Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Chatting With Brothers & Friends

Justin Taylor is continuing our discussion with some worthwhile thoughts regarding affirmation action over at his blog. Good stuff to chew on and continue discussing.

Anthony Carter is posting some excellent reflections on the question, "Can the African American church be reformed?" The question has implications for black and white churches, and the answer may lay in Reformed theology. Check it out.

Friendship in Christ is such a wonderful thing!

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed? 2

The problem with "the African American church" (writ large) today is that by almost any historical definition she is not a true church.

That statement clearly needs to be unpacked. They key phrase would be "historical definition [of] a true church."

Reformation Definition
Following from the Reformation, a true church is defined by three marks: right preaching of the word, right administration of the sacraments, and implied in the first two, church discipline. Another, less often mentioned but probably also implied, would be love as the mark of Christian discipleship (John 13:34).

Towards An African American Definition
Now, some might argue that's a eurocentric definition of "true church." That's what Luther, Calvin and the other boys thought, but what about black folks' own definition of a true church?

Well, it's interesting. I think there's enough evidence from things like slave conversion stories and written sermons to suggest that, early on, African Americans would have held a fairly similar view as that above with one pretty important addition. So, slave testimonies are just littered with slaves' recounting the fact that white plantation preachers never really taught the gospel or the whole counsel of God, only "slaves obey your masters... slaves don't steal master's chickens." The language "right preaching of the word" isn't used, but the idea is clearly there. Greg Wills demonstrates rather conclusively that African American churches once practiced discipline at rates comparable to everyone else (Democratic Religion). And surely, to be Methodist was to be disciplined. The same was true of AME churches early on. The practice of discipline evidenced a strong membership culture... which usually lead to a right administration of the sacraments.

The one thing that the African American church historically adds to the definition of a "true church," is a much stronger sense of the gospel implications for social justice. I hesitate to borrow the term "social justice" because of a lot of what parades under that banner. But it must be said that from the start, given their situation as chattel and subjects of oppression, African Americans have always understood the church to bear significant responsibility for engaging society in the pursuit of just causes. And on this point, I'd have to maintain that such churches, earlier in the history, were in fact stronger, more biblical churches than their white counterparts.

The Problems As I See It
This could take a lot of space. So, let me just bullet point the issues and invite all to add to the list or challenge some of the observations below:
  • The Word is not rightly preached in most African American churches. That is, the biblical Gospel is wholly absent in far too many churches. Forget about a commitment to exposition... topical rules the day and ironically, many African-American preachers sound like white plantation preachers (only it's not "slave don't steal massa's chicken," it's "black folks, you gotta vote democratic down the line or God wants you rich"). Different lyrics, same tired tune.
  • Related to the above, I think we can find reverence for the Bible but either a poor or absent understanding of its sufficiency and authority in the life of the church. A spiritualizing, liberal hermeneutic is commonplace.
  • The tyranny of "culture." Much of what gets justified in African American churches makes an appeal to culture. "You know how we do it." So, for example, black preaching gets traced back to plantation exhorter who couldn't read and did a heroic job in dreadful circumstances... but nobody asks if slave preaching is suitable for a post-slavery, post-civil rights, basically educated and freed people. "Culture" and history make the question irrelevant.
  • When's the last time you were in an African American church and saw "the table fenced"? I hope more recently than I. When's the last time you attended an African American church where conversion, baptism, church membership, and the privileges of the Lord's supper were connected and taught?
  • With the loss of a clear and distinctive notion of membership has come a view of the church membership that's co-terminous with the African American community at large. In other words, the idea of regenerate church membership is pretty much lost in favor of an over identification with the community. As I read the history, such an identificatio nhas always been there, and has been necessary since the social and political condition of African Americans has historically been predicated upon group membership (race). But there was a time when the church held more firmly a distinction between church and community while also advocating for the just cause of the community.
  • Church discipline? What?
  • Social justice. Let me just say that the church has been hijacked by political suicide bombers who crash her into every quixotic windmill that makes a claim to "discrimination" or "equal rights." Women preachers. Gay rights in some quarters. Economic empowerment. Voter registration drives. Consequently, there is neither gospel or justice in too many churches.
This is my short list of the problems. Corrections? Other thoughts?

I think the historical assumptions of African American's about what constitutes a true church is really quite powerful--the full counsel of God preached, church membership that distinguishes the Christian from the world, right administration of the ordinances, and love working itself out in church discipline and social action. But I think this definition began to lose ground around 1830 with the radicalization of the abolitionist movement, and certainly became lopsided in its emphasis on social justice post Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era... until it's basically vanished today.

Is this definition of a "true church" a good (sufficient) one? Is this kind of church recoverable among predominantly African-American churches?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed?

That's a question I've been rolling over in my head recently. It's a big question. It's a troubling question for me on many levels, not the least of which is it's confrontation of my own faith or lack thereof. Asking "can" the church be reformed is tantamount in some respects to doubting God. Perhaps "will" is a better verb?

In any event, lots of folks are thinking these days that the church is in need of serious reform and has been for some time. That's a near universal sentiment whether you're on the theological conservative or progressive end of the spectrum. Almost everyone wants more of something to happen in the African-American church... more political involvement, more gospel-centeredness, more focus on health issues like the AIDS crisis, more faithfulness to biblical teaching regarding the church. And typically, if you want more of one thing (gospel-centeredness, for example) you are likely to want less of another (say, political involvement).

All of this really begs the question of what kind of reform one has in mind. And laced together with that question is some notion or assumption about what one should mean by the phrase "African-American church," especially when you attach the definite article "the" before it. At this point... angels are beginning to fear to tread this path!

And along with what kind of reform, I suppose there needs to be some argument for why reform; what's the problem(s) said reform needs to address. After all, how you define the problem will have much to do with what solutions appear feasible.

That there is at present very little consensus on what the problems are, what the African-American church should be, and then what reforms are needed... makes this a thorny issue. Al Sharpton's Black church is very different from Ken Jones' church which is very different from Tony Evans' church. We could go on. And if we did, we'd then be confronted with the question of where is leadership for reform going to come from? The perennial questions: where are we going and whose got the map?

This is the first in a series of reflections. The posts, Lord willing, will consider the question of reforming the African American church in particular. But because I believe that any reform of this nature must learn from other "branches" of the church, I do hope that non-African Americans will join in and contribute.

Let me end this post with a brief problem statement that I'll unpack in a future post(s), Lord willing. Put simply and bluntly, without nuance that will follow later, at the risk of offending many, but with the hope of provoking reflections and energy commensurate with the eternal life and death scale of this question:

The problem with "the African American church" (writ large) today is that by almost any historical definition she is not a true church.

Okay. That's a sweeping statement. It doesn't apply to all African-American churches by a long shot, but I think there's cause to think it may apply to most, otherwise the calls for reform wouldn't be as consistent and near universal as they are.

Let me end with what some might regard as an equally sweeping statement about "the African American church" when she was at her best. Put simply and bluntly, without nuance that will follow later, at the risk of offending many, but with the hope of provoking aspirations commensurate with the eternal life and death scale of this question:

"The African-American church" was once the home of the purest form of Christianity practiced on American soil and she can be the fulcrum of reform in not only the African-American Christian world but the larger Christian world as well.

Welcome to the discussion. Jump in with both feet!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Jesus and Affirmative Action

A happy fundamentalist friend, a beloved brother in the Lord, just sent me a copy of Edward Gilbreath's Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. I've only read a couple of chapters, but they're really well written, fluid, and I'd say that they're so far a useful and accurate summation of what it feels like to be an African American in a predominantly white church. He's capturing all the angst, uncertainty, frustration, sense of call, and the like. Two chapters in... I'd heartily recommend it for all who want a friendly, accessible peek into what many (most?) self-described "evangelical" African Americans feel and think inside predominantly white churches.

Well, Gilbreath was putting me in a certain frame of mind when I came across Adrian's reaction to Piper's recent statement on searching for minorities to join his staff.

