Now, Where Did I Put my Darn Christianity?- Al Mohler on the Loss of Christian Memory

March 26, 2009

If I needed to find something out about Christianity and culture in today’s world, probably the first place I would turn would be to Dr. Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  His depth of knowledge of all that is going on affecting Christians in the world today is completely astounding.  They say that he has TV’s everywhere in his room broadcasting news from across the world and that he sleeps maybe 3-4 hours a night, which is why he is able to be so on top of things.  This may or may not be true, but regardless it seems like the only adequate solution for how someone could know as much as Mohler always does about current events.

One event in particular that Mohler has his finger on the pulse of is the loss of a collective Christian memory in 21st century New England.  By the “loss of Christian memory” we mean that the people have become so far away from the church and their Christian heritage that no residual effects of biblical Christian thinking seem to remain as an influence on their worldview.   (I actually have spoken about this idea at length in a previous series entitled The Laodicean Project.)  As Dr. Mohler notes, currently the people of New England are so far along the path towards secularization that the number of inhabitants checking “None” for religious affiliation is starting to rival  the number checking “Roman Catholicism” and “Protestant.”  Of course, as anyone can tell you, the number of “None’s” is generally an underestimate, representing  people who have managed to overcome the guilt that might make them want to check a Christian affiliation even though it does not describe them, and so this data is all the more troubling.

The consequences of this that Mohler sees, at least on the immediate horizon, is that it is leading to an increasing support for same-sex marriage in these states.  Though same-sex marriage has been prohibited in all states where it has come up for a popular vote, there are a number of states in New England which are approaching legislative action that would make this practice legal in them.

This is unnerving, but far worse than this is that, by losing their Christian memory, the people are getting to a point where they can no longer reasonably be expected to stumble upon Christianity at some point in their lives.  With a loss of Christian memory we lose a familiarity with the gospel message, and so as things start to go downhill they just pick up momentum and become all the more fabulously depraved since there are no roadblocks in the conscience calling people back to the biblical design.  What is even sadder is that this is happening in what once was the hot-bed of Christian thought in this country, where Jonathon Edwards preached and saw revival occur and several devout academic institutions opened to provide seminary education for the men of that region.

Dr. Mohler captures all of this in a new article on his blog and I strongly suggest you read it.  I am not as concerned with the possibility of legalized same-sex marriage as I am with his cultural commentary.  Even if it didn’t influence same-sex marriage decisions, the loss of Christian memory can hardly be viewed as a good thing, and so seeing it addressed in any fashion is important for us to check out.

This is where my heart is.  I want to be inside the post-Christian culture this loss has created, working to plant churches that will see lives transformed through a reintroduction of the gospel fire there.  If you feel the same, please act on it.  Right now the church is guilty of simply assuming these people are reached and so do not need the missionary attention that places like Africa and South America do, but in a sense they are just as frontier as any of those places.  Thus, we must go there, present the gospel, minister to the people, and pray that God will reawaken that Christian memory that has slowly slipped away.  

Read Dr. Mohler’s post on this here.

The Corruption of Modern Cultures- The Papacy Weighs in on the Decline of “Christian” Societies

October 6, 2008

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” -Romans 1.18-23

In light of some former posts on the problems facing the church in so-called “Christian” societies such as Great Britain, France, and even the United States (see The Laodicean Project), I thought it was interesting to hear the words which Pope Benedict XVI had to say this weekend is opening up a synod on Biblical relevancy. [Note: I do want to remark that I am in no way endorsing the papacy or the Catholic church, but only find this interesting as a matter of general Christian awareness]

Here are a few of the quotes from his speech:

Today, nations once rich in faith and vocations are losing their own identity, under the harmful and destructive influence of a certain modern culture.

There are those, who, after deciding that ‘God is dead,’ declare themselves to be ‘god’ and the artisan of their own destiny, the absolute master of the world.

When men proclaim themselves to be absolute masters of themselves and sole masters of creation, can they truly build a society where freedom, justice and peace reign?

