Pieces of this text referring to illustrations are deleted or edited, with the author's permission.
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this conference. The theme that you have chosen intrigues me: “Pulpit, Pews, Parents.” I am delighted to have this opportunity to share some personal insights with regard to this theme.
In what follows, I shall focus on four things. First, my faith and ministry journey in relation to the theme for this convocation. Second, what really is the Bible’s “big story”? Third, what can Christian brothers and sisters beyond our shores teach us about Jesus’ mission? Fourth, how might we re-think traditional practices with regard to pulpit, pews, and parents?
First, my personal faith and ministry journey. There is much wisdom in the statement: “We never know where God is leading us until we arrive and look back.” At this late stage in my life, I am beginning to understand the path along which God has led me. Please—I share what follows not to point to myself, but to point to my growth in understanding of Jesus as forgiving Savior and servant Messiah. After all, should the day come when I want people to notice me rather than Jesus, I have invalidated my mission in life. So—on with it!
I am not going to tell you how old I am, but I am going to tell you that it is now a little over 50 years since I first graduated from college and seminary in Australia. (The point is: I have had a lot of time to study, think, and share.) During that first round of theological studies, the focus was on systematic theology, correct doctrine, the Lutheran Confessions, and Law/Gospel from a Lutheran perspective. I remain grateful to those who taught me these things. They are indeed very important. However, I regret that we devoted little time to grappling with the Bible’s “big story.” Yes—we referred to it. But we tended to impose our theological system on the biblical narrative. We did not really grapple with the Bible’s “big story.” We instructed it. Furthermore, although we devoted much time to developing preaching skills, we devoted little time to developing teaching skills.
When I was handed that first seminary diploma at the grand old age of nearly 25, I believed that I knew all that I would ever need to know to carry out a meaningful ministry. The idea was that if I preached good sermons, I would convert, if not the world, then at least a lot of people.
The first two parishes I served were in Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud—New Zealand. My first parish was 175 miles long, and had nine preaching places. And because many of those to whom I ministered were post-World War II immigrants from many parts of Europe, my fellowship with them began to broaden my worldview.
However, during my first few months in that parish, I began to suspect that I really did not know much about the Bible—in particular, about its “big story.” It also became increasingly clear that my adult parishioners expected me merely to preach sermons to them and to assume all responsibility for teaching their children. I began to suspect: “Something is not quite right!”
I began asking myself: “Am I doing things the way Jesus did things? Did Jesus merely preach a sermon once a week? Did He assume responsibility for teaching the children of those who came to listen to His sermons?” The answer to each question is “No.” So I began to change the way I went about things. I began to focus on teaching--adults in particular. And I tried mighty hard to make parents aware of their God-given responsibility to understand God’s “Good News,” and to equip them to share Jesus’ big message with their children and to model Jesus’ servant ministry before their eyes. After all, although children may not understand everything we say, they watch everything we do
After 2-1/2 years in that first parish, I began work in a second parish. And now I really had to grow up! That second parish was the last survivor of what had been a network of Danish Lutheran parishes. Those who belonged to that parish were some of the most beautiful people I have ever met. I thank God for them! However, the focus in that parish had been on listening to the preaching of a rather legalistic message. No dancing! No use of cosmetics! No sport or work on Sundays! Confirmation instruction consisted of three sessions. And sadly, there was virtually no Bible study for adults!
In that challenging situation, I had to develop materials to help turn things around. The end result is that the materials I began to develop in New Zealand have grown into what now constitutes the heartbeat of Crossways International’s ministry. So God leads.
After seven years in New Zealand, my wife and I, and our two children, returned to Australia for four more years in parish ministry. And then, because the two Lutheran Synods in Australia became one, and because my two-congregation parish in Adelaide was divided into two parishes, I decided to go back to seminary to study adult education. That seminary was Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. My four years there (1967-71) were years before the tragic “walk out”—an event about which some of you will know something.
