Sunday, October 29, 2006

You Might Not Be Humble If...

Time for a new series. This one should be fun and mildly enlightening, I hope.

I often think about what a secular documentary of a Christian church would look like. I think to myself a fair amount about the hypocritical tendencies the crew might pick up. One of the easiest spots of hypocrisy to spot, I think, would be false humility. There are many in the church who are good at projecting humility without inhabiting it. Able to smile, quick with the charm, versed in the cliches, it can be easy to pretend to be humble, modest, and concerned with others when in fact our smiles are like our suits: external trappings that hide our true selves.

That might sound a bit over the top, and it could be. But it also can be true. One of the ways this particular hypocritical attitude shows itself is when Christians compliment themselves in their personal testimonies. Have you ever noticed this? I have, and I'm guessing my fictional secular documentary group would expose it so quick they'd ruin their film. You see, Christians are supposed to be humble. That means we're not supposed to talk about ourselves and make ourselves look good in conversation. Right. We know that. And a good amount of the time, we stick by it. But when we're not truly humble, when our hearts aren't truly made over in this area, sin and sinful arrogance will poke through the exterior. We'll indulge our desire to make ourselves look good by speaking at length of our sinful past, dropping not-so-subtle hints that we were once pretty spectacular but now are altogether submitted to ordinariness, which we are oh-so-happy to live out. In fact, the opposite is true.

You must know what I'm talking about, if you've been in Christian circles for any lengthy amount of time. Here's what False Personal Testimony Humility sounds like: "Before the Lord rescued me, I was living a crazy life. I was dating incredibly beautiful women, all of whom were rated 10s by my best friends (and they themselves did pretty well in the woman department), and I was wildly successful in my work, living the high life, getting promotions right and left, and school was just so easy and I totally sinfully blew it off, and I was also pursuing sports with idolatrous desires. That was made so much tougher by me being selected to four straight all-conference teams. I just couldn't handle the accolades, and so I started partying, and I was the wildest, craziest party boy you ever saw. Then I got saved. Man, it all changed from there."

That was exhibit A of the False Personal Testimony Humility. If anything in there resonated, congratulations. You too have suffered unjustly from False Humility syndrome, a disease attacking attention-starved Christians all around you. Tomorrow, we'll examine another variation of this disease, entitled False Providential Blessing Humility.

Friday, October 27, 2006

And While You're At It

So the week is winding down, the weekend's almost here, and it's raining here in Louisville. Life is good. I thought I would give you a good article to read. It's by Malcolm Gladwell, currently a very popular public intellectual, and it covers a new way to measure the productivity of basketball players. It will be interesting to you not because it is technical (it's not), but because it takes conventional wisdom and flips it on his head. It's always fun when that happens.

And here is a Very Fun Thing: Aol music puts up full-length cds on their website so you can preview them. They put them there for a week or so. Every week you can preview around 20 cds. It's pretty cool. I've been listening a bit to Moby. Check that out, and know that your coolness factor will go up for sure. With that, it's back to work on a rainy Friday.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Need to Punish

The soul of America has gone soft. Our will has dulled. When it comes to discipline, we are collectively the five year-old howling not to be spanked. We know we deserve it--we just don't want it.

You see this instinct everywhere. I often think that we as a society are more prone to feel sorry for the criminal than the victim. Something terrible happens, and we're so quick to look into the killer's background, sympathize with his family, and generally look at things from his side of things that we forget the victim. Then, we as a society scream that the poor criminal has to spend time in as terrible a place as jail. Jail is bad, after all, and bad things happen there. So we shorten the sentences and lighten the burdens and ease off the death penalty and all of a sudden, being a criminal ain't so bad.

We carry this out on many other levels as well. With children, for example. We don't want to do anything to damage the "self-esteem" of our children or to raise the hackles of the government, so we softpedal physical discipline and use all manner of useless time-outs that do nothing to teach the child that their conduct is bad and instead communicate that if they misbehave, they get to take a quiet break in the corner. No harsh repercussions, no red mark on the hiner. Just a soft little ten-minute spell in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the children learn, just as the criminals do, that it's not really such a bad thing to disobey.

Even at the seminary I attend, a school strongly committed to the need to point out wrong and address it, some professors use purple ink when they are correcting papers because red hurts feelings. Those who do so do it with the best of intentions. They would likely affirm the need to punish. But they are nonetheless a small participant in the societal shift away from punishment and firm, clear correction. We are so psychologically driven, so concerned with people's opinions, so scared we might hurt a feeling or scar a psyche, that we go soft at the very point at which we need to go hard and at which the offending person needs us to go hard. As we'll talk about tomorrow, discipline is not inherently bad for us. It is inherently good for us. And discipline that is not firm and unpleasant does us no good at at all. That type of discipline actually is bad for us.

