The Culture War… Laying Down Our Weapons and Following Jesus

On Monday, with the release of Vanity Fair’s feature and cover shot of Caitlyn Jenner, formally known as Bruce Jenner, social-media was set ablaze. Trending, is the appropriate way of describing it. On Twitter, on Facebook, and I suspect in a whole lot of other social-media outlets.

Not surprisingly, the Christian sub-culture had a lot to say as well. Like a day of tornadoes forming one after another across the Mid-West, so it was with Christians talking about Caitlyn Jenner. With everything from quick-press blog posts, photo sharing with platitudes, to 142 character praises or condemnations, Christians either rushed to the defense of Jenner or they expressed their criticism.

And so Caitlyn Jenner became the latest object in the so-called culture-war we engage in. Last week the object was Matt Chandler and the Village Church over their handling of a marriage/divorce involving Karen Hinkley and Jordan Root. The week before that was the Duggar Family regarding the scandal involving the sexual abuse allegations of Josh Duggar. Before that it was…

What in the name of Jesus are we doing?

A Not-So-Civil Culture War

Every time something controversial trends, depending on where we stand, we respond either taking the side of the prosecutor or the defender. For what… Jesus and the gospel? I’m not sure of the reasons, though I have my suspicions, but I’m sure that such reactions keep us from being the salt and light Jesus has called us to be (cf. Matt 5:13-16). In we’ve become part of the zeitgeist, noisy voices in a large auditorium of where nearly every conceivable religious and political view is shouting right along with everyone else in this culture war.

When it comes to engaging culture there’s a fine line between using social-media to influence people and using it as a coercive instrument. When the goal is simply to criticize, intimidate, and even silence the other side, we become coercive. Regardless the instrument, social-media or a sword, coercive power is not the way of Jesus and therefore not the way of his church.

You might recall Chic-fil-A, World Vision, or even last April’s fiasco with the State of Indiana passing the Religious Freedom Act as examples of what I am getting at. It’s a failure for sure. While one side may win this battle or that battle, we all lose in this not-so-civil culture war.

Listening, Learning, and Speaking

It’s time to lay down our weapons, to rid ourselves of coercive forms of power, and end the shouting contests that solve nothing. I’m not suggesting that we should remain silent and never speak on controversial issues. Sometimes we are called to vigorously speak out against matters of injustice, unethical practices, and falsehood. But how we speak matters!

To begin with, we must listen to the wisdom of James, listening and learning before we reactively speak and become angry (cf. Js 1:19). Listening and learning, with one ear attuned to Jesus and the other towards culture, will allow us to speak gospel words.

More importantly, we must acknowledge that the most important place − the front line − for engaging culture for the influence and proclamation of Jesus and his gospel is among our neighborhoods with people we have taken the time to build meaningful relationships and friendships with. Unless we’re willing to dwell among people, especially those we call “sinners,” and become present with them (and to them), we really have nothing to offer. We certainly don’t have any business preaching without first dwelling among and listening.

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

– 1 Peter 3:15, NIV

Engaging Culture As Followers of Jesus

Part of following Jesus Christ is living as a learner, learning just how to live as his disciple. I’m still learning and sometimes I show how great of a student I am and sometimes, actually a lot of the time, it is evident how much I still have to learn. Nevertheless, because I believe that God is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring all of creation in Jesus Christ, I keep following. I want to participate with him in the mission of God, making the world aware of the good news and embodying that good news in the way I live. Doing that means involves at least two activities: 1) becoming aware of how God is presently at work in the world in order to join in that work and 2) knowing how to faithfully engage in that work among the world. I do neither well, at least not if Jesus is the standard by which I measure myself.

Becoming Present

When it comes to the first activity, part of my daily prayer is to see how God is presently at work around me and how I might participate in that. My trouble is that it more often I see God at work around me only in hindsight and by then, it’s a little too late to join in that work. That’s because I tend to be too tasked focuses on what I am doing and what I plan to be doing that I miss out on what God is doing (that’s not an excuse though!). However, lately I have really felt the conviction of the Spirit that I must become more present to what is happening around me and who is around me in order to more faithfully live on mission with God. And that opened up two incredible conversations this past weekend that I want to share.

  • The first conversation took place at pool-side with another parent while we both were waiting for our children who were having their swim practice. I was reading a book by James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, for my upcoming D.Min seminar and this parent asked me about the book and why I was reading it. This particular person is a pediatrician who was grew up in England and is about to finish a Ph.D. in botanical medicine. Obviously, ver smart! Realizing that I am a minister engaged in theological studies, she asked me a question about homosexuality and what it means to be created in the image of God. Her own Episcopalian and very politically left background means that she has some different beliefs and values than I have when it comes to this issue, which I was aware of as we talked. Nevertheless, we had a good conversation sexuality and how Jesus showed hospitality to those regarded as sinners.
  • The second conversation happened, in of all places, while sitting in a hot-tub. Someone who knew that I went into Baltimore during the recent riots and protests to pray with and listen to the protesters asked me why I would do such thing. This question wasn’t a passive-aggressive attempt in maligning me for doing this, just an honest question from a person who happens to be Black. So I explained that I am a follower of Jesus and as his disciple, I refuse to let issues like racism and violence divide… that I want to do what I can to bring about reconciliation. So we had a good conversation about this.

