Archive for category: Mission

An Interview with Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts (Part 2, ft “By His Wounds”)

14 Feb Chris Breslin
February 14, 2013

Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA).  He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.  He studied at Covenant College.  While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.

I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience.  Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music.  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album.  Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.”  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.


Hopeful Realism:  What inspired the topic of the conference in April “The Cry of the Poor?”  And how does it grow out of last year’s theme and content?

Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)

Bifrost Arts Liturgy, Music, & Space (Photo: Adam Clark)

Isaac Wardell:  This is really a “Part 2” from our last conference.  I hope that the Liturgy, Music and Space (LMS) curriculum and conference will act as a framework for some of the future content that we’re generating.  Some people came and used that curriculum and experienced it as being really revolutionary. It’s a pretty basic framework for trying to understand what the bible has to say about a way of approaching worship.  But it’s not incredibly pragmatic, it’s the groundwork for churches to work out in their own congregations.  We worked pretty hard when we edited to make it accessible and beneficial for a wide variety of churches.  Out of that, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of conversations to be had about the particular challenges of our time in worship.  I hope over the next five to ten years that we will produce materials that are about all kinds of more specific worship questions.  I’d love for us to have an entire conference and curriculum about children in worship, bilingual worship, church music programs fostering innovation in a Christian-cultural context where that’s been gone for so long…

The reason we decided on this particular one is because it was one of the most common and pronounced questions that emerged from our last conference.  LMS just pricked the surface of this major worship question: obedience in worship.  We opened the scriptures and talked about the relationship of our obedience and how God responds.  Throughout the Old Testament: the Law, the Psalms, where God laments or is angry with his people… “because of the fact that you have not cared for the poor my wrath is on the people” [Ezekiel 22:29-31].  God says that he’s on the side of the poor.  God says that he will deliver the poor from all kinds of oppression.

In the New Testament, you see the same convictions continuing.  You hear Jesus saying, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to break the bonds of oppression…” [Luke 4:18].  You see Jesus’s brother James when asked the question about what true religion is, he answers, “True religion is caring for widows and orphans and the distressed” [1:27].  You hear Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” [Luke 6:20].  You hear Jesus answer consistently, “How can I be faithful?  How can I follow you?”  He says, “Sell all you have and give to the poor’ [Matthew 19:21].

Bifrost Arts- Liturgy, Music & Space from josh franer on Vimeo.

We look for all kinds of ways to make it into a metaphor, but these are the words coming out of Jesus’s mouth.  People under forty have a category for that, but often dispel it: “Sure, God wants us to care for the poor, but I’m not sure what that has to do with worship.”

I have a lot of friends that are excited about justice and mercy and community action, and they think that people just don’t get it…what the bible’s really about.  Because I’m a musician I also have this whole other set of friends that are excited about liturgy, hymnody, and aesthetics.  There’s a whole different sort of self-righteousness going on there; “the purpose of missions is worship.”  This topic is a place where we’ve put an incredibly unrighteous rift through what the bible actually has to say about things.  We put these emphases in tension with one each other, but when you open up scripture you see that God talks about them together.

HR:  How did you personally come to some of these conclusions?

IW:  I took a personal challenge about a year ago to open up the Proverbs.  I was seeking wisdom from this Wisdom literature.  You open up the Proverbs and it’s just all of this stuff about economic injustice, the way you use your money, taking care of the poor.  There are passages like Proverbs 21 where God says, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will call out to God and will not be answered.”  You open Isaiah 58 and God is being sarcastic, ‘You’re all excited about your worship and your prayers and your fasts, but I’m not interested in all that.  The fast that I’m interested in is your obedience.  The worship that I want is your being obedient to break bonds of oppression and care for those in need.’  You actually see God receiving people’s worship based on their actions.  It’s a really scary thing for evangelicals.  We get really excited about this merciful God.  And it’s true.  But we don’t have a category for this God that says, ‘I’m not interested in your liturgy or worship practices because you’ve failed to be obedient to me.’

This is the can of worms that we opened at the previous conference.  We began to ask: “What does that mean for the way we think about grace?”  Within about 24 hours of the last conference we knew this would be the subject of this event.  People were asking questions and I realized that I didn’t have a good answer.

HR:  Tell us about the format of this year conference in Philly?

IW:  This event will be two parts.  This first is deeply theological, wrestling in our plenary sessions with Isaiah 58-61 (which takes us into the New Testament because Jesus began his public ministry by quoting and fulfilling Isaiah).  We’ll ask this theological question: “what is the relationship between the way God receives our worship and our obedience to him?”

The second is very practical.  Right now we have nine workshops about how to meet the needs of particular areas of poverty in our worship.  The bible defines the poor as not just economically poor, but aliens, prisoners, widows and orphans, people with diseases and disabilities…  We’ll have a workshop on serving families with disabilities and special needs in worship.  One about not just the theological necessity but also actually the aesthetic possibilities of bilingual worship.  There’s a workshop on prisoners and worship.  One by a group in New Jersey that’s been facilitating an afterschool program for at-risk and abused children and teaching them to memorize the Psalms to voice their emotional experiences.  And a workshop on appropriating these musical concepts into multicultural settings.

HR:  You’ve put together a wonderful list of presenters.  Who are you most excited about?

IW:  We’re always so excited to have Greg Thompson with us.  Greg’s here in Charlottesville.  He’s a fellow with James Hunter at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and he’s also a minister.  He delivered the summary plenary at the last conference: “The Order of Worship and the Order of Love.”

We’re really excited about John Witvliet.  He’s the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  John’s an amazing scholar on liturgics in general, having studied at Notre Dame, but his particular field of interest is the use of the Psalms in worship.  He’ll be talking to us about the core convictions of the Psalms and what they shape us into being.