Think about this. When you did something wrong and were caught at it, what caught your attention? What really made you change? When did you know you were going to get away with your wrongdoing?

When discipline is lovingly administered, it leaves a mark. That mark leaves a lasting impression.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Need to Act

I want to take a few days and speak on things that we modern evangelicals need to do. The first, as I see it, is the need to act. Too often we stare into the sun, becoming blind to the world around us.

We need to see what is before us. We need to act. We need a personal theology that rightly balances trust and action. It seems to me that most evangelicals have a healthy understanding of trust. We know that we must wait on God and seek His will before we act. We desire to do what He wants. These are great qualities. We should thank God that He has given us these instincts. However, these instincts do not come alone. God has given us a packaged set of qualities. Included in this set is the motive to take dominion (Gen 1), to survey our world, pray, think, and then act. You see, God has not left us to act only when our circumstances scream at us to take a certain course. He does not hold us accountable for hearing audibly or even imperceptibly what we are to do. The very first word of God to man included the summons to action: to take dominion. We are responsible for trusting in God and praying for Him to guide us. But then, Christians, we are responsible for acting wisely. Do not think that God holds us accountable only for the first. He holds us accountable for both of these actions.

I'm preaching to myself here. And to my colleagues at the seminary I attend. Many of us have a desire to go into ministry but possess little in the way of specific direction. We know we want to do ministry, and we want to do it faithfully. We just don't know where or what, exactly. This situation can lead to a handcuffing of our will. We can pray and pray and fail to act, waiting as too many of us are for clear and incontrovertible guidance. This is not a godly schema for decision-making. Pray, yes. Trust, yes. Take counsel, yes. But then survey the field--and act. Men, this is your responsibility as the head of the household. And single men--this is the way you prepare to be leaders.

As I go through life, and hear testimonies of how God has led his children, I am repeatedly struck by how often action had to be taken before guidance became clear and blessing was given. We have been trained, latently and explicitly, that the primary way God works is through some intangible form of direct guidance. But this seems quite wrong. God often works when we have trusted in His sovereignty, prayed for His will and then struck off to make hay where fields are found. In the biblical economy, this makes perfect sense. God is not like those mothers you see at the mall who lead their children by a rope system. He leads us by faith. His world works by faith. It is the oxygen we breathe. He does not desire faith occasionally, but continually. Thus, He gives us all kinds of opportunities to exercise faith by prayer-fueled action. So, if you get one sentence out of this, get this: things aren't going wrong if you have to take action without certain and incontrovertible guidance. If you have prayed, sought counsel, and thought your decision through, things are going right. You are acting, and you are doing so by faith. For the Christian, this is how the world works. For the Christian, you see, there is a need to act.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Journey to Here

Brian, a reader of this blog, a Kentuckian, and a kind fellow with a thoughtful blog, was nice enough to ask how I came to SBTS. I'll happily answer that question, though I want you to know that next month I'm returning to my mostly-impersonal posting. I have a fun series coming up.

After I was gripped with my sin, and after I came to realize the simultaneous reality that I was terrible but grace was beautiful, I was caught with a desire to tell others of this beautiful paradox. The Lord blessed with me two friends who were similarly inclined. Jed and Keegan are their names, and they were wonderful friends to me. Incidentally, or perhaps not, both of them regularly post comments on this blog. You might have seen them if you read this blog once in a while--they're the ones who write posts that require a PhD to understand. That shouldn't surprise--Jed's doing a PhD at some fourth-tier school called Cambridge and Keegan a PhD at a third-tier school called Duke. Yikes! Anyway, we grew much during our college years. At a college ranked one of America's most secular, Bowdoin College in Maine, we found ourselves with incredible opportunities to share the gospel. Bible studies, nursing-home preaching, post-dinner conversations, school events. We saw firsthand why Christians should not abandon secular environments. There are great opportunities to share the gospel, to be light to those in darkness.