Now let me get to why I want to share these two conversations with you.

Which Battle to Win?

As you know, both issues, sexuality and racism, are difficult issues that both the church and culture at large are wrestling with right now. Everyone has their beliefs on each issue and any conversation about either issue has the potential to quickly disintegrate into an argument that only creates further division and animosity. So as Christians, how do we engage in such conversations? This question brings us back to the second reality of participating on mission with God discussed above… of how we faithfully engage our culture, particularly our friends and neighbors.

In engaging our friends and neighbors, we want to remain faithful to Jesus. So besides treating others as we ourselves wish to be treated, we also want to speak truthfully about what we believe. That is, we want to speak the truth in love (cf. Eph 4:15). But I want to suggest that sometimes speaking less is what it takes to speak in love and that this is how we must learn to engage our friends and neighbors. And if Facebook is any indication, this is something most followers of Jesus, including myself, need to learn.

This is about deciding what battle it is that we want to win. It requires listening and discerning first in order that we may create a dialogue. Part of the discernment is knowing that not every battle, or the entire battle itself, must be won in in one single moment. Therefore we must decide which battle do we want to win. Do we want to win a theological argument about sexuality and human nature or a political argument about racism and violence in a city like Baltimore? Or would we rather the win be that someone, one of our friends and neighbors, now knows that we are safe enough to ask questions on difficult and potentially volatile issues without being judged and dismissed because they may have some significant disagreements with us?

For me, the big battle, is about helping others to see God at work in Jesus, coming to believe in Jesus and follow Jesus because I believe that God is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring his creation in and through Jesus. I’m still learning how to do this and I already see in hindsight some ways that I could have handled to two conversations mentioned above a little differently… and probably better too. Nevertheless, we must pray that we may learn to be present in each moment, remaining open to the opportunities for engaging our friends and neighbors as followers of Jesus, and remaining patient and wise about what to say and what not to say. God has already won the big battle, we just need to kindly and patiently point others to that victory!

May we, who believe in and follow Jesus Christ, be filled with the Spirit in order to faithful participate in the mission of God!

Pentecost Today: When the Church Welcomes this Message (Acts 2.14-41)

K. Rex Butts:

Since last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, so this is a short message I preached a few years back on what it might be when the church welcomes this the message proclaimed in Acts 2.

Originally posted on Kingdom Seeking:

Below is the manuscript for the opening address I gave at this past weekend’s Hearts of Fire Conference for the various house churches that meet across the Denver metro area on Saturday, May 22, 2010.  The address is titled “Pentecost Today: When the Church Welcomes this Message” and it was meant to be a challenge based on Acts 2.14-41.  The conference was attended by Christians from a variety of backgrounds, including Churches of Christ as well as other Christian traditions.  The message and challenge was well received and I am thankful to God for being able to “preach” a bit.  I also taught a break-out class titled “A Christian Response to Suffering” that fostered a guided conversation on how Christians should respond to others who are enduring suffering.  It too went very well.

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Pentecost Today: When the Church Welcomes this Message

Tomorrow will be fifty days from Passover.  For…

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Controversy Sells… While Wisdom Cries Out

This September will mark ten years of blogging. That’s a lot of self-publishing, some of it good and some of it not. I enjoy reading blogs and of course, I enjoy blogging myself. If nothing else, the more I got into blogging the more opportunity it gave me to think critically and work that out in a coherent manner since I knew others would be reading. But I’ve also posted some blogs and said some things in blogs that if I could do again, I wouldn’t. Words spoken in haste. I once thought about removing some of the blog posts that I now cause me to cringe when I read but I haven’t because this blog is also an open journal of my thinking, for better or worse.

A Brewing Controversy…

Here is one thing I’ve learned in ten years of reading blogs and writing blogs: Controversy drives up our daily views!

Think about these names for a moment… Ted Haggard, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, World Vision, Phil Robertson, Chic-fil-A, Treyvon Martin & George Zimmerman, Michael Brown & Darren Wilson, Freddie Gray, and now Josh Duggar.

Controversy is the common denominator here. Each one of these names are in some way attached to a controversial incident. Whether they did something to warrant the controversy or not, the controversy itself provides an opportunity for bloggers. Every blogger knows that if you write about controversy, including the names of those generating the controversy, that it helps with the daily stats. I’ve done it myself. In fact, for a long time my most viewed post was a blog I wrote about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins.

