Regarding the Future of the Church – Post 1 – Encouraged and Discouraged

Primary Audience – My Local Context
Secondary Audience – Friends and Fellow Travelers Who Suspect Something Is Wrong in Evangelicalism

Over the last few years, I realized as I have been spending more time with students, that I often leave these conversations a little encouraged and a little discouraged. Encouraged by the many good kids really “trying to try” to love God, follow Jesus, be led by the Spirit. Discouraged because I know I need to use the phrase, “trying to try”.  The same can be said after conversations with fellow adults as well but working with students gives me a different sense of responsibility.

From one angle, I see a growing disconnect between evangelical culture and the culture at large. From another, I see evangelical culture mirroring the larger culture (and I am not just referring to the divorce rate but rather our values that are times quite “worldly”). I also see a “mirroring” in a healthy way as well. And yet from another angle I see it evangelical culture being intentionally counter-cultural in a truly Christian way. (I know for some, this sounds bit confusing, I have been reading a lot of Paul in Romans lately and to make matters even more complicated, there are so many more angles that would be difficult to categorize, even for a modernist ;-)

In short, there is an identity crisis that the the Church is having and this is being reflected in the the life of the Christian American teenager as well. Honestly, despite the frustrating moments of youth ministry, my heart goes out to the students we serve and the countless I will never meet. I think those who are either involved in youth ministry or close enough to see it understand what I mean.

From the beginning of my full-time ministry, I’ve had a sense of knowing the church had lost much of its authority throughout our culture. To be forthcoming, I don’t know really know how much though. Here in north Jersey, evangelical culture is obviously much different than what i imagine in to be in the Carolinas, the Atlanta area, and even in the wanna-be country of Texas and throughout the nation (And of course when considering it from a global perspective …)

This has led us to use phrases like, “We are living in a post-Christian society”, “the Church is shrinking”, “Things aren’t like they used to be”. Whether you appreciate or loathe these expressions, at the very least, they describe something that is really going on. I try to avoid these statements, because I despise some of truth they contain. (I take that back, I have never uttered, “Things aren’t like they used to be” and I don’t see it as true but the previous statements are half-truths that are sadly at work).

To make this as simple as we can, I believe these are among the primary reasons I was drawn to the emerging church movement. Rather than simply holding on to traditional yet failing ideas and paradigms, some realized that paradox of a new Christian expression  needed to “emerge” (rooted in the ancient church – the present one, all the centuries in between while squinting to see what was up ahead) under the submission of the Holy Spirit. This is because the culture is changing and as the second paragraph of this post indicates, it’s complicated.

This is not to say that anyone who sees that we need to refocus is necessarily “emergent”.  I tend to define that word pretty broadly these days and see it as conversation as opposed to a “denominational” thing.   That said I feel the evangelical church needs to come to the table and realize our “what worked” a generation ago, even 10 years ago, could very well be as obsolete as the transparency machine or a word-processor. By this, I do not mean that Jesus is obsolete or His Gospel – (in fact, truly the opposite!). But rather, our language, our framework, perhaps many of our methodologies, structures, interpretations, practices, lack there-of, among other things needs to be rethought. And we need to begin “again, again” by committing ourselves in surrender to the Holy Spirit.

I hope to unpackage some of these thoughts in upcoming blog posts. Also, I recently I attended the Eighth Letter Conference, heading out to our Evangelical Free District Meeting (Ron Sider will be speaking)  and read a few books like Doug Pagitt’s Church in the Inventive Age, David Platt’s Radical, and currently doing a book study with friends on the extremely popular The Hole In Our Gospel. I plan on working on these thoughts and reviews as well. Thanks for reading!

Ed Stetzer Is Pretty Cool Even Though He’s a Baptist ;-) – My Notes on his Multiply Seminar in Randolph, New Jersey.

Last week, I joined a fellow youth pastor and his senior pastor to go see Ed Stetzer share his “Multiply” Seminar. It’s focused more on church planting but as one who is interested in processing through ideas and practices that would help churches in North Jersey, I was interested in going.  And it was free (thanks!).

I try not to be critical of anyone personally on my blog and as a result, I find myself often writing as a “fan boy” here. So let me disclose the impressions I have on Ed Stetzer and his research before I walked into his seminar this morning. Bear in mind that I have not read his books yet but frequent his blog every so often and follow him on Twitter. My first impression is that he’s a Baptist and employed by Lifeway Research. No offense but I’m cautious around Baptists. Second, I don’t have anything against Lifeway but have not really connected with their material (probably because they’re Baptists and I’m suspicious …) Third, I am skeptical of all types of statistical research because stats are always subjective and many times manipulated by their agenda. (If you know me, you know I appreciate the work of Christian Smith, Kenda Dean, Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons but even still, hold the research open-handed).