During my senior year of college I was trying to figure out what I would do after graduation. Keegan had gone to Washington, DC for an internship and had really enjoyed the time he spent at a church called Capitol Hill Baptist Church. He heard about their internship program and passed the news on to me. Without knowing anything beyond what I found on their website, I applied. As Johnny Depp would say, events arose, ensued, and were overcome, and after graduation, I struck off for DC to be an intern. At CHBC, I found myself in the middle of a hurricane called the "pastoral internship." It was awesome. The other five interns and I had to write over sixty papers, attend all church functions (and I do mean all--ALL), and pitch in in various ways with the church. I was transformed by my time at the church. Mark Dever became one of my heroes. A corny term, I admit; but a realistic one.

At CHBC I heard about Southern Seminary and had the privilege of meeting Dr. Albert Mohler, one of the smartest men ever to inhabit a skeletal structure. I consistently heard good things about SBTS and, having become a Southern Baptist at CHBC, knew the tuition would be quite manageable thanks to the contributions of Southern Baptists. After the CHBC internship and an internship at the State Department, I was off to Southern. I'm now in my third year with a year to go. The Lord has graciously guided me these last six years, and I am delighted every day simply to be His.

Thanks, Brian, for asking that question. The providence of God is a beautiful thing indeed.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

When The Flannel-Graph Became Real

It was then that God began to change my life. I accompanied my roommate to the weekday service of the church we attended on Sundays, something I had never done before in all my years of faithful church attendance. There a preacher who I knew, the director of the Christian summer camp that I loved, told the story of Bartimaeus from Matthew 10. He recounted how Bartimaeus, though blind, cried out to Christ for His sight, imploring Christ to make him whole.

I had not intended to be seized by the story; indeed, I am sure that I had heard it before, and felt nothing. But that day I became Bartimaeus—I wanted healing! I wanted forgiveness for the sins of my life. I wanted Jesus Christ, the God-man who died on a cross to save sinners and rose again to give them eternal life, to become my personal savior. I wanted to go to heaven when I died and not to go to hell. Suddenly I loved Jesus, I loved the cross on which He died to save my soul, I loved the church people who worshipped him, and I loved the Bible. That night altered the course of my existence. I began praying earnestly, reading the Bible devotedly, and telling others about Jesus zealously. There was not enough time in the day to tell others about Jesus. God changed me then. He brought peace and joy into my heart by leading me to recognize both the horror of my sin and the beauty of Christ, the One who died to set me free from hell. As He has done throughout history, he used this paradox, this combination of terrible and wonderful truth, to convert me to himself. From that point on, I have lived for Him, and never looked back.

And so Jesus, who I first learned about in a small country church, ceased to be to me a fascinating figure, an arresting piece of flannel on a soft blue background. This Jesus became the one I love and worship, and all because of faithful Christian parents, a roommate who spoke and lived the truth of God’s word, and some basketball dreams that crashed just in time for a young man to see the true need of his heart: the forgiveness of a merciful God, a God whose kindness and warmth I now fully understood.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Flickering Faith Meets The Bottom of the Rock

My life while in college was a strange mixture of genuine cognitive belief in the doctrines of the Bible, strong passion for girls and basketball, and a lukewarm heart for God. Yet though I could live a double-life in high school, sooner or later something had to give. It wasn't that I fell headlong into lust and lasciviousness. The Lord kept me from all that. Yet though my sin was quieter, it was no less wicked. Through my freshman year, I claimed to love God and yet clearly loved worldly things. One of the two had to win my heart. One of the two had to direct my destiny.

It could easily have been basketball. I had grand plans to go to college and make it big, thus proving to my hometown that I was a good basketball player. With ferocious discipline, I readied myself for try-outs at little Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. My preparation, however, only readied me for even greater disappointment. The day tryouts ended, the coach called me into his office and cut me from the team. I never cried, but I cried then, all the way back to my dorm room where I collapsed in shame and heartbreak, my dreams departed, my world seemingly falling in on itself.

Yet there was a seed of hope in the experience. Basketball had ceased to become a game for me. It had become a way of life. It was an idol, an earthly object that commanded my devotion and passion, and I worshipped it well. When I was cut from the team, the idol was suddenly taken away from me. I had chased the dream of college basketball for years, and now I had nothing. Or at least I thought I did. I had a wonderful Christian roommate with whom I would talk and laugh each night. He was zealous in his faith and seemed to find genuine hope and joy in God. It was through contact with him that I first came to evaluate my faith.