Every time someone makes a controversial remark, another scandal erupts, another tragic shooting occurs, etc… a plethora of blogs fills up the social-media feeds. Everyone of them taking a side even though it is almost impossible to know all of the pertinent facts necessary to make a fair and informed judgment. Every blogger wanting to be on the right side of the issue, whatever that is. Sometimes our opinion (let’s face it, good or bad, that’s what they are) turn out to be vindicated but sometimes our eagerness to blog about what and who is trending reveals a short-sited awareness.

Wisdom Cries Out…

My own learning moment came with Treyvon Martin and George Zimmerman. While I am still of the opinion that Zimmerman was far from innocent, I was quick to defend Martin… too quick. As more details emerged, it became clear that Martin did plenty to aggravate the situation (that in no way justifies his death).

Wisdom suggests that we should be slow to speak and quick to listen (cf. Js. 1:19) but doing so may not garner as many blog hits as we like. I’m as guilty as any and I’m sure still figuring what it means to slow to speak and quick to listen when it comes to blogging as well as many other areas of my life.

What Ido know is that Wisdom is crying out for us to listen first and then only speak when necessary. But controversy sells!

On Blessing and Rejoicing!

“Envy is poison in the soul; rejoicing, on the other hand, is fuel for the soul.”

Those words came to mind earlier today after reading several Facebook posts of people complaining about what others have that they don’t have.

In ancient Hebrew to speak of the soul meant referring to the entirety of one’s life. Everything about the way life is experienced physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and so forth has to do with soul. It’s who you are that is your soul.

Throughout life we will experience many different things, some good and some bad. It would be nice to experience more good than bad but that is not entirely in our control. What is in our control is the way we see the world and the story we will tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we are entitled and somehow achieve some great accomplishment, then we think we did it all on our own. If we tell ourselves that we are entitled but never quite succeed in obtaining what we think we deserve, then we loathe anyone who does have what we don’t. On the other hand, if we see the blessings we have in life then we become thankful for what we have and rejoice for the blessings that others receive even if that means that others may have more than us.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!” said the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:4. And if you’ll read his entire letter to the Philippians then you’ll know that he wrote those words as a prisoner facing the possibility of execution for preaching about Jesus while there were others freely preaching for selfish gain. Yet Paul rejoiced because Paul understood that he was blessed.

I’ve told this story before but my Grandma Elsie Gibson was the second of seven children. Her mother died when she was still a teenager and her dad abandoned the children, leaving my Grandma and her older sister, Aunt Thelma, to care for their younger brothers. Eventually my Grandma married and had three children (my Mother being the youngest) but her oldest son died as an infant baby. Several years later, when my Mother was only twelve years old, my Grandpa died from leukemia. Now a widow, my Grandma had to finish raising two girls on her own with little financial resources. To make matters worse, a year after this her house suffered considerable damage due to a fire.

With all of her struggles and challenges, my Grandma’s favorite hymn to sing at church was Count Your Many Blessings! I never heard my Grandma complain about what cards she was dealt in life, so to speak. Did she have her moments of asking “why?” I’m sure she did… as a parent who also has lost a son, I know she did. Yet she also chose to see the blessings that she had… from the brothers and sister she had, the husband she loved, the children she had, the five grandchildren she had, the home she lived in, the times she was able to travel, etc…

How will we see the world today? Will we be thankful and rejoice? Our soul is at stake here, for how we see the world and the story we tell ourselves will either blacken our soul with envy or refresh our soul with life.

“Envy is poison in the soul; rejoicing, on the other hand, is fuel for the soul.”

Closing A Church: Remembering and Celebrating Life

Church ClosedWith this final post on closing a church, I want to talk about what to do once a church has made the decision that it is time to disband. In the three previous  posts on closing a church, we have looked at why this is a necessary conversation that some declining churches must deal with, what the actual question of discernment is for this conversation, and why the conversation is an open-ended process. Those posts will provide more rationale for how a church discerns that God is leading the believers to disband. The question now is what should a church do once it has arrived at this point?

Some Friendly Advise…

This is about closing with dignity and grace. Since many of the members will have a long history with the church, closing is losing something. Like the death of a friend or family member, there is a sense of grief and loss. The leaders should not dismiss this burden but show great pastoral care as members process what is happening.

Another local pastor who had helped a church through closure before gave me some advise that he learned the hard way. He told me, in speaking about the Columbia Church of Chris, that we should not close immediately once we have decided to disband but that we should take some time to celebrate what God has done among our church. In doing this, it will help everyone transition to another congregation in a healthy manner.