In summary, Piper's open letter states several benefits of pursuing diversity in the staffing (and I assume membership) of the local church. They are:

  1. It illustrates more clearly the truth that God created people of all races and ethnicities in his on image (Genesis 1:27).
  2. It displays more visibly the truth that Jesus is not a tribal deity but is the Lord of all races, nations, and ethnicities.
  3. It demonstrates more clearly the blood-bought destiny of the church to be “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
  4. It exhibits more compellingly the aim and power of the cross of Christ to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).
  5. It expresses more forcefully the work of the Spirit to unite us in Christ. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
These benefits amount to pursuit in the mind of staff and elders at Bethlehem:

Therefore, it seems to us that the admiration we feel for this diversity in the New Testament should carry over into the desires we have for the visible church today. It seems to us that the local church should want these things to be true today at the local level where this diversity and harmony would have the greatest visible and relational impact. For us, this has implied pursuit. If we admire it and desire it, then it seems to us we should pursue it.

I think that's well said. But it was interesting to me that the letter went on to offer an apologetic for this decision, a reaction against what some folks might consider the horrors of affirmative action.

As an African American inside white evangelicalism, a committed evangelical, it's curious to me that a defense is even needed. After all, is not Jesus for affirmative action?

Okay, I know that last question raised a few brows. Let me explain by asking another question. What is the gospel message? It's a message of affirmative action. God the Father positively deciding to pursue a people for himself... and oh by the way, a people from every nation. The Father positively sends out the Son to "seek and save" the lost by giving Himself as a sacrifice for them. The Holy Spirit seals all those who repent and believe, sanctifying them until the Day of the Lord's return. If salvation is all of God... then salvation and the gospel are the largest affirmative action program in the world--with this tremendous difference, none of the applications were anywhere near qualified for the position of sons and daughters of the Father. None were worthy of an office in the Father's mansion. All were utterly unqualified--and actually, not even interested in the position. The Gospel is a more affirmative action on behalf of the oppressed, disenfranchised and misdirected than anything we've ever seen in hiring policy. The church is the ultimate affirmative action agency, and the diversity that's in her is by design.

Even Warfield understood that Jesus was for affirmative action. Well, not really, but this quote demonstrates the decisive, positive, affirmative action of God in the cross:

The marvel which the text (John 3:16) brings before us is just that marvel above all other marvels in this marvelous world of ours: the marvel of God's love for sinners. And this is the measure by which we are invited to measure the greatness of the love of God. It is not that it is so great that it is able to extend over the whole of a big world: it is so great that it is able to prevail over the Holy God's hatred and abhorrence of sin. For herein is love, that God could love the world--the world that lies in the evil one: that God who is all-holy and just and good, could so love this world that He gave His only begotten Son for it,--that He might not judge it, but that it might be saved. (B.B. Warfield, "God's Immeasurable Love," in Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: P&R, 1952), pp. 515-516; cited in C. Samuel Storms, Chosen for Life, pp. 199-200).

If we admire what Jesus is doing in the world through the redemption of the nations, we should aspire and act in ways that reflect that admiration. We should act affirmatively to bring our practice in line with our Savior's practice. And this applies whether you're in a predominantly white, African American, Asian or Latino church. The fact that so few churches strive for an increasing diversity that looks like the diversity we're headed towards (Rev. 5:9-10) may just mean that on this matter our lips praise Him but our hearts are far from Him.

Now, about this point in the post, someone is usually dying to ask, "What if you live in an area with little diversity to speak of?" Honestly, while I think that question is often asked by sincere folks puzzled about what to do, it's also asked often by people looking for a way out of any responsibility in this area. But for the sincere, here are a few things to do even when you're not in an area with great amounts of diversity:

  1. Pray for John Piper and other pastors who are... that their churches would look like Rev. 5:9-10... a blood-bought people united in praise for the One Savior of all the world.
  2. Pray that your area would become more diverse. What's wrong with asking for the nations to be brought close to home?
  3. Pray that you and your people would be ready (free of racial predjudice or indifference, delighted for the gospel opportunity) when and should the Lord change the demographics of your area.
  4. Pray against any desire to leave the neighborhood if/when the neighborhood changes.
  5. In your preaching, apply the gospel to the nations... those around you in the next town and those across the globe. Try to cultivate in your people a large mindedness when it comes to thinking about the world and gospel. Expose them by way of illustrations and introductions to the difference that exists in the world, differences that are meant to be overcome by Jesus Christ in the gospel.
  6. Read Reconciliation Blues. Also, you might consider an older book, Dwight Perry's Breaking Down Barriers: A Black Evangelical Explains the Black Church. Similar Latino and Asian titles should be read as well. Commit yourself to being informed intellectually, even if being informed experientially isn't quite feasible.
  7. If the nations aren't in your town, go to their town. Emphasize missions and strategically direct your mission efforts to nations not like you. And direct some energies to cities or towns whose racial composition is different from your own.
  8. Diversify your staff anyway. Visit the local seminary or your Bible college alma mater and recruit minority students to come to your church as interns or staffpersons. Leave the glorious comfort of your hometown to seek and invest in the stranger. You'll be surprised what they add to your people and what your people will contribute to them.
  9. Move. Don't be afraid to pick up and settle in a land the Lord will show you... a land filled with people not like you who need the gospel preached, modeled, and lived even down to residential decisions.
I'm sure there are other things to do. Perhaps folks will leave suggestions in the comments section. But the point is this: whether you're in urban centers with international residents or in a mono-ethnic small town, none of us are on the sideline when it comes to warring for the redemption of the nations and none of us really have the luxury of allowing the church to be less than what the Lord intends for it to be. That means diversity is our business as the church, because the church by definition and the design of God is diverse.

It's time for us to really conquer these reconciliation blues... so that our racial sackcloth and ashes are finally and victoriously turned to joy and the oil of gladness.

Bro. Piper, I would send you some names... the only problem is that all the other forward and strategic thinking pastors I know already have these guys on their lists! Keep digging brother. Keep working to build the church that Jesus is building!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds

Dan at Cerulean Sanctum has a thoughtful post on seeing suffering as a possible opportunity for someone else's blessing.

For those thinking about expositional preaching or interested in books on preaching, here are a few blog posts and book recommendations.

A 3-part sermon series on purity from Josh Harris. (HT: titus2talk).

Apparently, my boy Mark is loosening the fundy straight laces and talking about sex--Puritan style at the Family Room. Listen or watch at DG. (HT: titus2talk).

Language and the church... something to consider from Dying Church:
'Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern conciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging, and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires.' If language is shaped, Nicolson goes on to say, by 'an anxiety not to bore or intimidate,' then 'it has, in short, lost all authority.'

Carter is challenging us to hear more clearly from Voddie what he's been saying for years about youth ministry--The Home Is the Key. But he warns, this is not for the faint-hearted youth ministry crowd.

Finally, Rick Phillips says what I've been saying for years... again, only better and more succinctly. Slavery is contrary to the gospel. The real question is, "How are we to think of those who held slaves and claimed the name of Christ?" And by the way, Phillips tips us to the fact that Phil Ryken has a new commentary on 1 Timothy coming out soon. Keep your eyes open.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ever Heard of Wendy Alsup?

Probably not. I hadn't either until I read a three-part interview (one, two, three) with her over at Adrian Warnock's blog. Wendy serves as Deacon in Charge of Women's Theology and Training at Mars Hill in Seattle. Now every church ought to have one or two of those!!

The interview is a pretty friendly exploration of Mars Hill and Wendy's role as Deacon. A clip:

Adrian: Going back to your own role in the church, tell me what exactly does a "Deacon in Charge of Women's Theology and Training" do?

Wendy: Originally, I was asked to take over our Practical Theology for Women course. It started more as a women's forum, but has evolved to an eight-week study of the character and attributes of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how knowing Him equips us for the practical issues of life. The first lesson is "What is Theology and Why Should I Care?" which is an important question for women to ask themselves. I have been stunned over the years by the number of Christian (or at least churched) women who think theology is irrelevant to them. Many think theology is just a bunch of dead men debating Latin phrases. My goal in the Practical Theology for Women class was not to dumb down the deep things of the Word, but to present them in a way that they are accessible to someone who is not schooled in theological phraseology. We've podcast a condensed version of the class, and it's available on our main church website (pardon the shameless plug).

My responsibilities at church have grown, and now I help organize most of the teaching events for women. I try to keep my ear to the ground to understand the "felt needs" of women at church. But then I try (with other godly women in the church) to figure out what the needs reflect about our view of the Gospel and the character of God. We then organize each teaching event with the foundation of knowing the God of the Bible and stripping away the God of our imagination, showing how knowing the truth of God's character rightly addresses the felt problem.

