Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We Need to Talk: The Conversation White Evangelicals are Avoiding

Woe to those who make unjust laws; to those who issue oppressive decrees.  -Isaiah 10:1

"Systemic Racism"  Just utter the phrase, and emotions immediately go into the stratosphere.

Last week, I was invited to speak to a youth group at one of our churches about all that has transpired in Baltimore.  We had a great conversation about the long-term issues present in the city that need to be addressed.  I was highly encouraged by these young men and women, and their willingness to talk about these subjects.  I was even more impressed by their knowledge, and understanding that these are long-term issues that will require long-term commitments.

In suburbia, that's a rare thing.

Over the past few weeks since the riots, I've witnessed followers of Jesus outside the city make many pronouncements about the city.  Those experiences have made me realize that the body of Christ is divided--largely along geographic, socio-economic, and racial lines.  In other words, we are divided in exactly the same ways that the world is divided!

For some time I've suspected that our rural and suburban congregations understand very little about our brothers and sisters who live in the city. (and vice-versa)  But recent events in Baltimore have me more convicted than ever about this divide.  We need to talk!

But in order to have this conversation, we have to stop playing the world's game of yelling at each other through media soundbites.  The issues in Baltimore, at heart, are reconciliation issues, and as followers of Jesus, we carry with us the greatest story of reconciliation in the history of humanity.  But our presumption of the worst about each other is clouding that message, and if we want to avoid answering to Jesus for this, we have to put aside simplistic answers to what ails Baltimore and other cities, and have honest conversations with each other.  Over the past few weeks, I've been highly encouraged to see some pastors and others in our churches express willingness to enter these discussions.  But there are still too many who oversimplify what they don't understand.

A few things I've heard that oversimplify the issues:

1. "You just hate cops."  I've been a chaplain for two police departments, and have a high degree of respect for these men and women.  Furthermore, I believe anyone who picked up a rock and threw it at a badge in Baltimore was assaulting an expression of God-ordained civil authority, and they should be prosecuted.  Seeking to understand why someone takes violent action is not the same thing as condoning that action.

Additionally, speaking against police officers, and speaking against the system they are charged with enforcing by oath are two completely different things.  And when we work together to make the latter more just, we are also protecting and honoring police officers.  When I speak about an unjust system, I'm not just doing it for the victims of that system.  I speak about it for the benefit of police officers as well.  Their job is to enforce the law, whether or not they agree with it.  So if the system they are enforcing is infected with injustice, that's a dangerous environment in which to work!

We need to stop equating honest critique of the system with "hating cops."

2. "Just obey the law and you won't get in trouble."This is absolutely true.  Or maybe not!  Many decades ago during the Great Depression, many of my ancestors produced, transported, distributed, and consumed illegal alcohol.  Most who remember those "bootlegger" days will explain that environment in this way; "well, it was the Depression, and there were simply no jobs that paid a living wage.  This was the only way we could get by."

Am I excusing my ancestors from breaking the law by such a statement?  Not at all!  Yet most understand that there were systemic issues in rural Appalachian culture that motivated such behavior. It just doesn't seem like we understand that the same issues are present in cities like Baltimore.  Drugs are produced, distributed and sold because, in many parts of the city, there is little else one can do to make a livable wage.  And once you are arrested and imprisoned on drug charges, its a little hard to find honest work once you get out. So guess what you do?  The vicious cycle continues.

Again, my point is not to justify breaking the law.  It is to give some perspective on the complicated issues surrounding crime in the city.  I only wish solving the city's problems were as simple as telling people to "just obey the law."

3. "Those people need to get a job."Having talked with many of "those people," I can tell you first hand that many of them would LOVE to.  Problem is, there are no jobs--at least none within walking distance.  And with what car are they going to get to a more prosperous part of the city, or out of the city, to find gainful employment?  And again, if they have a criminal record, what are the chances that anyone will hire them?

4. "This is a political issue and we shouldn't talk politics from the pulpit." Just because a politician talks about something a lot doesn't make the issue purely "political."  I find it strange that when I'm in the city and address abortion or sexual sin, I'm accused of "being political in the pulpit."  But I'm equally amazed at how I get charged with the same thing when I'm in white suburbia and bring up issues of systemic justice in our cities.  God's Word has much to say about all these issues, and faithful followers of Jesus will refuse to bow at the alter of golden elephants, or golden donkeys.

A few things we need to talk honestly about:

Justice:  We need to speak honestly about a system that treats people differently if they can afford a good attorney.  We need to speak prophetically toward a justice system where private industry profits from the imprisonment of the populace.  We need to ask why, with only 5% of the world's population, we house 1/3 of the worlds prisoners.  And we also need to state the obvious: that most who are the victims of these inconsistencies are from the black community in our nations cities.

