Thursday, November 20, 2014

Immigration and the Great Commission

"100 years ago we sent missionaries to the nations to look for cities.  Today you go to the cities and you find the nations."  -Ray Bakke

Today, President Obama is expected to reveal his plans for reforming our current immigration system--plans that most expect will be controversial.  If you want to stoke emotions and heat up a conversation,  you need only mention the subject of illegal immigration and step back.  The sparks are certain to fly!

In the wake of this latest round of tense discussion over this issue, the folks at Lifeway released a survey that shows pastors significantly support some form of immigration reform.  For many pastors, this is now no longer an impersonal issue, because many are starting to see the way it personally affects people they now know.  I've discussed at length before why I believe our current system demands significant reform, but regardless of your position on this issue, followers of Jesus should be responding to immigration first on the basis of our Kingdom calling.

The nations are quite literally next door.  In the last decade, the foreign-born population of the United States has grown by almost 9 million.  One of four children in our country has at least one parent who was not born here, and there are over 800,000 international students currently attending Universities and graduate schools in the United States.  Today, chances are when the subject of immigration is raised, most pastors now have at least one face and one name attached to the issue.  Wherever you are politically on this subject, if you are a follower of Jesus, you believe these people to be image-bearers of God that Jesus died to save.  We also believe that in the providence of God, these individuals have come to our shores and that like anyone else in our proximity, it is our responsibility to see that they hear of Jesus.

A friend shared recently of a young Pakistani man who came to the United States a few years back to study at a University in the upper midwest.  He came over with two suitcases full of hospitality gifts, as it is a custom in his country to present a gift of appreciation for anyone who invites you to their home.  Four years later, he completed his degree and returned to Pakistan--with both of those suitcases still full.

In four years, this young man had never been invited into an American home!

How many have come to our nation, and gone back to their own, without ever once hearing the Gospel?  For how many is this the reason because Christians were more concerned about their legal status than their eternal destiny?  Let's let the President, Congress, and INS answer for whether or not they are doing their job.  Followers of Jesus have a different one.

By Bob Smietana
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The nation’s Protestant senior pastors want the U.S. government to mix justice with mercy when it comes to immigration reform.
Most say it's the government’s job to stop people from entering the country illegally.
They also support reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.
And they believe Christians should help immigrants, no matter what their legal status.
Those are among the findings of a new survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors from Nashville-based LifeWay Research. The survey was conducted prior to the mid-term elections.
Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, said pastors don’t approve of illegal immigration. But they want to help illegal immigrants make things right.
“This is one of many cases in which Christians can look at those around them and say, ‘I don’t agree with what got you to this place in life, but I will love you while you are here,’” says McConnell.
Nearly 6 in 10 of Protestant senior pastors (58 percent) agree with the statement: “I am in favor of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for those who are currently in the country illegally.” About a third (34 percent) disagree. Seven percent are not sure.
Most African-American pastors (80 percent) agree, as do a majority of white pastors (59 percent). Two-thirds (68 percent) of mainline pastors and more than half (54 percent) of evangelical pastors also favor a path to citizenship.
Pastors of mid-sized churches are more likely to agree than those from small churches. Two-thirds (66 percent) of pastors of churches with between 100 and 249 attenders agree. About half (54 percent) of pastors with less than 50 people in their congregation agree.  
Two-thirds (63 percent) of pastors under age 45 favor a pathway, as do a little over half (55 percent) of those ages 45-54.
Churches want to lend a hand
LifeWay Research also found pastors want to help their immigrant neighbors, no matter what their legal status.
Caring for immigrants can be “an opportunity to show people who Jesus is,” said McConnell.
About half (47 percent) of Protestant senior pastors say their church currently helps immigrants.
And most (79 percent) agree with the statement: “Christians have a responsibility to assist immigrants, even if they are in the country illegally.” One in 6 (17 percent) disagree.
More than three quarters of evangelical pastors (77 percent) and most mainline pastors (86 percent) agree. Most pastors under 45 (83 percent) and those in churches with 100 or more attenders (82 percent) agree.
The new study parallels the findings of a 2013 LifeWay Research survey. 
In that poll, 58 percent of pastors supported immigration reform. And about half (51 percent) said reform would help their church or denomination reach Hispanic Americans.
Other recent polling found that people in the pews have similar views to their pastors on the issue of immigration reform.
A 2014 Pew Research poll found that about two-third of Protestants (69 percent) support reform that would allow undocumented immigrant to stay in the country if they meet certain conditions. Three-quarters of Catholics (77 percent) also support reform.
Pew also found that less than half of Protestants (46 percent) say it is important that reform happens this year.
Pastors want the government to do its job
Protestant pastors of all kinds want the government to do a better job preventing people from entering the country illegally.
Almost 9 in 10 (87 percent) agree with the statement: “The U.S. government has the responsibility to stop illegal immigration.”
Most evangelical (91 percent) and mainline pastors (82 percent) agree. Pastors in the Midwest (38 percent) are less likely to agree than pastors in the South (89 percent) and West (90 percent). Pastors under age 45 are less likely to agree (82 percent).
“Justice, love, and mercy are all intrinsic to the Christian faith,” said McConnell. “It appears pastors see the need to end illegal immigration as an issue of justice. They also want to show love and mercy while the legal problem is addressed.”
# # # 
The phone survey of Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 11-18, 2014. The calling list was a stratified random sample drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Bob Smietana is senior writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Public Square in a Multi-Faith World

