Tonight, the message at Graymere will focus on idolatry, and this quote from Christ Plays in 10,000 Places has been on my mind all week (and will make an appearance in the sermon):
“An idol is god with all the God taken out. God depersonalized, God derelationalized, a god that we can use and enlist and fantasize without ever once having to (maybe “getting to” is the better phrase) receive or give love, and then go on to live, however falteringly, at our most human. The essence of idolatry is depersonalization. The idol is a form of divinity that requires no personal relationship. The idol is a form of divinity that I can manipulate and control. The idol reverses the God/creature relationship: now I am the god and the idol is the creature.”
Disclaimer: I have had some of these thoughts rattling around in my head for a few months. I was talking with a friend a while back who said I should blog about them (so you can blame him for this!). This is not a response to any specific article, conversation, or statement. Instead, it is a collection of thoughts on a trend I have seen over the years. I hope it is helpful.
“Now, I grew up in the Church of Christ, but…”
When I hear that statement, I usually brace myself. I do it because of what is coming next. Over the last few years, it seems like I have heard that phrase used often as an introduction to a criticism (fair or unfair) about the Church of Christ. It might be phrased like, “I am thankful for my heritage, but…” or “I am glad my parents took me to church growing up, but…” In the south, we often joke that we can say anything we want about someone as long as we begin with, “Bless their heart…” We can gossip about an individual or insult that person, and as long as we include the magic phrase, we are off the hook.
That is how this statement about growing up in the Church of Christ often works; it supposedly gives us the leeway to say whatever we want to about the church. Over the years, I have heard people make that statement and then say, “We have never gotten this right in the Church of Christ,” or “We have always done this in the Church of Christ…” Now, I realize that in all of our families, we have inside jokes and we poke fun at each other. I don’t take myself or my ministry so seriously that I can’t laugh at the funny little things about us. It is healthy for us to be able to laugh about our own tendencies and mistakes. I also realize the importance of honest self-examination. What I am talking about here is the kind of criticism that tends to see only faults and failures. Sometimes it almost seems like a sport to see how many jokes you can make at the expense of the church.
In one sense, I get it. I understand that we are sometimes frustrated by issues in the church. We are working with people after all. There are times when we can do some good by bringing up these challenges. Here is all I ask – Before you are tempted to criticize or make fun of the Church of Christ because of a frustration you have, ask yourself these questions:
1. Is this an overgeneralization?
We know what an overgeneralization is – making a general statement that goes beyond the evidence. Let’s say I go to the Wendy’s by my house tomorrow and receive awful service. If I respond by saying, “Wendy’s restaurants have terrible customer service,” I am making an overgeneralization. There are locations all over America, and while I have been to a few with poor service, I have been to others with great service. I can’t judge every location based on my experience with one.
The same thing is true with church experience. I CANNOT judge the entirety of what every congregation thinks or does based on what my congregation thinks or does. It is easy to make my experience with the church normative and to judge the Church of Christ as a whole based on it. It is easy to say, “Well the Church of Christ has always done this,” if that is what my congregation always did growing up. But that would be an overgeneralization. Two years ago, someone told me, “I grew up in the Church of Christ, which means I didn’t get any teaching on the Old Testament,” and then laughed. That sounds to me like an overgeneralization. Should we really believe that no Church of Christ anywhere provides a healthy amount of teaching on Old Testament? Is that a fair statement? I wondered what his preacher would have said about that; he might have preached and taught out of the Old Testament more than this man realized.
2. Have I considered this from another perspective?
I go to a lot of preachers meetings, mostly because I enjoy hanging out with guys in ministry and learning from them. I can still remember one preacher’s meeting that took place almost ten years ago now. Jim Bill McInteer, one of my preaching heroes, was giving announcements at a meeting he regularly hosted. He mentioned that he had been asked a question recently, and then he paused. The question was – “Why did it take the Church of Christ so long to discover grace?” I watched this man, who had lovingly preached the gospel for decades, tear up and say, “I was under the impression I had been preaching grace my whole life.” It might have been that the person who asked the question had just recently discovered grace, but that was not the case for every person.
