Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Asking the Right Questions:: Christians and Boy Scouts of America

If you have been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you may be unaware that in that time--a bit less than the time span of a single generation--the moral climate of nearly the entire western hemisphere has experienced a seismic shift.

Conversely, if you have lived anywhere near a TV set and are of average intelligence, you've noticed!

The most recent evidence of this shift was made known to us recently, when the Boy Scouts of America reversed a decades-long ban that kept gay boys and men out of the scouts.  As could have been easily predicted, social conservatives from nearly every corner of our culture came out with guns blazing, along with those from the far left, who added their own fuel to a very hot, and very unclear debate.

As followers of Jesus, Christians are to contend for the truth.  But contending for what is right often requires far more light, and far less "heat" than is often contributed, especially when the discussion surrounds moral issues in the 21st century.  Various understandings of what it means to be "gay," coupled with vague understandings of this recent decision by BSA have clouded the issue, and together with the immediate response of "culture warriors" from both left and right, have made this conversation nearly impossible to have.

Enter my friend Marty Duren.

One of the reasons I'm thankful for Marty's recent post is that it doesn't contain the usual flare of "culture war" propaganda.  Instead, he takes aim at the church.  "My critique," he states, "is not toward the BSA's decision as much as toward how followers of Christ might understand it."

Marty has written a superb post that I highly recommend, and I cannot improve on what he says, so I will merely point out the basic questions he contends believers should ask surrounding this issue:

1. "Are we more concerned about the loss of Americanism than finding an authentic expression of a Christ-bought church?"
2. "If we are more concerned with an authentic expression of the church, why are we so afraid of a faltering culture since the church has usually shone brightest in the rubble?"
3. "Will we ever grasp that 'reclaiming America' is not the same as revival?"
4. "Will we ever grasp that there is no Biblical mandate--or even a suggestion--that 'reclaiming America' is not a call on God's people?"
5. "Have we misrepresented the fall of Christendom as the work of Satan, rather than considering it could be God destroying our most  grand, safe and preferred  idol?"

There are many other questions in this post as well--questions designed to get under your skin in a sanctifying way, and as you can tell just from the ones I've listed here, this post is only for those who like their coffee strong.  Of course, maybe a good dose of caffeine would help the 21st century American church awaken from a stuper of intellectual laziness and spiritual lethargy.  Read the rest of my friend's post here.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Who are "Evangelicals?"

Over the past few weeks, and more particularly in reference to discussions regarding sexual ethics, Evangelical Christians have made the news, and usually not in a good way.

To be sure, sometimes we earn the bad reputation that we  suffer with in the public eye.  Many times, however, we simply make a good "whipping boy" for a shallow and surface-dabbling media looking for someone to blame.  But to be fair, sometimes the definition of "Evangelical" can differ within our own ranks.  Years ago, David Martyn-Lloyd Jones issued a series of lectures entitled "What is an Evangelical?" in an attempt to wrest a succinct understanding of this term back from a larger Christian body who, in his view had diluted the term.  Admittedly,  accurately defining the term can be a lot like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree!  

Sometime ago, I wrote an article aimed at non-Christians outlining a more precise, and ironically, a more global view of Evangelical Christian identity.  The article was picked up by, and an edited  version can be found here.  But my original draft appears below.  My hope is that those seeking more information about Evangelicalism will hear in the following words who we really are, and what our common and central passions are.  Who are Evangelicals?  Keep reading!

“Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate.”  -Henry Louis Mencken

“To be Evangelical is to be faithful to the freedom, justice, peace, and well-being that are at the heart of the Good News of Jesus.”  -An Evangelical Manifesto 

“Truly truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”  -Jesus, John 3:3

For some, no group in North America is easier to hate, or more difficult to understand, than evangelical Christians.  Admittedly, some who wear this label often fit the negative stereotype that has come to be associated with the term, and too often, loud voices claiming to speak for all evangelicals spread a message that is less like Jesus Christ, and more like a political agenda or a cultural crusade.  Reactions to the term “evangelical” can be quite strong.  “Isn’t that the group who hates women and gay people?”  or  “Aren’t these the people who are afraid of science and societal advance?”   These assumptions understandably make some people nervous, and leave many wondering “exactly what do these people believe?”

But at its core, the evangelical message is not captive to any political philosophy or particular social agenda.  The core of the evangelical message, in fact, transcends political party, ethnicity, socio-economic class, and culture, and points ultimately to a God who loves all and desires for all to know Him.

Where did they come from?

Historically, Evangelical movements in the west emerged in the 17th century.  At that time in the United States, the movement was primarily forwarded in churches led by men such as Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts pastor who also served for a brief time as President of Princeton University.  The movement continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and stressed virtue and personal devotion to God.

