Monday, December 08, 2014

A GREAT READ

You owe it to yourself to buy and read "Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus" (Baylor University Press) by Reggie L. Williams. This short book is not an quick or easy read. It is chocked full of thought-provoking insights that Bonhoeffer gleaned from his year at Union Theological Seminary (NY), and especially his association with Abyssinia Baptist Church in Harlem. Bonhoeffer left America a different person than when he arrived. He was now a Christian! Without his Abyssinia experience, Bonhoeffer would not have stood with the oppressed Jews of Germany during WWII.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Immigration Makes Salvation Possible

Jesus was an immigrant. He and his family left their homeland and crossed the border into Egypt in order to escape Herod's hit squad. 


Had Jesus not escaped, He would have been one of the innocents who was murdered.


This means that immigration played an essential role in salvation history.


In fact, others in his ancestral line were immigrants who advanced salvation history. Think of Naomi and her family who moved to Moab, where her son married Ruth. Then the widowed Ruth, in turn, migrated to Bethlehem where she met Boaz and gave birth to Obed, the grandfather of King David, who fathered the royal line leading up to Jesus.


Without immigration there would have been no messiah and no salvation.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A KINGDOM APPROACH TO A CRITICAL PROBLEM

People everywhere are debating about the influx of illegal minors crossing the Texas border. Should they be allowed to stay or should they be sent back to their respective countries?

How should the church address the issue?

First, the churches in America represent the Kingdom of God and not the United States.

Second, the churches must follow the Scriptures, regardless of what the courts, Congress or the President decides. This means churches should open their doors to the strangers and foreigners among us. We should find homes for the migrant children; feed and clothe those who cannot fend for themselves.

The Scriptures are clear that Israel was to care for foreigners and aliens in their midst because they were once in the same boat in Egypt.

Here are a few of the many scriptural references:

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 22:21 ESV

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV

“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Leviticus 25:35 ESV

“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” Deuteronomy 10:18 ESV

“You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.” Ezekiel 47:22 ESV

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Zechariah 7:9-10 ESV

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness...against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” Malachi 3:5 ESV

Should the church do any different?

Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35 ESV

The writer of Hebrews exhorts, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2 ESV

The church needs to be proactive. Consider bringing this critical issue to your church board. Suggest that it adopt one of these little strangers in our midst. There are people in our congregations who are willing to open the doors of their homes and hearts. This is an opportunity to do something that is part of God’s kingdom agenda (Luke 4:18‒21).

When the lost in your community see the love of God in action in real time, they will get a glimpse of the Kingdom. 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The Gospel of the Kingdom Solves the Problem of Syncretism on the Mission Field

I just had a good email conversation with Mike Boyett, a pastor in Mississippi and former missionary about my book “Heaven on Earth” and its practical implications for missions and church discipleship. He said that while he was on the mission field he became “very concerned with what was being proclaimed and believed as the Gospel. I began to realize that what was being lived out—the dependency, the syncretism, the sacred/secular divide—was the inevitable consequence of what was taught (or not taught) by the missionaries. As I focused my reading to deal with many topics related to issues we were facing there, I developed a deep concern about how we were "packaging" the gospel message and the tragic neglect (or ignorance) of the Kingdom message that permeates all the Scriptures. I simply couldn't square our message with the sermons the Apostles preached in Acts nor the literary agenda of the Gospel writers.”

His mention of syncretism caught my attention. “Of course,” I thought, “a gospel that deals totally with the future has no relevance for the present situation. The natives will simply incorporate Jesus into their pantheism of gods.”

I wrote him back, and Mike elaborated on the issue, which I believe is so important that I thought you would like to read it too. His ideas are well thought out and clearly stated. His comments are packed with meat, so be prepared to put on your thinking caps. Here they are:

“The reality is that if the trajectory of history, contrary to much salvation preaching today, is from heaven to earth (the Word became flesh, the New Jerusalem comes to earth) rather than away from earth to heaven; and if the eschatological vision is the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2) rather than simply innumerable souls being saved and gathered in heaven, then this has huge implications for the mission of the church. It cannot be reduced simply to sermons and sacraments. People have to eat and work and marry and bring up children and govern their communities, etc. But the implications of the soul centered, heaven oriented message that has been taught to the nations in a hurry (often in a race to "reach" an arbitrary percentage of the population so Jesus will have to hurry up and rapture us) leaves the people wondering if God has much to do with the rest of life till we die. The transformation of culture is talked about but has no real place in the systems of theology that are pre-packaged in the West for mass-distribution abroad by short-term missionaries who are ignorant of the cultures they are in the midst of (I'm actually not as cynical as this sounds).

