Monday, September 29, 2014

Mission Monday: Michael Frost on Listening to Your Community

"Felt needs" has always been a somewhat controversial concept in evangelicalism, and when the issue is discussed, the "heat" is usually generated by the most extreme expressions of both sides.  On one end of that spectrum are those who chafe at any mention of "scratching where people itch," suggesting that we "just need to preach the Gospel."  On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe the church should always be in the business of giving its community whatever the community wants.

As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The following clip is from a message preached by Australian missiologist Michael Frost three years ago at Exponential.  I was present for the entire message, and found what he said to be greatly helpful, especially to a western church that too often presumes it has the answers.  And the result is that we often address questions our culture isn't even asking.  Frost's personal story in this clip about American missionaries seeking to engage Australians is particularly convicting.

Approaching any community from the standpoint of a learner is the first step to meaningful engagement.  Enjoy the brief insight this clip provides as to what this posture looks like.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Theology Thursday: Monotheism is Not Enough

"You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble."  -James 2:19

I'm excited that our churches are participating in the upcoming Summit on Faith and Culture!  In our current global environment of civil unrest, ethnic strife and religious misunderstanding, there is no better time for an event that allows us to understand and be understood.  Sometimes I'm asked "why would you invite Jews and Muslims to a conference like this and allow them to talk about their faith? And why isn't this an 'evangelistic' meeting so we can try to bring them to faith in Jesus?"  The answer is quite simple.  Followers of Jesus aren't just called to make disciples.  We are also commanded to work toward environments that promote peace and mutual understanding. (Romans 12:18).  Over the past several years, I've met many friends who subscribe to Jewish and Muslim faith who also want to work toward that environment.  If I am to obey Jesus, I have no choice but to say "yes."

Furthermore, our faiths have much in common when it comes to the practical concerns of life.  During this summit, we will talk about how to stand for each other's religious freedom, how to promote economic justice, and how to combat human trafficking.  And our common concern in these areas is fueled by our common belief in a personal God who created people in His image and likeness, and who desires to bring infinite justice to the world He created.  A friend of mine said to me not long ago, "You guys are forming a monotheistic justice league!"

I'm not so sure about that.

At the same time, we are going to take some time to be fully candid with each other about our differences.  We can work together on a lot of issues where we have commonality, but our differences  are vast and irreconcilable.  I've said many times that I don't believe in "tolerance," because my friends in other faiths deserve more than that.  They deserve my unconditional friendship.  Well, genuine, true friends are honest with each other when they differ--especially when their differences have such eternal consequences.  But occasionally I get a question along the lines of "Why would you even mention your differences in a summit like this?  Why not just talk about where we agree?  Don't we all ultimately worship the same God?  Why not just see our monotheism as sufficient to hold us together?"

My answer to that question is also very simple.  Monotheism is not enough.

To be sure, James' exhortation above praises belief in only one God.  Its certainly the only true starting point for understanding truth and living in freedom.  "You believe that God is one; you do well," James tells us.  No doubt this Jewish apostle from the tribe of Judah has in mind the Ten Commandments, along with the context in which they were given.  God through Moses had just delivered His people out of slavery in Egypt, brought them out into the desert, parted the Red Sea to let them cross, and then drowned their captors.  And here they were in the Sinai wilderness, free for the first time in 400 years.

Problem is, freedom is pretty useless if you don't know how to live as a free person.  And no one among this group had ever seen freedom, or had known anyone who had lived in freedom.  They now have to be taught by a gracious God to live in the freedom they have just been granted, and to enable that freedom, God gives Moses the 10 Commandments.  And the first sets for us the starting point for living in freedom:

"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me."  -Exodus 20:1-2

The Israelites had been surrounded for four centuries by people who worshipped multiple gods.  The more gods you have, the more you have to serve, the more offerings you have to give, the harder you have to work--and at the end of the day, you are merely working to please the air.  Polytheism is the clearest example of what it looks like to live in spiritual slavery.  Freedom on the other hand, begins with realizing that there is one, and only one God.  Therefore, the highest duty of human beings is to know that God, and worship Him.

