Monday, September 29, 2014

Plotting a Coup? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17A

Matthew 21:33-46 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: 
‘The stone that the builders rejected     has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing,     and it is amazing in our eyes’? 
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
                Jesus once again returns to the image of the vineyard – an image that spoke of Israel (God’s vineyard – Isaiah 5:1-2, 7).  As Matthew’s Gospel moves us toward the cross, we watch Jesus’ engagement with the religious leadership in the aftermath of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  They see him laying claim to the kingdom of God.  The religious leaders, who view Jesus as a threat to the stability of society, find themselves resisting his message.  Indeed, according to Matthew, they are plotting to kill Jesus.  And so, Jesus seeks to “out” them with this parable. 

                The vineyard has been planted, the watchtower erected, and a fence put up.  Now, all that the landowner (God?) needs is tenants to keep watch over it while away.  Where the landowner goes, we’re not told.  But it is clear that the landowner has leased out the land and expects that those who have been entrusted with the vineyard will take care of it and be ready to provide the landowner with the fruit of their labor when the harvest is due to be taken in – after all the land and the vineyard is his and he should expect something from it. 

                So, the landowner sends slaves to receive the owner’s share.  But the tenants refuse and instead mistreat them – even killing one of them.  Who are these slaves whom the owner has sent to get his due?  They are, most assuredly, the Prophets, whose message rarely was received with gratitude and graciousness.  Prophets tended to be mistreated – remember that Jeremiah was imprisoned and later tortured to death. 

                When the people refuse to listen to the slaves/prophets, the landowner decides to send his son.  Surely they will respect him and provide him with the expected share.  But once again, they choose a different course of action.  Seeing the landowner’s son arrive, they get grandiose ideas.  What if we kill the heir?  Wouldn’t that mean we would get the inheritance?  Now, why they would think this is beyond me, unless there is a clause in the estate plan of the landowner that the tenants get the vineyard in case of the son’s death.  Surely that isn’t the case? 

                But this is deal about the inheritance is not the point.  The issue here is whether the religious leaders are open to a revelation from God that deviates from what they think is the norm?   Appealing to the words of the Psalmist, Jesus speaks of the cornerstone, which the builders rejected – thus undermining the entire structure (Psalm 118:22-23).  As we read this we must be cognizant of a long tradition of reading this passage in an anti-Jewish/supersessionist manner.  That is, down through the ages Christians have read into this passage the idea that God has tossed aside the Jewish people, replacing the covenant relationship God has with them for a new one made with Christians.  Thus, we are now the Covenant people of God.  But Jesus never casts judgment on the Jewish people.  He does challenge the leadership, and Jesus continues to challenge/judge religious leadership. 

                Religious leaders have a duty to faithfully pass on the faith, from one generation to another.  They have a responsibility to resist those who would undermine the Gospel.  At the same time they have a duty to be aware of what God is saying in each new generation.  The canon of Scripture has, for most Christians, been closed for at least sixteen centuries, but as the United Church of Christ identity statement suggests – God is still speaking.  The question is whether we can discern that voice when it comes to us.  In our refusal to attend to this voice, we essentially kill the heir in order to receive the inheritance.  What is that inheritance?  Control over the church.  Too often the leaders stand as guardians of the truth and miss out on what God is saying to the church, especially when they perceive those bearing this word as challenging their authority.  As Cynthia Jarvis puts it:
Looking back, we remember with shame the church’s response to prophetic voices concerning racial injustice and the role of women.  Presently, we stone those whose words challenge the reigning economic order or definition of the family. [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 2, 180]
Indeed, consider the push back against Pope Francis’ emphasis on economic justice and decision to live more simply, while calling on the rest of the hierarchy to do the same.  Not everyone likes the message.  They would prefer he stick to “moral” issues and stay out of economics. 

                In the end the land owner comes back and throws out the tenants.  Actually the landowner will put them to a “miserable death.”  This statement of judgment is disconcerting to many.  We want the God of Jesus to be kindlier and gentler.  We prefer a God who loves everyone with a permissiveness that doesn’t disrupt our comfort zone.  That may be the reason why this parable rarely makes it on the list of most beloved parables.  In fact, none of the vineyard parables are very popular!  Still, despite our discomfort with the parable, even those who claim to love everyone, including their enemies, can’t help but gloat a bit when our purported enemies get their comeuppance.   Yes, there is a bit of that good old schadenfreude even in the most gracious ones among us. 

