Stan's Lab

The Messianic Year An annual cycle of locally developed celebrations of key events in the biblical story, all centered on welcoming the Messiah and carrying his blessings to the world

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Could "Messianic Year" feasts replace sermons as the Church's central method of discipleship and evangelism?


Obviously not in Western cultures, but that is my point. Since feasts carry so little meaning for us, we (Western evangelicals in the last two centuries) made little use of them as we carried the gospel around the world. We planted sermon-centered churches. We have made and continue to make enormous efforts to train ministers who can prepare and deliver theologically sound sermons.


Were we doing it the hard way? We missed the fact that a huge portion of discipleship actually occurs through singing rather than preaching, and therefore we made almost no investment in local songwriters. We settled for translated songs. We also missed the fact that we were teaching pastors to preach sermons that were structured like Western sermons and were therefore mostly lost on local people since they were listening on a different wavelength. 


What if we shifted our whole approach? Hold your breath. This is a question with such staggering implications for mission and for church life that you may not believe I am asking it, but I am. I am not calling for the abolition of sermons, but I am asking whether the global Church should make a massive shift of resources away from preparing selected leaders for preaching sermons and toward preparing entire congregations to celebrate. What if we relied on composers, choreographers, poets, and storytellers instead of sermonizers? What if a core activity of a pastor was to preside as master of ceremonies over feast events that all these others put together (without preaching a sermon in the middle that might kill the whole thing)?


The "Messianic Year" annual cycle of feasts has been developed to serve as a framework for this approach to discipleship and evangelism. Basically it follows the chronological biblical storying approach, using existing Christian and Jewish holidays as the steppingstones for telling the whole story of Scripture from Genesis in January to the return of Christ at Christmas and New Year. Each feast centers on one great act of God, tells the story, and provides a local song for congregations and families to use as they reflect back on the feast for the duration of the season it launches. For example, the "Season of Power" is launched by the twin feasts of Ascension Day and Pentecost.


This is a thought experiment, untested as yet. I'll post details of the Messianic Year cycle later for discussion here if there is enough interest, but I don't want to get into those details until I know there are enough people who at least in theory buy into the basic premise of the whole thing --  in cultures that value feasts/festivals, an annual cycle of celebrations of key events in the biblical story could provide a vehicle for contextulizing the gospel and the church, introducing the Messiah to outsiders in a non-threatening way, and helping the believers mature in their understanding of Scripture and their depth of faith and joy. In other words, Christian identity would be understood, embraced, and deepened primarily through the cycle of celebrations


In case the Messianic Year sounds to you like the same thing as the liturgical year (or "church year"), it has the same core idea and the same holidays but the configuration is totally different, the mission dimension is much stronger, and the arcane feel is gone. 


In case the Messianic Year sounds to you like an attempt to put more meaning into holidays like Christmas or provide Christian substitutes for locally observed holidays such as Chinese New Year, that is only a tiny sliver of the issue I am trying to raise.



