Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs—acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.
- President Obama, 2015 National Prayer Breakfast
In weeks one and two, I answered the questions “What is the gospel?” and “What is service?” As stated previously, my answers are not the right answers or the only answers or even the best answers – they are my answers.
What is the gospel?
“The gospel is an announcement of good news” and that announcement is that God has acted decisively in human history, in and through Jesus the Messiah, AND the unstoppable restoration of all things has begun!
What is service?
“Service is participating in the gospel.”
That leads to our third question “What is evangelism?”
To me, evangelism is inviting other people to believe the good news, to submit their lives to Jesus in response to the good news and to participate in the good news by serving others.
Early in my Christian walk, I was taught that evangelism was getting people to agree with me about certain propositions concerning God, Jesus, heaven, hell, sin and salvation. Equipped with a formula, a set of steps, a bridge diagram and a sinner’s prayer, I was taught to approach complete strangers and ask them intimate questions like, “If you died today, where do you think you would spend eternity?” This would set up the evangelistic event that could lead to their salvation.
Praise God, I’ve seen many people come to saving faith in Jesus as a result of the Spirit using that approach. And, yes, I do believe that such an approach is still appropriate today. It’s just less effective. The challenge is that even a simple question like “If you died today…” carries many assumptions that aren’t common assumptions today (post-Christendom) like they were before (Christendom). It assumes that people believe they will spend eternity somewhere, that they believe we have some say as to where that will be, but, that ultimately there is a God, of some sort, that will have the final say. In post-Christendom you have to do some work to get to a place where questions like that make sense to people.
In my experiences within post-Christendom, it is still easy to start a discussion about Jesus. He’s very well respected and almost universally affirmed when stripped of his institutional religious garb. This openness to Jesus provides a pathway to further discussion about who he is and what it means to follow him. This leads to opportunities to invite people to accept Jesus’ invitation into the Kingdom and to demonstrate how we live in submission to Jesus in that kingdom through serving others – even our enemies.
There is also a strong connection between service and evangelism. They go together. If we proclaim that Kingdom without modeling service, the proclamation will lose its power. If we model service, but don’t proclaim the Kingdom we are no different than any number of secular service agencies. As Christians, service and evangelism go together and come out of gospel.
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
- 2 Timothy 4:3 (NIV)
2 Timothy 4:3 is often pulled out in the church in discussions over contentious social issues. The charge is often leveled that, “you are just doing what the culture wants instead of standing for sound doctrine.” No doubt, if you’ve been around churches when things like the inclusion of gay people, or women’s role in ministry, or the age of the earth, you’ve likely heard one side, or the other or, perhaps, both sides say this.
In my experience, the usual direction of this comment is from those who occupy positions of power within the status quo towards those that are suggesting some change, or loosening, of current understandings and practices. For example, it is more common for a straight Christian who opposes LGBT inclusion or gay marriage to say to those who don’t, “You’re just going with the culture.” I’m not judging that in any way, just using it as an example from my experience.
It’s meant to be the ultimate insult. In effect the comment says, “You don’t care about sound doctrine, the Bible, Jesus or God…you can’t possibly have a well reasoned theological basis for your decision…of course you haven’t discerned the Spirit correctly because I doubt you’re even really a Christian…you are just doing what YOU want to do and caving to popular pressures from the world.”
That’s pretty heavy…”judgey”….stuff when you get down to it.
Here’s my question, which springs from an online discussion about a Nashville Evangelical Church (GracePointe Church) that came out as fully inclusive of LGBTQ people. Not too far down in the comments, someone pulled out 2 Timothy 4:3. This person accused the church – of which he’s not a part – of “simply tickling itching ears…” Having recently, over the past year, spent some time – not a lot, but some – in Nashville, I found this comment odd. To me, when it comes to Nashville, GracePointe Church is doing the exact opposite. Most of the ears I met in Nashville have no affinity for gay inclusion in the church. So, who’s ears are being tickled? Where’s the upside to full gay inclusion in Nashville? Seems to me like near universal scorn would be the result in that community.
