Monday, November 28, 2005

Who's at War with Christmas?

For the past month I've listened to the conservative "talking heads" warn, as they do now on an annual basis, of the impending destruction of the Christmas season by the secular left, and to a large extent their assessment is correct. Organizations from the ACLJ to the American Family Association are adept at keeping us informed concerning the plethora of liberal plots to eradicate anything reminiscient of Christ from the public square during the "holiday" season. And FOX News anchor John Gibson's newest book, The War on Christmas, calls even greater attention to activists efforts to remove any presence of Jesus Christ from the holidays.

Still, my observations and reflections this past weekend have me wondering if the greatest threat to the central message of Christmas isn't the guy I see every morning in the mirror!

Every year we hear stories of ACLU sympathizers trolling schoolhouse and courthouse properties in search of nativity scenes to challenge. But the greater threat may not be the elimination of the nativity on public property, but rather the minimization of its meaning on private property. I think of the past several Christmas seasons, and I am embarrassed when I compare the time spent giving and opening gifts with that spent celebrating the greatest of all gifts. I remember as a child having to take a "time out" as it were, from my new toys to sit for the perfunctory reading of the Christmas story. With a nervous twitch that would not be relieved until I was back at my new electric racetrack set, I tried to fake interest in this story that I had heard so many times. To me, it was a required religious drudgery; a payment of sorts in exchange for two weeks of no school and new toys.

As an adult, I must still admit to giving more attention at times to my children’s presents than to their focus on Jesus as the center and circumference, not only of the season, but of our lives.

This year, as in times past, we have heard challenges issued by the left to the constitutionality of mentioning the religious roots of the season. In addition, many American companies have now fallen victim to political correctness, as is best illustrated in Lowes’ marketing of the “holiday” tree. Afraid that a “Christmas tree” might be offensive to the non-Christian segment of its customer base, Lowes simply markets the same product under a different name. Isn’t that a bit like calling Easter eggs “Spring eggs,” or referring to Ramadan as “September weight loss days”? Sounds a bit ridiculous to me.

Yet there is something more ridiculous, and more offensive, than removing any mention of Christ from Christmas by those who don’t follow Him, and that is the trivialization of the Christ of Christmas by those who do claim to follow Him. It is the equivocation of God the Son with eight tiny reindeer.

Though we are quick to defend the identity of this season as “Jesus’ birthday,” we often neglect to think that the incarnation was infinitely more that that. Perhaps this is why reflection on the Biblical Christmas story has lost some of its luster. Luke wasn’t just writing history. He was proclaiming that the One who created and foreordained history stepped into history on our behalf! God wrapped Himself in human flesh, and the wonder of that incarnation causes all the lights and decorations in the world combined to pale in comparison. Frankly, my boredom as a child, and passivity as an adult with the Christmas story is not the result of the story itself, but of my failure to truly appreciate how that moment in history affects history. It fulfilled every promise of God that was made up until that moment, and assures all who believe that this perfect and divine manifestation of the ideal humanity provides the righteousness required for the intimate connection with our Creator for which all of humanity longs.

But the ultimate rejection of the season’s truest meaning sometimes comes, ironically enough, at the times when we think we have the season all figured out and are enjoying it to the fullest. And there is a real chance that this coming Christmas could be like the last one . . . . We will read the story of the culturally questionable birth of a Jewish baby in a stall to a 14-year-old virgin and her blue-collar husband. We will remember how He invested His life among those the world did not think worthy of investment, and how He claimed to come for the poor, the sick, and the sinful. We will reflect on this, the most vivid picture of what it means to be “incarnational,” and then forget that Jesus calls us to follow His example while enjoying our “upper-middle class” Christmas. Paul reminded the church at Corinth of Jesus’ words that the most blessed person is the person who chooses giving over receiving. Evidently, I haven’t wanted that blessing very often.

No, the ACLU and Lowes aren’t our biggest issues this season. To be sure, they aren’t helping matters! But when it comes to the “War on Christmas,” the real culprits are those of us who should know better! And if I’m right, then we won’t recover the meaning of this season by court decision.

