The number one Christian conversation killer

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There are certain words that are conversation killers:

  • Hitler (doesn’t matter what you’re comparing, if you bring in Hitler, the conversation is over)
  • Nazi (whether grammar, brand, or any other modifier one may choose to use)
  • Homophobe (because, well you know…)
  • K (because it’s a letter, not a word)
  • YOLO (because it it makes you look like an idiot)

In Christian circles, we have our own conversation killers, in addition to the ones we’ve picked up from the surrounding culture. Most of these are buzzwords like “missional” and increasingly “gospel centered”—the terms and phrases we either overuse or just haven’t bothered to adequately define, thus rendering them meaningless. But there’s one word to rule them all—one forged in the fires of Mount Doom:

F-U-N-D-A-M-E-N-T-A-L-I-S-T

“Fundamentalist” is a big word, and not just because it has 14 letters. It’s one that some—usually those who prefer the term “progressive” to describe their doctrine and outlook—use with alarming frequency, arguably more than some folks use “heretic.” And for Christians, it really is the ultimate conversation killer. After all, no one wants to be called a fundamentalist—homophobe we can handle. Out of step, ditto. Being on the wrong side of history, no problem. But “fundamentalist”? No way—that’s like being the kid who had cooties on the playground during recess!

Okay, I kid a little. (Maybe. Probably not.)

But you often see the F-word used by the desperate, the folks who put something out there but what they’re saying doesn’t really have legs. Here are the two ways I typically see it play out:

1. To defend preference. There’s a great deal of freedom in the Christian faith, on this I hope we can all agree. And there are certain things we cannot reasonably be too hardline about. For example, if I were to say all alcohol consumption is sinful, I’d have a hard time squaring that with Scripture. Now, I don’t drink due to personal conviction, so for me it would be sinful unless I had a change of conviction (which I have not). That is perfectly within the bounds. However, if I were to say “and you drink can’t either—everyone,” I’d be on the wrong side of the Bible (Romans 14:1-12).

However, there are other things that aren’t really up for debate (even if we still debate them anyway). If we’re participating in occult practices or taking part in spiritual practices from other religions, we’re going to have a hard time squaring that with the Bible. We point to Paul’s words about eating meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8, and say that idols aren’t living things, but ignore that later he warns us against participating in idolatry itself in 1 Corinthians 10:14-21. We talk about Paul’s freedom in eating meat sacrificed to idols—but we forget that he’s talking about meat purchased in the marketplace, not being part of the sacrifice itself.

In our day, it’s things like yoga, The Walking Dead, and 50 Shades of Creepy.These are the things where we disagree (rightly or wrongly). But if we’re going to disagree, let’s at least make sure that our views are based on something a little more substantial than “I like it,” “it feels good,” or “it works for me.” Actually have a good argument.

2. To defend syncretism. This is the second time the f-word is typically dropped—on the clear black and white issues like the supremacy of Christ, the authority of the Bible, who goes to heaven and hell, sexual morality… Big stuff. Fun fact: I once read a blog where the writer called Scripture’s command that a man spiritually lead and provide for the needs of his family (cf. 1 Tim 5:8; Eph 5:22-33) a misogynistic, patriarchal attitude and anyone who says different is, well, you know…

On big issues—the things where the Bible doesn’t give any wiggle room whatsoever—it’s not being fundamentalist to say “Nope, Christians can’t affirm XYZ”. It’s not unloving or unkind. It’s just being honest. And when we resort to name-calling and conversation killers rather than engaging people honestly, it just says we’re desperate, proud and kind of lazy. It might be easier to demonize those we disagree with—regardless of our position on the theological spectrum—but it’s not worth it. And I don’t think any of us want that.


An earlier version of this post was written in 2010.

How do we keep these things from happening?

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This weekend, the news broke that Tullian Tchividjian resigned as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, after admitting to an extramarital affair in a statement provided to the Washington Post.

There’s so much that could be said about this issue, and no doubt, much of it will be in the days (or hours) to come. Some of us will make the mistake of reading most of it (not that all the commentary will be bad, but because most of it won’t be necessary). So, naturally, I’m writing something related to it that I hope you’ll actually read and find helpful.

Although I’ve met Tullian, shared emails periodically and had a couple of Skype calls (for an interview a couple of years back), what I know of him mostly comes from his books and preaching. I’ve never attended his church, so I don’t know what the culture is like there in terms of the whole creepy pastor-celebrity worship thing that sometimes happens in churches with pastors who have a large platform. I don’t know what his accountability structure was like at his church, but I do know from what we see in the Post article that there was some form of authority playing an active role in his life, one looking out for his good—and not merely his platform.

So please don’t read this as someone trying to do armchair detective work and pinpoint “the real problem”. I don’t want this to be assumed to be a rant that comes across like the self-righteous boasting of the Pharisee who prayed, “Thank God I am not like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). And likewise I don’t want to offer the despicable “nobody’s perfect/we all make mistakes” sentiments you often see when a high profile Christian is found to be engaged in disqualifying sin.

