Love that Destroys Cultural Barriers

A devotional adapted by Claudia Cruz Martínez from William Barclay’s commentary:

The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)” John 4:9

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is well-known.  There are so many lessons that we can take from this passage, but in this short scripture, the idea is to reflect on the preeminence of the love of Jesus over cultural barriers.

First of all, let us set the scene of this incident. Palestine is only 200 km from north to south, but in the time of Jesus it was divided into three parts.  Galilee was in the north, Judah in the south, and Samaria was in the middle.  At this stage in his ministry, Jesus wanted to transfer his operations to Galilee. To take the shortest route, he had to pass through Samaria, but a centuries-old feud between the Jews and the Samaritans complicated things.  For a Jew, the safer route was to cross the Jordan River, head north on the eastern edge, and then cross the Jordan River again into the high country of Galilee. The safer route took twice as long. Jesus chose the shorter route that cut through Samaria, possibly not only to gain time but also to fulfill part of his mission.

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In this passage we see Jesus breaking down the cultural and racial barriers of the people of his time in several ways:

  1. Jesus dared to cross Samaritan territory.
  2. The disciples bought food in a Samaritan town (it is unlikely that they would have done that themselves without Jesus requesting it).
  3. Jesus showed his true human character, his weariness and his thirst.
  4. Jesus showed his love and compassion by speaking with a woman. In that time men did not seek out conversations with women.  Usually they would not even speak directly to them. This woman would have been ashamed that a religious leader of the day would speak with her.  Added to this, she unknowingly had allowed Jesus to discover her sinful condition, because of the hour of the day in which she went to draw water.
  5. Jesus broke down the racial barrier. This woman was a Samaritan.  The struggle between the Jews and the Samaritans was an old one. For that reason, the woman was surprised that Jesus spoke to her.  Jesus broke down national and racial prejudices.

What cultural barriers do we need to tear down today?  What barriers have infiltrated and grown up in our churches?  When was the last time that you tried to cross a border to give a message of hope and love?

“Here was the Son of God, tired and weary and thirsty. Here was the holiest of men, listening with understanding to a sorry story. Here was Jesus breaking through the barriers of nationality and orthodox Jewish custom. Here is the beginning of the universality of the gospel; here is God so loving the world, not in theory, but in action.” William Barclay

*Claudia Cruz serves as the youth pastor in the Betania Church of the Nazarene in Ciudad Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Mexico. She is also the Global Mission Coordinator for the Mexico Field.

 

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5 Steps That Help Church Leaders Stay out of Trouble

By Dan Reiland

No one ever starts out in ministry expecting to mess up, fail or quit.

We all begin with great vision, enthusiasm, and dreams of changing the world for good.

So what goes wrong?

Why do good and godly leaders (church staff and volunteer) end up crashing in ministry, and end up out of ministry?

The answer to that question is obviously complicated, but essentially, we fail to anticipate and prepare for tough times and rough seasons in ministry.

This is not intended to create paranoia. There is no need to live in fear or burn energy with needless worry. Leadership is never risk-free. But we can know that pressure, temptation and mistakes will come. We can be smart and anticipate. We can stay close to God and remain strong.

There’s an old boxing adage that says: It’s the punch you don’t see coming that knocks you out. That is so true.

My friend Carey Nieuwhof wrote a fantastic new book titled: “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.” It’s such a great book. The title says it all.

Intentionality is the key.

I remember my ordination service well. It truly was a sacred moment. The message, the commitment, and the prayer over me at the end, all marked me. One memory after the ceremony still makes me smile.

The District Superintendent, who I love and respect, came up to me at the reception to pass on a few words of wisdom and encouragement. He said, “Dan, God has given you ability and opportunity, I want you to promise me that you’ll try really hard not to mess up.” That was it! I wasn’t sure how to respond at the moment. I wondered if he said that to everyone, or just me. But all these years later, I see the wisdom. We have to be intentional, or we will mess up.

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I want to offer some safeguards here that will be helpful to you as they have been to me over many years in ministry. These five steps will help you be intentional.

5 steps that will help keep you and your team out of trouble:

1) Recognize that it could happen to you.

Leaders in the highest risk category are those who believe it can’t happen to them. They operate with a huge and dangerous blind spot.

The truth is that any of us can crash out of ministry. Again, no paranoia intended – just reality. None of us are above messing up big time. And rarely is it the case of jumping straight into a moral breakdown or ethical breach of character. It starts slowly and innocently. Catch it early.