So it brings me back to the text. Who are the ones that won’t put up with sound doctrine in the text? Is it the people outside of the church (i.e. teachers are tempted to play to the world over and against sound doctrine?) or is it the people inside the church (i.e. teachers are tempted to play to the church over and against sound doctrine?)? According to the text, it’s the latter. It’s people within the church that no longer suffer sound teaching. They just want to hear what makes them feel good, or “in”, or certain that they are right. The want teachers who will speak from a position of authority and echo what they already believe to be true. No challenge. No change. No discernment. No deeper exploration. People want to land at a church that reflects back to them what they already believe. That, my friends, is having your itching ears tickled.
So the question, for me, isn’t “Is church A or church B just teaching what people want to hear?” That is a never ending process of judgment and finger pointing. A better question is, “Am I the kind of Jesus-follower that can’t tolerate anything that I don’t already believe to be true?” If I am, then I’m holding God hostage to my already believed stuff about God. Then I’m the kind of Jesus-follower that seeks teachers who will itch my ear?
I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to being that kind of a teacher. I don’t want to be that kind of church.
[This article is article 2 in a 3 week series. It first appeared in print in January 25, 2015 edition of The Weekly, a weekly newsletter of MMC. You can read article one here]
In last week’s article I answered the question: What is the gospel? As I stated in the article, my answer is not the right answer or the only answer or even the best answer, it is my answer. My answer is this: “The gospel is an announcement of good news” and that announcement is that God has acted decisively in human history, in and through Jesus the Messiah, AND the unstoppable restoration of all things has begun!
That is good news to all things, including you and me. A personal response to the gospel is submitting to Jesus as your Savior and Lord. It happens when a sinner recognizes his or her need and submits to the unstoppable restoration of Jesus for their life. But it goes beyond that because we are submitting our lives to the one who came, not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. That shapes how we live as we submit to His Lordship. We don’t just take what we need from Jesus, we submit to Jesus as become like him by giving our lives in service to others. That leads to the question in this article.
“As simply as possible, what is service?”
Service is participating in the gospel.
I participate in the gospel when I submit my life to Jesus as Savior and Lord. Moreover, I participate in the gospel when I join God as God restores all things.
Consider this example. All around the world people are suffering in various ways for varied and complex reasons. Seeing the needs created by this suffering, people of faith create an organization called Mennonite Central Committee. MCC works to alleviate suffering around the world in the name of Jesus. A group of local Mennonites from various Mennonite/Anabaptist expressions decides they want to support that work of restoration. They decide to have a relief sale (i.e. a sale that provides relief to those who are suffering around the world). A group of people at a particular church decide they can contribute 100 pies to sell, with all the proceeds going to MCC. So, folks organize the pie baking, the pies are made and delivered, they are sold and the proceeds to to MCC. What is happening? The person rolling out pie crust in a church basement is serving those who suffer. Yes? And by doing so, they are also participating in the unstoppable restoration of all things.
What is service? It is seeing a need and responding to help meet that need. That is an act of restoration. That is what God is doing in the world in and through Jesus. Therefore, as you serve in the name of Jesus, you are participating in the unstoppable restoration of all things. In a tangible way, you are making the gospel real to the person you are serving.
I hesitate to say this out loud, but it is something that bothers me every time it happens. My words here are an honest reflection on how a particular comment I receive (semi-regularly) feels. My words are not meant as a slam to those who make this – or similar – comments. Those who say it are sincere. I love them. It’s just that, I’m not sure they know how disheartening their words – meant to encourage – really are.
Let me back up. I serve as pastor of an awesome church, filled with many of the best Jesus followers I’ve ever met and spent time with. They worship, lead, give and serve tirelessly and accomplish more for others than churches 5 times our size with 5 times our budget. BUT…we are an older, getting smaller, rural, Mennonite congregation.
Over my almost 20 years at MMC, I’ve witnessed people who were raised by this congregation leave here as they head to the congregation(s) down the road(s) The music is hipper, more people my age, varieties of programs a smaller church can’t accomplish, and so on and so on.
