Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fondness for tradition or 'childish things?'

What often keeps a believer from making the jump to an organic house church isn't always fear of it.

Often it's a fondness for earthly things that keep many way from simpler worship practices. Be it a love for tradition, a family or ethnic heritage, an awe of history, a deep appreciation for ornate, ancient architectural trends, or even just the warm fuzzies some get from the "smells and bells" and other religious trappings, it can be difficult for those wrapped up in it to find themselves at home in a church setting where everything is reduced to the biblical basics. Without buildings, without priests, without ritual, they'll often feel that something is missing and not consider it to be "real church."

Our local meeting is unique in that we encourage each other to mix it up with local brick-and-mortar churches. In other words, and for example, an Anglican steeped in tradition and ritual -- priestly robes, responsive readings, saint festivals, and all that -- can have it both ways and meet with us, too. At least in theory.

As a resident of the Austin metro area (the political community, on top of that) it can be difficult for me to make the case for a simple, organic fellowship. So many are drawn to the systematic rhythms of the traditional church, as well as the prestige it brings to be a part of a church that seems much more connected to our cultural history. A thousand years of Western Christendom can't be wrong. It appeals to the senses, particularly to the college-educated, and collectively knows what works.

As an appreciator of Christian history and a conservative in many regards, I can identify with that sense of fondness. There's a certain grandeur you miss out on, though I've come to see it as separate from the actual functioning of the Body of Christ -- man-made extras that take absolutely nothing away from the life of the Body when avoided. These extras are "childish things" that can be done away with easily by mature believers (I Cor. 13:11). The danger is when the allure of these things overshadows or obscures the basics of how the Body is designed to function.

Revival figurehead John Wesley, himself an Anglican cleric who died loyal to the Church of England, also walked that line between the "high church" and organic meetings. While he never let the Methodist "societies" and "bands" (small, often home-based accountability and teaching sessions) baptize new believers or offer the Lord's Supper, his hope was that these meetings would invigorate the Church of England and bring it back to something closer to the "primitive (early) church" of the New Testament.

I'll let "the Right Reverend" Mr. Wesley have the final word:
"The need for repentance in the life of the believer further extends to his sense or feelings of desire to gratify the imagination with something great, beautiful, or uncommon. In how many ways does this desire assault the soul? Perhaps with the poorest trifles, such as dress or furnishings -- things never designed to satisfy the immortal spirit.  
How hard it is, even for believers, to conquer just one branch of the desire of the eye, curiosity, to constantly trample it under their feet and desire nothing merely because it is new! 
How hard is it even for the children of God wholly to conquer "the pride of life" (I John 2:16)! St. John seems to mean by this nearly the same with what the world terms "the sense of honor." This is no other than a desire of, and a delight in, the honor that comes from men: a desire and love of praise. And always joined with this is a proportional fear of dispraise. 
Nearly allied to this is evil shame, the being shamed of that in which we should glory. 
This is seldom divided from the fear of man, which brings a thousand snares upon the soul. A thorough conviction of the remains of these evil tempers in the heart is the repentance belonging to true believers."

Sunday, October 29, 2017

What will the next Reformation look like? Pay attention to the rumblings ...

The rumblings are already taking place underneath your feet. Can you feel them?
"So let us go out to him, outside the camp, and bear the disgrace he bore." --Hebrews 13:13 (NLT)

The Protestant Reformation didn't happen 500 years ago simply because a German priest decided to nail his list of 95 opinions to a door. Martin Luther's act was unquestionably heroic, but the act itself was as common as thumb-tacking a flyer to a cork board for discussion on a college campus today. It wasn't because his "theses" were so persuasive and so well-written that it inspired Christians to risk their lives to reform the Western Church. Rather, Luther's words struck a nerve.

For a movement to last half a millennia it couldn't have been the work of one man in only one historic event. Nor will any future, widespread changes to Christianity take place overnight.

For Luther, the time was right. The stage was set by many reformers who came before -- many of whom lost their lives -- in defense of the simple truth of the Gospel. The circumstances made for a ripeness whereby Luther's words echoed and pierced more than just a wooden door but the hearts of great academics and church leaders whose excesses and errors are well known. Those paying attention had known for years what led to this earth-shaking act of defiance that toppled strongholds. They felt the rumblings.

