Stairway to Heaven

Debuting this weekend in theaters across the USA is a heart tugging film, Heaven is For Real.  Based on the book of the same title, the story is about a young boy who ostensibly died and revived. In between his death and his resuscitation he made a brief stop-over in heaven.  At least that’s the story.  In the story, as I understand (having not read the book), the “risen” boy gains inexplicable knowledge, compelling his skeptical family of the genuineness of his experience, and thus the reality of heaven.

This is just one of scores of such books – people claiming to have “seen the light”, then returning to this present life.  Perhaps most well known, at least before this weekend, is Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven.  (Though I wonder how many people who bought his book mistakenly thought it had been penned by JOHN Piper.)

I suppose the intrigue with such books is understandable.  People are looking for hope and assurance. And what better way to learn about heaven than to hear testimonials of those who have ostensibly been there?

And I get why the release of a film like Heaven is For Real would be scheduled for Easter weekend.  Easter is a day associated with religious hope, resurrection, etc.  So a film like this, especially in a widely biblically illiterate culture, tugs the heart strings while feeding religious (and superstitious) hunger pangs.  I suspect that the film will widen the belief in – or at least interest in – many such claims to these experiences.

But what should a Christian think about such claims?

While I cannot claim definitive expertise on this subject, I have some significant qualms about claims to near-death experiences.  For one reason, it seems to me that “near-death” is like “near pregnant” – either one is, or is not.  I get that some flat-line and then resuscitate.  But is that actual death?  Second, the claims I have heard regarding this experience are dubious.  For instance, I have read that in the case of the Heaven Is For Real kid, that there is no record of him having coded…  My greatest skepticism is because few (if any) of those who claim to have gone to heaven for a time make any mention of necessity of Jesus for access.  While this may not be troubling for non-Christians, the Believer must reconcile these claims to what Jesus taught us in such passages as John 14.6.

Scripture is largely silent about this subject.  In fact, when I think about it, I find it interesting God did not include a testimony from Lazarus about his experience or the reality of heaven anywhere in the New Testament. Perhaps that is because there are things about heaven that are intended to remain a mystery to us for a time.

In a recent podcast, John Piper does discuss this subject.  In short, Piper says: “If books go beyond scripture, I doubt what they say…”  But take a moment to listen to what Piper has to say:  Heaven Is For Real

Field of Eggs

I was stunned the first time I read about the plan of a church in the area where we then lived to give away prizes at an Easter gathering.  And they were not just going to give stuff away, they were planning to create a frenzy.  A helicopter was leased, piloted by some guy in an Easter Bunny costume (which alone raises questions).  With people gathered at a rented junior high school soccer field, the Easter Bunny would drop plastic Easter Eggs each filled with either candy, cash, or with redeemable certificates for such items as i-pods, cell phones, etc. And they did this on Easter Sunday right after their services.  It just seemed wrong, but I held my tongue.

For two weeks leading up to the “drop” the local newspaper contained a full page ad promoting this “celebration”. But it was not until I read an interview with the pastor the day after Easter that I could stand it no longer.  His statement that set me off?  He said:  “We’re just loving on our neighbors.”

While that statement may seem benign enough, I felt compelled to respond. So I shot him an e-mail.  I had met the guy before, though did not know him well.  But I hoped he would at least consider his actions, or the potential effects of them.  So I wrote him a note challenging his notion of “loving his neighbors”.

I told him that he was not so much loving his neighbors as he was buying them, or bribing them.  True, he had gathered a large group to an Easter event, but it was not because of the proclamation of Christ crucified and resurrected (- though I assume that was mentioned at the actual church service).  How many in attendance were actually members of other congregations who were enticed only by the promise of goodies? (No, no one from the church I served attended their event.)  I conceded that perhaps such a giveaway would have been an expression of love had they chosen to hold it at one of the local public housing projects, and limited the participation to those with minimal incomes.  After all, that would have given to those who are without, and given to those who can give no more to the church than their presence.  But they had been advertising for weeks to the whole city – wealthy, middle-class, and poor alike.  They were merely buying potential “customers” – just like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, or any other consumer-driven business does.

Perhaps not surprising, I did not get a response to my e-mail.  The next year the church added a giveaway at the worship service – a new car to some lucky person with the correct number on their Easter Sunday worship bulletin.  I did not bother to send another e-mail.  I just mused in disappointment about what seems to be replacing the gospel in too many churches.

