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Review of Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity

Lamin Sanneh. Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity. Oxford Studies in World Christianity. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2008. 362 pp. $19.95.

Lamin Sanneh is professor of History and World Christianity at Yale University, and author of the influential academic study Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis, 1989). He writes the inaugural volume in the “Oxford Studies in World Christianity,” a series whose purpose is to investigate “the new reality brought about by the shift in the center of gravity of Christianity from the northern to the southern hemisphere” (xxii). In this book, Sanneh “offers a panoramic survey of the field, exploring the sources to uncover the nature and scope of Christianity’s worldwide multicultural impact” (xxii).

Sanneh has a wide ranging and truly global perspective on world Christianity. His historical accounts span continents and centuries. The book takes the reader back to the origins of Christianity, to witness its birth in Europe, and then moves forward to explore its relation to Islam and development in Africa and Asia. Sanneh narrates the birth of Christianity in England and Iceland and gives the reader an illuminating examination of the struggle for effective contextualization in those countries. His accounts of various historical figures, the prophet William Harris, Vincent Donovan, and the freed slave (and probably one of the earliest development workers) David George are absorbing. His tales of the interaction of Christianity with Islam and how China has been shaped by the Christian faith are also intriguing. Sanneh’s eloquence, his gift as a storyteller, and his skill at placing historical events in their proper social context make the book worth reading despite its shortcomings.

Sanneh uses the language of “pillars” often in the book. Although never clearly defining what he means by this term, it is evident that he does not mean “columns” or “posts” that hold up the structure of World Christianity and instead wants us to understand these “pillars” as “motifs” or “roots” spread throughout and undergirding the global story of Christianity. One major motif he emphasizes throughout the text is the way that colonial missions planted the seeds of the demise of colonialism by encouraging Scriptures and worship in the local vernacular. Another motif is the way Christianity is, by its nature, the most flexible of the world religions in the way it is enculturated.

The book is geared toward readers with a strong academic background and presupposes more than a basic familiarity with the topic. Thus, it is not the right book for someone just beginning to explore Christian doctrine, mission theory, or the history of Christianity. In spite of (or maybe because of) the book’s ambitious scope, Sanneh’s work was frustrating to read. The book’s lack of a clear organizational structure to orient the reader is distracting. At no point, for example, does he lay out all of his “pillars” side by side. Thematically, it was difficult to understand the flow of the book. It contains eight chapters that seem to stand almost completely independent of each other. Each chapter dives into a certain period in a region’s history, but there is little explanation of how these accounts and observations are to be understood in relation to each other. Early on, Sanneh confesses: “I offer the book not as an exhaustive statement or even as a complete case study, but as an ecumenical conspectus of the field of World Christianity as I have seen and encountered in my professional work, especially in its interreligious manifestation” (xi). This seems an apt description of a book full of fascinating stories but containing little to help the reader piece Sanneh’s insights and observations into an integrated view of the development of global Christianity. There are just enough materials linking the stories together to make it more than a collection of articles, but not enough continuity to discern how the pieces in this panoramic picture fit together. Reading the book is like zooming blindfolded through a tour of an unfamiliar city at the hands of a superbly qualified guide. This guide removes the blindfolds at some interesting sites but does not aide the visitor in understanding how the different vistas fit together into a coherent vision. More should be expected out of such a gifted writer and historian.

Upon completion of the book, this reviewer felt that the fascinating assortment of stories coupled with a lack of clear overarching organizational themes produced a product that is not unlike the state of world Christianity today—interesting, diverse, growing, and complex in a way that makes divining clear “pillars” or motifs extremely challenging—even for the most celebrated of historians.

Alan Howell

Missionary serving the Makua-Metto people

Montepuez, Mozambique

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Review of Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion

Dana L. Robert. Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 232 pp. $26.95.

Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion is a global tour with a highly capable guide, Dana Robert. Robert’s competent handling of Christianity’s rise to behemoth status in world religion is impressive. Readers will find in this book a wonderful, lively resource coming out of years of teaching and reflection. Robert shows how vast and interconnected the Christian world is. She is as fluent with African health issues as with Celtic Christian history. Like few others, Robert comprehends Christianity’s breathtaking diversity, and its continued assimilation into new cultures. Reading this book affirms what most religion scholars are realizing: for the first time in human history, there is a religion that meets the criteria of being, truly, a world religion.

Robert begins by discussing Soviet Estonian teenagers “huddled in secret” listening to a smuggled copy of the British rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, and she ends with a story about her encounter with some Afrikaners reading Watchman Nee. How did white Dutch South Africans learn about Watchman Nee? They were introduced to his writings through a self-supporting Chinese-American missionary—and Watchman Nee enthusiast—who had moved to South Africa to spread the gospel. Robert then describes how these Afrikaners spread Nee’s ideas to Zimbabwe through some Shona people they met.

Such globalized, crisscrossing adventure is the nature of Christian mission today. Dana Robert understands the globalization of Christianity, how it has morphed, migrated, and enmeshed into new societies. She is an historian of Christianity with a missions emphasis. She is at her best discussing Africa—where she has considerable expertise. As Professor of World Christianity and the History of Mission at Boston University School of Theology, she also co-directs the Center for Global Christianity and Mission. Her research output is enormous, and she has emerged as one of the leading authorities on Christianity’s recent southern shift. Her publications have fluctuated back and forth from micro- to macro-history throughout a quarter-century of academic writing.

Perhaps most noticeably, Robert is gifted in bringing to light the contributions of women throughout Christian history. She argues in several places that “Christianity is a women’s religion” by about two to one; therefore women need to take a more prominent place in Christian history. She uses many facts and anecdotes to emphasize this revision. For example, women missionaries from the United States outnumbered male missionaries by two to one in 1900. She concentrates on the central role of mothers in the history of Christianity, and how women sustained the faith when families converted. She highlights careful efforts of women missionaries who understood that to influence a society one must reach the harems and Zenanas (women’s living quarters). Robert’s sensitivity towards women, wives, families, and marriage is an important corrective to macro-histories. No history of Christianity, or history of Christian missions, can legitimately allow the feminine and familial perspectives to escape notice. On the surface this seems obvious. Most histories, however, are about men. Robert has argued this for years, and in this book she delivers a balanced retelling.

This book is not a chronological, orderly account of how Christianity spread. It is more like a colorful tapestry made of extraordinary lives. Robert avoids the need to cleanly separate epochs in the history of Christianity. Her style is telling human stories. In traditional history books, scholars and clergy are mentioned in association with their greatest accomplishment. Robert however stays with the person, developing more meaningful context. For example, when writing about female circumcision, she shares the life work of Annalena Tonelli, an Italian lawyer who moved to Kenya in 1969 to teach in a high school. Using Tonelli’s life as an interpretive prism, Robert casts light on African nationalism, changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council, Catholic social action movements, HIV, clitoridectomy, and modern-day Christian martyrdom. She deftly weaves an historical narrative using biography as her loom. The lives she chooses, often female, are fascinating and will be unfamiliar to most readers.

Undergirding Dana Robert’s work is a passion for Christian mission. In 2010 she was selected as a keynote speaker for the Edinburgh centenary of the World Missionary Conference. This was an important assignment. Edinburgh 1910 is widely held to be the high watermark in the history of Christian mission. In her lecture, Robert argued that nothing should discourage Christians from “… sharing God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ with all the world.”1 Clearly, Robert is a friend to Christian mission, an advocate of it. But how can she manage to uphold the integrity of Christian mission in a pluralistic climate often hostile to the propagation of faith? Robert handles this well in her book. By bringing out the humanity of missionaries, rather than focusing on the charged rancor of cultural imperialism, she steers a wise course. Her stories are moving. For example, she discusses the 1999 tragedy involving Graham Staines and his two young boys who were burned to death by Hindu fanatics; his widow forgave the killers and continued working in the leper home founded by her husband. She also discusses the admirable work of Maria Skobtskaya who ran a shelter and soup kitchen for Russian refugees in Paris in the 1920s. She was eventually arrested by Nazis for rescuing Jewish children. On Good Friday 1945 she died a martyr in Ravensbrück concentration camp after trading places with a Jew. Ursuline missionary Marie Guyart is another saintly woman highlighted in the book. Guyart took a vow of celibacy and traveled to Canada in 1639 to become “the first missionary woman in North America.” In the face of priestly opposition she spent over thirty years cloistered in a convent running a girls school until the day she died.

Robert provides an important corrective to those who dismiss Christian missions as a colonial relic or worse. Throughout history, mission work consisted of people giving their lives to others. This often meant boarding a ship and starting life from scratch—learning a new language, making new friends, adopting a foreign lifestyle—all in the name of bringing “good news.” Missionaries were expected to be buried in the ground they tilled. Today, however, the era of life-long mission commitment is virtually over. People now prefer short-term mission trips of one or two weeks, leading to what Robert calls “mission amateurs.”

