We’re not in Christendom anymore. . .

One of the problems plaguing the Western Church is her propensity for neglecting to teach Christians that their primary role as followers of a Missionary-God is missionary to the culture in which he has placed them. Because of this neglect, she has failed to train her people to follow Christ’s command to “Go. . . and make disciples.”

Any global missionary will tell you that in order to effectively reach a new culture, you have to immerse yourself in that culture. You have to become friends with the people you encounter. You have to learn their language. You have to eat their food, wear their fashion, and adopt their pace of life. If you don’t do this, you won’t be an effective missionary.

The same applies to us here in America. Unfortunately, we live in the aftermath of Christendom, and there are still a great number of Christians who fail to recognize their responsibility to follow Jesus in his mission of restoration and reconciliation in the world.

Here’s a little history for you. In AD 306, Constantine I became the Emperor of Rome. He’s noted for being the first Roman emperor to have converted to Christianity. Until this point, there was widespread intolerance of Christianity throughout the empire (most notably under the reign of Nero, who earned the title “First Persecutor of the Christians” by the writers Tertullian, Lactantius, and Sulpicius Severus). Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, offering tolerance to Christians and religious freedom to all Roman citizens.

Despite the religious freedom that he offered, Constantine saw it as his duty to establish religious orthodoxy. He disliked the disputes that came about, so he gave the Church the authority to dictate proper religious practices.

Gone were the days of Paul, Peter, Timothy, and Apollos. The Gospel of Jesus no longer spread virally underneath a pluralistic society of philosophers and liberal thinkers. Christianity became the religion of the state, a tool in the hands of the government used to maintain religious order throughout the Roman Empire.

This is the model from which we have adopted our American church. The church closely mirrors the governmental system from which it was birthed. In Europe, the government was largely centralized around an emperor. Thus the Church centralized around a bishop or pope. In America, the government was dispersed among voting representatives, and so we have a church tradition that rests in congregationalism.

Now we have a culture that is largely governed by our consumeristic impulses. Do you see what this has done to the Church? We’re now adopting cool names, hip media presentation, convenient service structures, and sleek marketing and advertising.

To the outsider it looks like churches are competing to grab my attention. There’s an underlying assumption that we’re still in Christendom, and since we’re in Christendom, I have to attend a church. Which one will I choose? LifeChurch? They’ve got a great band. Buckhead Church? They’ve got a great band too, but they also have Andy Stanley, and he’s written a lot of books, which means they’re famous. Newspring Church? Their band is great, but they also play songs by Coldplay and Led Zeppelin, so that means they’re really cool. Liquid Church? They’ve also got a great band, and they were just on CNN for giving away $90K, so I guess that means they’re famous and generous.

Or will I just decide the whole church thing is not for me? I wouldn’t be alone. Only 40% of the American population ever sets foot in a church.

Guess what? We’re not in Christendom anymore, and nothing says it better than the 60% of Americans who never have—and probably never will—enter a church in their lifetimes.

Non-Christian missionaries. . .

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about this idea of “inviting a friend to church.” Okay, so I’ll admit it, I was never truly comfortable with the thought of inviting my non-Christian friends to my church. The whole thing just seemed a little weird to me. “Hey, so what are you doing on Sunday? Watching football? Would you be interested in leaving your comfort zone and taking a huge step out of that and into a world where people are nothing like you, you have to listen to a band play songs you don’t know, and a preacher gets up and tells you about all the things that are wrong with your life? How would you like to enter this new culture?”

And in reality, I myself would rather be in his shoes. Sleeping in and watching football just seems like a much better way to spend my hard-earned weekend.

What’s weird about this is that the whole thing is backwards. My pastor and I were talking about this last week, and he said that the “invite a friend to church” mentality actually forces the role of missionary onto the person you’re inviting.

Think about it, a missionary (which, if you take Christ’s words in John 20.21 seriously, would include every follower of Jesus) is someone who leaves the environment that’s comfortable to him and sets foot into a culture that is not his own. He has to learn how that culture thinks, what they like, what they believe, etc. When we invite our non-believing friends to church, we’ve given them half the tasks of missionaries.

And then we invite them into our small groups, which, contrary to popular belief, aren’t doing any true holistic discipleship. Our small groups are really nothing more than therapy and discussion groups.

And we wonder why our churches look nothing like the explosive movements of the first century.

There’s nothing wrong with having those kinds of groups. Just don’t call it something that it’s not. Small groups are not discipleship groups.

