Monday, April 17, 2017

Four Ways to Know if Your Church is Out of Touch

"We want to reach our community!"  In 24 years of ministry, I've never served or consulted with a single congregation that didn't say this.  But for too many churches, they just weren't getting it done.

For many years, church leaders have attended conferences, listened to church growth "experts," and copied strategies that were successful in other contexts in the hope that the result would be people coming to Christ and communities being impacted.  But too often, the most critical piece of the puzzle wasn't even considered.

Too many churches are implementing "strategies" that have little to no connection to their community.  This is because too many churches are completely out of touch with their surrounding community.

How do you know if your church has lost touch?  Over the years, I've observed four primary indicators:

1. The members of the congregation aren't from the community.  Driving through a not-yet-gentrified area of Louisville Kentucky years ago, we saw prostitutes on the corner, witnessed people entering the local crack houses, and sensed the obvious presence of darkness.  But once we turned into the church parking lot, we saw a Lexus, parked next to a Mercedes, which was in turn parked next to a Cadillac.

Those who had been members of this church for decades claimed they wanted to reach this community.  But the community had drastically changed over the years, and the church members no longer lived there!  They understood nothing of the poverty and addiction that surrounded them, and had no personal desire to envelope themselves in the lives of "those people," but they fully expected the community to   come into a facility, structure, and approach to ministry that was totally foreign to them.  If no one from your church lives in the community, it may be time to relocate your church, and give the building back to believers who actually live there.

2. Church meetings don't include substantive discussion of the community.  It was a three hour business meeting that included a lot of very important issues: what should the worship service look like?  How should we structure ourselves?  And of course, "who is going to be in control?"  But for 180 minutes, this dying church said nothing about Jesus, or the community that surrounded them.

If you spend more time analyzing the church than you do serving the community your church was put there to serve, its a sure sign your church is completely out of touch.

3. There is no link between church ministries and the common concerns of your community.  The church was seriously considering spending $3 million on a brand new, state-of-the-art "family life center," complete with a full-sized gymnasium, free weights and nautilus equipment, and aerobics classes.  Problem was, no one had considered that there was already a $15 million facility just across the street that provided all those things already--and did so in a way the church would never be able to compete with.

Too often, churches start food pantries, ministries for single moms, recovery ministries, divorce care, financial counseling, and a thousand other things without so much as asking a single person from the community what the needs are.   A church that truly serves its community listens to its community, connects community needs with its own ministries, and those ministries with the Gospel.

4. Community Transformation isn't part of the vision.  When I teach church planting courses, one of the assignments always includes the students assembling an initial strategy plan for a new church that includes community analysis, vision, mission, and an overview of the first 18 months.  And I warn the students that if the vision stops with a picture of the church, they will have earned a failing grade!

Church is essential to the mission.  In fact, without the church, there is no true mission!  But though the church is necessary, it is not ultimate.  God's Kingdom is ultimate, and the result of any effective church that is aware of its surroundings is a community that reflects more of the Kingdom of God.  How will the community look different 10 years from now if your church is truly obedient to Jesus.  If you haven't answered that question, then whatever you have described isn't vision.  If you've never asked the question in the first place, your church may be completely out of touch.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Why the "Public/Private/Home Education Debate" needs to Stop...Now!

Heresy has always threatened to corrupt the church.  From its earliest days when Marcion sought to add books to her Bible to the various prosperity gospel preachers and Jehovah's Witnesses that exist today, there are teachings that have damnable results.

There are also erroneous beliefs that can cause misalignment of the church and her mission, and wise pastors will be on the lookout for anything that might steer the church in the wrong direction.  But beyond the overt heresy threats and legitimate concern over doctrinal error, there exist debates in the church that rage as though the Trinity itself were under fire.  The Calvinist-Arminian argument is about to enter its 6th century soon.  Discussions about the proper way to engage in politics can easily degenerate into believers aligning Jesus with their own party preferences.  And debate about end times?  I'd honestly rather stick a lit cigarette in my eye!

But lately, it seems we are involved in another round of yet another raging debate.  And this time, its once again over the question of how we should educate our children.

My own denomination has passed two resolutions in the last decade encouraging parents to remove their children from the public school systems of America,  And recently, in what appears to be an over-reaction to these evangelical isolationist tendencies, parents in some "missional" circles are being guilted into unquestioned, blind dedication to the public school system--as if millions will go to hell and the next generation will grow up Amish if Jr. doesn't attend PS 148

So here is my word to both of these groups:  Knock it off!

