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A Reluctant Follower’s Confession of Faith (Part Two)

jesus-christI believe in SIMPLE Christianity.

At its heart, authentic Christianity and salvation are quite basic:  We are saved by Grace (Acts 15:11; Ephesians 2:5, 8-9), through Faith (Romans 1:17; 3:21-31), in baptism (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12, I Peter 3:21), for good works (Philippians 2:13; James 2:14-26).

It’s that simple. Nothing more, nothing less.

Read the book of Acts to see how the early church centralized around these core doctrines. Paul reveals to the Ephesian church the unifying element of Christianity is agreement upon some simple ONES:  “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Greek: immersion); one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:3-6).” Christians can agree to disagree about many things (and do), but upon these seven foundational beliefs Christianity unifies.

So it should be easy to find authentic Christians and churches today.  Are they immersed believers who LIVE their Faith exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control [Galatians 5:22-23])?

Do they (as a body of believers) believe in “one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God?”  Do they teach a salvation “by grace, through faith, in baptism, for good works?”

If not, they’re transposing Truth or skirting Scripture or massaging the Message for earthly gain, power or convenience. The church is full of people, including well-meaning pastors and teachers, who (out of ignorance, theological tradition, misunderstanding or, on rare occasion, disobedience) promote doctrinal half-truths and biblical myths.  Many doctrines (from purgatory to rapture) are more fanciful imagination than Divine revelation. But tradition does not trump Truth and, face it, the modern church is riddle with rituals, traditions and dogmas foreign to the Christianity taught by Jesus and revealed by His apostles.

It’s time to call the Church back to its core.

Confessions Of An (Almost) Done

This is a revelational piece I wrote for “Refresh the Church”…a site dedicated to reimagining church in 21C culture.

Confessions Of An (Almost) Done.

A Mormon, A Catholic and A Christian Walked into a Church One Sunday…(no joking)

ImageYesterday I spent an hour with a young 20-something unmarried couple looking for a church “they can agree on.” He’s Mormon (devout, but open). She’s Catholic (spiritual, but not devout). Neither wants to convert to the other’s faith but both love each other and want to get married (after 4 years of dating). He still attends his Mormon church semi-regularly but she has church hopped or stayed away.

This couple came to our church looking for a place of acceptance, open to our Message but not willing to give up what they believe to be true. They had visited other churches and found many proved too judgmental, shallow, or cold (or at least felt that way).  Thankfully, they also confessed they found openness, peace and even friends within our faith community.  They may have even found a place to be married and a preacher to do it.

For the better part of that hour we engaged in a theological duel.  I am no stranger to Mormon theology, history or practice (and he soon learned and respected my understanding of his faith).  On the other hand, this Mormon missionary knew his stuff too.  He countered several of my arguments with reasonable points of his own.  I learned as much from him as he learned from me.  He sharpened my own Faith and that’s good.

We departed, after this theological conversation he initiated, with a mutual respect.  They said they’d be back (and I hope to see them next week). In the end, I simply invited both seekers into a journey with Jesus. I encouraged them to remember that Real Faith is messy and murky and often what we believed to be “true” can be far from the truth. I also confessed we don’t follow a prophet or pope, ordinances or ritual, but Christ alone. We live out what Scripture reveals…as perfect as we can.  Man created religion.  God wants a relationship.

It was a Message that seemed to resonate with both these young seekers.  Neither needed someone to criticize or condemn their church (which they had already experienced).  They  already knew their religion had issues.  However, there is also security in what they believed and was taught to be true.  To reject it entirely was a leap of faith far too great, especially for this young Mormon.

I totally understand their desire to hold on to what is good (and believed to be of God).  If what I believe is authentic and life-changing, then I don’t need to beat someone who has a different religious idea into submission.  I actually believe God will do that work.  My role is simply to respectfully challenge, reveal, prove and promote THE Truth, THE Way and THE Life.  Argument won’t win the day, but love will.    

You see, the largest segment of those who don’t attend church today aren’t “unchurched” but “formerly churched.” This growing segment of the American population is largely young Millennials (born 1982-2004) who grew up in church youth ministries, religious institutions and spiritual places.  Most of them aren’t interested in returning to church until the topic of children come up.  Suddenly, two people from two different faith backgrounds are faced with a dilemma.  That’s how this Mormon-Catholic couple found us.  In what faith will we raise our kids? 

The formerly-churched seek a place that respects their past, pushes their Faith forward and connects them to authentic friendships. Before they can be converted to real Faith, they must (like all of us) be de-converted from the prisons of religion (traditions, rituals, faulty ideas and even heresy) that all of us experience.

