Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Virtual Pastor: Following a person, or a personality?

Recently I wrote an article on the subject of the Virtual Church (which you should read before moving forward with this post to see where I am coming from on certain points) and even at the time of writing it I had already been keen on future related posts. I received some interesting feedback as a result and I suspect there is more to come. Nonetheless, it would be unjust to consider that topic while overlooking the virtual pastor, who is by default a component of the virtual-church.

The virtual pastor is not a colorful vector image like those seen in computer-generated animations. Instead, he is the man whose Bible teaching is broadcasted from a church service to another predetermined location, typically a building with ample seating capacity. It is there that a congregation of believers gather infront of a screen to watch the message being given, thus forming a satellite church in the least flattering sense, if not better expressed as church via satellite.

This is a new form of pastoring, one that is hardly compatible with the biblical image of shepherding sheep. A pastor that is not present to tend the sheep is tantamount to a church not present to follow the pastor. Both are a contradiction in terms and defy the nature of their definitions (the church is a gathering; the shepherd is with his sheep).

Virtual methods may work well when they are employed by corporate America, but their regular usage in ministry only perpetuates an already unhealthy church mentality. After all, how should we expect congregants to perceive God’s design for his church when their pastor can serve them through the air waves? Or worse yet, when his job is perceived only to be the delivering of a message, the more common view of a pastor these days?

It all fails to model the personal aspect of a connected body for church life when the closest a congregation can come to their pastor is a digital image viewed from the front row. It goes against the very behavior a pastor would expect from the sheep. At this rate, a congregant may think it just as beneficial to skip service and watch online from the comfort of home. At least they’ll save on gas consumption.

This article is not a rebuke to the pastors or ministries that are making use of technology where there is no flesh-and-blood alternative and as a temporary solution to a logistical problem. I do however find much fault with, and no reason for, a pastor who broadcasts himself to another location. A church must have its own resident teaching pastor. As we will see in a future post, the virtual pastor really isn’t a pastor at all according to Biblical terms. I question both the means employed to reach this end, and the end itself.

Because this topic is rather vast in scope, I will be posting the article in a few or more segments as a mini series. No matter how tightly I may try to write it, putting everything in one post would be too long, or incomplete at best.

Following are some of the issues I intend to cover in subsequent posts. I welcome your suggestions as well.

1. The Biblical definition and function of a pastor

2. The definition and application of ‘virtual’ in ministry

3. The biblical incompatibility of the ‘virtual’ nature with the living nature of church

4. The ethical and practical problems that ensue from a ‘virtual’ ministry

5. The justifications given by some to support ‘virtual’ ministry

6. Better alternatives to the broadcasted satellite church

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Just what planet are you from, anyway?

When I was a child, I enjoyed laying down on the grass of our backyard to stare up into the deep blue sky. The smell of earth and the soothing breeze with clouds passing high above reminded me just how puny I was. It also gave me the feeling I was flying. When there were no visible clouds, it seemed like I was falling through a giant tunnel into the bottomless heavens. My imagination painted such a vivid picture that I could actually get the sensation of skydiving upwards. And it scared me.

Now that I’m older, my imagination has only intensified. With each new fascinating fact comes yet another childlike wonder. And with the advent of the internet, I can satisfy my curiosity’s deepest pondering. In fact, I often find myself going online and looking up scientific subjects because I absolutely love to discover how things work in our world and beyond. I did exactly that during a conversation I had with my wife the other day. As often happens with me, abstract subjects come to mind and I end up running with my thoughts as fast as they fire. This time, I blurted out to my wife about my amazement with the earth’s atmosphere, its rotation and its orbit.

It may seem silly that I was awestruck with the obvious and would mention it to her, but the obvious isn’t always as conspicuous as it deserves to be, and we take it for granted. Our planet basically thrives within a bubble (atmosphere) formed by gases that are retained by gravity. During the conversation with my wife I did some research to confirm my statements. She had challenged me, and I am glad she did. It resulted in some corrective discovery that yielded more facts I deemed worthy of posting. So here they are:

Our atmosphere alone performs several functions indispensable to our survival, not the least of which are:

  1. It absorbs and protects us from ultraviolet solar radiation
  2. It warms earth’s surface through heat retention, reducing temperature extremes between day and night
  3. It contains oxygen that we need to breathe
  4. Its mass is about five quintillion (5 × 10 to the 18th power or 5,000,000,000,000,000,000) kg.
  5. Its boundary with outer space, called the Kármán line, is about 100 km, or 62 miles above the earth’s surface

That is rather impressive, but did you know this terrestrial ball is spinning at over 1,000 mph, yet we don’t even notice it? It’s so smooth and silent it is as if the earth were standing still. We can’t see it or perceive it with our senses! Did you also know that…

  1. The earth is 25,000 miles in circumference at the equator
  2. It takes about 24 hours for earth to make a complete rotation at just over 1,000 mph (like a basketball spinning on a finger)
  3. The earth cycles the sun in a perfect circle with little difference between its closest and furthest point of distance to the sun
  4. The earth makes its orbit travelling at a whopping 67,000 miles per hour

These factors are huge, and yet harmonize in such a perfect balance that they furnish and protect life. There is just no chance this all could happen by chance. The only thing perhaps more amazing would be for anyone to remain unmoved by such colossal truths.