Economics:  The infrastructure of most of our cities, including Baltimore, is weak and crumbling, and that environment will not provide appropriate fuel to ignite an economic engine.  Baltimore in particular has some of the best health care facilities in the world, and most of the poorest in the city have no access to it.  Howard County, which shares a border with Baltimore, is one of the top five public school districts in the nation.  Yet many inner city schools are still using textbooks with copyrights from the 1970s. The crime rate in certain parts of the city is inhibiting economic growth, and that slow growth in turn creates a ripe environment for more crime.

Urban development:  When most see urban communities gentrified, they celebrate.  Yet most gentrification projects are executed with the aim of attracting a very different kind of person to that area than those who currently live there.  When Donald Trump buys up 15 city blocks, razes crack houses, and builds $500,000 townhomes, the result is a revitalization of the area by an influx of folks who are already among the middle and upper classes.  Problem is, this approach to development does nothing to actually help the poor, who are simply relocated to another part of the city.  We need conversations that focus on project development that seeks the renewal of an area from the inside-out.

The Gospel: Our understanding of Creation and the imago dei should motivate us to serve those in areas like Baltimore whose living conditions are, quite frankly, beneath the dignity of our common humanity.  Our understanding of the fall should humble us to realize that we in suburbia are just as broken, just as sinful, just as rebellious against God, and suffer from just as much dysfunction as our urban neighbors.  Its just easier to hide our junk behind gated communities.  Our understanding of redemption should push us toward doing what Jesus did--incarnating ourselves among people different from us.

For us, that will mean going into contexts like Baltimore as learners, seeking to understand and identify with people in the city that Jesus died to save.  And our understanding of restoration should lead us to be satisfied with nothing less than a long-term commitment to areas like Baltimore--commitment that eventually leads to the spiritual and tangible transformation of communities that reflect the Kingdom Jesus one day intends to establish here on earth.  There are already many faithful pastors, and other brothers and sisters in Christ there from whom we can learn much.  And if we come as learners, they long for our partnership and cooperation!

But by and large, we aren't having these conversations in our churches.  Our propensity to oversimplify issues and cast them in partisan terms--essentially to capitulate to definitions and explanations given by media talking heads in 3-minute segments--has blinded us to the fact that there are serious issues of justice in our cities that need to be addressed.  It is past time for us to hear from pastors and churches in those cities who work in these conditions every day.  In fact, opportunities are developing right now to have those conversations this coming November in Baltimore!  As soon as the details are finalized, I will post them here.

We need to talk!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Getting out of the Ghetto: Why Pew's Research on the Church in America Means Very Little

"If you live in a ghetto the size of New York City, you may not know it."  I heard those words 15 years ago from a pastor talking about my denomination.  His simple point was that there are indeed Christians outside the Southern Baptist Convention.  But when you are the largest Protestant denomination in America, sometimes its hard to see past your own sense of largeness.

But that principle isn't true only for my denominational tribe.  Its also true for the wider body of Christ in the west, and events of the past few days have proven this fact.  Last week, Pew Research released its latest project focusing on the state of American Evangelicalism.   Called America's Changing Religious Landscape, the study claims that the number of self-proclaimed Christians has dropped sharply over the past 7 years, while adherents to other faiths and the unaffiliated (sometimes called the "nones") continue to grow.

Reaction to this report has varied, and a few have lamented the beginning of the end of American Christianity.  But those who think such things don't understand this research--or the nature of Christian faith wherever it may exist on the globe.  As Ed Stetzer has well-said, "Christianity is not dying and no serious researcher thinks that."  So why do so many-including those within the body of Christ in the west--seem to believe it is so?  I would suggest its because our "ghetto" is crumbling.  For too long, we've been unable to see the work of God beyond our own western constructs.  And that's a large part of why Pew's latest research isn't very helpful.

1. It measures institutional Christendom, not Christianity.  No doubt about it, the predominant and most visible brand of "Christianity" that has existed on this continent for centuries is dying.  But that doesn't mean that genuine followers of Jesus in the west are declining in numbers.  As our culture continues to shift in a direction that makes being Christian something that is no longer culturally convenient, we are witnessing Jesus separating His American sheep from the goats with whom they have long been herded inside an institutional form of western Christendom.

Decades ago Billy Graham postulated that as many as 75% of church-goers had no genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.  Pew's observations of the decline in numbers in the western church doesn't reflect that there are less Christians in America.  It is only revealing who the genuine Christ-followers are among us.