On November 16 from 2 PM until 9 PM, I will be taking part in the Mid-Atlantic Summit on Faith and Culture in Glenwood, Maryland.  While this meeting doesn't technically "belong" to any particular group, various faith communities have come together to "co-host" an event that both reflects the multi-faith nature of the world we live in, and provides a public square platform on which each group can understand, and be understood.

The event will be hosted by Gethsemane Baptist Church, which is a part of the 560-plus member Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network of churches I'm honored to help lead.  Two other Baptist churches are also taking part, as well as the Oseh Shalom Synagogue, and two Turkish Muslim organizations.  The goal is to have honest discussion about the various world views that are currently shaping the globe.

So why would any follower of Jesus take part in something like this?  Aren't we "sending mixed messages" to the world?  Would Jesus and His disciples have even attended such a meeting, let alone helped put such a meeting together?

These are all good questions, and I completely understand why some of my fellow evangelicals would be suspicious of something like this.  We believe in one true God, who reveals Himself ultimately and finally in His one true Son, who is Himself revealed in one true authority source--the Bible.  We consequently believe that there is one path to that one true God.  So why would we take part in something that allows those who believe differently to sit on the platform with us?

Over the past few weeks I've fielded lots of questions from folks about why I"m part of something like this, and a few have been critical of what we are doing.  Those who have given me that heat have, for the most part, been respectful, concerned for me, and have assumed the best about my intentions, and I'm grateful for that. In fact, I welcome it, as the last thing I want to do is dishonor Jesus.  So I'm always seeking the Godly counsel of those I respect.   But a few have been quite caustic--suggesting that there is absolutely no place for a follower of Jesus in an environment like this.

Man, how I wish those people had actually read the book of Acts.

The early church won people to faith in Christ and planted churches rapidly--to the point that by the end of the first century, their faith had grown from a small band of around 120 people to have a significant presence across the known world.  And if we look closely enough at how this happened, we discover that each Gospel presence began in a "public square."  In the ancient world, the public square was a place where ideas were presented and considered--where the sort of interaction took place that resulted in clarity and understanding.  Os Guiness notes that "comparison and contrast are the mother of clarity."  That was true 2000 years ago, and its still true today.

Today, what is often described as the "public square" is nothing like that which existed in the first century.  I've often seen seminars, breakout sessions, and other gatherings that discussed "Christianity in the Public Square," and nearly every one of them described how our faith should intersect with the political powers that be in order to "win the culture war."  In many ways, this short-sighted approach has resulted in resorting to the same default tactics that are employed by those political powers, and in recent years, that has included a kind of polarization that never, ever leads to understanding, debate and genuine dialogue.  The result is that we talk "about" people in a way that demonstrates our ignorance in a quite embarrassing way.  You've heard the rumors, right?  Muslims are all terrorists.  Jews are secretly plotting to take over the world.  And of course, evangelical Christians are all bigoted homophobes who hate women, Mickey Mouse, and birth control pills.

An environment that produces this kind of fear and suspicion can never rightly be known as a "public square" equivalent to those which existed in the first century.  To be sure, there are significant differences between those of us who follow Jesus, and our Jewish and Muslim friends.  Basic logic should inform us all that we can't all be right, and that there are eternal consequences to what we believe.  This means that if I really love someone, I will be anxious to talk about those differences.  I believe that through Jesus' death and resurrection He has paid the price for our sins so that all who believe and bow before Him as God will have eternal life.  If you believe that too, how badly do you have to hate someone to isolate yourself from them and never enter an environment where you may get to share this message?