A critical insight in this book is that we are in a new era of global missions. Robert selects the Billy Graham inspired 1974 Lausanne conference as a turning point. While the missionary impulse might have waned in the mid-twentieth century, Lausanne represents a shift. Today mission has become breathtakingly international, it shoots in all directions, it has a Pentecostal bent, and it is as lively as ever. It is not dying.

I highly recommend this book to students and scholars of Christian missions. It would make an excellent complement in history of missions courses. It would also be a helpful entry point for engaging the impact of women—the other half of the story—in church history.

Dyron B. Daughrity

Associate Professor of Religion

Pepperdine University

Malibu, California, USA

Professor Daughrity is the author of The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion (reviewed in this issue), as well as the lead article in this issue of Missio Dei.

1 Dana L. Robert, “Dana Robert Calls for Common Witness to Christ Despite Divisions,” News, Edinburgh 2010: Witnessing to Christ Today, http://www.edinburgh2010.org/en/news/en/article/4645/dana-robert-calls-for-com.html.

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Review of Robert A. Hunt, The Gospel among the Nations: A Documentary History of Inculturation

Robert A. Hunt. The Gospel Among the Nations: A Documentary History of Inculturation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010. 288 pp. $35.00.

The gospel is about movement—movement from Heaven to earth, human to human and culture to culture. As the gospel encounters people and takes root in their lives, they are changed by its transformative message. It is the gospel’s movement from culture to culture and the resulting changes that are the subject of Robert A. Hunt’s work, which “explores the ways Christians have engaged and can engage a pluralistic world with the gospel” (xi). Hunt is the Director of Global Education at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. This title, a volume in the American Society of Missiology Series, was chosen by the International Bulletin as one of its 15 Outstanding Books for 2010.

Part One—a scant but jam-packed 30 pages of mission history, focusing on pluralistic encounters and enculturation—commences with the apostolic period, moves through the Patristic era, engages Europe and the rest of the world including colonialism, and concludes with the current era of post-colonialism and post-Christendom. Hunt reminds the reader:

Contextualization is not just a strategy for mission, it is an ever-present critique of all attempts to bind the meaning of the gospel and the reign of Christ to a single cultural context. (xi)

The gospel changes cultures, and our moving between cultures changes the way one sees and understands the Bible. New cultural contexts force us to see biblical themes that were passed over in our earlier settings:

As Christians working outside the West realized the need to cooperate, given the vastness of the un-evangelized world, they also had to distinguish the gospel from their denominational and national interests. (25)

Acknowledging that people are victims not just of personal sin, but of worldwide political, economic, and cultural structures that are manifestly un-Christian has become a central theme of Christian missions. (27)

Part Two, the majority of the book—260 pages—is a tremendous compilation of readings on enculturation, beginning with Justin Martyr and ending with an article prepared for the 2004 Lausanne meeting in Pattaya, Thailand. The 77 selections, primary sources with secondary analyses, come from all major branches of the church: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal. The entries are a Who’s Who in church history, theology and missiology; for example: Constantine, Venerable Bede, Nestorians, Benedictines, Carey, Livingstone, Bishop Petr, Pope Pius XII, Hocking, Koyama, Sanneh, and many others.

Of particular interest were the articles in Chapter 8, selections 49-59, originating from the Majority World. Selection 54, “Let My People Go,” was an eloquent discussion from Asia on self-reliance, the proposed moratorium on missionaries, and the need for indigenization with the goal “to read the Bible through our own cultural eyes and the eyes of poverty rather than through the eyes of western culture and affluence” (161). Selection 58 by South African Manas Buthelezi raises the question of “whether Christian love is safe at all in the hands of the white man” (183).

The final chapter includes 17 contemporary documents of the church, again representing all major branches of current Christianity. The Evangelical selections include the Lausanne Covenant, the Iguassu Affirmation of the World Evangelical Fellowship, the Sandy Cove Covenant and Invitation (highlighting creation care), and a poignant reminder by Richard Vos of the need to address issues of hunger and agriculture.

The entries that Hunt provides in this collection do have some commonalities. Nearly all adhere to a definition of mission that includes both evangelism and social justice. Many of today’s Evangelicals refuse to believe that Jesus intended for there to be a rift between these two biblical emphases. The gospel and its presentation must not be truncated into the “here and now” on the one hand, and the “sweet by and by” on the other The gospel is to be presented using both word and deed. It is a holistic message, taking its cue from the very life and practice of Jesus.

The Gospel Among the Nations is a boon for the student of missiology, with so much material gathered into one volume. The book will not be a quick read, but it will be worth the hours required. When completed, it can sit on the shelf as a handy reference volume. Hunt is to be commended for his years of research and his selection parameters.

Doug Priest

Executive Director

CMF International

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

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Review of Mary T. Lederleitner, Cross-Cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission

Mary T. Lederleitner. Cross-Cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission. Downers Gove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010. 230 pp. $17.00.

Partnerships are trendy, du jour, and very fashionable in missiological literature. This is, in itself, not a bad thing, but demands thoughtful guidance and supple wisdom as the massive amount of commentary on this critical topic can be confusing. Mary Lederleitner’s recent work, Cross-Cultural Partnerships, provides one example of helpful direction through this maze of material. Lederleitner, a consultant for Wycliffe International, provides numerous examples of real life partnering (and mis-partnering!), and draws the reader into critical issues that can make partnerships fly or fail.

The book proceeds from the foundational assumption that, although necessary for effective mission practice, partnerships are fraught with difficulties and hidden cultural traps. That is, the formation of faithful and effective partnerships requires more than simply goodwill and earnest desire. Indeed, partnerships can function as simply the latest way of controlling the Other. The term “partnering” often functions as a new external wrapping given to a very familiar type of “ministry,” i.e., control by those who possess greater resources. Because this type of faux partnership is so common, Lederleitner’s work is all the more urgent for those who wish to work faithfully and effectively in cross-cultural contexts.

To help us navigate these complexities, Lederleitner weaves two primary topics throughout her discussions: relationships and money. Much of the material on cross-cultural relationships will be familiar to informed readers. Important cultural dynamics to which all should pay close attention include individualism and collectivism, the issue of “face,” monochromic and polychromic approaches toward time, ambiguity tolerance and uncertainty avoidance, and communication in high- and low-context cultures. Her important reminder that the seemingly innocent metaphor “children” applied to non-Western partners often hides an insidious neo-colonial paternalism is right on the mark. She raises the important question of who decides how to define dependency and the shape of partnerships, often a conversation driven primarily by expatriate missionaries and donors. All potential partners, Lederleitner insists, should have a say in these definitional and foundational issues. In my opinion, one of her most important contributions in the entire volume is the extended discussion in Chapter 5 on “paternalism couched as accountability,” which she could easily have also sub-titled “dominance couched as partnership.” Her insight challenges readers to look hard at how these dynamics may be tacitly at work in even the most sensitive and caring missionaries.

Lederleitner devotes considerable space to her other key concern, namely issues involving partnership and money. She discusses the frequent occurrence of recipients using resources contrary to donor’s wishes and offers possible ways to navigate such sticky situations, noting that a critical piece to all financial challenges is real and substantive friendship, rather than merely formal institutional arrangements. An approach based upon realism, friendship, and humility undergirds her many practical and specific examples. She advocates giving dignity and mutuality while still working towards financial accountability. Lederleitner offers helpful suggestions if funds or other resources are misallocated.

In terms of the use of money and dependency, Lederleitner aims at a middle way, avoiding both the free use of money advocated by some and the aversion to using money at all. The reader will have to decide if this chastened approach is feasible in real life. It was unsatisfying to me, as she tries too hard, unsuccessfully I think, to hold on to both approaches, resulting ultimately in a proposal that lacks power and consistency.

Overall, Lederlietner’s work rests upon a foundation of humility, genuine love, and friendship, resources that are often scarce in cross-cultural partnerships. This work could serve as a fine introduction to the issues involved in cross-cultural partnership. Those who wish to dig deeper may want to consult Lingenfelter’s work Leading Cross-Culturally (Baker Academic, 2008) and Jonathan Bonk’s enduring classic Mi$$ions and Money (Orbis: 2007).

Chris Flanders

Associate Professor of Mission

Graduate School of Theology

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA

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Review of David Livermore, What Can I Do? Making a Global Difference Right Where You Are

David Livermore. What Can I Do? Making a Global Difference Right Where You Are. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. Kindle Edition. $9.99.

David Livermore recognizes that globalization changes the missional context of domestic vocational ministry. His latest work, What Can I Do? is a practical guidebook for coming to terms with this new context and taking initial steps to engage it. He aims to broaden the typical American Christian’s view of mission and help the church to overcome the overwhelming, often paralyzing uncertainty experienced in the face of a world full of need.