Ultimately, conversion emerges out of conversation not condemnation.  Change happens from dialogue rooted in doubts.  Authentic Christianity is a powerful force for revival, renewal and restoration, but the process isn’t microwavable.  Real Christianity, like any good soup, must simmer for a season.  Truth happens.

And that type of true Christianity is attractive to anyone…you, me, Catholic or Mormon.

The Shape of Church to Come

ImageI have little doubt that within 50 years the “church experience” many hold so dear and dogmatically will be completely different.  It must or the future looks rather bleak for this institution we call the “Church.”   But if there’s one thing I know:  God won’t let His Church die on the vine, so maybe it’s time the vine (a.k.a., Christians) started to re-imagine the Church yet to emerge.  My friend Thom Schultz is also writing on this topic and worth a read.

As web and wireless communication continue to reinvent how we connect, the Church itself will need to also RE-FORM (just like it did in the REFORMATION 500 years ago) to stay relevant with postmodern culture.  Emerging churches have tried new wineskins, some with success and others with failure.  But let’s give them some credit:  at least they tried.  Too many churches, particularly smaller ones and lots of very large  ones, are just hiding their heads in the sand figuring this “postmodern” season will soon pass (it won’t), hunkering and bunkering to tradition and what worked in the 80s and 90s (or 50s, 60s and 70s), or simply riding what’s left of their growth wave (as it slowly loses momentum).

The shape of the church to come?  Smaller and bigger, faster and slower, future-fitted and historically-rooted.  The modern “either/or” church will have to reinvent “both/and” or face obsolescence and eventual obscurity.

Hence, my fearless predictions:

First, churches will become smaller (homes) and larger (massive networks) all wired for interaction, experience and image-rooted communication around worship, discipleship and service.  Churches will become even more “edgy” in reaching particular fringe groups.  The “one size fits all” mainline/middle of the road church will slowly fade.  Home fellowships will continue to find favor and don’t be surprised if the new “multi-site” is homes not buildings.  Smaller, more focused worship to tight communities with a live, brief message (10-12 minutes) from a central teaching pastor, followed by spiritual conversation and conversions within that niche.  Modern churches scratched itches.  Postmodern communities scratch niches.

Preaching and teaching, like all postmodern communication will also reinvent.  The sage from the stage is a T-Rex as postmodern culture prefers coaches, mentors, facilitators and guides from the side.  Sermons will consequently become shorter, deeper, with less application (leaving that to conversations to follow).  The Bible is a book (technology).  The emerging Church, incorporating digital formats, will certainly reform around more ancient and accurate terms like “Scriptures” and the “Word of God.”

Worship will be more interactive and experiential rather than performance-based.  Can you imagine a day when everyone will bring a song, a sermon or a special insight to the worship experience?  Again, home-based focused worship experiences with an interactive, time-intensive Lord’s Supper incorporated will no doubt emerge.  Worship will be timeless, with scheduled starts but no particular end.  The Spirit will lead, not a song leader.  Don’t be surprised if someone falls to sleep in church…not at 10:30 a.m. but 10:30 p.m.  Churches and their worship experiences will meet 24/7/365.

The church building may even be a dinosaur.  The reason?  No need.  Plus, rising U.S. government pressure to tax church facilities and property will force churches to rethink how and where they meet.  The megachurch will face grim days as monstrous buildings have little value, except to schools (who will be in the same pickle due to online learning).  The worship area in many churches is a concert or lecture hall and largely useless for authentic connection and community (especially with sloped, theater floors, pews and chairs bolted to the floor).  The most important immediate space for churches will be their atriums (the new fellowship hall).  The hottest commodity remains the small old-fashioned church buildings (not rural) that can be quickly renovated into community centers, coffee shops, meeting spaces and neighborhood connection points.  Still spiritual.  Still Christ-centered.  Need an example?  Check out Rembrandts in Eagle, ID!

The Church of the future will help people unplug, retreat, sabbath and rest.  They will focus on congregational health not just growth.  Sanctuaries will be just that:  safe places to rediscover Purpose.  Pastors will no longer be sequestered in offices or on stages.  Preaching will evolve from “I told you” to “we told us.”  Elderships will re-emerge as essential guides and guards to doctrine, vision and values.  Leaders will lead from the edge and bottom, not the middle and top.

How do I know this will happen?  Easy.  The cultural signs are all around.  Wider culture, immersed in a wireless, web economy, is reforming around interactivity, experiences and images.  Starbucks figured it out.  So did movements from the Tea Party to Occupy.  Facebook operates like church community should:  fast and fluid, invitations to friend/de-friend, transparent conversation.  Wikipedia operates like church communication/education should:  open-sourced, anyone can contribute, links to research, flags for questionable content.  Craigslist operates like church mission should:  open-sourced, services listed, intentional targets.