I compared my love for God to his and found mine sorely lacking. We both said that we were Christians. But where he read his Bible, prayed for a chunk of time each day, and actually tried to live a holy life, I did none of these things. Or rather, I read Christian devotional literature for a few moments before I fell asleep. He had joy and peace in his heart, and it stemmed from the truths he learned in the Bible. I had joy and peace in my heart, and it stemmed from basketball, video games, and flirtatious encounters with girls. He attended church and found something deeply meaningful in it; I attended church, and found something deeply sedative in it. I saw the contrast in my life then, and I saw that on the whole, my lukewarm faith was not getting me anywhere. What’s more, I found myself thinking more about heaven and hell, and I saw that my lukewarm might well get me somewhere—it just might be hell.

Faith, Basketball, and a Flannel-Graph Jesus

I've been trying to post on thoughtful topics for a while now. That's good, because it stretches me and elicits interesting discussion. In the background of everything I post is my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Yet I don't think I've shared my story of faith. I want to take a few days and do that. I hope it is interesting, encouraging, and if you're not a Christian, challenging.

My story of faith begins in the first years of my life. On Sundays, my father and mother took me to the small Baptist church in a neighboring town in rural Maine. In my Sunday School class, with a few other small children, I heard the story of Jesus, or rather watched it unfold on the flannel-graph stand before us in the creaky old building. I was intrigued by this Jesus. He seemed friendly, warm, and inviting, though I had little sense as a child of the depth of his kindness and warmth.

As I grew up I continued to attend church with my parents and supplemented this attendance with week-long visits to a nearby Christian summer camp. For six days, I played as I had never played before. Though I did not become a Christian in my youth at the camp, I realized as I heard there the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that my profile matched that of those who killed Him. I lied; I was mean to my little sister; I sometimes grew very angry with my parents. I began to see the sin, the desire and agency to do wrong things, of my heart at that time. What was worse, I heard about the reality of hell, where sinners who did not turn away from sin and receive the forgiving love of Jesus were sent to be punished for eternity, and I believed in it. I am not sure that I ever wanted to believe in hell. But from day one, I could not help it. It would be some years, however, before I matched my belief with action.

So I grew up, a conscionable kid in a school marked as most high schools are by partying and the pursuits of sinful desires. Unlike many of my peers, I was close to my parents, who provided a steady witness to Christ by faithful church attendance and dedicated Christian living. During this time, I fell headlong in love with basketball. Basketball consumed me, and though the people in my church were kind and godly and my pastor's preaching was stoutly biblical, I wasn’t truly focused on God. Much of the time, I was far away in Basketball World, where I made every shot and won every cheerleader’s heart. Jesus? I believed in Him and the central ideas taught about Him—His deity, His perfection, His sinlessness, His goodness. But He remained distant. He was an interesting figure, sure, but like the flannel-graph figure of my childhood, He was distant, a curious but far-off presence.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Good Rap

So this is a bit of a more laid-back week for me, and with good reason. I'm taking a very difficult Hebrew class right now, and this week included some major assignments and quizzes. I'm out of the woods now. With that said, I'm taking this week to post a few "occasional" blogs instead of a series.

I wanted to take a minute and highlight a rapper you probably haven't heard of. His moniker is "Braille," and he makes exceedingly good rap music. He's a Christian, but his raps are not expositions of Scripture, as those of some other Christian rappers, many of whom I enjoy. Instead, Braille speaks about his life in an honest, upbeat, thoughtful way, drawing the listener into the story of his life while connecting his own life with that of the God-man, Jesus Christ. There's been much talk about Christian artists who get some secular exposure from the mainstream media and who then cover the distinctive light of the gospel with vague generalisms about spirituality and happiness and so on. Braille is not this type of artist. He speaks clearly and enjoyably about his love for Christ, life, and hip hop, and does so well enough to get recognition from such cutting-edge music magazines as Urb. He's an encouragement to me and a light to the world, and I hope you'll check him out.

Here's his Myspace page.

And here's his personal website.

And here's to good redeemed hip hop!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Be A Dominion-Taker

We're missing boldness from our Christianity. Christianity is not weak and wimpy. As soldiers of a heavenly kingdom, we do violence against forces of darkness each and every day.

Our program of violence is carried out in numerous ways. Sharing the gospel brings us into direct conflict with the enemy as we, by proclamation of the truth, speak words that threaten to shatter Satan's hold over hearts. Responding to crisis and challenge in a distinctly Christian way pushes back the evil in our own hearts and gains ground, if only a few inches, for the kingdom. Even working hard, with due diligence, installs over time a spirit of industry within us. Yes, it's true: Christianity's power is so great, it penetrates even to the filing cabinet.