The enemy works overtime to tempt you. Don’t take that lightly.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23

This is great wisdom and advice.

2) Don’t flirt.

We all know better than to play with fire. When we’re careless fire wins, and we get burned. Flirting is like playing with fire, the flames mesmerize and draw you in. Then before you know it, the situation gets too hot, and you become toast.

Flirting is not just about inappropriate behavior with the opposite sex. In fact, for some leaders flirting with power, fame, and fortune is a much greater temptation.

The option to not flirt is yours. It’s a choice. Don’t see how close you can dance to the edge. Flirting is never worth it. At best it’s a hollow experience, at worst, well, we all know the stories.

3) Know your weakness.

We all have a weak spot where we are most vulnerable. When it comes to desserts, my weakness is chocolate chip cookies. They are so good; it’s hard to eat just one!

The sugar in too many cookies can do damage, but nothing like what happens in leadership when our vulnerability remains unknown or left unguarded.

When pressure is high, and resistance is low, trouble is near. Here’s a common situation, you work long hours in ministry and get tired. Over-tired leads to exhaustion. That leaves the door wide open to your weakest spot.

When you know your vulnerability, you can be smart, guard your heart and stay strong. You’ll be much more prepared because you’ll see it coming.

4) Work in an environment that’s healthy enough to share truth.

Nothing beats a healthy and productive environment where you can tell the truth without repercussion. No leader can successfully carry their responsibilities, handle the pressure, and solve problems alone.

Churches and especially leadership teams are designed to operate in community, not independently. Simply put, we need each other. When faced with temptation, insecurities, fears, and doubt we need to have a safe place to talk. An open and honest conversation can help prevent most dangerous situations before they go too far.

Who can you talk with that is smart, strong and cares about you?

5) Stay honest before God.

It’s not like we can hide what’s going on from God. But we miss out on so much of God’s help when we pretend like we can handle it ourselves.

Talk to God. Stay close to Him. Be honest about your struggles. The Holy Spirit brings wisdom and power, take advantage of it. We all make mistakes, but there is no need to allow a temptation to turn into a pattern that can cost your ministry.

When you name the problem, sin or temptation, you remove much of its power. When you also resist it, with God’s help, you can overcome it.

This article was originally published at: Danreiland.com.

Wisdom in Contextualization: How Far is too Far?

By Ed Stetzer

How does the word “contextualization” make you feel? Free or fearful?

The $64-million dollar question about innovation and change is this: How far is too far? I can’t think of any question in the church much more controversial than this one. We’ve been asking it for two thousand years and rarely ever seem to agree.

Most of our discussions on these issues center around contextualization. We should change our methodology to better proclaim the unchanging message to a consistently changing world. But not all change is good, even when it is promoted under the guise of contextualization.

I am all for innovation. But it should be used as means to better contextualize the gospel, not simply for its own sake. We need to evaluate where that line is, so that we do not cross it and lose the very reason God has placed us here.

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Measuring contextualization

Contextualization is, obviously enough, all about the context. Walking with my nose in the air could mean I think I’m better than you. Or it might mean I’m trying to protect you from my nosebleed. Context provides meaning to your interpretation.

Gospel contextualization began the moment Christ came teaching in synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23). Christ presented words and deeds to His audiences in ways that were meaningful in their language and culture.

The language was Aramaic. The culture was Jewish (with a bit of Roman and Greek tossed in). The reaction of the crowds, especially the religious leaders, makes it clear that Christ’s words and actions were meaningful in His cultural context.

Changing in order to contextualize is not watering down the message of the good news of Jesus. The opposite is true. To contextualize the gospel means removing cultural and linguistic impediments to the gospel presentation so that only the offense of the cross remains.

But when we think about changes and contextualization today, it is easy to think you are the only one who has it right. Everyone to the left of has changed too much and lost the gospel. Everyone to the right is a bunch of legalists who haven’t changed enough and can no longer have a conversation with culture. To overcome this temptation, we need to establish what is unchanging and look for signals that our changes have gone too far.

More art than science

God designed it so the unchanging message of Jesus can fit into changing “cultural containers” in order to reach people where they are, and to take them where they need to go. Contextualization is a skill the missional church in the U.S., like international missionaries, must learn and use.

Contextualization, however, is more of an art form than a science. Clear lines that provide hard and fast boundaries for every language and culture don’t exist, especially as it relates to our orthopraxy (the way we live out the gospel). But there are certain gospel lines that we cannot cross.