Truthfully, a genuine 21st century public square looks an awful lot like the kind of summit that is taking place on November 16.  Yet, it is precisely that environment that for many decades has been completely abandoned by evangelical Christians. I get that our message isn't popular and I believe Jesus when He said we would be hated for what we believe.  But as I survey the current landscape in the west, it appears to me that our disconnection from culture is less because we are hated, and more because we are disobedient.  Jesus told His disciples "As the Father has sent me, so also am I sending you." (John 20:21)  In other words we aren't just a sent people.  We are a people sent in precisely the same way our Savior was sent--in an incarnational way!

Understanding this will affect your view of the world He died to save in profound ways, and that in turn will affect the missiology of the western church in a way that will make us far more effective.  This Summit is certainly not the only way we engage our non-Christian friends, but if you are a follower of Jesus--especially one who lives in the Mid-Atlantic region and are wondering why you should come, here are just a few reasons:

1. We Don't Just Share Our Faith.  We Share Life.  Be they Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Jew, Hindu, or anything else, at the end of the day, people are people.  We all get up and look at the same sun in the morning.  We all deal with troubles, heartache, disappointment and loss, and we all have things we are passionate about and love.  We need to take an interest in each other that encompasses more than just what we believe.  My friends in other faiths understand that I want them to know Jesus as I know Him.  They know I believe that there is only one way to God, and many who have become dear friends also know why I believe that.  But they also know my wife and kids.  Our kids have played together.  We have shared meals together.  And we have talked about important life issues that connect inextricably to faith.

On occasion, those discussions have led to taking action together.  Baltimore is one of the top cities in the U.S. for human trafficking, so our respective organizations teamed up to lobby the judiciary committee of our state legislature to push an important anti-trafficking bill to the floor--and on to the Governor's desk for it to become law.  People's lives were made better because people of faith who have strong disagreement with each other about the next world worked together to make this one better.

One of these men is the Vice-President of a cultural exchange organization in Washington who has become a dear friend--to the extent that his family and mine will be spending part of the Thanksgiving holiday together.  If all I saw when I looked at him was the word "Muslim" he would have never become my friend.  He'd be my "project," and that's no way to treat another human being created in God's image.  Jesus was clear about the coming Kingdom, and His Kingship over it, but that message was presented while He simultaneously enveloped Himself in the lives of others.  We must do no less.

2. Encountering Adherents to Other Faiths Helps Us More Effectively Communicate Our Own. I studied Philosophy of Religion in seminary, but my faith in the existence of a personal God has been strengthened over the years less by books, and more by interaction with my atheist and agnostic friends.  My Muslim friends likewise, have made me a more convinced Trinitarian.  I'm quite sure that wasn't their objective, but when you encounter a world that doesn't share your faith, and you do so on a very personal level, it forces you to think beyond our basic "because the Bible says so" thinking to actually know why you believe as you do.  To be sure, my childlike faith in the Scriptures is still there.  You can blame those Baptists in that small South Carolina church I attended as a child for that!  God's Word is sufficient, and what it says, I believe.  But I must also obey its commands, which include being ready to offer a defense for the hope I have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).  Nothing has helped me do this more effectively like my relationships with those in other faiths.

3. Our Call is Greater than to simply "bring the Gospel."  We must also bring the Kingdom.  Jesus put it this way in the Sermon on the Mount: "Let your light so shine before men that they see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."  The goal here is clear: give people a tangible picture of what God is like so they will pursue Him personally, and through Christ bring Him the glory He deserves.  And that comes about by good works that people can "see."  That word in this context refers to more than just one's physical eyes.  It communicates a type of comprehension--a new view of God they never had before that comes as a result of watching followers of Jesus bring glimpses of His Kingdom.

I grew up hearing that the Kingdom of God was all future.  I was taught we didn't need to worry about the Kingdom.  We just needed to get as many people saved as possible before the end came, and God would bring that future Kingdom in His own way.  In 22 years of ministry I've seen that theological approach produce some very harmful consequences to our clear mission.  Personally, I'm still premilennial.  But as I read the New Testament, it becomes clear that the Kingdom of God isn't merely future.  It's also right here, right now.  It is among us.  It is within us.  And though I don't believe its final consummation will be realized until we literally see Jesus, He is still Lord over the whole earth and every part of it.  Right here, right now!

As followers of Jesus, we give people a view of that Kingdom when we build relationships with those very different from us, and share the Gospel within the context of those unconditional friendships.  People see the Kingdom of God when Christians relieve poverty, contend for justice, adopt orphans, set captives free, build schools and hospitals (and not just the kind where only our own tribe is welcome!), and even take out our neighbors trash!  All of this starts with the building of relationships.  And meetings like this one are a great place to get that started.

4. Understanding is essential for effective proclamation.   Why would we want to hear from Muslims?  We can know what they believe by simply reading the Koran, right?  Wrong!  Personally, I've never found lecturing someone about what they "really" believe to be helpful to a conversation.  I may think they are wrong.  I may see inconsistencies between what someone tells me they believe compared to what I have read in their authority source.  But if I want to interact with others, I have to deal with them as they come to me, and learn directly from them why they believe what they believe. Jesus didn't say "If you tear down and trash other religions, I will draw all people to myself!"  What John 12:32 actually says is "If I be lifted up, I will draw all people to myself!"  At the end of the day, only one question matters, and only one question has eternal consequences:  Who is Jesus?  Getting to that question, and earning an audience that allows me to answer it in confident humility requires listening and understanding.  I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has no equal.  So why on earth would I be afraid of bringing it with me to a platform that involves the exchange of ideas?  Best I can tell, that's exactly what was going on in Acts 17.

This Sunday, the world comes together at a small Baptist church in Glenwood Maryland.  There will be food, childcare, and the opportunity to interact with people created in the image of God--people we believe Jesus died to save.  I hope you will join us!  And currently, there is still more room, so register here:

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

On Pastors, Politicians, and Political Endorsements: An Election Day Reminder

Dave Miller is a fellow-pastor, Administrator of, and over the years has become a friend.  Below is a post from him about why he refuses to endorse candidates for political office.  I don't always agree with Dave, and we often will even have differences of opinion where political solutions are concerned, but I share his sentiment below that, while the government has no place telling pastors what they can and cannot say, the better part of wisdom would suggest that we not use a pulpit meant to proclaim the Word of God to endorse the plans of men.  The following post is placed here with his permission.  Enjoy!  Oh, and if you have informed yourself on the candidates and issues, be sure to vote today.  If you are a follower of Jesus, this isn't your "right."  It's your solemn duty.

Why I Don’t Endorse Candidates from the Pulpit 

There is a movement out there calling on pastors to endorse candidates for political office from the pulpit. I sympathize with the aims of this group. They are trying to make a statement to the government and to the IRS that the pulpit should remain free from government intrusion. The IRS, after getting spanked a few times recently for politically-motivated actions against conservatives, is refusing to take the bait. They have not stepped up enforcement against any of those pastors who have made this act of protest.
It makes no difference to me. I have never endorsed a candidate for public office from the pulpit and do not intend to do so in the future. It is not the threat of government penalty that motivates me. Honestly, how slow would things have to be in the USA for the government to care about what happens in small to medium sized church in Sioux City, IA? I'm guessing they've got bigger fish to fry. Megachurch pastors like Bart Barber and Alan Cross may have something to worry about, but not me and my church.
But I'm still not planning to endorse a candidate. There are two primary reasons for that.
1) I've been too often disappointed by candidates for office. I remember hearing the personal testimony of a candidate for office and thinking, "Wow, this guy is amazing." I voted for him. Suffice it to say that I was not as impressed with his performance in office as I was in his candidacy for that office. How many times have "family values" candidates (successful or not) been caught living private lives that didn't match their public stands - engaging in affairs, hiring prostitutes, misappropriating money, or simply engaging in stupidity.
I've been more tempted toward negative endorsements - haven't done it, but I've been tempted. There are certain candidates whose views on issues related to life (abortion, etc) and morality place them outside the boundaries of Christian support, in my opinion. But a negative endorsement of one candidate is essentially an endorsement of another. With every fiber of my being, I wanted President Obama to be defeated for a second term. But to give him a negative endorsement (disdorsement?) would have been to endorse Mitt Romney, something I would never do behind the pulpit of my church. I (held my nose and) voted Romney, and I think he'd have done a better job than Mr. Obama, but that is not something I'm going to say in the pulpit.
2) I am in the pulpit to endorse one office holder - the King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus died and rose again that he might be Lord of all (Romans 14:9). It is the pastor's duty to endorse Christ (the one who will never disappoint!) and to make his name known. I will preach the gospel. I will speak to moral issues.
But I just don't see how endorsing a candidate for office is part of my job as a pastor. I am a loyal, patriotic American - a yankee-doodle dandy. But when I stand in the pulpit, I'm an ambassador of Christ's kingdom.
Part of me would enjoy tweaking the IRS and joining this movement. And, I have strong political opinions that I will exercise tomorrow. But when I stand in the pulpit, I need to remember  where my most important citizenship is.