Seriously, this is the absolute DUMBEST debate we have ever had in the church.  And believe me, that's saying something!  But apparently, we have a number of "educational exclusivists" among us who think there is only one "Biblical" way to educate your child.  So let me address both groups briefly here.

To the "private/home school only" advocates.  The public school systems in the US aren't demon possessed.  In fact, as someone who has lived and worked in four states, I can tell you from experience that they aren't even all the same!  But I can tell you this:  there are many, MANY followers of Jesus who serve our communities as teachers, principles, and members of local Boards of Education.  And alongside of them are multiple Christian families with their children who are the very salt and light those school systems need!  Schools are the point at which cultures are created.  Why on earth would we advocate abandonment of something that influential--to the extent that we would be willing to judge families for sending their child to a publicly funded school?  So stop judging your Christian neighbors for trying to have some influence on a very strategic part of our culture, and spend that time finding ways to engage yourself!

To the "public school only" advocates.  First, put down you latest copy of NEA Today and back away slowly!  Home schooled children aren't sheltered or isolated by default, and non-traditional education won't ruin the next generation.. In fact, this country lasted for over 100 years without a nationally funded public school system.  Yet some have suggested that parents who educate their kids in alternative ways aren't qualified to be missionaries or plant churches.  If that's you, then you need to ditch your preconceived notions and widen your horizons a bit.

And while your'e at it, put away your stereotypical pictures of Mom in a long dress carrying eggs from the chicken house with 14 kids in tow.  If that is your idea of an alternatively-educated child, then you need to get out more yourself. Sure, there are isolationist families who wrongly believe they can keep their kids away from sin, and who have forgotten that their kids live with them!  Those borderline Amish-families do exist, but they are far from the "norm" when it comes to non-traditional education.  Homeschool co-ops, private educational institutions, and umbrella organizations consist of Christians, Atheists, Muslims, Jews, Republicans, Democrats, and nearly anyone else!  It is truly ironic that those who accuse parents who privately educate their kids of being "anti-missional" have a most myopic view of this whole issue--as though blind devotion to one type of school system is the only way to truly engage culture.  Its simply not true.

Let me suggest, rather than advocating a particular position that you think is right for everybody (News Flash: You aren't responsible for everyone else's kids!), perhaps Christian parents should band together, and do the following:

Advocate for parental rights, always.  There have been times when our kids were enrolled in the public school system, and other times when we opted for non-traditional education.  But one thing has never changed--I as their father am their primary educator.  That's my job!  And if you are a Dad or Mom, its your job too!  That vision can't be realized if a local school board always has "veto power" over a parent, nor can public schools truly be held accountable if they also hold all the authority.

When parents approach me as a pastor to get my advice on how to educate their kids, I ask a lot of questions, and I try to give them the best and most thorough advice I can based on that individual family's situation.  Then I say "Mom and Dad, this is your choice, and your church family is here for you regardless."

Let's stop telling parents what they ought to do and instead, let them be the parents.

Support the local public school system, even if your kids don't go there.  Our church sponsors a home-school co-op that meets on our campus every Tuesday, and houses about 300 kids of various ages and grades.  But we also invest in the many wonderful public educators who are part of our faith family.  Last year, we asked all the public school teachers in our church to compile a "wish list" of items they need that they usually have to cover out of their own pocket--and we provided for those needs.  And we did it because these men and women are going into one of the most strategic areas of influence in the 21st century!  You don't have to have a child enrolled in a public school to desire that the public schools flourish.  You just need to be a follower of Jesus who wants good for your community.  Local churches ought to be the best friend that the public schools in their communities have.

Make the right decision for your child.  Here me well on this.  Your first concern should not be the NEA, the Christian right, what your friends at church think, or whether someone thinks you are "missional enough."  Your first concern is your child.  My wife and I have a "per child, per year" discussion of how our kids are doing, and every year, we make the decisions we feel will best prepare our kids for the life God has for them.

Because I believe educational choice is a right of parents, I also believe parents bear the primary responsibility for the education of their children.  Don't choose public school because you are afraid someone might call you xenophobic.  And don't choose private or home school because you fear being thought of as that parent who turned your child over to Satan.  Do what is best for your kids.

And we can't act in the best interests of our children if our decisions are driven by recalcitrant ideology rather than our child's future.

