Monday, December 19, 2005

Thankfulness at Year's End

Well, the year must be coming to an end, because I find myself presently sitting in my office, gazing out the window at the melting snow in anticipation of a soon-coming trip to the Carolinas! But as I anticipate the future, I am also contemplating the past, and in thinking over everything that 2005 has brought my way, I have much . . . . MUCH. . . .for which to be thankful!

-I'm thankful that God saw fit to have me lead the effort to plant new churches in what I believe is one of the most strategic areas on the planet!

-I'm thankful for an Association, and Director of Missions, that caters my job description to fit my gifts and passions.

-I'm thankful for a ravishingly beautiful wife, who is exponentially even more beautiful in spirit. I'm thankful that after almost 12 years of marriage, we are still dating sweethearts. She is definitely worth thousands of times her weight in gold. She is my partner in the ministry of Christ's Gospel, and her advice, encouragement, occassional rebuke, and unquestionable loyalty leave me wondering what I ever did to deserve such a wonderful gift from God.

-I'm thankful for an oldest son who started Kindergarten this year. I'm thankful for Sam's inquisitive mind and constant thirst for learning, his sense of wonder that reminds me that adults often take so much for granted, and his intuitive ability to have fun wherever we are. Most of all, I'm thankful for his interest in Jesus Christ, his love for reading his Bible, and his recent deep questions about what it means to follow Christ.

-I'm thankful for a church family in Glenwood Maryland called Gethsemane Baptist Church. I'm thankful for the way they so aptly meet the spiritual and relational needs of my family when I have to be away so often.

-I'm thankful for Dr. Jerry Cooper, my pastor. I'm thankful for the relief of knowing that when I am away, my family is receiving the sound and clear teaching from God's Word that I would expect. Having been a pastor for several years, It was difficult to trust another man to fulfill this role for my family. Pastor Jerry has quickly earned my trust, and my admiration. And he serves with a heart of love that is a rare find, even among pastors.

-I'm thankful for a group of professional colleagues, with whom I shared the experience of three years of research doctoral studies at Southern Seminary. These bright and dedicated men and women are located all over the world in church pastorates, mission fields, and institutions of higher learning, and I am honored to call them "friends."

-I am thankful for Rob and Denise Stephens, dear friends, themselves from North Carolina, who help us maintain our "Southern identity" in the midst of "Yankee country."

-I'm thankful for an extended family in South Carolina who fully supports us in the work we are doing. It can't be easy to be hundreds of miles from your grandchildren, but never have Amy and I heard even one negative remark regarding our obedience in moving away. I probably wouldn't truly appreciate this, were it not for friends of mine in mission fields all over the world who have to deal with the constant "nagging" of a selfish extended family. From both sets of parents, there could be no greater gift than that of unconditional support.

-I'm thankful for the music of Frank Sinatra, Guns and Roses, Steven Curtis Chapman, Rascal Flats, G. F. Handel, Keith Urban, and Eric Clapton. (Yep, I know its an eclectic mix, but God Himself is creatively eclectic!)

-I'm thankful that through movies like Cinderella Man and The Chronicles of Narnia, Hollywood demonstrated that it still has some redeeming quality.

-I'm thankful for the people of Rolling Hills Baptist Church, whom I have served during that latter part of this year as interim pastor, and for the privilege they give me each week of being able to teach God's Word.

-I'm thankful for the birth and quick healing of our newest son, Seth. He was a very sick boy when he came into the world in September. Now he is a robust 15 pounds, and eats like his dad! We can't praise God enough for this miracle!

-I'm thankful for that little black dress my wife owns, and that after almost 12 years, I still get "weak in the knees" when I look at her in it. ;)

-I am thankful for a church I helped to plant in Greenville, SC, now called Sanctuary, and that they continue to impact their community for the sake of the Kingdom.

-I am also thankful for Pastor Chad Howard, who was my "right-arm" during the planting of that church (previously called True Life Church), and for how his continued service to that body of believers builds them up as a crown jewel that he will no doubt receive back from Christ Himself at the end of the age. Also, the friendship of he and his wife Tiffani to Amy and me foreshadows what "community" will look like in heaven.

-I am thankful for the memories left me by a precious friend who passed away earlier this year. (Rest in Christ, Alan Weaver!)

-I'm thankful for mentors past and present, including, but not limited to Bill Cashion, Jim Ramsey, Keith Kelly, George Martin, Walter Johnson, Charlie Draper, Spencer Haygood, and Bill Crowe. I thank God for the men who have invested part of their lives in my own development. My failures are entirely my own. But my success is their success, and ultimately, the success of God, who sent them into my life.

-I'm thankful for the incarnate Christ, whose presence in this world brought about all of the above! But mostly, I'm thankful that His coming, living, dying and rising guarantees me that as wonderful as this life is, I ain't seen nothing yet!

2006 could be even better, or, exponentially worse! That's the thing about the future. We just don't know. But God does. Furthermore, Scripture tells us that He has already declared the end from the beginning, and that regardless of what life brings, good or bad, each is designed to fulfill the good future that God has promised each of us who follow Him. With that in mind, I look forward to 2006 with excitement.

God willing of course, 2006 will definitely bring more writing on this weblog. But for the next month or so, I and the family are enjoying the season, and prayerfully getting ready for God's best in the New Year. I wish each reader the same, and pray that our Lord gives you a Merry Christmas and joyous New Year!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Christmas in Narnia: The Way to Truly Celebrate

Early this week I and my family were able to see the motion picture version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As a family, we have anticipated the release of this film since the first preview, released almost one year ago. Also, our oldest son Samuel and I had just finished reading this book during the summer, so he was anxious to see how the adventure he loved so much would be portrayed on the silver screen.

As we expected, it was a great experience. As I thought of the true meaning behind the metaphor, I found myself quite emotional. Yet this Christmas season, one line taken from the book struck me as particularly profound. And as I continue to ponder the focal point of this season, I finally understand the tragedy of living a life reflected by the setting described by the faun Mr. Tumnus, in which it is "always winter, but never Christmas."

Of course, the tale is fictional, but C.S. Lewis intended his allegory to be exactly that from the start. In fact, his goal was to be able to read the entire story to a child, and simply say to the child at the end "Aslan is Christ," resulting in the child understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness. Consequently, the story rightly centers around the coming of the great Lion and the fulfillment of the prophetic freeing of Narnia.

As much as we enjoyed the film, movie screens can never depict with the same depth and precision what the human imagination can conceive with a book in hand. For example, when Mr. Beaver tells of the coming of Aslan, there was no possible way for movie makers to portray the following reaction by the children:

At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

In this part of his masterpiece, Lewis rightly captures the juxtaposed whole of what should permeate the heart of a Christ-follower--delight and adventure, excitement and horror--such are the appropriate extreme emotions in the presence of the King of Kings!

Yet as believers approach the coming Christmas season, I fear that our emotions might in fact be the opposite of that expressed by young Lucy. Rather than feeling the holidays have begun because of the name of Christ, we feel the obligatory pull to somehow recognize Christ because of the holidays. This not only puts the "cart before the horse," it dishonors Him who is to be adored above all things, and that at all times, not just at Christmas.

The lack of awe that many professing Christians have for the sovereign Christ is a year-round phenomenon, but is amplified at this time of year, as so many seem more impressed with the lights at Rockefeller Center than with the Light of the World--more fearful of the prospect of stolen gifts than of the reality of the Incarnate Word. Now is certainly the time of year to remember the warning of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Responding to Lucy's question of whether this Lion is "safe," Mr. Beaver asserts "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly . . .don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King I tell you!"

The movie, as well as the book, also makes clear the fact that Christmas is inaugurated by the coming of Aslan, and until his coming, the White Witch has cast a spell over all of Narnia, so that it is "always winter, but never Christmas."

This is something to think about as we ponder the meaning of the "Christmas culture wars." The desire by businesses, governments and schools to eliminate Jesus from the holidays is, ultimately, their attempt to officially allign our nation with what has likely been reality for many years now . . . it is always winter, but never Christmas!

Rest assured; when Santa Claus gets more attention than our Sovereingn God, that isn't Christmas, just winter!

When families merely tip their hats toward the Bethlehem manger on their way to open gifts and commit gluttony, never again to pick up a Bible and reflect deeply on how God Incarnate fulfills every redemptive promise that assures me of an eternity in His presence, that isn't Christmas, just winter!

Make no mistake: Christmas is because Jesus is! In Narnia, Father Christmas makes his appearance in this fantasyland only after it is announced by the Beavers that "Aslan is on the move." Without the coming Son of God, there is nothing to celebrate. Conversely, because He has come, there is much to celebrate! No doubt 2005 has been especially hard on many. Some have faced financial hardships, others sickness, others the death of a spouse, parent or other relative, and still others the anxiety that comes with knowing their loved-one is serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, or some other area of the world. (Lewis was accutely aware of such anxiety, and set the timeline for Narnia in the midst of World War II).

To these, it will be a difficult time around the tree this season, and apart from a renewed awe for the baby in the manger, this season, even with the gifts and decorations, will be "always winter, never Christmas."

But those who have faced hardships this year as well as those who have simply minimized the meaning of this season are presented with the same solution: Stand at the manger. Meditate, as did Simeon, on the identity of this child. Tremble with fear at the One who is infinitely more than a baby. Remember with trepidation the words of Mr. Tumnus that "he isn't a tame lion." Moreover, remember that He isn't a baby anymore, but that Christmas, in remembering His first coming, also reminds us of His promise to come again.

