Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Got FaithIn our 21st century American culture, much is said about tolerance.  In matters of religious faith, those who speak much about tolerance tend to imply (and occasionally explicitly request or demand) that people refrain from pushing their religious faith on others.  Their preferred state of faith in society would involve everyone following sentiments such as “live and let live,” “you do your thing and I’ll do mine,” etc.

I understand the sentiment, especially when coming from someone with no apparent interest in another’s faith.  Many are understandably quite content in their own faith or lack thereof.

So why can’t those of us for whom Christian faith is vital just mind our own business and leave others alone on the matter?  Two lines of thought emerge for me in response to the question.  The first deals with the legal right to practice one’s faith, and the second deals with the weightier fact of the explicit teaching of the Christian faith to spread the message.

As for the legal perspective, we allow people in America to practice their personal religious faith.  That’s what freedom of religion is all about.  The first amendment in our Bill of Rights states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This rightly prohibits the government from establishing religion and from prohibiting its free exercise.  We are guaranteed freedom of  religion, not freedom from religion.

Clearly, not everyone is paying attention to the Constitution and Bill of Rights in multiple areas these days, this being one of them.  There is an undeniable trend in our country to silence those who attempt to promote their faith – especially those of traditional Christian beliefs.  It’s trendy to be very tolerant of non-Christian faiths, but you won’t find those advocating religious tolerance very eager to allow conservative Christians the right to practice their faith unhindered.  You do not have to listen to too many newscasts or read many news articles to find repeated attempts to silence those who espouse traditional, conservative Christian beliefs consistent with two thousand years of Christian practice and biblical interpretation.

That’s a problem.  Why?  Because of the second line of thought.  The author or our faith – Jesus Christ – and his faithful followers in the New Testament consistently and unequivocally make it clear that sharing the gospel with all the world is at the core of what His followers are called to do with their lives.  That means that the general public sentiment against promoting one’s faith clashes head-on against a basic teaching, practice and personal spiritual discipline of biblical Christianity that calls the faithful to do that very thing.

Let’s take a look at some of the relevant Scripture passages.  Some of Jesus’ final words to his followers were:

  • “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” – Matthew 28:19-20.
  • “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” – Mark 16:15.
  • “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” – Acts 1:8.

Many additional passages by inspired authors show the seriousness with which the early church took those words of Jesus, even if being faithful to the command resulted in their persecution and death.  Anyone claiming Jesus as Lord must do the same today.  To fail to do so is at best disobedience to Christ’s commands and at worst an indication that the person isn’t actually a regenerate believer.

To my non-Christian friends and visitors reading this, I share this with you in hopes that you will understand where I’m coming from in occasional blog posts about my faith, in posting the “This, I Believe” page detailing my core beliefs, in posting a list of Christian Resources I’ve created or recommend, and in the practice of my faith in other ways and places.  I also hope you will tolerate others who may approach you from time to time to discuss such matters.  Their heart is usually in the right place, even though their methods may sometimes leave much to be desired.

To my fellow Christians, I write this to remind us all of our obligation to be faithful to our Lord’s command if we, indeed, proclaim Christ as Lord.  I also want to remind us all that we are to do what we do from a motive of love and with an attitude of genuine compassion for others.  As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect” (italics mine).  Yelling, protesting, accusing, and generally being a hateful jerk isn’t representing our Lord very well.  Be sensible and sensitive in where and how you share your faith.  If we are genuinely concerned for others and we believe in eternal consequences of believing in or rejecting Christ, then that compassion should show in our words and deeds.  (And it does take words to share the gospel, by the way.  Deeds alone don’t tell the whole story.)

This issue isn’t going away.  Serious Christians will continue to share their faith because doing so is necessary in order to be faithful.  Some hearers will listen and respond positively, while others will ignore the message, and yet others will try to stop them from sharing.  To the extent that more of us know why Christians can’t (and shouldn’t) keep their faith to themselves, the greater the likelihood we can understand and accept each other.

Chinese Chapel at Walnut Street Baptist Church

Chinese Chapel at Walnut Street Baptist Church

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at our church’s Chinese worship service for the first time.  The Chinese ministry has met for many years there, but I have never participated with them before Sunday.  They choose to have their own separate worship service where everything is in Chinese unless the preacher’s message in English needs to be interpreted.

The current interim pastor is a dear man with whom I enjoyed traveling to China last year.  When he needed someone to preach during his vacation absence, he asked me to fill in one Sunday and I was more than happy to oblige.

