Thursday, June 29, 2006

No Place in the Church of Barna for Me

George Barna is basically an industry unto himself when it comes to research on behalf of the evangelical church. He keeps us up to date on all the depressing statistics about church attendance, unorthodox beliefs in "born again" believers, etc., etc. One of his recent books was called Revolution, in which Barna proclaims a new and revolutionary (imagine that) move in the American church. It is the sacred "church" of the individual. According to Barna, there are approximately 20 million people who claim to be born again that purposefully do not associate with any local church. They give reasons like "the church is not serious about producing disciples" and other such arguments. So, they simply choose concerts, Bible studies at work, personal devotion, and other parachurch gatherings to be their supply of spiritual food. This revolutionary crew consider themselves members of the Universal Church but not the local church.

Now, I have to confess...this idea brings more questions than it does answers. It does frustrate me to the core of who I am, but I think there are no answers in the "church of me" for questions like these: (1) What about the Bible's clear teaching on the necessity and responsibilities of elders and deacons? (2) How do you handle Matthew 18's teaching on church discipline apart from a gathered body? (3) Why would Paul write to the church at Corinth or Ephesus or any other place if the gathered church was not only normative in practice but in belief? (4) Who is to administer baptism and the Lord's Supper if it's not the local church? (5) What about the book of Hebrews warning believers to not forsake gathering together?

I'm sure we could all think of more questions like these, which leads me to my conclusion. It seems that this revolution is nothing more than a justification of not being involved in the lives of other people. Why? Because it gets messy at times...people let you down...leaders let you down...sin messes up our fellowship. However, these are not reasons for a mature believer to escape the church...actually, a mature believer would not seek to escape from the church. Mature believers understand that they need the church, and the church needs them. This is the danger of radical homeschooling. You come to believe you have to protect your children from everything, including those other people at the church who may mess them up. What a dangerous thing to teach our children...that you can remove yourself from God's ordained pattern of spiritual life and believe yourself to be right with God!

The sad, but true statement about this "revolution" of Christianity is this: As a pastor, gifted and called to shepherd God's people and preach the Gospel, there is no place for me in Barna's revolutionary church. There is no need for preaching, there is no need for teaching, and so I may as well pack my books into my boxes, and start selling knives door to door. I am thankful that this revolution is not of God, and therefore, I don't have to live the rest of my life without fulfilling God's plan for me.

What does this mean for me at this moment? I need to get back to studying for this Sunday...there's still a pulpit to fill.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Does systematic theology belong in the church?

What?? Does systematic theology belong in the church? What kind of question is that? Well, it's an important one, I believe. Many will read such a question and jump immediately to a conclusion. "Yes, of course" or "Absolutely not". Before I answer the question, let's get a quick clarification on what we're talking about.

When the phrase "systematic theology" is uttered, something comes to mind. For many, it is the academic professor with the tweed jacket (with elbow patches, of course), working away in his isolated study (pipe clinched between his teeth), and he is writing incomprehensible and irrelevant thoughts about God with a feather he has dipped in ink. Though that is an interesting picture and you may be tempted to look over his shoulder to try and read what he's writing, let's go in a different direction.

What is systematic theology? Wayne Grudem defined it nicely when he wrote, "Systematic Theology is any study that answers the question, 'What does the whole Bible teach us today?' about any given topic." It is not so much a look at the development of Christian understanding through the centuries (historical theology). It is not the study of God apart from the Bible, using only philosophical reasoning and observations of the universe (philosophical theology). It is not just a look at what the Old Testament or New Testament or some biblical author has said on a given subject (biblical theology). It is a look at the whole of Scripture to understand what God would have us know about Christ, the Trinity, prayer, the church, end times, etc. (i.e.- doctrine).

Many believe systematic theology is some form of heresy or extrabiblical teaching, when it is not. It is simply saying what the whole Bible says on a given topic. After all, the word "trinity" appears nowhere in the Scripture, and yet we understand that God is one in essence and has revealed Himself in three persons - the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Using the word "trinity" is an act of systematic theology. The same is true when we say that "the whole Bible points us to Christ." We know that the Old Testament predicts Him, the Gospels portray Him, the epistles explain Him, and the apocalyptic literature declares He will come again. That is systematic getting around it. A final example may be the most powerful...that of salvation. What are the ABC's of salvation everyone? Admit, Believe, Confess (or Commit). That is a simple outline...we must Admit we are sinners, we must Believe that Jesus Christ died for us and was raised from the dead, and we must Confess Him as Lord, Committing our lives to Him. Do you know what that is? It is systematic is a study that teaches us what the whole Bible says about salvation.