Adrian: How did you come to join the Mars Hill staff? Were you appointed straight from a theological seminary, or did you have other experience before you got this role?

Wendy: I have a minor in Bible from a Christian college. But, honestly, the vast majority of my theological knowledge has been taught me through the church—not necessarily just Sunday sermons, but through contact with the Body, sitting over coffee debating limited atone-ment, dispensationalism, or what have you. I've learned so much just by talking to the right people who direct me to read the right people. It's not that I don't value seminary training. But it's not accessible to the average church member, so surely that's not the most effective way to raise up leaders in the church. My husband has no seminary training whatsoever, but he is a constant source of wisdom to me as I prepare each lesson I teach.

There is a difference in studying theology and getting theological degrees. The first is absolutely necessary and the second is sometimes helpful. There are a number of staff and members at Mars Hill with degrees and/or pursuing degrees. But there are many, many more intent on learning their theology. In fact, I consider that the norm at Mars Hill.

Mars Hill takes seriously their responsibility to train up leaders from within the church. When I first got to Mars Hill, I was really rebuked by the number of relatively new Christians (maybe two to three years in the faith) who could run circles around me in their knowledge of the Word. I recently had dinner with a lady who was saved as a corporate career woman living with an abusive boyfriend. She had been saved maybe two years at the time, her life beautifully transformed, and in the middle of dinner she asked me my views on covenant versus dispensational theology. I thought, "What in the world?!" I had probably been saved twenty years before I ever cracked a book on that one.

Check out the three-parter and counting.

The Best Sports Article I've Read in a Long Time

HT: Justin Taylor. This piece over at ESPN is the best sports article I've read in a while. It features to Brothers who are also brothas. And praise God the accent is on Brothers! May their tribe increase. I'm not likely to see the Super Bowl, but somehow I feel like a winner either way it goes.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Overdue Appreciation

I'm way too slow at updating my links to other blogs that I appreciate. But since I have today off and some leisure time, I'm correcting that in at least four cases.

Under Blogs for Preachers and Those Who Like Preaching, I've added Colin's new blog Unashamed Workman. Excellent stuff! If you haven't already, especially if you're a preacher, you need to spend some time on this site. A brief description: "The overarching theme is, of course, preaching. And I’d like us to consider it in as wholistic a manner as possible. Therefore, we’ll cover everything from why we preach (the theology of preaching), to what we preach (as it emerges from preparation and ends in delivery), to life outside the pulpit (yes, there is such a thing!)."

Keeping it in the Adams family for a moment, Colin's wife and a couple of co-writers blog over at titus2talk. Good stuff there for sisters in Christ and men able to learn from them without fear of calling into question 1 Tim. 2. I've reorganized the list of blogs to reflect the soon to be growing list of blogs primarily for women. After all... they're more than half the church!

Okay... from the Adams family to the Sovereign Grace family... a couple of blogs that should attract and reward General Interest are NA - Humble Orthodoxy and GospelDrivenLife. If you've read either you've been blessed. If you haven't, much spiritual bounty awaits!

News Worthy & Not So Worthy

Will a man rob God? Apparently so. Churches would be wise to consider this article and protect itself and its members and the name of Christ with wise policies.

And by the way, it's now required that you get a receipt for that offering.

Creflo Dollar offers an eight-step process for personal change. Who and what's missing?

Who goes to hell? The Kansas City star gives a crash course in some denominational beliefs.

Tony Campolo defines the #1 job of the Christian. And he seems to be everywhere these days. Who and what's missing?

What a difference a letter makes! When my wife and I first moved to the DC area, we were given a list of churches to visit and consider. On the list was "Capitol Hill Baptist Church," which ended up being the last church we visited. It took us a year before we found the church... largely because I was spelling "Capitol" with an a ("Capital"). Before we visited CHBC, we actually ended up at this place and heard this guy preach! What a difference a letter makes! But think about it... I could have been 30 pounds lighter if we'd stayed!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Church and Culture, 9

This is the final post in this series. It's been good thinking about some of these things and interacting with some of you. I do pray no one looks back on this series as anything other than one man rambling through a set of ideas and issues that concern him, and offering some very preliminary thoughts. Some of the comments have encouraged me in particular directions and others have challenged me to think more carefully about some of my own assumptions or blind spots. I'm thankful for both. And I hope this last post in the series is seen as an invitation for more comments agreeing or disagreeing.

We've been considering the question, "What is the relationship of the church qua church to the culture?" How should the people of God, as the people of God, understand and interact with the construct and reality called “culture”?

I'm leery about the phrase "engaging the culture." It seems to me that some people see this as an end in itself. There's talk about winning people by winning the culture. I really have to doubt this though when I see these same folks, placards in hand, shouting all manner of insult and barb at the people they're supposed to be winning, or when I see folks under this banner "hangin' out" with their non-Christian friends in non-Christian settings doing non-Christian things and calling it Christ-like. "Engaging the culture" seems too often to make the people secondary and the current state of things in "the culture" primary. And there is a certain tyranny of current events or fads that seems somehow to stand for "the culture" in any given moment. All of this I think is distracting.

I've maintained that there really are only two cultures to speak of: the cultures of God and man. I think this is a helpful construct to keep in mind on the question of "engaging the culture." If there are only two cultures:

1. We don't have to get caught up in analyzing and re-analyzing certain aspects of man's culture.

Now this may be taking a mallet to some issues that require a scapel, but on the whole we shouldn't be surprised that the ways of man lead to death, destruction and everything else contrary to sound doctrine. Our explorations of the "whys" need only center on what the Lord has shown us: man is depraved, the wickedness of his heart is deceptive and viral. I sometimes wonder if much of the Christian literature addressing post-this, post-that, missional this, that or the other isn't really an intellectual exercise that tickles mental fancies but in the end diverts us from a fervent attention to the ways of Christ in the church.

I'm not dismissing apologetics or a helpful awareness of what's happening around us. I'm asking whether we've gone too far because we're enamored with what is at best a vague goal like "engage the culture." The goal doesn't even risk stating a victory condition--we can "engage" all day long and really not change a thing, or stick our necks out far enough to say we're even trying to change something. The vagueness of this stated objective says a lot about the distraction that preoccupies us. It may also indicate that the terms of our engagement may have already been set by "the other side" and we're not engaging from the strength of "our side." Let us be about being the church, which is clearly detailed for us in God's Word, and trust that the distinctions meant to be seen between God's culture and man's culture will be evident. The Lord seems to think this will be the case (for ex., John 13:34).

2. We can focus our efforts on what really matters: people.

This isn't to say that ideas don't matter or don't have consequences. They clearly do. But one set of ideas have eternal consequences--those ideas we cluster under the term "Gospel." And the consequences most prominently and clearly in view are consequences that affect the eternal state of people. In other words, the objects of engagement are people, not "culture." Our enterprise is to aid in the great migration of people out of man's culture and into the culture of God through a regenerating, converting, saving encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ by the proclamation of the Gospel. Our primary application of the Gospel and the Scriptures is to people and their eternal state before God. Applications to culture and society are important, but they're a distant second and even then should be preparatory for the primary application.

3. Our stated goal is clear: the evangelization and discipling of the entire world.

That's Jesus' view in Matt. 28. That's the Father's view in Gen. 12. Our aim is bolder than anything I've seen stated in the "engage the culture" rhetoric so popular today.

The church's goal is nothing short of the worldwide advance of the Gospel and the submission in joyful faith of all peoples to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior! That's massive! It's exciting! It's glorious! And given the majesty of this agenda, it requires a singular focus on being and proclaiming the Gospel. And it requires our being serious about what that means for the people we're proclaiming the gospel to. In the words of Bonhoeffer, "when Christ bids a man to follow him, he bids him to come and die."

No more of this cheap grace stuff! In the gospel, we are bidding men to die with Christ so that they might really live and live eternally! And one thing they must daily die to is the pull and the sway and the sinful influence of their native culture so that they may live in the culture of God! Whether we describe this as the difference between the flesh and the Spirit, the world and the church, or God's culture and man's culture... we're talking about death to the old man and life in the new. We're talking about an exchange of citizenship, and with it an exchange of loyalties and mindset. We're not so much concerned with "engaging the culture" (whatever that means), as we are defecting from it and bidding others to do so in Christ. Every Christian wears the ugly (in the world's eyes) badge "Defector." There's a scarlet "D" emblazoned upon our chests, and we shouldn't busy ourselves forgetting it by seeking to "engage the culture," which too often and more subtly than we care to admit means "being like the culture."