It many ways the 21st century Church will resemble the first-century Church:  fluid, fast, fascinating!  We just still have growing pains to endure before we enjoy it.  The 21st century church will be rounded, not squared; 3D not 1D; participatory and personal not programmed; organic not organized; a Body not a building.

The shape of this coming Church will revive current (and then aging) postmodern generations to reconsider Christianity.  Until now, at best, they’ve experienced only modern churchianity:  boxes, buildings and boredom.

And they’re leaving in droves.

Like any birth, the process will be messy, painful and emotional.  But JOY will come in the mourning.  And the Church of tomorrow will look and act nothing like the Church of today.  We’ve seen that one before, too.  It happened in the first-century (as the Church emerged out of Judaism).  It happened in the fourth century (as the Church emerged out of political and social oppression).  It happened in the sixteenth century (as the Church emerged out of Roman Catholicism).  Each of these were driven by technological or cultural innovations (from Roman roads to printing presses) that changed all the rules.

And it’s happening again.  The old guard may not like it, want it or embrace it, but its happening again.  Ignoring it won’t work.  Casting stones at the prophets won’t stop it.  Building a bunker won’t stall it.

A new Church is emerging and will continue to emerge.

And that’s a beautiful thing!

In God We Duck!

The Church is alive and well on planet earth. Vertical Christianity is comfortable with flaws and failure but doggedly pursuant of Truth, Justice, Peace and Joy.

The Duck Dynasty boys are a cultural phenom. They’re meteoric rise to fame and fortune would cause lesser men (and women) to play it safe. But that’s not the case with Phil, Willie, Jase, Si and the Robertson clan. They’re the real deal.

And in the process they both attract and repel. Phil will surely take some heat (and even lose some sponsors) for his pointed attack upon an abortion culture but as Jase explains it’s about “faith, family, then ducks.” http://cnsnews.com/mrctv-blog/matt-vespa/duck-dynasty-star-blasts-abortion-culture-what-world-happened-us

In God they trust…and duck. And that’s how God is building a dynasty worth quacking about.

Movement Not Monument

ImageThe greatest danger in Christianity is churchianity.  Jesus started a Movement not a Christian club, religious system or spiritual fraternity.  Unfortunately too many churches and her leaders are hopelessly trapped within their own monuments, beneath pastors more committed to building an empire rather than a Body.

If a church isn’t moving, growing, changing, causing discomfort and focused outward, it is in the process of dying.  Such congregations may stand as a monument to what it once was for a season, but it won’t grow beyond its own narcissism.

In Christianity, there is only one constant:  “Jesus is God’s Son and Savior.”  This dynamic Faith profession tolerates movement and mission, community and change.  It’s not about creeds, rules or dogma.  Orthodoxy emerges only through orthopraxy.  Right doctrine breathes out of right practices.

Ultimately, Christianity thrives and grows.  The Church reproduces and reinvents.  The Body changes and charges forward into wider culture.

Movements change.  Monuments remind.  Movements move.  Monuments stick.  Movements open.  Monuments close.  Movements thrive.  Monuments fade.

Christianity is a movement.  Churchianity is a monument.

The Real Reason Young Ministers Leave the Pastorate

burn-out-pastor-e1341338095674Ministry is tough.  Being a professional pastor is even harder.  Face it, you lose all your weekends and miss many a Sunday football game.  You live in a glass house with everyone tossing stones.  Despite what some people think, most preachers are paupers surviving offering plate to mouth, feeding off the generosity of another’s wealth.  Consequently there’s intense pressure to perform.  If your flock isn’t being fed, they find food in and from a different pastor.  Most churches today sheep-steal.

Consequently, there’s a growing problem:  young ministers are leaving the pastorate faster than a televangelist can shake his King James Bible before a congregation of  sinners.  The number one reason, according to one source?  The discontinuity between what they imagined ministry to be and what it actually is is too great.

That’s right.  What they dreamed the pastorate would be is a just a mirage and smoking mirrors.  If that’s true, and I believe it is, I don’t think the problem is salary.  Most ministers know the calling requires frugality.  I don’t think its the loss of weekends either.  Sunday is a work day for a preacher.  Sunday morning hours are required.

As a ministry professor I feel the key to success and staying power is through mentoring and networking.  Today’s clergy have to continually seek coaching and be lifelong students, plus work their networks and learn their congregations, communities and cultures.

The real reason is too many ministry schools graduate students as lone rangers.  These hopeful newbies land their diploma and ride into ministry without a clue.  They don’t know how to cooperate with others, creatively find solutions, resolve conflicts or cast communal vision.  In reality, ministry looks nothing like the ministry classroom.  After all, if you want to graduate with a high GPA and be decorated at commencement with awards and adulation, its not about creativity, cooperation or even community.  More often than not, it’s about insulation and isolation.

EXAMPLE #1:  Tests.