Posted by Anne on
Dear Stan
I think this is an excellent idea. The Western more rationalistic 'modernist' pulpit orientated congregation should also adapt to this. When we were in S E Asia we did do stories and we did get locals to compose songs; the first attempts turned out more like Country & Western as the guy had played guitar in Phuket night clubs before his conversion. However with a little coaching he produced much more localised tunes and set scripture verses to them.
Presently we do use 'sermons' but I still pepper them with stories, dramas, metaphors but we are in the West with a rather westernised but diaspora MBB group. They have their own songs in their own language and if we indigenous Brits speak we have to be interpreted still. They are in our nation and need to learn English! Yet I also drop in odd words from their language to 'wake them up' occasionally. I just don't have enough time to learn their language on top of a full time plus plus academic career. We do have fun and celebrate AND we teach through whatever means we can think of to disciple. They don't have much time either in their working week which is at crazy non-social hours according to our 'norms'. So we adapt and my husband uses their 'crazy' times for Bible study groups... Q&A; style. Experimentation, Adaptation, flexibility- they are the keys wherever we go cross-culturally.
Do post more ideas on the Messianic Year. We can adapt them for other cultural groups.
Thank you!
Posted by Eagle in the upwind on
Dear Stan,
thank you for your courage. I am living in a Central Asian country and some of my neighbours are Dungans. They are as far as I know the biggest islamic people group without church in their Mother tongue. I speak Russian with them and I have good relationships with them. I observe, that regular feasts shape the belief and practice of the Dungan life, this includes obviously Ramadan and the festival of sacrifice, it includes weddings and the naming of children and very, very important remembrance days of people who have died. I hope I get it right, but the have each evening after somebody died a meeting for 20 days, than day 30 and very important day 40, than one year, again very important, do not miss these two days if you Dungan neighbours. Afterwards they celebrate in smaller circles yeardays for 7 generations, so they actually go on a yearday, though they never met this person ever, for example, once my neighbour went to the 107th remembrance day, though he himself was only around 60.
The practicing of theses days shows me, that feasting can be a very decisive way in forming ethnic and religious idendity. This arguement is in favour of your suggestion.
Now, I have also to say that they listen to their preachers and that they also influence them, however, my suggested observation is: The feasting has more influence.
I ask you to publish your data and I really look forward to see it.
Eagle in the upwind
Posted by ken on
Stan -
Think you have a good idea that needs further work. While I live in USA now, I did serve in Kenya. Like many churches, the one we served with had sermon centered Sunday services. One initiative that had a positive impact was the writing of local worship songs. This was started by a South African missionary, but now is led by a Kenyan. There are many stories of how these songs have more power than translated Western songs.
The church (and missionaries) never thought of using festivals and celebrations, although they were part of local culturals: naming, harvest, death, coming of age, etc. Think we missed out lots of opportunity to integrate Biblical values.
Another reason why festivals are important is that they are interactive, and not passive like morning services around the world. As an educator, participation is a key to understand and integrate beliefs so they can become active values. The lack of participation in the USA churches means that participants are often "asked" to leave their brains at the door and just listen to an expert - deadly for the integratio process. Now I know that the Holy Spirit can work in this, but it seems we are asking the HS to work "overtime."
So let me encourage you to develop your ideas further. It is a good step, among others, that need to be taken. Blessings, Ken
Posted by Mark Oxbrow on
Thank you for your thinking on this topic Stan. I think one of the reasons I have remained an Anglican over the years and more recently spent much more time with Orthodox sisyers and brothers is because 'discipleship through lived story' is so important. We see that over and over again in the Old Testament ... "My father was a wandering Aramean ..." etc. etc. I would not be so negative about the liturgical year - it has real potential but we often fail to exploit that potential to the full.

Here in the UK we are living through a year of parties, festivals anmd celebrations and everyone has evangelistic potential. We have not done it particularely well but in our local Christian community, in addition to the usual Christmas, Epiphany, Mothering Sunday, Transfiguration, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost celebrations we have also had the queen's jubilee (opportunity to celebrate the reign of God - with a wonderful street party where we engaged with all sorts of new people), the European football tornament (opportunity to look up all the Biblical sports references, to cellebrate health and to get out into all the pubs with large screens to weep and rejoice with the wider community), then the Olympic torch relay (with some many churches organising local parties to celebrate local heros), then Wimbledon (with more parties!) and we havem't evenm started on the Olympics and para-Olymics yet! The summer also brings all sorts of festivals and it is great to see that today Christians will not only be found at the Christian Festivals (Greenbelt, Keswick, etc.) but also at the Reading Festival, Mind, Body and Spirit festivals and a lot more. On top of all this we also have our local festivals. In my community we have a great 'allotment' day out coming up soon - a cellebration of creation, fertility and God's bountiful provision.

I have extended the last paragraph just to illustrate the fact that we are not short of opportunities to cellebrate 'the story of God in our midst' . But it takes some creativity and that is where, as you rightly point out, we need local poets, musicians, jugglers, sages, architects and whoever else God has given us.

Tonight I will be working with a group of people preparing our "Big Story" for our worship on 22 July. No sermon that day but a group of us will get into role, a few costumes, adopt an accent or two and have a lot of fun telling the Big Story of God's working amongst us. Sometimes our 'Big story' is very Biblical (Jairus' daughter or Rahab) but sometimes they come from another part of God's story (Janani Lawum opposes a tyrant, or Eric Liddell rufuses to run on a Sunday) but each time we encourage everyone to enter into the story.

