Two Worlds Colliding

Prayer in a lecture hall at Aarhus University – twice. Even though it was at the Faculty of Theology, this is very unusual for an institution that prides itself of being secular; in a region of the world where the pursuit of reducing theology to theory has reached heights previously unheard of. Does this represent an actual thaw? That’s probably too early to tell.

I was in Aarhus for a conference on Church and Mission, celebrating the centenary of the Edinburgh 1910 conference on mission. It was in many ways a stimulating experience; exciting lectures (and lots of them), meeting new friends, networking with colleagues with common interests. Much of the theoretical input still needs to settle in my mind. But the divide between practitioners of faith and mission and academics studying the same field is an interesting concept. And try as you may, it’s not a divide that can be upheld as strictly as some might wish for. One of the strengths of the conference was that it brought together people from both areas.

There were, of course, a number of lectures of purely theoretical content; which can be interesting, no doubt about that.

But then there was the touching appeal on the first night of the conference by a bishop of the Christian minority in a Muslim country who gave a stark and de-romanticising account of the pressures and suffering taking place.

There were the American researchers presenting a methodology of studying local churches, or actually enabling local churches to study themselves with academic tools. When asked the question, what are some of the results of their research, they replied, that the local church gets a more healthy view of themselves and gets to reflect on their own mission.

And finally, there was the prayer. Controversial only for the sake of its presence. The professor was an American. It was the prelude to the morning sessions which might in other places of the world be called “bible study” or “devotional”, but here, in a secular university, it received the title “missional hermeneutics”. Of course. Very fine presentations, on both occasions.

So what’s the big deal? Well, apparently some believe that the distinction between practice and objective study should be extremely sharp. A Swedish professor voiced this opinion in his response to one of the lectures. I don’t think this holds water in the extreme sense. Of course critical discourse and reflection are important. But you can’t completely cut yourself off from practice. Would you study medicine without any hands-on experience during the education? That would be ridiculous. Yet this is an academic field. Or take my own field, Information Science. This was an academic study, but we didn’t shy away from building websites, writing software etc. during the course of this education.

But in theology, even the slightest little prayer is frowned upon by some.

Most probably, it reverts to an Enlightenment fear of the non-rational. A deep saturation of positivism; the belief that by staying detached you stand a better chance of objectively discerning the “real world”, or the “truth”. For a time, the natural sciences ruled the world, and other fields were also influenced by the view that rational truth not only existed, but was the saviour of the world. The other-worldly was excluded from rational thinking, and reduced to myth and superstition.

This, however, is no longer the case, and as early as Einstein the idea of absolute, measurable truth received its death blow. In the postmodern society people seem to be less critical of the idea of a divine existence. But many fields of study, not excluding theology, still seem to come short of embracing this.

St John

Today and tomorrow I will be in the choir, singing Bach’s Passion of St John with Aarhus Symphony Orchestra. The music is wonderful and rehearsals have gone well – with the very inspiring Paul Goodwin conducting – so I believe we are in for something special. Tonight’s concert is in the new Symphonic Hall of the recently expanded Concert Hall Aarhus. Tomorrow is in the gorgeous 12th century Aarhus Cathedral.

I love these experiences. During my time in the Jutland Academic Choir I have had the privilege of singing with the symphony on numerous occasions, including the Passion of St Matthew (Bach) Christmas Oratorio (Bach), Dream of Gerontius (Elgar), Requiem (Hindemith) and The Creation (Haydn). It is extraordinary to be a part of music performances on this level, and I look forward to adding another memory to the list tonight.

Don’t Look Back

One of the queerer Bible stories is that of the destruction of Sodom and flight of Lot and his family. They were told to leave behind that city of evil and venture forth in faith. Only, Lot’s wife lingered back – the text reads: “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” (Genesis 19:26) This text is often used in sermon-making for convincing people to move forward, trusting God. As such, it was influential in my decision to be baptised almost 10 years ago. It’s still a good point: don’t look back.

I will not look back on the things I now leave behind, questioning whether my old life was better. I will cherish the memories, sure, but not linger with pointless nostalgia. I will think fondly of my time in Aarhus (not in the least comparable to Sodom), the people I have met here, the many many good experiences, and the church I have helped build during my 9 years in Denmark’s 2nd largest city. But I will look forward, not back.

I will look forward to leaving my home country, travelling to Sydney in the middle of May. I will look forward to calling Australia home for at least the remainder of 2008. I will look forward to meeting old and new friends in Sydney and elsewhere, introducing them to Katrine, experiencing everyday life down under, and to living with my parents again for the first time since 1997. I will look forward to eventually living in Copenhagen when we return to Denmark sometime in 2009. I will look forward to not knowing exactly what the future brings but hoping for grand experiences and new challenges in the months and years to come.

How to Keep a Church Alive

Last weekend, Århus Café Church was away together on a spiritual retreat for the firstbut definitely not lasttime in our history as a church. We had lots of fun, enjoyed good music, prayer, inspiring teaching, and just hanging out together.

