Putting things in their place

In my last post, I commented on a quote from Corrie Ten Boom to urge Christians to consider the ways in which they were devoting large segments of their lives to things that may be okay on their own but have grown too significant. I’m sure there are hundreds of good things that we could let become ultimate things if we are not careful. This is why Solomon gave the stern warning, “Above all else guard your heart, for from it flows the wellsprings of life.” (Prov 4:23) Jesus echoed this idea when he said “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21)

What follows are some practical tips to help diagnose whether this could be true of you. Could you be, as Corrie Ten Boom said, rearranging pictures in a house that is burning down with people inside?

Get out more: Conservative evangelicals are generally a white middle/upper class bunch and it is possible and even probable that most will avoid being challenged with seriously struggling people in their context. The middle and upper classes have the means to hide or drown their struggles so unless you do something differently, you can live your whole life thinking everyone is pretty much okay. This is true in the church as much as among unbelievers, and is the basic definition of the Christian bubble. I think it’s even more powerful in the “good churches” that tout themselves as better than the others because of (mostly correct) doctrinal distinctions, but have the boomerang effect of shaming struggling people into silence.

Get out more effectively: Once you decide you may be affected by the Christian bubble, come up with a plan. You don’t have to sell everything and move into our neighborhood to start coming out of the bubble (but you are welcome to do that). The Bible is clear that people around you are hurting and if you simply engage them on a more than superficial level you will begin to see it. This means you may have to say no to some of your “Christian” stuff or personal time but it’s really the only way you’re going to do it.

Read the Bible differently: One thing that God used to motivate us was simply reading the Bible to look for God’s attitude toward struggling people. God spends a lot of time talking about people exploited by leaders, and many of those groups continue to exist today. God does care about widowed, orphaned, materially poor, shamed, outcast, and lonely people differently and his promises to them reflect their actual condition. It could be that you are God’s

Ask different questions: If you’re going to do #3, you’re going to have to ask different questions. Rather than reading Matthew 25 and explaining why it doesn’t apply to you, you will need to ask how it does apply to you. When you read about God’s care for widows, you will need to ask whether obedience and love demand you get to know a widow on more than a surface level and start caring for her. As you struggle through Leviticus in your annual reading plan and get to 19:34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and kyou shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God, you will have to ask yourself whether you know strangers in your context and how you will mirror God’s love and mercy toward them. You can’t just assume someone else is doing it because for the most part, they aren’t.

Stop comparing yourself to others: This one came back to the front of our minds recently when my wife and daughter read the biography of Keith Green. It’s easy to think of the progress you make as monumental when you compare yourself to people whose eyes are not yet open to this need. Keith Green is an encouragement, but he is not the standard. Jesus, who left heaven and perfect fellowship in the trinity and constant, pure praise of angels to die for people who would reject him is the standard. Christian literally means “little Christ” so we should always be evaluating our lives relative to his example and nobody else’s.

Leave the Republican party behind: I saved this one for last because it will offend the most people. GOP does not stand for God’s Own Party. It does not represent Christianity well, and given its current standard bearer the trajectory is getting worse. I think Wayne Grudem is right when in his book Politics (which was excellent) he said the traditional GOP party platforms were more in line with the Scriptures about 75% of the time when compared to Democrat positions, but that doesn’t mean we walk in line with the GOP no matter what. The American political process tends to favor extremists in the primary system which means you’re never going to find a 75% Republican who lines up with the Bible well on everything. Marco Rubio, a 93% Republican, got run out of the presidential race because he wasn’t Republican enough. We need to be a people that engages politics on the basis of our Christian witness rather than political affiliation. Much harm has been done by people professing to be Christians blindly posting stuff on social media by right wind websites without doing any fact checking. If these stories end up to be false, and many of them are, we are bearing false witness.


What to do when the house is burning…

Kristen has been especially moved by the love of Christ shown in Corrie Ten Boom. If you are not familiar, Corrie (15 April 1892 – 15 April 1983) was a Dutch watchmaker and Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II. She was imprisoned for her actions. Her most famous book, The Hiding Place, is a biography that recounts the story of her family’s efforts, as well as her time spent in a concentration camp.

Here’s the quote…

When a house is on fire and you know that there are people in it, it is a sin to straighten pictures in that house. When the world about you is in great danger, works that are in themselves not sinful can be quite wrong.

What is moving to us about her life and what this quote sheds light on, is the fact that many Christians are spending their lives on trifles when people are in grave danger. This is more true today that at any point in my life when there are tens of thousands of Christians going to Christian conferences, joining Christian education movements, participating in Christian book clubs, and generally living in a happy little Christian bubble.

A friend who has been a Southern Baptist leader for 20 years reminded me today that only 5% of professing Christians will ever share the gospel with an unbelieving person. That, dear reader, is a life committed to rearranging pictures while the house is on fire. Is it that the other 95% are bed-ridden? No, they are spending all their energy on things of questionable eternal value. They are doing what Corrie described as straightening the pictures in a burning house.

Imagine that you walk up to a house on fire. Inside you hear people screaming for help. There is a young mom struggling for air holding two small children out a window. Outside there is not just one but several fire brigades and 20 or 25 firemen in full gear washing their trucks and arranging their hoses. They tell you it’s important to have the fundamentals right and to get to know their equipment well. What would you think? You would be out of your mind with anger because while it is important for a fire department to maintain their equipment and improve their preparations, their job is to rescue people in danger. To be fully dedicated to the lesser thing and ignore the mission is a catastrophic failure of calling.

I’m afraid this is where we are in the church in the west. I say this with no great joy and with the admission that I am not doing all that I can do either. Not that many years ago I was one of those people living in the Christian bubble. (Ironically, you tend to not see the bubble until you get out of it even though it has taken over your whole life.) We must focus on saving those on their way to destruction, and risk our lives doing so. The house is burning and the pictures don’t really matter that much.

In the next post I will share some of the things that can help us focus on the rescue mission.


50 Shades of Perspective, part 2

In my last post I said I would use this one to explain why it’s good that 50 Shades of Grey is out there. I’m going to do that, but first I want to make something very clear so that I don’t get loads of hate mail. Of course this movie is not good and it will not be in Heaven. It would be far better if the pursuit of righteousness was embraced by all and sin no longer reigned in anyone’s heart. That just isn’t the world we live in (for now), and so there are aspects of this movie coming out and the buzz about it that will help the Kingdom of God grow and expand if Christians seek it out.

Clearer battlefield

In the classic movie Monsters Inc., there is a scene where Sully is being attacked by Randall who is invisible. After some clever banter with Mike, Mike throws a snowball at Sully, hitting Randall who know becomes visible. Sully, much more powerful than Randall, slugs him and knocks him out now that he can be seen.

When we encounter something that is a social phenomenon based entirely on sin, it can be like a snowball on Randall’s invisible chameleon body. We finally get a look at just what it is we’re fighting so we can slug it. Of course our mission isn’t to go slug everyone who sees this movie or reads the book, but it does help us target the Gospel much more clearly.  When everyone lives their respectably moral lives in their respectable homes with their respectable families the lines between believers and unbelievers are much less clear. This is especially a problem for evangelism in the South and Midwest where the cultural expectation is linked to popular moral virtue.

Helps us show people their true hope

Galatians 5:19-21 says that the works of the flesh are “evident”, that is they can be seen. When people are busy covering up their works of the flesh not only is it harder for us to see them but it’s harder for them. Many people adjust their lives to account for just so much lust or greed or deception, and when they get past their normal levels even their seared consciences will start to bother them.

Imagine the conversation you can have with someone who wants to talk about 50 Shades with you. You can ask why they decided to see it. You can talk about whether their expectations were met and how it changed or challenged their preconceived notions. That line of discussion helps you ask about where they got their preconceived notions, their worldview and their greatest hopes. The fact that they had an expectation indicates they had hoped for something when they went. How does that line up with, or illustrate their greatest hope? Their answers may surprise you, but they may also surprise them. Passively giving into heart cravings and actively discussing them are two different things.

Fewer excuses for Christians

Another application of Gal 5:19 – 21 is that works of the flesh are evident, meaning Christians have plenty of evidence that America is not a Christian nation. Hopefully we already understood that, but if we didn’t this movie is perhaps the barometer of sorts from the comment I cited yesterday. I don’t bemoan that many Christians are late to the battle, I rejoice that because of this movie many are awakened by the bugle for perhaps the very first time. It ought to be obvious by now that the struggles our brothers and sisters in Europe have been having for decades have been on our shores a while.

Here’s a news flash for my happy suburban middle class evangelical Christian brothers and sisters. If this movie makes $100m, it will be primarily your neighbors and not mine that made it happen. We cannot look at the popularly of stuff like this and pretend that it is an anomaly. While some Christians will undoubtedly mistakenly see this movie, the droves of people who go desperately need Christ and they live next door to you. What are you doing to reach them? Are you praying for them as fervently as you are promoting boycott messages on Facebook? If the movie helps suburban consumeristic Christians to remember that we are in a battle and in enemy territory then I’m happy for it.

Highlights our hope

Christians have a lot of hobby horses, and many of them are worthwhile. The problem with homeschooling, organic food, classical education, and adoption is that they will not save anyone from the wrath of God. Neither will boycotts and protests aimed at people on their way to hell doing what people on their way to hell want to do. If the thoughts of this movie produce in you a desire to protest something more than a desire to pray then I would say you may have your hope set on the wrong savior. We don’t long for a day when bad movies don’t exist, we long for a day when Jesus is treasured in every heart. I hope that describes you, dear reader, and I hope it is evident to all in your interactions with others regarding 50 Shades.

Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus- J. Mack Stiles

I had been looking forward to this book for a while and was glad when God gave me a reason to expedite my reading of it. I’m sorry to be so disappointed in this book. Mack is a great brother and the series generally has been very helpful but this one just misses the mark.

One of the things that sets this book apart in a good way is the emphasis on the church culture as part of the momentum toward or resistance to evangelism. Stiles very correctly points out the way God used community to draw in new followers. This was as true in the Old Testament as in the New Testament, and it is largely missing in books on the topic today. The well known quote from Francis Schaffer should be more embraced: “ But after we have done our best to communicate to a lost world, still we must never forget that the final apologetic which Jesus gives is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians.” The love of God that saves sinners is really only ever observable in community.

The enormous miss here is the basic lack of accountability for those most responsible for church culture in the first place, namely its leadership. When churches care more about the root of a Greek word or their kid’s next soccer practice than their neighbors eternal state, they got that way somehow. Usually it’s because loving unbelievers at personal cost is not modeled for them by their leaders and sadly Mack mostly misses this and blames everyday believers for looking for programs. Even in his example about Pastor Juan which set Pastor Juan up as a hero, where was the admonition for lack of faith and training by Pastor Juan? How is it that his responsibility for a culture that produces what Mack saw as a problem question is abdicated by the fact that he invited a stranger in to talk about evangelism for four hours?

If Stiles is right that culture drives evangelism, then the book would have been more effective if it had described at least one example where leaders repented of their inward focus and challenged the typical 9Marks book reader to do the same. I do not deny the very real difficulties of shifting a church culture from an inward focus to an evangelism focus, especially as we are living in an increasingly self centered and consumer society, but that only highlights the need to address leaders on this point head on. This, by the way, is one of the great advantages of church planting because there is no inward focus to overcome and only those committed to evangelism end up sticking around. My pastor when I was first married once said something I will never forget about church members – “The way you get them is the way you keep them.” In the west, churches attracting people because of great exegesis are just as inwardly focused as those attracting people with great drama because the reason people show up is to get what they want rather than to enlist in an army to do what their Commander wants.

I also was disappointed by some smaller things. I don’t know why he talked about “pastors and elders” when the 9Marks book on elders made it clear these are the same office. I don’t know why he repeatedly used two mutually exclusive meanings for “church”. Why would you call the organizational body the “church” after criticizing everyday believers for expecting the “church” to do something about a new immigrant population? I think his points would have been more effective if he said church leaders or church administrators if that’s what he meant in most of those cases.

If you are interested in a book to strengthen your personal evangelism then I would encourage you to consider Tell the Truth by Will Metzger or better yet the evangelism chapter in Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.

My Buddy Joel

So some friends and I went to the Joel Osteen event in Atlanta last Friday night to see what kinds of people go to Joel Osteen events.

We didn’t go inside. We were more interested in finding out whether Atlantans who went to see him believed the Gospel any more than he did. I was really sad to find out that for the most part they did not. Less than a third of the people I met could articulate how someone has their sins forgiven at all. I got lots of other responses like there was no such place as hell, people who have never thought about why you would want to be a Christian, and one person who – after telling me Christianity is just like everything else – said a person might decide to be a Christian for the same reason they would decide to rent an apartment instead of buy a house.

I was surprised how many people who seemed to know the Gospel didn’t care that Joel never talked about sin. One lady said “well, what if all 15,000 people who go to his church are already Christians.” After pointing out how unlikely that was and that it was even less likely that his television audience was all saved I pointed them to Hebrews 3:12-14. Christians need to hear about sin also, so we can help each other be protected from its deceitfulness.

Perhaps the most interesting exchange was with four very pleasant ladies. When I asked the first two what was the best thing about being a Christian, they immediately replied with Biblical answers regarding the forgiveness of sin and eternal life. I asked the same thing to the third and she said she wasn’t a Christian at all. She was just coming to Joel because he was so motivational. She said she could listen to him forever. I couldn’t help myself so I asked the first two ladies how they felt about the fact that their cousin, who they agreed would be in hell if she died today, could be so comfortable listening to Joel Osteen that she would do it “forever”. They didn’t really have an answer so I asked them whether they ever heard him say anything about sin or repentance. They didn’t but they were genuinely interested in learning more and I gave them some information, including details on the Larry King interview (very convenient being next to CNN Center and quoting Larry King). I believe these two will have a much less favorable view of Joel very soon.

Overall, I was struck by the absence of both Bibles and men. At least 2/3 of those in attendance were women, most of them coming in pairs or groups of only women.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was the kind of thing Paul warned about in 2 Tim 3:6.

I left praying for Joel, the believers we met and the unbelievers. Especially for the believers I pray that their love would abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment. Pray with me – they desperately need it.