Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Painful Success of Evangelicalism

John Wimber once wrote,

Evangelicals emphasize accumulating knowledge about God through Bible study—specifically the grammatical-historical study of Scripture. This is the foremost, if not the exclusive, method of training among Western evangelicals today, especially in our seminaries. The grammatical-historical method employs history, linguistics and historical theology to discover what Scripture meant to its first-century audience (Power Evangelism, 186).

To his credit, Wimber sees value in this method, going on to write that "what God intended to say to first-century Christians is what he intends for us as well." But something is missing if training—i.e. discipleship—consists of merely learning how to study the Bible well. And I think it may be one of the reasons that even otherwise committed Christians are walking away from the church.

On the one hand, I think we know, deep down, there's more to walking with God than being able to find Haggai really quickly in a sword drill or being able to spot a chiasmus in a New Testament Epistle without too much trouble. We want to connect with God—to talk with Him and hear from Him, to live life with Him everyday, no matter what's going on in our world. And too often church doesn't help with that. Honestly, for many of us, it can be hard to make the connection between time spent in an auditorium, singing and listening, and an infectious, vibrant relationship with God.

And on the other hand, if discipleship is mostly about learning the Bible, there are much better ways to do it than attending church. A Christian can binge-watch his favorite Bible teachers on YouTube, read books on any biblical subject he can think of, and set his iPhone to automatically download podcasts that interest him. If he's really motivated, attending Bible classes at a Christian college or seminary, in person or online, will help him in his study of Scripture much more than any Sunday sermon series at his local church ever could.

I'm afraid that by emphasizing the grammatical-historical method of discipleship, as John Wimber put it, we evangelicals have unknowingly made church obsolete. The local church is not the best place to study the Bible; it's certainly not the most convenient. And since studying the Bible really isn't all there is to following Christ, church—at least in its current evangelical makeup—undoubtedly falls short.

What about worship and community? Church provides those, too, right? Again, I can't help but wonder if a church service on a Sunday morning is really the best place to experience those things. With its emphasis on a personal worship experience amidst a concert-like atmosphere, the mixed message of church can't compete with private times alone with the Lord. And as far as authentic community goes, it can be frustrating to try and foster that in one hour—or two if you count Wednesday nights—per week. It's often much easier and more practical to develop Christian friendships in our neighborhoods or workplaces.

Could it be that the reason church attendance is down and young people (especially) are leaving the church in droves is that American evangelicalism has been so successful, it's made church itself just about obsolete? Those things we value most—worship, community, and especially Bible study—can all be found outside of the local church in large part because of the ministry of other evangelicals.

But what if church isn't really supposed to be about acquiring Bible knowledge—or even about worship or community? What if church is supposed to look more like Jesus' ministry? The disciples who followed Jesus certainly learned to understand the Scriptures in a much deeper way (Luke 24:45). They also had intimate and passionate times of worship (Matthew 14:33). And of course they had community. But more importantly, they were on a mission. They participated in Jesus' declaration that the kingdom had come—through miracles and teaching. And after Jesus ascended to the Father, they didn't stop. In fact, their mission only intensified.

Imagine the fire in the eyes of men and women who have just returned from a short-term mission trip to South America or Africa. There is just something about following Jesus to a foreign land and trusting Him in the work He has put there for you to do. Now imagine that fire in the eyes of everyone at church, every week.

I'll bet if church were like that—accompanying Jesus on his mission, risking it all for the kingdom—church attendance wouldn't be an issue. It wouldn't even be questioned.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

When Mars Hill Was Leveled

Sitting on my bookshelf is an autographed copy of Mark Driscoll's book (written with his wife Grace), Real Marriage. I won it a couple of years ago for tweeting the best caption to a photo posted to Driscoll's Twitter feed. (Don't ask me what the picture or my caption were; I don't remember.)

Real Marriage is the book that came under fire after it was revealed that Mars Hill Church paid a firm to get the title on The New York Times' bestseller list. And that scandal came shortly after it was discovered that Driscoll had plagiarized portions of A Call to Resurgence. There were also lots of Mars Hill staff complaints about Driscoll's behavior, and someone uncovered years' old filthy and profane chatroom comments made under Driscoll's handle, "William Wallace II."