All that said, the evangelical churches in the North East (Jersey, NYC, New England etc.) are in trouble – that’s not breaking news. My corner in North Jersey is very post-Christian and heavily influenced by Catholicism, Judaism, agnosticism, and most people I know are either too skeptical of organized religion and those that aren’t are simply too busy for it. Combined with intellectualism that sees religion as too simplistic and too disconnected from their real world, multiculturalism, etc., our churches are shrinking and the Church’s influence is diminishing in the cultural landscape.

So when people like Ed come to Jersey, I try to attend and glean from their expertise because we could use any help that we can get up here – even from the Baptists. Here are some of my notes – here’s the link to his blog and here’s the link to Viral Churches, his book they handed out to each attender.

Of course Ed would be knowledgable of the subject matter he was presenting on.  But I was really grateful for his words concerning Northern culture (he’s planted in NY & PA), denominational hindrances, sensitivity to the financial climate and calling for a need to change our methods in order for more pastors to plant more churches.   There was a good deal of balance and wisdom and left me thinking on a number of points.


Church Multiplication Movements – Rapid multiplication of church where a movement grows by multiplication by 50% in one year with 50% conversion rate to the third generation.

Of the 34 Western,industrialized democracies in the world – there are no church planting movements among majority peoples (that’s depressing).

There are all these whispers of movements of church planting movements that have not been validated (like Long Beach).

Only 3% of churches have accepted the direct financial responsibility for the new church as a primary sponsor. (or said in another way, only 3% of churches are taking the responsibility of planting others. This means that the vast majority of churches being planted are independent, partially sponsored, or only being supported by a handful of churches).

We must embrace the “Count the Cost” process.
Most churches birth in survival
We want to help plant in strength

The way you win your first disciple will determine the way you operate for the next 50 years.

Model Multiplication – You cannot lead what you do not live.
What is the optimal size to plant a church? Some respectable say 800 people.?????
You have to model multiplication when it hurts. (If you need to be Saddleback before you can multiply, you are never going to multiply)

Make heroes out of church planters not villains out of church planters.
Many of them are mavericks, that’s why they plant. Support, edify, help.
Welcome the Planter – they will go somewhere else if they get beaten down
Act 29 type of networks – are 27 year olds who have been marginalized by their denominations and traditions.

Define Mission Well –
Don’t define missional without the conversional Kingdom element.

The only thing worse than being lost is being lost and nobody looking for you.
Plant by multiplication not by funding.
You cannot buy your way into a church planting movement. Denominations have tried but it’s been unsuccessful.
Every time there has been a church planting movement, it hasn’t been because of funding.

One of the greatest hindrances of church planting is the professionalization of church planting.
How do we “guarantee” orthodoxy in church planters?
Orthodoxy has to be held by the community. Covenantal unity

“Be Born Pregnant” –
Elmer Towns – says at any first church meeting, take up an offering for your building
Ed says at your first meeting talk about church planting.

Open More Lanes
Ethnic, Law, Urban, bi-vocational, etc.

Overcome Fear
People are afraid that lay people will go crazy and plant unorthodox churches
Planters can be included in that
Churches losing people
The Loss of our denominational identity

The How of church planting is largely determined by the who, what, when, why of culture.

What needs to drive us is a confessional identity with unity and missional cooperation – these are the Viral Churches
For more check out his book Viral Churches and his blog Ed Stetzer

THE LAST WORD POST 3 – The Invitation to Serve in the Kingdom (Not Just a Free Ticket to Heaven)

Thiese posts have had to do with the evangelical treatment of Scripture. Largely from my perspective and with the obvious help of NT Wright’s Last Word, we as individuals and as a community have not only regulated the Bible to something less than it is, but even then left it on the shelf with the diet plan and finance management books. We may have a faulty pre-supposition that the Bible is the “ultimate self-help” book or the “greatest how-to” manual. It isn’t. Believing such a thing ridicules the beauty of grace and of course, reduces the person of God as a guru-helper, or a even a product offering enhancement, and Christianity as a spiritual pyramid scheme as opposed to the process of transformation being brought on the Holy Spirit.

When we reduce the Scriptures and our understanding of God to the sentiments aforementioned, we actually destroy our belief in Him and make a mockery of the Scriptures whether we realize it or not. Even worse, we elevate our human experience as divine and which in sort becomes our attempt to be the gods. As it turns out, the Bible is not just about us.

However, the Bible is not exclusively about God either. This is among the points that Wright is saying in The Last Word. It’s about us being led by the Spirit to bring glory to the Father because of he work of Jesus. And the Bible is a crucial piece for the Church:

“…the authority of ‘scripture’ is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel, the good news that in Jesus Christ the living God has defeated the powers of evil and begun the work of new creation. It is with the bible in its hand, its head and its heart—not merely with the newspaper and the latest political fashion or scheme— that the church can go to work in the world, confident that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.”