But to know Him in the sense that James describes is not necessarily to truly worship Him.  James continues with this warning: "The devils also believe, and tremble."  Satan himself is a monotheist.  He too believes in the existence of only one God, and he knows from his own experience as a defeated vasal the magnitude and glory of his own Creator.  But that knowledge by itself doesn't bring Satan to worship.  It doesn't redeem him.  It gives him no hope.  Because again, monotheism is not enough.

This text is of course couched within a large section where the Apostle deals with the relationship between saving faith and works of righteousness.  Faith without works, James tells us, is dead.  It is fictitious.  It isn't the sort of faith that saves.  1500 years after James, John Calvin would comment on these words with the following phrase; "Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone!"  But what kind of faith is it that James contends produces the good works of which he speaks?  The answer is in verse 23; "and the Scripture was fulfilled that says "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to Him as righteousness.'"

In other words, Abraham didn't just believe in one God.  He believed Him earnestly and perceived him rightly, and this faith is what produced the works which James says vindicated his relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

On November 16, three groups of people--all of whom hold to a deep and sincere faith--will converge to speak honestly with each other.  Its what friends do.  We all believe in one God, but we perceive Him in very different ways.  He is either a Trinity or He is not.  Jesus is either God or He is not. You don't have to believe in the Trinity, or the deity of Jesus to love people and do some great things in the service of humanity.  My Jewish and Muslim friends prove that.  But being in a right relationship with God that secures your eternity is a quite different matter.  And where our perceptions of God are concerned, eternal souls hang in the balance.

This is why we develop the maturity to maintain friendships while speaking openly and honestly about our differences. We want peace.  We want friendship.  And we want to work together in areas where we agree and can have a meaningful impact.  But if we truly love each other, we will also talk about our differences, even  if we have to navigate being uncomfortable to do so.

Because monotheism is not enough.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mission Monday: Speculative Theology and the Great Commission

On October 3, "Left Behind" will debut in theaters across America, and its release will prompt a fresh discussion among evangelicals about our view of the end times.  Additionally, the movie will encourage general discussion about what happens after we die, who goes to heaven, and how they get there.  These are very important subjects, and for that reason, I'm thankful followers of Jesus can use popular movies to talk to their non-Christian friends about the Gospel.

I just hope that's what actually happens.

Full disclosure:  The "Left Behind" movie is based on a particular view of the end times that I don't personally share.  I'm not a Dispensationalist, so while I believe the end of the age will include mass numbers of our Jewish friends coming to realize who their Messiah is, I don't see a distinction in the text between Israel as a nation-state and the church.  Consequently, I don't believe in a pre-tribulational "rapture" of the church.  So it would be easy for someone with my bias to simply dismiss films like this as a waste of time.  But I know too many good and godly pastors whose eschatology matches that of the upcoming film--serious students of Scripture whose theology is far deeper than celluloid and who have a genuine heart for Jesus and the Gospel, and who will use films like this as opportunities to share their faith, and encourage others to do so.

Speculative theology isn't wrong, so long as we realize and admit that it is speculative.  But when it is used in the wrong way, the results can be detrimental to the Great Commission.  For example, if I spend more time pontificating on who the "elect" are than I do calling them out of lostness and into the light of the Gospel, then I've allowed my speculation to devolve into outright disobedience.

This is a particularly dangerous prospect in our current world, where over the last year world events have been the catalyst for heightened discussions about the end of the age.  When does the "rapture" take place?  Who is "the beast" of Revelation 13?  What is the nature of the millennium?  All Scripture is inspired and profitable, which makes these questions valid and worth exploring.  But when set against a 2000-year history that includes three different millennial views, four different interpretive approaches to Revelation, and at least two different perceptions of the prophetic significance of the nation of Israel, we should all hold our opinions loosely.  Otherwise, we risk being driven by speculation rather than by Scripture.  Deuteronomy 29:29 states that "the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever."  In short, explore the unclear, but not at the expense of disobeying the clear!

How should we strike that balance?  I offer the following four principles.

1. Your Primary motivation should be making disciples.  At the end of the day, if speculation about unclear doctrines is more important to you than making disciples of Jesus, you are in a very bad place.  What good does it do to try and identify the antiChrist if you aren't sharing the Gospel so people won't follow him?

