I think I’m like the Banksy of blogging. I sporadically spring up at times rarely expected. The difference being, Banksy makes bank while my office is in a former one. But today, I was moved to write for the first time since sometime late in the Obama Administration, for today marks 1-year since our church went digital due to Covid. What is the 1st-anniversary gift for a pandemic anyway? N95’s? Toilet Paper? A Flowbee? (ask your parents). Regardless, such a benchmark gives you an opportunity for reflection. So today, I was reflecting. In tandem with this, I read an article this morning and found personal reflection mingled with pastoral grief.
Before we get underway, I want to acknowledge that evangelicalism in the United States is a complex ecosystem with nuanced views on politics, social justice, equity, cancel culture, science, Covid, and the policies around such things (you know, the stuff that made 2020/21 the great social Tilt-A-Whirl). Evangelicalism is not quite as monolithic as cable news implies, but close. That’s why I say an ecosystem. It’s much like rainforests; they look slightly different from place to place, but everyone knows when they are looking at one. Also, like an ecosystem, it affects the larger environment around it. As a pastor, my focus is on how the world experiences the effects of our collective faith ecosystem.
In real-world speak…
would our communities say that what we’re doing, stating, posting, etc., has communicated unmistakably that above all else, we’re here to love and serve them as neighbors because, in doing so, have we truly loved and served God?
would our disbelieving or de-churched communities be even the slightest bit tempted to think, “Yeah, I don’t like their religion, but I’m sure glad they were around for this last year.”?
would they come even close to describing evangelicals as a people of selfless love in a season of cultural suffering?
would “loving” be in the Top 5 descriptors used of evangelicalism in 2020/2021?
But, deeper questions are gnawing at my heart, questions of deep spiritual consequence.
Did we as evangelicals sense…
a burden to ensure that above all else, putting others before ourselves was our priority, both in the optics of how it looked to them (since we are to be light) and in the application of how it was experienced by them (since we are to be salt)?
the weight of the First Commandment more heavily on our soul than the want of the First Amendment? Which did we quote more? Which gave us hope more? Which bothered us more when we didn’t see it applied? Which of the “Firsts” was truly first and drove our actions, reactions, dispositions, and perspectives this year?
resolve to love others well with an unmistakable calling to care, even if we looked foolish (per Paul), weak (per Peter), or perhaps worst of all, like sheep (per Jesus)?
In the article I was reading today, written by a conservative Christian publication, this was the line that struck me,
“The survey, which has a sampling error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points, also found that white evangelicals are also the least likely faith demographic to consider their overall community’s health effect when it comes to deciding whether to get vaccinated. Just 48% of white evangelicals said they would consider community health effects “a lot” compared to 70% of black Protestants, 65% of Catholics and 68% of unaffiliated Americans.”
Now, I know some will find themselves pinned down on the beachhead of the word vaccinated. Others, wary of the woke culture, have already cued an eye-roll with the phrase white evangelical. While important discussions in their own right, they are not my focus here. The devil’s in the details, and he would most certainly love to sidetrack us on those topics so we overlook the real issue that may be of concern. So what’s the “buried lead” of the story? “evangelicals are also the least likely faith demographic to consider their overall community’s health effect when it comes to deciding… Just 48% of white evangelicals said they would consider community health effects ‘a lot’”
That little bit of data may have unearthed a lot about our collective ecosystem’s heart.
Think about it. A faith demographic…
whose founder modeled selfless love toward a planet of sinful neighbors and told us to follow his example (1 Peter 2:18-25).
whose number one most crucial commandment calls it to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:29-31) since to love our neighbor is evidence that we actually love God and it’s not just lip-service (1 John 4:20).
whose entire moral code is summed up in the one great umbrella virtue, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)
whose final exam is explicitly rooted in what we did to the least of those around us (Matthew 25:31-46).
That faith demographic is the least likely demographic to consider their overall community… Community, a synonym for what the Bible calls our neighbors.
Now, I can imagine right now some will be quick…
to take offense.
to reject the conclusion.
to add disclaimers.
to write a retort.
to stop reading and punch an angry emoji into the comments section.
to point out that this is only about “community health effects” (while adding something to the effect of “alleged” or “over-hyped” or “politicized” to the front of the phrase), and that such a topic is not a tangible way to measure if we genuinely love our neighbors.
But God seems to disagree!
Don’t miss me here; I’m not seeking to squeeze public health policy into a command to love our neighbors. God did that for us; I’m merely attempting to take the Bible at its word. The law to love your neighbor comes from a book of the Bible that is explicitly about “community health effects” on our neighbors. How coincidental is that? Leviticus may read like a kid playing with a sensory box in a petting zoo with its 247 laws about disease, diet, discharges, and polycotton blends, but it’s also the birthplace of the “love your neighbor” command (Lev. 19:18). And its 3300-year-old decree to make love tangible toward our neighbors in real world ways still stands. It’s on the lips of Jesus. It’s in the letters of Paul. And it’s seeking to find a home in a 21st-century Christian internet article from a Pew Research poll. God was clear in Leviticus that not considering your neighbor’s well-being (due to leprosy, mold, scaly skin, bodily fluid, disease from sickly animals, [insert your favorite communicable disease here]) was a failure to love them. The failure to consider another is the failure to love.