The book addresses a confluence of concerns: missional church, holism, vocational ministry, cross-cultural intelligence, and globalization. Its primary burden is twofold: to convince the reader that one’s everyday work and service is mission and to demonstrate that such local mission carried out in a globalized world will necessarily have a global impact.

Livermore delivers on his promise to provide a “solution-oriented, hopeful picture” (loc. 155) of what the church can do on a global scale from its own backyard. Livermore skillfully parses out the big global issues and paints a picture that is serious but not overwhelming, despite the title of section one, “A Big (Inspiring Yet Overwhelming) Picture.” He adopts the now prolific method of reducing the earth to a 1000 member village in order to make the statistics more comprehensible. Furthermore, the premise of this village as a single community stands behind the portrayal of a fully interconnected, transnational, glocal (i.e., global-local) world. With this as the framework, Livermore discusses major issues in a nicely simplified taxonomy: economics, disease, environment, trafficking, war, changing international realities, and world religions.

After a brief biblical overview in the creational-missional vein discussed above, the introductory section concludes with seven general strategies for a positive global impact that any reader can implement immediately. These include lifestyle choices as simple as being aware and making others aware, and as challenging as conscientious shopping and socially responsible investing. Livermore complements these suggestions with practical insights and a sprinkling of online resources. The second section proceeds to deal with five specific vocational fields, namely (1) business and management, (2) science and technology, (3) art, (4) health care and wellness, and (5) teachers, family and friends. These chapters are helpful signposts that guide the reader into a world of possibility rather than being exhaustive treatments of any one profession’s best engagement with global issues.

Livermore is practically-minded throughout his treatment of these vocations, ending each chapter with a “Before You Turn The Page” section featuring a handful of suggestions for taking immediate action. Some of these are reductive, such as the admonition for heath professionals to pray with their patients. It is difficult to imagine a serious Christian health professional finding this in any way instructive. The overall point remains, though, that every vocation provides a platform for accomplishing a great deal in global mission. The chapters’ ideas are suggestive and inspiring. Yet, section two ends with a word of caution. Livermore wisely makes space for healthy, realistic counsel that should temper the zealous activism of readers empowered by his practical advise.

Section three consists of two chapters aimed at preparing the reader and the reader’s community for deeper engagement in glocal mission. These feature various tools and methods for discerning what specifically to do and where to start. Finally, a FAQ at the end of the book addresses concerns that might have lingered for some readers, such as the question of the social gospel or the apparently secular nature of many of the book’s concerns. These are useful clarifications, but it is well that they do not take up space in the main body.

Two issues may give readers pause. One, although Livermore is familiar with missional church thinking (loc. 2448), and although he clearly advocates a broad understanding of what constitutes mission, there is still a sense throughout the book that local work is mission only because of the way globalization has made the local to be glocal. As he puts it, “My aim in this book has been to expand your view of global mission” (loc. 2229; emphasis added). “Mission” is still essentially global in character for Livermore, even if one does not have to live in a foreign country to be a missionary. It is fair to say that because he targets an audience that equates mission with the work of cross-cultural missionaries, his approach is a strategically sound way to open up the idea of mission. But it is noteworthy that this route ends with a narrower definition of mission that than many are currently advocating.

The second reservation is related. Livermore keenly roots his argument in creational theology: as God’s image-bearers, humans were created to serve the world’s needs—which he takes to mean created for global mission (locs. 366, 399, 489). Yet, there is a certain tension between this rather universal idea on one hand and the special circumstances occasioned by postmodern globalization upon which the book’s argument depends on the other. Given that we are made to have this global impact, what would the church do if its ministry were not so glocally situated? Must its global intentions be frustrated and reduced to “merely” local impact; and is this still mission?

Nonetheless, in the final analysis the volume is a useful tool for the average American Christian. It is accessible and practical. The reader who takes the time to follow Livermore’s lead will benefit greatly and likely come to make a truly global impact. This is just the sort of book churches need to be reading if they desire to face up to the new realities of the present century and embark on a new journey as glocal citizens of God’s world.

Greg McKinzie

Missionary

Arequipa, Peru

Visit http://www.cudaperu.org to learn about the developmental ministry happening in Arequipa.

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Running to Catch Up with God

There is an old saying: “People do not plan to fail; they fail to plan.” However, there is planning and then there is planning. We can decide what we want to do and ask God to bless it, or we can seek to understand what God is doing and join him in it. It is probably wiser to follow what God is blessing than to ask God to bless what we are doing.

One of the benefits of the move to a post-modern mentality is that it is teaching me how arrogant it is to assume we know what we need to do or what the church should look like. I’m beginning to understand that all “strategic planning” must begin with spiritual discernment of what God is already doing where we are and wherever we go. I see a need to trace the trajectory of God’s movement through Scripture and then ask how this story is playing out in God’s current work in our world. So, for me the first question is, “What is God doing in the world?” My first turn is then to look at what Scripture says to help me interpret God’s work.

After introducing us to the world as God created and intended it and then telling us four stories of how humanity corrupted God’s creation through rebellion to his reign, the Bible begins the story of salvation with a call to Abram and a vision from God to bless all nations through one sent family. God stations this family at the crossroads of world civilization where all nations will be able to see what he does with them. Then he builds them into a nation in the womb of the world’s greatest empire: Egypt. He saves Israel from Egypt in a dramatic fashion so that the entire world might know of his power and then returns them to the crossroads of the world. Throughout the history of Israel, he continually calls them to have a vision for global the redemption and restoration of all the nations and all creation (cf. Isa 2:2; 49:6; Jer 3:17). This global movement then hits turbo drive with the coming of Jesus and announcement of the kingdom of God.

I don’t see how we can view this overarching global narrative and continue to see the gospel in an American-centric way. As I’ve begun to see the gospel through the lenses of God’s objective of global restoration and reunion, I’ve been challenged to see beyond my Western-oriented, individualistic understanding of salvation to see a communal, relational understanding of God’s salvation that speaks a word of hope for the whole world.

John 3:16 says God loves the world, not just me as an individual. He wants to save it all. He sent Jesus for it all. Our God is a go-and-rescue God with a global objective, not a come-and-get-it God speaking to individuals. He is a God whose love drives him to pursue entire people groups who don’t even know they need him. He is a God who sacrifices whatever it takes to be in a loving relationship with his whole creation. God doesn’t just love us as his individuals but has a love for “the world.” God doesn’t just love the church, but loves the whole world. If we were going to join what God is doing, we must join God in going to all peoples as the sent ones who follow the model of Jesus.

I’m longing for a time when the church recaptures the frantic pace of the book of Acts, where the people of God are panting with their tongues hanging out of their mouths and their sides hurting as they run to catch up with God’s expansion of his reign to all peoples. From the global impact of Pentecost; to the removal of barriers to reaching Samaritans; to a gender ambiguous Ethiopian proselyte; to the cataclysmic moment when Peter stepped across the gentile threshold of Cornelius, baptized his household, and ate with them as God’s holy people the church struggles to keep up with God’s relentless march from the hinterlands of Judea to the world capital in Rome. This is a gospel that is too big to be contained in one place or for one people group. It propels people out beyond their local and personal world into the world of others and draws all people together into one new forming reality called the kingdom of God.

In all his world travel, the Apostle Paul was driven by a global vision that finds expression in words like these:

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:19-21)

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28)

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph 2:14-18 )

The Bible concludes with a vision of global restoration and unification:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9)

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev 22:1-2)

From Abram’s call on, God has been on mission to undo the divisive effects of human rebellion against his rightful reign and bring all creation back into harmony with him and each other. God’s mission involves saving a remnant of every expression of humanity. He wants people from every people group to bring the best of their cultures into the restored heaven and earth. God’s mission involves bringing people together from every nation, race, and language to make us one again in his love, under his blessed reign.

With that biblical foundation as a filter to screen reality, I think it becomes easier to see God at work in global trends today. Let me share some facts with you.1 Only 13% of the world is white. 80% of the world lives outside of the west. Only 4.5% of the world lives in US (but we consume 25% of world resources). There are more Scandinavians in the US than in the 4 countries of Scandinavia. The US is the largest Irish nation in the world. There are more Jews in New York than all of Israel. There are more Jews in Miami than Tel Aviv. Arabs now outnumber Jews in US. The US is the forth largest black nation in the world (and there are 55 countries in Africa). 133 nations are represented in 1 zip code in Queens NY (out of about 200 nations). Chicago has 100,000 more Polish people than San Francisco has people. Warsaw only recently passed Chicago in its number of Poles. Chicago has more Bulgarians than Sophia. In one high school in Chicago, there are 63 nations and 11 languages represented. LA public schools have children speaking over 200 languages. In St. Paul, MN schools, 25% of students are Hmoung (a people who don’t even have country). The US is the third largest Spanish nation in the world out of 25 Spanish speaking countries. The US recently passed Colombia and Argentina. Only Mexico and Spain have more Spanish speaking people. Mexico is moving to the US by the thousands each year. By 2020 Hispanics will be the largest racial group in Texas. In Anchorage Alaska, the fastest growing group is Hispanics. They will outnumber Eskimos by 2020. The US has become a global country.

