Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Christianity In An Age of Religious Pluralism

Perhaps you’ve heard of Duck Dynasty. I’m a fan. I’ve not seen every episode but I’ve seen a bunch. Besides the humorous adventures of the Robertson clan, the fact that I minister with a Church of Christ and that there’s enough red-neck still in me keeps my interest. One of the great values of the show is that every episode ends with the family eating and praying together, which is a great example to set.* 

Our Context Matters…

The show has established a platform for the family to express their Christian faith and Phil Robertson has seemingly taken advantage of this platform the most. On a few occasions Phil has made some comments which might not raise any concern in his own context but certainly do elsewhere. Having said that, I don’t want to spend any more time criticizing Phil or discussing his past remarks.

I mention Phil Robertson in order to make an observation about a difference between his context and the context of many other Christians, including those among the Churches of Christ. The Robertson’s live near West Monroe, Louisiana where those who affiliate with a Christian church make up roughly 90% of the population.  Compare that to Columbia, Maryland, where 56% of the people do not claim any church affiliation. On top of that, the last time I checked, my children attend school with children from thirty-nine different nationalities. As you might imagine, along with those thirty-nine different nationalities comes a plurality of religions and assortment of values that sometimes differ drastically from the values held by many Christians.

All that is to say that while I appreciate the public stance Phil Robertson is willing to make for what he believes, his example is not a model for every Christian. The response Phil Robertson takes is one that is shaped by his own cultural context. Yet more and more Christians find themselves living in an urban to suburban context that is very different, one where religious pluralism is a reality that requires a different approach.

Apologetics As A Way of Life…

When taking a stance for Christ, one of the frequently cited verses is 1 Peter 3:15. In this passage, the apostle Peter says, “But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess” (NET). For many Christians, Peter is talking about defending the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ. That’s why this passage is a favorite proof-texts among the enterprise of Christian apologetics. I’m all for providing good intellectual answers for those who struggle with Christian belief but what Peter is talking about in this passage is apologetics as a way of life. That is, to set Christ apart (sanctify) in our hearts is about making the way of life that Christ teaches our way of life. A quick read of the entire letter of 1 Peter should make this abundantly clear. 

Embracing apologetics as a way of life involves at least two steps:

  1. The first step in taking a public stance for our faith involves the way in which we set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord. We make sure that our life reflects the life of Jesus. What we say and do reveals our true values and when we profess Christ as Lord but exemplify a different set of values than those which Jesus embodied while on earth, we nullify our witness. One of the values Jesus lived by while here on earth involved the formation of relationships with other people. When we form relationships with others our Christ-likeness becomes a testimony that gives us a credible basis for proclaiming Jesus.
  2. Because we regard Jesus as Lord, the way in which we give an answer for the hope we have matters too. We don’t have an argument to win, just the good news of God’s victory in Christ to bear witness of. As David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw say, “Surely such claim for the supremacy of Christ pits us against other religions and other ways to God. But the conviction that Jesus is Lord actually does the opposite: it frees us from coercion and control. It is Jesus that is Lord, not us. We do not need to land a knockout punch to win an argument against another religion. We are witnesses! We do not need to be prosecuting attorneys on behalf of Jesus. We are witnesses!” (Prodigal Christianity, 158).

As believers and followers of Jesus, we are called to live as his witnesses. In an age of increased religious pluralism, we must become more intentional about taking a stance for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such intentionality includes boldness but let’s not confuse boldness with brashness. Our bold witness of Jesus must reflect the life of Jesus if we are to truly set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord.

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* Except for a few stylistic changes, this exact article was originally published in Connecting 29 (December 3, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Engaging In A Culture War

Whatever you think about the current state of American culture, it’s clear that Christianity no longer has the influence it once had. There isn’t any use in becoming upset about it or complaining about it because that will change very little, if anything. Instead consider asking how should Christians posture themselves amidst a culture that appears less than receptive to Christianity?

The Courage Not To Fight Back!

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie 42 about the story of Jackie Robinson. There’s a scene in the movie where Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers is talking with to Jackie Robinson about the challenge his is going to face…

“People aren’t going to like this. They’re gonna do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they’ll only hear yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they’ll say the Negro lost his temper. You’re enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding… only that. We win if the world is convinced of two things: that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player.”