Monday, September 8, 2014

More Than a Chicken Sandwich

S. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, passed away early this morning. I never knew the man, but I know his sandwich. And I am a fan.

Much has been said today about Truett's life's accomplishments, his character, his faith, and all the lives he touched through his generous spirit. And of course, various news outlets brought up the controversy over Chick-fil-A's support for traditional marriage. But regardless of what you think about that issue or about my favorite Chicken sandwich (I take mine with extra pickles and Chick-fil-A sauce), Truett Cathy was able to do something in life that many Christians aspire to do but few achieve. 

We see it often in Christian music. Some artists believe their music is their mission: that the songs they write should only be for worship or evangelism. Others shout that they are musicians and songwriters who happen to be Christians. They want to write and sing about everything—and don't want to be put in a box. 

But what if there's a third way? What if there were a way to be a musician or a lawyer or a teacher or a writer . . . or a restaurant owner who happens to be a Christian AND be the best in your field AND use what you do to influence culture and share Jesus with others? 

That was Truett Cathy. He ran his company the way he thought Jesus might—at least as best as he could figure from a lifetime spent following Him. And everyone who bumped into Truett or Chick-fil-A was confronted with his Christian worldview. Wherever he set up shop, he shined a light into the darkness—not an obnoxious, overbearing light, but a warm, soft, beckoning light (that may or not be warming waffle fries). 

I think Russell Moore said it well today: "The 'closed on Sundays' sign on his store is a countercultural statement that man does not live by bread alone, and there is more to life than a bottom line."

Rest in peace, Mr. Cathy. Tonight, we eat Chick-fil-A in your memory.

Friday, August 29, 2014

What Jesus Might Have Done in Ferguson

I will freely admit that I treat politics like hugs. I only share mine with people I trust and in appropriate social situations. But I read something this morning that caught my eye on Barnabas Piper's blog. In a post entitled, "Why White Christians Should Care About Ferguson," he made this statement:

No one culture is better and no one culture is worse, though we are inclined to think of our own as the best and overlook its flaws.

This sounds reasonable and gracious, and when I first read it, it smelled like truth to me. But then I stumbled over this thought when I considered another news story: the slaughter of religious minorities in the Middle East by ISIS (or ISIL or The Islamic State or whatever they're going by this week). Regardless of where one lands on the question of Islam's supposed virtues, can we not all agree that the strand of jihadism that spawned ISIS is a culture, and one that is not as good as others? A worldview that would allow for the beheading of innocent children and journalists, the rape of mothers and wives, and the systematic extermination of anyone who will not join their cause is not neutral, and it's not just as good as any other. It's evil.

I'm certainly not comparing the looting and sometimes violent protests in Ferguson with ISIS. Conversely, I'm also not suggesting that if it turns out that Darren Wilson did, in fact, use deadly force without proper justification, it'd be akin to genocide. I'm merely holding out ISIS as an extreme example that disproves Barnabas Piper's thesis, though I actually didn't have to. Piper disproves his own statement about all cultures being equal in the two sentences that preceded it:

Our respective cultures all reflect His [God's] creativity and character. But we all also bear the stains of sin.

I respect Barnabas Piper, and nothing in this post is meant to be a jab at him, but culture is a human invention. And just like everything else we touch, there is a mix of goodness (reflecting the fact that we were created in God's image) and brokenness (because we are fallen creatures). But this does not mean that these characteristics are always doled out in equal measure. Some values reflect more of God's goodness than others, and some are so anemic in their reflective power that they're more or less worthless. This is the case with a group like ISIS. I'm sure if we looked really hard, we'd find something in that worldview that shines with truth and beauty, but I don't think it'd be possible to find enough of that glimmer to make such a culture tolerable.

But once again I've wandered away from Ferguson into the Middle East. And so, let's get back to the heartland. As I've listened to the gaggle of Christian voices speaking in defense of Mike Brown or in defense of Officer Wilson, one thing has struck me: Though we might not always put it this way, in one form or another, we're picking sides for Jesus. We're asking what He would do. We're looking for the thread of justice—what should have happened, and by extension, what should happen now. And that means we're appealing to the only One who is truly just, Jesus Christ.