Thank God, the powers-that-be at that Seminary required me to do one quarter at undergraduate level to determine whether I was capable of handling graduate studies. I survived! But during that first quarter I learned something that impacted my future ministry enormously. I was forced to face up to the fact that I knew very little about the Bible’s “big story,” and the implications of that story for understanding the mind, manner, message, ministry, and mission of Jesus the Messiah. The result was a switch in focus: from adult education to the study of the Bible itself. In other words, from method to message! I sensed that if I really knew what the biblical message was all about, I would be driven by a sense of prophetic compulsion to teach it, and to develop techniques for doing so.
Although I was eventually invited to join the faculty of Concordia Seminary, I decided to return to parish ministry. So back to a church in the very center of Adelaide, South Australia, for seven years. I felt I had to devote more time to understanding the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry, and to developing ways to help people to understand that ministry, to reflect it in their own lives, and to share it with others. If you like— back to the front line!
During those years in Adelaide, God brought to pass what I can only call a “divine connection.” He brought me into contact with a wonderful, committed Christian lady—who happened to be a brilliant graphic artist, Knarelle Beard. Knarelle agreed to work with me to put my simple illustrations into professional form. The end result is that we have together produced hundreds of teaching graphics that are now being used in at least fifty countries around the world.
Why are these teaching graphics important? Experts in communication tell us the following: We remember 1.5% of what we touch, 1.5% of what we taste, 6% of what we smell, 11% of what we hear, and 80% of what we see. When people are taught by words alone, their immediate recall is 70%. Three days later it is just 10%. When people are told and shown information, their immediate recall is 85%. Three days later it is still 65%. I believe those statistics have something to say about the way in which we communicate God’s Good News.
When, while traveling, I get into conversation with people, I like to ask them: “Where do you live?” They might answer, “In Bloomington, Minnesota—not far from the Mall of America.” I tell them that I know exactly where they live. I then pull out a little Earth marble, show it to them, talk about it, and sometimes give it to them. Doing that can lead to some interesting conversation.
I am inspired by a statement by a one-time President of Harvard University: “If you say that there is no God, I can only ask how you, a speck of mortal living for a moment of time on an atom of an earth in plain sight of an infinite universe full of incredible beauty, wonder, and design, can so confidently hold so improbable a view.”
The message of the Bible not only takes for granted the existence of God. It also focuses on the involvement of that God in human history. To do that, it tells a “big story.” Let’s look at an overview of that story.
A question for you to ponder: If you who live in this country found yourselves having to live for hundreds of years under the Spanish, the French, the Germans, and the British, how would you react? Naturally, you would want to be free of foreign control. You would want to be free to run this country your way.
Bear this in mind as I point out that when Jesus appeared on the stage of human history, the Jewish people were not looking for someone to save them from sin. They were looking for someone to rescue them from rule by foreign powers, to grant them control over their own land and lives, and even dominion over the world.
Note also that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, and Jewish people still today, do not think of themselves as “fallen into sin.” They see themselves as merely “flawed.” They see no need for a Savior from sin. Why not? God has given them His Law—or Torah. By studying it, and striving to obey it, they can overcome the “evil inclination” (yetzer har-rah) within them, replace it with a “good inclination” (yetzer ha-tob), and so make themselves worthy of acceptance by God and worthy of a place in the coming “messianic age.” The more they obey the laws revealed in the Torah, the better the place they will enjoy in the life to come.
Furthermore, the majority of Jewish people in Jesus’ day and still today do not believe in Satan—in any demonic power. Their scriptures speak of Satan as merely the Great Accuser who serves on God’s Heavenly Council (Job 1:6; 2:1), who speaks with God from time to time, and brings to God’s attention things he believes God should look into. To understand these things is to be challenged to dig much more deeply into the reason for Jesus’ Messianic mission, the nature of Jesus’ Messianic mission, and the implications of Jesus’ mission for all on Planet Earth today.
