Can Ruth Help With Race?

The book of Ruth is one of the great literary stories in the Old Testament. While it might be a short story, it is a brilliantly constructed piece of literature that involves love, tragedy, and hope. It is packed with subtlety, meaning, and is masterfully written. And as I’ve been preaching through this wonderful book I’ve noticed how this story may well help us when we talk about race, ethnicity, and cultures.

It is in the introduction where this cross-cultural theme is raised. Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons move away from God’s Promised Land to Moab. In crossing the Jordan River they arrive in a foreign land, with a foreign people, who worship foreign gods.

Here tragedy strikes.

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Elimelech dies; seemingly before his time. And Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women.

And so, the author constantly references ‘Ruth the Moabitess’ as the story progresses. This action to marry women of Moab is not seen as a good thing. Given the historical context of the story these marriages, and the decision to leave the Promised Land, is a rejection of the promise-keeping, covenant-bound relationship with God. It is an act of disobedience.

The issue here in the book of Ruth is one of fidelity.

It is an issue of faithfulness.

The promise-keeping, covenant-bound marriage between God and his people is being broken through (1) a lack of trust in God’s provision and (2) what is more than likely a drifting into worshipping of other gods, rather than worshipping YHWH, the Lord God.

Any infidelity through other gods from foreign nations is considered a breaking of this promise-keeping, covenant-bound marriage between God and his people.

There is a constant refrain in the Old Testament of God having a people he calls his own. This is biblical Israel. This is those who are to trust and obey him with their hearts and actions.

Yet, the Old Testament also speaks of the people of God accepting and including the outsider, the foreigner, into the family of God. Israel is to refrain from oppressing the foreigner and provide justice for them, incorporating them into their festivals, celebrations, and sacrifices and offerings. They are incorporated into the people of God and to be treated as such (Leviticus 17:8-9; 18:26; 20:2; 22:18; 24:16, 22; Deuteronomy 10; Numbers 15:14).

God’s people are to be concerned and care for them just as they are to care and be concerned for their own people.

And so there is this balance. God wants his people to remain his people, while also being open to the outsider, the foreigner.

The author of Ruth highlights the disobedience of this particular family but across the story shows the significance of this particular foreigner. Ruth the Moabitess is to be the person in whom God fulfils his promises and plans; leading to salvation and redemption for all nations.

As we sit here today–post-Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection we understand the gospel continues to have a radical challenge for us in terms of cross-cultural relations.

As Ephesians 2:11-22 reminds us,

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” 

It seems to go without saying that of all people Christians are not to be people who are racist or ethnically monochrome.

First, we understand that all people are created by God and made in his image.

Not much more needs to be said, other than this is a foundational truth for us as believers. Those we sit next to at work, those we play sport with on the weekends, those we interact with in our street, are all people created by God and are his image-bearers. Genesis 1-2 outlines the imageo dei for us, a crucial understanding of who we are as persons.

Second, we understand that the gospel is for all races, nations, tribes, and ethnicities.

Paul writes in Galatians 3:27-29,

For those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.

The promises of God, and the good news of what God has done in Christ, is open to all people. This is leading to a time when people of all nations and tribes and ethnic groups will worship God together. Revelation 7:9-10:

After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

 Salvation belongs to our God,
who is seated on the throne,
and to the Lamb!

Third, we understand that God’s people, the Church, is made up of people from all nations and tribes and tongues.

There isn’t a flattening of cultures and ethnicities into one monochrome Christian culture. Rather, the Christian church becomes a deeper and more diverse faith because of the worship of God through cultures and ethnicities worshipping God in ways they understand.

God, in his wisdom, has provided a church that is multi-ethnic; and we as the people of God are to reflect that multi-ethnicity in our local communities of faith.

And fourth, we understand that we are to go and tell; to share this message of racial inclusivity to all nations and cultures.

The mission of his church is to show the gospel and the Christian faith isn’t a nationalistic faith, a ‘white-man’s faith’, or a Western faith.

It is good news for all people of all cultures at all times.

When we read the opening of Ruth we may have lots of questions around this issue of Ruth being a foreigner. Why does it seem so significant? But really, the surprise comes in that she is included into God’s family. In a similar way to Abraham, she is a person who accepts God by faith, and in doing so is accepted by God.

I wonder, I just wonder, whether Ruth can help us in our understanding of others…?

Recently Read: October 2017

I’ve ploughed through a few books recently. I was hoping to write more detailed reflections on them, but alas, I’ll have to do with these summaries for the moment.

