[Roger Walton's book which contains this research and more theological reflection can be found HERE.]
What should we-- pastors-- make of this?
For me, there are two points for further reflection:
1. Small groups don't inherently facilitate learning.
There are two possible decisions that one may make as a result: either we find a different vehicle for actually learning about God and what it means to be His people, or we work to help groups develop better content. Our church for years had a 'free market' approach to small groups: anyone could lead a group about anything, and if people kept coming, that meant it was 'working'. This is fraught with problems, not least of which is why the premise of Western economics ought to be imported into an ecclesial context! But the most glaring deficiency is it's lack of an intentional way to help people learn. It is true that discipleship is not simply knowledge-driven; but while discipleship is more than learning, it is not less than learning.
2. Small groups pull inward unless they are pushed outward.
How can groups be led into mission? Some churches have groups cluster into 'missional communities' that host house parties or neighborhood gatherings as a way of extending outwards. Others have their groups build in a regular day of serving the community or partnering with local non-profits. Whatever the model, the challenge remains: groups have a centripetal force and must be intentionally pushed outward.
What about you? What are some reflections you have? What are some ways you and your church have intentionally helped small groups be better at learning and at mission?
Every once awhile, I am asked what our liturgy is at New Life Downtown. Our service flow (in general) can be found HERE. But the most 'liturgical' part of the service-- i.e. the part that uses the ancient prayers, practices and sequence-- is when we come to the Lord's Table.
While I am an ordained Anglican priest, I serve as a pastor at New Life Church, a non-denominational, charismatic church, where I have been on staff for over 14 years. Fortunately, a trademark of Anglican worship is its adaptability to different contexts.
Almost all these words are from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The only tweak I've made is in the way I announce forgiveness in the 'absolution' section. We have the band on stage during all of the below, providing a soft, worshipful bed of music. Once the invitation is given (the last section of the communion liturgy), the worship leader begins the song she has chosen for that week. From Easter to Advent, this is the longer section of musical worship, where we sing 4 songs.
Below, the bold are the 'movements' or sections of the Eucharist liturgy; the italics are an abbreviated version of the instructions I give.
Take a moment and let the Holy Spirit nudge you about ways that you can surrender, ways that you can turn away from self-reliance and toward a dependence on God. Now, let us pray this prayer together:
Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved You with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of Your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in Your will, and walk in Your ways, to the glory of Your Name.
[UPDATE] WORDS OF ABSOLUTION/FORGIVENESS (Me):
May the Father of all mercies cleanse you from your sins and restore you in His image to the praise and glory of His name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
[UPDATE] THE PEACE:
The peace of the Lord be with you! Now turn to one another, and pass on the Lord's peace, speak His life and His love to one another.
Me: The Lord is here
All: His Spirit is with us.
Me: Lift up your hearts.
All: We lift them to the Lord.
Me: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
All: It is right to give Him thanks and praise
WORDS OF INSTITUTION (Me):
On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”
After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”
MEMORIAL ACCLAMATION (All):
Christ Has Died, Christ Is Risen, Christ Will Come Again.
THE EPICLESIS-- 'Come, Holy Spirit' (Me)
Stretch your hands forwards as a Kingdom of priests:
“We pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.”
Lift your hands up in surrender:
“Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.”
THE INVITATION (Me):
“The gifts of God, given for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”
WARNING: This is a post for nerds like me. :)
In all seriousness, this won't be of interest to everyone, but several of you have asked why I'm doing a doctorate and why I've chosen Durham University, England. I've answered these questions before, but I realize that my answers have been inadequate. For one, I am still learning to understand my own heart and motivattions. And, what's more, I had some incorrect information about this particular program at Durham.
So, in order to understand myself and to communicate more clearly for those interested in post-graduate studies, I thought I'd write about it. (Actually, this is always why I write: to help me understand my own thoughts, and to be of some help to others.)
To make the most of the gifts which have been entrusted to me for the glory of God and the good of the Church.
This is not Christianese to me. When I was a little boy, my mum used to say to me, "Glenn, if you can achieve (x), then don't settle for (y)." This wasn't said in a performance-ish, pressured sort of way. This was said with utmost love. It came out of her deep belief in who God had made me to be. And it wasn't unrealistic stuff. (She never said this about my dreams of being the next Michael Jordan, for example.) She-- and my dad-- saw things in my sister and me as they prayed over us and talked with us. And they wouldn't let us stop short because of laziness or apathy.
I'm reminded of this quote from the late John Stott about ambition:
Ambitions for God, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honour in the world?
Christians should be eager to develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work — not now to boost their own ego or build their own empire, but rather through everything they do to bring glory to God.
