Nets and Lures

johannes-plenio-262531-unsplash.jpg“They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.'” (Matthew 4:18-19)

Jesus called his followers to fish for people.  His followers now, across America, largely gather on Sundays to watch a show that might, on a good day, relate to fishing, but which never obligates any of them to head for the shore.  We are not the sailors you would expect to find gathered around the teachings of a fisherman.

Fishing for the American church is in a big shift right now.  It used to be that if you wanted to attract to people to your church, you would just lay out a big net, and eventually some amount of fish would swim into it, you would be hailed as an evangelist, and you could write a book on church growth.  That system is dependent on a culture where

  1. A good deal of the population feels obligated to go to church, and
  2. Church exists in a culture that is generally friendly to and supportive of it

That day is over.  The American church is poised to fall like a domino behind the European and Canadian churches.

There are some decent churches which are shuttering their windows and locking jakob-owens-208995-unsplash.jpgtheir doors for the last time, and the people are baffled as to why it’s happening.  They’re such a nice congregation after all.  They have a nice facility.  They have history.  Those are all a net thrown where there are no fish.

The American church is now going to have to switch from net fishing to line fishing.  We’re going to have to cast to reach the fish.  We’re going to have to walk to new spaces.  Throwing out a net and waiting is a fruitless activity, because the fish aren’t swimming to church.  The Fisherman is teaching us a new skill, and we either learn or we go home hungry.

Specifically, any follower of Jesus must see themselves on a daily mission to share the good news of Jesus with a lost world.  At work, at school, and in line at the grocery store, faithful Jesus-followers and fishermen in training must remember that they are called to a mission.  The mission is not to sit in a chair on Sunday.

#RLLA

 

Forwards and Backwards

pissaro

Faithful churches are looking forwards and backwards – forwards in methodology and backwards in creed.

Dying churches are looking forwards and backwards – backwards in methodology and forwards in creed.

Faithful churches exist for getting the gospel out and welcoming failures in.  We are always looking for new, creative, innovative, and box-breaking ways to do it.  Credally, we are ad fontes, back to the sources from which we sprang, back to Jesus, the Bible, the early church.  It’s an old story we’re retelling.  But the language in which we tell is is always new.

Dying churches do it exactly the other way around.  Methodologically, they say things like, “Remember how we did it 20 years ago?  Wasn’t that great?”  They go back to the same styles, the same sounds, the same vocabulary, and often the same (stagnated) leaders.  Theologically they may (or may not) then be open to wandering.  They have little left to be committed to than the way things used to be.  Going back as far as Jesus is a dangerous thing for them to do, because in him they’ll find a pioneer and an adventurer who will leave the religious people who feel safe at church to go looking for someone who is lost (Luke 15).  They tend to replace theology with tradition.

If you’re following Jesus, he’s only going forwards.  The front windshield is bigger than the rear view mirror for good reason.

I Don’t Want to Be A Christian

I sat with a friend today who is not a Christian.  She knows I’m a Christian and generally avoids the subject.  Today, out of the blue, she said, “Have you always been a Christian?”

I told her my story of growing up going to boring, dead churches.  I told her about rejecting the faith on rational grounds because of the wide variety of religions in the world and the painful exclusivity of Christianity.  I told her about my return to the faith.

She grinned and looked away.

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be a Christian,” she declared.

She told me about experiencing pushy Christians who tried to manipulate her to believe and who wouldn’t respect her disinterest when she said “no.” She talked about churches that made her fall asleep.

Listening to her description of what she had experienced from Christians, I couldn’t help but think it:

“I don’t want to be a Christian either.”

And by that I mean, I don’t want to be a Christian like the Christians she’s met.

I don’t want to be a Christian who disregards people’s feelings when they tell me they don’t want to hear or have heard enough.  I want to be a Christian who talks about Jesus with people who are open to listening, usually because I’ve taken the time to listen to them first, and then respects them if they say “No thanks.”

And I don’t want to be a Christian who goes to or leads a boring church.  Boring churches should almost unilaterally be closed.  They should be shut down until the people who are called to lead them can come up with a meaningful vision for what it looks like to reach lost people with the gospel.  And I don’t care if your approach is miraculous healings or one-to-one evangelism or an attractive megachurch or artsy alternative community, but if a church doesn’t have a vision, the church needs to close.  If a church is boring, it’s already closed in every way except the literal way, and that’s only a matter of time.

