Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas is not worth fighting a "war" over

Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Merry Christmas.

There, I said it.  Now, let's get on with getting over ourselves, shall we?

Because frankly, if there is a "War on Christmas", its genius is not that it undermines the foundations of our faith, because it does no such thing.  No, its Satanic genius is that it gets the church engrossed in a futile sideshow, when we ought to be laser-focused on the main event.

Let's admit it:  when we agonize over the erosion of our favorite Christian holiday, our complaint is not really about the world's rejection of Christ, but rather about the loss of our favored place in our surrounding culture.

Yes, we are no longer the cool kids at the party.  And this surprises us ... why?

Put another way, if we truly understood what it meant to live as foreigners and exiles in the world, we would expect the world to try to marginalize us, and recognize that Christmas itself isn't really the point.

Moreover, fighting this "war" over it takes our eye off the ball:  the incredible, historical, world-changing, life-changing Incarnation of God's own holy Son; the mind-blowing truth that Christ was made flesh to redeem us from the fires of hell; the Gospel of Christ.

The ministry of which is--by the way--our mission on earth.

What's not our mission on earth?  The defense of a favorite holiday--even one pregnant in Christian meaning (er, sometimes).

I have become increasingly convinced that the War of Christmas is clever feint by the Enemy, one at which misguided Christians charge headlong and foolishly, wasting much precious time and energy.  It is our very own Hamburger Hill--a meaningless objective upon which we spend our blood and treasure.

We do this because we have lost sight of the most meaningful, God-ordained objective imaginable--the ministry of the Gospel--that Gospel which is rooted in the reality of Emmanuel, God with us.

That is to say ... not Christmas, but Christ!

Put simply, God did not call the church to defend the ancient historical circumstances that conspired to convert a polytheistic Roman festival into the church's favorite commemoration--the organized celebration of which is, at best, biblically ambiguous.

No, beloved, let us not get distracted with the Enemy's sideshow about Christmas.  Rather, let us be rooted in the reality of the Incarnation of Christ!  Let us be witnesses to the Truth!

For if, as J.I. Packer wrote, "the Incarnation, this mysterious miracle at the heart of historic Christianity, is central in the New Testament witness", then Christmas represents not a battlefield, but an amazing opportunity to be witnesses ... to advance on the true battle for men's hearts.

How to do this?  Begin, as Bethany Jenkins does, with a proper understanding of why the Incarnation is so central to the Gospel:
If we do not understand the weight of the miracle of the incarnation of Christ, it is because we do not understand the weight of the holiness of God. The incarnation is shocking. It is outrageous to think that an infinite and holy God would voluntarily become finite to live with unholy sinners.
What if every Christian's conversation over Christmas was to center not on the loss of a holiday, but rather on the "shocking" and "outrageous" implications of the Incarnation of Christ?

Why, then it would be the Gospel mission to which we were called!  Then it would be Christmas every day.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Morning Concert: Rise of the Praise Team

You walk into the sanctuary and take your seat, and find yourself greeted by a fresh, young face at a microphone up front. He smiles broadly and informs you that, "This is the day that the LORD has made," and then invites you to join him in rejoicing and being glad in it. The band behind him begins to play a vaguely familiar tune.  You may have heard it on Christian radio once or twice. As the music progresses, so does the leader's enthusiasm, but he seems mildly distressed that some (like you) aren't keeping pace. So between songs he begins a three-minute, rambling monologue on the virtues of praise, then instructs you to boldly "make a joyful noise to the Lord" ... while he himself begins to croon impressively in three octaves. Unable to keep up with the key and meter changes, you look around uncomfortably to see if the other congregants are as lost as you are. The scene is mixed: a number have their hands raised and seem genuinely caught up in the experience, while others--less sure of themselves--stare intently at the PowerPoint. Some gamely but softly mouth the words. A few have bailed out completely and are checking their iPhones. The song ends, and there is scattered applause, as many have apparently forgotten they are not at a concert. In a deft pivot, the leader encourages them to turn it into a "clap offering" to the Lord. After all, he warns you, the next song will require a lot of clapping! 

Sound familiar? If you've been around at all, you've seen it.  But it wasn't always thus, so how did we get here, and is the praise team a healthy development for the church? 

To be clear, I don't have a particular beef with praise team participants themselves. I have known many over the years, and have generally found most to be very talented and earnest believers who really want to glorify God and bless the church with their gifts. My real concern is that large portions of the worship service have increasingly been delegated to musicians by pastors, often with little guidance on what their objectives ought to be, or how they should be accomplished. The effect on the church is one of performance art masquerading as corporate worship.

Praise bands carry a lot of risk. For example: 
  • They consume a lot of church resources. The easiest way to render a church ineffective for ministry is to pour lots of time and energy into programs. 
  • In some ugly cases they can become "power centers" within the church, competing for influence and affection. 
  • And of course the congregation can be lulled into seeing them as a weekly jam session.
If churches are going to employ praise teams, pray and think on these things:
  • First, nobody says you have to do this. Don't worry about what other churches are doing or what young people expect. There are many ways to worship in song ... even without a sound board and an electric guitar.  Somehow the church muddled through nearly 20 centuries without them. Count the cost, and ask God if this is the way He wants you to use the resources He gave you.
  • If you do go ahead, remember that the basic formula for corporate worship is this: the praise team is not performing for the congregation! Rather, the congregation is performing (that is, worshiping God) with the praise team's help. Be aware that much of the congregation doesn't understand this ... and frankly, many praise team participants really don't either. You're going to have to be very intentional in promoting congregational worship.
  • Pastors and elders, you need to lead your worship leaders. You wouldn't turn over half an hour of your service to the ushers or financial secretary or the audiovisual technician.  Musicians need guidance too. So love them by leading them.
  • Song choice is important. Kindly stop picking the latest tunes from Christian radio.  We appreciate that you're working hard to bring us something "fresh and new", but reasonably familiar and singable is better for most of us in the congregation. We worship more purposefully and authentically when we can sing along rather than mumbling incoherently.
  • Praise team leaders, please don't launch into spontaneous mini-sermons. The pastor has spent all week preparing to rightly divide the Word of Truth for us, and he promises not to spontaneously break out in song (we hope).  I know you're feeling inspired, but please stay focused. Your job is hard enough without trying to do his.
  • So-called "special music" can be a particularly insidious trap. The congregation goes into full audience mode, as cameras and smartphones are whipped out to record the performance. Great freedom is given to the performer to sing anything even mildly spiritual. Worship service no more ... we're now in talent show territory. If you're going to incorporate special music, please do so very carefully.
  • Oh, and if you have to ask ... yes, the drummer is too loud. 
Am I saying churches should not have praise bands?  No, I'm not quite going that far. But in much of the church they have become the default option, and we are increasingly failing to ask why.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Not the Greatest Love of All: Whitney Houston and the False Gospel of Self-Love

The greatest love of all
Gospel singer ... and false gospel singer
is easy to achievelearning to love yourselfis the greatest love of all.     -- Whitney Houston, 1986 
If you don’t love yourself in a healthy way, you will never be able to love others in the way that you should.     -- Joel Osteen, 2012 
For people will be lovers of self ... Avoid such people.
     -- The Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 3:2, 5)
Raise your hand if you've heard a preacher, conference speaker, author, blogger, etc. say that when the Bible tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, it implies we must first love ourselves.  I see that hand ... Amen, sir, thank you ... God bless you, ma'am ... I see that hand ...