This is not just a trend in the US. The same is true of the UK. My wife and I were recently in London and we didn’t see an “Englishman” until the second day. It’s the same everywhere: Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin. People from 97 nations live in one parish in Downtown Oslo, Norway. People from 100 nations are represented in one high school in Bangkok. São Paulo, Brazil has 1 million Japanese. Peru has a former President named Fujimori. There are more honors students in India than the US has students. There are 140 million Chinese outside of China. That alone would make the top 10 list of world’s largest countries. Every year a population greater than Canada’s relocates from rural to urban China (over 30 million a year). The government of China has to create 20 cities of 1 million each year just to handle the flow to the cities. My wife taught for 5 years in Amarillo public schools. In her classes in North Amarillo she had 11 languages spoken and world refugees from all over the planet. A white face was rare. Amarillo is a city of under 200,000 in a fairly isolated stretch of West Texas, but it is a global city.

I can’t help but believe that God not only knows about this but is involved in these global trends. God seems to be working in two ways to alter our world landscape: urbanizing and globalizing. These are the two greatest phenomena on the planet. In 1900 only 8% of the world lived in cities; today it is over 50% and growing. The nations that once colonized the rest of the world are now finding the people of those nations moving into their former overlord’s backyards and taking over. If not for immigration, the once great powers of Western Europe would be collapsing under the forces of negative population growth. The future of Europe does not have a white face. The same is true of the church. The future of Jesus’ movement is not with the nations and ethnicities that have been its traditional stronghold throughout Christendom. It is in those places considered the “mission field” in the past. Today the traditional “Christian” world is becoming increasingly post-Christian and the true mission field.

Despite our biases in the US, I’m also convinced that God loves cities. The Bible refers to cities 1,250 times. There are 142 different cities mentioned in the Bible. The first gentile church was an urban mission church and they began world missions with a distinctly urban approach. Paul’s strategy involved relocating to a large city and then sending out disciple makers from there. We cannot be a “New Testament church” and be unconcerned with urban missions. The New Testament is not a book of systematic theology; it is missionary literature from a first generation church crossing cultures with a goal to get to the world’s premier city: Rome. Paul only went to cities and he approached each one in unique ways. And consider John’s witness in the Book of Revelation: the Bible may begin in a garden, but it ends in a city—a global city—the New Jerusalem.

God is gathering diverse peoples in cities all over the world where they can more easily be engaged by the Gospel directly—through personal relationships with believers! Remember, for only 10 righteous people, even Sodom could have been saved.

The former western strongholds that may formerly be known as “Christendom” will not endow the world with the future of the church. I believe western Christians must reorient ourselves from what we think of as the mission field to serve the work God is initiating and leading. The vision for world missions will not arise from the United States alone. The models of church that we support need to make sense and be sustainable in non-Western nations. We need to stop imposing a Western Christendom model of church on the world and let churches be homegrown from original—not introduced—soil in which the gospel is planted; we should focus on making disciples who can reproduce themselves rather than copy us. The future of global missions is in mutual partnerships with global Christians who can educate American churches about how to reach their part of the world better than Western church leaders can educate them.

In light of all the information above, I have some serious concerns. The people of my heritage in Churches of Christ are mostly people of rural culture having recently moved to cities, and we have a bias against urban culture. We are mystified about how to interact with people of other cultures. Though we have come a long way by God’s grace, we are mostly white and segregated. We are excessively individualistic and mono-lingual. We are overly nationalistic and struggle to trust people of developing nations. Most of our churches are either consumed with internal issues (e.g., worship) or have sold out to a consumer driven gospel–“it’s all about blessing me.” As our world becomes increasingly urban and international, our churches are perpetuating “white flight.” None of our Colleges (except possibly Lipscomb) is in a truly urban area. I don’t think Malibu counts as urban, though it is in greater Los Angeles. Those who train our ministers are just recently getting into any kind of serious urban ministry training and we have very few professors who are multi-cultural—not that we are behind other Christian faith heritages. Most of our ministry training and experience has been about how to reach people like us. Most church growth focuses on reaching one niche market: mostly middle-class white professionals. Most of our mission works have been to rural parts of the world. Our churches are fleeing cities as the rest of world flocks to the cities.

As bad as all this sounds, it also represents a great opportunity and increasingly I see our churches willing to face the new realities and open for counsel about how to reach populations they previously had not been able to attract. My experience at Central in Amarillo convinced me that “country club” churches can make the missional turn and learn to minister to their urban context. It will take time and focus as well as new and diverse approaches. It will require a theological re-visioning. But, the American church is increasingly going to find its own future will depend on learning from the missionaries they have been sending overseas how to reach the people back home. Fortunately, Churches of Christ have tremendous flexibility with our local control in each congregation. Each congregation is free to embrace all kinds of new approaches and MRN exists to help them do just that. Obviously, if we are going to follow God and reach the masses of the diverse humanity he is gathering for us and for the sake of the Gospel in cities around the world, we are going to have to open our eyes and realize the world is changing and we are not ready yet. It’s time we ran hard to catch up with God.

Dan Bouchelle is the Executive Director of Missions Resource Network. He served for nine years as senior minister at the Central Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas. Prior to his role at the Central Church, Dan served as pulpit minister for the Alameda Church of Christ, Norman, Oklahoma from 1994 to 2001 and ministered with the Northwest Church of Christ, Abilene, Texas, from 1988 to 1994. He earned Doctor of Ministry, Master of Divinity, and Master of Arts degrees from Abilene Christian University. Dan serves as a member of Christian Relief Fund’s Board of Trustees. He is author of When God Seems Absent: Studies in Ruth and Esther (Leafwood, 2001) and The Gospel Unleashed and The Gospel Unhindered (College Press, 2005). Dan and his wife, Amy, have three children.

1 From Raymond J. Bakke, keynote address given at the 2004 Urban Ministry Conference hosted by the Manhattan Church of Christ.

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Mexicans, Missionaries, Mandarin, and Memphis

God has certainly blessed me by letting me witness the beauty of his church and the love and faithfulness it demonstrates in this world. The kingdom of God is full of cultural diversity and richness that reflects the power, beauty, compassion, and fun of living in the same Spirit for the shared goal of praising God. I first saw this through the work and love of American missionaries in my home congregation in Puebla, Mexico. From my first encounter with Christians, I saw how the love of Christ unites people from different races, cultures, and socio-economic statuses. In Mexico, there tend to be clashes between people of different economic backgrounds. However, I saw how God could bring together a poor single mother praying and growing with a white-collar professional that shares the same struggles and goal—to live for Christ. This purpose is what helped me understand why people would be willing to move to a different country and spread God’s news and love to strangers.

Eventually, I became a missionary too. I moved to China, where I continued witnessing the power of God and the splendor of his kingdom. One thing about China that I found to be very familiar to me is the importance of hospitality. Chinese people, like Mexicans, put a strong emphasis on cooking the best for their guests. Although what constitutes “the best” for one is sometimes another’s stomach nightmare, love and unity is what I saw the most. Turtle or very spicy fish were not my favorite things to eat, but they sure tasted good when the person preparing them was joyfully serving and loving me. Hospitality and food reminded me of a sister in Puebla who prays for her guests as she is cooking a meal (that normally takes 2 to 3 hours to make) for them.

Since returning to the States I’ve been incredibly blessed by living in Memphis, TN. Although Memphis certainly has a bad reputation because of its high levels of crime, I can assure you God is doing powerful things through his people in that city. For example, Chinese immigrants form the Sunday school class that I attend. They try to be a positive influence in Memphis, and continue being involved in spreading the Good News in China through various venues.

