grace Posts

The American Dream is derailing the American Church.

The American Church is losing her way. I write this in hopes of helping some of us get back on track. In recent days our passion, even anger, around non-core issues has revealed that we’ve forgotten who we are and Whose we are. Our early brothers and sisters knew that they were “aliens and sojourners” (1 Peter 2:11) in a foreign land. Not once do we see them demanding that the Roman government get on board with their agenda. I can’t imagine Paul thinking, “If we could only get the right emperor on the throne in Rome we could finally advance this Gospel.” Instead, he taught what Peter, and every other apostolic leader taught, that in Christ we now belong to “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). I think Jesus would tell us we’ve been fighting the wrong battle, with the wrong weapons.

If our deepest emotions reveal our idols, then the current anxiety, and anger of some, has exposed our misplaced values. Augustine defined sin as “disordered love”, having highest affections for good things, but not the Supreme thing. Instead of a passion for Christ as Lord and a devotion to love as He has loved us, it seems we’ve come to believe that the kingdom will be ushered in through the White House, rather than through God’s House – through God’s people.

We’ve baptized our own version of the American Dream, with our own American Jesus. The American Dream, that has produced (in my view) the greatest country on earth, has created a national ethos founded on the wonderful ideals of freedom, prosperity, and success for all. Driven by a desire for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, Americans have opportunities that others around the world can only imagine. Today, we pause to thank God for those who have gone before us who have established the God-given principles that guide us. But let’s be sure that we separate the Bible (that helps us live as “aliens and sojourners”, following Jesus every day) from the Constitution (that helps us live as law-abiding Americans everyday).

In his book, “On Two Wings”, Michael Novak explains the context out of which the “American Experiment” was born. Novak states that the way American history has been told for the last century is incomplete. Secular historians have “cut off one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies.” The founding generation established a compact with the God of Israel “and relied upon this belief. Their faith is an indispensable part of their story.” But, as aliens and sojourners, we must remember that there were two wings that established the greatness of America. If one wing was a Judeo-Christian (mostly Christian) ethic and biblical worldview, the other was driven by the Enlightenment, with an emphasis on reason, a secular point of view detached from God. John Adams and others, representing the Christian wing and James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others representing the secular wing, hammered out through compromise, a constitution they could all agree upon. Indeed, history has proven it was brilliant and unmatched.

Christians today need to remember two things: First of all, the Constitution is not our Bible. The Constitution governs our nation while the Word of God governs our daily lives. Secondly, we need to recognize that diversity was a central part of our Constitution from the beginning. Therefore, everyone has a seat at the table. The atheist, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the homosexual, the straight, the Christian, the agnostic (you name it), all have a seat at the table. If we pause to consider what we love so much about America and what true religious freedom really is, we realize it must be this way. Christians today need to understand the rules of the game. The great tragedy in our nation today is that we can’t sit down with tolerance and enter into conversation. This is true on all sides of the table. Christians should model a different way, one that James described as being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). In fact, it’s possible to agree constitutionally with a decision made by the Supreme Court and at the same time, disagree with it biblically (again, the constitution is not our Bible). The frustration for many Christians today is that it seems we’re no longer able to leverage political power to help make substantial decisions that sway public policy and opinion. But we need to recognize that it’s never been that way, not regarding decisions that will ultimately change the course of our nation and the advancement of the Gospel. The Gospel will advance (as it does in every nation) as followers of Jesus live their lives fully devoted to Him, sharing His Gospel with a lost and dying world. We need to be able to move into the new normal with a balance of grace and truth. Only Jesus, Himself “full of grace and truth” lived this out perfectly. So, as we fail to do so, may we constantly point to the One who did so perfectly on our behalf. Let’s point them to Jesus who is not simply our Example but our Substitute. He alone has lived the perfect life for us, taking on our sin and shame upon the cross, and rising again so that we too might live as a resurrected people, all to His glory.

Anne Lamott wrote, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” May love be the supreme descriptor of God’s people, in America, and in every nation on earth. Today is a good day to celebrate our freedoms and the founding fathers who made them possible. It’s also a good day to think deeply about where our faith truly lies. I am very hopeful for the American Church. I just returned from a week with hundreds of students who are carving out a new path for the advancement of the Gospel for this emerging generation. I see young people who, like their counterparts of the early church, refuse to allow the emperor his preeminent place and instead call Jesus alone, Lord and King. Let us live as He truly is.