2. It is focused on the west.  For the past 500 years, Protestant Christianity in all its forms has been primarily defined in western terms--first throughout Europe and eventually by its growth in America. For the most part, this is because "Reformation theology" was developed in a distinctly western context, and it was that theology that for the past half millennium has informed everything from our modern church structures to our missions-delivery systems.  Though I have great appreciation for this tradition (I am, after all, a product of church life, seminary education, and missions deployment that has been almost exclusively informed by this approach), it is not a tradition that has ever truly considered the whole of the global body of Christ.  The most we can say of western Protestantism in this regard is that it saw itself as the "starting point" for spreading the Gospel throughout the world.  But even today, most in Protestant churches don't think very much about the contribution of the wider and global body of Christ.  And this myopic understanding continues in spite of the fact that other nations have been sending missionaries to our own shores for decades.

When we look exclusively, or for that matter, even primarily, through this western Reformed lens, we miss most of what God is doing in the world today.  While we lament the decline of Christendom in the west, our brothers and sisters in the "2/3 world" are witnessing an explosion of growth.  Alan Hirsch has rightly stated that "the new face of 21st century global Christianity is no longer the European man, but the African woman."  Throughout South America, sub-sahara Africa, the middle east, and the Asian subcontinent, Jesus is using His church in these areas to introduce millions of new believers to Himself.  Perhaps if we focused a little less on our decline, and more on what is causing their success, we might learn something that would empower the Gospel witness of the western church.  It is past time for us to step down from the teacher's lectern and begin learning from our brothers and sisters abroad

3. It feeds the misconception that we are different from the rest of the world.  Why do we seem so unwilling to learn from other Christians around the world?  Is it pride?  Is it a sense of the heresy of "American exceptionalism" applied to our churches?  Probably not.  In fact, its more likely that we don't listen to the global church because we still labor under the delusion that their context doesn't apply in ours.  And this is the case because we continue to believe--in spite of historically unprecedented global migration patterns that affect every continent including ours--that there are two ways of doing church; one way for us, and another way for the rest of the world.  Even phrases like "domestic missions" and "international missions" betray our ignorance.  In a world where my next-door neighbor is as likely to be a Buddhist from India as a Presbyterian from Philadelphia, we need to stop examining the western church through exclusively western eyes.  Pew's observations of the growth in ethnic and cultural diversity in its study is a helpful start, but we must go further.

The reaction by Christians to Pew's research reminds me of the story of the Emmaus-bound disciples.  In the midst of their pain, confusion, and fear after Jesus' crucifixion, their Lord joins them in His resurrected body and walks among them--but they don't see Him!  That's the picture I think of when I think of the western church.  In the midst of massive cultural and worldview shifts on our own continent, we are too fearful to see beyond to the miraculous work God is doing globally--work He is doing among our brothers and sisters in places that are no longer "far away" and from which we can learn much.

But to learn those lessons, we have to lift our eyes beyond old constructs.  We must stop judging ourselves by standards that are more influenced by a dying western church culture than by Scripture, and see Jesus walking among us and beckoning us toward what He is doing globally.  After all, He isn't interested in redeeming one small cultural piece of His body.  He wants the whole world.  And one day, He is going to get it all!

So we can lament what is happening to cultural Christianity, or we can join the global body of Christ as Jesus extends His true Kingdom.  But to do the latter, we have to be cured of our myopia.

Time to get out of the ghetto!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Is "Tribalism" a Threat to Your Church?

Hopefully, it will surprise no one reading these words to discover that I'm a Baptist.  I was brought to a Baptist church for the first time when I was just a few days old.  I heard the message of Jesus, and became one of His followers in a Baptist church.  I was licensed and duly ordained as a Baptist minister, I'm a two-time graduate of a Baptist seminary, and I serve on the leadership team of a Baptist missions entity.  So I'm about as Baptist as they come.

And when I say I'm a Baptist, that's more than merely a statement of how I was raised or who cuts my paycheck.  I am confessionally, convictionally, Baptist.  I love my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, believe we will be in heaven together, and greatly appreciate their focus on the continuity of the Biblical narrative as it is contained in Covenant Theology.  Yet my best understanding of the Scriptures teaches me that infants are not, automatically, children of that covenant and thus, are not candidates for baptism.  So I could never be a Presbyterian.

I also believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still active today--ALL of them, including the ones that make some of my fellow Baptists nervous.  As such, I love and appreciate my Pentecostal brothers and sisters for their focus on the empowering necessity of the Holy Spirit.  At the same time, the Pentecostal understanding of how miraculous phenomenon like speaking in tongues are connected to Holy Spirit baptism are problematic for a guy like me, who believes we are as immersed as we will ever be by the Holy Spirit at the moment of our conversion.  So I wouldn't make a very good, faithful Pentecostal either.