                As the passage comes to a close, the religious leaders recognize that Jesus has pointed the finger of judgment at them.  They want to get him, but they’re afraid of the crowds who hail him as a prophet.  The want to keep from making him a martyr – and therefore putting him in a class with previous prophets, including John the Baptist.   They will have to wait for another opening. 

                So the question for us is this – how open are we to the prophetic word that comes from God?  Are we tempted to do in the messenger?  We who are preachers, are we willing to listen to new voices, even as we seek to safeguard the tradition passed down from generation to generation?  What are the issues we need to wrestle with?  Race seems to always be on the table, as is true of women in church and society.  What about the equality of LGBTQ folks?  Then there's the issue of God's preferential option for the poor -- does God have such a preference?  What is Jesus saying to us?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Where Is the Water? -- A Sermon from Exodus 17 for Pentecost 16A

Exodus 17:1-7

The Psalmist cries out:

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
   my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
   as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.  (Psalm 63:1)

Here in Michigan we don’t live in a “dry and weary land where there is no water.” No, we live in a state that is surrounded by 20% of the world’s fresh water.  So, thirst isn’t at the top of our concerns – is it?  

But, if you’ve ever traveled through the desert, you’ve seen a “dry and wear land.”  Just looking out the window at the desolate landscape can make you thirsty.  You might even begin to get an uneasy feeling, fearing what would happen if the car stalled. What would you do?  Did you bring enough water with you?  While many plants and animals that have adapted to the desert, human beings aren’t quite so well equipped.

As we think about the importance of water, perhaps we can look farther afield – to outer space.  I was listening to Science Friday on NPR and a University of Michigan scientist was talking about the possible discovery of water on a planet 170 light years away. That’s exciting because the presence of water means that life might be present there. Without water life can’t exist, so scientists look for it when they’re exploring the stars and planets.  In fact, it’s good to remember that our bodies, on average, are composed of about 65% water.  Some of us have more than others, but if you take away the water, we won’t exist.

So it’s no wonder water plays an important role in the biblical story.  If we go back to the beginning, we find that the Spirit hovers over the waters of chaos (Genesis 1:2).  God will divide these waters to form the dry land upon which we human beings will live.  Water gives life, but as the story of Noah reminds us – it can also take life.  Drought brought Israel to Egypt and then Israel escaped Egypt by marching through the Sea and into the desert, where they finally experienced freedom.  

Water also appears in the New Testament story.  John baptizes with water as a sign of repentance, and Jesus begins his own ministry in the waters of baptism.  Jesus will walk on the water and calm the sea.  On the Day of Pentecost those who follow Jesus are baptized – as is the household of Cornelius, welcoming the Gentiles into the community of faith.

This morning we get another snapshot of Israel’s journey from slavery to the Promised Land and water figures prominently in this episode.  When they set up camp at Rephidim they discover that there isn’t any water, because this is a “dry and weary land.”  They begin to complain – so loudly that Moses starts fearing for his life.  They cry out: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  They understood that without access to fresh water, they would die and so they had begun to wonder where God was leading them, and if God was even with them.  Once again it seemed as if Moses was leading them to their deaths – and they weren’t happy about it.  Even Moses begins to wonder what God is up to.

Moses may be impatient – I would be impatient – but God is patient with this people whom God is molding into a community.  It seems as if God is testing their resolve.  But, apparently God had seen enough, and so God directs Moses to strike a group of rocks with the staff he struck the Nile with.  When he does this, the water begins to flow and the people are saved.  Now they have all the water they could want.  The question is – do they trust God to provide?  

It is good to remember that once again God taps into nature’s abundance to sustain the people. God doesn’t create water out of thin air.  Instead as Terence Fretheim suggests, “God’s actions enable their hidden creative potential to surface” [Exodus: Interpretationp. 190]. What is needed is guidance, and God provides it.  Is this not true for us as well?

