Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Supposed Evangelical Crackup, and New Areas of Focus and Ministry

A recent New York Times article explores the changing public face of the evangelical political and social movement. I don't agree with all of the article's points, and I'm not sure evangelicalism is quite as divided and defeated as the author claims, especially because there is yet a good deal of time for Christians to sift out which presidential candidate they like and will support. (Good grief, we're still a year away!) With the unnecessarily alarmist (and celebratory?) tone of the article pointed out, it does show how some evangelicals are turning to different social causes than those of previous generations. This shift in interest draws my attention because it reveals that Christians are devoting time to less traditional causes, and pouring effort and energy into climate change and the defeat of global poverty.

I have no personal ax to grind on either of these issues--they're complex, they take time to sort out, and I am quite happy for Christians who know more than me to do so and to inform me as to a suggested course of action. However, I do have an ax to grind when it comes to the shape of the family. A recent book by Voddie Baucham, Family Driven Faith, published in June 2007 by the Southern Baptist pastor and speaker, re-started a whole line of thinking in my mind about the absolute necessity of evangelizing and discipling our children. Now here is an area that every evangelical can recognize that they need to address. A staggering number of people who profess to believe evangelical Christianity do so because they were raised in a Christian home. The Christian home that holds out the gospel and that does not subcontract with a youth pastor, a Christian summer camp, and an FCA group to lead their children to the Lord is doing the right thing. Baucham, a reformed author, an excellent speaker, and a good writer, makes this case quite convincingly in his book, which I encourage everyone interested in this subject (or not interested) to buy. The Christian faith is meant to be driven by families, not by the parachurch, not by "experts," and not by strangers.

But I have an even stronger burden than this. I would re-suggest a model of evangelization that is itself focused on the family. I would encourage Christians to befriend young, inner-city boys and girls and evangelize and disciple them. I would encourage whole churches to target troubled areas and to "adopt" children who come from broken homes. There is little hope of reaching troubled youth (who teem in our nation's cities) without a strong, family-based model. I would in particular suggest that men should target boys and teach them how to be the cornerstone for a family. I was reminded of this need this morning as I spoke to an inner-city FCA group. As I walked through the halls of the school in search of the classroom where I would speak (I do this on a regular basis in the Louisville area--I speak and briefly rap in order to connect with students and share the gospel), I was surrounded by testosterone-filled boys, many of whom have no dad in their home, and many of whom will grow up to vacate the home just like dad did. I'm not sure we grasp the magnitude of this problem. If we do not teach boys to be responsible, godly dads and fathers, the cycle of suffering and death will only continue in the American inner-city. So long as many inner-city children have no evangelistic family structure, they will reject the gospel, and produce more children who will only do the same. If we want to evangelize these youths, then, and if we want to see their children saved, we must reach them through the Bible's primary evangelistic model, the family. This is a social emphasis that could use great attention from evangelicals.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How Many Services Should a Church Have, Anyway?

This is a controverted question in the current day. Following from yesterday's discussion, there are a considerable number of churches today that cut out some of the traditional services--Sunday night and Wednesday night--in order to streamline the church and avoid cluttering the busy calendars of the members. Is this a positive development or a negative one?

Well, let me first say that I personally have no problem with a church that has multiple weekly services, meaning the Sunday night and Wednesday night gatherings. There is much good that comes from such times of worship, and I personally enjoy the Sunday night service at my local church as much as any other service in the week. It's relaxed and calm and tends nicely to reflective thought and encouragement. I thus can see the benefits of having such a service. In addition, a Wednesday night service can be really nice for those who seek some midweek nourishment from the Word of God. That is only a positive thing, and it is unwise to cast stones at those who really enjoy and benefit from the midweek service. In short, then, I'm not opposed to a church having any kind of service devoted to the edification of the church members.

However, I do think that we can sometimes become a little over-distressed at the loss of traditional services. I guess I could put it like this: I can see the merits of both sides of this discussion. As a married man whose family time regularly consists of a few squeezed-in hours each night, I am quite aware of the lack of time I have with my wife. I want us to worship God as the New Testament calls us to do, and so that means that we must be absolutely committed to the corporate gathering that takes place on Sunday morning. And because our church emphasizes attendance on Sunday night, and because I find that it is rich and nourishing, we go to the Sunday night service. But were I to be a pastor, I cannot say that if my church met only on Sunday morning that we would be violating Scripture. There is no proof that I personally can adduce to make that argument. The same goes for a Wednesday night service. I fully understand if someone wants to fight for the continuing existence of such services, and I think it unwise and ungodly to sneer at them for doing so. However, I do think that this line of argumentation suffers from a lack of clear biblical support. Put plainly, we are not commanded to worship on Wednesday night.

There is much wisdom in observing church history and seeking to learn from Christians who proceeded us in the faith. I want to do this for the rest of my life. I do not presume to think at the present stage of the church's life, we have reached the apex of wisdom. Far from it. There is so much, so very much, to learn from Christians who proceeded us in the faith. In fact, I naturally hesitate to depart from the traditions of godly Christians who laid down a path of faithfulness for future believers to follow. The confessional traditions especially draw my interest and devotion, for they were so thoughtful, so rooted in Scripture, and the reformers and the Puritans possessed such strong faith and biblical wisdom. With all this said and acknowledged, though, I am yet aware that these traditions are not themselves divine. Their practices and advice do not carry the weight of the Bible. While I see them as godly advisors, then, I do not see them as the normative voice of authority.

