“The Church Has Left the Building”

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of the newest trend for churches: to cancel services on a given Sunday and not have it be for reasons for bad weather. Now I’m not talking about cancelling the service for the Super Bowl (which has happened and is problematic), but rather churches that cancel their services specifically so that the people in the congregation can go and serve the wider community in various projects.

On the one hand, this accomplishes a number of goals: it helps get the church’s name out in the community (“branding”), it shows that Christians care about more than just themselves, and it perhaps even helps those in the community to realize that Christians aren’t just those who believe certain things, but they are also those who try their best to live in certain ways.

And yet, I have to admit that I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of canceling church for these reasons. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to explain my discomfort is to say it this way: I think that when a church feels the need to cancel their service – so that the congregation can actually go and serve others in the community – that this says a lot more about them as a church and what they value than they might realize. I think it shows a deficient understanding of why we gather for worship. I think it also shows a danger in the health of the congregation itself. Let’s take those two points in order:

First, the point of the church gathering together is to worship God (Acts 2:42 is but one good example of what a gathered congregation does). It’s not primarily to make ourselves feel good, nor is it to create a “brand” that stands for whatever socio-political cause is hot at the moment, nor is it a time for life-coaching or group counseling. The point of the church is to be Christ’s bride by making disciples who obey all that He has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). We do that not just individually, but also together by worshiping God through music, prayer, giving, and attending to God’s Word, and gathering together (Hebrews 10:24-25). This integrated goal is not possible when we are scattered all throughout the city doing whatever community service projects. While it might be possible to engage in very good and God-honoring things (sharing the Gospel, for example), the problem is that the purpose of church is not boiled down into just that one thing. As well, canceling the service and sending the congregation every-which-way only serves to reinforce the “Jesus and me” individualistic mentality of the Western church all the while de-valuing what the Scriptures say about the gathered church.

Secondly, I mentioned that I think this shows a danger to the health of the congregation; how so? To me, it’s fairly obvious: shouldn’t the church be serving and out in the community already? If you have to cancel the service because folks are otherwise too busy to care for their neighbors, then something is deeply wrong with their priorities or schedules. I think of the folks in our very own congregation (which is not perfect, by any means, and neither am I) and I see people who serve in many different ways all around town during the week: a food pantries, at resale shops, bringing food to shut-in’s, engaging in evangelism, being faithful about their vocational work, etc. My concern is that needing to designate a specific Sunday to cancel the service and do all these things reinforces that you and I and everyone else doesn’t really need to be disciples during the rest of the week. And what’s more, it reinforces that what we do on Sundays as we gather together to worship really isn’t as important as getting out and “doing something.”

Dear friends and fellow pastors, if you feel the need to cancel the church service – for many churches, the only time throughout the week when the congregation would otherwise gather to worship God and encourage one another – let me challenge you to realize that cancelling the service isn’t the solution, but is merely a symptom of the problem. The problem in such cases is that, far too often, we’ve made our churches into places where everything is just-so with perfectly in-tune worship services and wittily delivered messages observed by perfectly dressed and mannered people. That is not what the church service should look like. Instead, our congregations should reflect where we live – racially, economically, spiritually. Those who lead the church service should do so with humility and the utmost attention to Biblical fidelity. In short, we should care a whole lot less about production, income, and “the organization” and care a whole lot more about worshiping our great God and learning from His Word about what it means to serve Him. If we make an effort at doing that, then we’ll find plenty of opportunities to show our faith all throughout the week. Then we’ll see ourselves not as something different from the community, but as part of it. And then we’ll realize that the Christian life is not primarily a life of comfort interrupted by a day of service here and there, but rather it is a calling to be more like Christ everyday.

This makes the church an outpost in a foreign land. More like a spiritual hospital than a community center. Or an embassy for God’s kingdom. And from what I read in the Scriptures, that’s what it should be.