Think about it this way. We invite someone to come to our church’s Sunday service. After she’s been attending for a few weeks, she “gets saved” and joins a small group. In the small group meetings, they sit in a circle, eat some crumb cake, maybe sing a few songs, talk about how a particular passage in the Bible makes them feel (or how they feel about the passage), and then they pray together and ask God for things.

And then what? Does she go back into her former world somehow and try to invite some of her friends to attend her church? She was plucked out of her culture, nurtured in a completely different culture that didn’t really prepare her to return to her former culture, and then expected to reach that culture again?

What we’ve done to her is not discipleship, it’s assimilation.

In my next post, I’m going to talk about what I think could be a much more effective discipleship methodology. But for now, I’m going to ask this question: am I wrong here? If I’ve made a mistake, please let me know. I realize my cynicism is showing a little bit in this post, but I’m making an observation. I could be way off.

Leave a comment if you think I’m mistaken in my observation.

It’s been a while. . .

First off, let me apologize for being pretty much nonexistent on my blog for a while. It’s been an insanely busy and hectic year (and it’s about to get even busier and crazier).

I want to update you on a few things. First off, a lot has changed in me over the last year. Let me take you on a very short version of the journey I’ve been on this past year.

A little over a year ago I started a new job at a church called Emergence. At first glance, I thought it was more of what I was familiar with. Rock music: check. Teaching pastor in jeans and plaid: check. Lots of twenty-something people: check.

But little did I realize that God had brought me to a place that would change me, shape me, and in so many ways mold my vision and understanding of the Church and the mission he has called her to.

It’s been an odd period in my life, to be sure. I grew up in a fundamentalist church (yes, the type of church that was the topic of a 20/20 report. I left that church and found myself bouncing from one church to another, finally finding a place to rest at a place called Liquid Church.

If you’ve been reading my entries over the years, you’ve seen me discover this new church culture. You’ve seen me learn to embrace a “progressive” church and find the strengths in its style.

It’s often said that change is the only constant in life. And once again, my life is changing. My thoughts are changing. My beliefs are changing.

I won’t presume to have all the answers, but I will say this much—I’ve learned far more this past year than I could’ve ever thought possible.

I’ll leave you with this today: I love Liquid Church. I’m thankful for the grace that I received there, for the friendships I built there, and for the message of hope that God has proclaimed through the leaders there. Yet I can’t help but ask these questions.

1. Are we actually making disciples? Not converts. Christ’s commission was “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Discipleship is a lifelong pursuit, not a one-time prayer.

2. What are we empowering people to do? How high is our bar? Handing out bulletins or planting a church? Changing slides in a media presentation or developing intentional, mission-driven relationships with the people they rub shoulders with?

3. Is Sunday our “game day,” or are we engaged in mission all week long, stopping only to rest, refuel, and reflect on Sunday?

These questions make me think. I realize that I’m asking them of you, my readers, but as I read them, I find myself guilty of taking the easy options in regards to my church life. But if I understand the mission of Christ and his kingdom, and if I think about how the church existed in the first century, then there’s no way my “church life” should be truncated to making converts, handing out bulletins, or “going to church.”

Counterculture. . .

“Go into the culture and speak the language of the culture so that you can be a counterculture for the culture.”

I love this word. It speaks volumes of what followers of Jesus are supposed to be in this world. At my church we use this word practically every week. It’s in our DNA. But the word is often left undefined. What is a counterculture? What does it look like to plow one? Why do I have to be one? Am I plowing it already?

We sometimes talk about what that might look like in praxis; in fact, when talking about our lifestyles we often refer to that as counterculture. Sometimes we might say something like, “living out the gospel.”

Before I dive into what that looks like practically, I want to create an image of what that might look like philosophically.

If you’ve ever studied music, you’ve probably heard of counterpoint. Essentially, counterpoint is the relationship between two independent melodies that together create euphonic harmony. In a contrapuntal line, the once independent melodies become interdependent. One melody is completely distinct from the other melody, but when brought together they don’t clash. In fact, they create a beautiful harmonic line.

Counterculture works in a similar way. Culture may be moving in a certain direction, and a counterculture moves in a completely different direction, but this counterculture doesn’t attack the culture. It’s not an anticulture. To pull from my opening quote: we need to be “a counterculture for the culture.” In other words, we work for the good of the culture around us.

For many years modern evangelicals and fundamentalists have been caught up in a “culture war,” firmly believing that the culture was the enemy, and Christianity is responsible for making it right.

But if you look at the world around you, you’ll find endless possibilities for the gospel to infiltrate and come alongside this culture, creating a distinctly beautiful counterculture.