Now, before going on, I want to be clear on one thing. If we were trapped on the proverbial desert island and only had a Bible, would we have all that we need to know about God? Absolutely...because God's Word is clear and sufficient and is able to make us wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). So, is it necessary to do systematic theology? No. (I know what you're thinking... "where is he going with this?") We must believe these things if we are to have a right view of Scripture. That God's Word is clear and sufficient are two statements of systematic theology. So, though systematic theology is not necessary as a discipline, it is an amazingly useful teaching tool for believers to better understand, love, and serve God.

This makes our question much easier to answer. Does systematic theology belong in the church? I would say (without hesitation) "Yes". Part of God's great commission to the disciples in Matthew 28 was to teach people all that He commanded them. If teaching is our aim, then we must use the best teaching tools that there are. Should we use video clips, drama, or visual aids? Maybe...depending on our audience. There are times when they are appropriate and times when they are not so appropriate. However, it is always appropriate to help people understand what the whole Bible teaches us about each aspect of God's revealed truth. Therefore, it is always appropriate to use systematic theology.

This is probably enough for now, but let me close with an example of how systematic theology is beneficial. Children are amazing in their ability to learn, and certainly families and churches ought to take advantage of these "sponge-like" years. Most Tuesdays, I do a chapel with our day care kids, in which I am teaching them a catechism (a series of questions and answers designed to teach children about God). When I ask, "Who made you?" They yell, "God made me." When I ask, "What else did God make?" They chant, "God made (clap clap) all things (clap clap)." When I ask, "How many gods are there?" They sing, "There is only one God" (to the na-na-na-na-boo-boo melody) We have been memorizing one verse with each of these answers, though many could be used.

So, what am I doing on Tuesday mornings? Am I really teaching 3-4 year olds systematic theology? You bet your life I am. Why? Well, they may not be members of our church, and they may not hear a sermon for a long time. However, a mom approached me at a birthday party recently and told me that her 4-year-old had been talking to her about how God made him and that there is only one God, giving her goose bumps and making her thrilled he is in our day care. You know what gave her goose bumps? I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count. That's right...systematic theology.

So, now...ask yourself...does systematic theology belong in the church?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Different Visions of the Same Situation

It's amazing to me how two different people can look at the same situation and see different things. It's all about what you are looking for...for example, in a football game, when you see a running back go for a 75-yard touchdown run, some casual observers may see a man who is simply faster than the defensive players. The commentators, coaches, and players see something different. Was the guy fast? Probably. However, when the replay comes, they show you that the right guard pulled and took out a key linebacker, the fullback blocked the cornerback, and the free safety misread the whole play. That's not what you just saw a guy running real fast that scored, but when you have "football eyes," you see what really happened.

The same seems to be true in life. Those reading Genesis see the sufferings and mistreating of Joseph by his brothers and by Potiphar's wife. However, what Joseph sees and what God had planned were something very different. Was there suffering? Sure. However, Joseph tells his brothers that what they meant for harm, God meant for save the lives of his family (Genesis 45:4-11; 50:19-20) and, ultimately, God was preserving the covenant He made with Abraham.

Consider King Josiah in 2 Kings 22-23. Other kings of Judah had been considered good, but none had reformed the religious system completely...the high places were left undisturbed. They were simply accommodating people and their religious preferences. Josiah heard the Word of God, and his vision was cleared up. He saw that what the other kings had done was not accommodation, but it was sin. So, immediately, he began massive religious reform in the temple, tore down the high places, and Josiah had everything that compromised the worship of God demolished and burned. He even went so far as to gather the elders of Judah and Jerusalem to have them renew their commitment to biblical worship (2 Kings 23:1-3), and he reinstituted Passover, which had been ignored since the time of the judges (2 Kings 23:21-22). The vision of accommodating society was actually sin in God's eyes, and the vision of a fanatically religious king was actually pleasing to God. "Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did - with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses" (2 Kings 23:25).

Now, consider Jesus. When he entered Jerusalem in Matthew 21, the scribes and Pharisees were agitated, but this was only the beginning. He went to the temple, and there he found "business as usual." Temple taxes being taken, the temple used as a shortcut to get through the short, he found a den of robbers and not a house of prayer. To the Pharisees and scribes, this was how church was done. It was their system...they had been doing it this way for a long time, and for Jesus to overturn their religious system was, in their eyes, heretical and a challenge to God Himself. Jesus' vision of the temple was one of glory, where hearts were turned to God in prayer and lives were centered on true, biblical worship. The Pharisees' vision of the temple was one of religious organization...seeking to put what seemed most practical or what had "always been done" ahead of what was best...what was right...what was God-honoring.