And on doing this, let your heart feel brave and adventurous. Let your soul delight in the sweetness of His presence that Scripture tells us is the fulness of a joy that cannot be duplicated by even the most tight-knit family. Most of all, let your excitement over the coming holiday be fueled by the salvific miracle of the incarnation. And know that the holidays have truly begun, not because of parties, gifts, or even the presence of family . . . .

. . . .but because "Aslan is on the move!"

Monday, November 28, 2005

Who's at War with Christmas?

For the past month I've listened to the conservative "talking heads" warn, as they do now on an annual basis, of the impending destruction of the Christmas season by the secular left, and to a large extent their assessment is correct. Organizations from the ACLJ to the American Family Association are adept at keeping us informed concerning the plethora of liberal plots to eradicate anything reminiscient of Christ from the public square during the "holiday" season. And FOX News anchor John Gibson's newest book, The War on Christmas, calls even greater attention to activists efforts to remove any presence of Jesus Christ from the holidays.

Still, my observations and reflections this past weekend have me wondering if the greatest threat to the central message of Christmas isn't the guy I see every morning in the mirror!

Every year we hear stories of ACLU sympathizers trolling schoolhouse and courthouse properties in search of nativity scenes to challenge. But the greater threat may not be the elimination of the nativity on public property, but rather the minimization of its meaning on private property. I think of the past several Christmas seasons, and I am embarrassed when I compare the time spent giving and opening gifts with that spent celebrating the greatest of all gifts. I remember as a child having to take a "time out" as it were, from my new toys to sit for the perfunctory reading of the Christmas story. With a nervous twitch that would not be relieved until I was back at my new electric racetrack set, I tried to fake interest in this story that I had heard so many times. To me, it was a required religious drudgery; a payment of sorts in exchange for two weeks of no school and new toys.

As an adult, I must still admit to giving more attention at times to my children’s presents than to their focus on Jesus as the center and circumference, not only of the season, but of our lives.

This year, as in times past, we have heard challenges issued by the left to the constitutionality of mentioning the religious roots of the season. In addition, many American companies have now fallen victim to political correctness, as is best illustrated in Lowes’ marketing of the “holiday” tree. Afraid that a “Christmas tree” might be offensive to the non-Christian segment of its customer base, Lowes simply markets the same product under a different name. Isn’t that a bit like calling Easter eggs “Spring eggs,” or referring to Ramadan as “September weight loss days”? Sounds a bit ridiculous to me.

Yet there is something more ridiculous, and more offensive, than removing any mention of Christ from Christmas by those who don’t follow Him, and that is the trivialization of the Christ of Christmas by those who do claim to follow Him. It is the equivocation of God the Son with eight tiny reindeer.

Though we are quick to defend the identity of this season as “Jesus’ birthday,” we often neglect to think that the incarnation was infinitely more that that. Perhaps this is why reflection on the Biblical Christmas story has lost some of its luster. Luke wasn’t just writing history. He was proclaiming that the One who created and foreordained history stepped into history on our behalf! God wrapped Himself in human flesh, and the wonder of that incarnation causes all the lights and decorations in the world combined to pale in comparison. Frankly, my boredom as a child, and passivity as an adult with the Christmas story is not the result of the story itself, but of my failure to truly appreciate how that moment in history affects history. It fulfilled every promise of God that was made up until that moment, and assures all who believe that this perfect and divine manifestation of the ideal humanity provides the righteousness required for the intimate connection with our Creator for which all of humanity longs.

But the ultimate rejection of the season’s truest meaning sometimes comes, ironically enough, at the times when we think we have the season all figured out and are enjoying it to the fullest. And there is a real chance that this coming Christmas could be like the last one . . . . We will read the story of the culturally questionable birth of a Jewish baby in a stall to a 14-year-old virgin and her blue-collar husband. We will remember how He invested His life among those the world did not think worthy of investment, and how He claimed to come for the poor, the sick, and the sinful. We will reflect on this, the most vivid picture of what it means to be “incarnational,” and then forget that Jesus calls us to follow His example while enjoying our “upper-middle class” Christmas. Paul reminded the church at Corinth of Jesus’ words that the most blessed person is the person who chooses giving over receiving. Evidently, I haven’t wanted that blessing very often.

No, the ACLU and Lowes aren’t our biggest issues this season. To be sure, they aren’t helping matters! But when it comes to the “War on Christmas,” the real culprits are those of us who should know better! And if I’m right, then we won’t recover the meaning of this season by court decision.

Instead, we should take ourselves back to that seminal moment in salvific history, hear the cattle in the stalls and smell the sheep dung. Hear the screams of a woman experiencing violent birthpangs who knew nothing of a soft bed, much less an epidural. Watch as the God-man in the body of a pre-pubescent boy learns the skills of a carpenter from his earthly father. Smell the stink of rotting human flesh as He walks among the lepers. Sense the spiritual darkness that has overcome the demoniac among the tombs. Feel the stomach-wrenching sensation of spikes being driven into the wrists. Sense the weight of God’s judgement upon all of humanity as it falls upon He who became sin for us. And feel the earth-shattering concussion that was the bodily resurrection.

Having meditated on these things, know what it means to be “incarnational.”

There is a reason that the secular left is at war with Christmas. It is because this world is at war with Christ! Scary thing is, Jesus leaves no room for “fence-riders,” which means that my past passivity is, in His eyes, enmity. My boredom is, in reality, scorn that has creeped back into my life along with other fleshly things; a part of that old life that Paul tells me was crucified with Christ 2000 years ago.

There is a war on Christmas, and I fear that many who claim to follow Christ are, by their indifference to the season, aiding and abetting the enemy. Moreover, I fear that in the past, I have been among that number. But this year, I resolve to be on the offensive! My family and I will spend less time opening gifts, and more time in front of the advent candles. Through Salvation Army, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, Samaritan’s Purse, and our own holistic service, we will serve those to whom Jesus calls us. And though our boys will enjoy a visit from Santa, they will be taught to stand in infinitely greater awe of their God, who eliminates all war and oppression, and who brings a Gospel of peace, all through His entrance into our world.

To end the “war on Christmas,” I must first make sure I really believe in the cause. May God grant us the grace this Christmas season to speak with our lips, and our lives, of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Jonathan Edwards on the Missional Church

If nothing else, I had you at the title didn't I? I know few if any who would expect to see the phrases "Missional Church" and "Jonathan Edwards" in the same book, much less in the same blog within the same sentence. Yet as God has allowed me to spend some time this week looking back at the life and ministry of Edwards, I am more convinced than ever that we can find our most accurate measurement of what it means to be "missional" from the writings of this 18th century revivalist.

If I'm right, then we may finally have the potential for a measuring instrument that doesn't judge everything within evangelicalism mathematically. Particularly in Southern Baptist life, the "denominationalism" of the 1940s and 1950s has created a church culture in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to judge the value of anything that can't be counted. Regardless of the "measuringn sticks" that have been used in our recent history, from the 50s and 60s emphases on the sheer number of baptisms, to the 70s emphasis on programming, to the 80s and 90s emphases on church growth and church health, the "bottom line" that has been observed is always, in the end, "bucks in the plate, bottoms in the seats, and buildings on the land." The result is now the worship of all things numerical, almost without regard for deeper examination of what is happening in the lives of each member of the crowd. Who cares if your church service exceeds 1000 in attendance if the lives of those attending are not deeply and profoundly affected and moved toward a deeper Christlikeness as a result of your ministry?

Yet a new movement is afoot that I believe has the greatest potential to reverse our almost exclusive focus on numbers. Although the movement began with anteceedents to his book, Robert Lewis' The Church of Irresistible Influence really introduced the incarnational church concept to evangelicalism at large. Published in 2000, this book chronicled the experiences of the 2500 member Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, AR. Lewis states that by any standard, "anyone observing our growing church would probably have characterized it as a great success . . . .but even with all our advances over ten years, we were still little more than a stranger to our community."

Needless to say, a mega-church admitting failure to impact its surroundings grabbed much attention from the wider evangelical world, and Lewis' prescription for Fellowship, described in "guidebook" fashion for others to follow, earned the applause of many across the theological spectrum (Try to find another book that carries the reccomendations of both Thom Rainer and Brian McLaren on the back cover!) I believe the warm reception of this book by the church at large was due in large part to a yearing for a better way to judge "success." Other works, such as Milfred Minetrea's Shaped by God's Heart, and Frost and Hirsh's The Shaping of Things to Come, have further encouraged pastors and church leaders to think, act, and measure success in a "missional" way.

Even the most committed denominational employee would have to admit that while the Annual Church Profile our Southern Baptist churches fill out each year can track all the tangible "vital statistics," it was never designed, and therefore not presently equipped, to measure cultural impact. Yet to focus on the numerical to the point that examining obedience to Matthew 5:13-16 is excluded leaves church leaders with merely a truncated picture of what is really happening in their congregations. My proposal here is for another instrument of sorts that along with the ACP's numerical trackings can detect the level of spiritual growth and cultural impact. But what categories would one choose to measure such things? It is at this juncture that Johnathan Edwards' picture of true revival becomes helpful, as given in his 1741 book The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.