Where end times teaching is concerned, it is helpful to remember that these prophecies were originally given to a severely persecuted church as a tool of encouragement.  When Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he speaks of the end when those who have passed away prior to the coming of Jesus will be called out of their graves, after which those in Christ who are still alive will join them in the air, being "caught up" (the phrase that translates the greek term from whence comes the Latin concept of the "rapture") to meet the Lord Himself.  He then concludes "therefore, comfort one another with these words."  I've quoted from that passage at innumerable gravesides for exactly that reason!  Studying the Scriptures to discern when this event might take place (before or after the tribulation, for example) is to seek answers to a legitimate question.  But ultimately, these words are given to suffering people for comfort, not speculation.

Eschatology, like any other Biblical subject, is given for the ultimate purpose of making followers of Jesus more like Jesus.  And we don't look very much like Jesus when we are drawing prophecy charts and fighting with each other.

2. You should have a Passion for all people to hear and respond to the Gospel. Since 1948, differences of opinion have existed between Bible-believing Christians as to whether the re-instatement of Israel is a prophetically significant event.  I have many academic colleagues and fellow pastors who are convinced that this is the case.  Count me among those who have our doubts about that assertion.  But since 1830, dispensational and covenantal interpreters of Scripture  have both faithfully proclaimed the Gospel and made disciples.  The problems occur at the extremes of these views.

On the dispensational end of the spectrum, the problem is a kind of Zionism that presents a God who "plays favorites" where the Jews are concerned--to the extent that utter hatred is expressed toward any other Semitic peoples in the middle-east, including many of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Gaza, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.  On the Covenantal end, the problem is a move from seeing the promises of God in the Old Testament as fulfilled in both Jews and Gentiles, to a hermeneutic that sees Gentiles as fully replacing the Jews.  The anti-Semitism that sometimes results from this view is quite frightening.

The bottom line is this:  Both Testaments clearly state that God is not finished with ethnic Israel, and that there is coming a day when great numbers of them will recognize their true Messiah.  I long for that day.  But the same Bible that makes these promises to the sons and daughters of Isaac also clearly reveals a God who loves the sons of Ishmael (see Genesis 16!).  I am for all groups finding Jesus.

3. You must maintain a conviction that all must respond to the Gospel.  Here is where I"m going to speak candidly for a bit.  If you listen to John Hagee, stop!  There is only one label that can be given to a man who has publicly said that sharing the Gospel with our Jewish friends is a waste of time and has intimated that they do not need the Gospel to be saved--and that label is "false prophet." And false-prophecy is always and exactly the result of allowing speculative teaching to overtake the clear teaching of Scripture.

I can work with any follower of Jesus who differs with me on the prophetic significance of Israel as a nation-state.  But I can't work with you if you talk more about Israel than you do Jesus.  Neither ethnicity, or nationality gets you into heaven.  Getting there takes bowing before the reality of a bloody cross and an empty tomb!  Christians have disagreed for centuries about less perspicuous prophetic texts, but Acts 4:12 has never been in dispute!

4. You must remember that its all about Jesus.  Personally, I am wary of any Bible teacher from any school of thought who is not actively sharing his faith with others.  I've known men who spent inordinate amounts of time seeking to "fit" Communism within some prophetic scheme, but who have never crossed an ocean to actually engage someone of that mindset with the Gospel.  I know men who say similar things about Islam, but have spent very little time actually getting to know Muslims. In the end, all my prophetic speculation does nothing to get those people any closer to Jesus, and the last time I read Matthew 28, this was my primary mandate.  So as I explore Biblical prophecy, I need to do so with the realization that all those world events we speculate on have Jesus at the center.  If you don't get to the Gospel, your speculation isn't just useless.  Its sinful.

I don't know exactly how history will end.  But I do know the One who wrote out history before it began.  I may be wrong about the rapture.  Perhaps we will miss the tribulation, or maybe we will go through it.  I don't know.  But I do know that no matter who is right, Jesus gives us the joy to be content regardless of our circumstances.  I have no idea who the antiChrist is.  But I know who Christ is!  So sure, let's have some serious conversations about unclear texts, but let's be sure we don't do it at the expense of our clear mission.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Theology Thursday: Why the days of "Proof-Texting" are Over, and Why They Should Be!