A great number of our nations hospitals (such as Vanderbilt) and institutions of higher learning (such as Princeton University and Brown University) were started by evangelicals. In fact, every educational institution started in the United States up until 1789—with the single exception of the University of Pennsylvania—was started by a Christian denomination. The men and women who founded these institutions applied the message of Jesus to the enlightenment mindset that was prevalent at the time.  Their goal was to affect society as a whole in a positive way through the tangible expression of their Christian faith.  Literary works of this time period were also produced in this environment.  Today, students come to the United States from all over the world in order to attend western universities.  All of the top ten MBA programs in the world are in the west (8 in the United States, 1 in Canada and 1 in Great Brittain).  This reality is due in large part to the contribution of evangelical Christians who, centuries ago, implemented a vision for the betterment of culture through top quality and accessible education.

Additionally the “scientific revolution” was started in large part by Christians, who introduced an inductive “scientific method” to the world.  Christians believed then, as they do today, that God has revealed Himself in nature, as well as in the human psyche.  The 17th century chemist Robert Boyle stated that nature “is nothing else but God acting according to certain laws he himself fixed.”  Assumptions such as these provided an environment for the study and extension of mathematics and science in the west.  Though there were certainly those within Christian circles who opposed scientific advance, the truth is that these objections never represented the consensus of the Christian community

Evangelical thought has affected virtually every part of modern western society.  It was Christians who gave the world of art such notable painters and sculptors as Botticelli and Raphael.  Western classical music likewise, continues to be informed and inspired by Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and Handel’s “Messiah.”  Sociologist Rodney Stark admits that “the modern world arose only in Christian societies…..all the modernization that has since occurred outside Christendom was imported from the West, often brought by colonizers and missionaries.”

What do they want?

Though evangelicals are often portrayed as being “against” culture, the aim of this group of Christians is to see culture redeemed and restored to God’s original intention.   Complimentary evangelical beliefs in original sin and the hope of redemption in Jesus Christ have fueled attempts to create the kind of ideal environments in which this redemption can truly take place. Such were the convictions that led England's William Wilberforce to champion the cause of the abolition of slavery, eventually putting it to an end throughout the United Kingdom by the early part of the 19th century. The history of this group of Jesus’ followers demonstrates their strong contribution to uniquely western ideals.  Freedom of religion is based on the evangelical belief that only personal faith in Jesus saves and therefore, the state should not dictate religious belief to the masses.   Principled pluralism rests on the evangelical conviction that “forced conversion” is in fact no conversion at all.  It is rooted also in the conviction that adherents to all faiths should learn to live peaceably with each other, and that each should be free in mind to pursue the truth. Belief in universal human rights and just warfare are grounded in the conviction that human beings are created in God’s own image and likeness, and that therefore, each is worthy of dignity and respect.  Even the idea of separation of church and state owes its existence to a group of Baptist evangelicals who  were concerned about the encroachment of the state’s power into the life of the church. 

Throughout history, evangelicals have sought to advance civilization through principles that they believed were found within God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture and in nature.  That same spirit permeates the evangelical mindset today.  Evangelicals’ interaction with science, education, sociology, and culture at large is for the purpose of utilizing all those domains to better society, and communicate the Christian message in the process. 

What do they really believe?

These aspirations are motivated by the core beliefs of evangelical Christianity—belief in the Bible as the ultimate source of truth, the role of the church in society, and the urgency of global missions and humanitarian work.  Most importantly, evangelical action is based on the conviction that God has fully and finally revealed Himself to all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. 

So to truly understand what it means to be “Evangelical,” one must unplug this term from its occasional ties to American politics and culture wars.  Evangelicals can be found in “red states” as well as “blue states.”  Members in good standing of Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green Parties include devoted followers of Jesus, and all believe that the great unifier is not political affiliation, race, gender, or societal status, but the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  At heart, evangelicals are simply bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ, who Himself loved humanity enough to enter our world and do what was necessary to bring healing, understanding, and deliverance from ourselves into a genuine relationship with Him.  Evangelicals don’t always follow Him perfectly, but more than anything, their desire is that the world would see who Jesus is through their words and actions.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Who's Obsessed with Homosexuality?

Until today, the stage was set for an inaugural celebration that epitomized the very kind of tolerance and inclusion that President Obama prides himself in seeking to build.  But today, with the seemingly forced withdrawal of an evangelical pastor from the inauguration platform, "liberalism" in America was revealed for what it really is:  a far-left Fundamentalism that is far more obsessed with sex than anyone on the far right.

Two days ago, the picture was quite different.  Not only was the inaugural platform to be a display of diverse political and theological opinion, but also a testimony to the good that can be done when those of differing opinions work together.  CNN, quoting a White House official on its religion blog, stated that Atlanta Pastor Louie Giglio was chosen to offer a public prayer "because he's a powerful voice for ending human trafficking and global sex slavery."  Through the Passion movement, Giglio has led young evangelical Christians across American to aggressively combat the evils of human trafficking worldwide, and address a host of other social justice issues.

But upon hearing of the President's selection, a few in the far-left media went to work to "dig up dirt" on this evangelical pastor.  What they discovered was a sermon 10 years old in which Giglio says about homosexuality what the church as a whole has been saying about it for 2000 years.  As a result, Giglio withdrew his name.  As my friend Marty Duren well-said, "Apparently, his brave efforts to eliminate slavery worldwide weren't pro-gay enough."

Let me say that again.  What Louie Giglio believes about homosexuality is the same thing that the Christian church--the WHOLE Christian church until recent years--has believed about it.  And for this, he is now excluded from the party on inauguration day.  The Presidential Inaugural Committee said this about the issue:

“We were not aware of Pastor Giglio’s past comments at the time of his selection and they don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this Inaugural. Pastor Giglio was asked to deliver the benediction in large part for his leadership in combating human trafficking around the world. As we now work to select someone to deliver the benediction, we will ensure their beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.“

Actually, this statement should have ended with "inclusion and acceptance of all Americans except those who hold to the historical position of the Christian church where sexual ethics are concerned."  So much for inclusion and tolerance!

What's interesting is how the good folks at Think Progress had to dig . . .and dig . . .and dig, and go back nearly 15 years to find a message from Pastor Giglio on homosexuality.That the man has preached nearly 800 sermons since this one should be evidence enough that he has no particular axe to grind on this issue.  In fact, if anyone betrays their obsession with homosexuality in all of this, its Think Progress.  Yet, if you were to ask Louie Giglio where he stands on the issue today, you would discover something many liberals find shocking: They haven't changed, because his views aren't determined by the shifting winds of culture, but instead by the Scriptures.  Put in syllogistic terms:

Premise 1. Without repentance from sin and faith in Jesus, no one can inherit the Kingdom of God
Premise 2. Giving in to any sort of sexual sin outside of heterosexual marriage, including homosexual activity, is sin according to the clear teaching of the Bible
Conclusion: No one who refuses to repent from homosexual behavior will inherit the Kingdom of God.

The shocked reaction of so many progressives to this line of reasoning would make one who is totally ignorant of the history of Western Civilization to think that the church suddenly decided to invent this idea.  But the facts and history are quite simple.  For the past two milennia, and until the last two decades, every single stream of Christianity--Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox--spoke in uniformity to this issue, and has taught that sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin. That's not bigoted.  Its called being a follower of Jesus. The "shock" expressed at this by some liberals would be hilarious, if the ramifications weren't so tragic.

Which brings me back to the subject of obsession.  Giglio spoke well to this in his public statement:

Due to a message of mine that has surfaced from 15-20 years ago, it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration. Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years. Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ.

He's right, by the way.  Evangelical Christians as a whole aren't interested in focusing exclusively on the homosexual issue.  Our message is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In this situation, no one is more obsessed with sexual orientation than the far-left Fundamentalists, who bring this issue front and center every single time it can be exploited.

Don't be fooled by the far-left media.  Evangelical Christians aren't "anti-gay."  Anyone who takes Scripture seriously loves all people, regardless of their sexual orientation.  The difference is that we love them enough to tell them what we believe their Creator thinks.  Since when is love defined by me being more interested in whether you like me than it is in my genuine concern for your own well-being?

I am sure that this incident will spark more controversial discussion about an issue that has long been settled in the Christian canon.  Some who even call themselves "Christian" will perform hermaneutical acrobatics in order to try and make the point that "this isn't really what Scripture teaches."  But at the end of the age, when all other man-made ideas and philosophies are burned up, the Word of the Lord stands forever, unchanged. Believing it doesn't make someone a bigot.

To my far-left friends I can only say this:  We Christians aren't the ones obsessed with sexuality.  Obsession is evidenced in digging up years and years of sermons in order to find something someone said about sexuality.  To put it simply, its not us, its you.   We have another, far better obsession.  His name is Jesus.  And we aren't interested in changing what He says about your obsession.  But we are interested in offering Him--as He is--to you.

Monday, January 07, 2013

What We are Looking For

I'm often asked, by those pursuing a call to church planting as well as those curious about the work I do, "What is the most important thing you look for in a church planter?"

Part of my work with the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware involves helping to assess candidates who seek to plant new churches with us. Our process is long and arduous, but its also effective, with the highest "success rate" in our denomination nation-wide.  Last month prior to the Christmas holidays, I dedicated two whole days to the task of assessment, along with four other assessors, two church planter candidates, and their spouses. Its a long day to say the least for the assessors themselves, not to mention the candidate, who I am sure often wonders when Dr. Rorshach is going to appear with his inkblots. It is a mentally and emotionally intense day, but it is necessary, because putting the wrong man in the field damages him, his family, the community he is seeking to reach, and the reputation of Jesus.

