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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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Divine Generosity -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A

Matthew 20:1-16 New Revised Standard Version

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

                What does the Kingdom of God (heaven) look like?  What are its marks?  Is it a spiritual entity?  Is it something that will emerge in another age, but not now?  Is the church an expression of the kingdom?  We hear a lot these days that Jesus didn’t come to establish the church, but rather the kingdom of God.  The church is therefore the poor imitation of the real thing.  Jesus speaks regularly of the kingdom – the basilea theou – usually in the form of parables.  Parables by their design both reveal and hide.  Parables are also culturally defined.  That is, they are rooted in the culture of the original audience.  We must therefore translate not only the words but the meaning if we’re to understand its message for today.