“Your reference to the end-time Jubilee (page 191) has implications for the priorities and concerns of the people of God today. If we do not have a message that is good news to captives of all sorts and hands that serve them in their need, then, for the perplexing issues people face in this life, they will simply resort to the ways their people have always handled them. Syncretism becomes almost inevitable. Christianity secures for them insurance for life after death, but the ways of their people practiced unthinkingly for generations provides the way to make sense of this life and sort out its problems.

“The eschatological vision given to us in Revelation not only celebrates racial diversity (Rev. 7:9-10), but cultural diversity as well. I simply love the picture of the New Jerusalem where the "nations walk and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.... They will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations (Rev. 21:34-26). This seems to imply that the unique cultures and cultural artifacts of the nations are in some measure transformed and brought as tribute to the Great King. In other words, when the Kingdom of God is embraced as good news, the peoples of the nations, at least in some measure, intentionally and uniquely attempt to craft their life, even in this present age, so as to have an offering to bring to their King. This strikes me as something like the fruit, the overflow of the blessing of Abraham. Syncretism, on the other hand, seems to be about survival in a world full of competing gods and rival kingdoms. Therefore, a compelling, holistic vision of the Kingdom of God contextualized, proclaimed and celebrated as good news, and put into practice is the only hope for the healing of the nations.

“This is simply common sense application of what you wrote.”

These comments were Mike’s reflections on reading HEAVEN ON EARTH: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now.” I hope you will get a copy of the book and give it to your favorite pastor or missionary.

Friday, July 04, 2014

WHAT DOES THE FOURTH OF JULY MEAN TO YOU?

Three groups of settlers came to America: 1) a contingent of 1,500 soldiers from Spain, representing the Spanish government and the Roman Catholic Church landed in 1565 on the northeast coast of Florida and founded the city of Saint Augustine. Their goal was exploration and the prorogation of the Catholic faith; 2) Representatives from the London Company and the Church of England settled in Jamestown, Va in 1607. They were the first to import African slaves to the continent; 3) the Pilgrims arrived in the 1620 and settled the Plymouth colony. They came to escape persecution from the Church of England for their non-conformist beliefs and to secure religious freedom. 

These three groups claimed land for themselves, displacing Native American tribes-often by means of force-that previously lived there.

Each group was a part of a different Christian tradition, but one that was not friendly to the other. Over the next 150 years the religious landscape changed in the colonies with the formation of new movements, sects and denominations such as Unitarians, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, etc. The land in Florida remained predominately Catholic. But in 1763 England gained control of Florida in exchange for Havana, Cuba, which it had captured from Spain in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

As people moved and migrated, the American colonies became a hodgepodge of religious expressions. The whole while the slave population exploded.

When the colonists declared independence from England, successfully fought the Revolution and eventually ratified the United States Constitution, they guaranteed "the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Unfortunately this freedom did not extended to slaves, who were not viewed as persons but property. In fact, "the blessings of Liberty" gave citizens of American the right to own slaves.

On this Fourth of July those of us who are Anglo must never forget that the ancestors of our African American friends, relatives and neighbors had to struggle for nearly 200 more years before the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were applied to them.

Which of these groups do you consider your forefathers? Colonists? Slaves? Native Americans? How you answer this question will likely influence how you celebrate Independence Day?

Thursday, July 03, 2014

CIVIL RIGHTS ACT IS 50 YEARS OLD

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act (July 2, 1964), which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. This was a day of historic proportions for millions of Black Americans who had never experienced equality under the law. In a real sense, it offered them a new beginning.

In another sense, it was a day of condemnation for many Anglo churches of America, especially in the South whose leaders and members denounced the legislation. Some pastors announced from the pulpits, they would not accept people of color into their membership, despite federal law.

Of course, the church established by Jesus was never intended to be segregated by race, social position, gender, ethnic background (Gal 3:28). By definition and nature it was intended to be a reflection and manifestation of the kingdom of God in society.

Had the church maintained a kingdom focus throughout history, egalitarianism would have been a reality wherever local churches were found. In addition the church would have had the moral and prophetic authority to speak the truth to power and call for their respective governmental leaders to implement equality.

Even if the governments refused to heed the call, citizens of those societies would have had at least one place where they could experience equality for all.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda! But it didn't happen that way.

A new day is dawning. Many millennials have rejected their parents' brand of Christianity. They are starting to catch a vision of what a kingdom-focused church looks like.

For more information on the egalitarian nature of the church, read my book "Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now" (Harvest House).

EMPOWERING KINGDOM GROWTH (EKG)

I just had an hour-long phone conversation with Carlisle Driggers, the architect of the Empowering Kingdom Growth (EKG) initiative in the Southern Baptist Convention in 2002. EKG offered so much promise and a new direction for the SBC. Unfortunately, it was derailed as others sought to implement their own agendas in the Convention.

