Category Archives: Ministry

How Could We Have Kept JohnK Among Us?

Here’s part of a deconversion story by “JohnK” from ex-Christian.net.

So recently, when I was still a christian, I decided to do a morning devotional bible study. I started as I usually did, with a short prayer asking god for guidance and wisdom through his word. That day I came across the story of jesus’ anointing at Bethany in john 12. This is the story of how Mary (sister of Martha) poured oil into jesus’ head during a meal, which was met by indignation by the disciples and a subsequent rebuke from jesus. But that’s strange, I thought. I had remembered it was some unknown, unnamed woman who poured the oil and got rebuked. I decided to do some research on the internet. This was the beginning of the end of my faith.

I found out that the anointing at Bethany is detailed three different times in the gospels: john 12, Matthew 26, and mark 14 (there is a similar account of anointing in luke 7 but it is different enough to be considered a separate incident). In Mark and Matthew, the name of the woman is not given. However, the stories in all three accounts are almost identical: the woman, supposedly Mary, approaches jesus and his disciples at a dinner table and pours an alabaster vial of expensive perfume of nard on him. The disciples, seeing this, say something to the effect of: “Why are you wasting this expensive perfume? It could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor.” And jesus rebukes the disciples, telling them to leave her alone, that she is preparing him for burial, that the poor would always be with them, but he wouldn’t, etc.

But this is the problem: the episode in John happens BEFORE jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, while in Matthew and Mark the anointing happens AFTER the triumphal entry. So there is no way it could have been the same event… yet the stories are so identical, that I found it IMPOSSIBLE to believe it happened twice, within the space of a few days!

My research led me to skeptical sites listing bible contradictions and absurdities, and I discovered the bible contained many other contradictions, some I had noticed before (and tried to ignore) and others that I had not. The death of Judas Iscariot is another example. Matthew 27 states that after Judas had betrayed jesus, he became remorseful, flung the 30 pieces of silver into the temple and hanged himself. Acts 1 says he bought a field with the silver, then somehow fell headfirst into it, and died when his guts spilled out after his stomach burst open. So the “Field of Blood” was purchased by the chief priests according to Matthew, and by Judas according to Acts. The cherry on top of this whole confusing contradictory episode is Matthew’s reference in 27:9 that Jeremiah is the prophet foretelling the whole 30 pieces of silver incident; the problem is, there is nothing about 30 pieces of silver anywhere in the book of Jeremiah!

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other contradictions in the bible, such as the conflicting genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, the conflicting accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb, the conflicting accounts of how the disciples were first gathered, etc. (and I haven’t even gotten to the old testament). So basically, my deep investigation of the anointing story opened the floodgates to my skepticism and doubt of the bible, and my faith in the book began to crumble and did not stop. For quite a few days I was in distress, trying to find a way to reconcile all the errors. The entire worldview I had developed and lived for the last few years was breaking down! Eventually, I remember flinging the bible on my table, looking at it, and saying something like “You are full of errors. You are not reliable”. The next day I prayed my last real prayer, where I asked god, that if he was really there, to give me or show me an explanation of why his supposed book had so many contradictions and confusions, otherwise I could not keep on believing. I think the reader knows by now whether there was an answer to that prayer.

I understand now why fundamentalists always insist that the bible is inerrant. It is because once you concede that the bible has errors, it is a slippery slope. Who decides then what is an error, what is sound doctrine, and what is not? Biblical interpretation becomes very subjective, and christianity becomes a salad bar for each individual, who chooses what to take literally and what to take as metaphor depending on their own reasoning and sensibilities. Salad bar christianity is much of what I see today among christians, and partly why there are so many different christian denominations and schools of thought. John 16 says the holy spirit guides believers into all truth, and 1 Corinthians 14 says god is not the author of confusion, but these exhortations are false and ridiculous considering all the divisions and differing interpretations of scripture among christians both now and throughout church history. No book has created more confusion and conflict than the bible, because there is no holy spirit guiding anyone who reads it.