If I consider myself more than you, regardless of the inventory of reasons, excuses, justifications, rights, laws, problems, or rationalizations, I’m deciding – by intentional will or partisan blindness – not to love you as God instructs me. And thus in the process failing to love God since he tells me to love you. I’m sunk instantly on God’s top-tier expectation.
Paul said a proper display of authentic love is when people “in humility consider others more significant than themselves.” (Phil. 2:2-3). Therefore my friends, a failure to love our neighbors may be the gravest of our collective sins since love stands at the pinnacle of our Lord’s priorities.
That last line is not for dramatic effect, but sober reflection. When the church in Ephesus was about to lose its love, Jesus started packing his bags. They were doing all sorts of good conservative religious stuff, but without love Jesus said there was nothing worth sticking around for (Rev. 2:1-7). Regarding a lack of love, Paul said worse.
We, as evangelicals, are very good at identifying the sins of our society, but perhaps our efforts would be better rewarded by addressing our sins against society. That’s why I’m not all that invested in the pro/con debates between pro vs. anti-mask. Pro vs. anti-vaccination. Pro vs. anti-lock-down. Pro vs. anti-[fill in your blank]. What I am interested in is that each of us, as evangelicals, looks deep and prays hard so as to be confident that whatever positions we take, we take them because we find those to be the most biblical and unmistakable way we can let the world know, “we’re considering you as more significant than ourselves” for that’s what “loving a neighbor” is all about. If our positions clearly communicate to others, “I care about your …” I think that’s what God cares about. If our positions clearly communicate to others, “I care about my …” I think that’s what God is concerned about.
Jesus was emphatic that “the world will know we are his followers by our love.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if the world agreed?
Since this has swollen to the length of a book, I might as well offer a reflective epilogue for the one poor completionist who stuck it out. As the article came to an end, I felt a deep-seated pause in my soul. One of those “I don’t want to take another step” pauses that occurs because you don’t want to face what may be the most challenging possibility of all.
Not simply that, perhaps…
we haven’t loved a disbelieving world as well as we would like.
we became diverted by self-interest even though we desire self-sacrifice.
we let our fears or frustrations disrupted our intentions.
we inadvertently became more caught up in the passions of amendments over commandments.
we became too focused on our personal rights vs. God’s gospel objectives.
we are all too human and failed to live up to the ideals of love and want to do better.
But, when confronted with the idea that perhaps we don’t consider or love our neighbors as we should… we’re more bothered at the accusation than the possibility.
Or worse still, we hear it and frankly don’t care.
The state which lets you know Jesus has long since left the building.
We have saved the best for last. In this recent installment of The Everyday Missionary Podcast, I sat down with my son to talk about what it’s like to come out as gay in a Christian pastor family. Our hope in this was not simply to offer a glimpse into the challenges and closeness that can emerge, but also to display how the Christian and gay community can communicate with one another in a spirit of kindness, empathy, and understanding.
Three months ago our 17-year-old son shared with us that he no longer held to our Christian faith and that he was in a relationship with a young man. However, our journey with our son and his sexuality began far earlier than a fall day back in October. In this episode of The Everyday Missionary, I have sought to retrace our steps as a family from 12-years-old until that autumn afternoon. In doing so, I seek to highlight some of the things I believe we did thoughtfully as parents in light of our faith, but also some of the things I know I handled badly. Equally, I share how there were things Gray did right in this process, but also things he handled poorly (though I share no specifics regarding Gray since that is his story to be shared in Pt. 4). My hope in this series is that our experience can act as an aid to better handling such events in life with grace, truth, awareness, compassion, seeking and granting forgiveness, and love even in our differences.
Six years ago this month Redemption Church was planted out of chaos and in hope. Since that time, Jesus has seen fit to not only keep us alive, but has stirred us to thrive. It has been a season loaded with times of uncertainty, yet consistently each uncertainty has been upended by the gracious incursion of God’s provision.
One of the most amazing things is related to how God put all sorts of crazy pieces in place to make it possible to purchase an old bank building along with two adjacent lots on the main street of our city. We are not yet able to use the space for Sundays, but it’s trending that direction within the next two to three years – which is incredible since just two to three years ago we thought there was no way possible we would ever have a building of our own in our city. God still does BIG things.
In becoming property owners, we also wanted to face bigger questions as to the use of our property. A component of our mission statement is “for the good of our city” as highlighted in Jeremiah 29:7. How then would our space fulfill that mission? What things could we do to show our love for the city? To show our commitment to the cares and needs of the community? How could we be good stewards, not only of the facility and finances related to it, but also to exist for the welfare of the city Jesus put us in? So far we’ve come up with a lot of ideas, many of which are already underway in the space as it currently is. But one of the truly novel things we came up with was an added step that I’m not certain I’ve come across before; we proactively decided to voluntarily pay property taxes. Crazy, right? Maybe. But it’s missionally crazy, and if you’re going to be crazy you might as well do it for missional reasons. So why have we chosen to do this? Here are the 5 core reasons.