The original context of the book is that of a theological reflection on both the good and bad aspects of what has become known as America's "First Great Awakening." Much of the revival spirit of that era could find its origins in Edwards' pulpit ministry in Northampton, Massachussetts. In the midst of all that was happening, Edwards saw the neccesity of teaching his church how to discern a genuine work of the Holy Spirit from its demonic replication. Edwards sincerely believed that the latter was possible even in the midst of an authentic revival. The book begins with what Edward's refers to as the via negationis (way of negation) in which he describes activities and events that in and of themselves do not prove or disprove that a genuine work of revival is evident. These included emotionalistic behavior in worship, intense but short-lived zeal, robust discussion about the Christian faith, and the dread of judgement and hell which came on those who heard these Biblical truths proclaimed. Edwards' contention is that it is possible for all these things to be happening outside the context of Holy Spirit revival.

And even today, it must honestly be stated that the most intense and emotional worshipper may in fact be worshipping the worship rather than God. Zeal for service can just as easily be motivated by pity for the less fortunate as it can by a vision for the greatness of God to be known among the nations. Deep theological discussions can, quite frankly, cause more division about the minutae of what some believe to be axiomatic than they cause a sense of awe toward the God who reveals such truth. And many have responded to the Gospel call in a disengenuous fashion that is based on a fear of spending eternity in hell. As a result, they miss real salvation by neglecting to realize that hell is exactly where they deserve to go, and subsequently miss out on the godly, faith-filled sorrow that leads to repentance from sin toward God.

So then what are the bona fide evidences of revival? The answer to this question is an important one of which to take note, because interestingly enough, Edwards' view of a genuine work of the Holy Spirit coincides to a large degree with what many today are claiming that a missional church looks like. And its no small wonder. After all, the work of the church is ultimately that which is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, my contention is that churches should determine how to measure the following factors that Edwards claimed over 250 years ago as vindicating the Spirit's work in their midst:

1. An elevated Esteem for Christ. The chief ministry of the Holy Spirit is to bring people to the Son of God. Therefore, truly missional churches will by nature lift up the virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death, bodily ressurrection, and literal return of Jesus Christ, and will apply these truths to every area of life. Alluding to 1 John 4:3, Edwards claimed that "antichrists" don't always vehemently oppose Christ, but they certainly take every opportunity to minimize either His person, His work, or both. Churches that desire to fulfill a missional vision must start here. Mark Driscoll has rightly observed that "everything, reformission included, begins and ends with [Jesus]. . . .and as we read of Jesus' involvement in culture, we see a free and radical God whose life is so shocking that it is self-evident that the story is true, because no one in their right mind could make it up." As you seek to discover the level of missional involvement in your congregation, ask youself if the desire to lift up the Son of Man to draw all unto Himself is genuinely at the focal point of your mission and vision.

2. Operations against the Interersts of Satan's Kingdom. The Spirit of God works against sin, and all true revivals check and curb sinful behavior. If you hear a man speaking in tongues in a church service, and then witness him use that same tongue for vain and useless profanity at lunch, you can rest assured that whatever happened in that church service was NOT a genuine work of God! When a pastor blesses God during his message only to curse his family at the dinner table, serious doubts about the work of the Holy Spirit in his life are warranted! During the Awakening of Edwards, bars and brothels were closed, not because of political pressure or city ordinances, but because of the sorrow of the culture over their sin that came as a result of a similar sorrow within the churches. The impact that the Northampton Church had on its surroundings resulted in a remarkably changed culture! With this in view, it must be asked: What is the level of genuine and continuing repentance and brokenness before God in your congregations? And how does this level of repentance affect the surrounding culture? Are the actions within the church causing repentance outside the church?

3. A Greater Regard for the Scriptures. During periods of genuine revival, people realize that the Bible is the Word of God, and this results in their seeking direction from it. Dr. Jerry Cooper, Senior Pastor of the church where my wife and I are members, expresses it simply, yet profoundly when he says to me that his one goal for his flock is "to get everybody to obey the Bible." Edwards believed that if this was ever acheived within the life of a church, it was a sure sign that the Holy Spirit was at work. In the words of Milfred Minetrea, does your church produce disciples who not only know the Bible, but obey it?

4. Discernment between Light and Darkness. Edwards rightly asserted that one cannot be a part of the cause of Christ and despise truth. A sign of a church that is truly committed to carry out His commands is people who love the truth too much, and find the truth too neccesary to avoid it. Yet if this is an essential aspect of what it means to be "missional," many churches are nowhere near the mark. A recent survey of congregations by Doctor of Ministry students at one Southern Baptist seminary revealed that over 40% believe "good people go to heaven, whether or not they have a relationship to Jesus Christ." To judge the missional success of your church, there must be a way to measure whether the congregation is wholly committed to those truths which themselves form the foundation of missional enterprise.

5. A Spirit of Love to God and Man. Edwards believed that during genuine revival, God makes the soul to long after Him, and that this same longing resulted in a Holy Spirit-inspired quelling of contentions among men. In other words, Edwards taught that a genuine love for God spills over into a genuine love for others that is ultimately manifest in service to them. To judge the missional success of your church, you must determine how to measure the level of fellowship between God and the congregation, as well as the level of fellowship between all the members of the congregation. There must also be a way to trace the holistic ministries of the church back to this spirit of love.

As one looks back on these five "markers," it becomes evident that much of what Edwards described as evidence of genuine revival is synonymous with what many missional leaders today see as the marks of a healthy and growing church. Rather than high attendance, the missional church measures the heights to which Christ is lifted in the lives and worship of its members. Rather than reactions to sinful behavior, the missional church measures how effective it has been at squelching such behavior within its own context. Rather than merely counting the number of holistic ministries, the missional church uses the standard set in Deuteronomy 6:4 as a measuring tool for judging their congregation's love for God, and the subsequent concerns of poverty, equality and social justice that emerge from such love.

In changing his church's measuring stick of success, Robert Lewis believes Fellowship Bible Church reconnected "with a long-neglected part of our Christianity: the part that believes that the Great Commandment to 'love your neighbor as yourself' (MAtthew 22:39) is just as essential to the spread of the Gospel and to the sanctification of church members as the Great Commission (MAtthew 28:18-20). Coupled with Edwards' observations on revival, one comes to understand rather quickly that such a shift in thinking, as well as the accompanying impact such a shift has on the church and its community, could only be a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit. Therefore, in seeking a way to measure an effective "missional" church, it is incumbent upon us to listen afresh to the man Samuel Davies called "the greatest divine that America has ever produced."

Charles Colson states that "the western church, much of it drifting, enculturated, and infected with cheap grace, desparately needs to hear Edward's challenge." And the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asserted that "no man is more relevant to the present condition of Christianity than Jonathan Edwards." After my reflections this week, I join these men in calling all who would listen to find the heart of what it means to be missional, not from the latest offering from Emergent or the next Mars Hill conference, but from an antiquated pulpit in Northampton.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Intolerance of the "New Tolerance"

On the surface, the term "tolerance" seems to suggest a healthy dose of placidity. Most who hear it immediately think of a certain broad-mindedness, forebearance, and some would even go so far as to see this term as synonymous with benevolence and compassion. But for John Moeller, an evangelical follower of Jesus and chaplain for the Washington Nationals baseball franchise, the word "tolerance" is associated with a mor ominous concept: termination.

Last month, the the new D.C. based team suspended the volunteer chaplain, who is also employed as an FBI agent. Moeller was working under the auspices of Baseball Chapel, an evangelical group that provides unpaid Christian ministers to be available for spiritual guidance to professional baseball players. During the course of his service he found himself talking with outfielder Ryan Church about an ex-girlfriend who follows a religious faith that does not profess Jesus as Savior and Lord. Speaking of all non-Christians, Church wanted to know the truth...what did the Bible say happens to such people? "Are they doomed," he asked? His chaplain, backed by Scriptural teaching, merely gave an affirming nod.

A subsequent Washington Post article citing the above incident via an interview with Church was cause enough, in the mind of team president Tony Tavares, to suspend Moeller indefinitely and force an apology from his outfielder. It was a complaint by Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld, leader of an Orthodox Jewish congregation in the nation's capital, that resulted in this action. Urging the Nationals to distance themselves from the chaplain, Rabbi Hertzfeld, in vitriolic fashion, charged that "the locker room of the Nationals is being used to preach hatred." Welcome to the "new tolerance"

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was actually an "old" tolerance. In this by-gone age, the term "tolerance" was understood to be the concept that kept adherents of competing faiths from seeking to harm each other, and it fostered mutual respect for each one's right to believe, preach, and worship as one chose. The American ideal that undergirded this old tolerance was the understanding that "forced conversion," in the end, was no conversion at all. Bible-believing Christians both accept and embrace such a view of tolerance. American soldiers have shed blood on battlefields all over the world to ensure that the Muslim has the right to be a Muslim, a Jew has a right to be a Jew, a Hindu has a right to be a Hindu, and a Christian a right to be a Christian. Belief in this kind of tolerance does not neccesitate believing that each of these respective faiths has equal validity. It simply requires believing in the free moral agency of human beings, and respecting the choices they make by ensuring that they can worship as they choose, free of persecution or aggression.

But this older understanding has been trumped by a new notion that no religious expression or idea should ever claim superiority over another. Not only should one respect his neighbors "right to be wrong" with regard to religious faith, but the very idea that one's neighbor could be wrong is seen as "intolerant," arrogant, and even dangerous! The end result of this kind of thinking is not good for followers of Jesus. Those who insist on believing and proclaiming an exclusive Jesus will discover quickly that the new tolerance isn't so tolerant after all!

Tim Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, is quick to point out that this new tolerance is in itself an incipient form of exclusivism that in the end is more intolerant than the Christian faith it seeks to discredit. Keller states that the common objection to the exclusivity of Jesus is that no one should insist that their "god" is any better than any other "god" because all religions are equally valid. Keller responds by stating that those who make such naive assumptions are "assuming a very particular view of God and you are pushing it as better than the rest . . .To say 'all religions are equally valid' is itself a very white, Western view based in the European Enlightenment's idea of knowlege and values. Why should that view be privileged over anyone else's?" Hmmmm, I bet Tony Tavares hasn't thought about that one!

