Spiritual formation for young people

the brochureHandcrafting young people

One of the main things we can do as a small church is to handcraft young people to take on the mantle of servant leadership in the church. One way is for us to actually use that period when young people are waiting to study in some institution, or for new semester to begin, or to go into National Service. It is difficult to find a similar period for Polytechnic students as the different polys have different breaks. However we managed to find a period for the former. We found a period of 40 days and brought together 6 of them. We “de-schooled” the training  and made it more relational, interactive, research-active, digital and communal. Nine to 5 from Tuesday to Saturday is intense and by the fifth week we were feeling like climbing the last stretch of Mt Kinabalu at 3am in the morning. But it felt so satisfying to have persevered to the end-point.

spending a half day in prayer

One thing young people found very helpful

One thing that really struck me was how the participants were hungry to make sense of the Bible. They were looking for meaning that tied together the seeming jig-saw of Bible stories, laws, instructions, prayers, wise sayings, poetry that were written long ago over a long period of time by a host of different authors with different purposes. They was a definite search for thematic perspectives. Its more than a book by book survey. Its the blood red vascular system that runs through the flesh of the biblical text that begs exposition. It’s also the historical and cultural and literary context that they wish to unlock as these hid the treasure.

Kranji War MemorialA memorable ending

Another thing that helped them was the challenge at the end. After they had viewed the mercy of God, and experienced His love in prayer and reflection, we brought them to Kranji War Memorial to reflect over how they would like at that juncture in their journey to offer themselves as a living sacrifice unto God. This experiential learning was poignant and helped to tie up everything they have learned and experienced into an appropriate response to God. For more pics and information go to wrpf.org.sg

AGST Alliance’s masters/doctoral module

Dr Allan Harkness the Director of AGST Alliance

laptop power

Carlos, Sonny, Winston, Ying Kheng

it can be tiring

Five are Bible college lecturers, four are pastors, two are in para-church organizations, two are in transition. Five are Malaysians, four are Singaporeans, two are Filippinos, one an Australian and one Thai. All were here for the AGST Alliance masters/ doctoral module on Education, Spiritual Formation and Discipleship in Christian Faith Communities: Interdisciplinary overview and rationale. Yes it is a rather massive and ponderous title for a module, and we took a morning to unpack the lexical complexity, and overlapping concepts of the terms. This was much needed work as this module is a core and foundational course upon which the course superstructure would be  built upon. I found the course immensely useful and stimulating. We looked at the subject from different perspectives: philosophical, biblical, historical, educational, technological and architectural. Sounds quite intellectual, and it was. But it was also interactive, collaborative. We had two guests, an architect and a Singapore Bible College lecturer who was an “Apple evangelist”. The course was mentally draining, and the assignments were practical, designed to achieve the stated outcomes. They look challenging, but should be doable. Having done the course just before Holy Week, I have hardly had time to digest and process what I learned or to start on any of the assignments. The comfort as I juggle ministry and study, is that the assignments given are all relevant to the community I am in, and require me to do further research, and understand and apply what I have learned. In addition, the study is relevant to the ministry at hand, and could be a basis of actual change action. On the whole I liked it, and it was nice to get to know more of the Lord’s servants in South East Asia. It was nice to get acquainted with Rev Winston Tan, whose late wife was my TTC classmate, and Ying Kheng, a popular lady  speaker with Campus Crusade, and Sonny, a Singaporean of Filippino descent, who has pastored in a few countries and is bi-vocational.

luching on the Vines

A review of Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

renovation of the heart

Vision of spiritual formation

The author wants the church to hold to a vision of spiritual formation of all believers into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is rooted in the Great Commission, and the church that fails to do this simply has failed. Dallas Willard is a professor of Philosophy in U.S.C. and a widely read author. His writing is cogent, and patiently builds up air-tight arguments to prove his thesis. His extensive reading and research is evidenced in his references. But his background also explains why his definitions of various elements of the human, like soul, spirit, and heart betray a lack of biblical theology.

Dallas begins by painting a grim picture of the gap between what is professed and what is lived out by the church. Many have severely fallen short of the standard of Christ’s holy life. He then pinpoints the church’s problem: majoring on the minors. The cure: a fresh, intentional focus on spiritual formation. A vision of change and hope is outlined and then in detail he goes on to show how every element of the human person can be transformed. The thought life and the feelings; the will and the body; the social and soul, all need to come under the transforming work of Spirit and man’s intentional and habitual response.

Biblical theology gap

The definitions and explanations and practical applications about what Christians can do to predispose themselves to God’s grace in transformation are clear and the arguments almost airtight. However I would have been more convinced if he had brought in more biblical theology with word studies, of biblical terms like the heart, or spirit and soul. It sounded more psychological than biblical. Perhaps in targeting the lay Christian reader, he has deliberately avoided technical discussion on such matters, but I wished that at least it could have been included in an appendix.

