The Meta-Politics of the Kingdom

We live in a time when Christians are struggling, perhaps like never before, with how to engage the world – the culture, the politics, society as a whole.  Are we to stand against the culture or be relevant to it?  Are we to engage politically or abstain?  What does faithfulness look like today?

Recently,  James Davison Hunter gave our modern Christian engagement a to change the worldscathing critique in To Change The World (Oxford Press, 2010).  He makes a strong argument that the way believers of all stripes – Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Neo-Anabaptists, and the rest – have engaged the broader American culture has been to the detriment of both the culture and the Christian message.  Consider these simple questions: When the average American thinks of a Christian, is it positively or negatively?  Are Christians generally considered loving or something less than loving?  Are disciples of Christ models in our society to be followed or not?

While it is certainly true that the values of the world do not always align with the values of Christ, and therefore being esteemed by the world is not the highest value, there is something to be said for having a good reputation among the citizens of this world (1 Peter 2.12).  W1-Peter-2.12hat has happened to the view of the Church in such a short period of time that an institution that once was seen as a good place to send your kids (even if you personally wanted nothing to do with it) is now seen by many as the primary promulgator of bigotry, racism, homophobia, and general falsehood in our world today?  Whether people are wrong in there assessment is basically irrelevant.  The question at hand is, “WHY?”.

The answer lies somewhere in our inability to speak truth in the world without losing our voice of love (Ephesians 4:15).  It lies somewhere in our inability to engage the world without becoming inextricably linked to the world’s systems and ideologies.  We have put our hope in political parties (varying, depending on the era and which branch of the Church you identify with), in passing certain laws (again, varying depending upon which church you worship in), and public figures/celebrities.

While these problems are real, the alternative sometimes posed is to remain apolitical.  If political engagement is creating as many problems as its solving (is it really solving any of them?) why not simply disengage?  But the Gospel does not allow Christians to be apolitical because the Gospel is about the kingdom of God.  Like any kingdom, this one has political realities attached to it.  When Jesus paid his tax to Caesar, that was a political act of obedience (Mark 12:17).  When the disciples spoke about following God instead of following the Sanhedrin, that was a political act of rebellion (Acts 5:29).  Whether you acquiesce or rebel, your actions will have a political element.

Not only is it impossible to be apolitical, it would not be allowed if it were possible.  Each believer is a citizen of the kingdom of God, a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20).  We are also ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20).  As such, we are called to engage this political reality with the political reality of the Kingdom.  This isn’t politics as usual.  Nor is it apolitical.  This is a meta-politic.

religion_politics

Is there really no right way to turn in this highly charged political season?

I’m using the term meta-politics not for the political discourse about politics, but rather as the politics from above – the politics that rise above the politics of the earthly kingdoms precisely because they are the politics of heaven.  This is not some “middle way” or balanced approach that blends the Democratic and Republican platforms.  This is a Kingdom way that obliterates these platforms because they are not only wrong on so many particulars, but they are wrong in their very attempts to wield earthly power outside of the authority of God.  Because of this difference, even when the political parties get the details right, they still mess it up.

Of course, we know that this side of heaven, human institutions will always fail in this regard.  As believers, we must set our expectations properly.  There is no reason for us to believe that the politics of the world will ever correct all our problems.  However, there are degrees of distance from God’s best for us.  As Christians, we do well to search for ways to engage the systems of the world without becoming entangled in them.  This is the beginning of a meta-politic. This is the beginning of being the kind of ambassadors that, even when taking positions that the world hates, the world nevertheless must acknowledge our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven.

I will be exploring what it would look like for believers to engage the world – politics, culture, our neighbors – in such a way that Christ is glorified, that actually makes things better instead of worse, and that allows us to have a good feeling when it’s all over.  I’m convinced that the politics of the Kingdom is the place to start.  Please join with me and share your thoughts below.

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Quiet Revival

Have you heard of the Quiet Revival?  Of course not!  …it’s quiet.

