Archives For Church

So it’s December. And yes, I know I’ve been silent lately. I do plan on finishing my thorough review of Viola’s book. But this post is not about explaining why I haven’t been writing much lately.

Josh Brown asked me to write a guest post on his blog, titled The Consumptive Church: The Model Speaks Volumes. If you follow Josh’s blog at all, you probably know that I comment on his blog frequently. Usually trying to push the conversation here or there. Josh and I are quite opposite politically, but it’s fun and helpful to see where we intersect spiritually. In any case, he did a great job describing our blogging relationship in the introduction.

I won’t repost my whole article here, but here’s an obligitory quote:

Jesus’ approach to ministry, and the realization of the early church, went directly against the norms of the Jewish religion (as well as the similar Roman/Greek pagan religions that were abundant outside of Israel). The church continued to be a counter-cultural movement until Christianity found favor with the Roman government and was subsequently polluted and corrupted by becoming the “official” religion of the state.

But the New Testament is clear. We are called to live simply. This is not so that we can give all of our money to the church so that the church can be extravagant. That basilica/cathedral style of religion is simply the Jewish and pagan systems repackaged with a new name.

Head on over to read the full post. Thanks to Josh for giving me a guest spot. And I’ll be back here with more stuff soon.

>Pastor Mark Batterson, in The Elephant in the Church, asked:

What are some taboo topics we ought to be talking about? What are some confessions the church needs to make? What are those issues that everybody is thinking about but nobody is talking about?

So I couldn’t help but comment.

How about:

1) We spend most of our money on ourselves. We pay lip service to the “widows and orphans” thing, but in reality we really just want better bands, more charismatic speakers, and more comfortable seats.

2) We don’t really live out Christ’s commandment to “love one another.” We think it sounds good, but we’d rather just have our churches be REALLY good at marketing instead.

3) We don’t seriously ask people to consider the cost of following Christ. We think that whole “take up your cross and follow me” thing makes sense for missionaries, and maybe some pastors and staff, but not really anybody else. We just want to have a good job, and nice house, and live comfortably. We don’t really want to hear that death imagery that Jesus liked to use with His followers.

4) Church leadership is more than willing to allow the other three so they can keep money-giving members in the seats each week.

(Not) Transforming Culture

August 10, 2007

There’s a great article in Christianity Today this month by Mark Galli titled On Not Transforming the World. The subtitle is “we have better and harder things to do than that.”

We are certainly responsible for going to the ends of the earth and making disciples from people of every nation. There is plenty in Scripture about doing justice and loving mercy and feeding the hungry and caring for the widow and orphan. But I find little or nothing about us having the task of transforming the culture.

Britt has talked about how Changing the World is something that isn’t found in scripture. At least not something that is assigned to us.

Galli’s article touches on how service is our number one task, in terms of transforming the world:

Servants aren’t about world-changing initiatives as much as about washing the dirty feet of the travelers sitting at their kitchen table. Jesus never tells us to do anything because it will transform the culture. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem interested in transforming the Roman Empire, one of the most oppressive and unjust cultures in history. He seemed rather to think that society would always have economic disparity, and that not only should changing Rome not be a priority, but also we should not even object to underwriting it with our taxes…

I remain puzzled as to why we’re so bored with the very things Jesus asks us to do, like picking that foreigner up out of the ditch, giving away our goods to the poor, going to court with a young man who’s being railroaded by the system, taking an orphan into our home, going the extra mile with the oppressive and manipulative, forgiving the offender, baptizing, and witnessing. I find these things really, really hard to do. I fail all the time. If I can’t even do these things well, why would I believe that I could transform my culture, let alone change the world?

Despite my political rants and opinions, I’ve been learning more and more that it is not our job to make political systems reflect the church. Does that mean we should be apathetic towards politics? I don’t think so. But it makes it all the more difficult to discern when we are pushing our own religious agenda into politics.