One further comment with regard to this illustration. Many Christians have a kind of a “love match” with the Ten Commandments. We Lutherans place them at the very beginning of our Catechism. Note several things: First, Jewish rabbis insisted that the commandments revealed in Exodus—Deuteronomy were given only to them. After all, only they were at Sinai. God has given the Gentiles (including you and me) seven commandments, which they refer to as the commandments of Noah. You can find references to some of these seven commandments in Genesis 9 and Acts 15.
Second, Jewish rabbis insist that God did not give them merely ten commandments. God gave them 613 commandments. And if you take the time to sift through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, you will find those 613 commandments. But not only did God give them 613 written commandments. He also gave them hundreds of oral traditions, which He whispered to Moses, who memorized them and taught them to Joshua, who passed them on to his successors. And so it went on for hundreds and hundreds of years, until all those commandments—written and oral—were collected and written down in the two Jewish Talmuds in about A.D. 400 and A.D. 500.
Well, what did Jesus do about all that? How many commandments did He give His followers, and how many does He give to you and to me today? Jesus gave and gives His brothers and sisters one commandment. “Love one another as I have loved you,” John 13:1-17. Jesus’ servant life is the model for the godly life-and more about that as we proceed.
Let’s take that one step further. A question: How many people live on Planet Earth? What are you thinking? About 6 million? I know exactly how many people there are on Planet Earth. Two! Me and Jesus. Everyone other than me is the Jesus to whom I am to devote the use of life in humble service.
What then, in a nutshell, was Jesus on about? “I have come to reveal to you the real enemy. It is not Rome. It is Satan! Satan has the world and you by the throat! I have come to conquer that real enemy. I have come to rescue humanity, to complete the Exodus, and to usher in the true Kingdom of God.”
To achieve that goal, Jesus walked the way of a servant all the way to the cross. The last thing in the world that Satan wanted was that Jesus should go to that cross. But Jesus went to that cross to carry out the ultimate act of the ultimate servant. Although Jesus’ executioners drove in those nails, Jesus gave away His life. He said, “It is finished!” (“I have completed what I came to do.”) Jesus bowed His head and gave up His spirit. Jesus’ crucifixion was His coronation. At that cruel cross, although Jesus got crucified, Satan got nailed! And in raising His Son from the dead, the Father vindicated Jesus and said, “This is My Son. His ministry was what My Kingdom is all about.”
Here we come face to face with what Jewish rabbis referred to as Remez. When they quoted a verse from their scriptures, they expected their students to know its context, and what preceded it and what followed it. The second part of Malachi 3:1 reads: “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple.”
Aha! Through Jesus, God is about to pay a visit to the Jerusalem Temple! And what will He find there? He will find animal sellers and moneychangers. He will find a sin management system, a salvation marketing system that put a lot of money into the deep pockets of the 9,000 or so priests who served on the Temple staff. Jesus will attack that system! And those who control it will put Him to death! We might well ask: “What kind of a sin management system have we developed? What relationship is there between that system—and life in the world around us?”
John the Baptist carries out his ministry at Bethany beyond the Jordan. Jesus comes to John to be baptized. While John is baptizing Jesus, the heavens are torn apart, and a voice from heaven declares, “You are My Son, the beloved; with You I am well pleased.” This statement is based on Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. It declares Jesus to be King (Psalm 2:7)—but a servant king (Isaiah 42:1). What a shock!
True, but we need to add:
We could spend many hour working through Mark’s narrative. But we don’t have those many hours.
Even so, let’s note a few things. Jesus could not possibly have gone around saying, “Hey, everybody! Gather around! I am the Messiah!” Had Jesus done that, He would have opened up a hornet’s nest! He would have hit the cross much earlier than He did. So He revealed His identity by code, as it were. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf’ a healthy body to the crippled, and speech to the dumb. The Jewish people believed that when the Messianic Age broke in, these things would take place.