So why I am I writing this then?

Honestly, I think I mostly want to address one question: How do we help ensure these sorts of things don’t keep happening? This sort of sin is heartbreaking on every level: It’s awful for the people involved. It’s devastating to a local church. It hurts so many people on so many levels, both inside and outside the church. And we need to treat it as such. And one of the best ways to do that is to figure out how we protect our pastors, our fellow church members, our friends, our family, and ourselves from crossing that line we’re all only one or two wrong decisions away from.

Now, here’s the first thing we need to remember: Sin isn’t a problem for “celebrity” Christians alone. Sin is no respecter of a person’s anonymity or notoriety. So we can’t say point a finger and say, well, of course XYZ happened—look at the size of his or her church, platform or whatever. Nor do we point fingers at theology in general. While sometimes the sins we see committed (or we commit) are the outworking of a deficient theology, the problem can’t be neatly pegged on a theological system. After all, as we’ve seen, it’s possible to learn directly from Jesus and still fall prey to the fear of man and be guilty of hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-14). So while it’s tempting to say that sin is the result of being too light on law or too free with grace or something like that, we need to look at a different area of our lives. The problem we face is certainly a theological one, and there’s no one answer to the problem, but I wonder if it’s helpful to consider our view of the place of the church in accountability?

More pointedly, how do we answer these two questions:

Who really knows us? If you’re in a North American evangelical church with a congregation larger than 200, there’s a good chance that you can easily hide if you so choose. You could come every single week, sit in the same seat, and leave again without ever being noticed. It’s possible to do this (in fact, I know of one church in my city that’s known for being the church you go to if you want to hide, which I’m sure is not the leadership’s intention whatsoever). And if you’re a pastor, it’s possible to set up your entire life in such a way that you never, ever have to deal with the people who are (allegedly) being shepherded by you. While it might be convenient, perhaps even appealing, there’s a pretty significant problem with this set-up: if no one knows us, there’s no one to protect us from ourselves.

Now, make no mistake: letting people know you is risky. It means you actually have to let them know you. They must know things about you, and not just what you’re looking at on the Internet. After all, we have CSIS and the NSA for that (hi, guys). We need to have people who can ask us about just about anything in our lives—and expect a real answer. If you don’t have someone who’s willing to call you out when you’re full of crap, you might have a problem. Speaking of which…

How highly do we esteem ourselves? How we see ourselves is just as important as anything else. If we act as though we are somehow above certain sins, we’re almost certainly going to fall to those very things. Bloggers know where I’m coming from on this: If someone doesn’t read my blog today, am I going to lose my mind and check my stats incessantly? How do I react when others experience greater success than me? How do I react when people leave my church and go to the one down the road? Do I actually believe that if Jesus is to increase, I must decrease—or do I just affirm it with my lips all the while thinking I’m a pretty big deal? All of this, though, is just an expression of autonomy—which is really just a polite way of saying “I worship myself.”

I’m not exaggerating when I say we’re all only one or two wrong decisions away from being in a similar situation as any number of Christian leaders who’ve committed adultery, become domineering or otherwise abused their authority. I don’t wonder, “How could this have happened?” when I learn about adultery among pastors or any of the other sins we see being committed. I grieve over them because I know exactly how they happen. It just takes one decision. It happens in an instant, and happens in the heart long before it happens in the body. That’s one of the things I love about people who know themselves well: they’re not naïve enough to assume they couldn’t do something similar, and so are intentional about being faithful, God-honoring men and women (in every sense).

And this is one of the things that terrify me about the advice I see offered in leadership circles. It’s the whole, “Nobody gets your struggles/leadership is lonely/you’re a snowflake” thing. Which, incidentally, is the same kind of stuff someone trying to tempt you into sin will say to you (as many a woman or man knows). The problem, of course, is it’s complete bunk. It not only sets up the pastor as being somehow in a different class than other believers, but it leaves him without the protection that comes from being a part of the body.

Which brings me back to something sorely lacking within evangelical churches today: accountability. Is this the only issue? Nope. Like I said, when it comes to sin in general, and sin such as adultery in particular, it’s a lot more complicated than just accountability. Nevertheless, it is an issue. The gospel doesn’t just save us from sin, but saves us into community. And among the many ways community helps us is to protect us as people know us. To continually call us all to live in light of what Jesus has done and continues to do in our lives. Is accountability a perfect failsafe? Nope. But you and I need it nonetheless—desperately. Likewise, we need to carefully consider how we would answer these two questions: Who really knows us, and how highly do we think of ourselves? The answers to those may make a world of difference for ourselves, our churches and the world around us.

Honoring our imperfect fathers and imitating our perfect Father

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I don’t remember wanting to be like my dad growing up. That sounds insulting, but it’s not meant to be. Not really.