(Photo courtesy of

(Photo courtesy of

Makoto Fujimura, who’s a Nihonga painter and founder of the International Arts Movement, will present on creativity as a way of building communities.

Personally, I’m excited about Frère Emmanuel from Taizé community.  I have a romantic association with the community of Taizé having spent time there studying and praying.  One of the core convictions of Taizé is the idea that God calls us to bring worship into the most broken political and social places of the world.  Part of how Taizé was founded is that they had political refugees, prisoners, Jews, orphans, French people, and German soldiers who were being beaten and mocked as they made their way back home through the French countryside.  They wanted to make a place of refuge where they could all worship together and develop a multilingual way of do it.

At times they’ve been controversial.  They’re the only non-Catholic worship site to be worshiped at by a Catholic pope, and not only one but two different popes.  They have an emphasis on quietness and meditative prayer.  I’m excited about some of the amazing things they have to teach us about worship.  Brother Emmanuel is coming over to do a workshop on what it means to bring prayer, silence and song into places of real social and political brokenness.

You can go online to see some of the other workshops.

An Interview with Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts (Part 1, ft “Psalm 46″)

12 Feb Chris Breslin
February 12, 2013

Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA).  He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.  He studied at Covenant College.  While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! & Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.

I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience.  Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music.  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album.  Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.”  Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.


Hopeful Realism:  Tell us about the genesis of Bifrost Arts.

Isaac Wardell:  While I had been living up in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) [serving at Resurrection Presbyterian with Vito Aiuto], I had been quietly developing an ethos for approaching church music.  I had been studying music in college, studying hymnody, had a strong classical music background, and had been living in an urban, post-Christian community.  Incidentally, for about ten years, I had zero exposure to the “Christian culture industry.”  I was working in church plants which meant that I was deciding what we were listening to.  I wasn’t listening to Christian radio, but was going through hymnals and psalters finding ways for us to worship.  In the summer of 2007, we started doing a series of events we called “Sacred Music Festivals” where in small spaces we would  invite people to come and talk about sacred music and about this crazy novelty of people singing together- probably 75% Christians or religious people, but 25% or so just interested in esoteria.  Those events led to a partnership with Rev. Joseph Pensak, ministering locally to college students, as well as connections with other local churches and pastors who helped.

I was in my twenties at the time and probably felt a stronger burden about church music needing to be more excellent, more beautiful, more soulful…rather than reactive, creative.  That’s what I really excited about, especially because of my context.  I was working in a cultural context where those were the real values.  And much Christian music had such a reputation for being facsimile, consumer-driven and draconian.

HR:  Was there a major shift moving from Brooklyn to Charlottesville?

IW:  Bifrost has changed a lot.  As you said, now I work in Charlottesville, VA, essentially in a megachurch.  There are suburban evangelicals, brilliant minds like James Hunter and Nicholas Wolterstorff, college town culture and an evermore diversifying racial complexion.  When I think about how Bifrost can help the church, the idea of being aesthetically innovative and challenging the church to think about the arts in a much more deeply theological way is more of just one sliver of what we’re doing now.  We do much more education and thinking about how we can educate congregations, worship committees, and people involved in planning worship services to think about their way of approaching worship services.

While I’m really excited about releasing this record in the coming months, I’m actually starting to feel more and more that these church curricula that we’re putting out and these conferences and small events are the most helpful thing that we do.  It’s not so much just modeling this sort of ethos but really unwrapping it and showing some biblical concepts that you can bring into your congregation that can really give your congregation a new vocabulary for worship.

When I first came to Trinity it became obvious that our worship vocabulary was so impoverished.  People have “traditional-contemporary,” “high church-low church,” people talk about being relevant…all these things that are really not very descriptive about what the bible has to say about worship.

HR:  Tell me a little bit about a tension you might feel in your work between tradition and innovation.  Singing hymns in new contexts seems to have gained a lot of momentum and quite a following over the last decade or so.  I’ve noticed that the times when the Bifrost records do cover hymnody there isn’t an automatic impulse to necessarily “re-tune” the setting.

The hymn conversation is a fascinating one.  My personal thinking has evolved a lot in the last ten years.  The last thing I want to do is offend anybody, especially my friends who are involved in setting old hymns to new music.  A lot of people who grew up in evangelical churches didn’t grow up singing hymns.  I grew up singing popular Christian music.  When I got to college, I discovered hymns- the depth, beauty, poetry…all these things that were clearly missing from my previous worship experience.  A lot of people have that experience through RUF and others setting those hymns to new music.  That wasn’t exactly my experience because I went to school on a music scholarship, and was involved in a really traditional music program.  My discovery was in the classroom.  My falling in love with them wasn’t in a context of innovation, but rather just falling in love with them for what they were.  I have a more romantic relationship with the organ and the hymnal.  I don’t have a personal history of thinking of “old, dead hymns.”  When I first heard “Be Thou My Vision” it was a new beautiful, adult experience for me.

Part of what I did in my twenties when I was working at these church plants was just opening up the hymnal.  We didn’t have an organ.  It wasn’t some kind of evangelistic decision.  We were just trying to interpret these hymns in a faithful way.  If you listen to the Bifrost records, to a song like “Just A Closer Walk With Me” that’s just me playing the song.  There’s strings and a particular musical perspective that I’m bringing to it, but we certainly weren’t trying to turn anything upside down on its head and we weren’t trying to indict anything.

HR:  Inevitably every artist makes some sort of aesthetic decision.

