Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Retiring from Evangelism

I am done trying to convert people from the old ways – it is time to live into the new ways.

Nearly 20 years ago I attended the Billy Graham School of Evangelism and even over the last 10 years, as my faith has changed, adapted, expanded, and evolved, I have labored to help those who wanted a bridge to a new kind of faith.

In the past, I have held a deep sense of obligation to help those who were asking questions to get a sense of how things were assembled … or for those who were in transition to find a landing spot for their new conviction.

I didn’t want anyone to get left behind. We live in a time of constant change and fluid social settings. I always tried to account for various perspectives and to give a generous a framework as I could imagine.

I am satisfied that I have done that well.

No longer will my primary concern be explaining the faith and providing access points for those who want to understand. I have left a substantial bread-crumb trail for those who are looking to migrate.

Starting in 2019 my primary concern will be professing faith that works in the 21st century and postmodern context.

I am retiring from evangelism and moving to profession – from apologist to professor.

It takes a lot of energy to account for and attend to the various perspectives and then to frame them and present them in a way that any genuinely interested person could gain access. It has been a wonderful 10 years and it has been a very formative experience.

I will now put my energies toward a constructive and innovative project where my primary concern will not be translating or explaining for those who believe a different way … but professing a forward-leaning faith for those who are interested.

I am done trying to convert people from the old ways – it is time to live into the new ways.

Here is the upside: because Protestantism (in general) and Methodism (in particular) provide me an already assumed structure  – complete with content, praxis, and institutional frameworks … I will be free to play off of the as-is always/already and put my energy into the:

  • Playful
  • Irreverent
  • Creative
  • Poetic
  • Whimsical
  • Melodic
  • Critical
  • Ironic (and at-times)
  • Transgressive

I am moving from being a builder who feels obligated to provide a constructive apparatus for those who are migrating and need a completed faith that they can live in (which is now available), to an artisan or song writer or analyst.

This is a big shift for me.

I have spent the last 10 years honoring, explaining, translating, and mediating between the Evangelical world of my upbringing and the new constructive, philosophical, and diverse approaches of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Those who have wanted to make the migration have largely done so – I leave them to be the new translators, practitioners, and guides. Evangelicalism has changed even more than I have in the last 10 years. It has become something in its contemporary manifestation that I barely recognize from my youth. [1]

I have thought about this long and hard. I am at peace with this change. I am confident of the timing. The reality is that Evangelicalisms is a closed-system (or what system theory would call a ‘bounded set’). It is has its own borders, its own gatekeepers/guards, and its own internal logic.

I will still be available to help those who are genuinely asking for clarification but I am retiring from the business of attempting to convert anyone.

I want to thank you all for the support and feedback during this journey. If you unsubscribe, I bless you and wish you well. If you choose to continue on, buckle up … some changes are in store.


[1] Evangelicalism (and its charismatic offspring) has its own operating system (based on inerrancy) where the Bible becomes a science text book, a history book, a counseling manual, a financial spreadsheet, an explanation of world religions, a road-map to the future, and guide the end-times/afterlife . The evangelical operating system is incompatible with nearly any other program that you might seek to run. It is an all-or-nothing- machine.

Excited about Easter: resurrected faith

Across N. America, the two largest groups of people who are reclaiming their faith are traditionally parents of little ones who are settling down and putting down roots – and those who are finding a different version of faith in a new community or expression.

Various labels are often assigned to this second group: unchurched, post-christian, or the ‘nones’. However one classifies this trend, this category is often populated by those who were raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical or even mainline tradition and have walked away.

The faith of their upbringing either doesn’t fit, doesn’t make sense or just isn’t useful anymore.

But then something happens.

The trigger may be a crisis or an unsatisfied hunger or the birth of child. Whatever initiates the change of season is not predictable. What is predictable, however, is that in a search for a community or church there is a tangible desire to connect with a vibrant but thoughtful expression of ones faith.

In my dual-role at the church, I am in a unique position to see both groups

  • finding something lost
  • connecting with something deep
  • awakening to something new

There is something so refreshing and hopeful about finding a spiritual community where you can plug-in to ministries that are making the world a better place and you don’t have to check your brain at the door.

As the Minister of Children, Youth and Families I have seen dozens of young families tie into the life of the church community through the liturgical Sanctuary worship. It brings great joy to my heart to watch their little one get settled into the nursery, Pre-K or Sunday School routine and know that their child has a spiritual home that will nurture them and facilitate that child’s growth into a mature believer who can intelligently embrace a faith that will carry them for the rest of their life. Touch screen mobile phone, in hand

As the co-Pastor of the Loft I have heard dozens of stories from people who had walked away from faith and who have seen that faith resurrected in our unique environment filled with coffee, couches and conversation.

As someone raised evangelical, I confess that it makes my heart sing to hear stories of resurrected faith!

I don’t apologize for my inherited soft-spot toward stories of renewal and awakening.