In my mind's eye, when I put Jesus on that street with that police cruiser and those two black teenagers, I don't see Him on the side of the cops, but I also don't see Him fighting the law either. I have no magic powers. Like everyone else who heard of the shooting from Fox News or CNN, I don't know exactly what happened on August 9th. I can only hope that the civil authorities and our court system will be able to determine the facts and dispense justice accordingly.

But from what I know about Jesus, here's what I think He would have done: I think the Son of God would have walked over to Michael Brown's body with tears in His eyes, and as He looked down on the young man who reflects His Father's image lying there in the street, I think He would have called Him back to life from the dead, like He did with Lazarus, with Jairus' daughter, and with the widow of Nain's son. In God's kingdom, death does not have the final say.

And then I think Jesus would have turned around to view the police officer holding the smoking gun, no less beloved of His Father. I think Jesus would have walked over, placed His hand on Darren Wilson's fractured eye socket, and healed him, just as He did with the ear of Malchus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And I imagine that after meeting Jesus, neither Officer Wilson nor Michael Brown would ever be the same again. I imagine they would have left that blood-stained street committed followers of Jesus Christ . . . and brothers. I don't think either would be concerned with the other's race ever again.

Jesus didn't come to tell us who is right and who is wrong. We see this time and time again in the Gospels when He refuses to condemn the Romans in favor of the Jews. He didn't come to get involved in the culture wars. He came and died for people of all cultures—ignorant folks and the well-informed, men who would rob a shoe store in protest and those who would fire tear gas into crowds, cops and robbers, black and white. He even came for folks who would seek to join ISIS. The point is not which culture is right and which is wrong. Cultures are not equal, to be sure. They're all broken. None of them have everything right. That's why we're supposed to be seeking the kingdom of God—and we ought to celebrate whenever we stumble upon something that reflects the kingdom's values, no matter what culture we come from. I think if we did that, we'd find much more common ground.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What No One Tells You About Becoming a Dad

At 9:01 p.m. on July 9, I became a dad. Since then, I've been doing on-the-job training. I think God makes babies adorable to make this training more bearable. Honestly, some days are a joy, and just as honestly, other days are hard . . . really, really hard. Some nights, Laurin and I are amazed at his ability to sleep for so many hours in a row, and other nights, we argue over whose turn it is to try to soothe the beast and stem the screaming.

But I've learned something from this new chapter of life. That's not to say I've got everything figured out—or anything figured out. Mostly, what I've learned are the things no one tells you about having a baby.

1) When a baby is born, his stomach is full—really full—from being in utero. That means that for the first 24 to 48 hours, new parents get to think they have the most well-adjusted, content baby on the planet. They are also free to think about every other parent they know and feel superior. I remember Jonah just lying there in his hospital-issued bassinet looking out at us without making a sound. My baby is definitely cooler than all those other babies in the nursery. Then, of course, those hours of feeling full dwindle, and the baby experiences his first real discomfort: hunger.

I am now proud of my baby's incredible, almost supernatural, lung capacity.

2) Babies steal. I know you wouldn't think so because of their soft, squishy exterior and their sweet doe eyes, but babies are the biggest ripoff artists ever. The first time I held Jonah, he stole my heart. Now, I am irrevocably attached to the little guy. I love him more than I could have imagined. As a result, I can't bear the thought of any harm coming to him. It's so bad that I think it's ruined me for any television shows or movies where children are harmed or put in danger. We've had a long run, Law & Order: SVU. I will miss that *dum-dum* sound you make between scenes.

3) Having a child fills parents with fear for the future, and also with hope. For as long as I can remember, I've always said I wanted to save a newspaper from the day each of my children are born. I think it's because of that song "Levon" by Elton John. Anyway, on the day Laurin went into labor, I asked my brother James to pick up a paper. He kindly picked up an Atlanta Journal-Constitution, our local paper, and a copy of The New York Times. The New York Times has a picture of an explosion on the front page: Israel and Hamas had just begun fighting. The AJC has details about the VA scandal. Both papers featur an article about the crisis on the border. I'm sorry, Jonah, but there were a lot of bad headlines on the day you were born. There still are.

I am afraid of the kind of world that Jonah will inherit. Will there be much of it left? And I wonder what America will be like during his teenage years. It almost certainly will not resemble the country I grew up in.