To put it in a different perspective, just imagine if gravity suddenly stopped. My childhood fears would come true with everyone and everything falling upwards into the sky.

Or what if the world stopped rotating? I mean, if it came to a screeching halt! Everything and everyone would be thrust upwards into the stratosphere like a cowboy off a mega bucking Bronco.

Or what if the earth, cruising at 67,000 miles per hour, broke off its course of orbit around the sun and just catapulted in a straight line into outer space?

The fact that this all holds together so seamlessly is simply and utterly amazing! How then could we take for granted such phenomena that are fundamental to our survival? Perhaps it is because it all happens so perfectly, so gently and gracefully that it draws no attention to itself. Yet at a closer look, we fall in awful adoration before our creator.

Indeed, the Psalmist says and we concur,

“I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Wonderful are Your works,

And my soul knows it very well.” (Psalm 139:14 NASB)

In future posts we’ll look at some of the fascinating facts about the human body and its anatomy.

Relativism’s Vacuum leaves no Tangible Reality

At first, relativism has an appeal to the newly initiated. It presents what seems to be a loophole to responsibility and freedom from the ‘bondage’ of absolutes, but it gives us nothing concrete to grasp and only imprisons more those who enter its gates. Once inside relativism, we find its landscape devoid of meaning. Its charm dwindles while gaining momentum in self-contradiction. It offers little help in dealing with an objective reality, and there is simply no end to the abstract wormhole that relativistic thinking creates. If we let it take us far enough on its destiny-less journey, we will surely be left wanting and, at best, more confused than ever in the concrete.

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is THE ONE WHO CATCHES THE WISE IN THEIR CRAFTINESS”; and again, “THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS.” (1Corinthians 3:18-20 NASB)

Modified from my reply to a reader’s comment.

The Gospel According to Elton John: Making God in his own image

On February 19, 2010, several major news publications around the world, including BBC and  The Guardian, recorded Elton John’s words as he rewrote the historical Jesus. He spoke the following irreverent words during an extensive interview with Parade magazine,

“I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems. On the cross, he forgave the people who crucified him.”

Elton’s comment has it partly right. Jesus was, and is, compassionate. He forgave those who crucified him. And yes, Jesus understood human problems better than any psychologist that has breathed the air of this planet. I might even concede his acknowledgement of Christ’s intelligence, if it really weren’t just another way to say Jesus was merely a very smart man, rather than the Son of God. And this he must say, for Jesus cannot be the Son of God and the homosexual Elton declares Jesus to be.

Christianity has been opposed, used and even misrepresented for centuries. At times political leaders romanced our faith to make a syncretistic powerplay, such as Constantine did in the fourth century. At other times war was blatantly waged against it. But in the quiet, it seems there is a trend afoot. A breed of pilgrims trying to find habitation somewhere between outright rejection of Jesus, and deceptive compromise. All or nothing is no longer a necessary equation. Why must we take Jesus or leave him as he is when we can take him, put a new face on him, and use him to our advantage?

This sick and perverted image of a homosexual Jesus comes as no surprise in light of Elton John’s aggressive gay rites tactics. Would he have said Jesus was a heterosexual? Perhaps. But only if he could have given it the right spin to make it advantageous, such as “Jesus was a straight-but-narrow-minded, unsympathetic religious fanatic.” However, because he was compassionate, understanding and forgiving, he was gay.

Such absurd and irreverently brazen remarks about Jesus, at the very least, should be challenged in the public arena. Unfortunately however, few voices have squeaked their way past the threshold of the front door of the press. Could it be that God’s people have nothing to say about it? Not likely. The problem is we usually don’t get to talk into the really BIG microphones. Those are reserved for the delusional. The label given by The Guardian to the few Christians who were heard, and justifiably outraged, was, “the Christian lobby” who is “not known for its tolerance of diverging views.”

I have a heart for the homosexual community. My intention is not to go after them, rather it is to bring balance to the table and clarity to the definitions that are so often carelessly used by liberals and conservatives alike. So at the risk of being labeled intolerant, let me say that the spin put into the statement made by the Guardian about diverging views makes it sound as if all views ought to enjoy diplomatic immunity and be held by everyone in some sort of royal honor. But what exactly is a diverging view?