Millennials, Worship, and the Church

Recently, Relevant Magazine posted an excellent article by Sarah Held Evans, entitled, The Church Needs to Stop Pandering to Trends . As usual Sarah brings her gracious and thoughtful perspective, representing many millennials’ views of the church. She points out what I’ve observed for years; “Millennials are not looking for a hipper Christianity. They’re looking for a truer Christianity”. Surely Jesus surrounded Himself with mostly uncool people, in the eyes of the world. They were more like misfits, outcasts, the under-resourced, and the marginalized. God has always chosen people like that. It’s possible for young people in some churches today to believe that being “cool” is a prerequisite to being “Christian”. Jesus taught nothing like this.

My specific love and concern is for the congregation that I’ve been called and am privileged to shepherd, the Park Cities Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas I hope my thoughts here will be helpful for other pastors and leaders who are seeking to guide their congregations toward God-honoring worship as well. Many pastors I talk with believe that our attention has turned to non-core issues and way too much time is spent talking about secondary matters. Of course this is nothing new to the church. But a hyper-focused return to the Gospel is our only solution. This is why I constantly seek to keep the attention on what matters most: Christ, the Good News of His rescuing grace, and the attempt to join Him in the renewal of all things. Even still, conversations around forms, styles, music, space and such, though non-core, can be helpful.

Please read the above link to Sarah Evan’s post and particularly the Barna Research that prompted her article. I read over this research in November of last year (it was first released 10/2013). It was Luke Sammons, our High School Minister, who pointed me/our team to it. It very much confirmed our direction, and what we knew: Praise God for the amazing worship space that He has given us at PCBC! For those unfamiliar, we worship in our Sanctuary , built about 60 years ago, our gym , constructed about 50 years ago (and remodeled about 4 years ago), and in our Great Hall completed about 10 years ago. Our own local community survey conducted by Auxano confirms the information found in the Barna Research. The survey of our local context also focused on sermon content, driving values, programs and ministry preferences. It also revealed that corporate worship that includes classic/more formal elements, such as a choir, and worship that is led by a band/praise team, are both desired by people in our demographic. Our local survey revealed what the Barna survey shows on a national level: Millennials are drawn to a mix of “casual”, “classic”, “quiet”,”down to earth”, “modern” elements, and participatory/experiential worship. Our study confirms much of what we’re doing at PCBC and also points to what we wrestle with each week: Our Great Hall, though excellent space, is a wonderful speaking room but not the best worship/singing room (it’s challenging acoustically). Our team has been aware of this and is working to improve the congregational singing in the room. As a result, we’re singing better in the Great Hall than we ever have. Our Sanctuary, on the other hand, is an amazing singing room, but I sometimes hear from members who have trouble hearing the spoken word. We are constantly seeking to improve that as well, and progress has been made. Praise God for our wonderful tech team.

The trend Sarah Evans is referencing is one of millennials moving toward a more classic (in her case, Episcopalian) liturgy and a desire for a broader, historical connection to the Church. She says,”I think our reasons for leaving church are more complicated, more related to social changes and deep questions of faith than worship style or image.” “We need to creatively re-articulate the significance of the traditional teachings and sacraments of the church in a modern context.” I agree with her. We must continue to be creative with each new generation to re-articulate, to help them re-discover, the ancient and timeless truths of the Gospel through all we do.

Sarah left the evangelical church because of a growing need for things, “like space for silence and reflection, a focus on Christ’s presence at the Communion table as the climax and center of every worship service, opportunities for women in leadership and the inclusion of LGBT people.” I love her openness and desire for grace to all people, but I think we would disagree with her on several points. I like to remind millennials and church planters that “we didn’t just show up yesterday”; that we are part of a powerful heritage, and this critical connection helps us know who we really are in Christ and where we fall in His ongoing mission in our world. We see locally what Sarah is referencing (and what the survey points out) in churches like the The Church of the Incarnation near Uptown, in Dallas, reaching lots of millennials through historical liturgy (the Apostles Creed, Common Prayer, weekly communion), and a more open, generous orthodoxy. In terms of style or form, in the end it’s a blend of ancient liturgy, sacred space, modern instrumentation (primarily acoustic), and a more casual dress, perceived as more “authentic”, raw, down-to-earth in its expression. Like us, and other churches reaching across the generations, the Church of the Incarnation offers multiple service options. We’re also seeing churches like Watermark Community Church that are reaching millennials by the thousands through very modern expressions. Not surprisingly, in our own context at PCBC, we see that our more contemporary forms are reaching a younger crowd as well. We also see some younger couples drawn to our traditional forms. Most of our preferences in worship are tied to our past experiences. What we’re seeing in our day is that fewer and fewer worshippers have had an experience in churches like the one I grew up in (with traditional Baptist worship). We’re seeing the results of that as the number of such worshippers is declining annually.