IW:  Sure.  And I’ve spent the last four or five years digging even more deeply into the way I feel.  At this point I think I’ve come full-circle in thinking that the problem that hymns address is obvious.  Everyone can agree that in turning on [Christian] radio, the music doesn’t address real theological questions, all the facets of the human heart.  And you open up hymnals and they address that problem.  We can agree on that.  Beyond that, to say that hymns are the answer to all of our modern worship problems is problematic.  If you bring discernment and a historical ear to your hymnal you’re going to find some beautiful things in there, some things that were beautiful because of their context, and some things that are not beautiful because of the failures of their times.

Our children’s choir came in yesterday singing “Jesus Loves me This I Know.”  In this and a plethora of other hymns written between 1825 and 1925, that great 19th century British period of hymnody, there are a lot of references to dying.   “And when you die Jesus will hold or cradle you.”  It’s alarmingly consistent.  “If I love him when I die/He will take me home on high.”  You look into it historically and you find that during that period of time in the Industrial Revolution is the highest rate of childhood and infant mortality in world history.  In all these Sunday School classes, you have these kids showing up to worship and having to deal with their peers dying.  So you have people in ministry answering those questions.  You can picture those conversations and their attempts at answers that make their way into their music.  Some of these answers seem odd or perhaps even questionable, but for the moment they were appropriate responses in their contexts.  Likewise, you open up the hymnal and you see people answering questions in hymns.  Addressing questions about war, inexplicable suffering and death, globalization and mission; in the best-case scenarios you see these hymns answering the real questions that people are wrestling with in their times.

I don’t think that hymns answer those questions for our time.  What we can learn is to be inspired by our hymnal to actually look at the questions people are asking in our times.  You read James Hunter’s book: central questions about identity, sexuality, what does it mean to be a person, how do we know that life has any value?  Questions about money, human relationships…these are the questions that are on the news every night.  I don’t know that I can turn on the radio and hear Christian music answering these questions.  But I also don’t necessarily know that you open your hymnal and find answers to these questions.

I’d like to issue a call to songwriters not to stop writing songs and just use your hymnal, but to write new things.  The new Bifrost record, and probably any subsequent records, will be all original hymns and worship songs.  It’s important for us to start modeling that.  In some way there’s something incredibly faithless about resigning yourself to saying that “they wrote all this great stuff back there and we’re not capable of writing stuff like that now.”  I’d like to suggest that the same Holy Spirit that inspired Isaac Watts is the Holy Spirit that can inspire us to write something as beautiful as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

HR:  Beyond answering specific questions for a specific place and time, how do you see worship music working within a framework of a ‘theology of desire?’  Your last conference’s curriculum began to explore some of these themes, seeing a human person as primarily affective or liturgical, how do you design worship with music that takes that whole person seriously?  Hymns don’t let you necessarily range the whole spectrum of emotions in the way that perhaps even the most simple praise chorus, that you could pick on all day, may be able.

I’m assuming you’re probably familiar with Jamie Smith and Desiring the Kingdom?  I love Jamie and his writing and teaching, and his new book, Imagining the Kingdom is explicitly about applying that question in a worship context.

For my Presbyterian, Reformed context, one of the main areas of poverty in the PCA’s collective understanding about worship is this understanding of worship as being just a transmission of information.  Presbyterians get really excited about hymns being good theology set to music.  And there’s something to that.  But this fundamental understanding of worship being information and a system of understanding imparted to you so that music is just a vehicle- that’s a terribly small way of understanding what worship is.

In the Liturgy, Music, and Space (LMS) curriculum, we try to give the reader two handles.  On the one hand, worship has a formative aspect; worship forms us to think a certain way.  And worship has an expressive aspect; in worship our love for God is expressed.  Worship is the expression of a whole relationship with God and its also the formation of a whole relationship with God.

That’s what we’re trying to offer, not contemporary-traditional, not high-low, but formative-expressive as the most scriptural worship categorization.  These two qualities are manifest in scripture, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, that you see God telling the people, ‘when you worship I want you to do it in the very formative way.’  Even Deuteronomy, he says, ‘I want you to write these truths and hang them in front of your eyes on little leaflets and I want you to write it on your doorposts.’  And even when God is telling the Israelites how to celebrate Passover, he says ‘I want you to set your table, sit down, and you’ll say this prayer, and the oldest son is going to ask the dad this question and the dad will answer in this way…’  This is a very formative prescription for worship.

At the same time, you have all these instances in the scriptures, from the prophets right through the New Testament, where God tells his people, ‘I’m not interested in you just going through the motions of worship, not interested in your feasts and festivals, if your heart is not right and your not being obedient to my word.’  And that’s the expressive part.  There are times throughout the bible that you read of these exuberant expressions, things much more expressive than we’re comfortable with: banging cymbals, beating drums, David’s dancing in the street.  Even in the New Testament where in Peter’s worship services people are accused of being drunk.  There is a very descriptive element of expressive worship in the scriptures.

Isaac Wardell

Isaac Wardell (Photo by Adam Clark)

I don’t think that delineating between praise choruses and hymns is always necessarily helpful or accurate.  The category that we use around here is ‘scripture songs,’ a subcategory being ‘psalms.’  I think those are really important categories to have in this conversation, because the Psalms are a best-case scenario due to the fact that they are super-expressive.  They’re very raw.  They’re more expressive than any Chris Tomlin song.  The Psalms are the psalmists bringing all their whole hearts to God.  But the Psalms are also deeply formative.  The Psalms are really challenging.  They don’t just give you words for what you already feel.  They give you words to grow into.  I think the Psalms have to be our model…you see that from Jesus.  When he went to worship God, he learned how to worship using the Psalms, he sung the Psalms, and in his hour of need, Jesus quoted the Psalms.  When he’s hanging on the cross, he’s not extemporizing.  He’s not just expressing, but he quotes something he would have sung.  You see the Psalms even forming Jesus’s heart and giving him language for how to talk to God.