Instead, we should take ourselves back to that seminal moment in salvific history, hear the cattle in the stalls and smell the sheep dung. Hear the screams of a woman experiencing violent birthpangs who knew nothing of a soft bed, much less an epidural. Watch as the God-man in the body of a pre-pubescent boy learns the skills of a carpenter from his earthly father. Smell the stink of rotting human flesh as He walks among the lepers. Sense the spiritual darkness that has overcome the demoniac among the tombs. Feel the stomach-wrenching sensation of spikes being driven into the wrists. Sense the weight of God’s judgement upon all of humanity as it falls upon He who became sin for us. And feel the earth-shattering concussion that was the bodily resurrection.

Having meditated on these things, know what it means to be “incarnational.”

There is a reason that the secular left is at war with Christmas. It is because this world is at war with Christ! Scary thing is, Jesus leaves no room for “fence-riders,” which means that my past passivity is, in His eyes, enmity. My boredom is, in reality, scorn that has creeped back into my life along with other fleshly things; a part of that old life that Paul tells me was crucified with Christ 2000 years ago.

There is a war on Christmas, and I fear that many who claim to follow Christ are, by their indifference to the season, aiding and abetting the enemy. Moreover, I fear that in the past, I have been among that number. But this year, I resolve to be on the offensive! My family and I will spend less time opening gifts, and more time in front of the advent candles. Through Salvation Army, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, Samaritan’s Purse, and our own holistic service, we will serve those to whom Jesus calls us. And though our boys will enjoy a visit from Santa, they will be taught to stand in infinitely greater awe of their God, who eliminates all war and oppression, and who brings a Gospel of peace, all through His entrance into our world.

To end the “war on Christmas,” I must first make sure I really believe in the cause. May God grant us the grace this Christmas season to speak with our lips, and our lives, of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Jonathan Edwards on the Missional Church

If nothing else, I had you at the title didn't I? I know few if any who would expect to see the phrases "Missional Church" and "Jonathan Edwards" in the same book, much less in the same blog within the same sentence. Yet as God has allowed me to spend some time this week looking back at the life and ministry of Edwards, I am more convinced than ever that we can find our most accurate measurement of what it means to be "missional" from the writings of this 18th century revivalist.

If I'm right, then we may finally have the potential for a measuring instrument that doesn't judge everything within evangelicalism mathematically. Particularly in Southern Baptist life, the "denominationalism" of the 1940s and 1950s has created a church culture in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to judge the value of anything that can't be counted. Regardless of the "measuringn sticks" that have been used in our recent history, from the 50s and 60s emphases on the sheer number of baptisms, to the 70s emphasis on programming, to the 80s and 90s emphases on church growth and church health, the "bottom line" that has been observed is always, in the end, "bucks in the plate, bottoms in the seats, and buildings on the land." The result is now the worship of all things numerical, almost without regard for deeper examination of what is happening in the lives of each member of the crowd. Who cares if your church service exceeds 1000 in attendance if the lives of those attending are not deeply and profoundly affected and moved toward a deeper Christlikeness as a result of your ministry?

Yet a new movement is afoot that I believe has the greatest potential to reverse our almost exclusive focus on numbers. Although the movement began with anteceedents to his book, Robert Lewis' The Church of Irresistible Influence really introduced the incarnational church concept to evangelicalism at large. Published in 2000, this book chronicled the experiences of the 2500 member Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, AR. Lewis states that by any standard, "anyone observing our growing church would probably have characterized it as a great success . . . .but even with all our advances over ten years, we were still little more than a stranger to our community."

Needless to say, a mega-church admitting failure to impact its surroundings grabbed much attention from the wider evangelical world, and Lewis' prescription for Fellowship, described in "guidebook" fashion for others to follow, earned the applause of many across the theological spectrum (Try to find another book that carries the reccomendations of both Thom Rainer and Brian McLaren on the back cover!) I believe the warm reception of this book by the church at large was due in large part to a yearing for a better way to judge "success." Other works, such as Milfred Minetrea's Shaped by God's Heart, and Frost and Hirsh's The Shaping of Things to Come, have further encouraged pastors and church leaders to think, act, and measure success in a "missional" way.

