Monday, November 30, 2015

Why are You Afraid?

My wife will tell you that I'm not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, especially when it comes to quickly picking up on things.  But a trend is afoot in the American church that is so obvious, you'd have to be asleep to miss it.

And the trend is this:  Followers of Jesus in the west are increasingly filled with fear.

Never has this fear been seen more clearly than in the west's reaction to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris--and in particular in our disposition toward refugees seeking safety from that same wicked ideology.  From a political standpoint, followers of Jesus can, in good conscience, disagree regarding the best ways to care for these people, and we can also have differing opinions on how secure the vetting process is for refugees.  Followers of Jesus realize that compassion and wisdom are not mutually exclusive concepts.  But too much of what I've seen among American Christians has been fueled by fear and irrational disdain toward needy people.

But make no mistake: the reactions to Paris are merely the symptoms of a much deeper spiritual issue among too many Christians in the west.  As we witness the various changes taking place in our world, we are witnessing fear from those who once felt most secure in the old world.

This fear is manifest in several ways, but mostly, I see it coming out in a paranoid way through people--and sometimes entire ministries--dedicated to criticizing any attempt to engage culture.  Sure, we can cross the line and compromise Biblical principles, but between the guy who occasionally goes too far and has to repent, and the guy who does nothing because he fears going to far, put that first guy on my team!

Our world is changing, and doing so more rapidly than at any other time in human history.  For a church that was so sure of itself just decades ago because of the relatively prominent place we held in western society, these changes feel threatening, principally because they make us Unsure.  But as frightening as it may be to think of engaging the world in new and fresh ways, there is something we should fear even more.

The more I observe the modern paralysis in the western church, the more I'm reminded of a well-known parable of Jesus.  In Matthew 25, a landowner entrusts three of his servants with varying degrees of oversight--five talents to one, two to another, and one to the last. The first two went to work using the resources that had been given to them, and doubled their investment by their master's return, but the third buried his talent.

So when the master returns, he rewards the first two servants with more opportunity and responsibility, but took particular exception to the third, who told him "I know you.  Your'e a difficult man, reaping where you haven't sown and gathering where you haven't scattered seed.  So I was afraid, and went off and hid your talent in the ground."  (25:24-25, HCSB)

The thing about Mason jars is that while they protect money and keep it from getting dirty, they don't earn anything either.  And, this Master apparently didn't care if his money got a little dirty.  He wanted a return on his investment!

Keep in mind that this is one of three stories linked together to teach us about the Kingdom.  The point?  Our Master expects us to engage, and He expects us to produce.  And what is the one thing that kept the last servant from doing what his Master expected?  

Three words:  "I was afraid."

People driven by fear are actually pretty easy to spot:

1. They dismiss any expectations beyond "faithfulness."  "We aren't responsible for the results.  We are just supposed to be faithful."  Sounds great doesn't it?  Problem is, it just ain't true! Now, if by "results" you mean sheer numbers, then you may have a point.  God doesn't call every pastor to lead a mega-church, we are all gifted in different ways, and sometimes the results of our labors will look very different.  But a casual perusal of any parable about the Kingdom, or just reading the Sermon on the Mount, reveals quickly that Jesus expects results.  Salt can't help but preserve. Light naturally illuminates.  And when we are granted stewardship of the most powerful and effective story in history, you'd better believe Jesus expects us to do something with it that results in transformation.  Dismissing those demands by surface level appeals to 1 Corinthians 3:6 or other similar texts is the mental equivalent of putting the gifts God has given you 6 feet under for safe keeping. There is no "increase" without planting and watering, but the latter ALWAYS leads to the former in some form.

2. They see "compromise" in every attempt to engage.  In 1790, there was virtually no Christian presence that existed in the world that was further than 100 miles from the north Atlantic Ocean.  It was in that environment that a young William Carey realized the need for alternative means to reach people with the message of Jesus, and in spite of his hyper-Calvinist detractors, his efforts launched the modern missions movement.  Over the next century, the world would know of Jesus through rapid evangelism and church planting efforts that would eventually mean a Christian presence in most nations.  