4. Who we are becomes clear.

In an earlier post, I maintained that one of the basic problems in the Christian world today is the identity conflict people experience. They're torn between who they are to be in Christ and some other identities associated with man's culture. Well, if there are only two cultures, it's clear who we are to be if we're in Christ. We're to be distinctively Christian. We are to think (Phil. 2), act (1 Cor. 11:1), suffer (1 Pet. 2:21), and feel (Matt. 9:36, 14:14; Gal. 5:6; Eph. 5:2) like Jesus. Because we are in Jesus and He is in us... and greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world! If we're busy being the church, living in the culture of God, we'll do more to "engage the culture" than anything we can imagine by setting out to "engage the culture." Let's be ourselves and watch what happens to the culture of man!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Church and Culture, 8

I missed the music wars of the '80s or whenever they were. I wasn't a Christian and the idea that Christians would have been fighting over music styles would have been ridiculous in my mind... as a non-Christian, more evidence for the "pie-in-the-sky" superficiality of Christianity.

But now I'm a Christian. And all around me, I see the remains of the music wars that preceded me. There are the scars and tenuously held together congregations that split or nearly split. There are services traditional and contemporary. There are the die-hards that organize their small little ranks for raiding parties, surprise attacks at this or that members' meeting before running back to cover. It's an interesting new world to me.

I'm a professed ignoramus when it comes to music and the history of music, but I'm committed to learning... and by God's grace am doing so. So, this post is less opinion or guidance and more an invitation to discussion. How does what we've said thus far about the two cultures (God's and man's) shape something like music selection and singing in the gathered church?

A few preliminary thoughts/questions that I'd love your counsel, correction, response to, etc.

1. I'm a regulative principle kind of guy. Does the two cultures view require that? If not, why not and how do we discern where we are in this tension between the cultures of God and man?

2. I think there is greater priority for the church gathering together as one body over the local church segregating itself into different services based upon music styles. That seems to me to cede way too much over to the culture of man. Surely our preferences for something like music should not be determinant when it comes to when and how we gather?

3. Culturally speaking, does our two cultures view argue for a "mere" expression of cultural/ethnic distinctives in the public services (especially in areas quite diverse)? Is less actually more on this point? My sense is that simpler musical forms and less cultural distinctiveness (or at least some attention to balance) make the public service more permeable. Is that true of anyone else's experience? How are folks striking "balance" on this if at all?

Let me know what you think. I'm a neophyte in this arena and therefore am tremendously blessed to be colaboring with a worship pastor like Dave Jorge!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

News Worthy & Not So Worthy

Who Is More Difficult to Label? Oprah Winfrey... or, Martin Luther King, Jr... or, Howard Thurman. Three recent articles examine their theological beliefs.

Adolescent hi-jinks come to church. "We want to force you out of the safe places that have passed for spirituality," Stine says. "Maybe worship could be hanging out with a bunch of guys, admitting we like blowing crap up." Read the ridiculous antics here. Is this the equivalent of a suburban Christian mid-life crisis?

Church and Culture, 7

I pray that all you reading from stateside had a good King holiday. Life in Cayman kept rolling as usual. Once again, I'm reminded of the "relative" nature of culture and cultural celebration. While the U.S. in many quarters stopped to pay homage to a man that paid the ultimate sacrifice for a more perfect liberty, the vast majority of the world continued in either the fight for or the enjoyment of liberties without reference to Dr. King.

This post isn't about Dr. King. It's about the church and culture. It's an attempt at trying to apply what we've said in the previous 6 posts to specific pastoral situations.

Let's take preaching . Can we speak of culturally distinctive styles of preaching in the culture of God? Should we assume or assign such distinctives? What effect does assigning these distinctives have on our understanding of the culture of God?

Grand Cayman is in the middle of its annual Keswick Convention. For the past couple of nights, I've attended what essentially is my first Caribbean revival meeting, and I've had a great time! There's nothing like singing the up-tempo "There's No God Like Jehovah" with a Caribbean flair, or standard Christian hymns with a Caribbean lilt. It's cool.

But the preaching has been most powerful. The theme this year is discipleship. On night one, the speaker preached powerfully, with great emotional range, from laughter to pure passion, about the centrality of the cross as the basis of Christian discipleship. Last night, with the same passion, power, humility, humor, penetrating appeal, he preached from 1 Cor. 15 on the centrality of the resurrection as the ground for our future hope and made a call for present boldness and risk-taking in light of that future.

As a preacher, he skillfully moved the crowd. Amens all around. And one young man rather constantly yelling in approval, "Pre-sent!"

It was what you might expect in a Caribbean meeting, I suppose. But the speaker is Peter Maiden, a white man from the U.K. who heads up the mission work of Operation Mobilisation, International. Diminutive, very British in accent and dress... he moved the largely Black and Brown audience.

"Black preaching" is stereotypically thought to be emotional, even cathartic, rhythmic, centered on suffering and celebration, and ultimately doctrinally shallow. "White preaching" is thought to be (stereotypically) largely the reverse: doctrinal, cold, intellectual, etc. Here, we had a black receiving "black preaching" from a very white man. At least that's what you'd believe if you believe the cultural stereotypes.

And nothing, in my mind, has quite done as much damage to the people of God needing to live the culture of God like the false ways of viewing preaching. Too often we think of "black preaching" and "white preaching," and by that we mean some standard or style of preaching that is acceptable in those human cultures. And attached to these general views of culture and preaching are certain norms for what we think is "good" preaching in each context. "Good" black preaching produces a whoop and a shout. "Good" white preaching produces... what? Knowledge? Emotional stiffness?

What does this do to our notion of preaching? It severs two essential aspects to good preaching: truth and passion. Good preaching, black or white or brown or yellow, is preaching the truth of the Scriptures with godly zeal... preaching the weighty doctrines of God with the weighty movements of the heart that accompany those doctrines. Now any individual preacher may have a different "emotional range" or "doctrinal range" to work with, but both those things go together in good preaching.

The practical effect of maintaining this human cultural distinctive where preaching is concerned is that large segments of the family of God are cut off from significant aspects to good preaching. Some are shaped into emotionally boisterous and doctrinally shallow Christians, while others are doctrinally heady and emotionally paralyzed. In the culture of God, we need truth set on fire so that we might be both rooted and grounded in the truth and stirred to compassion, love, and zeal.

This is why I think much of the conversation about "adjusting the method of preaching but not the message to reach the culture" gets it wrong. I think, even in the adoption of various multi-media approaches meant to create a bridge to "the culture," we're very often imbibing certain standards and cultural assumptions and mores that we're better off leaving alone. Our aim isn't finally to reach people where they are but to move people into the kingdom, family, culture, and nation of our God and King. Many of these approaches expend all their energy moving away from the culture of God, and so it's no surprise when they're not able to move people out of the culture of man.

What has God ordained? The preaching... that is, the oral proclamation... of His Word.

And what has God himself said about that proclamation? One thing is that it's "foolishness" to those in and perishing with the world.

What does that imply about preaching? It's not to be accomodated to the standards, preferences, and aims of man's culture. We should do it the way we see it modeled in the Scriptures... open a text, expound it, and apply it with passion for God and for the audience. And we should not be surprised if the culture of man esteems it little. It's foolishness in their eyes, but it's the means our omnipotent Father established to convert and regenerate His people.

Here's a place for great exchange among the people of God for the glory of God. Perhaps some African American preachers could learn a great deal from some of their white brothers in making their preaching more doctrinally rich and in adopting an expository discipline in the pulpit. And perhaps some white preachers could learn a great deal from some of their African American brothers about preaching with passion and urgency and seeing and celebrating the application of truth to the real human struggles sitting in their congregations.

What say ye?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Church and Culture, 6

We've come to the point in this series of posts where we need to try and get a bit more concrete or practical. I want to try and quickly sketch what I think I've said and then raise an example.