Had the SBC taken advantage of this unique opportunity to preach the pure gospel of the kingdom and given its time, energy, and funds to the cause, no one knows what God might have done.

Three cheers for Carlisle Driggers, a man captured by the kingdom, who was nearly successful in getting the world's largest denomination to become kingdom-focused.

One day enough young pastors, evangelists, and theologians will discover the kingdom and things will reach a tipping point. When this happens, step back and watch as the kingdom revolution spreads throughout the world.

A good place to start in exploring the meaning of the kingdom is the book "Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now."

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Review, "A Black Theology of Liberation" by James H. Cone - Part 1

I am reading from the 1990, 20th Anniversary Edition. This volume includes a new section that features critical reflections from several theologians who are specialists in the field of Liberation Theology.

A. Preliminary notes for consideration

First, we must understand that Cone, a distinguished professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary (NY), wrote this work at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and from a “black perspective.” This means his book must be read in its socio-political context and from the viewpoint of the black community which has been oppressed and marginalized in the United States for more than two centuries.

Second, the book’s intended audience is the black community and not the Anglo community, which Cone identifies as the oppressors of blacks, either directly or indirectly. Cone voices his frustrations as a Black theologian, knowing he will be misunderstood as he seeks to explain the redemptive nature of salvation history in the terms of an earthly liberation for the subjugated and exploited masses, starting with the Exodus and extending to the present time.

Third, because it was written in 1970, “A Black Theology of Liberation” contains dated materials, although many principles that underlie the book’s premise remain valid. Cone admits, for example, in the Preface of the 20th anniversary edition that his original work was marred by his lack of knowledge regarding the global dimension of oppression, ranging from sexism to colonialism to crony capitalism. He also faulted his methodological dependence on Karl Barth and other continental theologians.  Likewise, he admits that at the time of the writing he na├»vely believed if racial integration succeeded then racism as a practice would fall by the wayside. Obviously, it did not.

In his Preface Cone also explains that he has refused to define the gospel in a non-offensive way, e.g. “Believe in Jesus if you want to go to heaven.” Even a white racist can say “Amen” to that. Rather, the gospel, according to Cone, includes a message of liberation for the oppressed in the here and now, which is very much offensive to the oppressors.

B. Chapter 1 – Summary and Reflections

According to Cone, Christian theology is liberation theology, which sets people free both spiritually and politically. As such, God is the God of the oppressed. This means God is for the oppressed. In an American context, God is for Blacks; hence, the term “Black Theology.” Blackness, however, does not mean Blacks are the only people who suffer from racism. Rather, blackness is an ontological symbol or visible reality of what oppression looks like in America. It stands for all victims of domination and promotes their liberation.

Jesus was and is the great liberator who sets the captives free. Therefore, the gospel of Christ takes on a prophetic role and challenges the social structures that bind people. Since “White Theology” as a whole (whether of liberal or conservative) has supported the political structures of oppression, it is anti-Christ in nature.

Cone rejects the non-violent only approach to obtaining peace and justice for all, believing that the strategy actually undergirds the social and political interests of the White majority. Cone is open to an “all acts” strategy, which includes protest and revolution. One might say he more in line with a “Black Muslim” version of Malcolm X than Martin Luther King.

Thus far, I see two weaknesses in Cone’s orthopraxy, but not his orthodoxy. First, any protestation that includes violence is ultimately doomed to fail. Moses’s use of violence to free his people utterly failed, and set back their liberation by 40 years. Jesus, the definitive example of a liberator, refused to wield the tools of FORCE in order to conquer the oppressors, but instead operated by FAITH. When Rome executed him as a political subversive, it thought it had put an end to the Jesus movement. Three days later, God honored Jesus’ faith and raised him from the dead. Who won the victory—Jesus or Rome? Jesus could not be killed again nor his movement conquered.

Violence may succeed in the short run, but only until the opposition can raise up a new army of followers to fight another battle. This is an undisputed truth of human history. God’s supreme plan for equality, peace and justice (the universal kingdom of God on earth) is based solely on Jesus’ non-violent act of resistance, leading to his death and resurrection. Since God used non-violence to institute his ultimate kingdom, why do we think our violent actions will bring about a permanent end to oppression?

Second, I believe Cone is weak thus far (i.e. chapter 1) in his ecclesiology. The local church is the sphere of the “already/not yet” aspect of the kingdom, where liberation is found and experienced. Regardless of the oppressor—Roman Imperialism, Nazism, Communism, White racism—all in Christ find freedom in the church. This means that although we may be victimized and marginalized in society by inequitable structures, when we come together to eat and worship we are one in Christ. While differences remain— we do not cease to be male or female, bond or free, Jew or Gentile, Black or White—there should be no distinctions among us. In the church we are not only equal “in Christ,” but “in reality.” When this dynamic is present, the church becomes a snapshot of what the future kingdom will be like.