Chinese-English Worship Guide

Chinese-English Worship Guide

I don’t speak Chinese except for a few words learned for my trip last year, and there is only so far that “hello” and “thank you” can take you in a conversation!  So I was grateful for a wonderful host and an equally wonderful interpreter Sunday.

It made little difference that the rest of the service was all in Chinese, especially the singing.  The printed order of worship was in English and Chinese, so I could still follow the flow of worship just fine.  The hymnals they sing from have the Chinese hymn or reading on one page and the English version on the facing page.  During all of the hymns – each very familiar musically – I simply enjoyed singing in English as everyone else sang Chinese.  I couldn’t understand others, but the God to whom the praise was directed is very capable of understanding all of His children, regardless of language.  I carried with me a Chinese-English parallel Bible I purchased in China last year from a Christian book store in Anqing, so I could follow along with those readings fairly well.

During my sermon, the interpreter spoke her translation at the end of each sentence.  While I had the opportunity in China last year to speak for brief times in services, this was my first full sermon being interpreted as I preached, so that stretched my 22-minute message to about 45 minutes interpreted.

Chinese-English Hymnal

Chinese-English Hymnal

As expected, everyone present was very gracious and kind.  I will go back again very soon when I can stay for the lunch they always share together following worship.  Circumstances demanded that I not stay for lunch last Sunday, but I promised them I would return soon and I look forward to doing so.

There is a danger when one preaches that one might think he is the center of attention – that perhaps he is the focus of the hour.  What I really appreciate about speaking to this great group of Chinese believers is that I came away with a clear reminder that the central focus is the God we worship and serve.  I am thankful also for the reminder that our God is so great that he hears the prayers and receives the worship of all of his faithful children around the globe regardless of language, nationality or other temporary barriers that easily trip up limited human beings like me.

Chinese-English Bible

Chinese-English Bible

I do not know anything that was prayed during that service by others, but I know the One who heard and understood it all.  I do not know the hearts of others, but I know the One who created us in His image and who knows the condition of our hearts.  I do not understand the deepest desires of those with whom I can’t even communicate in a language I speak, yet I trust that the God who has bound our hearts in a common commitment to Jesus Christ understands the desire of each of us to know Him better, and He graciously draws us to Himself.

There is much I didn’t understand from a standpoint of language last Sunday, but that’s OK.  Sometimes the language of the heart speaks more clearly than words.  Sometimes it’s OK to not understand.

“Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  – 1 Corinthians 13:12

Psalm 119:11There is nothing glamorous about it.  It is accomplished most often from rote memory work using basic resources.  It isn’t something you to do to impress others or show off your knowledge.  It’s easy to forget about doing.  If you forget about it for too long, much of your previous hard work goes out the window (although it can be recalled with a little effort), so you have to stay with it in order to truly benefit.

I’m talking about memorizing Bible verses.

For the small fraction of readers that made it past the previous sentence and are still reading, hear me out when I say that memorizing scripture can play a significant part in one’s daily life.  It has been a part of mine for decades, although I confess that I have let the practice slide from time to time.  Fortunately, for the past several years, I’ve been on track again.

My wife, Linda, taught a children’s Bible drill class for older elementary school children at our church for a number of years.  Those who took the process seriously still benefit from that time in their childhood devoted to this discipline.  But the practice isn’t just for little kids in church!  It’s for all people of all ages who are serious about growing in their Christian faith.

Why memorize scripture?  I like the answer from Psalm 119:11 the best: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”  There are other reasons as well.  The main reasons I choose to do so are:

  • The Bible tells us to do it.  The verse quoted above is enough for me, but there are other passages such as Deuteronomy 11:18ff (although we’re not to take that one literally if doing so is for show – see Matthew 23:5).  You can find other passages about knowing and cherishing His Word.
  • Doing so helps us resist temptation.  Think of how Jesus responded to the temptations of Satan when He was fasting in the wilderness for 40 days (Matthew 4).  He always responded with quotations from the Word of God.  God won’t bring to mind in time of need Scriptures we haven’t bothered to memorize beforehand.  We have to do our part.  Unlike Jesus, I still sometimes ignore that voice and do what I please rather than what pleases God, but that’s my stubbornness at work and no fault of God.
  • Knowing the truth of the Word equips us to recognize false teaching.  I have been told that those who need to identify counterfeit currency don’t just study existing counterfeit examples; they study the real thing and get to know it so well that any counterfeit immediately jumps out at them.  There are many who claim to be teaching truth, but if what we hear is contrary to the clear teachings of Scripture, it should be rejected as false.  How will we discern truth from falsehood unless we know the real thing well?
  • It equips us for gospel conversations.  Memorizing isn’t just for our personal benefit.  If we are to be faithful to Jesus’ command to “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15), then we have to know what that message is.  It is best to be able to do so without reliance on any physical resources in front of us.
  • It can be used by God to bring comfort in time of need.  I make it a point not to concentrate my memory work on feel-good passages.  That seems too self-serving to me.  The 100 verses that are at the core of my memory work are selected in order to provide a well-rounded knowledge of the gospel in order to have those conversations mentioned in the previous point.  There is nothing more comforting to me than an understanding of God’s story as recorded throughout the Bible.  Still, if there are particular passages that are meaningful to you and that provide great comfort, then by all means hide them in your heart.