Add to this that if the new tolerance is truly going to have room enough for Christ-followers, it must refuse to silence the voices of exclusivity. Commenting on Moeller's firing, Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, saliently observed that "the worst this chaplian could be convicted of is ascribing to orthodox Christian faith, which is what I think you would want from a Christian chaplain." Regrettably, not all denominational leaders feel this way. Christopher Leighton, a Presbyterian minister who heads Baltimore Maryland's Institute for Christian and Jewish studies, says that although one must admit that the dominant tradition of Christianity was marked by exclusivity, many churches "have moved toward the view that God has a 'continuing covenant' with the Jews. . .this [denouncing the chaplain] is the work that really belonged to other Christians, to say this is an unacceptable understanding of our faith."

So, to say that those who die outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ spend eternity separated from God is now an "unacceptable understanding" of our faith?! Such a suggestion means that Jesus demonstrated a colossal ignorance of the faith He Himself founded! And what of the Apostle Paul, who in Acts 13 after being rejected in the synagogue said to his Jewish brothers "Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold we are turning to the Gentiles." (13:46 ESV) So Paul taught that if you reject Jesus, you don't have eternal life, even if you are a Jew worshipping in a synagogue? If he had only heeded the wisdom of Christopher Leighton! Had he only understood that such teaching was "unacceptable."

Contrary to what Leighton and others like Rabbi Hurtzfeld I'm sure would contend, such belief rightly applied does not lead to "hatred." As an Evangelical, I understand the Hebraic roots of my faith. I would not have a Savior were it not for the descendants of Abraham! At the same time, my Bible teaches me that they who literally delivered my Messiah into the world themselves have no Messiah. And it is love, not hate, that compels me to tell them about Him, and to pray for the hastening of the mass-conversion of Jewish people that I believe the Bible predicts will come at the end of the age!

Not long ago, someone asked me "do you believe that because I'm ______ (the particular faith doesn' t matter) that I am doomed to an eternity of God's wrath?" But in the end, it really is irrelevant what I think about this individual, or what he thinks about me. The crucial issue is whether our respective beliefs are consistent with the revealed truth of God. So to those of you reading who would be tempted to accuse me of "intolerance" or a "judgemental attitude," let me lay your minds to rest by reminding you that ultimately, it isn't up to me who gets into heaven. But if we want to get there, and if we want to take others with us, we had better jettison this nonsensical notion of "tolerance" and pay close attention to the One who does decide such things!

John Hick, an avowed "pluralist," actually frames this debate properly. In his essay on salvation in a pluralistic world, he describes his own pilgrammage from exclusivism to pluralism. This road, he claims, had many stops in which key Christian doctrines, from the inerrancy of the Bible to the virgin birth to the atonement to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, were systematically rejected. Hick openly admits that in order to arrive at a view consistent with the "new tolerance," you must effectively gut the Apostolic witness of all its major pillars. On the other hand, Hick to this day continues to admit the following:

"For if Jesus was literally God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, so that the Christian religion was founded by a God-on-earth person, it is then very hard to escape from the fact that all mankind must be converted to the Christian faith."

This was a conclusion that, thankfully, John Moeller could not escape. And for that matter, neither can I!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

From Stare Decisis to Sola Scriptura: How to Implement Belief in Textual Authority

For newly installed Chief Justice John G. Roberts, liberal concern in the Senate centered around his views on abortion and the right to privacy. Conservative concerns about newest Bush nominee Harriet Miers involve the opposite side of those same issues, among others. But what both groups fail to realize is this: If both new justices execute their respective offices within consitutional parameters, their personal views are irrelevant. What really matters is the authorial intent of the constitution itself. Similarly, Evangelical Christians who desire to avoid similar internal power struggles must put into practice what we have long professed in our confessions: That the heart of the matter is the authorial intent of the Bible, not the most popular understanding at the time.

But this view presupposes a particular view of texts like the Bible and the constitution: namely, that the authority lies within the text itself, not with the interpreters of the text! Unfortunately, the postmodern hermaneutical shift from "text" to "interpretation" has turned this view on its head, and even worse, the scope of this shift in our culture is not limited to politics. From the Constitution to the Bible, it has found its way into the interprative views of even the most conservative churches! And the consequences of such ideology are always the jettisoning of any real final authority and the subsequent advent of raw power struggles. Such a move tenders terrible results in a nation, and even more devastating consequences in God's church!

As little as five years ago (think the 2000 election), the dichotomy between the belief in "textual authority" vs. belief in "interpretive authority" was seen in much clearer contrast. One presidential candidate promised to appoint judges whose judicial philosophy was "strict constructionism." This school of thought believes that the final legal authority of the United States is vested in the text of the constitution itself (what a novel idea!) and therefore the judicial role is to arrive at a correct interpretation by seeking out the original intent of the document as expressed by the authors. This view was contrasted with Al Gore's vision of the constitution as a "living, breathing document," meaning that in the end, the actual words of the text mean nothing until meaning is injected into them by the Supreme Court, therefore giving carte blanche judicial authority to the justices who interpret the text, rather than the text itself. The result of this philosophy is expressed in the popular phrase "legislating from the bench." The constructionist view believed that a change in the constitution was the responsibility of the legislative branch. The latter view argued that change can come from the declaration of a majority of nine justices without the consent of the people for whom the constitution was written. As Justice Antonin Scalia eloquently stated at a Chapman University address early this fall, "Now the Senate is looking for moderate judges, mainstream judges. What in the world is a "moderate" interpretation of a constitutional text? Halfway between what it says and what we'd like it to say?" In short, the argument five years ago was over whether the final authority belonged to text, or interpreter.

Since the 2000 election, these two interpretive understandings have, regrettably, become less clear, as both conservatives and liberals simply struggle for control of what has become recognized as possibly the least accountable branch of our government. Liberals want justices who will rule in favor of the sound constitutionality of homosexual marriage, despite the fact that the constitution as written guarantees no such right. They also want justices to continue to pretend that the right of a mother to murder her unborn child is somehow protected in the Bill of Rights. Likewise, conservatives want justices who will take the Bill of Rights seriously . . . . that is, until our safety is on the line, in which case, they want conservative justices to bend those rights via their approval of the Patriot Act, forgetting Benjamin Franklin's warning that "those who desire safety more than freedom deserve neither safety nor freedom." And the end result of this struggle is, well, more struggle! Our divided nation is now seeing the results of "interpretive authority." If the text's authority is subservient to those who interpret it, then the final authority is never determined by actual law, but rather, by who has the most power! Where there is a vaccum of textual authority, that vaccum will be filled by a raw struggle for power!

But this political dynamic has a parallel in church life. For years, even in "conservative" churches, Bible studies have been held which centered around the question "What does this text mean to you?" Subconsciously, Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptists in particular have usurped the authority of the Scriptural text with the artificially imposed authority of the interpreter. The result, regrettably, is that the "correct" interpretation is now recognized as that held by the most powerful, or the most charismatic, rather than which most accurately represents the authorial intent of the text. At the denominational level, I think it is safe to say that recent denominational debates over Calvinism, Ecclesiology, Evangelism, Worship, Eschatology, and even the newest debate over the consumption of beverage alcohol have been guided less by the appeal to Scriptural authority and more by the wielding of denominational power and charismatic personality. And what makes this observation even more saddening is that this kind of "power struggle" comes on the heels of the "conservative resurgence" that was intended to take us "back to the Bible" for everything.

That battle, by the way, was absolutely neccesary as far as I am concerned! Prior to conservative efforts toward a "sharp right turn," Southern Baptists were headed for a fate much like that which other mainline denominations are now seeing in their own ranks. Our reticence years ago to speak directly from the Scriptural text to address issues like abortion, homosexuality, marriage and family issues, and the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ sent an "unclear sound" to the culture God had called us to reach. For those who desired clarity and conviction, the "inerrancy" banner provided a theological framework wherein we could preach and teach with the conviction that the words upon which we expounded were those of God Himself! My mentors in ministry taught me that Biblical inerrancy, in the end, meant that when I opened up my Bible to address God's people, I could do so with absolute confidence that God had spoken. For me (and I suspect, for many other Southern Baptists) inerrancy was not a political term used to gain control of the SBC "machine." It was, and is, a theological term which forms the basis, not only for what I believe, but for how I interpret the text in which I place my belief. Unfortunately, this term has been used politically, and may still be used in this way to accomplish political denominational ends. In the end, inerrancy (along with its hermaneutical cousin, the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation) was intended to point readers back to the text as the final authority (can you say "strict constructionism"?). Yet what has resulted is much akin to the above-described Supreme Court fiasco, and a subsequent struggle for power.