That is not to say that this sort of godly ambition should be pursued at the expense of the other greater gifts in my life: my wife and children. Holly and I made this decision together, and I talked with Pastor Brady, my parents, and others before proceding. Both Pastor Brady and Holly helped me eliminate other things during the heaviest travel part of the program (Year 1).
All of us have been entrusted with gifts. As Christians, we don't hone these gifts as 'personal development' or 'enrichment'; it is stewardship. We multiply these gifts that God may be glorified and that the Church may be edified.
Which leads to the second reason...
To make sense of my own vocation to live between two worlds.
I am beginning to understand that my life is about trying to hold two often disconnected things together in some small way. Worship and the Word, Spirit and Truth, charismatic power and liturgical shape, contextualized expressions and ancient practices, and so on. When I was young, I was very uneasy with having grown up in two worlds-- Malaysia and America-- and had some angst in my 20's (who didn't?) about where I truly belonged. But I have come to peace with my story. I am learning to embrace standing between two worlds. What could be more Christian than that?
For too long, pastors have been suspicious of anyone in academic theology. I cringe everytime I hear a pastor say, "I only want to listen to practitioners!" And for too long, academics have been critical of pastors. It troubles me to hear the thin critiques and carricatures of 'mega-churches' or 'Evangelicals' or 'modern worship'. Too many academics are too far removed from things to truly know what's going on. And yet, it is this distance that allows academics to have a critical (I mean this now in the right and good sense of the word) perspective. Pastors cannot give the proper theological reflection to their work while they are immersed in it. Pastors and theologians need each other.
Many, many theologians and pastors have bridged this gap. John Stott and Tim Keller come to mind from the pastoral side; NT Wright and Scot McKnight come to mind from the theologian side. Of course, there are more (Brueggemann, Hauerwas, Willmon, and on and on). It is in this rich tradition that I want to stand, by the grace of God. Not as a bridge in and of myself, but perhaps as a plank-- or even a sliver in a plank!-- in that bridge.
Why Durham University, England?
"Aren't there any schools in America, Glenn?" I hear that one a lot. :) Believe me, I looked into programs from may places in the States. The travel would have been cheaper!
In short, all the US doctoral programs I looked into were either PhD programs-- which meant, research-driven, full-time, and had residency requirements-- or, they were DMin programs-- which meant that some had research components (depending on the school) and some did not. I don't want to quit my job (I love being a pastor and I love New Life Church!); I don't want to move (I love Colorado Springs!); and I do want to do research. BUT...I wanted to do research in something that had practical implications for ministry. I'm not the sort who fancies being buried reading footnotes of footnotes of footnotes.
About 7 years ago, Durham University created this program-- the DThM-- as a collaboration between the Department of Theology and Religion and Cranmer Hall (the part of St. John's College at Durham where ordinands in the Church of England are trained). Here are some of its features:
Like a PhD, a DThM dissertation must:
So, why is it not called a 'PhD'? Not because of the learning outcomes (which, as I learned today, are the same as a PhD) or because of the design but because of the delivery of the program. In order to make this accessible to people who are in vocational ministry, this program can be done part-time (over the course of 6 years--double gulp!) and...this is key...long-distance. To 'deliver' the program in this way, it needed to be classified as a 'professional doctorate'. Here's how the 'delivery' of the program works:
No other program I explored-- in the US or UK--was research-driven, dissertation-based, and could be done part-time and long-distance.
Not to mention, Durham's Department of Theology and Religion was ranked #1 in a recent study of research quality in all UK universities. (Take that, Oxford and Cambridge. I kid, I kid.) And there is this: my older sister-- my only sibling--Tracy Packiam Alloway, earned a PhD in cognitive psychology at Durham about 10 years ago. Finally, did you see the picture of Durham Cathedral, built in the 11th century?
There you have it. You can always read more about it here. I'd love it if you joined me. :)
I hear often that people are spiritual but not religious, or that they love Jesus but don't like the Church. I get it. But the antidote to a thing that has been misused or abused-- like religion and church-- is not no use, but good and proper use.
So, the question worth asking might be, "What is the good and proper use of religion?" Or simply, "What good is organized religion, specifically Christianity, and, to be even more precise, the Church?"
Some Christian writers are convinced that the best thing to do is to stop talking about Christianity and to emphasize following Jesus and not any sort of organized religion. But this won't do because there is no unscrambling this egg: Christianity as an organized Way of following Jesus exists, and has existed for a couple of millenia. (Arguably, those Christian writers are 'following Jesus' today because Christianity has existed-- as the preserver and proclaimer of the faith!)