Nearly 300 years later, the modern era has come to an end, and we are witnessing a massive and rapid shift  and collision of cultures like never before.  Where is the next William Carey?  My guess is he will emerge from one of the many being currently flayed by critics too afraid to join him in his efforts to engage the postmodern world.  Historically unprecedented global migration patterns, which came as a result of now inexpensive global travel and rapid technological advance, has "reset" boundaries of every sort and kind in this new world.  The modern world, which was marked by hard national, tribal, linguistic, religious and even ethic and racial lines is gone.  Everyone now lives everywhere, and thus the way we interact with the world has to reflect this new reality.  But those too anxious to hunch and feel their way through this new global arrangement tend to see compromise rather than effective engagement

3. They have little confidence in the efficacy of the Gospel.  Paul put it this way:  The Gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."  I still believe this.  The grand story of God's redemptive mission by sending Jesus into the world has no equal in the universe!  No other vain, empty philosophy even comes close!  So if its really true, and it its really that powerful, why is there such fear among Christ followers just because the world has changed?

The only conclusion I can reach is one of tragic irony:  Too many followers of Jesus are actually afraid of the world He died to save!

Maybe its because we want the "old days" back when we sat in comfort atop the mountain of cultural superiority.  Maybe we long for the days when all the non-Christians were "over there," and even those who were "over here" didn't have that much influence.  

In this present world, when my neighbor is as likely to be a Hindu as a Presbyterian, its harder to be trite, simplistic, and distant from those who don't follow Jesus. "Sunday School" answers to their questions just won't cut it.  I'm actually going to have to use my head, and in the process, build a relationship with someone with a radically different worldview.

Yep, I can understand why we would prefer the old world.  But you and I live right here, right now, and Jesus has given us the world we have.  One day, He is coming back.  On that day, will you have your shovel in one hand, and a dirty Mason Jar in the other?  Or, will you have found ways to invest the Gospel in this brave new world in a way that will cause Him to say "well done, good and faithful servant."?

Jesus is Lord over the whole earth, and every part of it, and His is the most wonderful, and powerful story in all of human history, and He has given it to you.  What on earth are you afraid of?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A New and Exciting Chapter is Beginning: An Announcement from the Raineys

For the past 11 years I have had the privilege to serve Maryland/Delaware Baptists.  When our family moved to central Maryland in January of 2005, it was because an association and a state convention had decided to take a chance on a very young and very untested man.  I will be forever grateful for the confidence, financial support, prayers, and cooperation given me by these wonderful people.

Nevertheless, for about four years now I have been asking the Lord to allow me to be a local church pastor once again.  As best as I understand Scripture compared with the way my denominational tribe is structured, there is no more strategic leadership role in my denomination than the local church pastor.  To be sure, I also place a high value on effective Directors of Missions and those who tirelessly serve our churches at the state convention level--folks who candidly, have not been given a fair assessment by our tribe over the past several years.  And I work with some of the best in the nation!  We just came off of a fantastic annual celebration in Maryland-Delaware, and I am both confident in our Convention leadership, and excited about our collective future.

But for me, that future will involve a different role--one that I am elated to assume.  Just a few days ago, the wonderful people at Covenant Church, Shepherdstown, WV, voted in sync with the unanimous recommendation of the Elders and search team to call me as their next Lead Pastor.  I can't tell you how excited I am to once again have the opportunity to shepherd a group of God's people.

I will begin my duties there in February, so the next two months will be dedicated to enjoying the holidays, tying up loose ends in my current role, and helping our Convention leadership with any other issues needed during the transition.  I am happy that Covenant, which sits geographically in the West Virginia panhandle a stone's throw from the Potomac River and the Maryland state line, is also a part of the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network--which means I will still be able to work in cooperation with this network of churches I've grown to love so much over the past decade.

Additionally, my global work will come with me to my new ministry field.  There is still much work to be done around the world as we in the west continue to acclimate to global engagement beyond the "modern missions" era, and the leadership at Covenant have embraced that calling as well, which allows me to continue serving Jesus in this way from what I believe will be a far more potent platform.

I will also continue to serve as an adjunct faculty member at Southeastern Seminary, and look forward to continuing to guide Maryland doctoral students through the process of attaining their Doctor of Ministry degrees--though I will be departing from any other teaching roles for the moment in order to focus more intently on the flock God is giving me.