In his September 26 weblog, Tom Ascol notes that when SBC leadership draft policies, resolutions, or statements, there is an unspoken expectation that anyone who is "conservative" will be "lock-in-step" behind such actions. And if anyone questions or expresses doubt, the response is not to look to the text of Scripture, but rather to paint someone as less than conservative, or to suggest that any objectors do not "trust" SBC leadership, or that objectors are being "arrogant" in their principled opposition to a given policy. Says Ascol, "Now that conservatives are in charge, the theological commitments have changed, but the method of operating seems interchangeable with the previous regime. "

Ascol speaks here from experience. I remember vividly his objection to a change in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which dealt with the SBC view of Sunday. Was it the Lord's Day, or was it to be observed as the "Christian Sabbath?" Ascol's view was closer to the latter, and as a result, he objected to the proposed change in the statement which moved Southern Baptists confessionally toward a "Lord's Day" view of Sunday. I on the other hand, agreed in principal with the SBC decision on the view of Sunday, yet still recognized and respected Ascol's view, as well as his right to object. But some denominational leadership apparently did not take his criticism well. Ascol credits such offense to bureaucratic arrogance, in which any objection "is met with an almost incredulous disappointment that the actions of 'conservatives' would be questioned at all. 'We are inerrantists! You can trust us. We have 'Empowering Kingdom Growth.' We are good guys. Why are you questioning us?'"

The issue at hand then, is how to get past the Bureaucracy so that the practical outcome of Biblical inerrancy can be realized. It isn't conservative theology that stifles wholesome debate and honest and open dissagreement and dialogue. Rather, it is denominational bureaucracy that is neither liberal nor conservative, but simply seeks to retain power. But as Timothy George has saliently observed, "The exchange of one set of bureaucrats for another doth not a reformation make."

So then, if the above suspicions are true, how will such stifling bureaucracy be overcome? And the answer lies in the worthy, two-decade long battle that conservatives fought and won. When moderates controlled the SBC, the Bible was still inerrant. Conservative political victory did not make the Bible inerrant, but simply brought our denomination into conformity with the metaphysical reality of such a doctrine. Ultimately, the resurgence was about asserting what was already reality: that the final authority in all matters of faith and practice is indeed the Word of God. And that fact doesn't change, regardless of who is in power!

Speaking at a recent forum at American University, Justice Scalia suggested the following: "I think it is up to the judge to say what the Constitution provided, even if what it provided is not the best answer, even if you think it should be ammended. If that's what it says, that's what it says." Following his advice here results in the end of the struggle for power, and the beginning of a common dedication toward discovering the intended meaning of the Constitutional text. Similarly, the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, when "fleshed out," leads to the same conclusion. The meaning of the Bible is not dependent on what the most charismatic or powerful SBC leader has to say about it, but rather what the text actually says, whether or not we are comfortable with it. This is not to say that there won't be honest disagreements about whether good Southern Baptists can drink socially, or whether the rapture occurs prior to or subsequent to the tribulation. It does however, mean that such honest dissagreements can be discussed as both sides humbly submit to the text of God's Word rather than one side seeking to seize power over the other. When this happens, we will have realized the practical outcome of Inerrancy: My personal opinions are irrelevant, as are those of every other pastor, missionary and theologian in Southern Baptist life. What really matters is the authorial intent of the text.

The bottom-line question that must be asked: Was the "conservative resurgence" really about the Bible, or was it merely about power? At present, I refuse to believe the latter, and pray that the future direction of the SBC will prove me right!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Piper on Katrina as evidence of "Intelligent Design"

For the next two weeks, I have the privilege of taking some time off to just be a dad! We praise God that our son Seth was released from NICU and allowed to come home free of all monitors and sensors. His doctor said that had he not known Seth's history, he would have thought this was a totall normal birth, and that there is NO evidence that the baby has ever been sick! We praise God for this miracle, which was no doubt due in part to the prayers of His people who lifted our son up during this difficult time. Thank you!

There are so many things on which I could use this blog to reflect over the next two weeks. But at this time, I believe it is so important to just spend time with family. But rest assured, I'll be back soon enough.

For now, take a look at the link below. A counseling ministry in my hometown has posted a recent article by John Piper that contains a hymn he recently wrote as a result of Katrina. Enjoy, and I look forward to further discussions!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Hurricanes, Fuel Prices, and Other Reasons we Need a Sovereign God: Part II

As I write, the low volume hum of FOX News plays in the background, reporting on Hurricane Rita, and already placing sobering pictures on display of more flooding in New Orleans. Two weeks ago when seeking to address Katrina from a proper God-centered perspective, I had no idea that an even more powerful storm would now be bearing down on America's gulf coast.

Our God on the other hand, knew of these events even prior to creation! Furthermore, the Scriptures declare that His good and sovereign purposes are accomplished in such things. And this truth, whether applied to national crises such as hurricanes, or personal crises such as my own family has faced these past two weeks, gives the kind of assurance to believers that only a sovereign God can give.

Still, these blanket statements of God's complete control over all things beg further questions in our minds. How can such horrific events as the death of innocent nursing home residents, or the dehydration of newborn babies, or the dangerous poison chemical stew that Katrina made of New Orleans' water supply be part of the plans of a God who is always good?! Admittedly, no final answer to these questions can be given on this side of eternity. Yet even in the midst of this uncertainty, the Scriptures declare that there are things we can know for sure, and things in which our hope must lie, not only during crises, but throughout every moment of our lives.

In Deuteronomy 29:29, Moses sucinctly describes this juxtaposition when he says to the people of Israel: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law." The first phrase of this statement speaks poignantly, if bluntly, to our present situation. Put simply, Almighty God is not obligated to explain Himself or His actions to any of us! There are things that take place in this world in which lie God's "secret things." The Hebrew term here translated "secret" means, in its verbal form, "to conceal." Whether it is because of our self-centerdness, or because God knows we would never understand anyway, He has chosen to keep certain of His purposes hidden from us. As I said in the last post, the ultimate why question of Hurricane Katrina simply cannot be answered, nor I suspect will we be able to finally identify all the reasons God allows Rita to batter the Texas coastline this weekend.

And never have such Biblical truths been more profoundly driven into my own heart than this past week! On Sunday night, September 11, my wife went into pre-term labor. Sixteen hours later, our second son was born just before noon on September 12, five weeks early! Early reports were not good, and we sat, as do many new moms and dads in this situation, on "pins and needles." Eleven days later as I write this post, our little one is doing very well, although still not released from neo-natal ICU. As always, the question comes: Why? In such a situation, both sides of this verse are imminently applicable. First, just as God isn't obligated to explain why He allows a hurricane to all but obliterate an entire city, neither is He obligated to explain to me why these events have occured in the life of our newborn son. To speak bluntly, His reasons for this are His business!

Still, we have yet to look more closely at the other half of this verse: "but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law." My wife and I have learned this week that while God chooses to keep some things to Himself, He does not want us totally ignorant. But while such events may tempt us to search for knowledge of the events themselves, God uses such events to steer us toward knowing Him. God doesn't want the US to know why we have experienced two catasrophic Hurricanes in three weeks, and God doesn't want me to know why we have a son still in NICU. But through all of these things, He does want humanity to know Him. And when we know Him, we learn other things the Word has revealed:

Our Dependence: Isaiah Chapters 13-23 describe the future of a number of powerful nations that existed in the prophet's day. . . powerful nations, I might add, that either longer exist, or have barely survived to the present day in a severely weakened state! In this section of Biblical prophecy, God through his servant Isaiah predicts the destruction of Babylon (13:1-14:23), Assyria (14:24-28), Phillistia (14:29-32), Moab (15:1-16:13), Damascus (17:1-14), Ethiopia (18:1-7), Egypt (19:1-24), and a host of other nations. The political context of these passages suggest that Isaiah, through these predictions, is warning Judah not to enter into alliances with these countries to shore up its own security. This is also consistent with the overall political nuance of Isaiah's message: "Trust in the Lord, not in alliances with foreign and pagan nations." The point is simple: Judah will not find security in any nation, only in God!

With that said, the question must now be poised as to where our hope lies. Some will hope in the cooperation of local, state and federal government to be much improved since the Katrina fiasco. Still, even the most efficient coordination efforts will not prevent the damage that is coming. Some may even hope in the return of Christ. But while Scripture commends such hope, it does not do so on the basis of escape from the hardships of life. In addition, the second coming didn't prevent believers along with unbelievers from feeling the wrath of Katrina.

Similarly, I must ask myself at this point whether the greater portion of my hope lies with the excellent physicians and nurses who have treated my son, or in God who continues to allow his little heart to beat at this very moment. During any crisis, be it personal, national, or somewhere in between, the first step to finding peace is to realize that we are often more vulnerable than we think we are! Such a realization will compel us to look to God alone.

Our Responsibility: We may not know why God allowed these storms, but even the one casually aquainted with Scripture knows what God expects of us when such clamity strikes. It is during times like these that the public at large is able to see the feet, hands, and compassion of Jesus Christ Himself through the presence of His church. And God commands that we act, not only as His mouth, but as His hands and feet.

Personal crises are no different. During our long stay in NICU, which as of this post is looking toward day 12, God has brought us into contact with so many who don't know Jesus Christ as Savior. Many of these people are responsible for keeping our son alive. He is now an otherwise healthy baby because of their service and care. How could we not be burdened for such people? How could we not pray for opportunities to share the love of Jesus with them? And how could we not be, in a sense, thankful, that our experiences these past couple of weeks have afforded us the opportunity to be witnesses for Christ?

Bob Foster is a walking example of this principle. Struck blind in an auto accident, Bob could have spend the rest of his life asking why. Instead, he asked what. And over the past two years since his accident, he has walked the halls of nursing homes in Howard County, ministering to residents there, and leading over 40 of them to faith in Jesus Christ! In short, we may not know all that God is doing through crises, but the text of Scripture is clear as to what our responsibilities are during such times.