1) To Display Solidarity with Our Community
Communities need resources to be communities. In the case of cities and counties these resources come in many forms, but one of the key elements is fiscal resources that are acquired by taxing the members of a community. Thus it was our conviction that we could display a heart for “the welfare of our city” by making the conscious decision to contribute, as an organization, in a way that is similar to the inhabitants of our city. Some may find this an odd way to display solidarity, or they may say there are better ways to spend money on community needs. But we believe there is a different form of generosity that is displayed when you let another party that is commissioned to lead a community to decide the best way to use resources for that community. In this way we display that we are in the community like everyone else.
2) To Show Goodwill toward Our City
Believe it or not, being a city official is difficult work. Whether this is an elected official or an employee of a particular department, there will always be the stress of a collection of citizens with different views on how a city should be managed. This stress is compounded by how the city is going to pay for it. This is why to some degree city and county officials don’t get vigorously excited when they hear that a church wants to buy up 5-500 acres for a new campus. It’s not driven by opposition to religion. Rather, there is no revenue for a tax-exempt building and as long as it is a church it will not generate revenue. Thus in a strange sort of way, not only are churches not paying customers, but they take up the space of something else that could be. Therefore, if we are in this “for the good of our city” then one of the ways we can truly stand behind this conviction is to invest in a way that puts tax money where our mission mouth is. In fact, it’s been fun to see how quickly pleasant surprise come across the face of community officials when they discover our position. In this way we display that we are concerned with the concerns of those who lead our city.
3) To Remove an Understandable Area of Criticism
I will assume that most of us have come across some meme on social media that shows a picture of the most ornate church cathedral or megachurch with the caption “tax churches now”. While as a pastor I know that this is a provocative image dislodged from a whole plethora of facts, there is another fact that still remains; the unbelieving communities that we are seeking to reach see this exemption as odd and unfair. It’s a perk for churches, but it’s equally a stumbling block for those not in churches. And if our mission is to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks for the sake of Christ, then for us it made sense to remove this stone in the path of our mission field. In this way we display that the souls that we hope to see saved matter more than the money we can save.
4) To Govern Our Own Sense of “need” vs. “want”
Churches have a strange pull to want more than they need. More staff, more supplies, more tech, more budgets, more of more. This is also true when it comes to space. We tend to believe that bigger buildings will equal bigger crowds, even though we’ve all been lectured ad nauseam to the contrary. We have still blazed ahead with multimillion dollar debt loads that we can’t easily manage since “we built it and they didn’t come – just like everyone told us from the get-go”. Now, I’m not saying big is bad. Nor am I saying that there are not legitimate space needs in churches that are growing. But I do believe churches would make more conservative decisions on buildings and debt if they also had to consider the taxes on the facilities they were building. For us, our future expansion looks to maximize a footprint that is efficient and effective without being intrusive or ostentatious, especially as we look toward future generations which may be more inclined toward minimalism and outward investment. In this way we model that restraint is a virtue that allows for the freedom to pursue opportunities God places before each generation.
5) To Prepare for a Possible Future
Quite honestly, the odds of property tax exemptions sticking around in our post-Christian climate are not in favor of churches. Already we know that the question of the constitutional legality of exemptions for clergy are working their way through the court system. Some project that property tax exemptions for churches will be next to follow. In light of these strong possibilities, we opt to prepare ourselves in the present for the future. By including property taxes in our budget now we have been able to adjust our overall budget so that we are acclimated to this particular cost of doing ministry in our culture. If that day ever comes, we will have already been doing it far before that day. In this way we proactively mitigate sudden budget hikes that would harm our missional priorities.
In the end, am I saying all churches should do this? No. Am I saying that we are more missional, trusting, godly, sacrificial, (fill in the blank) for doing this? No. Is this a creative way we have been led to connect with and build bridges within our community that most churches have not considered? Yes. Ultimately the question for all churches is not what they are required or free to do in matters such as this, but what is Christ leading them to do in order to display commitment toward the welfare of their city?
One of my “insider” interests is learning how other pastors handle sermon prep. What I have discovered is no two pastors are ever exactly the same except that all have a process, every step in the process is intentional and the whole thing begins with with an initial Monday morning panic, “Can I make a message out of this by Sunday?”
My process isn’t terribly novel. In general terms, I prefer to preach either expositionally (through books of the Bible) or theologically (some people call this “topical” and yet my focus is more on the theology of a theme than merely good advice giving). Where I may differ from many of my fellow preachers is that my prep is sliced into two distinct environments. It begins in the lab of my study and ends in the field that is a bar.
In The Lab That Is A Study
I recently read an article that said pastors should not have offices, but studies. I like that. So I have a study. My study is like a lab; a controlled environment with everything I need for the task of research. I begin in the lab by copy-and-pasting a double-spaced version of my biblical text for the week into a Word document. I then read the passage over and over, identifying patterns, scribbling notes, logging insights and asking random questions with each pass. I would guess I scan and scribble through the passage around 20 times, usually finding that the most valuable insights hit around the 15th pass. From there I do my exegetical work. For those unfamiliar with our hip clergy nomenclature, exegesis is when we seek to understand the meaning of a book of the Bible in its original language, culture and context. It may sound dull, but for Bible nerds this is the biblical peanut butter to our theological jelly. Once that is complete, I pile my desk with books and read till I feel I need to unbuckle my mental belt like its a post Thanksgiving Day dinner.