I told her that the way Christians behave isn’t a measure of whether or not Jesus is God.  And the real question is whether or not Jesus is God, which is irrelevant to how Christians behave.  She seemed unconvinced and changed the subject.  I let her change the subject.

In that exchange, I have to trust that God did what he wanted to do.  God never forces himself on us.  Christians need to unilaterally stop forcing themselves on anyone else.

But I do have one thing better than force, manipulation, or nagging.  I can ask you to pray for my friend.  Please do.

 

megaphone.jpg

The Good News Can’t Wait

Last night I was walking through the hallways of a hospital, and since it was after hours, I had a personal guide leading me.  He worked the security desk.  We started talking about hospitals, and work, and then church.  He’s planning on coming to church with me on Sunday.

A few hours before I was sitting at Starbucks.  A student asked me a question about his homework.  We talked about literature, then sports, and then church.  I plan on seeing him Sunday as well.

I’m reminded of one of the more obscure teachings of Jesus, where a man comes to him and says, “I’d like to follow you, but I have to bury my father.” Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead, you just stick with me” (Luke 9:59-60).  That one always sounded a little insensitive to me.  He wants to have a funeral, and Jesus tells him not to bother?

Many scholars take the possible but not-necessary tact that the man’s father was still alive and he wanted to wait through the end, or that he meant he would go once his inheritance was secure, or that he was following the (sometimes) Jewish practice of waiting a year to bury the remains of the dead.  All of this mutes the actual words of Jesus to make them more palatable.  Jesus’ message is actually very simple.

The good news can’t wait!

Any kind of delay, serving as a disciple-at-large while someone else shoulders the work, batonpass-300x230.jpgisn’t part of the plan.  Jesus tells us to go reach the world now.  Talk about Jesus when we lie down at night and when we get up in the morning, when we sit at home and when we walk along the road.  Talk about Jesus when we’re going to the funeral, when we’re at the funeral, and when we’re standing around eating egg salad sandwiches afterwards.  Talk about Jesus instead of the business of normal life.  The Apostle Paul will even say it’s better not to get married if it gives you more time to talk to people about Jesus.

You know who stops talking about Jesus?  Dead people.  Spiritually dead people lateral that ball to a teammate so that they can go about normal life.  The act of following Jesus is like rising out of the baptismal waters to new life.  Nothing is better than that, and nothing is more important than that.  Do it today, not tomorrow.

The good news can’t wait!

The Faith of Tolkien

On the advent of the release of the third and final installment of The Hobbit films, and in honor of Advent the greater, I’m amused at the giant story of faith sitting hidden in plain sight in the American culture.  J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a devout Catholic, he was an evangelist.  And his quiet evangelism has shaped a legacy for modern evangelicals in a way that few of us are aware of.  If you, on the other side of this screen, are an evangelical Christian in America or Europe, there’s a pretty good likelihood it’s because of the guy who wrote the Hobbit.  If you hate evangelical Christians in America, you should likewise hate the guy who wrote the Hobbit (troll that you are).

Tolkien describes, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” the great turn of events that must happen in every Fairy Story for it to legitimately qualify for the genre.  He calls that crisis and redemption a “eucatastrophe.” He writes,

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

He then describes how the gospels are a form of Fairy story, though true, and he calls the resurrection of Jesus a eucatastrophe.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my Tolkersfeeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy- story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Now it’s exactly this kind of thinking that Tolkien shared with his friend C.S. Lewis.  They both worked at Oxford, Tolkien as a professor and Lewis as a tutor.  They gathered together in a pub with friends to drink and read their writings to one another in a group they dubbed The Inklings.  And sometimes they strolled down the Addison walk at Magdalen College together.  On these treks, Tolkien talked to Lewis, then an atheist, about how God wrote himself into his own story in order to bring redemption out of the tragedy of the human condition – the greatest eucatastrophe of all.  Tolkien was influential in bringing Lewis to faith.  Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to publish his works about hobbits and orcs and dragons.

Most people know what a significant influence Lewis has had on Western European and American society through books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a passionate defender of a propagator of the Christian faith after Tolkien helped him get there.  Most pastors in America have at least dabbled in Lewis, and to this day it is not uncommon to hear him quoted in the Sunday sermon.  His Narnia series alone has sold over 100 million copies, making him one of the most read fiction authors in history.

So the quiet little walks with the evangelical Tolkien created one of the greatest evangelists and Christian authors of the 20th century, one who is still shaping preachers and congregations and readers today.