Now when I look back, I wonder how in the world I ever convinced myself that a serpent/devil deceived Eve and cursed the world, or that Noah took all the animals into his ark to save them from a flood that covered the entire earth, or that languages were uniform before the tower of Babel, etc. etc. I was so taken by Jesus and what I perceived to be his wise and other-worldly teachings, that I chose to ignore the other parts of the bible that probably deserve as much belief as Santa Claus. As a christian, when I would encounter unbelievable stories in the old testament or statements that seemed to contradict each other, I would often push it out of my mind, reassuring myself there must be an explanation, or that things were different in those days, etc. But now my faith no longer exists and I see the bible for what it really is. I still think that the bible is a remarkable piece of literature that has had an enormous impact in western history and thought, both for good and ill. But it is also no longer a book I can base my life on.

Suppose JohnK had been able to talk with a really good inerrancy apologist about the contradictions he was seeing in the Bible–could an excellent apologist have kept him in the inerrancy (and Christian) fold?

What if instead of insisting on inerrancy, someone had told John that the Bible doesn’t work quite like that?

What if he had been instructed that the Bible never intended to be 21st century style historiography?

What if he was told that the scriptures themselves were not his model, but that they, like the Holy Spirit, were designed to point the way to Jesus?

What if someone said that our faith isn’t in a book, it’s in the Christ, and the Bible is just one of our resources for knowing the Christ, along with orthodox church tradition, worship practices, and the faithful lives of the community of believers?

Would John’s experience have been different if he had been told from the start that we wouldn’t be able to make an historical timeline of Jesus’ ministry out of the gospel accounts?

Here’s a bright person, articulate and thoughtful, who lost his faith because he read the Bible.  There are thousands more out there like him.  Can the evangelical churches in America undergo the paradigm shift it will take to cultivate faith in people who currently leaving our churches because they’ve read the Bible carefully and it didn’t turn out to be what they had been told it was?

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What is Preaching Supposed to Be?

Here’s John Piper’s take on it:

What I mean by preaching is expository exultation.

Expository means that preaching aims to exposit, or explain and apply, the meaning of the Bible. The reason for this is that the Bible is God’s word, inspired, infallible, profitable—all 66 books of it.

The preacher’s job is to minimize his own opinions and deliver the truth of God. Every sermon should explain the Bible and then apply it to people’s lives.

The preacher should do that in a way that enables you to see that the points he is making actually come from the Bible. If you can’t see that they come from the Bible, your faith will end up resting on a man and not on God’s word….

That’s more or less what I was taught in the beginning of my ministry training.  Study the text, explain it, and apply it.  Later, influenced by Fred Craddock, I adopted his stance that good preaching says what the text says and does what the text does–if the passage you are preaching from instructs, then instruct; if it inspires, inspire; if it troubles, trouble; if it comforts, comfort.  That was a helpful second dimension that pays attention not just to the teachable propositions of the text, but also to the intended purpose of it.  Even if you have your propositions straight, if you take a text meant to inspire and bore people to death with your step-by-step exposition, you haven’t really preached the text–you’ve processed it and turned it around to zoom down a different path.

With a thorough grounding in Craddock and Stott and other homiletical heroes, I became fluent in what I still believe are the best practices of expository preaching, which my teachers always presented in contrast to “topical preaching” (shudder!).  Topical preaching, I was told, has too much potential for abuse.  Topical preaching is too dependent on the agenda of the preacher.  Topical preaching does a disservice to the congregation, which needs a grounding in verse by verse, book by book, good old expository preaching.

That sounded just right to me, until I read Edward Farley’s Practicing Gospel.  The entire book is excellent, but it was chapter six “Preaching the Bible and Preaching the Gospel” that really did a number on me.  (It first appeared as an article in the April 1994 issue of Theology Today.)  Here’s Farley:

One thing is clear in the New Testament accounts.  That-which-is-preached is not the content of passages of Scripture.  It is the gospel, the event of Christ through which we are saved.  To think that what is preached is the Bible and the context of its passages is a quite different way of thinking about preaching. (p. 74)

That’s a huge problem.  We typically refer to “expository exultation” as “Biblical preaching.”  But if you look at literal Biblical preaching (the kind of preaching modeled in the Bible) it isn’t expository exultation.  Paul’s brand of preaching is notorious for causing problems in conservative churches because you can’t help but recognize that he’s up to something quite different than what we consider good preaching practice.  In my experience, the typical answer when someone realizes that is essentially that Paul can get away with it because he is breaking the rules under inspiration of the Spirit, but that’s one area where we can’t follow his example.  So we are left with a troubling break–Paul’s message is inspired but his method is flawed.  This is another case where a prior commitment to a certain understanding of the Bible either keeps us from seeing the obvious (the Bible itself doesn’t model expository preaching) or keeps us from giving weight to the Biblical example.  On the fundamental question of what preaching should look like, we reject the scriptural model in favor of the expository paradigm, and we do so in the name of honoring scripture.  That’s just not working.