As I anticipate this transition, things will slow significantly for a while here at the site, so I would ask my readers to be patient with me during some times when I need to turn my attention toward learning the people God has blessed me to serve during this next phase of my life and ministry.  Eventually, I'll be back more often.  Plus, you never know when I might show up with my friends at SBCVoices, or

Our family is very excited to begin this new journey together, and we would greatly appreciate your prayers as we prepare for this next chapter.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Definitions Matter, Especially Theological Ones: What is an Evangelical?

“Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate.”  -Henry Louis Mencken

“To be Evangelical is to be faithful to the freedom, justice, peace, and well-being that are at the heart of the Good News of Jesus.”  -An Evangelical Manifesto 

“Truly truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”  -Jesus, John 3:3

Last week, the National Association of Evangelicals, in partnership with Lifeway Christian Resources, released a revised and concise definition of what it means to be an evangelical Christian.

This has been an ongoing conversation for many decades.  As a servant to more than 560 churches, I was encouraged to see the core of our faith represented in this revised definition, and I believe the NAE and Lifeway have been successful in simultaneously moving us away from a primarily political understanding of this term, and "tightening the screws" to provide a more clear and robust theological definition that centers around the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Often evangelical Christians are pigeon-holed into one particular cultural, political, or societal sector, when the truth is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most globally inclusive message in the worlld!  

At the same time, any movement with a center also has a boundary line.  Over the past few years, a number of prominent writers, pastors, musicians, and others who identify as Christian have struggled with whether they should continue to wear the term "Evangelical," or if they should seek to reform the meaning of the term by re-drawing those aforementioned boundaries.  In short, Evangelicalism in the west has been in an identity crisis.  And given the subject matter we have been discussing that has led us to this point, count me among those who think this is a good thing. .

Sometime ago, I wrote an article aimed at non-Christians outlining a more precise, and ironically, a more global view of Evangelical Christian identity.  The article was picked up by, and an edited  version can be found here.   But my original draft appears below.  My hope is that those seeking more information about Evangelicalism will hear in the following words who we really are, and what our common and central passions are.  Who are Evangelicals?  Keep reading!

For some, no group in North America is easier to hate, or more difficult to understand, than evangelical Christians.  Admittedly, some who wear this label often fit the negative stereotype that has come to be associated with the term, and too often, loud voices claiming to speak for all evangelicals spread a message that is less like Jesus Christ, and more like a political agenda or a cultural crusade.  Reactions to the term “evangelical” can be quite strong.  “Isn’t that the group who hates women and gay people?”  or  “Aren’t these the people who are afraid of science and societal advance?”   These assumptions understandably make some people nervous, and leave many wondering “exactly what do these people believe?”

But at its core, the evangelical message is not captive to any political philosophy or particular social agenda.  The core of the evangelical message, in fact, transcends political party, ethnicity, socio-economic class, and culture, and points ultimately to a God who loves all and desires for all to know Him.

Where did they come from?

Historically, Evangelical movements in the west emerged in the 17th century.  At that time in the United States, the movement was primarily forwarded in churches led by men such as Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts pastor who also served for a brief time as President of Princeton University.  The movement continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and stressed virtue and personal devotion to God.

A great number of our nations hospitals (such as Vanderbilt) and institutions of higher learning (such as Princeton University and Brown University) were started by evangelicals. In fact, every educational institution started in the United States up until 1789—with the single exception of the University of Pennsylvania—was started by a Christian denomination. The men and women who founded these institutions applied the message of Jesus to the enlightenment mindset that was prevalent at the time.  Their goal was to affect society as a whole in a positive way through the tangible expression of their Christian faith.  Literary works of this time period were also produced in this environment.  Today, students come to the United States from all over the world in order to attend western universities.  All of the top ten MBA programs in the world are in the west (8 in the United States, 1 in Canada and 1 in Great Brittain).  This reality is due in large part to the contribution of evangelical Christians who, centuries ago, implemented a vision for the betterment of culture through top quality and accessible education.

