Posts tagged ‘Christianity’

2019: Year in Review

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Credit: Ulrike Leone from Pixabay 

It’s hard to believe another year has come and is now nearly gone. This year has had its share of memorable moments. There were the accelerating attacks on houses of worship – synagogues, mosques, and churches. There were the wildfires that devastated California and Hurricane Dorian that decimated the Bahamas. There was the huge controversy surrounding the Boeing 737 MAX, which experienced problems with one of its automated flight control systems, resulting in two deadly crashes. Politically, there was the impeachment of a president and the death of Elijah Cummings, a fixture in the US House of Representatives. And then, of course, in a story that will reach into 2020, there is a presidential election brewing.

It’s difficult not to experience a bit of déjà vu as I look back over this year’s big stories. Deadly rampages continue to terrorize communities and cultures. Natural disasters, a staple of creation since the introduction of sin, continue to wreak havoc across our nation and throughout the world. Businesses continue to find themselves in PR nightmares. And, our political fissures continue to widen and deepen. None of these problems were new to 2019. These were just new manifestations of old menaces.

Solomon famously wrote: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is most certainly true. But we must also remember that this is not ultimate.

The apostle Peter writes about those who, like Solomon, know that things don’t really change. But they also doubt that anything ever will change. They complain: “Everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). But Peter knows that even if the axiom “history repeats itself” is true of history, it is not true for the future, which is why Peter holds out this hope:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13)

Peter says there is a day coming when all the drudgery of this age will be overcome by the delight of the age to come.

But here’s the key: Peter says that, since we know that something better and different is on its way, we ought to “look forward” to what is to come. In Greek, the word for the phrase “look forward” is prosdokeo. Dokeo is a word that denotes “thinking,” and pros is a prefix that denotes “that which is first” or “at the head.” In other words, Peter is admonishing us to “think ahead.” Think ahead to a day when mass murders will die and natural disasters will be rendered unnatural and commerce will be consecrated and politics will care only about King Jesus. Think ahead to that day. Because it will be a supremely good day.

I’m praying for a great 2020. But I’m also hoping for a perfect eternity. I don’t know how God will answer my prayer. But I do know He will fulfill my hope. For my hope is His promise.

December 30, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In a World Full of Much News, Christmas is Good News

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Christmas is almost here. As many of us go on last-minute buying binges while we search and shop for the perfect presents for all our special someones, it is worth remembering that what makes Christmas special is not everything we do for this holiday, but what we are called to focus on in this holiday.

The first Christmas was a birthday punctuated by an angelic announcement to some shepherds who were in close proximity to a historically incomparable infant. An angel said to these shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Here, in this angel’s message, we find a sort of executive summary of what not only Christmas, but Christianity, is all about. The angel explains that a Savior has been born who is “good news.”

This two-word phrase – “good news” – is the echocardiogram by which the heartbeat of the Christian faith is measured. If this phrase permeates Christianity, the Christian faith is alive and well. If it does not, the Christian faith is doomed to anemia and obsolescence. Here’s why.

Culturally, two types of religion are prevalent. In more traditional cultures, religion that demands “good behavior” reigns. This version of religion promises that if you do what you should do and don’t do what you shouldn’t do, God will be pleased with you. This version of religion rewards one who walks the straight and narrow and lives as a straight arrow. Conversely, in more progressive cultures, religion that focuses on “good feelings” carries the day. This version of religion eschews what it sees as the needlessly constrictive and primitive commands of traditional religion and instead seeks the supernatural in what makes you feel good. Creeds of this religion include, “You do you,” “If it feels good do it,” and, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.” Interestingly, though these two religions sound different, at their core, they share the same assumption: the onus for spiritual fulfillment is on you because religion is about you. You are the one who is responsible for your spirituality – either by your behavior or in your emotional state.

Christianity is utterly different. Christianity is not about you. Instead, Christianity is for you. And there is a world of difference between these two.

Christianity is about Christ – His birth that an angel announces to some shepherds, His ministry that He carries out in front of a myriad of eyewitnesses, His death that He dies in place of sinners, and His resurrection by which He conquers death. This is why the angel calls Christ’s birth “news.” News is about what someone else from somewhere else has done. Christ is someone else from somewhere else – from heaven itself. And He has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has lived the life we cannot live, died the death we deserved to die, and offered the penalty for sin we cannot pay. Christianity is news about Christ. But it is not just “news,” it is “good news.” Why? Because, as the angel says, even though Christianity is about Christ, it is “for all the people.” And “all the people” includes you. What Christ has done, then, He has done for you.

Christianity promises that responsibility for spiritual fulfillment does not rest on you. Instead, it rests on the One who lies in a manger, dies on a cross, and empties a tomb. Jesus has done all the work necessary to procure the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of salvation for you. That’s the news the angel offers these shepherds. And I, for one, happen to think that news is quite good.