Where does all this leave us? With freedom. With freedom to pursue simplicity. We must obey Scripture, and we must seek a vibrant congregational life. We must preach the Word, hear the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word. We must not give these things up. We must do them with joy and freshness. And yet we must also avoid a new law, an addendum to Scripture, that binds our consciences and induces guilt where it is not deserved. Churches have freedom to structure their weekly calendars. They should take into account the busyness of life, the demands upon the family in a society in which the father must often be away from the home for much of the day, the separation of many children from the home due to schooling, and the effects that these modern trends exert upon the family. They must ask whether they are harming the family to help the church. This is a difficult question, and we must wrestle with it today, balancing the scriptural mandate, the goodness of corporate gathering, and the gifts of freedom and simplicity that God has given His local church.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Compelling Books: Thom Rainer's Simple Church

This is not a book review of Rainer's 2005 text, Simple Church, but more a reflection based on the book. I will give you a quick summation before I leave you with my thoughts. Rainer, a church consultant and strategist and current president of the SBC publishing monolith Lifeway Books, writes with Eric Geiger, a pastor in Miami, to encourage pastors and church leaders to transition from a traditional, multi-layered, strictly hierarchical, unfocused style of church to a simple, streamlined model that articulates a simple vision for the church and judges all activity by it. The simple church cuts out unnecessary activities, activities that do not directly enhance the ministry focus of the congregation, and leaves members with a fluid, accessible church experience that is not cluttered by dozens of programs, initiatives, and competing motives and methods.

I would not agree with everything in Simple Church, and I do not typically lean heavily on the church consultant market for ideas, but I think Rainer is onto something here. The simple church model is, in a word, compelling. How many of us have experienced life in a church with little idea of where it's going and even less formal articulation of how it will get there? How many of us have served in churches filled with unconnected ministries and a lack of a driving vision? How many of us have wearied of multiple weekly commitments that feel more like duties than opportunities? Simple Church has some good things to say to such people. I am not one to encourage people to be disheartened and frustrated by their church, but I would say that a church that possesses a simple vision and takes a few concrete steps to get there is on the right track.

Don't mishear me. I'm not saying that I want to dumb down doctrine or some such awful thing. But I do think that, in a complex and busy world, there is much to say for simplicity. Historical Christianity, after all, was simple. You went to church all day on Sunday, if you were in a confessional tradition, and then you worked the rest of the week. If you were a good husband and father, you led your family in some form of domestic worship. That was pretty much it. We make the mistake sometimes of assuming that the overcrowded modern church calendar is the historical norm and the very fulfillment of the New Testament ideal for the church. Other than the Sunday service, there is no weekly calendar laid out for the congregation. We have the freedom, then, to be simple. In the midst of church life that seems anything but restful and nourishing, we can claim simplicity for ourselves. We can seek a vibrant, rich, doctrinally driven, joyful church life that focuses on itself on worshipping God as laid out in the Bible--and the biblical plan is very simple--through weekly gathering and through specific engagement in evangelism and discipleship. You and I do not have to gasp for breath in order to be faithful church members. As Dr. Thom Rainer so helpfully reminds us, church life can be simple. No, let's rephrase that. It not only can be simple, it was meant to be so.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

The Week-est Link

With that title proudly worked out, I can now give you my weekly link roundup.

1. Provocative article by Thomas Sowell on whether prestigious colleges really deliver the education people think they do. There are of courses necessary nuances to Sowell's argument, but his basic idea sounds right: oftentimes, prestigious institutions of great size offer a subpar education relative to smaller, perhaps less well-known, teaching-oriented universities. A good commentary on the insatiable appetite most of us Americans have for status. We are so obsessed with status that we overlook certain factors in making decisions--like, for example, the education our students will receive (a minor consideration, after all). In our lust for association with prestige, in our haste to drop name after glorious name, we sacrifice quality to the gods of status. This is a ridiculous problem in American society that is only accelerated in a society that is losing its moral framework and its understanding of what is truly important--God, family, church, country.

2. A podcast interview I did with Tony Kummer of Said at Southern. Tony very kindly approached me and asked if he could interview me about my experience at SBTS. After recovering from a startled state due to a keen understanding of how little my my life and work deserves an interview on a well-read blog, I consented. The result is 27 minutes of Kummer and Strachan, and quite possibly the least downloaded podcast of all time--though I must say, I really appreciate Tony's kindness and interest in me. He does an excellent job with the podcast, and I strongly encourage you to listen to them all.

3. If you like beautiful piano-based soundtracks, and I do, you should buy the soundtrack to the movie Girl with a Pearl Earring. I have not watched the movie and thus cannot vouch for it, though I can say that I love the film's score, and often listen to it at work. Haunting and continually interesting to listen to.

There you go--have a great weekend.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

When the Bell Fell Silent: The Church, the Parachurch, and Christian Witness to the American University, Pt. 4

Do you have ambition? Do you have energy? Do you have a vision?

If you are a young man, I want to ask you those three questions. You should answer them honestly. Don't misunderstand. I'm not referring in these question to worldly ambition, energy, and vision. I'm talking about godly ambition, Godward energy, righteous vision. Do you have these qualities? If you don't, are you developing them in yourself? Or do you simply evaluate yourself, find a lack of ambition and vision, and thereby excuse yourself from ever doing something significant? You have to answer these questions. Only you truly know the state of your heart.

I ask these questions because I sense a need for young men (defined as 20-35) to get a vision for life. Many among my generation did not have a father around to impart a broad-ranging plan for life, to cast a vision for the lives of their sons. As a result, many young men do not simply dream small. Many young men--even godly men, even seminarians!--don't dream at all. They lope through seminary, continually fighting laziness in their classes, unsure of themselves, uncertain as to what the future holds, afraid to dream, certain that any hint of ambition or zeal is impious. We have, in short, a lack of testosterone. We need to move away from over-realized pietism that views any inkling of ambition as wrong. It is not wrong to be ambitious in a kingdom sense, to cast a vision for one's life that centers around one's understanding of one's gifts and the confirmation of that understanding by the member of one's local church. It is right to do so. It is essential to do so. It is godly to dream big, to think of all that one could possibly do for the kingdom, to daydream about spending one's life in totality through the exercise of the gifts God has given us. Though I am thinking of my context here, my seminary setting, this is true for all Christians. So many of us lack a vision for life and assume that all ambition and energy is impious unless directly related to our devotions. This is not true. The apostles were ambitious for the kingdom. They spread the gospel with zeal and energy and vision and life and courage. They were anything but timid and overly pious and hesitant and unsure. They struck out in boldness and ambition, and you know the result. The world turned on its head.