Maybe one of the reasons that people who leave our churches say that are more interested in rules than spirituality is this model of exhortation that breaks every passage down into three or five teachable points to apply in your own life and often misses the glorious proclamation of the good news that Jesus is reigning and renewing the world.

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Faith in Flux

The new report from the Pew Forum is worth a look.

Among the findings:

The biggest gains due to change in religious affiliation have been among those who say they are not affiliated with any particular faith. Overall, the 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” found that 16% of the adult population is unaffiliated, with the vast majority of this group (79%) reporting that they were raised in a religion as children.

Among the currently unaffiliated, large majorities of both former Catholics and former Protestants report attending worship services at least once a week as children (74% and 64%, respectively). However, regular church attendance drops dramatically by adolescence for both groups, and very few unaffiliated people report regularly attending worship services now, as adults. Unaffiliated former Catholics and former Protestants are equally unlikely to say they regularly attend worship services as adults.

Three-in-four former Catholics (75%) and former Protestants (76%) who have become unaffiliated say that many religions are partly true but no religion is completely true. Most of those who agree with this statement say this is an important reason they became unaffiliated, including 48% of former Catholics and 43% of former Protestants. About seven-in-ten (73% of former Catholics and 71% of former Protestants) say that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality, with nearly half saying this is an important reason they became unaffiliated. A slightly smaller fraction of those who have become unaffiliated say that religious leaders are more concerned with money and power than they are with truth and spirituality, and about four-in-ten say this is an important reason they decided to become unaffiliated.

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My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 2: Its Priorities May Differ From Mine

This is related to the conversation about genre, and also to Ben Witherington’s comments I quoted below.  Next in the list of assumptions:

2) Some things that seem important to me don’t matter to the Biblical writers

Actually, that Witherington post covered a lot of what I intended to say.  The point is this: even in the New Testament period, when there is an established discipline of history, the ancient standards are still very, very different from our modern ones.  Compare the temptation accounts in Luke and Matthew, and you’ll see pretty quickly that the chronology differs.  In Matthew it’s stones to bread, jump from the temple, bow down to Satan to receive the kingdoms of the world.  In Luke it’s bread, kingdoms, jump.  At least one of these is presented in an order that doesn’t represent the actual historical chronology.  It’s easy for a skeptic to point to this as an example of the Bible being “wrong,” but that’s a pretty silly critique.  More likely each writer has chosen to present the temptations in the order that best presents the themes of their book.  Matthew’s Jesus is the rightful king, who already is heir to all power and authority.  Notice that Matthew surrounds the temptation accounts with the exact same line, said once by John the Baptist, once by Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2, 4:17).  Luke, on the other hand, is well-known for his strong sense of geographical movement.  In Luke’s presentation, the Temple (and, by extension, Jerusalem) has enormous symbolic significance.  Jesus is dedicated there as an infant, and at age 12, when his family was leaving Jerusalem after Passover, Jesus stayed behind in the Temple.  When an anxious Mary and Joseph found him, he said “Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” (2:49).  After that, Luke doesn’t show Jesus in Jerusalem again until he enters it for his crucifixion, a journey that he makes gradually but inexorably (see 9:51, 13:33, 17:11, 18:31, 19:11).  Because Jerusalem is the climax of Luke’s story, he makes it the climax of the temptations.  There are always people who want to say that either Matthew or Luke must have erred in their temptation account, but in reality, both did it the right way for their own purposes, and in keeping with the literary conventions of their own time.  As they say in marriage counseling, neither is wrong, they are just different.