Having said this, I realize this is not normally the case. Unfortunately, most churches reflect the values and structures of the world rather than the kingdom of God.  In my book “Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now” I present a workable model for functioning as a kingdom-oriented church. 

In closing, let me say I personally believe there is a place for public protests or confrontation with the powers who dominate the masses. But these should be non-violent in nature. John the Baptist, Jesus, Gandhi, MLK participated in non-violent demonstrations. The prophet stands up and speaks truth to power and calls for all to repent and submit to the reign of Christ. However, there is a price to pay. The prophet may end up imprisoned or put to death. 

In Democratic nations, rallies, marches, sit-ins, etc. can have a positive effect, drawing press coverage and publicity. They have the potential of raising public awareness and pricking the collective conscience of a society. In democracies Christians have certain rights of free speech, exercise of religion, protests, etc. But what about lands dominated by tyrants, whether ancient Rome or modern-day Yemen or China? Any Christian attempt to protest the government’s policies will be squelched in a moment. Since James Cone has directed his comments toward Christianity in America alone, it may not be fair to call into question the efficacy of his “all acts” Christian strategy in other parts of the world.

This has been a good chapter and has caused me to think through some important issues. James H. Cone pulls no punches. He speaks his mind. He takes the principles of Liberation Theology and applies them to an American context. The result is “A Black Theology of Liberation.”

I will now move on to Chapter 2 and in due time offer my comments as a Facebook post.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Earning a British PHD

Earning a PhD Degree from a UK University without Leaving the United States

R. Alan Streett (PhD, University of Wales)
©Richard Alan Streett

Senior Research Professor of Biblical Exegesis
Criswell College
Dallas, Texas
astreett@criswell.edu


