Saturday, April 11, 2015

Virtual marathon running

Yesterday (10th April 2015) the Wall Street Journal reported a new trend in North American distance running.

Runners bling!

No longer satisfied with boring their friends with tales of blisters and missed personal bests, its now all about the finisher's medal. Not only do competitors receive medals for completing the medal or half marathon, but they can now receive "frequent runner" medals for completing multiple races that belong to a series. One runner interviewed spoke of the 20 medals she had collected this season along. Runner's Magazines have "Top 10 races" tables based on the size and style of medal that finishers receive.

But this is America - of course there is more! Several companies will sell you custom built medal display stands (emblazoned with slogans like "Pain is the pathway to success") so you can discreetly brag when you friends come over.

That's all great - but my favourite was the "virtual race" medal. Capitalising on the modern desire to do-it-all-my-way-when-it-suits-me-but-I-still-want-everyone-to-know-about-it, entrepreneurial startups will now allow you (for around $30) to register for a "virtual race", in which as you run on your treadmill, around the block, or even just walk around your house, you can rack up the miles you need to complete you own personal marathon. When you cross your personal "finish line", our friendly .com startup will send you a medal, and no doubt an invitation to run another "race" (and pay another $30.)

I'm going to join out on a grumpy middle-aged man limb here, and I speak as someone who has run 20-odd marathon, but doesn't that should just sound a bit ridiculous and self-centred? It almost seems as if the key element in training for and running a marathon - that is, discipline, has been sacrificed at the altar of "everything is about me and my convenience."

I was thinking about this in terms of our life as Christians.

As Christians, we are disciples of Christ. Not consumers, not users, friends or colleagues. So often Jesus and the apostles use the language of discipleship, being a soldier, struggling, taking up your cross, to describe the christian life. They don't use the language of convenience, comfort or self-importance.

There is no doubt that in many aspects of life, from running to shopping to career, we are being encouraged to be self centred and to make things are "time convenient" as possible.

A great temptation is that we carry this attitude over into our Christian life, but we need to work against that, and rather, live as disciplined, hard working disciples of Christ.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why so much more work is needed

Today I was reading a journal article entitled "The challenge to make extension education culturally relevant"*, written as a reflection about theological education in Latin America, with a particular focus on distance education.

Don't go back to your Facebook browsing - this is actually really interesting and gives a good insight into why what we are doing in Latin America is important.

The "classical" model of theological education is residential. You go to an institution, live there or there-abouts for 2-4 years, study full time, and come out at the end, returning home or going to a new place.

Reporting on a workshop in Bolivia, the author summaries several deficiencies / problems with this model of education in Latin America.

i. There are currently a very small number of students enrolled on most Bible institutes in Latin America.
ii. Very high cost of maintaining the infrastructure and faculty.
iii. Because of family circumstances and limited education, the option of living somewhere else for 2-4 years for training is not an option.
iv. Taking students out of their cultural "home" and transferring them into a residencial institution presents huge challenges.

In the context of these problems, distance education was presented as something of a panacea - because so many of these challenges can be addressed.

But - surveying a large denomination in Bolivia that uses distance education, the following problems were identified - showing clearly that distance education is not the "magic bullet". These include:
- failure of students to complete assignments (because someone is not "one their case"
- inadequate materials in the language of study (in this case Spanish)
- lack of resources written by local authors
- lack of sufficiently trained teachers
- lack of contact between the student and teacher
- pressure of the teacher to travel widely to visit students, thus creating pressure at home
- lack of high level theological preparation (MA, MTh level)
- lack of financial support from local churches. Programs largely funded from outside sources introduce problems of commitment.
- lack of being able to graduate in reasonable time. Because distance education is typically part time, a 2-4 year program can take 10+ years to complete, and people don't want to wait that long.

This all echoes my experience, and is a summary of many of the things we are trying to address in MOCLAM.

But here's the really interesting thing.

The workshop that the author is reporting on was held in 1968, and the journal paper written in 1976!

In 40 years we've been trying to solve pretty much the same problems - fortunately with some success - but there is a long way to go. The internet helps sometimes, but in many aspects it speeds material delivery and thats about it.

We, and others are giving it a go, and we appreciate your prayers and support.