When it comes to the discussion of homosexuality, our culture has rejected a flat, plain reading of Leviticus 18:22 for sometime now. And even Bible-believing followers of Jesus who reject homosexual behavior as sinful should agree with that rejection!  The fact that most don't actually says more about the maturity of our theological method than it does culture's rejection of the Word of God.

To be sure, those who hold a high view of Scripture will simply find it impossible to reconcile its teachings with the belief that sexual activity of any sort outside the Biblical boundaries of permanent, heterosexual marriage is OK.  The problem isn't our firm belief in our authority source.  Its in our approach to our authority source.

In light of this observation, I was delighted to read this post yesterday, penned by the President of my alma mater.  Entitled "Biblical Theology and the Sexuality Crisis," the article rightly points to an immaturity of approach where our interpretation of the Scriptures are concerned.  Though there are many examples of how such "proof-texting" takes place, Dr. Mohler uses the most clear example from our recent discussions on sexuality, and in particular, gay relationships.

I appreciate Mohler's approach in calling believers back to an understanding of Scripture as encased in a clear narrative, and how that narrative can be employed to interpret particular passages, separate culturally and covenantally-bound commands from their eternal principles, and arrive at a much more robust description and defense of Biblical teaching.

The simple fact is that if I'm still eating pork BBQ, or sporting a tattoo anywhere on my body, I look more than a little ridiculous to the gay community if my entire case against their behavior is limited to quoting an obviously covenantally-bound text within an obviously temporary covenant.  On the other hand, when this particular command is compared with similar statements in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, and all are understood in a consistent fashion within the over-arching meta-narrative of the Gospel as clearly told in Scripture, it takes an incredible amount of interpretive acrobatics to arrive at any other conclusion than the sexual ethic which has been held by the Christian church for the past 2000 years.

The same principle holds true when we move beyond the discussion of sexual ethics to cover any number of other issues where the church has, until very recently in the west, had long-settled opinions.  Quoting single "chapter and verse" texts not only doesn't help our message, in many cases it presents an incomplete and therefore inaccurate message.  We must, as Mohler contents, tell the "whole story."

I greatly appreciate this post, and pray it will be widely read by the body of Christ in the west.  And again, it can be found here. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mission Monday: Putting the "Personal" Back into Personal Evangelism

If our culture has excelled at anything over the past decade, its polarization.  Offending someone is perhaps the easiest exercise in the west, and navigating conversation, let alone deeper relationship, without making someone angry can be a great challenge.

Even among the body of Christ, the tiniest disagreement can turn into a great offense.  Last week is a great (or maybe horrible) example of this.  I made a public statement about supporting Israel, but criticized some of their recent actions.  While most of the interaction was civil and appreciated, a few vitriolic Zionists accused me of being anti-Semitic.  Meanwhile, more strict Covenantal thinkers accused me of compromising the Gospel because I would be in favor of the continued existence of the Jewish state.  "Hot button" issues sometimes build their deepest heat within the body of Christ.

And this kind of polarization gets worse when we move outside the body to interact with the larger world.  On November 16, various religious, cultural and political leaders will be joining together for the Mid-Atlantic Summit on Faith and Culture.  In helping put this conference together, I've been accused of compromising the Gospel by my willingness to appear publicly alongside leaders of other faiths.  I've also been chastised by those in the wider culture who think I'm too "narrow," because while in the presence of those leaders, I'm not shy about my belief that salvation only comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

The labels we apply to people often don't help matters either.  "Democrat," "Liberal," "Fundamentalist," "Homophobe," "Tea Party," "Pervert," "Muslim," "Republican," and a host of other terms immediately stir strong feelings. And in the midst of this polarized world, very little actual evangelism actually happens because we are too concerned with "what it would look like" if we actually crossed an aisle to befriend someone on the other side.

I"m sure glad Jesus didn't do that.  Otherwise, we all might be burning in hell right now!