Our Calling: Some things God doesn't intend for His people to know. Other things He wants us to know! And Deuteronomy tells us that those revealed things are for the purpose of our observing "all the words of this law." I don't know all the reasons God has put us through the last 12 days, but none of that allows me to abdicate my responsibilities as a husband and father! I don't know when my son will be allowed to come home, but I know that my responsibilities as his dad began the very moment he was conceived. Sometimes, we simply don't know what God is up to. We do, however, know from the Bible what He wants from us in obedience, and those requirements don't change in bad times.

Our Confidence: Moses tells us that the things God has revealed have been given to us "and to our sons forever." My last post dealt more specifically with the neccesity of believing in a sovereign God, but this emphasis must be reiterated again. Promises of a secure eternity, the end of sin and death, and the final, triumphant return of Jesus Christ and the subsequent inauguration of an eternity of the glory of God are things we can be confident in only because the God we serve has declared the end from the beginning! It is illogical, not to mention unBiblical, to claim that God has somehow lost control of His creation, yet at the same time claim absolute assurance of His promises in Scripture. You simply cannot have one without the other!

This requires believing the hard truth that God really does control all things. It requires believing that although he is not responsible for sin and evil, such things are used, even against the will of those who perpetrate them, toward the advancement of an ultimate good. As Rick Warren has eloquently stated, we aren't in heaven. We are on earth! And this means that heartache, destruction, pain, death, sadness, sickness, perversion, crime, poverty, injustice, confusion, and other issues will always be with us on this sin-sick planet. But the Word of God tells us that even these things are under His control. Such a truth may be difficult short-term, but in the long run, it is the only basis on which we base our confidence in His promises, and cry along with John in absolute certainty, "even so, come Lord Jesus!"

For Further Reading:

Bray, Gerald. 1993. The Doctrine of God: Contours of Christian Theology. Downers Grove, IL: Intevarsity Press.

Packer, J.I. 1973. Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

McCullough, Donald W. 1995. The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Ware, Bruce A. 2003. Their god is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Hurricanes, Fuel Prices, and other Reasons we Need a Sovereign God, Part I

Does God know the future? Furthermore, has God declared the future? How much control does He actually exert over His creation? Questions of this sort often seem to be relegated to the "ivory towers" of theologial conjecture. But when the kind of chaos that has recently affected our nation encloses itself around our lives, those deeply philosophical questions quickly become the ones for which we seek answers.

While we try with all our being to think of God as good, right and just, we look at the soaring energy prices at home, with the devastation that was once the city of New Orleans against the backdrop, and ask in anguish the age-old question best coined by the prophet Amos: "Does disaster come to a city unless the Lord has done it?"

Philosophers of Religion call this question one of "theodicy," or an attempt to explain and justify the actions of God. Why would He allow such devastation? Yet when disaster of this magnitude strikes, any attempt to verbally express what God is up to seems to fall short, and those who claim to have a handle on God's plans (think Jerry Falwell after September 11) seem as naive as they really are.

Still others, such as an AM talk show host here in the Washington D.C. area, assume that God must simply be "asleep at the wheel." Last week, the host of the 9 AM to noon program stated definitively to a caller that "God can either be all-powerful, or all-good, but he cannot be both." As the average American surveys the landscape in our country today, it would be easy to come to the same conclusion, regardless of how ahistorical and unBiblical such a position would be.

The ironic thing is that now many like this talk-show host have suporters inside Christendom! A relatively recent theological movement called open theism, which has been afoot in the church for a little over a decade now, takes the side of this populist view of God: namely, that He doesn't control everything that happens in the world, and that He too is often caught off-guard by the chaotic events of our planet. Such a view goes beyond the historical debate between Calvinists and Arminians, which deals primarily with the extent of God's sovereignty over against the extent of man's freedom. The current debate moves beyond the issue of "free-will" to suggest not only that God doesn't predetermine events in history, but that He sometimes is competely unaware of these events!

Gregory Boyd, Senior Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Minneapolis and Open Theism's most vocal proponent, introduced this view of God to the church in masse via his 2000 book God of the Possible. Boyd's intentions were honorable. Seeking an explanation for the seemingly inexplicable suffering many Christians are forced to experience in life, Boyd simply suggested that perhaps our concept of God as omniscient (all-knowing of all past, present and future events) was in error. Says Boyd, "The open view, I submit, allows us to say consistently in unequivocal terms that the ultimate source for all evil is found in the will of free agents rather than in God."

On the surface, this view seems to serve as the ultimate and final answer to the question of theodicy: God isn't causing the affliction because He is love, and would never send something like this on a person. This is not to say that open theists believe God is ignorant of the possibility of catastrophe, but rather does not know that something will actually happen. Therefore, catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and her chaotic aftermath aren't something caused by God. It just happened! In reality, God is just as surprised as the rest of us, because often He simply doesn't know about coming affliction, much less how severe it will be. Similarly, the squeeze you and I have felt over this past week as gas prices have risen by double-digit percentages, and the accompanying anxiety over whether we will be able to afford transportation are not the result of a God-ordained event. They can't be, because God is just as much in shock over these things as we are!

Furthermore, it must be asserted that the Scriptures do indeed place the responsibility for evil squarely upon the will of man. The lawlessness America witnessed in New Orleans last week was simply human depravity within a context most conducive to its development. And let's face it: the price of gas must be due at least in part to the careless way in which we have wasted God's natural resources. But is this where the questions end? Is there no higher purpose behind chaos and catastrophe? In the end, Open Theism's attempt to "get God off the hook" leaves the seeker with little hope, and little incentive to look to the God of Scripture for an answer. To seekers of truth, a deeper investigation must ensue.

Contrary to the claims of open theists, the historical view of God, while not answering every question definitively, gives great hope to the one who truly believes. The Scriptural teaching concerning God's sovereignty can basically be boiled down to three truths:
1. All that God decrees or permits is ultimately for good, because God cannot sin, nor does He tempt others to sin.
2. All evil falls upon the shoulders of men.
3. Evil is thus allowed by a sovereign God, but He is not responsible for the evil permitted.

One Biblical example among many that could be given summarizes these truths well. In Isaiah 10, the prophet foretells of the destruction of the nation of Assyria. In the 8th century B.C., Assyria was to the world what the United States is today to the world: a lone superpower. Yet because of her disdain for and mistreatment of the people of God in Israel, God through Isaiah foretells of their ultimate demise.

Still, this demise did not come until after the Assyrian armies invaded Israel, killed, raped, maimed and scattered God's people, and settled in the land to intermarry with the leftover Israelites and create a new, Samaritan race. Furthermore, God through the prophet declares that the plan to invade Israel did not belong first to Assyria, but to God Himself as punishment for Israel's idolatry. This ironic juxtaposition is revealed by the grammatical structure of the text: "Ah Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. But he does not so intend, and in his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cutt off nations not a few." (10:5-7 ESV)

The text could not be any more clear! God ordained that His own people should be utterly and embarrasingly defeated at the hands of enemies even more godless than they were! Yet while the evil actions of the Assyrian armies is used by God to correct and ultimately bring His people back to Himself, the evil desire behind those actions is the fault of the Assyrians. In this passage, Isaiah has struck the correct balance between divine sovereingty and human responsibility, and he has done so without diminishing God's knowlege and power, or man's culpability and free choice to do evil.

How can the prophet do this? Ultimately because his prophecy is based within a more fully-orbed picture of a God who really does control everything, even those unimaginable and horrific events that boggle the human mind. That true and Biblical picture of God is given by the Lord himself to Isaiah later in the text, and in a way that reminds His followers in the midst of seeming chaos to stand on the promises of His sovereign will: "Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done."

Such a picture of God gives people hope in times of uncertainty. But it also does far more than this.

As our nation struggles to address what the media now calls "the most horrific natural disaster to ever occur on American soil in American history," followers of Jesus Christ are called upon to be the feet, hands, voice and compassion of God Himself. And the church for the most part has responded beautifully, as is but partially evidenced in the more than 500,000 meals a day served by my own denomination's disaster relief efforts in the area.

But how do we connect the relief efforts with the above lessons on a sovereign God? What hath Isaiah 46 to do with Matthew 25:31-46? I will speak to this issue more particulary next week. But for now, suffice it to say that it is not only Christians who need a sovereign God in times of crisis. Now, more than ever, the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and surrounding areas need a God who is sovereign! Receiving the truth about this God means that we also accept the hard truth that Hurricane Katrina was His storm, traveling His path, and accomplishing His purposes!

But what purpose? How could those purposes have possibly included the thousands of innocent lives lost? How can we conceive of a God who allows newbon infants to die of dehydration while waiting for a rescue that will never come?!?! These questtions have no easy answer, and what His purposes were will likely never be fully known on this side of eternity! But this much we know--the same great God who controls the weather commands that we give shelter, food and clothing to the homeless, hungry and naked. And with these supplies, He also commands that we communicate to the victims of this disaster that God is not only great. He is also good!

How can this be? Reflection on this question will come next week.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Debate Rages On: Evangelical Views of Education

Back on June 19, I wrote an article that addressed the debate among Christians concerning public vs. private education. The context surrounding that article was a resolution proposed by some Southern Baptist leaders that, if sent to the floor and approved, would have called upon parents to pull their children out of the nation's public schools. Thankfully, a milder version of the resolution passed. But wow, did I ever step into a hornet's nest when I spoke on this topic!

Since that article was published online, I have received much feedback, both positive and negative. Most recently, a group at Men for Modern Reformation, a Florida based ministry dedicated to Biblically based cultural engagement, decided to use my writing, among others with different viewpoints, to spur their readers to discernment concerning which choice--public school, Christian school, or home school-- was the most Biblically faithful and God honoring choice. While there were a number of contributors of far greater popularity and influence than myself (When seeing the web site at first, I felt like the "who's he" among the "who's who."), one pastor and Christian school administrator decided to address my article specifically, which prompted me to counter-respond. Needless to say, this debate is much more galvanizing than I thought!