So as the Hobbit releases this week, Christians should hail this as the great achievement of one of their direct spiritual ancestors.  All the fiery impulse of the good underdog standing up to bullying evil is captured in this Fairy story.  And keeping stories like this alive in our culture will always awaken a moral impulse that makes people wonder at the source of good and evil.  It makes us long for the triumph of good, for the eucatastrophe of our broken world.  Rather than settling for preachy, two-dimensional Christian movies that are painfully overt and poorly written, Christians ought to celebrate works like the Hobbit.  And we ought to call attention to the fact that the literary legacy of one of our most devout is now being fawned over by the movie going public on Saturday night, while his spiritual legacy once-removed is still prodding congregations on Sunday morning.

Christians, Ebola, and the Beginnings of Revival

koreanchurchRegarding the origins of the Great Revival in Korea at the turn of the 20th century, during a massive outbreak of cholera, a historian writes:

“At the same time an epidemic of cholera in Seoul brought reports of the indefatigable toil of the Christian missionaries for the sick and dying there, how they performed duties from which the bravest Koreans often shrank, exposing themselves without stint, and saving hundreds of lives.  ‘All these recoveries made no little stir in the city.  Proclamations were posted on the walls telling the people there was no need for them to die when they might go to the Christian hospitals and live.  People who watched the missionaries working over the sick night after night reportedly said to each other, “How these foreigners love us!  Would we do as much for one of our own kin as they do for strangers?”

When Horace Underwood was seen hurrying along the road in the twilight, some of the Koreans remarked, “There goes the Jesus man: he works all day and all night with the sick without resting.”

“Why does he do it?” said another.

“Because he loves us,” was the reply.'”

-Palmer, Korea and Christianity, 1967, citing Moffett, The Christians of Korea, 1962.

It Only Takes One

If I could study any of the biblical cities, I’d study Ephesus. I’d study it because it was a burgeoning, multi-ethnic, religiously diverse metropolis. I’d study it because it’s the best preserved of the ancient cities, having been vacated by a majority of the population after a wicked bout of malaria. And I’d study it because, through it, a couple of Christians changed the world. 

Imagine that if you decided to teach the faith to one person, you would create out of your city a hub of Christian teaching, writing, and thinking for the next hundred years. Imagine that if you decided to teach the faith to one person, one day people would talk about your city the way they talk about Salt Lake City – you know, “it’s ok to visit, but there sure are a lot of Mormons there.” Substitute “Christians” – that’s what a single mentoring relationship can do.

Ephesus
The theater in Ephesus, where Paul preached (Acts 19)

At Ephesus, Paul went and preached, staying 3 years and beginning a church. He appointed Elders and empowered saints. Then he left. But while he was there, he mentored Timothy, his “son” in the faith, to whom he passed on the best of what he knew.

John, the disciple of Jesus, settle there and became a pastor. He led the church, continuing to pass the faith on. We know of just a few names of individuals who moved from rural and distant parts to the big city, and that changed the city.

Ephesus became one of the centers of the Christian church in the centuries to come. By the 5th century, when the Roman Emperor wanted to call together a council of the bishops of the church, he called them to Ephesus.

It’s not inconceivable that any American city could have such a legacy. It only took one or two people gathering, engaging, loving, and teaching. Anyone can do that, in any city. Why can’t it be your city? Why can’t it be mine?

To the Power of One

I found an interesting piece of trivia about the church at which I pastor, Glenkirk Church. Apparently, back in 1965, the church was meeting in a little chapel at another location, and the day came when the congregation had grown too large for the little chapel. The pastor at that time named the need to build a bigger sanctuary on that lot. Apparently the congregation was divided on this. I wasn’t there, so I can only guess how the conversations went.

“It’s too expensive! Why would we spend so much money on ourselves?”

“Why do we need to grow anymore? The church is fine the way it is!”

I know these kinds of questions came up, because as it was told to me by one of the old-timers who remembers, “It passed by one vote.”

One vote!

Just one person enough to move that congregation forward. I don’t know who that person was (or technically, who that 51% was), but I owe a debt of thanks. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. The church wouldn’t have grown. It wouldn’t have gone through a later move to an even larger campus on which it could keep growing. Children wouldn’t have received Christian education. People wouldn’t have been sent into full time missions. Countless people would not have become Christians at Glenkirk. Hundreds of thousands of dollars would not have been spent on missions with the poor.

To that one person who voted “yes” – thank you so much!