Furthermore, Jesus walked on the water, and stilled the stormy waves. He threw out the demons. He raised the dead. And yes—in Galilee, Jesus fed five thousand Jewish men with bread and fish, and had 12 baskets left over. Later, in the non-Jewish region of the Decapolis, He fed four thousand and had seven baskets left over. Why seven baskets? On numerous occasions in the Old Testament, the writers list seven Gentile nations whom they hate (Deut. 7:1; Joshua 3:10). Many Jews hated the non-Jews, the Gentiles. Jesus loved them and fed them with an abundance of bread and fish.
Eventually, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He was. When Peter replied that they thought Him to be the Messiah, Jesus responded by defining His Messianic mission in terms that frightened, even terrified, the disciples. When Peter protested about all this talk of Jesus going to a cross, Jesus told Peter that he was on the side of the devil! And when on another two occasions Jesus predicted His coming passion, the disciples responded by asking Him which of the twelve would be His “Secretary of State,” and would it be okay if James and John could sit to His right and left during His coming coronation ceremony? The disciples could see with their eyes—but they were blind in their hearts! They needed a second touch from Jesus so that they might truly understand what His mission was all about, and what it would mean for them!
Eventually there came the cross—from which the disciples ran like rabbits. And then the burial, and the open tomb! And when those women (hear that, men!) who stuck by Jesus at the cross went to the tomb to finish embalming Jesus’ body they were told by a heavenly messenger that Jesus was alive and well. And they were instructed to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they would eventually “see” Jesus! I love that! The disciples did not catch on until after the resurrection! Can you believe it? They walked with Jesus. They talked with Jesus. They listened to Jesus. They saw Him do mind-boggling things. But their eyes were only opened after He rose from the dead!
What does all that have to say to us about how well we see Him, how well we understand what He continues to say to us today? What are we to make of all this?
If the only thing I did in life was to design this illustration, then my life has been worth living. It would show Jesus on His knees, washing Peter’s feet. In doing this, Jesus was doing something no Jew would ever do. No Jew would ever wash another person’s feet. Only Gentile slaves washed feet! Please think long and hard about that one. Please think through its implications for our lives today. Please ask: “Why do we not incorporate Jesus’ foot-washing actions into our liturgies?” Why not?
So, how do we deal with the biblical text? Do we come to it with preconceived notions? Do we instruct it? Or do we let it instruct us? Do we impose our belief system on it? Or do we filter our belief system through the mind of Jesus? The answer must be: Jesus is the Final Word of God. Jesus is the Final Interpreter of all scripture. We must read His life and His lips. We must ask Jesus for His “take” on all our belief systems and life systems. We must, like Mary, sit at His feet and funnel our belief system through the mind of Jesus, the Living Word. A life-long process! A life-transforming result!
The Bible’s “big story” is complex and challenging. However, we must help our people first get their toes into the water of Scripture, then their ankles, then their knees, then their hip joints, then their belly buttons (pardon me), and then their chins! We need to help them think through the fact that the biblical writers weave narrative and theology into a single thread. We need to help them understand the nature of the covenant God made with both Abraham and with David, the nature of the covenant God made with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, the horror of the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 721 B.C., the nightmare of the Babylonian campaigns against Judah and Jerusalem in 597 and 587 B.C., how all these things impacted Jewish beliefs and practices during the postexilic era, and what Jesus did with all this!
Why is it important that we equip people to be life-long biblical bloodhounds? To date, I have conducted seminars and workshops in 32 countries. Permit me to share with you some of the insights I have gained through doing this.
I have worked in Slovakia several times. One of the pastors with whom I worked there shared the following. When the Communists ruled Slovakia, they told the Christian community: “We will never stop you going to church. Go to church every Sunday. Listen to those sermons. But remember this—There are to be no Bible study groups, no prayer groups. Just go to church and listen to those sermons.” That strategy succeeded in all but destroying the church. But is it not true that in many of our churches, the vast majorities are content to go to church and listen to sermons—when they feel like it? And only a committed minority involve themselves in any kind of in-depth Bible study? And what do we do about it? There is more to perpetuating Jesus’ ministry than asking: “How many did you worship last Sunday?”