Robinson asks, “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”

So Rickey says, “No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”

Perhaps the best response Christians can have towards the current changing American culture is having the courage not to fight back!

Christians Have Lost Their Temper?

Every year as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day approaches, there are some Christians who insist upon engaging in a culture war over the greeting “Merry Christmas.” By insisting upon the phrase “Merry Christmas” as opposed to “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings,” they think that the society at large will remember the “reason for the season.” They call for Christians to boycott stores that don’t mention Christmas, voice their protest in various social-media outlets, align themselves with various political talking-heads (some who may not even be Christians), and even make a movie about saving Christmas.

Is this really about living as faithful witnesses of Jesus or is it about preserving a culture that favors Christian sentiments? In other words, is this culture war over Christmas motivated by a desire to serve God or a selfish political desire?

To be frank, I really don’t care whether a person says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” What I’m concerned about is the notion that some Christians have which believes that this is a spiritual battle that they must stand up and fight. They seems to believe that Christians can and should go blow for blow with society. However, taking a page from Branch Rickey, when this is done, society only seems to think that Christians have lost their temper… and seem quite ready to leave us to ourselves where we can pout in the corner while we have a tantrum.

Isn’t there a better way? I certainly believe so!

Love, Service, and Hospitality

For the last few weeks I’ve been preaching through the book of 1 Peter. In one sentence, this is a letter that addresses how Christians must live as the holy people of God amidst a hostile culture. Never does Peter say anything about fight back, standing up for your rights, boycotting and protesting those who don’t show favor to Christian values. Instead Christians are persistently reminded to be the church. That is, instead of trying to determine how the rest of society should live, Christians should make every effort to embody the living hope they have received.

One of the more important passages in about Christians embodying the  living hope they have received is found in 1 Peter 4:7-11:

For the culmination of all things is near. So be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of prayer. Above all keep your love for one another fervent, because love covers a multitude of sinsShow hospitality to one another without complaining. Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God. Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ…

Loving one another, serving one another, being hospitable… Think about it! Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson that they would win with hitting running, and fielding. Peter is telling us who call ourselves Christians that we win by loving one another, serving one another, being hospitable towards each other.

If we really believe in Jesus then we need to be Christians who have the courage to not fight back… or at least not fight back on society’s own low ground. Instead we must learn to fight with love, service, and hospitality. Then we become a living demonstration of the reason for the season, the life Jesus came into this world to offer through his own death and resurrection.

When Preaching Fails

One of the books I’m reading for my upcoming class is a book that my teachers, David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, wrote titled Prodigal Christianity. One of the stories they tell in the book is about watching this street preacher stand for the truth (as he understand it) with boldness as he preaches, only to be rejected by the people he is preaching at. So the authors make this very good point:

“We acknowledge the need for grounding in truth, but when we are too quick to make bold pronouncements, we compromise our ability to witness because we have not truly entered into the cultural world to be with people: to listen to, seek God with, an learn from those with to whom we are witnessing” (p. 53).

Thanks to another preacher, John Dobbs, here’s a video of some other preacher that helps illustrate their point:

Similar to Fitch and Holsclaw, my friend Fred Liggen says that leadership requires listening, learning, and loving. He’s right. They’re right. Before were can lead others some place, which is what preaching seeks to do, we must listen to them, learn from them, and love them.

Will You Vote Today?

I’m currently preaching through the book of First Peter and I have been reading through Miroslav Volf’s book Captive to the Word of God (hereafter CWG). Between these two endeavors and reading through some social-media feeds yesterday on Election Day got me thinking about Christians and voting. So let me ask this question: If you are a Christian, will you vote today? Will you vote tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that?

Maybe this seems like a silly question to ask since yesterday was Election Day in America. But if you are a Christian, a follower of Jesus who belongs to his church, then every day is an election day. The only question is how you will vote.