Apparently I am not alone in my distaste for this practice.  I recently read a post by Jared Wilson, who also has some concerns about it.  In his post Wilson gives ten spot-on-right reasons why he thinks luring people in with cash and prizes is not a good idea:

1. It creates buzz about cash and prizes, not the Easter event. When the media takes notice, nobody wants to interview these pastors about the resurrection. They want them to talk about the loot.

2. It identifies the church not with the resurrection, but with giving toys away. It makes us look like entertainment centers or providers of goods and services, not people of the Way who are centered on Christ.

3. Contrary to some offered justifications, giving prizes away is not parallel to Jesus’ providing for the crowds. Jesus healed people and fed them. This is not the same as giving un-poor people an iPod.

4. It appeals to greed and consumerism. There is no biblical precedent for appealing to one’s sin before telling them to repent of it. This is a nonsensical appeal.

5. Yes, Jesus said he would make us fishers of men, but extrapolating from this to devise all means of bait is not only unwarranted, it’s exegetically ignorant. The metaphor Jesus is offering here is just of people moving from the business of fishing to the business of the kingdom. There is no methodology being demonstrated here. (But the most common one would have been throwing out nets anyway, not baiting a hook.)

6. It is dishonest “bait and switch” methodology. Sure, the people coming for the goodies know they’re coming to church. But it’s still a disingenuous offer. The message of the gospel is not made for Trojan horses.

7. It demonstrates distrust in the compelling news that a man came back from the dead!! I mean, if nobody’s buying that amazing news, we can’t sell it to them with cheap gadgets.

8. It demonstrates distrust in the power of the gospel when we think we have to put it inside something more appealing to be effective. What the giveaways really communicate is that we think the gospel needs our help, and that our own community is not attractive enough in our living out of the implications of the gospel.

9. The emerging data from years of research into this kind of practice of marketing/evangelism attractional church stuff shows the kind of disciples it produces are not strong. I have no doubt these churches are going to see decisions Easter weekend. They’ll herald them on Twitter and on the blogs. As questionable a practice as that can be, I’d be extra interested in how discipled these folks are in a year or two years or three. Hype has always produced “decisions.” Would anyone argue that after 30 years or so of the attractional approach to evangelism the evangelical church is better off, more Christ-centered, more biblically mature?

10. What you win them with is what you win them to.

Countries of Baseball

April 14, 2014

Countries of Baseball

Counting Sheep

Blogger Tim Challies is at the Together for the Gospel Conference, surrounded by other church leaders.  No surprise then that he is hearing this common question all around him: “How many people go to your church?”  And apparently Challies, whose primary vocation is writer not pastor, has some concerns about this question:

I’d like to make the same two-part proposal I made a few years back: Let’s stop asking, “How many people go to your church?” And when someone asks us that question, let’s not feel obliged to give a direct answer.

Challies understands the heart challenge for the pastor in those moments when that question is posed:

For the pastor this can be a moment of pride or humility, freedom or shame…

While not presently prone to the tugs toward embellishment, I am not sure whether it is because of personal growth or just that my external circumstances have changed.  I serve a good-sized congregation, with an excellent staff, in a desirable locale.  But I know those feelings well.  On occasions in the past I’ve felt the temptation to exaggerate, such as to cite Easter attendance as if that were the norm. (I know others who have also considered that one.)  The obvious reason for the temptation is embarrassment about the reality, as if the number in attendance is somehow a precise indicator of the abilities or worth of a pastor or congregation, or of God’s pleasure in either.

Challies writes:

We all pay lip service to the reality that we cannot necessarily measure the health of a church by its size. We all know that some of the biggest churches in the world are also some of the unhealthiest churches in the world. The history of Christianity has long-since shown that it is not all that difficult to fill a building with unbelievers by just tickling their ears with what they want to hear. We also know that the Lord is sovereign and that he determines how big each church should be and we know that in some areas even a very small church is an absolute triumph of light over darkness. And yet “How big is your church?” is one of the first questions we ask.

Why is this?

I don’t know all the reasons but I’d suggest at least two. First, I think our question betrays us and shows that in the back of our minds we equate size and health. Somewhere we make the connection between big and healthy, between big and blessing. We exacerbate the problem when we ask and answer this too-easy question. Second, we just haven’t taken the time and made the effort to form better questions. Instead, we gravitate to the easy one.

So what might be some better questions to ask?  I appreciate Challies’ suggestions:

  • How have you seen the Lord working in the lives of the people in your church?
  • What evidences of the Lord’s grace has your church experienced in the last few months?
  • What are you excited about in your church right now?
  • Who are you excited about in your church right now?
  • What has the Lord been teaching you?
  • Who have you been discipling recently?
  • Tell me about some of the future leaders at your church.