I have visited South Korea 23 times, and to date 20,000 Korean pastors have attended a Crossways training event. Protestantism was introduced into Korea in 1884 by two pastors—one a Presbyterian, the other a Methodist. Within a few years after they began their work, a conference was held to establish a methodology for mission. Nevius, a European missionary who had been working in China, urged them to adopt the following approach:
The Presbyterians bought into the system. Today, they have about 7.5 million members. The Methodists did not. Today, they have about 1.5 million members. Draw you own conclusions. My number one interpreter in Korea used to serve as senior pastor of the 30,000-member Choon Hyun Presbyterian Church in Seoul. Among other things in that congregation’s mission statement are the following:
And I could go on and on.
In the course of my work in countries such as South Korea, I hear some incredible stories. Although about 25% of South Koreans are Christians, there were days when members of other faiths strove to destroy Christianity. On one occasion, forty Korean men captured a pastor, his wife, and their two children. They told the pastor that if he did not renounce his faith, they would kill him and his family. The pastor refused to do so. His captors dug a hole, threw his wife and two children into that hole, and told the pastor that if he did not renounce his faith in Jesus, they would bury his wife and children—and then him. The pastor was terrified. What should he do? His wife called out: “Do not deny Jesus. Today we shall all go to be with Jesus.” So the pastor and his family were buried.
Some years later, a man stood up in a worship service and told those present that he had been one of the forty men who had buried the pastor and his family. He was so overcome by their faith and witness that he himself had come to faith, as had the other 39 men who had participated in the killing.
I have worked in Hong Kong a number of times. While there, I conducted a seminar at the Lutheran Seminary in Shatin, and got to know its president, Dr. Andrew Hsaio. Dr. Hsaio and his wife fled from China to the United States soon after the Communist takeover. After studying in the United States, he joined the faculty of the Shatin seminary. About twenty-five years after leaving China, Dr. Hsaio and his wife were able to return to their home city in China to visit their relatives. When eventually the train pulled into their final stopping place, they saw a large group of people gathered on the station platform. When they alighted from the train, a man approached Dr. Hsaio and said, “Andrew, do you know whom I am?” Dr. Hsaio replied, “I am sorry—I do not know who you are.” The man then said, “Andrew, I am your brother-in-law.”
Now, if you had been present to observe this meeting, what would you have expected the brother-in-law to say next? He asked with a passion, “Andrew, did you bring us any Bibles?” Dr. Hsaio replied, “Yes—I brought you ten!” The response? “Thank God!”
Crossways International’s materials have been put to work in more than sixty prisons in the United States. Although I have done a number of workshops in prisons, the bulk of the work is being done by prison ministries. Even so, I receive quite a number of letters from prison inmates asking for Bibles and study materials. I find joy in writing to one prisoner in particular. His name is Emanuel Noriega. I send him a copy of every new course we produce, and he responds with a letter. As some of you will recall, Noriega was once the President of Panama. He has come to passionate faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Noriega will tell you that when he was President of Panama, he lived in a palace. But, he says, it was not really a palace. But he now lives in a palace—in a prison cell, because in that prison cell he came to faith in Jesus.
My colleagues who work full time in ministries to prison inmates tell me from time to time: “If only we could lock people up in a prison cell for six months, there would be more hope of getting them into the Word. Many of those on the outside are captive to the seductions of the world. Many of those behind bars have found freedom in Christ.”
One more case history. About six years ago, a young pastor (Daniel Neufville) from Liberia, West Africa, came to visit me in my office. He had studied theology in Nigeria. He then went to South Africa to do his internship under Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When rebel uprisings broke out in Liberia, he returned to his country to help his people cope. To do so, he established a mission to train pastors to understand and teach God’s Word. Eventually he was captured by the rebels, and locked up in a room with 27 other men. His hands were tied behind his back. The room was kept in darkness. All within it had to stand in water—up to their waists. Their hands were untied only when they were given some food. They were taken to another room at night to sleep. Pastor Daniel endured all that for a year. About eight of the inmates deliberately drowned. Eventually, when other rebels took over the region, they freed the surviving inmates.