Let's realize that we all aren't going to raise our children in exactly the same way.  Let's stop pressuring every parent to educate the way we educate, and let's spend that time getting to know our children.  Then based on that knowledge, let's make an educational choice that ensures they become the arrows God calls us to send into the world (Psalm 127:4-5) For some families, the public school system in their neighborhood is exactly the place for that to happen.  For others, a different choice will need to be made.

Let's respect each other's choices and convictions, pray for each other's kids, and when it comes to this debate, let's just knock it off!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

5 Qualities of a Great Team Member

Leadership is, by default, a "team sport."  If you have no one to lead, how can you be a leader?  But having a group to lead doesn't necessarily mean you will lead them well, nor does it mean they will necessarily be a "great team."

Over the years, I've often bragged publicly about the folks who have worked with me, and for me, and I have been truly blessed through most of my ministry to have some great team members.  But I've also had some bad experiences in this department, and my observations of these contrasting experiences have revealed a few characteristics that make someone a truly great team member.  So if you have leadership responsibilities over a group of people--be they paid subordinates or volunteers, how can you tell if someone will make a "great team member?"  I've found the following five questions helpful:

1. Do They Want You to Personally Succeed?  Great team members aren't just after their own success. They want the entire team to succeed, and they have a clear understanding that if the guy/gal at the top fails, such failure will also reflect on them.  This  means they will sometimes challenge the leader for what they perceive is the leader's own good.  It doesn't mean they will always get it right, but if their motivation is to see you as their leader succeed, they are someone you want to keep.

2. Do They Care About Your Well-Being?  Great team members aren't all about the work, principally because they understand that anything affecting one's personal life in a negative way will eventually spill over into the professional arena.  Great team members are personally concerned for your family, for your health, and for your mental well-being.

3. Are They Loyal without Being Blind?  One doesn't need to be a "lap dog" to be loyal.  In fact, "blind loyalty" is actually disloyalty, because it ignores things that can bring a leader down.  As a leader, I've always had a policy with those who work for me that is expressed in this way: "My door is open to you, so long as you close it before you criticize me."  If I'm about to do something incredibly stupid (its happened once or twice!), I want people on my team who will tell me that.  Part of "managing up" is striking the careful balance between respect for authority in public, and appropriately challenging that authority in private.

4. When they Offer Criticism, does it contribute to solutions?  Anybody can criticize.  Anybody can find something wrong with the plan.  And anybody can tear down people they work for.  We are all imperfect, and finding those imperfections merely to point them out is the work of kindergarten students.  Great team members are able to offer appropriate criticism, at the right time, aimed at the right place, in order to point toward a right solution.

5. Do they love the mission?  I have a friend who says that Marines don't need to sit around for hours discussing their mission.  They simply dig a foxhole and fight together.  Too often in the church, we think that if we can just somehow "create" community, we will have mission. But it actually works in the opposite way.  Community doesn't create mission.  Mission creates community. In the end, how educated or skilled the individual members of your team are matters far less than their passion for the mission.  If you aren't clear on the mission, and engaged in it together, your team will always be dysfunctional.  This means you have to ask, of each individual member of your team: "Do they understand that the overall mission is more important than any 'part' of the mission, and are they committed to that mission with us?"

You can't be a loner and be in ministry--at least not for long!  And you can never do it effectively by yourself.  Be sure you have good people on your team, and ask these questions before you put them there.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Five Lies People Tell about the Church

As a pastor, I've had many unfortunate encounters with domestic violence and its consequences.  I've sat in my office across the table from a woman wearing sunglasses to hide the bruises.  I've tried to comfort children as their father was handcuffed and taken from their home for beating up mom.  In a few situations, the husband was escorted to jail as he simultaneously declared his love for the woman he just battered.  But no one--not the police, his children, or me--was buying it.  The violence and vitriol that brought all of us to that house was evidence enough that he didn't truly love her.

You just can't beat someone up while claiming at the same time that you love them.  No one believes that--unless of course, you are talking about the church.

There seem to be a lot of people who "follow Jesus" but take every opportunity they can get to give His bride a black eye.  Too many of them claim to be "Christian leaders" who are constantly critical of the church.  Though their violence against her isn't physical, the lies they spread about her infect our culture like cancer.