These are much better to get a sense of the story in any congregation.

And inevitably when asked: “How many people go to your church?” Challies suggests answering something like this:

  • As many as the Lord has determined we can care for at this time.
  • Enough that we are actively working toward planting a church.
  • I don’t know, but let me tell you about a few of them…

Interest in numbers is not wrong.  Numbers tell us things.  But just what numbers tell us is not always readily clear.  Numbers are not wrong, it is the fascination with numbers that is problematic.  Numbers just do not tell a story.  Much more valuable is the number of stories of how God is at work in any congregation.

To read Challies’ post, click: How Many People?

Noah: And The Last Days

April 3, 2014

Days before the release of Russell Crowe’s banal motion picture, another Noah film was released.  This one by Ray Comfort.  In this short film (30 minutes) Comfort probes people on the street about their views, and about the consistency of their views and their practices.  Through them he probes us.  Comfort also runs through the signs of the Last Days.

Thought provoking.

Check out:  NoahtheMovie.com

MLB Fan Base Map

April 1, 2014

Below is a map that appeared yesterday, Opening Day for MLB, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Atlantic.  It supposedly reveals the favorite MLB teams for each county in the USA – at least according to data collected via Facebook.  I don’t know about the accuracey, but it appears I will be a very lonely Phillies/Pirates fan around here.

Facebook Fandom

Click on the map to see enlarged image.

Concepts

by Ricky Jones

This month we will be inducting new members into the most honored body the world has ever known: the church of Jesus Christ. The initiation fee for this club is so high that no human could have ever paid it; God himself had to pick up the tab. The benefits of the club never expire. The fellowship of the club is unmatched; you receive intimate access to the Lord himself (John 17:23).

With such benefits, you’d think church membership would be held in infinitely high esteem. But for many reasons, Christians seem to think less of it than ever before. If you’re one who looks upon church membership lightly, then I invite you to reconsider.

When we hear the word membership, we immediately think of a club. A member pays dues, comes to meetings, and fulfills the obligations of a club member. When you move, or no longer have time for the club, you simply withdraw your membership and move on.

The Bible says membership is much more intimate. “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:29-30).

To be a church member means we are a member of Christ’s body—just like your finger is a member of your body. His blood runs through us. His Spirit animates us. His will moves us. He feels our pain, cleanses us when we get dirty, nurses our wounds, and cherishes us with pride.

Leaving the church is not simply leaving a club. When you walk away, you dismember yourself from the body. Jesus and the rest of the body sorely miss you, and bleed after your departure. You cut yourself off from your only source of life and nourishment. Like an amputated hand, you will slowly bleed out, wither, and die.

Not Possible, Biblical, or Healthy

I hear you complaining already. My, he’s being a bit dramatic. I’m a member of Christ; I just can’t find a local church I like. I’m a member of the universal church, just not of any one in particular.

I want you to understand that being a part of the universal church without submitting to a local church is not possible, biblical, or healthy.

First, it’s simply not possible. To imply you can be part of the greater community without first being 
part of the smaller is not logical. You cannot be part of Rotary International without also being part of a local chapter. You cannot be part of the universal human family without first being part of a small
immediate family.Membership Certificate

Second, it’s not biblical. Every letter in the New Testament assumes Christians are members of local churches. The letters themselves are addressed to local churches. They teach us how to get along with other members, how to encourage the weak within the church, how to conduct ourselves at church, and what to do with unrepentant sinners in the church. They command us to submit to our elders, and encourage us to go to our elders to pray. All these things are impossible if you aren’t a member of a local church. (See 1 and 2 Corinthians, James, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and 1 Peter for references.)

Asking where the Bible commands you to be a church member is like asking where the USGA rulebook for golf insists you be a human. The whole book is addressed to the church.

Finally, living without church membership is not healthy. Independence—the desire to choose for yourself what’s right and wrong—is at the heart of sin. You need the humility lesson of submitting to flawed elders. You need the encouragement of sharing victories with your church. You need the fellowship of sharing sufferings with your church.

You need to know we’re all in this life together, and we won’t walk away from you just because you let us down or we disagree. Together we build each other up into the image of Christ; no one can make it alone. I encourage you to rethink the importance of church membership. Our fellowship may be an affliction, but we are a glorious affliction. And we will walk into glory together.

***

NOTE: This article originally appeared at the RiverOaks Presbyterian Church blog; and also on The Gospel Coalition.

Ricky Jones is lead pastor of RiverOaks Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. You can follow him on Twitter

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