In posts two and three, we proposed that there are actually only two cultures to speak of: the culture of man and the culture that God creates and gives His redeemed people. In post four, we tried to advance the idea that the spead of God's culture happens only by regeneration and at the hands of the regenerate. We argued that self-love more often than not is idolatrous and that it's not the business of the church to preserve human culture. The fifth post began to suggest some approaches for resisting the encroachment of human culture into the church in inappropriate ways.

In the comments to the fifth post, David asked for some important clarifications. Let me see if I can get away with quick brief responses, then pick up a short counseling example for how I think all this fits or works itself out in a local church.

I've probably been using ethnicity and culture a bit like synonyms. That's looseness, not intent. Certainly there is overlap but the two constructs are not identical. You could have a culture that includes multiple ethnicities (American culture and the diverse people in it) or an ethnicity that includes multiple cultures (Ibo, Hausa and Yoruba among the Nigerians). My point, and perhaps the reason for the confusion, is that essentially and biblically there is but one human culture in the sense that human culture is speculative, man-centered and in important ways anti-God.

Does this mean we're to "forsake our ethnicity"? I don't know that such a thing is completely possible. But I'm pretty sure almost no one is in danger of that. The danger, I'm suggesting, is in the other direction... clinging so desperately to our notion of ethnic identity that we lose sight of our identity in Christ. If there were to be a choice between Thabiti the African American and Thabiti the Christian... I pray desperately that I'd desire and know how to choose Thabiti the Christian every time. I'm not there, and I don't think we're there in the church world. Not enough heaven in us and too much world.

Must we forsake diversity for the cause of unity? Yes! Unity in the truth of the Gospel and in the reality of our union with and in Christ. It seems to me that that's part of what it means to be "new creatures" in Christ. To put a finer point on it: What possible biblical reason can we have to answer that question negatively?

I've counseled a number of inter-racial or inter-ethnic couples pursuing marriage. It's been a great joy to serve these couples as they've looked to establish a new life together as husband and wife, one flesh, reflecting the love and submission of Christ and the church. Each of these relationships also include a powerful testimony to the reconciliation and alienation-ending unity that comes from the power of the gospel. It isn't the gospel... but it certainly is an effect of the gospel in many of these relationships.

However, inevitably the question surfaces: "How do we put these two cultural backgrounds together?" Or, "how do we manage or negotiate this or that conflict that keeps coming up because of our differing backgrounds?" These questions have come up for Hispanic-White, White-Black, Asian-White, White-African, Asian-Asian, African-African, and Hispanic-Hispanic couples. In every case, the solution to the dilemma was not to become more or less Asian, African, White, Black or Hispanic. The solution was to leave behind the cultural distinctives and pursue more aggressively the biblical command, example or ideal.

Consider, for example, the couple that comes from a culture where parents are highly respected and children are expected to financially support their family back home. They were supporting their families back home to the neglect of their marriage. They wanted to negotiate to a happier medium without breaking from that cultural expectation. Nothing they proposed would work. The answer was to consider Gen. 2:24 and the mandate for marriage-centeredness in families found there. There was, of course, more to consider. But the point is that the way forward lay in a more radical appropriation of the Bible's teaching as it related to their identity (in this case, marital identity over ethnic identity). They needed to recognize that they were first of all Christians, secondly married with a Christian view of marriage and family, and subsequently supportive children of their parents.

They had to realize that their cultural assumptions were not neutral and needed to be suspended, that the source of their alienation came from human culture not the cross of Christ, and that appropriating their identity and culture in Christ enabled them to move forward. If we had entered the maze of cultural expectations (and just a note, honoring your parents is not a bad thing), they would never have emerged with a Christian identity more consistent with the culture of God and the Word of God.

Let me know what you think. In the next couple of posts, I'll try to apply this thinking to other areas of the local church's life and mission.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

This Feels Like Shameless Self-Promotion but...

I had the privilege of sharing today on the Paul Edwards Show, a radio broadcast in the Detroit, MI area sponsored by the The Center for the Study of God and Culture. It was fun talking about the Gospel and Islam, and about the forthcoming Crossway volume, The Faithful Preaching, Recapturing the Visions of Three Pioneering African American Pastors (March 7, 2007). It was a great privilege working with Crossway on this volume and I pray that the Lord is pleased to edify His church through it.

As long as I can't escape this awkward feeling, I also want to say how very much I'm looking to the fellowship with pastors at the Desiring God 2007 pastors' conference. I'm humbled and thankful to John for the invitation to deliver the pastoral address. I am eagerly looking forward to sitting at the feet of John, R.C., and William Mackenzie. And again, I pray that the Lord's undershepherds are drawn into Him resulting in the edification of His people and the spread of His glory.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Church and Culture, 5

In the last post, we ended on this point: "self-love is almost always idolatrous." We went a little further to say:
The first order of business in addressing the question of how the church relates to the culture is to reject inordinate affection for the culture and adopt an anthropology that centers our affections first on Christ, then on His "race."

The obvious question is how to do this. I wish I had obvious answers to such an obvious question. But let me start with some preliminary suggestions and invite you all to jump in with additional suggestions, questions or ideas.

1. Realize No Human Culture Is Neutral

Many of my friends in situations where their natural culture is the majority culture, assume that it's also a "neutral" cultural atmosphere. That is, they don't recognize that their natural cultural atmosphere may contain "toxins" for folks accustomed to breathing different air. The air on Venus can be quite different than the air on Mars. We gotta realize that there are meanings and ideas and even emotions grounded in the cultural milieu that not everyone has immediate and easy access to. Where that happens the culture is actively, positively promoting something... and that promotion is not neutral. It's not necessarily bad; it could be good. But it's working against those outside the milieu and understanding.

We need to develop a healthy suspicion of our natural cultural assumptions, suspend them long enough for reflection and evaluation, and jettison the "toxins" that make it difficult for others to breathe. Now, this requires at least two things: (a) a willingness to gather data from outside yourself, from the fly on the wall or the stranger in the gates, and (b) a willingness to apply what you hear, especially if what you hear makes you more like Jesus and less like your native tribe. Suspending the assumption of neutrality or "home field advantage" is necessary for relinquishing an undue affection for this world and our corner in it.

2. Remember that Christ overcomes alienation, and we should work to do so as well.

Inherent in the human conditionn is alienation. It's a result of the Fall. We're alienated from God and we're alienated from one another, even in the most intimate human relationship of marriage. What we have in the Gospel is the power of God to end alienation between man and God... and man and man. Now it's that last form of alienation-ending power of the Gospel that shows up so little in our thinking, actions, and preaching. Do we believe that Christ's atonement reconciles men to one another, thus making peace in the church? (Eph. 2:14-18) That's the crucial test of faith when it comes to the reconciliation and unity of the nations in the local church. Is the Gospel powerful enough in our lives to remedy man-to-man alienation? I say it is... but it requires our being conscious of the fact that Christ's sacrifice and grace intends for us and is sufficient for us to live redeemed lives together across ethnic divides. If we assume alienation is natural to the redeemed life, we'll create and lead and gather in churches that simply go on replicating an alienation that is conquered in the body of Christ. We can tell the story of any history or culture in a way that says quite clearly, "All y'all others are outsiders." Remember the T-shirt slogans: "It's a black thang, you wouldn't understand"?

If we're sensitive to the work of Christ in ending alienation, we'll be careful about the appropriation of human cultural forms and careful about the methods of appropriation that reify alienation. But we can only do that effectively if we see Christ in all of His glorious work as destroying alienation in His church.

3. Appropriate from the ground of Christ, not ethnicity

I once heard a friend describe his conversion this way: "I realized that I had gone from considering the claims of Christ from the outside perspective of a skeptic, to arguing from within the claims of Christ." In other words, the ground on which he faced Christ shifted from rival territory across the chasm of unbelief to the very ground on which Christ himself stood. It's an interesting way of describing a conversion. And I think it has lessons for us as we think about the relationship between church and the culture of man. In our celebrations and appropriations of history, heritage, culture, diversity, etc., do we reason from within the culture to Christ, or from Christ to the culture? Do we read African-American history listening for distinctives about African-Americans from which we generalize to Christ? Or do we read that history discerning the work of Christ in, through, and on African Americans? Another way of putting it... does Calvin belong to Swiss European history, and therefore mostly to Europeans, or does Christ own Calvin and the events of the European Reformation such that all Christians own Calvin? We'd all want to conclude the latter. But does our church practice in its appropriation of Calvin and European history, for example, reflect that understanding? Do I hold up African-American missions efforts in the Caribbean as an act and gift of Christ for all, or do I hold it up as a unique contribution of African Americans?