As the above process unfolds I regularly shake out the cramping in my right hand. I’m feverishly jot down informational aggregate on my narrow rule TOPS white legal pad, using my Pentel 0.7mm mechanical pencil and rotating through my pile of Ticonderoga Emphasis highlighters (shameless product placements) to mark varied themes with various colors (yellow is technical, green is illustrative, pink is pithy, orange is for us today, blue is transitional and purple is key points). Finally, I figure out the key breaks in the passage that will act as transitions through the sermon and I put each of those sections into a PowerPoint build. By the end of my time “in the lab”, I have logged around 20-30 hours and piled up anywhere between 10-20 pages of notes. With my lab research done I grab my ESV Bible, research notes, TOPS pad, Pentel pencil and head to a bar.
In The Field That Is A Bar
Labs are pristine, antiseptic and protected. That gives us the ability to research in ways that are ideal, controlled and precise. Field research is messy, inconvenient and unpredictable, yet true to life. A local bar (a cantina technically) is my field research. It is the last stage in my process and the location where I put the majority of my sermons together.
As I walk in, the familiar Latino bartender greets me with our customary ritual, “Amigo! Mac and Jack?” Mac and Jack’s is hands down the best African Amber on the planet and is brewed just over the hill. I give him my usual thumbs-up and find a place to sit down. My table is the far back corner. It gives me the best view of the room.
On this day there are two middle-aged women at the far booth. Each has a margarita the size of a kiddy pool. They are loud, animated and angry – at a man. The one on the left is mad at her man. The one on the right is mad at the same man, but only as a show of solidarity for the friend across from her. Hell hath no furry like two angry women with a gallon of margarita between them.
I smirk and think, “I’m glad I’m not that guy.” And I write.
Further to my right, two men sit at the bar. One is retired, has a cane, wears a veteran hat and is eager to initiate a conversation with anyone who sits within three seats. A couple seats down is a young guy, blue collar, no wedding ring and looks like he came straight from moving a mountain of dirt with his bare hands and then used his face as the wash cloth. He’s sipping Fireball, watching the soccer game and riding that fine line with the vet of being just polite enough to keep conversation at arms length without being disrespectful.
I’m like the younger guy. I’m sad for the older guy. And I write.
Closer to my immediate left are two young women in their 20’s. I can hear how the one feels betrayed because she just found out her boyfriend has a porn issue. Her friend seeks to console her, assuring her of how the boyfriend in question doesn’t deserve her. Suddenly one of the the two loud margarita ladies unexpectedly shouts, “Men Suck!” and the consoling 20 something responds, “Amen!” (Yes, you would be surprised how much “Amen” comes up in a bar). The laughter and camaraderie cuts away the anger and betrayal for a few brief seconds before reality returns, and with reality the conversations.
I grieve. I pray. And I write.
Behind me around the corner is the restaurant area. Just within earshot I can hear a family. The newborn baby is crying and big brother (who may be all of 4-5 years old) is repeating, “I’m bored! I’m bored!” Dad must be lost on his phone because of the terse female voice that comes next, “Are you going to deal with your son?”
I remember. And I write.
After a few minutes a third man appears at the bar. I’ve seen him a few times before. White collar, wedding ring, never really talks. He sits at the bar for one drink in a small glass and leaves. It seems to be his soft space between stressful worlds.
I look. I ponder. I pray. And I write.
It is in this immersive environment where I begin to construct my final thoughts; pushing what I have studied through an ether vastly different than the atmosphere of my study. As I do my mind bends toward various questions as the message unfolds:
How would people in a bar understand this?
Would people in a bar know what to do with this?
Do people in a bar even care about this?
What biases might the two younger women have about the importance of this?
What words or ideas would the unmarried dirt covered guy be unfamiliar with?
What questions would the married business guy and his one drink have about this?
What confusion might be stirred up for the worn out parents with their two young kids?
What objections would the loud margarita ladies have about this?
What conclusions would the retired veteran have about this?
What humor, illustrations, word pictures or pop culture references can I use that most of the people in a bar would instantly understand?
What religious clichés are so loaded that they might sabotage what I believe people need to understand regarding this?
How can I do all of this and still ensure that Jesus, above all else, is honored and pleased with what I say?
Now obviously I don’t systematically walk through these questions after every point. They are more the natural consequence of the environment as I compile the sermon. Completing my message in a bar forces an awareness of and sensitivity to people in real life. It unlocks the questions in a way far more authentic than anything I might duplicate by just imagining people in the isolation of my study. And I do this, not in the hopes of understanding the “lost”, but so as to understand people; not the least of which being the “saved” ones. The bar is a transparent microcosm of the same realities, challenges and conversations “saved” people face. A bar is filled with the same kind of demographic diversity that a church seeks to create. And ultimately a bar is popular for the same reason a church; because people are looking for a safe place in which some seek to hide, others want to connect and still others invest to belong.