Okay, now put your hands down and turn in your Bible to the place where we are actually commanded to love ourselves.

What, no hands?  I'll give you a hint ... it's not in there.

Now, if you're looking for the places where Christ tells us to deny ourselves or hate our own lives, you'll find those.  This is because our basic problem is not with low self-esteem, but rather that we esteem ourselves too much at the expense of our Lord and our neighbors.  And self-esteem is a pathway to nowhere.

Now, follow me here.  I'm NOT saying we need to be filled with self-loathing. What I am saying is that we need to get over ourselves!  As long as we are consumed with ourselves, we are not filled with the Holy Spirit, nor are we filled with love for God or compassion for our neighbors.  Self-love is Satan's favorite kind.

It is not learning to love or forgive or accept myself that leads to joy and peace, it is living in the light of God's amazing love and obeying Christ's great commandments:  love the Lord, love my neighbor. Scripture consistently presents self-regard as a primary obstacle to these supreme imperatives.

I remember when Whitney Houston re-released "The Greatest Love of All" in 1986.  The song was a huge hit and reached #1 on both the pop and adult contemporary charts.  More than that, it became something of an ode to self-esteem and self-actualization; an anthem justifying and celebrating our culture's obsession with the self.  Sadly, Ms. Houston's own short, spectacular and tragic life serves as a vivid testimony to the barrenness of self-love as a life-orienting force.

Earlier this month I engaged in a stimulating conversation with Dr. Deb about the topic of self-forgiveness.  My basic thesis was that self-forgiveness is an unbiblical concept having its roots in popular psychology rather than in Scripture. I put a rather sharp point on it:
The bottom line is this:  the concept of self-forgiveness is not Biblical, but secular-humanist at its core, because it idolizes the self.  If I have the power to condemn or forgive myself, then God is irrelevant to my salvation. Self-forgiveness is not merely unnecessary and redundant; it is foolish, delusional, and self-idolatry.
The errors of self-forgiveness and self-love are not merely misguided, they are cruel.  They obscure the truth that genuine, meaningful, powerful, life-changing love, forgiveness, acceptance, etc. are available to us when we follow Christ in the self-denying, self-sacrificial way He prescribes.  Self-love and self-forgiveness are the world's empty shadows of the true love and transformational forgiveness that come from the perfect Lover of my soul.

The world chases these shadows because they are cost-free.  They get what they pay for.

Of course, for the world to invent worldly doctrines is hardly newsworthy.  For the church to embrace these doctrines and cover them with a Christian veneer, however, is heretical and deeply corrosive. We rob the Gospel of Jesus Christ of its power when we slather it in trendy, worldly psychology.

When we attempt to synthesize the world's bankrupt philosophies with the richness of Christ's gospel, we may ask the memory of Whitney Houston--whose first #1 hit celebrated adultery, but who also styled herself a gospel singer--where that leads us.

This discussion is not merely semantic, it is basic.  The church needs to reclaim the Biblical language, so that we can start talking again about Biblical truth. This means rejecting the false gospel of self-love--which, thank God, is absolutely not "The Greatest Love of All"!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tebow's Philippine Hospital Update

I first wrote about the orthopedic children's hospital Tim Tebow is building with CURE International in Davao City, Philippines back in November 2011.  At the time the building was still in the planning stages.  Well, due to some intrepid reporting by our man-on-the-street (me) and his photographer (Mrs. Jailer), with an assist from the in-laws, I can confirm that the building is indeed taking shape.

Jailer-on-the-street, live from Davao City
(Photo credit - Mrs. Jailer)
The hospital is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2014:
Construction of the Tebow Cure Hospital started in May of last year. It is scheduled for a soft opening in the first quarter of 2014, with 17 beds, eight in the charity ward ready for patients, says Leron Lehman who will serve as its executive director.
He said revenue from the private wards will bolster services for indigent children. At the start, the hospital will employ up to 45 local medical and support professionals trained in modern health-care techniques. 
Pennsylvania-based, Cure International focuses on providing medical care for the world’s children with orthopedic challenges, like cleft lip and palate, clubfoot and other crippling deformities. 
The Tebow Cure hospital will be its first in the Philippines and 11th worldwide. The top floor of the Davao facility will house a Timmy’s Playroom “to enable children to be children,” says Lehman. It will also provide the youngsters religious and spiritual nourishment before and after they go under the knife.
Well, that's some pretty good reporting by Percy D. Della of the Philippine Daily Inquirer from back in March. But who scooped you on the July update (*ahem* that is to say, who got his wife to take a picture on his Samsung Galaxy S4 standing on the side of the road)?  Two thumbs pointing at this guy, that's who!

Addendum: Here's the video to Timmy's Playroom. Forget Tebow for a second ... how well-spoken is the kid in this clip?

Note: For updates on Tim's gridiron accomplishments, we'll just have to await until he emerges from Bill Belichick's witness protection program. I suspect that may be a while ...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Trayvon Factor: Why the Church Divides over Race

It is not alarming or surprising that the various members of the Body of Christ can come to different conclusions about the what outcome of a criminal trial in Florida should have been. Trials are complicated things, and their outcomes are not necessarily determined by what we consider most important.

What is alarming and surprising is how deeply it divides Christians over what it all means.

If you're a white evangelical, there is a substantial probability that you spent the past several weeks listening to Fox News, Sean Hannity and the Wall Street Journal explain what a joke the criminal trial of George Zimmerman was. You know all about Trayvon Martin's checkered past and Facebook posts and Zimmerman's charity work and affinity for Barack Obama. You may even have just learned that Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea combine with Robitussin to make a codeine-based recreational drug. You've concluded the Zimmerman case was politically motivated and never should have been brought to trial. Oh, and when you go to church on Sunday most of your friends agree with you.

If you're an African American, on the other hand, you are far more likely to have followed the trial as explained to you by BET, Tavis Smiley and perhaps the Daily Kos.  You know that Trayvon was a racially profiled youth who was killed for walking home from a convenience store.  You know that none of this would have happened if a gun-toting vigilante would have listened to the 911 operator who told him that his public security services were not required. The trial in Florida was yet another example of racial injustice in America. And of course, when you go to church on Sunday most of your friends agree with you.


Let's start with a discussion of bias.  Almost all of us like to think that we're unbiased. This is a pipe dream, because nobody is unbiased. A bias is simply "an inclination of temperaments or outlook to present or hold a partial perspective at the expense of (possibly equally valid) alternatives in reference to objects, people, or groups."

Everyone has an assortment of these, just as everyone has an ideology--that is, a system by which we organize our thoughts and perceptions we use to interpret the world around us. Our particular ideologies are formed by our experiences, education, upbringing, social context, and yes ... our theology (more on this later).  They are then sharpened and reinforced by a variety of popular media sources, which we select specifically because we like to listen to those who agree with our respective ideologies.