My prayer for you, this Christmas, is that you think it’s good, too. And that you believe that this news is for you. For it is this news that makes Christmas merry and hope real.

December 23, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

All the Days After the Big Day

Multiple studies have sounded foreboding warnings about the decline of marriage rates in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, while 72% of American adults ages 18 and older were married in 1960, that number has plummeted to 50%. More people are marrying later in life, and more people are choosing simply not to marry at all. Traditionally-oriented sociological observers point out that these falling marriage rates pose real problems not only for individuals personally, but for society collectively. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, explains:

Decades of statistics have shown that, on average, married couples have better physical health, more financial stability, and greater social mobility than unmarried people.

Other studies show that the children of those couples are more likely to experience higher academic performance, emotional maturity, and financial stability than children who don’t have both parents in the home.

The social and economic costs of family breakdown are paid by everyone.

Studies show divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers over $110 billion each year. But the real victims are children.

Children raised in single-parent homes are statistically more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, exhibit poor social behaviors, and commit violent crimes. They’re also more likely to drop out of school.

And when it comes to fighting poverty, there is no better weapon than marriage. In fact, marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80%.

These are sobering statistics. And yet, there is this interesting tension. While marriage rates may be on the decline, the wedding industry continues to grow. Forbes reports that, as of 2018, the wedding industry is a $72 billion a year money-maker, with the average cost of a wedding now ballooning to $35,000. Why are weddings so expensive? Forbes explains that couples feel compelled “to create ever more extravagant wedding experiences to make their day memorable for themselves and their guests.”

This heightened pressure around creating a perfect day for couples has given birth to a cottage industry – that of wedding therapy. Alyson Krueger reports for The New York Times:

The reality for many couples is that wedding planning is a tricky time. Deep-rooted family problems sometimes rear up. Some families face financial strain or must deal with contrasting values of how money should be spent. It’s also a time when couples and their families are going through big, fragile transitions.

The problems soon-to-be newlyweds encounter include things like:

“I can’t make a decision about who to have as my bridesmaid,” or, “I don’t know how to have a conversation with someone about not picking them as my bridesmaid.”

Other concerns, of course, are more systemic and serious. But the fact that there is a “wedding therapy” industry at all says something about our cultural mores and priorities.

In pre-marital counseling, I will often tell couples that the most important day of their marriage is not the first day of their marriage, but the last day of their marriage. “When death finally does you part,” I’ll ask, “what kind of marriage will you want to have – one that is marked by coldness and bitterness due to years of unaddressed issues, or one that is marked by warmth and forgiveness as you have weathered life’s storms together?” My point is this: if you want the last day of your marriage to be a good one, the time to begin working toward that is now. Far too many couples put all their effort and emphasis into the first day of their marriage – their wedding day – while thinking little about what their life together will look like after that. The wedding therapy industry is yet another indicator of our obsession with the first day of our marriages and the stress that first day brings. We have made our weddings about, well, our weddings – the dresses, tuxes, receptions, entrées, cake, gifts, decorations, and celebrations. But the wisest weddings are not about the weddings. They are not even really about the couple. The wisest weddings are ones that celebrate the gift that marriage is to humanity and reflect Christ’s love for the Church.

Perhaps if we made God’s gift of marriage and Christ and His Church the focus of our weddings, we would not only save ourselves from needing wedding therapy for the big day, we would also limit our need for marriage counseling for the days thereafter. I’ll take a healthy marriage over a perfect wedding any day. If you’re married, or especially if you used to be married, I have a feeling you would say the same thing, too.

December 16, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Learning to Give

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Credit: Gift on Picspree

A new report released by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and Vanguard Charitable found that the percentage of U.S. adults who donated to charity dropped significantly between 2000 and 2016. 20 million fewer households donated to charity in 2016 than in 2000. While some attribute this drop in charitable giving to the Great Recession, which began back in 2008, giving has not recovered since this economic downturn, which has led researchers to seek out other drivers to explain the decline.  And one driver has become quite apparent. Una Osili, who is one of the co-authors of this report on charitable giving, explains that God and giving seem to go hand in hand:

“Attending services is correlated with giving to religious organizations, but it’s also correlated with giving to secular groups.”

It turns out that a decline in worship attendance can be correlated with a decline in giving.  People of faith tend to give to their communities of faith, but they give even beyond their community of faith, as Professor Osili notes, to secular organizations. Faith and generosity work together. To jumpstart generosity, then, perhaps a good place to start is not with a fundraiser, a plea, or a guilt trip, but with an invitation to trust in a God who is inordinately magnanimous and to worship Him on a regular basis.

