals C squared.” They would correct. But if all they did for the rest of the class was repeat the formula over and over, no one would know what they were supposed to do with it. 

This should not come as a surprise, but we do not live in a biblically literate culture.

We do however live in a media literate culture.

I can write, “Yabba, Dabba, Do” or simply “Doh,” and I know that you are now thinking about two cartoon characters. You may even have a theme song running through your head.

There is no sense lamenting the fact that most of us are more influenced by cartoons, movies, and 24-hour news channels than we are by scripture. But if you are going to teach in the church, you had better recognise that fact. 

Back to our speaker. While they may (one would hope), know what it means to “build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ,” what percentage of their congregation does? 

How many could define the word “disciple,” let alone go out and make some?

One thing frustrates pastors is spending hours putting sermons together, and then nothing seeing no change in the lives of the congregation.

If I told you “to build your house on the rock.” Or to build it on the foundation that is Christ Jesus. Do you understand what I mean? Would it become more clear if I repeated it several times? Would you want me to make up my mind? Jesus or rock? 

(And because of our media culture, I’m now thinking about making a Dwayne Johnson joke.)

What if I said instead, “Let’s take a couple minutes a dig into what Jesus means when it tells us to ‘build on the rock.’” 

And then continued with, “What are some practical ways that we can do this? I’m going to invite a few people from the church to come and share what this verse has meant for them and how it has impacted their lives/faith/etc.”

This doesn’t guarantee that life change happens. It does mean that people who have heard you now have a better idea of what you, and what Scripture means. They might even have some practical things that they can do to take next steps. 

If you teach regularly in the church, know your listeners. If there are some who might not have a grasp of what you mean, instead of repeating yourself ad nauseum, take that time to explain what you mean. 

And if you are in a church where the speaker does something like this…ask. Not in a rude way, but rather with a desire to learn…”you made it seem like this was important, but I don’t understand…could you explain it to me?”

Clarity is a good thing.

Posted by bob in thoughts on church, 2 comments
Amazing

Amazing

One of the verses that had a huge impact on how I saw discipleship was a passage in Luke chapter 7. It is the story where the centurion sends someone to Jesus asking Jesus to heal his servant. And at the end of the story, Jesus is Amazed by the centurion’s faith and says he has not encountered such great faith even in Israel.

I’ve always thought if Jesus is amazed by something, we should learn what that is. So here is the passage. I’m sure you’ve read it a bunch of times, but read it carefully.

“When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.”

Luke 7:1-10 NIV

This is on my mind because I have a devotional that lands in my email inbox daily and I get a lot out of it. This morning he wrote about this passage. I began reading thinking, “I hope he gets the main point.” But while he shared a lot of good stuff, he missed it…but I find a lot of people do.

Here’s what I think he missed. The centurion tells Jesus, “like you I am in authority. I have solders under me.” Right? For the longest time, that is how I read that passage.

But actually, that is not what he says. The centurion claims to be, like Jesus, a man UNDER authority. He does say he has soldiers under him, but the first part of the sentence is about his submission to authority. Whose authority would that be? Caesar’s. As long as that centurion remained under Caesar’s authority, when he gave orders to his soldiers, he had the weight of the entire Roman Empire behind him. Disobey an order from this centurion and you don’t answer to him…you answer to Caesar.

(There is a longer post here about power and authority as well as authority based on position, versus authority based on who you are as a person…but not what I want to get at here.)

Just as the centurion recognises his authority comes from his standing with Caesar, he recognises that Jesus’ authority comes because he too is under authority.

And while we normally read this passage and focus on how Jesus has authority, it is a pretty clear concept in scripture that Jesus in under authority:

“Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.

By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”

John 5:19, 30 NIV

In Matthew 28, after his resurrection, he tells his disciples that all authority has been given to him.

Jesus authority came from his relationship with his Father. He only did what the Father told him to do. His Authority came from his relationship with the Father.

So why does this matter? Because we too, are to be people under authority. One of the ways Paul describes us is as ambassadors for Christ. Since we actually have ambassadors, this is often an easier term for us to understand than Lord or King.

What is an ambassador’s job? Basically to represent their country’s interests in a foreign nation. She does not have authority to negotiate treaties, or sign contracts…she can only do what her government tells her to. And if she stops doing that…she is recalled…and fired.

There were a lot of people who were amazed at Jesus’ authority…they heard his teaching, saw his works, and commented on his authority…which was so unlike the religious leaders of his day.

