When the Church is Weak it is Strong

I realize that some of my posts might give me the branding "disgruntled evangelical." I don't mean that to be the case but I could see why someone might think that. I guess I follow the old dictum that you are always meanest to the ones you love the most. In other words, it is out of love, and not disagreement that I write these things, even if it is a frustrated love. I also tend not to give specific examples. That is very much strategic. My goal with these posts is not to call people out, but to try and help us become more aware of things that might normally fly under our radar. This post is no different.

Paul proclaimed that in his weakness he knew Christ's strength. Christianity, as the way of the cross, is necessarily the way of humility. Therefore, in light of that, I would like to make something of an axiomatic statement: The greatest vice of the Christian church is a belief in its strength. Just as the individual believer, the church is at its strongest when it grasps its total weakness. Now, in light of how we tend to think about church success, what do we do with this? If this is true, and I think it is, how do we talk about success? What do we do with churches that proclaim, implicitly or explicity, "We have it all together, so just do what we do and the kingdom will come!?"

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Ministry and the Neglect of the Sabbath

I've been reading Eugene Peterson's book Working the Angles (which is a must read for anyone in ministry), and came across this passage on Sabbath. I wanted to quote it for a couple of reasons, not least of which because of the hilarious comment about Augustine and his mother: 

"We are, most of us, Augustinians in our pulpits. We preach the sovereignty of our Lord, the primacy of grace, the glory of God...But the minute we leave our pulpits we are Pelagians. In our committee meetings and our planning sessions, in our obsessive attempts to meet the expectations of people, in our anxiety to please, in our hurry to cover all the bases, we practice a theology that puts our good will at the foundation of life and urges moral effort as the primary element in pleasing God...Pelagius was an unlikely heretic; Augustine an unlikely saint. By all accounts Pelagius was urbane, courteous, convincing. Everyone seems to have liked him immensely. Augustine squandered away his youth in immorality, had some kind of Freudian thing with his mother [!], and made a lot of enemies. But all our theological and pastoral masters agree that Augustine started from God's grace and therefore had it right, and Pelagius started from human effort and therefore got it wrong. If we were as Augustinian out of the pulpit as we are in it, we would have no difficulty keeping sabbath. How did it happen that Pelagius became our master?"

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When Ministry is Secular

Jamin over at the Metamorpha blog has posted on an incredibly important issue in ministry. I suggest you read it here. Basically, the controversial claim is that many (could we even say most) of contemporary pastoral ministry is fundamentally secular. This is not to say that it is unChristian, as much as a-Christian. In other words, it is the claim that ministry has simply become pragmatically answering issues which arise in the church rather than addressing them spiritually. I would love to hear some thoughts about this. Have you seen this in your own ministry? In your church? Have you seen people pushing against this? Where?

What is World Evangelization?

Travel is one of my favorite activities and experiencing other cultures is one my greatest passions. But with kids and a wife I actually enjoy, long haul flights to Africa and beyond have become something of a burden. After taking six such trips in 2009, I decided it was time to slow down, well actually just quit.

When the opportunity to participate in the third congress of Lausanne, what Christianity Today called the most diverse gathering ever in Cape Town, South Africa, I wasn’t sure if I should go. Normally, I would be ecstatic to go a place I’ve long heard about and experience a multitude of cultures at one time, but the sixty hours on airplanes and 12 days away from home, gave me some pause.

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Fear Leading to Awe: Understanding the Fear of the Lord

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," we are told in Ecclesiastes. This, of course, is true. But the fear leading to wisdom is not fear to anxiety, but fear to awe. To be filled with awe is to know the one who you stand before and to know acceptance. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because fear of the Lord is simply the recognition that the Lord is God - the God of glory. Fear, in this proper sense, undermines our handholds and our footholds, leaving us with no ground on which to stand, argue or fight. Fear is the beginning of wisdom because this fear leaves us undone - calling out, "I believe, help me in my unbelief," as well as "Without you, I can do nothing" (John 15:5).

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Jonathan Edwards's message to the downtrodden

As many of you may know, I am a Jonathan Edwards scholar. In the grand scheme of things, that doesn't mean all that much, expect that I read a lot of Edwards's work and spend a great deal of time thinking alongside of him about the nature of the Gospel of God for our salvation. From time to time, I come across a really great nuggest in Edwards's theology. What I mean by "nugget" is this, what I consider one of the great misfortunes of Edwards's legacy is that we have next to nothing on what he was supposedly best at - spiritual direction. His daughter, in a letter to a friend, once commented on how blessed she was to have someone like her father to help her navigate her relationship with God. Edwards was, it would seem, a fantastic and discerning director of souls. Fortunately, we do have some evidence of this. Edwards wrote a letter to a woman who just saw her only son die. In it, he tells her that he writes about the one thing he knows for a time like hers - Christ. You can read the letter in its entirety here, but I have copied the last portion below.

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Why Do Students Come To Faith At All?

I heard Kenda Creasy Dean speak several years ago in Indianapolis and I was impressed by her ability to articulate some uncomfortable truths. I have taught a course in student ministry and I used one of Dean's books as a required text. Her new book, 'Almost Christian' has received press on CNN and elsewhere. As usual, she backs up her observations with solid research and questions status quo with intelligence and grace--the status quo inside and outside the church. You can find some of her reactions to the recent press on her blog. Now, stay with me a moment because I am going to switch gears a bit. After all, this is a blog that speaks often of globalization and of the interconnected world in which we live in as people of faith. 