So we select our information based on our biases, which in turn serves to reinforce those same biases ... all while we convince ourselves that we are the unbiased ones.

Now, having an ideology is not itself "bad" (although one can certainly have a bad ideology). Ideology is, in a sense, as inevitable as death and taxes. I would be paralyzed if I couldn't organize the overload of information I ingest daily within some sort of ideological framework. The danger is not so much in having an ideology, but in failing to own up to it, and then in refusing to subordinate it to sound Biblical theology.

Our ideological views threaten the church when they displace theology as its foundation. Proper theology (simply, the study of God) must be the rock on which any ideological house is built. In theory, if we all diligently studied God and His precepts based on the same revelation (the Bible), we would find ourselves on similar ideological footing. Instead, ideological elements inevitably seep into the theological foundation. Such corruption is devastating to the church, because once we no longer agree on God's person, priorities and precepts, we cannot hope to agree on much else.

For example, the theology which supported black slavery was corrupted by a pernicious ideological element: Southern whites firmly believed their lifestyle was legitimate. Their upbringing, social and economic structures, media sources and life experiences all reinforced that understanding.  Inevitably, therefore, their churches misinterpreted (or malinterpreted) God's Word so as to support and reflect that ideology.

We are obviously still living with the myriad consequences of that abomination today. Because of the tendency of each particular church to develop its theology gazing through the thick lens of the history, social context and common experiences of its membership, this tends to put a premium on racial or ethnic issues at the expense of unity within the Body of Christ.

Scripture teaches us how the Corinthian church allowed their biases to infect their theology, shipwrecking their gospel mission on the shoals of their factions, and driving the Apostle Paul to sternly admonish, "Is Christ divided?". His charge could not have been plainer:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 
In the same way, until glorifying and obeying Christ is the supreme purpose of all within His church, we simply will not find cause to do the hard work required to achieve this kind of unity. Only the supreme value of Jesus is sufficient to eclipse the temporal wounds of history and contemporary societal causes, and to unite us in our ultimate purpose. When Jesus is supreme, I cannot tolerate being divided from my brother over temporal matters. I cannot stand seeing Christ's name sullied by my refusal to obey His commands and love my brother.

The church's problem is not that we can't agree on whether George Zimmerman should have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of his Sanford peers.  It is rather that we can't seem to agree on what place it should hold in our corporate understanding. It is, in other words, that so many of us see God through our ideology, rather than seeing the world through sound Biblical theology.

The bottom line is this:  The church divides over race because the world divides over race, and the church is still very worldly. It won't be until we are so in love with the same God that we will unite in commitment to His priorities and focus on His mission.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Does God Want Me to Forgive Myself?

So, then what?
Quick, how many books, sermons, Bible studies, blogs, and pithy social-network posts revolve around the concept of self-forgiveness?  Any guesses? A quick Google search revealed 13,400,000 hits.  Needless to say, it's a hot topic for the church as well as for popular culture.

Now ... how many verses in Scripture tell us to forgive ourselves?  I'll give you a hint:  the answer rhymes with "hero".  That's because self-forgiveness isn't a Scriptural concept; it's part of the Oprahization of modern Christianity.

Frankly, who really cares if I forgive myself?

Okay, now I've just offended (or terrified) several groups of people.  But hear me out:

1. For those true followers of Christ who struggle with guilt over past sins ... relax!  Stop worrying about forgiving yourself.  Instead, live in the joy of God's amazing, transforming grace!  "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)  In other words, you've been forgiven by the Lord and King--the only being in the universe with the authority to truly and effectively forgive sins.  So follow Him joyfully and gratefully, like one who's redeemed from the grave!  Jesus paid your entire debt; stop wasting the life He redeemed trying to charge yourself a meaningless surtax.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death ... Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  (Romans 8:1-2, 33-34)
2. For the true followers of Christ who struggle with guilt over current sins ... er, don't relax. We call that "conviction".  You're supposed to feel guilty when you rebel against God.  The Holy Spirit is trying to get through to you.  Confess, repent, and seek the counsel and accountability of your fellow believers--the best of whom will not judge you, but will respect you more for the transparency and maturity you display by facing your sin directly and Scripturally.  As I've mentioned once before:
Guilt, like pain, is unpleasant.  If we are in great pain, we understandably want it to go away.  We want relief quick!  But pain also alerts us to some medical malady.  If by treating the pain we mask the malady and leave it untreated, the results can be catastrophic.  For this reason, those who suffer from leprosy and lose their nerve endings learn to very carefully monitor their extremities.  Because they may not feel the pain of a simple cut, infection can set in before they realize they've been injured.  
Guilt plays a similar role with respect to sin.  Its primary function is to alert us to a deeper problem.  David needed to feel the guilt of his sin with Bethsheba.  Denying it merely prolonged his rebellion.  In the end, God used Nathan to apply the scalpel to David's conscience, revealing David's guilt and enabling him to repent.
3. For those who are more interested in "living victoriously" than taking up the cross and following Christ, pay attention! Self-forgiveness is self-delusion; it may help deliver "Your Best Life Now", but it won't save you from the judgment to come!  This guilt of the unredeemed is not merely valid, but entirely necessary:
For him to feel no guilt is self-deception of the deadliest sort, since there is then nothing to chase him into the arms of Jesus.  "... to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted." (Titus 1:15) Guilt for the lost sinner is the smell of gangrene in the wound, warning the patient that his infection will claim his life if he does not seek aggressive treatment.  To provide him superficial "healing" in the form of soothing words and psychological comfort is not ultimately to love him, but to watch him die of negligence. 
The bottom line is this:  the concept of self-forgiveness is not Biblical, but secular-humanist at its core, because it idolizes the self.  If I have the power to condemn or forgive myself, then God is irrelevant to my salvation. Self-forgiveness is not merely unnecessary and redundant; it is foolish, delusional, and self-idolatry.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Here I Am (Again), Lord ... Now What?

Paying attention to where the circles intersect helps us understand how He is arranging the terms of our service. The dashed lines around the circles remind us that our understanding of our abilities and circumstances may be selling God short--like Moses or Gideon we need to exercise faith in what God can do beyond our apparent limits.
It's been nearly 5 years since I posted this little illustration, but its practical application for interpreting God's direction in life & ministry recently captured Ginger's attention.  It's now re-running as a guest-post over on her "Corner", under the title, "4 Questions to Discover your Calling".  Stop by and check it out.

While you're at it, leave a pithy (failing that, merely flattering will do) comment, and then browse around and see what else Ginger has to offer, "Where the Spiritual Meets the Practical."
"God provides us with gifts and talents with which to meet the needs and opportunities He’s placed before us.
He makes resources available to us but also places constraints on our service
to guide us to where and how He wants us to minister."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Church-Planting Movements: Multigenerational Discipleship or Multilevel Marketing?