Additionally the “scientific revolution” was started in large part by Christians, who introduced an inductive “scientific method” to the world.  Christians believed then, as they do today, that God has revealed Himself in nature, as well as in the human psyche.  The 17th century chemist Robert Boyle stated that nature “is nothing else but God acting according to certain laws he himself fixed.”  Assumptions such as these provided an environment for the study and extension of mathematics and science in the west.  Though there were certainly those within Christian circles who opposed scientific advance, the truth is that these objections never represented the consensus of the Christian community

Evangelical thought has affected virtually every part of modern western society.  It was Christians who gave the world of art such notable painters and sculptors as Botticelli and Raphael.  Western classical music likewise, continues to be informed and inspired by Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and Handel’s “Messiah.”  Sociologist Rodney Stark admits that “the modern world arose only in Christian societies…..all the modernization that has since occurred outside Christendom was imported from the West, often brought by colonizers and missionaries.”

What do they want?

Though evangelicals are often portrayed as being “against” culture, the aim of this group of Christians is to see culture redeemed and restored to God’s original intention.   Complementary evangelical beliefs in original sin and the hope of redemption in Jesus Christ have fueled attempts to create the kind of ideal environments in which this redemption can truly take place. 

Such were the convictions that led England's William Wilberforce to champion the cause of the abolition of slavery, eventually putting it to an end throughout the United Kingdom by the early part of the 19th century. The history of this group of Jesus’ followers demonstrates their strong contribution to uniquely western ideals.  

Freedom of religion is based on the evangelical belief that only personal faith in Jesus saves and therefore, the state should not dictate religious belief to the masses.   Principled pluralism rests on the evangelical conviction that “forced conversion” is in fact no conversion at all.  It is rooted also in the conviction that adherents to all faiths should learn to live peaceably with each other, and that each should be free in mind to pursue the truth. Belief in universal human rights and just warfare are grounded in the conviction that human beings are created in God’s own image and likeness, and that therefore, each is worthy of dignity and respect.  Even the idea of separation of church and state owes its existence to a group of Baptist evangelicals who  were concerned about the encroachment of the state’s power into the life of the church. 

Throughout history, evangelicals have sought to advance civilization through principles that they believed were found within God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture and in nature.  That same spirit permeates the evangelical mindset today.  Evangelicals’ interaction with science, education, sociology, and culture at large is for the purpose of utilizing all those domains to better society, and communicate the Christian message in the process. 

What do they really believe?

These aspirations are motivated by the core beliefs of evangelical Christianity—belief in the Bible as the ultimate source of truth, the role of the church in society, and the urgency of global missions and humanitarian work.  Most importantly, evangelical action is based on the conviction that God has fully and finally revealed Himself to all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. 

So to truly understand what it means to be “Evangelical,” one must unplug this term from its occasional ties to American politics and culture wars.  Evangelicals can be found in “red states” as well as “blue states.”  Members in good standing of Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green Parties include devoted followers of Jesus, and all believe that the great unifier is not political affiliation, race, gender, or societal status, but the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

Historian David Bebbington has identified four primary beliefs which form the "glue" that holds the global Evangelical community together.  These make up what Bebbington calls the "Quadrilateral of Priorities."

1. The need for every person to be "born again" to have eternal life (a personal conversion)
2. The supremacy of Biblical authority.
3. Salvation through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.
4. Active sharing of the Gospel through evangelism.

At heart, evangelicals are simply bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ, who Himself loved humanity enough to enter our world and do what was necessary to bring healing, understanding, and deliverance from ourselves into a genuine relationship with Him.  Evangelicals don’t always follow Him perfectly, but more than anything, their desire is that the world would see who Jesus is through their words and actions.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Pastor and Politics: Some Guidelines in an Election Year

A year from now, we will have a new "President-elect."  But for several months already, pundits, politicians, and the general public have been stewing over what could be one of the most vitriolic and controversial elections so far in the 21st century.

During times like these, people of faith need the guidance of their pastors.  But over the years, I've seen a couple of approaches by a few men of God that just aren't helpful.  On the one hand, there are those who completely ignore the political landscape on the basis that "I don't talk about politics."  While I can understand the desire not get drawn in to debates over a kingdom that all who preach God's Word know is temporary, there is a big difference between refusing to go down the political rabbit hole, and acting as though the coming elections aren't a reality.

On the other end of the spectrum are hyper-partisan pastors who call out those they perceive to be less-than-desirable candidates, and distribute "voter guides" with all the passion of a Jehovah's Witness with the latest edition of the Watchtower.  