Of course, the church isn't perfect.  Each time I speak at an ordination service for a new pastor I warn the young man of the challenges that await him by expressing  that while one day Jesus' bride will be spotless, beautiful, and completely holy (Revelation 7:9-17), right now she can be a rather ugly woman!  Like Israel before her, sometimes she can be stubborn, given too much to tradition, concerned only for herself, and even openly rebellious against her Lord.  The wedding supper still in her future, the bride of Christ remains in her chamber working on multiple imperfections as she prepares for that day.  She is a work in progress.

But there is a difference between honest, helpful critique of the church and the snide, dismissive tone with which too many who claim to follow Jesus speak about His beloved.  As one called to be a shepherd to His people, I admit that I can get quite defensive when I sense that helpful criticism has descended into outright verbal abuse.  After all, you are talking about my family!

Over the years, the most acute forms of this abuse have presented themselves through five lies people tell about the church.

1. They don't care about the poor/homeless/disenfranchised.  Less than a month after moving to the West Virginia panhandle I met with the leadership of Jefferson County Community Ministries.  This organization coordinates the work of multiple churches in the county who serve the poor and homeless.  This coming week, the homeless in our county will find shelter in our facility.  Volunteers will cook them breakfast every morning.  The next week, they will relocate to another church in the area--all of them working together to serve the most vulnerable.

Our food pantry distributes approximately 25,000 pounds of food each month, and we are far from the only church in our area helping the vulnerable.  And everywhere I have ever served as a pastor, I have been honored to work in similar environments--churches banded together in some way to serve the poor

Could the church be more effective?  Could we serve more?  Of course.  But I suspect, once the stats are truly known regarding what churches are really up to, it will become clear that they are already doing far more than the loud-mouth critics on social media who only talk.

2. We subsidize their religion with our taxes.  This is, by far, one of the most deceptive statements about churches.  Because churches qualify under 501(c)3 status as non-profit organizations, their income is not subject to taxes.  Additionally, contributions to churches are tax deductible, just as contributions to your local Red Cross chapter are deductible.  The only way this situation could be construed as "subsidizing" is if you believe all money ultimately belongs to the government.  Government doesn't "subsidize the church."  The church provides services that government and its citizens benefit from daily, at bargain prices!

3. They are all about the money/building. As a guy who used to serve a netowork of more than 560 churches I have to ask; have you actually seen most church facilities?  Have you actually reviewed the financial balance sheets of the majority of churches whose name isn't Saddleback?

I could share multiple stories of churches whose facilities are inadequate, but who continue to serve.  I could share more stories of faithful pastors going for weeks without a paycheck because the church couldn't afford it, yet still serving God's people faithfully.  I could fill a book with stories of churches who passed on needed facility upgrades so that monies could be forwarded to reach the nations with the Gospel.

4. Churches are full of hypocrites.  Actually, churches are full of sinners redeemed by the blood of Jesus.  And since hypocrisy is one kind of sin, yes, we have hypocrites among us--just like hypocrites exist outside of our fellowship.  We also have porn-addicts, liars, adulterers, drug-addicts, alcoholics, and every other kind of person whose sin has separated them from their God--who has found full pardon in the bloody cross and empty tomb we offer every Sunday.  If you join us, you may find forgiveness as well.

5. I don't need the church to follow Jesus.  Well, if you are the kind of person who speaks these sorts of lies about your brothers and sisters in Christ, that fact is evidence enough that you aren't developing well as Jesus' disciple without the church.

I suspect that, underneath the surface, there is a real reason the church catches the flack she does.  Its because the church is an easy target.  She can't tax you.  She can't imprison you.  She can't negatively affect you once you leave.  She can't compel you to do anything.  In a culture of free religion and free market, no one is obligated to support a church in any way, yet free to speak ill of her at their leisure.

But if you claim to follow Christ while simultaneously smearing the church every chance you get, you might consider how unhappy He is going to be with you when He returns one day to find a battered wife whose bruises you caused.

If you truly love Jesus, you will stop talking about His bride in such demeaning ways, and join her in the mission Her Lord has given her.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Islam, Muslims, and the Importance of Knowing the Difference

"I've never met Islam.  I think Islam owes me $5.  But apparently Islam hates America, which is fascinating."  -Wajahat Ali

"Islam is a diverse religion with many expressions, though unfortunately there is a demonstrable tendency among Muslims to assume only one legitimate interpretation of Islam"  -Nabeel Qureshi

On March 23, I'll be participating in a panel discussion at nearby Shepherd University talking about our multi-faith world and how we can coexist together in peace.  The objective is to build relationships and foster a deeper understanding of the three Abrahamic religions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  As such, I'll be joined by an area Rabbi, and my friend Imam Faruq Post of the Islamic Society of Western Maryland.  And while I'm anxious for leaders of all three religions to know one another and model peace, I have a particular concern for my Muslim neighbors, who are often maligned and held in high suspicion.