I say all this to close this mini-series on Christian witness to the college campus. I see such an energy and liveliness in the ministry of many parachurch groups to the university. Conversely, I see such a deadness and distractedness in the ministry of many local churches to the university. If things are to be righted here, we need a whole chunk of young men to catch a bold vision for the American college campus, and to gear themselves up to reach it. We need young men not simply to idle their time away in their dorm room, or goof off with their friends, or cry on their wife's shoulder over their workload, but to rise up, construct an ambitious plan for their lives, and then work diligently to accomplish that plan. Don't live life weakly. Live it boldly for the Lord. Set your sights on something very difficult to do, and then do all you can to reach that goal. You may find that you can't reach it, and you'll need to be realistic and honest as you go, and to listen to counsel and wisdom. But at least you'll be able to look back on the last day and say, "I tried, Lord--I was zealous for your name. I gave it my all."

If that's true, you know what He will say.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

When the Bell Fell Silent: The Church, the Parachurch, and Christian Witness to the American University, Pt. 3

So here we are. We've got an overdeveloped parachurch and an underdeveloped local church in relation to the college campus. Where do we go from here?

Well, I'm not the answer-man, but I will take a crack at this. I would suggest that the primary need we have is for a pastoral corps that has been trained to love people, to preach the Word faithfully and powerfully, and to engage the thought and practice of the culture. If our local churches are going to reclaim the college campus as a place of considerable investment, they must be led by men who are equipped to reach out to students and to engage their questions. Though this may not be ideal, college students, often in the flower of youthful hubris and pride, tend to blow off people who they sense don't really "get" them. Our pastors do not need to be professors. But they do need to reject the anti-intellectualism of the twentieth-century model, and they need to be able to engage sophisticated theological, moral, and philosophical questions. Again, they don't need to be professorial as they do so. Pastors, when they are gifted in both personality and intellect, are uniquely suited to reach students, because students generally enjoy both a lively, warm personality and a strong, nimble mind. Pastors should seek to love students through their engaging personalities and should couple this love with an awareness of the questions that confront the particular generation to which they are ministering. For example, it is great to know all about Francis Schaeffer and what he said, but the questions Schaeffer confronted in his day, while still quite relevant to ours, are nonetheless not the same as those that our students face. Thus we should take it upon ourselves to read up, to honestly engage the intellectual questions of our day.

Some pastors who read this will think, "But even then, I won't be able to refute the highest level of intellectual scholarship." Well, you don't need to. You will go a long way to connecting with students simply by trying. In addition, if you can be in touch with books and people that do refute anti-Christian thought with considerable facility, then you can refer students to those resources, and they will be stimulated.

Why am I spending so much time on intellectual matters? Because that's where many students are--figuring out the big questions. Groups like Campus Crusade know this, and that is one reason why they are so successful in reaching students--they ask, and answer, the big questions.

Beyond this, churches must develop strong discipleship programs which they can plug students into. This is huge. We cannot simply hold a meal once in a while if we expect to reclaim the rightful place of the local church in relation to the college campus. We need to plug students into discipling relationships, hold events that they can come to, bring in speakers, integrate students into the family lives of our members, and so much more. Students have--despite what they may think--lots of free time, and parachurch groups know this and plan accordingly. So should we. We must not assume that we will fill the role of the parachurch simply by holding a solitary event once in a while. We will not. This is difficult for seminarians to hear, because we so want to reach out to students, and yet there is so little time to do so. For example, when I was leading college ministry at my church, I was painfully aware of how little I was actually doing to reach students in the ways I've just listed.

I very much hope in the future to be able to focus more time and energy in these areas, because unless the local church considerably ramps up its outreach to students, the parachurch will continue to be seen as their primary place of discipleship. This should not be so. We need tons of local churches to commit themselves to considerable investment in the college campuses in their communities. We need young men to get a bold and ambitious vision for the college campus and to attain training and personal development so that they can minister effectively to students. We need our average church member to see the college campus as a mission field, not an enemy training base. We need families to get a heart for students and to invite them into their homes for meals and meaningful fellowship. I do not hold myself out as the exemplar of such activity. But I do think that I am talking about one of the serious deficiencies of the local church in America, and I want in the future to be a part of the solution. I want to be a man who plots strategically, ambitiously, and prayerfully to make a significant impact on a college campus. I hope that some out there will catch the same vision if they have not already.

Perhaps in days to come the bell will ring once more.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When the Bell Fell Silent: The Church, the Parachurch, and Christian Witness to the American University, Pt. 2

The body of secularist water that washed over the American academy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was no mere wave. It was a tsunami. At one point there were many schools that educated students from a unapologetically Christian perspective; at another those same schools had utterly abandoned all commitments to Christianity and Christian education. For more on the rapidity and scope of this trend, see George Marsden's excellent text The Soul of the American University.