Another example of God’s people being humble, faithful vessels in Memphis is HopeWorks. This ministry aims to help the “chronically unemployed” learn how get and keep productive and responsible employment. The students of this program receive Bible, GED, and career development classes, individual and group counseling, internships, hope, and lots of love and support from people in the community that truly want the best for them. I began working in this ministry as a faith encourager, my involvement deepened, and now I’m part of the counseling staff. The servants in this ministry are wonderful examples in my life, and I treasure them with all my heart! Although I can testify to a lot of good things that they do in the name of God, I want to tell you more about a student there, who has become one of our brothers in Christ. He came from another state after being homeless for years. He couldn’t find a job because of his criminal record, and his depression worsened as time went by. One day he decided to search online—“jobs” and “felons”—and he found HopeWorks. Somehow, he was able to put the money together for a bus ticket and decided to get enrolled in the program. Once in Memphis, he walked several miles from the bus station to HopeWorks during a very hot summer day. If you have been in that area during the summer, you know what kind of weather I am talking about. To make a long story short, he was able to start the program, graduated with “best attendance record” (even though he was still living under bridges and in shelters), and eventually found a job that allowed him to serve others. Most importantly, he decided to live for Christ. Today, he is trying his best to spread God’s word and serve as many people as he can. He is a wise, humble, and hardworking man of God.

What do these Mexicans, missionaries, Chinese, and homeless people have in common? The answer includes: being willing to serve our Father; being a blessing to others in God’s name; being faithful and passionate; and being willing to learn from one another, work in unity (despite possible mistakes along the way), and reflect God’s love and presence in a huge variety of ways that only our Father can make possible. God’s children are a beautiful and powerful manifestation of His work and love.

Marisol Rosas is a full-time bilingual counselor working at The Exchange Club Family Center (a non-profit agency in Memphis, TN) and a part-time counselor at HopeWorks. She was born and raised in Puebla, Mexico, completed undergraduate studies at Harding University, was a missionary in China from 2004-2008, and recently graduated with an MA in Counseling from Harding School of Theology.

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The Missional Posture and Our Muslim Neighbors

If nothing else, the meaning of the term “missional” hinges on the idea that mission is always God’s mission, the missio Dei. Mission is not about what we envision and enact in the world for God’s sake or to expand God’s territory, but rather what God wills and what God is doing in the world in anticipation of an open, yet promised future. And we are invited and privileged to collaborate with God and participate in God’s missional purposes. As is often repeated, therefore, a primary requirement of the missional posture is discernment; we are called to have our eyes open and our ears to the ground so that we might perceive God’s presence and calling, and thus position ourselves to be participating vessels and instruments.

Assuming that we can discern something of God’s global calling by reflecting on significant world events, it is hard to ignore the following fact: Many of the most significant geopolitical issues of this era are surfacing along the borders of Islam and Christianity. Religion is not the only relevant category through which to understand geopolitical issues, but Muslim/Christian relations and interactions certainly play a vital role when considering major occurrences in recent decades such as 9/11, the “war on terror,” satirical cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and the violent backlash they spurred, Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address in which he made controversial statements about Islam, Christian/Muslim conflicts in places like the Balkans and Nigeria, the Arab Spring, a Christian pastor in Florida publically burning copies of the Koran, the death of Osama bin Laden, and the dramatic growth of Islam worldwide and especially in Europe and North America. These complex and overlapping dynamics are as sensitive as they are unavoidable, and are increasingly important in the global community and in our own backyards. More than acknowledging that these dynamics are newsworthy, however, the missional posture seeks to find in them signs of God’s purposeful presence: What does God desire in these interactions? What is God trying to show us about ourselves and our Muslim neighbors? What might God be calling us to see and to be? How can we participate and contribute?

Unfortunately, the corresponding Muslim/Christian interactions are often about as rational and helpful as what is depicted in the comedy routine between Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert on the Daily Show in which they argue over which religion is better (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32QFWMQzgQ4). Like all good comedy, this piece entertains while it delivers a sharp indictment. It mocks the inappropriate ways Christians and Muslims often employ apologetics or “power encounter” tactics; it belies assumptions that Christian/Muslim interactions must involve political positioning and debates over superiority, or that the primary purpose of interactions is to address conflicting visions of salvation. It also playfully critiques the idea that the only Christian/Muslim alliances that are possible are those built on the shared mistrust of a common opponent (e.g., Jews). As Christians, we need to promote a different posture for Christian reflection and missional engagement with Islam and our Muslim neighbors.

Currently, one of the most significant voices from the Christian side of this engagement, and a voice that represents a more healthy posture, is that of Miroslav Volf of Yale University and Divinity School. Volf is well known for his masterful studies of reconciliation, ecclesiology, and the Trinity, among others. But through his new book, Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011), Volf turns his attention to Muslim/Christian relationships and interactions. Specifically, he addresses a question that is relevant for many of our century’s most sensitive geopolitical concerns: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Volf acknowledges that this may not be the most important question to ask, but it is certainly one of the most common and is, therefore, a good place to start. From this starting point, he explores both the remarkable similarities between the faith and practice of the two religious communities (they are, he suggests, “sufficiently similar” to claim that mainstream Muslims and Christians do, in fact, worship the same God), as well as the significant and irreducible differences between the two (what he calls “rival versions of the Master of the Universe”). He then is able to explore and assess the theological, political, and existential implications of the issues, highlighting what he finds to be opportunities for more peaceful engagement, as well as opportunities for authentic Christian mission. Volf’s views will certainly produce much discussion and debate, but in the pluralistic world in which we find ourselves, his voice is an important one as we strive to live and serve in ways which are faithful to Christ.

Recently, at Rochester College’s Center for Missional Leadership, we hosted Professor Volf as part of our annual Streaming Conference, and he presented his material from Allah. As part of the program, we also practiced the kind of dialog promoted in the book by organizing a panel discussion between Volf and two other special guests: Saeed Khan, a Muslim scholar and commentator from Wayne State University in Detroit, and Mark Kinzer, a Messianic Jewish rabbi and scholar from Ann Arbor, Michigan. The discussion not only probed and critiqued some of Volf’s materials, but it humanized the whole issue as we struggled with each other on a few points, laughed together on some others, and forged relationships that will extend beyond the discussion.

Some immediate outcomes of the panel discussion include the following: Two audience members, one Muslim and one Christian, discovered their shared backgrounds in South Africa and went to lunch after the conference and are now keeping in touch with one another; two other participants, again one Muslim and one Christian, discovered that their daughters attended the same local high school and made plans to get their families together for dinner; two of the panelists (myself and Saeed Khan) will be co-teaching a class at Rochester College this fall on “Christian/Muslim Interactions” using Volf’s book as the text; and there are already plans to reassemble the panelists (including Volf) to continue this discussion next summer at the Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University. These are just a few examples of the missional interactions which developed and were nurtured as a result of the panel discussion.

The link below features a sampling of the panel discussion. Beyond being merely a fascinating dialog, it offers an invitation into discernment processes for one of the most important missional issues of our time.

God is moving and calling. Are our eyes and ears open?

Rochester College has graciously made available a taste of the discussion surrounding Dr. Volf’s book: http://photos.rc.edu/2010-2011/events/Streaming11/17132702_4B439z#1370817846_XBMvQ6m-M-LB

(One can order the materials from the Streaming Conference by contacting Phebe Dollan at pdollan@rc.edu).

John Barton is currently the Provost at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He and his family lived and worked in Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, from 1994 to 2002 as part of a church-planting mission team. While in Uganda, John completed a Ph.D. in philosophy at Makerere University in Kampala. His special areas of interest include African Philosophy, inter-cultural and inter-religious dialog, and reconciliation studies. Recent publications include articles in Philosophia Africana, Restoration Quarterly, and Missiology (forthcoming).

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Scott Momaday, American Indian writer, professor of literature in Southern California, tells this story. When he was a small boy, his father woke him early in the morning and said, “I want you to get up and go with me.” His father took him by the hand and led him, sleepily, to the house of an old squaw, and left him saying, “I’ll get you this afternoon.” All day long the old squaw of the Kiowa tribe told stories to the boy, sang songs, described rituals, told the history of the Kiowa. She told the boy how the tribe began out of a hollow log in the Yellowstone river, of the migration southward, the wars with other tribes, the great blizzards, the buffalo hunt, the coming of the white man, the starvation, the diminished tribe, and finally, reservation, confinement. About dark his father came and said, “Son, it’s time to go.” Momaday said, “I left her house a Kiowa.”

Fred Craddock tells that story and then asks the question, “When youngsters leave our church building, do they leave Christian? To be Christian is to be enrolled in a story, and anybody who can’t remember any farther back than his or her birth is an orphan.”1

An orphan is anyone who doesn’t have a story.

If I’ve learned anything in the ten years I’ve given to ministry, it’s this: Because we are narrative creatures, our primary orientation in identity is inextricably linked to the narratives that comprise our memories, conversations, and emotional responses. To say it plainly: We are the stories we tell ourselves.

A cursory consideration of modern life in America underscores this point. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

There are multiple divisions within the American political arena offering fundamentally different narratives.

Northerners scoff at Southern racism as if racism is only a Southern problem.

Muslims are treated as terrorists even though most Muslims are peaceful and honorable people (Muslims and Christians make up half the world’s population—we have to learn to live together).