As I was meditating on this passage, I began to think about all the ways in which water functions in our world.  Too much water can destroy – as a number of you experienced during the recent flooding.  Not enough water – as is true in California and Oregon – is also dangerous.  After seven years of drought, the fire season continues unabated, and the people are facing severe water restrictions.  While less visible, scientists are discovering that global temperatures are rising, glaciers are receding, and sea levels are rising.  The question is – how will we respond to these realities?  Will we take the steps necessary to slow down climate change so that life can continue to flourish?  

More visible to us have been several interesting events that remind us that even in our region, where water is abundant, access to water can be an issue.  Remember when the algae blooms on Lake Erie shut down Toledo’s water system?  Despite the abundance of water, because agricultural runoff spurred the algae blooms, the water that sustains Toledo and Monroe and other places along the western shores of Lake Erie didn’t have safe drinking water.

Then there is the debate over the development of a regional water system, which the county executives have agreed to and the Detroit City Council has approved.  All that is needed now is the approval of the three county commissions. Tied up with this debate is the question of whether access to water is a human right or a privilege.  If it is a human right, then should water be turned off, especially if people are too poor to pay their bills?  There has been a lot of debate over all of this, but once again the importance of water to life has been highlighted.  It’s one thing to water a lawn in the desert and another to have safe drinking water in a city with an abundance of water surrounding it.

Water is so central to life that many of the world’s conflicts, especially in places where water is scarce, centers on who gets control of the water.  It is, for instance, a key component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Getting back to the people of Israel camped out at Rephidim.  This is a thirsty people.  They’re wondering about their survival.  They’re wondering whether God has their best interests in mind.  Maybe, just maybe, Moses is little more than a magician serving a malevolent deity out to get them.  Isn’t that how God is pictured in Job?  Besides, maybe this isn’t really the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Maybe this God is little more than a mirage!  Yes, where is God now that they’ve entered the heart of the desert?  
The question of God’s absence is an important one.  If we’re honest, we have all experienced that sense of absence.  Some people more so than others.  We might find ourselves crying out with Israel “is the Lord among us or not?”

After Mother Teresa died, we learned that for much of her life, despite her holiness and service to others, she experienced the complete absence of God’s presence.  Even as she cared for the sick, the hungry, the dying, she felt like she was alone in the darkness. Yes, she was thirsting for God in a “dry and weary land, where there is no water,” and she never found relief.  Still, she remained faithful to her calling.

As the people of God we are on a journey, and sometimes that journey takes us into the desert.  So, with the psalmist we thirst for God, about whom the Psalmist declares:

15 He split rocks open in the wilderness,
   and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock,
   and caused waters to flow down like rivers.  (Psalm 78:15-16).

So, when we find ourselves camped in a spot where there appears to be no water available, and when we find ourselves thirsty and wondering whether God is present, the Psalmist promises us that God will be faithful.  The question is – do we thirst after God, “as in a dry and weary land, where there is no water?”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Pentecost 16A
September 28, 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Living in a Post-Theodosian World?

I have been reading Scot McKnight's Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church(Brazos, 2014), in which Scot emphasizes the linkage between the local church and the kingdom of God. He insists that to live in the kingdom, one must live under the rule of King Jesus.  The role of the church is not to transform the world, but rather bear witness to kingdom values within an alternative community.  There is something enticing about building the church, and thus building the kingdom. But I'm not convinced.  In fact, I think that it can lead us to further abdicate responsibility for this world.  For me the mission that Jesus sends us on is rooted in the Abrahamic one of being a blessing to the nations.  My full review will have to wait for my finishing the book, but in my reflecting on this and other conversations about the role of the church in the world, I had this idea.  Perhaps we're not living in a post-Constantinian world, but a post Theodosian one.

Friday, September 26, 2014

For ISIS, the United States’ Military Strikes Confirm God’s Favor -- Sightings (Jeffrey Kaplan)

You might say that what is happening in Iraq and Syria is a battle for the soul of Islam.  For many Muslims ISIS or ISIL or IS is an apostate version of Islam.  They don't wish to accord it legitimacy than most Christians want to accord legitimacy to the Aryan Nation or Westboro Baptist Church.  But there are others, taken with apocalyptic visions of service to the cause of world Islam who are quite happy to follow one who claims to be Caliph and might even be the expected Mahdi (an Islamic Messiah).  In this Sightings piece, Jeffrey Kaplan points out the religious foundations for this movement that has sent shivers up the spines of persons everywhere.  Since the essay leaves us without a concluding interpretation, I will leave that up to you to consider what all of this means.  