See, my parents split up when I was a kid, so beyond our scheduled visits, I really wasn’t around him all that much. I didn’t really know him all that well so I couldn’t know whether or not I wanted to be like him. And what I did know was filtered through my particular biases and bitterness. It hasn’t been until I became an adult—and more specifically, after I became a Christian—that I got to see my dad for who he is and learn more about what he’s really like.

He’s not a perfect man, by any means. Nor would he claim otherwise. He’s committed many sins, and made many mistakes. And yet, what’s been helpful to me has been seeing how he lives in light of them. Here’s what I mean:

When he’s wronged someone, he apologizes. And although he knows he can’t undo the hurts or damage of certain decisions, he does his best to make amends. But he also knows he can’t make someone forgive him. He is not responsible if someone cannot find it in themselves to forgive him—regardless of the amount of effort he could put in, he can’t make it happen.

What’s all the more amazing about this is my dad is not a Christian. At least, not yet (but I hope he will be, someday). Yet, he still models an aspect of repentance that I want to do likewise. There’s no way for me to make someone forgive me. There’s nothing I can do to remove bitterness from someone’s heart. I can make restitution, to the degree to which I am able, but I can’t guarantee that my actions will result in reconciliation. This is a good thing to learn, and to see modelled, and to follow suit in. But I also don’t want to stop there, any more than I want my own son to stop at wanting to be like me.

Whether our fathers are believers or not, whether they’re good men or not, they’re at best a blurry image of the one whom we are called to imitate. And as Thomas Watson reminded us long ago,1 the one we are to imitate is God, our Father in heaven.

“The child not only bears his father’s image, but imitates him in his speech, gesture and behavior,” Watson wrote. “If God be our Father, let us imitate him” (cf. Ephesians 5: 1). So we imitate God in forgiving others, in pardoning offences and sins committed against us. We imitate him in his works of mercy, being rich in good works; being “merciful even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

“He who has God for his Father, will have him for his pattern,” Watson wrote. So we honor our imperfect fathers and we imitate the good we see in them. But we also honor them by not settling for imitating them, but by only being satisfied in imitating our perfect Father in heaven.

Christianity is costly (if you’re doing it right)

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One of the things that’s most interesting in all the doom and gloom reporting around denominational decline, the rise of the nones and the seeming collapse of Christianity in America is the fact that, as some commentators have said previously, what we’re really seeing is the rise of honesty among Americans.

It is no longer socially advantageous to be considered a Christian, at least not in any meaningful sense. So people who considered themselves Christians (even if in name only) are no longer identifying themselves as such. This is a very good thing for us overall, because it means, as Tim Keller once said, the mushy middle is falling out of evangelicalism, and what we’ll be left with is a stronger visible church as a result. A church that knows that, as J.C. Ryle once said, “it does cost something to be a real Christian, according to the standards of the Bible.” He continues:

There are enemies to be overcome, battles to be fought, sacrifices to be made, an Egypt to be forsaken, a wilderness to be passed through, a cross to be carried, a race to be run. Conversion is not putting a man in an arm-chair and taking him easily to heaven. It is the beginning of a mighty conflict, in which it costs much to win the victory. Hence arises the unspeakable importance of “counting the cost.” (as published in J.I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle, p. 174)

Jesus told the crowds, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” He warned them against making a hasty decision to follow him. He wanted people to know that being a Christian would not bring about a life of ease and comfort. And this is what we need to remind ourselves of today, even as we continue to go forward in our mission to make disciples of all nations.

We need to be uncompromisingly honest on this point: Christianity is costly.

At least, if we’re doing it right.

That doesn’t mean we “sell” people a life of doom and gloom, though. Our song probably shouldn’t be a dirge or a fashionably sad pop song from the early 90s.1 But it does mean we embrace the reality of Christianity not being easy. It costs much to win the victory—and we should never be afraid to say so.

God’s plans are good (even when we don’t like them)

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There’s a verse that’s in every Christian household or office space (and not just because it’s in our Bibles). Maybe it’s on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. Perhaps a poster or a greeting card. Or perhaps it’s featured on a decorative throw or a tattoo. It’s the life verse of virtually every women’s ministry leader and children’s ministry director.

Of course, you know I’m referring to Jeremiah 29:11, and it’s assurance that God knows the plans he has for us, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

It’s a wonderful encouragement, isn’t it? We look at it and say, “Wow—God has a plan for me!” That plan, of course, is one we assume to be free from any sort of difficultly, strife or conflict. But to paraphrase the oft-quoted line—this verse you keep using; I do not think it means what you think it means.

When we read this verse, we typically do so through the lens of the western desire for prosperity, safety and security. That God’s plan obviously includes a full bank account, a big house and kids who remember to wash their hands after using the toilet. But as much fun as those things might be—especially the last one for the germaphobes out there—this isn’t really what’s promised by God to the Israelites. And make no mistake: this verse offers a promise to them, first and foremost.

