Category Archives: Christian History

For Those Who Wish To See The Christian Faith Prosper

Should churches ditch their projector screens and go back to singing from hymnals? Yes, according to Tom Raabe, who wrote an article that was published on The Federalist website titled Why Churches Should Ditch Projector Screens and Bring Back Hymnals. When I first read this article during the past summer, I just shook my head a little and then didn’t give the article any more attention. However, since then I keep seeing this article show up in my social media news feeds as though people agree with the author. So indulge me for a few moments because I would like to offer a response.

439859_5_As you can probably tell already, I disagree with the conclusion that Mr. Raabe draws in his article. The author observes the disappearance of hymnals over the years as more contemporary expressions of church have emerged. He laments this loss on the opinion that projected screens are “horrifically ugly” and especially so in traditional worship sanctuaries. That is his opinion, which he is certainly entitled to hold, but such anecdotes seem to be little more than just filler information.

The crux of his argument is that the loss of hymnals will result in a weakened theology and so a weakened Christian faith. According to Mr. Raabe, “Old hymns were carefully crafted with theology at the forefront. Traditional hymns present doctrine clearly and beautifully convey the gospel story of saving grace.” Perhaps so, but that’s an argument for singing older hymns and not retaining hymnals. The problem is the claim of the article which is offered with this conclusion, a conclusion that lacks any supporting evidence for the claim that is offered:

Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper, however, should consider the long-term effects that replacing hymnals with screens will have on worship and faith itself. What technology giveth, technology taketh away. The musical and theological repertoire of the church will be constricted. Even marginally unfamiliar hymns will slide out of the public consciousness, forgotten forever—and worship will be impoverished for it.

If we wish to see the Christian faith prosper? Really? For every church that is struggling to navigate the rather uncharted secular waters of a post-Christian America, vitality is simply a matter of turning off the video monitors and digging out some hymnals from a storage room?

If this were the case, then how do we account for the vitality of churches throughout history that existed long before the invention of the Guttenburg Printing Press? Those are churches that didn’t possess any hymnals. Or how do we account for those vibrant churches in third-world countries who don’t always have the luxuries of either hymnals or video-projection systems? Let’s be honest and recognize that Mr. Raabe’s concern is not a problem with western Christianity, it’s a problem with traditional Christianity in America. This is an American issue and a concern of some who sense a great loss as they see their church, and other churches too, declining or even closing and don’t have any idea of how to stop the decline.

I actually sympathize with this concern because as a pastor, I have served in such churches and know of many more churches that are facing this very real concern. However, trying to turn the calendar back into the mid-twentieth century when most churches still sang from hymnals will do nothing to address the concern. There are many reasons why churches are declining and addressing the issues will require more than just a technical change, something that can be done without any new ways of thinking and acting.

Arguing for the resurgence of hymnals assumes a building-centric model of church. It’s possible that this sort of church model will not even exist in America by the later half of the twenty-first century. Of course, nobody knows for sure but what we do know is that the problems that keep churches from fully living as participants in the mission of God are deeply embedded issues in the way that churches think and behave. The article I am critiquing is but one example but when the issues are beyond technical problems, an adaptive approach is required. That is, church leaders must discern the difficult questions about the modes of thinking and doing within their church that is contributing to the loss of mission. Once these problems are identified, the solutions will require new practices based on new ways of thinking. Hence, adaptive change.

Adaptive change always begins with a renewed commitment to living as followers of Jesus who are learning to contextually embody the gospel once again. While such embodiment of the gospel should remain faithful to Jesus and thus a coherent expression of the gospel, the expression will differ because it is a contextual expression. Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper will remain resolute in following Jesus and inviting others to join them in this kingdom life. And when a church that is serious about following Jesus gathers for worship, that gathering will be one saturated in a deep and healthy theology of the Christian faith — God the Father, Son, and Spirit at work.

A Word To The Church

The church has a problem with discipleship. But that’s nothing new. Most of the pastors I know are aware of the discipleship problem facing Christianity in America. What some may not realize is that the problem isn’t unique to us. Peek behind the curtains of the church from any time and place in history and I think we’ll see that discipleship was a challenge then just as it is now. Even in the New Testament this challenge existed, just go reread the apostle Paul’s letters we call Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

youth-group-lessons-on-discipleship

Why is this important? It matters because it seems easy, perhaps even en vogue, to romanticize churches from other locations or periods of history as material for comparison against the worst problems of church in America. This is one of the major complaints I have regarding Francis Chan’s latest book Letters To The Church, 2018. Throughout the book Chan compares the attractional megachurch model in America with the cell-church or house-church models he has encountered in other countries, particularly throughout Asia. The problem is the idealism with which he paints the later so that he can contrast the seemingly worst characteristics of the attractional megachurch model in America with his romanticized view of the cell-church or house-church models.

Comparing the best against the worst of another is hardly fair but Chan also does so with little more than anecdotal evidence and an ad hoc (perhaps even post hoc) use of scripture. The result seems to suggest that if Christianity in America would just change, embracing the idealistic picture of the cell-church model, that churches would be making and forming disciples again. Now Chan, to his credit, seems to warn against reading his book like this (pp. 199-200) but it’s difficult to imagine how else we might read the book.

I’m not upset with Chan. I love his commitment to following Jesus which also, in his case, has meant a commitment to serving as a pastor. As a pastor myself, I know how trying this commitment can get at times. So my hat is off to Chan. I also agree with him that discipleship is a real challenging issue right now for Christianity in America. Consumerism, individualism, relativism, and probably a few other isms are a hinderance to following Jesus and we all, myself included,  struggle with these obstacles.

So what’s the solution? How do we face this challenge so that we might take more serious the call to live not just as church-going believers but as believers who are learning to follow Jesus on a daily basis?

Well, I don’t think we can just wipe the slate clean, so to speak, and start over. That is a myth inherited from the Enlightenment but no matter how much we try, we will still be shaped by the circumstances of our particular context. So although the Newark Church of Christ, whom I love serving as a pastor, is far from being the attractional-megachurch, it is still a more traditional church that gathers on Sunday’s in a worship space and then finds other opportunities for gathering together in prayer, community service, etc… And that’s okay! Could we do better? Of course, but God is still at work in this church through his Spirit, so I can’t just write off what God has done and is still doing.

Here’s what I can do and what you can do where you’re at, with the churches we participate among. Begin by observing how God has been at work and share those observations with a few others while considering what God might doing now and how the present work of God connects with the past for the hope of the future. In pastoral theology, this is called Appreciative Inquiry (recommendation: Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, 2004). When we begin to have a bigger sense of what God is doing among our church and where we sense that might be leading, consider how we might participate in that work as followers of Jesus and invite those others to join us on this journey. Let this journey be filled with prayer and scripture but let it also begin with where we’re at instead of succumbing to the apathy that gives up on our churches, writing them off as a hopeless cause. The apostle Paul never did that and neither should we.

I know what I’ve just suggested isn’t any quick-fix solution to the challenges we see in our churches and other churches. That’s because there aren’t any easy quick-fix solutions. The challenge of discipleship is great and requires more than just another simple step 1, 2, and 3 solution. I can’t promise that the road ahead will be easy because it probably won’t be but it is the way forward and the way of taking control over the one thing that God gives us the control over: our own decision to follow Jesus. So live as a follower of Jesus, serving as a pastor or whatever vocation God has called us to serve in, and as we invite others to come along the journey with us, they will come. Then we’ll be surprised at what the Lord has done in us!

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.

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!