A reader takes issue with my post, "Jesus Flunks Evangelism", which was just republished by Live58:
Very good points, and a lesson to take to heart, but terrible title, a bad trend of crude, false misleading, shocking statements to grab attention, truly a product of Machiavellian marketing campaigns we are bombarded with daily.
I understand his point, though I didn't cop to the charge of Machiavellianism:
Well obviously I take a different view. My ironic title is intended to be provocative, of course, insofar as it provokes a stark reexamination of evangelical methods which themselves approximate marketing techniques. One might also suggest that Hosea's taking an adulterous wife and giving his kids names with meanings like "not my people" constitutes Machiavellian and shocking marketing behavior, but since God commanded it we accept that there must be a better explanation. I don't claim the prophetic gift or direct mandate, but I believe that sometimes a rhetorical device such as the one I employ here can be useful in driving home an important point.
I went on to point out that my implicit point was that if Jesus "flunks" our church's course on how to evangelize, there are only two possibilities--either (a) something was wrong with Jesus' approach; or (b) there's something wrong with our courseware.  The first suggestion is ridiculous (and blasphemous), so we are left with the second.

Think of it like this:  imagine John Calvin were to take a test on "The theology of John Calvin".  The only way his answers could be wrong would if he were to misrepresent himself, since his honest answers would have to be correct by definition.  If he fails, there must be something wrong with the exam.

In the same way, Jesus's evangelistic methods--coming as they do from Him who is the way, the truth and the life--must be right.  So if He fails our methodological tests, the only right conclusion is that they misrepresent Him.

So in short, it's possible for Him to flunk our evangelism tests, but that tells us something important about our tests.

Let me take this a step further.  One may say that so-called "church-planting movements" represent the current evangelistic state of the art. The Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board defines CPMs as "a rapid and multiplicative increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment."  To accomplish these, they use a model of aggressive evangelization coupled with training in disciple-making techniques and accountability, so that every new believer is encouraged to make more disciples.
CPMs are all about rapid, multigenerational growth

Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with rapid growth.  If God is truly giving the increase, we should indeed rejoice and join hands!  Moreover, it is important to recognize that much of what passes for discipleship in our churches neglects this accountability to the Great Commission, so spiritual growth becomes more about self-fulfillment and navel-gazing than about our primary mission here on earth.  We become mere lights under a bowl, comforting ourselves that if only someone were to peek underneath, they would find us shining purely.

In other words, the primary advantage of CPMs is their emphasis on personal obedience to the Great Commission, which is a discipline the organized church tends to neglect in favor of programs that make our lives comfortable and predictable. In this sense, CPMs have an important message for the church, illustrated as follows:
One day a lady criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism in attempting to win people to the Lord. Moody's reply was "I agree with you. I don't like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?" The lady replied, "I don't do it." Moody responded "I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it."
However, the risks associated with these method-based growth strategies seem substantial to me:
  • Over-emphasis on reaping the harvest over cultivating the soil and sowing the gospel.  CPMs tend to leave the "hard cases" behind because they don't respond quickly enough.  
  • Quantity over quality:  a ministry so focused on rapid evangelism may fail to build other aspects of doctrine, godliness, relationships, family, etc.
  • Heresy (that is, serious theological error), especially when new believers immediately become leaders.  Some will bring in some strange concepts, which their disciples, peers and even disciplers are unable to recognize due to the lack of a biblical foundation.
  • Rapid burn-out, especially if/when a new discipler's aggressive reaping attempts prove unfruitful over time.
  • Pragmatism, or reliance on technique rather than the Holy Spirit.
It is this last danger that seems the most insidious to me.  The more I study the CPMs, the more they look like spiritualized Amway.  It's multilevel marketing for the church.  Get converts, train converts, follow-up converts to make sure they're making more converts.  If they don't respond, move on.  The field is white unto harvest (CPMs take this pronouncement and make it normative to all places and times)!  It's a proven method for growth, so get moving and get growing!  See you next week and tell me how you're doing.

To their credit, CPMs are making a serious attempt to do what many of us pay mere lip-service to:  fulfilling the Great Commission through personal evangelism.  In so doing, however, they appear to pay lip-service to true reliance on the Holy Spirit's work, and to the kind of patient and genuine love for our neighbors that should be the hallmark of a godly witness.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Whose Revival Is It?

News flash:  Something is wrong with the church!

Oh, wait ... in a fallen world, something is always wrong with the church.  Yes, even during the time of Christ ... of the Apostles ... of Luther and Calvin ... of pick-your-favorite-idealized-period ...

So then, can we agree on that?  Good.  But what exactly is wrong, and what do we do about it?  Well, this is where consensus among the faithful ends.  It's not that there are no answers, but rather that there are so many answers.

In some senses, the discord resembles the well-known metaphor of the blind men and the elephant, where each man "sees" a mere part of the whole, and draws broad conclusions based on a limited perspective.
  • To the missional evangelist, the problem is clearly one of widespread disobedience to the Great Commission.  
  • To the orthodox theologian, we have abandoned serious study of Scriptural truth.
  • To the socially conscious, we have neglected justice and indulged in our comfortable Western opulence.
  • To the maverick, we have allowed our traditions to blind us to God's Word and dynamic direction.
  • To the conservative, we have abandoned many healthy, godly traditions in our rush to be "relevant", and thus thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
  • To the prayer warrior, the answer is that we've simply neglected to unleash God's saving power through focused petition.
And so on (feel free to add your own).  Of course, none of these diagnoses is necessary incorrect, nor is any of them complete.  

In truth, the church needs to be called to godliness in many respects--it would be simplistic to believe in the "silver bullet" approach.  The single-minded missional evangelist may find himself surrounded by spiritual infants and heretics without the counsel of the orthodox theologian.  The socially conscious may discover that his zeal to rescue bodies fails to save many souls without the spoken witness of the evangelist or the perseverance of the prayer warrior.  The maverick is annoying but absolutely necessary to the conservative, to call attention to the paralyzing power of dead traditions and Spirit-denying methods.  However, left to his own devices he may well find there were, in fact, some very important babies left squirming in that rashly discarded bathwater.  Worse, he may simply be an Angry Young Christian, for whom: 
There is likewise a temptation to arrogantly savage the organized church without issuing--or better yet, living out--any higher calling. In many cases, the self-righteous rejection of the organized church serves as little more than a cover-up for sin. Freed from the "oppression" of the church (or should I say the accountability to the church), there is often a descent into sloth. This is not a spiritual revolution ... it is a temper tantrum.
Ideally, this realization should leave us humbled, but hopeful.  Somehow each of us needs to maintain our ardor for our particular calling, without then getting lost in our own hype. Yet this can be extraordinarily difficult, in part because we are so limited and sinful, and in part because we are so poor at recognizing how limited and sinful we are.

Last month the young and socially conscious Karla Colonnieves penned an important post over on Live58, "Can the Justice Movement Ruin Your Relationship with God?", in which she recognized her own weakness in this regard:
In words and theory, Jesus and justice are a package deal, but in my heart and in my actions, I've picked up justice and dropped Jesus, slowly but steadily. 
In my response, I noted that she's hardly the first to fall into this trap:
Almost ANY movement can get us off track, because of the temptation to replace the BEST with the merely GOOD; to treat one of the King's concerns as superior to all others ... even more important than exalting the King Himself. Meanwhile, we judge those who do not share our level of excitement or outrage for our particular calling, neglecting the notion that God may have given them a different calling. In other words, there's no endeavor--even the outwardly spiritual ones--which we sinners cannot corrupt.
This gets us to the heart of the problem--our selfish proclivity for idolizing our own ideology.  We discover a truth and decide it is THE truth.  Somewhere along the line we neglect to consider that we don't get to choose the precise terms of God's reforming work.