What happens if you take the research of Kenda Creasy Dean and now read it with a global eye, particularly in light of the now famous statements made by Philip Jenkins, such as, “Global denominations are going to have to figure what to do when the bulk of the power and money is in the North and the bulk of the people is in the South.” The moral decline of the West has been well documented and the rise of China and India as ecnomic powers has also been well documented. Dean speaks to the weak faith or no faith being inherited by our children. An ever growing Biblical illiteracy that is teamed with an expanding social network that allows us to make 'friends' with people from around the world. A rather large percentage of new marriages are now happening between people who meet online and this will likely increase as current students age. And in a world of increasingly virtual relationships, we are now concerned with the virtual disapperance of intimacy within the church between parents and children, between children and God, and between parents and God. Let me just ask this: why do students come to faith at all?

Recent books like UnChristian and Almost Christian sound some alarms, loud enough for CNN to notice, but these books are also aimed at people inside the church and to many churches, this is hardly news. No doubt there are concerns abounding all over about the shallow faith of so many families in the West. Most of us fight against pain, sacrifice, and patience with great vigor and civil rights. Yet, remember Jenkins and remember that most of the global, worldwide, body of Christ doesn't live in the U.S. Now, what are your thoughts? Do you see a church in decline or a church on the move? Do you see young people falling away or standing strong in the face of epic poverty and disease?

There is now an estimated 150 million University students in our world today and over 120 million of them live outside of the U.S. Perhaps, Dean and others are correct in that many young people are leaving the church in record numbers due to their apathetic parents and pathetic preachers they are sitting under week after week. I won't disagree. Yet, this isn't the whole picture anymore. The whole picture must include the whole world because the whole Bible speaks to the whole world. After all, the authors of Scripture probably looked more like the immigrants fueling contemporary debate than the middle class, white children leaving church. It is true, many young people need to be taught a more robust, more Biblical, and more grounded faith in the West. And part of that teaching should include the sacrificial example of young people in the global south and east. We may now be living in a time when the U.S. will continue to ask 'why do students come to faith at all?' while young people from the other side of the world set their sites on North America as the next great mission field. I am guessing we're in a transitional phase where we are sometimes almost chrisitan, post christian, or pre christian, but at the end of the day, we will have to have a more global view of what it means to be Christian if we're going to follow Christ.

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Lover or Fighter or Both?

A recent post of mine on whether we should love God or fight for him, got some push back from a friend on my facebook page.

His primary arguments are that:

1) the biblical warfare worldview is basic to all biblical revelation and prescription.

2) I created a false dichotomy between loving God and fighting for Him i.e. surely we can do both.

3) I was "fighting" against the "fighters" as I tried to promote love

Here are a few quick thoughts:

First, the Bible makes quite clear that we battle not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6), therefore any biblical battle motif cannot be construed to apply to human interactions.

This is further seen in Christ's refusal to fight, his rebuking of Peter when he cut the ear off the Roman soldier and embodied by the early church who did not fight eye for eye or tooth for tooth and instead followed Christ's example and command and turned the other cheek.

Second, agreed that two apparently contradictory things may not be in contradiction i.e. fighting and loving. For example, I love my children but I discipline them. However, that is a "paternalisitc" relationship and it not necessarily appropriate to extend that to all relationships. However, as a society we still need judges, courts, etc.. and in church we need boundary enforcers to root out evil doers (abusers of children, powermongers, gossips, etc..) and protect innocents even though our call to love the evil doers is not lessened.

Nevertheless, saying that disciplining, boundary enforcement or even fighting is consistent with love takes a lot of nuancing as they are not clearly always consistent with love. In fact, I do not think it is too audacion to say that they are rarely consistent with love and are generally consistent with humanity's desire to control one another.

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To Love God or Fight For Him? or What is Evangelicalism?

What is evangelicalism? It's a term that eludes clear definition and is something that some of my friends and I have tackled in our forthcoming book, Routes & Radishes and Other Things to Talk About at the Evangelical Crossroads.

The question is raised once again with the recent Christianity Today cover story on Al Mohler that unabashedly refers to him as a reformer, invoking thoughts of Luther and Zwingli. Mohler is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has been a chief architect of the conservative revolution of the Southern Baptist Convention and the primary promoter of the new Calvinism (note: a SBC church ordained me and my wife and i were SBC employees for 6 years).

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CCDA- "The Dinner Party"

If you have been to any conference, you know that the best connections happen outside of the formal  conference  activities.  The spontaneous meals, prayers in the hallways, and late night talks with old friends and new are the richness of the Christian Community Development Association.  Yesterday morning Mark Charles pointed out that “the American Church has bought into the false notion that relationships can be between organizations.  Organizations do not develop relationships, people do.”

There were several opportunities this week to remember that and perhaps my favorite moment was a “dinner party” that started with my friend Kevin from New Orleans saying, “let’s get together!” and me replying, “I’ll bring my team.”  Next thing I knew we each had invited about five people who then invited a couple more.  When we finally got everyone in the same place at the same time we noticed a few individuals standing around seemingly with no dinner plans so we roped them in too. 

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