Yes, I'm still an evangelical pastor who believes the Old and New Testaments combine to form the very written words of the living God.  I still believe Jesus is God, crucified for sin and risen from the dead.  And I still believe the only hope for the world is that all people hear this message, and accept it.

So why would someone like me participate in a panel like this?  For one thing, my faith teaches me that it is a sin to bear false witness against my neighbor (Exodus 20:16), and too many in the west who call themselves followers of Jesus have repeatedly violated this command where our Muslim neighbors are concerned.

But there is another reason I look forward to March 23.  Its because the church family I'm honored to lead can't be faithful to Jesus' call to share His message unless we are willing to build relationships with people not like us--which is precisely what Jesus did!

We fear our Muslim neighbors because we don't know them!  Its time for that to change!

Prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, few people in the west gave much thought to Islam.  Most non-Muslim Americans were aware of their fellow Muslim citizens, but because they kept their distance and never really got to know them, they had summarily stereotyped their understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Islam.

After 9/11, rather than seeking to understand through relationships, many Americans just added a suicide vest to that stereotype.  Since that time, "fake news," fear-mongering politicians, and regrettably a few notable Christian leaders have continued to stir the pot of ignorance, discord, and division. All of this is fueled by the generalized assumption that "Islam hates the west" or "Islam's values are antithetical to America's values."  These are strange statements to the many Muslims who have lived peacefully among us for many decades now.  I have a friend who served as a Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush, who currently works with an organization that promotes global religious freedom.  He has been a devout Muslim his entire life.

Last year while at a meeting in Washington I met a former Ambassador who served during the Reagan administration--also a devout Muslim. Fighting back tears, her concern was obvious.  "I don't recognize my own country any more," she said.  I have another dear Muslim friend, a young professional with a wife and young child who is building a quiet life in the country for his family.  He is pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-business, and believes in small, limited government.  And just recently he told me "I'm a Republican, but I couldn't vote for the Republican this year because I feared I might be voting for my own extermination."  I could go on, but these stories alone should demonstrate that Islamophobia is alive and well.

Yes, there are violent forms of Islam in the world, and these movements are dangerous and must be eliminated.  The temptation to assess based on fear is understandable, but dangerous to our civil discourse, and for those who follow Jesus, it is simply antiChrist.

As an Evangelical pastor, I'm not particularly fond of Islam--not because I believe it is a threat to national security, but because I believe it endangers the soul.  But I know and walk in relationship with numerous Muslims who live all over the world, and I love every one of them.  Some of them have become like brothers to me, and in watching those relationships develop I've learned many valuable lessons.  But perhaps the most important lesson is this:  Islam is a highly diverse religion, practiced in at least three "denominational" expressions among more than 1.7 billion people worldwide.  Any religion with that many adherents can't simply be painted into a simplistic corner.  In fact, the best way to understand isn't to read a book about Islam, but to simply get to know your Muslim neighbor. In other words, if we want to have a meaningful conversation about what is transpiring in our world, we have to distinguish between "Islam" and "Muslims."  There are several reasons for this:

1. Faith is not a Monolith.  Think of the difference between an Eastern Orthodox Priest in Armenia, and a Pentecostal preacher in Alabama.  Both are "Christian."  But they don't look or sound very much like each other, do they?  That same sort of diversity exists within Islam.  My Turkish Muslim friends in Baltimore are anything but identical to my friend in Hagerstown who is a Burmese Imam.  Faith is a very personal thing to devout Muslims, and beyond the "five pillars" you will find a wide degree of opinion on a large number of issues.  Just ask them!