For ISIS, the United States’ Military Strikes Confirm God’s Favor
Thursday | Sept 25 2014
Territory under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria                  Image: screenshot
President Obama’s decision to engage directly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) means that the United States is poised for yet another post-9/11 Middle Eastern conflict. This essay describes the world as seen through the eyes of ISIS fighters and their wider Muslim audiences.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


RED, BROWN, YELLOW, BLACK, WHITE WHO'S MORE PRECIOUS IN GOD'S SIGHT?: A call for diversity in Christian missions and ministry By Leroy Barber with Velma Maia Thomas.  New York:  Jericho Books, 2014.  Xiv + 206 pages.

The election of Barack Obama as President gave, for a moment, the illusion that America was now a post-racial society.  It was time to celebrate the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had been fulfilled.  Yes, we had reached the goal where people are now judged not by the “color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  If only this were true.  While many White Americans are convinced that President Obama’s election heralded a new day in America, facts on the ground should have disabused us of that notion.  Yes, we elected a Black President, but many of the problems facing people of color, which the Civil Rights Movement hoped to deal with, remain with us.  So, is it really time to move on to other things, having checked this issue off the list?  

Although great strides have been made over the past fifty years, eleven o’clock on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week.  The power structures in the religious world remain largely in the hands of the White majority, who largely control the purse strings of our religious institutions.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Resident Aliens -- Sightings (Martin E. Marty)

It has been 25 years since Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon published their provocative book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition).  As is often true of anniversaries, there has been an effort to commemorate it.  Among those efforts is that of Christian Century.  Since my copy hasn't arrived in my mail box I've yet to read the responses.  The book itself has inspired much conversation about what it means to be Christian in America.  What kind of distance should we place between church and state.  Hauerwas especially has gained quite a following on this issue.  I'm reading Scot McKnight's Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Churchwhich is an expression of this vision of the church staying separate.  The question that seems to be raised by critics is whether this is possible, and whether it is a luxury that upper middle class whites can bask in.  I can't remember if I read the book back in the day.  If I did, I know longer have a copy.  So, I'll invite you to read Martin Marty's take and offer your own.

Resident Aliens
Monday | Sept 22 2014
Stanley Hauerwas (left) and William H. Willimon                     Image: Duke Divinity School brochure
“Resident Aliens” is a coinage that became the book title, Resident Aliens, by the never-dull duo Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. In a rare tribute,The Christian Century revisited the book twenty-five years later—a virtual half-millennium in the fast-changing world of religious life and publishing today.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Going to the Head of the Line -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16A

Matthew 21:23-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)  

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father[a] went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

            The world works in a hierarchical manner.  There are the elites (the 1%), who have money and power, and expect to be able to exert it.  There is always a bottom group (47%?), those who are poor and struggle to make a living.  They live at a subsistence level – from pay check to pay check (if that).  Then there are those in the middle.  There are actually many levels to this middle, from those who manage to live just above the poverty line to those who are knocking on the door of the elite.  There is often a hierarchy to religious life as well – and it’s not just a clergy/laity divide.  There are different levels of clergy – their status often dependent on the size of their congregations.  Sometimes, especially in smaller contexts, where pastors (often young ones) come and go with some regularity, it is the clergy that can be found at the bottom of the pile.  I remember my time in Santa Barbara a colleague telling me that his congregation essentially treated him as if he were a service worker.  That is, they didn’t really see the difference between his professional status and that of a worker at McDonalds.  Now, we who are clergy are supposed to be servants, but having an advanced degree and years of service as a pastor should gain someone at least a degree of respect.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Witnessing to Peace

Yesterday was the International Day of Peace.  It is a United Nation's sponsored observance, serving to remind a world that finds peace a difficult goal to achieve, that no matter the difficulties, it is a goal to pursue.  One needn't be a pacifist to be committed to the pursuit of peace.  So, whether we are a pacifist or not, we can bear witness to the call to peace.  Jesus said:  "Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called the Children of God."  Surely that is a family would aspire to!