As a point of information, these comments were directed specifically at the withering communities of Western Europe which have in the past half-century seen secular humanism replace Christianity, and are on the verge over the next half-century of seeing Islam replace Western society as a whole. I am curious to see how the wider Christian community deals with this issue, as these words coming from the papacy, though certainly nothing new, may strike many people for the first time as to the degradation plaguing the culture around (and possibly including) them.

I’ll be the first to say that a return to the 1950′s is not what we need, but it would be negligent to think that things aren’t snowballing downhill rather quickly these days. In a time when the Gospel message has all but vanished from our daily lives, I am thankful for any voice which may speak awareness to this in the Christian community (even if it is the Pope).

Here is the full news story from the Associated Press: Pope decries godless nature of modern societies

The Laodicean Project- A Quote by Spurgeon on the Famine

June 5, 2008

Recently I did a post on how the lack of true biblical preaching and teaching has led to a spiritual famine in our traditionally Christian societies. With this post I would just like to leave a short quote by Charles Spurgeon, known affectionately as the “Prince of Preachers,” concerning the misuse of the Bible by ministers in the pulpit. What’s interesting is that, if this were prevalent enough in Spurgeon’s day (circa 1860) to merit comment, think how much truer it must be today. So, from his book Lectures to My Students here is Spurgeon on the famine in the pulpit: (emphasis added)

We must insist upon it, that there must be abundance of matter in sermons, and next, that this matter must be congruous to the text. The discourse should spring out of the text as a rule, and the more evidently it does so the better; . . . Some brethren have done with their text as soon as they have read it. Having paid all due honour to that particular passage by announcing it, they feel no necessity further to refer to it. They touch their hats, as it were, to that part of Scripture, and pass on to fresh fields and pastures new. Why do such men take a text at all? Why limit their own glorious liberty?

The Laodicean Project- My Church Can Beat Your Church Up!

June 3, 2008

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” -1 Corinthians 1:10-17

Another crucial aspect that I feel the Church needs to get in order to be able to effectively reach traditionally Christian societies is the aspect of unity. In this I don’t mean to argue that we should dissolve denominational boundaries (though I think this should be done to some extent) but instead that we should strive to be on mission together both inside our church and collectively as churches. I say this because it seems to me that a prevailing attitude in the Christian community today is to be in competition with everyone else, whether that be with or brothers and sisters in our own church, or between various churches in our neighborhoods and communities.

The first issue we would want to deal with is competition among our brothers and sisters in our own church. This is specifically what it appears that Paul is talking about when he comments that he “thank[s] God” that he only baptized a few of the people in the church at Corinth, so that there would not be great division over who was baptized by whom. Personally I know that I can relate to this because it has often been, and still is sometimes, a flaw of mine that I feel like I am in competition with those sitting in the pews around me. It is a competition to have the keenest insight or to appear the most compassionate or encouraging person. Just a week ago I experienced this as I was planning on sending out an email to remind some men about a small group meeting, when all of a sudden I went online and saw that someone else had already done this. Just this tiny thing made me feel slightly discouraged that I wasn’t able to show my devotion and piety by being the one who reminded everyone. Of course this attitude was sinful and I repented and asked for peace and humility to not stumble over such thoughts, but I know that this is still a prevalent temptation in my life.

This type of competition is so harmful to the church body. When a group of people are solely interested in elevating themselves and seeing themselves glorified higher than one another it leads to an environment where (1) people are not interested in listening to each other but only concerned with topping what the other person said or did, and (2) people try and steal the glory from God and place it on themselves. Therefore, we need to strive to defeat this attitude of oneupmanship among our congregation, a call which is specifically poignant to the guys in the group. A particularly good book to think about reading if you are dealing with this issue is Humility by CJ Mahaney.

Second, we have to keep from getting caught up in competing with other churches in our area. This may or may not be what Paul is addressing when he talks of the divisions and the quarrellings among the people who say “I follow Paul” or “I follow Peter,” that the church at Corinth had broken down into sects depending upon the teacher a group followed and then these groups battled for supremacy of ones authority over another. Regardless of if this is what was happening, it is clear to see that this is not the appropriate way to operate. Of course, we have to speak carefully, since there are divisions among churches which would be appropriate, like the case if a congregation begins teaching things in contradiction to the Scriptures such as Christ was not God or you can be saved by works apart from faith. These types of doctrinal issues should separate churches and groups of believers. However, the type of division and competition which is harmful is that which says “We must be the biggest church” and “We must have the most influence in the city.” Institutionally it can be the case that our churches display the same lack of concern for God’s glory as we can as individuals.