So what does this look like in praxis? Well, it’s different for every church. But look around you. You’ll soon discover the heartbeat of the culture you’ve been placed in.

What about for the individual? Perhaps that’s a little easier to answer. God requires certain things of his followers, but there’s one command he gives that encompasses all other commands.

Love.

“Love me. Love your fellow disciples. Love those around you who aren’t disciples. Love those who hate you for being a disciple.”

And what does that even look like? Perhaps it’s partnering with a local soup kitchen and helping to care for those facing poverty. Perhaps it’s taking that homeless person walking up and down your block everyday out to lunch. Perhaps it’s sitting next to that despondent guy at the bar in your local tavern and listening to his story.

Perhaps it’s choosing to not ogle the women at your office, to care more about your coworker’s wellbeing than your own, to deflect praise for a “knocked-out-of-the-park” project from yourself to your teammates, to value your community above your individuality.

And when someone asks, “Why do you live the way you live?” you can say,

“Because the God I serve stepped out of his comfort zone and said, ‘I love you’.”

Rob Bell vs. John Piper. . .

I’ve decided to return from my blog hiatus with a different type of post than I’ve done before.

Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins is already on trial more than a month before it’s released.

On February 26, Justin Taylor denounced Bell in a post on his blog, and John Piper dismissed Bell in a post on Twitter.

Here’s the trailer for the book in question:

So where do I fall on this?

It’s no big secret to my friends and co-workers that I’m fascinated by Bell’s teaching techniques, his writing style, and his ability to captivate an audience through an artistically smart medium. He’s culturally savvy, yet not flashy or in-your-face like so many pastors and churches are becoming these days (arguing ad nauseam that in order to be hip and cool you’ve got to be loud and obnoxious. . . I love you, Perry Noble, but please, relax a little).

But now accusations are being thrown in light of the possibility that Bell might be a universalist.

This battle is nothing new. Bell has often fallen under fire from Neo-Calvinists like Mark Driscoll and Joshua Harris who follow in Piper’s footsteps and view Bell as a liberal compromiser (though perhaps not in the same way that a Fundy might call someone a “liberal compromiser”). Ever since Velvet Elvis was released, the Reformed camp has been searching for one opportunity after another to roast Bell.

And in response, Bell’s supporters and the hipster evangelicals hurl accusations at the side where Driscoll, Harris, Piper, and Taylor rest, calling them “smug, legalistic jerks who care nothing for loving people.”

Lines are drawn in the sand. The Neo-Calvinists attract intellectuals because of their systematic approach to studying scripture. They work hard to affirm the orthodox tenets of historic (whether traditional or non) evangelical theology. The hipster evangelicals attract artists and their ilk because of their narrative approach to theology.

The sides are angry with each other because one side appears to be spurning the Apostles’ Creed while the other side appears to be punching people in the face with it.

“Even worse, both sides often make the assertion they stand in for God, even as they both deny they do so. When statements like, ‘Either believe this or you aren’t an orthodox Christian’ or, ‘I think God is tired of iron clad,’ get thrown around, you know that both sides believe they are speaking for God.”

~Rev. Jonathan Weyer

I’m reminded of Christ’s parable “The Lost Son” from Luke 15.11-32. We often think of this as the story of a prodigal son, but in reality, it’s a story about two sons and their father’s transcendent love.

The younger son, like Bell and his hipster evangelical followers, dismissed his father’s love by spurning the home he’s built for his children (the “home” of theological orthodoxy). The older son (Piper and the Neo-Calvinists), while staying close to home, dismissed his father’s love by rejecting his embrace of the younger son.

I want to approach this debate in a different way. If you pinned me down and asked me what my beliefs are, I would affirm the truths set forth by Driscoll, Piper, and Taylor. But I can’t line up with them on this debate.

I think there’s more at play here than orthodoxy vs. liberalism. If it were simply about that, I’d fall on the side of orthodoxy in nearly every argument. But it’s not anymore.

It’s quickly becoming about how one side of evangelicalism treats the other side of evangelicalism with disdain. “You don’t love people like we do! You’re a bunch of jerks!”

Or “You don’t affirm the tenets set forth in the Nicene Creed. You’re preaching a false gospel!”

I’ll wait to talk about Bell until after Love Wins comes out. And afterwards I will continue to read his writings, listen to his sermons, and watch his Nooma videos regardless of whether he skews orthodox or universalist.

But I will do so as I always should have—with one or two grains of salt.

