Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Merry Flippin' Christmas, Grinches!

I love Kevin DeYoung's take on Christmas grinches:
It seems like every time Christmas rolls around, a couple rage-against-the-Christmas-machine blog posts go viral. The kind that blast Christians for ruining everything with commercialism, toys made in sweatshops, and too many reindeer games. For a season that’s supposed to be full of joy and peace, we can be awfully angry and confrontational this time of year. Downright grinchy at times. Do you or your kids like Santa? Get rid of him. Pronto. He’s fake. He’s not the point. He’s obese and his name is an anagram for Satan. Do you buy toys for your kids? Stop it. They don’t need them. Are you into Christmas trees? So were the pagans. Fuhgeddaboudit. Happy Holidays? Not in my face you don’t. Merry flippin’ Christmas, Walmart Greeter.
It can be easy to get wrapped up in all the negatives surrounding the Christmas season: the war against secularism; the problem of religious pluralism; the marginalization of Christ's birth. These are important challenges to be aware of. But, I think the best way to overcome these challenges is in experiencing and reflecting the JOY of the season.

There's a truly "magical" feeling that is unique to this time of year. And I am convinced that it emanates from the miracle of Jesus' birth—the radiant glory of which shines for all to see, just like the star that shone so brightly on the night He was born. That's why everyone can feel the "magic" of Christmas, even if they don't understand its true meaning or origin.

Rather than getting bent out of shape this year about how Christmas has been high-jacked by commercialism and nullified by political correctness, let's focus on the good news and proclaim it with joy. Let's trust in the unshakable power of the Christmas story. Let's be still as we kneel before the King and glory in His majesty. For we can confidently rest in the assurance that Isaiah's prophecy from around 2,700 years ago has indeed come to pass:

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned...
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. (Isa 9:2; 6-7)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nothing But Christ Crucified

When you've hit rock-bottom, and are saved into His grace, you really get it. The Apostle Paul was a religiously zealous and learned man before he met Christ on the road to Damascus. But he was a wicked murderer and persecutor of Christians. God had let him hit rock-bottom so he could more powerfully grasp the extent of His great mercy and forgiveness. When Paul was saved, he truly knew what it meant to be born again. And, with humility, he died to self and resolved to know nothing but Christ crucified (1 Cor 2:2). By going in the power of the Holy Spirit, he ultimately became the world's greatest missionary and church planter.

Tommie Scott was a drug-dealer and Crips gang member who earned the nickname, "Hit Man," on the streets of LA. When he heard the gospel in prison and accepted it, his unprecedented transformation was much like that of Paul. Tommie realized how truly amazing God's grace is, when he was saved from a rock-bottom past steeped deeply in sin. Like Paul, he had destroyed the lives of many others. But he had been forgiven through the blood of Christ. And because of this, he couldn't stop sharing the life-changing good news everywhere he went—in prison, at bus stops, on the street, with his girlfriend and kids. He wasn't trained in evangelism or schooled in theology. But when he first believed in prison, he read the Bible through two times in three months. He posted a Proverb every day on the prison wall for all to see. He brought 40 other inmates to Christ. The Word of God is living and active and it lives in Tommie Scott. To this day, he preaches the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit with humility and conviction. See his testimony.

Our churches need to get back to the basics. We need to stop strategizing about how to outreach and start sharing the gospel. We need to stop marketing our faith and start living it. We need to stop peddling religious goods and services and start making disciples. We need to stop finessing and tweaking the Christian message to make it more culturally appealing in a world that has rejected Christ and start teaching the truth plainly (2 Cor 4:2). We need to stop trying to control things and start trusting, and participating, in God's promise that He will build His Church (Matt 16:18). We need to stop trying to get ahead of the cultural curve, and start living counter-cultural lives as foreigners in the world. We need to stop giving lip-service to "loving neighbor" and actually do it by sharing Christ with them.

I have had some rock-bottoms in my life. I know what life is like without God. Now it's time to let God turn our rock-bottoms into a new song of praise for the One who redeems! So then, with humility, let's resolve to know nothing but Christ crucified and let His Kingdom come.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Are You Ahead of the Cultural Curve?

A few days ago, I received a voice mail from a ministry representative inviting me to attend a well-known [rather expensive] Christian conference in the DC-area. In her message, she exuded a kind of cultivated charisma, brimming with back-slapping enthusiasm as she used my first name unabashedly at opportune moments throughout her spiel. I listened as she confidently rattled off the reasons why it was importantno, imperativethat I should benefit from all that the conference had to offer. Two reactions surfaced as I listened to the message. My first was along the lines of: wow, this ministry is employing some gifted young Christians who know how to sell a ticket. This reaction was then quickly followed by a distinct feeling of unease.

I quickly forgot about the voice mail, until couple of days later, when I received a follow-up email about the conference. And the uncomfortable feeling crept back. The message read:

Do You feel like the church is constantly one step behind our culture? Our environment is constantly advancing, constantly shifting, constantly adapting, and if we want to stay ahead we have to know what's coming before it gets here.
You are ready to break this cycle. You are a Change Maker - A forward thinking, innovative leader who wants to be ahead of the curve in addressing the issues and questions our culture is grappling with. We've designed this gathering to help us answer those very questions.
Questioning whether my sense of unease was misplaced or perhaps unfounded altogether, I pondered for a moment what it really was that had disturbed me about the message. Was it because I didn't like being bossed about by a presumptuous 20-something telling me I needed to learn something? Well, maybe a little. But that's my own heart-issueWas it because I didn't like being pressured into buying a conference ticket in order to "get head"? Yes, probably. But I quickly realized that these things weren't the crux of it. It was actually the perspective reflected in the message that had really unsettled me. And my heart sank a little further.