So with this wisdom in mind, there are two steps for closing a church in a healthy manner:

  1. Share your feelings with one another. Every member will have different feelings and different stories to share. Give some space and time to openly talk with each other so that as a body of Christ, there is some very cathartic mutual edification. It’s time to heal and one of the ways most people do that is in being allowed to express their feelings.
  2. Celebrate the life of your church. While closing is not something anyone wishes for and it seems like a loss… a death, there is still much to celebrate about what God has done among and through the church throughout its existence. Planning a final memorial/celebration gathering where the church worships and fellowships together, including sharing in communion one more time together, is a great way to celebrate. It’s a time to remember what God has done and remind everyone that this because of the resurrection, this is not the end but a transition into a new chapter of life that is lived with hope for the day when Jesus comes again.

Once the Columbia Church of Christ came to the conclusion that God was leading us to disband, we stopped having a traditional “adult Bible class” before our Sunday morning worship gatherings. Instead we used this time to for people to talk about closing and the transition, what new church they will look for, and any other concerns people had. Because we were also registered as a 501c3 Non-Profit Organization (as most churches are), there were some business decisions that the leaders had to deal with.

Our final Sunday worship gathering was held on Sunday, January 25, 2015. We announced this date ahead of time and invited former members who could make it, to join us at this last gathering to remember and celebrate what God had done throughout the history of our church… and believe me, God had accomplished some amazing things. I didn’t preach. After some singing, I got up and framed the day with the gospel and then invited people to share memories they had with the Columbia Church of Christ. After that, we share in the Lord’s Supper together, sang a few more songs and then shared in a fellowship meal together.

One Final Thought…

Disbanding as a church is has been bittersweet. As a minister it is certainly not something I ever thought I would be a part of and never want to be a part of again but… I want to close this post with a reminder of the gospel, the new life that God is creating through the death and resurrection of Jesus. While the Christians who made up our congregation no longer meet together as the Columbia Church of Christ, we are still Christians following Jesus with the promise of hope that one day Jesus is coming again. When he does, we will reunite with every other believer throughout history.

Our story is not one of closing in despair and hopelessness. What led to our decision was the question of how was God leading us to participate in his mission? Asking this question does not mean that your church will not necessarily lead to closing. Some congregations will discover new ways of participating in the mission of God together. But should your church discern that it is time to disband, I want you to know that it is not the end of life. Though it’s the end of one chapter, the story continues…

Jesus is coming again and until then, God is still present with his people through the Spirit leading them to live as faithful witnesses of this victorious life that has overcome sin and death. Go in peace, go on mission with God!

Closing A Church: An Open-Ended Process

Church ClosedIn the previous two posts on closing a church, we looked at why this is a necessary conversation that some declining churches must deal with and what the actual question of discernment is for this conversation. In short, we must realize that there are some churches in such decline that it may be time for them to consider closing and this has to do with participation in the mission of God rather than preserving a local church. The question then is how does a church determine if God is telling them that it is time to close as a local church so that the members can find other healthy churches to worship and serve with?

The simple answer is prayer and listening, as we hear God speaking through the conversations with each other. However, we need to unpack this or else we might misunderstand and in the worst case, never listen to anyone except our own voice.

To begin with, we must keep in mind that the question of discernment is an open-ended question. In asking how is God leading the church to participate in the mission of God, closing might be part of the answer but the church must also remain open to the idea that God may be calling then into a new chapter of participation together. I actually know of a church that was considering closure and in the process discovered that God was calling them to remain together, and now they are discovering once again how to participate in the mission of God together.

Where the question of discernment begins is with the realization that the church cannot continue as it has, that the church is declining and something must change. This alone is a hard reality for many church members to accept. In fact, I found in my experience with the Columbia Churches of Christ that accepting this reality was a grieving process that went through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). So coming to the realization that the church cannot continue business as usual is necessary for discerning the way forward. For that to happen, time and space along with pastoral leadership are absolutely necessary.

Coming to terms with reality and discerning the way forward can create a lot of anxiety, so the ministers and other leaders must have a non-anxious presence. This means serving in a pastoral role, having compassion as the church struggles in grief but speak candidly about the reality of the church. There are two other factors that I believe are very important:

  1. Give the church as much time as necessary for processing the grief. Any attempt to rush the process will only cause further problems. Yet in giving as much time as necessary, the minister and other leaders must hold the conversation about the state of the church before others. That requires sensitive pastoral wisdom and decisiveness that encourages people towards prayer, listening to others, and dealing with the painful emotions.
  2. The space for such a conversation is gathering around a table for a meal together. When a church gathers together for a meal a more relaxed atmosphere is created. In a conversation where there will be some disagreements, people are more likely to listen and respond in manner that allows for healthy and meaningful dialogue. With the Columbia Church of Christ, we positioned the tables so that everyone was facing each other.

I want to end by saying that in discerning where God is leading, churches must remember that they are loved by God. I’ll say more about this in the last installment of this series on closing a church but this needs emphasized here… God loves these churches as much as he loves the large and vibrant churches.