Most ministry courses and schools use exams to evaluate what students have retained, but in truth all they do is engineer a learner who views tests as cognitive games.  And so they play the exam cram.  Or they concoct clever mnemonics to temporarily please the professor.  Or, worst of all, they cheat.  Ultimately, students take their tests in isolation.  All by themselves and separated to prevent cheating.  

Of course, if you  act this way in ministry you’re in trouble.  The tests that try a pastor’s soul are enhanced when answered in insulation or isolation.  The reason most young preachers fail in conflict resolution is their schools tested the head but not the heart.  Just because you can memorize a list, regurgitate a theory or outline the biblical rationale doesn’t mean you can DO it.  Knowledge puffs up, says Paul.  And isn’t it odd that what we call “cheating” (looking at another’s test for the answer) is essentially what we’ll value as creative networking in real life? When a school graduates a test-taker they set that individual up for failure in a world and within a Church that operates on relationships (cooperation, community, creativity).

You need to know how to find the right answers from others.  You need to learn critical thinking skills to discern whether solutions are correct (I mean your buddy’s brilliant idea might be a pending disaster).  You need to cooperate and let others enjoy your answers too.  Mr. Smarty Pants (and later Pastor) may have the right answer but if he selfishly keeps it to himself what good does it do?

EXAMPLE #2:  Internships

Most internships completed by ministry students are SAFE ones, completed to satisfy graduation requirements.  Far too many internships are performed in churches the student already knows or, worse, done in their home congregations.  The first rule a ministry school should post regarding internships is you can’t do it in your home church.  I don’t care if your home church is Saddleback or Southeast, get outside your ministry paradigm.

For too many ministry students internships are poorly planned and executed, so little experience is gained.  Plus they’re too brief.  Three months does not make a quality experience in ministry.  I used to tell my students if they wanted to learn ministry go away for a year (unfortunately, to do so puts them at-risk to graduate “on time” and if they don’t have minimal credit hours means student loans come due six months into the internship).  In my opinion, the best internship requires students to apply and interview for a place unknown and different.  In fact, it’s the first sign they can actually get a job (in any field) post-graduation.  If a student can’t secure an internship (which are dime a dozen), how well do you think they’ll do landing their first pastorate?  And let’s be honest, excellent interns not only earn fine job references but many don’t have to worry about a job post-graduation because the church wants (and hires) them.

EXAMPLE #3:  Christian Service

Many schools require a “Christian service” component and some even grade it.  It’s a nice idea–required by accreditation–but in my experience only creates poor attitudes and bad taste (especially if students have to PAY the school for the service credit). I’ve also witnessed students “cram” Christian service requirements in their senior year in order to graduate.  In other words, they’re doing Christian service for a grade alone.  It’s an assignment not a lifestyle.  If you have to “cram” to complete Christian service it’s a sure sign you don’t understand “Christian service.”

The best Christian service happens naturally.  Someone sees a need and fills it.  Someone hears a cry and helps out.  Someone finds a failing and leads a change.  The dirty little secret about “academic” Christian service is rarely produces servants like Jesus.  Rather it creates a flurry of spiritual activity often mistaken for genuine Godly service.  It creates performers not pastors.  You look for stuff to do not out of love but rather the list.

So I’m not surprised so many young ministers are leaving the pastorate.  It’s a tragedy.  But if this was any other profession the blame would lie in the preparation.   I believe schools of ministry must reinvent how we train and equip the clergy.  Today’s church needs experienced leaders not smart test-takers.  Today’s congregations hunger for biblical communicators (preachers/teachers) not Bible quiz show contestants.  Today’s church needs equipped servant-leaders who love people not just another notch in their Christian service belt or ministry log.

Preparation is why young pastors aren’t sticking.  And I’ll even point a finger at myself.

It’s time for a change.

Plastic Church: How We’ve Missed the Point

plastic_JesusIt’s Resurrection Week 2013.  The Church should be in quiet reflection, worship and prayer.

Instead, religious social media is buzzing about the Supreme Court and gay marriage.  How could this happen?  The cultural mood has shifted.  Recent polling shows most Americans now favor gay marriage.  Twenty-five years such an idea seemed unthinkable.  Impossible.  Unbelievable.  It only continues to prove American Christianity is failing and losing moral traction within wider culture.

Frankly, I’m not surprised.  The American Church has been in retreat for fifty years.  Despite countless attempts for cultural-relevance, many formerly-churched USAmericans note the Amish and Mormon church (hardly bastions of cultural relevance) to be more attractive.  What happened?  Like Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, the American church–particularly the evangelical conservative church–has been Tina Flayed.  We were serious but only found ourselves spoofed.