New England is famous for a fewQuiet Revival things.  The Red Sox, clam chowdah, and being a graveyard for church leaders. The statistics can, indeed, be grim.  Until recently, 85% of church plants failed, according to the North American Mission Board (that’s Southern Baptist for all y’all below the Mason-Dixon line out there).  According to Pew Forum, only 11% of New Englanders identify as Evangelical.  The Barna Group determined that the 5 least religious states in America are all in New England.

But this is not the full story.  According to research done by the Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC), a Boston based research and community organization, the number of churches in Boston has doubled since 1965.  The number of people attending a church has gone from 3% of the city to 14% of the city.  In addition, according to Jeff Bass of EGC, there is a growing unity observed among the churches, and increase in prayer movements, a maturing of church systems, and an increase in the development of church leaders.

So how has all of this gone unnoticed?

1) There has been a dramatic move among immigrants and minority populations.  It is not uncommon for a pastor in a town to claim that there are only 6 churches in town, when in fact there are 13.  The pastor, unintentionally, is overlooking the numerous churches in strip malls and storefronts, or meeting in another church’s facilities, run by Filipinos or Hondurans or Brazilians.  Too often, the people counting churches don’t see what they’re not looking for.  At last count, there were 32 languages represented in the churches of Boston alone.

2) Old churches that were dying are coming back to life.  My church is 171 years old, and we’re the new kids.  The oldest church in my town was founded 138 years before the United States became a nation.  Many pastors are choosing to invest in the revitalization of the historic New England churches.  These churches, once large, dwindled to a shell of their former selves (often down to attendance figures in the teens), usually as a result of abandoning the Gospel and the authority of Scripture – I am simplifying but that is the core of it.  With tremendous effort and long-suffering faithfulness many of these churches are growing again, often to the chagrin of their denominational leaders.  The churches who have not returned to the Gospel are still dying at a steady clip.

3) Churches are being planted.  But unlike in other areas of the country, these church plants are not flashy.  They tend not to grow explosively, but rather methodically.  Due to the restrictions on space (a high commodity in the densely developed New England states), most church plants reach a few hundred attendees before they multiply locations.  This keeps any single church from reaching the numbers of a mega-church; they never reach the numbers that attract national attention.

There are no Saddleback churches here.  There are no Northpoints here.  There are no world-famous preachers in Boston or Hartford or Portland (no, not that other one – think Maine).  The revival is happening among small churches, often obscured by a foreign language, an old building, or a small beginning.

Things are looking up, but the work has only begun.  In my town of 25,000 people, only about 4% are attending a church on any given weekend, as best I can discern. Of those, fewer attend a church that regularly teaches the Scripture and clearly declares the Gospel.  Jesus’ words have never been more true.

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.

Please pray for the Lord to send more workers for the harvest.

Aren’t All Religions the Same?

I love to read about different religions.  I’m intrigued by the various beliefs and practices that can be found in the world around us.  I have spent countless hours discussing religion with people from different faith backgrounds.  I have studied the major world religions in both a secular university and in my own formal religious education.  That being said, I am no expert on religion, so if what I’m about to share seems off to you, please let me know.

We all hear, whenever the topic comes up in mixed company, someone say that all religions are basically the same.  All religions have prescribed moralities and rituals that mark those off who are adherents from those who are not.  Some even argue that the basic moral structures of all religions are the same.  The underlying assertion is that Christianity is no more “right” than any other religion, or perhaps equally wrong.  The statement usually follows that all religions lead to heaven or that all fail to do so (usually, it is argued, because there is no heaven).

May I politely say that this is a load of bunk?

Nirvana is not heaven, but rather the state of extinguishing desire, urge, thought, and the cycle of rebirth.

Let’s ignore for a moment that some religions deny any form of heaven.  The goal of Buddhism is Nirvana, which is an escape from all desire.  It is not a place, but a state marked by total peace which usually includes the idea of cessation from thought, movement, and action.  In Hinduism, Nirvana is the result of reaching moksha, which as I understand it means the loss of ego, or self, into the all encompassing reality of Brahma. Brahma is not a personal God, but a divine essence of peace and stillness.  Nirvana is the release from the cycle of life and death we call reincarnation into the oblivion of nothingness where self is eradicated and only an ideal of peace remains.  I may be misstating some details, but you get my point.