Mind you a bar isn’t a perfect place, but neither are people. Praise God that His Bible, His Gospel and His Grace always is.
The original Good Friday was not so good. In fact it was downright a punch in the gut followed by a brisk boot to the head. By the end of the day a pagan government flanked by a corrupt religion had managed to kill God’s Son, instill fear in God’s followers and give the illusion that God’s plans were buried in the dirt. As night fell on the angst-ridden apostles they found themselves lamenting the end of their movement along with the inevitability of their demise. Yep, it wasn’t exactly a Good Friday from anyone’s perspective: except God’s. For on that Friday many things yet to be seen were transpiring and one easily overlooked reality is that more than one “god” was slain that day.
Part of the angst of the Apostles on that Friday evening was rooted in a problem they were unwittingly blind to at the time. The problem? They had the right God, but they saw Him in selectively wrong ways. They thought Jesus was to be their partisan judge in an earthly court, their commanding general in a Roman invasion and their kingly monarch in a not-really-so-new-but-at-least-Jewish global empire. In short, they believed in a politically empowered messianic idol more than understood Jesus the Messiah who stands outside yet over all human rulers. Therefore when things fell apart, their idol – by way of God’s ruining grace – was slain. So while every part of it looked like a really bad Friday, it was the beginnings of the first truly Good Friday.
In thinking about this, as it pertained to the SCOTUS decision this last Friday, I couldn’t help but run through some parallels of how we too as Christians may have idolized certain things within our country. For a while I have noticed how we have slipped into a form of idolatrous doublethink regarding political powers. In one sense we have generally affirmed that government is not the solution to our problems, but then every election cycle we roll into sounding like politicians or parties are the key to curtailing the very problems we are certain government can’t fix. Now in saying this please don’t take my words further than I intend. I believe that every American Christian has an important public responsibility to be involved in the political process and some even running for office, but my suspicion is that we have gone further than mere civic duty; we may have set our faith and fear in it. We appear to have gone beyond casting our vote to placing our hope and trust and anxiety and distress in the outcomes of the civic arena; making idols out of platforms, methods, legislation and their aftereffects. Some idols we feared so greatly we made a point to desecrate them as often as possible, alarmed that they will rise up and overpower our rights. Other idols we opted to venerate in the hopes they would stem the tide of the idols we feared. Hence we played a game of “my idol can beat your idol,” and now we sit dismayed at the fact that “their” idols are shoving “our” idols butts in the cultural dirt. Yes, the political arm of Christianity is getting a beat down, but oh what a glorious beat down it will be if we are willing to endure it.
In relationship to times of opposition the Apostle said, “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” While some may speak of the need for God to judge America, we must remember that Peter here says judgment comes first to us. The difference however is that for the Christian God’s judgment is not to dole out sinful penalty, but to forge spiritual maturity. In light of this…
Perhaps the events of Friday, and the feared future consequences of those events, are actually the beginnings of a spectacular grace designed to filter out the worldly contaminates that have inadvertently mixed with what is to be an other-worldly faith.
Perhaps God is stripping us of our power, our privilege and our position specifically so all that remains is living by His Power, His Privilege and His Position.
Perhaps the best way we were ever going to love others selflessly was to be stripped of our ability to resist others socially.
Perhaps what our prayers most required, what our faith most desired and what our thankfulness most needed was being socially humbled so as to display Spirit-filled humility.
Perhaps because our idols have fallen, all other idols will eventually follow in suit so that Jesus reigns in the lives of an eternal multitude secured specifically because of the witness of our temporary discomfort.
Perhaps we will find a new found anguish for people who are estranged from God’s grace more than be agitated that they break God’s rules.
Perhaps by not being as focused on winning the culture wars for Jesus we will now be more focused on winning a war worn culture to Jesus.
Perhaps because we gladly pass through the fires of reviling with only blessing on our lips the embers of revival will settle around our country.
Perhaps we will be freed from the fear of all earthly calamity and rejoice in certitude of our eternal certainty.
Perhaps we will now know with steely assurance that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Perhaps what we least wanted we most required to be holy as God is holy.
Perhaps with less and less we will realize more and more Jesus meets every need.
Perhaps with all our idols broken down that is when His Cross, His Gospel, His Church and His Glory will be most lifted up.
Perhaps what feels like a very bad situation will be the beginning of a very good opportunity. It wouldn’t be the first time world changing things sprang from the ruining grace of the Friday God.
This article will be a bit barbed, but I do this when defending a woman that is being mistreated.
Over the last several days the article “Dear Church, Here Is Why People Are REALLY Leaving You” has repeatedly cycled through my sprawling array of social media feeds (Oh Ryan Howard where is WUPHF.com when I need it most?). I have seen people I love “Like” it and people I like “LOVE” it, but I have contemplated it. Now if I were simply mining the article for anecdotal nuggets I would say there is much to be mined, but taken on the whole I feel like it’s giving me the shaft without any real gold in the mine – and yes, the double entendre is implied.