The “millennials” get a lot of press these days, and we definitely need to take seriously the task of reaching this age group. Yet we need to be careful that we don’t turn our back on the wisdom of those who have gone before us. The other day, I mentioned to one of our older members that I was listening to an audio book about World War II. He replied, “I fought in that war. I was in Patton’s Third Army.” I couldn’t believe it – I had been listening to all the challenges that army faced, and I had no idea that someone I worship with every week had fought those battles as an 18 year old! I never would have found that out if I hadn’t talked to him, and I wish I would have discovered it sooner. I wonder how many rich stories about faith and lessons about living for the Lord could bless our lives, if only we would intentionally learn from those who have different experiences than our own. When we see life from their perspective, we might see there is more than one side to our complaint.
3. When I make this statement, will people be able to tell I love the church?
Here is the one that it vitally important. Everyone disagrees on something when it comes to church work: ministry strategies, church programs, etc. Yet I hope all of us can agree on loving the church. If I love the church, then the way I speak should reflect that. If you knew I claimed to love my wife, yet I constantly complained about her, would you think there was an issue? If I regularly started conversations with, “Well, I have been married a long time, but…” and then proceeded to make fun of her, would you think there was a problem? Out of the heart, the mouth speaks. If I am constantly belittling or making fun of the church, that says something about what is in my heart.
The church is described in scripture as the bride of Christ. There are other great things we can be involved in to do good for others – schools, ministry organizations, non-profits, etc. but none of those has the exalted status God gave the church. Kathryn and I are involved in several other groups, and we are glad to do it, but because our ultimate allegiance is to God, none of those groups have priority over the church. People can tell from talking to us what we love. Can they tell I love the church?
I know we aren’t perfect. Our congregations aren’t perfect. I know there are frustrations. Yet I also know that people listen to what we say, and they read our posts on facebook (whether we ever know about it or not). Our attitude about the church can have a dramatic impact on those people. I hope that these three questions can help us discern what we should say and how we should say it.
I had to take a test yesterday, and I did not feel ready. You know the feeling – you have studied for hours, but the material still seems overwhelming. You ask yourself review questions, but you know there are details you don’t remember. You wonder what the essay questions will be like, and what length your answer should be to get the maximum amount of points. Then you wonder whether or not you know enough about the subject to make an answer last that long. I didn’t feel ready, but it was time.
Maybe that is just me, but I don’t know if I have ever felt “ready” for a test. I always feel like one more look through my notes will help. There is always at least one question on a test (often more than one) that makes me kick myself for not paying more attention to a certain block of material. But I had to take it today. I took the test, not because I was ready, but because it was time.
It would have been easier to put it off until tomorrow, or maybe even Friday. During that time, I could go over the lecture notes, and maybe even see if Kathryn would ask me review questions out loud. If I wanted to get really creative, I could make a mock test of my own and see how I would do. I could do additional reading on the subject to shed extra light on the areas I need to know. It would certainly be more comfortable to keep studying, and I wouldn’t risk getting a bad grade if I avoided taking the test. But it was time.
I enjoy reading, and I love ministry. This means I like to read things about ministry – books, blog posts, and everything in between. There is no shortage of material online today about how Christianity is declining, and specifically what the Church of Christ should do in order to grow. That is what blogs are designed to do, share opinions and exchange ideas about topics that matter, and the church certainly matters. I have learned a great deal about life, ministry, and scripture from reading these kinds of blog entries (and even the comments sections).
But I believe there can be an unintended consequence to some of this discussion, if we are not careful. It becomes easy to focus on the shortcomings of the church and dwell on what we should be doing differently. The church is made up of human beings, and you won’t catch me arguing that we always act perfectly. We need to have a healthy discontent with the status quo and dream of what God could do through us in the future. But dwelling on only those thoughts can turn self-reflection into inaction. Negative thinking can take hold, and before long, our conversation is filled primarily with what the church has done or is doing wrong, with little thought to the ways God is blessing us and giving us opportunities to serve.
In some cases, the church and its members become the brunt of jokes about tradition, belief, etc. I realize we need to be able to laugh at ourselves, but we can all tell when the line has been crossed and the discussion goes from light-hearted to cynical. About a year ago, I was surprised to hear the way my four year old son was talking to our dog. Our miniature schnauzer tends to bark a lot, and he harshly commanded her to “Be Quiet!” My surprise wore off when I realized he had learned how to do that by listening to me. Our dog’s barking can be annoying, and I have snapped at her more than once. That is where he picked up the command, as well as the tone of voice. Here’s a question – if our children constantly hear us making jokes at the expense of the church and making cynical, sarcastic comments about it, what are they learning to say?