Additionally, I see the book of Acts revealing an early multiplication of very strong, and very free, self-governing churches, which means I'd be inelligible for inclusion in the United Methodist Church also.  Just about any way you cut me, I bleed a brand of Christian faith that can accurately be called "Baptist."

Yet even with the convictions I hold, I've been blessed, encouraged, empowered, informed, challenged, and grown by men and women from across the denominational spectrum of evangelicalism.  In many ways, I would not be the man, husband, father, or pastor I am today without the positive influences of people like Tim Keller, Lawrence White, D. James Kennedy, Jack Hayford, James MacDonald, Chuck Swindoll, Bryan Chapel, Loran Livingston,  Eric Metaxas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and a host of others.  And none of the above-named people are Baptist!

In other words, I don't mind belonging to a particular "tribe" of Christianity, so long as it doesn't succumb to tribalism.  Yet some in my denomination would seek to "cleanse" us from anything, or any influence that isn't distinctly Baptist.  Sometimes this is motivated by an apparent fear that our people will join another denomination because of someone who influences them.

And yes, sometimes, a brother or sister may come to different convictions than I do about something that causes them to be true to their integrity, and join a tradition that more accurately alligns with their beliefs. Truly, there are worse things that can happen in our churches than the above display of doctrinal integrity.   But honestly,  if reading a single quote from D. James Kennedy turns one of my parishioners into a Presbyterian, I don't think the problem is D. James Kennedy!

Currently, there is much discussion in our denomination about a number of movements and/or theological persuasions, and whether these pose a threat to our existence as Baptists.  But of all the "isms" I know of that exist within our ranks, none from my vantage point seem to pose as big a threat as does "tribalism."

Tribalism might be a threat to you if:

1. Denominationalism is a substitute for discipleship.  By any measurable standard, the evangelical world as a whole is not "making disciples," as Jesus commanded, at least not those of the Romans 12:1-2 sort.  So, when you discover someone who is actually making disciples--marriages are strong, kids are raised in the fear of God, addictions are overcome, and society is positively changed as a result of the Gospel--is your first reaction to celebrate that fact, or is it to make sure that ministry performs baptisms the same way yours does, or holds to your own doctrinal position on alcohol consumption, Calvinism, or worship style?  If so, you may be a victim of tribalism.

2. Secondary issues are elevated to Gospel issues. A few years ago, one of our mission boards actually stated that baptism by immersion as a sign of conversion wasn't enough to be a "Baptist" missionary.  It had to have taken place in a church that affirms "eternal security."  So, if you were confessionally, convictionally Baptist, but were immersed in a Pentecostal or Nazarene environment, you were put out to pasture, unless you agreed to be "baptized" in an SBC church.  When I asked one trustee about this decision, I was actually told that holiness and Pentecostal churches teach "a works salvation in reverse."  This man demonstrated both a horrible misunderstanding of the historical and theological underpinnings of Arminianism, as well as a grotesquely myopic view of the meaning of baptism.  I'm not sure which of these caused the other in this "chicken-egg" conundrum, but the end result was a claim that because Pentecostals don't believe as we do on an issue not central to saving faith,  they don't proclaim the Gospel at all.  When a command of Jesus is domesticated and perverted to the extent that you believe it identifies you with a denominational tradition more than the King of Kings, you might be a victim of tribalism.

3. Identity turns to Isolation. Occasionally, I run into this in the church planting world when I'm told, in spite of the fact that there may be multiple Gospel-preaching churches in a given area, that we may need to put a church there anyway because "there is no BAPTIST work there."  If you think we don't need other Christian traditions working with us to accomplish the Great Commission--or worse yet, if you think the Great Commission can't be accomplished unless we are driving the work in a given area--you may be a victim of tribalism.

I think our work is important, and I think our identity is important.  As a guy serving a Baptist missions entity, that's why I wouldn't put a Lutheran on the field to plant a church, or encourage one of our established churches to hire a Pentecostal, or consider anyone for missionary service under our banner who would be OK with throwing water on a baby and calling it baptism.  But I don't have to be your twin to be your brother, and the sooner all Southern Baptists realize our dire need for the wider body of Christ to accomplish His mission, the healthier and more effective we will be within our own tribe.  Ironically, that will also be the moment when our identity is more firmly established, because it will be in Jesus.

My friend Bob Roberts says it best.  "Jesus did away with all tribes when He brought the Kingdom."  So let's hold our secondary convictions.  But more importantly, let's lean into the mission--even alongside those who don't share those convictions.