People tend to think that Christ’s mission was about transformation, and that in today’s culture, we should redeem the culture (by keeping it sanitary), transform social politics (by enforcing charity), or other high ideals. But by doing so, we are trying to place a significance onto ourselves that simply isn’t rooted in scripture. Galli says “we all face the common temptation of Adam and Eve. We want to feel significant.”

Scripture is clear that Christ’s mission was about service, and that this is our mission also. In today’s culture, I think the targets of that service are clear. While it is hard, it is not a complicated thing to fulfill what the scriptures have required of us. And it is about doing it ourselves, not about creating a governmental structure to force everyone else to do it our way.

Divisions and Wisdom

July 29, 2007

Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.” Can Christ be divided into pieces? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul?

For Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to preach the Good News – and not with clever speeches and high-sounding ideas, for fear that the cross of Christ would lose its power. (1 Corinthians 1:12-13, 17)

Even in the early church, people started picking one “leader” over another. Some were trying to align themselves with Paul, Apollos, or Peter. Basically, these were different guys, they had different approaches to ministry, and some people thought one guy had it “right” moreso than the other. Early on, the church was in danger of being divided. So this is Paul’s attempt to prevent what would eventually become our present-day denominations.

Paul goes on:

As the Scriptures say, “I will destroy human wisdom and discard their most brilliant ideas.” So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made them all look foolish and has shown their wisdom to be useless nonsense. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never find him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save all who believe.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes, or powerful, or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God deliberately chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose those who are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important, so that no one can ever boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:19-21, 26-29)

The main point in this passage is that Christ “is the one who made us acceptible to God” (v30). But there is another implication here.

Where did the divisions start? The division started because Paul, Apollos, and Peter each had a unique approach to ministry. And though they each pointed people to Christ, they were influential to the point where people were following them instead of Christ.

Paul is indicating here that the wisdom of man is useless to God – meaning that God will use the foolish and the weak to spread His gospel. Yet our modern-day pastors ensure that their leadership skills are top-notch. They utilize the best statistical methods to make sure their worship services are having an “impact” by tracking attendance, monetary giving, or even the number of cars in the parking lot. They employ the best consultants to help them tweak their message and presentation to be friendly to their target demographic. This kind of approach is the exact same thing any modern-day CEO would do. This is the best of human wisdom. If it can grow a profitable company, of course it can grow a church.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Or in the fruit, as Christ said. In his research, George Barna paints a bleak picture that the “churched” population is still lost. This is the result of human wisdom – building large buildings, filling them with a lot of people, but the end result being that you can’t tell them apart from the rest of the world. And on top of that, division between believers is stronger than it ever has been.

Paul seems to paint a different picture. But in order to get there, we have to learn to not rely on human wisdom. Which means a lot less of acting like a CEO would, and a lot more acting as Jesus did when He chose the twelve and told them to train others in a similar fashion.

“Clever speeches and high-sounding ideas.” Doesn’t that sound exactly like what a typical approach to church is today?

“Don’t smoke, drink, cuss, or chew, or hang out with those who do.”

“I can assure you of this: if you are associated with the use of beverage alcohol, I think I dare exaggerate not to say that 99% of all doors of ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention will be closed to you.” – Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005

As Dan Kimball asks, “would Jesus then have 99% of the ministry doors shut on Him?” Apparently, in the Southern Baptist world, the answer to that question would be “yes.”

I think that the concept of “balance” is one that is lost on traditional Christianity. To be fair, though, the situation is improving. But every now and then you’re reminded that there is still a lack of tolerance in the Christian world to things such as drinking alcohol.

I’ve heard many stories from people who grew up in churches where you couldn’t go to the movie theater, couldn’t go to the ballpark, couldn’t go to the bowling alley, couldn’t use playing cards, etc. because of the association those places had with “sinful” activities such smoking, drinking, cussing, and chewing.

Yet there is a simple truth – while all of them are potentially harmful and/or disgusting, we simply cannot label smoking, drinking, cussing, or chewing sin.