Biblical and church history demonstrate that it is never too late to pray for revival to come in our time.  Of course, Scripture teaches that nothing short of the consummating work of the Savior Himself  will be sufficient to save the church or the world utterly from the devastating consequences of sin's corruption.  In the meantime, there is much hard work to be done, and fratricide is unlikely to help things along.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day: Greater Love Hath No Man

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (quoting Shakespeare):  "What a piece of work is man, in form and movement how express and admirable. In action how like an angel."
Sergeant Buster Kilrain: Well, if he's an angel, all right then. But he damn well must be a killer angel.
     - Gettysburg (1993)
Is there any human endeavor which so starkly displays the basic paradox of fallen humanity as does war?

In combat we observe the raw ferocity of corrupt mankind's hatred.  War draws from its participants a bloodlust unfamiliar to our civilized society. A "killer angel" indeed.

Yet there is also another side to war, and in it we see that "divine spark" of God's image upon which Chamberlain places his faith.  Here we witness the bravery of Gideon and Jehoshaphat, whose faith overcame impossible odds and their own terrors, as they defended their people against powerful invaders.  We admire the nobility of Uriah the Hittite, betrayed in battle because he had a soldier's loyalty.  We lament the love and valor of Jonathan, who to the death honored his bonds of friendship to David, of family to King Saul, of patriotism to Israel, and of ultimate allegiance to Almighty God.

So we discover within the hellish cauldron of war the paradox of the fallen image-bearer. We understand that our condition of total depravity does not mean absolute depravity.  Even unredeemed man yet carries God's image with him, corrupted but not exterminated by sin.  In the last mortal extremity it may yet exhibit its precious value.

We recognize this holy selflessness today, as expressed in the sacrifices those who give the "last full measure of devotion" in our age.  It was present in the last moments of Senior Airman Jason Cunningham's life, which ended prematurely on the peak of Takhur Ghar during the March 2002 Operation Anaconda:
The quick reaction force’s medical personnel, including Cunningham, another [pararescueman] who was a technical sergeant, two Ranger medics and a 160th medic, had their hands full. The Chinook’s cargo area became the casualty-collection point.
It was in there that Cunningham went to work, putting into practice all that theory he had absorbed, and doing so in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. He was trying to save lives in the back of a helicopter at the top of a bitterly cold mountain, under constant fire from enemy forces that had him and his colleagues surrounded.
Just when things seemed as if they couldn’t get worse, the forward compartment of the helicopter caught fire.
“The helicopter’s a bullet sponge after it gets shot down, because it’s just a great big target,” Scott said.
As Cunningham and the 160th medic worked inside to staunch their buddies’ bleeding, the enemy fire increased. Incoming mortar rounds bracketed the Chinook, landing within 50 feet of the helicopter’s nose.
About four hours after the helicopter hit the ground, Cunningham decided the cargo compartment had become too dangerous for his patients. Using a small sled-like device, Cunningham dragged the wounded troops to a safer spot away from the aircraft. In doing so, he crossed the line of enemy fire seven times ...
Shortly thereafter, at 12:32 p.m., Cunningham’s luck ran out. An enemy round hit him just below his body armor as he was treating a patient. The bullet entered low from the right side and traveled across his pelvis, causing serious internal injuries.
“Untreated, you die from that,” Scott said.
Cunningham must have known he was in serious trouble. But despite his worsening condition, he continued to treat patients and advise others on how to care for the critically wounded. One of the two blood packs he had brought saved a badly wounded Ranger. The medics gave the other packet to Cunningham himself, whose life was slowly flowing out in a red stream onto the white snow.
Back at the surgical unit, word of the situation on the mountain was seeping back. “We’d heard that one of the 160th medics was hit, and one of the [pararescuemen] severely wounded,” Burlingame said. If a medevac helicopter could get in and pick up the wounded, there was time to save Cunningham.
“The combat controller wanted so bad to say the [Landing Zone] was cold so they
SrA Cunningham's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery
could bring in a helicopter to evacuate the wounded, but he couldn’t,” Scott said. In the early afternoon, leaders directed that no more rescue attempts be risked until darkness. It was a decision made to save lives, and it probably did. But it sealed Cunningham’s fate.
As the hours in the snow lengthened, Cunningham grew increasingly weak from loss of blood. Seven hours after he was hit, the other medics began to perform CPR on Cunningham. They continued for 30 minutes, until it was clear nothing more could be done. There were other lives to save. At about 8 p.m. on March 4, Jason Cunningham became the first pararescue jumper to die in combat since the Vietnam War.
It is the spirit of Jason Cunningham that we seek to honor on our country's Memorial Day--the spirit of those who would sacrifice their lives for an ideal.  Perhaps this is but a pale reflection of Christ's holy sacrifice for our lost and dying world, yet it is also an immediate and poignant one, and reminds us that God's common grace yet rests on mankind.  There is indeed a divine spark.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:13

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Sinner's Prayer, Reprise (aka, Jailer's New Gig)

Thanks to the good offices of my friend Karla, I have just debuted my first post over at Live58, where they have reprised The Sinner's Prayer: Spiritual Abortion?", which I first published on this blog last December.  Here's a reminder:
In our desire to package salvation into an exportable shrink-to-fit size so that we can use it to train our legions of Junior Evangelist warriors for battle, we are in many cases destroying that which we have come to save.
If you haven't read the rest of it, please do so over on Live58, the mission of which is to "live out Isaiah 58 in an effort to end extreme poverty."  You can also follow them on Facebook.  (As you do, you may notice that their page has over 20,000 "Likes", whereas the Jailer's has ... er ... not that many.)

By following Live58, you can keep your eyes peeled for more of the Jailer's posts in the coming months.  They've even offered me compensation for my labors.  Something about "treasure in heaven" ...

As an aside, Karla's family and mine go back a few decades.  In fact, her dad was the topic of one of my early posts on this blog.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Meaningless! Ecclesiastes vs. My Permanent Mid-Life Crisis

If you read this blog regularly, you probably know my story.  That is, my journey from death to life in Christ.

So it won't surprise you to learn that I’m new to reading the Bible.  This means I'd never read most of it, including the entire Book of Ecclesiastes -- that is, until just recently.  I must admit ... I was initially shocked and confused by its starkly negative tone!

Truly, when I thought of this book, the only thing that readily came to mind was chapter 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…”  Honestly, this was the only part I knew.

But a Bible-reading plan is pushing me into uncharted territory, so a couple of weeks back I found myself starting into Chapter 1 of this cryptic text.  I didn't get very far. Verse 2 stopped me cold:
Meaningless!  Meaningless!” says the Teacher.  “Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless. 
Great.  This had to be the most confusing Bible verse I had ever read (and that's saying something).  I pressed on, finishing the first chapter.  It wasn't getting any better.  Really?  This was supposed to be "wisdom"?  Why did I have to read this just before bed?

But to fully grasp the depths of my confusion, I need to take you back ...