So, if you think inspired history has to be meet modern standards of objective reportage to counter as scripture, the Bible is going to disappoint you over and over again.  Ditto if you feel the need to know what exact words were said on a given occasion.  Or even to whom they were said.  You just aren’t going to get that certainty in the Bible.  Different gospels are going to have somewhat different wording.  Sometimes two or three gospels will cover the same event with very different emphases.  Look at the healing of the centurion’s servant, for example.  To make this a bit easier, I’ll underline some parts that are unique in each account.

Matt 8:5-12

Luke 7:1-10

5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”

7 Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”

8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.

When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

The first time I encountered these texts in my ministry training, my instructor went out of his way to point out that there wasn’t necessarily an historical discrepancy here, because there is a sense in which statements communicated through intermediaries could be honestly recorded as statements between the two principal parties.  His example (this was back in 1991) was that President Bush could send Secretary of State James Baker to deliver a message to Prime Minister John Major, and the newspaper headlines could honestly say “Bush Tells Major “We’re On Your Side!” although the two men hadn’t even been in the same continent, and those exact words weren’t said.

If you find that convincing, I won’t try to talk you out of it (well, not right now, anyway), but that didn’t work for me.  At the time, I thought it was pretty deeply troubling that the people who only had Matthew’s account would have a completely wrong mental image of what happened, and it seemed to me that if the Spirit was going to give fuller details to Luke’s reader, he certainly could have done that for Matthew’s.  Making things worse, the lines from Jesus in Matthew 8:11-12 don’t appear at all in Luke, nor does the information that the servant was healed “at that very hour,” which means that Luke’s account is also flawed!  Neither was meeting my standards for what I thought the Bible should be.

Only some years later did I try to read those texts in terms of what the original audiences needed, rather than what I thought I wanted.  Of course, we’ll never know for sure what was going on in Matthew and Luke’s heads when they wrote their gospels, but each of them were writing at a time when tensions between Jews and Gentiles were high.  Luke, a Gentile writing to Gentiles, probably thinks it is important to reinforce the point that God had chosen the Jewish people first, and the Gentiles were being brought into a grace relationship that already existed.  What better way to do that than to write about an incident where Jewish elders intercede with Jesus on behalf of a Roman soldier–one who “loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  The soldier serves as a model of Gentile discipleship that is openly supportive of the Jewish people and their religious environment–exactly the kind of example that Luke wants his Gentile audience to follow.  And he wants them to see Jewish religious leaders who are quick to do what they can to bring blessing to a Roman.  That picture only helps them cultivate a healthier attitude toward Israel.

Matthew, on the other hand, is a Jew writing mainly to Jews.  And he could be concerned that if he writes this up the way Luke does, his Jewish readers are going to use this as evidence that Gentiles can’t approach God on their own–they have to either become Jews or use Jewish friends as intermediaries.  They might get the idea that the only Gentiles God will respond to are ones who are building synagogues and actively befriending Jewish elders.  That’s could easily spin into an ongoing sense of entitlement and superiority that Matthew doesn’t want to reinforce.  And so in his version, the centurion comes to Jesus on his own.  And Matthew is sure to include the parts where Jesus makes it clear that some faithful Gentiles will be dining with the patriarchs in the kingdom, and some of the Jewish people won’t.  It’s a matter of faithful response to God, not DNA.

Notice that “I have not found such great faith in Israel!” becomes a rebuke of Israel in Matthew’s story.  (“You Israelites ought to have this kind of faith, but none of you do!”  In Luke, though, it seems like Israel has set a very high standard for faith, but the centurion exceeded it.  “Wow!  Even in Israel no one has quite this much faith!”  It doesn’t seem like a rebuke of Israel at all.  In fact, it seems like Jesus implicitly compliments their faith by using it as the baseline for comparison.

Both authors are interested in history.  I don’t think either of them is making this story up.  But they don’t have accurate historical detail as the highest priority.  And in a situation where giving their audience the most complete possible historical truth could lead them into theological error and ungracious attitudes, it’s obvious to the gospel writers which is the better path.  Ultimately, they aren’t writing history so much as narrative theology with deep pastoral concern.  I might want straight history from them, but they want to form churches in the character and spirit of Jesus.  It could be that those seldom conflict, but when they do exacting historicity takes a back seat to kingdom concerns.