Reformation didn't take place in a vacuum
This major quake happened 500 years ago, Oct. 31, 1517, to be exact, when Luther's little rebellion sparked the Protestant Reformation. It also inspired the Catholic Church's re-evaluation of itself via the Counter-Reformation and a gradual shift of priorities in other streams of Christianity (e.g. Eastern Orthodox, and a trickle of reformation groups that pre-dated Luther). That's a quarter of the entire age of Christianity that Protestantism has been in existence. And if you don't know why this change in Western Christianity is significant even today, read this. If you don't feel like clicking links, or even if you confuse Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Lutheran church guy, just be thankful that you can read the Bible in your own language.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why do we meet? (And why bother?)

Man, tonight was a shift in perspective!

Even with just three of us adults present (we'll blame Spring Break, among other factors) after reading Psalms 63 and 139 we were faced with (dare I use the phrase) existential questions over whether our souls "thirst" the way David's did (63:1), if we readily invite God's discernment of our hearts (139:23) and even whether our worship is as pleasing a thing as "flavor" on a brisket (63:5 -- yep, we're Texans, though I'm told by a certain Californian that an avocado has as pleasing a taste and texture).

Ideally, we should run to any opportunity to engage in private and corporate adoration of God. If God gave us a spirit to worship him, if our non-spiritual parts are yielded to Jesus Christ then that's what we should crave.

You see, we don't often look at communing with God as a pleasant thing, but something that plays second-fiddle to earthly things that please the flesh. This goes for any of us at times, no matter how spiritually mature you are or think you are.

This is especially true for our desire to meet as a church body. "Church" is such a heavy word and it may not be adequate for this question of "why do we meet?" All etymological discussions aside, it's supposed to be a simple meeting of of Christians already engaged in the work of the Kingdom of God. (The term "kingdom" can be awfully loaded lately, too, but that's whole other shooting match.) When we think of church as nothing more than the regularly occurring rendezvous of saints on mission for God, it makes total sense to gather. It's our war room. We want to catch up with each other in love. We want to rejoice in victories had. We want to bear each others burdens, and by doing so fulfill Jesus' mandate. That makes sense. And the more engaged you are in the Great Commission the more you look forward to "debriefing" with your co-missionaries.

Conversely, simple gatherings don't make a whole lot of sense for Christians who are not on-mission for Jesus during day-to-day life. Many reserve church for something to do on a weekend that doesn't involve excursions or pro sports for that very reason. It just isn't a priority for them. Nor should we expect it to be until there is some reason to meet as active Christians. But we often spit at the wind trying to find clever ways to woo them back.

Please note that I wrote "simple gatherings." More complex church meetings often bring along activities and edifices that draw in otherwise lackadaisical Christians. In traditional meetings, there are varying degrees of liturgy (some include pages of instructions on when to stand, repeat sayings, kneel, etc.), there is impressive architecture to give a sense of grandeur, there could be echoes of ancient rituals from exotic world cultures, and there are likely frequent appeals to the Five Senses that give awe and wonder and plenty of worldly reason to "attend church." You know, if you're into that kind of thing.

And on the other side of the spectrum we're seeing an increasingly complex form of stagecraft that accompanies an otherwise simple gathering consisting of a few songs and one guy giving a talk. This is for people who don't care much for "smells and bells" in the traditional churches, and who prefer a fresher, more modern and austere approach. Many megachurches (and smaller churches based on that model) have made an art out of creating a Sunday morning experience that is "relevant" to the crowd they're reaching for Jesus (more power to them on that). If you like Modern Rock, then you'll LOVE our worship band! You know, if you're into that kind of thing.

The same can be said for the fondness many feel for a variety of trends, new and old: Southern Gospel worship music, revivalism, Gregorian chanting, shouting during prayer, long periods of "swaying and praying," hymnal pages instead of PowerPoint screens -- you name it. The truth is, we often "feel" God when our artistic preferences are met.