Nevertheless, I remain more convinced than ever of a number of things. First of all, I believe this is a worthy debate. Unlike the almost totally abstract discussions about the minutae of the atonement (i.e. General vs. Particular) or the seemingly endless drone of trying to determine all the particulars of Christ's second coming, this issue holds much at stake, chiefly the development of our children.

Second, I remain convinced that the issue of Public vs. Private education is not simply a "black and white" issue that can be universally answered, because each public school system is different. While my original article could have been interpreted as an apologia for public education, this was not my intention. Instead, my goal was to state that public education should not be automatically jettisoned as an option simply because it is "public" education. Certainly I would agree that there are school districts that are beyond redemption, and in those circumstances, the best decision would be to home school, or enroll one's children in private school. But I would contend equally that this is not the case for every school district in America. Furthermore, I believe that parents are and must remain the final arbitors in this discussion, and that the church's role is to guide parents in understanding the particular educational context in their area, as well as the best ways to help their children develop.

Finally, I would stress more strongly than ever the "salt and light" factor when parents are struggling with how best to educate their children. This does not mean that we sacrifice our kids for the sake of a disingenous "evangelism." It does mean, however, that as we make educational decisions that affect our kids, we consider the question of how best to impact our communities. After all, the schools are the point at which culture is created. How can we impact culture apart from impacting the developers of culture? To the Christian parent struggling with where to send their kids, this is certainly not the only question to ask. Nevertheless, it is a question that is both essential, and unavoidable in light of the Great Commission.

As you will see from the link below, there are those who strongly disagree with me. Nevertheless, this is a discussion that needs to take place. If nothing else, the approach of fall, and with it the reality of a new school year should spur believers to greater discernment. Some parents will come to conclusions that mirror my own, while others will come to conclusions that are diametrically opposed to what I advocate. Neither of these groups is the problem. The problem rather, is parents who don't think at all! Those who send their children to Christian schools based solely on the "fear factor," as well as those who send their children to public schools merely for financial reasons are missing the point. The point is developing mighty men and women of God who will impact their culture in a maximum way.

What is the best way to accomplish this end? If you are a parent, God places the burden of arriving at a final answer to that question squarely on your shoulders! I encourage you to go to the link below. It contains my original article (published on this weblog June 19), as well as contributions from others, a response to my writing from Pastor David Bryant, and my counter-response. Read with discernment, and may God grant you wisdom as you raise your children to His glory!

To read more of this debate, visit First Blast, the online journal of Men for Modern Reformation. Click on the link below to access this material:

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Peril and Promise of "Vision."

The concept of "vision" is at one and the same time neccessary and confusing. As both the church and business world continue to employ this buzz word, its meaning becomes ever more fuzzy. While Proverbs 29:18 is true, there is a corollary truth to the statement "Where there is no vision, the people perish." That corrollary might well be summed up in this way: "Where there is unclear or misunderstood vision, the people just die more slowly and painfully."

Nevertheless, I fear that many churches and pastors, as well as many in the business world, are buying into a consumerist, commercialistic understanding of the term, largely due to our stress of "emphasis" over "explanation." Widening the discussion a bit, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, opens his newest book Winning with a discussion of how terms like vision, mission and values are "among the most abstract, overused, misunderstood words in business." Exacerbating this problem are the business schools, which Welch accuses of "having their students regularly write mission statements and debate values, a practice made even more futile for being carried out in a vacuum. Lots of companies do the same to their senior executives, usually in an attempt to create a noble-sounding plaque to hang in the company lobby."

In short, when vision is discussed, and even crafted, the end result is often far from the mark of reality. This is an unfortunate truth, mainly because vision is so vital, especially when one is planting churches. While our church planter assessment process here in Maryland measures for about 16 different behavioral characteristics, visionizing capacity is at the top of the list, and is considered what we call a "knock-out" category. Regardless of how well a potential planter may assess in every other area, if he proves unable to project beyond the present into the future, arguing in a way convincing to others the need for something that does not presently exist and verbally painting a picture of what the needed church will look like, we don't place him in the field to plant.

The reason for this is primarily Biblical. As Proverbs clearly states, the lack of such a futuristic picture and its possibilities leads ultimately to death. The literal translation of the text is actually that without vision, people "are unrestrained," or "wander aimlessly." Obviously, the first readers of this text would have had an instant flashback to the forty year Sinai experience, in which all but two members of an entire generation died because they lost their sense of purpose and destiny. That story is an eternal testiment to Solomon's claim that without clear vision and direction, aimless wandering ensues, and death eventually results.

Still, this begs the question: "What is vision?" The normative definition used in church planting is that first coined by Aubrey Malphurs, who describes vision as "a clear and challenging picture of the future, as the [church] leadership believes it can and should be." In short, vision is not a drawn-out strategic plan that includes all of the milestones involved in planting and/or growing a congregation. Nor is vision always incredibly specific. It is, in the end, a 'snapshot' of where the people in a given church should be headed. And in church planting, we are more specific to state that the church planter must have the capacity as the primary "visionizer."

The problem here is that often, in an attempt to match a perceived idea of what it means to be a 'visionary,' pastors and church planters end up sounding more like Amway salesmen than prophets of God's truth. Our culture has for the past two decades developed a picture of what a "visionary" looks like that is driven more by popular perception than reality. Yet pastors, church planters, and even business leaders have seemed to buy into this pop-picture, and the tragedy of this shortcoming is two-fold. First, those attempting to be "visionary" feel it neccessary to pretend that they have the future all figured out: where the land is going to be located, how many square feet the first, second, and third sanctuaries are going to be, and the exact demographic and psychographic "target" that will be reached. In the end, the church planter or pastor comes off sounding like the "autonomous knower," arrogant, over-confident, proud, and overly-obsessed with his own "Kingdom-building." Second, aspirations toward acheiving identification with this pop-version visionary keep the leader from becoming what he really needs to become to lead his church to greatness.

Jim Collins' best-selling book Good to Great, which addresses these issues from a business world perspective, states that the best leaders of the best corporations are not flamboyant, charismatic, eloquent salesmen. Instead, Collins found that the leaders of the world's most successful corporations exhibited modesty, resolve, and a commitment to build something that would outlast their tenure at the company. Similarly, Thom Rainer's new book Breakout Churches, which is patterned after Collins' work, revealed that Senior Pastors in the most successful "turnaround" churches in America brought to the table a blend of humility and confidence, love and persistence, all of which was undergirded with a high view of Scripture and solid belief in a miracle-working God. In short, neither these visionaries nor the visions they cast would have been recognized as particularly compelling when compared to the more "colorful" personalities of some of their colleagues. Nonetheless, these leaders were able to bring their corporations and/or congregations to a point of owning a vision and accomplishing far and beyond even what they themselves expected.

Transposing these thoughts exclusively to the area of church ministry, it might be suggested that the particulars of what makes a given church significant aren't neccessarily the key ingredients to a compelling vision, but instead, it is the overall vision of the universal church given by Jesus as it is contextualized for a given local body. Add to this God's propensity for doing "abundantly beyond all that we ask or think," and you have a picture of the future that may lack in worldly attraction, but will guide the church in becoming most effective.

In my experience as a pastor, church planter, and now a strategist/missionary, I have seen churches with the most sophisticated and particularly detailed vision statements fail miserably. Conversely, the most successful church plants I have seen have followed the most elementary of vision statements.

Beginning in 1997 as a congregation of about 25, Marathon Community Church in Easley South Carolina was led by two brothers, neither of whom possessed any theological training. But Eddie and Brian Cox were determined to reach the growing unchurched population of this upstate area. Today, Marathon has over 4000 in attendance in multiple services every Sunday, and they have helped to plant over five other churches in the surrounding area. The mission that guided them wasn't sophisticated. In fact, it wasn't even original. It was borrowed from the Hard Rock Cafe. Still today, the banner that once hung over the bar at a Hard Rock in Florida now hangs in the sanctuary at Marathon's new campus, and on that banner are found only four words: "Love all, Serve all!" These two guys had no huge dreams of a mega-church. They simply wanted to serve their community in the name of Jesus, and remove unneccesary barriers to people coming to faith in Christ. This was the exact "vision" they cast to their core group, and it was the reference point that kept them from "aimless wandering," as they grew from an Elementary School cafeteria to a warehouse, to their present facility. The result? Well, needless to say, it was "abundantly beyond" what they asked for.

This is, I believe, the essence of "vision." It doesn't need to be flamboyant to be powerful. And leaders don't need to have the personality of a televangelist to be a visionary.

One story from the business world illustrates how simple vision can direct an organization to greatness, and that is the story of the Hard Rock Cafe referenced above. In 1974 two Americans opened up a burger joint in Great Brittan, with a simple vision of providing their clientele with a friendly atmosphere and great food. In fact, most readers will recognize the name of one of their first, and most famous customers. Musician Eric Clapton was a regular at this new food establishment, and one day, suggested to the owners that they provide him with his own reserved table. The owners jokingly suggested that if Clapton would donate his guitar, they would mark his reserved table by placing it on the wall. But Clapton wasn't joking, and not long after this conversation brought in a signed Fender to mark his territory in his favorite restaurant.

