NLI Ministries was begun with an earnest desire to minister the gospel of Jesus. While I most definitely do not even pretend to know it all, I do know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; and that no one comes to God (the Father) accept through him. I am absolutely convinced that knowing Jesus is in fact eternal life itself (John 17:3) . His love, his fellowship, his mercy, his beauty, the salvation he offers is truly life eternal!
I am obviously limited in knowledge, beset about with weakness, and (like all who are in Christ) in the process of “having been being saved,” I nevertheless must be true to the calling God has place upon my life to preach/teach. Technology (i.e. the internet) has provided a wonderful medium through which one can reach multitudes he would otherwise be segregated from, and, while I am not so arrogant as to think everyone will be interested in what I have to say; I must share what the Lord places upon my heart.
These pericopes entitled Post Modern Reflections are actually from a paper I wrote for a Contemporary Issues in Theology class. It is my desire in sharing these segments that Jesus be revealed in the hearts of those who read them and that the saints be equipped for ministry. (Sorry about all the footnotes, but IT’S THE LAW!!)
The evolution of society from modernity into postmodernity has produced reverberations within the church that indeed may prove to be eschatologically significant. Throughout its history the church has faced many heresies. Counsels have been convened for the purpose of discerning truth and setting forth orthodoxy. But, how does the church minister to a culture that insists there are no absolute truths to be discerned. What is the response of the church to be to ones who can say that while God has indeed acted uniquely in the person of Christ, he is also present and active in other belief systems as well? As the church finds its very institutional foundations shaken to the core, its evangelical practices touted as archaic, and the very message of the cross held in contempt; the Emergent Church has risen to the forefront. Adopting a postmodern philosophy, the Emergent movement has reduced the gospel of the Kingdom to a call for community, social-justice, and political activism. The Jesus of the postmodern emergent “Christian” is nothing more than a community organizer intent on assisting men in living together in mutual inclusion as they discover the validity of their respective cultural context belief systems and the God who is at work within them.
While many recognize the death throes of the modernized institutional church and call for an Incarnational ministry paradigm, instead of incarnating Christ in multicultural sociological locales, the culture itself is being incarnated within the “church” which in essence is a form of humanism. The postmodern philosophy adopted by the Emergent Church, when stripped of all its pompous arrogance and theological double talk, is basically humanistic universalism and devoid of anything one could honestly refer to as Christian. While the Emergent movement is correct in pointing out the failure of institutionalized Christianity, and the need for evangelical reevaluation; the disconnect from authentic Christianity has occurred at the point where they no longer consider the cross of Christ as the focus of the gospel, but embrace a form of syncretism which allows for a multi-faceted redemptive process. In fact, one wonders if the postmodern “Christian” would prefer self-actualization to redemption altogether.
Books like Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Communities in Postmodern Cultures by Edie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, and, All Things To All Men, by Dr. Ray Ashmore serve as a window into the postmodern “Christian” construct howbeit from differing perspectives. What is the Emergent movement? What does an Incarnational ministry look like? And, what will the American church look like in the future? We shall seek to find an answer to these questions in the following pages.
Dr. Ray Ashmore’s All Things to All Men: Developing an Incarnational Ministry Transforming Historical Traditions Adapting to Contemporary Culture hinges upon I Corinthians 9:22 in which the apostle Paul says, “I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some.” All of Ashmore’s contentions flow from the assertion that just as Paul became (incarnation) all things to all men during his apostolic ministry, even so; a church which has found itself becoming increasingly irrelevant in a postmodern society, must itself change it’s structure and practices if it is to be a means to redemptive ends.
One of the imageries Ashmore uses to express his “Incarnational paradigm” is the pilgrim/incarnation motif. Ashmore explains:
The images of “pilgrimage” and “incarnation” have much in common. Both indicate movement, direction, and a dwelling in some land where one is not “at home.” The pilgrim, in order to get along with the natives who inhabit the land and in order to accomplish his intended end, adopts at least outwardly the ways of the people among whom he sojourns. [One is reminded of I Corinthians 9 again.] And yet, those ways, while shaping the pilgrim for a time, are not his lasting possession. The pilgrim encamps, but then continues onward in search for his first vision and final home.