According to the Oxford dictionary, to diverge is to leave the path you are traveling and then take an alternate route that goes in another direction. Now, I think diverging views can be great for sightseeing on a blue-skied Sunday when you are not trying to get anywhere in particular. But if you have a destination in mind, you can’t travel the southbound side and expect to head north. You just wont get there. Assuming, of course, that the place actually exists. The Jesus of Elton John did not exist.

There are absolutes in life, and to uphold them is not intolerant at all. It’s reasonable. We live daily by such absolutes. After all, would the math teacher tolerate a student’s view if on the exam he expressed it as 2 + 2 = 7? Nonetheless, with the direction society is heading, we may just get to the point where there is no wrong answer. To say otherwise would be intolerant.

So, to give audience to remarks like Elton John’s, and then call intolerant those who backlash, is not only intolerant in itself, but it is unfair and most especially unreasonable. It essentially says that history, and in particular the history of Jesus, is open to amendments. It assumes that opinion is just as valid as fact, even more so if it is an emotionally charged, divergent one. Folks, let’s not allow opinions to hijack the truth, no matter how famous their source.

The Virtual Church, Part One: Where is Modern Technology Leading the Church?

Modern technology has brought us virtual pets, virtual homes and virtual flowers. Yes, we can even have virtual children now. In fact, on March 5, one Korean couple was arrested for letting their real baby girl starve to death while they obsessively raised a virtual child in an online video game. It is so tragic and disturbing that it is hard to believe! But the truth is that people are losing touch with the warmth of reality, and instead, they are embracing a cold and detached alternative. And do you know what else? The church is not far behind in this trend.

Today, church-life faces a subtle threat to its overall health. It comes not as an external enemy, but an internal anomaly. It is the fast-spreading mentality of believers who would argue that faithful attendance and participation in the local body is really not important, neither for themselves nor for the whole of the local church. Their presence just doesn’t matter. As far as their spiritual health is concerned, they’ll be fine. They’ll just turn on Christian radio, or internet streaming. Maybe they’ll download an MP3 or flick through the Christian channels on cable or satellite television and just have church at home. And as far as their part of service in the fellowship, everything’s already been covered by the guys up front.

If, like so many believers do today, you view church as something passively to be observed and not actually participated in, then the case I will bring to the table in these posts will appear to be groundless. On the other hand, if you are willing to consider this topic through the lens of Scripture, you may just have to readjust not only your perspective, but also your involvement and attitude towards the body of Christ and the life of the church. Consider the meaning of church biblically. Does it ever refer to a sermon? A bible study? Even a building? Never. Certainly, these things are an essential part of church activity, but they do not constitute…the church.

The very word itself in Biblical language gives us the insight we need to remember. It is “ekklesia” and the New Testament is peppered with the word. Seventy seven times to be exact, with the majority of occurrences appearing in the Epistles. When Jesus spoke of the church in the gospels (Matthew 16:18), he referred to the universal church consisting of all true believers of every generation and in every part of the world. Location is irrelevant. In the other instances however, location is very relevant. The Apostles spoke of the church as specific groups of believers that met together in different places. To name a few, the church in Ephesus, the church in Galatia, the church in Corinth, Rome, Philippi etc. So we see that the meaning of the word has everything to do with the people who first of all are in Christ and secondly, who come together in His name somewhere locally.

In terms of definitions, church can’t be broadcasted by satellite nor can it be had from the comfort of our living room unless our living room is where the church actually meets. In many parts of the world, this is the case. Due to a citywide traffic block a couple of Sundays ago, we did exactly that for our church fellowship here in Italy. We held the service right in my living room for any who could join us, and it was a blessing. But for the people who unfortunately were too distant to come by foot, the best they could do was watch and listen online. Sure, it was better than nothing, but it was not the real thing. The real thing is active and not passive, it involves the rich blessing of ones presence where there is a warm touch. It is face-to-face fellowship and breaking of bread together. Handshakes, hugs, and sharing a laugh. Bottom line, it is a gathering. And that is the meaning of  ekklesia. So when a person says, “Let’s just watch online and have church at home,” what they mean is let’s listen to the message. A message is good, but it is not church.

Why nitpick over such terms? Because meaning matters folks. And our understanding of these things will determine how we live our lives. Those who think church is just listening to a sermon are not only an ocean’s distance from the Biblical meaning of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19), but they are very close to robbing themselves and the local church of the rich blessings and fruit God intends to produce through their presence and their participation. Both are vital, neither can be virtual.