The Psalms are the starting place and then out of the Psalms you have a criterion from which you can judge how good a praise song is and how good a hymn is.  If you start to see a great disconnect between our hymnody and our psalter or praise chorus catalog and our psalter, it should be clear to us where the poverty is.

But that’s not the way we operate.  We’ve gotten so upside-down in our understanding.  You have both traditional people that would hate it if you brought the emotion of the Psalms into worship, and then there are those who are all about expression, who have made an idol out of emotive expression – so that when you try to make a case that the bible just doesn’t want us to express things we feel but to learn to express things that we ought to feel – they’d react really poorly as well.  I think the psalms are indicting on the state of our worship wars.  The one thing we can agree on is that nobody wants to worship that way.

HR:  I recently interviewed Sarah DeShields from Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC.  They’re really trying to hold this in tension and use the handles “the liturgy and the shout” to speak of that dialectic of formation and expression.  Interestingly, they’ve wound up doing a few psalm-based texts to do this on a congregational level.

The Poet William Wordsworth on the Pastor-Theologian

19 Sep Andrew Byers
September 19, 2012

I visited Rydal Mount a few weeks ago, the home of poet William Wordsworth.  My father-in-law was visiting us here in England, so we spent a couple of days in “the Lakes” (besides my father-in-law, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were apparently also sighted in the Lake District that week).

Rydal Mount sits just on a sloped hill affording a view of both Windermere and Rydal Water.  With the gardens elegantly manicured, inspired by the tender care the poet gave to every flower bed, stone and patch of green, the place feels like a dreamy sanctuary.

When we were leaving, my father-in-law bought me a collection of Wordsworth’s poetry from the gift shop.  I will be reading those sonnets for the rest of my life.  I was pleased to come across this one, called “Pastoral Character,” from the Ecclesiastical Sonnets (number 18):


PASTORAL CHARACTER, William Wordsworth

A genial hearth, a hospitable board,
And a refined rusticity, belong
To the neat mansion, where, his flock among,
The learned Pastor dwells, their watchful Lord.
Though meek and patient as a sheathéd sword;
Though pride’s least lurking thought appear a wrong
To human kind; though peace be on his tongue,
Gentleness in his heart – can earth afford
Such genuine state, pre-eminence so free,
As when, arrayed in Christ’s authority,
He from the pulpit lifts his awful hand;
Conjures, implores, and labours all he can
For re-subjecting to divine command
The stubborn spirit of rebellious man?


A few things stand out to me….

For one, Wordsworth’s portrayal is of what I would call a “pastor-theologian” or a “pastor-scholar.”  Note the phrase “learned pastor,” and given the way ecclesiastical structures work in England (and noting the setting of the mid-1800s), many pastors/priests would be among society’s intellectuals, though the clergy often worked well beyond the pale of where most elites worked (like in remote country parishes, for instance).

Another observation is the restrained sense of power and authority.  There is tension between exerting force and exhibiting meekness.  I think good pastors live in this tension.  The line, “meek and patient as a sheathéd sword,” is a powerful illustration of ministerial restraint.  There is a might, a sharp-steel element of danger in the pastor.  Not a danger posed to the flock, but to evil, to twisted thoughts, to deception.  The place of conflict is the pulpit; the means of engagement is exhortation (“Conjures, implores, and labours all he can”) and the authority is that of Christ.  But again, note that these images of strength are balanced with the weight of statements about meekness and peacefulness of heart.

Another observation, made from the initial lines, is that the pastor’s home (the “mansion” probably refers to a parsonage or vicarage) is a safe, open place wherein the members of the flock feel at ease.  The pastor’s home is as critical as the pastor’s pulpit.

So the pastoral character is that of a soul exuding comfort and peace while also engaging evil in the realms of the pulpit and the hearth, the chapel and the home.

Good stuff.


Process of Missional Engagement – Part 5

03 Sep Joel Busby
September 3, 2012

“Wait a second, God is doing something here…Ohhhhh.” – Mission as Participation

We pick back up with our series on Missional Engagement. I realize that our blogging schedule might make your head-spin. Apologies. I’ve been delayed in finishing this series because I just returned from a Short-Term Mission experience. I led a group of college students to Haiti and I’m freshly reminded of so many of the things I’ve been posting here. I’ve also kicked off another semester of college ministry AND I have an infant son and a beautiful wife who have needed me at each time I’ve tried to post this.

Enough excuses.

Again, the idea behind this series is to explore the ways in which we tend to think of “mission.” From there, I hope to offer thoughts on a path by which we can push those we lead toward a healthier engagement with the mission of God.

In my experience, there seems to be an observable path in which Christians involve themselves and fairly consistent frameworks of thinking brought to the table.

1) People begin with an awakening of compassion (I noted that here),
2) Then, proceed to travel on a trip as somewhat of a Christian adventure (and wrote about this here), and move to a new tier in their Christian discipleship.

(Both paradigms have serious weaknesses, short-comings and dangerous assumptions. However, these thought-processes are often necessary steps. As pastors/leaders, we need to be aware of these frameworks and push further.)

3) After going on a Christian mission trip adventure, a strange thing happens. God legitimately burdens hearts with the pressing needs of the world. However, we then tend to think we should take-over and fix everything (thoughts on this are here).

Usually after many attempts to take-over and conquer, mixed with a fair share of helping when helping hurts (can you tell I’m writing from experience here?), discouragement sets in.