I asked Daniel to tell me a little about his wife. He told me that, during rebel fighting in Monrovia, he and his family ran out of food and water. His wife told him that he dare not go out to buy the needed supplies. The rebels would kill him—he was a man! So she went out. When she returned and was only about 20 feet from their home, she was shot and killed by the rebels. Pastor Daniel could only look at her dead body for seven hours—until night came. Then he went out and buried her.
Pastor Daniel had come to the United States to try to obtain financial help for his mission. However, churches and people seemed disinterested. He shared with me that one church member told him that they would like to help, but he was black—and they did not want to help black people. So Crossways International got involved in seeking help for him. Soon after he returned to Liberia, he was imprisoned again—this time, for six months. After he managed to escape, he was battered with rifle butts when trying to cross a border into a neighboring nation. However, he was finally able to make his way to Ghana and fly back to the United States where we helped him obtain medical help to repair his battered body. To date, he has not been able to return to Liberia. Had he gone back while President Charles Taylor was in office, he would have been shot as soon as he walked off the plane.
Remarkably, he has developed and managed his ministry from Minneapolis—using phone cards. The ministry he established has now taught Crossways International’s basic materials to more than 10,000 pastors in 13 Western African nations. His colleagues have conducted workshops to train lay people to share God’s Good News with family and community. Each workshop lasts two to four weeks—and has been attended by a total of 177,000 people.
I tell you this for a reason. I am told by church leaders in this nation that it costs about $75,000 to support one American mission family for one year in an African nation. And sadly but understandably, when trouble breaks out in a nation, the foreign workers leave—and often never return. But $75,000 can work wonders if made available to indigenous workers. If you wish to know more, you can meet with Pastor Daniel Neufville himself. He is present with us this evening.
But now, let’s give some thought to challenges now facing the Western World, and this nation in particular. We do well to remember the statement of the first century Roman writer, Juvenal: “Luxury is more ruthless than war.” Edward Gibbons, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, offers five reasons why the Roman Empire disintegrated:
Indeed, food for thought!
A question: Would you say that you, as a citizen of this great nation, are blessed? If your answer is “Yes!” how do you understand being “blessed? You have a fine home. You drive a nice ear. You have a good job. You are financially secure. You have a good retirement plan. Perhaps you have a cabin or cottage up on some lake.
Jesus never defines “being blessed” in those terms. He defines “blessed” only in terms of how we use life to reflect His servant life-style. He did not live to get and enjoy. He lived to love and to serve—full-time. And we are called to do the same.
We do well to remember that there is no such thing as Christian giving. There is only Christian management of God’s property— including the body in which each of us lives, and which is on loan from God. The goal must not be to encourage people to give more. It must be to inspire them to rob less. Money, after all, is merely stored servanthood.
Some years ago, we published a study course in which we suggested that the Apostles’ Creed could do with a little editing. In what way? The First Article makes reference to God as Maker of heaven and earth. But it makes no reference to God as the Owner of heaven and earth.
The Second Article jumps from Jesus’ crib to His cross. It makes no reference to Jesus’ life as a servant-without-limit. It also gives the impression that in the ascension, Jesus took off into outer space. He did not. He did not withdraw His presence. He transformed it. We are not waiting for Him to return. We are waiting for Him to reappear. We live constantly in His invisible presence. And—as His brothers and sisters—we are called to make visible His invisible presence in all we think, say, and do.
The Third Article makes reference to the Holy Spirit, but no reference to the unholy satanic spirit. What a wonderful disguise we bestow on the satanic! The satanic, the demonic, is every spirit, power, institution, and pressure that seeks to sidetrack us from living to serve God and others into serving ourselves. Indeed, the satanic is alive and well—and deadly!