For part two of The Virtual Church series, click on this link “The Virtual Pastor.” Or in the meantime just give the subject some thought. What do uThink about the direction modern life is taking the church?

Synagogues and Social Classes: Life in the Jewish ghetto of Venice

As the promised follow up to my last post “Antisemitism 400 Years Before Hitler“, here is part three of the mini-series on Jewish life in 16th century Venice, Italy. The amazing and disturbing web of persecution in the history of this people group only spins larger and more complex the further back you go in time. For the purpose of this series, we’ll stop at the 15th century with the incredible impetus that brought the Jews to Venice in the first place. Can you guess what it was?

Casa di Riposo Israeletico "Israelite Guest House"

Casa Israelitica di Riposo "Israelite Guest House" in Campo del Ghetto Nuovo "Square of the New Ghetto". Click to enlarge the image.

History repeats itself indeed. One easily loses count of the times the Jews were tossed about by waves of antisemitism. In 1492, the Spanish king Ferdinand the Catholic issued a decree which drove all Jews out of Spain, forcing them to emigrate to Venice. Hence the influx of Sephardic Jews (from Spain) in the ghetto. The smaller group was Ashkenazic, (Jews from Germany) who were actually the first to settle in Venice. Although they shared the same space and the same faith, they were not viewed or treated the same by all. Distinctions in social classes soon created separation between them. The differences due to the influences of the cultures they had previously inhabited brought factions to their worship services as well.

They chose to worship separately, and this birthed the need for a second synagogue to house the Sephardic clan. Because of their lucrative connections to traders in Spain, the Sephardics received special privileges from the state that afforded them a much larger construction for their synagogue with more elaborate decor and architecture, in addition to other perks in the community. This becomes very evident as you tour and compare them. As they say, money makes the world go around. Eventually another three synagogues were built, making a total of five. These served as schools during the week where Rabbis taught the children at the Schola Canton and the Levantine.

Memorial built by Greece for the Holocaust

Memorial for the Holocaust victims. Jews were gathered in this area to be exported to concentration camps. Click to enlarge the image.

Our favorite memory from the tour of the Ashkenazic synagogue was when our ascetic friend read the Hebrew words spanning across the top of the bema, under which the Torah would be read. “Never before have I seen such beautiful wording in our synagogues” she blurted. We asked what it was. “Remember whom you stand before” she answered. And then with her eyes as wide as an excited child, she added, “That’s God!”

Just below the same arch hangs a little light, called “The Eternal Flame”. It represents the flame constantly tended to by the priests in the early tabernacle built under Moses’ leadership.

Starting with only 700, the Jewish community grew to approximately 5,000 in one century, with many forced to run pawn shops and work in the open market. Today it is estimated that there are only 1,200 left. The Jewish ghetto of Venice is reported to be the first in the world and its synagogues are among the oldest in existence. In addition, there is a Rabbinic school where many from America attend to study the Talmud.

Well friends, that concludes my mini-series about the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, Italy. I hope you have enjoyed reading these posts as much as I have enjoyed writing them. Sometime in the future I’ll be sure to post more on these and other related subjects. Keep checking in at uThinkology.

Antisemitism 400 years before Hitler

In a recent post, “An Amazing Day in a Jewish Ghetto,” I promised to write more about the synagogues we toured and the history of the Jewish people living in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, Italy, during the 16th century. Several things stood out to us among all that we heard and saw, but the most surprising fact was that antisemitism did not begin with Hitler’s cruel and tyrannical campaign.

Jewish Ghetto, Venice

Center Square in the Jewish Ghetto, Venice, Italy

Although one could argue that prejudice against the Jewish people began the day God chose Abraham, we find a definite starting point for Italy’s history. In 1516, the Senate of the Republic of Venice and a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church, ordered the Jews to live together, segregated and away from the city center. The area they were forced to occupy was known as getto, a Venetian word meaning “foundry” where metal was cast. This is where our modern word ghetto was coined, and the reason it has the connotation of a neighborhood where minorities dwell. Click the photo on left to enlarge it.

Forced to live behind metal gates, they would be locked in at nighttime. Only the Jewish doctors could come out after the evening curfew. During the day, everyone had to wear red or yellow hats so they could be identified as Jews in public. They were forbidden to take part in construction work, for all the builders had to be part of a guild, and no Jew was deemed worthy according to the non-Jewish. It wasn’t until Napoleon arrived and took charge of the city in 1797 that the gates were removed and the Jews were permitted to move about freely. Still, they did not enjoy full integration until the late 19th century.

In my next post we’ll look at just a few more interesting details regarding the Jewish synagogues and the social classes that caused them to divide. If you think you’d like to receive notice when that or other new posts come out on uThinkology, you can easily subscribe here on the side bar to the right.