And the truth is, Jesus didn't do that.  He didn't stand on the precipice of heaven and preach a sermon of condemnation.  Instead, He became a man, incarnating Himself among people who were in no way like He was.  He lived among us for more than three decades, and then offered His life as a ransom for sinners.  Then post-resurrection, he says this to His disciples: "As the Father has sent me, so also so I send you." (John 20:21)

In other words, Jesus' ministry was personal, and if we want to be servants who truly follow our Master with the same effectiveness, we need to put the "personal" back into personal evangelism!  That requires a few things though:

1. Unconditional Friendships:  I direct cultural engagement and evangelism for a religious denomination made up of more than 560 churches, and with my heavy work schedule among our churches, I still manage to spend as much time outside my work with non-Christians as I do with followers of Jesus.  Our kids play together, we share meals with each other, and we get to know each other.  Would I like them to know Jesus as I know Him?  Of course!  But that isn't going to happen if I turn every relationship I have with a non-Christian into a "project."  Sometimes I get the impression from believers--even pastors--that if I can't get someone converted in a short amount of time that continuing to share life in relationship with them is a waste of time.

That attitude makes me very sad, especially when I consider that Jesus Himself walked with unbelievers for a long period of time. The span of time between "follow me," and "you are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" was more than just a few days, and as it turns out, one of those guys wasn't even a real follower after all.  Yet he was present for Jesus' very last meal, and the Lord dismissed him in great sorrow.  That is how Jesus treated someone who betrayed Him!  And we aren't even willing to be friends with people simply because they believe differently than us? If you want to know why the church in the west is on a steep decline, this may indeed be one of the reasons!

When you share your faith, it should be more than a sales pitch.  You should be expressing the deepest and most profound part of your being, and that doesn't happen at its fullest outside the context of intimate friendships.  If we don't care if our friends come to faith in Christ, then we don't truly love them.  But if our friendships are conditioned on whether they make that decision, then they aren't really friends at all.  They are just "projects."

2. Seeing People as People.  Every person on the planet is far more than any label that could be attached to them.  If you are a Democrat, you tend to see every Republican in a certain way.  If you are on one side of an issue, and discover someone else is on the other side, both our culture and the church encourage you to keep your distance.

Again, I'm sure glad that wasn't what Jesus did!

Non-Christians, to put it bluntly, are going to have VERY different understandings of a LOT of things than I have.  But when I look at that guy in my neighborhood who practices Wicca, I see a guy who shares my concerns about the neighborhood's future development.  I see a guy who wants to provide for his family and keep his children safe just like I do.  Similarly, I meet with a close Muslim friend of mine about twice a month.  When we sit down together, I don't see only Islam.  I see a guy who made it to the United States, is thankful for the educational and vocational opportunities here that have allowed him to build a family.  The last time we were together, we talked about his plans to buy a home in the near future.  The gay couple at my kids' school?  Yep, we treat them the same way.

Sharing your faith, in most contexts, means sharing life.  And you can't share life if you don't see people, first and foremost, as merely people.  Be determined to look past the labels our culture puts on us.

3. Start your story in the right place.  If the Christian narrative is to be told accurately, it will involve four "chapters," all of which pop clearly out of the text of Scripture:  Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.  The biggest problem I've seen in modern evangelicalism is that we tend to start the story with chapter two.  I'll elaborate more on this in a subsequent post, but for now, I'll just say that when sharing your faith and connecting it with the larger Christian meta-narrative, make sure you start the story in the right place!

To be sure, we can't skip chapter two and still be faithful to Jesus' message.  We are--ALL of us from birth--separated from fellowship with our Creator, and because from the moment we are volitionally able we willfully rebel against Him, we all begin this life at odds with One who promises ultimate justice.  Without that hard truth, redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus in "chapter three" makes no sense.

But the Christian story doesn't start in Genesis 3.  It starts in Genesis 1 with both out parents being created in the very image and likeness of God.  Though that image has been shattered by the fall, it remains indelibly on each of us--believer and non-believer.  So before I see any other label on another person, I need to see a label that reads "image-bearer of God."  Compassion, love, understanding, and a willingness to walk alongside them in life as Jesus did for us all come from that recognition.