True enough, smoking regularly will kill you. But I know someone who smokes one cigarette a year. Is that sin? Binge drinking is dangerous, and damages relationships and bodily functions. But Jesus turned water into wine. Was that sin? While the Bible says we should not take the Lord’s name in vain (a concept much more complex than we make it out to be), standards of speech are entirely subjective and culture-specific, and words flow in and out of vulgarity over the ages. How can we label uttering a specific word sin? And as disgusting as I think chewing tobacco is, how is it any different from smoking?

The issues surrounding all of these issues are simply related to “balance.”

As an example:

Nevada Couple Blame Internet for Neglect
RENO, Nev. – A couple who authorities say were so obsessed with the Internet and video games that they left their babies starving and suffering other health problems have pleaded guilty to child neglect.

The children of Michael and Iana Straw, a boy age 22 months and a girl age 11 months, were severely malnourished and near death last month when doctors saw them after social workers took them to a hospital, authorities said. Both children are doing well and gaining weight in foster care, prosecutor Kelli Ann Viloria told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Michael Straw, 25, and Iana Straw, 23, pleaded guilty Friday to two counts each of child neglect. Each faces a maximum 12-year prison sentence.

Viloria said the Reno couple were too distracted by online video games, mainly the fantasy role-playing “Dungeons & Dragons” series, to give their children proper care.

This is a classic example of how we don’t know how to balance our lives. Michael Straw received $50,000 in an inheritance, and spent it on a new plasma TV and computers. Then he and his wife tuned everything else out, including their children.

Somewhere out there, there’s probably a pastor who is preparing a sermon on how evil games are, and how good Christians shouldn’t own an XBox or Playstation. That type of reaction would have been quite common fifty years ago. Instead of such a reaction, we should be talking about how to appropriately balance such activities, and how to recognize when an activity begins to consume us.

At the Catalyst Conference last year, Louie Giglio discussed a Christian winemaker as an illustration, and mentioned that he and his wife enjoy wine occasionally.

On the official Catalyst blog post summarizing that session, they had to shut down comments. The anti-drinker comments got particularly nasty, and of course prompted nasty comments from the opposing side. But in the end, Louie took a lot of flack for admitting that he (gasp!) enjoys wine.

Trying to prevent any consumption of alcohol is an attempt to push us back into legalism, the same kind of legalism that said that bowling was a sin. The same kind of legalism that said that Christ couldn’t heal on the Sabbath. Getting drunk is a sin – that’s clear in the New Testament. But to take the step further and say that therefore we can’t drink at all, is once again acting like the Pharisees.

In any case, if Jesus were to step back into this world today, he’d be hanging out in the bars and reaching out to the people there. And just like the Pharisees back then, the Baptists (among others) would be outside complaining about it.

Full disclosure: I don’t drink. I honestly don’t like the taste of alcohol. But stuff like this makes me want to acquire the taste for it…

Quotable: Community

April 16, 2007

In The Crucible of Korea, my brother Britt has been posting about what He learned from His years in Korea and traveling abroad. The whole thing is good, but this quote is a great summary of what we’ve all been learning over the years:

Community is the most important aspect of the Body of Christ. You will grow to the degree you have intimate relationships with other believers. Without them it is only an organization. It is not the Church.

Jesus was rich?

October 23, 2006

If you’ve never seen Creflo Dollar preach, watch him on TV sometime, and just sit back and be amazed at how cunningly he perverts scripture. If there was ever a good modern example of the danger of ordained clergy, and its potential for corrupting theology, this is it.

The worst types of deceit are the types that sound extremely close to the truth, but pervert a portion of it, making the new “truth” sound more welcoming. People are flocking to the “prosperity gospel,” and why not? It promises wealth and comfort to those who are faithful to God. The only problem is, there’s really no Biblical support for it. Not unless you’re as crafty as the guys who can read whatever they want into scripture, so it supports their lifestyles.