Even the most committed denominational employee would have to admit that while the Annual Church Profile our Southern Baptist churches fill out each year can track all the tangible "vital statistics," it was never designed, and therefore not presently equipped, to measure cultural impact. Yet to focus on the numerical to the point that examining obedience to Matthew 5:13-16 is excluded leaves church leaders with merely a truncated picture of what is really happening in their congregations. My proposal here is for another instrument of sorts that along with the ACP's numerical trackings can detect the level of spiritual growth and cultural impact. But what categories would one choose to measure such things? It is at this juncture that Johnathan Edwards' picture of true revival becomes helpful, as given in his 1741 book The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.

The original context of the book is that of a theological reflection on both the good and bad aspects of what has become known as America's "First Great Awakening." Much of the revival spirit of that era could find its origins in Edwards' pulpit ministry in Northampton, Massachussetts. In the midst of all that was happening, Edwards saw the neccesity of teaching his church how to discern a genuine work of the Holy Spirit from its demonic replication. Edwards sincerely believed that the latter was possible even in the midst of an authentic revival. The book begins with what Edward's refers to as the via negationis (way of negation) in which he describes activities and events that in and of themselves do not prove or disprove that a genuine work of revival is evident. These included emotionalistic behavior in worship, intense but short-lived zeal, robust discussion about the Christian faith, and the dread of judgement and hell which came on those who heard these Biblical truths proclaimed. Edwards' contention is that it is possible for all these things to be happening outside the context of Holy Spirit revival.

And even today, it must honestly be stated that the most intense and emotional worshipper may in fact be worshipping the worship rather than God. Zeal for service can just as easily be motivated by pity for the less fortunate as it can by a vision for the greatness of God to be known among the nations. Deep theological discussions can, quite frankly, cause more division about the minutae of what some believe to be axiomatic than they cause a sense of awe toward the God who reveals such truth. And many have responded to the Gospel call in a disengenuous fashion that is based on a fear of spending eternity in hell. As a result, they miss real salvation by neglecting to realize that hell is exactly where they deserve to go, and subsequently miss out on the godly, faith-filled sorrow that leads to repentance from sin toward God.

So then what are the bona fide evidences of revival? The answer to this question is an important one of which to take note, because interestingly enough, Edwards' view of a genuine work of the Holy Spirit coincides to a large degree with what many today are claiming that a missional church looks like. And its no small wonder. After all, the work of the church is ultimately that which is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, my contention is that churches should determine how to measure the following factors that Edwards claimed over 250 years ago as vindicating the Spirit's work in their midst:

1. An elevated Esteem for Christ. The chief ministry of the Holy Spirit is to bring people to the Son of God. Therefore, truly missional churches will by nature lift up the virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death, bodily ressurrection, and literal return of Jesus Christ, and will apply these truths to every area of life. Alluding to 1 John 4:3, Edwards claimed that "antichrists" don't always vehemently oppose Christ, but they certainly take every opportunity to minimize either His person, His work, or both. Churches that desire to fulfill a missional vision must start here. Mark Driscoll has rightly observed that "everything, reformission included, begins and ends with [Jesus]. . . .and as we read of Jesus' involvement in culture, we see a free and radical God whose life is so shocking that it is self-evident that the story is true, because no one in their right mind could make it up." As you seek to discover the level of missional involvement in your congregation, ask youself if the desire to lift up the Son of Man to draw all unto Himself is genuinely at the focal point of your mission and vision.

