Author Archives: lentensausages

Churches That Transform Post-Christian Paces

In spite of the fact that a number of American Evangelical churches are growing numerically, the credibility of the church at large and the prominence of religious life in America is on the decline. In recent a study entitled The Most Post-Christian Cities in America: 2017[1], Barna Research found that there are currently ten US cities that contain more than 50% Post-Christian Adults. Furthermore, there are thirty-four additional cities that contain more than 40% Post Christian adults. Notable among them is the Phoenix metro area. Although this city boasts thirty-two mega churches, it also currently resides 22nd in the list of the most Post-Christian cities in the US, with 45% Post-Christian adults. To be considered a “Post-Christian” adult, one must meet a robust set or criteria such as “Do not believe in God,” “Identify as atheist or agnostic,” “Disagree that faith is important in their lives,” and “Disagree the Bible is accurate.”

Although America is becoming increasingly Post-Christian, the ministry strategies of many American churches are still designed to attract people who perceive the church as a credible source for the answers to life’s questions. Since most Post-Christian people do not, the result of our current approach is that we are largely shuffling existing Christians around from church to church as we woo them with better worship bands, more dynamic speakers, improved youth and children’s ministries, or by emphasizing a particular niche in theology. So, at best, churches are competing with each other to attract people from 52% of the American population, since according to Barna, 48% of adults in America are Post-Christian.

In this Post-Christian era, it is time for American church leaders to once again think like missionaries of old, who packed their belongings in their own caskets and were sent into unreached places. They worked tirelessly to relate to the people, learn their language, serve their needs, and find ways to contextualize the gospel in cultures that were previously untouched by the message. It may be difficult for some who dwell in the shadows of megachurches to accept that the America is becoming a Post-Christian place. I believe, however, that continuing to operate according to the status quo will only hasten the pace. Therefore, it is imperative that we see ourselves as missionaries who are called to this culture.

As our church plant team began our work on Post-Christian Long Island, which is estimated at 3% Evangelical, we determined to not grow primarily through “transfer growth.” We instead set out to be innovative and find new expressions of ministry that will reach the other 97%. It has not been easy, but we have had successes while learning a few things along the way. Although we are still in process, here are some principles that we have come to understand as essential in transforming Post-Christian places with the gospel:

Emphasize a More Holistic View of The Gospel: The American church has been highly influenced by Dispensational theology, which has tended to disconnect the kingdom from the here and now and emphasize the gospel’s legal effect of forgiveness. The result has been a reduction of the gospel message to having an immaterial nature which elicits a correspondingly disembodied response: “Jesus died for your sins, so accept him, and your sins will be forgiven and you will go to heaven when you die (or be taken away from this earth in the Rapture).” If the resurrection is at all mentioned, it is usually presented as evidence which proves Jesus was qualified to die for our sins. The result is that many Post-Christian people perceive our faith as judgmental (since the gospel relates only to them, who need forgiveness, and not to us, who do not) and disconnected and irrelevant to life in the here and now (since it is all about getting away from this earth, either by death or the Rapture).[2]

We must deepen our biblical understanding and communication of the gospel in this Post-Christian world. When Peter first preached the gospel as recorded in Acts 2, he included five distinct elements of the good news: The incarnation, or Jesus came (22); Jesus died (23); Jesus rose from the dead (24-32); Jesus reigns (33-34); and Jesus will return (35). All of these elements have profound implications: The incarnation affirms the goodness of the material world and makes Jesus knowable in the flesh; Jesus’ death not only provides a substitute for the wrath we deserve, but breaks the chains of sin and sets the captives free; the resurrection releases the life transforming power of the Holy Spirit which works to rid his people of sin and brokenness, and to empower and transform us daily; his reign means that Jesus is currently ruling from a throne and calling his people to join him in his mission to restore all things; and the promise of his return and making his enemies “a footstool” gives us hope that he will finish what he started and reign with his people on a restored earth.

When we emphasize all elements and implications of the gospel, it brings a new perspective to our Post-Christian friends. First, a holistic message demonstrates humility because it no longer elevates us as the forgiven ones above them as the unforgiven. Rather, our daily dependence on the resurrection power of Jesus to transform our brokenness demonstrates that we need the gospel as much as, or even more than, they do. Also, a holistic communication of the gospel shows that our faith is connected to the earth, because Jesus’ rule is working to renew all things through his life. So, as we apply the gospel not only to forgive sinners, but to also restore sinful systems and structures that keep people impoverished, enslaved, and the earth endangered, we invite Post-Christian people into a full life in the here and now rather than a disembodied existence after death.

Create “Belong Before Believe” Environments: In times past, most Americans understood God to be personal, holy, and Trinitarian, and Jesus to be divine. So, when attending church upon a friend’s invitation, all they needed to come to faith was a pastor’s invitation to accept, or reject, the implications of those truths. Today, however, most non-believers do not hold to even the most basic and necessary assumptions that precede faith. For example, many Long Islanders do not view God as personal and holy, but rather as an impersonal energy force that envelops all life. In fact, in a study published in Christianity Today last week[3], almost half of Americans said they do not believe in God as the Bible describes. Many people who we know here on Long Island have almost no understanding of the person and work of Jesus, who they understand more to be analogous to Buddha or Muhammed.

Newbigin wrote that the “only hermeneutic of the gospel is a Christian congregation of men and women who believe the gospel and live by it.”[4] Therefore, in order to truly communicate the whole gospel to our Post-Christian friends, we must first welcome them to belong to our communities. This provides an environment for them to be exposed to the gospel message over time and to see it at work, supernaturally transforming the people of God. This approach recognizes that conversion is a process that requires of us great patience and grace as we welcome non-believers into Christian community, allowing them to go at their own pace without forcing upon them external behavior that complies with a faith they don’t yet possess.