Why continue gleaning from his teachings? First, because he teaches from a fresh perspective on Jesus. He still preaches Christ, the Son of God. He still preaches Christ, crucified and resurrected, however off his interpretation of heaven and hell may (or may not, we’ll have to wait till the 29th to find out for sure) be. And second, because he remembers something that many Neo-Calvinists sometimes forget: part of being missional is being approachable.

Ants. . .

I remember hearing a sermon when I was in high school about what it must have been like for God to become human and live among us. The preacher said that it must be analogous to one of us becoming an ant and becoming part of their society, only infinitely worse because, as we know, God is infinitely greater.

I’m not sure why this particular sermon came to mind recently, but I know that something about it really bothered me especially given what I’ve been learning about God as I try to draw closer to him.

It’s not because this preacher likened us to ants (because we pretty much are), but because he likened God’s relationship with us to our relationship with ants.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have much of a relationship with ants. I don’t necessarily hate them, but I find them to be pesky, invasive, and an overall nuisance. I wouldn’t really want a relationship with ants. The idea of becoming one of them is repulsive to me. Given the option, I wouldn’t even bother.

Yet God, in his incomprehensible love, has relentlessly sought after a relationship with us. He longed for us to be with him that he actually became one of us, died at our hands so that we wouldn’t have to, and came back to life so that we could be with him.

That kind of relationship just doesn’t exist between a human and an ant.

The two-way street of authenticity. . .

I recently wrote a piece for my church’s blog that I thought would be good to add here. Enjoy!

Authenticity.

It’s become one of the newest buzzwords in the Church. I feel like it’s on the verge of losing its meaning, if it hasn’t already. So I want to try to revitalize the word a little bit.

Churches often claim to value authenticity, but there’s still an unwillingness to see that authenticity is a two-way street. It’s important for those attending a church to be authentic and open—particularly in the small-group setting—in order to obtain any real benefit from being in that community.

But that’s not easy to do, especially since churches have a history of being judgmental and even ostracizing broken people.

To their credit, church leaders are beginning to see how important it is to create a safe place for people to be authentic, open, and honest about their shortcomings, failures, and sins. Because in order to heal, people need to acknowledge their brokenness.

And in order to acknowledge their brokenness, people need a safe place to be honest.

But I would argue that churches need to go one step further than simply creating a safe environment—one step further than just not being judgmental.

Churches need to be authentic.

If we’re going to expect people to be authentic, we need to give them the gift of going second. What do I mean by that? Simply put, we as a church need to be authentic first. We need to be real with people about our brokenness. We need to be honest about the fact that we’ve messed up. We need to be open about our own sin.

It’s funny how acknowledging our brokenness allows us the opportunity to love people even better. We can love people better because we see that everyone’s in the same boat; we’re all broken, messed up people in need of saving. And we can love Jesus better because we’re reminded of what He saved us from and what He continues to save us from.

In The Message paraphrase of the Bible, James is translated as saying the following: “Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.”

I would argue that the “homeless and loveless” would include those that have been spurned by the Church. They’ve messed up. They’ve sinned. And we’ve turned them away because of it. So they go from community to community hoping to find healing but never being healed because they’re afraid to be authentic.

And authenticity is the first step to healing.

The Church is also in need of healing. The Church has given in to pride, arrogance, and a false belief that we are somehow the gatekeepers to the throne room of God.

And if we as a church can be authentic, we can find healing too.

My favorite band wrote a song called “Pins and Needles.” In it, the lead singer writes these words: “I’m growing fond of broken people, as I see that I am one of them.”

Do we want to be better lovers of the “homeless and loveless”? Then let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that we too have sinned.

Questions. . .

One of the beauties of my job right now is that I’m not jumping onto a boat that’s already sailing (metaphorically speaking, of course). Instead, I’ve been given the unique opportunity to build the boat. It’s a pretty liberating feeling to be able to start a program from scratch, but at the same time it’s rather daunting as well. So as I go through the process of building this program from the ground up, I’ve been chewing on some questions in my mind.

I’ve got a whiteboard in my office where I do most of my brainstorming and thought-wrestling. (Steve, our Pastor of Development here at Emergence, claims that getting an iPad will effectively eliminate my need to use a whiteboard, but I’m skeptical.) So on this whiteboard I’ve posted a few questions that I’ll be wrestling with over the next few months. Here are a couple of them.

What makes a kids’ environment successful? Is it the “wow” or “cool” factor? How big of a role does the environment play in the effectiveness of the program? Is it the ability for kids to do something at this environment that they can’t do anywhere else?

How do I actually get parents involved in what we’re teaching their kids? Should I rely on Sunday take-home materials? Should I fill the parents’ inboxes with review/wrap-up emails? What about a blog solely devoted to engaging parents in the mission of our program?