The key is authenticity among the leaders and worshippers whose whole lives are focused on Christ alone. People show up where God is active and alive in the hearts of the people. Millennials (indeed, all of us) are seeking real, honest, even raw, broken people, like us all. I also appreciate the desire toward more quiet moments, more “God time” as I call it, space for us to be silent before Him. We’ve been talking a lot about this lately in our worship planning. I love the multiple expressions we have at PCBC – Great Hall, Sanctuary, gym, all reaching different kinds of people. Though these articles are helpful, I always want to move our conversations away from music, buildings, forms, and on to worship. That’s where they need to stay. Deeper thought regarding the essence of worship, the Object and Subject of our worship, acceptable and unacceptable worship, etc. will point us to proper expressions of worship. I will continue to teach and guide us toward these things. Stephen Carrell, Justin Hornsby (Associate Pastors of Worship), and Ronny and Denny Robinson (who lead in our Hispanic service) will do the same. That’s what I LOVE about our church- we have the unique opportunity and resource (praise God) to reach a broader number of people in our ever-growing, and ever-more diverse population. What unites us is not music, but it is the Gospel; Jesus is the One who unites us. I love that we seek to do whatever it takes to reach people for Christ in our context.

Every church has its own unique collective potential (the people and resources that God Himself has assembled), in our own unique local context, guided by a specific group of leaders (lay and clergy) whom God has called out to lead. These factors all guide us and inform each church as they worship. Indeed all programs, forms, structures, etc., are informed by His mission for us. His Person and His mission drive everything. Clearly at PCBC, a more traditional/formal expression of worship helps so many people connect with God in corporate worship and a more contemporary form does as well (as does our Hispanic expression). Of course, this creates a real challenge for a pastor/leaders – and the members – as we must all learn to celebrate various forms and rejoice in them as they are pointing so many to Jesus, which is all we want to do. And we must guide our people not to discredit one person’s expression of worship over another that we might prefer. That’s my constant prayer for us in regard to worship – that we honor all types, extending grace and celebrating one another as we celebrate Jesus. Strange as it sounds, you know you’ve shifted to “worship” music and not Jesus when you feel you must fight for your personal preference over others. We’ve lost the focus at that point. We all have preferences – though I’m one of those who loves all kinds of worship forms and styles equally (which I’m sure is one of the many reasons why God brought me to PCBC to be the pastor). I think it’s hard in a church like ours to honor, love and respect one another when we don’t see each other in the other venues. We’ve learned what other churches have seen as well – that some prefer their personal preference of music (be it “traditional” or “contemporary” or something else) over the desire to be together as a church family. I understand that reality in churches which have determined to offer multiple expressions of worship in an effort to reach a diverse cultural setting. It is difficult but a necessary reality that brings about a complex leadership structure. One solution, or help, is to come together periodically and worship Jesus together, blending styles and forms, which many churches do weekly.

The pastor’s goal, and the worship leader’s goal, is to always exalt Jesus alone. We must keep the conversation on Jesus, the Gospel, and the essence of worship, not forms and personal preferences. Each of us must simply respond to Jesus, His Gospel of rescuing grace, and His unending love for us. Then you will “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:18-20

The Incomparable Uniqueness of Christ

As Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism was dying, his devoted followers asked how they should keep his memory alive, propagate his greatness. He said, “Don’t bother. Tell them not to remember me, but adhere to my teachings. They can forget me, but let my teachings be propagated around the world.” This sounds like a very self-less, humble response. But Jesus would have never said anything like this. If He had it would validate what many people think: that Jesus was yet another religious leader whose primary message was, “work harder, get better”. It would confirm what a lot of Christians seem to believe today – that Jesus came to initiate a new and improved behavior modification project. As if Jesus came to help us get better. Clearly Jesus taught us much, but think about it, what was at the heart of His teaching?