From the AJC:

Christians gather around the world each Christmas to sing about “poor baby Jesus” asleep in the manger with no crib for his bed.

But the Rev. Creflo Dollar looks inside that manger, and he doesn’t see a poor baby at all.

He sees a baby born into wealth because the kings visiting him gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh. He sees a messiah with so much money that he needed an accountant to track it. He sees a savior who wore clothes so expensive that the Roman soldiers who crucified him gambled for them.

Dollar sees a rich Jesus.

“He was rich, he was whole, and I use those words interchangeably,” says Dollar, senior pastor of World Changers Church International, a 23,000-member College Park church, which broadcasts its services on six continents.

Dollar is part of a growing number of preachers who say that the traditional image of Jesus as a poor, itinerant preacher who “had no place to lay his head” is wrong.

“Did Jesus have money? Well, the Bible was clear. Kings brought him gold,” Dollar says. “Did Jesus have money? It’s clear. He had a treasurer to keep up with it.”

Yet many academic scholars say pastors like Dollar are inventing a rich Jesus for selfish reasons.

“You’re giving people divine sanctification to be greedy,” says Sondra Ely Wheeler, an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. “You tell them what they want to hear: The reason you have a Mercedes is because God loves you.”

People have argued over their perception of Jesus for centuries. They’ve debated his politics, his race and more recently, his relationship with Mary Magdalene.

The new battleground: his economic status, because of the popularity of pastors like Dollar.

Dollar preaches the Prosperity Gospel, where the basic tenet is God rewards the faithful with wealth, spiritual power and debt-free living. And he is joined by a host of other nationally known preachers:

•Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of the most popular televangelist in the United States, a best-selling author and star of MegaFest, one of the largest annual revivals in the country.

•Televangelist Oral Roberts, founder of Oral Roberts University.

•And Atlanta’s own Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of the city’s largest church, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, 25,000 strong.

Their teaching, once seen as a fringe theology championed by flamboyant characters like “Rev. Ike,” a prosperity televangelist with a pompadour who once boasted during his heyday in the 1970s that his “garages runneth over,” has now moved mainstream. In the 1970s and 1980s, the flamboyant Rev. Ike made millions by promising wealth to those who followed his unabashed emphasis on materialism.

Millions of people across the world watch prosperity preachers’ broadcasts and attend their crusades.

But preaching the Prosperity Gospel presents a snag in logic to its proponents: If God wants people to be prosperous, why was Jesus poor?

Well, he wasn’t, say many prosperity pastors. And although their claims appear to contradict 2,000 years of traditional Christianity, they say they can prove it through Scripture and history. They also invoke common sense: Jakes reportedly told a Dallas Observer reporter that Jesus had to be rich in order to support his disciples for three years.

‘Supernatural provision’

Those who preach against a poor Jesus say they aren’t trying to justify personal greed. Prosperity preachers like Dollar say their teaching isn’t solely centered on money, but extends to other areas such as health and relationships. They say God will provide for the faithful in all areas of their life — just as he did for Jesus.

“When we are following God’s will with all of our hearts, if it takes us to a place where we need God’s supernatural provision to keep going, he will always provide it,” says the Rev. Dennis Rouse of Victory World Church, a 5,000-member church in Gwinnett County.

And when it comes to Jesus, that’s evident throughout his life, prosperity preachers say. How, for example, could Jesus have supported his mother when his father died early — unless he had ample money?

“It’s historically inaccurate to say that Jesus was poor,” says Bishop Johnathan Alvarado, senior pastor of Total Grace Christian Center in Decatur. Alvarado’s church has 4,000 members who worship at two locations.

Alvarado also disputes the notion that Jesus was homeless — traditionally believed because of the passage in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Luke where Jesus tells a would-be follower that he has “no place to lay his head.”

But Alvarado says Jesus was speaking metaphorically — the world was not his home. “How many carpenters do you know who haven’t built themselves a house?” he says.