The thing is, it's no fun to be a party-pooper. Who wants to be the old curmudgeon in the corner shaking his bony finger at an upbeat crowd of young believers setting out to change the world for Jesus? Why attempt to pour cold water on their enthusiasm? After all, their message is a positive one. And anyone who takes issue with it comes across as negative, mean-spirited, and unloving.

But the truth is, the Bible calls believers to test everything (1 Thess 5:21), especially when it comes to teaching. And especially when it comes to a highly influential Christian conference such as the one in question. We should all be like the Bereans in Acts who examined Scripture carefully to see if Paul's teaching was true (Acts 17:11). John wrote, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1). In the same vein, Paul wrote to the Romans, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God." (Rom 12:2). If we are to test everything, then, it follows that at some point we'll have to play the role of whistle-blower as well. (For recovering people-pleasers like me, this is never an enjoyable task). And so, after some "testing," and a deeper look into the conference sessions and some of the speakers (there's a fairly wide spectrum of theological positions represented), the root of my unease was exposed...

The idea that Christians should "get ahead" of our culture implies a need to go with the cultural flow in an effort to anticipate, and respond more effectively to, the issues and trends of the times. This has become an influential way of thinking among many church leaders today. The effort to be "relevant," "culturally sensitive," or "seeker-friendly," etc., is part of a widespread movement over the last decade or two to make Christianity more relatable to younger generations (who have been leaving the church in droves) by speaking more directly to their lives. But more often than not, trying to be relevant to young people has led churches to mirror secular culture as opposed to presenting a counter-cultural [ie biblical] worldview. This is because it seeks to please people first, not God first.

Furthermore, the assertion that we are to race ahead of, or somehow outfox, worldly culture, is found nowhere in Scripture. In contrast, Christians are simply urged not to conform to the pattern of this world (Rom 12:2). Instead of competing with secular culture, then, we are to reject it altogether. In other words, the Bible teaches us that rather than attempting to surf the cultural tide, we are to go against it.

And the truth is, you can't surf the waves foreverfor eventually, you're going to be engulfed by them. Worldly culture is already seeping insidiously into our churches as it is—so any attempt to ride its treacherous waves seems like opening the flood-gates. While it is true, as the conference emails states, that "our environment is constantly advancing, constantly shifting, constantly adapting," attempting to "stay head" of these rapidly evolving developments seems like an exhaustingfutileeven deadlyundertaking! For getting ahead of the curve is near impossible when the waves of our worldly culture are in constant, often tumultuous, motion.

And even if we do succeed in riding one of the waves for a moment, it will soon come crashing down even so. In other words, the world will ultimately bring us down even if we rise up for a time. How many celebrities have we see rise and fall in popularity? How many stars who were once idolized have we seen plummet from fame? They may seem fashion-forward, edgy, or culturally relevant for a moment, but they are soon outmoded by the inevitable next-best-thing who rises up to steal the stage.

After so many "ground-breaking" artists, TV programs, and movies, the foundations of our culture have been shaken to the core. How much ground left is there to be broken before everything falls apart? In light of this, we mustn't forget that our broken, crumbling world is ruthless and fickleleading many who pursue its approval only to death. Those intent on earning it's favor, therefore, will soon become last month's flavor, and yesterday's news. Why, then, should the Church even attempt to win worldly popularity and acceptance in the name of outreach or "loving neighbor"?

But wait! You might say. Shouldn't the church be outreach-minded and provide a welcoming, unintimidating environment for seekers to find Jesus? Yes and Yes. But it is not our job to finesse or tweak the Christian message to make it more culturally appealing. It's the job of the Holy Spirit to draw people to His Church and to convict hearts. Christians are called to be witnesses, not sales representatives.

But surely the Church needs to stay up-to-date on current issues facing young people today! You might also say. Surely the Church should speak directly to those issues in order to remain relevant to peoples' lives! This is a valid point. There are contemporary issues that the Church must grapple with. But while the Church should take a biblical stand on these issues, strategizing about how to repackage Christianity to make it appear more culturally relevant is missing the mark. This canand hasled our churches down a dangerous path.

Within Emergent churches, for example, Christians strive to incorporate culturally sensitive approaches to reaching the postmodern, un-churched population with the Christian message. In doing so, however, these churches often promote a feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, while downplaying the need for sound doctrine and a cognizant understanding of His word. Polarizing and inconvenient biblical truths, along with the gravity of sin in the eyes of a just and holy God, are often glossed over in an effort not to alienate anyone and to make everyone feel more comfortable. But once you downplay sin, you detract from the amazing grace of the gospel. It isn't so much about making people feel guilty as it is about highlighting the vast extent of God's love and mercy for them. It is this that makes the gospel of grace so amazing.

The truth is, the gospel isn't compatible with what our culture demands. While our culture will encourage us to be proud of ourselves, to promote and "actualize" ourselves, and to seek worldly status, pride is actually our biggest hurdle to salvation by grace. The Bible counters that we need to let go of our pride (Prov 16:5; 16:18; Ja 4:6). To brush sin under the rug is prideful because it tries to elevate the self to a holier status that it deserves. And enabling sin is not acting in line with the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:14).