The central focus of Jesus’ teaching was His identity, who He was and is. He would have never said, “Forget me, just follow my teachings.” He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It may sound self-evident but at the heart of the Christian faith is Christ Himself, Who He is and what He has done. So, it’s paramount that we get our Christology right (who He is) above all else and then put everything else at it’s service. Here’s why:  Your view of Christ determines your response to Him. The Person of Jesus – His character, His identity, and the essence of His nature is clearly revealed in the Gospel accounts and is brought into undeniable focus and clarity the final week of His life.

Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem begins with a counter-procession, presenting a contrary way, a rival king, a contrasting social order, and an opposing theology, ushering in an alternative kingdom – the kingdom of God.

Jesus said His kingdom is “not of this world,” and it contrasts the kingdom of the world in every possible way. This is not a simple contrast between good and evil, but rather two fundamentally different ways of doing life, two fundamentally different belief systems- two fundamentally different loyalties. This King is ushering in a different kind of kingdom and it’s embodied in the King Himself.

This is why the angry pursuit of the religious leaders ramped up the final week of His life. In the end, He was not crucified because He talked about loving others or caring for the poor. He was crucified because of who He claimed to be. In the end, He lived the perfect life for us, suffered and died, taking on our shame and punishment, and He rose again, conquering death and hell- this is the Gospel, the Good News that has rescued us from death and hell. He is the King we worship, the One we proclaim, and the One we follow every day.

This Easter season, lets tell others who Jesus really is. Tell them He is not another good example, but our incomparable Substitution.

Gospel Identity and Racial Harmony

ban-reconciliation

#blacklivesmatter

Following the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case, I added the popular hashtag to a post. Knowing how some of my white friends would respond, I waited. Sure enough: “All lives matter!” was the response, missing the point altogether. Of course, all lives matter. What white people don’t understand (and cannot know experientially), is what it’s like to feel that your race does not matter to people of other races. Indeed this is what the response (to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown) is all about.

The varied responses in the aftermath of recent incidents have clearly exposed the racial divide we still have in our country. We are not as far along as we thought we were. As a pastor, I see something that may be even more disturbing: the lack of Gospel identity among God’s people has been deeply exposed as well. It may be more disturbing because the appropriation of the Gospel is the only way to racial reconciliation. It’s time for followers of Christ to let their identity in Christ to displace their racial identity. Or as Bryan Loritts stated, “My Jesusness must always trump my blackness.”

The most recent racial challenges have given believers across our country the opportunity to show what we really believe about the Gospel. As those transformed by the Gospel, our response should be markedly different from those who have never tasted the grace of God. It should be evident that Jesus has actually changed our lives. The appropriation of the Gospel means that we really do believe that grace triumphs over all things; that listening precedes talking, and that being “right” (winning an argument) is not as important as loving others without condition. We actually live like Jesus, “full of grace and full of truth” (John 1:14).

How would Jesus respond in the midst of recent happenings? Living in response to the Gospel means that we live in light of what He’s already done for us. Romans 5:10 says,  “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.” Reconciliation is the restoration of friendly relationships and of peace, where previously there had been hostility and alienation. If possible, it also includes the removal of the offense that caused the disruption of peace and harmony. This is what Christ has done. We must do the same, whenever possible. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says, “that, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” “Us” is us, those who claim to have been transformed by the Gospel.

The 2nd chapter of Ephesians serves as a field guide for racial reconciliation. Ephesians 2:14 says, “For He Himself is our Peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility”. This “dividing wall” was as much a racial divide as it was a religious one. Paul says that Christ Himself is the Answer, “and might reconcile us both (Gentiles and Jews) to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” Ephesians 2:16. The power of the cross is still in effect today. He is mighty to save, to destroy hostility, and to reconcile all people to one another through His finished work on the cross.

For nearly 30 years, Jonathan Scott has been my best friend in ministry. Jonathan is African American and knows everything about me. Through the miles, we still connect monthly, talk about life, ministry, and how God is changing us. Race is not central to any of our conversations; the Gospel is. Jesus is. We love each other without condition and though we do not deny the color of our skin, the Gospel defines us and the friendship we share. Christ in us trumps all other identities.

