Posts tagged ‘Church’

The Violence That Never Seems To Stop

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Credit: Sam Rios on Unsplash

In my blog last week, I reflected on some of the events that shaped 2019, and I noted that there have been “accelerating attacks on houses of worship.” Unfortunately, the end of 2019 demonstrated just how true that was.

First, it was an attack on a Hanukkah celebration at a home in a New York City suburb. A knife wielding assailant burst into the home, wounding five people while the people inside scrambled to flee out the back door. Then, the very next morning, a gunman opened fire at a Church of Christ congregation outside of Fort Worth. Two people were killed. Many more probably would have been lost, but the gunman was taken down by the church’s security team.

It’s difficult to see these kinds of attacks at these kinds of gatherings. Celebrations and congregations are not meant to be battlefields. They are meant to be arenas of respite and rejoicing.

On the one hand, none of this surprising. As a Christian, I follow a man who warned of “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7). Those who are Jewish know well Daniel’s prophetic announcement to King Xerxes: “War will continue until the end” (Daniel 9:26). Though both of these prophecies, in their contexts, point to the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in AD 70, they can be applied throughout history. People are violent. And the human inclination toward violence shows no signs of abating.

While I am heartbroken over these stories, I am also grateful that, in both of these instances, many of these people were able to escape their attackers, or, as in the case of this most recent church shooting, the security team was able to stop the attacker. Sadly, however, we will not be able to end these types of attacks altogether. Too many stories of too much violence have demonstrated otherwise. In truth, despite our best efforts at safety, only God Himself can truly end violence. As God explained to His people of old, when God returns on history’s final day, “no longer will violence be heard” (Isaiah 60:18).

Until that day, I pray for victims and their families, I pray against further attacks, I give thanks for those who protect others while risking themselves, and I look forward to the day when my hope for peace will become the sight of peace. Even when it looks otherwise, I still firmly believe that guns and knives are no match for God.

January 6, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a 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

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

Is the Internet Replacing the Pastor?

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Credit: Ben White on Unsplash

A new survey finds that fewer and fewer Americans are seeking guidance from clergy.  According to a poll released last week by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research:

Three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time … While the poll finds a majority of Americans still identify with a specific faith, about half overall say they want religious leaders to have little influence in their lives.

According to Tim O’Malley, a theology professor at Notre Dame, part of the reason behind the reticence to speak with a clergy person can be traced to technology:

In American life, there has ultimately been a broad rejection of “experts” apart from the person searching for the answer on his or her own.  Think about the use of Google.  You can literally Google anything.  Should I have children?  What career should I have?  When should I make a will?  How do I deal with a difficult child?  In this sense, there has been a democratization of information based on the seeking self.  You can find the information more easily through a search engine than finding a member of a clergy.

Professor O’Malley’s observations are not only true culturally, they are also true for me personally.  When I have felt ill, I have Googled my symptoms to see what I might have, which according to my searches, usually turns out to be a dreaded and deadly disease.  When I have needed to fix something around the house, I have Googled how-to guides to walk me through a project step-by-step.  It is not surprising that many people would do the same thing on issues about which they used to consult clergy.

And yet, this trend away from clergy consultations is not necessarily always beneficial, nor is it inevitable or irreversible.  This same poll also notes:

Nearly half say they’re at least moderately likely to consult with a clergy member or religious leader about volunteering or charitable giving.  About 4 in 10 say they’re at least moderately likely to consult about marriage, divorce or relationships.

There are things for which people still seek out clergy.

As a member of the clergy myself, this research certainly piqued my interest.  For those reading who are also clergy, this poll should serve as a reminder that we must be faithful, biblical, caring, and compassionate in our callings.  If we are sloppy in our pastoral care, distant in our conversations, theologically vacuous and trite in our comforts, or harsh and unsympathetic in our guidance, we can and will be replaced by a search box and some algorithms, which may or may not turn up good results.  For those who are reading who are not clergy, my plea to you would be to remember that the Church is not just a dispenser of information, but a place for conversation.  The value of sitting down with a pastor is that he may invite you to ask questions of yourself you may not think to ask if you’re just typing terms into a search box.  He is also commissioned to share with you not just his wisdom, but God’s Word.