Our focus, then, shouldn't be on cultural relevance and sensitivity, but on the transcendental truth of the gospel. The gospel is always applicable to people's lives, regardless of their cultural or demographic context. Furthermore, if we go with the cultural flow, instead of remaining anchored in Christ, we may find ourselves following an abstract Jesusa false Christof our own making.

The distinction between numbers-driven popularity and furthering the authentic Kingdom of God is becoming increasingly blurred in the minds of many Christian leaders today. But, if we base the way we "do church" on worldly opinions, we will find ourselves being blown about by every wind of teaching. Outreach strategies and church models that do this, often end up being inconsistent with Scripture. It's when we turn to God's Word, however, that we can drop our anchor and withstand the swirling chaos. Unlike worldly popularity and cultural trends, the love and truth of God endures forever. In light of this, we should seek to please God first, not people first, in how we lead our churcheseven if doing so might not win us mass appeal, make us more culturally relatable, or seem cutting-edge and innovative in the here-and-now.

The mass email I received told the generic "me" that I am a change-maker. But it's not I who can change the world. It's the transformational gospel of Jesus Christ. While I am merely a messenger, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be His witness in the world (Acts 1:8), it is Jesus who actually changes lives.

I guess the conference representative's sales pitch reminded me of Paul's words to the Romans, "For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive." (Rom 16:18). This may sound harsh, but I think the gravest mistake the Church is making today is to look to the world first, not God first on how to further His Kingdom. When this happens we begin to devolvewe begin to look and sound more like the world, and less like the One whom it has rejected.

And as foreigners in the world (1 Peter 2:11), then, we should stand out from the crowd, not blend in. Sometimes, this might mean we are rejected by the world, just as Jesus warned us (John 15:19). And it might mean that we aren't getting ahead of the cultural curve. But we shouldn't be measuring ourselves against the bell-curve of this world, which rises and falls, and tapers away to nothing. Instead, we should set our feet steadily on the eternal, immovable, unchanging ROCK that stands high above the stormy seas.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Strange Dichotomy of the Anti-Christian Christian

There's a strange phenomenon going on in our all-about-me culture. It presents as a curious mix of self-loathing and self-adoration both of which prevail simultaneously in the collective conscious. On one hand, the self is idolized; many of us are on a frantic quest to "be who we are," to "self-actualize," and to tap into our "inner truth." But on the other hand, we're guilt-ridden; we're never really good enough no matter how hard we work, no matter how many self-help books we line our shelves with, no matter how many ah-ha moments we rack up. We're always going to be too fat, too disorganized, too busy, too glutenated, too stressed, too you-name-it.

And when you put us all together, our problems only multiply. On a societal level, we don't really like what we see; many of us self-identify as those boisterous, greedy Americans that have caused the world to hate us. And so we condemn ourselves, try to throw off the shameful shackles of the past, and reject the archaic dogmas of yesteryear (aka the Judeo-Christian foundations of our Western culture) to embrace new things like the spiritually enlightened teachings and practices of Eastern religions, for example. Slowly but surely, we're trading in our constitutionally protected freedoms for a politically correct culture in which anything goes (anything other than conservative Christianity, that is). But while the grass certainly looks greener on the other side of the fence, we're not quite ready to give up our white-picketed American dream just yet. After all, we are patriotic and all that. It's all very confusing...

But in actuality, our sense of confusion stems quite simply from the fact that our society is caught up in a love/hate relationship with the self. In other words, for better or for worse, we're suffering from a bad case of self-obsession.

And the same dualistic phenomenon is even emerging within [gasp!] our Christian community. Sure
you've heard of Anti-American Americans, but what about Anti-Christian Christians? Sadly, they do exist, and their numbers are increasing. For, as an unfortunate by-product of our worldly environment, the self-loathing/self-idolizing complex is indeed cropping up more and more among Christians. Like our secular counterparts, we too are guilt-ridden. In a society that's pegged us as bigoted, narrow-minded, judgmental, and unloving, we all-too-often find ourselves hanging our heads in shame. If you hear something bad about yourself enough times, maybe you'll start to actually believe it. 

Admittedly, there's a case to be made. We're aghast at the sinful behavior that so often creeps into our community. We're ashamed of our broken churches filled with broken people. We wince at the hateful behavior of Westboro Baptist Church types (who, despite their tiny numbers, get way more media coverage than the vast majority of compassionate Christians do). We squirm at the problematicsometimes violenthistory of the church. But instead of seeking the answer to the problem of our sinful nature in Christ, we have a habit of looking to ourselves for the solution. In keeping with the New Age mantra de jour, we tend to seek the answers from within...

...If we just strategize a little more, maybe we'll be better at outreach. If we just make ourselves more relevant to the secular world, maybe young people will stop leaving the church. If we just talk more about "love" and set aside the tough (biblical) stuff, maybe we'll stop offending people so much. And i
f we can just disassociate ourselves from "Christianity" maybe people will like us more...

So, it follows that for the last few years, there's been an increasing desire among believers to escape from the label, "Christian," that causes so many negative reactions in people. The term certainly carries with it some baggage. And there is plenty not to like about the Christian church, both past and present. Throughout the centuries, corruption has constantly permeated the church, leading many believers these days to cast off the negative association as a result.