Most of my life was characterized by a search for truth -- the meaning of my existence.  Finally, joyfully, I had come to believe in the Bible as Truth.  Now here was this ... this "Teacher" telling me that it's all “a chasing after the wind”.

How was I supposed to feel about that?  Or this:
Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days.  For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:9-10)
I didn’t like where this was going, so I stopped reading.  I didn’t know what possible lesson I could learn from these depressing passages.  Fortunately, I wasn't reading alone.  I was accountable, and had the help of someone who'd been there before. My mentor gave me both encouragement and context, which helped me to plunge back in.

In fact, it helped me learn to love, love, LOVE this book!  One lesson stood out for me:

We all have the same destiny.  
We all live our lives here on earth, 
and we will all die.

For as long as I can remember I'd been terrified of dying. I feared I would simply vanish from this earth as if I'd never been here, with no real legacy to leave behind.  I looked at others' accomplishments to measure mine, to see if my life had any value.  It pained me to think about how far behind I was, especially when I compared myself with those whom I looked up to.

Or perhaps "envied" is a better word:
And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecc. 4:4)
Frankly, I seemed to be stuck in a permanent mid-life crisis.  I was indeed "chasing after the wind."

Ecclesiastes brought it all home to me.  The "Teacher" taught me that I can live ANY life I want to:  “Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.  Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see…”  But I MUST understand that “… for all these things God will bring you to judgment.” (Ecc. 11: 9-10).

For most of my life, I have been searching and fearing, but never understanding what it was that I needed to do.  Then I read the last two verses of Ecclesiastes, and there it all was:

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of ALL mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is GOOD
or EVIL.
(Ecc. 12:13-14)

I will die.  We will all die someday.  All we’ve done to make ourselves known in this world will eventually disappear.  Who we are in the memories of others will fade away.  I’ve always had an issue with death because I didn’t think I'd done enough to be remembered.  That’s all meaningless.  I know now.  As Rich Mullins said: "... if my life is motivated by my ambition to leave a legacy, what I'll probably leave as a legacy is ambition."

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes taught me that I must move forward from here, to do what will truly matter: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.”  This is MY duty.  It is the only one with eternal value.

I never understood before when my Christian friends said to me that they were “ready to die”.  It simply made no sense to me before.  But now I find I am finally content in knowing this simple truth: I am a child of God, and I am saved by His grace.

I can say it now:  I am ready to die ... which means now I can truly live.

"For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain." 
(Philippians 1:21)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Porn: A Wake-Up Call

The church had better wake up.  In last year's post on this topic, I noted:
This sin is not going away. In fact, this year someone is making $100 billion by victimizing 30,000 of us every second and terrorizing its employees. They will make more next year. Who's stopping them? Virtually nobody. 
I should caveat that there is a nascent movement pushing back against the porn industry. I was encouraged to see the influential nonprofit TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) highlight the rapidly growing evidence that porn effectively rewires the user's brain in harmful ways during a Glasgow conference last year.  It's worth watching in full:

By directly addressing this metastasizing cancer, TED joins secular social media campaigns such as Pornography Harms and Fight the New Drug in a small but growing counterattack on the porn behemoth.  More is needed, and the church needs to step up to the challenge.  Playing defense on this issue is a loser.  We need to go on the offensive, starting by talking openly and often about this problem.

The Beverly LaHaye Institute helps by compiling a list of 10 facts we need to know and talk about (from the report, 10 Harms of Pornography):

  • Pornography is addictive - The anatomy and physiology of the brain changes, and those who watch pornography crave more.
  • Pornography warps perceptions - Viewers of pornography think violence and degradation are normal and enjoyable
  • Pornography harms children - Not only are children viewing pornography, but some are victims of child rapists and pornographers because of it
  • Pornography is increasingly violent and degrading - Pornography desensitizes viewers, leading them to seek more violent and degrading images
  • Pornography ruins marriages - Using pornography is a pathway to infidelity and divorce.
  • Pornography use can lead to impotency - Pornography addicts can suffer loss of libido, impotence, and ability to perform with real women.
  • Pornography objectifies women - Surgically and digitally enhanced women are the norm in pornography. 
  • The use of pornography leads to aggressive behavior - Viewers of violent pornography believe women enjoy rape and other deviant behaviors, leading to acts of sexual aggression, violence, and controlling behaviors.
  • Pornography is linked to sex trafficking - Victims are forced to appear in pornography, and traffickers use pornography to train sex slaves, including children who will be used for child pornography.
  • Pornography is not protected free speech - “This much has been categorically settled by the Court, that obscene material is unprotected by the First Amendment,” Miller v. California (1973).
For the church I add this:

Can there be any doubt that we are already seriously infected? Our kids, our men, more women than we think, and yes ... our pastors and leaders are increasingly falling prey to this extremely aggressive and calculating industry.  This sin is so very deadly because the Internet has made it so accessible and anonymous--all you need is a computer, a tablet, even a smartphone (still think your kid's not exposed?).

The result is that suffering from porn addiction in shameful silence is the norm.  Embarrassment is a satanic tactic to keep us cravenly addicted and quiet.  Unless the church talks frankly and openly about this, it will only get worse.  We simply must create an environment of clear, bold teaching and safe places for our people to come forward, confess, repent, and be restored.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Conversations on Same-Sex Marriage

It was a busy week on social media, and I got lost in a number of conversations sparked by the topic du jour.  Many profiles had turned pink and red in the manner shrewdly concocted by Human Rights Campaign, the LGBT advocacy group, while the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases involving same-sex marriage (SSM).

Facebook is an interesting venue for such conversations, because people who would not normally interact on such topics are mashed together into a common forum.  I am something of a Facebook warrior, insofar as I am perhaps more willing than some to mix it up on a variety of hot-button topics.  So to give you an idea of how this goes, here's a sample:

An Ideology's Search for a Validating Theology

When one non-Christian (but theologically informed) friend of mine suggested this article by Eric Smith on the Patheos "Progressive Christian Channel,"  I thought it deserved response.  To begin with, I felt Mr. Smith's approach was haphazard rather than systematic, and I said so:
Actually I find this one to be a confused mess--an ideology in a rather random search for a validating theology. Mr. Smith does not approve of the text as plainly written, so he takes a shotgun approach toward discrediting it. The strategy is "it doesn't say what you think it says." Or maybe "It's just old and needs to be updated." Or perhaps "Science says something else." If not, then "God is love and love is awesome." He also seems to be confused about the meaning of the word "normative". The fact that there are OT biblical examples of certain practices (including polygamy) does not make them normative. In fact, nearly all OT polygamous marriages in Scripture yield results ranging from poor to disastrous (including such luminaries as Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon). For clarity you need to locate didactic passages (rather than anecdotes), which he hand-waves with vague references to "original language" and "matters of interpretation".
Mr. Smith also gives away his guiding ideology when he chooses the latest advocacy buzz-word, "marriage equality", to describe the issue, rather than a more neutral term such as "homosexual marriage". Moreover, he treats as significant the Facebook-silence of his ideological opponents and attributes it to their fear that they are wrong. Perhaps it is instead their concern that Facebook is a poor venue for reasoned debate, as it tends to invite angry shout-downs ("Hater"! "Bigot!" "Homophobe!") rather than serious, respectful discussion. I'm afraid I've seen it too many times ...
My real point about Mr. Smith's article is that it is not a theological defense, but rather a scatter-shot of his various thoughts and impulses. Of course, the same could rightly be said of my article (though I don't claim to be a theologian), which suggests both of us are writing to our own constituencies.
This last point is worth dwelling on, as my own "Eight Propositions" fall far short of a thorough theological examination of the topic (for this I recommended my friend read "Homosexuality According to the Bible" over on Soul Device). This is significant because there really isn't a pro-homosexuality position to be argued from Scripture, so advocates generally are reduced to trying to poke holes in the Bible's multiple and obvious censures of homosexual acts, or blithely stating, like Mr. Smith: “'God is love,' scripture says. Where love flourishes, God is pleased. This three-word sentence is as simple as theology and Biblical interpretation get. God is love."