Let’s ignore for a moment that religions do not paint the same picture of God.  Polytheists worship many gods, whole monotheists only worship one God.  Buddhists don’t really worship a god at all.  Neither do many spiritists.  No two religions seem to agree on who God is (if there is one), how we relate to him (or her), or what this god wants from us.

Let’s ignore for a moment that religions often require conflicting moralities, and therefore cannot be the same.  Many religions we call occultist require human sacrifice and death to appease the gods or spirits while other religions forbid this.  Some religions require the purging of the unbelieving by trial and death – I concede that many religious followers have undertaken this practice, but some do so in defiance to the teachings of their religion where others do it out of the requirements of their religious teachings – while other religions place no expectations on non-adherents.  Some religions require idols while others forbid them.  The list goes on and on.

But the single most striking difference you can find among religions is this –

All religions teach their adherents how to live in order to reach a higher state EXCEPT ONE!

From everything I’ve ever heard or ever read or ever experienced, every religion in the history of the world has been designed to instruct humans in how to act so that they can achieve some desired outcome or existence except Christianity.

  • Muslims have the 5 Pillars of belief, practice, and sacrifice to earn the righteous a spot in Paradise.
  • Buddhism has the Noble Eightfold Path which leads the faithful through changes in attitude, action, and finally thought life to a place of enlightenment.
  • Hinduism has its rituals and practices that will bring the lucky few to an escape from the never-ending cycle of life.
  • Paganism (I use the term loosely) has sacrifices and rituals to attain power and connect with the spiritual realm, whether a pantheon or animistic in nature.
  • The list goes on an on…

Only one religion places the hope for an individual’s future on God instead of the person.

All these religions assume that people can work hard enough to gain their deepest desire. In contrast to all this, Christianity stands alone as the religion that denies the possibility that men and women can work hard enough to attain that which they desire.  It is the only religion that proclaims the work has been done on our behalf.  Christianity alone makes the scandalizing assertion that we are all utterly incapable of becoming righteous, so God, in love, became our righteousness for us.  

The hero of Christianity is the Christ, named Jesus.  Jesus is God who became human (not an avatar, a god who simply appears in the flesh).  He lived a perfectly righteous life, meeting all the requirements that we have failed to live up to.  In his death he took all the punishment due us for our wicked and evil actions, thoughts, and motivations – our very rebellion against God.  In his resurrection he defeated death and sin, creating a way for us to have eternal life and to finally attain to the righteousness required by God.  In his current role, he empowers the faithful and intercedes on their behalf as they continue to fall short of his requirements.

You may not believe that these claims are true.  You may reject them.  You may decide that Jesus isn’t real or that he didn’t do what the Bible says he did.  But you cannot say that Christianity is like all the other religions in the world.  It is categorically different.  It is operating from an entirely different point of reference.  It alone places the hope of humanity on the person of Jesus as opposed to the human hoping.

 

Is Our View of Grace Ruining Evangelism?

In Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God, he makes the observation that Jesus and the church get almost opposite results when engaging people.

When Jesus walked the earth, he had a consistent response from people.  Those who were not religious, who rejected the prevailing attitudes of faithfulness and morality, jesus_friend_of_sinnerswho were obviously sinful – those people were drawn to Jesus in droves.  They found Jesus attractive.  He was the rabbi who spent so much time with prostitutes, tax collectors, and drunks that he was called a friend of sinners.  In contrast, the religious people, those who kept the law, those who were conservative and buttoned up – these people hated Jesus and wanted nothing to do with him.  He repulsed them.

The Church, by and large today, has a consistent response from people.  Those who are religious, moral, and conservative are drawn to the church.  They find it attractive. In contrast, those who are not religious, who reject prevailing attitudes of morality, and who are obviously sinful hate the Church and want nothing to do with it.  They are repulsed by the Church.

Keller states it simply.

If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. (pp.18-19)

Keller’s argument, and I agree, is that we (by and large) do not preach and live the kind of radical grace that Jesus did. That kind of grace is the kind that makes moral people nervous.  It’s the kind that get’s people thrown out of the inner circles of religious power.  Of course, that is not what we should be shooting for, but if our understanding – our very living of grace – never raises eyebrows, we’re probably doing it wrong.