The Christian Distinction

According to the Apostle Peter, Christians belong to a different reality than the rest of society. It is a reality received through the new birth (cf. 1 Pet 1:3) that marks the church off as a distinct priesthood and nation who reside as aliens and exiles among the rest of society (cf. 1 Pet 2:5, 9, 11). The distance between Christians and the rest of society is neither one of isolation or assimilation but one with “a presupposition of mission” (CWG, p. 82-83).

This mission, the mission of God, becomes the duty of the church and therefore every Christian. The duty is not to make America or any other nation a better nation. Rather, the business of every Christian is to live in such a manner that the gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly made manifest in the life of the church. While this business may at times share similar interests with America and the many other nations of this world, it may also set the church at odds with the nations, including America, just as it did for the church living among the Roman Empire. That is to say that sometimes living as faithful followers of Jesus Christ will make the church appear as terrible national citizens. And that’s okay! After all, Christians are foreigners among society.

Christian Voting

By participating in the mission of God, the church is called to a distinct way of living. This living has to do with conduct and it involves no longer conforming to the former ways of living before receiving the new birth but instead living as the holy people of God (cf. 1 Pet 1:14-16). The letter of First Peter spells out what some of this conduct involves from a concrete standpoint in regards to practice. But what the conduct does, as Volf points out, is allow mission to take on the form of “witness and invitation” (CWG, p. 84). That is, instead of trying to make the world of this age a better place, the Christian duty of participating in the mission of God through faithful living testifies to what the age to come looks like (which has already appeared in Christ) and calls those of this age to become a part of the age to come.

In essence, to be a Christian and to belong to the church of Jesus Christ means daily voting. Regardless of whether Christians should vote or not state elections, the church is called to cast a vote for the gospel of Jesus Christ on a daily basis. So everyday the church will vote for what it believes is the way, the truth, and the life by the manner in which every Christian lives his or her life. The real question then is not “will you vote today” but “what will you vote for today?” Will the conduct of the church cast a vote for the way of Jesus and the age to come or will the vote be for this present age?

I dare say that when the primary concern of Christians is making the nations of this world better nations, the vote that is casted is a vote for this age. It’s a vote for something that will not last, no matter how good it seems. But there is a kingdom that will stand forever. May the church of Jesus Christ learn to discern wisely and vote wisely!

Believing In Jesus and His Way

A Farewell to MarsI’m currently reading through Brian Zahnd’s book A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. The book is about the peaceful, non-violent way of Jesus Christ, which is often ignored and even dismissed as irrelevant by many Christians living in America. In other words, American Christianity believes in Jesus as the Savior but does not necessarily follow Jesus as Lord… at least not when it comes to putting down the sword and picking up the cross. This is why Zahnd says quite clearly and convincingly that, “It’s not enough to believe in Jesus; we also have to believe in the Jesus way!” (p. 142).

To illustrate his point, Zahnd does a little historical work regarding southern culture and the Christian revival throughout the southern states that preceded the American Civil War. Here’s the quote:

In seeking to preserve an economy dependent upon slave labor, Southern churches had embraced a fatally distorted faith. Probably without even knowing what they were doing, these Christians had quite effectively used Jesus and the Bible to validate their racist assumptions and protect their vested interests. They went to church on Sunday. They got saved. They loved Jesus. They waved their palms and shouted hosanna on Palm Sunday. But like the crowd in Jerusalem eighteen centuries earlier, they didn’t know the things that made for peace. And Jesus wept over an America headed to hell. The churches were full and slavery continued—until the Civil War, that is. Then 750,000 people died for the sins of America (p. 146).

My question is how long will Christians keep dismissing the non-violent way of Jesus as irrelevant and how much more carnage will we suffer as a result?

Church Renewal: Give Up The Old Wineskins

Last year the Christian Chronicle, a monthly newspaper for the Churches of Christ, ran an article on the Bar Church of Abilene, Texas that the Southern Hills Church of Christ helped plant. The Bar Church is a community of Christians that originally gathered inside a local bar for worship, fellowship, etc… in order to reach people who will likely never step foot inside the gatherings of a traditional church. As expected, news of a church plant meeting in a local tavern drew both praise and criticism. Without knowing any more details than what has been reported, I am one who applauds such effort and I want to briefly focus on the criticism as a way of discussing a larger issue with the gospel and the mission of God.