Regina and Juris Rekisgood friends, and founders of the church plant “Korinta” in Rigaprovided awesome inspiration and challenged the group to go out and do something for God and make a difference for Århus. The reaction is overwhelming; a great number of people have indicated willingness to be more committed, and lots of good ideas have surfaced. So the big question now is: how do we as leaders keep this flame burning?

The obvious answerwhich a friend gave me todayis that it’s not our responsibility, but God’s. As leaders we are called to do the tasks we are charged with. But so is everybody in the church. We are responsible to God, and committing ourselves to Him as leaders should be our foremost priority.

Even so, it can seem daunting. In the parable of the talents, Jesus says: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21 NIV) I feel in some ways that God is telling us: “OK, well done so far. Now let’s go to the next level.” Which is going to be fun, but challenging.

Church growth comes from the grass roots, and we have a strong and committed core of people with a passion for turning Århus Café Church into something really big. Our job as leaders will be not to stifle that passion; but to facilitate initiative, ministry, responsibility, and growth in every member. And to inspire them to continue to grow as disciples.

A great responsibility, indeed, if it were ours alone. Fortunately, it is not we as leaders who create growth, but the Holy Spirit. Paul writes: “I planted the seed. Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7 NIV)

In or Out

Århus Café Church has been growing steadily since our beginnings 6-7 years ago. People I meet often ask me how the church is going, and I tell them my version of the story: things are going GREAT; we’ve just had our first baptism, we finally have an employed ‘pastor’ who I’m sure will be the perfect match, people are committed, and attendance is still growing. But then comes another question: how many of these people are “from the outside”? And I usually cringe at the question. For even though it is asked by supporters and critics alike, it unsubtly reveals an understanding that if we don’t attract the really lost (the heathens, if you will), then what is the point? This is missing the point.

Of course we want to grow as a church and help people everywhere to meet Jesus and experience his love. People who have never done so deserve the chance. And we do, in fact, work with a target group, as most (smaller, at least) churches should. I’m not talking about proselytizing, either – that was the way of a now bygone era.

The point is that defining Christians, or any people, as “in or out” is flawed, at best, or downright rude. Whether you have a previous Christian connection is not necessarily the deciding factor in your journey with Jesus right now. Sowing the seeds and harvesting was never reserved for the same person or church. People are meeting God in Århus Café Church. They may have Christian parents, or they may not. We don’t ask. We just try to be a force of good in this city and lead people to become followers of Christ.

Doing church should not be about counting sheep – even less about discerning between black and white sheep.

The Kingdom of God is Like a Jazz Band

Last night, I went to hear Klüver’s Big Band and Cecilie Norby, performing as part of Aarhus International Jazz Festival. The concert was awesome, as I’m sure the live recording will be.

On my way back, I came to wonder if the image of jazz music could be applied to how church should be.

A feature that is more prominent in jazz than in most other genres is the celebration of the improvised solo. Isn’t this selfish, some might rightfully ask? No, I don’t believe it is. No jazz musician can do without a band, and however great the solo or the soloist, it is always best if backed by a strong band. Also, every soloist knows his place; in a jam-session it is perceived as rude if anybody abuses his position or not stands down in due time. When he does finish his solo, applause follows, and it’s time for the next solo, or back to full band.

With talented musicians, this amounts to great jazz in the art of improvisation. Knowing your place in the band, playing your solos, playing up to the other’s solos, and all the time being more interested in the end result than your own position. It’s all about making music and having a good time.

I love classical music, too, but I think I envision a church that is more like a jazz band than a choir. A church that allows for improvisation, for many different soloists, and for being happy about each others’ achievements. A church that comes together for jam session because they are passionate about the end result—living for God. And last, but not least, a church that has a good time doing it.

Casting Crowns

One of the hottest names in praise music these days is Casting Crowns, from Atlanta, GA. Tonight, they visited Århus, and I had the privilege of bringing one of my best friends to a wonderful “concert”.

And I put concert in quotation marks, for seldom do you experience prayer and preaching from the big stage at Århus Music Hall. Seldom do people give their lives to Jesus in that spot, which is the city’s main venue for classical music and entertainment (which means that I have now performed in the same venue as CC :). But this happened tonight, and I’m guessing also the night before – the concert was an extra, since the first one sold out in almost no time.

Not to say that the music wasn’t great. Casting Crowns are known for hits such as Lifesong and Who Am I, the latter played in an acoustic version that gave the audience ample opportunity to hear each other. Their music is mostly hard rock, with resemblances to Third Day and Nickelback (both personal favorites). Tonight’s set was wonderfully played; I love the feeling of being surrounded by music (this requires a volume that my neighbors usually wouldn’t appreciate). The heavy-rock, up-tempo rendering of Hillsong classic My Redeemer Lives was interesting in a good way, but for me especially “Praise You In This Storm” from Casting Crown’s self-titled first album was chilling.

What really tied the night together, though, were the heart-felt comments by band leader (and youth pastor) Mark Hall. There are no rock stars, he said, we’re here to praise Jesus. And amazingly, I believe the humility is honest. Casting Crowns are an awesome band, but they also came to Århus with a purpose – and delivered.