Local churches wage wars between ministry teams, elder boards, and laity regarding the role of women because of generational and interpretive stories undergirding the entire debate. Unspoken stories are the most dangerous.

Family systems are held hostage by individual family members who are unable or unwilling to tell truthful memories.

Hundreds of pastors were willing to throw Rob Bell (author of Love Wins) under the bus (tweeting “farewell”) before they even knew the story Bell was telling himself and others. Why? Because they had already constructed a story about their own theology and Bell’s theology, and in that story there’s only room for the one true story—the story they’re selling.

We are the stories we tell ourselves. We become the stories we privilege.

Flannery O’Connor—a required reference in any presentation dealing with the power of story—never said that “we are the stories we tell ourselves.” She actually said it better. She wrote, “It takes a story to make a story.”2 Leave it to the preacher to complicate what the writer already settled concretely.

It takes a story to make a story. How significant is it that Scripture, which the church believes possesses the sacred words of God, comes to us primarily in narrative form (not formulas, doctrinal proofs, or diatribe).

If this is true then Scot McKnight’s suggestions in his provocative commentary on James cannot be ignored.3 His work is dynamite. I don’t mean “awesome”—I mean his work is going to literally rearrange some stuff; it’s going to remind us of the power of the church’s witness in local communities. The church isn’t simply about reforming individual components of culture, we exist to bear witness to the truth that when God raised Jesus from the dead God definitively dealt with sin, death, shame, injustice, oppression—God has dealt with the dead parts of our story.

As I read Scot McKnight’s recent commentary on James, I was taken with the following observations: (1) James is Torah in a new key. That is, James is to the Sermon on the Mount what the Sermon on the Mount is to Torah. James is wiki-version of Torah. (2) James read Torah like his brother. He read Torah through the interpretive texts of Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18—loving God and loving others. Some, including McKnight, have helpfully coined this The Jesus Creed.4 All of us privilege certain texts over other texts. How are you working the texts? What texts do you privilege? If you aren’t sure, I bet your congregation knows.

Case Study: Otter Creek Church

My assignment as preacher is to demonstrate what it means for the preacher to be the local theologian; the resident interpreter of the intersection of Jesus’ life on earth and the local church. Specifically, I want to use my current context, the Otter Creek Church in South Nashville, as a case study of sorts. I’m trying to do what Miroslav Volf calls, “remembering rightly.”5

Background: Otter Creek is a large, mostly-white, well-educated, affluent Church of Christ located in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States (Williamson County). How do I say this politely—I don’t think James would have applied for the Senior Minister position, nor do I think the search team would have put him at the top of their prospective candidate list.

Right now, someone’s thinking: “What does that say about you, Josh?”

My only response is that when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, James, the kingdom of Jesus, and our own individual lives—we’re all hypocrites; we all fall miserably short. However, I’m learning to see the world, as Jews have historically believed, that God’s more interested in me as part of a community. South Africans have famously adopted the belief in Ubuntu—a person is a person through other persons. For my purposes, I’d say it like this: my story is a story because it’s part of a bigger story. When I read the story of Otter Creek Church, not Josh Graves, alongside the teachings of James, a different picture emerges. Maybe that’s a take-away for preachers and pastors—we’ve got to get our people to stop thinking about the kingdom in terms of their individual lives (successes or failures). We need to help our churches see their story as part of a great, big story.

This is an exercise in remembering rightly.

I could ask Mrs. Campbell who, in 1929, saw that several children in her immediate neighborhood lacked a community of faith. She felt compelled to do something. She did what any smart wife would do—she enlisted her husband, a bus driver, to round up all the children so they could share stories about Jesus. Two things got into the DNA of Otter Creek Church—a healthy respect for the vision and leadership of women and a passion for those, in the neighborhood, who are most vulnerable to being story-less; orphans in the spiritual sense. This acute awareness of something being wrong is the birth of the Otter Creek Church. I imagine a conversation with Mrs. Campbell might go like this:

Josh: Mrs. Campbell, what part of James moves you the most?

Mrs. Campbell: For Mr. Campbell, I like 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” These two passages spoke to me in those early years: 1:26 “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” and 4:13 “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why? What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’ . . . Anyone, then, who knows the good she ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins,” (4:13-15, 17).

If I asked Ruth Rucker, founder of Otter Creek’s first pre-school and kindergarten (one of Nashville’s first schools of its kind started at a time when it was controversial in the U.S. to educated children prior to the first grade), about James, I suspect the conversation might take this course:

Josh: Mrs. Rucker, what part of James moves you the most?

Mrs. Rucker: 3:1ff.: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

If I asked the group of men and women who started Korea Christian College after the Korean War because they wanted the kingdom of God to be the last word and not the gun—if I asked them what part of James inspires them, I suspect they might suggest 3:17-18: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” Or, they might highlight 3:9: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (sounds like Gen. 1 and the imago Dei pillar of the Jesus Creed).

Bono said we should pay attention to our enemies, for enemies last longer than friends.

By the way, Korean Christian University was recently appraised to be worth just shy of one billion dollars. Their potential for kingdom impact in Seoul and beyond is limitless: “a harvest of righteousness.”

If I sat down with those families from Otter Creek who started AGAPE, one of the largest not-for-profit adoption and counseling justice ministries in Churches of Christ, I suspect they might say that their place in James is 2:18-19: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Someone else would certainly add 2:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

If I sat down with Deby Samuels and Father Charlie Strobel as Otter Creek and a few other churches first launched Room in the Inn, one of the largest holistic homeless ministries in the South and asked them what texts in James fueled their fire, I suspect they might respond, “That’s easy. 5:1-8: ‘Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. . . . You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.”

If I interviewed Otter Creek stalwarts Dr. Jerry and Sandy Collins, co-founders of the Wayne Reed Center—a school led by women with the intention of reaching Nashville’s poorest 2-5 year olds (and their parents) what texts in James give them hope on gloomy days, I’m sure they’d say, “5:1-8: ‘Now listen, you rich people. . . .”

We are the stories we tell ourselves. The Otter Creek story, like James, is a wiki version of the Jesus Story.

It takes a story to make a story. The Otter Creek Story started with a visionary woman with a heart for the vulnerable in her neighborhood. And that story was replicated because we are the stories we tell ourselves. These early stories have become newer stories: Made in the Streets (an outreach to holistically change the lives of street kids in Nairobi) and Living Water (planting 25 water wells all over the world in 2011). As one of my mentors likes to say, “What you win them with is often what you win them to,”—I suspect that’s true in all of our communities of faith.

What kind of stories shapes the identity of your congregation? Of course, we’re like any church. We’ve got our crazy aunts, weird uncles, and immature family members, but the larger church is being shaped by the stories we tell ourselves.

We are the people who get on a bus on a Sunday morning because God gave us children to save us from ourselves.

We are the people who believe that the imagination of a child is sacred.

We are the people who believe that God is turning swords into plowshares and preparing fields of inquiry and wisdom in the university setting.

We are the people who believe that God has no step-children and that the greatest response to the abortion epidemic in the West is not picketing or politics but adoption.

We are the people who believe that Jesus is found among the homeless; the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

We are the people that believe it’s insane for a rich white church to educate their own and not also seek to bless others as God spoke to Abraham in the beginning.

Chutzpah

The fundamental challenge of leadership (here’s my fundamentalist statement for the day) is not about getting everyone in our churches to believe the right things. Nor is it to get everyone to have the same passion for justice. The fundamental challenge of leadership is to instill and cultivate a prophetic imagination. After all, doctrine and work won’t move us further into the kingdom. It’s not about believing or doing. It’s about sight. Can we see as Jesus saw?

Can we see the gay community as another group we’ve loved to hate instead of Jesus’ command to love others as our test of how much we love God? Can we see the single mother? Can we see our Muslim neighbors? Can we see the family paralyzed by addiction and secrets?

One of my teachers at Columbia Seminary, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells the story of a student in a class who bore a tattoo that simply read, “And.” When Taylor saw this tattoo after class, she asked her student, “And. And what?”

“Oh this?” she said pointing to her tattoo. “It’s part of an experiment. Actually, a living novel project. “

“Huh” responded Taylor.

“Many of us have a favorite author. He created the living novel project. He’s recruiting people to take one word and tattoo it on their body.”

“And this means something to you?” Taylor asked.

“Yes. It means a lot. I don’t have to bear the whole story. I just have to bear one word.” Taylor goes on to say that she loves the idea of God as this particular author. The author looks around, knowing he’s given each person one word. Just one word to bear before the world’s eyes.

What’s your word?

I’ll never forget Dr. Loren Siffring, over French toast and chocolate milk, telling me that my word was “truth-seeker.” You can’t overestimate how important it is for a young man to be spoken to in that way.