In the big picture the thrust of the article appears to be saying – as far as I can surmise – “Yes Church I’m leaving you. And yes it’s me, but it’s more you because you don’t accept me for me like you should.” Now I’m not going to argue for a minute that this doesn’t happen (though I actually think a whole lot less, or a whole lot less dramatically than articles like this make it should). However, my bigger concern is that the article itself is an exercise in the very thing criticized, and brazenly so. For as much as some churches out there may not take people where they are at, there are far more people who don’t take churches where they are at. Every week people leave a church for innumerable reasons, but the commonality is some element of “this church isn’t doing it for us.” It’s a break-up with that particular church because it lacks or does something that causes them to “find another” a bit more worthy. However, in the case of this article it appears the rejection is so deep it’s “The Church” that is left, not just a church. And at the core of that issue is far more than merely calling the kettle black, it’s sinners calling sinners sinners for sinfully not loving sinners, sinfully. Yes, read it five times and it will fall together.
So then the innate question, the “what would Jesus ask?” question is, “Who is prepared to love first, to love selfless and to love someone or a group of some ones right where they are at?” The low truth is that there is no red-letter high ground in saying, “I’m rejecting you because you are more broken than me and don’t see it.” Those who think they can love better, judge less and care more should actually model the solution for a broken church in the church. This is particularly true in light of the reality that at the deepest level, people who reject church for rejecting people are inherently rejecting people themselves. Churches are not computers run by algorithms and automation. When people leave churches they are leaving swaths of individuals. Every time people have left our church because they were hurt, I deal with others whom are hurt by the hurt people leaving. And no wonder, people who leave are not just leaving an organization. It’s people who design the programs you deem shallow, it’s people who have the attitudes you consider hypocritical, it’s people who set the priorities you reckon as greedy, it’s people who get bogged down in the biases you hold as judgmental, judgmentally and yes, might I actually say it’s people who struggle with same problems of sin as you, the more enlightened sinner, who advances the broad brushed intolerant narrative that the real problem with “The Church” is that it isn’t as tolerant as you.
- You, the self admitted sinner who fights for the worth of other sinners you deem worthy, by condemning sinners you find to be undeserving.
- You, who restrict your illuminated grace because you believe they express only institutional grace.
- You, the one who has exchanged an eye for an eye, hurt for hurt and rejection for rejection by feeling slapped, slapping back and then accusing The Church of not turning the other cheek.
- You, who stand in an ebony tower of judgment, condemning those in their ivory towers for being judgmental.
Perhaps most problematic is that the only one who is truly grieved in all of this is probably Jesus. He is working with eternal grace to present His Church – His Girl – without spot or blemish, but you keep pointing out all her flaws and inadequacy. You breed her insecurity through your criticism. She chases after new, flashy and shallow because you remind her she isn’t beautiful. Don’t keep telling her she is shallow, broken, unattractive and bitchy. Stop shamming her for not being the perfect 10. Woo her, esteem her, meet her where she is at and respect her for the sole reason that Jesus loves her and rescued her as His most treasured possession.
Yes, the Church is a Gomer, but she is Jesus’ Gomer. So start treating her like the lady Jesus endures with, not as an establishment you rate on a five star system and then tack on a review.
In the current lexicon the word “tolerant” is about as loaded as a pub-hopping Irishman on St. Paddy’s Day. It’s the brave new litmus test that discerns whether one is an enlightened and understanding citizen, or an outdated bigot who deserves to be branded with an “ic” or “ist” tacked onto the back of some culturally untouchable word. Because of this, I need to take a moment to unpack how I’m using the word. I will do this by differentiating between new and true tolerance.
The “new tolerance,” as DA Carson christened it, is the pervading cultural pressure to affirm the beliefs and behaviors of others, provided those beliefs and behaviors are legal, consensual and/or harmless to the majority. Now, much of this definition I am prepared to live by, with the exception of the pivotal word, “affirm”. See, I expect my culture to engage in things that I sometimes find to be wrong. Equally, I expect my culture to look upon some of my beliefs and behaviors the same way. That is the nature of a democratic and multicultural society. But to impose the added requirement of affirmation is a game changer.
Lexically the idea of affirmation is an artificial addition and has nothing to do with the “true tolerance.” The Oxford Dictionary defines “tolerant” as, “Showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Based on this, tolerance is actually what is required of a person when they specifically do not support something. At best, tolerance asks us to respectfully co-exist with differences we do not affirm for the sake of civility and discourse.
Thus for the evangelical, true tolerance does not require unfiltered affirmation of beliefs or behaviors the Bible calls sinful, but it does require a relational acceptance of all people in the hope that the transforming grace of the gospel will penetrate their lives. In this sense evangelicals must rise up as the most truly tolerant group in culture for seven reasons:
1. Because We Must Compensate For Our Crazy Drunk Uncles.
Do you have a crazy uncle? He shows up at Thanksgiving wild-eyed, outspoken,a bubble off center and guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbon like a camel on empty at a desert oasis. In the media it seems they often manage to find evangelicalism’s crazy drunk uncle to give airtime to. The result is that many who are not evangelicals think the crazy evangelical who made it as a sound bite on “The Daily Show” is how all evangelicals think and act.