Although we all (should) know this, we can’t forget that Jeremiah 29:11 comes as part of a larger conversation between God and the newly exiled Jewish people. After years of rejecting God, of consistently rebelling against him and his commands, Jerusalem and the nation of Judah was finally overtaken by  Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, and Jeremiah was there to witness the whole thing. As they sat in Babylon, many so-called prophets came to them with messages promising a swift return to Jerusalem and a restoration of their fortunes.

Surely, God wouldn’t leave the people in exile, away from the promised land, for more than a few months. Maybe a couple of years, tops. But any longer than that, come on…

And yet, of these prophets God said, “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord” (8-9). They were liars, deceivers who preyed on the people’s hopes and dreams. But their promises and prophecies were empty babbling. They were fanciful ideas from their own minds, and nothing more.

Instead of a swift return, God had something else in mind for his wayward people:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:5-7)

So, rather than telling them not to unpack their belongings, God says get comfortable: Settle in Babylon. Get jobs. Get married. Have children. Be a blessing to this city, because you’re going to be here for a while. For the rest of your lives, in fact.

And it’s in this context that God says to his people, “For I know the plans I have for you.”

Despite this being primarily a promise to the Israelites, there is a principle that is true for us as well. Though, to be honest, I doubt us Christians feel anymore joyful about it than the Israelites of the day. Sometimes we’re in communities and context where we’d rather not be. It’s difficult to imagine trying to be a faithful Christian in an incredibly harsh context—one where you can be killed simply for your beliefs. And yet, for many, that’s the reality they live with. But God is still good, isn’t he?

Even here in North America, there are certainly times when we might prefer to hunker in the bunker or move somewhere far away from all the people who need Jesus because they really don’t like this Jesus we represent. And yet, it’s to them God has sent us. And he has a plan for us here: it is to serve those in need. To proclaim truth of the gospel. To do all we can to encourage all around us to thrive, and to be “a light to those who are in darkness” (Rom. 2:19b). To seek the wellbeing and welfare of our communities because those who are perishing need to see that Christians really do care for them.

In other words, God’s plan for us right now is to be his ambassadors in a foreign land. And God’s plans are always good (even when we don’t like them). We aren’t to sit on our duffs and just wait until Jesus returns. We are to go about the work he has commanded us. Because that is the plan he has for us—and it is the best future any of us could hope for.


Adapted from an earlier post written in October 2009.

Four reasons Christians talk so much about sexual ethics

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You’re probably sick to death of this topic. I kind of am, too. Fear not: I’m not writing yet another post on sexual ethics. There are lots of those out there. Some of them are even really great. But many of us feel like we need to remind ourselves, as JD Greear did with SBC pastors at the 2015 convention, that “sexual ethics are not the center of Christianity. The Cross and Christ are.”

This is a given, or it should be one. And yet, if you look at what so many are writing about, you’d think sex was the central issue. Why do we do this? Why is it we tend to focus so much on sexual ethics, seemingly at the expense of Christ and the cross, the center of our faith?

There are undoubtedly more reasons than these, but I have four suggestions I’d like to put forward:

1. It’s easier. Negatively, it’s easier to point to symptoms of a problem than to the bring the real issue to light. The issue with western sexual ethics is not simply that people are behaving in ways contrary to their nature: the true issue is that human beings have rebelled against their Creator and chosen to worship created things—including themselves—rather than the One who made them. Unpacking the latter takes a lot of work and a great deal of patience. It’s much easier to follow that great theologian Bob Newhart and say, “Stop it!”

2. It’s a Freudian slip. While this has been used as a weapon to wrongly dismiss and defame some proponents of traditional sexual ethics, there is, occasionally, some truth to it. Though I suspect they are relatively few, there some who are passionately vocal about issues like adultery or pornography or homosexuality who all the while are are committing adultery, have a computer filled with pornography of the vilest sort, or are secretly engaged in homosexual behavior. If the Ted Haggard scandal of the mid-2000s has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes when people protest a great deal, it may be their way of revealing their own issues.

3. It is compassionate. Positively, some speak about sexual ethics not because they hate people who identify as LGBT, engage in polyamory, or any other activity, but because they have a great deal of compassion. They see people who are lost and confused desperately searching for something to make them feel whole and happy and satisfied, but are always coming up short. Few wake up next to a stranger they met at the club thinking, “Yep, I feel confident that was the right decision,” even when they go and do it again the next week or the next night. And this motivates people to speak—they see people hurting themselves while desperately trying to make themselves happy, and seemingly not recognizing that it’s not working. So even though there are some voices out there who are callous and cruel in clubbing people with their dissenting voice,1 there are others who are compassionately voicing their concern as dying people pleading with dying people.

4. It is a gospel issue. Finally, and again positively, many Christians are speaking about sexual ethics a great deal because it legitimately is a gospel issue, which means it is necessary. The gospel has implications on all of life, from our finances to our sexuality. There is not a square inch of human existence over which Christ does not cry, “Mine,” as Abraham Kuyper once said. Thus, if the Lord Jesus is truly Lord of all, that necessarily includes what we do in our bedrooms, our phones and our computers.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the near-constant talk of sexual ethics, gender identity and all this kind of stuff. But don’t let the noise turn you away from the really good reasons to speak up. There are people who need to hear the truth, and we owe it to them to do so in as compassionate and Christ-honoring a fashion as possible.

Believing while waiting

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Just believe in God and your sins will fade away. Doesn’t that make it sound easy? Sure it takes work. Sure it will be a challenge. But over time things will steadily improve. If only.

Christians live in a gap. We give our lives to Christ, and we step into it. On the other side of the gap is glory. “Glory” may sound old-fashioned, like something a TV preacher shouted about or old hymns were sung about. I can still hear my grandfather, a travelling evangelist of the revival and crusade era, saying “glory” with that inimitable southern preacher emphasis—Glaw-ray! But think of glory like you would a stunning sun set, a litter of puppies, the vastness of the Milky Way, the detail on a Monet painting, July fourth fireworks, crashing surf, a crescendoing symphony, or the beauty of fresh fallen snow. Each is glorious in its own way and lifts our minds and fills our hearts with … something. That something is the yearning for the perfection to come. We are not there yet. But one day Christ will bring it with Him. Revelation 21 says:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Belief does not mean sin will go away. As long as the gap exists we cannot have that. What we can have is trajectory. True belief is that which perpetually, magnetically pulls us toward the “not yet” of Revelation 21. It finds hope when things are hard by knowing there is greater happiness, perfect happiness to come. The suffering of right now hurts, without question. Looking to the future does not deny that or shy away from it. It simply offers a way through.

When we sin it is forward-looking belief that leads to repentance because we know that leaving what is wrong and pursuing what is right will bring us closer to real peace and joy. We hear the call of Jesus’ voice and we go toward it, the very nature of repentance. And it is repentance that keeps our trajectory on course, constantly nudging us back on course when we wander and yanking us back on course when we flee.

We will struggle. We will do things we know are wrong. We will battle persistent sins. But it is belief that makes us battle instead of just giving up. That porn addiction is not greater than what is to come; it may feel like it right now, but belief lifts your eyes to “making everything new”. The not yet is a reason to fight your apathy and laziness at work. Your work may seem pointless, but it was given to you by the one who will bring in a new creation. Doesn’t He want you to be part of working in His image and toward that end? You find yourself fighting anger or bitterness? Grace has been poured out on you and one day justice will come, so you can be filled up with grace and look forward to wrongs being righted. And as long as we are fighting, refusing to surrender our lives to sin, we are moving toward the “not yet” and even exemplifying it to the world around us.

Some folks do right things without belief. Some folks claim to believe without doing right. From the outside it can be very hard to tell who believes what. In fact, it can be very hard to tell from the inside too. I spent a long time assuming I “believed” rightly, not fully realizing that my belief was hollow, missing vitality and life. I think many people who grow up Christian are the same way. They can say all the right things, answer all the questions, and do enough good to feel comfortable in their belief. But do they really believe? Did I? Yes and no. I was in the gap. I believed in Christ, but had not believed to the point of giving Him everything in my life.

That is the process toward the not yet. That is the evidence of belief. Are we giving ourselves to Christ in new ways? Are we trusting parts of our life to him we had not previously? A Relationship, a bank account, a secret sin, a secret shame, a secret pride—are we believing his goodness and authority in such a way that we offer them up?


Barnabas Piper blogs at The Blazing Center, is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy Of Faith, and co-hosts The Happy Rant podcast. Piper writes for WorldMag.com, contributes to numerous other websites, and speaks frequently at churches and conferences. Barnabas serves as the Brand Manager for the Leadership Development team at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville where he lives with his wife and two daughters.


Photo credit: Alpages via photopin (license)

God doesn’t need an invitation

 

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There’s a peculiar thing I’ve noticed in some of the songs in popular Christian praise and/or worship music—typically the ones you hear at the beginning of the “set”1 intended to warm everybody up and get everyone excited. It’s this idea that we are somehow summoning God into our presence. Songs about inviting him into our midst, calling him down, telling him to show up in power, and show us his glory, and all this kind of stuff…

Now, depending your congregation’s proclivities, you’re probably going to sing a song like this today. And I’ve gotta say, to me at least, it’s really weird. It’s not that I’m against being aware of God’s presence, nor am I against praying—or singing for that matter—for true, Spirit-wrought revival. But I’m not sure this is what these songs are talking about. Instead, they seem to be putting us in the drivers’ seat, making us the ones in control during the our time of corporate worship.

In a chapter of The Prodigal Church at least 75 percent of worship leaders will skip, Jared Wilson calls our attention to the heart of this peculiar problem:

The danger we face when we worship is coming into the experience assuming we are summoning God. Assuming worship is our initiative. Assuming we are somehow the ones in control, that we are bringing the best of ourselves and our holy desire to worship. But the reality is, worship does not begin with the worshipper. It begins with God. It is a response to God’s calling upon us. (97)

This is the danger of experientialism. It moves us by inches away from the center, from the reality of who God is, of what the purpose of worship is—of who the object of worship is. And if we’re not careful, and the slide continues, our worship songs may wind up more closely resembling the frantic cries of the Baal-worshippers on the mountain than those of Christ’s disciples.

You’re not calling God down this morning. He doesn’t need an invitation. But I have some better news for you: He is already here. The Holy Spirit dwells within all of his people, every moment of every day. He is the one who empowers our worship, who gives us the desire to sing God’s praises. His power has already shown up—and it resides in us. Should we not rejoice and be glad of this?

What to expect when we preach the gospel

friends-gospel

In modern times, we tend to look at the world around us and say, if only we were X—whether X is hip, trendy, socially active, or whatever—then we’d win the culture to Christ. We act as though there’s some magic formula to this. That somehow we can make everything go exactly our way if we could just unlock the secret.

Now, imagine having these sorts of aspirations—of winning your people with your powerful and prophetic preaching—and rather than turning to God in repentance, they turn on you with murder in their eyes. That those plotting your demise are not strangers, but your childhood friends.

And not your friends only, but your family: your parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles…

They all want you dead.

What would you do?

Jeremiah, often described as the weeping prophet, didn’t need to imagine this, for it was his experience. He wrote in chapter 11 of his book of their scheming. For he heard them say,”Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more,” not knowing that “it was against me they devised schemes” (Jeremiah 11:19).

How would you respond to opposition of this degree? Would you flee? Would you be tempted to retract your message? Or would you turn to the Lord to defend your cause as he did, pleading, “But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause”? (Jeremiah 11:20)

While many around the world don’t have to wonder, for it is their daily reality, I hope none of us here in North America will ever have to experience exactly what Jeremiah did. None of us should ever desire persecution of this nature, or actively pursue it. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember as we consider the experiences of Jeremiah, the Apostles, the Reformers, and so many others right up to our own day is that the gospel is offensive. If we preach the truth—if we preach that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, died for our sins on the cross and rose again on the third day—we are preaching “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8).

The gospel shows us as we truly are—lost, depraved, unable to save ourselves no matter how good and moral we attempt to be. Thus, it confronts us with uncomfortable realities. We know we can never be good enough (even by our own standards, to say nothing of God’s). We know the deeds and thoughts done in private. The gospel shatters our self-image, and so we are left with two options: repent or retaliate.

And that’s the hard thing for so many to get, I fear: generally speaking, we’re not going to win any popularity contests when we’re preaching the gospel in a culture that runs contrary to it. The hard-hearted Israelites to whom Jeremiah preached would not hear him, and in their rebellion sought his death. Today, we’re called bigots for upholding biblical truths and not being able to bless actions that run contrary to them. We’re called intolerant for our exclusive claims. Even when people think we, individually, are very nice, collectively, Christians are personae non gratae.

This is what we should expect when we represent Christ, no matter how well we represent him. Some will be drawn closer, but others—many others, perhaps—will be repelled. That’s what we should expect, because it is what we’re told will happen. So do not lose heart if social action doesn’t win the affections of the lost, or being culturally relevant still results in us being left out in the cold. Give thanks to God and carry on.

Links I like

Links

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Sex Trafficking: What it is, why it matters, and what you can do about it

Barnabas Piper interviews Stephanie Clark, executive director of Amirah.

Why We Need a Christian Counter-Culture

Ivan Mesa shares a few excerpts from the following video:

Saint Samson

David Murray:

Following my attempt to resurrect Jephthah’s reputation, I now turn my attention to Samson. In some ways, Samson is even harder to rehabilitate due to his popularity (or should I say “infamy”) in children’s Bible story books. We’re all familiar with the narrative and the moral: “Don’t be like Samson who committed adultery, murder, and suicide.” …Is resuscitating Samson a lost cause? I don’t think so, for the following reasons.

Four Keys for Avoiding the Anger Trap

Mark Dance:

The more vocal our critics become, the more vocal we should become in prayer. I realize that this concept is both counterintuitive and countercultural, but it really works! Have you tried adding your enemies to your prayer list?

5 Ways to Keep Church Discipline from Seeming Weird

Jared Wilson:

Recently, the subject of church discipline has hit the radar in many circles due to some high profile controversies and scandals.  The way some churches appear to poorly exercise church discipline is as distressing as the way many Christians reacted to the concept. There has been a collective incredulity about church discipline as some kind of “strange fire” in the evangelical world.

I can’t help but think that this aversion is partly because, as God has built his church, his church leaders have not always kept up with what makes a church a church. So even to mention the idea of a church disciplining its members strikes tenderhearted and undereducated Christians as weird, mean, and legalistic. How do we work at keeping church discipline from seeming weird?

 

They will argue your experience, but share it anyway

share-your-story

A few years ago, a couple friends and I were hanging out with colleagues of ours from the Netherlands. As we enjoyed some chicken wings and soda, one of them asked me, “So how did you get saved?”

I hesitated for a moment, and then told him the short(ish) version: that both my wife and I were attacked by demons, I asked Jesus to save me (which he did), and it all stopped. After what seemed like several minutes of stunned silence, one of my friends said, “And if I didn’t know him, I’d think he was crazy, too.”

This wasn’t the first time that’d happened, either. A couple of years prior to that, back when I used to frequent the message boards of a couple of big name comic book writers, an artist named Alex wanted to hear from people who’d had a conversion experience (he was and is not a believer, to the best of my knowledge). I offered to share what happened, which he was glad to hear about… but then suggested it probably wasn’t actually something supernatural that happened, but sleep paralysis. And then there was the time when… You get the idea, right?

As you can imagine, I have a hard time telling people about how I came to faith. Now, it’s not that I’m ashamed or embarrassed, but because there’s some freaky deaky stuff in there, I’ve come to expect people to back away slowly. And to be honest, it gets a little disheartening when people look at me as though I’ve got two heads and one has spinach in its teeth. And it frustrates me to no end when I see the cavalier attitude with which some charismaniac nitwits brag about such thing because I’ve had experiences that would make them tremble in their biker boots.

Some well-meaning people will tell you that the best tool in your evangelistic arsenal is your testimony—no one can argue it. They can’t tell you that isn’t really what happened… y’know, except for when they do. And make no mistake: they will. But you know what? I still try to tell it, awkwardness and all. Why? Because it’s how God saved me.

The same is true for you. Whether it was a seemingly mundane experience or a terrifying one, how God saved you is how he saved you. You might feel awkward, but you know what? Share it anyway.

Love in the time of clickbait

 

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Nearly three years ago, my wife deleted her Facebook account and hasn’t looked back. She’s now on her second Twitter account, having deleted the first after she found the people she was following were a little too intense (and sure) in their belief that Obama is letting America go to pot so he can declare martial law, thus becoming Barack the First. Now, even though she’s occasionally tempted to pack it all up, she routinely unfollows people when they’re getting consistently cranky.

She is a reluctant social media user. And she is wiser than many of us, I suspect.

Part of the issue for her—and for me, too—is the clickbait we Christians keep shoving at one another. Now, it’s usually not the “Someone ate a sandwich and YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT” all-caps type of nonsense promoted by Buzzfeed and Answers and the like.

No, ours is of a different sort. It’s outrage (and fauxtrage) and open letters and op-eds—some helpful, most not—about everything from a theologically liberal Christian coming out in support of something most people already assumed he supported, or a celebrity who is deeply confused about his identity, or issues that were handled wrongly at one church or another, or blog posts carefully examining every word a pastor has to say, looking for the one thing that could discredit him…

These are the really tempting stories to share because they get attention. (They got your attention, right?) And many of us feel a particular need to bring to light the injustices that happen when church leaders handle situations wrongly or we feel it’s important to shine the light on wolves in sheep’s clothing. And certainly, there are times when this is necessary (so please don’t hear me as saying the sins of churches and their leaders should never be spoken of publicly).

But maybe it’s not a good idea to be sharing these all the time. I wonder if we’re being just a little too liberal with it and not considering its effect on other believers. After all:

  • What does it do to a believer when he or she feeds on a steady diet of stories detailing the faults of church leaders they may not have heard of otherwise?
  • What does constantly being inundated with story after story after story of things they can’t do anything about do?

Now, I again, I don’t want to be so crass as to suggest that sin should remain hidden, for what is hidden will always come to light (as we’ve seen time and again). But is it not helpful for us to consider whether or not what we’re sharing demonstrates love for those who follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or read our blogs? Should our greatest concern be not to point out faults, but to encourage and build up believers in the faith?

Love doesn’t conceal truth, nor does it treat sin lightly. But it also doesn’t leave us wallowing in the muck and mire. And this is what I see lacking in so much of the conversation around so many issues. There are so few pleas to not lose heart. There seem to be no exhortations to think upon whatever is good and true. No appeals to consider what is honorable and just. No pleas to press into what is pure and lovely. No giving thanks for what is commendable and praiseworthy. Of all these Paul instructs us to think on, and yet publicly we spend so much of our time considering the exact opposite.

We speak with so much fire, but seem to do so with so few tears.