I think this is how God works. I think this is how we appropriate James in our cities. It takes a story to make a story. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong. James cares about belief (the entire letter is an ethical treatise). James also cares about action (assuming you’ve read it, I don’t have to elaborate). But what James is most interested in is neither belief nor action. James is most interested in convincing you that the God who spoke to Abraham; who spoke to Jacob who spoke to Moses who spoke to Deborah who spoke to Esther who spoke to Isaiah; who spoke to Mary; who spoke to Jesus; who spoke to Paul; who spoke to Luke; who spoke to James—the same God is speaking.

And when this God speaks, new worlds form and old worlds fade away.

And that will radically mess with the way you see God’s world.

While so many of us in the U.S. spend our time obsessed with what CNN/FOX are saying; what Rush or Colbert think—can we, the baptized community, recognize that the bankrupt stories of nationalism, consumerism, and competition are stories not worth telling ourselves?

Because we are the stories we tell ourselves.

Do we believe it? . . . is a decent question.

Do we live it? . . . is a good question.

Do we see it? . . . is a great question.

May Father God, who loves stories, name us.

May Brother Jesus show us our role in the plot.

May the Spirit aid us in faithful improvisation of the kingdom on its way.

Amen.

Josh Graves is the preaching and teaching minister for the Otter Creek Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He is author of The Feast: How to Serve Jesus in a Famished World (Leafwood, 2009). In addition to other articles and essays, he also wrote the study guide for Mere Discipleship (Brazos Press, 2008). Josh speaks at churches and conferences all around the United States. He is currently a doctoral student at Columbia Seminary, studying the relationship of postmodernism and Christianity. Josh is married to Kara—the daily source of joy in his life and the real theologian in the family. They have one son, Lucas. You can read his blog at http://joshuagraves.com.

1 Fred Craddock, “Preaching as Storytelling: How to Rely on Stories to Carry Spiritual Freight,” Preaching Today, http://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/2005/august/132—craddock.html.

2 Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 202.

3 Scot McKnight, The Letter of James, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

4 Scot McKnight, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004).

5 Miraslov Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

Posted on

Talking with James

[Reading: James 1:22-27]

Be doers of the word,

Not hearers only

who deceive themselves.

For if any are hearers of the word

and not doers,

they are like those

who glance at themselves in a mirror;

walk away,

and immediately forget

what they look like.

But those who gaze into the perfect law,

the law of liberty,

and persevere,

Become not hearers who forget

but doers who act—

they will be blessed in the doing.

If anyone thinks he or she religious,

and does not bridle the tongue

that heart is deceived

that religion is worthless.

Religion ~

pure and undefiled

before God, the Father,

is this:

to care for orphans in their troubles

to take the side of widows’ in their distress

thus keeping yourself

unstained from the world.

… … … … … … … … … … … … … …

How ironic ~

to have someone like me ~

a rhetorician ~

assigned a text like this.

A rhetorician ~

who specializes in words ~

handling a pericope that claims:

  • “Words are not enough”
  • That “Genuine faith is . . .

. . . faith that works”

How ironic to have someone like me ~

a Church of Christ preacher ~

assigned a text like this.

A Church of Christ preacher

who cut his teeth on

  • 2 Sunday sermons (AM and PM)
  • Sunday School
  • and mid-week classes,
  • not to mention seasonal duties

with Ladies Bible Class

  • and if things go well ~

“here’s another

Sunday AM sermon to deliver.”

  • Which is to say ~
  • I spent all my time
  • talking
  • or preparing to talk.

James seems to have little taste

for all that talking.

How ironic

~ for one not endowed with the “gift of gab”

~ Bothered by the odors

of hospitals and nursing homes

~ and taught from his youth up

  • that city streets ~
  • with their taverns and clubs ~
  • were temptations to be avoided

How ironic to hand this text

to someone like me.

And, how ironic for a group like us

to be considering a text like this:

We who were part of the 1980s television studio audience

on the gospel program:

“Discovering Grace”

when Paul and James

were the last two left on the island ~

and we voted James and his “faith + works”

off the island

  • for his bad theology
  • and vowed never again

to preach from that book ~

  • a vow every grace – oriented

Church of Christ preacher has kept.

There’s great irony

for us today

to take up this pericope.

Though I must say ~

I am not opposed to this text.

Quite the opposite ~

As a rhetorician ~ I am attracted

to this passage’s particular form ~

its arrangement ~

its dispositio

its mini chiasm ~

its useful inclusio ~

what undergrads like to call

a “sandwich.”

I’m referring, of course,

to this passage’s

A B A′ pattern:

A: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only”

B: Metaphor of mirror and forgetting

A′: “Be not hearers who forget

but doers who act”

“Doers and not hearers only” (A and A′)

are the bread in this sandwich,

the inclusio’s frame

And the mirror metaphor

in the middle

is the mesquite smoked BBQ meat

Compress the sandwich ~

and out oozes true religion:

Assisting orphans and widows

in their distress ~

thus keeping oneself

unstained from the world.

Much like the sandwich

near the end of Mark’s gospel ~

where the cursed and withering fig tree

are the framing pumpernickel

in that sandwich

while the temple’s overturned

money changers’ tables ~

the corned beef in the middle.

Compress that sandwich

and out oozes true religion for Jesus

~ prayer, faith, and forgiveness.

Rhetoricians ~

find this intriguing ~

attracted to the pericope’s form . . .

because . . . this form

so effortlessly

with such ease,

carries it’s content

and emphasizes its meaning.

You can’t miss it.

How could anybody miss it?

And the powerful little metaphor ~

~ the mirror ~

~ what’s not to like?

It stirs every homiletic mind

although James’ mirror ~

is not the Carnival mirror

that distorts:

fattens,

shortens,

or elongates,

anything to provide relief from reality.

Nor will you find James’ mirror

at Rochester Hills Mirror and Glass,

which features designs

to make the room look deeper,

or accent the finest furnishings,

or allow you to keep

an eye on the children

from any room in the home.

The mirror in James has a different purpose ~

This polished bronze

is used for personal inspection

and adornment ~

grooming,

dressing,

applying,

adjusting,

and checking ~

You glance ~

it’s momentary and fleeting.

You glance ~

it’s casual and hasty.

You glance ~

and you walk away

already forgetting what you saw ~

forgetting who you are.

James’ mirror is a useful mirror ~

meant for adjusting and applying

helpful and necessary ~

but with one fundamental problem ~

The problem of the metaphor . . .

is with us ~

we, who “catch a glimpse”

and then forget our essential identity.

Objective rhetoricians approve of this

stout,

powerful,

hard working metaphor ~

the mirror.

How it teaches,

how it instructs.

But for those of us who have

a subjective connection

to the world James envisions

A lingering worry begins to throb ~

what have we forgotten?

Some rhetoricians

(should I say, the sophists among us)

Immediately want to distract us . . . .

find another appealing element

in the metaphor ~

its potential for humor.

You look in the mirror

immediately forget what you see

Oh! Forgetting has lots

of funny possibilities.

Especially if you have a

comfortable,

middle aged

well-healed audience:

this passage has comic potential.

Captured in Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness”1

which begins:

“The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title,

the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion,

the entire novel

which suddenly

becomes one you have never read,

never even heard of,

as if,

one by one,

the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire

to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village

where there are no phones. . .

with those who have forgotten how to swim,

even forgotten how to ride a bicycle.”

Which is enough to cause James

to step out of the pages

and look the sophist in the eye and say ~

“Stop dancing with this verse

Don’t use this text

as part of your stand up routine.”

James says to all of us,

“‘Forgetting’ isn’t a humorous topic.

Your light heartedness

only prevents you

from taking me seriously.

“There was nothing funny

When I asked, ‘who are you?’

and you replied,

‘I forget.’

That’s not funny!”

James is right.

Forgetting is a chronic problem in the Bible

and addressed with stern warnings

Especially troublesome

when we forget

the paradigmatic message of Scripture.

Don’t forget that when

we were slaves to Pharaoh,

the Lord brought us out from Egypt

with a mighty hand”

“Beware, lest you forget,

and when you have eaten and are satisfied,

and move into the best neighborhoods

and build large cathedrals

and assemble attractive people

that you think,

“by Our power

and by the strength of Our hands

We have made this wealth”

Biblical forgetting

Is not the funny kind of forgetting

about which

wealthy 50-somethings

elbow one another.

So, James leads us back to the mirror

And says,

“Quit talking about how I said it,

Take a good hard look at what I said”

So we lean over and look in . . . .

Now not glancing but gazing.

The mirror

that once reflected

our ears and brows and nose ~

This mirror has changed

and now it’s become the perfect law ~

the law of liberty.

And James says, “Take a good hard look”

and we peer into the law

and the prophets

and the writings ~

James says, “Do you see your crop of Barley?”