What we're after is not self-love but Christ-love. Our appropriation of culture when it happens has to serve that purpose it seems to me, or else it furthers our alienation even as we're trying desperately to forge unity and mutual understanding. The proof of that for me is the countless number of times I've heard white friends, for example, say, "I'll never understand what it's like to be a black man." When I hear that, I think there's something about the way I've explained or shared things that exalts the uniqueness over the unity of human experience. Not that any two of us can achieve a comprehensive knowledge of one another... but we should be able to achieve a real and accurate knowledge of one another given our unity in Christ and our common humanity in the image of God scarred by sin.

Einstein said that if you can't explain a thing simply, you don't understand it well enough. The lack of simplicity in this post reveals my lack of understanding. So, comments and corrections and suggestions are welcome.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Church and Culture, 4

So far, in post one we've laid out experiential, theological and pastoral reason for thinking about the question “What relationship is the church to have to culture?”

In post two, we attempted a definition and exposition of "human culture." That definition read: "The human production of ways of living and belief, generally intended by its adherents as an expression of the good or excellent life, passed on to other members of a significantly-sized common group." With this definition we were after the man-centered, speculative nature of human culture.

In the third post, we argued that there were really only two cultures: the culture of man and the culture of God. We defined the "culture of God" as: "The God defined ways of living and belief, which authoritatively defines the good or excellent life, entered into not by natural means such as generational transmission, but through a supernatural act of adoption carried out by God himself." We argued that the two-culture framework can be seen throughout Scripture beginning with the primeval history of Genesis 1-11. And we suggested at least four implications of this framework for church praxis.

The definition we've proposed for the "culture of God" is obviously supernatural in origin and character. Here's where the term "culture" is a difficult label, infused as it is with so many man-centered notions. But if we hold to the God-centered, supernatural character of God's culture for the people of God, I think it pinches our thinking in at least three ways.

First of all, we must maintain that those who really and truly participate in the culture do so by a supernatural act of God. In other words, only the regenerate may live the culture that God determines in any true sense and with any eternal benefit.

I gather this from the Bible's teaching from beginning to end. But a few representative passages or themes:
  • Participation in the life of God, in the kingdom and family of God, is not acquired through human will or natural birth (John 1:13; 3:3-8,).
  • Even some who appear to be in the people of God may not be. We're told quite clearly that not all Israel are indeed Israel, not all are children because they are the seed of Abraham, the children of the flesh are not the children of God (Rom. 9:6-8). It is possible to know all the advantages of life in the society of God's people, and not truly possess them (Rom. 9:3-8).
  • The discontinuity and superiority of the New Covenant, and entrance into that covenant by an inward circumcision through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 2:28-29), requires that the propagation of the culture be supernatural and not merely through natural transmission from one generation to the next.
In plain English: since man doesn't enter the new life and culture of God naturally, and since national or ethnic identity doesn't guarantee participation in the new life and culture of God, but only a supernatural act of God in the conversion and redemption of sinners does, we can and should not think that the culture of God will be developed, strengthened or transmitted the way a natural culture is. Since the unregenerate do not please God because of their lack of faith (Heb. 11:6), and the natural mind is hostile toward God (Rom. 8:6-8) and unable to receive the things of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:11-14), the advancement of the culture of God will come at the hand of the spiritually-minded, the people of faith, those whose minds and affections are set on the things of God.

This isn't to say that others are not in many ways blessed through the culture of the redeemed people of God. God's people are salt and light; they illumine and season the people and circumstances around them. The Lord exercises a restraining and a reforming influence through His people and their involvement with the world. However, constructing a "godly culture" may only be completed by the godly in fellowship with the godly, that is, by the redeemed and regenerate church.

Okay... the second pinch in our thinking caused by our definition of God's culture. If I didn't lose a lot of good friends with the first 'pinch,' I think I may here.

Since God's culture isn't created or replicated by natural means... and since man's culture is, in the end, opposed to the things of God... I don't think it's a legitimate aim of the people of God (church qua church) to preserve the culture of man. Setting aside for a moment the cultural trappings that are indifferent, those remaining aspects of man's culture meant to convey some meaning, aesthetic, ethics, etc. that do not have God as their aim, particularly the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ, must not be alloyed together with the aesthetics, ethics, meanings, purposes of God in, for, and through His people. And where we can identify some ethnic heritage that does glorify God (say... a Scottish Reformer whose writings are edifying), they must be held up not primarily or even secondarily as "Scottish" but as a gift to all of Christ's people, as a Christ-ian, from the race of Christ.

Said more plainly: the church isn't the place we go to preserve ethnic heritage. God is doing that in some meaningful fashion even as He saves men from every nation. But nowhere in Scripture are we told it's the church's responsibility to serve as custodian and protector of natural custom, tradition, and culture. It would be better for entire ethnic cultural traditions to perish and everyone from those cultures be saved... than for churches to focus on the integration or preservation of human cultural traditions and occlude the soul-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps that choice of options sounds like a straw man to some. Let me know if you think so. But when I count the number of African-Americans I've seen (just the ones I've seen) avoid or leave solid, Gospel-preaching, predominantly White churches for profoundly weaker, Gospel-denying Black churches because they didn't "fit in" culturally, or the number of Whites who are unwilling to join solid, Gospel-preaching, predominantly African-American churches because of the cultural differences... this straw man acquires marrow, bone, flesh and muscle in my mind. We're burying the Gospel from the lost in pits marked culture, ethnicity, and tradition. We're making the Word of God of no effect through the traditions of men.

The church, in its expression of human culture (again... not matters indifferent, but matters touching upon meaningful aesthetics, ethics, philosophy, etc), must be as mere as possible. She must not assume any cultural tradition to be "neutral." No manmade culture is neutral in its disposition toward God or toward other cultural traditions. If the culture that God creates is supernatural in its origin and character, we need to steadily pour that culture into the church while draining the manmade ways of life we assume to be so valuable and helpful. Better that we burn up man's culture like so much wood, hay and stubble... and commit ourselves to refining the silver and gold of the life and ways of Jesus Christ.

A third and final pinch. Self-love is almost always idolatrous. What's there to love? We were like the people of Noah's day: "every thought and inclination of our hearts was only evil all the time". We were the unlovely, individually and culturally ("all people had corrupted their way on the earth," Gen. 6:12).

Apart from the grace of God that saves men, we would be utterly ruined. That grace comes to men of all ethnos, and it makes of them one new man. Given that there's nothing for us to boast in in our flesh, and that the grace of God makes the redeemed one new humanity... there can be no legitimate preferential treatment or preferences for ones own ethnic group. Such preferences may be natural... but that's just another way of saying "fallen" or "carnal." There is no legitimate reason, positive or negative, for me to love the people of God less aggressively or committedly as I do "my kinsmen according to the flesh." None. To do so is to break the commandment of our Lord (John 13:34-35; Eph. 4:1-6).

The first order of business in addressing the question of how the church relates to the culture is to reject inordinate affection for the culture and adopt an anthropology that centers our affections first on Christ, then on His "race."

Sunday, January 07, 2007

News: Noteworthy & Not So Noteworthy

Smackdown in the Pulpit:
As a little boy, I watched Hulk Hogan flex, body slam, and drop that big leg on tons of opponents. He even inspired his own mania (HulkMania). Actions dolls and a few B-movies followed. I've not seen the Hulkster in a while. Where is he now?

Apparently, he's hanging out with Ed Young and together they're tag teaming in a sermon series called "Larger Than Life." Ed and the Hulkster are gonna teach us "how to live large" this year.

"Secular Fundamentalists"
Now there's a new label for you, and a new movement afoot worthy its name. Nicholas Kristoff's bottom line: "We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance."

Want Your Church to Grow? Man Up and Dis' God with a Beat.
The Christian Science Monitor reported on an interesting study. "A new study shows that the fastest-growing churches boast more men, less reverence, and percussion during worship." Growth=more men + less awe of God + drums. Call me crazy but that sounds more like primitive cult rituals than Christian worship, doesn't it?