Christians are driven to give because we know that God has first given to us. We believe that God has given us all that we have. So, if God has given us everything, the least we can do is give something.

This does not make giving easy, of course. Christians can still sometimes wonder if they have enough to give. Christians can still be tempted to horde their resources instead of sharing their resources. But this does not mean that giving is not a call. And this does not mean that giving is not a command.

Allow me to offer a challenge: as this year draws to a close, figure out a way to give – whether that be to a church, a charity, or a worthy cause. But then, take it a step further. Don’t just give once in the spirit of the holidays; make it your practice to give consistently as an exercise of faith. Giving is not meant to be an occasional anomaly in your life; it’s meant to be the way of your life. And, by the way, when it is, you bless the lives of others.

And everyone could use a blessing.

December 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Religious Persecution in China

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Credit: Magda Ehlers from Pexels

King Solomon writes:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9)

Solomon calls us to speak up and speak out against oppression wherever and whenever we see it. And we can see it in spades in China right now. Last week, The New York Times published an exposé on a Chinese government crackdown on minority Muslim groups in that country:

403 pages of internal documents…have been shared with The New York Times in one of the most significant leaks of government papers from inside China’s ruling Communist Party in decades. They provide an unprecedented inside view of the continuing clampdown in Xinjiang, in which the authorities have corralled as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others into internment camps and prisons over the past three years.

The party has rejected international criticism of the camps and described them as job-training centers that use mild methods to fight Islamic extremism. But the documents confirm the coercive nature of the crackdown in the words and orders of the very officials who conceived and orchestrated it.

Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, has publicly spoken out against what he refers to as the “extremist religious thought” of Muslims, saying:

The psychological impact of extremist religious thought on people must never be underestimated. People who are captured by religious extremism – male or female, old or young – have their consciences destroyed, lose their humanity and murder without blinking an eye.

And, in other speech:

As soon as you believe in it, it’s like taking a drug, and you lose your sense, go crazy and will do anything.

With public statements like these, it is frightening to imagine what might be going on in internment camps like his.

Mr. Xi, of course, has not limited his crusade against religion to Muslims, but has also persecuted Chinese Christians – banning the sale of Bibles, shutting down churches, and even bulldozing some church buildings.

Whether they are Muslims or Christians, Christ calls upon His faithful to speak up for the oppressed. During His ministry, Christ stood up for those who were castigated from their communities – tax collectors, the sick, people of sexual ill-repute, and even those who were theologically out of sync with the kingdom Christ taught and brought. His followers should react similarly when they see people marginalized, and, in the case of these minority Chinese Muslims, tyrannized.

Solomon also writes:

The poor and the oppressor have this in common: the LORD gives sight to the eyes of both. (Proverbs 29:13)

President Xi has the same sight as those he is oppressing. He can see what he is doing. And we can see, too. And so, we must stand up and speak up in defense of those who cannot defend themselves.

Though Christians do not share the same faith as Muslims, Christians can stand with Muslims in their persecution and point them to a way through persecution and a hope beyond persecution – Jesus.

November 25, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Faith on Trial

A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat of The New York Times argued that those who are portending the collapse of American Christianity are vastly overstating their case:

Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity … Recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008 … And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s – and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.

Mr. Douthat argues that though there is a definite statistical decline in those who have marginal faith, those who have committed faith remain strong and steady in their faith.  The Christian faith, when it actually shapes one’s life, is incredibly durable.

But now, this past week, Timothy Beal makes the contrary case in The Wall Street Journal when he asks: “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?” Mr. Beal opens:

The fastest-growing population on the American religious landscape today is “Nones” – people who don’t identify with any religion. Recent data from the American Family Survey indicates that their numbers increased from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018. Over the same period, there has been a dramatic decline in the share of the population who identify as Christian, from 78% of Americans in 2007 to 65% in 2018-19, according to a report by the Pew Research Center released this month. The rise of Nones is even more dramatic among younger people: 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones.

Mr. Beal argues that the decline in the numbers of Christian faithful is acute. Nevertheless, he does suggest that this trend may be reversible. His prescription for revitalizing faith, however, is interesting, to say the least:

Questioning religious teachings and positions has always been an essential part of religion. No faith is fixed or changeless. On the contrary, reinterpreting inherited scriptures and traditions in light of new horizons of meaning is critical to the life of any religion. Think of Jesus or the Buddha; think of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, or Dorothy Day, who helped to create the Catholic Worker Movement. Religion’s ongoing vitality depends on those who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions. Without such engagement, any religious tradition will die from the inside long before it begins to lose adherents.

