Dr. Os Guinness speaks to Acton Institute, a message titled: The Power of the Gospel No Matter How Dark the Times. This message, though long, is powerful, and is related to a post I published earlier this week titled: Culture Shaping Power of the Church.

Potter's Hands

Os Guinness, in his excellent book, Renaissance, concerning the church in midst of the present challenges unprecedented in Western Culture, notes the culture changing and culture shaping power of the gospel, when the gospel is both declared by God’s People and is actively shaping God’s People.  When many of our churches are caving in pursuit of “relevance”, which is hoped will cause people to “like” the church, so we can keep our numbers up, I think Guinness offers a both prophetic and strategic word:

What we have here in the teaching of Jesus and the Scriptures, and amplified in Augustine, is the very heart of the secret of the culture-shaping power of the gospel in the church. When the church goes to either of two extremes, and is so “in the world” that it is of the world and worldly, or so “not of the world” that it is otherworldly and might as well be out of the world altogether, it is powerless and utterly irrelevant.  But when the church, through its faithfulness and its discernment of the times, lives truly “in” but “not of” the world, and is therefore the City of God engaging the City of Man, it touches off the secret of its culture-shaping power. For the intellectual and social tension of being “in” but “not of” the world provides the engagement-with-the-critical-distance that is the source of the church’s culture-shaping power.

In short, the decisive power is always God’s, through his Word and Spirit. But on her side the church contributes three distinct human factors to the equation: engagement, discernment, and refusal.

First, the church is called to engage and to stay engaged, to be faithful and obedient in that it puts aside all other preferences of its own and engages purposefully with the world as the Lord commands.

Second, the church is called to discern, to exercise its spiritual and cultural discernment of the best and worst of the world of its day, in order to see clearly where it is to be “in” and where it is to be “not of” that world.

Third, the church is called to refuse, a grand refusal to conform to or comply with anything and everything in the world that is against the way of Jesus and his kingdom.

Divided Heart (Pink-Green)

I don’t do politics on social media (nor in the pulpit), but I feel an exception is warranted – on social media, anyway. With the exception that I don’t really care that Donald Trump has not previously held public office, nor do I care that neither Ben Carson nor Carly Fiorina have ever held public office, pretty much everything else Peter Wehner writes in his Op Ed for the New York Times, Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump, reflects my sentiments. I am disturbed by Trump’s behavior, and even more so by some of his supporters who have compromised core values and beliefs to empower him.

I know. This is politics. And Trump’s supporters have every right to support him, for whatever the reasons.  For a time I was open to the possibility, despite questions about the basis of his present positions.  I accept that people change.  But with no history, or substantive rationale for changes in convictions, I can only wonder how long it will be, or what circumstances might arise, before we see some of these key convictions shift back.

More disturbing to me than Trump are some of his supporters.  Here I do not mean the rank-and-file Trump supporters, who enjoy the bravado, and with whom the simple catch phrase “Make America Great Again” resonates.  I too am entertained, or at least I have been, to a degree. And I appreciate the vision of restoring the greatness of the USA – even if I am a little unclear whether Trump’s definition of what would make America great and my definition are similar; and even if Trump’s specific plans to usher in such restoration seem a little fuzzy to me.  I am disturbed most by those who are endorsing Trump, even when Trump clearly does not represent their core values and beliefs.  In other words, I am most chagrined by Christians – especially those claiming to be Evangelicals – who are compromising their faith to endorse Trump.

Now let me be clear here.  Every citizen of the USA has a right to support whatever candidate they want. I do not believe Christians have a responsibility to restrict their vote to only Christian candidates. Therefore, I support the right of my fellow Christians, even fellow Evangelicals, to support Trump, if they believe he would be the best leader for our country. (Check out Mark Tooley’s thoughtful piece: Trump, Evangelicals & Security.) What I do not accept are Christians – especially Evangelicals – who will rewrite the Faith to justify their support.

The poster boy of my ire is Jerry Falwell, Jr.