I recently experienced this firsthand when a group of people automatically assumed that since I am an evangelical pastor I hate the president, despise the gay community, watch Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh and carry a gun. That last point is true; the rest is not. I don’t tune in to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. I believe the president to be a well-intended man in a very difficult position. I care about the gay community as I do the rest of my culture. And as to the gun I carry, I don’t do it to make a point at Target, and I am not a member of the NRA. This doesn’t mean I agree or disagree with everything on Fox News, from Rush Limbaugh, by President Obama, in the gay community or about gun rights, but in the spirit of true tolerance I don’t need to. Rather I need to know how to graciously relate Jesus to all the views that swirl around me even regardless of whether I agree or disagree.
Only by going out of our way to establish caring friendships, so as to show people something beyond one-dimensional caricatures, will they begin to see real life evangelicals differently than our crazy drunk uncle TV pundits.
2. Because We Are To Be Tolerant, Just As God Is Tolerant.
Romans 2:4 says, “4 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (NLT). Every day that Jesus does not return is another massive global tolerance campaign. If it’s good enough for Jesus to be tolerant it’s good enough for those of us who follow Jesus. And the reason for the tolerance is profoundly missional; it’s intended to see people turn from their sins. Therefore, sitting on the other side of a cultural fence lobbing condemnations and frustrations will never be as effective as crossing the fence in the spirit of godly kindness in the hopes of seeing someone we love come to repentance.
3. Because We Need To Be Understanding To Reach The Unbelieving.
I think about Paul at Mars Hill. His first reaction upon reaching Athens was nothing short of disgust. It says in Acts 17:16 that when he saw the sheer scope of idols flocking the city “his spirit was provoked within him.” (ESV). The word “provoked” really doesn’t cut it here. The original Greek word paroxyno is where we get paroxysm, “a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity.” When people looked at Paul that day he had a gag reflex kicking in with a nervous twitch flapping over one eye. That is, until he recalled that this city didn’t know any better. They were doing exactly what they knew how to do because no one had shown them anything different. From this Paul downshifts and begins to relate to the people of the city. He begins to compliment them, speak their cultural language, and even quote from one of the very altars that caused him to flip his phylactery a few days earlier. In doing so he has no intention of selling out (as verses 31-32 eventually shows with the words such as repent and judgment), rather he is pressing in. Ultimately Paul chose suffering long, in the hopes of seeing others rescued from suffering forever.
4. Because We Have To Model What Actual Tolerance Is.
The new tolerance is as hypocritical as a chain-smoking dad busting his kid for sneaking a cigarette. It’s a selective acceptance that tolerates only what it affirms and stands rigidly intolerant to those who disagree. And those who advocate the new tolerance are not spending a great deal of time encouraging one another to love those who disagree with them. Just follow some of the recent trends in the media and you will see exactly how the new tolerance treats those who hold a different vision of the world. The exercise of true tolerance is branded as intolerance, which in turn solicits, even demands, banishment or shaming as the appropriate response.
For evangelicalism, however, part of our core command is to love our neighbor. We are reminded perpetually of the need to love people right where they are. To invest in those whom we may disagree with, to turn the other cheek when provoked and to even do good to an all out enemy. I realize we have not always done this well. Far too often we have slipped into imposed morality or personal offense, but we must continue to encourage one another in what the Bible commands of us toward those who don’t believe or behave as we do.This is true tolerance; it is the tolerance that evangelicals are the best at displaying and we must continue to model this more than ever in a culture that is losing the spirit of true diversity.
5. Because We Already Acknowledge Our Own Sinful Short Comings.
Evangelicals believe they are saved, grown and completed by gospel grace alone. It is a faith of walking shoes, not work boots. Thus when evangelicalism begins to sound chiefly like a religion of morality, we missed a turn somewhere. We know we don’t earn our standing before God; rather we follow the One who earned that standing for us – Jesus. Because our salvation is only by the grace of God, we should humbly be aware of our own sins, our various faults and our continued weakness. This is exactly why tolerance is necessary. Paul himself even says in Colossians 3, “12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (ESV). True tolerance doesn’t excuse sin, but it understands the struggle with sin, comes alongside in gentleness and points to the grace that can free and refresh. A good, honest look at the sinner in the mirror, coupled with gratitude for God’s grace, helps us to love the sinner across the street in true tolerance.
6. Because We Are The Ones Who Can Maintain The Importance Of Both Tolerance And Repentance.
The new tolerance seeks to free people from their sins by telling them their sins are not sinful. It is humanities’ attempt to save itself from its sins through the gospel of anesthetization. Yet the only road to abundant life passes through the door of repentance and grace. This is where evangelicals have the perfect combination. In true tolerance we can connect with people in a way that displays legitimate acceptance and love, but not at the cost of sharing the enduring message of God’s love that can forgive people of their sins and produce in them the life that excusing sin will never produce.