Many people have stories of reclaiming their childhood faith but have no interest in continuing to hold onto childish ideas. Our faith is supposed to be child-like but the 21st century requires that it be thoughtful and vibrant.

Heading into Easter this year, I have been thinking about all of the young families who have dusted off their commitment to a faith community as well as those for whom faith had all but died, and how for both this Easter is going to seem especially meaningful.

It is an exciting time to be at a church that is committed to issues of justice, thoughtful in its approach and expanding its ability to connect with the community.

Whether it is an awakening of a dormant faith or the resurrection of something that had completely died, faith is being renewed in the life of the church.

We are an Easter people and that means we are always coming into new life.

I pray that you are as encouraged and excited as I am in the lead up to Easter. 

Post-Contextuality : Evangelism and Missions must change

by Bo Sanders
posted at Ethnic Space

Contextual theology was the subject of my Master’s thesis.*  I was, and continue to be, enthralled with the possibility that the gospel could be uniquely expressed in every culture in a manner that was both authentic and indigenous to that group’s place and time. Lamin Sanneh goes so far as to say that it is the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian religion and that unlike Judaism, Islam, Hindu and Buddhist traditions there is no language, place, culture or time that is inherently superior for expressing the gospel.  In Whose Religion Is Christianity: the Gospel Beyond the West, he has it like this:

Being that the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are translated versions of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scriptures well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark: the church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it…  Since Jesus did not write or dictate the Gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message. (Sanneh p. 97)

When I wrote the thesis, I had yet to really encounter liberation or post-colonial thought in depth. My interest in contextualization arose from being a church-planter in a Missionary denomination. I did not realize at the outset of the project just how strong the critique contextual theology brought to classical (traditional) approaches. Since then I have engaged de-colonial, feminist, liberation, post-modern, and pluralistic voices that have even harsher critiques.

I keep circling back, however, to a much simpler concern: the practice of the church.

It is in this concern of practice that I have stumbled onto – and now stumble over – a haunting inconsistency between our thought and our practice.

The irony is thick. In my experience, those who are most excited about missions and evangelism are quite fond of the Bible. They often reference the Bible and even say things like “In the Bible” as a validation for doing something a certain way or “that’s unbiblical” as criticism of something.

Yet, never in the Bible do you see anyone intentionally learning another language in order to present the gospel. In the Bible, God repeatedly used dual-citizens and bi-lingual folks to get the message out. In the book of Acts we see three examples:

  • a miraculous bridging of the language barrier at Pentecost
  • the Ethiopian eunuch was a bi-lingual traveler who took something back to his ‘home’ in Africa
  • Saul/Paul was a dual-citizen who took the message to the Roman Empire

That, it seems to me, is the Biblical model for missions. (This is true whether or not one translates the Great Commission as the imperative “Go” or the more passive Greek rendering of “as you are going”. The precedent of Acts is the same.) The Biblical model is very different than the Colonial model we are so familiar with.

The past 5 centuries have had their effect – but now that the whole world is ‘mapped’ and ‘spoken for’, maybe its time to move away from the colonial obsession with conversion and trust the bilingual and dual-citizens among us to translate to and for their cultures. We would need to repent of our compulsion to import ourselves into foreign peoples or countries and then impose our cultural expectations on them.

In a global era it is time to stop importing and imposing our cultural entrapments into alien environments and presuming that we know what is best for them. There is enough migration, travel, immigration and cultural exchange that we can now trust God that this will happen in the right time and in the right way – without us taking matters into our own hands any longer and asking God to bless our efforts. The era of elaborate organizations for foreign missions needs to come to an end.** They are unbiblical – and I think they always have been – but now they are also inappropriate for our age.

 The move toward contextual theology helped me see that we have to move beyond contextualization in missions and evangelism. The Colonial era was an ugly one for the church and we need to move out its methods – not just for the word’s sake but because it undermines and  discredits the very message we are trying to convey through it.  

*different groups utilize different forms of contextualization – Catholics tend to call the process ‘inculturation’ for instance, others use a similar move called ‘indigenization’.

** I know dozens of missionaries and understand that they are passionate. I mean no harm to any one of these folks that I care so much about. I have delayed putting this out for more than a year out of my concern for their feelings.

Interesting thought

I had the privilege of being a part of a group called Arrow Leadership [link]. I also got to attend a Young Leaders gathering held by the Laussanne movement [link].

as Laussanne prepared for a massive gathering in South Africa last month, Carson Pue, the president of Arrow, wrote an interesting little article about it. He said that he thought there was a message that the Canadian and American leaders needed to hear.

The essence of the message is this: discipleship in other parts of the world are outdoing us in commitment, effort, sacrifice and effectiveness in sharing Christ with the lost. They look at us and see our significant human and financial resources being used to reach the ‘once churched’ and to feed the voracious appetite of Christians for conferences, books Continue reading “Interesting thought”

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