Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

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!

Amidst Racism, Wars, and Other Afflictions: What Says the Church?

It’s a predictable script. When something terrible happens, such as the police-shooting death of one unarmed Michael Brown or the recently release of a video showing the beheading of missing American journalist James Foley, people become indignant. Something is wrong and something should be done. So the question is asked, “Mr. President of the United States of America, what say you?”

Our Way or The Way of God?

That’s how the script always seems to play out. The President must do something or at least say something. Depending on his response, one either cheers him on from the sidelines or one starts cursing him in one fashion or the other. Issues of racism, violence, and other cancerous maladies become political issues for the government to solve. Yet because the politicians and the masses that elect them can’t seem to even agree on what the first step towards a solution should be, the conversation turns into a toxic pit that poisons everyone who steps into it. And maybe in writing this, I’m showing symptoms of poisoning too.

Having said all that, I think I understand why people always turn to the government for a fix. To start with, for some people, the government is their best shot. Regardless of what they claim on a religious census, they don’t have the living hope in Christ that allows them to see how the gospel is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring life. But some people, Christians included, would rather just turn to the government in hopes for a quick solution to the problems… like passing a new law, sending some more troops, or creating a new program and initiative.

I think the devil likes it this way… keeping people, Christians included, seeking quick-fix human engineered solutions to problems that will only be resolved through a slow process requiring personal sacrifice. As a Christian, and as a preacher and minister of the gospel, I believe the slow process leads right to the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s the process that the church is called to participate in. But as I said, it’s a slow process that requires personal sacrifice.

It’s A Way of Life!

In the Gospels when Jesus calls his disciples to pick up their crosses and follow him, he is calling them to a very different way of life than what the rest of the world seeks. Jesus is clear that answering this call may cost the disciples their very own life but he assures them that they will actually receive life, a promise made with his own death and resurrection (cf. Mk 8:34-35).

This way of life is bears witness to what life looks like when God’s redemptive, reconciling, and restorative work is at hand. It’s a life that loves God by loving neighbors and even the enemies. It’s a life that champions peace rather than trumpeting the 2nd Amendment as though an AR-15 assault rifle will keep the peace. It’s a life that extends hospitality rather than judgment to all people, including the neighbors who that came across the borders in search of better living and the single-parents buying their groceries with EBT cards. It’s a life that exalts God as the Creator and Redeemer of life rather than patronizing Old Glory as the symbol of life, liberty, and happiness. It’s a way of life in which the things said and done during Sunday morning’s church service are also the things said and done at home, in the work place, and even on Facebook, Twitter, and so forth (for those who have a presence in the world of social-media).

As I said, this way of life bears witness the redemptive work of God in Christ. In this way, the church lives as a proleptic sign of why the gospel really is good news. It’s God offering the world through Christ and his church the alternative to fear, violence, and hatred. It demonstrates the possibilities of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration so that ideals like brotherly love, joy in Christ, and the peace of God move beyond the realm of spiritual platitudes, becoming instead virtues with concrete meaning. Though the church will always struggle in this endeavor, without intentionally pursuing this way of life the preaching of the church sings like a broken record playing the music of religious superstition than the songs of life.

What I’m Saying

If the church has any desire to offer the promise of hope amidst racism, wars, and all the other afflictions that plague the world, then we, who are the church, must learn to be the church Jesus envisions. If we really believe in the good news that Jesus preached, then we must learn to embrace it as how we live. Then, we can tell the world about God and sound like we actually know God. The results will not come quick as this is and will always be a slow process requiring the personal sacrifice but in doing so–following Jesus in this mission–we join God in creating a life legacy of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration.

Being Church In A Burning World

I want to mention three recent events, two of which you are already aware of unless you just crawled out of a cave and another issue that many of you are unfortunately all too familiar with. But let me first ask you one question: What do you think it means to be the church?

Coming Apart At The Seams

So, as I said, unless you just crawled out of some cave, you know that Robin Williams died last week. Like so many others, I was disappointed because he was a truly brilliant actor, comedian, and entertainer. Of course, I’m sure that those who knew him personally, especially his family, are heart-broken. It was even more sad to read that in the midst of suffering from depression among other health-related issues, Robin Williams took his own life. However, his death also reminded us of just how terrible and deadly the illness of depression can be. Sadly, thanks to the ridiculous blog of person and his absurd follow up post (which I won’t link to hear, so as not to give his ilk more publicity), we also know just how badly our society still sometimes misunderstands mental illnesses.

Also last week in Ferguson, Missouri, a young man by the name of Michael Brown, who was unarmed, was shot and killed a police officer. This has triggered both protesting and rioting. While we don’t know the full details of what happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown, his death joins a list of unarmed black males killed by law enforcement. Regardless of what the investigation into the death of Michael Brown reveals, the fall out of his death has reminded again that racism is still an issue in America. And it seems the hostility is weaved into the ever increasing political polarization taking place in America, which political pundit Glenn Beck describes America as being “at or near a cold civil war.” Whether you agree or disagree, one thing seems clear: the cracks are getting bigger and the little 238 year experiment called the American Dream is fading.

Of course, while society around us is coming apart at the seams, some Christians would rather continue on pursuing their adventures in missing the point. Two weeks ago I spoke at the Bowie Church of Christ for their Wednesday Evening Praise on following Jesus (you can listen to the message here). It was a wonderful evening and the praise team did an amazing job of leading the church in worship. It was nice to visit with another church that allows women to serve as God has gifted them. However, word of this church having a praise team got out and it drew sharp criticism from another area Church of Christ who suggested that this violated the teaching of scripture.

Now do you understand what I mean by adventures in missing the point?

Being Church… Following Jesus!

We’re called to follow Jesus… learning to live our lives as Jesus lives his life. When churches and Christians are still occupied with trying to convince others why praise teams are wrong or arguing about who’s going to hell while the black community is living in hell (you should really click on that link and read the article), you can be sure that we’ve forgotten how to follow Jesus.

Our best response to a world suffering in depression, racism, and many other issues is simply to be the church, just like Richard Beck describes in this blog post (and you should really click on that link and read it too). You see, when we follow Jesus we learn how to become better neighbors, how to become hospitable with people who are different from us… different in skin color, country of origin, religion, and even sexual orientation. When we follow Jesus we learn how to show solidarity with the poor and oppressed, with the suffering. Only then do we gain the credibility to speak truth… to speak about this good news of the kingdom of God, the good news that Jesus preached.

The question of what it means to be the church is a huge question, one that too large to answer in one blog post. So don’t take this as an exhaustive answer but let me clearly say: we are being the church when we follow Jesus! Just because we are gathering to sing and pray does not necessarily mean we are being the church. That’s just a religious service. But we can be the church in that religious service when the invitation of Jesus and his communion table moves us to welcome the stranger, listen to the pains and fears of others as we bear that burden with them, and love each other enough to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of serving one another. We live as the church when this way of life transcends beyond the walls of our church buildings and becomes our way of life in our homes, our neighborhoods, our work and social spaces, and so on. Then… we can speak the truth of Jesus we are compelled to speak because it’s a message that has transformed our own way of life.

The world around is burning. Sometimes it’s a small smoldering fire and but here lately it seems like a wildfire that’s burning out of control like it seems to be right now in Ferguson, MO, The Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, Israel and Palestine, and West Africa. What we can do is learn to follow Jesus again! Can we do that?