2. Operations against the Interersts of Satan's Kingdom. The Spirit of God works against sin, and all true revivals check and curb sinful behavior. If you hear a man speaking in tongues in a church service, and then witness him use that same tongue for vain and useless profanity at lunch, you can rest assured that whatever happened in that church service was NOT a genuine work of God! When a pastor blesses God during his message only to curse his family at the dinner table, serious doubts about the work of the Holy Spirit in his life are warranted! During the Awakening of Edwards, bars and brothels were closed, not because of political pressure or city ordinances, but because of the sorrow of the culture over their sin that came as a result of a similar sorrow within the churches. The impact that the Northampton Church had on its surroundings resulted in a remarkably changed culture! With this in view, it must be asked: What is the level of genuine and continuing repentance and brokenness before God in your congregations? And how does this level of repentance affect the surrounding culture? Are the actions within the church causing repentance outside the church?

3. A Greater Regard for the Scriptures. During periods of genuine revival, people realize that the Bible is the Word of God, and this results in their seeking direction from it. Dr. Jerry Cooper, Senior Pastor of the church where my wife and I are members, expresses it simply, yet profoundly when he says to me that his one goal for his flock is "to get everybody to obey the Bible." Edwards believed that if this was ever acheived within the life of a church, it was a sure sign that the Holy Spirit was at work. In the words of Milfred Minetrea, does your church produce disciples who not only know the Bible, but obey it?

4. Discernment between Light and Darkness. Edwards rightly asserted that one cannot be a part of the cause of Christ and despise truth. A sign of a church that is truly committed to carry out His commands is people who love the truth too much, and find the truth too neccesary to avoid it. Yet if this is an essential aspect of what it means to be "missional," many churches are nowhere near the mark. A recent survey of congregations by Doctor of Ministry students at one Southern Baptist seminary revealed that over 40% believe "good people go to heaven, whether or not they have a relationship to Jesus Christ." To judge the missional success of your church, there must be a way to measure whether the congregation is wholly committed to those truths which themselves form the foundation of missional enterprise.

5. A Spirit of Love to God and Man. Edwards believed that during genuine revival, God makes the soul to long after Him, and that this same longing resulted in a Holy Spirit-inspired quelling of contentions among men. In other words, Edwards taught that a genuine love for God spills over into a genuine love for others that is ultimately manifest in service to them. To judge the missional success of your church, you must determine how to measure the level of fellowship between God and the congregation, as well as the level of fellowship between all the members of the congregation. There must also be a way to trace the holistic ministries of the church back to this spirit of love.

As one looks back on these five "markers," it becomes evident that much of what Edwards described as evidence of genuine revival is synonymous with what many missional leaders today see as the marks of a healthy and growing church. Rather than high attendance, the missional church measures the heights to which Christ is lifted in the lives and worship of its members. Rather than reactions to sinful behavior, the missional church measures how effective it has been at squelching such behavior within its own context. Rather than merely counting the number of holistic ministries, the missional church uses the standard set in Deuteronomy 6:4 as a measuring tool for judging their congregation's love for God, and the subsequent concerns of poverty, equality and social justice that emerge from such love.

In changing his church's measuring stick of success, Robert Lewis believes Fellowship Bible Church reconnected "with a long-neglected part of our Christianity: the part that believes that the Great Commandment to 'love your neighbor as yourself' (MAtthew 22:39) is just as essential to the spread of the Gospel and to the sanctification of church members as the Great Commission (MAtthew 28:18-20). Coupled with Edwards' observations on revival, one comes to understand rather quickly that such a shift in thinking, as well as the accompanying impact such a shift has on the church and its community, could only be a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit. Therefore, in seeking a way to measure an effective "missional" church, it is incumbent upon us to listen afresh to the man Samuel Davies called "the greatest divine that America has ever produced."

Charles Colson states that "the western church, much of it drifting, enculturated, and infected with cheap grace, desparately needs to hear Edward's challenge." And the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asserted that "no man is more relevant to the present condition of Christianity than Jonathan Edwards." After my reflections this week, I join these men in calling all who would listen to find the heart of what it means to be missional, not from the latest offering from Emergent or the next Mars Hill conference, but from an antiquated pulpit in Northampton.