God is the Giver, Redeemer, Sustainer of life. The Bible is God’s invitational narrative to participate in life in the Kingdom. We completely miss this when we limit the Bible to “the free ticket to heaven”. Even further, we lose our motivation to read, study, meditate, discuss and apply it. This is astonishing when considering that so many evangelicals take pride in belonging to a “Bible-believing church”.

There are many other reasons why we as evangelicals are struggling to give the Scriptures their importance. From a lack of personal/communal discipline to our collective entitlement that runs against the type of sacrifice described in the Scriptures to a terrible underestimation of what is at risk when we the Scriptures do not play the role that God has intended for us.

We as evangelical believers cannot make the other extreme mistake by treating the Bible as its own divine person (like a 4th person of the Trinity) but rather regard it as a God’s sacred revelation that offers His redemption all people. Again, I want to encourage you on reading The Last Word. I found it to be the place to start for evangelicals reading NT Wright.

Thoughts on Scripture from NT Wright’s The Last Word – Post 1 – You Should Read It

Primary Audience – my local church
Secondary – Anyone interested in reading/applying Scripture and reading books regarding it and anyone interested in the work of NT Wright

If you know me personally, you may have heard me talk about how you should be reading NT Wright. If you are an easy sell, I would start with The Last Word. For us evangelicals, a lot rises and falls on our view of Scripture. When reading Wright, the questions concerning his position on Scripture always surface so it makes a bit of sense to begin here. Further, I did not read them in this order and I wish I did.
Wright begins The Last Word by discoursing on thoughts regarding modernity and post-modernity. Wisely, he does not build his case around either but instead aims to offer “a way through this entire mess and middle and forward into a way of living in and for God’s world, and within the community of God’s people, with Christian and biblical integrity” (p. 10).
He is annoyed with the shallow level of debate often depicted in name calling, “fundamentalist” and “radical” and I too share too his frustration with how both sides, conservative and liberal, and the many sides in between try to undermine each other. One position assumes the other has hidden motives or does not love God as much as they do. One side will use the motto, “It must be Biblical” or “The Bible says” and assume that the other side is not committed to that end. One will ignore millennia of tradition, a plethora of the voices of the church fathers, new voices, and reduce the argument to a place that does not acknowledge that one is using a hermeneutic (a method of interpretation).
For instance, the popular term “the Bible says” is a difficult one because everyone believes the Bible is saying something – in fact, we/they believe it’s saying what we/they are saying, otherwise we/they wouldn’t be saying it. Most of these heated debates are anchored to a commitment of Scripture, rooted in a deep love for Christ, and determined to be living in the Spirit that pleases the Father. The problem is that we like to assume that those who differ from us fall short to our piety and devotion to the Lord.
I am among the many who have ceased in using the term in hopes that the person I am in conversation with is also committed to the integrity of Scripture. Perhaps if we commit to the seeing the perspective of “the other”, we can know and experience the deeper truths contained in our Scripture. This is I find to be both difficult and exciting.
More so, I cannot help but apply that to the evangelical reaction towards Wright himself. We are very suspicious of any thought produced from any mainline, charismatic, high church, Orthodox or Catholic church. This post is not an argument from ecumenicalism but perhaps an encouragement to extend grace towards those in different traditions that interpret the Scriptures differently than we do. I know many evangelicals love the Scriptures but it is impossible for me to concede that we love it the most when we account for our collective biblical literacy or even the simple act of bringing a Bible to our corporate worship services. This is not chastisement, and I am not ashamed to be an evangelical, I just want to be a Christ-follower that has not deluded himself into self-righteousness (and would appreciate those within ours and other traditions to do the same).
I hope you consider reading The Last Word – It’s a great read. You can pick it up from Amazon here.

Reviewing Our Experience With the Q Society Room’s “The Whole Gospel”

If you have been reading my twitter and this blog, you probably know my now that I have a strong appreciation for Gabe Lyons and the work of Q. I have attended the last three conferences and they have been pretty solid. To those that don’t know much about it – it’s similar to TED‘s where about 40 speakers give 18 minute presentations (yep there’s a countdown clock to their right). The idea behind Q is to ask and engage in the difficult questions that the Church is facing. You can check out more here on their site but if you don’t click, know that you are missing something excellent.

Among the important conversations the Church is having is the topic of the Gospel of Jesus. Our church is having this conversation in a number of ways and I could think of no better study than using Q’s “The Whole Gospel” from their Society Room series (there are 5 of them).

Here’s my review which includes some of the group feedback
Week 1 – Tim Keel’s which I would be happy to watch with you. I have nothing but love for Keel and thought he absolutely nailed his presentation. (His was a “featured presentation” and was given 36 minutes – probably my favorite. He argues that we have domesticated Jesus, we have taken something wild and tamed it to be polite indoors. Later he mentions that we need to rethink our ideas on heaven. To paraphrase he says, It’s the result, not the goal, the outcome, not the objective. Excellent.