Are you interested in working on a PhD in theology or biblical studies from a UK university without moving to Great Britain? The openings are limited and you need to know the options and the application process. Earning a postgraduate degree (as it is called in the UK) is rigorous and usually takes approximately 4‒6 years part-time. These are not “seminary” PhDs, but “university” degrees that prepare you for a career as an academic.
I.    Schools That Welcome American Students
Here are eight universities in the UK that work with American students. One may be a match for you.
1. Nazarene Theological College validated by University of Manchester
2. Cliff College validated by University of Manchester
3. Spurgeon’s College validated by the University of Manchester
4.  St Johns Nottingham validated by University of Chester
5. Wales Evangelical School of Theology validated by the University of Chester
6.  Highland Theological College validated by University of Aberdeen
7. London School of Theology validated by University of Middlesex
8. Trinity College validated by the University of Bristol
    II.    The Validation System
You work with the first school mentioned, but receive your degree from the latter school. This is known as the validation system in the UK. So your initial step is to get on the first school's website. Second, go to the "postgraduate" link. Read about the PhD application process, etc. Third, contact via email the professor in your desired field.  Fourth, tell him/her of your research interests. It is best to be specific. Unlike American dissertations that are often topic-driven, most UK dissertations are "thesis-driven." That means you state a proposition or thesis and then seek to prove it. For example, my thesis was: “The Lord’s Supper during the first century CE was an anti-imperial practice.” Fifth, ask the professor if s/he would be interested in supervising such a project. Sixth, make formal application to the validating school and the degree awarding university. Seventh, realize that if accepted, you will likely be classified as an “MPhil/PhD” student. You will be reclassified as PhD student after one year if your academic progress is deemed worthy. The school year in the UK usually begins in October.
III.    Bypassing the Validation Process
Recently, a few UK schools have begun working directly with American postgraduate students, thus bypassing the validation process. They include the Universities of Durham, Wales, Edinburgh, Exeter, Gloucestershire, and Birmingham. The University of Aberdeen offers both options. You can work through Highland Theological College or work directly with Aberdeen itself.
 There two advantages of working directly with a university. First, by eliminating the middleman, you can cut the cost of your education. Second, you are more likely to work under the supervision of a world class scholar.
IV.     Choosing the Right School
Are you interested in earning your degree from a top tier theology department or are you more concerned with having a good relationship with your supervisor? The answer to this question may guide your choice of a school.
1.   Each department in a UK university is ranked according to its academic excellence. Rank is based on the quality of research (books, peer reviewed articles, etc.) being produced by each faculty, which is evaluated by scholarly panels using objective standards. The latest ranking—the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)—can be found on the internet. In 2014, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) will replace RAE.
2.   Since you will be working with the same supervisor for a half dozen years, it is important to find one with whom you can work. This means finding a supervisor who 1) likes Americans, 2) is available to answer your questions, 3) has patience working with someone unfamiliar with the British system, 4) is as concerned with your success as much as s/he is with their own publication schedule, 5) is an encourager, 6) recommends resources, 7) reads your chapters and offers a critical evaluation, and 8) guides you through each step of the PhD process.
V.     Research is the Name of the Game
These are not online education degrees, but research degrees. You receive the same degree as those who reside on campus. You work with the same supervisors, write the same quality thesis (dissertation), and orally defend your thesis (a process known as a viva voca). But instead of being on campus, you meet regularly with your supervisor through Skype, email, etc. Some schools require you to visit campus once a year or once every two years, but others do not. Many meetings between students and supervisors take place at the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference, which convenes in a different American city each year.
Be forewarned, a UK research degree is not for the faint of heart. As one Oxford scholar said, “American PhD programs are a mile wide and an inch deep. UK programs are an inch wide and a mile deep.” This means American PhD graduates are more generalists and UK PhD graduates are more specialists. American PhD programs are more structured and require a student to take classes in a variety of subjects (usually 48 credits hours), plus write a dissertation. UK PhD programs require a student to spend the equivalent amount of time conducting narrowly focused research toward the thesis. There are no classroom requirements, even for full-time students who live on campus.
VI.  The Financial Costs
Typically, UK programs do not offer financial assistance to Americans. So expect to pay the full tuition, which can run as high as 6,000 British pounds per year. Additional costs might include travelling expenses to SBL cities and/or to Great Britain: airfare, lodging, meals, and land transportation, etc.
VII.     The Thesis
You should only submit your thesis after your supervisor believes your research is PhD worthy. The degree-granting university will then select two scholars to critically read your thesis and examine you on its content. One will be an internal reader from the university. The other will be an external reader from another UK university. One will likely be an expert in your area of research and both will be scholars in your particular discipline (NT, theology, church history, etc.). A date will be set and you will meet for the viva voca, which will involve a 2-3 hour period of intense questioning to determine if you can defend your thesis and elaborate on your research. At the end of the viva voca, you will step outside the room while the examiners discuss the thesis and your responses. You will be called back into the room and given the verdict. Your thesis will be assigned one of the following grades: 1) Pass “as is” without need for revisions or further clarifications; 2) Pass with minor revisions which must be completed and submitted within three months; 3) Pass with significant revisions, which must be completed and submitted within one year; 4) Major rewrite, which must be completed and submitted within two years along with taking another viva voca; 5) Not acceptable or the possible award of MPhil instead of PhD. Your goal is to receive one of the first three evaluations.
VIII.        Is a UK PhD Program for You?
Over the past few years, I have recommended four American students for UK PhD programs who were accepted and matriculated into the programs. However, only one earned a degree. The others dropped out. All were smart enough to complete the program, but they lacked either self-confidence and/or self-discipline, or else, faced time constraints. So, count the cost before you apply.
If you are a self-starter, inquisitive, thick skinned, academically able to do original research, have a history of meeting deadlines, work well with a supervisor, and do not get discouraged easily, you may be the ideal candidate.
An American or UK PhD program—which is best for you? That depends on your goals, aptitude, interest, personality, work schedule, finances, etc. The Lord will guide you in your selection of the right doctoral program.


If you have any further questions, feel free to write me at: astreett@criswell.edu.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The "OPEN SECRET"

The Kingdom of God is an “open secret." It appears on nearly every page of the NT, yet missed by so many. Since the kingdom is the essence of the gospel and the goal of human history, if we miss the kingdom then we embrace something other than Christianity. Our gospel becomes "another gospel" that damns rather than saves.

The church is facing a massive problem and we are approaching a tipping point that will catapult the church over the edge and on a downward course that cannot be reversed. Jesus asks a critical question, "When the son of man returns will he find faith on earth?" What is the answer?

Every generation must answer the question. We are not responsible for the successes or failures of past generations or those that come after us.

But we can do something now. We can carry the pure gospel of the kingdom into our world. Join the kingdom revolution!

A good place to start is reading up on the kingdom of God.


Please consider reading HEAVEN ON EARTH: EXPERIENCING THE KINGDOM OF GOD IN THE HERE AND NOW, which speaks of Christ's present reign at God's right hand and its implications for the church.

Monday, June 09, 2014

*A KINGDOM SOLUTION TO THE CURRENT SBC MEMBERSHIP DECLINE

A KINGDOM SOLUTION TO THE CURRENT SBC MEMBERSHIP DECLINE

Church membership has plunged for the seventh straight year in the Southern Baptist Convention. When a similar thing happened in the United Methodist Church in the 60s and 70s, we were quick to point out that liberalism was the culprit. Now it’s happening to us and there’s not a liberal in our camp!

