Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Christianity in the Future

I just finished reading Brian McClaren's book The Church on the Other Side. This is a look into some of the possible directions the church will be heading towards in the future. He does a great job explaining and contrasting modern and postmodern thinking. And as I thought a lot about these things over the last week or two, I realized that church may be headed into some difficult waters.

He describes modern thinking as the desire to prove everything as true through science and methods. Modern thinking has been the norm for several hundred years and has led society, including the church to where it is now. This is why the preaching style of so many pastors, and the desire of so many Christians who debate with non-Christians, is to show the other person how you are right and they are wrong, therefore they should join your side. This inherently means that you are claiming to have the truth, as you have just proven, and they don't, hence they should join your side now. But for the most part, society is no longer operating under a modern mindset. Society has moved into postmodernism, which means that the main way of thinking is that there is no one way and it is too hard to know the truth, so if someone claims to have the truth, or the answer, or the right way, then we should be skeptical of them, because how can we trust that they actually know the truth? The postmodern platform is that "all beliefs are equally valid, except those that claim to be True." They doubt the ability of anyone to be able to discern absolute truth from everything else. So, postmodern people will be turned away by people who claim to have it all figured out because postmoderns don't believe that it's possible for anyone to have it all figured out.

This puts Christians in a difficult place. Our main method for teaching, discipling, evangelism, etc. has always been to prove that what we believe is worth believing, thus setting up the scenario that everyone else should recognize it and follow suit. But now when we claim to have the only true way, we can actually turn people away, because they are operating under a different set of thinking now.

I think McClaren gives two really good points to help Christians figure out how to begin to move forward through all of this. First, he points out a key scripture that helps us to start to see how we could possibly move through this into the postmodern mindset. In John 14:6, Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." For many moderns, the main focus of this passage is that Jesus it the truth, and as we focus on only that part, now postmoderns begin to become skeptical of us claiming the truth. But Jesus says He is the way, the truth, AND the life. He is all three - none more highly focused on than another. Maybe this means that there can be an integrated way of coming to the Father - through experiencing certain things, applying things to your life, and coming to know the truth. McClaren points then to John 7:17, "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God." This sets up that perhaps while following the way and living the life, you come to know the truth - that you don't have to know the truth first.

His second point is something that I believe many moderns overlooked simply due to the nature of their thinking. Modern thinking says that we can know truth, whereas postmodern thinking doubts that we can. Regardless of where we actually fall in between these two ideas, the one thing that we must not forget is faith. No one knows everything about God, and in fact, we know very little about God compared to all that there is to know. Yet we persevere in our Christian walk - by faith. And this is a good point to focus on in an era where truth can't be relied upon by postmoderns to carry their beliefs. We can introduce them to the idea of faith, instead of trying to beat them over the head with truth. We can introduce them to the way and the life, and as they engage in those, their faith will grow and lead them towards the truth.

All of these ideas are very challenging to Christians of today. Many of us don't even realize that we are still very modern in our thinking, and we have no idea how postmodern thinking even works. This is something we need to figure out on a large scale and soon. We don't need to change the gospel, but we do need to begin looking at adapting the ways we introduce people to it. And this idea is not popular among many Christians today. The main line of thinking is that it worked ten, twenty, thirty years ago, so it's a good system. This is not wise or strategic thinking. We as Christians need to open our eyes and see the world around us for what it is, and then figure out how we can connect with the people around us. At times it may not be easy, but it is entirely necessary.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Counter-culture out in the Community

I saw this sign in Harrisonburg one evening and it caught my attention because it had scripture on it. I shared in my last sermon some of the counter-cultural Christian reactions to the VT shootings. Here is another Christian reaction to it. It is tough for many people to think about - the idea that one wouldn't take revenge on the evil, or dwell on it until you got some kind of satisfaction, but instead to overcome the evil with good.