*William J. Kornfield: The challenge to make extension education culturally relevant, EMQ Vol 12 No. 1, Jan 1976.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Definitely not dull days

The reality is, we all have days that are a bit dull. I don’t mean that in a negative sense – just that they are ordinary.

As director of MOCLAM I have days like that. Days when I just need to do the basic work of preparing classes, marking exams etc.

The last few days have not been those dull days.

For the last few days I’ve been travelling around a large island in the Caribbean that starts with C but can’t be named for security reasons. In 4 days of pre-dawn starts and late night finishes, I’ve driven 2000km on roads that varied from quite good to “is this actually a road?”. I’ve witnessed great joy and enthusiasm for God’s word in circumstances that many of us would find very difficult to tolerate, let alone be joyful in. And I’ve had the opportunity to witness the hunger for God’s word that occurs in a country where resources, including theological education resources are scarce.

The purpose of the trip was to visit many of the centres in which MOCLAM has students, to meet the group leaders, to present certificates to those who have completed their studies, and to encourage those who are still going.

It has been en encouraging, invigorating, edifying and humbling experience.

In 7 different locations I presented around 80 certificates, many of which were Certificates of Theology (ThC), awarded to those who have completed 18 subjects. To have the opportunity to meet students whose exams I have been marking for several years, and to hear them testify in front of their friends and family how the courses of MOCLAM have changed the way they minister was a rare privilege.

Each of the 7 groups was different. Some were meeting in large cities and denominational churches. Others, in small house groups. I met with one group who is in the process of planting 200 house churches across the central part of the island, as well as sending missionaries to other Spanish-speaking countries.

The most isolated group required us to drive 5 hours along beachside tracks and then eventually into a high mountain area, isolated from the most basic of services and facilities. Here the local pastors meet together for 5 days of intensive teaching from a MOCLAM tutor, and they are full of rejoicing that someone has bothered to come and help them, because their isolation means that any sort of theological education or training is virtually impossible.

The trip reinforced in my mind the great strength of MOCLAM. We are providing theological training resources that can be used in all sorts of contexts by all sorts of people.

But it also taught me something which I’d had an inkling of for a while, but is now confirmed in my mind. In this place we have a network of tutors who teach intensive courses in different locations. Over the last 5 years I have got to know each of these tutors individually, as well as a group and they have taught me that one of the key elements of theological education is relationship. They work together as a family, and it is clear from the testimony of the students that they treat their classes as a family conversation. Yes, there are things to be learnt, books to be read and exams to be done - but this happens in the context of a family relationship. And when the class is finished for the day, the family conversation continues as church matters and personal issues are discussed.

MOCLAM is not only providing a great theological training resource, but it is a mechanism by which pastors and church leaders are being supported in their often isolated and difficult work.

Why am I telling you about my “not at all dull” days?

Because many people who read this are our supporters through CMS, and I want you to share in the encouragement that I received in the last few days. It is because of your support that I can lead MOCLAM in this and other countries. Humanly speaking, without CMS supporting us in this ministry, none of this would be happening.

So thank you for your support.

I also want to share with you this experience, because it shows the value of long-term missionary investment. I have lost track of how many time I have been to this country – but it is more than a dozen since August 2009. As a result of this long-term investment in the relatively unspectacular work of teaching classes and producing resources, we are now seeing some profound fruit. In a world that is often dominated by the desire for “facebook-able” results and measureable (and preferably instant) KPIs , it is easy for theological education and training to seem slow – because it is. The shaping of people is like that.

But when the time is taken, the results can be profound, as my last few days have seen.

And so I ask you to keep on supporting this ministry, because the reality is, it is fragile, and needs our continuing support.

Monday, September 29, 2014

What I miss about pastoral ministry

I'm on the road at the moment - teaching several different classes in Chile. It is excellent. I've got enthusiastic students from different contexts and I get stretched as I teach a wide range of subjects. (This trip I'm teaching OT2 Joshua-2Kings, an introductory night on Creation to New Creation, and Doctrine1 in which we look at the knowledge of God.)

I also get to see fellow CMS missionaries from Australia which is always encouraging for me, and for them I hope.

Having said all that, I found that I agreed with much of what Trevin Wax said in this article, particularly his point about preaching to the same group of people week in and week out.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Another observation about ministry in Latin America: Publishing

Here's another quick observation about ministry in Latin America. None of these are supposed to be definitive, but they give an interesting taste of the sorts of things that are happening.