The problem with many reading this post is that you agree with me in principle, but not in practice. Too many white people (and black people) would say they are not racists (who would admit that?), but they do not have close relationships with anyone of another race. Therefore, they never really get inside the mind and heart of someone of another race. If we do not know each other, how can we trust each other and how can we love each other? We could only do so theoretically and Jesus had much to say about those who claim to love, but can show no evidence of any love in action.

I believe one of the greatest opportunities for the Body of Christ in our day is to come together across racial boundaries for the common good of our cities and the world. Indeed, for the sake of the Gospel. If we go it alone, no one will believe us. If we come together – Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, etc. – then they will see that there is something greater that unites us, beyond the color of our skin. They will discover that it is Jesus.

I know of no other gathering in the metroplex that draws together the Body of Christ, across racial boundaries, like  Movement Day Greater Dallas. I hope you’ll join me, Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 at the Kay Bailey Convention Center in downtown Dallas, for a historic gathering. My friend, Bryan Carter, pastor of Concord Church, and I will be leading a session on the role of the Church and racial reconciliation. We’ll also discuss next steps toward racial harmony for all believers, that will result in a Gospel movement across greater Dallas. Register here.

This will be a great way to kick off the new year! See you there.

Happy New Year!

 

Gospel Hope

When you stop to think about it, you’re life is all about hope. Every decision, every good or bad moment is about hope and expectation and then, whether that expectation is met or not. Think about it: “I hope this person likes me.” “I hope this relationship works out.” “I hope to pass this test, graduate.” “I hope this job becomes mine.” “I hope I stay healthy and grow old. “I will do this or that…” And then something or someone steps in. And when it doesn’t happen we’re disappointed, upset, angry, even despairing. In fact, you could go so far as to say, all frustration and disappointment in life is a result of, or birthed out of, unmet expectation.

Beware: Christmas ramps this up in spades. All of this season’s ads are pummeling you with false hope. We’ll see hundreds, even thousands, of ads this month promising you something- offering hope. What we see is an embellished vision of life created by a media- drenched culture that changes our expectations. It captures our imagination and convinces us that life should be like this. In fact, there’s a term for it: it’s what sociologist Krishan Kumar (at UVa) calls “hyper-reality”. He says this: “Our world has become so saturated with images and symbols that a new ‘electronic reality’ has been created, whose effect is to obliterate any sense of an objective reality lying behind the images and symbols.” In other words, the images and the symbols that represent the things that stand behind them
are actually overblown, exaggerated and embellished. We create in our minds a world that is not based on reality. As a result our hopes are heightened even more and our expectations are exaggerated and we’re always left wanting, even despairing.

We place or hope in something or someone and we expect that thing or person to deliver. The Scottish writer, Allan K. Chalmers, wrote, “The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” We all place our hope in something or someone. But it is the Object of our Hope that makes ALL the difference. So, rightly understood:

Christmas is all about hope created, hope lost, hope restored, and hope realized. Indeed, this is the story of redemptive history. And HERE is the great human problem: We are prone to place our hope in things that cannot deliver. But here’s ironic twist:

The doorway to hope is hopelessness. The only way you find true hope is to give up on all those others things you place your hope in. And for hope to be hope must fix what’s broken. If not why hope in it? And we must realize that the answer is not found in us or anything this world can offer. There’s no horizontal hope.

Hopelessness is the doorway to hope. When you finally give up on the idea that you will find hope in the horizontal, you’re at the doorway of REAL hope, that gives life. When you give up on horizontal hope then you’re ready to look up and find the only hope that matters. Have you given up on all those other things? Do you still think you’ll find your personal savior in something or someone else? Give up on that perfect relationship. Give up on that perfect job, the perfect body, the perfect marriage, the perfect house. Give up; those things are fruitless. But HOPE has come.

Biblical hope is a bold and certain expectation that God will do what He says He will do. Biblical hope is synonymous to trust. It is not synonymous with wish or desire. Those who hope in the Lord, are those who trust in Him- and trust is equivalent to obedience. Hope is not a magic wand or a good feeling- ultimately hope is the result of obedience. Hope is a firm reliance on the preferred or future Story of God.

Hope is not a situation, it’s not a circumstance, it’s not a thing. When you finally realize this (usually by painfully discovering that those things and people will never satisfy), you open the door and guess who is standing there? Jesus.

Hope is a Person and His name is Jesus.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Romans 15:13