2. Systems are not People.  There are numerous Catholics who are on the pill.  Multitudes of Baptists consume alcohol regularly.  I have a Reconstructionist Rabbi friend who will not refuse a good slice of ham.  In this regard, Islam is no different.  Once you actually get to know the people who call themselves "Muslim" you discover numerous opinions on everything from shellfish to alcohol to head coverings
3. History is not Theology.  In recent years, an understandable question has emerged regarding which Islam is the "true" Islam?  While I sympathize with this curiosity, as a Christian theologian I have to refuse the premise of that question.  For Christians, our faith is rooted in and dependent upon the death and bodily resurrection of the Jesus of history (among other things).  But to appeal to "true Islam" by seeking its historical roots is, in my view, to commit a two-fold error.  First, doing so assumes an historical timeline that bears the same validity as our own faith, and I simply reject that.  But additionally, seeking to trace the historical roots of Islam in order to ferret out its "real" theology is to ignore that Muslims themselves worldwide rarely connect the two.  Though Muhammad is revered by all, his life, beliefs, and actions are understood very differently even within the Muslim world.  It is, therefore, unfair of us to ascribe a belief system to our Muslim neighbors that is rooted in an understanding of Islamic history they themselves may reject.

4. Lecturing isn't listening. I was 12,000 miles from home, sitting with my wife across the table from the only other white people in a Chinese city of more than 2 million.  The husband--an Indianapolis police officer--asked me what I did for a living, and when I said "I'm a Baptist pastor," he responded with the only reference point he had--Westboro "Baptist" Church, and said "so you are the folks who hate gay people?"

Feel that sting?  That's the same sting your Muslim neighbors feel when you lecture them about what they "really" believe.  So just don't do it.

Too many Christ followers make generalized claims such as "well, if they were really following the Koran they wouldn't be so 'peaceful.'"

I'm really thankful that when most non-Christians read Exodus 31:12-15, Leviticus 20:10, Numbers 21:34-35, Joshua 10:40, 1 Samuel 15:2-3, or any of the other 842 violent passages in Scripture, they give me the benefit of the doubt. Some even allow me the courtesy of explaining where these passages fit within the larger context of my faith.   I think we owe our Muslim neighbors the same courtesy with regard to Sura 2.  I'm not even saying their interpretation is the right one.  But let's allow them to tell us what they believe.  They can't do that if we are lecturing instead of listening.

Instead, get to know them, assume you really don't know what they believe--because you don't.  Ask questions.  Have a conversation.  Get to know each other.

And if you live in this area, you have an opportunity to do just that on March 23!

There is much fear in our culture, but followers of Jesus who walk in the Spirit don't walk in fear (2 Timothy 1:7).  So let's stop talking about "Islam" and get to know a few Muslims.  For one, we have a mandate to share our faith--a topic most of them are eager to discuss.  But even if they never believe as we do, there is a pretty good chance that a deep friendship will result that will bless you both.

It also happens to be an excellent way to defeat terror and bigotry at the same time.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Shack: A Pastoral Perspective

Next Friday, The Shack opens nationwide, prompting full theaters, plenty of box office profits, and apparently, a bunch of ticked off conservative pastors.

I get it.  I really do.

I read the book when it was first released back in 2007.  When I finished, I was simultaneously impressed and fearful.  I was impressed because it was truly a riveting novel that deals with real life issues of pain that too few churches are willing to honestly address.  I was fearful because the "god" portrayed within its pages isn't the one true and living God who has revealed Himself to us in Scripture.

The "god" of the Shack is air.  It doesn't exist.  It's a worthless and damnable idol.

My reasons for making such a broad, sweeping claim are numerous, and too many to list here.  If you are interested in a detailed theological critique of the book, I really cannot improve upon that given by Tim Challies here.  Principally, the author's view of God as presented in this story reflects an ancient heresy known as modalism--a doctrine that conflates the clear Biblical distinctions between the members of the Trinity and as such, compromises the role each plays in the process of redemption.

There are other major issues as well, but in the end, the biggest problem with the novel is that it presents--as an answer to our deepest pain--the theological equivalent of a flying spaghetti monster.  I find it ironic that the main protagonist is played by Sam Worthington of Avatar fame.  The Shack is about as accurate in its view of ultimate reality as Avatar.

As a theologian deeply concerned about accurately representing God as He has revealed Himself, these facts concern me.  But as a pastor whose responsibility it is to point people to the God of Scripture in the midst of their deepest pain, these facts scare me for the sake of their souls.

So what exactly should pastors do in response to what we all know will take place next Friday?

Last week, I sent an email to our staff reminding them that our church family will not be promoting this film in any way.  No one on our payroll is permitted to buy tickets, rent theaters, take groups to the movie, or anything else that would give the impression that Covenant Church approves of this film and its depiction of God.  Its one thing to take in a movie as an individual.  Its quite another to promote something that is likely to be contrary to Christian faith.