At our Long Island church plant we say in every gathering, “If you are a guest, we are glad you are here, and please know that you are welcome to participate in all that we do. At the same time, you are not obligated at all – you are welcome to sit back and watch if you prefer.” We allow our seeking friends to have doubts, ask questions, and share their points of view. We treat them like family and invite them to the communion table.[5] We invite them to serve by publicly reading scripture, handing out bulletins, playing drums, or setting up the stage. When we serve the surrounding community, whether by helping homeless kids with their homework or cleaning a beach with the local conservation society, we welcome our non-Christians friends to join with us. We trust that over time the Holy Spirit will fulfil Jesus’ promise to convict of sin, make known the truth, and draw people to Jesus.

Redefine Success: All organizations, including churches, operate according to a rubric by which they measure success. This is the “tip of the arrow,” the goal that drives all decisions and around which all activity is centered. For example, some churches consciously or subconsciously operate under the rubric of achieving self-sustainability. This means that attendance is strong enough to produce giving sufficient to meet expenses such as payroll and a mortgage. So, most activity is geared towards attracting attendees to services. Excellence in programming is a high value, since it contributes to this measure of success. This is not at all to say that these churches care only about numbers. Rather, that they gear their efforts towards self-sustainability in order to produce conversions, assuming that as attendance increases, so will exposures to the gospel. The more excellent the programming, the more likely a positive response. Attractive buildings, full-time paid staff, excellent music, well-trained hospitality teams, and cutting-edge graphics are all mobilized toward the rubric of self-sustainability.

Many churches, disenchanted with the above paradigm, have pushed forward and adapted a new rubric that seeks first and foremost to produce disciples. In these churches, mission statements contain phrases such as “fully developed followers of Jesus,” or “disciples who make other disciples,” etc. Many such churches adopt models that employ a network of small groups to encourage spiritual growth and equip members in evangelism. While this is truly admirable, it may also reveal an incomplete understanding of the effects of the gospel. This is because the gospel is working to more than to simply transform people, it is working to transform all things, both people and places.

Churches that transform Post-Christian places recognize that we are not finished when we produce a convert. We are also not finished when that convert becomes a mature disciple, nor are we finished when that disciple makes other disciples. We must measure our success, and therefore gear all our activity, around the goal of sending out groups of disciples to join God in mission to transform people and places – small communities of people who are not only growing spiritually together and leading others to Christ, but also bringing the gospel to bear on systems and structures in need of transformation in their communities.

Let the reader understand, excellence and numerical growth are not necessarily unfitting pursuits. We must, however, be willing to subordinate them to the goal of sending groups of people together on mission to transform people and places through the gospel. This is how one truly knows the measure of success by which one navigates: it is the thing that survives when resources are limited. For example, in our church plant, we have been in need of a person to lead the worship team. All of our best qualified people for that task, however, are leading connect groups. These groups represent our strategy to send out gospel-centered communities of people who are committed both to spiritual growth in community and pursuing transformation in their neighborhoods. Governed by our rubric, we made the decision to accept less consistency in worship music on Sundays in order to keep gifted leaders in connect groups. Although counter-intuitive to most paradigms of church growth, the resultant sense of expectation produced by the amazing things God continues to do in and through our connect groups has more than compensated for the sacrifice we made!

Create Malleable Environments: Visit the average Evangelical church, and you will likely experience a very intentional and well-executed program. The media graphics, the sermon series title, the song selection, video announcements, etc., all planned days or even weeks previous by a program team, present a clear and understandable message to the audience. Although well-intended, the problem with this approach is that most Post-Christian people want to feel that they have had some influence in affecting the outcome of events. Of course, there is no shame in excellence, but it can sometimes produce the reverse of the desired effect. This happens when Post-Christian people attend but realize that their presence did not matter, and that the outcome would have been the same whether they were present or not. Rather than being impressed by top-notch programming, they often perceive the leadership as rigid and inauthentic, intending to persuade the audience to their point of view rather than endeavoring to truly hear and know, and even be shaped by, the thoughts and feelings of attendees.

Post-Christian people value speaking with someone, not being “talked at.” They value an authentic exchange of thoughts and feelings on a topic, not sitting still while someone tries to convince them of something. They do not want to be led into a predetermined point of view. They want to have a voice, they want to shape the outcome, they want their presence to matter. This requires malleable environments, meaning that they are shapable by the people present. Many leaders are hesitant to allow this over legitimate concerns such as protection from false doctrine or preserving excellence. In order to give people a voice in our gatherings, however, we must be willing to give up the desire to control outcomes and instead trust the Holy Spirit to lead. We must then meet the culture where it is and allow ourselves to be shaped by others if we want to have a role in shaping them. That is exactly what God was teaching Peter, who had never eaten an “unclean” thing, when God gave him a vision that prepared him to enjoy a nice pork dinner at Cornelius’ house![6]

In our church plant on Long Island, on some Sundays rather than a sermon, we instead hold discussion forums where every person is invited to have a voice. We propose a topic and assertion, and allow people to discuss, disagree, suggest alternatives, and respond from the heart – without attempting to persuade or correct unchristian thinking. We also invite public prayer requests from everyone, and publicly pray for them every week. We always make sure to have a diverse mixture of language, race, and gender up front. We strive to represent the culture, music styles, and customs of the people present. We quickly respond to issues important to them in sermons, sometimes changing what we planned to teach based on a current news happening. All these things let Post-Christian people know that they are welcome, that they matter, and that we value them more than how they contribute to our attendance numbers.

Pursue Ethnic inclusivity: Ethnic homogeneity in churches has been the status quo for most of American history. Currently, 92.5% of all churches and 95% of all Evangelical churches are monoracial. The definition of “monoracial” is any church in which 80% or more of the congregation are of the same ethnicity.[7] Monoracial congregations come in all ethnicities, and are not just “white churches” or “black churches.” While it is indeed most comfortable and familiar to worship within the preferences of one’s culture, it is time to re-consider our complacency in this area in order to pursue the goal of producing churches that transform Post-Christian places.