In recent months Falwell has made some asinine statements and decisions. Among them was to invite Trump to speak at Liberty University, where Falwell is currently president, on Martin Luther King Day.  Again, I need to be clear. I support Liberty University’s decision to have Trump speak, just as I appreciated them inviting Bernie Sanders to speak. A university is a place of ideas, where a variety of viewpoints should be allowed to be expressed.  So as long as a clear distinction is made between a chapel service (during which any speakers should intelligently and faithfully exalt the One True God) and a convocation (where any variety of ideas could be expressed) I have no problem.  But given Trump’s history, or at least his reputation, of bigoted statements, it seems more wisdom could have been exercised about the date when Trump would be invited to speak.  A day that is designated to highlight efforts to bring about racial reconciliation does not seem the most sensitive or appropriate.  Of course that is just a judgment call. (For anyone interested, my friend Marc Corbett, a Liberty University alumnus, wrote an excellent piece for The Gospel Coalition.  Take a moment to listen to Marc’s lament: Why I Will Protest a School I Love.)

Most disturbing to me is Falwell’s recent total redefinition of Christianity in his justification for inviting Trump to speak on MLK Day, and in his subsequent official endorsement of Trump.  Again, I believe Falwell has the right to support, and even endorse, whoever he wants.  In his formal endorsement Falwell said only that:

“[Trump is] a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”

But Falwell’s previous justification and reasoning was this:

“I have seen firsthand that his staff loves him and is loyal to him because of his servant leadership. In my opinion Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.”

Falwell has since offered an explanation, an Op Ed in the Washington Post.  And I concur with much of his reasoning, even if I would not land on the same candidate. Nevertheless, his reasoning and his freedom – both as an American and as a Christian – to endorse Trump does not negate Falwell’s compromise of the gospel,  and his misuse of the scripture.

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Endangered Pawn

Researcher Thom Rainer identifies Six Ways Ministry Spouses Get Hurt.  I have listed them below, slightly reworded:

  • Complaints About Their Minister-Spouses
  • Complaints About the Children
  • Unreasonable Expectations About Ministry Involvement
  • Gossip & Murmering
  • Isolation
  • Attacking the (non-Staff) Spouse to Get Desired Results

Every non-staff church leader should be aware of these. Every church member should be aware of these.  They are very real.  I have experienced all of these in one form or another, in one church or another.  I see these happen to friends serving other churches.  While I am fortunate that all of my children, now grown or in college, have not only continued in their faith journeys but have actually increased ministry involvement, such patterns of behavior are common contributors to the high numbers of ministry children leaving the church, if not also the faith.  The behaviors Rainer identifies are often devastating to ministry families.

For those serving in churches where you are experiencing some of these abuses, perhaps causing you concern for your spouse and children, I will share the counsel I received from a godly older minister during a time when our experience was most acute.  I was told: “If you don’t let it crush you, it won’t crush them (the children).  Don’t share details (with your children) – they likely already know.  But do talk with them, be honest about it, and make sure they understand that those in the church are also broken and sinful, just like those outside the church.”  Our children learned this lesson; they consequently have a pretty good grasp of Total Depravity and Luther’s concept of simul iustus et peccator (Simultaneously Just and Sinner) -even if they don’t necessarily know the term. But because they understand that even as believers – as those “credited” as “righteous” – we are all still infected by our own selfishness and sin, they have a greater appreciation of why we all are in need of Jesus’ redeeming grace.   Though the blood of Christ was shed “once for all”, bringing forgiveness, we all have an ongoing need for the blood of Christ to continually cleanse us from our sin.  Though shed “once for all”, a one-time shot of Jesus’ blood is not all there is.

I encourage you, whether on church staff or a church member, click the link above to read Rainer’s descriptions.  One important thing to note, Rainer does not limit this behavior against only the Pastor’s family; it happens, at one time or another, to almost all ministry families.  Check your own church to see if (where) this is happening. Then step up, and step in where necessary.

Evangelical Typecasts

January 23, 2016

For God and Country

It is interesting. It is even more troubling.  CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke has posted an article to CNN Politics titled 7 Types of Evangelicals: And How They’ll Effect the Presidential Race.  The post is interesting in that it describes differences among those who label themselves “Evangelical”, and creates categories for each.  It is troubling, at least to me, because little to nothing in the post conveys what an actual Evangelical essentially is.

Burke begins with the tired old refrain:

It’s an axiom in American politics, duly repeated every four years: Evangelicals are the country’s biggest and most powerful religious voting bloc, especially during the GOP primaries.