So what "kind of thing" should we be "into" as sincere Christians? I don't want to split hairs on worship styles, as we all have our preferences, but I do want to share my experience. The more I've drawn closer to God -- the more I've studied the Bible, prayed frequently, told others about Jesus, fasted, confessed, contemplated the Lord's Supper, kept a sabbath, basked in the peace that passes understanding, etc. -- the more jittery I become in a church meeting that is stacked full of fleshly reasons to "attend." It almost doesn't matter to me what style of worship it is. It gets lonely when one guy is talking 80% of the time, and you can't share. Or stop and ask someone how they're doing without the clock ticking. Or just pray for anything and everyone as there is need. It's downright stifling to my spirit, and makes me want to find reasons ... not to meet. (And, yes, I understand there are small groups, Sunday Schools, outreaches, etc., where this itch can be scratched, but it often lacks the "sanction" and permanency of the larger gathering and opportunities are limited.)

So there I am in standard building-centered churches, craving a chance to freely share and freely pray in a packed auditorium that at the same time can be devoid of souls. Yet how boring my ideal of a stripped-down meeting may seem to others! No programs or entertainment, but at the same time a very useful function for a much broader kingdom lifestyle. You'd have to really be into Jesus to enjoy my three-person church this evening. Used to be, I'd have a sense of guilt for not being exciting or winsome enough by attracting such small numbers. Tonight, though, Jesus was enough.

In short: The meeting (church) does not exist for itself. The meeting serves a vital role in the Kingdom of God ... you know, if you're into it.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Love through a prism

Common interests. Favorable physical appearances. The kind of friends someone keeps. "Birds of a feather flock together."

It's in our nature by birth. And that's not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. However, it is incomplete.

The "perfect love" Jesus gives us (I John 4:15-21) can transcend these earthly reasons we have for loving others and open up new doors for relationships that our old nature would shudder to even imagine. "Narrow is the gate" (Matthew 7:13-14) that leads to a life of loving others without carnal motivation. I doubt any of us ever enter the fullness of this love expressed in our lifetimes, but the sanctification of the Spirit can bring us closer and closer to a love without barriers as we dwell in Him.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Forgetting God's provision 'while the food was in their mouths'

Free Will(y)
Regardless of which side of a blessing you're on, it's in our nature to forget God's goodness and instead wallow in our own doubts or self-aggrandizement.

Psalm 78 -- one of the many "contemplative" psalms (Hebrew: maskills) -- examines the recurring trend of how success can become the beginning of defeat if the focus is misplaced. In the case of the children of Israel fleeing Egypt, they went from one extreme to the other -- doubting God's ability "to provide a table in the wilderness" (v. 19)  to acknowledging God's power (the sending of manna, quails, favorable winds, water from a rock, etc.) but giving him mere lip-service and going as far as to lie to him (v. 36). God saw this change of heart "while the food was still in their mouths" (v. 30)!

You're probably familiar with the Exodus account. At points, the Israelites even preferred death or becoming re-captive to Egypt over continuing to wander (even with the most obvious and spectacular of God's miracles to guide them in the desert). Strange how even the greatest blessings can become curses based on how we react to them. It's not that the Israelites ever hated God, per se, but in their selfishness and forgetfulness inadvertently became the enemies of God at various times.

Breakpoint's blog had a creative way of explaining this phenomenon, relating it to a situation where a love for God's creation in our oceans morphed into a setback for those whose life mission it is to save the creatures in it.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Have we reached 'peak house church?'

The gauntlet has been thrown. But is there anyone left to take it up?
It's a safe bet to say House Church was never a tremendously popular stream in American Christianity. However, its legacy cannot be denied.

No, we've never undergone the level of persecution that often drives large number of churches "underground" and into private homes, such as the ones we know of in China. Rather, we meet simply as a means of keeping the focus on Christ.

Denominations and church planting associations answered this gauntlet-throw of returning to New Testament Christianity. They gave their cell groups greater authority and roles in the life of the church. They returned to local, community-based churches. Megachurch leaders such as David Platt and Francis Chan have taken cues from the movement and incorporated them into their own ministries.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Healthy skepticism or 'practical atheism?'