In a time when almost every American institution is undergoing intentional efforts to be racially and ethnically diverse, monoethnic churches will simply no longer have the credibility in the eyes of Post-Christian people to be taken seriously. Furthermore, as we see in Revelation 7:9, the culmination of the kingdom will include a multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” worshiping God together as one. The end of this age will feature a multi-ethnic worship service! Therefore, the church should reveal the Kingdom of God by bringing about in the present what God will complete in the future.

Ethnic inclusivity means more than having diversity in the congregation, especially since this often means expecting the minority cultures present to adapt to the congregation’s majority culture. Instead, we must invite people of all cultures to contribute their respective uniqueness to the congregation at large, and consequently be willing to be shaped by each other. Therefore, the pursuit of ethnic inclusivity provides a wonderful opportunity to create malleable environments, since each person matters and is invited to play a role in shaping outcomes.

At our Long Island church plant, we are intentional to represent diversity up front, so people of all cultures will see someone like them in leadership. We read scripture in multiple languages, even if the person reading is the only one who speaks that language, because our attention and respect grants value to that person’s culture. We learn to sing in other languages and music styles, which can be both awkward and fun. We experience each other’s culture through sharing food, attending weddings, learning customs, etc.

The very ethnically diverse and inclusive environment has been the single most appealing element in our church plant to our Post-Christian friends. In this time of racial strife, it has been without a doubt the most significant demonstration of the gospel’s power in our midst.

Conclusion: As American churches increasingly recognize that we exist in a Post-Christian place, we will begin to see our cities as mission fields and ourselves as missionaries. We must then retool, finding ways to contextualize our practice and present the gospel message to meet the culture where it is. We must embrace a more holistic view of the gospel, welcome non-believers to belong before they believe, define success to include both the transformation of people and places, create environments shaped by all present, and pursue ethnic inclusivity. Are we willing to expose ourselves to the changes necessary so that our churches will transform Post-Christian America?

© 2018 Dr. John Amandola, Jr.

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/post-christian-cities-america-2017 Accessed: June 14, 2018.

[2] Many Dispensationalists have since progressed to accepting some degree of the Kingdom being present, but the effects of Classic Dispensationalism remain.

[3] Christianity Today, June 2018, Vol. 62, Num. 5, Page 15.

[4] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 227.

[5] For those concerned about the orthodoxy of “Open Communion,” please see my doctoral project: Open communion as a catalyst for developing missional congregations: A case study of Lighthouse Community Church in Melville, NY, by Amandola, John, Jr., Eastern University, 2015. See also this blog post.

[6] See Acts 10

[7] Mark DeYmaz, Building A Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 4.

APEST and the Salad Course

John, second from left, and Caryn, far left, with the happy couple, who were blissfully unaware of our salad conundrum.

The problem with late afternoon weddings is that after one endures hunger pangs through an hour plus ceremony, and adding the 30 minutes it takes to drive to the reception hall, one can be quite ravenous by the time the salad course has been served.

My wife and I were assigned Table 13 with other members of our church plant leadership team. Most of us were already seated, with only two or three stragglers leaving their chairs unoccupied. The table was beautifully adorned with every manner of dinnerware. Even more inviting were our salads, which were already arranged upon each of our respective place settings. Since no instructions had yet been given by the D.J., we discussed whether we should start eating.

Justin, my co-planter, led the way: “Well, they’re here, I’m gonna start” – and without another thought, he dug in, obviously enjoying every bite.

Caryn, my wife and co-planter, and Blessie, a worship team and small group leader, gently objected. “I think we should wait for everyone else.” Blessie’s tone revealed her concern for the feelings of the stragglers.

“Why would they have already served the salads if we can’t eat them? – That’s dumb – I’m eating my damn salad.” I was only half joking since, after a cocktail on an empty stomach, my tolerance had worn a bit thin.

At that moment, it occurred to me that our approach to our salads revealed our leadership spiritual gifts. Justin, an Apostle, led the way – and was not overly concerned if anyone joined him. Apostles pioneer and move the church forward. This has been a gift to our team as Justin continually presses us to further our mission.

Blessie and Caryn are obviously Shepherds. They were less concerned for their own hunger and more concerned with including others and protecting their feelings. This too is modeled in their leadership – Caryn leading abuse recovery groups, Blessie leading a small group, and both serving on the prayer team. Since we have several Shepherds on our team, there is not a hurting person in our midst who escapes needed care.

I am a Prophet, who recognized the injustice of a wilting salad and called us to repentance. I am mostly concerned with shaping the consciousness of the people around me. As lead pastor, I am continually listening to God so that I can call our people to follow where he is going. I also call people “stragglers.”

Had there been a Teacher at the table (he was one of the stragglers), he would have explained to us the correct etiquette for this occasion, which as I now understand, would have been to wait until all were seated. In that case, the Evangelist on our team, who was a groomsman and not seated at our table, would no doubt have sprung up to seek out and gather the remaining guests assigned to Table 13. The happy result being a full table of people enjoying our salads together!

I shudder to think of what our church plant would look like if it took on my personality alone – it would be the epitome of efficient but not effective. I am so thankful for a team of diversely gifted leaders who, when we function together in mutual submission, model the fullness of Jesus to our church and community and effectively make disciples in a post-Christian place.

-John Amandola, Jr., DMin is a co-church planter of Lighthouse Community Church, an ethnically inclusive church plant on post-Christian Long Island, NY.

To my friends who say that America must get back to our “Christian roots.”