One critic said in response to the news of a church meeting in a bar, “Jesus might have gone to Matthew’s house, but he did not teach his disciples to go to places of public intoxication…” Not surprisingly, I actually disagree because Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of Luke, even acknowledged eating and drinking with these sinner’s and tax-collectors to the point that he gained the reputation of being a drunkard and glutton (cf. Lk 7:34). I suppose we could say that Jesus was only going into places of private intoxication (insert snarky face here) but the point is that Jesus not only sought out the “sinners” but was also teaching his disciples to do so as well. Yet the critics, who all likely come from a church fellowship that is declining, resort to the box they have the gospel contained within to rationalize their complaint. And this is a problem…

Listen to Jesus

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first parable that Jesus teaches occurs in chapter two:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins (vv. 21-22).

This parable occurs within a series of five stories in which the authority of Jesus is challenged (Mk 2:1-3:6). The problem with Jesus is that he does not live according to the expectations of the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees.

The Pharisees themselves meant well. Like Jesus, they wanted to see the kingdom of God at hand too. But unlike Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God would only come when all of Israel returned to a strict observation of the Torah, especially the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and those that separated the clean from the unclean. For Jesus, however, the kingdom of God is already at hand (Mk. 1:15), so the efforts of the Pharisees are futile. Instead they, like us all, need to follow along with Jesus and learn how to participate in this kingdom, which involves something as simple as eating when you’re hungry rather than fasting or something more radical like wining and dining with the “sinners and tax-collectors.”

The kingdom of God looks like a reality where sinners are welcomed with hospitality, where those who suffer find healing, where showing mercy trumps the sacrifice of Sabbath keeping, and so forth. This is the kind of life Jesus calls us to follow him, learning how to participate as disciples. Yet Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work! That is why Jesus tells us the parable of sewing a new patch on an old garment and pouring new wine into old wineskins. We need new wineskins for new wine! We need new a new paradigm for this gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and calls follow him in living as his disciples!

Old Wineskins Will Not Do

I began this blog post with story of a Church of Christ that planting a very non-traditional seed of the gospel by helping plant a new church meeting in a bar. It’s but one example of what it might look like for a church to the new wine of the gospel into new wineskins. Just one example. It is by no means a suggestion that this is what every church needs to do. I believe way too much in the need for local contextualization of the gospel to even begin suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m concerned about is those who want to cling to their old wineskins while criticizing any attempt at pouring new wine into new wineskins.

Any one familiar with the Churches of Christ can see the decline. Most churches, including the Columbia Church of Christ with whom I serve as a minister, are less than one-hundred members and declining. The culture around us is rapidly changing and learning how to navigate the waters in this ever changing climate has been… Well, as far as I can tell, were not sure how to do that.

In such uncertain circumstances, there are more questions than answers which that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. “How do we move forward in all this mess?” is the question that gets asked. Yet our human nature is to take the path of least resistance and that usually means reverts back to what we already know… the so-called tried and true approach. I think this is why Michael Shank’s book Muscle and A Shovel has become so popular. Because despite it’s sectarian approach that promotes a gospel focused on the “true church,” a form of legalism that many in the Churches of Christ seemed to have let go of, it offers an approach that is very familiar (if you read the book then make sure you also read this very well-written and critical review of the book by John Mark Hicks). But Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work!

Then What Do We Do?

Learning to follow Jesus together begins with hearing afresh our Lord’s first commandment: “Repent and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15). We have to change our expectations of how we expect to see the kingdom of God at hand. Seeing God’s kingdom at hand does not happen by trying to restore the first-century church pattern from proof-texting the New Testament. The way forward is found in embracing the values and practices of Jesus as our own, within our own local contexts. That requires much discernment.

In order to discern, churches and especially the leadership of the church must learn how to listen together for the leading of God. You might consider reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton as a resource in learning how to listen as a church. Only as we listen and discern together will we discover the new wineskins necessary for the new wine of the gospel. Also, you might consider contacting Mission Alive, an organization that helps equip church planters and churches seeking renewal to live as “kingdom communities on mission with God.”