At the same time, Jonah is a blank page, innocent and new, and he has been sewn together by a loving heavenly Father for just this moment in history. He may be one of the people God uses to bring about good in this world. He will undoubtedly get to see things in his lifetime that I have only dreamed of. He can really be anything he wants—or more hopefully, anything God wants. And that thought fills me with excitement.

Nobody tells you these things before you have a kid—and it's probably because you wouldn't believe them if they did. Oh, and the poop. There's so much poop.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Lazy Age of Christian Publishing?

A few weeks ago, Philip Yancey lamented on his blog about the death of the "golden age" of Christian publishing. Changes in the publishing world mean that authors typically receive less for their work and that anyone who wants to become an "author" can simply self-publish. This has flooded the online market with more books than ever but with fewer gatekeepers to ensure any measure of quality.

And earlier this week, Karen E. Yates, a guest writer over at Her.Meneutics, offered another perspective—one that was a little more upbeat. While Yancey bemoaned the fact that today authors are pressed to build their platforms rather than focus on their writing, Yates argues that this is not such a bad thing and highlights all the positive outcomes of having a tribe. And she says that self-publishing doesn't just flood the market; it also gives a voice to books that might not otherwise see the light of day, citing The Shack as an example.

After reading both pieces, I can't help but see things more like Yancey does than Yates. The changes in the publishing industry, while probably inevitable, are not necessarily good. When the music industry went through its digital revolution, there was a place to land when the floor fell out from beneath singers and songwriters. Artists can make money from tours and their back catalogue if the perceived value of their albums is little or nothing. In fact, as has shown time and time again, giving away a recording could be the best thing to generate new fans. But in the publishing world, the book is all there is. Authors don't go on tour to perform their books (book tours are only promotional). The book is their revenue stream.

Earlier this year, I went to a writer's conference with some colleagues from the ministry where I work and was saddened to learn that many of the authors presenting that week had to hold down other full-time day jobs. I left feeling mighty blessed to call myself a full-time writer and editor. Still, the changing shape of the publishing landscape suggests that people will not be willing to pay what they once did for a book—even a hard copy—since ebooks and online reading have given us a taste for free and cheap books. It makes my dream of someday being a full-time author harder than ever to achieve.

More disturbing is a trend that both Yancey and Yates hinted at. Christian publishers are less willing these days to take a chance on an unknown. Many would rather publish something unnecessary or sub-par that will sell than something refreshing and insightful that comes from someone without an established platform. In other words, if Rick Warren took to writing poetry for use in the bathroom, he would be more likely to find himself a lucrative publishing deal with a well-known publisher than Ann Voskamp would had she written her notes of thankfulness in her journal rather than her blog. Publishers, by and large, are looking past authors to their tribe—the book is even less important.

But there's self-publishing, right? All voices can now be heard even if publishers fail to see a diamond in the rough, can't they? While self-publshing can be a great option for established authors or for niche projects, the influx of books is crowding the market. A new author who convinces a traditional publisher that their book is worth publishing now faces a tremendous fight to be noticed among the thousands of titles newly available on Amazon every day. Many consumers are not savvy enough to recognize a self-published book, so the result is the cheapening of the word "author." (I recently filled a writer position on my team, and I cannot tell you how many people listed their first credential on their résumé as "author." But with the exception of one or two, every one was self-published. Anyone with a word-processing program and a few hundred dollars can add the same honor to their C.V.)

In this new world, it seems to me, we've lost the role of publishers. They were supposed to be the gatekeepers, ensuring that books making it through their stringent weeding-out process were worth a person's time. But now, it's more about the platform than the book. And we've lost the role of author. Anyone can become one, so no one can be one—or at least it's much harder to make a living at it. In the end, readers might get more and cheaper books, but there will undoubtedly be fewer great reads in the mix.

As a writer, I am faced with the choice every day to spend my time building my tribe or working on my writing. I choose to write—for magazines I'm a part of, for work, for special projects, and yes, sometimes for this blog. But I'm focused on the writing because that's what I love. If I ever have a "tribe," it will be fun to bounce ideas off of my peeps and get instant feedback. But the tribe itself can never replace finding something worth saying.