In the middle- most of our people want to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the voting booth via thinking critically about all the issues involved, and how their vote is likely to impact those issues.  But to provide them the guidance they need, Pastors need to strike a balance between ignoring an entire year on the political calendar, and looking over the shoulders of our people as they cast their votes.  How do we do this?  Let me suggest some general guidelines:

1. Talk about Issues, not Personalities.  Sure, its easier to take pot-shots at politicians than it is to take apart and examine the issues being debated.  When issues arise, especially in national campaigns, apply the teaching of the Scriptures to those issues.  Trust me, your people are intelligent enough to be able to take the grid you give them and hold it up against the candidates.  You don't have to attack an individual.  That may be how they do it on MSNBC or FOX News, but you are called to a much higher standard.

2. Love all, serve all, and have your picture made with all.  Some weeks ago, a friend sent me this video of a group of pastors praying over Presidential candidate Donald Trump.  When granted those opportunities, I think its a fantastic opportunity to speak to, counsel with, and pray for those who seek public office.  But two questions came to mind as I watched this:  First, why a camera?  If you are truly seeking to bless a political leader by praying for their personal needs, wouldn't you want to keep that--well--personal?

Second, I wondered to myself; "How many of these pastors would have done the same for Hillary Clinton?  And would they have been OK with that event being filmed?"  As ministers of the Gospel, we are sometimes granted great opportunities to be in the presence of political power.  When we are granted that audience, our primary concern should be pastoral.  That means we seek to minister to the soul of the politician (yes, they have them too!), and our doors are open to anyone, meaning the last thing on our minds is "how is this going to look?"  When it comes to the candidates themselves, love them all with the love of Jesus--not to gain access to power or get your business card in their hands, but because you care about their souls.

3. Never, under any circumstances, endorse a candidate.  Yes, I believe the "Johnson amendment" is wrong and unconstitutional.  If a pastor wants to endorse a candidate as a pastor, from the pulpit, I believe that is his right and neither he nor his church should be penalized for it.

But just because I think its legal doesn't mean I don't also think its a really dumb thing to do.

If I endorse a candidate in my capacity as a pastor, I've essentially said "this is God's candidate."  Think about the implications of that for just a moment.  That means everything this person does during their term of office is now associated with the name of Jesus via my pulpit-centered political endorsement.  Its just not a smart thing to do.  So don't do it.

4. Preach the complexity of issues, because the politicians won't!  One prominent example of this principle is the importance that will be given to potential war in the middle east during this election cycle.  Politicians in both parties will seek to reduce their positions to quick and easy solutions that take less than 2 minutes to explain.  In part, this is due to our ridiculous debate structure.

And let's be honest.  Sometimes its because you have a candidate that just isn't very smart.  Such is precisely the time for your people to be reminded of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many others who have for the past two millennia given us a rich history of just war theory to be contemplated deeply and taken with a deadly seriousness.  Most candidates for office have 2 minutes.  As a pastor, you have 30 minutes to an hour--every week!  Explore the complexity of the issues being debated, and help your people think critically, deeply, and Biblically.  Human flourishing happens this way.

5. Use elections to make disciples.  Don't use disciples to win elections.  Our end goal as pastors is to grow deeper, more passionate, Biblically informed, world-changing followers of Jesus.  It isn't to mobilize a political voting bloc.  So in the end, make sure you are equipping people to affect this temporary kingdom in a positive way, but doing so with their eyes on the eternal one.

Election seasons are strategic times to preach about important issues.  But at the end of the day, disciples aren't strengthened and God's Kingdom isn't advanced by taking over the power structures of this temporary world.  Keeping those things in balance is important for pastors who want to be found faithful during election season.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Sure Hope in an Uncertain World: The Paris Attacks and the Christian Response

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear Him who can kill both soul and body in hell.  -Jesus, Matthew 10:28

I sit this morning in my living room with the television muted and the quiet crawl of CNN updating me on the latest from all that transpired last night in Paris.  Like most of the rest of the civilized world, I am feeling a mixture of complex emotions--anger, sadness, shock, and the sense of anxiety that hits all of us when we realize we have witnessed an event that we know will change things on a global scale.

There is no other way to put this.  Last night, we saw the sort of raw, unadulterated evil that demonstrates moral relativism to be as absurd as it really is.  France--a nation that for many decades has not been known for its hawkishness--is using the language of declared war.  Additionally, the French are NATO allies, meaning that fresh conversations will now open up regarding the reaction to these atrocities that should come from the United States.

