I’m Not Renouncing My Faith

In recent weeks a couple of more popular Evangelical Christians have publicly renounced their Christian faith. In particular, I’m thinking of former pastor and author Joshua Harris as well as Hillsong Worship Leader Marty Sampson. Both seem to be struggling with the Christian faith as they understand it, though I’m not sure if that means they have completely abandoned belief in Jesus Christ or they’re just struggling with a lot of doubt right now. What I do know, based on what I have read, is that both are struggling with their faith.

iBelieve Series

My point isn’t to criticize or pass any judgment on anyone, including Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson, who struggle with doubts and even for a time may lose their faith. I’m just mentioning this to provide some context for this blog post. You see, I actually sympathize with those who struggle in their Christian faith because I have struggled in my Christian faith too. In fact there was a time during my seminary years, of all places, when I nearly walked away from this life of following Jesus because I wasn’t sure of what I believed anymore and I wasn’t even sure if it mattered.

The existential crisis for my own struggle with faith was the death of my first son, Kenny, followed by the death of my younger brother, John, a year later. Such suffering has haunted me. Not only did the death of my son and brother burden me with much grief and pain but my eyes began to see the suffering of others and the unfairness of it all. I remember well the afternoon I went to visit someone in the hospital battling cancer and walked through the pediatric oncology ward… Haunting!

The reality of suffering leaves me with many more faith questions than I have any satisfactory answers. Beyond that, as a pastoral-theologian, I know that life is much more complex than the fundamentalist Christian worldview some Evangelicals have. There are issues about creation and science, the end of time as well as God’s judgment, the nature of scripture, and so forth that I still wrestle with because some of the answers I have are not dogmatic absolutes. At least they’re not for me because the issue seem far too complex for such black and white solutions.

All that said, I still believe in Jesus. Even though there are questions for which I’m unsure of the answer, I still believe.

I still believe in the good news about Jesus, his death, burial, and resurrection, because I find the testimony about what happened to be believable. That is, I find the story of Jesus dying on the cross and being raised back to life (and bodily resurrection) to be reasonably credible. I’m not saying that this story is provable like one can prove the laws of gravity but I do think the story is credible, and therefore believable, just like the story of the American Civil War even though we weren’t alive to witness either event with our very own eyes.

What makes the story of Jesus believable is the evidence we have, the testimony that has been passed on from those who did see (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-8) and the effects what happened. While it might be possible that the story of Jesus was all just a ruse or some lie perpetuated by the early Christians, that possibilities loses their probability when considering the suffering of persecution many of these Christians endured. In one-hundred years time, from AD 25 to AD 125, history went from no existence of Christianity at all to a movement so numerous that some saw Christians as a new human race (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 359). This happened even though the believers didn’t have any legal standing and faced much opposition, including persecution and death. The only explanation is that what they believed about Jesus, his death, burial and resurrection, did really happen.

I also still believe in the good news of Jesus because of the hope that blossoms from such faith. The good news of Jesus is the story of how God overcomes sin and death, bringing about a new creation. Without that promise, our life ends in death so that all the suffering endured to that point is without any hope. Nihilism is what we are left with. As difficult as suffering is, it becomes utterly unbearable if life is nothing more than just “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

As I said earlier, there are many questions about faith that I don’t always have satisfactory answers for but there is one thing I do know. If the story of Jesus being crucified and resurrected is true, and I believe there is credible reason for believing it is true, then it changes the course of history. The life Jesus lived, with all of his teaching, is the life that God is bringing into existence and it’s the life I want to participate in as a follower of Jesus. It’s a life lived by faith and a faith that’s big enough for and can co-exist with the questions and doubts we sometimes have.

So I’m not renouncing my faith and I pray you won’t either.

Church: Mission or Model?

As a pastor, I serve with the Newark Church of Christ. As a Church of Christ, we are connected with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement that began on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. The movement began with the vision of restoring New Testament Christianity which meant, at least in part, restoring the form of the first-century churches. Consequently, the New Testament was read as a blueprint for how people became Christians as well as the organization and worship of the local church.