Recently Read - Oct 2017

Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love In The Church As A Celibate Gay Christian by Wesley Hill

This is an excellent book. It really outlines a clear and attractive theology of Christian friendship. Friendship, true Christian friendship, and what that means and looks like, is not often talked about in church. This book does a great job describing a vision for friendship that is separate to small talk and serving together in some form of ministry. It is about hospitality, love for the other, and the elevating of friendship to a similar level as we evangelicals enjoy elevating marriage. It really is a profound book with plenty of ideas about how we can be better friends and provide opportunities for friendship in the life of the Christian. Unfortunately, some readers will be put off by the author being gay, celibate, or Christian. In some respects it doesn’t matter how he labels himself, he gives a good treatise on friendship and is a valuable read.

Here I would love to include a couple of quotes, as I underlined heaps of the book, but it was so good that I gave the book away to a close friend. Ironic.

Disappearing Church by Mark Sayers

This seems to be the best I’ve read from Sayers. He pinpoints culture, analyses the way churches have sought to be relevant to culture, and then calls for a coming back to Word and prayer for the Christian and the Christian church. It is excellent in its cultural analysis and provides plenty of food for thought in how to live in a post-Christian, secular society. His main point is that we should be seeking to have a resilient faith, built upon understanding the Word and seeking God in prayer. You can read a more detailed reflection on Disappearing Church here.

The Glue: Relationship As The Connection For Effective Youth Ministry by Mike Stevens

Read this post for a fuller reflection on the book.

As I wrote in an endorsement for the book:

“Whether you are leading a youth ministry in a small or large church The Glue is worth reading and reflecting on. Mike helps you understand the bigger picture of relational discipleship as well as providing detailed ideas to help your youth ministry move forward. This balance is fleshed out further through focussed questions at the end of each chapter, which were certainly helpful for me in processing what I was reading. The Glue is definitely worth reading.”

Discipleship by Mark Dever

Here’s a little book that helps anyone wishing to improve their discipling of others. The obvious case for making disciples is made and then the ‘how-to’s’ are provided. Because I’ve read a lot of Dever, and this kind of discipleship, then I understand how to go about it. For those who are unsure this is a good primer and will provide the foundations and the practical. It’s really as easy as meeting with someone, opening the bible with them, and simply talking and listening to one-another. This should really be a standard text for anyone wishing to disciple/mentor/coach or whatever you want to call it. If I was running an internship or ministry apprenticeship this would be on my reading list.

Here It Is: Coaching, Leadership and Life by Paul Roos

This was a fantastic biography by Paul Roos and gives insight into his coaching and leadership principles as an AFL coach. The fact that I enjoy sport and listening to Roosy on the radio helped me to buy the book in the first place. I kept seeing clear applications to youth ministry in much of his approach so I wrote a little something on that too. Go there for further details about the book.

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

I made it through to the 100 page mark and called it quits. It is a well regarded memoir, highlighting the racism and casual racism of Australians in the 1980s to today. I’ve got no criticism of the book, I just didn’t enjoy it and wondered where it was heading.

Strange Days: Life In The Spirit by Mark Sayers

This was full of cultural analysis, as per usual from Sayers. Strange Days is more about living in the tension of the world but seeking to be set apart from the world as a believer. The book examines the biblical text of what it means to live in exile, what it looks like to live in the world today, and then how to think as a Christian in these tension-heightened days. Like Disappearing Church, which I preferred, it is full of ideas, analysis, and application.

Lion by Saroo Brierley

What a memoir! This is the story of Saroo, who became separated from his mother at five years of age. He became lost in Calcutta and was eventually adopted by an Australia couple in Hobart. The story is just phenomenal. It’s an emotional rollercoaster at times, but written in a very positive and encouraging way. It’s a must read. You may have already seen the movie. I haven’t.

What have you read recently?

Disappearing Church by Mark Sayers

I’m not even a fanboy but it seems I have found myself reading everything Mark Sayers has written. OK, not ‘Vertical Self’, but ssshhhhh. Anyway, his books make me think and for that reason alone I find them useful.

disappearchurch

Over a month ago I finished reading his book, ‘Disappearing Church’. And perhaps it’s because he writes as someone living in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, or because I need a simplified version of various cultural and philosophical ideas, I find myself wrestling with his ideas. My understanding of what Sayers says in this book is that the church needs to be less concerned about being culturally relevant, and build greater resilience and understanding in the Gospel and who it (the church) is. This is in order for believers to be able to live as a minority in today’s secular world, being and producing resilient lifelong disciples of Jesus.