He could have filled a gap in terms of biblical theology of how Christ’s finished work, our union with Christ, the sacraments, and sanctification relates to spiritual formation. Perhaps he was overeager to avoid theological jargon but we readers would like to be able to relate what we read in his book to the epistles of St Paul in Romans 6-8 and other great passages. For example, he made some insightful observations about how “ideas, sensations and emotions”, both positive and negative, can by habit become “settled attitudes” that become like tendencies that can trigger automatically without conscious thought in reaction to life situations. It would have been wonderful if he discussed that in relation to the “old man” or “the flesh” or “body of sin” or “ indwelling sin”.

Community applications needed

His suggestions were practical. For instance, memorization and meditation of the Scriptures to renovate the mind so that it comes fully under Christ’s rule. However, it is noticeable that most of his applications were directed to the individual Christian. There were a few directed to the community and leaders of the community in the social dimension but it would have been better if all the application were viewed from a community and relational viewpoint. Thus the applications for mind renewal could have been the reading and preaching of Scriptures in the worship service, the role of hymns, the family’s role in encouraging thinking from God’s viewpoint, the study and discussion and application of truth to life in small groups etc. Frankly, most individual Christians will not memorize scriptures or study over the long haul. The only hope of such actions becoming habits must be for a community practice to be established and for them to participate in them faithfully.

An Asian way?

The approach of breaking down all the human elements that need transformation is also a very Western and scientific approach. It helps me to understand each particular part and how it functions together and deepens my understanding, but it also overwhelms the individual with too much applications, and it feels quite cumbersome. It may be better if he had taken a more Asian or holistic and biblical approach and viewed the human being as a whole and demonstrated how Christ’s death and resurrection has provided a basis for the renewal of my whole being and how the church needs to provide a conducive context where all its members can better predispose themselves to the ongoing grace of sanctification.

Book review of Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster

streams of living waterA mature faith

One of the marks of a mature faith is that it is sufficiently secure to explore other Christian traditions and discover in them good which they can incorporate into their life without losing their roots in the essentials of faith in Christ. One of the early steps we can take to hop out of our wells and widen our appreciation of the larger body of Christ is to read this interesting book. It is substantial without being too academic. It will give you food for thought, and stimulate desire for holistic growth.

General content and development

The author identifies six traditions from the various movements in church history and categorizes them according to their unique emphasis in faith and practice. They are the contemplative, the holiness, the charismatic, social justice, the evangelical, and the incarnational. He argues that the essence of these major traditions find their embodiment in the person of Jesus, and since we are called to follow Him, these traditions and practices are to be nurtured in the life of the believer and the church. He unpacks each tradition by using 3 persons as illustrations: a historical figure; a Bible character; and a contemporary person. The he describes the tradition and lists its strengths and perils and suggest practical applications.

One example of how he develops his subject is the charismatic tradition where he first uses St Francis of Assisi as the historical figure that epitomizes this stream; and then St Paul the apostle as the biblical example of the charismatic; and finally, James Seymour, the leader in the Azusa Street outpouring, as a contemporary example. Next he shows how the tradition is supported by scripture. Moving from this base, he lists charismatic strengths, one of which is empowering to serve; and a list of perils, one of which is rejecting the rational and intellectual. Finally he gives practical suggestions of how to be more open to follow the promptings of the Spirit.

Debatable choices and Third World absence

Naturally it is debatable who would be the best candidate to represent each stream. For example, the use of St Francis to illustrate the charismatic tradition could just as well, or even better represent the social justice tradition. Dietrich Bonhoeffer could be a candidate for social justice instead of holiness. I would have thought someone like bishop Oscar Romero should not be left out of the book completely. He should at least appear in the list of notable figures and significant movements in appendix B. Sadly sterling Asian men of God like Watchman Nee, John Sung, Bakht Singh and Wang Ming Dao were conspicuously absent.

The book does not sufficiently argue the how and why he arrived at the six traditions and not one less, or one more? Could there have been an additional tradition that did not make the list and why not. It would have been enlightening and more convincing if the reader had some access to the arguments, even if only in an appendix.

An incomplete end?

The conclusion was too abrupt. He could have debated about whether the Bible posits an ideal of every Christian having all these six traditions in full mature expression, or whether what is seen of the six traditions, and in Jesus is meant to be expressed not through the individual, but through the corporate or community expression of the Body of Christ, whether in its local expression, or in the universal expression. It would have been good for the author to identify the contemporary situation: are all streams represented in today’s church? Which denomination is displaying which tradition best? And discuss if what God intended is actually having different members or “tribes” of his worldwide church displaying these streams in varying strengths so that together they present the fullness and the ideal.