Others say, just leave out 'the Church', because, after all, Jesus didn't come to start an institution. Other than a re-reading of a key speech Jesus gave to Peter, this view ignores (either out of ignorance or otherwise) that the four Gospels came to us out of early Christian communities. They were some of the last New Testament books to be written, and the stories in it were preserved by...wait for it...churches. So if the Gospels contain some sort of anti-Church or anti-organized religion message, it would be news to the writers!
I have recently been reading James Martin's (S. J.) marvelous book, 'The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything' and came across his warm and winsome discussion of being 'spiritual but not religious'. I've highlighted the parts that really stood out to me:
The thinking goes like this: being “religious” means abiding by arcane rules and hidebound dogmas, and being the tool of an oppressive institution that doesn’t allow you to think for yourself. (Which would have surprised many thinking believers, like St. Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, Dorothy Day and Reinhold Niebuhr.) Religion is narrow-minded and prejudicial — so goes the thinking — stifling the growth of the human spirit. (Which would have surprised St. Francis of Assisi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, St. Teresa of Ávila, Rumi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Or worse, as several contemporary authors contend, religion is the most despicable of social evils, responsible for all the wars and conflicts around the world.
Sadly, religion is in fact responsible for many ills in the modern world and evils throughout history: among them the persecution of Jews, endless wars of religion, the Inquisition, not to mention the religious intolerance and zealotry that leads to terrorism.
You can add to this list smaller things: your judgmental neighbor who loudly tells you how often he helps out at church, your holier-than-thou relative who trumpets how often she reads the Bible, or that annoying guy at work who keeps telling you that belief in Jesus is sure to bring you amazing financial success.
There is a human and sinful side to religion since religions are human organizations, and therefore prone to sin. And frankly, people within religious organizations know this better than those outside of them...
...Still, I would stack up against the negatives some positive aspects: traditions of love, forgiveness and charity as well as the more tangible outgrowths of thousands of faith-based organizations that care for the poor, like Catholic Charities or the vast network of Catholic hospitals and schools that care for poor and immigrant populations. Think too of generous men and women like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King again. Speaking of Dr. King, you might add the abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, all of which were founded on explicitly religious principles. Add to that list the billions of believers who have found in their own religious traditions not only comfort but also a moral voice urging them to live selfless lives and to challenge the status quo.
And Jesus of Nazareth. Remember him? Though he often challenged the religious conventions of his day, he was a deeply religious man. (This is something of an understatement).
By the way, atheism doesn’t have a perfect record either. In his book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Michael Novak points out that while many atheist thinkers urge us to question everything, especially the record of organized religion, atheists often fail to question their own record. Think of the cruelty and bloodshed perpetrated, just in the 20th century, by totalitarian regimes that have professed “scientific atheism.” Stalinist Russia comes to mind.
On balance, religion comes out on top. And when I think about the examples of the maleficent effects of religion, I remember the English novelist Evelyn Waugh, a dazzling writer who was by many accounts a nasty person. One of Waugh’s friends once expressed astonishment that he could be so mean-spirited and a Christian. Think, said Waugh, how much worse I would be if I were not Christian.
“But I’m my own person”
Still, it’s not surprising that, given all the problems with organized religion, many people would say, “I’m not religious.” They say: “I’m serious about living a moral life, maybe even one that centers on God, but I’m my own person.”
“Spiritual” on the other hand, implies that, freed from unnecessary dogma, you can be yourself before God. The term may also imply that you have sampled a variety of religious beliefs that you have integrated into your life. You meditate at a Buddhist temple, participate in Seders with Jewish friends at Passover, sing in a gospel choir at a local Baptist church (great again), and go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at a Catholic church (also great).
You find what works for you, but don’t subscribe to any one church: that would be too confining. Besides, there’s no one creed that represents exactly what you believe.
But there’s a problem. While “spiritual” is obviously healthy, “not religious” may be another way of saying that faith is something between you and God. And while faith is a question of you and God, it’s not just a question of you and God.
Because this would mean that you’re relating to God alone. And that means that there’s no one to suggest when you might be off track.
We all tend to think that we’re correct about most things, and spirituality is no exception. And not belonging to a religious community means less of a chance of being challenged by a tradition of belief and experience, less chance to recognize when you are misguided, seeing only part of the picture, or even wrong.
Consider a person who wants to follow Jesus Christ on her own. Perhaps she has heard that if she follows Christ she will enjoy financial success — a popular idea today. Were she part of a mainstream Christian community, though, she would be reminded that suffering is part of the life of even the most devout Christian. Without the wisdom of a community, she may gravitate towards a skewed view of Christianity. Once she falls on hard times financially, she may drop God, who has ceased to meet her personal needs. Despite our best efforts to be spiritual we make mistakes. And when we do, it’s helpful to have the wisdom of a religious tradition.