In life, these same three areas are stumbling blocks to many. We see suffering as just suffering instead as God's divine means of providing for our sanctification and, even greater, His glory. The church accommodating any and all belief systems (for fear of offense) is seen as a great goal when it is actually a terrible disaster...the church that stands for nothing will fall for anything. Finally, we see the functioning of the church, too often, as one of organization...making sure we just keep the wheels turning...making sure we have keep doing what we've been doing (or revive what we used to do) because " worked in 1956 when we did it."

You and I must learn to see life, family, and the Church with the biblical vision that God has for it. If that means that all organizational polish must be thrown out the window, then go for it. When we stop asking "What is the best thing to do? What is the right thing to do?" and, instead, ask "What does procedure dictate?", then our vision needs to be corrected.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

World Cup Lament

Well, if you checked the blog today for some great, important topic, you will soon be disappointed. Today, I am only lamenting the overrating and underperformance of the US Soccer team in the World Cup. I did my best to stay positive when we lost 3-0 to the Czech Republic. "It's just the first-round jitters," I told myself. They'll settle down for the next one. The game with Italy came, and though it would be a tough match, there was still hope for recovery. Red cards ruled the day, and McBride was offsides on the go-ahead goal. In fact, the only goal we got was off an Italian defender's mistake.

So, coming into today, no US player had actually scored a goal during this World Cup. There was great hype, and because it was "just Ghana," all the US really needed to worry about was whether Italy would beat the Czech Republic, making an advance to the second round possible. As it turned out, that wasn't all we had to worry about. After Reyna lost the ball just outside the goal box and we fell behind, my stomach turned. Then, in the 45th minute, Beasley crosses to Dempsey, who scored our first real goal of the Cup, and hope returned. Oh, but what happened next? A call goes against us in extra time and a penalty kick puts Ghana up 2-1.

The second half came and went, and by the 70th minute of the 90-minute match, my hope was all "Ghana". When it was finally over (well, it was over long before the clock ran out, but you know what I mean), I realized I just wasted 2 hours of my life. I could have done so much with my time. I lament watching, but the unfortunate reality is this...I would probably watch again.

Why? I'm conditioned for it. You see, I graduated from the University of Memphis, and being a University of Memphis alumnus and fan, I am set up for disappointment every time football season rolls around. I'm starting to feel like this is how I should approach the World Cup...even if the media promises a better team and we have a #4 world ranking.

So, what will I be doing in 2010, if the Lord hasn't returned? I will probably waste 6 more hours of my life, watching the overrated and underperforming US Soccer team play 3 preliminary games. I will hope for wins, I will cheer for wins, I will be frustrated when we lose, but I will not be surprised when the round of 16 goes on without us...even though, I'm sure, we'll have "the most promising team in World Cup history."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Anchors Away or Anchors Aweigh?

No...this is not a military post. I was thinking today of the tradition of the church...not tradition in the sense of doing the same things in the same way because it worked 40 years ago. I have been thinking more of the tradition that is described in Jude 3..."the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." After all, this is what the church has been fighting for in the last 2000 years, isn't it? The passing down of the faith...propagating the Gospel...the generational and relational transmission of the good news about a Savior who died for the forgiveness of our sins...the truth of God's Word and its instruction in how we must think and act and live as followers of Christ. That phrase, "once for all", sums it up. It is in these words that we can hear the essence of what tradition is once for all. That's why it is difficult for me to listen to those in the church who fight for things that may need to only be "for such a time as this" rather than "once for all." What usually happens is that the church takes for granted the faith entrusted to the saints and revealed in Scripture. What "REALLY" matters is the necessity of this program or that program (by the way, I would give more specific examples but my intent is not to divide but to challenge our way of thinking).

This tradition, the faith once for all entrusted to the saints, is the anchor of the church. In a turbulent society, it is this anchor that will steady us. My fear is that the church too often sings "Anchors Away," meaning that we have done away with that "strict, by-the-book doctrine that constrains. As long as you believe something with great sincerity of heart, the Lord will overlook your errors in belief and lifestyle" (quotes meant for sarcasm and not actual quotation). The song ought to be "Anchors Aweigh". We should not abandoned the anchor of biblical doctrine; to the contrary, it must be a vital part of our "ship", so that it may be used to our advantage.