Discussion was vey easy and free-flowing after that. We shared about how understanding of the Gospel growing up in our respective churches. If there was one glitch was that we all agreed too much with each other. It was our first meeting together – maybe everyone was just being polite ;-)

Week 2 was supposed to be our reading of an excellent essay by Ron Martoia. We put it off until our last week so as to not intimidate newcomers and being a new group it was easier too so we watched Tim Keller’s …. instead. We did like the idea of reading together and at week 5, we’ve decided to read The Hole In Our Gospel by Richard Stearns.

If you know Tim Keller, he’s the reformed evangelical pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. In this presentation he says if you understand justification then you will understand the need for social justice. I found it to be extremely helpful for my conservative evangelical climate that does not want to risk compromising the salvation that Jesus brings. If you are one who is skeptical about the efforts of social justice, you would love this. Unfortunately, it is not available for watching online but if you live locally, I would be happy to watch this with you (and yes, it’s legal).

Week 3 was with evangelical hero Chuck Colson. I was in attendance at Q New York and remember this presentation extremely well because just before it, my wife, Susan sent me the most exciting text of our lives, “We’re adopting! The birth mother wants us!” it was pretty surreal and I have a pretty hyper-recollection of the presentation and who was around me. Anyway, I digress.

Just like what I just mentioned a few lines ago, if you are a conservative evangelical and find yourself reluctant to compromising the gospel to social justice – his presentation entitled “Cultural Commission” is for you. You can watch it here. Though as a group we felt that the questions were getting a bit repetitive, it was still an solid presentation and we had a worthwhile discussion. This was the week that we also ended up discussing the Islamic Center near Ground Zero. It was a pretty interesting night to say the least.

Week 4 was awesome watching Jaime Tworkowski – founder of To Write Love On Her Arms. This led to perhaps our most personal conversations as the topics of cutting, depression and the Church’s response to it became the centerpieces of our discussion. From a small group perspective, this presentation was excellent timed as by now, we had felt some trust and comfortability sharing such personal aspects of ourselves and our families and friends.

Week 5 – We moved the .pdf (included in the dvd) to week 5 for our final time. By then, we were ready to talk as soon as we sat down and even better – we loved Martoia’s essay “Spiritual Conversations: Understanding the Cultural Language. In it he reminded readers of Scripture the salvation narrative begins in Genesis 1 not Genesis 3 and that changes everything. He made other worthy points points including calling attention to how we talk about the Gospel. It was very appropriate and I’d be happy to share my extra copies with my local friends. I’d offer to email it to anyone interested but that would break the licensing agreement with the dvd’s intent. Again, if you are reading this and considering this study, I really recommend you purchasing it and checking it their other studies here.

I happily recommend this study and pretty much anything Q is involved in.
Anyone want to go to next year’s conference in Portland? It’s going to be good …

Thoughts & Highlights on the Q Event Day 2 #qideas

Q Conference
Day 2

What better way to open the first morning presentation than with …

Recovering the Ancient Practices – Phyllis Tickle
“In the busyness of life today, many Christians lose sight of the disciplines, or practices, that keep them grounded.”
As always, she is awesome.
Some favorite lines – “Jesus tells us to fast – why? Because it makes us feel bad – lol.
(Fasting reminds us of our mortality. Fasting draws us in to, our energy wanes and we are confronted by the truth. It is an opportunity for us to meet the Kingdom.)
It’s only when I am confronted my citizenship that I can understand the Kingdom.
There is a rhythm of life and fixed hour prayer is a way of hinging our day on the worship of God. She mentioned an iPhone app. I think it was this one.
Of all the disciplines, she believed that fixed hour prayer is the most important.
She quoted a rabbi that said, it’s the prayers you say, not the ones you don’t that God really cares about. (That actually does help in not turning into a guilt-ridden ritual).
Of the disciplines, sabbath keeping and fixed hour prayer have been difficult for me. I found this convicting and helpful.
I like what she said about “Pilgrimages” – you take all of you and your expenses and go. One of the things contemporary christianity lacks is transcendence –
we can do so with music, literature, but true transcendence a pilgrimage.

Observing the Sabbath – Matthew Sleeth
Q must have got some feedback that asked for more spiritual formation.
Are today’s believers meant to keep the Sabbath?
I liked Matthew’s idea of 24-6 (as opposed to 24-7).
Sabbath not saved by man. – We are not to save the Sabbath – The Sabbath is to save us.
5000 Years of debate of what is work – Rest “figure out what’s work for you and don’t do it.” (Matthew’s wife)
if you keep sabbath for life – you added 11 years with the Lord.
We spent the last minute and change in silence (a tithe of the presentation to sabbath. Cool idea).