But then he offers something that offers a hint of something fresh:

Like many political axioms, though, it papers over a complex reality.

It is true, Evangelicals are not monolithic.  Evangelicals are individuals who have different ideas about different candidates for office – from both parties.  Many of us are able to see positive characteristics even in candidates with whom we disagree.  Few of us are likely to find any candidate that represents everything we would prefer.  At least not those of us who think for ourselves – as God gifted us (and all humanity) to do. So I appreciate Burke’s explanation to those who do not understand Evangelicalism that we Evangelicals reflect a complex reality.  Our complexity should not be confusing, just diverse.

Evangelicals are diverse in may ways. Some among us believe more water should be used in a baptism than others of us do; and some believe a lower age for that baptism is appropriate (maybe even preferable) than others of us.  Some among us like a little wine or a few beers, others prefer to stick with Iced Tea. Some among us like the excitement and activity of a large church, others among us prefer the intimacy of a small family-like church; most among us are somewhere in between. Some of us prefer newer songs, others the hymns from ages past; some prefer cheerful music, others tunes that set a more reflective tone; most enjoy a mix of all of the above.  Some of us appreciate the connectivity of a denominational affiliation; others, aware that no denomination has the corner on the market of God’s favor, choose to remain organizationally independent.  There are all sorts of ways in which Evangelicals are diverse, different, complex.  But none of these differences has anything to do with what makes us Evangelicals in the first place. Nor does Burke in his attempt to analyze and categorize an Evangelical political landscape.

Burke’s categories are interesting, even somewhat amusing. They are as follows:

  1. Old Guard
  2. Institutional Evangelicals
  3. Entrepreneurial Evangelicals
  4. Arm’s Length Evangelicals
  5. Millennial Evangelicals
  6. Liberal Evangelicals
  7. Cultural Evangelicals

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Prayer Group Participants

January 22, 2016

Awakaning

Earlier this week, for a change of pace, and to set our orientation, I had our staff open our weekly meeting with a period of liturgical prayer.  This kind of prayer is not really part of our tradition. It appears, from what I occasionally read, that some from our tradition are intensely opposed to such Anglican/Catholic practices. I am not exactly sure why. Ever since first participating in a liturgical prayer experience several years ago in a small gathering of pastors – all PCA –  I have found this expression of corporate prayer to be quite refreshing, at least when in smaller groups.  If little else, liturgical prayer, when done appropriately, minimizes a lot of the quirkiness common to other kinds of prayer gatherings.

Prayer gatherings at many churches are… – well, somewhat bizarre.  I do not mean to impugn the sincerity or intent of any of them.  But even when sincere that does not mean there is necessarily an absence of weird. This is probably a good thing, since many of us whom God has redeemed, and adopted as his children, are somewhat strange; a little quirky.  And this seems to become evident at some of our prayer gatherings.

I served one church where the prayer gathering was held almost sacred. However, when I had the audacity to suggest that maybe we should minimize the length of time in study (which was roughly 45 minutes) and increase the time of praying (which was roughly 10 minutes – if we included the amount of time it took to allow everyone to “share” their prayer requests, before actually praying), my suggestion was met with some serious push-back. How silly I was to assume prayer should comprise the bulk of our time at a prayer meeting.

Even when the prayer is taking place in the prayer gathering, some of our peculiarities are evident in the practices.  A few churches in which I have been part the practice was what I have come to call “serpentine prayer”.  (And no, despite being from Tennessee, this has nothing to do with snake handling.)  Serpentine prayer is somewhat of a variant of a prayer circle, where one prays, then the next, all around the circle.  In serpentine prayer, when the room is not large enough to accommodate everyone in a circle, people sit in rows, and prayer goes down each row and wiggles to the next row.  Nothing wrong with this. But when I encouraged more spontaneous prayer, revolving around some pre-agreed subjects, the evident initial discomfort was quickly – and spontaneously – replaced by the re-emergence of the serpentine method.  But this may not be nearly as odd as some other groups.  A friend served a church where the long held practice for the Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting was to have the pastor open in a brief prayer, the people spend 30-minutes or so sharing what was on their minds and hearts, then watch the pastor pray for everything during the remainder of the time.  No attempt to get the people to pray was successful, or even welcome.  (They eventually fired him for trying to change the church too much, prayer meeting being among the most aggregious. Before he was fired, however, someone from the congregation, in attempt to get him to leave because he was “changing” things, even poisoned his dog.  It had worked before.  My friend later learned that his predecessors dog had been poisoned for similar reasons. But I digresss…)