Because of you, there are three children of Glenkirk who are now in full time ministry in Muslim countries. There is one who is a youth pastor on an island in the Atlantic. There is one family who became Christians at Glenkirk and are now rebuilding an orphanage in Haiti that fell down in the 2010 earthquake. One is a chaplain at Fuller Seminary. Without you, my two children, along with many others, wouldn’t have been baptized at Glenkirk. And now each week, we gather as a family, young and old, to sing to a good God, as we have since that 1965 vote.

Thank you so much! Without you, I wouldn’t pass each week through the shadow of this cross and remember the One who said “yes” to God’s call for the sake of we who would come after him. Whoever you are – well done!

 

The Glenkirk Cross
The Glenkirk Cross (Photo courtesy of S. Vance)

Everyone Knows God Is There

MMI knew there was a college guy out there somewhere settling into a dorm, scoping out the weekend nightlife, and generally not thinking about the fact that his flippant comment about church had brought his mother to my doorstep. She caught me on the patio after church almost in tears. She told me her son was in his first year at college and had given up on everything she had taught him about faith. Years of Sunday school instruction had amounted to firm agnosticism. So many childhood bedtime prayers had now resulted in an adulthood of sleeping in on the weekends. She described recent conversations and arguments and e-mails, which had concluded in a closed door.

“How do I convince him that there is a God?” she asked….

 

Read the rest here.

Everyone Believes

One of the things that fascinates me about modern defenders of the Christian faith is how casually they begin in the wrong place.  They start with the assumption that their listeners are objective and analytical and can be persuaded by facts.  I doubt this is true.  Then they assume their role is one of defense attorney who presents a reliable case sufficient to free God from the atheist’s accusations.  I know this isn’t true.

The Bible starts in a completely different place, saying we are “without excuse” for not believing (Romans 1:20).  The atheist needs a defense attorney.

And what’s most surprising about this to me is that the guy who says he doesn’t believe in God has already shown that he depends upon a world in which God does exist in three ways.

First, when one says, “God does not exist,” that person is assuming that the purpose of communication is to tell the truth.  They assume that they are somehow morally obligated to try to reflect what they think accurately, and they assume the person to whom they are speaking is doing the same.  But this moral undergirding is suspicious.  If God doesn’t exist, morality is at best a mistaken byproduct of blind evolution.  So long as survival of the fittest is the only goal, there’s really no objective moral obligation.  I can tell the truth if I want and not if I don’t.  But when we say, “God does not exist,” we’re assuming that communication in general rests on a real obligation to tell the truth, which is a moral claim.  It’s just strange to me that we act as though objective morals should exist, when a universe without God doesn’t require objective morality.

Second, when you say, “God does not exist,” you are assuming that the thoughts in your head accurately reflect the world around you.  You really think that in the universe, there is not a God, and that your perception of that world is accurate.  But there’s a problem.  In a godless universe, everything is simply matter.  Everything is made up of colliding particles.  Our brains in our heads are just a collection of particles that have come to function in certain ways.  But there’s nothing objective that obligates the particles in our heads to give us an accurate picture of the real world (this is sort of the red pill here).  It’s the same as the first point in a way – nothing objectively obligates brains to “tell the truth,” or to work in a way that is objectively accurate.  Yet when someone says, “God does not exist,” there is a fundamental assumption that brains and sensory organs must work accurately.  Descartes, Berkeley, and company knew that they had to ground their philosophies in the assumed existence of God before they could begin talking about what they did and didn’t know about the world.  But the assumption that our senses are right isn’t necessary in a godless material universe.

Third, when you say “God does not exist,” you are trusting that communication actually works.  You are trusting that the ideas in one person’s head can be translated into language, perceived consistently, and received accurately.  Deconstructionists like Foucault would say that this misrepresents they way language actually works, as truths are simply the falsehoods that have been hardened by the long baking process of history.  Derrida would observe that the place where we assume big ideas are connected to particular expressions of those ideas (where “forms” are stamped into “particulars”) is a lot more fuzzy than we assume when we talk to each other.  Again, a material universe with no guiding conscience would not necessitate that words  have meaning or that language is effective.  These things require something more purposeful than the blind movements of particles.

So when someone says “I don’t believe in God,” they are trusting that we are bound by the objective moral obligation to tell the truth, that our brains are bound to purposefully reveal accurate information, and that communication can be infused with objective meaning, none of which should necessarily exist in a godless universe.  That person is acting like God is there at exactly the moment she says he isn’t.

So ironically, the person who says “God does not exist” is actually proving that God does.

Explore this and other curiosities in my book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know, available this September from Abingdon Press.