The Methodists tried many ways to shore up their membership, but without success. Now we are the ones bleeding numerically with no apparent remedy in sight. If the SBC were a person with a seven-year illness, the doctor would diagnose a “chronic condition,” which means there is an ongoing problem.

Reactions have been swift in coming, but few solutions. To stay the present course is not an option. We all know the definition of insanity!

If you ever played organized baseball, you likely experienced a slump. You can’t get a hit for trying and your numbers decline sharply. Before long you lose your confidence, only making things worse. To reverse the trend, you need a breakthrough! After trying every solution imaginable without success—changing bats, moving up in the batter’s box, altering your stanceyou come to realize in order to break out of the slump you must get back to the basics.

The SBC is in a slump.

A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

In the days when the SBC was on the rise—before it took its steep downhill turn——a plan was conceived to keep the Convention on an upward trajectoryHere is the back story.

In late 1999, facing a new millennium and an ever-changing postmodern culturea historic meeting was convened that brought together state executive directors and SBC executives for the purpose of developing a long-term cooperative strategy to maintain steady growth and to reach the nationfor Christ. A task force on “Cooperation” was elected —composed of four SBC entity presidents, Bill Crews (GGBTS), Jerry Rankin (IMB), Bob Reccord (NAMB), and Morris Chapman (Executive Committee); and four state executive directors, Wyndell Jones (IA), Carlisle Driggers (SC), Anthony Jordan (OK), and Bob White (GA)and commissioned to investigate and recommend ways to achieve sustained growth

After numerous meetings that centered on spiritual and scriptural reflection, a consensus emerged that the Convention needed to get back to the basics found in Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God.

The task force examined a successful kingdom-oriented model developed and launched in the early 1990s by Carlisle Driggers, Executive Director of the South Carolina Convention that turned the nation’s oldest Baptist convention around and brought unprecedented growth to local churches. It was called Empowering Kingdom Growth (EKG).

Driggers had no doubt that the good news of the kingdom was the central theme of all first-century preaching. Consequently, he felt it should be the Convention’s focus as well. When asked in an interview, “If you could give one word of encouragement to every Baptist minister what would it be?” he responded, “Wrap your heart and mind around the Kingdom of God on this earth.”

The kingdom of God had so captured Driggers’s imagination he could not get away from it. For him the kingdom of God was the most basic ingredient of Christianity. As a result he was able to convince his colleagues that the Convention should embrace a kingdom focus.

EKG Becomes the Foundation of the Future

The task force was so impressed with the SC kingdom initiative that it decided to recommend to the messengers at the upcoming annual convention that they adopt the kingdom model of ministry and adapt it for use throughout the entire Convention.

In an article describing the task forces recommendation, Bob Terry wrote in The Alabama Baptist:

The vision is magnificent, the message clear and simple. All who cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) can and should work together with God to empower growth of His Kingdom.
Empowering Kingdom Growth is not only the goal, it is the motto or slogan recommended in the report. The abbreviation — EKG — points to the seriousness of the effort. In medicine, an EKG examines the status of the heart. The new report contends that Empowering Kingdom Growth — EKG — should be the heart of every expression of convention life from cooperating churches to joint efforts expressed through SBC entities.

Empowering Kingdom Growth will be a phrase heard and read often in Southern Baptist life in the months and years ahead.

During the 2002 SBC meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, at the recommendation of the task force, the messengers voted overwhelmingly to approve the new spiritual initiative, which called upon Southern Baptist churches and members everywhere to concentrate singularly on the kingdom of God. The vote was not simply to adopt another program, but to support an entirely new direction for the Convention. Henceforth, all SBC programs, boards and agencies were to commit their full energies and resources on kingdom-oriented ministry alone. Every SBC entity would be expected to realign its mission with the new EKG emphasis.  

At the time of the vote, SBC president James Merritt called the decision as significant for the Southern Baptist Convention as the decision made in 1925 to launch the Cooperative Program. One cannot overstate the importance of this statement. Merritt saw the vote as a defining moment in the annals of the Convention. A newly formed “Empowering Kingdom Growth Task Force,” co-chaired by Merritt and Driggers, wrote that the Empowering Kingdom Growth initiative “could prove to be an unprecedented turning point in American history. 

Never before had such a large body of evangelicals decided to put aside secondary issues to concentrate solely on the kingdom of God.

DID SOMETHING GO WRONG?

Enthusiasm and anticipation filled the air at the start. In personal correspondence with this writer on August 18, 2003, Driggers wrote:

I can tell you for a fact that our EKG Task Force for the Southern Baptist Convention met earlier this week, and we are hearing from many persons around the country and even overseas who are also being deeply impressed to study the teachings of Christ on the Kingdom of God on this earth.  There is no doubt in my mind but that God is at work bringing many believers to a fresh and new encounter with the teachings of Scripture on the theology of the Kingdom of God, especially as it implies to the here and now and not only to Heaven or the Second Coming of Jesus.