Below is my latest post on Seedbed.com based on a rather obscure sermon from John Wesley and how it intersected with my skeptical side. It's a little eccentric, but I hope you get something out of it!
... Does this “practical atheism” even cloud our understanding of salvation? And what about sanctification? 
Wesley, urging his hearers to flee the darkness (no matter how cozy and convenient one’s own “tree trunk” may be), warned them not to confuse outward religious ritual, or a mere moral resolution to swear off conflict and injustice, with the “blaze of gospel-day!” 
A faith that takes risks on the improbable can generate the kind of inward excitement and passion that leads us into an adventure like no other, one worthy of many tales to be told. ... 
Read the entire article at:

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Wisdom: a group discussion

Some (much-summarized) thoughts from Sunday's group discussion on wisdom, based on the previous Sunday's interactive teaching on the subject.


Though we may not know if we're wise, it's the little things that God does through us, in us, and in those around us that gives us the knowledge that we're on the right track.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Jesus was a Democratic Socialist and other urban legends

Communism in Poland. And you thought Franklin's was bad.
"... We did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty." --II Peter 1:16

There's a Robin Hood version of Jesus in the popular imagination with whom I have an on-again/off-again relationship.

On one hand, I like that just about the entire world wants a piece of Jesus of Nazareth. Even hard-core secularists who indict the God of Abraham for alleged war crimes and laugh off the Holy Spirit as a mere superstition revere Jesus to some degree. They like what he represented. He "stuck it to The Man" and preached love and forgiveness. Even Gandhi, a Hindu's Hindu, famously said "'I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

It's that Folk Hero Jesus that paves the way for me to introduce my Lord and Savior to just about anyone I meet. It's like asking someone if they'd like to talk about Mr. Rodgers. Evangelism made easy.

On the other hand, I cannot stand the way personal attitudes and biases are often projected on Jesus. Because he preached forgiveness, he must be indifferent to whatever sin you're practicing. Because he was all about healing the sick and helping the blind to see, then anyone who boldly preaches Christ (or happens to hurt someone's feelings otherwise) must be a hypocrite that has never read the Red Letters.

This Folk Hero version of Jesus I can do without, as it flies square in the face of many things Jesus taught as a perfect Jew and one with God the Father. The one who would go to the bar and have a drink with you, while laughing his way through all the heartache and bad life decisions. "Buddy Jesus."

Fewer than 12 percent of Christians surveyed (according to a Barna study) thought Joan of Arc was Noah's Wife. A recent Lifeway Research study discovered only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week, 40 percent occasionally, and 1 in 5 never read it at all.

Non-Christians read the Bible even more seldom, naturally. But this doesn't stop them from building opinions about Jesus. Be their misconceptions stem from church tradition, folklore, non-Christian religions, or even TV, it's comforting to believe a popularly-held lie.

In a recent worship gathering, I thought I'd engage in a little myth-busting on these folk tales about Jesus. I'm not talking about apocryphal accounts of Jesus (such as turning clay into pigeons or rebellious children into goats or a Gnostic take on the crucifixion) but the twists-of-truth that plague us even in the 21st Century.

Here are four I could think of off-hand. If you can think of any others, by all means leave a comment!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Being a disciple means growth, not simply preservation

Don't be this guy.
Living as a disciple is nothing that can be taught out of a book, or made into a systematic approach that works the same for every single person. Every Christian's story is different. And for it to be a story it must be lived out in a manner worthy of being told, as well as communicated to others.

Too often we relegate one's "testimony" to that time when he or she first accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. But is that where it stops? Does Jesus trap us in amber as soon as we're his, only to be released on the Last Day? Inasmuch as we can stand on God's promise of a future salvation, our testimony continues day by day, as we not only testify of God's power to deliver, but live out the work of God in our lives! We're set free for a purpose, and it's not to simply wallow in his grace.  As the old saying goes "we've been saved, we're being saved, and we will be saved."

Below are four indispensable elements of becoming the kind of disciple that makes other disciples: