23 June 2014

of fads and harvest

There is a point in life where one is probably taken in to some sort of fad or trend - one which connects us to some larger culture around us.  For certain people, keeping up with trends is a way of life, something that they do naturally and as a part of their daily routine.  For others, fads are ridiculous and are to be avoided at all costs.  (Here is a catalog of fads found online)

I might suppose that most people aren't too caught up in fads and trends (at least, not consciously), but that every now and then something simultaneously catches our attention and a wider popularity.  And off we go.

Although I think technological gadgetry is quite magical and cool, and I am a self-diagnosed bibliophile, I can honestly say that I'm not really a trendy sort of a person.  I don't rush to the movies just because everyone else tells me to; as a rule, I ignore the "best sellers" that greet you in stacks at the front of the bookstore; and I am quite leery when it comes to trends within the church, mostly out of a conviction that marketing and gospel can quickly be at odds with one another.  So, I get a bit concerned when fads masquerade as spiritual moments and victories, all of which are (by their own devices) short-lived, leaving little impact in their wake.  The Christian entertainment industry seems to be the primary driver of these sorts of fads in our current culture, though pastors and other church leaders have certainly perpetuated the problem.

So, what am I saying?  Do I have a problem with The Passion of the Christ, Fireproof, God's Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, Left Behind(s) etc?  Well, yes I do and no I do not.  It is not so much that I have a problem with Christian content being made into movies for either artistic or entertainment purposes, but these happen to be examples of Christian marketing outpacing the initial spiritual statement that was being made.  We poured out our collective souls during The Passion, made our marriages Fireproof, made our intellectual assertion that God Is Not Dead, and proved that Heaven Is for Real, all while telling everyone how they should not be Left Behind.  It seems that we have made quite the rounds in the Christian entertainment industry, yet very little (perhaps we might make the case that nothing) has changed as a result.

My point is that we have created these great marketing-based movements around a Christianized idea, which has relegated the core of the gospel to a fad.  And the gospel is no fad.  It is not something to be made hip for a while and then put away in some box of memories.  The gospel is dynamic and life-changing, and should be a foolishness that confounds the clever tricks of worldly wisdom.

I am confronted with one simple argument: Yes, but aren't we at least planting seeds?  What is the harm in placing the Christian message into the world?  To the latter, nothing - until it falls prey to the here-today-gone-tomorrowism of fads.  To the first question, aren't we setting the bar rather low for the power of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ?  It seems that there is a great amount of time, energy and resources given to the lowest-common-denominator of expectation here, and perhaps is the root of why our evangelicalism has become so shallow.  In other words, we do not have because we do not ask (Jas. 4:2), here applied to the dynamic and transformative power of God.  We do not truly experience God in our evangelicalism because we have not truly asked for his presence - we are aiming for the lowest level instead of living by faith.

Furthermore, I wonder about this notion of planting seeds, which again speaks to the lowest-common-demoniator of the gospel.  I fear that it has become commonplace for evangelicals to settle with planting seeds because we simply do not wish to do any more for the gospel than to throw money or sermons or books and film at our surrounding culture and call it a day.  This is the path of least resistance and least commitment, and we cover our lack of missional service with the spiritualized phrase of planting seeds.  Interestingly, Jesus told us that "the harvest is plentiful, but the  workers are few" (Mt. 9).  While we are supposed to be asking the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers to gather in the fields, we have instead decided that we needed to plant more seeds on top of the readied fields (because we know what our culture needs more than the Lord of the harvest).

Instead of seeing our cultural engagement as planting seeds, perhaps we should work at bringing in the prepared harvest.  There are many other spiritual and religious options that are not holding back from drawing people to themselves, and yet evangelicalism is so worried that this work is beyond what we can (or should) be doing.  This makes certain sense, if indeed we have surrendered our faith in the power of the gospel to transform.

In the end, this post is not a blanket dismissal of the church's engagement with culture that comes through the means of media.  I find that some of it is good and profitable for its various purposes, and there are many people who produce such things with sincere and humble hearts (and there are those who are simply making a profit for the sake of making a profit, which is exploiting Christian belief for monetary gain, but that can be addressed another time ... ).  My point is that we as a church ought to keep things in their rightful place, whether it is a piece of Christian entertainment, regardless of its value of edification, or our vocation as the people of God who hear his voice calling us to the fields ready for harvest.

23 May 2014

worship in observance

So that I might not be misunderstood, let me say at the outright that I believe worship is a living sacrifice, and that discipleship is an endeavor of active participation.  The comments that follow are not to discourage either of these notions.  Simply stated, I have increasingly come to realize that there is more to our worship than the things that we are doing - saying, singing, swaying.  There are moments that come to us, in some seasons frequently and at other times sparingly, when we have an opportunity to embrace a true worship of our Creator simply because we were aware of the moment.

If you have come to this you have undoubtedly felt an overwhelming presence - a warming of the heart, perhaps - in which an experience became more than the sum of its parts.  A recent moment for me was watching my seven-year-old at her school's spring concert-show.  Watching her, along with other children sing and dance for the joy of doing so - and since this is a Christian school, they were songs of praise - ushered in a moment where I felt as though I was truly thankful and blessed.  I think this comes to us more as we learn how to soak up life more than speed through life, as we learn to treasure more than we check off one experience to start searching for the next.  There is wisdom and beauty in this, for it is a life that is increasingly open to the still small voice of the presence.

Added to this, I have noticed for some time that I am touched when I watch congregations of people worship.  Perhaps some of this is from my experience of being one of the 'up-front' people for much of my church life, as part of the music or pastoral ministries.  There is a joy and an awe that most people never experience - one that I consider a blessing to myself - which is watching the Spirit of God move within a body of believers who together are watching heavenward.  And there is worship in the observance, if we have eyes to see and ears to hears what the Spirit is saying to his own.

I have not spoken in tongues, and my worship is seldom a charismatic experience, in the common use of the word.  But I have heard the voice of heaven speak in my heart and have been moved the very real presence of the living God through the stillness of my heart when I am not so much caught up in the responsibilities of worship as the watchfulness of the moving Spirit.  I do not discount these other endeavors, but seek only to encourage those who seek God to become still and expectant of these moments that take us far beyond ourselves and into his presence.  He will not force us to pause over them, for that is not his way.  But we will be utterly transformed if we allow ourselves to linger in that presence for its few fleeting moments, tasting and seeing.

12 May 2014

a brief reflection on cheap grace

see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (chs. 1-4)

“In the last resort, what we want to know is not, what would this or that man, or this or that Church, have of us, but what Jesus Christ himself wants from us.” These words are appropriate introductory remarks on the subject of discipleship. There are many competing voices in the modern church, each claiming correct understanding of the gospel. This has become familiar and commonplace in American evangelicalism, perhaps to the point where we have allowed a need-for-novelty to shape the identity and work of the church more than Jesus himself. Yet, at the end of it all we must remember that we are called to Christ himself, which is a journey that walks through sacrifice and surrender. In other words, the true nature of discipleship - the kind to which Bonhoeffer speaks - is necessarily separated from spiritualities that are designed to feed our own ideas of accomplishment and identity.

This is where the idea of cheap grace enters - namely, that we would use the gospel as a means of affirming our own decisions of self-worth. Cheap grace both initiates and is perpetuated by various layers of tradition, theology and doctrine that, in reality, keep us from experiencing the unsettlingly dynamic presence of Christ. Instead, Jesus has been reduced to a caricature of our own ideas of morality and virtue; the Son of God is viewed as a non-threatening projection of our own ideals for humanity. As a result of viewing Christ through the lens of cheap grace, believers today are left uninspired and unchanged, for they have not encountered the powerful presence of holiness that is found in the incarnated Lord.

Perhaps there are two opposite errors in correcting this rather benign approach to Jesus. The first is to make Jesus even more approachable still, a savior-friend whose entire existence rests upon a sentimental relationship with the individual. Here is an all-affirming Jesus that seeks to heap blessings upon his own without asking for anything in return. The second is to make a reemphasis on the holiness of the Son of God that become doctrinally overbearing, which leads to an unknowable God and an inapproachable Jesus. This results in a judgmental and condemning priest who never leaves the sanctity of the temple.

Neither of these approaches work because, as is foundational to Bonhoeffer’s words on grace, the real person of Jesus is divine holiness made accessible through the incarnation. This leads to an experience of discipleship that is both unsettling and edifying throughout. The cost of discipleship is the surrender of one’s life to the call to follow Christ. “The cross is laid on every Christian.” The natural human difficulties with a surrender-all discipleship is, in reality, a problem with Jesus - it is Christ that we choose to follow or reject.

Until the church can reclaim the presence of Jesus as he comes to us through the Spirit and the Word, we will continue to play around with the novelties of worship and discipleship programs, missing out on the transformative power of the risen Christ. The need for a renewed vigor in biblical discipleship is evidenced in the current state of our evangelicalism. We have created a more comprehensive church subculture than human history has ever seen, yet the shallowing of American Christianity is increasingly problematic. We have access to more Bibles, sermons, services and studies than ever before in the history of the world, and yet committed disciples have become difficult to find - leaving our culture to spiritual rot and decay as a result.

It appears that evangelicalism has done everything to be Christian except to die to Christ. This is a sad reality, and a powerful challenge for the church. However, the discipleship of which Bonhoeffer speaks is indeed happening in some parts of the world. This is our great encouragement and, hopefully, our inspiration to join with the church of Christ in the work that brings all people closer to his presence.

04 May 2014

preparing disciples for discipleship

It is a simple instruction: Therefore go and make disciples.  And the church has been issued a mandate for its work.  Depending on where and when you look, the church has done better or worse in accomplishing this throughout its two-thousand-plus year history.  For the most part, modern evangelicalism is on the downswing of execution, though there have been many ongoing efforts to reclaim this part of our identity.

In my own ministry I have struggled with the challenges of Christian discipleship.  There are, of course, the typical frustrations - the spiritual inertia of people who simply aren't that interested in a more committed discipleship, the difficulties that arise when trying to keep people engaged with spiritual growth, and so on.  On many levels it has felt as though there was no way of breaking through to a church that saw genuine discipleship.  This frustration has been compounded by a simple observation - these people want to grow in their discipleship.  So, what's the problem?

I admit that this can be an oversimplified situation, for we could easily say that those who want to grow will engage in the process of growth.  But that is like saying that everyone who wants to diet and exercise will simply do it without distraction or set back.  Or, that everyone who wants to give up smoking, drugs or alcohol can simply make the choice and walk in a different direction.  Some actually can do these things, but most cannot.  It is more complicated that that.

One aspect that I see among those in my context is that they have not been adequately prepared for the demands of discipleship.  Ours is a congregation that was flourishing in many ways just ten-to-fifteen years ago, but which had a major breakdown and implosion that started about two years before I came to town (and it has continued to settle down in four of the five years which I have been here).  When examining the spiritual state of this congregation I see a people who desire to be disciples of Jesus, but who have struggled with getting off the ground in many respects.  My conclusion is that they have not been introduced to the demands of discipleship.

Sure, many of our current folks participated in the days when there was a lot of people and a lot of activity.  They were part of the 'good-old-days' when our congregation had a well-established name for itself in the community and the denomination.  But if we have arrived at this point in time, without an understanding of what it means to grow as a disciple, then what was going on in this previous era of our church?

I believe that many (if not most) of our folks were sold a Christianity that was filled with what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.  Somewhere along the way, between building a 'successful church' and maintaining one, the demands of the gospel were largely forgotten.  This directly resulted in the many divisions and internal arguing that plagued this congregation, but which also kept individuals from looking forward to the possibilities of growing in the faith.  Even though our specific circumstances might be unique, I am afraid to say that the shallowing of discipleship in the name of 'successful churches' is widespread in our modern evangelicalism.

Having come to this realization, the next step has been to prepare disciples for discipleship.  What does this entail?  Well, that depends on the individual.  Some of our folks need to unlearn their previous conceptions of what a church ought to be, while others have simply never been introduced to the concept of discipleship (as though the Christian faith could exist without it).  This congregation is looking for a demonstration of God's love, the realization that it will be a life-demanding challenge, and the assurance that it will be worth the journey.

Of course, this is all part of the process of knowing your community of faith and working to make people more committed disciples of Jesus from the place where they are.  On that end, this is far from a revolutionary thought.  However, identifying and removing these barriers are vital to making a highway in the wilderness on which our God will come and meet with us.

02 April 2014

world vision's commitment to homosexual marriage

On Monday, March 24, 2014, the World Vision U.S. board made public its decision to no longer require their employees to restrict their sexual activity to heterosexual marriages.  On Wednesday, March 26, 2014, the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed this decision.

This week has been filled with reaction, accusation, name-calling, praise-heaping, and questions about the impact of it all.  My voice is not necessarily worth any more than the next persons.  Still, I offer my own perspective on what has happened - though, not from the standpoint of orthodoxy and heresy, but of the entire debacle that has been generated by the World Vision board.  I strongly believe that what we are witnessing is of no small significance for our culture and the church.

That World Vision will allow for the hiring of same-sex marriage was announced on March 24.  That was the position of the board, and that is the commitment of the board.  Don't miss that - the World Vision U.S. board has revealed something that we cannot miss.  Those who were disturbed by this initial decision ought to be even more concerned about the rapidity of its reversal.  Having reviewed both statements, and the interviews that were conducted around each, I find it all-too-convenient that this story worked its way out so well.  In other words, there is more going on behind-the-scenes than is being played out in the public sphere.

The initial statement in favor of hiring same-sex couples spoke of the need for the church to move past our judgmental attitudes, to discount this notion of a slippery-slope, and to open up the gospel in the name of church unity.  After all, Richard Sterns (the president of World Vision U.S.) declared this to be a "very narrow policy change."  The Christianity Today article on the decision placed this issue alongside "divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors" as those items which can only be dealt with in local congregations and denominations (as though they have no further impact, even though same-sex marriage does have a larger impact, though it is also relegated to congregations and denominations).  On that Monday the position of World Vision was that helping the needy was of utmost importance for the Christian faith, not all of this doctrinal baggage.