Three months later he wrote to say he looked forward to working with Ken Hemphill, the newly-chosen National Strategist Director for EKG.

But somewhere along the way, EKG lost its momentumThe initiative, upon which the Convention based its future, could not get up enough steam and devolved from being essential to the Convention’s future to just another “program.”

Additionally, for EKG to work it was assumed that everyone within the SBC sphere would put aside their theological peculiarities and embrace kingdom agenda. But unfortunately the divide was too great.

BACK TO THE BASICS: A KINGDOM SOLUTION

Driggers and the EKG Task Force were correct in believing that the future of the Convention must be linked to the Kingdom of God. If Merritt’s assessment was accurate that the decision to adopt the EKG initiative was as significant as adopting the Cooperative Program in 1925, we should NOT abandon the kingdom agenda.

The kingdom of God is the central theme of all evangelistic proclamation in the New Testament. John the Baptist preached “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2). And Jesus did likewise: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:14-15). According to John and Jesus, the kingdom was not some distant hope, but within the grasp of their contemporaries. Jesus defined his mission in these words: “I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent” (Luke 4:43). Everywhere he went he proclaimed the “glad tidings of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). When he sent forth the Twelve, he instructed them “to preach the kingdom” (Luke 9:1-2). He then sent out seventy others to go and “heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you’” (Luke 10:1, 9).

After his death and resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with the apostles “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). If the glorified Jesus devoted the entirety of his time explaining the kingdom, shouldn’t we? He then commissioned the disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the world (Acts 1:8). It is not surprising to find them preaching the same message: “the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus” (Acts 8:12).

The apostle Paul, likewise, taught “concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). He reminded the elders at Ephesus of his three years “preaching the kingdom of God” (Acts 20:25, 31). During house arrest in Rome, “many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God” (Acts 28:23). The book of Acts closes significantly with these words, “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30-31).

The Kingdom of God is the “open secret” of the NT and missed by many. In my opinion the kingdom is the essential core of Christianity. If you miss the kingdom, you end up with a truncated gospel.

The kingdom is so important that Jesus links the success of the church’s evangelistic mission to it: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). Yet, most pastors and parishioners alike would be hard pressed to define the “gospel of the kingdom.”

We need to get back to the basics—back to the kingdom of God! How do we expect to evangelize the world in these last days if we cannot identify and explain the gospel of the kingdom?

EKG was a valiant start and should not be abandoned. But we must recapture our vision of God’s kingdom plan for the world.

A kingdom solution is needed if we ever expect to reverse the present downward direction of the Convention.


*This article appeared in the June 9, 2014 edition of SBCToday

Alan Streett holds the W. A. Criswell Endowed Chair of Expository Preaching at Criswell College (Dallas, TX). He is author of “Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now” and “The Effective Invitation.”

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Peter Leithart's Review of SUBVERSIVE MEALS

I begin with two fundamental objections to R. Alan Streett’s Subversive Meals, a study of early Christian meal practices in the context of Greco-Roman  banquets and the Roman empire.

First, Streett takes the Roman banquet as the primary context for understanding Christian meal practices. I insist that Judaism and the Hebrew Bible provide the primary context, though acknowledging that Greco-Roman practices are also critical for grasping the full significance of the Supper. This distinction becomes blurry when we recognize that Jewish meal practices were already influenced by Greco-Roman habits (reclining, for instance). But there is still a distinction to be made. I’m skeptical, for instance, that the libation of a Roman banquet is as closely linked to the cup of the Supper as Streett suggests.

Second, Streett approaches early Christian meals from the perspective of an empire critic. Though he is right to emphasize that political setting for Jesus and the apostolic church, he like other empire critics tends to overread the presence of anti-imperial teaching and sentiment in the New Testament. (For balance, see McKnight and Modica, eds., Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not, some of which is summarized here.)

That said, Streett’s book is an important, illuminating, well-researched contribution to our understanding of early Christian meals and early Christianity as a whole. He offers a vivid portrait of a Roman banquet, and draws out the social and political import. He traces the history of the counter-imperial Passover, a meal celebrating liberation from Egypt and anticipating a future, grander liberation. He puts the early church in the context of Roman associations, which were often breeding grounds for resistance. He makes a compelling case that the early Christians celebrated the Supper in the context of a full meal. He rightly stresses that Jesus’ ministry as prophet was inescapably political, and he convincingly shows that the meals of early Christians were training grounds for a counter-imperial community - by emphasizing the need to recline with the marginal and poor, by rejecting the reciprocity and status-seeking of Roman (and Jewish) meals, by proclaiming and commemorating the death of a man crucified by the Romans, by including women and slaves at table, by cultivating a koinonia around the patron, Jesus.