But as a Pastor, I must also recognize another reality.  People are going to see this movie!  I have told our staff that I will see it, mostly just to compare its contents with that of the book.  They too are encouraged to see it as individuals.  Why?  Because our people are going to be buying tickets.  Their non-churched and non-Christian friends will buy tickets too.  If when returning to church all they see in response from their leaders is protest, what will they have learned from us?

So, here are three reasons I think EVERY pastor should watch this film, and be ready to interact with its contents with your people.

1. From a cinematic and artistic standpoint, it will probably be an excellent movie.  How do I know this?  One name: Octavia Spencer!  It would appear that audiences can anticipate stellar acting from a phenomenal cast of talented people.

Though it remains to be seen, I suspect that for the sake of time and content, much of the doctrinal substance of the book may be absent from the film, leaving a number of "blanks" that are going to be filled in by someone.  Why shouldn't that someone be a faithful pastor?

One of the biggest and most legitimate complaints about "Christian" movies is that they are, well, terrible!  For the most part, this is because the characters are "flat" and issues are all "black and white."  There is very little tension to resolve--only an affirmation of what we already believe so that we can feel good about ourselves.  My friend Alvin Reid has observed that "our theology IS black and white, and it should be, but we live lives in color!"  He's right, and I fully expect that this film will demonstrate well the "living color" of our lives--particularly the painful parts. It is possible to enjoy a good movie, or a good book, without blindly accepting everything you read or see.  Pastors, this is our opportunity to model for our people how to do just that.

2. The movie will prompt conversations and questions Pastors need to answer.  The pain depicted in the book and film is all too real for too many people in our churches and communities.  Many people are going to see this film because they think that in it they will find the path to healing.  If the "god" presented in the film is compatible at all with the "god" presented in the book, they won't find it.  Or worse, they will think they have found it, and forever be inoculated to the real thing.

If Pastors and church leaders are faithful in responding with compassion to the issues that will certainly be raised as a result of this film, we can point our people and their friends to a God who can bring them genuine healing.  But if our disposition causes them to return from the theater, only to see in the pulpit those two old, grumpy guys from the muppets yelling "Boo!" then we miss out on the chance to find real answers.

3. This is an opportunity!  The most foundational question of faith is "Who is God?"  If you get that question wrong, it only goes downhill from there, and this is the fundamental danger of a book like The Shack.

But great opportunity lies here as well for pastors.  This film will prompt conversation about God, and who He really is!

Pastors who don't willingly join that conversation are derelict in their duties both to Christ and His people.

People in our churches are going to see this film.  Their non-Christian friends will see it as well, and our people need to be equipped to have those conversations by pastors who model how to do it well.  So let's not merely shrug our shoulders and allow our people to absorb idolatry unknowingly.  But conversely, let's be more than the grumpy old guys who pour cold water over people's warm experiences with no explanation why.

Let's engage.  And in doing so, lets faithfully give people the real thing!

Friday, February 03, 2017

Straw Men, Dead Children, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

"And the King will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."  Jesus, Matthew 25:40

Over the past week, President Trump's Executive Order to indefinitely halt the Syrian Refugee program has caused quite a stir around the country.  "Fake News" on both sides of the political spectrum have added an annoying level of drama to the situation, and followers of Jesus in the midst have reached differing conclusions.

For me, this is an easy case to figure out.

My international work has involved spending time in refugee camps abroad, and I've also had the privilege of working closely with a number of organizations stateside that minister to this vulnerable segment of our global population.  Additionally, I've also had the good fortune to work with members of our intelligence community whose job it is to ensure the safety of American citizens by "vetting" potential refugees who seek resettlement in our country.  They tell me that our refugee vetting system is as tight as it gets.  I'm thankful.  This is as it should be.

My knowledge and experience with this issue brought me quickly to the conclusion that this order is unnecessary, harmful to Christian mission here and abroad, potentially deadly to those seeking safety from the worst humanitarian crisis in the last 200 years, and ineffective at truly keeping Americans safe.

Many of my brothers and sisters in Christ don't agree, including a few in the church I'm honored to pastor.  I've heard their concerns, and both appreciate and agree with their concerns about national security.  I just happen to believe--based on solid data--that the programs recently halted bore no danger to American citizens.  Quite the contrary, these programs saved lives.