The ancient practice of "kedging" comes to mind. This is when the anchor was used to move a ship forward (i.e.- if it was stuck or in the dock and needed to move out without the aid of wind). (Thanks to Leonard Sweet with the info on kedging...I don't agree with everything he writes, but this was helpful.) Biblical faith and doctrine should be the force that moves the church forward; it is not something that drags us down, as some might think. That's how it was in the book of Acts, and that is how God intends for the church today. It is our orthodox belief in God that will advance the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Taking repentance, faith, obedience, and Christ out of the Gospel will not produce a healthier and stronger will kill the church. I would argue that without these, you don't actually have a church; you might have a social club that tips its hat to every individual's idea of God...but that's certainly not the church, no matter what the sign out front says.

May God protect me, my brothers in the pulpit, and the family of God in the pews from every casting the anchor away. May we always see biblical doctrine as the necessary anchor in all that we do.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Need for Church Evangelism

There are debates in seminary coffee shops as to whether evangelism belongs in the corporate worship service of the local church. The argument goes something like this: the church should gather to worship and be taught the Bible, and then the believers should go about doing the business of living for Christ and evangelizing friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. Therefore, public calls to salvation (with or without an invitation) are unnecessary.

Now, up until that last sentence, I'm okay. I'm okay with believers gathering to worship God, to study the Bible, and then to go about their lives as missionaries for the Lord Jesus Christ. The idea, though, that we should not compel people to trust Christ in a local church service is unthinkable. There are two primary reasons why I think this: a biblical reason and a practical reason.

First, the biblical reason is that it follows the example of Paul. In writing 2 Corinthians, Paul is clearly writing to the church...he says so in his opening sentence. These are supposed to be men and women who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He speaks words of correction, instruction, and encouragement to the church. In fact, Paul is trying to re-establish a trusting "apostle-church" relationship with them by defending his ministry. He comes to the end of chapter 5, and he proceeds to get into matters of the Gospel, specifically that the death of Christ made it possible for men and women to be reconciled to God. After all, prior to conversion, we are all enemies of Christ (Romans 5:10; Philippians 3:18; Colossians 1:21). What interests me is verse 20 of chapter 5. Paul says "Be reconciled to God." He is talking to the church, he is talking about the offer of salvation that has been made by God through Jesus Christ, and he tells the recipients of the letter: be reconciled to God. Paul must have known that 2 Corinthians 6:1 had been true in some of their lives...that they received "God's grace in vain."

Second, the practical reason is this...I think we are living in a day when there are many "churches of Corinth." God's grace is received in vain all the time...from the man who prayed a prayer and was baptized, only to ignore any call to discipleship after the teenager who has been in the church every time the doors are open, has prayed a prayer and been baptized, has good friends in the church, but when it comes to real, personal faith, it's not really there. These are fictional people that represent much of the current church landscape. God's grace is received in vain all the time. So, what is our duty as the church? What are we to do? Preach and teach the Word, always pointing our audience to Christ, and calling anyone who hears to repent and believe, so that they might be saved.

There is certainly a need for "Bob and Sally Christian" to be evangelists in their everyday lives, but there is an equal need to evangelize the pew potato who thinks everything is okay when it might not be.

Monday, June 19, 2006

We All Need a Hero

I had a thought this afternoon as I was listening to one of my favorite Christian radio programs. One of the things that I love about this radio host is that he makes me think...more than that, he makes me want to be better than I am...he makes me desire a more Christlike thought life when it comes to the issues of our day...he sets an example that I want to follow. Do you have someone like that? Do you have someone in your life that challenges you to go beyond who you are and where you are? Do you have a hero? If not, I encourage you to find one. Find someone who may be gifted in the same way that you are and can challenge you toward greater effectiveness. Obviously, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is our greatest hero, in that sense of the word, and the Holy Spirit within us keeps us motivated. However, throughout history, God has chosen to use great men and women of faith as well. So, who is it for you? It may be a radio host, it may be a church father, it may be a key figure from church history, it may be a biblical character, it may be someone you know doesn't matter.

I met this hero of mine personally, and I doubt that he would ever remember my name. However, the way in which he thinks and speaks about culture, the Bible, theology, etc., keeps me motivated toward greater discipleship and the disciplining of my mind. Actually, the feeling is one that comes through in this thought: "Man, I'm an idiot! I want to think like that!" Those feelings drive me to want a more deeply committed mind that loves the Lord. I may be wrong, but I suspect that Elijah was this kind of hero for Elisha. This may be why Elisha asks for a "double portion of [Elijah's] spirit" (2 Kings 2:9b). Who drives you in your walk with Christ? Who has a spirit that you would want double of? Who is your hero? We all need a hero.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Screen-fed church?