As if it weren't clear from this 1-sentence summary, a bit of goofiness accompanies the analysis of this study. For example, this contradictory ditty:
"The universal language of rock 'n' roll sets the stage for people of many different backgrounds to be comfortable in our setting," Mr. White says. Although electric guitars have turned off some older members, White says, most have been willing to tolerate it as an important drawing card for younger newcomers.
If a language is "universal" would older members be turned off by it? Personally, I never learned to speak rock 'n' roll. Sandwiched between the R&B and Hip Hop generations. I don't think I'm atypical. Yep, I pretty much worship to a different drum... steel pans these days.

The CSM article also featured a bit of level-headedness: "I don't think there are any bonuses just for getting people in the door," says Mr. Kenneson, an associate professor at Milligan College in Tennessee and co-author of "Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing." "I want my children to be formed by a community of believers [that shape] a certain kind of people. It's not enough to just be there being counted."

Does anyone know this book Selling Out the Church?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

News and Views

The Atlanta Journal Constitution offers this piece on corporate partnerships between some African American megachurches and Daimler-Chrysler. Something about a den of thieves echoes in my head.

Now this is encouraging. An aging, dwindling predominantly white congregation gives away its church building to a growing predominantly African-American congregation. The only thing that would be better is if the older white members would stay and labor with the new church.

Interesting and maybe sad Baptist and politics factoid:
"Baptists divide along partisan lines defined by race. Black Baptists, like all black members of Congress, are Democrats, while most white Baptists are Republicans. Notable exceptions include incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who will serve as president pro tem in the new Senate, making him third in succession to the presidency after the vice president and House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif." See story here.

One reason why careful discernment is needed on the question of church and culture. Another reason, this time with video.

Apparently, Rick Warren is being credited with redefining missions, with a little help from IV. Is it me... or does the new missions sound a lot like the old "social gospel"? “The old model was to win people to Christ and then involve them in ministry,” Warren said. “Now, it’s the other way around.” Hmmm....

Like a lot of people, I've held that perhaps the only reason to legitimately "split" a church body is if language is a barrier. Well, maybe not for long. See here.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Church and Culture, 3

In the last post, we attempted a working definition of culture. "The human production of ways of living and belief, generally intended by its adherents as an expression of the good or excellent life, passed on to other members of a significantly-sized common group."

When most people use the term "culture," they're referring more often than not to ways of being and meanings that some identifiable group of people have developed. And strictly speaking, culture is not synonymous with "race" or "ethnicity." There may be overlap between the terms, but they are not identical. Race and ethnicity refer to the people in view; culture refers to the habits and customs and beliefs of a group of people within or across ethnic lines.

Though we may speak of differing human cultures to some extent (they differ in some particular beliefs or modes of dress, for example), there are really only two cultures in the world.

Man's Culture
There is that culture which is the product of man. Man is its progenitor, and the cause of man is its aim. Both the social actions and the ethics of this culture are determined by men. In human culture, there is the attempt to speculatively construct meaning and purpose in life. By "speculatively," I mean an attempt to arrive at meaning and purpose "out of man" himself.

Perhaps a representative example of this would be hip hop culture. Here is a new culture, in many regards, that has spread in the course of a generation across ethnic and international lines. Hip hop is as big in Japan or Africa as it is in Long Beach or Brooklyn. It's a culture that has its origins with man (actually, largely adolescents). From its inception, it's been an attempt through language, dress, music, dance and art to state a philosophy of life. As a culture, the hip hop vision of the "good life" greatly values material possession, hedonistic pleasure, and valorizes particular images of masculinity and feminity as ideals. There are ethics. A kind of respect is highly prized, so any affronts are generally serious (in some cases, life threatening). And there are themes touching upon justice and suffering. There are virtues like neighborhood or group loyalty and authenticity (keepin' it real). In our lifetime, hip hop has been something of a laboratory in the development of culture.

For all that could be said about the particulars and nuances of Hip Hop culture, it is for all intents and purposes the same as every other man-made culture. Its view of the good life centers upon man. Its ethics center upon man. Its virtues are determined by the self-interests of men. The big questions of origin and purpose are all answered speculatively, from inside the thoughts, experiences and aspirations of man.

God's Culture
Man's culture stands in stark contrast to the culture created by God. It's not that human cultures have been altogether unconcerned about God and issues related to the things of God. Most all cultures have some depiction of a supreme being and relate much of life's existence to that being. The great difference is that the culture God creates and gives to His people both originates and terminates outside of man himself. It's not indifferent to men (God uses things like human speech and writing, for example), but neither is it limited to the thoughts and ability of man.

If we were attempting a definition of culture from the vantage point of the people of God, it might read something like: "The God defined ways of living and belief, which authoritatively defines the good or excellent life, entered into not by natural means such as generational transmission, but through a supernatural act of adoption carried out by God himself."

I think what the Bible reveals to us is that part of what God does in the redemption of man is give Him a new culture. We only have space here to sketch this idea through Scripture.

The first culture we find in Scripture is that established by God in the garden. The oft used "God's people in God's place under God's rule" is an apt summation of this idea. In the creation account and the garden narrative of Genesis 2-3, we see God giving to Adam and Eve a defined way of life (marriage, keep the garden, etc.) and an authoritative statement on the good life ("be fruitful and multiply," "eat of this tree you shall surely die"). It is God himself who creates Adam and Eve and who places them as His people in the Garden. This is how life begins.

Genesis 3 records the Fall of man. And interestingly, right on the heels of the Fall arises human efforts at establishing an alternative culture to that forfeited in the Garden. The murderous, vagabond Cain builds a city and names it after his son (3:17). Five generations later, Lamech institutes polygamy (v. 19), places a carnal premium on physical beauty (seen in the meanings of his wives' and daughter's names), and his children become the "fathers" of certain cultural advances like music, metalworking, and nomadic shepherding. By Genesis 6, this human attempt at culture is radically depraved and wiped out. By Genesis 11, man proves incorrigible and his depravity intractable at the tower of Babel.

But alongside the events of Gen. 3-11, there are the reminders of God's redemptive purposes and His establishment in the line of men His own culture. Gen. 4:26 tells us that men began to call on the Lord following Lamech's boastful sins and lineage. Noah finds favor in God's sight (Gen. 6:8). In Gen. 12,Abraham is called out of Ur, a pagan human culture, and separated for God's redemptive purposes. Unlike his pagan forebears, Abraham calls on the name of the Lord (12:8). Human conventions, like covenants, are reappropriated in God's cultural economy (gen. 15). Even from the womb the people of God are identified and separated from the people of human culture (Gen. 25:23).

The Law establishes the culture's law, ethics, virtue, etc. upon the holiness of God rather than merely the self-interests and wisdom of men. In the giving of the Law, God sets His people Israel apart as holy unto himself. The Law not only makes sin known, but it also marks out the people of God. It is the failure of the people of God, called the "holy race," to keep themselves from the manmade idolatrous cultures around them that grieves Ezra in his day (Ezra 9:1-3; see also Neh. 9-10). Notice a number of peoples are listed. All of them have this in common: their cultures were not God's culture. Only two categories of culture exist: God's and man's.

And this call to be separate, called out of the world and into the culture of God, is found in the NT as well. For example:
What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty" (2 Cor. 6:16-18).
Moreover, those who were once on the other side of this separation from God's people are now brought near through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:11-19). They enter the "nation" and culture of God through Christ, and they are to be separated from the culture of man (Eph. 4:17-19, for example)

The entire Biblical narrative follows these two trajectories. Man ruining himself in sin and self-made culture. God setting His people apart.

If this basic two-culture framework holds true, there are a couple of implications to consider.

First, though a manmade culture may have certain aspects that are noble, beautiful, and good (we do still retain the image of God though marred by sin, and God's common grace is real), I think this framework warrants a basically skeptical stance toward manmade culture. I'm afraid that every culture includes some idolatries, and we're not always aware of what they are. here's a healthy skepticism.

Second, one part of the project called the Christian church must be the articulation of a distinctively Christian or God-made culture over and against the manmade cultures by which we're surrounded. Separation requires distinguishing. (Note: I'm not here advocating a separatist view. People mean varying things by separatism. Perhaps we'll take that up specifically at a later point. My point here is simply that an attempt must be made at real definitions and distinctions when it comes to the notion of culture).