You can file for Jesus. You can mop for Jesus. You can cash checks for Jesus. You can deliver Coke for Jesus. You can sell insurance for Jesus. You can shelve books for Jesus. Everything you do presents you with an opportunity to snatch a little glimmer of light for your Lord and to reflect it back to him. The Christian worldview is just an incredible thing. It gives us such purpose in life. It allows us to take dominion over this earth, to subdue the evils of our world and our hearts and to plant seeds of goodness for God. That's what taking dominion is. Instead of sitting back and letting weeds and life-choking vines to grow up in your little corner of the world, you grab your hack-saw and start clearing land for the One who's coming to redeem it. No moment is exempt from such pruning potential. Your conversations with your children present you, father, with the opportunity to speak words of love to your nearest and dearest. Your quiet but consistently excellent work at your desk, secretary, rises as a savor of goodness to your God. Your unselfish teamwork, ballplayer, shows a striking difference between the Christian athlete, who seeks the good of others, and the unsaved athlete, who all too often seeks only his own.

The Lord involves us all in advancing His kingdom. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking it's only the missionaries who do so. God has designed His world so that every corner, every inch and span, is to be claimed and redeemed for Him. As you go out this morning, go out not to clock hours and pass the day away. Go to whatever it is the Lord has you doing, and do it with energy, enthusiasm, and the mindset that you are putting the Enemy on his heels and claiming ground for the Victor who comes at an eye's blink.

Monday, October 09, 2006

No Contextualizing--Just a Cool Trailer

No, not the kind you live in, silly, the kind you watch on your laptop.

This is the trailer to the upcoming movie, "300," an adaptation of the story of the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans stood against thousands of Persians many centuries ago. For those who like military history (and I eat it up), it is one of the most heroic and incredible battles of all time. I am extremely excited to see this being brought to film. I love to see things that I've thought about in my imagination played out on a big screen. The movie, as my insightful wife pointed out when we saw the trailer in the theater, looks quite modern. Very stylized. It also looks pretty cool.

So there you go. Rest easy, oh ye contextualization discussers. Watch a cool trailer instead.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Further Thoughts on Contextualizing

This has been a great discussion, and I'm thankful to everyone who wrote thoughtful comments. Helpful stuff. I want to say a quick word about the idea that I'm working against any one type of church. I'm not addressing any one church or even a group of churches. I'm addressing all kinds of churches from all kinds of denominations and associations.

As I noted last week, the Southern Baptists do not have everything right, the Presbyterians do not, the Episcopalians do not, the Acts 29 churches do not, the 9 Marks churches do not. I'm not gunning against any specific man or any specific church. I would say that Reformed churches tend, as Al said, to be more insular and less outwardly focused. I'm not sure why this is, but I see it as a major flaw of a movement that I personally belong to. We are often very good at doctrinal instruction and preaching the truth, meaning that we accomplish the goal of the church to feed the sheep, but we often do a poor job of the accompanying goal: reaching the lost. Simply put, lost people don't really visit our churches much, on average. They are likely to be warmly received in the Reformed churches I know when they do stop by, but that's just the thing--people in this day and age aren't likely to stop by.

As I said at the end of last week, folks just don't feel the same guilt about not being religious or Christian or church-attenders. They do not have the instinct, as our grandparents did, to go to a church of some type on Sunday. They grew up under postmodern spiritualists or secularists who probably didn't really mention church on Sunday morning and who trained their charges to associate Sunday morning with soccer, not sacraments. Thus a generation of people was raised, people who have no deep interest in religion and little interest in organized spirituality. This reality means that our task has changed. We now need to go out. Reformed churches almost by definition expect people to come in. We must not emphasize solely the teaching that our churches will attract lost people by the way we love one another. This is one way the Bible presents lost people as becoming interested in Christ. The other way isn't very complicated, but it is under-practiced, and it is this: going out and making friends with lost people, getting to know them, being active in their lives, finding common ground with them through activities they enjoy. Is this not, rather than sitting in the pews and waiting for them to come, a better way to evangelize?

Soon we will find it is the only way. Soon we will be sitting alone.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Recent Comments on Contextualization

Thanks to all who recently commented on the contextualization discussion. Glad to know someone's out there. (If a blog is posted in the forest and noone views it, is it still a blog? Hmmm. Ponder that one for a while.)

I'll summarize what Rusty, a classmate and thoughtful dude, said: Owen, yeah, we get it, contextualize!--but how does this play out in a pluralistic culture that seems to defy individualized targeting?