Overcoming the Faith and Science Divide – Alister McGrath
I love the faith and science discussion.
In addition to encouraging everyone to engage the sciences, he also encouraged to familiarize ourselves with the views and arguments that argued against faith (like Dawkins’ God Delusion and other new atheists). Lucky for me, I like these books (they strengthen your faith).
One of the reasons why they new atheists are angry. Because they believed that religious belief would have died out within the last 40 hours. “When I read Dawkins, I cannot help but feel nostalgic, that’s the way I used to be as well.” – haha
Encourage – we need scientists to up their game. – They need support.
Think of how we can support scientists from the church.

Don’t Eat the Food – Sean Womack
A very powerful and emotional presentation. It’s nice to see that cutting edge thought is not just confined to stats and ideas.
Forgiveness is cutting edge.
Sean revealed that he had been let go by Wal Mart for having an affair with his boss.
After separated for 3 months from his wife and 3 children, she forgave him. She told him, “I am not just praying for you, I’m battling for you.”
Don’t eat the food (of the world) – Jesus said eat my flesh.
The last 3 years have been difficult
H addressed his wife, – thanks for battling for me, thanks for banging on the gates of hell and demanding your husband back. Every morning I wake up, I wake up next to grace.
I guess I walked away thinking, may God spare us from such an experience but it was beautiful to see the power of love and forgiveness.

Resetting a Creative Economy – Richard Florida
One of my favorite presentations of the event.
“Every human being is creative.”
Florida doesn’t believe we are in a recession but instead in need of a reset – a raw emotional reset.
He looked at other time periods including just before the Industrial Revolution.
He would argue that our creative energy is that makes us human and binds us together.
We have created a new kind of economy that harnesses the human mind – that’s the easy part.
We are moving into a new of post-materialism.
We use to ask what you do for a living, now we ask where do you live?
Being in a place that you love. – in community – Whose Your City? (example used was Jack White from Detroit, now living in Nashville but I didn’t want to stand up and correct Florida in front of everyone. I understood his point. But I had to chuckle now because of the irony of White living in Nashville. Or is it irony?
It’s the place we live that will create meaning
There was a lot I liked about the end, because I see a strong connection with where we live and “Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

Responding to Our Fatherhood Crisis – Roland Warren
As a new father, as a youth pastor, and as one who sees the state of fatherhood in crisis, I was really looking forward to this presentation.
“The concept of the heavenly father is a Christian idea.But this is an anathema for someone who didn’t grow up with a father (or had a bad one).”
“You fix the fathers you fix the church,you fix the fathers you fix the community ”
I really enjoyed the presentation but was hoping for a little more. I am sure Roland had plenty more to say but again, it’s tough because of the time restraint.
I should google him and see what else he has.

There was a panel discussion on adoption and orphans
John Sowers – Mentoring project
Esther Fleece – Focus on the family
Marc Andrews – Bethany Christian Services
Jason L –

127,000 legal orphans
300,000 churches
“Wait No More” program

500,000 kids in the foster care system
countless age out – turn 18

As adoptive parents, this is obviously something that is important to us. As I was listening, it dawned on me that although Susan and I had been asked numerous times about adoption, we do not know anyone who has adopted since we have two years ago. This caused me to think that perhaps I ought to do my part in creating more awareness to the need.

Discover the Rescued with Soledad O’Brien | CNN and Jonathan Olinger | Discover The Journey
The 7.0 earthquake in Haiti devastated millions of lives. Compassion-fatigued American’s have become over saturated. The natural questions ensue. Can Haiti change? Is there hope for Haiti’s most vulnerable children? Through the power of a documentary platform, the lives of two Haitian orphans are elevated and their stories told. CNN Correspondent Soledad O’Brien and Discover The Journey’s Jonathan Olinger open the world’s eyes to the complexities of caring for children in the midst of one of the greatest disasters the world has ever seen.

In short, Jonathan was shooting a documentary and then the earthquake happened. If I have the story right, Soledad became involved just after flying down to cover the aftermath of the quake and then connected with Jonathan’s story. Gabe interviewed them both and this was the most beautiful and my favorite part of the interview:

Gabe – How do you handle all the suffering?
Soledad – I cry a lot but I channel it through my vehicle.
Once you get numb to human suffering, that’s the beginning of the end …

The documentary this past Saturday night but I was unable to watch it. I am trying to obtain a copy or if it’s online somewhere. Seems worth watching.


I’ll post separately on Conversations on Being a Heretic. It was Scot McKnight interviewing Brian McLaren. It was great, too short, and grateful that both are brothers of mine in the Lord.

Reflecting on the idea of the Culture Wars – Part 4

I ended the last post by stating that my greatest hope is that we seek communion with God, Himself. Thus, I do believe in things like evangelism, mission work, serving others, etc. This brings us to the “social justice” discussion. For various reasons, this is a tricky term. Those who have been raised in evangelicalism tend to dismiss the idea of social justice as liberalism. The charge is often made that these types of advocates only want to help people for the sake of this world and disregard the message of Jesus or salvation, etc.