There is a lot more I want to write here but let's make it a conversation! I want to say that celebrations are not only happy - we need to 'celebrate' God's tears at Auschwitz on Holocaust Sunday each year, and find Christian ways to respond to the 'shrine' that grew up on our highway after four young children died in a car smash. The key I believe is 'participating in the story of God'.
Posted by Paul Butler on
This is definitely a thought worth following through. As Mark notes alongside the liturgical calendar there are within society other opportunities for celebration which engage with the whole community. The way many churches in UK have responded to the Jubilee & Olympics does highlight this. (In my diocse it has been churches who have often been the focus for these community celebrations. Another in our context is Remembrance Sunday (picking up on communal sorrow / lament)
Posted by Stan on
Thank you Anne, Eagle, Ken, Mark, and Paul. The common thread I see in your replies is that from your perspectives the real question is not whether to use feast celebrations but how to use them. I look forward to wading into that discussion with you and others next month. Meanwhile here are a few thoughts you have triggered:

Anne, in diaspora situations where learning someone else's language is not feasible and attempting to do so would be artificial, festival celebrations create a golden opportunity to bridge the gap. The local person can learn a song in the diaspora language and sing along during the festival. Usually this is welcomed as an honest attempt to identify with the diaspora people.

Eagle, I loved your "107th remembrance day" example from the Dungan people. They have maintained their solidarity via special family/community days though they lack a political homeland. We have often tried to plant churches around the world without building the solidarity of the congregation or the global church. Feasts could help us.

Ken, yes, the interactive element is so needed. Please keep beating that drum.

Mark, the liturgical year and the Messianic Year can complement each other if one of them drops its framework of seasons. Otherwise the two seasonal frameworks will clash and cause intolerable confusion to the worshipers. If the seasonal framework of the Messianic Year is dropped, I think most of the value of the idea will be lost, but I don't see any way for a liturgical church to switch to the Messianic Year seasons unless its current liturgical seasons are already inconsequential to a given congregation, as they would be for many low-church Anglicans.

Ken, Mark, and Paul, the relation of the Messianic Year to life-stage events and community and national events/holidays of various kinds will have to be worked out in each setting. However, the main question during local adaptations will be whether the cycle of the year means much or not. I'm saying it should (reasons will be clearer next month when I post it for discussion) but I'm expecting many to disagree on that point. Either way, the church should come out ahead if meaningful events are added to a particular church's calendar.
Posted by Chris on
Well, maybe not entirely REPLACE structured teaching per se, but sermons, yes. The one-way lecture format of the sermon is the LEAST effective way to communicate thoughts and ideas, whereas tying teaching into times of food and fellowship is one of the MOST efffective (that's why God set up so many feasts and celebrations for the Israelites!)
I could elaborate, but it has already been explained thoroughly by John Zens in his book, "The Pastor Has No Clothes". Go read it now.
Posted by geofftwigg on
Stan (and everybody who responded) I really think this is an idea that should gain traction. I'm anxious to hear more.
Posted by Helen Van Koevering on
Thanks for this post - so timely as I prepare to say almost exactly this as one of the reasons for the church growth we have been experiencing in recent years here in northern Mozambique, where a priest is exactly as you say - master of ceremonies over the celebration that is the Sunday service, most often the Eucharist. Church is celebration - dancing and singing have discipled the people here (with huge illiteracy and recovering from decades of war and increased poverty). We had thought it was liturgy that was drawing people (organized worship), but it is participation in celebration. Thanks.
Posted by steve on
I too love this idea. I first encountered the thoughts in a good book from M.Zimmerman, Celebrating Biblical Feasts. I hope more comes from this article.
Posted by Stan on
Thanks again to all, and apologies for taking so long to add the next level of details about the Messianic Year concept and structure.

Helen, I love that comment, "We had thought it was liturgy that was drawing people (organized worship), but it is participation in celebration." I'm going to quote you on that as I continue to work on the Messianic Year idea.

Two main developments since my last post -- 1) a brochure summarizing the idea and 2) a pilot workshop planned for Feb. 2013 to flesh out the "Messianic Year" concept among the Bassa people of Liberia. I have added a new sub-page for each one. Please go there to continue whichever discussion interests you—either the theological adequacy of the seven-season Messianic Year framework (see the brochure) or possible participation in the Liberian workshop.
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