Think about it.  Since 1960, the Church has separated and segregated itself into a Christian sub-culture that mimicked secular media.  Jesus rock and righteous metal.  Christian romance novels and scripture-plastered trinkets.   “Meant To Die” Mountain Dew look-a-like t-shirts and Testamints breath savers.  WWJD is better known as WWJB.  What would Jesus buy?  If Christ were to replicate his righteous riot against the temple moneychangers (making a buck off religion), he’d probably start with a local Christian bookstore.  Ouch.

Forget abortion and the gay agenda, the Church preferred to politicize and polarize around serious issues like backwards masking in rock music, new age cartoons and purple Teletubbies.  We reduced our Christian theology to sound bites, bumper sticker mantras and fish eating Darwin appliques. We were the Moral Majority in the 1980s and Promise Keepers during the 1990s, but neither movements stemmed the tide of immorality among our own sheeple.  Jimmy Swaggart’s failings and Jim Bakker’s fall from Graceland recast preachers as charlatans, money grubbers and hypocrites.  When Catholic priest abuse found cultural traction, the man of cloth was fully naked.  Hollywierd found new villains and clowns among the clergy and conservative Christians.  It’s a prime time normalcy: the geekish Sheldon (CBS’ Big Bang Theory) is a cultural hero while his Bible-quoting, Jesus-loving mother is lampooned as the true weirdo.

To engage secular culture, the Church bought into megachurch products, seeker-sensitive philosophy, and boomer-driven Woodstock performances.  To borrow a line from Christian rocker Steve Taylor, “This Disco Used to be A Cute Cathedral.”  He’s right.  Sunday morning is now scripted to stay on cue.  Many sermons are self-help, low-cal theological feel-good messages, packaged to fit within sitcom time frames.  Meanwhile, down in Kiddieland a whole generation has been bribed with Bible Bucks and candy bars for attendance and Scripture memorization. Youth ministries play games, spends thousands on being “hip” and transport teens to Christian concerts and conventions. Youth pastors karaoke their Sunday School lessons with off-tune theology, high-pitched jokes and monotone lectures.  Since the 1980s, church facilities have mimicked Wal-Marts, Chuck E. Cheese and Starbucks.  Sunday morning worship  operates like a Saturday night rock concert with flashing lights, smoke machines and cutting edge PowerPoint visuals.  It’s the age of the celebrity preacher armed with book deals and speaking tours.

I can just imagine God turning to Gabriel and muttering, “Wow.  Have they missed the point or what?”

For fifty years the Church has been a cultural chameleon.  Meanwhile our stained-glass, steepled churches (75 congregations close every weekend) are converted into bars, apartments and coffee shops.  This only proves the culture remains thirsty and seeks a place to call “home.”  On September 11, 2001 Americans mourned a horrific national tragedy.  We all went to church in droves and prayed, then most drove away never to return.  A few years later an R-rated movie about Jesus captured the culture’s attention and wallet.  But, as one nonbeliever confessed on opening weekend, he didn’t go.  He found the theater packed with Christians singing and passing out literature.  Plus, all the showings were sold out. Double ouch.

You see, in general, to the outside world, we (the Church) are merely a cartoon caricature of Christianity, a plastic parody of real faith.  Spirituality is cool, going to church is not.  No one complains if you claim to follow Jesus, but note you’re a church-going, Bible-toting Christian and you’ll be lampooned and lambasted.  And, yes, secular media is more than happy to paint that perverted portrait (just watch the cult movie “Saved!” or South Park or Steven Colbert).   Secular celebrities wear “Jesus is my Homeboy” t-shirts and crucifixes.  Jesus is cool, while the Church comes off frigid, even frozen.

Enter the emerging church in the 2000’s.  First Methodist and Second Baptist renamed themselves with more friendly monikers like The River or The Pursuit.  Hip religion seemed to hype a Jesus that preferred casual over conviction, soft-sell over sin and relevance over righteousness.  The emerging church deconstructed Truth, lit a candle and preached a blue jean Messiah who was a lover not a fighter.  It was just re-hashed 1990s youth ministry for teens now hunting for God in their twenties.  So it’s no wonder most younger Christians fail to see why gays shouldn’t be married.  The Church re-baptized that good old time religion (laced with stories of righteous indignation and Divine justice) into a gospel that’s sounds more like a Rodney King quip: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Like the GOP, G-O-D has an image problem on earth.  He’s got a PR mess.  Plastic Religion.  Jesus died for the Church but most Christians today seem to think it’s Halloween every Sunday.  Go to church, put on your mask, hope for something sweet and head home with mask in hand.  The truth?  You want to be a radical rebel?  You want to be counter-cultural?  You want to live an alternative lifestyle?  Become a Christian.

So for me the events of this past week regarding gay marriage are hardly a surprise. While American culture evolved toward secular frames, the Church chose to fight straw men, windmills and each other.