But, back to Jesus! If Jesus is to be the model for life and ministry, how are we to understand the concept of “professional church workers”? Although we need such people, problems are involved. It is all too easy to understand professional church workers as those whom we pay to do God’s work for us. To put it a little crudely: “We pay you to work your butt off—while we sit on ours.”
The point? Jesus calls us to equip all of God’s people to understand what the Bible means when it speaks of them as “priests.” That term has nothing to do with “the captivating cult of the clerical collar.” It has nothing to do with rank and robes. It has to do with understanding that everything we touch has a sacred quality about it. After all, God made and owns all things. And, in all that we do, we are called to go to God for others, and to others for God. We are not called to put God first—but only. Christianity is not a part of life, not even the most important part of life. It is all of life.
Permit me to share something my travels have forced me to think about. When traveling around in cities like Bombay in India, Nairobi in Kenya, Jakarta in Indonesia, I am compelled to ask: “Why that bishop’s palace, when down the road are those horrendous slums?” Again—its not about rank, robes, and rites! It’s about reflecting Jesus’ mind and manner in all we do.
When Jesus (the true Head of the Church, God’s people) was crucified, His executioners took away all of His earthly possessions: a head cloth, an outer robe, an inner robe, a belt and a pair of sandals. Jesus was crucified naked. Even so, His life was the most blessed life the world has ever seen! And we, His brothers and sisters, are to seek to reflect His style of “blessed life.” That does not mean that we are to seek nakedness. It means that we are to seek servanthood.
Some summary thoughts. The pulpit must be not be seen as something to be found only in a church building. It must be understood as something out in the street, occupied by each and every one of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. It involves telling people about Jesus as forgiving Savior. It also involves showing them Jesus as Servant Lord, as Servant Messiah. Full-time—in all we do.
If I were invited to go back to full-time service in a parish, I would have to do some serious thinking. My concern would not be: “How many would listen to my sermons?” It would be, “How many might I be able to involve in in-depth, on-going Bible study?” When Billy Graham was asked, “If you were to return to parish ministry, what would you do?” He replied, “I would choose twelve committed people, and spend two years teaching them all I could. And then I would turn them loose.” I think I would go just a little further than Dr. Graham. I would be happy to spend two years equipping 20 people—and then I would turn them loose! But—you’d better believe it—one thing I would focus on in particular would be: making parents aware of the influence they have on their children, and equipping them to establish in their children’s hearts and lives a life-long relationship with Jesus.
Who do you think was the most influential teacher I have ever had? My father. No—he was a not a seminary professor. He was a farmer in the outback of Australia. He went to grade four in a Lutheran primary school with a dirt floor. But he lived for God—full time. Our family ate all meals together. We would never begin to eat until we had prayed together. We would never leave the meal table unless we had offered thanks to God. Family devotions were standard practice virtually every evening. We would never ask, “Are we going to go to church this Sunday?” We went! During those early years, we drove 12 miles each way to and from church in a horse drawn vehicle.
My mother? I never really remember having a healthy mother. She was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease for twenty years. But I saw my father care for her to the very end. He showed his children the Jesus He wanted us to believe in. Those early years in my life were truly blessed years—in Jesus’ sense of that term.
Throughout my ministry, I have read a lot about the influence parents have on children. One writer in particular (Jane Healey) asked this question: “By what age are a child’s language skills determined?” How do you answer that one? The answer is, “Three.” Of course, a child’s language skills and vocabulary continue to grow beyond the age of three. But what happens beyond the age of three is largely determined by what happens before the age of three. And what is most important for brain development is not watching TV, but listening to music such as that written by Mozart, Vivaldi, and a few others. You may smile—but check out the experts. And if that insight applies to language skills, what does that have to say about the development of a person’s faith life?
When I served that parish in the center of Adelaide in South Australia, the church parsonage was only a few miles from a Lutheran grade school and high school. However, my wife and I sent both our children to public schools. Once in a while, people would say to us: “I note that you don’t send your children to a church school.” Our response would be: “Yes, we do. The Christian school is our home, and we are the teachers—full-time.”