A good and important read

However what I like about the book are many. This book has broadened my perspective and understanding. The natural tendency is to be entrenched in our own tradition and to denigrate those of others. Reading this has deepened my appreciation of the richness of the faith that the Lord of history has deposited into the life of the church over centuries, a treasure not to be despised.

Another asset is how the author shows that the various strands are inter-related to each other. Out of a rich contemplative life would flow a life of holiness and the charismata of the Holy Spirit. Logically too such a person would have power to be and to live compassionately. Justice and compassion cannot go without the evangelical witness of the Gospel message. And all these traditions must be embodied in people who live ordinary everyday lives and this is the incarnational tradition. What a joyful dance the inter-relationships point to!

richard j fosterRichard J Foster is a well known author of best selling books like “Celebration of Discipline”, “Prayer” and other books on spirituality and spiritual disciplines. The tradition that nourished him is the social justice tradition of the Quakers. There are Quakers of the more liberal sort, and those that are very evangelical, and he belongs to the latter.

This is also one book where I read all the appendices. The summary of church history from the lens of the six traditions and the list of notable persons and movements in history was a different approach I liked. And though they were not as exhaustive as I would prefer it to be with respect to Asian and African representation, they helped to strengthen the author’s thesis. I have benefited much from reading this book and will explore further its proper application to life.

Spirituality and faith formation at AGST

New eyes

So far the courses I have attended covered discipleship, building formative faith communities and this time round, “Spirituality and Faith Development”. Hands touched my eyes, and I find myself learning to cope with strange light and blurred images, and a new way of seeing how learning can take place more effectively in church. It is stimulating to view the same things from a new framework, and to have clarified in books, lectures, discussions and journal articles, insights and patterns you have sensed but could not give precise shape to. It is uncomfortable too, because you see methodology and philosophy in the church that does not maximize learning, but will require great energy to modify.

Dr George Capaque facilitating discussion

Different Christian traditions and spiritualities

Dr. George Capaque, the Dean of Discipleship Training Center was our main lecturer together with Dr Allan Harkness, the Director of Education programs in Asia Graduate School of Theology. There were eight of us in the group from four countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines.  We were introduced to the different traditions and spiritualities of the church and to the ways our faith is formed and developed, always with an eye to how we can incorporate what we have learned to benefit our respective contexts.

Though academic there was thought put in the program to integrate elements that would impact the heart and behavior. While we examined the six traditions expounded in Richard Foster’s “Streams of Living Water”, we took it down from the cognitive domain to let it work in our hearts and hands. We used the workbook for the first hour of each day to actually discuss where we are personally with respect to each tradition and how we will weave it into our actions through specific applications. The sharing were times of openness, fellowship and mutual encouragement.

Carlos making a point

break out groups

learning by sharing

Ladeq expressing her view

I’m liking it

Besides exploring the contemplative, evangelical, social justice, charismatic, holiness and incarnational traditions, we also examined the nature and contributions of the pietist spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, and John Wesley’s teachings. We looked at how different types of personalities have preferred spiritual pathways, the spiritual disciplines, different types of prayer and how to develop a personal rule of life.

Dr Allan HarknessDr Allan lead us through stimulating discussions on various theories and several paradigms of how faith develops. Some of the stuff here includes John Westerhoff’s styles of faith, James Fowler stages of faith, and Hagberg and Guelich’s Stages in the life of faith. These are interesting stuff that I will need to process and synthesize and reflect in the context of my ministry situation.

The papers we have to do are geared towards our own growth in spirituality and faith, and that of the community we serve and Ee Yiung and Kenny at EAST officefind ourselves in. They press us into integrating the insights and new learnings into our life and ministry context. This is anytime better than doing purely theoretical stuff that does not result in real change in attitude and behavior. True knowing involves life transformation.

Meeting friends

In such courses, we do make new acquaintances occasionally, and when we meet in an intensive 7 days schedule, inevitably friendship grows, and we even discover new things and meet old friends. A new aquantance shared with me theology outside the classroompersonal anecdotes about the late Anthony Yeo that really moved me, and I said to myself, I must write at least a blog post about this great man, even though a book is more appropriate. Another pleasant bonus was meeting Ee Yiung, a member I baptized 21 years ago in the East Coast Park and with whom I keep in touch via….what else but Facebook. It was heartening to see that she has found her place in God’s economy and enjoyed the work she did for East Asia School of Theology, the Campus Crusade’s training center.

A Christian’s simple guide to voting

Who should I vote for is the question on my mind and on your minds too. Some thinking and feeling and praying should go into my vote. To help me think through, I came up with a list of criteria. If you want to use it to help you in your decision go ahead but do attach your own individual weight of importance to each of the criteria. Since I am a preacher permit me to indulge in alliteration.