As I noted yesterday, the American church was, relative to this trend, at a particularly weak point. The heritage of at least the northeast part of the country was Christian commitment of the stoutest brand, reformational puritanism. This tradition, as was true with, among other regional flavors of Christianity, southern Presbyterianism and certain strands of Southern Baptists, was staunchly biblical and credibly intellectual. In all of these traditions, men of strong faith and strong mind had dominated their local culture. Christians in such regions were not afraid of unbelieving thought, for their pastors could engage the thinkers of their day and were in the lifelong process of training the congregants to do the same. Yet the church weakened over time in all regions of the country as pragmatic thought, showy religion, increasingly taxed clergy, and the rapid growth of America all conspired to dilute the intellectual nature of Christianity in America. As the twentieth century dawned, many Christians had retreated from culture and now shied away from intellectual engagement. As I noted yesterday, the college campus was left to itself.

Here's where we pick up. The parachurch saw this situation and sought to address it. Movements like InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, the Navigators, Baptist Campus Ministry, and others moved onto the college campus in an effort to engage lost students and to disciple saved students. Though these groups had some ties to the local church, they often emphasized more the importance of Christian fellowship on campus than of fellowship off campus in the local church. Christians on colleges formed their own little communities. These were often vibrant and passionately evangelistic, and discipleship was strongly emphasized by many of these groups. Where many (not all) local churches had turned their backs on the colleges, or simply stood by helplessly, unsure of how to reach out to students, the aforementioned parachurch groups sent in zealous young workers to minister to students, often with encouraging results. Students came to trust these ministries and to find their Christian identity in them. The parachurch had moved onto the campus, and a strong witness for Christ once again existed at many American universities.

But though this system accomplished much good, it possessed a significant weakness. The local church was marginalized by the work of these groups. The local church, the only institution founded by Christ, and the only institution perpetuated by His apostles and disciples, was also the only thing missing from the lives of many Christian college students. As health returned to many churches in the latter half of the twentieth century, as reformed theology trickled back into various ecclesiastical traditions, as men like Schaeffer and Henry called Christians back to cultural engagement and witness, the local church gained confidence and courage. Pastors rose up who were ready to speak to the culture and witness for Christ. Christians sought degrees and founded fellowships and programs to minister to college students. Yet many local churches found that it was very difficult to reassert themselves on campus in the face of established parachurch ministries. This is where we are today.

We have strong parachurch ministries who have done very faithful work in the past. These groups ensured that the torch did not go out, that a Christian witness was present on the campus of the American university. And yet many of these groups do not realize that, to put it plainly, the local church is back. In many places, it is healthy and vibrant, and it desires to reach students for Christ. The parachurch needs now to step back, to concentrate, perhaps, on evangelism, and to let churches be responsible for discipleship. The parachurch should, in my humble opinion, exist as an evangelistic supplement to the local church that funnels students to the local church. It should not exist as its own stand-alone organization that feeds students a rich diet and then spits them out at graduation without connection to a local church. I realize that these are strong words, but I believe strongly in two things: one, that the parachurch filled a need in the twentieth century with excellence and faithfulness, and two, that it must now recognize that it must give ground to the local church, and let the local church lead in discipling and evangelizing college students wherever strong local churches are found.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

When the Bell Fell Silent: The Church, the Parachurch, and Christian Witness to the American University

The twentieth century was hard on evangelicals in many ways, despite our rise to some level of cultural prominence as the century wore on. Ecclesiastically, on matters of the local church, we ran up against some rocks. In short, we ceded much ground to the parachurch. Possessing too narrow a vision of church life, many of our local churches retracted from many areas of national life and gave that territory to fledgling organizations and ministries. Many of these entities did (and do) excellent work, and we can thank God for them and their faithful witness in an age when the local church dropped the ball. In the current day, however, when health spreads amongst the local churches of America, we are poised to reexamine the role of the parachurch in evangelical life, and to ask where it is overextending itself, and where the local church must claim back territory that it is responsible for.

In taking on this topic, which I will explore over the next several days, I am not suggesting that the parachurch has no role in evangelical life. Far from it. Parachurch organizations accomplish too much good to chart here. They are a part, and a necessary one, of Christian life. And yet we may say that in their attempt to address the deficiencies of the local church, some organizations have overextended themselves. This is not to say that they have no usefulness or role. That must be understood. But it is to say that in one area of evangelical life, campus ministry, the parachurch often dominates to such an extent that the local church must work around the parachurch. This is not an ideal situation, and it has harmful effects for many students and for the churches who lack any meaningful connection with them.

If you read carefully above, though, you read that the primary blame for this situation rests with the local church. It is fundamentally responsible for this situation. Where did this all begin? To start, many Christians altogether retreated from college campuses in the twentieth century. In the face of a rising tide of secularist thought and pagan practice, many evangelicals simply put out to sea, becoming isolated, lonely communities much like the drifting atolls found in Kevin Costner's film "Waterworld" (an underrated film, but this is entirely off the point). Possessing an over-realized sense of cultural separation--an instinct we all must have--these Christians and their local churches largely abandoned the college campus. Bewildered at the shocking practices of the younger generation, the rebelliousness of the Woodstock set, the immorality of the rock culture, and the anti-Christian philosophies of the academy, many Christians retreated from the paganism spreading all around them. It is no shock that they did so. Many had little intellectual training by which to engage secular thought and little familiarity with pagan practice. When confronted with these dual evils, believers failed to engage them, or failed to do so with sophistication, winsomeness, wisdom, and a bold, clear and logical apologetic. The result? As colleges turned from their Christian roots (which happened en masse between, roughly, the 1860s and the 1950s), abolishing chapel, embracing humanism, appointing unbelieving chaplains, and distancing themselves from their Christian roots, the American university was, in a Christian sense, all but lost. Where there once existed a vibrant and widespread Christian influence, symbolized by a busy and frequently occupied chapel characterized by a pleasantly resounding bell, now there was only spiritual wasteland. The local church and the university had separated. The divorce was complete.