Early on Sayers states his aim for the book,

“This book will argue that we cannot solely rely on the contemporary, Western church’s favoured strategy of cultural relevance, in which Christianity and the church is made “relevant” to secular Western culture. Instead we need to rediscover gospel resilience. To walk the countercultural narrow path in which we die to self and re-throne God in our lives as the supreme authority…Living with gospel resilience in the corrosive soil of Western culture requires a posture of living as a creative minority. Throughout history God has replenished cultures, through the witness of minorities of believers who hold true to their beliefs while blessing the surrounding culture. It is to this position we must return.” (Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church, 12)

The book is broken into two parts.

The first is similar to his other books where he examines culture. In Disappearing Church Sayers focusses on dissecting what a post-Christian culture looks like. He makes the case for how Gnosticism and the self has become central to Western thinking. He also writes at length about how the church of the past few decades has been seeking to stay relevant to culture. This effort has resulted in the poor effort of liberalism, millennials leaving the church in droves, and sustained modern criticism of the Christian worldview in society.

In part two Sayers pivots to show what a resilient faith looks like. This resilience is rooted in a deep faith centred in the Word and prayer. A fair amount of time is spent on acknowledging that we live in such an individualistic society and self-centred world that what Jesus calls for is in direct opposition to this. The aspects of grace given to believers, and the call of God to deny yourself in love and sacrificing for others are two examples of a counter-culture faith. This leads to an understanding that God is not a bit player in life, but the centre of it all. To follow Jesus means He is made central to every aspect of life. He becomes the heartbeat of life and makes life relevant to us. Therefore, in acknowledging the grace of God we are to subordinate ourselves under his Lordship. Essentially the biblical call of following and obeying. As he writes,

“To be shaped by grace in a culture of self, the most countercultural act one can commit in the third culture is to break its only taboo: too commit self-disobedience. To acknowledge that authority does not lie with us, that we ultimately have no autonomy. To admit that we are broken, that we are rebellious against God and His rule. To admit that Christ is ruler. To abandon our rule and to collapse into His arms of grace. To dig deep roots into His love. We don’t just need resilience; we need gospel resilience.” (Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church, 76)

This is an excellent book and I don’t think I can do it justice in 700 words. I appreciated the ideas, of which there are plenty. Of all of Sayer’s books I have found this most helpful. I believe he helps the church navigate a post-Christian culture and live as deeply rooted, faithful, followers of Jesus. In essence, he is calling people back to the historical faith, to be diligent and disciplined in seeking after God through the Word and prayer. Jesus is to be relevant in private and in public, the centre of individual faith and their church communities.

I would highly recommend the read.

11 Things: Church Culture And Politics

Depending on what kind of day I’m having I might be able to brush off the niggle that is church politics or I might get really cynical and let my frustration out to those around me.

Unfortunately, like any workplace, organisation, or business (for profit or not), churches have politics. As a Youth Pastor it is important to be aware of this reality and be able to deal with it in a healthy manner.

When you start as a Youth Pastor you walk in pretty blind to what the higher echelons of church management deal with. Whether it be a pastoral team, the leadership team (elders and deacons), or even a ministry area (youth, families, childrens, mens, womens etc.) it takes time to grow in understanding of the culture of the church and its leadership.

Before we unpack the main areas of church politics a Youth Pastor needs to deal with there are three important caveats worth mentioning:

(1) There are many good and well-meaning people who do not seek to be involved in church politics but because of the church’s culture they can’t help it. With leadership and responsibility comes with it certain parameters and a certain culture. Even a new person to a leadership role can be swept along without realising they’re in the middle of some sort of politicking. I don’t believe most church members seek to be part of a team that is dysfunctional or unhealthy in this way.

(2) Talking about the topic of church politics brings with it a negative tinge. Not all politics in a church is bad, sometimes it is necessary. But even using the term ‘politics’ in the church setting conjures up ugly and dysfunctional images.

(3) I, like everyone else, bring my own set of assumptions and experience to church and its leadership. I recognise that growing up as a Pastor’s Kid, where church was all-consuming, has impacted me more than I probably realise. Seeing, hearing, and knowing what churches are like at every level and observing how they operate from a young age provides a unique insight, for better or worse.

With that said, it is worth outlining a few points about what to be aware of when settling into the Youth Pastor role, particularly as a ‘newbie’ or in a new church.

First, you are being watched by everyone.

The Youth Pastor role is an unbelievably important and strategic role in the church. I believe this to be the case. But it is also a role where you are being watched – your character, your interactions with people, your words, and your actions. Everything. Even before you step into the congregation for your first Sunday people already know of you and have certain expectations about what you will bring to the church. They will watch you from day one and will continue to do so throughout your tenure.

Second, people will talk about you.

Just realise that people will talk about you without you there. They will talk about your personality, about the actions in leadership you take, about what you wear on a Sunday, about how you relate to the ‘young people’, about how you make conversation with them, and what your family is like (if you have one). Hopefully, when they do speak of you they will speak kindly and positively, but don’t be surprised if there are some negative critiques too.