Which verses should you memorize? For a number of years in my young adulthood, I would pick at the start of the year 100 verses and then work on them throughout the year.  Sometimes I went with prepared packets I found at Christian bookstores.  Other times I chose passages that were most meaningful to me.  One year I picked one of my favorite Bible books – Philippians – and memorized its 104 verses.  Unfortunately, I didn’t keep reviewing those selections, so I couldn’t begin to quote them to you today without taking time to re-learn them.  You certainly have the freedom to choose as many or as few as you wish from wherever you wish.

The last several years I’ve concentrated on 100 specific verses chosen because, all together, I think they provide a well-rounded understanding of the gospel and the Christian life.  These are the same 100 I review weekly year after year.  I am less concerned with learning additional verses now than I am with learning these 100 really well and making them a part of who I am.  You can find these 100 verses here if you’re interested.  They are categorized into different sections and are quoted from the 1984 New International Version of the Bible since that is what I was using most often at the time they were chosen.  Pick a translation you like if this one doesn’t float your boat.

How do you memorize them?  Before personal computers and smart phones, I used 3×5 cards with the verse on one side and the Bible reference on the other.  About a decade ago, I started printing them on the perforated business card sheets you can find at office supply stores, again with the verse on one side and the reference on the other.  For the last few years, though, I’ve mostly used the app Remember Me on my smart phone, a great little free app available for Android, iOS and Blackberry that lets you practice in a variety of ways as well as lets you hear them read to you – good for when you’re driving or at times when you need something spiritually healthy to listen to.  I also wrote an email reminder-based course you’ll find here if you’d like a little nudge daily and some simple question-based approaches to memorizing the 100 verses mentioned above.

Regardless of the method chosen, it is still a matter primarily of drill and practice, learning a verse phrase by phrase, repeating it over and over along with the reference of where it’s found.  Spending a mere ten minutes a day is perfectly adequate for most people to easily learn 100 verses over the course of a year.  Once you learn a verse, go on to the next, but never, ever let a week pass without reviewing all the ones you’ve previously memorized or they’ll fade from memory took quickly.  Since I’ve spent several years now on the same 100 verses, it takes me about 20 minutes to quote them all given the reference, and just a few minutes to quote the references given the verse text.  I do that weekly for the 100 to keep them fresh.  Even after several years of working on the same 100, I find weekly reviews necessary.  If I neglect it for a few weeks, I inevitably miss some the next time I review.

If setting aside even a small chunk of time is an issue for you right now, then grab a few moments here and there throughout the day while you’re waiting in a line, walking to your destination, or anytime you find yourself with a couple minutes to spare.  When I take a bus to work, this is a great use of the ride.  Watch fewer commercials on TV and invest that time more wisely.  An hour-long TV show typically has at least 15 minutes of commercials, so that’s more than enough time for the day’s memory work.

You may be able to find other resources for memorizing scripture that add elements of excitement, variety or games to the process, and if that’s your thing, go for it.  I’ll stay with simple drill and practice using the Remember Me app for now.

As mentioned above, there are several reasons for being intentional about memorizing scripture.  Whatever your reason, I encourage you to do so.  Like so many others, I have found the practice to be instrumental in my daily walk with Christ and in my ability to grow as a Christian.

(Note: For a number of additional scripture memory resources, check out http://www.godresources.org/?p=scripture-memorization.)

Millennials WorshippingI recently reviewed the book The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation by Thom Rainer and Jess Rainer.  Because of my love for the church as well as for Millennials, and because I believe many American churches are at a critical crossroad for their future, I want to devote a follow-up post to the subject of Millennials and the church, borrowing from and commenting on the information in the last couple of chapters of the book.

The last two chapters of The Millennials are titled “Their Strange Religious World” and “The Church Responds to the Millennials.”  I don’t like to quote too much from a book, but in this case I feel several quotes and summary statements are necessary to set the stage for the conclusions and personal application that follows.