The story doesn't stop here. Not long after Clapton's guitar was hung, the owners received a package in the mail from Pete Townsend of the Who. Enclosed was one of his signed guitars with a note that read "Mine's just as good as Eric's. Love, Pete." And so began a collection of Rock 'n Roll memorabillia that to this day is unparallelled, housed in restaurants all over the world now universally recognized by the yellow, neon guitars posted outside. The Hard Rock Cafe began with a vision not nearly as sophisticated as the end result. Nevertheless, these two American shop-owners remained true to their original plan of a welcoming atmosphere and great food, and the rest is history.

That story contains much promise for those who serve God with a simple yet compelling focus. The Hard Rock began with a simple vision caught by some very recognizeable musicians. But the church begins with a simple vision that is empowered by God Himself! To ignore the crucial importance of vision in church planting is to play fast and loose with eternal souls who may end up in aimless wandering because of complacent and ultimately uncaring leaders. But to think that one has to have everything "figured out" to be a true visionary is to deny the sovereignty of God in the process of establishing His church. For church planters, this means prayerful planning that expects God to do so much more than you ever dreamed possible. In the end, if God has His way, noone will be talking about the visionary capacity of the pastor and/or planter. Instead, everyone will be speaking the greatness of God. And in the end, there can be no greater vision than this!

Other Resources:

Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't. New York: Harper Business, 2001.

Thom Rainer. Breakout Churches: Discover how to Make the Leap. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Andy Stanley. Visioneering: God's Blueprint for Developing and Maitaining Personal Vision. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishing, 1999.

Jack Welch. Winning. New York: Harper Business, 2005

Friday, August 12, 2005

Wealth in Tribulation and Poverty: Lessons from our Brothers in the "Third World."

American Christianity truly presents what will likely be one of the most amazing ironies of the 21st Century. On the one hand, the church in North America boasts more material wealth than all the churches in all the other nations of the world combined. Yet at the same time, missiologists tell us that North America is the only inhabited continent on the globe where the church is in retreat. Conversely, it now appears that the segment of Christ's body that currently poses the greatest threat to the Kingdom of darkness is located in the poorest regions of our world.

Over a quarter century ago, Anglican Priest David Watson noted that "it is widely held that the battle of the century will be between Marxism, Islam, and Third World Christianity." Those wondering why Watson would credit this particular corner of the church with maximum effectiveness, as opposed to more affluent segments of the body, were met with a sombering observation: "Western Christianity is considered too weak and ineffective to contribute anything significant to this universal struggle." This is a serious indictment on the church in the west, particularly in light of Luke 12:48. God has blessed the western church, more specifically the church in the United States, with unparallelled affluence and influence, and the church has as a whole responded to that blessing with lethargy and complacency.

These observations beg the question of how the American church can begin to move toward being good stewards with the enormous supply God has given. And the answers to this question come primarily from examining the efficacy of the church as it exists in other parts of the globe, and most notably in the poorest countries in the world. What I want to suggest here are three primary barriers the American church has yet to overcome, along with ways in which we can overcome them. Ironically enough, many of these lessons come from our third world brothers and sisters that we so often marginalize:

BARRIER #1: MATERIALISM. Admittedly, this barrier is not exclusive to the US. In fact, I have missionary friends in some pretty poor countries that tell me this is a problem everywhere. One colleague tells me that in certain parts of poor, sub-Sahara Africa, "If a man has a straw hut, he wants a mud hut. If he has a mud hut, he wants a brick hut." In other words, materialism has less to do with one's pocketbook and more to do with one's attitude. Wealth is not sin, but a desire for wealth that is greater than the desire for God is sin, and this is where many in the American church have been held back from much greater influence in the Kingdom of God. In many parts of the western church, the "American Dream" has supplanted the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the message of focus. The message of repentance from sin and faith in Christ's substitutionary death and bodily resurrection for salvation has been replaced in many "seeker-friendly" pulpits with the message of health, wealth, and prosperity. The challenge to follow Jesus has been largely usurped with messages of how to gain "success," as the prevailing western culture defines that term. The result of this substitution is a perverted view of what constitutes faithfully following Jesus. Let's face it: American Christians don't want to hear the suggestion that they or their children might be called by God to go to the hard places of the world; even to lay down their lives in martyrdom for the sake of God's Kingdom. When it comes to the Biblical principle of "suffering," there is a suspicious kind of cessationism going on. We in the US don't believe those texts apply to us.
The way of overcoming this barrier is that of returning the western church to an eternal perspective, and those in the less affluent regions of the globe can teach us much about how to make this turn. One of the greatest examples of this eternal perspective is seen in a massive church planting movement currently underway in the nation of Honduras, led by Pastor Humberto del Arca. Pastor del Arca heads a multiplication movement of new churches that tenders an average of one new congregation per week. Having none of the technology or resources we possess, del Arca's movement is witnessing results that truly make our best church planting efforts in North America look anemic. They share the Gospel , baptize converts, and then focus on laying up "heavenly" treasures. Post conversion conversation centers around Romans 6, and the first follow-up question is: "What sinful habits do you have that need to be changed by the power of the risen Christ?" No frills, no messages on how to increase your income or raise "successful" children. Just a simple, Gospel-centered approach to discipleship that is radically focused on the eternal perspective. This is an effective cure for the heart that is sick with the desire for material things.

BARRIER #2: NATIONALISM/ZEALOTISM: Now before I go any further, let me clear something up: I believe Christians should think Biblically in every aspect of life, including the political. Applying a Christian worldview in the voting booth is something more followers of Christ should be doing. Issues like the murder of the unborn, the blessing of sexual perversion, and government disdain for religious expression in the public square are issues on which the church dare not be silent. Give me the issues and I'll vote accordingly. Show me the petition and I'll sign it. The problem however, is when followers of Jesus confuse political action with the accomplishment of the Great Commission. When we confuse the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of America, the resulting Nationalism becomes an attempt to accomplish God's goals with man's Kingdom resources.
Exhibit A of this tendency is seen when looking at the declining rate of abortions that took place during the Clinton administration . . . . yes, that's right, during the administration of a "pro-choice" President, the rate of abortions decreased significantly. Statistics reveal that the rate has actually ticked up a bit since George W. Bush took the oath of office for the first time in 2001. Does this mean that abortions go down because of a "pro-choice" approach to abortion? Of course not! Those who would permit the murder of an unborn child are not even fit to hold public office! But that 's not the point. The point is that during Clinton's presidency, American evangelicals knew they would get no help from Washington in defending innocent human life, so they rolled up their sleeves and went to work! The lesson learned from this slice of history is simple: Just because "our guy" is in the White House, Governor's Mansion, or seat in congress does not mean that we can stop being the missional people of God!
Conversely, the church is spreading like wildfire in nations where religious persecution of Christians is strongest. A dear friend of mine who is very familiar with the church in other nations tells me that if certain oppressive governments fall in some of the eastern coutries, the world will be aghast at how large the evangelical church is in those nations. Similar stories could be told in Ambon, Indonesia and other nations of the world. Our brothers and sisters who live under the constant threat of persecution understand what Jesus meant when he told Pilate "My Kingdom is not of this world." If we hope to have a fraction of the impact they are having, we too must learn that God's Kingdom is not advanced through culture war, but rather through joyful suffering. It is strange but true. Throughout its history, the church has always been the most effective when her enemies were in power. Perhaps this is because when found in this situation, the church patterns her behavior after her Savior, who Himself claimed to build His Kingdom through suffering. (See Isaiah 52 and 53 for the connection between the "suffering servant" and how the coming Kingdom of God will be inaugurated.)

BARRIER #3: PLURALISM: Make no mistake. When we speak of pluralism, we are speaking of what will undoubtedly be the greatest threat to the integrity of the preached Gospel in the west. It is already demonstrating itself to be the next great heresy with which Gospel-loving believers will have to contend, as well as one of the most dangerous of false teachings. Yet the American church is to a large extent delusional with pluralistic deception. Research conducted by Doctor of Ministry students at one Southern Baptist seminary revealed that 40% of Southern Baptists believe "good people go to heaven, whether or not they have a personal relationship to Jesus Christ." The solution to this is simple: We must return to John 14:6, Acts 4:12, and other texts which clearly state that outside of Jesus Christ, there is no way to fellowship with God and a secure eternity.
Think for a moment about our brothers and sisters undergoing persecution in the Sudan. If pluralism has merit, wouldn't you think they would simply convert to Islam to avoid being martyred? After all, if heaven belongs to all the "good people" regardless of whether they know Jesus, what is the use of remaining in Christ to only be killed in the end? Let this much be clear: The Apostles freely allowed themselves to be persecuted because they believed the Gospel was exclusive. The reformers risked excommunication and even death because they believed the Gospel was exclusive. Many of the earliest settlers in this nation came because they believed the Gospel was exclusive. There is most assuredly a line between who is "in" and who is "out," and our fellow believers in other parts of the world can teach us about the preciousness of guarding that truth, even if it costs us our lives.

There can be little doubt that the American church is to a large extent in a state of continuous lethargy. Our consumerist approach to the Christian faith has left us largely impotent to effectively transform ouur culture for the sake of the Gospel. In his recent book on church membership, Chuck Lawless laments that church in the west "is more about receiving than giving, more about coming than going, more about being served than serving." Yet in the midst of this morbid complacency, the Savior commands us to return to our first love. But He also gives us a pattern for effectiveness, and just like Jesus, notorious for using the prostitute, the child, the poor, and the disenfranshised as examples of the "greatest" in His Kingdom, He now calls our attention to the "least of these" in the third world. Have we considered these servants of God? The world is not worthy of them! May God grant us the grace and the guts to follow their example.