One of the people interviewed as a part of this study, Timothy Buchanan, notes that the move away from consulting clergy is part of a broader trend:

People don’t know how to have personal communications with other folks when you need to ask questions or need to get help.  For instance, we’ve got some issues with our health insurance plan, so I spent an hour today Googling … instead of just picking up the phone and calling somebody.

This is keen insight.  As access to information on a screen becomes increasingly easier, reaching out to find personal interaction can feel cumbersome and burdensome.  But even if googling stuff is faster and easier, this truth remains:  we need each other.  Internet searches cannot fix real world loneliness.

As a member of the clergy, then, my invitation to anyone who needs a pastor is this:  a pastor would love to be able to love and care for you.  That’s a big part of what got many pastors got into this business.  So, if you’re in need, don’t just read a blog – including this one – pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with your pastor, or, if you don’t have a pastor, with a pastor who is part of a biblically-based and Christ-centered congregation.  Your struggle or question or grief is important – because you are important.

Google may be able to tell you that.  But it can’t show you that.  So, reach out to a person who will.

July 15, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

How the Church Can Change

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“The God I know is not concrete or specific,” wrote Bishop John Shelby Spong in the opening to his famous and controversial 1999 book, Why Christianity Must Change or DieHe continued by outlining a litany of grievances against Christian orthodoxy.  For instance, calling God “Father” bothered the bishop, who labeled this title as “so male, so dated,” and accused Christianity of using this title to “consistently justify its rampant discrimination against women as the will of this patriarchal deity.”  He also took issue with the idea that God would be omniscient, writing:

The Bible, the Church’s sacred textbook, portrays the God of antiquity as acting in ways that violate both our knowledge and our sensibilities today.  If an all-knowing God had really made many of the assumptions that the Bible makes, then this God would be revealed as hopelessly ignorant.  For many biblical assumptions are today dismissed as quite simply wrong.  Sickness, for example, does not result from sin being punished.  Nor does a cure result from our prayers for God’s intervention or from the sense that we have been sufficiently chastised so that the punishment of our sickness might cease.

The only solution, in Bishop Spong’s opinion, was to give up on Theism in search of “another God language.”  In other words, everything in the Christian faith, right down to God Himself, had to change.

Bishop Spong’s two-decade-old sentiments continue to influence our contemporary conversations.  Take, for instance, the comment from California Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi who, when debating the different ways in which people address same-sex attraction, said, “The faith community, like anyone else, needs to evolve with the times.”

The argument that the Christian faith must change is regularly bolstered by the assertion that the Christian message already has changed.  “Christians used to support slavery,” one person might say, “and they changed their view on that.  So why shouldn’t they change their view on ____________?”  One can fill in the blank with whatever fashionable cause célèbre they want.  The divinity of Christ.  The ethics of human life.  The call to love the marginalized.  The contours of human sexuality.

It is true that some Christians have changed their views – not only on slavery, but on other things as well.  But this does not mean that the teachings of Christ have changed.  Christ, for instance, did not celebrate oppressive systems like slavery.  He came, instead, to bring us out of slavery into a new exodus, accomplished by the cross (cf. Luke 9:31).  Christ, then, never changed His view on the evils of slavery.  Christians, however, have been changed by the teachings of Christ.

There are two ways to understand how change in the Church should work.  Either the Christian faith itself should be revised to keep up with the times or Christians themselves can be refined as they study timeless truth in Scripture.  The first understanding makes the faith subservient to the times and its narcissistic celebration of self.  The second understanding makes Christians subservient to the Scriptures and their forming work throughout the centuries.  The Scriptures make it clear which understanding of change they support:

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2)

Christians should continually be “transformed into Christ’s image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).  It would be a tragedy if we were the same people today that we were a decade ago.  By God’s grace and the Spirit’s power, our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control should all be growing.  Christians should change.  The Christian faith, however, should not.

The motto of the Reformation was 1 Peter 1:25: Verbum Domini manet in aeternum.  “The Word of the Lord endures forever.”  The Reformers did not want to change the faith, but they did want people to be changed by the faith.  Their goal was to proclaim and explain the faith as it stood – and as it still stands – in the Word of the Lord to the blessing and benefit of all who would receive it.