The issues involved are complex, and the question of appropriate participants, scale of response, and overall strategy are essential pieces of the conversation that happens next.  But as best as I understand our long and faithful history of just warfare theory, we are long past the point at which it is appropriate for Caesar to unsheathe his sword.  Pacifism that ignores the plight of innocents is not the sort of peace Jesus speaks of, and there is only one way to deal with these sorts of ideologically-driven barbarians.  You have to kill them.

At the same time, a more important question remains for followers of Jesus.  What is our role in times like these?  While we should stand in solidarity with victims and call for justice, our calling is not fulfilled in beating the drums of war.  Furthermore, war has a way of bringing out the worst on all sides, and Christians have an opportunity to keep that from happening.  But to play our role effectively will require taking actions that are very counter-cultural!

1. Pray.  Pray for comfort for the families of victims.  Pray for the first-responders in Paris who are being shaken to the core by what they are witnessing.  Pray for the leaders of the French government to make wise decisions in response to these atrocities.  Pray for our own President to have God-given wisdom to make clear and righteous decisions regarding our own country's involvement.  Pray for military personnel representing any countries that respond to this. Pray for opportunities to be personally involved in serving others.

2. Welcome the stranger.  In tenuous times like these, the temptation is always strong to allow fear to drive how we respond to the victims of conflict.  Fear caused us to house Japanese-Americans in virtual open-air prisons during World War II.  Fear caused us to turn away Jews seeking asylum from Hitler and effectively send them back to waiting gas chambers.  Let's not make that mistake again.

Of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees, the bulk are being hosted by Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Roughly 200,000 are the guests in various European nations, and to date, about 10,000 are scheduled to be resettled here in the United States.  1500 of them are currently being housed in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area.  With all the churches in this area, there is absolutely no reason why these souls created in God's image should lack for anything they need.  There are ways you can adopt a refugee, and numerous ways you and your church can partner to serve these people who have been through unspeakable circumstances.  You can find all that information here.

Let's not throw up walls in fear.  In the face of political calls to "close our borders," let's do what Jesus did--incarnate ourselves among people not like us, and serve them in the name of our King.

3. Preach the Gospel.  Though war is sometimes necessary, followers of Jesus have something better to do than merely fan the flame of propaganda.  We carry the greatest message of reconciliation that has ever been declared in all of human history!  During times of international tension, there is always the temptation to allow the preservation of a temporary kingdom to overshadow God's extension of an eternal one.  Jesus is the only one who can bring peace, and if we believe Him, then we must be the agents of that peace--embracing and loving our neighbor, and sharing the basis for that love at every available opportunity.

Its been a long time since there was a more strategic opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ to shine!  The sure hope of the Gospel never shines brighter than when cast against the backdrop of calamity, chaos, and global uncertainty.

Pray.  Love.  Preach.

Friday, November 06, 2015

"We Need to Talk!" The Conversation Most 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.

This coming week, the Network of churches I serve hosts its annual meeting in Ocean City Maryland.  One of the things I'm looking forward to most is a dinner we are hosting entitled "Baltimore After the Riots: What's Next?"  The dinner will feature a panel discussion of Baltimore city pastors, together with leadership from various urban ministry partners, and the Governor's Office of Community Initiatives.  All involved understand that the issues in Baltimore are deep, systemic, and spiritual.  And on the evening of November 9, we will gather with a large crowd of folks wiling to have a conversation that focuses on those issues.

Registration for this dinner has been closed for over two weeks already due to a full room.  That is encouraging news to me.  It tells me that our churches are willing to have a conversation that is long past due!

Over the past few months since the Baltimore 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.

We need to talk!  And for those of you joining us for dinner early next week, I look forward to that conversation!

Monday, November 02, 2015

Six Words that Need to Disappear from the Church

In the church, I've found that we often "talk on auto-pilot."  That is, we use a lot of common lingo and assume everyone else who is a Christian uses it the same way we do--and that those who are not Christian will know what we mean when we use those terms.  I can tell you that neither are true.

I've been thinking a little lately about a few terms that the church in the west has worn slick.  May I propose that the following six words be purposefully targeted for extinction in our congregations?