But even when quirky, the prayer meeting can be a beautiful thing. For those present. And for God. (see Psalm 133)

I was amused by Steve Burchett‘s article penned for For the Church.  In the article Burchett identifies and names some of the quirky participants found in many prayer gatherings.  If you have been in many church prayer meetings you will likely recognize many, of not all of them.  Who knows, you might even see yourself!

  1. The Sleeper
  2. The Non-Participator
  3. The Whisperer
  4. The Rambler
  5. The Dominater
  6. The Repeater
  7. The Preacher
  8. The Gossiper
  9. The Distracter
  10. The KJVer

(Check out the descriptions and encouragements from the whole article for yourself: Prayer Group Participants)

Quirky or not, there is something to be said for those committed to gathering for prayer.

I am saddened by the decline of weekly prayer meetings in most churches.  If they are not yet dead, they are almost certainly under hospice care.  And more frustrating are those who are activists for prayer in schools and in public forums, and yet who themselves will not commit to regular participation of group prayer.  It is no wonder that at times non-believers may look upon the church with scorn, as such hypocrisy is startling.  We loudly lament the absence of prayer in public places, yet we as a people will not commit to joining together for prayer in the one place from which prayers should be perpetually lifted up to God! How absurd.  Maybe we should fill our houses of prayer before we condemn the culture for not doing what we do not do.

May God, in his grace, bring about a change, and restore prayer to a place of prominence in his church.  In the means time, and always, may God have mercy upon us.

Marks of Revival

January 20, 2016

Revival Fires

I had the privilege last week to meet a man convinced we are headed for revival.  He is a gentle man, who thinks often of God, wishing for a return to some semblance of the way things used to be – minus the overt sins of racism and sexism that were so widely tolerated in days gone by.  But the basic reason for his certainty is simple: We are in desperate need of revival. He had other reasons, of course; supporting reasons. Among them, through his examination of of history he has concluded that God works cyclically, and that we are presently overdue for the next revival.

I share his desire to see God bring revival.  I can’t argue that we are overdue and in desperate need. And it is not just America that needs to be “revived”.  More than our culture, I believe the American Church needs to experience revival.  And when God works, he works through his church. So if revival is to occur, reorienting the cultural drift, renewing God as the rightful object of our collective affection, it is going to be at work in and through the Church.

But still, what does revival actually mean? Of course it means “to make alive”.  But what does it look like? Do all revivals look alike? What are the characteristics?

I suspect the answer the the question “Do all revivals look alike?” is likely a “No”.  Cultures are different. God seems to bless different expressions of evangelism and ministry approaches from one generation to the next; one culture to the next.  So to assume when revivals hit they will be uniform seems a bit of a stretch to me.

J.I. Packer,defines a revival this way:

“Revival is God accelerating, intensifying, and extending the work of grace that goes on in every Christian’s life!”

In his book God in our Midst, Packer suggests that, among the variety of God’s ways, there are at least five constants that seem to always appear in biblical revivals:

1. Awareness of God’s presence: “The first and fundamental feature in renewal is the sense that God has drawn awesomely near in his holiness, mercy and might.”

2. Responsiveness to God’s Word: “The message of Scripture which previously was making only a superficial impact, if that, now searches its hearers and readers to the depth of their being.”

3. Sensitiveness to (Our Own) Sin: “Consciences become tender and a profound humbling takes place.”

4. Liveliness in Community: “Love and generosity, unity and joy, assurance and boldness, a spirit of praise and prayer, and a passion to reach out to win others, are recurring marks of renewed communities.”

5. Fruitfulness in Testimony: “Christians proclaim by word and deed the power of the new life, souls are won, and a community conscience informed by Christian values emerges.”

I hope my new friend is right, that God – who is always at work – will soon be at work in unusual ways.  These are some of the signs I will pray will be evident in our culture, and in our church.

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