In the first of these chapters, we read the following:

  • “There is no majority spiritual position in the entire generation.  To the contrary, many have such a hodgepodge of beliefs that it’s difficult to give them meaningful labels.”
  • Only 13% surveyed identified spiritual matters as really important in their life.
  • The authors estimate about 15% of the generation to be true Christians.
  • About 24% of Millennials are active in a church, while 25% strongly agree with the statement that the Bible is the written Word of God.
  • “Those who are Christians demonstrate fervency about their faith.”
  • About 70% of the generation believes that American churches are irrelevant.
  • The church’s challenge is not overcoming an adversarial attitude, but overcoming apathy.
  • “A Millennial with parents who were nominal Christians is likely to divorce himself or herself from Christianity and churches.”  They will probably not adopt the lukewarm faith of their predecessors.

In light of the above characteristics of Millennials, what then is today’s church to do if it is to be a place where Millennials choose to be and to serve?  That is the subject of the final chapter, where the authors suggest the following:

  • Millennials “will connect with churches only if those churches are willing to sell out for the sake of the gospel.”
  • Churches focused mainly on themselves rather than others will not attract them.
  • The American church has two related challenges: connecting with Millennial Christians, and reaching the 85% of Millennials who are not Christians.
  • To connect with Millennial Christians, churches must:
    • Become radically committed to the community (missional and incarnational),
    • Go deep in biblical teaching,
    • Love the nations,
    • Direct revenue outwardly,
    • Demonstrate transparency, humility, and integrity.
  • To reach non-Christian Millennials, churches must:
    • Remember the indifference a majority feel toward Christians and the church,
    • Unleash the simple power of inviting,
    • Connect Boomer parents with Millennial children,
    • Demonstrate the deep meaning of following Christ,
    • Demonstrate concern for others,
    • Demonstrate transparency, humility and integrity (again).

With all the above in mind, I cannot help but think of my church.  It will soon be 200 years old.  Its largest demographic is its senior adult population.  It says it wants more young adults and young families, but the past decade has seen more Millennials exit the church than enter.  The weekly attendance is less than half what it was when my family started attending in the mid 1980s.  A large majority of its $1.75 million budget goes to paying for salaries and facilities.  Still, it does many things right.

I love my church and have wonderful friendships with many people there.  Each week I get to participate in the best adult small group Bible study class I’ve ever experienced.  As an inner city church, we have some opportunities to do things that will not happen in other settings.  I am committed to serving my Lord through this church and am hopeful for its future, even in this time of searching for a new pastor to lead us.  While I was at times sorely tempted to leave in recent years due to some frustrations, God would not let me go, even though I visited and deeply enjoy and respect other nearby churches dominated my Millennials.

One of the thoughts that I walked away with after reading the book The Millennials was this: No church – mine included – will be successful attracting Millennials as a result of implementing a program to reach them.  We can’t hire a staff person to do it.  We can’t expect a new pastor to magically make it happen.  We can’t vote to take some action in a business meeting that will suddenly result in being the kind of church Millennial Christians are drawn to and Millennial non-Christians care anything about.  We have to actually be the kind of church daily at our core – naturally, honestly, genuinely, individually and collectively – that Millennials and others serious about the faith are drawn to.  We need to be doing the things mentioned above not to attract Millennials, but because doing so is at the heart of our faith and practice.  We must do them because of who we are, not because of who we want to attract.  Millennials will see through anything less.

Given the impatience for slow change demonstrated by many Millennials, most young men and women aren’t inclined to take on a project of the magnitude of turning a 200-year-old church around.  I can imagine many thinking “Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat!” as they head off to another established (or brand new) church that is already living out the radical Christianity they expect.  Where does that leave my church and so many others as we look to the future?  I’m not sure.

This I know, however: God isn’t finished with His church yet.  He may well raise up new ones as others no longer serving His purposes fade away.  He may choose to bring new life to many currently struggling.  As we ponder what it means to be a church member and then live out that faithfulness, God can still surprise and amaze us all.  I’m eager to see that happen at my church, and I hope I witness it alongside devoted, faithful followers of all ages, especially Millennials.

(Note: The photo above comes from the USA Today article “Pastor Mark Driscoll: Millennials are honest on faith.”)

On this day when Christians around the world remember the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, it is good to remember that his death on the cross wasn’t the end of the story.  It was a necessary part of the story of what he did on our behalf, but it was not – and is not – the end.  If you want a longer explanation of the gospel message, I invite you to read my page This I Believe.

For now, though, it is enough to put yourself for a few minutes into the events that happened nearly 2000 years ago through this short video.