2651529566_87eb235900 (2)During this election cycle, I have seen many calls for our nation to “return to God.” I believe, however, that it is dubious at best to suggest that America was founded upon Christian values.

In fact, quite the contrary.

Please consider the following Americans, all who suffered while the actions of their oppressors were protected by our constitution:

  • Africans who were kidnapped to America and subjugated into a life of slavery, their families torn apart, their women and children sold off.
  • The indigenous people who were expelled from their homes and driven with millions of others down a “trail of tears,” abused and oppressed.
  • Women who were denied the right to vote until 1920.
  • The “colored” person who suffered the humiliation of being relegated to the back of the bus and being forbidden to drink from the same water fountain as “whites.”
  • The poor white coal miner who lived a life of indentured servitude to the boss, and passed his crushing and expanding company store debt along to his children and widow when he died at 40 of black lung, completely unprotected by labor law.

Would any of these Americans believe that they were ever governed by a Christian nation? Would any of them wish to return to our “Christian values?” Would they believe that they had the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”

Please know this: all of the above suffering was completely legal under the laws of this land. Our government – our values – supported and perpetuated all of these injustices. Every oppressor, from the slave owner to the mine boss, enjoyed the protection of the law. Yet, the preamble of the Declaration of Independence presupposes that “all men are created equal.”

I love my country, I am proud to be an American. However, I don’t believe that it is or ever was a Christian nation. I find it inconceivable, considering our past injustices, to make this claim. Our great nation has come a long way since then, we still have a ways to go, and I definitely do not want to go back to where we once were.

If we consider ourselves followers of Jesus, it is now time to stop calling for a return to the “Christian values” of America, and start working instead to bring about the Kingdom of God, to which we owe our first allegiance as its citizens and subjects – even if this means that we must lay down our rights as Americans in order to do so.

The first thing that Jesus said about his kingdom is this: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

Jesus himself said that gospel is supposed to be good news for the poor. Therefore, as citizens of his kingdom, we should advocate and work for the protection and provision of those among us who are marginalized and oppressed. When we turn our hands to this work, we might be surprised to learn that we are the answer to the prayer that Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come!”

Little Green Men and Lines in the Sand

In the movie Paul, Kristin Wiig plays Ruth Buggs, a young woman who lives in a trailer Paul-Alienpark and who was raised as an Evangelical Christian. She encounters Paul, an alien voiced by Seth Rogan, while she is wearing a t-shirt depicting Jesus shooting Charles Darwin and underscored with the tag-line “Evolve This!” In denial of what she has just seen and of the implications of meeting someone from another world, she steadfastly proclaims that the world is 4000 years old, that it can only be the product of an intelligent design, and that nothing can shake her faith that God made heaven and earth and created us all in his own image.

Paul, who is anti-religion, then communicates telepathically to Ruth, showing her the cosmos and the wonders of the universe. Upon discovering that the earth is in fact not 4000 years old, Ruth’s entire belief system is shaken. She concludes, since science is correct, that her faith must be incorrect. She then, quite humorously, realizes that she now can curse, fornicate, and drink. We are subsequently treated to Kristen Wiig’s comedic genius as her character attempts cursing for the first time.

Christians create a false dichotomy between faith and science when we insist that our faith depends on the earth being 4,000 years old and on Charles Darwin being wrong. By doing this, we unnecessarily draw a line in the sand between the realm of authentic faith and the realm of modern science. Young people like Ruth are therefore forced to step over that line and leave their faith when they eventually become convinced that the findings of modern science are indeed correct. It is my belief that this departure is a needless tragedy.

Ruth was correct: God did make heaven and earth and he did make us in his own image. The heavens themselves declare these glorious and profound truths. Rather than destroying her faith, Ruth’s encounter with the vastness of the cosmos could have, and should have, inspired wonder and strengthened her faith in our great Creator God. To link the truth of a Creator God, however, with the age of the earth and the manner at which diversity of species came about is not only unnecessary, but it also does great violence to the biblical text and the faith of countless of young adults like Ruth.

As a former youth pastor whose students are now in their 20s and 30s, I have witnessed firsthand the damage caused by an insistence on the notion that our faith depends on interpreting the creation account in Genesis as historical narrative. Like Ruth, many young people today are concluding that if science is true, then our faith must be false. The next logical step is to reason, as Ruth did, that the moral guidelines which are derived from our faith must therefore also be invalid.

To Christian parents, teachers, youth pastors, and any other people who have influence in the hearts and minds of our young people: I implore you, stop equating a belief about the age of the universe and diversity of species with orthodox faith. This does not protect our young people. Quite the contrary, it forces them to cross over the line you have drawn in the sand. Furthermore, and most tragically, it is absolutely unnecessary. It is my passionate belief that the great truths of our faith, such as the fact that we are made in God’s image, are even more powerful when we interpret the creation story in Genesis as we do Psalms: as scared poetry that reveal profound truth about God, humanity, and the universe!

“The Children’s Director” – Facing Inconsistency In The Use Of Church Leadership Titles

We have all clicked on the “Meet our Staff” page on the website of a church we are checking out. We are greeted by many smiling faces – a list of portraits each taken under the same tree. There is Joe, the Lead Pastor. He is the oldest, with a touch of gray at the temples. Jayden, the Student Ministries Pastor is wearing a t-shirt and sports a tattoo or two. Sam, the Worship Arts Pastor, is a bit more conservative. He is the youngest, even though his glasses are a bit out of date. Then there is Emily, the Children’s Director, with long brown hair and a smile a mile wide.

Each portrait is accompanied by a short description of the role of the respective staff member. Even though the context of each ministry is different, they all have the same general responsibility: to lead their respective ministry to accomplish the mission of the church. The usual responsibilities of such positions are to recruit, train, and mobilize volunteers; submit a budget; plan and implement programming and events; and deal with mountains of administrivia.