A great question, and a fair one at that. Here's my first response, though, Rusty (and Al): I have no response. Well, I do, but not yet. You're ahead of me. You see, you guys may already believe that contextualization is cool. Not sure either way. But whether you do or you don't, there are lots of folks out there who don't. I was aiming the discussion at them, trying to first show people that a) every church is in some way contextualized and b) that's not a bad thing--it's a biblical thing.

Okay, so that was the non-answer. Now for the answer. I would say that while American cultures are often diverse and difficult to pin down, there are certain cultural markers that one can identify. These may not necessarily be confined to a region. What do I mean by this? I mean that a church aimed at postmodern culture might succeed just as well in Bible-Belt Kentucky as it does in God-hating Seattle. This has actually happened, for the record. There's a church called Sojourn Community in Louisville that is a cousin of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Totally different cultures, seemingly--but the same contextualized approach has worked well in each city.

That's the strength of targeting cultures, I think. You're not attempting to get the one and only group of people that would ever go to church. You're trying to get a wide cross-section, but you're doing so in a culturally sensitive manner.

To push back a bit, it's difficult to give exact models for churches for different regions, because I'm not there and I don't know the cultures. There's no one principle at play. I would simply go back to my criteria from yesterday and say that, like Paul before Mars Hill, we should study the culture to best understand how to engage it and interact with it. Surely not everyone in Mars Hill was a philosopher, but Paul was reaching out to pagan philosophers, and so he tailored his message to them. He wasn't planting a church, true, but he certainly was doing the work that a church planter does. So we need to do that same work when we plant churches. That's a positive statement. Here's a negative one that, though not answering the question most fully, gives some kind of an answer: I would be careful about planting any church anywhere. I know you didn't love this advice last time, Rusty, but I think it's sound. I would not encourage someone from the deep South to plant a church in rural Maine. I'm not saying it couldn't work. I'm just saying I wouldn't encourage it.

Here's another thought. I don't think that there are a ton of different cultures out there to reach. There's university culture, postmodern culture, athletic culture, conservative culture, liberal culture, working-class culture, traditional culture, and a bunch more. So what I would say is that in planting a church, one should try broadly speaking to identify which of these cultures fits one's target. It may not be that the church in GA is overwhelmingly one or the other, but there will likely be some kind of community leaning. Of course, it's pretty likely that the postmodern culture model will fit increasingly well with American culture. It's not 1950, after all. People don't carry that same sense of modernist guilt they used to. Most non-churched Americans won't set foot in a church of their own volition these days. Times have changed. It used to be that society as a whole felt guilty about not being religious, if not Christian, and this compelled many to attend church of some type. But that's not the case anymore. The Boomers grew up as anti-creedal peaceniks, didn't go to church, didn't raise their children to do so, and certainly didn't instill in them a sense of guilt if they didn't go. We thus should not expect much of America to ever come to our churches. I don't know what's happening in your churches, but it doesn't happen alot in mine. The way to reach this post-Christian nation (Blake, owner of the best jumper at SBTS, declared that Christendom was over, an apt phrase) is not to expect it to come to us, but to go to it.

That will increasingly involve non-traditional means. The debate over creationism worked well for a while, and the door-to-door stuff did too, but that era is largely over, I think. Those things can and are used of the Lord, but I would encourage Christians to focus their attention on building relationships with people, and on making their churches, once they are grounded in the crystal-clear and rock-solid principles of Scripture, friendly to outsiders. I'm resisting the twentysomething evangelical urge to start screeching about overhauling tradition here, and I think it's good that I resist. But there is surely much about our church lives that are not necessary, that serve only ourselves, and that have nothing to do with edifying the sheep and reaching the lost. Where we can, we should tweak our churches and make them amenable to the outsider. We ought not to assume that church is geared to the unbeliever. That is a classic mistake, and I do not wish to make it. But I do wish to make the church services as understandable and enjoyable to the lost as I possibly can without giving up an inch of the need to preach the truth, edify the saints, and glorify the Lord by the observance of the church's marks. After all, this is not church growth. No, so far from that, it's biblical.

So there you have it. An insignificant blog has fallen in the blogoforest, and I'm quite sure it made nary a sound.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Biblical Support for Contextualization

When it comes down to it, Scripture and its principles are the foundation for all our thinking on the church. How refreshing that Scripture supports wholeheartedly the idea of contextualization.