Conversations On Racism and Injustice

This past Sunday afternoon I attended the “Town Hall Meeting for Justice For All” hosted by the Bridgeway Community Church in my town, Columbia, Maryland. The meeting was in response to the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man who was shot by the police. Even though there is 800 miles of Interstate 70 between Columbia and Ferguson, the issues that Browns death and the subsequent protesting have raised affect Columbia just as they affect every community.

The meeting itself was a great start to some courageous conversations that communities must start engaging in. Whites, Blacks, and Latinos all showed up for this meeting but the majority of the audience was Black. Pastor David Anderson served as a moderator taking questions the audience had for the five panelists that consisted of a school administrator, two police officers, a college student, and a local pastor. Of the five panelists, three were Black and the other two were White.

Black America and Fear

As you what has happened in Ferguson has brought to the forefront the problem of racism that still exists in America. Besides the problem of racism, there is a distrust of law-enforcement and a lot of frustration because of injustices that Blacks and other minorities have endured (and if you’re not sure what those are, I suggest you do a little more listening to some of your Black neighbors).

I went to this town-hall meeting to listen because I’m interested in what I can do to help facilitate racial reconciliation and be an advocate for justice. After all, as a minister of the gospel, the God I serve seeks reconciliation and desires justice, so… Any ways, I tried my best to just listen during this meeting and here’s a couple of things I heard:

  1. Negative Images of Young Black Males. During the meeting, the Black voice of the audience agreed that the Hip-Hop culture has created a caricature of the young Black male that contributes to the negative perceptions and that the Black community has helped perpetuate this image. I thought this is important because it tells me that when we hear the Black community saying there’s a problem, they are also willing to own their part of the problem too.
  2. Palpable Fear. There was a point when the audience was asked if those who are minorities raise their children to carry themselves in certain ways in public because of a fear of being mistaken by law enforcement and others as being up to criminal activity. This is the fear of how their children might be perceived when they’re hanging out, walking down the street, into a store, etc… and how might the police react if their children appear “suspicious”? As an observer, this fear was extremely evident in the response of the minorities present (who were in the majority there). And I must say, words cannot really express how sad this is because nobody should have to live in fear for their life or the lives of their children.
  3. Where are the Whites? As I said, the majority of those in attendance were Black. Now there could be a variety of reasons for this, so I don’t want to make too much of this observation. But I do want to say that the problems of racism, et al. is a problem for the entire community, not just minorities. White people, like myself, don’t have to engage in conversations like this because we’re not the ones who suffer from systemic racism. That’s part of our White Privilege. But the problem isn’t going away and if it gets worse (with the violent protests of Ferguson as a sign of what might be on the horizon), we’ll all suffer the consequences. So let’s all work together for the good of racial-reconciliation and justice!

Where Do We Begin

Working together for reconciliation and justice begins at the table, so to speak. That is to say, we have to start by talking and having a conversation together about these issues. As you know, such conversations are not always easy but we must have the necessary courage, humility, and love to gather at the table with others for some talk.

Now I’m not any expert but one thing I’ve learned as a minister is the importance of listening. Or let’s say, I’m learning the importance of listening and more importantly, listening first. Listening to understand before we speak is important because in conversations like this, there are tense moments of disagreement at times. Someone says something that we disagree with and our gut reaction is to respond immediately, countering…arguing. And then we’re just talking past each other, or shouting past each other like they do on what passes for nightly cable news.

Instead of that, Don McLaughin, who serves as the preaching minister for the North Atlanta Church of Christ, suggests that we learn to say “Tell me more” (you can listen to all he has to say about this and more on this podcast). If we don’t understand or don’t seem to agree with what someone says then by saying “Tell me more” rather than counter-reacting, we can here their point of view and what it is that has led them to feel this or that way. We may still disagree but at least we’ll understand better and we’re validating the feeling of others.

One Last Thing…

As a parting word, let me encourage us to begin a conversation. Maybe it’s with a friend of another race or ethnicity, or maybe that conversation starts by attending a town meeting on race and justice matters in your own community. Help your church to start having these conversations (churches should be leading the way in conversations about reconciliation but sadly, we’re not!). Learn to ask questions and listen… Imagine what could happen if we just start having conversations!