(we nod)

“When you reap your harvest and leave a sheath

Don’t go back and get it ~

It shall be for the alien, orphan and widow.”

(We scrutinize and examine this picture)

James says, “Look at your orchard”

(we look at our olive grove)

“when you beat your olive tree

don’t go over the boughs again

It shall be for the alien, orphan and widow”

(We inspect this image)

James says, “Consider your vineyards”

(we look)

“when you gather your grapes

don’t harvest a second time

It shall be for the alien, orphan and widow”

(We contemplate, deliberate and remember)

“We were once slaves in the land of Egypt”

We mull this over. We meditate.

We say,

“This is how God treated us

this should be how

we treat the poor

and the marginalized.”

We think about it,

think it over,

think it through.

We say,

This is our single defining characteristic ~

to be like God

who cares for

the endemically impoverished”

James says,

“You’re right!

Now, weigh it

rehearse it

start to train in it

“Until you’ve learned it by heart,

transformed in the process,

remembering and becoming, again,

Who you are:

Caring for the marginalized in their distress,

thus keeping yourselves

unstained by the world.”

This is what we’d forgotten.

And, I don’t know why.

Was it our affluence?

What created our amnesia?

With Peter Wagner, we had dreamed a church

  • Where Nicodemas ~ of John 3 vintage ~

is the lead elder

  • and Pilate uses his influence

to support important church projects,

  • where we believe

there is a way to “win Herod” for Christ.

In this church of our dreams

  • we are on a first name basis with

the Governor

  • we’re asked to give the invocation

at the century club

  • And we believe Billy Graham

Is having a good influence

on Richard Nixon.

But James de-constructs

this dangerous make-believe world.

James rebukes

those who favor the rich over the poor

“into your assembly struts a man

with gold rings and fine clothing

at the same time in shuffles a poor man

in shabby dress” ~

and you say to the rich man:

“have the seat of honor”

and to the poor man,

“make yourself scarce”?

James says,

“that’s not how God judges!”

[2:1-7]

James insists on helping the needy

“don’t say to the marginalized ~

Persons without clothing and food ~

‘go in peace, be warm and filled.’ ~

do something!”

[2:14-16]

Then James takes the microphone

and addresses Nicodemas and Pilate

and looks us in the eye,

taking his cue from Jesus, he says

  • “your riches will rot,
  • your garments will be eaten by moths,
  • your gold and silver will rust!”

He asks:

“Are you paying a living wage

  • to the ones who launder your clothes
  • who mow your lawns?

God listens to them!

God hears their cries for justice!”

[5:1-6]

When we voted James

off the island

We were voting

Jesus off, too.

Five years ago

The Sermon on the Mount

was the theme for the 2006

Sermon Seminar2

held in this building

with plenary addresses

from the provocative

Stanley Hauerwas, Warren Carter and others.

It was a disturbing conference

because of the way we read the Sermon on the Mount

envisioned a real world

that invited us to enter ~

and live

and we were threatened.

At the close one preacher confessed,

“I need to throw away all the sermons

I’ve ever preached on the Sermon on the Mount” ~

so unsettling was our new understanding.

But the strongest comment

came during the evaluation meeting

weeks later.

Larry Stephens

one of a dozen who met

to critique logistics of the event ~

opened that meeting

with this engaging question:

“Friends, what are we to do

with the Sermon on the Mount?

Seriously.

What are we to do?

I mean, are we supposed to sell

our church buildings

and give the proceeds to the poor?”

which triggered one person

amongst the 12

to make a sound ~

interpreting Larry’s remark

as a joke.

But Larry struck again,

“I’m serious.

How does God want us to live?”

Five years ago we took Larry seriously ~

but pushed his question

into the theoretical realm.

Five years later ~

his question is only

the first in a series of sound alternatives

~ and live options

for a people

who are ready

to take seriously

the paradigmatic

narratives of Scripture

and proclaim ~

that true religion is simply this ~

care as God cares for the marginalized.

Why?

Because this is how we’ve been treated.

Because this is how God acts.

This is who we are.

But, the greatest irony of our day ~

is that everyone ~

except, it seems,

for some Christian conservatives ~

Everyone seems to know

that true religion

means to help those on the margins

  • It’s the singular message of so much popular non fiction for example the New York Times decade long bestselling Nickel and Dimed
  • It’s the sub plot of so much popular film, for example the gripping drama currently airing on Masterpiece Theatre
  • It’s even in the caustic message of the atheist blogger in last month’s Holy week missive and a million other persons

and organizations that “know” ~

if not the exact words ~

at least the spirit

of Jesus’ damning message to the hypocrites:

  • “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin,
  • but neglect the weightier matters of the law . . . .
  • justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

All the world seems to know

that the essential factor

in God’s judgment of humankind

will be our answer to 1 question:

did you clothe the naked,

feed the hungry,

visit the imprisoned . . .

in a word . . .

did you care for the

marginalized?

You are your congregation’s rhetorician

You are the one with persuasive skills.

You have words, like James,

with focus and function

to describe our essential humanity

our basic identity

Or, as James phrases it: “their true religion”

You are your community’s resident theologian

Connecting identity with opportunity

To lead your people

into the world Scripture envisions

where true religion is simply this ~

Not just to say,

Not just to know,

But to care as God cares

for the marginalized.

Because this is who you are,

ready for any situation that arises:

“The courtroom walls are bare and the prisoner wears

a plastic bracelet, like in a hospital.

Jesus stands beside him.

The bailiff hands the prisoner a clipboard and he puts his thumbprint on the sheet of white paper.

The judge asks,

What is your monthly income? Hundred dollars.

How do you support yourself? Carpenter, odd jobs.

Where are you living? Friend’s garage.

What sort of vehicle do you drive? I take the bus.

How do you plead? Not guilty. The judge sets bail

and a date for the prisoner’s trial, calls for the interpreter

so he may speak to the next prisoners.

In a good month I eat, the third one tells him.

In a bad month I break the law.

The judge sighs. The prisoners

are led back to jail with a clink of chains.

Jesus goes with them. More prisoners

are brought before the judge.

Jesus returns and leans against the wall near us,

gazing around the courtroom. The interpreter reads a book.

The bailiff, weighed down by his gun, stands

with arms folded, alert and watchful.

We are only spectators, careful to speak

in low voices. We are so many. If we—make a sound,

the bailiff turns toward us, looking stern.

The judge sets bail and dates for other trials,

bringing his gavel down like a little axe.

Jesus turns to us. If you won’t help them, he says

then do this for me. Dress in silks and jewels,

and then go naked. Be stoic, and then be prodigal.

Lead exemplary lives, then go down into prison

and be bound in chains. Which of us has never broken a law?

I died for you-a desperate extravagance, even for me.

If you can’t be merciful, at least be bold.

The judge gets up to leave.

The stern bailiff cries, “All rise.”3

How will we respond?

Will we have the courage

to speak like James:

to act like God?

Is there hope?

Absolutely!

For . . .

“Every good thing bestowed

and every perfect gift is from above,

Coming down from the father of lights

With whom there is no variation

and no shifting shadow.”

[Benediction: James 1:17]4

David Fleer is Professor of Bible and Communication and Special Assistant to the President at Lipscomb University and adjunct Professor for the DMin program at Abilene Christian University (annual summer cycle courses). For the last six years he has served as advisory board chair for the Christian Scholars’ Conference. His teaching focus is homiletics, and for twelve years he directed the Sermon Seminar in Rochester and Nashville and now oversees Lipscomb’s Preaching Workshop. From 1995 to 2007, Fleer was Professor of Religion and Communication at Rochester College. He has published articles in peer reviewed scholarly and popular journals and initiated extensive collaborative editing projects resulting in fifteen books and four journal issues in the last decade. He has been active on the editorial boards of Leaven (since its inception in 1990) and Restoration Quarterly. Most recently, he edited and contributed to Corageous Compassion: A Prophetic Homiletic in Service to the Church (ACU Press, 2011).

1 Billy Collins, “Forgetfulness,” Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2002), 29.

2 The Rochester Sermon Seminar (1998-2007) was the predecessor to the Streaming conference.

3 Debra Spencer, “At the Arraignment,” in Pomegranate (Santa Cruz, CA: Hummingbird Press, 2004).

4 Luke Johnson notes that this verse “was such a favored text through the entire Eastern tradition that one is not surprised that in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as it is celebrated to this day, James 1:17 is the last citation from Scripture heard by the worshippers before leaving the liturgical assembly” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James, Anchor Bible Commentary [New Haven: Yale University Press], 204-205). That was enough reason to allow this verse to have the final word in this sermon. Johnson proved an invaluable conversation partner in initiating exegetical trajectories in the sermon’s development.