1. Traditional (or Contemporary)  When most churches use these terms, they are employed exclusively within the context of a singular congregational body.  How far back, for example, do you have to go in order to be truly "traditional?"  For many churches, "traditional" simply means you sing no songs written after 1950, or before 1850.  But the traditions of Jesus' followers go back 2000 years.  Similarly, what often qualifies as "contemporary" in some churches is like the musical equivalent to orange shag carpet.

In the end, these terms reflect a greater allegiance to a particular period of history than to the God who rules over all of history.  Moreover, they are simply confusing.  If there is a particular genre of music that dominates your worship service, then describe it to people asking about your church.  Let them know if you use liturgy.  Even better, focus on the fact that your church is your spiritual family, and invite others to join you personally and form their own opinions.  These two terms simply don't help.

2. Missional  First used in the Oxford English dictionary, "missional" is simply the word "missionary" used in the form of an adjective.  In that sense, this term is actually quite helpful in describing how every Christ-follower should live his or her life.  Unfortunately, the word is almost never used in this way.  In fact, I've more often heard it used in reference to what brand of coffee is used at the church coffee bar than in reference to the day to day activity of God's people.  More to the point, this word is employed more to describe what happens "inside" corporate worship on Sunday than what happens "outside" that experience the rest of the week.  This is the saddest of ironies.

3. Moderate  Three decades ago, my denomination was in the middle of a theological battle that pitted theological conservatives against their less conservative counterparts.  Though the term "liberal" was tossed around rather loosely during that time, no one desiring accuracy would use it.  After all, according to the technical and historical sense of the term, there were never any true theological liberals in the Southern Baptist Convention.  So out of a desire for accuracy, the term "moderate" was chosen, and threw even more mud into the already opaque water.

Over the years, this term has increased in usage in theology, politics, and life in general, and has been considered "nicer" than other terms used to describe those from other-than-conservative backgrounds.  That's actually a pretty silly notion, given that the definition of moderate is to be "average in intensity, quality, or degree."

Great, so now instead of calling people liberal, we are calling them C-students?  I don't agree with many of my less conservative friends, but I can tell you that they are anything but "average in intensity."  They are just as passionate about what they believe as I am about what I believe.  Let's find a better way to relate to each other than benign labeling.

4. Reverend This term has been used for centuries to describe the ordained clergy class who lead communities of faith. Yet the Scriptures do not in any way commend the essential separation of "clergy" from "laity."  Of the three Old Testament offices (Priest, Scribe, Elder), we believe the first two were fulfilled with the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The third--elder or "pastor" depending on how Presbyterian you are--was a designation under the Old Covenant given to the laity who served as spiritual leaders.

So where did we come up with the idea of a clerical class in the present age?  The short version of history is that its a Catholic leftover that managed to hang on during the Protestant Reformation.  As a convinced Protestant, I say we offer to give this one back to our Catholic friends if they will allow us to exchange it for their incense, art, and other forms of worship which engage the senses. Where the title "Reverend" compared with tactile elements of worship is concerned, I think we threw out the baby and kept the nasty bathwater.

5. Postmodern  Some churches love postmodernism.  Others hate everything about it.  Almost no one defines it in the same way.  Are we speaking of Philosophical postmodernism?  Cultural postmodernity?  Are we speaking of the questions this movement asks, or the answers it proposes?  Are we defining it more in terms of Derrida?  Foucault? Rorty?  Few seem to know, because we have "broad-brushed" this term so often, it is nearly meaningless.  Let's just ditch it.

6. Missions  Surprised that a guy who helps coordinate global work for 562 churches would put this term in a list of words I want eliminated?  Perhaps its because in too many churches (and a few denominational entities), I've seen this term tacked on to any ministry that simply wanted more money.  We have arrived at a point where in some churches, you can make a fruit basket, give it to your best friend, and call it "missions."

But there is another reason we should get rid of this term.  Even when we do use it to describe our engagement with the world, most we seek to engage see that term very differently than we do.  So you want to travel to a place where within the last half-century our nation has been at war with another country-and talk about a "mission?"  Interested in going to the middle-east, where our own CIA has orchestrated coup attempts against government leaders, and be "on a mission?"  Yeah, good luck with that.

Since the term never once appears in the Bible. (the missio dei concept is a Latin one derived from the greek term meaning "to be sent.") maybe we should simply talk about engagement with the world as those sent by Jesus.

How about you?  What terms would you add to this list?