I know this because of my prior work.  I do find it interesting that, by and large, those opposing the recent executive order are those who actually have experience working with and ministering to refugee populations, while most who support it have little experience in such matters.  In some sense, this is understandable, given that its hard to have compassion on people you don't know in a situation you are unfamiliar with.

But that's also the damning thing about ignorance and isolation.  When they combine, they create a fear that causes us to do inhumane things.

Ignorance and isolation in a Pakistani village result in Christian persecution and burned churches.  Ignorance and isolation  in the US in the 1940s meant fear of "Nazi spies" among Jews seeking safety , and caused us to send them back to gas chambers.  Wherever ignorance and isolation are allowed to rule the day, the most vulnerable pay a heavy price.

Additionally, a number of nationally-known Christian leaders have created straw man arguments in an effort to bolster their #norefugees position.  Most of the time, straw man arguments are just annoying.  But in this case, lives created in the image of God are at stake.  So for the sake of their humanity and ours, the following is a list of the arguments the #norefugees movement isn't allowed to make anymore.

It's Not a Muslim Ban!  Yeah, I know that, and so do the good folks at World Vision, World Relief, and the International Rescue Committee.  Though some far-left fringes have tried to forward this argument, most all who actually work with refugees know this isn't a "Muslim ban."  In fact, the first Syrian refugees turned around at the airport after this Executive order were our brothers and sisters in Christ!  This isn't about Islam or Christianity.  Its about humanity.  And for Christians, its about our duty to honor the dignity and sanctity of ALL human life.

We can't just let anyone in who wants to come!  Yeah, I know that too, and I agree, so can we please stop using an argument that no one is making?  The point of objection is the refugee program, not immigration in general.

This isn't a Bible issue!  I was shocked to hear Franklin Graham, perhaps the most well-known evangelical humanitarian, claiming that humanitarian work isn't a Bible issue. Though he is correct that government and the church have separate roles to play, he seems to forget that when government takes action that affects both the work of the church and the vulnerable to whom the church ministers (as this Executive Order does), the church has a duty before Christ to object.  And the last time I looked, serving the "least of these" is a Bible issue.

Your'e just a liberal!  Ah, name-calling!  The last resort of those with no real argument.  Of course, the word "liberal" has now been used so much to define so much that it no longer has any meaning--sort of like this statement.   Caring for the most vulnerable in our world is the responsibility of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and anyone else wearing any other label who calls themselves "Christian."  Our nation would be in a much better position if those who follow Christ would melt down their respective golden elephants and golden donkeys, and do what we do because God's Word commands it.

What about the homeless here?  That's a good question!  What are you doing about that problem.  Nearly every church I know, including the one I'm honored to serve, addresses this issue.  I'm thankful to say that our community is better because of my church family's work serving the least of these in our region.  And the same is true of many of our sister churches.

So I'm not sure what this objection is besides re-direction from the issue at hand.  Our calling as the body of Christ is to serve them ALL.  Wherever the vulnerable are found, Jesus' people have our marching orders.

So with all of these straw man arguments out of the way, there is still one objection that can be made by those in favor of this recent move:  I don't think our refugee vetting process is safe enough.

Fair enough.  That's a perfectly legitimate objection.  But have you actually looked at this vetting process?  You can find a thorough description of it here.

Additionally, since 1980 our country has taken in more than 3 million refugees from various countries.  In that 37 year time-span, ZERO Americans have been killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack.

If you don't think that's "safe enough," or believe "it could be better," you are certainly entitled to that opinion, but to be consistent, you should also strongly oppose flying on an airplane, driving a car, bathing in a bathtub, or for that matter, getting food out of a vending machine--all actions that have claimed more lives than terrorist activity by a refugee..

Is there a risk?  Of course!  Nothing is 100% guaranteed.

I'm grateful that we are not Europe in this regard and that our vetting process for refugees is tight. It should be tight!  I want to keep it that way, because I have no desire to expose people to unnecessary risk.  But safety and compassion are not mutually exclusive enterprises.

And if you are waiting for 100% safety, you aren't going to make a very effective follower of Jesus.

"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell"  Matthew 10:28

Kids are dying.  Families are separated.  The worst humanitarian crisis of the last 200 years is unfolding in our time.  We have no time for straw man arguments.  Its time to answer a much more serious question:  Do we or don't we take God's Word seriously?