So, if each leader has the same general responsibilities, why then is Emily’s title “Director” while the other staff are “Pastors?”

The obvious answer is that Emily is not a man.

Before I address this any further, let me first qualify my position by stating that I am a complimentarian. In short, this means that I believe that the genders are absolutely equal in dignity and value, different in nature, and that humanity reflects the Image of God though the two genders functioning together in their respective God-given roles. One expression of this relationship, I believe, is the existence of certain gender specific roles in church leadership such as male eldership.

The danger, however, in being a complimentarian is that it can be too easy to hold women back from fully flourishing as leaders and gifted members of the body of Christ – even inadvertently. One subtle way that we hold women back is through inconsistency in our use of leadership titles.

Take Emily for example. She functions exactly the same as the other associate pastors, even having an equal and respected voice in staff meetings. However, her title is different because she is a woman. This to me is a grave injustice and a laughable contradiction. She functions as a pastor, but is not given the title of pastor, because we don’t believe in woman pastors.

To misquote Shakespeare, “A rose by any other name is still a rose.”

If the title “Pastor” is used to refer to those paid to lead ministries, and if you pay women to lead ministries, then they are pastors no matter what you call them. To give them a different title just because they are women, and then allow them to function as pastors anyway, is an insult to our intelligence and to her dignity. Furthermore, it alienates the next generation who hold sincerity among its highest values and view this inconsistency as nothing less than a lie for expedience sake.

The above church really has only two options to stay consistent: Give Emily the title “Children’s Pastor,” or fire her and hire a man to do the job. I sincerely hope they choose the former.

Part of the work of the gospel is to redeem the relationship between genders in a manner that fully restores God’s original intent of reflecting the Image of God. This is precisely why it is important to fully affirm women in all that they are called to be. It is very possible to do that and still affirm gender specific roles. I suggest the approach used at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, which states that anything a non-elder male can do, so can a female. I would extend that and say, any title a non-elder male can have, so can a female – even “Pastor Emily.”

Science, Poetry, and The Meaning of Life

jupiterI often encounter people who are trying to reconcile what they believe in their hearts to be true about science and the origin of life with their Christian beliefs. Is the theory of Evolution incompatible with being a person of faith? Does science discredit the Bible?

I beleive the answer to this question is found in the most unlikeliest of places: poetry.

1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth. – Psalm 19:1-6

When you read this poem, what comes into your mind and heart? For me, it connects my heart to the faithfulness of God. It creates in me great awe, as I contemplate the mysteries of the universe which declare God’s glory.  It brings comfort and strength by reminding me that God is still sitting on the throne. I am once again assured of God’s love for me. Sacred poetry does that; it communicates truth in a way that evokes responses in the soul.

Poetry is the literary context, or kind of literature, of Psalm 19. The poet, in this case King David, used several literary techniques appropriate for this context. For example, he used personification, giving the heavens a voice and giving the sun a human dwelling. Also, the repetition of the sun’s circuit communicates to us with certainty that life is not random and that God is reliable. By describing the sun’s motion from the observer’s point of view, the poet places you and me, who are like insignificant specks of dust in relation to the vastness of the heavens, at the very center of God’s love – at the place of significance and honor. Wow.

King David, inspired by The Holy Spirit, wrote Psalm 19 with the intent to magnify the glory of God, not to describe the dynamics of the solar system. Since the literary context of the Psalm is poetry and not prose, we easily understand that the description of the sun’s movement around the earth is not meant to be taken literally. Therefore, although scientifically inaccurate, it nonetheless communicates absolute truth with authority. We say this because, as Holy Scripture, it perfectly communicates what The Holy Spirit intended to communicate: the glory and faithfulness of God.

In the 17th century, the Pope, failing to understand this literary context, decided that the words of Psalm 19 were meant to be taken at their surface meaning. His conclusion was that the sun and other planets literally revolve around the earth, which was understood to be at the center of the solar system. This put him at odds with Galileo, who had pointed his homemade telescope at the heavens and discovered the contrary. When he requested permission to publish his findings, the church accused him of asserting “that the language of Holy Scripture does not mean what is seems to mean” and of placing the authority of Scripture “at the last and lowest place” below the observations of “natural phenomena.”

They missed the point. In an attempt to use the Bible as a science book, they overlooked the grandeur and mystery in the poem and reduced it to a mechanistic handbook.

In response to the church’s objections, Galileo quoted a famous church leader who explained that in the Bible, “The Holy Ghost intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” This did not go over well, and Galileo spent the rest of his days under house arrest because the church failed to understand the importance of literary context.

Since then, science has continued to observe natural phenomena all around us. In addition to peering upward through the lens of a telescope, scientists have peered downward through the lens of a microscope.

Yet again, the discoveries on the other side of a small lens have revealed complexities beyond our wildest imaginings.

Yet again, these discoveries have resulted in a conflict between science and the religious establishment because they seem to assert that the language of Holy Scripture does not mean what is seems to mean.

Yet again, the solution lies in defining literary context.

Scientists have discovered that humanity, indeed all of life, has arisen through an ancient and elegant evolutionary process. Yet, the first two chapters of Genesis seem to say that the heavens and earth, and all that is in them, were created in in their present form in just 7 days. Is this a conflict between science and the Bible? Absolutely not. The answer lies in understanding the literary context of the first two chapters of Genesis.

The creation account in Genesis is not prose describing the manner of creation – it is poetry describing the meaning of creation.

Some may say that I am just picking and choosing what I take literally in the Bible and what I don’t. I would respond by pointing out that the main goal of Bible interpretation is to determine the author’s intent. Determining the literary context is one of the first steps in doing so. For example, we understand the Gospels to be historical narrative, so that is the foundation of our decision to take the resurrection account literally. We already determine context in every conversation we have every day. In fact, all communication is framed in a context. The Bible is no different.