Lots of important issues get examined in that room, including a guys capacity to cast a compelling vision, his internal motivations, his family life, his relationships with non-Christians, and how he handles and thinks about money, authority, sex, marriage, children, friendships, enemies, structures, and the Gospel. At the end of the day, we put it all together and ask a very simple question: "Do his behaviors and attitudes match those that we know are present in a successful church planter?" Modes of dress, preferred styles of worship, philosophies of church growth, and personalities vary widely among these men, but the one thing that they all must hold in common to work with us are behaviors that are commensurate with introducing people to Jesus, and then congregating those people into new churches.

To do this sort of work, an assessor has to check many of his own personal prejudices at the door. In the end, it really doeesn't matter if this man uses the same preaching style I use, holds to my eschatology, or lines up in any particular way on the Calvinism issue.  Also irrelevant is whether I'd be personally comfortable hanging out with this guy. What really matters is whether he can connect with and successfully pastor the people he is seeking to reach. Still, there is one thing that is very personal that each assessor should keep in mind. In every assessment interview I've ever conducted, I've asked this one, simple, over-arching question:

"Would I allow this man to pastor my wife and children?"

On many occasions I've shared this publicly, challenging others to ask the same question.  When I teach church planting in a seminary classroom, or speak with denominational colleagues about what really matters, this question always comes out, and the reactions vary.   Some respond negatively, thinking I mean that his passing or failing assessment grade should be ultimately tied to whether I genuinely like him, or to how much attention my family might receive from him were we a part of his new church. Honestly, my question doesn't presume that my family and I would even be a part of his church. That is a different, though related, question. The question is one of trust: Is this a man I whose teaching I would allow my family to sit under week after week? When I ask that question, I am looking for the following:

1. His View of JesusIf I hear a candidate continually talking about the "church" in a way that is disconnected from Jesus, then I'm hearing a guy who has a woefully inadequate ecclesiology, and is consequently more interested in building an organization than in building Christ-followers. On the other hand, if everything from the growth strategy to the structure is permeated with discussion about making Jesus known, then I can be assured I have a guy who knows, ultimately, what this thing called church planting is all about. Such is the reason why theological convictions such as the virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection of Christ are so neccesary. By these things, Jesus is vindicated as the Lord of His church, which He sends out to continue His work, in the power of His spirit. Candidates who don't understand this necessary connection end up planting an organization that--blunt as it sounds--looks more like a whore than a bride. On the other hand, if a man starts with Jesus and His Gospel, and moves toward an understanding of "church" from that starting point, such is a man who will always be lifting up Jesus. That is the kind of man I want yelling at my wife and kids each and every Sunday!

2. His view of Scripture. Since Jesus is ultimately revealed in the Bible, I want a man who has a high view of the inspiration of the Biblical text. Casual observation of the best Bible teachers reveals an obvious connection: Those who teach well from the text are those who think well about the text. This doesn't mean that a guy has to use all of the conservative, evangelical "buzzwords" like "inerrancy" or "infallability" with the same regularity with which he might use common conjunctions. I know many men who "believe the Bible" yet have little to no idea what it actually says. My experiences with candidates tells me that while true "inerrantists" don't shy away from using the word, they don't speak about it nearly so much as they practice it. When conversing with a guy I would let be my family's pastor, questions, problems, objections, and guidance all start with the simple phrase "the Bible says . . ."

3. His own Family Commitment. I have a very high view of the value of family because I see an equally high view of the family in the Scriptures. Consequently, I don't want my family sitting underneath the teaching of a guy who undoes these values by mistreating his wife, being overly harsh with his children, being absent from his home too much because of "ministry," or sacrificing his family out of professional pursuits. When my wife and kids look at their pastor, I want them to see the same kind of family commitment to which I aspire.

4. His Evangelistic Practice. I am growing more certain each day of the fact that un-evangelistic pastors are the primary reason for un-evangelistic churches. Eventually, people will emulate what they see in their leaders.  This doesn't mean I want a guy to present the "four spiritual laws" to every flight attendant, or leave a tract at every restaurant table. What I do want is a pastor who naturally shares his faith in much the same way that people in love speak of their beloved. One man we recently assessed wasn't particularly eloquent, didn't have the most winsome personality, and honestly, I've heard better preachers. But he "oozed" Jesus, and literally hundreds have come to Christ because of this. So he passed!

Obviously, there are other very important things that need to be examined when we are seeking to place the best candidates in the field to start new churches. The factors I've listed above aren't the only ones we look at. But I do believe they are the most important. For that matter, every Christian family should ask these questions of the men who are presuming to lead churches they are considering being a part of. The greatest honor any man can give another is the trust that comes with placing his family in your hands. When searching for a pastor, remember that he will watch over the souls of your family, and examine him accordingly!