In a world in which various factions are increasingly isolating themselves from the others, perhaps the most counter-cultural thing that can be done by followers of Jesus is to cross those barriers that our culture, and unfortunately many in the church, believe to be uncrossable.  Jesus has already bridged the most impossible gap in the universe--the gap between a just God and those He created who rebelled against Him.  When we intentionally cross barriers to build relationships and demonstrate love to those not like us, we mirror what He has already done for us, and what we hope He will do for them.

But to get this done, we must put the "personal" back into "personal evangelism."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

It Takes One to Know One: Evangelical Media and the Plague of Adolescent Discourse

"Duck Dynasty star on Muslims: 'Convert them or kill them,'" read the headline of Jonathan Merritt's social media post last week.  The post contained a link to a Religion News Service article describing Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson's recent appearance with FOX News host Sean Hannity, in which the two discussed how the US and others should respond to the threat now posed to the world by the group known as ISIS.

While RNS deserves credit for a more accurate title than that given by Merritt, any intelligent person should really be asking why this is news.  But more importantly, there are far more serious issues facing the world right now, and Merritt and RNS should recognize that such nonsense is the kind of thing only printed on a slow news day.  And our world hasn't seen one of those in quite some time.

Of course, this isn't the first time Phil Robertson has been at the center of controversy.  The plain-spoken and sometimes graphically offensive founder of a multi-million dollar duck-call company can always be counted on to speak his mind, even if what's on it makes some people wretch.  I've winced myself a few times after hearing him speak, knowing that a more winsome and engaging approach might be more profitable.  But after four seasons on TV, anyone expecting this guy to be erudite just isn't living in the real world.

Phil Robertson is rough around the edges.  If that statement strikes you as "breaking news," journalism probably shouldn't be your chosen profession.

But once you get past the rough exterior to the substance of what the man actually said on the show, there is nothing any good Christian, Muslim, or anyone else of goodwill would take exception to.  For one, the subject of the segment was ISIS (a group that has brutally murdered many Muslims in addition to Christians, Yazidis, et al), not Muslims in general.  Speaking of that group, Robertson clearly stated that his preference would be to open a Bible and share the love of Jesus with them.  I agree.  He also stated that if they continue with their violence they should be eliminated.  I agree with that too, and so do many of my friends who also happen to be Muslim.

Anyone who has followed my ministry over the past four years is aware that I've developed some dear friendships with Muslims in this area, and other places around the world.  I've also  taken quite a bit of heat from a few in my own tribe for those friendships, so it should go without saying that I'm sensitive toward anything that might misrepresent my friends.  I don't believe their faith leads to eternal life, but stereotyping people you don't agree with and making them look as bad as possible is not an effective way to be friends or share your faith.  So you can bet if Phil Robertson had said what Jonathan Merritt claimed he said, I would have been the first to condemn the remarks.

Problem is, that's not what he said at all.  Could he have worded his statements better?  Of course.  But the man was simply expressing the sentiment that while he'd rather make peace and share his faith, he was also ready to defend himself and his family.  Unless you are a pacifist who thinks it is morally superior to watch your wife and children brutalized while you do nothing to stop the perpetrators, you shouldn't have a problem with this either.

What we should have a problem with are religion reporters who morally equivocate between a man who should have chosen his words more carefully and a gang of mostly British punks who are cutting off the heads of women and children--and making such an equivocation in an apparent effort to create something "newsworthy."  The result is to paint a false picture of "Christian vs. Muslim" toward which you feign opposition, when in reality, your misrepresentation of another stirs waters that were still before you stepped into them.

This is the point where the adolescent behavior of some in today's media becomes clear.  Our world is currently filled with  violence and unrest that we should take with deadly seriousness.  The ebb and flow of the Israel/Gaza conflict, the war at the Ukranian border, a civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, and the various responses to all of the above by various European players should be enough to grab anyone's attention.  Throw in the very real possibility of another terrorist attack on American soil connected to any one or combination of these issues, and a world war scenario becomes a very real possibility.  History demonstrates that prior global conflicts have erupted from far cooler environments than the one in which we now find ourselves.