Understanding the creation account as poetry in no way implies that it is not true! It is true because it perfectly communicates what the Holy Spirit intended to communicate: the way things ought to be.

I love science. I spent my childhood dissecting frogs and insects. I asked for microscopes and test tubes for Christmas. I often read physics books on my day off. However, despite my love for science, I understand its limitations. Science can only tell us what is, not what ought to be. It certainly can’t tell us what the purpose of all this is. We need theology for that.  We need poetry for that.

The Enlightenment gave us modern science. As a result, our lives are greatly improved. From heart transplants to the iPhone in your pocket, we owe it all to the development of the scientific method.

In spite of all the good The Enlightenment brought, it also led to a materialistic worldview: only that for which there is physical evidence is true and real. As a result, the unseen became the untrue because it was not measurable. Ethics, or what ought to be, became an ever-changing and never-reaching pursuit. Purpose and meaning dissipated into thin air.

Rather than challenging this materialistic worldview, the church domesticated the Bible to fit it. Rather than affirming the validity of our faith, which is full of mystery and beauty, we instead capitulated to materialism: “we are logical too – we have evidence.” Then, we turned the Bible into a science book – we tamed it to serve our apologetic purposes, and in doing so ironically weakened our credibility. We also began to rob humanity of the rich theology communicated so profoundly through the creation poem – theology that is absolutely foundational to the Christian faith and deeply relevant to every human made in the image of God.

In my next post, I will take a look at the creation story in Genesis as poetry. Together we will rediscover the many important truths that the Holy Spirit is saying to us – ancient and yet relevant truths regarding the nature of God and the nature of humanity – rich doctrine for which prose simply will not suffice.

The Gospel and “Obamacare”

The Gospel.

The simplest expression of our faith – the most elegant solution in the universe.

It is so simple that the Apostle Paul was able to explain it to the Corinthian believers using only two verbs:

Christ died for our sins, and he was raised on the third day.

Baptism captures this simplicity with one beautiful picture. When going into the water, believers are identified with Christ’s death. Emerging from the water identifies us with his resurrection.

Two verbs with immense implications: “Christ died” wins forgiveness of sins. We are declared “not guilty” because the punishment we deserved was placed on him. We become acceptable to God not because of our own works but because of his work. “Christ raised” thrusts us into new life – a resurrection life that results in rescue not just from spiritual death, but physical death as well. As new creations, we experience restoration of our souls; as restored souls we are invited to participate in restoring the world around us – both spiritually and physically.

Two verbs require a complete response. Christ died means dying to ourselves – repentance. We turn from our idols and follow Jesus. We believe by faith in his perfect work on the cross and provision for our sins which make us instantly and completely acceptable to God. Christ raised means that we must follow. There is simply no “turning from” without a “turning to.” We enter into a life where he makes us into new creations who become more like Christ. Therefore, we increase in holiness, we preach the gospel, we help the poor, we  heal the sick, we stand for justice, we defend the weak, and we do all of the other things we see Jesus doing in the Gospels.

Why did James say that religion was “true” only when we care for widows and orphans in their distress? Because it is only part of the gospel to say that Jesus died for our sins. Calling people to merely trust Jesus to forgive their sins is calling people to respond to only half the gospel. We must call them to identify not only with “Christ died” but with “Christ raised.” We must invite them to follow – to experience transformation and to labor for transformation of the world around us. Therefore, we work to both save souls and to help the poor.

One of the most significant sources of distress for the poor in the US today is lack of health care. Many of the 50 million Americans without health coverage are either foreign-born residents or low-income families with an annual household income of less than $25,000.[1] This fact should motivate all who believe in true religion. Poor people, even undocumented poor people, without health care should be an unacceptable condition for all those who believe the whole gospel. However, when Health Care Reform was upheld by the Supreme Court last week, my Facebook newsfeed erupted with the complaints of angry Christians. It saddened me that many Christians appealed to personal liberties or the Constitution, seeming to ignore the implications of “Christ raised” in their political rhetoric. I believe that our gospel mission, not what best preserves our constitutional rights, should inform our political views. I believe that when we turn to Christ, we must turn from our idol of personal liberty.

So, here is my challenge to those who oppose Health Care Reform: If you seek to repeal health care reform, please let it be because you feel that your fight will ultimately be most beneficial to the poor (as some genuinely believe) and not because you feel it violates your rights. As believers, we relinquish our rights in light of the gospel and we submit to a much higher authority than the Constitution. If you believe Health Care Reform hurts the poor, then you should fight against it and work toward a better solution. If you fight Health Care Reform because you don’t like higher taxes – or you don’t like the government interfering into your private life – or because you believe it to be unconstitutional, then I would challenge you to reconsider your view in light of the gospel. When we cling to our rights as Americans over fulfilling our obligations to the poor, we distort the message of the gospel. The gospel is not about what’s fair (thank God), but about restored people who bring restoration to the whole world.


[1]
Christie, Les, Number of people without health insurance climbs, September 13, 2011, money.cnn.com/2011/09/13/news/economy/census_bureau_health_insurance/index.htm, accessed July 2, 2012.

Why Don’t New Yorkers Visit Church?

We have worked hard and talked to many people to answer this question. Surprisingly, we have found that the obstacle is not lack of spiritual interest. In fact, quite the contrary, New Yorkers are very spiritually minded people, and even the most seasoned New Yorker has deep spiritual questions. In our experience, we have learned that the main obstacle to New Yorkers visiting church is not lack of interest, but lack of trust.

Although New Yorkers do have spiritual needs, many don’t believe that the church has the credibility to meet their needs. In many cases, this is due to the perception that the church has not done much to benefit the community, but is instead mainly interested in its own benefit. Others fear that if they visit, they will be judged. If I were to be very honest, I must agree that unfortunately some of this perception is quite accurate. Therefore, when New Yorkers seek answers to life’s questions, they seldom seek out the church for answers.