For a quick and informative read, check out
Robert Spencer's book, 
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam
(and the Crusades
Take the infamous Crusades, for example, the problematic history of which certainly feeds into the Christian guilt-complex. While it should be noted that the Crusades were attempts in the 11th through 13th centuries A.D. to reclaim land in the Middle East that had been violently conquered by Muslims, it is true also that the name of Christ was abused, misused, and blasphemed by the actions of many crusaders. Certainly, the Crusades should not be considered an authentic outworking of the Christian faith. Yet the negative connotation is cemented in the minds of many, including certain Islamic terrorists who have claimed that their terrorist attacks are revenge for what the crusaders in the name of Christianity. No wonder some believers run from the term.

And so it's not surprising that there's been a push of late, to rescue the truth of the gospel from the religion of Christianity—for as the argument usually goes: Jesus didn't come to start a religion, but to save souls. In this vein, there has been a distinctive move away from traditionalism and orthodoxy in the church, to get back to the roots of Christ-centered faith. It has become common, for example, for people to refer to themselves as "Christ-followers" rather than "Christians," in an effort to distinguish themselves from "Chreasters" [those who attend church only on Christmas or Easter] or to express the sincerity of their faith as opposed to a nominal religious affiliation.

It's with this sentiment, that I have heard it said in sermons and elsewhere that the term, Christian, appears nowhere in the Bible. The problem is, this isn't actually true. We know from the book of Acts that the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch (Acts 11:25). Luke used the term again when he described Paul's interaction with Agrippa: "Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?'" (Acts 26:28). This indicates that it was a contemporary term of the early believers in the Apostolic Age.

The term, Christian, from the Greek, Christianos, literally means, “belonging to the party of Christ” or a “follower of Christ.” Having been used by the Apostles themselves and having endured for centuries thereafter, the term has certainly stood the test of time. Moreover, the Apostle Peter urged believers, "if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." (1 Peter 4:16). According to Scripture, then, we are to praise God for being called a Christian—whatever the worldly connotations of the term may be.

Certainly, the gospel message is what really matters and the Body of Christ should not be seen as synonymous with a religious institution. But while I share the desire to redeem the gospel message from the stagnated tenets of institutionalized Christianity, I think we need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, however. Jesus didn't come to start a "religion" it is true, but He did come to establish His Church. And as members of His Church, we are responsible for upholding biblical doctrine in order to save both ourselves and others (1 Tim 4:16). Throwing out some of the stuffy vestiges of traditional Christianity shouldn't include letting go of sound biblical doctrine—but in many cases, this is exactly what ends up happening...

While the current shift away from traditionalism can be helpful in refocusing churches back on the basics (the gospel message, the Person of Jesus, etc.), there is a significantly widespread manifestation of this effort that involves a departure not only from the traditional aesthetic (pews and stained glasses windows, for example) but from key doctrinal "constraints" such as biblical inerrancy and salvation in Christ alone, by faith alone. In other words, a sweeping rejection of traditional Christianity has, in some cases, done away with the essentials of the Christian faith, which culminates in an insidious form of anti-Christian Christianity.

For example, consider the emerging churches movement, which generally-speaking embraces a "post-evangelical" approach to the Christian faith. To varying degrees, emergents endeavor to repackage the Christian message to generate mass-appeal in a post-modern context and to put a new spin on Christianity in response to the fact that the traditional model is failing to hold the attention of the younger generations. They endeavor to "do church" in an nontraditional way, which is more appealing to young people. But in the effort to throw off the orthodox constraints that limit the preferred touchy-feely approach to "experiencing" God that many of these churches promote, sound doctrine is all-too-often marginalized. In fact, "Revisionists" within this movement go as far as to question whether evangelical doctrine is appropriate for the postmodern world at all. A worrying number of emerging churches are not only doctrinally lax, therefore, but some go as far as to tout an inclusivistic soteriology (the belief that those outside of the Christian faith may be saved).

In an effort to be relevant in the secular world, therefore, emerging churches often tend to mirror secular culture rather than presenting a counter-cultural worldview. This, however, is to look to the world first, not Scripture first, for the answers on how best to live out the Christian faith. And so, polarizing and inconvenient biblical truths are glossed over in an effort to make everyone more comfortable, and to avoid alienating anyone. The resulting tendency in this type of "seeker-friendly" environment is to downplay the gravity of sin, which sadly detracts from the redemptive power of gospel message. And because this approach places people's needs over God's glory, the Lordship of Christ is deemphasizedand the salvific identity of Jesus is blurred.