The Troy-area Interfaith Group, which I serve as Convener, has been celebrating this annual event for much of its decade-long existence, and yesterday TIG partnered with my congregation to draw together the community of Troy and its neighbors to give witness to peace from a variety of faith traditions.  The TIG observance was held in partnership with my own congregation -- Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) -- which was dedicating (planting) a new Peace Pole.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

God Provides the Meal -- Sermon for Pentecost 15A

Exodus 16:2-15

When you are hungry, a good meal is always welcomed.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  It just has to be filling.  

I remember back to my early days living in the Pasadena YMCA.  I didn’t have a lot of money, so I lived on a daily ration of a micro-waved frozen poor boy sandwich and cupful of imitation kool-aid.  I kept the poor boys and the gallon jug in the little fridge at the bookstore where I worked.  You can imagine how I felt when Peggy, the store’s assistant manager, would invite me home for a meal and the opportunity to wash my clothes.  It was like manna from heaven.

As we continue our journey through the Exodus story, the thrill of freedom confronts the reality of hunger.  The people begin complaining – again –  “Did you bring us out here to the desert to starve to death?”  If only we’d stayed back in Egypt where we could enjoy the “fleshpots of Egypt.” Yes, perhaps slavery is better than starvation.

Friday, September 19, 2014

I Survived a Short Term Mission Trip to Honduras! -- Sightings (Brian Howell)

Many churches schedule short term mission trips for their youth. Some travel overseas and others go to places where need is perceived here in the state. Many go to disaster relief sites. I have been intimately involved in the establishment of a mission station in Detroit. For the past four summers mission teams have been coming to Detroit through two ministries my congregation has partnered with -- Motown Mission and Rippling Hope (Gospel in Action Detroit). Motown just finished its tenth season and is a United Methodist related effort. Rippling Hope has its roots in the Disciples, but it seeks to be ecumenical, while Gospel in Action Detroit is a Michigan Region effort working in partnership with Rippling Hope and Motown Mission.  I share this say that I see the value in Short Term Missions, but I also know that there can be a dark side that needs to be acknowledged.  This mixture is explored in brief in this Sightings piece from Wheaton College Anthropology Professor, Brian Howell.  Take a read and offer your thoughts.  

I Survived a Short Term Mission Trip to Honduras!
Thursday | Sept 18 2014
High School Seniors Mission Trip to Costa Rica (August 2007)                Photo: First Baptist Church Nashville
This past summer, as I waited for my plane in Tegucigalpa, I browsed one of the airport’s many gift shops looking for something for my 14-year-old son and found, among the soccer jerseys and dried toads, a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with a colorful bus and the black lettering: “I Survived a Short Term Mission Trip to Honduras!”

With most schools back in session, we’re coming to the end of Short Term Mission (STM) season. Waves of missionaries will head out again during Christmas and Spring break. Combining adventure tourism with Christian charity, STMs have exploded in popularity in the past twenty years. Conservative estimates put the number of U.S. participants at 1.6 million per year. These trips of service and evangelism range from domestic stints that may only last a few days to international voyages that last weeks or months. They provide members of every denomination significant encounters with new contexts, unfamiliar cultures, and poverty.

As an anthropologist and a Christian, I have a conflicted relationship with STMs. I find them both fascinating and a bit repulsive. These trips often take relatively naive U.S. Americans into vulnerable communities around the world. While the neo-colonial dynamics are inescapable, the host communities are savvy and the encounter is complex.

I have studied these trips and it is clear that STM groups have served as links to powerful communities (creating “bridging capital”) and provided important resources to under-resourced places. STM travelers attest that the trips are “life changing.” The changes may not always be expected (or desired) changes but there’s no doubt that these encounters cause some visitors to redirect their lives towards service and social justice.

A larger question is “what does the popularity of these trips suggest about U.S. Christianity generally?” Is there something greater to the importance of these travels in the lives of 21st Century Christians?

Scholars of tourism have long argued that tourism is a kind of secular ritual where alienated moderns create liminal spaces in which to experience authenticity andcommunitas. Structuring tourist spaces as “sights,” and tourist performance as “not home,” vacationers uses tourism to escape temporarily the anomie of contemporary life by indulging in hedonism and rituals of renewal.