Books / Publishing.

Good books are pretty hard to find in Spanish, especially books that you might consider "meaty" or "good for pushing people on." Self-help, Christian psychology is popular. Today I received a catalog from a publisher in Latin America promoting a series of books which gives a good indication of the sorts of books that are being made available.

¿Where did my money go?
¿12 keys to reach your dreams?
¿12 keys to succeed in your work?
Principles of success

(declaration: I haven't read any of these books, so don't know what they say, but to be honest, I'm not sure that I need to.)

Another reminder of why Biblical teaching, training and publishing is needed to feed God's people in Latin America.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An observation about Latin American ministry

Today I received an invitation to a series of workshops / conferences (think big organisation, lots of speakers, big deal) aimed at gospel ministry in Latin America. The organisation was one I hadn't heard of, I won't be going, and I wish them well.

But - the invitation gave an interesting insight into what they, and I suspect many others think of when they say "ministry to latin america".

By definition, Latin America is the Spanish-speaking part of the Americas. It includes the rapidly growing hispanic population in the United States, Mexico, Central America and South America (although because of Portuguese, Brazil is sometimes left out.) Think from the US/ Canada border to almost the south pole. That is a lot of countries and a lot of people.

The interesting thing is, this organisation is holding 4 major events next year to "take the gospel to Latin America" but 3 of those 4 events are in the United States. The 4th is in Mexico City.

It is interesting because it demonstrates a perception (and I have no reason to object to the perception) that the centre of latin america is the United States. The thinking is, if you want to do something to impact the latino world, you do it in the United States - probably somewhere like Miami, Houston or Los Angeles.

This has an interesting implication for ministry and theological education.

It means that the tendency is to look north of the border for resources, training and funding. For example, a common model for US churches to be involved in the "mission work" of training pastors is to try and find a US institution that will offer a scholarship, coach the guy like crazy so his English is good enough, and bring him to seminary in the US away from his home country for 3 or 4 or 5 years.

At the end of that time, he may or may not return. There are plenty of churches in the US who want a well trained and well thought-out Spanish speaking pastor, and they are looking at these scholarship graduates. Remember that this is the guy who has won the scholarship and has got his English going  - so he is a good guy! But that creates a brain drain. The best and brightest often get taken away, and may never come back.

There are some that do, but they are the exception.

Its a tricky situation, because training institutions in Latin America that will do a good job of solidly preparing someone for word ministry are not common. A few exist, but they are not common. But a constant sucking away of the next generation of leaders and teachers is perpetuating that problem.

This is why in-country training, whether it be by distance or in a classroom is so important. It teaches people in their own context, it encourages them to serve in their own country once the training is over, and it builds the momentum of education and training in areas where it is needed.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Salty light

I'm preaching at our church this Sunday - always a daunting prospect in Spanish. Even more so this weekend, because the passage I've been give is Matthew 5:13-16 (you are the salt of the earth... you are the light of the world.)

Two things have come to my attention as I've worked on this passage and thought about how to explain and apply it.

1. The "you" is plural - is is "yous". Of course saying this in English makes you sound like a Collingwood supporter, but in Spanish there is a very normal plural you. Seeing this has made me think about the "corporate" aspect of what Jesus is saying here. He is not just addressing a whole lot of individuals as individuals - he is speaking to the group.

What that means is that the application questions "What does this passage mean for me?" changes slightly to "What does this passage mean for us?"

2. In the second image, which is the only one with an exhortation attached, we, being the light of the world, are told what to do with our light. No surprises here - we are to shine it.

But what was a little surprising for me, was the purpose for which the light should shine. It wasn't for us (the shiners), but for whom it shone upon (the shinees??)

The purpose of shining is the light is not so that we will be shiny, but so that those who are looking at the light will give glory to God.

Call me slow (thank you .... I heard that), but I hadn't really thought about that before. So often we want to concentrate our life on ourselves, how we can live better lives, be more godly etc, but here is an encouragement to do that so that others will benefit.

I like that.

Of course it is not some dazzling new theme in the Bible, Paul tells us to count others more significant than yourselves (Phil 2:3), but here is a great example of it.

Be salt, be light - so that others may glorify God.