The bell had fallen silent.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday Links

Here's the link roundup for this Friday--I've got some gems for you:

1. Make sure that you go to the website of the New England Center for Expository Preaching. If you have not heard of this vital ministry, well, here's your introduction. NECEP is doing an important work in New England. Essentially, future pastors training for ministry come to New England to preach for many weeks in various churches. The idea, according to Dave Ricard, the program director, is to "get expositional preaching in New England by getting expositional preachers to come preach." This is a most worthy goal. I heartily support it, and I encourage men with a burden to preach the gospel in the dry and darkened New England territory to do so. Browse the website and contact Dave Ricard for more information. Dave has a great heart, and he has a vital program started here.

2. Here's an old but excellent article by Weekly Standard columnist Joseph Epstein on "perpetual adolescence." Though published in 2004, the article makes many salient points. Epstein is a nice writer and a keen cultural exegete. This piece complements nicely the new book by Diana West, The Death of the Grown Up. I would encourage you to read the book, but if you don't quite have time, at least read this article and consider how you and your church possibly participate in the disastrous phenomenon known as "perpetual adolescence."

3. Saddening news about the divorce of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Well, not just sad. Enraging. President Sarkozy is a known womanizer, and it appears that his ways have finally driven away his wife for good. This is such a disgusting cultural trend. How awful to watch as faithful wives are humiliated by the lecherous ways of their husbands. Apparently, Sarkozy went so far as to kick his wife out of the presidential manse. Such intrigues are no stranger to French politics, but that fact does not make this event any less awful. How awful to see what men do to women in a world that celebrates personal and moral autonomy. These are the consequences. In a world like ours, many men stink. That's it. There's not much more to say. They fashion themselves into wretches, and the world crumbles alongside them. It is my hope that the men who are reading these words will commit themselves to ensuring that such disaster never darkens their doorstep. I pray this for myself, and as we go into the weekend, I pray it for you, brothers.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Truly Strange, Frightening and Yet Fascinating Picture


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Free Contraception for Middle-Schoolers, and Planned Parenthood in the Mall: The Mainstreaming of Abortion

You can imagine my shock when I looked up at the news channel and saw the headline, "Maine School to Give Contraception to Middle-Schoolers." I was initially surprised to see the word "Maine" on a tv newscast. This is not a common occurrence. Unfortunately, the headline was not a happy one. Apparently, a middle school in Portland, ME wants to be able to give contraception to middle-school students through its health center. According to state laws, such transactions can be done without the knowledge of parents. State law allows students themselves to choose whether or not to report such actions to Dad and Mom.

A second story caught my eye while on the Weekly Standard website. Charlotte Allen has penned a stinging critique of Planned Parenthood and its shady practices and for-profit nature. Incredibly, this entity, though raking in millions of dollars, draws tens of millions of dollars in federal subsidies each year. Considering that the organization oversees more than 250,000 abortions per year, and makes tens of millions of dollars in profit from these abortions, this is an appalling situation indeed. Consider this paragraph from Allen's piece:

"Most troubling of all is Planned Parenthood's pattern of seeming insouciance about reporting suspected sexual abuse by adults of underage girls--of which the Adam Gault case is perhaps the most spectacular example to date. Planned Parenthood heavily markets both its advocacy positions and its facilities and services to teenagers (via, among other things, ads on MySpace and MTV), and it has a huge clientele of high school students living at home (one affiliate, Planned Parenthood of Hawaii, told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2001 that a full third of its clients were teens "with little or no money"). In recent years Planned Parenthood has opened a series of "express" storefront branches at shopping malls apparently aimed at funneling mallrats to its full-service clinics elsewhere. Last year Planned Parenthood Golden Gate launched a "Tell a Friend" marketing campaign that included free movie tickets and a chance to win an iPod as rewards to teens for sending their classmates to Planned Parenthood clinics."

Planned Parenthood, in our materialistic, ethics-anemic society, is nothing more than a storefront in your local mall. In America today, life-and-death decisions are made between checking out the Abercrombie fall line and purchasing a Frappucino. One needs only to pop in, pop a pill, and future embryos can die, with nary a whimper to be heard. Or, if the mall has no such store, your ten-year-old child can stop in at the school health center. While other students are nursing a tummy-ache and having their temperature taken, your child can pick up a little contraception to go, and you'll never know the difference. Each of these stories tells a chilling, no, a horrific, story about the state of America.

We as Christians have to be aware about these developments. The abortionists among us are not grim-faced old men operating in back-alley death shops. They are smiling, attractive, Ipod-giving men and women with Myspace pages and mall storefronts. But there are others with them, others who may not even know fully the ramifications of their actions. In coming days, the abortionists among us will very likely be the kids on the playground, the Little League pitcher, the budding cheerleader, the one with a fresh face and a winning personality. The culture of death is spreading, just as Planned Parenthood wants it to, and it threatens to sweep our children away with it.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Do We Seek the Conversion of Countries--or People?

I recently read evangelical historian Mark Noll's masterwork, America's God. Published in 2002 by Oxford, the book traces the relationship between Christianity and political life in America from a theological perspective. Or, to put it differently, America's God is theological history, albeit theological history of an entire country with a special emphasis on the intersection of Christian doctrine and political life.

Noll's central point is that Americans married Christianity and republican political philosophy to such an extent that it is now difficult to imagine American Christianity without its ties to the central idea of republicanism, that liberty and virtue go hand in hand, and the conceptual framework that emerges from such a principle, namely, that America's well-being and destiny are bound up in its adherence to a biblical creed. Some out there may have found it odd that some Christians, whose faith is anchored in a belief in a transcendent, other-worldly kingdom nonetheless profess a faith that is so closely connected to the establishment of a righteous political order on the earth. I can say on a personal level that my own understanding of this marriage was nowhere near as informed or developed as Noll's, but that I have often experienced a low-level queasiness in my gut when hearing talk of the need to build a biblical America or return this country to its righteous roots.