In times like these, followers of Jesus should be doing all we can to make peace.  And we should be praying for our leaders, and urging them to act in accordance with Biblical principles of justice.  Where ISIS is concerned, we are beyond the question of whether the use of deadly force is necessary to turn back their evil.  But the question of who should dispense that force, how it should be done, and with whom they should cooperate are far more complex questions, and those who govern followers of Jesus deserve more than "click bait" from religious media.  In this context, we need our media outlets and columnists talking to us and our leaders in a way that expounds on a long and faithful history of just war concepts.  Some politicians in recent years have so twisted the concept that virtually no one in American Christianity knows what it means anymore.  And this is a horrible context for that sort of ignorance to be so prevalent.

In other words, we have real problems to discuss.  We don't have time for the cosmetic ones.  So perhaps those who claim to write on behalf of Christ-followers should be less concerned with parsing the cumbersome words of a Louisiana duck hunter, and spend a little more time examining those left to us by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Such is what we call "adult conversation."  And with the condition our world is in, we need that now more than ever.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Remembering Truett Cathy

Normally, Mondays here at the site are dedicated to various perspectives on evangelism and missions.    Most of the time those perspectives are shared through the lens of well-known missiologists and preachers, but this morning, in light of the sad news of the passing of Truett Cathy, I want to focus on those like him who work behind the scenes in ways that won't be given their deserved recognition until that day when all of us stand before Jesus.

Many years ago as a brand new father, my wife and I took our now-teenage son to a chapel service at my alma mater of Southern Seminary to be introduced to the seminary community.  It was a very special hour of watching faculty, staff and fellow students offer prayers for my infant son.  As we were exiting the building that day, an older man walked up to me, shook my hand, and pressed something into it, saying "congratulations son!  You are now a wealthy man, and I hope you and your bride can use these to celebrate."  In the parking lot, I opened my hand to find what would amount to a month's worth of complimentary meals at Chick-fil-A, and learned later that the man who gave us that gift was the founder of the restaurant chain himself.

It was that spirit of generosity that characterized the man.  For most in this generation, the Cathy family and their restaurant chain are associated with public statements about marriage and boycotts, but this family and its patriarch were serving Jesus long before their business unintentionally found itself at the center of the American culture wars.

Chick-fil-A is the epitome of an American success story.  Starting with a single, small store in 1946, Cathy grew his business into a national franchise that today is worth more than $5 billion--and he managed to pull this off without taking the company public, or making his employees work on Sunday.  Though he was never afraid to speak his mind, Cathy's commitment to Jesus Christ was best expressed by his fulfillment of his own calling in the restaurant and customer service business.  Today, when most think of "calling" they think either of pastoral ministry or Christian missionary work.  But by his actions, Truett Cathy demonstrated his deep understanding of the true meaning of "vocation;" a call from God on each person to fulfill his or her purpose in a way that brings glory to Jesus.  The company's own mission statement still reflects this understanding:  "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us, and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A."

That mission was executed, not by turning the restaurant chain into a "Christian" business, but simply by running a solid, faithful, profitable company that served the public, provided jobs and benefits to communities, and donated millions to charity.  Truett Cathy never sold "Christian chicken," but the work ethic, generosity, servant's attitude and love of Jesus Himself permeated the organization all the way down to each employee, who was trained to take pleasure in serving others.

When I speak to our churches about what "missions" will look like in the future, the picture I draw looks an awful lot like the life Truett Cathy lived.  What if every businessman, every public educator, every health-care worker, every engineer, every farmer, every politician, and every artist who follows Jesus saw their "vocation" as Truett Cathy rightly saw his?  The world would be forever changed!  As those who knew him and knew of him mourn his passing, perhaps the best way to honor him is to emulate his example.  It would also be a great way to honor His Lord, and promote the faith that now gives us the assurance of where Truett Cathy will spend eternity.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Why "Celebrity Pastors" Aren't Really the Problem

There is a legend that has survived for around 30 years in my denomination.  Like a lot of legends, I'm not sure if this conversation actually happened, but it makes for a good story nonetheless.  Rumor has it that a young aspiring preacher once approached Dr. Adrian Rogers--the famous and faithful pastor who served three terms as President of the Southern Baptist Convention--and said to him "Dr. Rogers, my goal is to be like you.  I want to preach to thousands every Sunday."  In response, Adrian Rogers said "young man, you don't know what you are asking for, nor do you know how much it will cost you."