Our Mission

With this post, let’s think a little more about the organization of the church or the form of the local church and how that relates to participating in the mission of God. Now despite my own history in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, I have come to the conclusion that the attempt at restoring any form is the wrong approach. To begin with, I don’t believe the New Testament presents a monolithic description of the church. Their are several forms or ways that Christians organized in the New Testament and that seems as much a response to their cultural-context and needs as it as response to the gospel. Also, without dismissing any need for form, the New Testament seems more concerned with function.

I say all this just to acknowledge the lens through which I view the challenge of leading churches to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God. So the issue I am concerned with is the attention given on finding the right form or model of church. Right now I am reading through Francis Chan’s book Letters To The Church (see also Tim Challies review here) who assumes a monolithic church model in the New Testament (house churches) and compares it against the now traditional church model that most churches, including Restoration Churches, have adopted.

While Chan makes some valid criticisms about Christianity in America, his book compares the best of the house church model against the worst of the traditional model. Such comparisons hardly seem fair but there is a bigger issue that needs to be considered, which is the fact that all church models are just that — models, and not churches.

Here’s my point: The church is always the people no matter how they are organized. So regardless of how much idealism we muster up to promote one model over another, the reality is that people are still people and thus same basic challenges will surface eventually. Therefore, rather than advocating one model, a better approach might be to allow the church to form around the Spiritual-giftedness of the people in response to the local context but that’s for another post. I’m just voicing concern I have that when churches, especially those struggling with decline, go mining book for the next best model (remember The Purpose-Driven Church?).

The key to participating in the mission of God is discerning how God is at work among the local church and the surrounding community so that the believers can join in that work as followers of Jesus. Fortunately, the Newark Church of Christ is relearning how to do this. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect but we are beginning to see some of the kingdom-increase as we journey on mission with God.

Be The Church!

Like others, I am tired of turning on the news only to hear that another mass-shooting has occurred. With the most recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio taking place within twenty-four hours of each other, it seems as if such violence has become an epidemic. Maybe that’s more perception than reality but nonetheless what is reality is the fact that more innocent lives were harmed and killed.

It is beyond me to understand how anyone could so maliciously plot and carry out a deadly attack on other people. Yes, I am aware of the anger and extremism, the hatred and racism, the mental health and emotional trauma, and the many other factors that come into play, including the easy access to certain firearms — assault weapons designed simply to kill with efficiency. I’m frustrated that elected officials just keep offering their “thoughts and prayers” without undertaking any reasonable solutions. I’m frustrated that, fifty-one years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., racism still has a grip on America and my frustration doesn’t end there. As a White person, I am also frustrated with many White people who either don’t seem to care about racism or seek to downplay it and even want to disassociate from the racism (a White privilege), failing to see how systematic racism still exists even if they don’t personally discriminate against any person of color. And if the truth be told, maybe I have been one of those White people too. I try not to be but I am a sinner too.

So what can I do?

What can we do?

As followers of Jesus, what must we do?

Be the church!

I know, I know… It sounds simple and even trite because for far too long “church” has been nothing but a place where people gather on Sundays. Our traditional understanding of Church in the west has often become an impotent caricature of the ekklēsia that Jesus called us to be as his followers. It’s the reason why many of the Sunday parishioners “go to church” and then leave an hour later as the same people they were before and as the same people they were when they first started going to church many years ago. Let’s be honest, this understanding of church is a place for people to sing songs about Jesus, hear a message about Jesus, and pray but not necessarily follow Jesus. I’m not against singing, preaching, and praying but such worship loses its way when those gathering for “church” leave only to sound more like an echo-chamber of whatever news-pundit they listen too as they continue pursuing a life shaped more by their own individualistic desires.

But that is not what I mean when I say “Be the church!” What I mean is hopefully a little more profound because it is about following Jesus and serving as a living embodiment of the gospel Jesus proclaimed. That means living as a people who gather, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, with others, including people of other colors, nationalities, social-political viewpoints than our own. As we gather together, we do so as people learning to be practitioners of the Jesus way (discipleship) in which we embrace each other with love. This is a love that is full of the grace and truth that opens space for us to confront our sin with repentance and forgiveness so that we all may journey forward as reconciled brothers and sisters. This love is a fellowship in Christ that we have pledged ourselves to in baptism and that we continuously acknowledge together in the Eucharist. This vision of church, which Jesus has called us to be, is one that bears witness to an alternative kingdom — the reign of God — and becomes the beacon of light in a society shrouded in darkness.