Personality

Who are the candidates in the GRC or the SMC? Certainly integrity of character and ability would be an important factor in my choice. While it is difficult to assess a candidate’s character in just two weeks, the testimony of others and character references do help. The speeches and interviews may also let slip some clues. Still it is advantageous for the incumbent, and since its difficult to be fair here, I give this less weight. I just need assurance there is no major doubts about the integrity or ability of the candidates to represent me in Parliament.

Property or practical benefits

This is probably the most self-centred of all the criteria as it has to do with “what’s in it for me and my family?” PAP’s explicit and publicly stated policy is to benefit whichever constituency votes in their candidates. This behaviorist’s approach of carrot and stick in politics has served them well in the past though today’s young voters are a different breed.

Party

Another approach is simply to choose the party whose platform and values I am most aligned to and consonant with. A perfect match is unlikely but I can surely choose the party I am most comfortable with. Read their manifestos and hear the speeches will help me reach a reasonable  judgment.

Principles

This criteria is related to the one before it: specific issues and policies. Cost of living, availability of affordable housing, ministers’ salaries, the immigration and foreign worker policy, the care of the elderly and the poor, casinos and their social costs, health care, transparency of dealings of national reserves, and other such matters that fire your heart.  Certainly, how strongly I feel for or against the present state of affairs will somehow be factored into my thinking process.

Perspective

The big picture, the long term good of the whole of Singapore comes to the forefront here. It’s no longer about whether my mum gets a lift at her floor, or upgrading of the landscaping in my area. It’s about the future I want for Singapore and for my children and children’s children. Which party is more likely to bring me towards that future?

Personal convictions and values

Faith cannot be totally divorced from this. The faith or religion I have does influence what I believe to be important in life and society, and therefore it does colour how I view the world and the decisions I make, including this vote. Christianity values the integrity and righteousness; peace and harmony; truth and justice; compassion and mercy; stewardship of the earth; etc.

Personal ranking of criteria

Individual Christians will of course place different weights of importance to each of these depending on their experiences, stage in life and convictions. Ranking the factors in order of importance helps me make a clearer decision, one that I can be at peace with, one that expresses the unique “me” at this stage of my life.

Prayer and peace

It is important to pray about my vote. Prayer is not only for when I am in trouble. The vote I take can then be free from the forces that have been unleashed by all the different political parties: fear and greed (the same forces that dominate the stock market). When these primal emotions dominate your personal landscape it is difficult to make a peaceful decision. Confidence in God’s love and care provides the basis for me to enter into a restful vote. So I will talk about this with the Lord.

Further reading: The Catholic Archbishop Chia’s pastoral letter for 2011 general elections.

Making Disciples

collinsonMy main textbook was Making Disciples by Sylvia Wilkey Collinson. This is indeed a book that cries out for more readership. Well researched, readable and clear the author Sylvia Wiley Collinson has  made a significant contribution to the slowly growing literature on making disciples. Not many scholars will consider this subject weighty enough to warrant their attention, and this is sad.

The popular fare on this topic have been written by Navigators-influenced authors like LeRoy Eims, Dawson Trotman(founder), Jerry Bridges, Walt Henrichsen, Bill Hull, and  Edmund Chan. The latter two authors have written quite a bit about disciple making in a church setting but the rest write of discipling in a context that is very much independent of the church. Doing discipling one with one or with a few.

This is why I feel Collinson’s book has a place in the pantheon of classic books on discipling. The book looks at discipling in the Greece, Rome, Egypt and other cultures surrounding Israel. Then she examines discipling in the Old Testament and in each of the Gospels, Acts, and the epistles. She refines her definition as she goes along. Attention is given to the differences and changes in discipling between the gospels and after the church was formed. Then she views all her findings in the light of surveys of Australian church life and compares what she learned of discipling methodologies with recent educational research. The conclusions are not earthshaking, but give you a sense that there is much to be done in reforming educational methods of discipling in the church.It is much more than just one with one; it has to do with the whole community, with culture and values education as well.

Kenny, Dr Sylvia Collinson, Carlos

It was a pleasure to be able to discuss the content with the author as well. In lectures and in interaction inside and outside the classroom, the subject can be absorbing and exciting. Dr Collinson was able to give perspectives that come from years of research in related fields, suggesting further resources and readings in various journals and books.

The book is printed under Paternoster theological monographs and due to the niche demand, is rather expensive at $40 over. However it is worth the price and the time and effort to study and discuss it. Especially,  for those passionate about disciplemaking in the church. How I wish S.U., the Navpress, or Campus Crusade could imprint a cheaper version and make it available to a larger audience at  a lower price.