As I said, this is "an ideology in a rather random search for a validating theology".

Legal and Public Policy Consequences

In a more general vein, I shared an article from Heritage on "The Consequences of Redefining Marriage: Eroding Marital Norms."  I was interested in this because of the question of whether you can "legislate morality".  One of my more libertarian friends objected that, "If two people love each other and want to get married, more power to them. It is none of my business."  Here my response therefore gravitated toward the public policy demerits:
[T]here are real sociological impacts to redefining this pre-existent institution that don't require religious faith to comprehend. As the author notes, civilizations have been built for millenia on the basic foundation of family structure, basically defined as two parents raising biological children. This is not to say that other family structures are illegitimate (I have an adopted daughter, whom I love dearly), but rather that biological families are the basic, natural building blocks. Over time our society has sought to systematically replace that structure with alternatives (such as normalizing out-of-wedlock births, divorce, extended adolescence, and substituting family responsibilities with government institutions), much to the detriment of children specifically, and society more generally. Previously, government sought to reinforce the biological family as the foundation, though support has eroded recently. What you have expressed is the belief that marriage is basically about companionship rather than about the formation of biological family groups upon which to build healthy societies. I don't believe that same-sex marriage is itself the end of civilization--rather, it is another large step in the direction of societal disintegration brought upon by the erosion of its basic building block.
A fellow believer then weighed in to observe that "Every law ever written was to regulate some form of sin." To this I responded:
One could say that laws against theft "legislate morality", but the reason for them is to protect private property. Similar rationale applies to laws against murder, child pornography, and sex trafficking. All are moral issues, but the reason for the laws is to protect something (life, children, women ...). Laws which set aside heterosexual marriage for special treatment are not constructed for moral reasons, but because the state takes an interest in promoting the formation of natural, biological family units as the basic societal structures. The state does this because it judges those structures to be elemental to healthy society, not because it is moral to do so. People may disagree with that choice, but they should at least not confuse the rationale as being a theocratic impulse.
Is Same-Sex Marriage the Modern Equivalent of Interracial Marriage?

Later, a politically liberal Christian friend of mine observed that her interracial marriage was once considered illegal and unbiblical in many quarters, and then drew the popular parallel.  This led me to challenge the merits of her argument as a logical matter:
Racial equality is the analogy SSM advocates have been pushing--successfully, it turns out. The question is whether the analogy holds true ... In this case, the analogy is attractive: the civil rights case seems obvious and elicits powerful emotions ... Objections to SSM are often overwhelmed by the fear of being caught on the wrong side of history. There may be no stigma as great as being considered a bigot! ... 
This is the reason I bring up the "false analogy" issue, which goes like this: "P and Q are similar in respect to properties a, b, and c. Object P has been observed to have further property x. Therefore, Q probably has property x also." In this case, the idea is that opponents of interracial marriage (P) and same-sex marriage (Q) made arguments that appear similar in certain respects (a, b and c). Interracial marriage opponents have been shown to be wrong (x), therefore SSM opponents must also be wrong (also x). This can break down in several places, especially that which says the arguments share some characteristics, therefore they must be interchangeable, but it does not account for other characteristics (d, e, f, etc.) which are dissimilar. This is why the "false analogy" is listed among the logical fallacies. 
So what is the point of sharing all this?  The fact is that many of us feel bewildered by how rapidly public opinion seems to have shifted recently to accepting the idea that homosexuality is "normal" and SSM is a civil rights matter.   Perhaps we should not be, because much groundwork has already been laid by the dissolution of marriage as a permanent institution in our society.  The fact is, marriage has never been less important to Americans, so here we are.

The Church's Response

So what should the church do?  Ultimately, it all comes back to "Exalt Christ, Make Disciples".  The terms of the debate have been set by the culture, which has grown up out of the now-poisoned soil of spiritual decay, which has been decades (at least) in the making.  The church will certainly need to see to its own, because we have certainly been infiltrated already by this ideology.  Many of our youth in particular are likely to have already bought into the world's system, and are ignorant of the Bible's teaching.

At the same time, we need to be ready to make a defense of the truth in a variety of ways, of which the above represent a few.  This is difficult, because the tenor of the current discussion is such that Christians are very much on the defensive, as we wither under accusations of bigotry.

A fellow believer recently posted a video of Rev. Tim Keller, for whom I have much respect and with whose positions on this topic I agree.  He deals very sensitively with the issue and seems to disarm a potentially hostile crowd with tact and grace:

Even so, I told my friend I found fault with Rev. Keller's presentation, because it seemed to me that this same determination to be tactful seemed to muddy the waters:
I think I know what he was trying to say, but he seemed so eager to show himself as tolerant that he never really seemed to get around to the real issues. He almost seemed to be saying homosexuality was not sinful and that sin is not grounds for judgment, which I'm sure is not what he intended to say. I also felt his framing the question as about "my church" instead of all Christians was confusing. I would have rather he framed it in terms of what the Bible clearly teaches. At some point you do have to deal with 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10, as unpleasant as that can be in today's society, because you don't want the audience walking out thinking you're saying homosexuality is no big deal. So back to the question, "Will homosexuality send you to hell?" Yes, of course it will, as will any other sin without the saving work of Jesus expressed through personal faith and repentance ... which is why part of loving our neighbors involves lovingly telling them the truth, so that they know that faith and repentance are necessary. We really don't need to make it too much more complicated than that, or it just comes out tortured and confusing.
This "tortured and confusing" interaction demonstrates the problem of trying to speak truth in love to a world that has so fundamentally changed the very language of the discussion.  How do we truly "love our neighbors" by speaking the truth, when they stand so ready to accuse us of "hate" for doing so? The answer is ... well, it's easier said than done!

The bottom line is that I'm still working my way through this matter:  how did we get here, and what should we do now?  I invite you to share in the discussion by posting your comments below ...

He Has Risen Indeed!

Resurrection Sunday!  Time to take a break and remember ...

Joy to the world! He has risen! Alleluia!


Thanks for the reminder, Keith.  I look forward to meeting you in glory when this life is through!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

By Faith: The Limits of Christian Apologetics

... for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
Except ... well, frankly, I'd really rather walk by sight.  Sorry ... but I'm just keepin' it real, y'know?