After a while it occurred to me that Matthew and Luke have a better idea what good scripture is than I do.  Part of my submission to the Bible is letting it be what it is, not insisting that it’s flawed if it isn’t what I wanted.

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N.T. Wright Videos

If you appreciate the Bishop of Durham as much as I do, you might want to check out this youtube playlist.  Good stuff.

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What Is The Gospel? Part IV: Theological Worlds

One of best books out there for thinking through various aspects of the gospel is W. Paul Jones’ book Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief. In it, Jones discusses five different “theological worlds” that people inhabit.  Understood simply, these are five different frameworks for thinking about the faith, each of which has its own narrative trajectory.   Any given person will “live in” one of these worlds more than the others.  They are:

  1. Separation and Reunion.  Inhabitants of this world feel a sense on loneliness or abandonment.   They long to feel connected, and to be part of a community.  Salvation is perceived as being or going home.
  2. Conflict and Vindication.  People in this world are angry because of experienced chaos or normlessness.  They are keenly aware of political and economic forces that pit people against one another, creating winners and losers.  They salvation they long for is a new orderly kingdom where things are set right.
  3. Emptiness and Fulfillment.  In this world, the great struggle is purposelessness.  There is an ache because of lost potential and an inability to determine one’s place in the world.  Salvation is viewed as wholeness and being a integral part of a purposeful system.
  4. Condemnation and Forgiveness.  In this world, inhabitants feel guilt because of falling short or idolatry.  The are deeply aware of their own failings, and desire to be accepted in spite of all the ways they have fallen short. Salvation is percieved as removal of guilt, reprieve, adoption.
  5. Suffering and Endurance.  People who live here feel overwhelmed by meaningless pain.  It seems that whatever can go wrong will.  One is tempted to fall into cynical despair.  Salvation is understood as the perceiving God’s presence and concern as we continue to endure and survive.

Each of these worlds has strong Biblical backing, and the New Testament addresses all of these interests when speaking of salvation.  But the contemporary protestant world spends the vast majority of our time in world four, which I strongly suspect is the least-inhabited world in secular America.  It’s no wonder that the skeptics who listen to us sometimes say “these Christians aren’t even in the same world I’m living in.”  They’re right; we aren’t.

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What Is The Gospel?, Part III: It’s Bigger Than You Probably Thought

There’s a passage in Acts 3 that I’ve come to love, and I think it is scandalously underpreached.  Even by me.  

The setting is that Peter and John have just healed a lame beggar at the Temple gate.  (This is where Peter says his famous line,  “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”)  Afterward, a crowd gathers, astonished at the miracle.  Peter turns to them and says:

“Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.

 17“Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.21He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.

Peter goes on a bit more, but that’s enough for right now.  There’s a lot to notice already:

  • The healing of the crippled man is part of the ongoing glorification of Jesus by God the Father.  It’s truly a remarkable (wonderful!) thing that when his son was shamed by crucifixion, God chose to bring him renewed glory not through vengence, but through acts of mercy and healing.  Yeah, we all know that on one level, but reading this stuff again just bowls me over.  “Why are you guys suprised that this cripple is jumping around?  It’s not us–it’s God glorifying Jesus again.  When beggars with bedsores become healthy joyous high jumpers, more honor goes to the one you falsely shamed.  This is just God’s weird way of undoing what you did.”  That’s lesson one.  God is really into glorifying Jesus, and he does that by healing broken people.  It might not be the most obvious way to bring Jesus honor, but it’s apparently the most fitting one.  In essence, Jesus is honored when his ministry continues through his disciples, empowered by the Spirit.  Hold onto that one.
  • Notice the three-fold purpose of repentance here.  
    • So that your sins might be wiped out
    • that times of refreshing might come from the Lord
    • that he might send the Christ 
  • What is Jesus doing right now?  “He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”  This is the kind of thing I was thinking about when I said that “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” is a question that completely misses the point.  The great promise about heaven isn’t that we will go there, it is that Jesus is waiting there until he comes back and fixes everything.  The end of the story is that the prophetic vision will come to pass.  You know all that stuff about the desert bursting into vegetation, lions lying down with lambs, swords beaten into plowshares, justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream?  That wasn’t just idle talk.  God hasn’t ever given up on that vision.  Jesus Christ himself is going to come back and make it happen.  In the meantime, the good works that Jesus’ disciples do are continuing what he began, but also anticipating the way he will conclude.  It’s part of a chain that links the Old Jerusalem to the New.
  • There’s a lot that could be said about “repentance,” but I’ll sum it up with this: it’s not so much about feeling sorry as about thinking differently.  It’s gaining new eyes and catching on to this vision.  It’s about coming to understand that when you restore that which is broken, you glorify Jesus and take part in the work he is doing.  And even though you can’t restore anything perfectly, and maybe some things you can only polish a little, that’s okay, because every little step honors Christ, and when he comes back, he’ll finish it all.  In this case (Acts 3) Peter acknowledges that they acted in ignorance.  That’s what he’s trying to fix.  He’s cluing them into what God is doing.  And when they repent “times of refreshing will come from the Lord.”  How does that happen?  The same way the beggar just got healed, I imagine.  Disciples who want to honor Christ offer what they can.  When you start offering what you can, times of refreshing come.  You are refreshed by God’s spirit working through you, and you also bring refreshing to others.
  • This is good news!  We can learn to see things the way God sees them, change our worldview and work to advance what God is doing, all in anticipation of the ultimate restoration of the cosmos by Christ.  “Your sins can be forgiven and you can go to heaven when you die” is nothing close to an adequate summary of this vision.  But since that has been widely hawked as “the gospel,” millions of Christians have missed the big picture.  And that’s tragic.  Because when you don’t really see where God is taking things, you don’t understand what he’s calling you to do in the meantime.  Way too many people have settled for belief, baptism, and their backsides on the back bench.  Because we didn’t tell them that the good news was that God was recruiting a massive team to join him in honoring Christ by restoring the world, one step at a time.  We told them that the good news was if they assented to the intellectual proposition that Jesus was the Son of God, their soul would rise to heaven upon their death.  They assented, and having fulfilled their part of the narrow vision they were given, they are now kicking back, contented, fire insurance in place.

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What Is The Gospel? Part II

In yesterday’s post, I said that traditional presentations of the gospel are failing because they are trying to answer a question that no one is asking.  What question do I mean?  This one:

How can you get forgiveness of your sins?

The centerpiece of virtually every evangelistic message is a presentation of the cross of Jesus as a pathway to forgiveness of sins.  That’s the point of the “Romans Road,” (a fundamentalist favorite) as well as the traditional “Five Step Plan” in Churches of Christ.  It’s also the point of all those illustrations you’ve seen that show how sin creates a gulf between you and God, but the cross can bridge that divide.  Like this one:

Sin Separates

 

Cross Bridges

Or all of these.  And if you click on any of the links that sends you to, you’ll see some variation of the same gospel presentation–the one about Jesus solving your guilt problem.

And it’s true.  The cross solves our sin problem.  Forgiveness is made available through the blood of Jesus.  If anyone wants to know “what can wash my sins away?” “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” is still the right answer.  I am fully convinced of that.

But very few of the people we are talking to want to know that.  They don’t think of themselves as sinners.  They don’t feel guilty.  It doesn’t seem intuitive to them that their sins separate them from anyone, because all their friends indulge in the same things they do.  Maybe occasionally they feel the some sorrow because of their choices, but they chalk it up to bad luck, or maybe a “dumb mistake”–but not sin.  They think of themselves as good people who don’t particularly have a problem.

Not only that, but there is evidence that shows that the life of the average church-goer and the average skeptic are pretty much alike.  Ron Sider covered that in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.  Worse, on the personal moral hierarchy of, say, a twenty-something semi-liberal thoroughly skeptical college grad, Christians are seen as the problem, not people who have a solution.  When those folks look at evangelicals, they see narrow-minded, ignorant and hateful people who seem to care a great deal about unborn babies, but vote against programs to provide food and insurance to the kids who are already here.  They see people who commit adultery and file for divorce at the same rates as the secular world, but who vote against same-sex marriage because gays will “undermine the institution of marriage.”  They see folks who claim to follow the prince of peace, but who gladly support optional wars and turn a blind eye to torture.  When they look at the church, they don’t see a reason to lend us any particular creedence on moral issues.  And when we, who are already fighting a reputation for hatred and hypocrisy attempt to spread the good news by saying, in essence: “Hey you–you need to realize that you have a sin problem….”  Ugh.  No wonder our churches are shrinking.  If we had a contest to figure out which approach would guarantee us the fewest converts, our traditional way would be a strong contender for first place.  It’s an unwelcome message that unintentionally reinforces everything our detractors are saying about us.  