What are the signs we’ve crossed un-crossable lines? If we have lost the clear proclamation of the gospel—Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin and in our place—or we downplay repentance and forgiveness, I think we’ve removed the intentional stumbling block of the cross. That would be a first warning sign.

If we teach the message in such a way that excludes or de-emphasizes the Bible, I think that’s a difficulty as well. If I find myself underplaying the role of Jesus in salvation or the necessity to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, that’s another red flag.

What works today

Some segments of our evangelical churches have adopted some changes and are doing anything they can through advertising, media, social media, coffee houses, movie theaters, music, the arts, and other venues to have a meaningful conversation with the world. Some Christians feel that giving any ground toward what they perceive (often rightly) as compromise with the culture will eventually cross the line into a heresy and pluralism slide.

Obviously, we don’t want to be syncretists with the gospel message. But contextualization means change will occur. We will be looking for new ways to translate the gospel that help others grasp its message. This is not accommodating the culture; it’s building meaningful relationships with people and speaking with them about the gospel (on the gospel’s own terms) in ways that make sense to them.

So when has change gone too far? When the gospel no longer looks or sounds like good news and Jesus no longer looks or sounds like the Jesus found in the pages of Scripture. But if the feet of those who bring the gospel are beautiful upon the hills, it is at least partly because those who hear the gospel are able to understand meaningfully the wonderful person and work of Jesus. The feet can still be beautiful even after you change shoes.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today.

Shouting With one Voice: Salvation Belongs to our God!

By Ramcely Cozar Castro

“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 in front of the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” Revelation 7:9-10

In this beautiful passage it is obvious that God himself has focused all his attention on assuring that the whole world will be saved.

When we read these verses, we must notice that God sees humanity as a single people, without borders, political divisions or cultural divides. Still, he respects and delights in its diversity, the vast spectrum of skin colors, as well as its linguistic and creative, cultural expressions. These are given by God to man.

John 3:16, a passage used broadly in evangelism, mentions that “God so loved the world…”  The last word does not refer to a single people group, but rather the whole world, with all of its peculiarities: every nation, every race, every people and every language.  God gave his only son, Jesus Christ, as one sacrifice for all because each of us individually is equally valuable.  “…That whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  Everyone has the chance to be saved.  We can all reach the Father.

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The vision in the passage from Revelation says every nation will be before the throne, in front of the Lamb, unified by particular clothing that represents the redemptive work of God in them.  All, regardless of their contexts, will be worshiping.  The Lord does not change who they are.  Each one, taken as they are with their own characteristics, is shouting with a single voice, “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” recognizing him as the only Almighty Lord.

Once I had the chance to organize a youth camp, and two of the participants were deaf from birth.  Even though I am a special education teacher, I don’t speak sign language fluently enough to be able to evangelize.  I communicated in a very basic way, and I used a lot of paralinguistic expressions.  In the middle of the forest on the outskirts of Mexico City, I began to preach an evangelistic message with only the firelight illuminating the dark night. But I had forgotten about these two young people! I preached without signs and without visual aids, and quickly the presence of the Lord came to that place.  The Holy Spirit touched one of the two deaf participants in such a way that he gave his life to Christ.

Of course, it was not because of my words or talents.  It was God himself speaking into that person’s life and breaking down cultural, linguistic and physical barriers.  He moved, as he has done and will continue to do in every corner of the planet, using his servants.  We must be his instruments so that more and more people will join this celestial chorus that will shout with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God!”

*Ramcely Cozar is the pastor of the La Olimpica Church of the Nazarene in Naucalpan, Mexico City.

 

Knocking Down Obstacles and Building Bridges

By Ramcely Cozar Castro

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” I Corinthians 9:19, 23

“When someone is aware of their cultural foundations, they cease to be obstacles to effective communication.” – Nobleza Asuncion-Lande

The book of First Corinthians is a letter to the church in Corinth by Paul, who was known as Saul of Tarsus before his conversion to Christianity.

Paul, in contrast to the 12 disciples of Jesus, did not meet Jesus before his crucifixion.  He was an educated, religious person who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin.  He did not grow up in Jerusalem, but rather in Tarsus, a Greek city in the province of Cilicia.

This places Paul in a privileged situation since he received his education in Tarsus, a city known for its excellent Greek school and the high cultural level of its inhabitants.  Later he moved to Jerusalem where he studied to be a rabbi.  Taken together, this means the Apostle was an expert in Greek culture, religious Jewish culture, and Roman culture.