A similar pattern has emerged in certain areas of Muslim ministryin which anti-Christian Christianity is perhaps at its most pronounced. In recent years, a growing number of missionaries and evangelists have begun to place more emphasis on the person of Jesus in their messaging, and less emphasis on Christianity as a whole, for the purpose of "building bridges" to Muslims. There is some merit to this approach, considering Muslims already revere Jesus as a prophet of Islam and are open to talking about Him. But outspoken proponents of this method—a number of whom have been gaining significant influence in evangelical missionsattempt to extract Jesus from Christianity completely (the religion that they say lays unfair claim to Him) in order to make Him more "accessible" to Muslims. Thus the push to emphasize Jesus and deemphasize Christianity, has too often involved an unapologetic departure from Christian doctrine, and the unsettlingly widespread adoption of unbiblical practices within Muslim ministry.[1]

In the same way as emerging churches mirror secular culture, evangelistic strategies such as the C5 (or the high-spectrum contextualization) method, Muslims idiom translations of the Bible, and Jesus in the Qur'an trainings (CAMEL), attempt to incorporate Islamic culture into the gospel message. While contextualization of the gospel message is always necessary to a degree, many of these strategies go way too far. In some cases, Jesus is stripped completely of His "Christian" image and repackaged in a Muslim-friendly way that bares little resemblance to the true Son of God. The Jesus of Islam, it should be noted, is an entirely different person from the biblical Jesus. But without His rightful Christian context, there's no longer a clear definition of, or absolute truth about, who Jesus is. In other words, the figure of Jesus, when extractedeven partiallyfrom Christianity, essentially becomes an abstract one.

The Abstract Jesus can certainly hold alluring appeal. He can be accommodating and flexible. He can blend more seamlessly into your preexisting worldview, political leaning, or religious background. The Abstract Jesus, then, might seem more "accessible" to a Muslim who fears losing his or her Islamic identity, just as he is more accessible to anyone who wants to cling to their former way of life. He won't ask you to drop your nets and leave everything for him, negating the need for rebirth and dying to self. In fact, he'll let you remain as you are, and it is he who will fit in with you.

While Jesus said, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:35), these words are irrelevant when you're following an Abstract Jesus. For, without doctrinal absolutes (like that of biblical inerrancy, for example), Jesus becomes, in effect, anyone you want him to beand says anything you want him to say. Removing Jesus from Christianity, then, is essentially tantamount to creating your own counterfeit Christ.

Despite recent attempts by those from within the interfaith movement to amputate Jesus from His Body
—the Christian Churchand recreate Him as a bridge for all peoples, a peacemaker, a uniter of faiths,[2] it cannot be denied that the biblical Jesus is, in contrast, polarizing. Jesus was open about this Himself when He said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Jesus said He would even pit family members against each other. Indeed, the very Person of Christwho He Himself claimed to beoffends and divides people. It is true that the Prince of Peace will one day bring about eternal justice and peace with GodHis name is an everlasting source of hope! But for now, in this already-but-not-yet age we live in, the name of Jesus causes division and unsettles the fallen human heart precisely because of who He is

And it is biblical doctrine that defines who Jesus is

To cast off biblical doctrine as a bygone relic of outmoded evangelicalismas is increasingly the case in today's emerging and liberalizing churchesis merely to replace one set of beliefs with another [less theologically sound] one. For the fact is, anyone who holds an opinion on who Jesus is, is subscribing to some sort of doctrine about Him, whether biblical or not. The delusion of the anti-Christian Christian is that they are freeing Jesus from the doctrinal constraints of Christianity. But in actual fact, it is they who are confining the figure of Jesus to an egocentric set of self-generated notions. They misunderstand that it is actually the transcendental truth about Jesus that sets us free as presented in His Word—or in other words, as defined by biblical doctrine.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. The early church recognized that “an understanding of Jesus’ identity is essential to genuine Christianity and a prerequisite for experiencing salvation and enjoying a relationship with God.”[2] And indeed Jesus made this clear when he said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” (John 16:6-7, emphasis added). 

But the fact is, many who use His name do not actually know the true Christ. Jesus said:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt 7:21-23).
To know Him and to do His will involves understanding the truth about who He is, what He did for us on the cross, and what His Word teaches.

Anti-Christian Christians might stop for a second and consider who they are really fighting against. Hopefully, prayerful, honest, and humble introspection with reveal to their hearts and minds that they are actually attacking the Body of Christthe very Body of the Jesus to whom they purport to belong. It's a true case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

The tragic dichotomy of the anti-Christian Christian is a sad reflection of the perverse worldly culture around us. It is merely another manifestation of self-obsession: obsession with one's own guilt and obsession with one's own efforts to compensate for that guilt.

But ultimately, "Man must completely despair of himself in order to become fit to receive the gift of Christ,” as Martin Luther so aptly put it. When we position ourselves as the solution to our self-generated woes, we fail to receive the gift of redemption in Christ. We make it all about us, and less about God. Despairing of ourselves does not mean we should remain steeped in guilt—for those who are in Christ, there is no condemnation. And when we get so caught up in our failures or in the problems of our broken churches, we fail to glorify God. But despairing of ourselves is to realize that Christnot any of us or any of our self-help strategiesis the only solution to the sin of the world, for He truly is the only way, the truth, and the life. And we can do all things through Him who strengthens us.

Christians must stand firm in our identity as members of the Body of Christ. This is not to be confused with clinging to the pews, stained glass windows, or other such hallmarks of the Westernized churchas certain anti-Christian Christian leaders like to claim.[3] It's about clinging to Jesus Christ, who is the Head of our Church. It is in His name we reject any perceived shame associated with the Christian faith. And we should humbly praise God that we bear the Christian name (1 Peter 4:16). 

It is a great honor to be called Christians—ones who by His grace, belong to the "party of Christ." Let's not squander the eternal gift we have in being members of His Body.

[1] For more information on unbiblical missiology within Muslim ministry, please refer to blog post: The Abstract Jesus.