BUT, there was only one who amazed Jesus. It was the one who recognised where Jesus authority originated

(The image is one of Dublin Bay, which I am missing today)

Posted by bob in theology, 2 comments
A Sort of Anniversary

A Sort of Anniversary

Our first location…but much less snow that the first Sunday!

Earlier this month marked the 20th anniversary of day the church we planted in Ithaca held its first regular Sunday worship gathering. I remember a few things about that day.

  • It was snowy. 
  • Elizabeth showed up with Brenna who was 3 days old. 
  • There were 36 people in attendance. 
  • We took everyone out to Pizza Hut afterwards.

When we started that church, I hoped we would “make it.” That we would grow. That we would, last. And we did! (We did have two Sundays that first summer where we had a total of 8 people (counting the 5 Wilsons)…so, making it, didn’t always seems likely.)

Beyond becoming established, I had two contradictory thoughts concerning the future;

One was a hope that the church would still exist and be impacting Ithaca 100, even 200 years down the road. 

The other was thinking we should set a mandatory end date. 

If you read about the life cycle of a church, you’ll find that over time they tend to lose their outward focus and become more concerned with the maintenance and preservation of the organisation. The church becomes more focused on how to care for those who are already part of it, rather than how it reaches out, or how it makes disciples.

I used to wonder, what if after 25 years we stopped, broke up in the several groups and each started new churches in their communities. However, since I left in the thirteenth year of the church’s life, the idea was moot. And it is unlikely I ever would have done that…I probably would have been fired if I tried! 

I have always been more future-oriented than the past or present-oriented. One of my weaknesses as a leader was not celebrating successes along the way. Once we accomplished one goal, I immediately looked ahead for the next one. That wears people out. So I’ve been working on that.

But I left Ithaca with a hope that in 100 years, that church would still exist. However, after a couple of years in Ireland, things changed. Rather than being focused on the future of the church we had planted, we faced an ending. On our first trip back to the States in 2013, the church already had several people attending that I had never met. That was exciting.

However, we have not been back since. On our next trip to the States in 2016, the vast majority of our friends were no longer part of it as it began to go in a different direction than we had been going while we were there. (To be fair, during our last couple of years in Ithaca we were working on making course corrections that our leadership sensed were needed.)

I spent a good deal of time after our last two visits to the States thinking about how things had changed since we left. It was quite emotional. I wondered, “Was it my fault?” “Would things have worked out differently had Liz and I not moved?” “Did we let our friends, and our church family down?”

While I do still wonder about what would have been different had we stayed, we have no doubts that leaving Ithaca for Dublin was what God had planned for us. 

Where I’ve Landed

With all that bouncing around in my brain the past few years here is what I’ve come to believe. Whether the church we planted made it to 100 years, or 20 years is irrelevant. What matters is the community that was together for that period. “Did we care for each other?” “Did we help people come to know Jesus?” “Did we encourage, and exhort and work to build each other up in the faith?”  

We made so many good friends during those 13 yearsAnd I think that community living out what it meant to be God’s image-bearers in our city…trying love him, each other and our neighbour…that’s what matters.

And come on, is hoping the church “I” planted is still around in 100 years more about my legacy (glory), or God’s glory?

If the church we planted is still around in 80 more years, I hope it differs greatly from when we planted it. I imagine Ithaca will be a very different place in 2099, and I hope each church in that city is engaging their culture with the good news of the Kingdom!

That is what has been bouncing around my head for the past month.

Posted by bob in ithaca, 1 comment
Changing Things Up

Changing Things Up

A couple of years ago we began using a service that allowed us to communicate with ministry partners on a secure website. Over the past few months, we’ve been working to bring most of those functions to our website, thewilsonsindublin.com. 

We accomplished most of that in early December…which is probably when you began noticing that certain parts of the website required you to register to see them.

Around the same time, I decided to either drastically curtail Facebook…and the information I put up their…or delete my account altogether. For now, it is still there.

(Some of you have noticed that I created a new account and have sent me friend requests. Since I am still not sure what I am doing with Facebook, I have not accepted any requests…not even from my wife!)

Since then I’ve been trying to figure out how best continue to get certain relevant information out to our ministry partners, and also us this site to share privately, things we would have previously shared on Facebook.

Here is what we have settled on so far:

  1. We have changed the old blog (thewilsonsindublin.com/blog)
  2. We have started up this site (bobwilson.ie) for our public blog
  3. Beyond that, nearly everything is the same.

If you are not one of our ministry partners, you can still register on the other site. Select “friends and family,” and we’ll get you sorted! We will likely be sharing info like this shortly.

Hopefully, the transition does not have too many hiccups. Thanks for your patience.

Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions!

Posted by admin, 0 comments