Here’s the comment:
Pastor, I just want you to know that I still consider Metamora Mennonite my church home.
It’s not always those exact words, but the sentiment is nearly always that. “I still consider Metamora Mennonite my church home.” Those seem like encouraging words. Sometimes they are – especially when the person saying it lives in another community or state or country. But when the person saying it lives near by, and they are choosing to go to another congregation, the positive sentiment is down-right frustrating.
When I hear it I often want to scream, “THEN COME HOME!” There are a lot of people at home that would love to throw you a welcome home party. They are the same people that changed your diapers when you were in the nursery, taught your Sunday school classes, played games with you at VBS, taught you the hand motions to “Deep and Wide”, led you on service trips, introduced you to Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah, Jonah, David, Mary, countless others and – most importantly – Jesus. They are the same people that pledged to have your back when you were baptized. And, by the way, you said you would have their back too. They still have your back and would welcome you back.
I guess I wonder what the sentiment accomplishes? “Pastor, I want you to know that I still consider MMC my church home.” To me, that would be a lot like me saying to my wife, “Melissa, I want you to know that I still consider you to be my wife,” as I leave her. And, to make matters worse, reminding her of that every time I happen to run into her. I think we’d all be better off just telling the truth. I’m choosing to be somewhere else with someone else. Yes, such truthfulness inflicts a deeply personal wound. But the wound is no less deep by pretending it isn’t happening. Why can’t we do that with our “home” church? Own the reality. Sometime I think the sentiment is intended to cover up the fact that leaving a church also inflicts a deeply personal wound. It is a way of pretending that it isn’t a big deal – but it really is. It would have a lot more integrity to say, “Pastor, I’m choosing to be somewhere else with someone else.” Then I could say, “I’ve noticed. We will miss you deeply. I wish you God’s best, and hope you are an engaged member of your new community for the glory of God.”
In the end, a faith community is not a group of folks that consider that community their home, but a group of folks that make that community their home by their presence.
I got my start in vocational Christian ministry in 1993. Back then people who started new, seeker-driven, contemporary churches would say, “We’re not your parents church!”
That’s a perfect message to Baby Boomers who had experienced the institutional church as dull, with nothing to say and an old way of saying it.
We’re not your parents church!
The new, seeker-driven, contemporary church approach worked to some degree. Baby Boomers did return to churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback and all their local incarnations. Now it is there children and grandchildren who are finding their parents (and grandparents) church as dull, with nothing to say and an old way of saying it. They are more critical of churches with professional stage lighting, fog machines, hi-tech video screens, and worship auditoriums with a platform or stage instead of a sanctuary and a pulpit. I often talk to young people who ask, “Is that – the whole big event show type worship service – really what Jesus had in mind?”
Pastoring a small, rural, Mennonite church that is pleasantly irrelevant (to me) by the world’s standards, I never thought I’d get to say, “We’re not your parents church!” But, alas, I think we can say it with some integrity.
If you parents attended a modern, contemporary, seeker-driven church we are decidedly NOT your parents church. I think that’s a good thing.
…it would be perfectly possible to change the entire contents of our beliefs without altering the way our beliefs function.
Take the example of someone who identifies as an evangelical Christian and for whom that belief acts as a type of emotional crutch. Let us imagine this person growing up in an overtly religious environment in which evangelical belief functioned primarily as a means of defining oneself over and against others.
If this belief is later rejected in favor of some other religious or political system, it might look like a fundamental change has taken place. However, at a structural level, these different beliefs will operate in broadly the same way as the old ones. Regardless of which view might provide a more accurate description of reality, we discover that the new set of beliefs also functions as a security blanket, a tribal identity, and a means of coping with the sense of cosmic insecurity.
Christianity, as a religious system, does not aim to transform the way we believe, but strives to mold and shape the content of our beliefs. What is judged here to be of prime importance is the actual belief that one affirms. So those who agree are deemed ‘saved’ and those who disagree are at best heretics, or at worst ‘lost’.
– Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician, pg. 169-170
Over the past number of months, I have been asking a lot of questions through surveys and interviews. One of the questions I love is “What is the gospel?” The gospel is so rich, and each person so unique, that the answers are fascinating. It is a bit like looking at a diamond from many different angles. In order to be fair, I am going to answer my own question (and two others) over the next three weeks. The spirit of these articles is to offer another angle through which to view the gospel, service and evangelism. This isn’t the best view or the right view but simply another view. In many ways, how we answer the question “What is the gospel?” reveals more about us than anything.
As simply as possible, what is the gospel?
The gospel is an announcement of good news. There it is. As simply, and undramatic, as possible. The gospel is an announcement.
What is the announcement?
The announcement is that God has acted decisively in human history, in and through Jesus the Messiah, AND the unstoppable restoration of all things has begun!
To me, that is the announcement, heralded by Jesus, at its most simple. It is the starting point to an endless number of other questions. Do I want to be a part of that? Can I be a part of that? How can I be a part of that? What does all things include? Does it really include ALL things? Can I be restored? Can this be restored? Can that be restored? And so on and so on…
Many people look at our world, and the darkness present there, and proclaim that God is nowhere. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was now here. The difference between the two is one space. The announcement of the gospel is that space. It is an invitation to a change in perspective, rooted in an active and ongoing trust in God, that leads to a new way of life.
After Jesus proclaimed the presence of God’s kingdom, he invited people to repent and believe. To repent is to step away from everything that shouts God is nowhere and to live a life that proclaims God is now here!
Do you believe that God has acted decisively in human history, in and through Jesus the Messiah, AND the unstoppable restoration of all things has begun?
[This article originally appeared in the Sunday, January 18, 2015 edition of The Weekly, the weekly newsletter of Metamora Mennonite Church]
A few days ago I posted a picture with a quote from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (above). The quote concerned protests and how they are covered by the press. Particularly how they were labelled “anti-police protests”.
In response, a friend asked a good question.
“Was that the protest march where they were shouting that they wanted dead cops?”
It’s a good question, and a better point. Is it reasonable to call protests where folks call for the death of police an anti-police protest? I think it is.
But that good question, and the larger point of Kareem’s quote, raises other issues. I choose to respond to those and share my response. Here it is…
Good question. I don’t know the answer. To me, though, your question does raise other issues. The big one being the vast distance between the experience of white people and black people with the police. I’ve engaged in a mutual study of racial issues from a theological perspective with black pastors from Peoria (we’ll be doing it again here in January). The first question one pastor asked the white pastors present was, “What is your experience with the police.” We shared stories. It’s not even close. For me, it seems beyond rational to call for the death of police in America in my context. I don’t support such calls for violence, let alone violent acts of any kind. But I experience the police as those who help protect me and my neighborhood and I’ve always been treated fairly. I don’t know anyone who has been harassed, let alone killed, by the police. Every black person I know has at least a few stories of being pulled over for a DWB (Driving While Black). The stories get worse from there. Read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and you can’t help but see that there is a problem with race in our legal system. So when I hear that such chants were made, I tend not to judge those who make them, but try to understand what on earth is going on such that people would say such things. I also experience that response – calling for the death of someone who is perceived to be persecuting, terrorizing, killing your people – as a particularly common American response. The logic behind the chants is no different than the logic undergirding the Bush doctrine of killing our enemies over there before they come here. The use of violence to get what one wants is a problem for all Americans. The problem is that most Americans only respect their own claims to righteous, violent, self-defense against those that attack them. They can’t understand the counter-claims of those who have different experiences, in this case poor, urban, black folks. So, I guess, even if these protestors were chanting that, I look at that as a wake-up call for all people who care about peace and justice to listen more carefully to the experiences of black people regarding the police. A knee-jerk defense of an institution that has served me well in the face of evidence that the same institution is hurting others in some cases isn’t helpful for me as a “Jesus-loving free white man”. To be clear; I don’t support the calls for any violence to others, or actual violence committed against others for any reason. It only creates more violence and doesn’t lead to the peace with justice that God desires. Thanks for the question..
What do you think?