What is tempting about all of this is that it is much easier to stay in a state of inaction rather than to step out in service. It is more convenient to say, “If only the church were more like (fill in the blank), then we could really grow.” “If only we would (fill in the blank), more people would want to be involved.” “If our understanding could progress to the point that we realize (fill in the blank), then we would have enthusiastic Christians ready to shine God’s light throughout the world.” “If these things would happen, then we would be ready to make a difference.”
So we wait.
Here’s the thing – I think we have a choice to make. We can choose to wait until everyone in the church was more like (fill in the blank), begins to (fill in the blank), and realizes (fill in the blank), and then we can begin doing the work of ministry. Or, we could understand that people are imperfect and start serving anyway. If we opt for Door #1, then we will be waiting a looong time. If we opt for Door #2, we might be surprised. I think it is possible that the church can grow and people can be reached when they see loving, sincere Christians reflecting Christ in everyday service. Excited servants of God might even get other Christians excited to serve. Who knows what could happen if we begin serving with our entire beings?
We could put this off. Choosing to do that would probably be easier, at least at first. We would avoid having to face failure or feeling rejected others. We could keep our conversations about the church hypothetical, and future possibilities could remain only possibilities. We might wish things were different. We might wish Christians were perfect. We might not feel ready to serve.
But it is time.
Ready or not…
There are some topics that can be tough for us to address in Bible classes. They are challenging because they are subjects that can make us uncomfortable, and dealing with their practical consequences in our world can be difficult. I am glad to see that Heritage Christian University is taking on some of those topics and providing a good forum to have scriptural, constructive lessons on their theme – The Sexual and the Spiritual. The slate of speakers is excellent, and I know they will share some beneficial, practical messages. Here is the link to the brochure: http://www.hcu.edu/share/pdf/ELEVATE_brochure_2013_email.pdf.
I have really enjoyed getting to visit Heritage for several events over the last couple of years – I am impressed with what they are doing and the way they care about equipping churches and families.
I have been thinking today about a statement I heard recently in a class I am taking. Dr. Phil Slate was speaking about world evangelism, and he said, “The gospel is always an intrusion in everyone’s culture. It calls for a change. To say otherwise would say that a culture does not need the gospel.”
I thought about this as I read all the responses to what Miley Cyrus did at the VMA’s. I haven’t seen it, and don’t intend to, but I have read enough to get an idea of what happened. I read some really helpful blog posts, as several worked through how Christians should respond to something like that. It is interesting to me that while so much attention has been given to her performance, no one has said much about the lyrics to the actual song, Blurred Lines. Those words are every bit as vulgar as the performance – should we really be surprised at what happened when the verses were acted out? It is a reminder to us that the gospel intrudes on our culture, a culture that worships celebrities and glamorizes sex. Our culture needs the gospel.
Of course, 50-60 years ago, this performance would not have been allowed on television. This is a far cry from Elvis or the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan show. Yet that doesn’t mean that era (or any era in our history) was perfect. I have a file of printed sermons from years ago that were preached by Batsell Barrett Baxter, a tremendous preacher. As I leaf through the pages, I can see that he was addressing serious issues facing the Christians. The challenges might have been different, but they were every bit as real and difficult. The gospel still intruded on that culture.
In Acts 4, Peter and John were taken into custody after healing a man and preaching in the temple area. They were arrested by the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, and they were not arrested for what they were doing so much as what they were teaching – Jesus Christ and resurrection from the dead. There were many who believed their message that day, but there were many others who did not. The council of rulers, elders, and scribes who should have been looking for signs of the Messiah urged Peter and John to stop preaching about Jesus. Even in a culture of those who had faith in God, the gospel was intruding.
In Acts 19, Paul was in Ephesus, and he caused a riot. Not directly, but the riot started because of the message Paul was preaching. A silversmith named Demetrius called some other workers together, and he told them about what Paul was saying. These workers made a lot of money by producing shrines and other artifacts for the worship of Artemis, but Paul was convincing people that idols were not really gods. This put their business in danger, and it wasn’t long before the whole assembly was dragging Paul’s friends into the theater, chanting about Artemis of the Ephesians. Paul was bringing them the message of the true God, and the gospel was intruding on their culture.