It is of course true that Christianity informs our country's heritage, and it is essential that Christians engage their culture and work for the application of truth and justice in their society. But this is a far cry from "vivifying, ennobling, and lending transcendence" (Noll's thesis phrase) to a political order that is not itself transcendent. Republicanism is of course a blessed system of government under which to live, and I am thankful on a daily basis that I do live in a republican society. And yet I am also uneasy about the error some among us make, that of deifying republicanism, of becoming so bound up in its ideals that we invest more in it--for the earthly "kingdom," so to speak--than we do in the kingdom not made by human hands. Though Noll does not so write so subjectively, as he prefers a more objective style that puts forth an argument with heavy evidence and a more detached prose, it is clear that my concerns mirror his own. We Christians must be good citizens on this earth, yes, but we must not let our faith grow so earthy that our country's spirituality--itself impossible to measure--concerns us more than evangelism and discipleship. America is not Israel. Our land is blessed in many ways by the hand of God, but it is foolish to assume that if we simply pass this law or defeat this one that we may then say that our nation has turned its back on sin and has become a righteous land once and for all. Figuring out national spirituality is a complex question, one better suited to Old Testament days than our own.

Sometimes it is as if we evangelicals have applied our sense of individual conversion on a national scale. It is as if we seek to convert America. We cannot do this. We are not a divinely led nation in the sense that Israel was, and thus we do not possess a spiritual identity in the same way that Israel did. Our country is a complex mix of good and bad, right and wrong, and a political theology that leads us to in some way "save" our country on a mass scale is bound to fail. Better for us to push ahead in our kingdom work, to labor with enthusiasm and energy to advance the kingdom and spread the gospel, and work for the application of truth and justice in our society. America is not saved yet--and in fact, she never will be. But there are millions--no, billions--out there who can be saved, and we need to focus our efforts on them.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

In Evangelism, You Are the Need, and You Are the Answer

Many of us struggle with evangelism. I've talked about that on here before. It's not a new topic, either on this blog or in the life of the Christian. But that hasn't stopped me from thinking about it in recent days.

A recent chapel message by Southern's Dean, Dr. Russ Moore, hit me hard on this subject. Dr. Moore is a punchy preacher, and he landed a few. His message helpfully addressed a number of subjects but none more so than the topic of fear in evangelism. To put it straightforwardly, Dr. Moore encouraged his audience to witness with fear, yes, but not fear of man--fear of God for the condition of the lost person. The fact that a person is going to hell should fill us with fear for them. In addition, we have fear in our hearts as we witness for we are filled with reverence and awe as we stand before men and proclaim the news that God will judge those who are not in Christ and save those who are in Him. Evangelism is a holy and awesome task. We don't enter into it lightly. We do not tremble for fear of our own personal condemnation, but we tremble as those who have been sent to tell a foreign nation that an army approaches to utterly destroy them. This nation blithely goes about its business, while we have caught a glimpse--just a glimpse--of the furious wrath that is to come. Possessing this knowledge, we speed to these people, and tell them of the reality of eternal destruction in hell and the promise of salvation in Christ.

But most of us don't sense this urgency when we witness. We sense a great fear. Relying too much on feeling, we seek to divine exactly the right moment to say exactly the right words. Should that moment pass, we clam up, certain that our only opportunity for witness is past. We pray earnestly for other such moments to come, but they seem very few and fleeting. We sense the need, and we have the answer, but we cannot find the right time. Well, I am convinced that I too often fail to realize a very simple truth: I am the need, and I am the answer. In other words, I have what the lost around me need, and therefore the gospel I preach is the answer, and so I must err not on the side of timidity but on the side of courage and share the gospel with the lost. I do not cast away any social sensitivity or sense of reliance on God for strength and blessing in witnessing; indeed, I don't simply bullhorn anyone around me who I sense might not be a Christian. But I personally want to practice what I just wrote: I want to err on the side of courage, not on the side of timidity. Many of us err the wrong way, I think, though we chalk our behavior up to being "sensitive to others" or even to the Spirit in the moment. There are times to fall silent, yes, times to not witness, but most of us do not struggle with witnessing too much. Most of us struggle with the not witnessing enough.

We must pray, then, for God to bring His truth home to our hearts. As Christ's heralds, we are the need. We are the answer.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sometimes, the Only Halo Related to the Youth Is a Game...

Well, I'm being a little fascetious there. But you can excuse me, I think--it was too fun to pass up.

This is a fun discussion, and I'm thankful for everyone who's chimed in. Very stimulating stuff. Essentially, I think that all who have commented essentially agree. No one really wants to slam a church youth group for playing Halo 3, while all are quick to affirm that the primary focus of the youth group and the church itself should be to ground students' lives in the Bible. On this point, Rick, Riley, Mary and Joseph (I didn't plan that, I swear) are in basic agreement. G. F., on the other hand, just wants to break it down.

In all seriousness, I concur with this consensus. If Halo 3 were horribly violent, then I would have a problem with a youth group playing it. But it's not Doom or Duke Nukem or--shudder--Postal 2. These games all have clearly sinful elements to them. Postal 2 apes the Columbine killers, for example, in certain gameplay elements. Youth groups should have no part of that. But with a game that is violent, yes, but is not horribly so, I think we can say that we're okay with youth playing such a game under supervision. We might not all use the game in the same way as the churches profiled in the NYT story, but I myself have nothing against a little combat-by-video-game. It can actually be pretty fun, though I prefer games in which the violence is not ultrarealistic. I feel better about "nuking" a funny little robot than I do a pixelated woman.