Romans 12:19-21 says, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

These words are difficult, but good. Many people criticize this idea by asking, "WHEN will God DO something about all this?!? WHY does He let evil happen?" Everything God created is good. But Satan took the good and distorted it - into evil. God has a plan for dealing with Satan, and ultimately, at some time in the future, He will bring justice to all that has been done. That which is for the kingdom of God will be rewarded, and that which is against it will be punished. There will be a new paradise where God will dwell with man again, as in the garden. God will do something about all this.

Until then though, we are called by Him to be doing what WE can while here on earth to help overcome evil with good. The cultural reaction is to overcome evil with more evil - hatred, prejudice, revenge, and the like. Our Counter-cultural reaction is to overcome it with good - praying for our enemies, showing mercy, passing on the grace that has been shown to us. If we really want the world to be a different place, then we have to be different than the world as it currently is. We have to be the change we want to see in the world. Think about that, and pray about it too, because this is one of the most essential needs in Christianity today.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Guest preaching

Just an update of what's going on - I just finished preaching two Sundays in a row at my church, and after getting a phone call Monday night, I will also be preaching the next two Sundays at another church nearby. I am pretty excited about this because it will be my first time preaching in a church that is not my own. I preached at a Jr. Angus Showman's weekend in February, in an agricultural barn, but this will be my first guest preaching at a different church. I am not sure what to preach on yet, but I know God will give me the messages. I am pretty confident that at least one of them will have to do with being counter-cultural though....

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Salt + Light = Counter Cultural

I had the honor of preaching a sermon on being counter-cultural Christians this past Sunday at my church. Since the message goes right along with the blog, I thought I would post some of the sermon. Here are some excerpts on being salt and light:

I have been studying the Sermon on the Mount, which is what I'll be preaching from today. John R.W. Stott says this about it:
- “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the
teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed….To my mind no two words sum up its intention better, or indicate more clearly its challenge to the modern world, than the expression ‘Christian counter-culture.’”

Look at what Jesus says the purpose of Christians is in the world in Matthew 5:13-16. "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. What do these two statements mean? Jesus picked two items for His illustration that every household used back then and that every house today still uses. Salt and light.

Salt of the earth
Today we typically use salt for light seasoning to our food, and
to melt ice in our driveways. But in ancient times, as well as today, people also used salt to preserve food.
- In South Africa, they make a dried meat called ‘biltong’, which is cut and trimmed to a certain size, then rubbed well with coarse salt. If properly cured, it will keep indefinitely.

If we are the salt of the earth, we are what prevents it from decaying. The world, if left to its own, will decay and rot just like meat. But are we in fact preventing decay? If not, what are the main hinderances to our saltiness?

First, as Jesus says, the salt can lose its saltiness. This happens by combining the salt with other things. Salt is a substance that quickly dissolves in most liquids, and when mixed with food, is quickly spread out and the potency is greatly reduced. - Christians lose their saltiness by intermixing with the things of the world. When we adopt ideas and practices from the world and mix them with Christianity, we have a diluted Christianity. Therefore, our influence in the world is diminished. This relates back to one of my favorite sayings to live by, “As within, so without.” What we put inside ourselves is what will come out later. Whether you like it or not, every single thing that you do in public, in the workplace, within your family – directly influences people in one of two ways. Either towards or away from Christianity.

We need to be the salt IN the world, not amongst it. Salt cannot preserve meat from within it’s container. So Christians cannot preserve the world from within it’s churches.

“When society goes bad, we Christians tend to throw our hands up in pious horror and criticize the non-Christian world. But should we not criticize ourselves instead? One can hardly blame unsalted meat for going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question should be, where is the salt?” – Dr. Lloyd

Light of the World
By saying that we are the light of the world, Jesus is implying that the world is an inherently dark place. We are the light in a dark world. Our light is our good works. We should let our good deeds, that is, the way we live our life, be seen by all. We should not hide the fact that we are Christians, or hide the way we choose to live our lives. The way we live our life, as viewed by non-Christians, is what gives our faith credibility. If we are not living Biblical lives, we will not look any different from the world, and therefore no one will recognize us as light.
Lighthouses line the shorelines of many coasts worldwide. The lighthouses are not typically needed in bright, clear conditions. They are needed at night, and in the fog, when it is so dark you can’t tell what is safe and what is dangerous in front of you. The lighthouse guides boats into safety amid total darkness. So our lives can guide others into safety from the influence of Satan and the world, as they watch us live out Christianity in front of them.