Justin Taylor, over at the Gospel Coalition, recently quoted a wonderful passage from James Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom which puts it this way:

“There is a certain hint of scandal here, of a reality that cuts against the grain of our late-modern liberal sensibilities: for as we’re making our way to worship, not everyone is coming…

Since we, on our own, don’t have the inclination or ability to answer the call, our response in gathering is already a sign of God’s redemption and regeneration at work. But the neighbors and strangers we pass on the way also remind us that God’s peculiar people is also a chosen people (1 Peter 2:9), called out from among the nations, graced ‘without why,’ elected to be a renewed people for this still-sleeping world.” (p.161)

Read the rest here.

Helpful Quotes from The King in His Beauty

I am reading through an excellent – but long – book by professor Tom Schreiner titled The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. For anyone who has the time and desire, I’d highly recommend it. The basic premise of the book is that there is one continuous story of what God is doing all throughout the Scriptures. I realize that such a statement might seem obvious, but I’m not sure how many Christians think through the practical implications of the entire Bible being one story rather than dozens (or even hundreds!) of small little vignettes that are largely unconnected. The entire book is chock-full of quite-worthy reminders of what God is doing – here are a few from my present reading:

1) Regarding the Passover and it’s spiritual importance: “If thankfulness vanished, so would faith and obedience.” (p.33)

2) On the purpose of the Book of Leviticus: “Leviticus stops the narrative and considers how the Lord can continue to live in the midst of Israel, a sinful people.” (p.48)

3) Schreiner notes that in Numbers we find the impartiality of the Lord: “No one, the text emphasizes, can trifle with the holiness of the Lord. Moses himself would not enter the land, for no one enjoys special privileges. All must honor the holiness of the Lord or face his judgment.” (p.75) This is the price of sin and rebellion, even for leaders. What an important note in our world where if you have the right connections or a big enough bank account you can generally avoid all consequences for your actions.

4) A note on the connection between Adam and Israel as a people: “Adam and Israel shared the same calling: they were to obey the Lord and experience His blessing.” (p.92)

5) A good quote on living in, but not of, the world (this given in respect to Israel not fully obeying God in their conquering of the Promised Land): “If Israel lives among the Canaanites, it likely will not be long before Israel begins to live like the Canaanites.” (p.119)

6) On the importance of a king in 1-2 Samuel: “The sovereign rule of Yahweh is exercised through the anointed king of Israel. Yahweh rules over Israel through a mediator, and that mediator is from David’s family line.” (p.136)

7) And, as we are struggling with right now in our 2 Samuel sermon series: “David points forward to a better king, a king who always did the will of the Lord, Jesus the Christ.” (p.163)

Known and Loved

One of the most remarkable aspects of our faith is that Christ fully knows our sins. He knows – as if sitting right there with us – all of the myriad ways in which we rebel and offend Him. He knows when we lie and when we lust, when we steal and when we gossip. Christ fully knows when you are more afraid of people than you are of Him and He knows the deepest, darkest thoughts of your heart…

…and yet, He loves you.

Isn’t that shocking? Now I don’t want this thought to die the death of a thousand qualifications, but of course I don’t mean that He loves your sin and I don’t mean that silly notion going about in our world that you are just fine as you are and nothing should change about you or I. No, instead I mean that Christ died so that you and I and everyone who trusts in Him would have eternal life. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And He did this knowing that you and I would still continue to offend Him in our lives. Knowing that we are not worthy. Knowing that we can’t somehow repay Him.

As I finished the Andrew Peterson book North! or be Eaten, I came across a quote that I think very carefully encapsulates this truth:

“He moved through the days in peace and wonder, for his whole story had been told for the first time, and he found that he was still loved.” (p.321)

Isn’t that what we have in Christ? Our entire story – even the dark bits that we hoped would never come to light – has been made clear to Jesus. And yet…what we experience is not rejection…but His love, given to us.

Amen!

“Heartbroken because it had…”

I have been reading through the very excellent (and highly recommended!) Wingfeather Saga of children’s books written by singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson. I’m doing this partly because I’ve been told that they are simply good and epic books, along the lines of a children’s version of The Lord of the Rings. But I’m also doing this to get a sense of them before starting to read to my children.