[2] Andreas Kostenberger, Scott Kellum, Charles Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross and the Crown, Part II, chapter 3

[3] Carl Medearis, Tim Timmons, Mark Siljander, et al.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Google Results for the Gospel

It's impossible to ignore how our lives have been impacted since the Internet revolutionized the way we communicate, the way we receive information, and generally the way we experience, and interact with, the world around us. Many churches, therefore, are taking their online presence more and more seriously, realizing that this is often their first point of contact with the outside world and a key way to engage their congregants. More attention is being given to the creation of well-designed church websites, dynamic Facebook pages, an engaging presence on Twitter, etc. And understandably so; for Christians to exhibit a "Luddite" type of resistance toward these technological advances would be to deny the reality of the Information Age and to disengage with the world—for if we aren't contributing to the information of this age, there are always going to be plenty of others who will be.

And that's the point isn't it? In an era dominated by a group of Internet-based applications that enable the creation and exchange of user-generated content, anyone and everyone can be heard. And any content holds the potential to go viral. In light of this, we need to speak the truth in love with a sense of urgency, for as the Apostle John points out, "this is the final hour" (1 John 2:18). Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov 18:21)—and the tongue, when given a virtual mouthpiece, now has more far-reaching impact that ever before. The power of the Internet can be harnessed to spread the Word of God across the world with never-before-seen speed and magnitude. Formerly unreached people groups are now being reached for Christ as a result of gospel-centered Web content. But, false teaching is being disseminated widely online too.

And so, in order to combat this, Christians should be focused on generating biblically sound, high-quality content that points people to Jesus. The more Christians engaged in saturating the Internet with the gospel message, the more Google searches will yield Christ-centered results.

Why is this so important? Because people all over the world are searching...When I look at the web stats for this blog, I am often surprised by how many people arrive at the site via a string ofwhat sometimes seem like randomsearch words...Here are a few I picked up today:

"convenient, carnal, committed, christ-like christian"

"selfism versus external salvation"

"institute for gnostic studies"

"christ consciousness flipping temple table"

"cotton candy gospel"

"disunity on a church team"

"effects and results of disunity in the church"

"grace isn't amazing if"

"how should i live"

I have no way of knowing if these people found what they were looking for when they arrived at this blog, but I know one thing for sure: they found gospel-centered content. I pray that the person who was searching for information on the Institute for Gnostic Studies found something of way more value: a personal relationship with the one true God. I pray that the person who was seeking an answer to "how should I live?" found the only way, the truth, and the life.

People are frantically searching for answers within a confusing galaxy of information, and so we need to shine the light of Christ more brightly than ever. We can do this online by sharing God's Word, which is living and activesharper than a two-edged sword it cuts through all the confusion, right to the soul (Heb 4:12).

But what happens today when we Google-search for Jesus? Do we actually find Him? When I searched by "jesus" today, I got 52,400,000 results. The first result was a Wikipedia entry that gave an overview of various perspectives on Jesus including the Christian view, the Islamic view, the Jewish view, the Bahá'í view, and others. Confusing to say the least. The second result was a op-ed titled, "Would Jesus OK same-sex marriage?" in which Jay Parini, a poet and novelist who teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, concludes—in a round about way albeit—that He would. If one continues to scroll, however, ranks third. Thankfully, this website serves well to present the biblical truth about Christ. Needless to say, there is a mix of information out there, pointing up the need for Christians to continue to put out solid, truthful information about Jesus.

In this vein, the important role of apologetics in upholding the truth of God's Word cannot be underestimated. To simply tell people you believe the Bible because you have faith isn't enough when there are so many compelling lies widely propagated about who Jesus is and so many attacks launched against the credibility of the Bible. But these lies can be fully discredited. The Zeitgist movie, for example, that went viral claiming to prove the Messiah is a mythical figure, was presented in a persuasive way, consequently duping many people. But a closer look at the Zeitgist premise quickly reveals its arguments to be deeply flawed and a play on semantics. There are great resources online to bolster the biblical position. Be familiar with the facts. Visit The Poached Egg to equip yourself in defending the truth.

As Christians, we are urged to set forth the truth plainlyrejecting the use of deception, and the distortion of the Word of God (2 Cor 4:2). It is not our job to sell the gospel, to dress it up, to tweak or finesse it. It is not our job to join the chorus of self-promoting virtual voices out there. That is to arrogantly think God needs us to help Him out by peddling Christian goods and services. All we are asked to do is to set forth the truth plainly. We can then fully rely on the Holy Spirit to convict the hearts of those who hear it.

Join our mission to saturate the World Wide Web with Google results that point unequivocally to Christ by generating or sharing gospel-centered articles, biblical resources, and posts. This is one way we can live out the words of our Savior:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." 
(Acts 1:8)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Kingdom or Clique?

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus said: "seek first the Kingdom of God." Most Christians, being familiar with this well-known verse, would likely agree that investing in God's Kingdom is an important aspect of Christian living. Indeed, many Christians invest their time and money in their local church, tithing their income, attending church services and events, participating in small groups, and serving in church ministries. But it's useful to pause and ask, what did Jesus really mean when He told us to seek first His Kingdom? And if this means spending a whole lot of time at church, how much do our churches actually represent God's Kingdom, anyway?