Another shift needs to happen, and this shift goes something like this: “Wait a second. God is doing something here. He’s been at it for a really long time. He’s good at this role. He’s building a church from every tongue and tribe and nation. He probably invites me into this process, but could do this with or without me. It’s his thing. I can participate.”

I’m calling this a “theo-centric” vision of mission. God is a God of mission (yes, missio dei language here). As Christians, we exist to join this mission. He has set the terms. He has done, is doing, and will do the work. Our role is subordinate.

I know that it sounds elementary, but the way we engage the mission of God so often runs completely contrary to this idea.

I’m so encouraged when I read about the ways in which the Christian movement is becoming an increasingly non-Western, non-North American thing. Instead, the Church seems to be strongest in the “Global South” (Latin/South America, Africa, South Asia, etc.) They say today that the “average” Christian in the world is non-white.

(Random sidenote: It always amazes me to think that in 50 years, seminary students will very likely be reading theology and biblical scholarship from African or Asian thinkers that we’ve never heard of. This will necessarily affect the shape Christian theology takes….)

Ironically, Christianity is strongest is the places where we typically send “missionary teams.” I think this is okay, but wouldn’t it fundamentally alter our posture when we travel to these cultures? Shouldn’t we be going primarily as learners, not teachers?

Wouldn’t this change the way we approach Short-term trips? Longer-term partnerships? Wouldn’t this temper our enthusiasm to pull a North American takeover? Wouldn’t this lean against the “go first, ask questions later” ethos of current mission trends?

Some thoughts on how to lead the people you lead through this paradigm shift.

1. Incorporate heavy doses of theology (missio dei) into short-term trip training.
2. Have your people learn about Global Christianity. Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom is a tremendous start.
3. Always, always, always carefully research and attempt to learn the ways God is already at work in a place.
4. Let local Christians lead and set the terms of missional engagement.

The Process of Missional Engagement – Part 4

19 Jul Joel Busby
July 19, 2012

“White Man’s Burden” – Mission as North American Takeover

After a little hiatus, we’ll resume our Process of Missional Engagement series.The idea up-and-running is that, as pastors, we need a better way of leading people to engage the mission of God.

In my experience, there seems to be an observable path in which Christians involve themselves and fairly consistent frameworks of thinking brought to the table.

People begin with an awakening of compassion (I noted that here), and proceed to travel on a trip as somewhat of a Christian adventure (and wrote about this here), and move to a new tier in their Christian discipleship. Both paradigms have serious weaknesses, short-comings and dangerous assumptions. However, these thought-processes are often necessary steps. As pastors/leaders, we need to be aware of these frameworks and push further.

After going on a Christian mission trip adventure, a strange thing happens. God legitimately burdens hearts with the pressing needs of the world. Going to broken places can serve to jostle us out of our slumbering, comfortable and sleepy existences. There is a world — some would call the real or majority world — out there. When this happens, we can become saddened, burdened, broken, shaken, indignant, etc. This is often good and right.

However, a stranger thing can happen. From these experiences, our inner handy-man is awakened, too. There are so many things to fix. We’ve got so many ideas, methods and resources that no one has ever thought of, right?. Get resource A to place B. How simple is that?

Surely we can tinker, adjust, provide, accomplish and rescue. Just give us control and we’ll take it over and fix it. North Americans are the total solution to the difficult problems there, right?


I want to be clear. Very few people would think of it in these terms. Very few people are conscious of this thought process. I know it creeps up in my head all the time. I’m a learner here. These instincts are well-intentioned. As leaders, we have to push further.

I’m also not saying that North Americans cannot offer anything in the work of mission, or any that attempt to do so is necessarily unhealthy, dangerous and wrong. But, we have to be careful.

“White Man’s Burden” is a loaded phrase. I know. Originally, “White Man’s Burden” was a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Lots of different interpretations have been proposed in an attempt to analyze Kipling’s thought. In this post, I’m not attempting to delve into the baggage of the colonial/post-colonial debacle. I’m not trying to push it to that level.

Instead, I’m using it more in the sense of William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin Books: 2007).

North American/Western takeover in the field of international mission doesn’t have a very good track record. North American takeover in the field of Christian Mission doesn’t have a very good track record, either.

It may seem as simple as “fixing,” but I can promise you things are much, much, more complicated than that. As one example, I’ve heard stories of how well-intentioned North American Christians nearly put a solid, healthy, employing-locals, Christian-owned Haitian business out of business.

We need to take the right and healthy sense of burden and channel it in a different direction. A proposed way-forward will be our final two posts.

For now, a quick set of thoughts:

1. When we’re burdened, try to be burdened for the right reasons. For example, spending hours hand-washing clothes is often considered to be a rich community-building cultural practice in certain cultures. Don’t offer to supply washing machines. Don’t be burdened about that. We must distinguish legitimate needs from developed world conveniences.
Try to buy local goods or hire locally in ministry/mission projects. If a building needs to be built, what makes more sense? To bring a North American team, or hire locals? The answer may be different in different places. Ask the questions.

2. Let local Christians lead and set the terms of engagement and set the agenda. Let’s clearly position ourselves in service of local Christians. Let’s really mean this. Then, let’s demonstrate that we mean this in our actions. Further, set things up so that local Christians get the credit for anything accomplished.Building on this, try to accomplish what they ask you to do, rather than what you think will be a meaningful experience for your team.

3. Think carefully about how we should define efficiency and accomplishment. Make sure we are thinking concretely and locally in our decisions. What is needed here? What is efficient, here? What will fly in one place/culture, does not in another place/culture. (As a side note, we need a better theology of place anyway, don’t we?)