I have worked with a few different book publishers in a variety of capacities. My last book was published by a small and very targeted publisher, but they chose to publish my book—one of only six they published last year. Knowing that my story was something someone else was willing to take a risk on (especially given the subject) mattered so much to me. I have a new project in the works (more on that later), but it's with another traditional publisher—and again, it means the world to me to know that they think my writing is worth their time and investment. And it's so much fun working with people who want to help me produce something worthwhile, something that will bless others and maybe even challenge them.

I may have missed out on Yancey's "golden age," but I hope there's still room in this new world for those of us who mourn its passing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Essence of a Thing: A Word About Gordon College

Hebrew thought has more to do with what a thing is for—its essence—rather than with how a thing works. 

It was in Dr. Marvin Wilson's Old Testament survey course that I first heard this idea expressed. It was during a lecture on the difficulties we, as modern, enlightenment-conditioned men and women, have when we read the creation account in Genesis. We want to know how creation happened. Was there a big bang? Did it take millions or billions of years? Did God use some form of evolution to bring the natural world into being as we have it today? How is it possible that there were trees planted on day three but the sun was not in the sky until day four? 

But these are not the questions that the ancient Hebrew mind would ask—at least not primarily. For the Israelite hearing Moses' account of the six days of creation, what would have resonated would have been the power of God, the original goodness of this world, and the place God has given mankind. These elements speak to the nature of our God and this universe, and they are what make the creation story in the Bible different than the competing creation accounts in the ancient Near East. The mechanics of how things happened matter little as the listener gains insight into the story he is living and feels a connection with his world and with his Creator. 

That Old Testament course was taken during my sophomore year at Gordon College. Though I know some people have mixed feelings about their college experience, I loved every minute of mine. Four years was far too short a time to spend in such a wonderful place. That is not to say that Gordon College was perfect or that I was so naïve that I didn't see the moments of brokenness. I just latched on to the essence of the thing: Gordon College was—and is—a good place. 

Since graduating, it's been fun to see my alma mater pop up in the news or in pop culture now and again. A number of years ago, a Gordon College talent show performance became a YouTube sensation. A fellow alumnus, Pete Holmes, found success on late night TV. And even the handicapped parking signs in NYC now have a Gordon connection. 

But in the last few weeks, Gordon College has been in the news for another reason. College President D. Michael Lindsay attached his signature to a letter asking President Obama for a religious freedom exemption to an executive order the president has promised will be coming soon. The order would ban organizations from receiving federal contracts if they hold discriminatory hiring practices affecting gays and lesbians.

Discrimination is an ugly word, almost so weighty that its very use implies wrongdoing on the part of the person its levied against. But discrimination is not always bad. The kind of discrimination Lindsay asked President Obama to allow is the kind that makes Gordon College special. Of course, Gordon is not special because there is no LGBT presence on campus (that's not even true, anyway). Gordon is special because, since its founding in the basement of Clarendon Street Church in Boston, it's been a community set apart to nurture Christian faith. Gordon's motto has long been "Academic Freedom Within a Framework of Faith." And one of the ways this freedom-framework balance is maintained is through its Life and Conduct Statement, which all students and faculty agree to live by. As a Christian college in the evangelical tradition, it should be shocking to no one that, regardless of sexual identity, sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage are prohibited. 

Think what you will about Gordon's policies or about the issues surrounding the morality of homosexual practice. No one is forced to study or work at Gordon College; each of us is free to choose whether or not we even want to be a part of such a community. For those who say Gordon should forego access to federal funding, like grants and the student loan program, I wonder if you would feel the same way if the president of the United States were a conservative and the situation were reversed. In other words, if an executive order requiring colleges that receive federal contracts to hire creation scientists. Folks at liberal universities across the land would be up in arms (that is, if they believed in the second amendment right to bear them). It sounds ridiculous, right? Obama's proposed executive order is ridiculous, too. 

At stake here is nothing short of American religious freedom. If we no longer have the recognized right to set ourselves apart in distinctive communities for the pursuit of academic freedom and the practice of faith, we will have lost one of the greatest blessings God has bestowed upon America. When it comes to Gordon College, the essence of the thing is good, and it's worth preserving just as it is.