While this writer believes that he understands the intentions of Ashmore’s “incarnational pilgrim,” he nevertheless must argue for more clarity in the employment of the term “incarnate.” It would seem that many, especially within the ranks of the emergent movement, view the aspect of incarnating ministry as taking on the characteristics of the culture in which they are ministering instead of incarnating the person of Christ within said culture.
Ashmore is careful to point out that the church is not the institution we know as “church” today. Wholeheartedly agreeing with Ashmore at this juncture, this writer found the definitions of “institution” and “institutionalize” provided in A.T.TA.M. (All Things To All Men) both enlightening and amusing. Sadly the characteristics of “being regimented, unimaginative, and becoming apathetic” do indeed describe the disposition of many within the “church” today. Ashmore rightly points out that while the church may indeed utilize certain aspects of institutionalism as tools, it is never the institution itself. It would seem that the Western church has ceased being the carpenter who wields the tools, and has become instead, the tool that is being wielded by an institutionalized conglomerate bent on pursuing business as usual.
One can infer from Ashmore’s jargon that he perceives the “church” as having an “identity crisis.” Ashmore sees the church as organic, a living body joined to Christ which utilizes structure and order while guarding against the usurping of it’s identity by patterns of worship, denominational affiliations, and organizational structure. Ashmore likens the western church to one whose true identity is obscured by wearing a Halloween costume. In the case of the ecclesia, tradition and institutionalism have usurped the church’s true identity. One can see that it is this stringency regarding tradition, order, and institutional structure which has prohibited the church from adapting cross culturally. The church must be willing to be flexible when it comes to the non-essentials if it hopes to fulfill the great commission.
The institutional church has been accused of not being in touch with the post modern culture of today’s society. Along with Ashmore, this writer would agree that it is critical for the church of today to be able to distinguish between culture, tradition and biblical imperatives. The church must endeavor to discern what is merely of cultural and traditional relevance versus biblical principles that are constant and congruent in all cultures and at all times. The church is in need of many sons of Issachar who are able to discern the times and instruct the church in the way that it should go. Ashmore contends that one cannot know what the church should do until he possesses an understanding of the times in which he lives and the wisdom to lead under the leadership of Christ. One must be able to understand the cultural context and how to apply biblical principles therein.
One key to understanding Incarnational ministry as well as Ashmore’s book is understanding the importance of being able to differentiate between biblical principles and precepts. Ashmore defines biblical principles as a living thing that transcends time, culture, and contexts. Barring any employment of quantum physics and the like, the mathematical principle (equation) 2+2=4 is true throughout time, culture and all contexts of human involvement. The message of 2+2 does not need to be changed to make it relevant for it is a principle which, by definition, creates its own relevancy. In this writer’s opinion, the 2+ 2 principle is a good illustration of what Ashmore endeavors to communicate in regards to Incarnational. Indeed, while the basic message that 2+2=4 will not change the, the way this concept is conveyed may vary and require “incarnations” in various cultures. One may communicate 2+2 with bananas in one culture, while in another; dollars would be a more preferable means by which to relate the principle. The message remains the same whereas the means of communication may vary according to cultural context.
One of the ways Incarnational ministry is hindered is related to the tendency ministers have to confuse principles with precepts. Ashmore insists that principles are the foundations for precepts and speak to the heart and mind, conversely; precepts are always derived from principles and not the other way around. To make this point clear Ashmore uses Mathew 5:27-28, “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’ [precept]; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” According to Ashmore the underlying principles contained within this verse are covenant faithfulness, oneness, and love. “The precept defines the appropriate behavior as an outworking of the faithfulness principle.” One can easily see how pharisaical adherence to precepts could indeed hinder Incarnational ministry. If one were to confuse precept with principle, ministry in cultures different from one’s original context would prove difficult at best. One may view behavior counter to a personal understanding of a precept to be in violation of a principle when in reality it is only perceptual behavioral displayed within a certain context.
As Christians find their way in a postmodern culture they would do well to discern, as Ashmore apparently has, that institutional traditionalism based upon the precepts of man must give way to an Incarnational ministry motif based upon biblical principles.
1. Ray Ashmore, All Things to All Men: Developing an Incarnational Ministry Transforming Historical Traditions Adapting to Contemporary Culture, (USA- Imparting Life Ministries, 2010), rear cover.
4. Ibid., 2
5. Ibid., 29.
6. Ibid., 39.
7. Ibid., 40.