This is the kind of church we are called to be and it is this kind of church that I believe God is working among to offer hope in the midst of despair and peace in the midst of violence. That’s why I posted on Facebook the other day this word for pastors, saying:

Pastors, the best response to a society boiling over with hatred and violence is for you to cultivate a living embodiment of the gospel among the church you serve so that there will be a community bearing witness to the way of peace in Christ.

This kind of church doesn’t effect change like a tsunami crashing upon the shore. Rather, it is a patient approach that doesn’t force its way of life on others but becomes such a beautiful portrait that others are captivated by it and want to become a part of this life. It is a life that flows from the prayers of those who are committed to living. So I leave us with the Peace Prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

A Little Truth On Loving Our Neighbors

“What must I do to gain eternal life?” It’s a question that many sermons, evangelistic tracts, and other church literature has answered. And if you’ve been around any church, you know how the answer goes. In the churches I have been a part of, the answer has always seemed to include teaching about the necessity or repentance and baptism. But when a Jewish lawyer came testing Jesus by asking the same question, the conversation about gaining eternal life went in a very different direction.

Bulletin Message Picture

In Luke 10:25-37 we have a well known story that has traditionally been known as The Good Samaritan. But the story, as Luke tells it, doesn’t begin with a man encountering assailants along a desolate road. It begins with a Jewish lawyer asking “What must I do to gain eternal life?” So Jesus answers the lawyer but not in a way that most Christians would expect. Jesus simply asked the lawyer “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

There are two observations worth noting here. First, Jesus seems to assume that knowing what is necessary for gaining eternal life is found in the Law of Moses. If living the eternal life is understood in terms of the kind of life we live and not just the length of life, then it makes sense. We can begin knowing how to participate in the kind of life Jesus is offering by reading the Old Testament. Why? Because the Law in its essence is about loving God and neighbor (we cannot do one without doing the other), which the Lawyer knows. So when he answers Jesus’ question by reciting the two great commands, Jesus replies “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But, but but…

The lawyer wanted to justify himself, so perhaps with some chutzpah he asked “And who is my neighbor?” That brings up the second observation about Jesus’ question. How one reads the Law of Moses, or in our case, the entire Bible, will indeed shape how we define our neighbor. If we are followers of Jesus then we must read the Bible in light of who we know Jesus to be, the life we know that he lived, and the aim (telos) for which he lived his life — the kingdom of God.

Lest we misunderstand, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was despised and seemingly beyond the boundaries of God’s kingdom in the eyes of the Jewish people. Yet this Samaritan became The Good Samaritan or the one who was a neighbor because he exemplified love for his neighbor. Perhaps if Jesus was telling a story today, perhaps he might speak of an American Evangelical Christian and a “Truth-defending, Sound-Doctrine” Preacher as he tells a tale about an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim loving their neighbors (like Imam Abubakr Absullahi, an 83 year-old Muslim Cleric who is being honored by the US Government for hiding 262 Christians to protect them during an attack in Central Nigeria last year).

I mention this because we all have known of Christians who have made defending Biblical truth and sound-doctrine, which always seems to be their own dogma, the essence or primary focus being a Christian. Don’t misunderstand me. Truth and doctrine matter but when such concern is elevated about loving God and neighbor (and history is replete with examples), not only does such a pursuit become an idol but it takes a wrong turn away from eternal life.

Yes, I just said that. When our concern for sound-doctrine is elevated above or ignores loving God and neighbor, we turning away from participating in eternal life. That doesn’t mean we can’t turn around and get back on the right path. The grace of God says we can. That is why, when the Jewish lawyer recognizes that the neighbor is the Samaritan “who demonstrated mercy,” Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to love God and if we love God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, we will delight in loving our neighbors. But let’s also remember, that it’s possible for a Samaritan, an undocumented immigrant, or a Muslim just might be closer to the kingdom than some Christians because of the way they love their neighbors.