Mr. Beal argues that in order to revitalize the Christian tradition, we must begin by questioning it. And he is is partially correct. There have indeed been those “who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions,” sometimes with great success and to the great benefit and betterment of humanity. But it is also important to note that, according to an orthodox Christian worldview, “inherited teachings and positions” are not so much questioned in order to change the Christian faith as they are in order to rediscover it.  The message of Christ, properly understood, does need to change, for it is the revelation of a perfect God who does not need to change. Instead, the message of Christ is meant to change us. This is why people who once held slaves in 18th and 19th century America were called to let these people go, even as God once called a pharaoh to let His people go. This is why a society steeped in legislatively enshrined racism as recently as a few short decades ago was called to love its neighbors instead of separating from them. This is why a world that is plagued by violence today is called to long for a day when swords and spears will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks. These calls are thousands of years old. But they still challenge us to change to this day.

Mr. Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western University where he recently, according to his column, “conducted a ‘trial’ of the Bible on the charge of being responsible for our environmental crisis.” Maybe it would have been useful, if, after this trial where his students questioned the Bible, Mr. Beal put his class in a trial where the Bible could have questioned them. After all, it may just be that our questions of the Bible aren’t the only ones that need to be asked. It may also just be that the Bible has even better questions of us than we do of it, such as, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’” (Proverbs 20:9)?

Mr. Beal concludes his column by revisiting those who have left and lost their faith – the Nones. He writes of them: “When it comes to religion, Nones are almost never nothing at all.” About this much he is certainly correct. The Nones believe something. They have some faith, even if it is an ad hoc faith. The question is: Is it the true faith?

Maybe before we ask questions of faith, we ought to first ask this question of ourselves.

November 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Church’s Durability

The Christian faith has staying power. This is both a biblical promise and a statistical reality. The biblical promise is that Christ’s Church is so strong that not even “the gates of Hades will overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).  The statistical case for the endurance of the faith was laid out by Ross Douthat in a column for The New York Times this past weekend:

Long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s — and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom …

The recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

The case for the Church’s remarkable sociological durability is not new with Ross Douthat. Several years ago, Ed Stetzer, then the executive director of LifeWay Research, argued:

Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed. It is fair to say we are now experiencing a collapse, but it’s not of Christianity. Instead, the free fall we find is within nominalism.

So, what does all this mean?

For churches whose attendances are dropping, there are no easy answers, but there are some things we can and should consider in light of what we know about churches that are growing. Two things specifically come to mind.

First, pandering isn’t helpful. Hospitality, however, is. Pastors and church leaders have, in some corners, tried to pander to a progressive cultural zeitgeist that has a deep-seated distrust in and disgust at the Christian faith.  These leaders have discounted biblical authority and downplayed Christ’s ipseity.  In their rush to make the Christian faith palatable for the world, they have wound up with nothing to offer to the world.  These churches are collapsing.  In other more traditional corners of the Church, pastors and church leaders often spend more time pandering to longtime donors and power brokers within their congregations than they do reaching out to those who have questions about the Christian faith or to those who are skeptical of the Christian faith.  In these types congregations, traditions often trump mission.  These churches, too, are foundering.

Pandering stymies the Church’s mission.  Hospitality, on the other hand, calls churches into mission.  Hospitality is not focused on indulging people’s whims, like pandering is.  Instead, it is focused on loving them. This is why, when he writes about hospitality, the apostle Paul explains:

Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Romans 12:13-16)

For Paul, hospitality’s proving ground comes in how one treats their enemies.  How does the Church treat its enemies?  Do we lie to them by telling them what they want to hear like some supposedly “enlightened” and non-orthodox congregations do?  Do we reject them by catering to insiders and their preferences as some other congregations do?  Or, do we love them by living for them as Christ lived for us?  The Church must recover its hospitable spirit – especially to outsiders.

Second, faith is meant to be deep and go deep inside of us.  In a culture that is, in many pockets, post-Christian, a shallow or simple faith simply will not answer people’s big questions or stand the test of life’s terrible trials.  The studies above show, as other studies have before, that it is people with shallow faith who are falling away from the Church – not people with deep faith.  This means pep talks that pretend to be sermons will not keep people in church – but neither will dry doctrinal treatises that recycle theological buzzwords ad nauseam by pastors who are more concerned with brandishing their orthodox bona fides than they are with communicating Christ.  Only preaching that exposits the content of the Scriptures, explains how the Scriptures concern us and convict us, proclaims from the Scriptures what Christ has done for us, and then calls us to live out of what Christ has done for us will do.  The Scriptures present a deep faith in a clear way.  The Church should do the same.

Obviously, the Church has not done any of this perfectly – nor will it.  But we should consider how we can do things better.  Blessedly, in spite of our shortcomings, the Church will continues to endure because the Church is as durable as the One who died – and conquered death – for it.  Because Christ conquered death, the Church will not die.  He, finally, is the Church’s durability.

November 4, 2019 at 6:15 am 2 comments

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