And Jesus and his followers lived “sacrificially” by helping the poor and not trusting in their riches, Alvarado said. “Sacrifice is contextual,” he says. ” I can afford a BMW or a Bentley, but I drive a Nissan. … It’s OK to have stuff so long as stuff doesn’t have you.”

Dollar doesn’t drive a Nissan. He drives a Rolls-Royce.

But he also believes that stories about Jesus being prejudiced against the rich have been misinterpreted. For example, he views the tale of the wealthy young ruler that Jesus confronts in the Gospel of Luke through different eyes.

In that encounter, the Gospels say Jesus told the man that it is “harder for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Dollar says, however, Jesus wasn’t saying wealth was a barrier to being accepted by God.

He says the “eye of the needle” was an ancient passageway entering Jerusalem that was so small that a camel had to drop to its knees to squeeze through. Jesus meant that a man who trusted in his riches would have similar difficulties adjusting to God’s way of handling riches, Dollar says.

“This guy had an opportunity to love God with his possessions, but he couldn’t do it because his possessions had him,” Dollar says.

That same passage also proves that Jesus’ disciples “were absolutely not poor,” Dollar says. (The Gospels report that the disciples were astonished when Jesus told them about the perils of riches.) “If the disciples were poor, why would they get astonished?” Dollar says. “If they were poor, they should have jumped up and said, ‘Whoopee, we’re on our way.’ ”

‘A lack of understanding’

However, if Jesus and his disciples weren’t poor — because God had blessed them — what does that say about the millions of faithful Christians who live throughout the world in brutal poverty?

Is that due to a failure of their character?

When asked this, Dollar says: “Part of it may be, first of all, a lack of understanding. You cannot do better until you know better. I used to be broke and poor just like all of those other people. I had to first change the way I think.”

Rick Hayes, a 14-year member of Dollar’s church, agrees.

He says he was “homeless and hopeless” until he attended World Changers. He learned there that Jesus preached to the poor so they wouldn’t be poor anymore. Today he is a medical supply salesman.

Hayes says he believes Jesus was rich because some biblical translations suggest Jesus — as a baby — was visited by a caravan of about 200 kings bearing gold, not three wise men. Jesus also needed wealth to pay travel expenses for his 12 disciples as they took the Gospel from city to city.

Hayes, quoting the ninth chapter of Ecclesiastes (“The words of a poor man are soon forgotten”), also says Jesus could not have attracted a devoted following if he was poor.

“Nobody is going to follow a broke man,” Hayes says.

‘By any means necessary’

Wheeler, the ethicist from Wesley seminary, sighs when she hears the arguments for Jesus being rich. She and other New Testament scholars say these pastors are distorting history and words and have no understanding of the socio-economic conditions of Jesus’ time.

Wheeler, author of “Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, $20), says most biblical scholars don’t even want to dignify the debate with a response.

She says that Dollar’s argument that Jesus started off wealthy because of the gold he received at birth is nonsense. Only one out of the four Gospels even mentions the gold he received from a king and that passage never gives the value of the gift.

“The notion that you would go from that to the assertion Jesus is wealthy passes credulity,” she says. “You have to want to get there by any means necessary.”

She also disputes Dollar’s interpretation of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler. Jesus was being literal when he said it was hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

“What Jesus says is that it is rarer than teeth in chickens to find a person who can own many things and not be owned by them,” she says.

Similarly, Obery M. Hendricks Jr., author of “The Politics of Jesus” (Doubleday, $26), scoffs at the contention that Jesus had enough money to support himself and his disciples for three years. Hendricks says the eighth chapter in the Gospel of Luke paints a different picture: Women, using their own meager means, covered the bills for Jesus and his disciples.

“If Jesus was rich, why would he need women to support him?” Hendricks asks.

Eric Meyers, a professor of archaeology at Duke University, says he has never heard a single reputable scholar argue for a rich Jesus.

“It’s new to me,” he says at the beginning of the conversation. But as he listens to a litany of arguments on why Jesus was rich, he breaks in: “Now you’re getting me mad.”