So what must we do to gain eternal life? And what does the Bible say? How do we read the Bible? Well, here’s a little truth on these questions that we should notice. In essence, the answer is that we should love God and love our neighbor. But to be clear, Jesus tells us a story of about loving our neighbor and how that involves extending mercy. Then Jesus simply says, “Go and do likewise.” Stop trying to justify ourselves like the lawyer, saying “Yes, but…” and just hear Jesus say “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise.” ~ Jesus

 

Promoting Peace: Churches Living in a Post-Christendom Society

This past Sunday I began a new three-week message series with the Newark Church of Christ called Neighbors: The Church Among Society. The idea of the series focuses on the question of how does the church, as followers of Jesus, live among society as neighbors. At face value, that might seem like a simple task and in some sense it is. However, now that many churches in North America, including the church I serve, find themselves living in a post-Christendom culture, the task becomes more challenging.

Neighbors - The Church Among Society

The challenge of a post-Christendom culture is that Christianity exists more and more on the margins of society. No longer is Christianity at the center of society and no longer is Christianity attached to the state so that the policies of society favor a Christian view. I happen to believe that is a good thing because there are beliefs and values intrinsic to the gospel that were lost, or at least diminished, when Christianity moved from existing as a mission-movement into a Christendom culture. However, with the post-Christendom shift, it requires churches to rethink what it means to live as followers of Jesus in a society the beliefs and values of the church differ from society.

So as followers of Jesus, how do we live as neighbors among society? Well, the prophet Jeremiah has a word that can help us reimagine our role as God’s people in a post-Christendom society:

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

This text is important because it’s a word for how Israel should live in a society not of their choosing. In a nutshell, Jeremiah tells Israel that they should get used to living in Babylon and make the most of it because they’re going to be there for a while. That’s also an important word for churches living in the post-Christendom culture of North America today. Get used to it and make the most of the opportunity because it’s going to be this way for awhile.

Of great importance to the prophet is that Israel should “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray for to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.” The idea of promoting the welfare of the city is to “seek the peace” (NIV) of the community and doing so requires a particular posture.

To begin with, there isn’t a word in the text about retreating or resisting the changes taking place in society. Withdrawing from engaging in society is out of the question but unless a church is careful, that’s what happens. I know because I once remembered eating in a restaurant owned by a Muslim family that catered to the small population of Somalian refugees. The restaurant had been open for about four to five years. So I was astonished when the owner told me that I was the first Christian to ever come in and eat at his place. Such avoidance of engagement with non-Christians is the sort of retreating that churches must avoid. Just the same, churches must avoid resisting the changes. Promoting the welfare of the community doesn’t happen by boycotting Starbuck or protesting the local PRIDE parade. Doing so only helps erect obstacles that places Christianity in an unnecessary adversarial relationship with society at large.

Promoting the welfare or seeking the peace of society requires learning how to exercise good table manners. We enter and engage our neighbors as neighbors who listen to understand before we attempt to contribute to the good. We do so by extending to others the courtesy and respect we hope they would extend to us (and do so even if they won’t). In doing so, we avoid offering banal answers to difficult questions and challenging issues. Instead, we are able to contribute by becoming what Tomâś Halík describes as “competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue” (Night of the Confessor, pp 134-135).

Taking such a posture doesn’t mean or require churches to abandon any convictions. Instead, the local church is able to discover where God is already at work in society and participate in that work for the sake of the kingdom — the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. This approach is possible in a variety of different avenues, from partnering with local agencies that serve people in need to planting new churches that also seek to serve their neighbors as they lead people to follow Jesus.

Whatever form promoting the welfare of the city takes, it will involve prayer. So I’ll end this post with the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
Amen

The Spirit and the Mission of God

Last week I finished reading the book Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God by Leonard Allen, the Dean of the College of Bible and Minister at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. If you’re looking for an accessible and very good introductory read on the work of the Holy Spirit, look no further. I really recommend this 208 page book.

Poured OutMy intention here is not to offer a review of Allen’s book but I do want to draw some attention to the connection he makes between the outpouring of the Spirit and the church’s participation in the mission of God. Before doing so, it is important to understand that the Holy Spirit is the third-person of our Triune God and therefore remember that God is Trinitarian: One God in three Persons, the Father, Son, and Spirit. Allen is right to ground his understanding of the Spirit in Trinitarian doctrine and I do so as well.