7. Because We Believe Only The Gospel Can Change People.
Culture wars are not for evangelicals. Every culture war has a deeper root that is the real war, and that root is sin. Not sins, but the actual cause, the nature of sin itself, Original Sin. Therefore to think that culture is the war is like battling the fever to cure the cancer. The real conflict is internal, supernatural, generational and trans cultural. It is a war that invades every layer of life in every person’s life, thus nothing done through the means of this world can change our deepest problem. Only an invasion from outside this world can change the sin of this world…
Which is why God sent Jesus.
Which is why Jesus received the Cross.
Which is why the Spirit raised Jesus.
Which is why Jesus sent the Spirit to testify of Himself and God.
God invaded our broken sphere in the person of Jesus to bring true transformation through the Spirit. Therefore…
Only the Gospel can confront our cultural sins.
Only the Gospel can restore our cultural soul.
Only the Church carries the Gospel that can change the culture we are called to love in the true tolerance of God.
Years ago I was on a return flight from a conference in California. I was early onto the flight so I buckled up, settled in and popped open my Bible. It was a risky move in that it opened up the possibility for conversation, something I very much wanted to avoid on this flight. A Bible in 8B can act as a beacon of invitation for a sweet older Christian in 8A who sees your Good Book as a good opportunity to bend your ear about church potlucks and her quilting for Jesus club. Or even worse, you might end up with a Dispensationalist in 8C who wants to know what you think about blood moons, the Trilateral Commission and Nicolas Cage starring in “The Left Behind” movie. It was risky, but I had some things on my mind and needed to do a little cross checking.
As I read, a distinguished older gentleman hoisted his bag into the compartment above and then settled in next to me. I could sense his head tilting to glance over at my reading material. For roughly 5 minutes he did this until his eastern European accent cut the air, “You are reading a Bible, yes?” Hoping to maintain a cone of silence and dissuade any further conversation I simply nodded. “I’m Jewish. I know this book. It is a dirty and vile work.” With those words the cone of silence evaporated.
“Really!” I thought. “Of all the people you could have placed next to me, Jesus, you put a Nazi-era Jewish European who thinks the Bible is ‘dirty’ and ‘vile’.” At a slight loss for an opening sentence, I simply burped one of those awkward chuckle-coughs and mumbled, “Really?”
“Oh yes, it is the darkest least moral book in the world.” Now at this point I figured he was going to elaborate on how it has started wars, fostered slavery, blamed his people for the death of Jesus or segregated people groups. Instead, I found that his thesis was a bit more content driven.
“It opens violent. The world is chaos. Then God tears everything apart to make day and night, land and sea. He then makes people where sex and domination are their first commands. It starts with violence and sex. It’s dirty.” I confess this was not the answer I saw coming. In fact, it’s an answer I had never even considered before.
“Interesting… I’ve never seen it that way.”
With a kind sincerity he looked at me and said, “How could you miss it? It keeps going like that. They are naked in a garden. Their son kills their other son. After that God destroys the world due to wicked people. All those animals die because of people. It’s very very violent. God telling people to kill men, women, children and even the pregnant women for land. You see men having sex with their slaves and grotesque animal sacrifices. Even Solomon writes a book on how to have sex – it’s a pornographic book.”
Awkwardly I responded, “Well that’s why I’m more of a New Testament guy.”
“Oh, the New Testament! I’m Jewish; I do not know it so well, but I do know it says Jesus was crucified for sins. That is a very violent way to forgive. I also know Jesus said He will send people to eternal torture if they don’t believe in Him. That is both violent and cruel.” He then paused for a brief moment, leaned in and said in a whisper, “The Bible should never be taught to children. It is not for kids. That is why Christians change the stories so much, to make them friendly for their families.” With that he simply patted me on the forearm and said, “Thank you for the talk. I think I will rest. Enjoy your book.”
This 15-minute interaction happened over 20 years ago, but I never forgot the importance. While I didn’t agree with this man’s extreme articulation, I did agree that the Bible is not exactly a family-friendly book and to make it so does violence to what God has revealed. Think about it. Even the “kids’ stories” of Adam and Eve, Noah and The Flood, David and Goliath or Jesus and The Apostles are at some juncture R-Rated stories if accurately and fully told. Even the moral parts that would be construed as most family friendly are usually set against a backdrop that is not. For example, if you want your kids to memorize the 10 Commandments you are going to have to get into swearing, murder and sex. Aside from these popular examples, the entire narrative of the Bible is dealing with the problem of sin, rebellion and wickedness and how God solves that through Jesus, the Cross and His Word.
From all of this I see that the only way to be truly family friendly in a Sunday service is to redact much of the R-Rated Bible in order to make the whole experience more acceptable for a G-Rated expectation. Yet this fails our commission. Our calling is not to decide what we think is appropriate in the Bible, but to communicate the full council of God. We are not free to be editors, but proclaimers. We don’t possess the authority to write or erase the mail; we merely deliver it as it is. Now, I know that sometimes God’s mail makes us squirm, gets uneasy or even downright feels offensive, but not nearly as much as the sin it’s combating. Sin makes the Truth, even the ugly Truth, necessary. And as Christians move forward in the hopes of reclaiming a family-friendly world I pray it begins by embracing the fullness of the not so family-friendly, though always family-preserving, Bible.