But so often we are tempted to hide our light. We keep quiet about being Christians. We go along with jokes or say nothing when people are sinning in our midst. We hide our light. But this the wrong thing to do because in darkness, people desire light. We want to be able to see something good among the darkness. The people in the world desperately desire to see something hopeful in this world, so if we hide our light, they are unable to see that hope in the dark.

We learn some fundamental lessons from these passages:
1. Christians are different from the world around them

2. We must accept (as Jesus instructed us) the responsibility that this
distinction puts on us. We need to take responsibility for some of the things being the way they are.

3. Neither salt nor light is a substitute for the other. The world needs both. We all have earthly jobs and responsibilities, but these have been given to us so that we can really do our heavenly jobs of being salt and light IN the world.

Counter-Cultural Christianity
When you are expecting something to be the same as it always is, and then you find that it is quite different, it tends to shock you a bit. Like when you pour a glass of milk and find out by tasting it that it has gone sour. You are used to it tasting one way, so when it all the sudden doesn’t, it shocks you. When we follow Jesus’ commands on how we are to live our lives, as indicated in the Sermon on the Mount, we are going to shock people. People are so used to seeing people live a certain way that when someone all of the sudden does something different, it can be shocking. It stands out.

Imagine how your coworkers would react if they saw your boss
reaming you for something that wasn’t your fault, and then after he was done, you went to coffee shop and bought him a latte and took it to him. They would think you were nuts!

We need to be applying Scripture to what we see and hear around us. This will allow us to view the world differently. When we see the world from Jesus’ point of view, we will be better able to discern what course of action to take. We attract the world by being different from it. The last thing non-Christians want to be a part of is more of the stuff that is ruining the world they live in. They don’t want to be a part of greed, pride, hate, lust, lying, and people who don’t care. Even though it’s the world they live in, they don’t want more of those influences around them. If the church is noticeably different than the world, then it will attract those in the world to it because it is different.

If there is a church that isn’t attracting very many non-Christians, then it is probably a church that is not very different from the world that those people already live in. That’s a tough thing to hear, but it’s true. If your church is not attracting non-Christians (and it certainly ought to be), then it is because what they see in your church is not a better option than what they already have.

If you want to figure out how to be counter-cultural, just take notice of the way the world is handling a situation, apply the Bible to it, and you will begin to see a different way to handle it, and it will be pretty obvious to you that it is an unpopular idea. Example – when something bad happens, the people in the world will hold grudges and blame people, and will build up hatred and a mind for vengeance upon anyone that has wronged them. The counter-cultural teaching from Jesus says, ‘love your enemies’, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, and ‘judge not lest ye be judged’. These are not popular ideas with the world, in fact, they’re not even popular among Christians. I’ll prove it:
1. The VT shootings. Everyone immediately began to blame someone for this tragedy. It was VT’s fault, it was the court’s fault, it was the gun store’s fault, but it had to be somebody’s fault. The shooter was dead too, so they couldn’t exact their revenge on him, so they blamed everyone else. VT is retiring a jersey number this coming school year - #32. They have taken their revenge upon the shooter now by not retiring #33. I KNOW this is not going to win me any popularity points, but then again, I’m not hoping for any. Popularity points are cultural, and I’m called to live counter-culturally. As I react to this event, I am called to love my enemies, and to be a peacemaker. I have prayed for the shooter’s family, as I have prayed for the families of the victims. My sadness for every single person involved leads me towards sorrow, but not hatred and revenge. There is no understanding of why it happened, and there is honestly no way for us to prevent bad things from happening in the future. Bad things happen, and every time they do we begin blaming everyone around us, meanwhile the true culprit, the prince of darkness sneaks away without ever being mentioned. What we are called to do is be salt and light in a dark and decaying world. We are called to be different, to stand out from the hatred and revenge that the world feels when these things happen. We are to react in love, and in mercy, and in meekness. How easy is this to do though? It is not easy at all.