Here are some arguments:

1) Paul circumcising Timothy in order to contextualize his witness to the Jews (Acts 16).
2) Paul adjusting his speech before the learned folks at Mars Hill (Acts 17).
3) The gospel narratives being written in different styles with different content (The gospels) (haha).
4) Paul teaching that he became all things to all men in order to win some (a slam-dunk) (1 Cor 9).

There are four very good biblical arguments for contextualization. The Bible nowhere presents one particular cultural approach to church and evangelism. The Bible gives trans-cultural principles that inform our witnessing and churching, but it nowhere lionizes any one culture and holds it up as sacred. So first century culture was not sacred, tenth century culture was not sacred, the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries were not sacred (ahem, Reformed types), and the 1940's were not sacred. The culture changes, and that's fine. We are free to match it, as we see in the New Testament. It is the truth that must remain. It must remain, and it must remain unchanged.

We are totally free, though, to adapt our churches to certain cultures to reach them. Let me give you another example that illustrates my point. If you wanted to be a missionary to India, you would likely study the culture of India. You would study its style of dress, food, social customs and so one before you went there. Then you would go, having adapted yourself to its culture as much as possible in order to be an effective witness and not erect needless stumbling blocks to the gospel because of food, clothing, etc. And--note this carefully--if you were going to Northern India, you would most certainly tailor yourself culturally in a different fashion than if you were going to Southern India. Though the regions are part of the same country (India, in case you're struggling to follow), they have, I'm sure, different customs. What is typical in one region may well be taboo in another. You, in order to be an effective witness, would wisely tailor yourself accordingly in order not to be a stumbling block. Though the people of India may look similar and generally have some other similarities, you would have been wise to realize that there are in fact important cultural differences depending on where you go.

In the same way, we are wise to tailor our churches culturally in America. We would not plant the same style of church in Harlem that we would in Appalachia. That's foolish. In the same way, we would not plant the same style of church in Cambridge, MA that we would in the potato country of Maine. In none of these churches would we cater only to one group of people. No way, just as the Indian missionary would not seek only Brahmins. But with the Indian missionary, we would wisely tailor our church to the culture in which we ministered. So far from being harmful, that would be wise.

I do hope that this is stimulating thought. The traditional church is undergoing a revolution in America, and it doesn't sit easily with many at first thought. But this is a new era. Tomorrow, we'll examine how things have changed in our culture, and how that changes the way we do church--though the foundation, the ground beneath our feet, is always the hefty concrete of God's word.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Segregated Church?

Just to show you I do read the comments on this blog, I want to use a comment left today to continue the discussion on church contextualization, the idea that churches tailor themselves to a certain region or culture.

Here's what KC said (edited a bit):

"We would never want, in the name of evangelism, to pursue the following as the ideal: spearate congregations for white over 60, black over 60, middle-aged upper middle class, middle-aged lower middle class, divided again by race, Gen X church, college-educated, less educated, etc. We'd want these groups of (now converted) Christians worshipping and serving together in congregations...right?"

I agree with this statement to a point. As much as possible, we want Christians of diverse types worshiping and communing together. This is a clear New Testament teaching. With that said, I don't think that there's anything wrong with a church having a certain type of focus, because I think that all churches do. You can aim for everyone but you are likely have a certain bent. Teaching-heavy, service-oriented, fresher music, older music, Boomer-magnet, etc, etc. It's fine to have a bent--every church does. What I would say to KC is that it is not right for a church to target one group of people, but it is fine for a church to target a culture. What does this mean? This means that I will not necessarily plant a traditional SBC church of the Deep-South variety in the middle of Harlem. It is likely that I will tailor the Harlem church to the surrounding culture. This does not mean, however, that I will set out to attract only folk of one type or race or dialect. Not so. I will strive to make the church, though tailored, friendly and accessible to as many people as possible.

It is right for a church, and the man who leads it, to have a certain personality, air, and culture. A pastor and the church he leads do not necessarily have to strip themselves of any culture and try to make themselves vanilla to all people. They can do one of two things, as I see it: they can target a culture that they connect well with, as Mark Driscoll has done in Seattle, or they can tailor themselves to a certain culture, as William Carey did in India. We don't have to become vanilla, and neither do our churches, to reach the world. Instead, we should be ourselves, and if we deem it necessary adapt ourselves, to a culture to reach the lost for Christ. Neither way is wrong. Both can be used of God to reach the diverse peoples of this fallen world. Churches that target cultures--not peoples, cultures--are in fact just what we need in an uncontextualized world.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Everybody Contextualizes

Subtle title, I know. I go for the tricky stuff on this blog.