As a result of the above discovery, we have established three mandates:

1. We must take responsibility to rebuild the credibility of the church in NY and to regain the trust of New Yorkers. We must genuinely care about all the needs in our community: emotional, physical, social, financial, intellectual, and spiritual. Then, we must do something to meet them – with no strings attached.

2. We must not rely on attracting people to church. We must also go out and connect people to genuine, gospel-centered community.

3. When people do visit our church, we must provide an environment that meets them wherever they are in their spiritual journey. It is essential that people are allowed to belong to community before they believe, and to move at their own pace.

One way that we are accomplishing the above mandates is through our new “Homework Help” program at a local homeless shelter. We arrive Saturday afternoons at the shelter, where the kids have their homework assignments ready. As we sit with them, not only do we help them with their studies, but we also try to encourage them in their abilities and to stay in school. Finishing school is a significant factor in breaking the cycle of homelessness. Last week we helped some students with Math and English, while another just needed help learning her “ABCs.” Afterwards, we helped the kids fix a broken bicycle.

We see this as not just an activity for “church people.” We believe that it is also necessary for us to engage all New Yorkers in serving the community. Therefore, we invite all of our friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers to come with us to serve the homeless. We have found that New Yorkers are very caring people; and most seem to be very happy to hear that we are doing this.

Our motivation in all of this is to be more like Jesus by caring for the vulnerable. We hope that as we do so, we will begin to rebuild the credibility of Jesus’ beloved bride. As we bring our friends along, we also hope that they will see that Christ has truly changed us, that he is real, and is able to meet our spiritual needs. We pray that this will result in many of our friends visiting our church, where they will see and experience the transformation that comes only through Christ.

Top Ten Mistakes: Second Five

Here is the second half of my list of what I believe to be the top ten mistakes made by Evangelical churches in America. See the first five here.

Closing the Communion Table: Communion is the most effective evangelism tool ever invented, because it utilizes all five senses to communicate the Gospel. When we ban people who do not yet believe from the table, we are withholding a powerful, life giving message from them. In our church, we take time every Sunday to share a meaningful meal together, and we have seen several people who don’t yet believe grow in their understanding and acceptance of the gospel through participating in the table. Concerned that unbelievers might eating and drinking judgment to themselves? Read my very first post.

Blending Politics With Theology: While serving as a pastor in Arizona, the reddest of red states, I received a “voting guide” from a Christian organization. This “impartial” guide was meant to be distributed in our church, and claimed to give a non-partisan account on how various candidates voted on issues which were supposedly pertinent to Christians. Included in the guide was data on how each candidate voted on various right wing (but not necessarily biblical) interests such as gun control, school vouchers and tax codes. What was missing was Jesus’ interest of how each candidate acted to protect the poor, oppressed and helpless in our community. This unbalance causes Christians to seem as if we have an hidden alternate agenda, and that we do not really believe what we teach. Jesus is not a Republican. Nor is he a Democrat for that matter. We should want to create an environment where the lesbian pro-choice feminist who sits in the cubicle next to us will feel welcome in our gatherings; and perhaps even feel as if she can belong before she believes. Therefore, we need to consider removing obstacles such as mini anti-Obama rallies at the bagel table or proselytizing for Sean Hannity. We must create an environment where the only obstacle in our churches is the already offensive enough stumbling block of the cross.

Failure to Release People to Lead: Many churches function as what I like to call “benevolent dictatorships.” This model, borrowed from business, keeps power centralized among a few highly trained and competent (and many times very godly) individuals. In this model, people are trained to serve in the church using their gifts. Whether in the sound booth or greeting at the door, we excel at helping people find ways to use their gifts for ministry. However, in most cases, these servants are merely implementing the mission of the executives. Rarely do we truly let go and release people to take responsibility and lead. Some resist letting go out of a genuine concern for excellence, others from a less noble fear that if they allow another to lead, they will be usurped. However, the biblical model is that we must raise up leaders, then release them to lead—with real authority. Like Jesus, we must become examples of humble, servant leadership which seeks to empower and send people to fulfill all the dreams for which God has prepared them. The gospel is about God taking ordinary people and using them in extraordinary ways. We must therefore let go of the need to control every outcome, and allow room for the Holy Spirit to mold our communities through many gifted men and women whom we have unleashed. Then we will really have something to show to this culture which is far more accustomed to leadership which “lords down” upon them.

Using the “Talking Head” Model Exclusively: After I visited a church where I was the guest speaker, my wife and I stood in the empty worship center after all the people went home. I asked her: “Hon, if you were an alien from outer space, and came into this room, what would you guess the purpose of it was just by looking at the way it is set up?” Her answer: “I would say it is a place where a bunch of people come to hear the same information at the same time.” Unfortunately, my wife made a correct assessment of what many churches have become – merely seminars were nameless people receive a one way flow of pre-determined information, then go home. This is even true of many of our small groups, where we pop in a DVD and listen to a famous teacher. However, if we truly believed in the doctrine of “The Priesthood Of All Believers,” then we should be greatly motivated to create environments where the Spirit will work through us to be each other’s teachers. Nonbelievers value speaking with someone, not being “talked at.” If we truly demonstrate a desire to hear what someone besides ourselves has to say, perhaps that same someone might be more inclined to listen when there is a talking head. At our church, we have implemented an alternating Sunday morning format where on certain weeks the lesson is in a discussion format. We truly leave space in the lesson for people to teach each other. Yes, this is getting trickier as we grow, but it is worth it.