Events like the VMA performance can remind us of that we live in a fallen world. They can remind us that our culture often highlights lifestyles that are far from holy. Yet they can also remind us that our culture needs the intrusion of the gospel. It always has, and it still does. To say otherwise would mean that we don’t need the gospel. And we do.
This is long overdue, but I wanted to provide a review of the book Epic of God: A Guide to Genesis by Michael Whitworth. Michael was in school at Freed-Hardeman the same time I was, and we have both served as counselors at Horizons, a summer leadership camp. A couple of months ago, I began reading his book as part of my research for a sermon series I am now preaching on Abraham’s journey of faith. I have found it tremendously helpful. Michael is a talented writer and researcher, and both of those abilities are on display in his book. Here are a few things I appreciate about this resource:
1. It provides thorough, well-documented research.
It is clear that Michael has done extensive research and interacted with a variety of writers and resources on Genesis. When it comes to a disputed area of the text, he will put different points of view in conversation with each other. While he is always clear about his take on the issue in question, he explores each viewpoint and documents well. That has introduced me to some commentaries that I had not read, and it makes Epic of God a good resource to prompt further study.
2. It is presented in an easy-to-read format.
Stating that a work is “thorough” or “well-documented” might lead you to believe it would be dense or difficult to understand, but Michael puts this information in an engaging format. He uses a conversational style, makes a few jokes along the way, and gives a fresh approach to the material. This also makes it readable for anyone who might not be that interested in the footnotes.
3. It contains practical applications.
I like the fact that it doesn’t duck the hard questions (like the meaning of “sons of God” in Genesis 6). Michael clearly states his point of view without being dogmatic on difficult issues like that one. But what I like even more is that he is concerned with how this information applies to us in our context. Each chapter ends with “Talking Points” that would be beneficial for a Bible class study or for sermon preparation. He provides a great balance of research and application.
Okay, I realize that I just made three points. That was not planned. My next blog post will have to be more “inductive” to balance out my “deductive” post today! I do recommend this as an excellent resource for study on Genesis. It is available on Amazon, and you can also access it on E-reader versions. You can find out more at http://michaelwhitworth.com/start2finishblog.
The new year has begun, and with it have come a lot of New Year’s Resolutions. One of mine has been to utilize my blog more often (although that seems to be a resolution every year). I want to begin by sharing about an event I am really looking forward to next month. On February 25th, we will be hosting a Preaching Workshop at Graymere. It will be focused on preaching Matthew’s gospel, and we have a great line-up of teachers to make presentations, answer questions, and provide resources. You could think of it as a one-day short course on the gospel of Matthew. While there will be a particular focus on preaching, it will be helpful for all those who teach the Bible to teens and adults.
Graymere has always provided resources for ministry, and this is just another way we can help people who are preaching and teaching. There are several preachers in Maury County who are in vocational ministry, working another job during the week and preaching on Sundays. It can be hard for them to take off enough time for a conference, lectureship, or seminar. But attending a one day event might be easier. Of course, those who are in full-time ministry have packed schedules as well, so a one day event can work for them. We have tried to pack in as much content as possible into one day, and it only costs $10. Here is our schedule:
7:45 – 8:45 – Breakfast
9:00 – “Matthew’s Gospel in its Cultural Context” by Dr. Tom Alexander, Harding University
10:15 – “The Presentation of Jesus as Messiah in Matthew’s Gospel” by Dr. Ed Gallagher, Heritage Christian University
11:30 – Panel Discussion
12:00 – 1:00 – Lunch
1:00 – “Challenging Texts in Matthew’s Gospel” by Dr. Doug Burleson, Freed-Hardeman University
2:15 – Ministry Panel Presentations by Dr. Kirk Brothers (Freed-Hardeman University), Dan Chambers (Concord Road Church of Christ), Dr. Sellers Crain (Rivergate Church of Christ), and Barry Throneberry (Highland Church of Christ)
3:30 – Ministry Panel Q & A
4:30 – Conclusion/Dismissal
Breakfast and lunch will be great. One of our members is cooking a big country breakfast, and another one of our members is catering our lunch. $10 will get you both of those meals, as well as a workshop notebook. We have approximately 30 signed up for it already. If you would like to sign up, just go here.
We also have limited housing available for those who would need to come on Sunday night in order to get there on Monday morning. Let us know when you register if you need housing. Please pass this along to anyone you think would enjoy it. It is going to be a great day!