4. First, visit a location, culture or ministry. Build relationships and friendships before you try to accomplish something.

5. In your reporting back to your congregation, embody a healthy sense of Jesus’ “don’t let your right hand know what you’re left hand is doing…” principle (Matthew 6:3). Perhaps, Jesus meant for this principle to be lived quite tangibly. This will be hard, by the way. So many difficult tensions to hold in how we go about doing this.

Let’s shepherd, lead, push, and prompt.

The Process of Missional Engagement – Recommended Reading

11 Jul Joel Busby
July 11, 2012

A quick hiatus from the Missional Engagement series. I’ve received some feedback requesting some resources. I’ve compiled a list of 9 resources. They aren’t listed in any particular order. These books have influenced my thinking on Mission more than most. I’ve also included a link to the Amazon page.

Kingdom Come: How Jesus Wants to Change the World. Allen Mitsuo Wakabayashi. A wonderful, accessible introduction to the all-important, “here-but-not-yet” concept that is central for understanding the theology of the New Testament.

The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Christopher J.H. Wright. A full and comprehensive biblical theological approach to Mission. Especially helpful to see that a biblical theology of mission extends way, way beyond the Great Commission.

The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Lesslie Newbigin. In so many ways, Newbigin started the conversation. Interestingly, I’ve been told that Newbigin’s biggest influence for his work was Barth’s CD.IV. Makes sense to me.

Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. Richard Bauckham. Short, accessible and brings the conversation forward for contemporary culture. Obviously, written by a brilliant Biblical scholar.

The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Phillip Jenkins. Christianity is becoming an increasingly non-Western thing. The next generation of Christian leaders will be non-Western, from places where Westerners “go.” How does that necessarily change the way we think of global mission?

Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology.  Timothy Tennet. Similar prompting as the Jenkins’ book. This however asks questions regarding the nuances of theological reflection in light of an increasingly non-Western church. Again, I think this changes the conversation about mission profoundly.

Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa. Dambisa Moyo. Not a book on Christian mission, but has all kinds of implications for it. Very challenging, bold and profound.

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Asks so many right questions, shifts paradigms and is particularly applicable for Short Term Mission trip philosophy.

Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission. Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl. Completely shifts the paradigm. This book has influenced me profoundly. I wish more people would read this book. Practical, creative and unbelievably challenging. I’ll say much more in the final post of “The Process of Missional Engagement” series.


Others? What has influenced you?


The Process of Missional Engagement (Part 3)

06 Jul Joel Busby
July 6, 2012

(This post is a continuation of a series. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 here.)

Christian Altruistic Tourism – Mission as Adventure

We come to a third paradigm/framework/approach to Mission.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, a guy in Haiti that I know wrote on his blog (I’m paraphrasing): “Not to be rude, but we really don’t need Christian backpackers looking for a meaningful experience.”

Mission/Aid/humanitarian organizations in Haiti were overwhelmed by well-intentioned people desiring to get in on the action (I know the phrasing here seems harsh, but…).  Lots of random people trying to show up, with no plans, no connections, looking to “help” or “serve.” Because of my connection to Haiti, I was contacted by lots of these people. When I proposed other ways to get involved, these people balked.

“I just know I’m supposed to be there right now. I just know it. I’ll find another way. But thanks, Mr. Busby.” I heard these comments over and over and over again. Secular commentators have labeled this line of thinking, “disaster tourism” or “volunteer tourism.” Just Google these terms. There’s a lot of stuff out there on this.

It extends beyond epic disasters, however. I think much Christian engagement in Mission — particularly Short Term Mission Trips — may be a manifestation of this line of thinking. Bottom line reality: It’s somewhat trendy to travel to third world places, to serve the poor, to participate in Mission. This is true in the Christian culture. It’s also true in American culture at large. Celebrities are engaged in humanitarian causes. For Christians (young ones, particularly, but older ones too), it’s almost a rite of passage, to go on a “mission trip.”

I know it’s may be harsh, but I’m going to call this unhealthy phenomenon, “Christian Altruistic Tourism.”

Christian: It flows from a perception that following Jesus requires an engagement in “Mission.”  It comes from a Great Commission impulse to involve oneself. It’s considered a certain kind of tier within Christian discipleship to do this kind of thing. Opportunities for involvement are usually given by churches or Christian organizations.

Altruistic: Merriam-Webster define this as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” These Christians engage out of a well-intentioned desire to help, to look out for, serve, etc. the people in need (in need either physically or spiritually). In other words, these folks mean well. They’re trying to do good. At least from their perception, it’s “unselfish regard.”

Tourism: The perception is that following Jesus, engaging God’s work in the world probably requires travel to a place. Surely those in material or spiritual need tend to live in other places, right? Often those places are places we’d like to travel anyway. At least doing this Mission thing is more effective or more fun, or more exciting if it involves a trip, right?

There are some truths here.

However, if we’re not careful, our Short Term Mission experiences become merely opportunities to display our budding Christian growth. These adventures can be no more than glorified photo-ops for Facebook. Mission trip travelers notoriously try to squeeze in some vacation and sight seeing. I mean, while we’re at it, why not “experience the culture?”

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that traveling on a Short-Term Mission experience is necessarily bad. I lead college students on a trip to Haiti every year. I believe in these trips when handled with care and wisdom. Sometimes, these trips are a fruitful next-step in engaging the Mission of God after Christian compassion is awakened. Many, many, many people who do very fruitful things long-term began with a week-long trip. When led rightly, these endeavors can be helpful. I really believe this. As of now, I’m not a “cancel-all-your-short-term-trips” guy.