STMers are well aware of the overlap with tourism, and, in many cases, work very hard to distance themselves from the identity of “tourist.” The most withering critique of these trips is that they’re “just Christian tourism.” Yet STM travelers employ much of the same language of seeking something “authentic,” and of being renewed by their travels that scholars of tourism note as central to tourist narratives.

The difference is that STM travelers seek authentic spiritual experiences, rather than “the real Costa Rica” or “authentic Italy.” The STMer finds “true faith” and people who “really know how to rely on God” among the poor. Contemporary life, cluttered with technology, squeezed by competing demands, and oppressed by pressures to succeed, appears virtually un-Christian when compared with the (seeming) simplicity of the life of the poor. Like retreats, camps, and neo-monastic practices, STMs offer the fragmented Christian self a chance to re-imagine a more authentic and purer faith.

This is not to say that STM visitors exclusively or explicitly romanticize poverty. But even when they hear stories of suffering and exploitation and they express compassion and righteous anger, participants in STM teams often fail to connect the poverty they witness to colonial history, the globalizing economy, and institutional problems.

Too often, the take-away is that we, who enjoy relative wealth, have an obligation to help, but that there isn’t really much we can do. The poor serve as a kind of shrine and the trip as a pilgrimage. The solutions, if there are any, are internal to the country. The only difference we can make, as concerned outsiders, is to sign-up for more trips and to build more houses.

Of course there are models of STM that explicitly address the causes of poverty and the ways rich countries are both implicated and responsible. Christians themselves are some of the toughest faultfinders of STM, and they have in some cases sought to address these cultural dynamics in creative and effective ways. At the same time, there is no doubt that the symbolic nature of the encounter in STM is fraught with overlapping meanings often unexamined by those planning and participating in these trips, some of which work against the intended goals.

As Christians everywhere gear up for the next STM season in December, we would do well to consider how we might make these travels an opportunity to thrive for all who participate on both sides of the trip, and not simply an encounter to survive.

Beek, Kurt Ver. “The Impact of Short-Term Missions: A Case Study of House Construction in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch.” Missiology 34, no. 4 (2006): 477–497.

Howell, Brian M. Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.

Linhart, Terry. “Planting Seeds: The Curricular Hope of Short Term Missions Experiences in Youth Ministry.” Christian Education Journal 2, no. 2 (2005): 256–272.

Offutt, Steve. “The Role of Short-Term Mission Teams in the New Centers of Global Christianity.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50, no. 4 (2011): 796–811.

Priest, Robert. Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right!. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Press, 2008.

Wuthnow, Robert. Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Wuthnow, Robert, and Steve Offutt. “Transnational Religious Connections.” Sociology of Religion 69, no. 2 (2008): 209–232.

Photo Credit: First Baptist Church Nashville
Author, Brian Howell, (Ph.D. Washington University in St. Louis) is Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College, Illinois. He is the author of Christianity in the Local Context: Southern Baptists in the Philippines (2008), Short Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (2012), and co-author of Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (2011).

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Gospel and the Importance of Theology

Divinity School, Oxford

I hear too regularly that the Christian faith isn't about theology -- or something to that effect.  For liberals and even some moderates, in our desire to break free from a narrow dogmatism, we can throw off too much of those beliefs and practices that have proven central to the faith.  In the age of Christendom, which has now largely dissipated, culture reinforced religion.  As Christendom has disintegrated those elements of society that propped churches and religious life are now absent.  So, when I hear fellow clergy say that its about community and not theology that defines our lives, I'm left wondering what the difference is between the church and the PTA or Kiwanis or simply a coffee klatch.  

In recent years I  have found Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall to be thoughtful and provocative in his writings.  In his relatively recent book, Waiting for the Gospel, Hall lift s up the importance of theology.  Christianity if it is to continue existing in those post-Christendom age requires of us a certain amount of reflection and thinking.  It is not a matter of narrow dogmatism, but deep and concise thinking about the faith that has been passed on to us.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hillsong -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Many years ago -- before I was born -- Aimee Semple McPherson made news with her blend of revival religion and media savvy. She was a Pentecostal evangelist he planted a church, launched a denomination and a Bible College, while establishing one of the first Christian radio stations.  Since she burst on the scene in the early 1920s, many mega-church movements have come on the scene.  One of the most recent is a transplant from Australia, which is probably best known for the music it produces.  Apparently Hillsong, which now has planted a congregation in Los Angeles caught the eye of the New York Times, and from there of Martin Marty.  He provides some interesting insight into this church and its influence on the current religious scene.  As always, take a read and offer your thoughts.   