Seriously, everybody contextualizes. If you're not familiar with this term or this conversation, I'm saying that everybody adapts the gospel to their own particular region and culture. Not that we know that we're doing this, necessarily--my whole point is that most of us don't realize that we're contextualizing. Even when we criticize other churches for contextualizing, we don't realize that we ourselves have already pre-fitted our church to reach the surrounding culture.

Many will still argue that contextualization of the conscious type is off-base, that we should simply seek to make our churches as vanilla as possible to reach as many palates as possible. How interesting, then, that we do not expect such behavior of our missionaries. We rightly laud our missionaries to foreign countries for their willingness to lay aside styles of dress, food, and so on to fit in with their target culture. We hold up such figures as William Carey as worthy of emulation, men who when in Rome, lived as the Romans. Yet when it comes to our cultural contexts, we contract amnesia. We would not fault a missionary to northern India for dressing, talking, and behaving (in some ways) in Northern Indian ways. We would not chastise them with "Jew and Gentile" arguments, telling that they are surely going to achieve only a separated, culturally segregated congregation. We would encourage them in their efforts, applaud them for their work, and send them on their way with love and goodwill. Why, then, do we look down on those in America who do the same?

America needs all kinds of churches. There is not one right kind of church when it comes to culture, dress, tone of service, and so on. The Presbyterians alone do not have it right. The Southern Baptists alone do not have it right. The Acts 29 churches alone do not have it right. There is room for everyone. There is not one church that will perfectly reach every lost person in the world. It is right for churches not to needlessly segregate themselves from certain aspects of the population. It is wrong for churches to seek only a certain type of people. But it is not wrong for churches to adapt themselves to a particular culture in order to better connect with the lost and win them to Christ. In fact, so far from being wrong or harmful, this is right. It is biblical.

Perhaps we have fallen in love with our own style of church. If so, we could receive correction from the words of Acts, where we discover that the apostles tailored their messages to different contexts. If we still take issue with contextualization, I suppose it's not those who do so that we quarrel with--it's the apostles.

Do Churches Target People?

Here's an interesting question: does your church target a certain group or type of person? Or do they claim that they are only interested in reaching Christians and saving the lost?

This question is relevant today because a group of evangelicals known as the emerging church have drawn a good deal of heat for targeting the twentysomething generation. One of the primary charges against emerging church congregations is that they draw only type of person, typically the goatee-wearing, emo-band listening, coffee-shop inhabiting dude. Emerging churches target this kind of dude and draw this kind of dude. They fail to draw the full spectrum of Christian people, thus forming a church that is not representative of the body of Christ and that actually divides Christians based on a needlessly focused style and tone.

What I want to argue in answering my own question is this: all churches contextualize, or tailor their message and target a group, whether they intend to or not. I had a stimulating conversation with a buddy recently in which I realized that many Christians who are not of the emerging church variety do not know that they themselves contextualize the gospel. This shocked me. It's crazy to think that we don't all contextualize the gospel in our own setting. We do so in numerous ways. We construct a certain type of building that appeals to a certain type of people (perhaps a broad group, but it still will not appeal aesthetically to everybody). Our services have a certain tone or tenor to them--some churches emphasize joy, others solemnity--and this accordingly draws those who most like either tenor. We dress in a certain way, and that attracts people who dress like us. Generally, a pastor who wears jeans will draw people who like wearing jeans on Sunday. A pastor who wears a three-piece suit will draw those wearing a three-piece suit. Neither style of dress is right, and neither is wrong. But both reflect choices we make that will in turn affect the choices that churchgoers make.

We could go on in making this point. Churches may say that they are not contextualizing, but if they preach a 70-minute sermon, they are going to draw a certain type of churchgoer, one who places a huge amount of weight on a meaty sermon. Other churches who are equally faithful to preach the whole council of God will preach for thirty minutes, thus styling themselves differently. Neither church is wrong to do so. Both are faithfully declaring the gospel of God. But they are definitively marking themselves by the length of their preaching. And on style--churches who favor a high style, with big words and poetic speech, will draw people who appreciate such style. On the other hand, churches who prefer a more plainspoken approach will tend to draw a different group, those who favor a more common style. Neither style has the biblical copyright. If both preach the truth of God, then both are faithful.

I'm going to continue this tomorrow. For now, though, think about my question. Who does your church target? Had you ever realized that it did?

Perhaps we'll see that contextualization of the gospel is not limited to the soul-patched and scruffy.