For me, I want to preach a Gospel that can be accepted or rejected. God has given us the free will to make accept or reject His grace. No I am not a Calvinist (further, Calvin himself didn’t seem to be a good one either). The gospel can be rejected. When I read passages like John 6, I see Jesus allowing people to leave him. Earlier in that chapter, He feeds the 5000. The next day he crosses the lake, the people follow and to paraphrase His preaching, He says, “You have come looking for the temporary things of this world (bread and more signs in this case), but I am the bread of life.” Upon hearing this, many left feeling disappointed and confused. In fact, among the few that stayed were already His disciples.

It’s always been so interesting to me that He still fed the masses the day before. Being Jesus, He must have known how this would have happened. My western mind could think, “Wow, that was inefficient.”, or “Quick say something less confusing so they stay longer!”, “Levitate or levitate them so they know that you are the Messiah. Do something so they don’t leave!” Jesus doesn’t do any of that. The Gospel can be rejected.

It’s not the Gospel if it’s manipulative. It’s not love if it’s forced or coerced. It’s not the abundant life if it’s been demanded against my will. I am sure that Jesus wanted every one of those 5000 people to stay, believe, and become His followers. But as John 6 records, many of them left and He let them. That’s the Gospel. It feeds people, helps them, even heals them, with no strings attached. That’s also justice. Being righteous because there is no other way to show that your love is truly without condition then to allow it to be rejected.

I am still not sure what Glenn Beck tired to say. I’ve listened to parts of the original broadcast. I’ve seen quotes from his follow up and for the life of me, I do not understand what He’s trying to say. At face-value, it sounds ridiculous. Yes, there are some churches that have sold Jesus short. That has been in many ways, from promoting a preacher-personality higher than Jesus, from creating a community that is exclusive or self-caring, to putting programs ahead of the mission of the Christian faith.

But the idea of social justice is a very important part of the Gospel itself. A follower of Christ cannot say to a poor hungry person “Hey, I’ll give you food if you agree to hold my beliefs.” Or to the rich and depressed person, “I would like to offer you the hope of a meaningful life of Jesus, but first, you need to agree with me.” That’s not justice.

Throughout Lent, I’ve been reading through the Gospels and every time I read through them, I think, “Wow, if I was Jesus, I would have said things so differently. I would have said more. I would have said less. I would have ….”. The other day I was reading through Matthew and there are a series of healings in chapters 6-8. it’s like Oprah, “You get a healing, and you get a healing, and you over there, you get a healing!” It used to strike me as odd that in numerous cases, Jesus heals the person but doesn’t offer a moral lesson, or a charge to love God, or an offer of repentance. He doesn’t even leave a business card. He just heals and walks away. He demonstrates love, compassion, and grace with no strings attached.

That seems like a better way to take part in the “culture war”.

Reflecting on the Idea of Culture Wars – Part 3

If you have been reading along, you know that I have expressed my frustration of the way, we Christians have discussed and engaged in the idea of the “culture war”. I’ve been saying a lot of what I don’t want and in this post I hope to communicate things that I do want. In fact, I hope we all want them.

First, let us stop calling it a “culture war”. There is one, I know I get it. I am not suggesting that we call it a “cultural misunderstanding”. I know many have not only been hurt but destroyed, physically, emotionally, spiritually, in every way possible. Not only am I aware of this but my heart is broken for this too.

Further, it’s not the violent imagery that I am against. Our Scriptures are full of that type of imagery, “fighting the good fight”, “I’ve come with a sword”, “Our battle is not against flesh and blood”. I am aware of this too. What I am frustrated by is that imagery lends itself to readily to “Us versus Them” mentality. And I find that unloving. The narrative of the New Testament (and you could argue for the Old as well) is that the Christian mentality needs to be “Us and Them” or even “Us for Them”.

in good conscience, I cannot sing, “They will know we are Christians by our love” and preach against the culture war. I do not want to create and label any more “enemies” that what we already have. And to those who call themselves as enemies of the Christian faith, we should find ways to reconcile.

As Christians, we are called to show the sacrificial love of Jesus, demonstrate reconciliation, teach, disciple, serve, and be a part of redemption. That’s a messy process because it involves dealing with the consequences of people’s selfishness, sin (personal and institutional), and pride. Then there is our own sin and failures that do not allow us, myself included, serve in perfect righteousness. I am very well aware of many instances when in the attempt of serving someone, I have hurt that person or someone else. But praise God, there have been times when serving has brought healing, glorified God,

I suspect it’s true for you as it is for me, when we serve, we do not feel like we are at war.

I want to be a part of the momentum created by hope and redemption. I want to encourage people to not only support churches, para-church organizations, and political parties but also support local and global ministries, NGO’s and various charities. Please note that I did not stop supporting the former and choose the latter. Please also note that I do not mean financially only.

Imagine what it would look like if we channelled our energy, resources and focus from our many institutions, broadcasts, magazines, newsletters, fundraising etc. to people, projects, and programs that helped the suffering and oppressed. I know that was a long sentence and I know many will dismiss it as naive idealism but this is my prayer. If the last 100 years of conservative evangelicalism was spent on building institutions, subscriber lists and all too often, self-serving programs, may the next 100 be spent focused outside of our walls.

One last thing I wish to offer. My ultimate hope is not to alleviate the suffering of the world. As one who also suffers in some ways, I know it is not possible to live a pain-free life. Even if we could, I believe there’s more. My great hope is that people be reconciled to a loving God that sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins and allow us to be reconciled to our Creator. So may the Holy Spirit work through, in and beyond us as we live this hope and mission but I have concluded that people are seldom reconciled in war, they’re further hurt and displaced. Let us do better. More on this next time.

Selling Out the Sell-Outs – Part 3 – Looking For Something Better

This is Part 3 in this series. If this is your first time on this site, don’t start here ;-)

Part 2 finished off with the idea that while everything can be said is marketed, we must examine the motivations.

In looking at motivations, we ought to consider the ministry of John the Baptist. It is widely understood that he did not actually “invent” the idea of baptism but was used as a means to be identified with God. Later Jesus-followers would use it to publicly proclaim their identification with the second person of the trinity, the Savior Himself. As we proceed, it is necessary to understand the distinction between human interaction/communication and tactics of marketing.

Second, as K&S point out, “Jesus and the apostles did not have a ‘marketing’ or ‘consumer orientation’ which is what they insist the contemporary church must not have if it to be effective. The reason why Jesus and the early church did not have this orientation is quite simple: As we have shown, the management theory that underwrites such an approach to marketing was developed during the middle part of the twentieth century under very historically specific circumstances” (p. 45).

It has become fashionable to insist that one be relevant to their cultural surroundings. It is also a form of credibility to demonstrate to an audience/demographic/individual the attempt to posture themselves in a way that convinces them of their care. There are clichés, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care” that capture this. But Barna’s call for “systematic study of needs, wants, perceptions, preferences and satisfaction of its members and others whom it is trying to reach” (p. 47) sounds like the institutional form of stalking as opposed to an invitation to encounter the Almighty God. It’s reminiscent of an apocalyptic science fiction movies where there is a secret meeting of aliens preparing to take over the earth. The last thing Christians need today is to appear even stranger.

It would become extremely beneficial for a church to analyze if it has been consumed in the “exchange process” (48-49). K&S made an excellent use of Scripture by using Acts 17:24-25, whereby reminding the reader that God does not need an exchange from the believers but rather the worship is an expression of gratitude and love. Worshippers would enter sanctuaries differently if they adopted that understanding and pastors would preach differently if they did. It will be an interesting to see what needs to happen first for our churches to function this way.
This is precisely one of the failures of the contemporary church. Many ministries have been set up as service centers. “Give us an hour and we’ll give you the truth – God’s truth!”, “Give us your kids and we’ll convert him to well-behaved Christian toddlers”, “Give us your tithe and we’ll give you the soundtrack to sing to Jesus” and so forth. Such a mentality is so arrogant that it nears blasphemy for it implies we are able to place God “under obligation” (p. 53). This Barthian quote ought to appear in our church as often as the times of service, “It is impossible to lay hold of God. Men cannot bind Him, or put him under an obligation, or enter into some reciprocal relationship with Him” (p. 53).

The “user-friendly” church mocks the work of Christ. Such a church builds egos not hope, builds monuments of pride not a servant-like humility and leads to a spirit of competition between other churches rather than asking the Spirit to move and work throughout the Body. To be the bride of Christ, to be the body of Christ is to love Christ first, not one’s own self.

The church board dialogue that occurs in the opening pages of Chapter 5 is all too familiar scene. The church board must decide their “evangelism strategy” It gets ugly. We want certain people over other people. We need money to pay the bills. We don’t want anymore problems than wha twe already have. And it’s among the many reasons why everyone has a terrible church board story.

The moral to most of this particular caricature of meetings is that clearly the pursuit of the Kingdom of God is third priority at best following high attendance and paying the bills. It has always been my observation that despite how serious evangelicals take the Bible, we are extremely slow in taking care of the poor, fighting for the oppressed and comforting the suffering. It is almost as if Jesus said, “Hear O’ Israel, the greatest command is build as big of a church structure as you can. And the second is imitate the world.” Jesus would find no fault with us had He said that.

In fairness, our numerous denominations, endless evangelism schemes and involvement with church marketing has been due to a perverted exaltation of how we have interpreted the Great Commission. We have strived to pursue as an efficient means as possible to mass produce and export the gospel. Our inspirations have not been Paul and Peter and the stories contained in The Acts but rather McDonalds, Coca Cola and Microsoft. By doing so we have domesticated and have sold out the Gospel.

What does one do once they realized they have ruined the family farm? Protect what little self-interest is left, liquidate and quit or start over? As much as I enjoyed reading K&S, I was secretly hoping they would transition from the accurate, critical and prophetic words of demise and conclude with a series of bold exhortations to abandon the marketing mentality, teach our churches to resist the consumer mentality and to pursue the Church that God has called us to. After all it is a book about the Church. And so, I was glad they did in the final chapters 6-8 were joys to read for their calls to courage such as this quote taken from Robert Lupton:

The Church is the only institution which , without irresponsibility, can expend all its resources on great and lavish outbursts of compassion. It is ordained to give itself away, yet without loss. The Church, above all earthly symbols, bears the responsibility of declaring in the outpouring of resources, the utter dependability of God. To preserve its life to lose it (p. 118).

Amen and Amen to Selling Out the Church. While it seems appropriate for K&S to publish a follow up to evaluate the current evangelical landscape (since it was published over 10 years ago, this text offers much to consider and reinforces a great deal of suspicion of how “we do church”. Indeed it is time to sell out the selling out the church and the first to go are my books on church marketing. It is my confident prayer that the Gospel will be enough and May the Lord lead those that persevere against the consumerism, pride and the spiritual forces at war with the Kingdom of God.

Reflecting on President Obama's Speech From Cairo University

This blog is not intended to be political but politics have certainly captured my attention lately.  Nor did I think I’d be talking about Obama as much as I am but you cannot ignore what he’s saying and doing. So when President Obama addresses the world from the University of Cairo, people take notice, especially a first-generation Egyptian born in the States whose parents graduated from the university.  I am proud of my Egyptian heritage, extremely grateful that my parents immigrated here, and I love the fact that I’m in NJ (we tell everyone that it sucks here and jack up the housing prices to keep the southerners out ;-) but truth be told, it’s a great part of the country to live in).

America has an image problem.  It’s almost as bad as the Western Church’s.  Some had the idea that by combining the two, we could help the world and whether the world was truly helped or not is another discussion; many throughout the world have a terrible perception of America. As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, my friends’ blogs, through countless great theological works of theology and most importantly, the New Testament, we as Christians are called to serve a different Kingdom first.  That said, I believe the problems in and out of American are of great importance.  

It’s in this light that Obama’s speech is extremely important.  Taking on topics such as Islam, fanaticism, terrorism, Israel, Palestine, and others is a bold task when you are perceived as the representative of a nation of hateful manipulators and greedy instigators of these topics.  While I have profound differences with that perception, I do understand how and why many believe it to be. 

He proclaimed that he was a Christian, spoke of his Muslim father and quoted various holy books.  From the Koran he said, “Whoever kills an innocent person kills all mankind.  Whoever saves a person saves all mankind.”  He spoke against hate and terrorism.  He promoted safety for all, American and those throughout the Middle East.  He spoke about the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.  He called for nuclear disarmament, spoke on the greatness and limits of democracy, women’s rights and all basic human rights, including religious freedom. Everyone was called out for we are all part of the problem and responsibility calls us all to resolve and peace. 

To my conservative brother and sisters who are convinced that he played to the Muslim crowd, you must not have heard the speech.  Please listen to it first (you can watch it here or read the full transcript here). Had George W gave it (and he could have), I suspect that it would have been praised by conservatives.  I’m sure W has said similar things, but he said so many other things that I doubt many heard it and frankly he wasn’t eloquent enough to remember.  Still, there’s a probably a posting by National Review or Human Events or somewhere outlining the similarities that W had said with today’s speech. To me, that discussion is a waste of time and I only mention it to head it off. If we as Christians truly believe that we are of a greater Kingdom, one concerned with the other, one that loves, one that preaches Christ, then I’m not sure how we cannot champion the words of today.

But as we all know, you can say all the right things but the key is in the follow up.  My hope is that Obama can put these noble words into action in the capacity afforded to him.  My hope is also that the Muslim world will do the same.  And this goes the same for the Christian world, the non-Christian, you and me. I say it again -everyone has been called out.  We are all part of the problem, may we also be a part of the solution – for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

For more reading, here are some worthy links:

Arab Students Respond to Obama 

Commentary: Amen, Mr. President – Editor’s Note: Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of, and contributing editor for Islamica magazine in Washington.

Obama Calls for Fresh Start With Muslims 

Video reaction – Muslims Wants Deeds, Not Just Words from Obama

Drawing on Islam, Speech in Cairo Electrifies Many In Arab Mideast 

Muslims Seem Won Over by President; U.S. Adversaries Unmoved

Full Video Here 

Full Text Here