We only have ourselves to blame.  But you know what?  I point the finger at me first.  I was wrong.

God forgive me.

A New Restoration: The SDRAWKCAB Church (Part 3)

hI’ve got a pet peeve that might surprise you.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m growing gray and AARP membership is contingent upon my ability to put the “grump” in grumpy old man or that some things just bug me more than they used to.  For example, those who don backwards baseball caps indoors, often to hide some mop top of long unkempt locks.  I don’t have a problem with baseball caps, or wearing them backwards, or unkempt hair, or indoors but put them all together and I want to claw out my eyes with a plastic fork.

As a follically-challenged man, I love a baseball cap to cover my bald noggin and protect my eyes from sun glare.  Baseball caps were originally designed to be worn outdoors and in the sun (hence the brim), but not anymore.  For centuries, tradition held a hat was always removed when indoors.  It was the mark of a gentle man.  I grew up in cowboy country and even the most hardened, harried and hair-gone-wild cowpoke removed his Stetson as he entered a business, home or church.  But somewhere along the way, hat removal became culturally optional.

I have no doubt Jesus and the boys removed their camel-hair beanies when they worshipped while women covered their long hair.  It’s biblical.  Paul was pretty harsh on the subject.  He said a man who wears a hat in church is “dishonorable” (I Corinthians 11:4) and if he sports long hair a “disgrace” (v. 14).  It’s common to argue this was merely Paul’s opinion or some Corinthian cultural issue at play, but Paul splits no hairs in his teaching that includes a strict command:  “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (vs. 1).  That tells me Paul (and Jesus) wore their hair short and uncovered.  Furthermore, Paul concludes:  “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God (v. 16).”  So we’re not talking something unique to Corinth or just Pauline opinion, for it was the “nature of things” (v. 14) and a tradition (v. 2) clearly held elsewhere.  I don’t want to be “contentious” but it’s making my point:  culture or not, some things don’t change.  Hats and hair, for example.  But I digress.

After all, culture can pervert Original Purpose and practice.  God designs but man alters, perverts, enhances or reinvents.  It may not be wrong, but it ain’t what God intended, like it or not.  Sin can be renamed an alternative lifestyle or a choice or a social disease, but it’s still sin no matter how its dressed up.  Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, radical revisions don’t happen instantaneously.  Rather, we change one degree at a time.  What was once cool became warm, then toasty, then steaming, then sizzling.  And the next thing you know someone sticks a fork in you and you finally get the point.

After two thousand years of church history, no denomination is immune from the infection of human tradition and theology.  From Catholic to charismatic, Mennonite to Methodist, Episcopalian to emerging, we’ve all got our allergies, flus and colds  Even non-denominational churches who immunize against human tradition, rule and ritual can sorely swallow theology less biblical than we care to confess.  We’re all ill and that’s nothing to sneeze at. 

The problem is, like the first-century expression of Judaism, today’s religious culture and Church barely resembles the Original DNA.  To be brutally honest, we’ve allowed pagan culture to define us far more than biblical instruction.  Like the frog, the Church has been slowly boiled by human desire and molded by cultural relevance.  Now don’t misunderstand, I believe the Church must be relevant, but I also believe it’s as heretical to over-assimilate cultural expressions as it is to under-assimilate them.  God probably views the hip church with the same disdain as the church mired in 1975.  We need to be culturally relevant, but not everything relevant is true, noble, right, pure, lovely or admirable (Philippians 4:8).  Thankfully, I don’t have to decide that line for you, but I do believe Scripture is clear on the Original DNA.  To disregard or dismiss these strictures is a dangerous decision and perilous path.

Like baseball caps, too much of the “church” is backwards, upside down or inside out.  What if it was supposed to look completely different than it is?  What if the Original DNA infused into the Church on the day of Pentecost is now some perversion into a distant, cross-eyed and genetically inferior step-cousin?  Yes, we proudly boast our family name and heritage but in reality we harbor few of the original genetic characteristics and behaviors.

Before you dismiss that thought, don’t forget it only took two thousand years for the Jewish religious system to devolve into a Frankenstein faith that Jesus no longer recognized.   “I never knew you,” he declared regarding this broken relationship (Matthew 25:12).  In his final pronouncement to the Jews, the Christ mourned what they had become and issued an utter desolation upon the temple, a prediction that came true forty years later when Rome destroyed Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39; 24:15-25, 34).

That’s what makes the early church so powerful.  They followed a theological template for “church,” as revealed in the book of Acts and explained in various letters by significant leaders like Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude the brothers of Jesus.  In these writings, we catch glimpses not only for how the early church practiced their faith, but also admonitions and corrections to retain the Original DNA.  Unlike the Old Testament, which features law, poetry and prophecy, the New Testament is primarily a history and instruction book.  It’s the owner’s manual for being and doing “church” in the culture.  God wanted to be clear about how His Church should feel, think and behave.