Confusing Numerical Church Growth With Church Health: Turn on your TV and watch a Christian channel for a few minutes. If that doesn’t convince you that numerical growth does not necessarily mean health, then nothing will! Some of the largest and fastest growing churches in America are unfortunately perpetuating many of the above dysfunctions to such a large degree, that a rapidly increasing number of Americans are viewing the church as completely irrelevant and worthless. Perhaps we should begin to measure success not by asses in the seats, but by asking ourselves if we see the effects of the gospel in our community: restored lives, healed marriages, reconciled relationships, sent leaders and transformed hearts. Otherwise, our numerical growth may lull us into a false sense of success, leaving many people outside unaffected by the gospel because our delusion has caused us to stop pursuing innovative ways to fulfill our mission. Disclaimer: I am not arguing against increasing attendance per se. I am arguing against programming our gatherings with the primary goal to increase numbers, and against measuring success by our attendance.

Top Ten Mistakes: First Five

Here is the first five of my list of what I believe to be the top ten mistakes made by Evangelical churches in America, in no particular order. I believe that each of these mistakes cause us to be less effective in our mission to participate with Jesus in bringing about restoration through the gospel. I hope you enjoy reading this post, because it came at the expense of my youngest son’s lunch, which I burned because I paid more attention to this article than I did his knockwurst. Next week, I will post the next five of top ten mistakes.

What do you think? Disagree with one? Have more to add? Please comment and let me know!

Sharing Half the Gospel Message: Recently, an unchurched friend asked me, “Why do Christians use the term ‘saved,’ don’t they realize how judgmental that sounds?”  My answer was that many times, we Christians communicate our message as merely rescuing, or “saving” someone from hell–that Jesus only died on the cross to “forgive your sins so you can get to heaven.” I then let him know, that while I do believe that that Jesus died for my sins and that I will go to heaven when I die, that sometimes we forget to mention that there is also a life in-between! Jesus not only died to provide legal forgiveness, but he also rose to give us a transformed life in the here and now. Jesus has a story in which he invites us to participate. That truth should also be part of our message. Amazed, my friend said “Yes! I never heard that before, That makes a lot of sense. I need to take some time and think about that.” My friend has always understandably seen the church as completely irrelevant, since he had heard little or no talk about a restored life the present, but much talk about how he needs to be saved. Hopefully he is beginning to rediscover the relevance of the Gospel in his everyday life.

Lack of Timeliness in Baptisms: Baptism is also a powerful evangelism tool because it is a picture of the complete gospel: that Christ both died and rose again. It is also an opportunity for people to take a tangible and meaningful step after coming to faith. In fact, for some people baptism is the very step that they take to profess their saving faith – much like the “sinner’s prayer” does for others. Some churches delay baptism after a profession of faith to allow for some sort of process. However, a timely baptism demonstrates that nothing else is necessary but God’s grace. I have always been amazed to witness people who were close to believing finally come to faith immediately after witnessing a baptism.

Drawing a Line in the Sand Over the Theory of Evolution: The church made a similar mistake 400 years ago when it drew a line in the sand over a geocentric view of the universe. This view that the earth was the center of the universe was based on literal interpretation of verses such as Psalm 19:6, which says about the sun: “It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other.” Galileo’s good science eventually proved not that the Bible was incorrect, but that the church’s interpretation of the Bible was. The resulting causalities were the many people who were alienated from faith, because when the church drew a line in the sand, they had no choice but to step over it. Likewise, we may be drawing a line in the sand by insisting that Genesis is meant to be taken as historical narrative, thereby laying out a necessary time sequence for the origin of life. However, it is conceivable that Genesis may be in some way intended to be taken in a more figurative, poetic way, much the same way as we now understand Psalm 19. This does not mean that we understand it to be any less true. Among the people who held this view was St. Augustine, who is way out of any of our theological leagues, and had no pressure from science to interpret it that way.

So, let’s just admit that we are not scientists, that we don’t really know anything about Potassium-Argon Dating, and allow science to run its course before we alienate even more millions of people. If it is done well, science will certainly reveal new amazing truths about God and his work in the universe, much like Galileo’s telescope has done for us today!

Lack of Emphasis of Corporate Prayer in Worship Gatherings: When I was in college and involved in a campus ministry, we took time every at every meeting to share prayer requests and pray for each other – it seemed so natural, even though there was easily 100 people present. Then, when God answered prayer it not only strengthened our faith, it also demonstrated to the people among us who did not yet believe that God is real. It was exciting to see the result of many students on campus coming to faith. Compare my experience to a recent study showing that prayer consists of merely 5% of the worship service in the average contemporary evangelical church.

Deemphasizing corporate prayer potentially shields people from seeing God do his best work. Prayer also demonstrates that we are a community of people who love and care for each other. I recently met a young woman who came to faith because during a service she witnessed a church gathering around to pray for a member recently diagnosed with MS. The love of the community demonstrated in that act is what won her over. Our church takes time in every gathering to share prayer requests and pray for each other, and it has been a highly effective form of evangelism lately as nonbelievers have been witnessing God answering several prayers.

Having Separate Events for Outreach: I guess we can also call this “Having Events for Christians Only.” The transformative power of the gospel working in and through the people in the community of faith is a very powerful evangelism tool. When the gospel changes people, others notice! This means that we must be patient and gracious enough to create an environment which allows people to belong before they believe. We must create a paradigm in which it is typical to include unbelievers at every event, whether they are worship services, service projects, bowling nights, or informal Sunday afternoon dinners in one’s home.

We have made a commitment to no longer get together with “just our Christian friends.” I now grieve over years of missed opportunities when we did not invite our unbelieving friends to join us for the evening because they did not fit into the correct “category.” We falsely believed that they would not relate to the gathering. Now, I understand that the problem was not in their inability to relate to the environment, but in our inability to create a relatable environment. My middle son, who is also my proofreader, reminded me on this point that our exclusivity at times also makes us appear “stuck up.” Good point.