This year has been a bad one for quite a number of well-known pastors and faith-leaders.  Most recently, Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll has taken quite a beating even from those within his own tribe in what is apparently a well-deserved period of scrutiny.  But Driscoll is not alone.  Ed Young Jr., John Piper, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Bill Hybels, Francis Chan and Billy Graham have all dealt with their own shares of sharp criticism from the public.  In fact, as I look back at that list of men and in particular view the wide theological diversity in that list, it appears that public criticism may be the only thing they all hold in common.  That, and the fact that all of them are well-known.

Which brings me to the subject of this post.  Regardless of theology, or even whether the criticism is legitimate, each and every time a very public pastor finds himself at the center of controversy, voices emerge from all around evangelicalism blaming the so-called "celebrity pastor" phenomenon as the culprit.  But perhaps the real problem isn't so much who is in the pulpit as it is those who occupy the seats.

The technology available to our generation through podcasts and vodcasts makes the popularity of certain preachers more visible and obvious than in past generations, but while the term "celebrity pastor" is somewhat new, the concept of well-known and admired preachers has been around since--well, the time of Jesus.  And from the Scriptures we know that before the end of the first century, Paul was having to deal with the negative consequences of those who seem to follow their favorite preacher more than Christ Himself.

Think about it this way.  The church at Corinth was witnessing sexual sin in their midst that would have made Jerry Springer blush! (5:1)  They were treating the Lord's Supper like an open bar at happy hour. (11:21)  Their worship looked less like a gathering of saints speaking truth, and more like godless pagans babbling incoherently. (14:26-40).  Yet with all those problems, the biggest threat Paul sees to this church--the thing that he chooses to address first--was the division among them that resulted from various groups of fan-boys.

"What I am saying is this: each of you says, 'I'm with Paul,' or 'I'm with Apollos,' or 'I'm with Cephas,' or 'I'm with Christ.'  Is Christ divided?  Was it Paul who was crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in Paul's name?"   -1 Corinthians 1:12-13

Does this sound familiar?

If Paul were writing this letter today and addressing it to the American church, do you think it might sound something like this?  What I am saying is this: each of you says "I'm with Driscoll,' or 'I'm with Ed Young,' or 'I'm with Albert Mohler,' or 'I'm with Paige Patterson.'  Were these men crucified for you?

Here's the thing.  I think its OK to admire a preacher.  I have a few myself who are regulars on my iPod.  I also think its natural to gravitate toward those well-known voices who best represent your own tribe and doctrinal persuasion.  The problem comes when our allegiance to a person divides us from other members of the body of Christ.  Trouble starts brewing at a church like Mars Hill, and all the Driscoll critics who have hated him for years yell "Fire him!" while those who have had a distant bromance with the guy scream that he's just being persecuted for "faithfully preaching the Gospel."  Next thing you know, twitter can't manage the traffic caused by followers of Jesus yelling at each other.  Then inevitably and predictably, someone steps forward and says "well, the real problem here is the whole 'celebrity pastor' thing."  But the 'celebrity' didn't start the fight.

Truth is, I've been truly blessed, inspired, and fed by Driscoll over the years.  There have also been times when I've turned him off because it became obvious to me that his own biases had clouded his exegesis. I could say the same thing about many other preachers, and I'm sure if asked, those who have sat under my preaching over the years would say the same thing about me.  

The bottom line is this:  No matter how popular a preacher is, no matter how many times his sermons get downloaded, the responsibility of Biblical discernment is the responsibility of those who listen.  If Osteen continues to perpetuate a message that sounds less like Jesus and more like Milton Friedman, its because people gave, people supported, people attended, and people refused to discern.  If Driscoll is indeed guilty of the abuses he's charged with and there are no consequences, it will be because people refused to discern.

Celebrity isn't the problem.  Lack of discernment is the problem.  And it begins when, as the Corinthians, we become more enamored with a man than with the message he is supposed to be preaching.