Maybe that’s why the early church grew (rapidly) despite horrific persecution, heresy and crisis.  It grew when opposed by religious and political powers.  It grew when key leaders were slaughtered.  It grew despite famines, wars and poverty.  The early church grew without raising a sword, winning an election or a building campaign.

Here’s a thought:  maybe we don’t need another church growth book.  Maybe all we need is to repeatedly read and teach Acts, then relentlessly pursue and imitate the first-century church in theology, form and practice.  We need to simply restore the Original Imprint of what God desired His church to look like.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Maybe it isn’t about buildings, billboards and bulletins.  Maybe it’s not about guitars, candles and smoke machines.  Maybe it’s not about coffee bars, stained glass and parking lots.  After all, if God wanted his people to inhabit buildings, the Jerusalem Temple would still be standing.  But God left that building long ago.  God lives in the human heart not a baptistery.  He dwells in our thoughts not in a programmed curriculum.  He inhabits our praise not a stage.  It’s time to take off our caps and do what they did, like it or not.

What did this first century church look like?  In a nutshell the entire form and practice of the early church can be summarized in a mere nine verses:

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.  (Acts 2:38-47)

The first-century church was born into the cultural mall of its day.  The early Christians met where Jews (and later Greeks and Romans) gathered en masse.  Thousands traveled to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival and 3000 accepted Peter’s message.  Since most were not from Jerusalem only the natives continued to meet daily as a large group in the Temple (a place called Solomon’s Porch) to further share their faith and connect with people.

Theologically and practically, Christians were individuals who accepted the message, repented and were baptized (Greek: baptistheto, which literally means immersed, plunged under or submerged).  As part of a faith community they daily gathered in the cultural malls to meet one another.  They also created intentional community in private homes to learn from their spiritual mentors (apostles, later elders), to build friendships (fellowship), to eat common meals (breaking of bread) and to pray.  No one in the community had a need and those who owned property voluntarily (and gladly) sold it to give to anyone (whether part of the church or not) in need.

What’s missing from this picture?  No church building.  No programmed worship.  No preaching lectures, offertories or altar calls.  No pastoral robes, hymnbooks or bulletins.  No offices, church signs or board meetings.  No central headquarters, no CEO pastor or denominational hierarchy.  Just a bunch of people who had found Jesus (or better, Jesus had found them) and gathered whenever they could, wherever they could, to study Scripture, pray, eat, worship, share needs and finances.  In some of these gatherings, particularly on the first day of the week (Sunday), these Christians also participated in the “Love Feast” or Lord’s Supper or communion.  But it was no cuplet and chicklet, drive-by experience that many churches use today, nor was it administered in the morning to everyone in attendance.  It was a special, believer-only evening meal that, like the Sabbath meal (Saturday night) was celebrated every Sunday night.

You see a lot of “church” traditions are the product of cultural assimilation and accommodation.  As the Church evolved and assimilated into Greco-Roman culture it introduced various traditions ranging from infant baptism  to ecclesiastical systems with bishops, archbishops, cardinals and pope (that looked remarkably like the Roman political system).  Pagan celebrations like Yule and Samhain were recast as a “Christ Mass” and “All Hallow’s Eve” to accommodate cultural tradition.   The Protestant Reformation abandoned many errant Roman Catholic traditions but also promoted sermon-centered, hymn worship.  Later ecclesiastical expressions would infuse sinners’ prayers, padded pews, and Sunday School.  Some denominations theologically watered down baptism (helped by the 17th century King James’ translators who refused to translate the word literally from fear of their king’s Anglicanism, which practiced sprinkling not immersion).  In the past century, whether by convenience or conviction, many evangelical churches abandoned weekly communion.  Today, it’s practiced monthly, quarterly or even annually.  The Quakers don’t celebrate communion or baptize at all.

We’ve traveled many miles from Acts 2:38-47.   Too far, in my opinion.

That’s why I’m calling for a New Restoration or a reboot to the Original Operating System.  As the Universal Church, we need to rediscover and reinstall the Original DNA.  We need to permanently erase all that cannot be reasonably defended in Acts 2.  We’ve gotten cozy in our castles and learned to live with our theological and ecclesiological fevers, wheezes and sniffles.  It still doesn’t make it right.  God wants His Bride Pure and Productive, not simply comfortable and feeling under the weather.

It’s seriously time to get back to “church” and God’s Original DNA.  Martin Luther sought to reform the Church with 95 Theses. Hopefully, I won’t need 95 posts to reveal the reboot, but it all starts with a re-definition. 

And that’s up next.