One of the aspects that I appreciate most about Peterson’s writing is how he deals with real life situations in an honest manner. Much of children’s literature seems to go to one extreme or another: either everything is great and wonderful and could never be bad or the world is a dark and scary place with only a little bit of good in it (usually accompanied by some sort of self-esteem “but you can make it better!” message). Peterson does neither. Writing from a Christian worldview, Peterson writes with humor and wonder and adventure, but he also deals with the occasional difficult-yet-real topic as well.

In the second book, North! or be Eaten, we find the Igiby children’s beloved dog dying as a result of defending them from their wicked enemies (called the Fangs). What I find most impactful about this chapter is how it so plainly and clearly shows an understanding of sadness and evil in the world and yet, for those who trust in the Lord, that sadness and grief is not without hope:

“Janner remembered the day at the cottage when she thought the Fangs had killed Nugget. She had cried little and soon grown silent. That had been far more worrisome to him than the way Leeli now wept. She seemed older, no longer shocked that such a thing could happen in the world but heartbroken because it had. Her tears struck Janner as the right kind of tears.” -North! or Be Eaten, Andrew Peterson, p.65

And, indeed, that is the difference. This is why we cry when somebody dies. Not because we can’t believe that death would ever occur, but because such a terrible thing did occur.

It reminds me of the first time a toy of my daughter’s broke. It was some sort of cheap battery-operated thing that we’d gotten somewhere and it worked for all of a few minutes. At the time, she didn’t have a lot of words, but was clearly trying to express her frustration, and then sadness, as she kept trying to get it to work. She then took it to her mom to fix, but it couldn’t be fixed, for it was broken. Then my daughter brought it to me, knowing that “daddy fix?” so often is all that is needed to get something working again. Alas, I was unable to fix it as well. The tears that came to my daughter’s eyes that day were tears of shock as much as sadness: she had no idea a toy – something which should give her such happiness – could break and leave her without that same happiness.

Now my daughter is older, and one of the most heart-wrenching yet necessary things to see is that she understands that there are things like death and pain and meanness in the world. She still cries when something bad happens, but her tears are no longer tears of shock and betrayal at a world she thought was only good. Now she cries because she knows that there are such pains in the world. And we praise God together that she knows and believes that Jesus will someday take away all of the pain and the horrors and the tears.

So shall it be for all who trust Christ. When we look at the world, we must not approach it either naively nor fatalistically. Instead, we must approach it realistically: we understand that there is great sin now and that should grieve us. But we must always remember that sin will not reign forever. Someday it will be destroyed by our Glorious King. And so, amidst tears and sorrows, we hold fast to hope. To Christ. To salvation. And to the Kingdom which He is bringing with Him.

“Is God anti-gay?”

I believe that one of the most difficult struggles we have as Christians is knowing how to respond both faithfully and gracefully to social issues, particularly ones that we disagree with.

The rhetoric around homosexuality has been heated for a number of years, and lately has devolved into nothing short of an all-out war. On the one side, we Christians who hold firmly to what the Scriptures say have not always communicated the Bible’s stance against homosexual actions with grace and mercy. Too often we have used it as a club to beat over the head anyone who disagrees. Too often we have used it as part of a wider campaign against “the liberals” (whoever those are) in part of the culture wars. We have become a people who are known more for what we are against rather than what we are for.

On the other side, we have those who claim homosexuality as their identity – and those who support them – hijacking the language of tolerance to make their own views look normal and everyone else’s look strange. In their desire not just for acceptance but for affirmation as well, those on this side of the line have changed the idea of tolerance from “I disagree with you but defend your right to say or hold that view” to the radically and ironically intolerant view of “If you don’t agree with me then you must hate me and hatred is intolerant, thus you are intolerant and I can be justified in being intolerant to you.” The irony, of course, is that those who champion tolerance are perfectly fine being intolerant (“shouting down” as one Sioux City Journal editorial said) to those they disagree with.