Meyers, who personally excavated the village of Nazareth where Jesus lived during a 19-year-period, says there is absolutely no evidence of an “eye of the needle” gate in Jerusalem.

And Meyers, editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaelogy in the Near East, says simply put, Jesus was poor — like virtually all the people around him.

“He didn’t even have his own tomb,” Meyers says. “He had to get it from a friend.”

But Dollar says his interpretation of Jesus’ ministry is just as valid as any scholar. His own prosperity is proof that God wants to bless his followers with financial and spiritual blessings — just as he did for baby Jesus.

“God didn’t give the Bible just to theologians and scholars, he gave it to poor people,” Dollar says. “He gave it to farmers, sheep-herders — we don’t need somebody to help us misunderstand the Bible. If we just read the Book, things will begin to happen, and you’ll see.”

The phrase “third place” refers to the place you go to hang out, the gathering place, separate from home and work. Mark Batterson of evotional.com talks about this in a recent post:

I just read an interview with Howard Schultz, Starbuck’s chief global strategist. He said, “The physical environment has become as important as anything we do, including the coffee.”

Think about the profundity of that statement. Starbucks isn’t in the coffee business. They are in the third place business.

Schultz said, “The environment and the experience is the brand. It’s a very important distinction that people use our stores all over the world as an extension of their daily lives, and sometimes the coffee is subordinate to that.”

Mark has a interesting background on this, because his church in Washington, DC didn’t build a traditional church building — they built a coffeehouse. In his post called Thou Shalt Hang Out at Wells, he describes his approach in more detail:

Wells were ancient hang outs. They were the BC version of coffeehouses, chat rooms, and malls. Jesus didn’t invite people to the synagogue. He hung out at wells. He was often accussed of hanging out with the wrong people at the wrong places. But Jesus didn’t let that keep him from a party with a tax collector or a conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well. He went to where the people were. Maybe the gospel has been quarantined behind the four walls of church buildings long enough? The church is called to compete in the middle of the marketplace.

That’s why we’ve built a first-class, fully-operational coffeehouse on Capitol Hill. It’s a place where the church and community can cross paths. That’s why the vision of NCC is to meet in movie theaters @ metro stops throughout the DC area. And that’s why we do events at the largest nightclub in DC.

Coffeehouses, movie theaters, and nightclubs are postmodern wells.

He also makes reference to something that I’ve thought about in the past couple of months:

I recently heard about a church that was building a community center for their community and they “rent” from themselves on the weekend for church services. I think that is genius!

So do I! The more I have different ideas, the more I find that God is putting similar thoughts into others also.

Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously. Don’t think you have to put on a fund-raising campaign before you start. You don’t need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment, and all you need to keep that going is three meals a day. Travel light. When you enter a town or village, don’t insist on staying in a luxury inn. Get a modest place with some modest people, and be content there until you leave. When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way. You can be sure that on Judgment Day they’ll be mighty sorry – but it’s no concern of yours now.

This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.

Matthew 10:6-15, 41b-42, The Message

Personal Savior?

May 12, 2006

From What Would Jesus Ask?:

The Jesus we create in our mind, you know the one that works for us, perhaps, this Jesus is not the real Jesus. Last time I checked, this Jesus does not demand my life. Actually, this Jesus tells me that everything is going to be okay and that I should just fall in line with the rest of them. Somehow the Jesus of the Gospels does not fit the Jesus we make up in our church gatherings.

Would Jesus be as concerned with appearance as we are? Do we ask the questions Jesus would ask? Do we have the people in our communities which Jesus would have? If Jesus showed up to our quaint religious services, would we let him in with his town whore and fishermen buddies?

Since when did Jesus’ message become nice, tame, and purposed in serving the individual soul? Didn’t Jesus give us a mandate to go into the whole world and make disciples? Is that not different than an altar call to save souls?

I’m left wondering which Bible we read in America…

God help your church.