Third, many people believe they can do your job.

While you have been brought in for the Youth Pastor role there will be plenty of people who believe they can do your job. So, you will find people coming up and suggesting the best way forward in various ministries you’re responsible for. This could be anyone from the 15-year-old in the youth group, the new leader on the team, the parent who isn’t happy with what’s going on, or even the Senior Pastor who was a Youth Pastor 20 years ago and doesn’t believe things have changed that much. This is not to say that input from others is not valid, it most certainly is! But, that feedback and word of input needs to be sifted and thrown back and forth with other leaders in the ministry area. This is why it’s important to have a team of leaders.

Furthermore, this is why it is also important to work out what you believe is the best strategy for reaching young people, what you’re focussing on, and what that looks like in the week-to-week. Discerning this occurs through your relationship with Jesus, prayer, reading about youth ministry, experience, conversations with other pastors, and with the volunteer leadership team.

Fourth, you will not please everyone.

The quicker you come to terms with this realisation the better for your own emotional health. While those first 12-18 months will generally be quite ‘honeymoonish’ there will come a time where you will begin to hear what people are really thinking. This is where the fun begins. This is where people believe they know you, you’ve been around long enough to build some trust (hopefully), you may have implemented a few little changes here and there, and now feedback on what is actually happening begins to rear its head. In this stage you will find people have strong ideas (refer to my third point) but will also want to see the success of what you’re wanting to achieve too. At this point change may be easier but negative feedback will also come. Being clear on where the youth ministry is headed will make this easier.

Fifth, your ministry is not solely about teenagers.

You’d think that the term ‘Youth Pastor’ would sum up what you do, working with teenagers. This isn’t the case. In reality you are the pastor to the youth but also have working relationships with many of parts of the body. While the youth ministry and the young people is one aspect to your role other important relationships include the Senior Pastor and other colleagues, parents, the church leadership team, other ministry leaders, young adults and other volunteer leaders, just to name a few. With the role comes the actual task of delivering a youth ministry but this all occurs within the context of the wider church. For example, this means when seeking to set dates for the youth ministry you need to take into mind the rhythm of the church and important dates for other ministries of the church. An example that comes to mind for me is setting a Youth Leaders Retreat at the end of the year. I could just put a date down and run with it but I am conscious of where the church meetings are, what the lead up to Christmas means for various church activities, when people are on the music team for Sunday mornings, and the like. The ministry you’re responsible for works within the context of the rest of the church.

Church culture and church politics are something to be aware of when you’re a Youth Pastor. I wish I had known more about his when I first stepped into a paid gig. It can be hard stepping into a church leadership position believing you must get on with everyone, being their best friend. At the end of the day you can’t be, but you can be a leader who takes the responsibility of their position seriously and show others how to ‘do’ youth ministry in a healthy manner.

It is important to do the work God has called you to as you lead the youth ministry. Keep your head down, fight the battle worth fighting for, and pray about the church constantly. Don’t go about injecting yourself into things that you don’t have any influence over but help those around you lead well. Make sure you keep your heart and conscience clear, don’t let any relationship breakdown or uncomfortable church politics fester so you become bitter. And fix your eyes on Jesus, be generous in grace, and hold firm to the Gospel for yourself and those around you.


A while ago I wrote a post about what I wished I knew when entering youth ministry. This is part eight of a series dedicated to elaborating each of those eleven points. You can read part onepart twopart threepart fourpart five, part six and part seven here.

Reverse Culture Shock

Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock?

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Photo: Pavel Ševela

Reverse culture shock is where you’ve spent time in another culture and when you came back to your home country you found it hard to deal with the lifestyle and worldview you once had.

A good friend of mine recently came back from overseas after working in a third world country for three months. Now that she’s back many of the things that used to be important are no longer – the wealth of our lifestyles now seem exorbitant, the way we do things don’t always seem the best, and what we complain about are really just #firstworldproblems.

I remember after living in the Middle East for two years coming back to Australia and being paralysed as I stood in front of the supermarket shelves trying to choose what type of diced tomatoes would be best for the bolognese. What stunned me was the availability and options of all these different types of food with all these different brands. All I wanted was diced tomatoes!

It’s amazing how travelling can broaden the mind and give new perspectives on life and priorities. And while reverse culture shock is not something people wish for it is something that regularly happens after experiencing life in another culture. On one hand there does come a point where people “get over” the culture shock, but it’s also important to realise and hold on to what you’ve learnt from your time there.

What have you learnt from living in or observing another culture?