But we need to be wise and ask some good, hard questions. I’ll propose a few.

1. If Short-Term experiences are primarily about the goers (debatable, I know), about their crossing a tier within Christian discipleship (dangerous thinking, I know), should we talk about them, evaluate them and promote them differently?

2. Can we have these conversations? Make trip goers aware of this phenomenon?

3. In our training, can we include content on how to appropriately use a camera on a trip? Can we talk about how to appropriately share the photos and videos from trips via social media?

4. Can we always, always, always, always insist that the folks on the ground lead us, set the agenda, set the parameters? Can we follow their lead?

5. Can we ask hard questions before we spent the token day sight-seeing or relaxing? Our hosts will often desire to extend us this kind of hospitality, but can we think really carefully about it first?

6. Can we institute NMTSPs? That’s right, No Matching T-Shirt Policies. Just saying.

Again, let’s lead, push, challenge, prompt, shepherd, encourage.

The Process of Missional Engagement (Part 2)

25 Jun Joel Busby
June 25, 2012

(Want to remind everyone that so much of the writing we do at Hopeful Realism belongs in the thinking-out-loud category. Perhaps my posts especially…)

“Those people…bless their heart. Poor things. And, bless your heart. That’s so nice of you to go help them.”

We come to our first paradigm or framework or approach to Mission.

The sound-byte above might seem over-stated. It is. I’ve made it sound worse than it is for heuristic purposes. But, as Mandy and I prepared to spend 3 months in Haiti in 2008, thoughts very much like this were expressed. Sincere, well-meaning, and well-intentioned people thought that “those people” needed “help” or “the gospel” or something, and that we were the ones to take it.

In this framework, mission is fundamentally a demonstration of pity. Short-Term Mission Trips, when executed thoughtlessly, can serve to cement this paradigm solidly in hearts and minds.

At best, this thought pattern is an inkling, or even an awakening, of genuine Christian compassion. At worst, it’s a toxic notion that re-enforces all kinds of wrong ideas about participation in the Mission of God.

A lot is assumed and implied in the “Bless their heart. Bless your heart” framework. I thought of at least 8 issues (I know there are more here than I can think of at the moment).

  1. “Those people” are primarily objects of our charity. They are recipients of our good graces. They standby, awaiting our kindness.
  2. “Those people” are played against “us.” There is an assumed categorical distinction. Though all evidence indicates a distinction between “us” and “them,” we must seriously lean against such thinking.
  3. Ultimately, people in other places are to be pitied. No one likes to be pitied, by the way.
  4. Somehow, participation in the mission of God is exceptional Christian work, reserved for a special class.
  5. The ones who go are heroic.
  6. Involvement in the Mission of God is optional. Participating in the alleviation of suffering in our broken world is optional.
  7. One can detect an assumption that lives lived in comfortable places do not contribute to suffering in difficult places. This is simply not true. The connections may lie in a tangled, uncontrollable web, but the connections are there.
  8. Real difficulties and struggle in the world can be solved by Christian niceties.

Obviously, the folks who think along these lines do not have these 8 ideas —as a whole or in part— up-and-running. At least, I sincerely hope not.

Again, I’ll focus on the positive. This kind of thinking is an inkling of Christian compassion. It’s an awakening. In fact, it’s often the first step towards missional engagement.

We can be mad at people who think like this. We can be frustrated. We can make brothers and sisters feel like pompous, clueless, snobby, and thoughtless Christians. But, in my experience, most Christians are simply unaware. I’ve been there too. Worse, in my missional thinking, I still sometimes sense this attitude lurking in the corners of my heart and mind. I haven’t arrived. I’ve less than arrived.

Though our ministries need a prophetic edge, they also need a pastoral heart.

As pastors and leaders, we must push people further. Force them to think about these 8 assumptions (and others).

How do we do this?

I’m not exactly sure. Expose the assumptions. Sometimes just pointing this stuff out is a helpful way forward. Ask hard questions. Refuse to allow certain takeaway lessons from Short-Term experiences. Literally refuse. Train. Educate in every part of the church’s life. I certainly believe that appropriate thinking about Mission must be a whole-church, concerted effort.

Don’t be mad. Push, prompt, lead, and shepherd.

The Process of Missional Engagement (Part 1)

22 Jun Joel Busby
June 22, 2012

This post begins a series of posts I’m calling “A Process of Missional Engagement.”

Recently, much has been written calling the Short-Term Mission Trip (STMT) phenomenon in Evangelicalism (especially American Evangelicalism) into question. One such example is this week’s post on the Gospel Coalition — “Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips.”

A consensus seems to have emerged:  Evangelicals’ approach to “Mission(s)” is quite problematic.

I’ve read many of these kinds of resources and have strong opinions about STMTs and their place in the life of the church.

Further, I have a vested interest in following these developments. All of this is personal for me. In my full-time role as a minister to college students, I wrestle theologically and philosophically with what we do, or don’t do, in the category of “mission.” But even more importantly, I’m involved with a ministry effort in Haiti. My responsibility within this organization is to connect, coordinate and manage short term teams. Suffice it to say that I spend a lot of time to trying to lead, think about, shape, craft, connect, etc in this aspect of Evangelical life. A huge personal passion is how to lead people to think of the work of God in the world and how to participate in it.

That’s what this series is about.

I’m wanting to propose a potential way forward with how we lead people to think of “Mission.” In my work with college students, in my local church, in my responsibilities in Haiti, how can I lead the church towards a richer, fuller, more healthy engagement in the Mission of God?

This series of posts will have implications for STMTs. But I hope it’s broader than that.