In Australia, the aboriginal people do talk-about while they go walk-about. That sums up how we are to minister to our children. As we walk about with them, we are to talk about their forgiving Savior and show them their servant Lord. Perhaps we might speak of the process as “walkie-talkie.”
Please do not interpret what I have just shared as a negative attitude toward church schools. There is indeed a place for such institutions. However, they can play only a secondary, supportive role. And in all honesty, once in a while I have been moved to ask: “How much do those colleges which train teachers for church schools equip them to understand the Bible’s big story, and Jesus’ servant Messianic mission?”
All too often, Christian publishers produce books that fragment the biblical narrative, and create the impression that the Bible is about a series of heroes. Not true! The Bible points to only one Hero—God! And that one Hero, that God, has a huge plan for humanity for time and eternity. In short, I believe that the most important religious structure in the world is the family home. And the most important pulpit and pew in the world is the family meal-table!
Illustration Seven: Let’s take a quick look at this illustration. We are now developing a series of simple graphics to help parents explain the events that take place in each of the four Gospels to their children. Let’s continue.
We do well to ask: “What is the mission of the Church?” I remain captive to what Paul writes in Ephesians 1:9,10:
God has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Karl Barth wrote:
The Church is called to be a provisional display of God’s original intention.
One of my graduate professors, Martin Scharlemann, wrote:
The mission of God’s people this side of eternity is to seek the restoration of cosmic unity
Short statements—profound meanings!
Some final thoughts. You know only too well that we live in a troubled world. I do not know how people live in this world without knowing Jesus. I do not know how people face death without knowing Jesus. One thing that troubles me is the popular opinion that we are to keep religion out of politics. If you hold to that view, then I suggest you read God’s Politics by Jim Wallis (Sojourners). I could not agree more that no political power has the authority to impose any religious system on its citizens (as was done in Europe). However, who or what determines the value system and policies of the political system? I agree wholeheartedly with a statement by the Reformer, John Calvin:
There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.
Today, our political leaders tell us that the American way of life is non-negotiable. From a human point of view, perhaps. From God’s point of view, certainly not. To support our way of life in this nation at this time requires the use of 30 acres of land per person. If we were to share the world’s resources equally, we would have to get by with three acres of land per person.
Those who live on Planet Earth constitute a community. God sees no borders, flags, or skin color.
We do well to contemplate the Chinese proverb: “When a butterfly flaps its wings in China, that action affects the weather patterns around the planet.” How true!
I close with a statement by H.G. Wells in The Outline of History (Vol. 1, pp. 425-6):
Jesus was too great for His disciples. And in view of what He plainly said, is it any wonder that all who were rich and prosperous felt a horror of strange things, a swimming of their world at his teaching? Perhaps the priests and rulers understood Him better than His followers. He was dragging out all the little private reservations they had made from social service into the light of a universal religious life. He was like a terrible moral huntsman, digging mankind out of the snug burrows in which they had lived hither to. In the white blaze of His kingdom there was to be no property, no privilege, no pride, and no precedence, no motive and reward but love. Is it any wonder that men were dazzled and blinded, and cried out against Him? Even His disciples cried out when He would not spare them that light. Is it any wonder that the priests realized that between this Man and themselves there was no choice but that He, or their priestcraft, should perish? Is it any wonder that the Roman soldiers, confronted and amazed by something soaring over their comprehension and threatening all their disciplines, should take refuge in wild laughter, and crown Him with thorns, and robe Him in purple, and make a mock Caesar of Him? For to take Him seriously was to enter into a strange and alarming life, to abandon habits, to control instincts and impulses, and to embrace an incredible happiness. Is it any wonder that to this day this Galilean is too much for our small hearts?
I pray that things I have shared will inspire each of us to give this Galilean much space in our pulpits, pews, places of work, and above all in our homes and hearts. To Jesus alone be the glory!