Streett claims that his is the first “scholarly work dealing with the Lord’s Supper as an anti-imperial activity” (3). I don’t find Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist in the bibliography, but Streett’s aims are more historically and biblically oriented than Cavanaugh’s. Streett fills in gap.

Nearly as interesting as the book is the author identification on the back cover, which informs us that Streett holds a chair in preaching at Criswell College. Funky things are going on in the world when a Criswell faculty member writes a cutting-edge book on the Lord’s Supper, much less one emphasizing the political dimensions of the Supper, much less one that draws on James Scott for guidance.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

LATEST REVIEW OF SUBVERSIVE MEALS

Review of SUBVERSIVE MEALS by Naum Trifanoff:

The best book I've read in 2014 to date ("but you say that about every good book you read!" :))

Scholarly gaze into the Roman banquet practice and cultural milieu that permeated the practice and how the early Christians/church flipped it upside down. But first, the author explores Roman culture and how those that separate church and state in Scripture error by imposing a modernist imprint upon that age -- a time when everything was *political* and the one of the *political* of customs was sharing a meal together -- from who was invited, to seating arrangements, to the benedictions and libations offered to political overlords (with "Lord Caesar" arched above all), favor exchanges and reciprocity driven status seekers.

Then, the Christian practice of "communion service" is studied -- where Christians ape the Roman practice, with the deipnon (sharing of a meal similar to a potluck today), then the symposium (a time of worship, prayer, ministry, thoughtful discussion) with libation and bread/drink offered up in remembrance of Jesus. But the Christian practice was a "subversive" twist on the Roman custom -- fellowship (koinonia), friendship (philia) and equality (isonomia), preached by Paul in NT was the model -- male, female, master, slave, Jew, Gentile, all equals at the table, and believers urged to kill their egos, and serve each other.

The penultimate chapter is ostensibly about prophecy, but I discovered the bits (author covers some bible passages from Acts, Corinthians, Thessalonians, Revelation) about 1 Cor 13, sandwiched (pun!) between 1 Cor 12 and 1 Cor 14 awe inducing in that I'll never be able to hear 1 Cor 13 (the famous "love" passage) again without seeing what the author reveals -- the moorings to Christian banquet, and conduct of Christians to self-sacrifice -- Between his treatment of the superiority of love (vv. 1–3) and the temporality of gifts (vv. 8–13), Paul lists the attributes of love, which serve as the antithesis of the way the Corinthians have behaved at mealtime. The manifestation of these virtues during the symposium will assure civility, and serve to regulate the gifts for the benefit of all. Love acts as a template against which the Corinthians can judge their behavior during the second course of the dinner.

The book ends on a question: How should an understanding of the Lord’s Supper in the first century impact communion services in the twenty-first century? -- It makes the whole cracker waer and thimble of grape juice look so silly. But then these times aren't those times either, and to sit down at a meal just doesn't carry the same gravitas it once did (we're such a drive-through culture). Or does it? That debate and/or answer is not entertained in the book, however.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Newest Amazon Review of HEAVEN ON EARTH

Heaven on Earth outlines the Kingdom in a manner that is both theological dense and pragmatic - a rare quality. By J Lofton 
Frustrated with common explanations of biblical themes being reduced to powerless moral metaphors? Ready for the dots to be connected in a powerful, informative, and pragmatic method? Then Heaven on Earth is the next book for you to read.

Heaven on Earth strikes the balance between scholarly exploration and pragmatic actuation you would hope to find in any book on a Christian's bookshelf - however rare that may be to find. Striking that balance on such a central theme as the Kingdom is sure to make for a timeless resource for generations of Christians. Streett shines a light on the Kingdom, as explained in Scripture, in such a clear and concise method it feels as if the reader has drawn the conclusion apart from the author and just before the author makes the same point. Reading this book is more like having a conversation than rote reading.

Apart from the aesthetic fluidity of the writing, the content of the book highlights how a proper understanding of the Kingdom of God leaves no aspect of one's worldview untouched. I found this explanation personally refreshing as it relieved so many various, and seemingly unrelated, frustrations I've developed over the years both within the church and within mainstream Christian thought.

Heaven on Earth has quickly earned a place within the go-to books on my shelf. I cannot recommend this book more highly for both the young believer just starting out and for the seasoned veteran needing a refresher on the passion he or she once held. If the central theme of Jesus' ministry is that the "Kingdom is at hand", it would be wise to know what exactly is at hand and how that affects everything. From my personal desires to the role of relationships to the mission of the Church to death itself - the Kingdom leaves nothing untouched. To live for the King, one must have a thought on His Kingdom.