And while this was not new for me, the following thought was – Our belief in grace (or rather our lack of belief in grace) is seriously jeopardizing our Gospel mandate.  It isn’t primarily apologetics that is failing us.  It isn’t primarily the sin of Christians that hinders us.  It isn’t that we do not know how to communicate effectively in our culture anymore.  The problem is that all too often we settle for a grace look-alike that feels comfortable and looks good on the outside, but lacks the power to transform our lives and our communities.

Does this resonate?  I’d like to start a conversation about whether this diagnosis is accurate and what the cure would look like.  I’d like to talk about how more faithfully living the Gospel will attract the kind of people that Jesus attracted.  You know…the sinners.

Ministry of Service – Beauty for Ashes

Last week our church held our Third Annual Beauty for Ashes Women’s Conference. Let me first say that our ladies did an amazing job planning this event.  All the work and attention to detail paid off as many people shared that this was the best one we’ve done to date.  Also, our men served at the conference so that the the women could simply enjoy the day and not have to work on anything other than the primary ministry taking place.

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Beauty For Ashes Conference

This year the theme was freedom.Through worship and teaching, the goal was to encourage women to walk fully in the freedom that Christ offers.  But not only this, each person attending was challenged to usher others into freedom.  One of the speakers works with teenagers in the juvenile detention system and shared about the purposes of God to set free the captives and minister to the brokenhearted.

 

This is the essence of incarnational ministry.  Like Jesus, we are called to step into people’s lives and become agents of change for the glory of God.  This is one thing I love about our women’s conference.  The focus is always on receiving a blessing for yourself and then looking to see whom you can share that blessing with. Far too often in Christian circles we believe that we come to events or special services simply to “recharge” or get encouraged.  But to what end?  Why do we need to be recharged?  What are we getting encouraged to do?  The answer is that we need to be charged up and encouraged to go out into the world and serve our King by serving people.

Beauty For Ashes

Beauty For Ashes Conference

This leads to why I’m writing this post.

For the first time, Beauty for Ashes is becoming more than a one-day conference.  The ministry is expanding to bring relational service to the women of our community.  Relational service is the foundation of Christian ministry.  Christian ministry, at its heart, is not about large speaking engagements or curricula that people purchase and work through.  It isn’t primarily about teaching or even worshiping together. These are all important, but they are all intended to be in service to the work done by individuals caring for other individuals. Jesus modeled this.  He spoke to crowds, but he always came up to hurting people to touch them, speak to them, honor them, and (more than anything) relate to them. The power of the Gospel can certainly impact communities and groups, but this is possible because it impacts individuals who make up those groups.

I’m not suggesting that we think of our faith in individualistic terms.  Far from it. Relational service is all about community.  As the phrase implies, it is build on relationships.  We have for far too long in the Western Church overlooked community to reach individuals.  This is what TV preaching and mass media ministry rely on. And they serve their purposes.  But at some point, for a person to become a faithful disciple, the Gospel needs to hit home locally.  It needs to come in the context of a community or communities.  It comes to families and neighborhoods, towns and cities.

The second aspect is the focus on service.  Jesus claimed to have come to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20.28).  Yet our ministry models today often minimize the aspect of service.  This is partly due to a generation which pulled away from a strong proclamation of the Gospel in favor of good works.  These churches and ministries concluded that to reach the modern world the church needed to downplay miracles, personal sin, and the deity of Christ.  As long as churches would serve the poor and support what became known as the Social Gospel, it was believed, the ministry would prosper.  As a backlash to this movement, many Christians who are committed to the traditional Christian truth claims have a distrust for social work and serving the poor.

However, the same Bible that teaches us that Jesus is Lord also teaches us that we are commanded to serve the least, the last, and the lost.  This same Bible asks us what good it is to tell a hungry man to be blessed, but then refuse to give him food (James 2.14-17).  It is often in serving individuals in need that doors are opened to share the Gospel.  By serving those are hurting, we have the opportunity to expose those individuals to the God who can meet their greatest needs and fulfill their deepest longings.