The phrase from author Asuncion-Lande says that becoming aware of our cultural foundations will minimize the communication barriers between an individual and people from the same country as well as those from other countries.

Paul is a clear example of the truth of this phrase: he was a great missionary and succeeded in taking the message of Jesus to the entire known world.  Language was no limitation to him, and neither were geographic divisions or cultural differences.

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Paul, a man profoundly grateful for what the Lord had done in his life, did work that required heavenly faith and wisdom. It also required him to evaluate his cultural baggage and paradigms so he could keep the fundamental concepts and jettison the rest. That allowed him to build bridges to connect with other cultures.

Those who want to work in different cultures must be aware of their own ways of seeing and living life.  They must understand themselves and their relationship with the surrounding world. We must ask the Lord, the master of all and the one who sustains us in his hands, to help us be flexible regarding any inconsequential things, and remain steadfast when it comes to that which truly forms the basis of our faith.

*Ramcely Cozar is the pastor of the La Olimpica Church of the Nazarene in Naucalpan, Mexico City.

 

 

The Best way to Avoid Pastor Burnout? Equip the Saints

By Karl Vaters

The New Testament doesn’t emphasize the role of pastor nearly as much as our current church structure does.

In fact, there’s just one passage – one! – in which the role of the pastor (along with apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers) is mentioned.

To be sure, there are plenty of passages about bishops, overseers and more that apply to pastors, but Ephesians 4:11-12 could easily be called the pastor’s prime mandate. In that passage, the Apostle Paul clearly tells us we have been called “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”

The longer I pastor, the more convinced I am that one of the prime reasons for pastoral burnout is that too many pastors – especially small church pastors, like me – are ignoring that simple command.

Ministering in a small church does not exempt us from the pastoral mandate to equip the saints.

Many small church pastors have to do many of the tasks that large churches can hire someone else to do. But, no matter how small the congregation is, pastors must never forget that ministering in a small church does not exempt us from the pastoral mandate to equip the saints.

From preaching and teaching to equipping

For too many years, I took almost all of the burden for the ministry of the church on my shoulders. And it nearly killed me – and the church.

So I went back to the pastor’s prime mandate. I redoubled my efforts to equip the church to do ministry instead of doing it for them.

No, the turnaround wasn’t easy. Old habits – both mine and theirs – were deeply entrenched. But it did happen. Or, more accurately, it is happening.

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Here are a few of the steps we’ve taken to bring about that change.

  1. Preach to equip, not just to inform or inspire

I’m more of a teacher than a preacher, so it’s easy to fill people’s heads with Bible knowledge, but shortchange them on how to put it into practice.

If you’re more of a preacher than a teacher, you might be inspiring and energizing them without giving them practical ways to channel that energy.

There are few things more frustrating than a church full of people who are informed and/or inspired without being equipped to do something about it.

Neither information or inspiration is enough. We need to help them turn it into perspiration.

It’s not enough to tack a ‘what to do now’ idea on the end of our sermons. Equipping people to do the work of ministry must always be a central element in everything a pastor does.

  1. Do ministry with people, not just for them

The smaller the church, the more we’ll do ministry with them, among them and beside them. But we can never let ourselves get caught in the endless black-hole vortex of doing all or most of the ministry for them.

In a big church, most people are taught, trained and sent off into ministry without having spent any time with the pastor, other than hearing the Sunday sermon.

In a small church, the pastor has to (gets to) be more hands-on. But we should always emphasize doing ministry with congregation members, not just for them.

Doing ministry for them isn’t healthy – not for the pastor or the church. But doing ministry with the congregation equips the saints, builds relationships and so much more.

  1. Equip teams, don’t appoint committees

Teams do things. Committees tell other people to do things.

A church that is light on teams and heavy on committees will spend more time assigning blame than volunteering for ministry.

  1. Involve the team in the decision-making process

People won’t step up nearly as much for someone else’s ministry as they will for a ministry they had a hand in creating.

Pastor, don’t just tell people what to do, ask them what they’re called to do and how you can come alongside to equip them for it. Including ministry that has nothing to do with your church and its programs.

Become an equipping pastor

Healthy churches are led by equipping pastors.

Equipping pastors work alongside the congregation as we do the work of ministry together.

It’s our calling. It’s our mandate.

And, when we see it working in the lives of the congregation we serve, it’s our joy.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today.