Third, any appropriation of and engagement with manmade culture by the church must of necessity follow the definition work mentioned in the second implication. The Bible is replete with examples of God's people following the siren songs of the cultures around them in part because they either forgot or never accepted fully the culture into which they were called. God's culture can't simply be assumed and then we quickly move on to "engaging the culture" or "incorporating aspects of the culture" in church life.

Fourth, all of this suggests there must be some regulative principle approach to church life. Leaving aside for a moment the differing definitions, it seems obvious that participation in God's culture requires knowledge of and adherence to God's rule. That rule is expressed in His Word. It's the only infallible rule for faith and practice.

Okay... I'm still thinking out loud. What say ye? What am I missing? What's wrong with this picture? What's helpful or correct do you think? Does this flatten the notion of human culture too much? Are there other implications or would you differ with some of the ones I've listed?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Church and Culture, 2

What is "culture"?

As Justin pointed out in the comments section of the last post, this is not an easily defined term. We use it as though it were... kinda the way we use pronouns like "it" too easily and too often as though everyone knows what "it" is we're saying. offers 14 definitions for the term culture. While in college, I once read an anthropology article that documented some 73 distinct uses of the term culture in the research literature. Okay, anything with 73 definitions is vague at best and probably close to useless as a specific enough framework for explaining anything.

And there, I think, is where the problem begins when you ask a question like "what is the relationship between the church and culture?" Nearly everyone has a different thing in mind when they hear the question.

There are two potential pitfalls with using the term culture. We can either define it so broadly that it really is meaningless, useless for actually drawing the kind of distinctions we think are helpful in some way. Or, you can define it so narrowly that the subsequent proliferation of mini-cultures is overwhelming.

Another problem: people do in fact move in and out of various cultures and maintain identities in differing cultural groups. So, culture is a fluid construct. It's a little like nailing Jell-O to the wall.

But here is a crack at it for the purposes of this discussion. When most people use the term culture, they generally mean:

The human production of ways of living and belief, generally intended by its adherents as an expression of the good or excellent life, passed on to other members of a significantly-sized common group.

Culture is a human production. It's what people make up. As early as Genesis 4, in the genealogy of Cain, we see the biblical identification of human cultural production with Jubal, Jabal, and Jubal-Cain. There is artistic production, animal husbandry and metal working--all indications of human activity.

Culture is or includes ways of living and belief. How we act and what we think constitutes "culture." Here is where we're in danger of arriving at 73 definitions or a million mini-cultures, unless we define it by some measurable group size (hence my qualification "significantly-sized"). I realize that not everyone will agree with this qualification, especially since I've not defined it, but not every gathering of 50 people who share a common musical interest, for example, constitutes a culture or sub-culture.

Culture is a statement about what is excellent in life or the good life itself. All cultures have some negative aspects to them. After all, culture is a human production and therefore limited and fallen. But, at their root, cultural systems attempt to codify and spread a particular view of what is excellent or good in life. That statement is shaped by certain resource and envirnomental concerns, but wherever we find a culture, we find people attempting to live out a view of the world that they believe to be good in either some moral, aesthetic, transactional, or instrumental sense. This isn't to say that what we find in any given human culture is good, but that it's participants are making the statement that they believe it to be good.

Last, culture is passed on to others. Usually there is generational transmission. Cultures, like most individual life forms, look to replicate and protect themselves. There is an impulse toward survival which most often takes the form of teaching those who come behind.

Okay... that's my little attempt at a definition. In the next post, I want to argue and have you all correct, improve, edit, redirect, rebuke, etc. the idea that there really are only two cultures in the world and that maintaining this view is vital for answering our question, "what relationship should there be between church and culture?"

Now, this post is my "thinking out loud." So, again, all comments are welcome.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Church and Culture, 1

Here’s a question that seems to plague us today: “What relationship is the church to have to culture?”

In some fashion or another, most every Christian grapples with this question. Niehbur’s work Christ and Culture is a classic grappling with this issue. As is the case with many things, the opinions of Christians vary on this issue. Niehbur himself offered five responses in his framework. So, I don’t pretend an easy answer is available to us.

But, I do want to raise the question with what I hope will be a slightly different emphasis (maybe not, we’ll see). And that is, what is the relationship of the church qua church to culture? It’s an ecclesiological question rather than a question of individual Christian ethics or of Christology, though it touches on both of these as well. How should the people of God, as the people of God, understand and interact with the construct and reality called “culture”?

For me, this question flows out of a couple of streams. There is the stream of lived experience in the local church that seems to exalt cultural considerations to the level of, if not over, Christian identity. I think I see that or hear tells of that in most every “predominantly (fill in the ethnic blank) church” out there. And in those settings, where culture is so easily and often blended or associated with “race,” it is not surprising that an overwhelming number of churches struggle with the basic question of how Christians of differing ethnic backgrounds are to live together in the same church and how the “culture of the church” is to reflect either the majority group in local church A or be porous enough for minority groups to be a part of local church A. There is this basic identity conflict going on in the people of God.

Second, the question flows from a theological stream as well. This is most pressing for me. The Bible’s, and therefore God’s, vision of the church is a vision of multi-ethnic and multi-lingual unity. This vision simultaneously affirms “group identity distinctives” (at least at the level of ethnicity and language) and real, pervasive, unbreakable and ultimate unity with and in Christ Jesus. God is redeeming for himself one people out of all people. As a former racist, this is compelling and attractive and even necessary to me. That the visible local church seems so little bothered by how far we appear from God’s vision is distressing to me. I recognize the already—not yet tension we live in so many ways as Christians. But I think there is too much eagerness to bring that eschatology forward as an “excuse” not to do some sweaty, back-breaking, heart-searching, transparent thinking and work before God on this issue. Our ecclesiology, in too many cases, isn’t informing our practice.

Third, the question flows from a pastoral care stream. As someone who wants to pastor the church that Jesus is building, with all its glorious diversity and unity, I’m concerned that my own assumptions about life and cultural experiences will create limits in the pastoral task if I am not carefully discerning when it comes to church and culture. The Lord has given me the great privilege and stewardship, like many of you, of shepherding a congregation with folks from over 25 nations. The diversity is greater if we include ethnic groups rather than national boundaries. How do I practically care for people who may be brining such widely differing assumptions about life?

These are some of the concerns that motivate this series of posts, Lord willing. At root, I hope to entertain a series of questions, moving from the more fundamental to the more applied. Here’s a tentative list:
  1. What is “culture”?
  2. Is there such a thing as a distinctively Christian culture?
  3. How are the practices of the church (i.e., preaching, marriage counseling, and singing) to be shaped by either culture at large or a distinctively Christian culture?
  4. How should Christian people engage with non-Christian people and cultures? What are the terms and objectives of engagement?

Please, please, please join this conversation. What you read here will certainly not be “expert opinion”. Hopefully, this will be a conversation starter for some and a continuation for others. But please feel free to join in the discussion.

Grace and peace in Him who makes us one with himself.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Reflection for the New Year

2007 is here! The New Year's Eve parties are all held, the ball has dropped, the fireworks are all exploded, confetti is being swept away, the parades are over, and minds are slowly turning to the reality of work tomorrow.

Awww maannnn!

Like most people, this has been a reflective time for me. It's natural... between the year now sunk into eternity past and the year that lays ahead should Jesus tarry (come, Lord Jesus!)... to speculate about, plan for, and pray over the year ahead. Thanks to having to prepare a sermon for New Year's Eve, I've done less of than than normal, but I've done some.

What about you? What are your hopes, plans, and prayers for 2007? Please share. And I encourage all who read this post and any comments to pray for what others share.

My main reflection is summed up by Ligon Duncan's opening response to the opening question on the opening panel of 2006's T4G Conference. The question was, "What are you doing with your life and why?" Okay, a great question right. Lig' responded:

"When people ask me what my job is, I tell them that it is to minister to the people of God by preaching the Gospel. I:
  1. preach the word;
  2. love the people;
  3. pray down heaven;
  4. promote family religion; and
  5. train the elders of the church.
Underneath all that, I'm called to live a godly life."

Lig' shared this without batting an eye. I think it's in his bones. I can spend the entire year immersing myself in this rather full and absorbing summation of pastoral ministry. I'm both emotionally encouraged and spiritually challenged and practically helped by this.

My New Year's reflection: I want to be like Lig' Duncan when I grow up.

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