Enter Sam Allberry’s helpful little book “Is God anti-gIGAGay?” What is most striking about this book is not it’s size (about 90 pages), nor how winsomely it argues for the Bible’s stance on sexuality in every circumstance, but rather that the author himself has the qualifications to write on this subject: you see, Pastor Allberry struggles with same-sex attraction. And yet, by God’s grace, he lives a celibate life because he is convinced that the Bible restricts sex to a married man and woman only.

This little book is a gem: Allberry is thoroughly Biblical – even knowing that to be so will call his own struggles out. And yet, unlike so many, Allberry does not believe that his struggles with same-sex attraction are what defines him. This enables him to see Christ as what is most important about his life, rather than making the issue about “identity” or “who I really am,” because who Pastor Allberry really is, is a sinner saved by grace. And that’s who I am and who every Christian is. I would suggest that this is one of the key issues that we who are Christian need to be clearer on – and not just with respect to homosexuality, but in all manner of sins – we are made new in Christ. What is most important about us is not whatever demographic or marketing category we fall into, nor is it our politics or where we live. What is most important is that our Lord and Savior is Jesus Christ.

The book is chock full of helpful insights as well. Allberry reminds us that we need to not treat those who identify as homosexual as being beyond the grace of God. He tells us as well that we need to understand that though this is a massive, sinful, issue; at the same time what a person in the homosexual lifestyle needs most is not ten reasons why they are wrong (though that particular sin DOES need to be addressed at some point), but instead what they need most is to know Jesus as their Savior from sin. In other words, start with Christ and work outwards, rather than starting with sin and trying to somehow bridge to Jesus. Allberry himself argues that he struggles with other things far more in life than he does sexually. Therefore to only address him (or someone like him) on that one front is only part of the problem.

Another thought-provoking point that Allberry makes is that churches have often made it more difficult for those struggling with same-sex attraction because we have oriented so many of our outreaches and ministries around serving couples and families. If we want to uphold the Bible’s stance on sexuality (i.e. only between a man and a woman and only if they are married), then we need to also uphold the very high value that the Scriptures place on singleness as well. Too often the church has failed at this, and so – unknowingly – we have played a part in making marriage (and now, homosexual marriage, as is being argued in the public square) the issue of the church. I – too – have noticed that the church seems to not know what to do with single people. When we act as if singleness is a disease that needs to be cured we devalue those who are single and, for those who are single perhaps because they are struggling with same-sex attraction, we twist the knife even more. Allberry does a great job of both surfacing this issue as well as providing some practical helps on good ways to change the course.

At any rate, my review of this book has grown quite long, which is ironic given how short the book is. So I will conclude by ending with the highest praise I could give in a review of a book such as this one: every Christian should read this book. Every Christian should take to heart what it says. If you care about understanding what Scripture says regarding homosexuality, get this book. If you care about seeing all kinds of people come to Christ (those who identify as gay or straight, married or not, rich or poor, European or African, etc.), then you need to read this book. Its influence is the Bible and its applications are driven by holding Christ high, realizing that we all fall short, and then being reminded of the cross of our Lord.

Innocent as to Evil

“We do well to know why we are not Mormons or Roman Catholics or why we believe same-sex marriage is wrong. But it can be dangerous to immerse ourselves in false teachings and false teachers. It can be dangerous to assume that we need to have a deep understanding of error in order to hold fast to what is true.”

This is the balance and the challenge that Tim Challies’ puts forth in a recent blog article: how do we both know what we believe (and why) and yet not immerse ourselves in that which is false, evil, and untrue? His concern – which I tentatively share at times – is that Christians spend too much time trying to know every intricacy of a false doctrine or an unfaithful teacher and yet don’t spend equal – or more! – time knowing what God has actually said in His Word. Put another way, we should be experts on what God has said first and foremost. If you spend more time studying false teaching than you do studying right, true, and good teaching then your priorities are out of whack.

Read the rest of the article here.