In 1972, Josh McDowell published his landmark apologetic, Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  In the 4 decades since, the book has been repeatedly revised, republished, amended, appended, attacked and defended.  McDowell's method emphasizes archaeological and documentary proof of the Bible's historical accuracy, which is important and abundant.  It is not--indeed, no amount of evidence can ever be--dispositive.  In other words, we will NEVER prove our case, even to our own satisfaction, by any apologetic method. Period.

Let me explain it another way.  I have often thought how much easier it would be to believe God--and conclusively prove His truths to others--if I could see one really impressive, knock-your-socks-off miracle.  I don't know, maybe something like this:
Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. (Exodus 7:20)
Yes, that would do it!  Just one like that and my testimony would be set for life!  Of course, apparently neither that, nor plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, death of the livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, or the death of the firstborn served to get through to Pharaoh.  But his was a special case, yes?  After all, He was raised up for that very purpose!

Now the people of Israel--God's chosen people--they had all that and more!  Where shall I start?  Pillars of fire and cloud.  Red Sea, parted.  Pharaoh's army, swamped.  Manna from Heaven.  Water from rocks.  Fireworks at Mount Sinai.  Shall I go on?  If ever there was a people with an abundance of proof of Yahweh's supremacy, this was the generation.  No need to check the documents or dig for clues.  They were set for life!

Er, except how'd that work out exactly?
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. (Hebrews 3:16-19)
The fact is simply this:  sight cannot replace faith.  At most, it purchases a temporary enthusiasm, as it did when Christ walked the earth and performed many miracles to the delight of crowds.  Yet these same crowds abruptly rejected, deserted, and called for the execution of the miracle-worker.  Like tepid fans turning on a losing team, they jumped off the bandwagon as soon as things got tough.

Don't get me wrong--I believe there is abundant evidence that testifies to the truth of Scripture.  I believe our faith is solidly substantiated and extremely reasonable!  Moreover, the Scripture makes clear that we need to stand ready to contend intelligently and persuasively for our faith. In other words, Christian apologetics is an important and necessary endeavor, because it demonstrates that our faith is firmly rooted in objective reality, not a blind leap into some fantastic alternate universe.

But apologetics cannot resolve doubt and unbelief.  These are ultimately spiritual maladies that can't be cured with applications of more and better evidence.  My testimony would certainly be more spectacular if I could engage in a little water-walking or produce never-before-seen video of Jesus' resurrection, but that does not mean it would ultimately be more effective.  Once again, there is no amount of sight that can penetrate the hardness of men's hearts.  Only the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit is sufficient for that!

So by all means, contend intelligently for the faith!  Engage the minds of men by testifying to the weight of the evidence and the reasonableness of Scriptural truth.  Just remember, we will never successfully debate the world into the Kingdom of God, nor will we ever finally resolve our own nagging doubts by mastering the apologia.  The wisdom of God will ever be foolishness to the carnal mind, for faith does not come by sight. It comes by the life-giving power of God's Spirit!
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Youth Ministry FAIL: The Church's 70% Dropout Rate

Happy, well adjusted ...
and out of the church within 5 years
How's your church's youth ministry going?  Before you answer that question, look beyond the crowded Wednesday night gathering with its rockin' Praise Band and the hip youth pastor who can "get real" with the kids.  Instead, look at the post-high-school dropout rate.  Where are those kids 5 years after graduation?

Statistics say 70% of them will have left the church.  Seventy percent. 

That's a very big number, and is going to include a lot of "great kids" who seem to be "on fire" during their teen years.  That also means the church is badly failing to equip our kids.  We've traded in disciple-making for the long term in favor of the short-term satisfaction of seeing happy kids in church.

If you haven't been there already, get over to Marc5Solas and absorb his observations on what is happening to our kids after they leave the church.  It's well worth reading in full, but I'll give you the condensed version here.

In short, we're working so hard to get our kids to emote for Jesus, that we're sending them out without even a rudimentary understanding of why they should.  We want so badly for them to see our Christianity as accepted and cool, that they trade in our phony hipness for the world's better product.  In other words, we're not teaching them Scripture.  We're targeting them with relevant-sounding messages by relevant-looking people and begging them to feel good about being Christians.  This is utterly inadequate, and a very thin reed on which to build authentic faith over the long term.

Now, the job isn't easy.  The American family--both inside and outside of the church--is a shattered mess.  I'd venture to say that most parents aren't looking for the kids they drop off at Youth Group to receive Biblical instruction.  To the extent they know what they want, they're looking for someone to entertain them in a safe, healthy, and positive environment ... or they want someone to fix them so they can survive high school without permanent damage.  They get little spiritual reinforcement at home.  Frankly, many of them are practically orphans ... at least spiritually.  So the church has a tall order to meet the need that presents itself.

But therein lies the temptation. There are lots of safe, healthy and positive environments.  Scouting, Boys & Girls Clubs, sports, after-school programs ... if the church is trying to compete with these we have already lost our way, because our mission and our message are utterly different from theirs.  Let them specialize in practical life skills for this world.  We preach Christ and Him crucified for eternity!  Or we're supposed to ...

It's great to focus on community, but community for what purpose?  Lots of organizations offer community.  As Francis Chan once said, "This is why I didn't believe in 'fellowship' before, because I didn't need any more 'friends'." Yet that is precisely what many of our youth programs most specialize in delivering--happy, well-adjusted kids in church.

Read Marc's crushing conclusion.  We've passed down a "faith" they simply don't need:
Our kids are smart. They picked up on the message we unwittingly taught. If church is simply a place to learn life-application principals to achieve a better life in community … you don’t need a crucified Jesus for that. Why would they get up early on a Sunday and watch a cheap knockoff of the entertainment venue they went to the night before? The middle-aged pastor trying desperately to be “relevant” to them would be a comical cliché if the effect weren’t so devastating. As we jettisoned the gospel, our students are never hit with the full impact of the law, their sin before God, and their desperate need for the atoning work of Christ. Now THAT is relevant, THAT is authentic, and THAT is something the world cannot offer.

We’ve traded a historic, objective, faithful gospel based on God’s graciousness toward us for a modern, subjective, pragmatic gospel based upon achieving our goal by following life strategies. Rather than being faithful to the foolish simplicity of the gospel of the cross we’ve set our goal on being “successful” in growing crowds with this gospel of glory. This new gospel saves no one. Our kids can check all of these boxes with any manner of self-help, life-coach, or simply self-designed spiritualism … and they can do it more pragmatically successfully, and in more relevant community. They leave because given the choice, with the very message we’ve taught them, it’s the smarter choice.

Our kids leave because we have failed to deliver to them the faith “delivered once for all” to the church. I wish it wasn’t a given, but when I present law and gospel to these kids, the response is the same every time: “I’ve never heard that.” I’m not against entertaining our youth, or even jumbotrons, or pizza parties (though I probably am against middle aged guys trying to wear skinny jeans to be “relevant).. it’s just that the one thing, the MAIN thing we’ve been tasked with? We’re failing. We’ve failed God and we’ve failed our kids. Don’t let another kid walk out the door without being confronted with the full weight of the law, and the full freedom in the gospel.
"This new gospel saves no one."  Well, at least 30% stick around to see what happens next.