With all that said, we still haven't gotten to the heart of the matter. So here goes. If a church has a youth group, and that youth group is not a substitute for parental spiritual care of children but a supplement to it, I'm fine with youth groups. I'm especially okay with them when they don't major on silliness and hijinks but instead attempt to bring youth together in a fun and relaxed setting to communicate the eternal truths of God's Word. I know that Covenant Life Church in Maryland, for example, trains it students theologically using Wayne Grudem's book on systematic theology. Knowing CLC, I'm sure that they show their youth a good time, but the emphasis of their times together is the Triune God and the Word through which He has spoken. That sounds like a great operation to me, and I'm guessing that the youth benefit from their association as much as they enjoy it.

The primary resource for children, though, must be their parents. We must say that, highlight it, and live by it. Most churches do none of the three. We need a recovery of the role of the parents in the lives of their children. A dad and a mom are not advisors or buddies. They are a child's authority. Dad must be a strong, spiritual leader and mom must be a godly, gracious helpmeet, to use an old word. With this in place, we are poised to reach the youth who were not raised in Christian homes. It is great to invite an unsaved friend to a youth group meeting, yes. That may well have great effects and even lead youth to Christ. But it is far more important that our teenagers invite their lost friends to two other places: our churches and our homes. In the church, the youth will hear the gospel and see its effect as people of all different ages and types worship together in the name of Jesus Christ. In our homes, they will see the calculus of the gospel displayed, as husband and wife demonstrate and speak the gospel to their children. A great youth group is helpful to the witness of the Christian church. But a gospel-saturated church is calibrated to display the gospel in a way an age-segregated youth group cannot. In addition, a loving Christian home is foundational to our evangelism, as there youth will see the relationship of Christ and the church lived out between husband and wife. In our homes, the gospel is both spoken and demonstrated. When all of these parts work together, and the church is healthy and vibrant, then it is equipped to reach youth in a way that Halo 3 and its space combat cannot touch.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Youth Groups, Halo 3, and the Evangelistic Imperative

Note: I am leaving this piece up for today (Wednesday) because of the response it has attracted. I'll continue my commentary on the issues it raises tomorrow.

The New York Times published a piece yesterday on how church youth groups are using the video game Halo 3 to attract young people, specifically young men, who are just about the hardest group to reach of them all. The article prompted an opportunity for reflection on reaching youth and the lengths to which we go to do so.

Beginning with the immediate issue, I'm not sure how I feel about churches using Halo 3 to reach youth. It is a very violent game, and we've got to acknowledge that. With that said, though, the game is not as violent as some games are. I have played previous iterations, none of which incited me to commit violence against others. Should churches use video games to reach teens? That's a tough question. It's hard to reach teens. They are at once asking big questions and devoting themselves to minor matters. There is a reason that many young men become obsessed with sports or other diversions and many young men become obsessed with the school social scene or other pastimes. This is because they do not have to deal with the heavy matters of life as do adults. Yet at the same time teens do think a good deal and will consider material that is thoughtfully and interestingly presented. Teens are tough to reach, yes, but affecting material can and will move them and lead them to think about deeper things. They'll gravitate to Halo 3, yes, but they will also ponder the higher questions of life in their bedrooms when alone and isolated from the immature and sometimes abrasive school environment.

Which leads me to propose that whether or not Halo 3 is the best way to reach teens is not the best question to ask. I would rather have parents taking responsibility for their teens' spiritual lives and not ceding such activity to their local youth group leader. When parents live out a real, vibrant, passionate Christianity that avoids both pious platitudes and youthful identification, they set themselves up to connect with their child and to allow their teen to consider the Christian faith in a sustained and thoughtful way. We have somehow worked ourselves into a situation where parents are merely responsible for ensuring their teens' survival, even as they leave all cultivation of a healthy spiritual life to an overtaxed youth minister who has only a fraction of the time and opportunity of a parent with the youngsters. This is a fundamentally flawed situation. Tomorrow, we'll look at it more, and examine the paradigm through which parents can lead their children through the tough and tumultuous teenage years.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Occasionally, a Work of Breathtaking Beauty Appears...

And today, it's Mat Kearney's song, "Breathe In Breathe Out." Those who follow this blog will know that I greatly enjoy the music of Mr. Kearney, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch the video. I don't exactly understand the video, but I can say that I find the music altogether beautiful, and I think you will, too. Sometimes a song comes along that you feel compelled to play eight times in a row simply because of its musical power. This is one such song for me, and even if you don't play it eight times, you'll likely enjoy the haunting vocals and powerful guitar and piano mix.

Here's what Kearney, a professing Christian, had to say about the making of this song--it's pretty interesting if you like the art of songcraft:

"this month to date has been a good one. a few weeks ago during some unexpected time off in nashville, i walked upstairs to my piano and wrote one of the best songs i have written in a long time called 'breathe in breath out'. i walked back downstairs an hour later and rang paul moak, a good friend of mine who has recorded and played guitar on a lot of my songs, and asked him if we could record a demo--his studio being just down the block. we started with just piano and vocals two days later but soon had all the bass and guitars on tape as well. while standing in line on our lunch break, i noticed a girl wearing a bright green shirt with 'oregon' across the front and asked her where she was from. she said she was from australia and then i realized i was speaking to butterfly boucher a musician whom i am very fond of. through an act of sheer graciousness she was back at the studio tracking drums later that afternoon--by the end of the day we had the song done."

Sometimes a song just seizes you by the sheer power of its music and the lucid message of its lyrics. "Breathe In Breathe Out" is one such song. If you've never heard of Kearney, if you don't like Christian music, or if you're a huge fan of his, I would nevertheless encourage you to engage with his music. It is accessible to both Christian and non-Christian alike and is clearly art made with an eye to excellence and witness. I support that, and I hope you do, too.