These are just a few of the numerous questions I’ll be asking myself as we draw closer to the launch of this program. What about you? Are there any questions that you think I should be wrestling with?

Confession. . .

They say confession is good for the soul, so here goes.

I haven’t fully repented of my legalistic and judgmental mindset. Now, let me preface this by contextually defining the term repentance.

The Greek word from which we get the English repentance is quite different from our common understanding of the term. Even Webster’s Dictionary definition of repentance differs from the biblical definition of the term.

Metanoia (and its verb form metanoeo) is defined as a change of mind and carries with it the connotation of turning around and heading in the opposite direction you once were heading.

So when I say that I haven’t repented, I say that I haven’t completely changed.

This morning at church I saw a couple dressed extremely well. The man was dressed in a dark suit and wore a necktie, and his wife (I assume) was wearing what I would consider typical “Sunday best.”

And the first thought in my mind was, They’re going to experience some culture shock today.

A buzz-phrase often thrown around in churches is, “Come as you are, and leave different,” or some variation. (Sadly, most churches that carry that kind of phrase don’t actually live by their mantra, which is why my church avoids pithy sayings like that one.)

Churches like Liquid Church and Emergence hold very closely to that kind of ideal. Our goal is to allow the grace of God to permeate everything we do so that people feel comfortable enough to be authentic and express their inner selves outwardly.

And I didn’t allow for that. Instead, I assumed that this couple “missed the memo” and were showing up for church expecting what I perceived was “their kind of service” and that they would be shocked by the loud alterna-rock worship and the pastoral staff wearing ripped jeans and flip-flops (or, in Ryan’s case, some form of moccasins). I assumed they were going to look around the room and judge everyone for their overtly sinful lifestyles, and not once during my observation of this couple did I give them the benefit of the doubt.

What if they’re completely on board with our mission at Emergence? What if they simply feel more comfortable dressed like that because that’s just how they’ve always done church?

Or worse yet (for me), what if they were victims of the 1950s church “ideal” and had come to Emergence to check out the whole “Jesus thing,” but were fed the lie that you had to “dress up” for church?

And I have to repent of this mindset. I thought I’d changed. I thought I’d begun to allow grace to identify me. Instead, I’ve found myself to be the same judgmental pharisee I was five years ago. I’m just pointing my Bible guns at different targets.

Why I’m doing what I’m doing. . .

I can’t help but be thankful for the life I’ve been given. These past couple months have been such a phenomenal blessing, I don’t even know what to highlight. It’s astounding, even to me, to continue seeing God’s hand at work in my life.

My heart has longed to pour into people in the venue of the Church, and God, for whatever reason, has decided to fulfill that wish and give me the opportunity to do exactly what I’ve longed to do for years. But I never would have believed that my journey would unfold the way it has.

More than three years ago God guided my steps to a place where I could come to him on my own terms, and not feel forced into it by other people. And it was there, at Liquid Church, that God called me into his ministry.

He placed that desire in my heart, but as I grew closer to him, I discovered that I wasn’t ready for that mission.

Never was that more clear to me than the time I spent working for Liquid. If there was ever a time I felt like a failure, it was that season. Time and time again, I looked at the ministry I was entrusted with and thought, What am I doing wrong?

Don’t get me wrong; I loved each day I spent working for the church. But the hardships I faced then were hardships I wasn’t ready for. I knew I could do better, but I didn’t know how to improve.

Fast-forward to now. I’m about to step into that role yet again, only this time with a new church called Emergence. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more than just a little nervous at the prospect.

But last weekend, something put me at ease. My friends Kimberly and Michael and their kids were visiting New Jersey, and the short time I spent with them reminded me that I do what I do because of Christ’s love for me.

And I found myself falling in love yet again with the over-the-top joy from their oldest daughter’s laughter, the quiet compassion in their son’s smile, and the simple beauty in their youngest daughter’s not-quite-fully-formed sentences.

Why? Because Christ was revealing himself to me yet again. He was loving me through these kids and telling me, “You can’t do this on your own. But I’m going to empower you for the task I’ve given you. And there will be more Rachel’s, more Ethan’s, and more Sophia’s that you come across, and through them I will show you my love.”

To Rachel, Ethan, and Sophia—

You guys aren’t yet old enough to fully grasp the fact that God has used you immensely in shaping what I do, but the next year of my ministry is dedicated to what his Spirit has taught me through you. Thank you for letting me teach Jesus to you and for being Jesus to me.