Friends, this should not be said of any of us.

Around seven years ago, I was having lunch with my former pastor, and we were talking about my tendency to wield truth as a hammer, smashing falsehood indiscriminately, without considering the collateral damage. My actions and my words were inconsistent with the grace I’d been shown in the gospel. I wasn’t acting out of love for those around me, even when I was right in what I was saying. I wasn’t speaking out of a desire to build others up, but to tear someone down—or more often to build myself up.

And that’s a dangerous place to be. It’s lacking in love. It’s barren of joy. It’s out of step with the Spirit.

My fear is that many of us are saying so much and not paying attention to the effect we’re having on those around us. We are rightly concerned about the piles of dead bodies left by domineering pastors, but we’re not checking to ensure we’re not creating piles of our own in the process.

How healthy is our growth?

healthy-cancer

Any time I hear a pastor speak about church growth—whether in a book, a podcast, or a conference message—I want to cringe. Not because I’m against having a large number of people as part of a congregation, but because congregation size is so often used as a defense: What we’re doing must be working since people are showing up, so God must approve, right?

And yet.

The thing I wonder about among many of these apparently healthy churches—and perhaps it’s just me being me—is how healthy are they, really? And how would you know if the growth experienced is actually beneficial? Based on what I’ve read so far in The Prodigal Church, Jared Wilson shares this concern. He writes:

It is a customary mantra of ministry that healthy things grow. And yet sometimes healthy things shrink. This is certainly true of our bodies, when we’re eating right and exercising. I mean, the formula doesn’t always work in every circumstance. “Healthy things grow” sounds right. But cancer grows too. (40)

Now think about that for a second: healthy things grow—but you really need to qualify what you mean by healthy growth. Are the people attending growing in godliness, or are more people simply showing up? Are more people being invested in so their gifts can flourish, or do they have to look elsewhere in order to exercise their gifts? Are leaders growing more deeply in their love for the people they serve—or are they beginning to hate them?

This is the danger of the unqualified (and unhelpful) mantra of “healthy things grow.”

If having a large number of people show up every week is our primary goal, we will inevitably do whatever it takes to make it happen. And as more people show up, while we might enjoy the high of it, we’ll eventually grow bitter toward some—perhaps many—of them because they don’t give, serve, or contribute to the life of the body in any discernible way.

The thing we want risks becoming the thing we hate.

The body will be ravaged by cancer, and we’ll be hard-pressed to do anything about it.

So what’s the solution? Having people show up on a Sunday isn’t bad, obviously, and if people are legitimately meeting Christ, we should praise God for his use of crooked sticks such as us. But maybe the best place to start, perhaps, we sit among the congregation on Sunday morning or we serve them as our vocation, is to begin asking ourselves not “are we growing”, but “are we growing in the right way”? Is our growth helping us—or is it hindering us?

There isn’t an easy answer to the question—even if that difficulty is merely accepting the truth—but it is worth asking.

You know they’re not in conflict, right?

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It’s probably safe to assume that any time the “religion vs. Jesus” thing comes up, I’m going to wind up annoyed. Some Christian gobbledygook of this persuasion popped up in my Twitter feed the last night, this time on how to use the Bible—find out what it says and follow that, or find out how it points to Jesus and follow him.

Now, before I go any further, I agree with the whole “do vs. done” element of the general argument. And I also firmly believe you should absolutely read the Bible with an eye to how it points to Jesus because he is the one we not merely follow, but worship as God. If you don’t read your Bible this way, you’re not reading it as a Christian (he says, preaching to the choir).

But this whole “follow the Bible” vs “follow Jesus” thing… Can we just not, please?

Let’s be honest, this sort of either/or—either follow what the Bible says or follow Jesus—isn’t really all that helpful. It’s actually kind of dumb. Let’s not forget:

Jesus followed commands in the Bible. Jesus was a devout Jew. Devout Jews kept the Law. Jesus kept the Law perfectly, as no one else did or could.

Jesus gives us commands. It’s true. “Follow me”, and “abide in me” are commands. Not only that, he tells us to pray (and even says “like this”), to love others, to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s… He even says “if you love me, you will obey me.” Those don’t sound like suggestions, do they?

The commands Jesus gives us are in the Bible. At least, that’s where they were the last time I checked. (Yep, still there.)

We are expected to do what we’re told in the Bible. When we read that we are to “love your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself”, it’s not a suggestion. It’s an imperative, which means we are to do it. Repent and believe? Yep, that’s another one we are expected to do. Make disciples? That one too. Submit to one another out of love for Christ? Ditto. Have nothing to do with false gods? You know it. These are things we are to do, as obeying the commands of God1 is evidence of our love for Christ.

Pitting Jesus against the Bible comes across like a kid trying to pit mom and dad against one another. The only one it’s going to go badly for is the kid.

So, yeah.

If we could never do that again, that would be super.