The problem is, nowadays, too many of our church communities are consumer-driven rather than servant-minded. In our commitment-phobic, consumeristic society, the problem of "convenience-store Christianity" in which our churches have become distributors of faith-based goods and services rather than manifestations of God's Kingdom, is on the rise. In this context, the focus is on what the church can do for us (good kids' programs, an accommodating facility, inspiring sermons, fun events, a social network), not what we can do for the church. When this happens, we're not thinking so much about serving and glorifying God as we are about Him meeting our own needs and desires. And when a particular church doesn't meet our expectations, we soon lose interest and go elsewhere.

This is not to say there's anything wrong with finding a church that's a good fit for us. When my family searched for a church in our new town, we were blessed to find one with solid teaching, a strong sense of community, and a great kids' ministry. As stewards of our childrens' spiritual lives, we felt it was our responsibility to make these things a priority. But if our commitment-level to God's Kingdom was contingent on these things being provided, we would have the wrong perspective.

The reality is, American Christians have it pretty good; in most parts of the country we're spoiled for choice when it comes to churchgoing. Many of us get to cherry-pick from a list of great churches with bells & whistles to offer. As a result, we can take our blessings for granted: air-conditioned sanctuaries with comfortable seating; Bible studies with childcare; hightech audiovisual presentations, etc. We can suffer from feelings of entitlement and be under the misconception that we deserve these things from our church. We can overlook the fact that Christians in other parts of the world risk their lives, and make enormous sacrifices, just to worship together secretly in dingy basements without any of the creature comforts we've come to expect.

And when we focus on what the church can do for us, we forget that, in fact, we are the Church.

As a result, many of our churches are now more akin to social clubs than they are to spiritual families, being devoid of faithful commitment, self-sacrificial love, mutual accountability, and Christ-centeredness. These social clubs often constitute somewhat shallow relationships inasmuch as they're based on expediency, personal comfort-levels, and quick-fix community. They usually promote organized fun and self-helpism over authentic fellowship and spiritual growth. And an overemphasis on common interest- or convenience-based community gives rise to the ever-pressing problem of church cliques, resulting in more of a self-centered environment that's sorely lacking in open-heartedness and outreach-mindedness.

But stepping out of our comfort zones, social circles, and interest-areas to encourage the lonely and the afflicted with the gospel was clearly modeled by Jesus during His earthly ministry. Jesus invested in the Kingdom by pouring His love into the lost, the outcast, the ostracized—not those from whom He would gain something or those with whom He had something in common. He didn't work His way up the social ladder or seek out politically expedient relationships. He didn't restrict His social life to an exclusive clique of like-minded companions. Instead, He made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (Phil 2:7) and reached out to leapers, tax-collectors, and prostitutes (not exactly members of the "in" crowd...).

This is not to say we shouldn't socialize with our Christian friends!  Jesus certainly fellowshipped with His disciples. More than just that, He lived life in close relationship with them. Scripture clearly demonstrates that "it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Even though Adam walked in the garden with God, and had many animals around him, he still yearned for companionship. God created for Adam a companion of his kind—someone with whom he had a shared commonality. And so, it is natural and good for people to gravitate towards those with whom they share things in common. It is beneficial, indeed vital, to have strong friendships like these within the Body of Christ.

But when we're investing in these relationships alone, we might find ourselves slipping away from God's Kingdom and into a church clique in which God has become sidelined and is no longer central. Here's the bottom line: enjoying shared interests with other believers is a good thing, but if it becomes the ultimate thing, then that's a bad thing. In other words, Christ must be the focal point. And if we are to be Christlike there needs to be a balance between enjoying the company of those with whom we have a lot in common and reaching out to people outside of our usual social circles—i.e. the lonely, ostracized, and afflicted people in our churches and communities. In this vein, it's useful to consider our own motivations for getting involved in our church community. Here are some questions we might ask ourselves:
  • Is my involvement in my church motivated by a desire to grow in my relationship with God and to encourage others to do so as well? Is it all about me, or all about God? 
  • Am I practicing favoritism by investing in my brothers and sisters selectively based on my personal preferences? Or am I making self-sacrificial choices in serving others? 
  • Am I finding a good balance between my fellowship time with those I love and my outreach to the lonely or unpopular people in my church? 
  • Am I making time for genuine relationships in my life, or am I seeking quick-fix community that requires little of me? 
  • Am I non-discriminatory in forming relationships within the Body of Christ, which transcends social, cultural, and racial boundaries?
Here are five ways to distinguish a church clique from God's Kingdom:

1. Church cliques tend to focus on earthly relationships using the church building as a meeting ground. Kingdom relationships, on the other hand, are focused on Christ. Stemming from Him, these relationships actually become His church.
The Apostle Paul wrote, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." (1 Cor 5:50). Church cliques tend to be worldly, insular, and self-serving. But it's important to remember that God's Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). And when Jesus told us to seek first His Kingdom, He did so in the context of teaching His followers not to worry about this temporal life and its physical needs, but instead to keep our eyes fixed on that which is eternal. Spreading the saving gospel of Christ, making disciples, and growing in our relationship with God and other believers, will be priorities for those living in light of eternitythese things hold everlasting value. Unlike mere earthly relationships, Kingdom relationships are bound up in the Body of Christ, which cannot be contained within the walls of any church building or social circle. The Body is made up of brothers and sisters across the world, from all walks of life, including those who are persecuted and in prison for their faith. It's easy to forget about them when we're caught up in a church clique because this can cause symptoms of "faith-myopia." But Paul urged us to remember those who are in prison, as though we are in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since we are all in the Body (Heb 13:3)—however far away they may be.
2. Church cliques tend to be insular, while Kingdom relationships are missional. 
Church cliques can develop when the focus of a group is restricted to the interests of that group alone. If prayer requests and acts of service revolve around the inwardly focused needs the group, its members are in danger of becoming self-absorbed and exclusionary. Church cliques can close themselves off so that sin gets trapped inside an airtight bubble and gradually begins to choke its members. Closed-off cliques can also shut out the sanctifying light of Christ. God's Kingdom, on the other hand, is welcoming, open, and flooded with the light of Christ. Sin is still present in the fallen natures of its members, but there is room to breath, to grow, and be purified—for darkness flees from God's light, which then shines out into the world. Kingdom relationships are missional; they are motivated by Jesus' commission to "go and make disciples" (Matt 28:19). Making disciples can mean evangelizing, but it can also mean teaching or encouraging other believers, building up the Body of Christ. Participating in the work of the Kingdom is not optional, but is required of every believer. For as John explains: "Whoever says “I know Him” but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4). The truth is, if we are not making disciples as Jesus commanded, we are not seeking first His Kingdom.
3. Church cliques like believers to stay safely within their comfort zones, but Kingdom relationships require us to get out of our comfort-zones. 
Jesus called Peter to get out the boat and walk on water (Matt 14:29). Following Jesus clearly involves taking leaps of faith. It requires us to drop our nets and leave everything for Him (Matt 4:20), not cling to our former lives (Eph 4:22). A church clique, however, doesn't require anyone to drop their nets or get out of the cliques don't even want anyone to rock the boat! They like to keep things the "safe." They tend to stick to polite dinner conversation, not wanting to offend anyone, ruffle feathers, or get too deep. Why? Because potentially offending people by speaking truth in love can make things uncomfortable for everybody. And getting deep requires a level of commitment to one another that is costly to us. We're all way too busy. We have enough on our plates. And church cliques don't require anything too demanding of us; there's generally a tacit understanding that, sure—we'll send out a prayer request or two, but puh-lease spare us the grizzly details. This is because Church cliques aren't interested in authentic relationships, but in quick-fix community. They don't want to challenge anyone to grow in their faith. Instead, there's an unspoken desire to keep things superficial, to smooth things over, and make everyone feel better about themselves. Growing in our faith is often costly, however. It may require us to change in ways that aren't easy for us or to confront truths that are difficult to swallow. But Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23). Church cliques conveniently avoid cross-bearing, but Kingdom relationships gently urge one another to die to self, to stand in grace, and to embrace a new life in Christ.
4. Church cliques are based on expediency, while Kingdom relationships are self-sacrificial. 
Because they tend to over-emphasize shared interests or common ground, and de-emphasize Christ-likeness, church cliques are all about us—our needs, our preferences, our conveniences—rather than being all about God. Relationships within church cliques start out as being mutually beneficial, so they may involve loving behavior for a time, but because church cliques are contingent on shared interests, when inevitable differences do arise, they tend to cave in under their own weight. The needs of the group continue to grow, but the motivation to love and serve one another diminishes. Scripture is clear, however, that godly love never fails (1 Cor 13:8), despite changing winds of circumstance and emotion. And godly love is not self-seeking (1 Cor 13:5). When Jesus commanded us to love God, and our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27), He used the word, agapaō, a form of agapeis or agape. The essence of agape-love is self-sacrifice. Christlike love, then, as modeled by Jesus, is selfless. Genuinely selfless love can only be achieved in the power of the Holy Spirit. It's easy enough to perform acts of kindness towards people we are fond of, or people who mean something to us, but Christ died for the ungodly. Scripture points out that "one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8). For a perfectly just and holy God, to become flesh and die for sinners, is a purely self-sacrificial act of love. This should be our inspiration for loving others, even when it is not personally beneficial or easy for us to do so. To walk alongside a suffering brother or sister can be in be time-consuming, inconvenient, and sometimes messy or painful. But this is to truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
5. Church cliques are usually homogeneous, Kingdom relationships unify people from diverse walks of life. 
The Body of Christ transcends socioeconomic, cultural, racial, and national boundaries. In Christ, all are equal and people from every tribe and tongue are united. Because church cliques are based on expediency, tend to be insular, and prefer to keep things "safe," they don't often unite people from diverse backgrounds. They tend, therefore, to be demographically homogeneous. But the Kingdom of Heaven is made up of a wonderful array of people from all walks of life. For this reason, Kingdom relationships can develop between people who would otherwise never cross paths. People from different cultural and class-backgrounds who may have never thought they'd have something in common become close when they realize they speak the same spiritual language and have a bond that runs far deeper than a shared love of cooking, or running, or music could ever generate. But church cliques usually bring together people from the same walks of life and those with shared interests or backgrounds. Again, there's nothing wrong with this, as long as the group stays outreach-minded and fosters spiritual growth in its members. It is when a group becomes insular and self-serving that problems arise.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). And so, it's vital that our church communities should encourage believers to die to self and walk in the light of Christ. For it is Christnot high-tech audiovisuals, pretty buildings, or feel-good sermonsthat will ultimately draw people to His Kingdom. Let's encourage each other, then, with the powerful words of Jesus:
"When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on his glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." (Matt 25:31-34)