So now Beauty for Ashes is more than a conference.  It is a means of engaging women in service to individuals in our community.  It will mean feeding people.  It will mean befriending people.  It will mean providing resources for people.  It will mean good ol’ fashioned helping.  In this, the Gospel will be present and the Spirit of God will be working.  Our hope is that women will receive freedom for themselves and then be encouraged to share it with others.  We expect to see lives transformed.  You know, like Jesus did.

How Social Media Kills Context

I love technology.  I love the internet.  I am very attracted to social media (read: possibly addicted…like everyone else I know).  But technology and media are not neutral.  They have both positive and negative impacts on the world we live in, and impact how we engage that world.

One challenge of social media and the information rich era in which we live is that  context is virtually destroyed (and yes, that is a pun).

Context-is-king

Rule #1 of biblical interpretation.

Every good preacher and teacher of the Bible knows that context is king. When trying to interpret a verse of Scripture, it can only mean what the context allows it to mean. This is pretty much a mantra in many Christian circles.  But are we as careful about context on the other side?

The job of the preacher and teacher is not simply to understand the Bible.  The goal is not merely to interpret the meaning from the text.  It is also the job of the teacher to interpret the meaning back into the context of the listener.  In other words, we have to share that message in words that people can understand, in illustrations that they can relate to, and in images that they can receive.

So what does this have to do with social media?

Social media, and the information era, have made things near and far equally immediate.  There is some good in this.  I can read about or see images of situations that are happening on the other side of the globe almost in real time.  This access to information can enable us to respond positively and beautifully to needs and concerns that we might otherwise have been blind to.

But the other side of this is that we have the ability to speak into circumstances that we don’t understand, or react in ways that might make sense in our context but that provoke unexpected and undesirable responses in other contexts.  Not only do we have access to the events, but others have that same access to our response to these events.

I live in New England.  This region of the U.S. is well known to have significant pockets of anti-Christian bias.  Many people here find the Church either irrelevant or repugnant.  So when I speak about the Gospel or the Christian response to issues ranging from human dignity to sexuality, from intellectualism to poverty – pretty much any topic – I must speak differently than the way I did when I lived in the “Bible Belt” down South.  Pastors there preach in large part to the choir (yes, I know the South is not a monolithic Christian culture and I know that many are culturally Christian even if they do not follow Jesus, but the reality I’m pointing to remains).  It is often inward focused speech that I read and hear related to these volatile issues.  It is often strong on doctrine but weak on engagement.  Their goal is to speak prophetically to the insiders.

I must speak prophetically to outsiders in the culture in which I minister.  I must hold to doctrine but also have an approach the leaves the door open for further dialogue and discussion.  I must operate in a way that facilitates relationship.  I must speak truth in palatable terms, not to assuage an opposing viewpoint but rather to create space for that view to conform to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The best ministry is, therefore, always local.  The best ministry is always by the knowing and known person.  One cannot expect to import his successful methods and ideas into a new context without alteration.

The local voice must be loud to counteract the outside voices.

The local voice must be loud to counteract the outside voices.

This new media obliterates the lines between the local and the non-local. The pastor on YouTube from Atlanta may have a greater voice in my community than I have, or than all the pastors in my area have combined. Not only that, there are hundreds of these pastors on YouTube, blogs, news articles, newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, and countless other venues.  I know I cannot reverse this.  I don’t even begrudge it.  But I have to work (almost) in spite of it.  I have to counteract it.  I have to speak over the outside voices. I have to lend nuance and grace and empathy to a topic where the outsider only puts forth “truth”, whatever that may mean.

Granted, some outside voices are more relevant than others to my context.  Some are wonderfully helpful and make my work easier.  But this still further reveals the reality that social media is destroying the sense of context.  Those voices that are most helpful for my context are inevitably less than helpful in another one.  In this way social media is like the Gospel.  Its seeds are flung far and wide on all types of soil, regardless of whether the seed was intended for that environment or not. Unlike the Gospel, this can have unintended negative effects.

Social media and the information age are here to stay for the unforeseeable future. We should utilize them to maximum effect.  Just remember that there are always trade offs.  Every positive brings with it a negative. Context-less engagement may be the new normal, but that doesn’t make it good.