I was listening to one of Dr. Mohler's "Ask Anything Wednesday" programs...which I recommend, by the way...there's a link to his site on my blog. he was answering a question on satellite churches using video and the like in order to have two or more campuses. I have friends who may read this (in my dreams) who are part of such churches. Here's what it made me think of...preaching that's on TV every hour of every day, especially at times when the local church is gathered. Also, the whole concept of live streaming services came to mind.

Now, I'll have to say right up front...I have been in a church that has done this, and I know that the TV ministry, in general, was a useful outreach tool for us. However, I wonder if we might be saying something about the importance (or lack of importance) of the local church when we provide TV options for those who don't want to physically be in church. I know the argument that you might catch a lost person flipping channels and get their attention...however, are we sacrificing something of great importance? Are we saying to people that the only benefit to the local church is "gettin' some preaching?" I am incredibly vocal for the preaching of the Word as central to the local church...however, that's not the only reason our gathering is important.

We are saved into a body...a body that provides for our spiritual growth through preaching, teaching, accountability, prayer, fellowship, etc. There is no TV screen or computer screen that will be able to hold a teenage boy accountable when he's struggling with pornography like a Christian friend or youth worker at church will. There is no TV program at 10:30 on Sunday morning that will ask a struggling woman penetrating questions about her wandering eyes to other men like a woman in her Sunday School class might. There is no cyber-church that will notice the apathy in our hearts and call us to the carpet of the Word. It is through visible, gathered, local churches that these kinds of sanctification are given an arena of effectiveness.

So, let's not "pull the plug" on getting the Gospel into every format possible...mp3, DVD, TV, streaming, etc. However, let us be very careful not to silently usurp the vital role of the local church. We are meant to experience spiritual life together as a body, without "cyber" being the main adjective of the experience. Those who are spiritual giants walking before us are not long-standing members of TV churches. They have been part of real churches with real relationships...with words of comfort, challenge, encouragement, instruction, and accountability both given and received. Let's make sure we are not unintentionally de-emphasizing something that God has intentionally emphasized.

Abraham's Journey of Obedience

I was studying Genesis 22 today, in preparation for Father's Day, and something struck me. Those who are familiar with the story know that God is testing Abraham's faith. God has told Abraham to take his son (i.e.- his only son, Isaac, who he loves) and sacrifice him on a mountain to which God will lead him. The overwhelming fact that a father is told to sacrifice his son...the son of promise...the son through which God has said He will bless all nations...that's one thing. That's enough, isn't it? Fathers, you know what I mean. Abraham's obedience is truly stunning, but I think what makes it even more stunning is the timing of the whole thing. After the command comes, Abraham sleeps on it. It's not until "early the next morning" that he gets up to leave. He has to gather the wood, instruct his servants that they are going, and inform his son that they will go to worship the Lord together. How do you sleep after those conversations? His determination to obey the Lord comes through...but even more in what happens next. The day they set out was not the day they climbed the mountain. Verse 4 says that it was on the third day that they got to the base of the mountain, left the servants behind, and ascended the hill to worship. Did the thought ever enter Abraham's mind? - "Maybe I should turn back...Isaac is the son of promise, after all. God doesn't really want him dead, does he?" Whether it ever did or not is actually unnecessary to determine. What is obvious should amaze us. Abraham, no matter the turmoil, was determined to obey the determined that he spoke to his servants, prepared his son, slept, and traveled three days with his soon-to-be-sacrificed son by his side, ascended the hill, built the altar, placed his son on it, and raised his hand to kill him.

Why? Because his loyalty was to his God. Because he knew that "God himself [would] provide the lamb" (v. 8). Because he "reasoned that God could raise the dead" (Heb. 11:19). Because "his faith was made complete by what he did" (James 2:22b).

Just as God called Abraham out of a far country, we have been called out of the far country of sin. God has provided our lamb, and we are convinced that God has raised Christ from the dead and will raise us as well. Let us be committed to obedience. No matter the journey, no matter the turmoil, no matter the sacrifice...may our faith be made complete by what we do. As Abraham's faith was counted as righteousness by God (Gen. 15:6) and then was displayed by his righteousness of life, may it be so with us. For we are not our own...we are bought with a price.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Opening Day

Wow! So, this is what it's write things in a neat little space on the internet, and then people come and read them. I'm new to this whole world of blogging, and I have to say...well, I guess I don't have to say's my blog!

I'm not sure how long I'll be able to last on this blogging journey, seeing as I have ADDWICTU... "attention deficit disorder when it comes to updates". But, hey...why not give it a try, right? I hope you enjoy reading and responding to the blogs, and I hope I write enough that's actually worth reading and responding to.

For now, that's all...