Friday, October 05, 2007

"Mommy Jobs" and the Refusal to Accept the Process of Aging

I recently read a story in the New York Times about a new surgical phenomenon known as "Mommy jobs" in which women who have given birth to children undergo surgery costing in the tens of thousands of dollars to reshape their body according to pre-pregnancy standards. The story is worth the few moments' time it takes to read as it illuminates our culture's obsession with physical beauty.

Surgeries of this type represent a revolt against the established order of creation. They show us that the mere potential to do something is not a sign of its inherent goodness. In an age of incredible technical innovation and medical facility, one is confronted with an array of choices that previous generations knew nothing of. Those with money possess the ability to continually reshape and renew their bodies--or at least to look as if they are doing this. The ability to do something--to have one's body reshaped, for example, following pregnancy--does not suggest that such action is inherently good. We have to be careful about the choices we face in this modern era. Does this action represent a conscionable and understandable choice? Or does it signify a small revolt against the God-imposed standards of this world? Few today even remotely consider such questions. But we Christians must.

It is frightening to think of the effects of such cultural practices upon the church. It is growing increasingly hard for the church to find common cultural ground with the world. Christian women who adhere to biblical teaching will, I would predict, find themselves increasingly alienated from their unsaved peers. This will present Christian women with challenges they may not yet face. Taking the matter mentioned above, Christian women may well end up looking very different from unsaved women in their communities, particularly in wealthy areas. Perhaps we are not very far from being able to identify believing women by their appearance. Crow's feet, gray hair, and a transformed body as the result of pregnancy may not simply reveal that a woman is aging. These features may reveal that a woman is a believer. I'm guessing that we are a ways off from such polarization, but who knows? Who knows what the future, drenched in paganism, holds?

We in the church must not simply wring our hands over the beauty-obsessed culture we live in. We must embrace aging and the design of God that is clearly present in aging. You and I were not made to be immortal. We were not to be perpetual coeds, living and acting and looking as if we're lifelong college students. Youth can boast of vigor and freshness, yes, but the aged know dignity and poise, gracefulness and classiness. May Christians remember this. May we echo the scriptures and see gray hair as a crown. May we see crow's feet as the sign of a life long and well-lived. May we praise a woman who has given up her youthful figure in order to bring children into this world. Such things, such features, are not dishonorable or ugly. In the eyes of God, they are beautiful, the mark of a soul committed to God and the natural order of all things in a fallen world. May we see ourselves through these eyes.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

John MacArthur in Stretchy Pants

I've been on the road for a few days, but I'm back, and I'm here to give you what you were previously lacking in life: a picture of Dr. John MacArthur, renowned preacher of the Word of God, in what one can only call "stretchy pants" in a post-Nacho Libre world. With this fifth promo ad for the Together for the Gospel conference, I think we can all agree that this basic "lack" now fulfilled, we can all move on with our lives, and pretend as if none of this ever happened.

I just returned from a trip to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. I went to check out the school and to host a conference for the religious history scholars there entitled, "What Marsden and Noll Don't Know, and Only a Humble MDiv Student Can Tell You." The conference went very well, thanks, and I'll be publishing the talks in a book later this year. If you believe all this, then you need to look once more at Dr. MacArthur in stretchy pants and give yourself a good shock to wake yourself up.

I understand that my posting has been a bit shoddy this last little while, but everything should improve in days to come. Thanks for sticking with Consumed, and I'm looking forward to sharing some great material I've compiled in days to come. And no, none of it involves spandex.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Reflections on the Movie "Castaway"

Here's one movie that I don't have to qualify as being a chick flick and therefore being worthy of my attention primarily because of my marriage. No, Castaway is a manly flick, a movie that depicts a man (Tom Hanks) struggling against the elements to survive on a remote desert island following a horrific plane crash. For more than four years, Hanks's character fashions a life for himself on this little island. He eventually sets sail in hope of finding a shipping lane and with it a ship that will take him back to his home and, more importantly, his fiancee.

The movie is thoroughly of this age. In the past, a survivor film of this sort would show the character engaged in some sort of religious devotion to a deity who controlled his fate. In this film, Hanks's character seems to have no idea that God even exists. He prays to noone and nothing and never directs his thoughts or words upwards. Instead, he makes a companion for himself out of a volleyball that washes to shore, and he directs his conversation to this imaginary friend, which he names "Wilson." In Castaway, our protagonist is a man of his age, a thoroughly secular man who survives for years by the strength of his will and the ingenuity of his mind. A modern man, he becomes the noble savage, only to become the modern man once more.

This point notwithstanding, it is entertaining and inspiring to watch Hanks's character struggle for survival. His will is strong and his instincts sharp. This is a man of action, a man of courage, one who is not content to sit back and weep over his fate. Indeed, love inspires his action, and reminds us of the need for a transcendental purpose for life. Of course, love of a human is not itself transcendent. Rather, it becomes transcendent in the life of Hanks's character. We who are Christians, those who have been possessed by the transcendent one, know that we cannot find our ultimate purpose in this life. We must find it in One who has given us this life and who gives us the means and motive by which to live this life. Hanks's character has no sense of such higher philosophy. At the end of his life, he has naught to do but ponder where to go next. When his purpose is fulfilled, or, more accurately, cancelled, there is nothing more for him to do but drift through his world. I am not sure that the movie is making my point, but it succeeds in doing so, for we are left with a man who is homeless, rootless, aimless. We are reminded of the need to find the transcendent being while we have time. We are shown that it is natural that we should seek for Him though we do so by pursuing lesser things. When the lesser things fail, when loves dries up, when a social cause dies down, when tragedy strikes, to what--more importantly, to Whom--will we turn? If we fail to pursue the One who created us, we will end up as lost as Hanks's character in Castaway, whether we live on a tropical island by ourselves or amidst a million city faces.

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