We simply don’t have what it takes to live out a counter-cultural Christianity on a day to day basis. When we received our salvation, God didn’t make us superhumans. We are tempted, we are tried, we are discouraged, and we are broken by the things of this world, by our own corruptness. And when we are, we need to go to God. That’s the whole point – the relationship. We go to God to get our strength, we go to God to be renewed, we go to God for wisdom to know what to do. And when we do go do Him, we struggle well with life, and our city on a hill is seen by all passersby. But when we don’t go to Him, we struggle horribly with life, and our light is not seen.

Matthew 7:14But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a
few find it.”

I want to end with Romans 12:2 which says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
It’s not any clearer than that. We need to stop being like the world, and thereby losing our saltiness and hiding our light. We need to be transformed, by God’s holy Word. We need to constantly renew our mind with His ideas and His perspective, so that we can see what He wants us to be doing, and thereby preserve this world from decay, and be a lighthouse to the lost and guide them through the darkness to safety.

A.W. Tozer said, “It takes real faith to begin to live the life of heaven while still upon the earth, for this requires that we rise above the law of moral gravitation and bring to our everyday living the high wisdom of God. And since this wisdom is contrary to that of the world, conflict is bound to result. This, however; is a small price to pay for the inestimable privilege of following Christ.”

Always keep this in mind as a rule for making certain you are being counter-cultural, “It’s not about me.” The world says it’s about me. Christianity says, no it’s not. There are more important things to consider than myself.

We are to be Christ-like, and I’ve never heard of anyone more counter-cultural than He was. This world is a dark and decaying place. Will you be the salt and light it so desperately needs? Will you determine to be a counter-cultural Christian?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Gulfport, MS

This picture represents counter-cultural Christianity. I went with these guys (as well as about 15 other people) to Gulfport, MS a couple weeks ago to do mission work for people affected by Hurricane Katrina. The guy in the front right and his wife actually bought a house down there and have been living there and working with people who need help for the last year or so. The others of us who went down for a week took vacation time from work, left behind our responsibilities, etc. to go help a group of people we don't know. We had no idea what we would be doing when we got there, but one thing was certain - we did what God wanted us to do, and it was evident all week long. The list of God stories is amazing to hear people talk about. I think one of the most amazing things was how quickly and solidly our group gelled with the people in the neighborhood we were working in. It was evident Thursday night as we gathered in a large circle around the tree for prayer that our hearts had been united that week. We had stories of safety, protection, God's spirit working through children, outreach, and God planning out details to perfection. We were blessed as much as the people we helped by this experience.
It was a counter-cultural thing to do though. Most people take vacation for themselves. Many people wouldn't willingly go into a drug and crime-ridden neighborhood to help people they don't even know. They certainly wouldn't take vacation time to do it. And they probably wouldn't take their children there either. But we did, and it was awesome.
Last Sunday I preached a sermon on our trip, allowing people to come and tell the God stories. The basic premise of the sermon was that, just as Jesus called Peter to exit the boat and come to Him on the water, He has called us to come join Him outside our comfort zones as well. And when we are obedient and step out of the boat(comfort zone) in faith, we will see Him do some amazing things. The best part is that getting outside your comfort zone and acting in obedience and faith to help people in need can happen in your hometown on a weekend. You don't need to go anywhere special or take time off from work even! The Bible gives us all the instruction we need on what God desires us to be doing. Are we stepping out in faith from our comfort zones? My Bible study class astutely pointed out that this takes discernment - Peter did make sure it was Jesus before stepping out - and that sometimes being obedient doesn't result in anything visibly amazing. God only calls us to obedience, not to glory. Being obedient to God, even when nobody else can see any good reason why you did what you did - that's counter-cultural.