By grounding our understanding of the Spirit within the Trinity, we have a guard against certain abuses and claims that are sometimes attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. This is because the Holy Spirit will never lead us to say or do anything that is contrary to the will of the Father that has been fully revealed in the Son. So if we want to know how the Spirit is leading, we must look to the will of God revealed to us in the life and teachings of Jesus (which scripture faithfully bears witness to). This will is about forming us to live as his people, following Jesus as we participate in the mission of God. So in Trinitarian language, as Allen puts it, “we can say that Christian discipleship means following the risen Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory and praise of God the Father” (p. 71).

Understanding the work of the Spirit within the Triune Godhead won’t eliminate every potential controversy but it does help because it points us toward the mission of God. However we understand this or that text within the Bible or lean a certain way on some difficult theological issue, we know that our calling is to live as followers of Jesus. We receive the Spirit of God to participate in the mission of God as followers of Jesus, which is really the key focus of Allen’s book as it should be for us too. So when reading the book of Acts, what we have “is a commentary on the Spirit’s unrelenting focus on Jesus and empowering the proclamation of Jesus” (p. 103).

This commentary on the work of the Spirit must open our imaginations for the way the Spirit is seeking to work in our local churches participating in the mission fo God. Allen suggests that the difference sometimes experienced between the work of the Spirit in churches today and the work of the Spirit in Acts stems from the loss of mission. With the onset of Christendom, the role of the church aligned with the state so that the church served as a chaplain to society rather than as the prophetic witness to the inaugurated kingdom of God. Consequently, Allen writes, “With the receding of the church’s mission orientation, the doctrine of the Spirit was constricted, now redefined by the settled caretaker role that the empire required. The loss of mission correspond to a narrowed and tamed doctrine of the Spirit” (p. 116).

A local church cannot fully participate in the mission of God as followers of Jesus without power of the Holy Spirit. However, the catch is that if a local church wants to experience the power of the Holy Spirit at work among them, the community of believers must commit themselves to living on mission with God. What that looks like will differ, in particularities, from one church to the next but it will always be a faithful-yet-contextual embodiment of the gospel. Is that not what every church wants?

Come, Holy Spirit!

The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit Again?

Last year Jonathan Merritt wrote a piece for The Atlantic discussing then decline of Christianity in the US. The article was titled America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches and based on Lifeway research, Merritt mentioned the fact that roughly 6,000 – 10,000 churches discontinue to exist every year here in the US. This grabs my attention because I once helped close one of those churches. So now that churches in the United States find themselves living amidst a postmodern and post-Christendom society, the question faced is how do we continue participating in the mission of God?

The answer to the question of participating in the mission of God is huge but a significant part of the answer is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that forms us and animates us to live as followers of Jesus, to be the church on mission with God. Yet, in more than a few churches the work of the Holy Spirit is neglected and even suppressed at times.

The prophetic vision declared in Acts 2 is the outpouring of God’s spirit upon all people, men and women as well as people of every race, ethnicity, and nationality. The Spirit gifts these people to live as faithful followers of Jesus so that, as local churches, we may continue stepping forward on mission with God. But our need to be in control has a way of stifling the Spirit. So even though we neither own God nor rule over Christ but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to control the Spirit.

Here’s how that happens: With a proof-text of two from scripture and an ad hoc argument, many churches have silenced half the believers simply because they were born female. Then with other finely crafted rhetoric, movements of the Spirit among followers of Jesus are shut down simply because they don’t fit within the tradition of the church. What’s left is a stagnant church living in the boundaries of its own comfort-zone while admiring the acts of the Holy Spirit in Acts but never realizing that God is pouring out the same Holy Spirit again and again and again and… Then unexpectedly, the same local church is added to the list of 6,000 to 10,000 disbanding churches.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. I recently heard another pastor say something along the line of “Every church has a decision to make about the book of Acts: Either it is a historical documentation of the early church or it is a vision for the church in every generation.”

So what if the acts of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts became a vision for our churches? What do we have to be afraid of in praying for God to fill us with his Holy Spirit? What might happen when we pray for God to pour out his Spirit again upon our churches?