Yes, it’s true.  All humans have a sin problem.  But it’s not the only truth there is.  And it’s not all there is to the gospel.  But more on that later.

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What Is The Gospel?

Over at Internet Monk, where I am moonlighting as one of the “Evangelical Untouchables,” Michael asked us how we would present the gospel (in two paragraphs!) to a group of secular twenty-somethings.  You can read the responses here.  This is mine:

One thing we can say with certainty is that the power structures of the world repeatedly engage in abusive practices that harm and dehumanize. Governments will displace native peoples, indulge in slavery, and commit war crimes. Accounting firms will cook the books; banks will risk our money for a chance to enrich themselves; churches will loudly decry certain sins while covering up their own. And then the people who caused the most harm will be offered bonuses. Not all power structures will do this, and not all the time, but it’s definitely the general trend.

The good news of Jesus is that the one with the most power–ultimate power–chose to become a servant. And he taught a way of living the rejects personal power and privilege while subverting the power structures of the world. It’s no secret to anyone that the institutional structure called ‘church’ has often missed the mark on this, trying to impose its will through petitions, politicians, and the personality of the pastor. But I want you to know that those kinds of power grabs reveal the nature of our humanity, not our Lord. When you’ve seen churches act like that and wanted to pull your hair out, I don’t think it was because God is a lie. I think it’s because we, as God’s creation, sometimes have a gut-level response to harmful distortions of the God who is True. Jesus called his disciples to deny themselves and take up the cross. To be baptized is to die on the cross with Jesus, and rise into a new kind of life centered on love of God and of others. The good news–in part–is that the Spirit of Christ can empower us to live a life modeled on his own. Following his example, we don’t run into the world trying to conquer it, and we don’t run away from the world into a protective isolation. We engage the world to join God’s work of helping the hurting and fixing what is broken–including all those broken power structures.

The comments were interesting.  One person, presenting himself as a secular twenty-something, said that mine was the only reponse that wouldn’t offend him.  Others argued (implicitly) that offense is part of the gospel presentation or else we are leaving something critical out.  At least one person wasn’t sure what the gospel was in my message.

If I had it to do over again, I would be more clear about what the gospel is: God is rightful king of the cosmos, and He is restoring, repairing and renewing everything.  That’s it.  We seldom hear that our “gospel meetings” and “gospel presentations” because Western Christianity overall has been so caught up in the culture of individualism that we’ve managed to take a universal renewing and make it all about where my wispy soul goes after my body stops working.  So we have books and sermons with titles like “He Did This Just For You.”  There is no sense in which that is true.  Jesus did not die just for me.  And to take the Biblical message and make it about “me, me, me!” or even (individual) “you, you, you!” is to distort enormously.  Yes, as part of the cosmic restoration God is doing, I also am granted forgiveness and renewal, true, but when we frame the matter in terms of “what I get out of it” rather than “what God desires for the world” we open up the possibility (however remote) that we’ll develop an aberrant Christianity so relentlessly focused on the individual that a question like “if you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” sounds like a good thing to ask people.

It’s not.  It just isn’t.

First, it’s not Biblical.  There is no scriptural record of anyone asking anyone else anywhere anything like that.  Second, it’s a completely backwards eschatological vision.  The promise is about Jesus coming back and the New Jerusalem descending to Earth, and to make it about individuals escaping the world rather than God renewing it couldn’t be more wrong-headed.  Third, this kind of narrow-sighted theology feeds the mentality that Christianity is about what I get out of it, therefore worship must be about what I get out of it, therefore I should shop for a church that gives me what I want, because, after all, I’m so important that he did this all just for me.

What has become the traditional presentation of the gospel is troubled from the start because it sets up all the wrong expectations.  And it’s failing because it tries to answer a question that no one is asking anymore.  But that’s in part two, tomorrow.

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