What was produced in less than 48 hours of this decision was a statement that not only retracted the hiring decision, but which seemed to aim for (and hit) just about every phrase and talking-point that would make the conservative evangelical happy.  Suddenly, it became important for the World Vision U.S. board to gain the insight of other evangelical leaders, there was a sudden appeal to "the fundamental Christian beliefs" and "the authority of Scripture," and feeding hungry children was now placed in the realm of the outworking of orthodoxy.  What is more, whereas on Monday it was important for World Vision to defer these minor positions to the local churches, by Wednesday it was vital for World Vision to work in meaningful partnership with those denominations.

I suspect that there are many who will see this and be unsettled by the whole lot of it.  But I also suspect that there are few who will be willing to make a public stand against this hypocrisy.  Christians have been led to believe that whatever mold is placed upon them by the larger culture is binding to their commitment to the faith.  Those who opposed World Vision's decision are being lectured to forgive them and still send in your support, for they have done the right thing.  (Also, the voices are condemning those who would withhold food from starving children because of an archaic commitment to an outdated ideal of marriage, as though World Vision is the only means by which Christians can help those in need.  Overreaching rhetoric indeed.)

These are not appropriate reactions to last week's behavior by the World Vision U.S. board.  Such a dynamic turn around should indicate that one-of-two-things is happening: either, 1) the World Vision board is functioning so poorly that they would so hastily make a decision like this without consideration of its larger impact (a position which they all-but claim in their recant), or 2) the greater intention here is to advance equality for same-sex marriage through their organization, and this was a first-step in that direction.  Even though their retraction all-but-admitted the first, I firmly believe that what is happening is in the latter possibility.

Call it a lead-line, or a testing-of-the-waters, or whatever you will.  Regardless of the specific term, this is the decision that was made when there was no pressure, either of time or external perspective, according to World Vision themselves, to make a decision.  This means, when they had all the time in the world to pray, discuss, reflect and investigate, they believed that accepting same-sex marriage relationships was the best course for their ministry in the name of "church unity" (I'm still rubbing my eyes over that claim).  Only when the heat was turned on and, more specifically, the dollars started to diminish that World Vision suddenly returned to the good-little-evangelicals.

Those in the same-sex-marriage camp have nothing to worry about in regards to World Vision.  I believe they have demonstrated their commitment to the issue of inclusion, and have only reversed its public decision to enlarge the theological tent.  In our culture, one of two things will inevitably happen with World Vision: either 1) they will allow this storm to pass over and reinstitute a hiring policy that includes those in homosexual relationships, and/or 2) they will have helped the larger agenda of same-sex marriage take a step forward in the desensitization of this issue, thereby allowing for the full-support of their future (slightly-less-noisy) decision of inclusivity.

Even though they haven't shown their hand, we can make a good and informed guess as to which cards they are holding.  This didn't take much to figure, since they have show that they have a tell in where their commitment lies.  After all Sterns said (in the Wednesday article), "I think every Christian organization will continue to deal with this sensitive issue ... The board will continue to talk about this issue for many board meetings to come ..."  Fear not, ye who support homosexual marriage!

Our culture is one of politics and media; it is about making a good show.  Initially, I thought that World Vision was making a good show out of their all-too-quick-and-convenient reversal.  Upon further reflection I see that it is more accurate to say that both decisions have been calculated to a goal of a more inclusive evangelicalism that can be more accepting of 'alternative lifestyles' as well as more accepting of those who would rather appeal to cheap concepts of grace and love instead of the firm demands of Scripture.  Still, some will say that they've repented and we should forgive them.  I don't see a repentance, and I don't agree with the pop-level understanding of forgiveness, which is a giant "my-bad-take-back-do-over" that has no ramifications or consequences.  That's not genuine forgiveness.

Those that disagree with my position will simply begin throwing the stones of intolerance, simple-mindedness, he's-got-no-understanding-how-complex-an-issue-this-is, and this guy is so pathetic he is willing to starve children for the sake of his narrow-minded and legalistic religion.  I need not respond to these sentiments, for they are simply dodges to keep us away from a genuine dialogue of these issues.  I have made my case and have evaluated the World Vision position(s) fairly (my taking issue with them does not make my critique unfair).  Their statements are riddled with contradictions and opposing worldviews, and that ought to be cause for concern.  I believe that evangelicals who are already disturbed with last week's events should find other ministries with whom they can partner.  And I believe that evangelicals who are not already disturbed with last week's events should become greatly disturbed by the not-too-subtle erosion that is occurring.

Time will tell what will come of all of this.  We are called to know the times and the seasons as the swirl around us, not so that we can sway as reeds in the wind, but so that we can more firmly stand in the truth that we have made central to our lives.  The kingdom of God is near, and that calls us for a certain type of lifestyle - one that, sadly, is going away all-too-quickly in the name of popularity and convenience.