In my experience of leading God’s people in these things, I see five paradigms for how Christians think of “mission.” For better or for worse, I believe most Christians approach “mission” in one of these 5 ways. Further, I believe most Christians engage “mission” in this sequence.  A forthcoming post will explain each.

“Bless Their Heart/Bless Your Heart.” Mission as a demonstration of pity.
“Christian Altruistic Tourism.” Mission as adventure.
“White Man’s Burden.” Mission as North American takeover.
“God’s Doing Something Here.” Mission as participation.
“Mutuality in Service and Mission.” Mission as fellowship and friendship.

Instead of being angry about how the church thinks about mission, I propose that we think about ways to intentionally lead people through this progression. Our job is to push them along in their journey, purposefully and pastorally.

Revisiting the “We Need Boring Christians” article with Relevant (part 2): STAGE OF LIFE

02 Mar Andy
March 2, 2012

[This post continues a new series of reflections on my online and print articles with Relevant Magazine on missions, travel, and staying put.  Click here for the 1st post.]

Life-stage.  I am thinking a lot today about where we are in life and how that impacts our vocational thinking.  I remember as a zealous 20something looking with contempt on the settlers.  You know, the responsible, dull adults who had settled for the settled life.  The immobility of it all seemed so stifling.  The conversations seemed so… normal.

I got married.  I had a kid.  Another kid.  Another.  And yes, one more.  Four kids.  That’s 80 finger- and toenails that need cutting.  That’s 200 band-aids a year.  That’s 20 lbs. of cutlery, dishes, pots and pans to wash every day.  When you have kids, your stuff (you know—the possessions you need to be ready to forgo in an instant at Jesus’ call), it all stuff gets multiplied ad nauseam.  Moving requires more than a pickup.  My spirit cracked inside in 2006 when I realized in the heated moment of loading a 25′ U-Haul that I had more stuff than could fit in a 25′ U-Haul.

Having kids means you have to have a stroller.  Two of them—if you want to go off-road, you gotta have a “jogger stroller,” okay?  Don’t forget the baby bed, the baby furniture, the diaper-changing table… geez.  It really is too much.  Our baby-culture is surely partially sponsored by furniture, toy and baby retail companies.

But think about the bikes.  Bikes are necessary, right?  Remember all that bike-riding you did as a kid?  How free you felt with the wind whipping through your locks sailing down the street singing Bon Jovi or Michael Jackson (okay, that was my decade, maybe not yours)?  When you’re a parent, you can’t deprive that thrill and freedom of your kids, right?  But to let them have the freedom of those two wheels, you have to shell out more cash.  Even used bikes can be pricey.  So you need a job for buying things like strollers and bikes.  And for crying out loud, you need a garage or a shed or something for storing all the bikes and scooters.  But you need a bigger car to haul everyone around in with their bikes, which will share space with the car in the garage.  Of course, you will likely run over one of the bikes with the new car and have to replace it (the bike) and fix the car.  Better make sure the job is a good one… and hopefully one with good insurance since your kid is definitely going to go from bike to dirt at some point.

Clipping tiny toenails off squirming toes, cleaning the junk that leaked out of the diaper, pumping up bike tires, sweeping up the garage you keep the bikes in, making mac’n’cheese and then picking up the mac’n’cheese that splattered to the floor and cleaning all the plates the mac’n’cheese stained happy yellow before carting off some of the kids to soccer or gymnastics or church or a friend’s house, all the while trying to pay for your own house without faulting on the mortgage since you just bought a car and some bike… the settled life.

Pick up and move overseas?  Global missions?  Leave everything and move to the Sub-Sahara?  Jettison all the stuff?  Look, it’s not just generic stuff anymore.  Among the flotsam and jetsam is that red flyer tricycle with the dinging bell your toddler wobbled all over the driveway on, the stroller your baby used to fall asleep in on your neighborhood walks, the outdoor playset where your daughter got the arm-strength to be a champ in gymnastics….

Life-stage. It affects how we think vocationally.  And it should.

That does not mean that we cling to the stuff and squelch any calls to abandon the settled life.  Not that all the reasoning governing the developments above are justified.  But when you are 25 and unburdened with childcare, untrammelled by the need to buy hordes of mac’n’cheese and the pots and dishes to cook and serve them in, then it is easier to cast a wistful eye to the beckoning horizon.  And when those of us settlers trammelled and burdened by kids and boxed noodles look to the horizons, we often ache harder for an outbound flight than the 20something… we just lack the energy and freedom from responsibility to leap.

My wife and I leapt.  Seven months ago.  We moved overseas.  Not to the sub-Sahara, okay.  But we moved.  Hardest thing I have ever done. I am still wondering at times if it should have happened.


I saw a number of comments attached to the online article at Relevant expressing concerns that my words would allow folks to remain in their settled lives.  My hope is that those of us in the settled life would realize how noble that calling can be.  I also hope the article might call the unsettled to see more of the broader picture, the complexities and motives that need to be weighed for outward journeys to bear long-lasting fruit.  One of those complexities is life-stage.

I love my stage of life.  I am trammelled and burdened joyfully.  My wife and I are living the dream as parents.  It is, however, the most exhausting, most stressful, most anxious time of our lives heretofore.  It could be much worse.  The stage of life has brought marital strife for many, and a child with a serious illness can elevate the stress and anxiety to barely bearable levels (PB & WB: you are our heroes).

But here is what I am wondering in the midst of it all: What does faithfulness to Jesus and the Gospel look like for families with small children?  How do we think vocationally about this life-stage?  Does stage of life affect calling?  The vocational image of a young man or woman living solo in a slum was once my ideal.  Is that valid now?

What say you, dear readers?

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