Why Is There Evil: Understanding the Newtown Shooting

ImageDecember 14, 2012 was truly a black Friday and another American date to live in infamy.  In a matter of minutes, a deranged young man broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School and murdered 20 children and five adults.  Prior to this bloodbath, Adam Lanz shot his own mother at point blank range.  Word is now emerging that he was mentally ill.

In the wake of the horrific shooting, everyone is asking “why?”  It’s more than just understanding why anyone would or could be so brutally calloused and excessively violent, but to a greater degree why (if there’s a God) it happened at all.

For those of faith, explaining this tragedy and God’s foreknowledge and involvement is no small task.  Nevertheless, spiritual conversations are happening.

Essentially:  Why is there evil?  Was this God’s plan in the Newtown shooting?  If so, how could a loving God not prevent it?

Those are excellent questions.

I’m sure most readers won’t be surprised to learn theologians have argued over this question for centuries. How does God’s character of LOVE and PEACE interact with a world of HATE and VIOLENCE? 

Part of the answer goes back to the beginning. God created the world PERFECT, with no evil.  When man fell from Grace in the Garden (Genesis 3), evil was introduced to this Perfect world and that created an eternal problem, for God and evil cannot coexist.   Furthermore, the fruit of evil blossomed, including hate and violence (not too long after, Cain murdered his brother Abel). To this day, man’s disobedience (sin) separates us from God, because God is Perfectly Pure. In general, religion (of all types) is man’s feeble attempts to build bridges to God (and all fail because no man-made religious system is Perfect). Ultimately, God came to earth in the form of Jesus to settle the matter and create the Way back to God. Christianity is more than a moral code, it’s the only solution to evil.  Christmas and Easter are bookends to this story.

It’s important to remember that God’s character is rooted in LOVE and PEACE. Jesus was called the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). John 3:16 says “God so LOVED the world he sent his only Son.” The reason God performed this altruistic act of love because the world, without God in it, is irreparably broken, completely imperfect and unbelievably evil. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection not only saved man but served man with a model for goodness.  The Church throughout history has proven that good can overcome evil, again and again and again.

Ultimately, evil happens. Evil people do evil things. Evil people even do evil deeds that harm and kill the innocent and good people, whether children or adult.

Nevertheless, there’s always been a great debate about HOW GOD INTERACTS with the world He created. There are essentially three approaches:

  1. God created the world and now watches from a distance, with no involvement (DEISM).
  2. God created the world with a specific plan for all man and we are merely players in His Grand Scheme (or Script). Man has no choice and life happens on cue, as cued (DETERMINISM).
  3. God created the world with Purpose and a Plan (to eventually redeem man through Jesus), but allows man and life to act freely (choice) and randomly (FREE WILL).

All three theological views have their merits, but also inherent weaknesses. Only three religions frame God as a Creator and a Distinct Personality:  Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The latter two views (determinism, free will) are emphasized in Christian theology to shed light on Jesus’ life and ministry (why He came) and what it means now to mankind.

What happened yesterday in Newtown was clearly evil in action (mental illness can produce evil thoughts and deeds). If you prefer deism, then the tragedy reveals a disconnected and possibly unconcerned God. If you lean determinism, then you must admit God’s hand was in the shooting. The Almighty allowed it and, by default, knew it would happen and caused it as part of his cues. If you believe God did not cause the murders of 26 people, and that evil happens randomly, it inherently suggests a God who doesn’t know the future.  Or worse, if He does, simply can’t stop evil (even if He wanted) or if He could, freely chooses not to act.

For those who prefer this latter perspective, there’s an additional insight: because man has freedom to choose evil, they also have freedom to choose good. Consequently, God (through good people and goodness) can redeem the evil to create GOOD, if GOOD people choose to redeem the evil. It’s not that God doesn’t know the future or doesn’t care. He does, but God’s design allows for each man to choose right or wrong, good or evil.

So ultimately, did God have a plan in yesterday’s tragic shooting? Absolutely. Did God know it would happen? Yes. Could God have stopped it? No doubt. But why it happened depends on how you frame God.

In the end, the frame doesn’t matter as much as how we react and respond. If the shooting was part of a Divine Script, then surely God has already positioned the players to deliver peace and goodness to this tragedy. If the shooting was random evil (simply the result of a random, evil world), then good people can choose to overcome evil with good. Either way, goodness and God will save and win the day. Only the Deist is the most troubled by tragedy for they must continually grapple with why God would create a flawed universe and then remain apathetic, potentially doing the same in response.

For the determinist and advocates of free will, there’s always HOPE. We’ve seen it in other tragedies, whether natural (like Hurricane Sandy) or manmade (like what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary).

God is good and so are His People. In fact, you can’t spell “GOoD” without “GOD.”

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