A particular way that this comes out is when churches begin attacking each other in order to win over certain audiences that may have prejudices against a specific characteristic of a church. One instance I can recall of this in my life was a battle between two churches which sat next to each other on a major road in my hometown. One church had four to six thousand in attendance over a typical weekend, whereas the other one probably had one service of 150. When the time came for the larger church to begin building more structures in order to fit their ever-growing congregation, apparently the little church decided it had had enough with the circus next door, because I will never forget what their marquee read over those few months. It said, “Come join us as we keep growing in God’s way.” This has always stuck with me, that this one church, instead of trying to carry out its mission with the lot that God had granted it, or instead of encouraging and being thankful that the congregation next door was being blessed so greatly, they decided to try and turn people against the larger church in order to increase their own standing. I don’t know how it worked out for them, but I can tell you most assuredly that I don’t think God was pleased with this.

So that’s what we need to keep in mind. The Church isn’t a business and we are not in competition with other Christ following congregations in our communities. We are all called to evangelize, baptize, and train up disciples in order that individuals may be saved and God may be glorified, and this should never come at the expense of any other fellowship of believers. We need to be thankful for what the Lord grants us, aggressive in pursuing it, but in the end we need to encourage our fellow churches that strive to see people reached in a biblical manner as well. We must keep in mind that the body of Christ is not divided and that a soul saved and rightly discipled is a joy to the Lord, regardless of which local body carries it out.

The Laodicean Project- Feeding a Land in Famine

May 31, 2008

“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land- not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.” -Amos 8:11-12

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” -2 Timothy 4:1-5

The next aspect of what we can do congregationally to try and reach “Christian” societies is to heed Paul’s advice to Timothy and “Preach the Word!” (2 Timothy 4:2). To many of us today this seems like such an old-fashioned thing, but as the Bible teaches, it is the foundational part of all Christian evangelism.

In many churches today there is a debate over just how to use Scripture. Some places the argument is over whether there is contradiction between the teachings of Paul and the teachings of Jesus, and if so, whose side should we take? In others it is a debate over whether the Bible is still accurate for us today or if its’ teachings should be rethought in light of how our culture has evolved (this is the idea of a trajectory hermeneutic)? And still in others, the debate is over what is the true Gospel and if we should change our perspective on the Gospel to make it more applicable to modern or postmodern culture? To all of this I would just say one thing: preach the Word!

As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2 something which I think we should take to heart again today:

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Paul did not want to attempt, in this Greek town of Corinth, to use philosophy or intelligent words or complex thoughts to win the people. Instead he wanted to rest upon the “power of God” to work through his simple message of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” to effect change in the lives of the Corinthians. If he were to recast this today it could not be said any better. It appears to me that too often in our postmodern church we try and win people over by doing everything but proclaiming “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” We offer up love and peace and radical new interpretations. We can see it most plainly in the book titles on our shelves: The Secret Message of Jesus, New Perspectives on Paul, The New Christians. For some reason today we feel the need to find a new angle on the Scriptures that has not been tried in the past 2000 years, and that without that we will be ineffective at growing the church.

However, to see a Biblical picture of what’s supposed to happen, all we have to do is look at the testimony of Nehemiah in Nehemiah 8. It is in this chapter that we see the first public church service in the newly rebuilt Jerusalem. And what is the message for that day? Well, we see that “they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses (v.1)”, which he did, and he proceeded to “read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. . . . They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading (vv.3,8).” So, Ezra and his fellow scribes read straight through from Genesis to Deuteronomy, clearly, and while doing so they exposited on the text. They didn’t skip pieces or bring in extra-biblical texts, just the Law as revealed to Moses. And this took 4 to 6 hours, yet the people stayed and listened attentively. Then what happened next? “All the people wept as they heard the words of the Law (v.9).” The people had an emotional reaction to it. They were broken and they fell on their faces and cried for the sins and the disobedience that they had committed. And then what? “Then he [Nehemiah] said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’ . . . And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing (v.10,12a).” The people rejoiced for they knew that God had forgiven them and that he was their strength for salvation. And how did they know this? “Because they had understood the words that were declared to them (v.12b).” The preaching of God’s Word had done this change. Wow!

So, as we see here, the clear exposition of God’s Word, by his faithful and learned scribes (Ezra 7:6-10) unto the people led them to brokenness, repentance, and then joy for their salvation! Contrast this with what the Lord says in Amos, that the absence of his Word leads people to “wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD (Amos 8:12).” With his Word, people are found, and without his Word, they are lost! Keeping this in mind I believe that we need to honestly evaluate if the Word of God is truly being preached from our mouths and our pulpits or if we are vainly trying to win the souls of men through our “lofty speech and wisdom”, and only once this is set right can we begin to see revival in our wandering “Christian” societies!

The Laodicean Project- Malachi Speaks to Our Emerging Bretheren

May 30, 2008

It never ceases to amaze me at how while reading the Bible you can come across certain verses that seem so appropriate for our modern/postmodern context that you almost forget they were written over 2000 years ago. It is such a reminder of how the problems we deal with today are problems that the people of God have always had to deal with. This is both comforting, because it helps you know that the things that are being said today have already been tried and argued and God has already come out on top, and frustrating, because you see that the church has really not come all that far in the 2000 years since Christ’s death.

The verse which spoke so heavily to me can be found in the book of the prophet Malachi in his prophecy to the Israelites as they continue working on rebuilding Jerusalem.

You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17)

This verse seems so pertinent to me in light of our last post concerning the emerging church and how they tend to struggle with losing their saltiness while out in the world. The reason why I think this is so is because in this one verse we see two claims that the emerging people are so frequent to make and we can see how God responds to them.

Working in reverse, the first statement we see is the question “Where is the God of justice?” So many are want to rail this claim against God, that he is unjust because he appears to be sitting idly by while people suffer and die in poverty and obscurity or from painful sickness and disease. He seems to sit by while families are torn apart by drugs and cheap cons. Emerging leaders such as Brian McLaren are so concerned with injustice that it becomes the focal point of who they are and what their ministry preaches, like his book The Secret Message of Jesus. Bart Ehrman wrote a book on this called God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer. Rob Bell is writing a book concerning social justice to be released in the fall called Jesus Came to Save Christians. The Emerging Church views God’s inability, or the inability of God’s people, to end suffering and promote social reform as the primary concern of the Church today. And yet, how does their evangelism prosper when they do such things? How does it help Brian McLaren’s ministry when he is arrested for protesting the federal budget?

The second statement made is that “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.” This takes on various forms in the emerging church, but probably the most obvious is in their promotion of homosexuality. For whatever reason, the emerging church and gay rights have become inextricably intertwined. Whether it be the out-and-out acceptance of it by leaders such as Tony Campolo, or if it is the tacit acceptance by McLaren and his slippery line of “Frankly, many of us don’t know what we should think about homosexuality.” To me this type of response is beyond disingenuous. With the current climate of moral and social living in America, there should not be any person going into the ministry who is unsure where they stand on homosexuality. Go to the mountains like Jesus, or take three years out to study like Paul. But whatever you do, don’t go stand up in front of the people you are supposed to shepherd and tell them you don’t know what to do with probably the single most pressing moral issue of our time! It is the same with abortion, sex outside of marriage, alcohol and drug use, and manner of speech. The emerging church has decided that there are a set of things that they want to do, either out of their own desires or out of a desire to appease the world, and instead of calling things black and white as stated in the Bible, they hide under a cloud of cultural relativity and freedoms in Christ to maintain these behaviors. They pronounce what is evil as being good in the sight of God, even to the point that some consider God as being a universalist!

So what does the passage say is God’s response to all of this? “You have wearied the LORD with your words.” God says through Malachi that he has been wearied by these statements made by his people. To weary means to make jaded or exhausted. With their words, the people of God, and I believe the emerging church as well, have exhausted God. Not that he is tired, but that his patience and his exercise of mercy have been exhausted on them. And honestly, the last place I want to stand is on the brink of God removing his mercy. It is like when your mom says, “You’re getting on my last nerve,” only it is the most powerful being in the universe who is about to unleash his cosmic discipline upon you!

Of course, we may discuss the merits of these claims and argue over whether the things mentioned above are really sin, but as far as I see it, the emerging church needs to refocus their efforts on being the Salt and working to preserve God’s goodness and turn away from the attitudes which God has warned before lead to his weariness with them.

The Laodicean Project- And Add a Pinch of Salt

May 29, 2008

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” -Matthew 5:13-16

In our first post concerning the above passage we discussed how the evangelical church has tended to fail in the way in which they behave as a light to the world, hiding that light under a basket and burning the skin of the ones whose path they need to illuminate. Today, in the second post on this passage I wish to discuss how the emerging church fails to do its job as the Salt.

Though I imagine we are all mostly familiar with this by now I think it is important that we review what salt meant to the people during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Today we view salt only as a seasoning for our food, and possibly (depending on your climate region) a substance used to keep roads from freezing. However, salt in First century Rome held a slightly different meaning. At that point in history there was no such thing as refrigeration, and since it wasn’t exactly practical for people to slaughter an animal every night and eat it in its’ entirety before the heat spoiled it, the people had to find some way to preserve food. They did this by using salt. With the salt as a cure for the meat they could then keep it for longer periods of time, allowing them to save both work and money on dinner. Salt also worked as an antiseptic to pack wounds with and keep them free of infection (Ouch!).

But, another thing that the ancient world lacked, besides fridges, was manufactured table salt. Instead, the people of that time used salt extracted from the sea. And one inherent problem with sea salt is that it does not retain its capabilities as salt forever. This is what Jesus is alluding to in saying the salt has “lost its taste.” That means that the salt no longer worked as a seasoning, and more importantly, it no longer worked as a preservative or antiseptic.

So, with this understanding, let’s look again at what this passage means. If we are called to be “the salt of the earth” then this means that we are to act as both a preservative and an antiseptic for the world. Christians should act both to preserve the world in keeping away evil, encouraging people away from evil deeds and in general promoting holy living, and as an antiseptic by helping to cleanse out evil and remove the infection of sinful living in various aspects of the culture.

Thus, my claim against the emerging church is that they have lost their saltiness. They are effective at getting out into the world, being wrapped around environments which need preservation or being packed into situations that need cleansing, but they have lost their saltiness and so their presence does not make a difference and does not keep things from going bad or getting worse. I see the emerging church as very effective at being the Light that we desired of the evangelical church; at engaging the culture, at getting down into the gritty places where many Christians have trouble reaching, and relating to sinful people on a level where they don’t burn them. However, at this level, I don’t see much preservation or cleansing. Sure, they are able to pull people into the church, but are they really preserving them from the corrupting influence of the world? I don’t believe so.

Instead, I believe that we see too much association with the sinful world on behalf of the believers in the emerging church. So much so that they lose their own saltiness and instead of influencing the culture they are letting the culture influence them. This can be clearly seen in the decidedly liberal bend of most emerging congregations. Congregations which have traded in standing on Biblical truth for being acceptable to the general population. Congregations which have decided that the Cross was too offensive and so have decided to remove the offensive parts on their own without ever getting God’s permission to do so. They have fully accepted their role as being Salt to pack the culture in, but because they have lost their taste they are of no more good to the culture than if they were just thrown out into the street and trampled on.

If the emerging church is going to have a lasting positive impact on “Christian” societies I truly believe that they need to try and regain their saltiness, regain their preservative and antiseptic abilities, so that in their myriad interactions with the world they can be an effective agent for removing and keeping away the corruption of sin. It is real encouraging to see the passion which so many in the emerging movement seem to bring, and to see their excellence at engaging the secular culture of our society. But, at the end of the day, if they stand in a position where Jesus says they are just as well off being trampled under foot, then their connections with the culture are going to make no more difference for the kingdom than if they had never even tried.

The Laodicean Project- This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine!

May 28, 2008

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” -Matthew 5:13-16

To continue on with our discussion of how the corporate church can help reach out to “Christian” societies, I think it would be best if we look at a very familiar passage. I would venture to say that anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Church has heard at least three lessons taught out of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Of those three it would be no doubt that one of them was on the topic of being the Salt and the Light. And, if you heard this lesson you undoubtedly heard your teacher close by saying “Now go and be a light into this dark, sinful world.” The question is, did you? It is this thought which I want to expound on over the next two posts. In this first post I want to discuss how the evangelical church has failed in its’ adherence to Jesus call to be the Light, and in the second post we will look at how the emerging church is failing to heed Jesus’ words on being the Salt.

(Note: The inspiration for these posts came to me from John Stott’s excellent book The Living Church. To anyone who is interested in methods of how to make the church both effective and relevant, such as people who have read They Like Jesus but Not the Church or unChristian, I strongly recommend this book. Stott is an amazing theologian, and even in his 90′s he is able to deliver a work which is both extremely practical as well as Biblical sound).

It appears to me, given the current state of the evangelical church in America and other Western cultures, that the resounding part of Jesus’ message on the Light for them is the opening phrase, “You are the light of the world.” They really seem to take this to heart and it shows out through their involvement in politics, talk radio, and literature. They view their role as light as central to everything in their Christian faith. However, though their light is burning strong, there are two problems which I see with the way they are using it.

The first problem I see is that they fail to heed the third sentence of Jesus’ exposition: “Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket!” There is such a strong call in today’s evangelical culture to put our light under a basket, though it is not nearly that blunt. Instead it masquerades itself in the self-imposed isolationism which evangelicals put on themselves. They avoid the theatre and the cinemas because the images and language are too racy. They run from secular radio and television for the same reasons. They go out to eat, but never too late, and never where there is dancing or a bar. But beyond all of that, probably my biggest disagreement with this mentality is the way in which Christian parents are sprinting away from the public schools. They have all of this light but they put it under a bushel because they are afraid of what might happen if they were out in the world.

It is to this type of attitude which Paul in 1 Corinthians writes “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world (5:9-10).” Even back then, the people of God began to see themselves as so holy and set apart that they chose to set themselves apart physically, which was never the intent of the teachings. So, in order to rectify this, evangelicals (myself included) need to look inward more closely and see if there are areas of our lives in which we should be more open and engaging, more willing to take our light out to. I understand that there are some of us who make these decisions based on personal conviction, but I sincerely believe that not all of this withdrawal is based on a conviction of purity. If we don’t see God leading us to stay away from certain areas then we should take that as his invitation for us to take our light out into those areas.

The second problem I see is that too often we are using our light to burn people. If we are a lighted candle, it appears that we more frequently run our flame against others flesh than we use it to provide light to their surroundings. This can be clearly seen through the sometimes arrogant, sometimes vitriolic way in which evangelicals engage the world. Again we should reflect on Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 where he says “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’” We can’t just go around kicking the world in the teeth for being sinful. They’re the world. They’re supposed to be sinful, else they would be brothers.

To rectify this failing I think we need to look at how Jesus handled his engagement with the world. I think a pertinent example would be his meeting with the woman at the well in John 4. It is clear from Christ’s words in verse 16 that he knew this woman was a serial adulterer/divorcee and that even now she was living with a man who was not her husband. Yet, the interesting thing is, that is not how he starts the conversation. Sure, he gets to it soon enough, but the first interaction we see Jesus having with her is one of bonding and building of trust (“Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’… The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) (vv.7-9)”) and then of sharing with her the hope of Christ himself (“Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.’ (vv.13-14)”). It is only once Christ has shared with her the hope that exists that he declares to her her need for him, that being her fallen nature. Through this, we see Jesus using the light to illuminate the path to the woman. He doesn’t seek to burn her and then say “It’s okay, I’m the Great Physician,” but instead he says “I am the hope for eternal life” and then he illuminates the path so that she may what stands in her way of getting there. We need to take this to heart as evangelicals, not seeking to tear down unbelievers by focusing on their sins, but showing them the eternal hope that we have in Christ and then showing them that their sin is all that stands in the way of them realizing that hope as well.

We are called to be the Light of Christ into this sinful world, and hopefully upon prayerful consideration of what we’ve discussed today we can let that light shine out unhindered by a basket and free from burning our neighbors, in order that the Light may transform the darkness that surrounds them.

The Laodicean Project- What Will Cleanse the People?

May 25, 2008

Continuing our look at how our corporate actions can be used to reach “Christian” societies, there is another verse I would like to share with you. This time it comes out of the book of Haggai (really digging for these, huh?). Haggai was a prophet, alongside Zechariah, during the time of the rebuilding of the temple and the city gates of Jerusalem, the event whose history is given in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Haggai was focused directly on the rebuilding of the temple, and so along with this came the question of how the people are cleansed by the ceremonial law:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’” The priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” Then Haggai answered and said, “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean. (Haggai 2:11-14)

So, in this verse we see God asking the question through his prophet, “Are things made holy simply by being in the presence of something holy? Are things made defiled by being in the presence of something defiled?”

Working in reverse, the answer to the second question is “Yes.” If things or people or ideas are clean and holy, and then something unclean is introduced, then the defilement of the unclean thing ruins the whole bunch. This is the same as the principle being expressed by Paul in Galatians when he says “A little leaven leavens the whole lump (5:9).” This plays itself out in numerous ways in our life; through relationships, activities we engage in, the words we say, books we read. If we are not careful to protect the things which are holy from the things which aren’t then we stand to lose the holiness that we had to start with (see also 1 Corinthians 15:33).

As to the first question, “Are things made holy simply by being in the presence of something holy?”, the answer that comes is “No.” Yet do we believe this? Do we act this way? I don’t believe so. I think too often in our churches we think that just by being in church, just by being in Sunday School or a Bible Study or participating in “Guys Nights” that we are being made holy. I know in my own life I operated for a long time under the thought that a personal, daily time with God wasn’t necessary because I was at church twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday, and in Bible Study on Tuesday. Yet it isn’t enough, or should I say, it is not the right stuff. Yes, a good pastor (shepherd) should “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2), but as John Stott says in his book The Living Church, “But how do shepherds feed their sheep? The answer is that they don’t. To be sure, if a lamb is sick, a shepherd may bottle feed it. But usually he leads his sheep into good pastures where they feed themselves.” Until we beat this mindset that we are cleansed by simply being IN the church we will have trouble being of any good to those OUTSIDE the church.

It is so wonderful how the Old Testament prophets can still speak volumes to us. The same problems which caused the Israelites to be scattered and destroyed back then are the same things which are causing us to fall apart today, so we would be careful to heed the word which God has already revealed and preserved for us to know.

The Laodicean Project- A Verse on Cleansing and Protecting Our Leadership

May 24, 2008

While I was thinking over the issue of our need to cleanse the leadership of the church in order to more effectively reach traditionally Christian societies I was reading in the book of Ezra. The story given in Ezra is the same as that in Nehemiah, about the return of the Jews to Jerusalem where they work to rebuild the city gates and to construct anew the temple of the Lord. And during this period, a continual theme that we see come about is the constant attempt by adversaries of God’s people to keep the work of the kingdom from being done.

One particular attempt at this really struck me, as it came in a slightly different flavor than most of the others that are written about. Typically in Ezra and Nehemiah we see the foes of the Israelites come in and try and scare the people away under threat of death (see Nehemiah 4) or by trying to convince the kings to decree a halt to their work (see Ezra 4:6-5:17). However, a different tactic is tried in Ezra 4:1-3:

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”

It is in this passage that we see the opposition come up to the Israelites and claim an allegiance to the God of Israel in order to try and get inside of the congregation and tear down the building from the inside. I believe that a lot of times this is what we see happening in our own congregations; people coming in, claiming allegiance to Christ in order not to serve Him, but instead to gain status and influence in directing the Church in the way that they see fit and not the way God does. We need to be aware of this and we need to follow the example of the workers in Ezra, not afraid to put our foot down and judge the intentions of those who would seek to see the work of God’s kingdom destroyed.