Monday | Sept 15 2014
Hillsong Sydney, Australia, Praise and Worship                               Image: James Kirsop / Compfight
“Hillsong.” Never heard of Hillsong, the Australian Pentecostal megachurch? Readers of the New York Times have no excuse to be in the dark, thanks to the (Sept. 9) headlined story, “Megachurch with a Beat Lures a Young Flock.”

The Times’ main religion reporter, Michael Paulson, by concentrating on Hillsong Los Angeles, Hillsong’s first church-plant on the West Coast, gave a glimpse of the now world-wide initiative. Anything which attracts young people, “millennials” and all, to religion of any sort is likely to draw attention, given the easy-to-gain perception that the numbers who are serious about religion are declining in Western Europe and North America.

It’s too soon to assess the odds on the potential expansion, survival, and durability of Hillsong. Will it have its hour and then wane, as did “Mainline and Catholic Charismatic Movements,” “Jesus People,” and the like? Or will it live up to its promise, its pledges, and its advertisements?

In its favor is the fact that it is connected with Pentecostal/charismatic movements in Africa, Asia, etc., where these movements are prominent. Paulson’s Times article (see “Sources”) describes it as a “megachurch powered by a recording label that dominates Christian contemporary music.” Hillsong, he writes, “has become a phenomenon.”

That “up” contrasts with Hillsong’s “downs” noted in the Paulson piece: “Washington: Closings and Layoffs for Megachurch” and “A Brash Style that Filled Pews, Until Followers Had Their Fill.” There’s also the drastic come-down of Mark Driscoll, inventor of a once-prospering Seattle church-empire, or “Archbishop, Under Fire Over Abuse, Apologizes but Says He Won’t Resign,” in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

More positive, to those who favor these subjects: “U.S. Religious Leaders Embrace Cause of Immigrant Children,” or “Pastor Led Son’s Gay Wedding, Revealing Fault Line in [United Methodist] Church.” Follow the links in Paulson’s piece for more details.

My point: this Jesus-centered explosion would be classified as “Evangelical,” as opposed to “Catholic” or “Mainline.” But if Evangelical ever meant “conservative,” forget it, in these trends and terms. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research observes, “In sensory stimulation, Hillsong’s productions rival any other contemporary form of entertainment.”

Paulson reports that this “hipster Christianity” is thin on theology and thick on enthusiasm for celebrities (Justin Bieber, etc.). He quotes R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who judges that Hillsong’s distinction is its “minimization of the actual content of the Gospel, and a far more diffuse presentation of spirituality.” Yet attention must be paid. How can it not?

Stetzer reminds us that “Evangelicals have been a rural people historically, and that the cities were the places where sin was.” Yet Hillsong is in love with cities. In more and more of them, on several continents, the “spiritually anointed” gather in former ballrooms and night clubs, and deal with long lines of young and youngish people attracted to these forms of worship
There is some change within the church founded by Australians Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie. Some observers have seen a few Hillsong positions moderating a bit after their early-on disapproval of abortion and gay sex. Leaders may be responsive to theological and social critiques from left and right alike. But for the moment, Brian Houston says, they are busy being “strategic,” and are making headlines.

As for me, I’ll join Stetzer and others in listening and observing—from a safe distance.


Paulson, Michael. “Megachurch With a Beat Lures a Young Flock.” New York Times, September 9, 2014, U.S.

"Michael Paulson." New York Times biography. Accessed September 14, 2014.

Chaves, Mark, Shawna Anderson and Jason Byassee. “American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century.” 2006-07 Duke University National Congregations Study. Accessed September 14, 2014.

Image: Hillsong Sydney, Australia, Thursday night Praise and Worship
Image Credit: James Kirsop / Compfight creative commons

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
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