So, as the Church continues to change, let’s make sure the right thing in the Church is changing – us.

May 27, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Rebuilding of Notre Dame and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

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The world watched in horror as a medieval Gothic treasure was wrecked last Monday when flames ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Parts of the building, the construction of which began in 1163, still stand.  But much of the roof, which was made out of timber and original to the structure, along with the cathedral’s grand spire, also made out of wood and iron and rebuilt in 1844, is no more.

Reports indicate that many of the cathedral’s priceless relics, including what is claimed to have been the crown of thorns Jesus wore during His crucifixion, were rescued from the blaze.  Other relics, like a supposed piece of Jesus’ cross, may not have been so fortunate.  Its status is still unknown.  Parisians, Catholics, Protestants, and countless others across the world are still coming to terms with how a landmark as staid and majestic as Notre Dame – which withstood everything from the French Revolution and its virulently anti-Theist cult of reason to Hitler’s invasion of Paris and his order, thankfully disobeyed by one of his generals, to trigger explosives placed inside the grand façade – could come crashing down due to an accidental fire, likely triggered by an electrical short circuit.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, vowed to rebuild the cathedral under an ambitious timeline. “We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years,” the president said in an address last Tuesday.  This is indeed a highly aggressive timeline and one of which many experts are skeptical, suspecting that the rebuilding may take decades instead of years.  When the structure was first built, it took 182 years to complete.

Jesus, as He began His public ministry, gazed upon the temple in Jerusalem, which would have been the ancient Jewish version of Notre Dame, and declared, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).  Apparently, President Macron’s ambitious building timeline has nothing on Jesus.  The temple had already been rebuilt once after being destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.  Herod the Great had begun a restoration and expansion of the temple in 20 BC, which continued into Jesus’ day.  So, you can imagine the incredulity of those listening when Jesus declared that He could rebuild the temple from the ground up in three days.  This is why the people responded, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and You are going to raise it in three days” (John 2:20)?  But, of course, there’s a secret that the people listening to Jesus do not yet know or understand that John happily lets us in on: “The temple He had spoken about was His body” (John 2:21).

Yesterday, Christians all over the world celebrated the truth that Jesus’ building project was a stunning success.  He did at the end of His public ministry precisely what He said He would do at the beginning of His public ministry.  His body was crushed on a cross.  But in three days, He was not only rebuilt, He was resurrected.  Because of Him, even as the storied nave of Notre Dame sat sadly empty yesterday as a house of worship, hearts across the world were full of joy in celebration of the One who is to be worshiped.

When Notre Dame burned, the world lost a precious space.  But Christians did not lose their Christ.  And Christ did not lose His Church.  In the words of the old hymn:

Built on the Rock the Church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling,
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.

Work on Notre Dame began 856 years ago because of this promise.  May work begin again on this grand old lady for this same reason.

April 22, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Loving Others Well: A Lesson from a Crisis at Willow Creek

Bill Hybels

For a year, from the summer of 2002 to the summer of 2003, I lived in a small town about 60 miles northwest of Chicago, where I served in a rural congregation as part of my studies to become a pastor.  During that time, on Wednesday evenings, I would regularly travel about half an hour east to attend the midweek service at Willow Creek Community Church.  Though the church and its model of ministry have raised certain concerns and garnered frequent criticism over the years, much of what I experienced there impacted me in positive ways.  I heard preaching that was full of Scriptural insight from pastors who not only preached the gospel, but saw the gospel in the text of Scripture in ways I had never before noticed.  I got to participate in moving worship, led by expert musicians, who were not only proficient, but humble.  Above all, I was captivated by the picture that Willow Creek painted of the Church straight from Acts 2:42-47:

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

“This was the Church,” I heard time and time again, “and this is still the Church.”  It was a message that was both timeless and timely.

Willow Creek blessed me as I was studying to become a pastor.  This is why I was heartbroken when a story broke about a month ago in the Chicago Tribune that its senior and founding pastor, Bill Hybels, stands accused of making inappropriate advances toward females both inside and outside of his congregation.  While Pastor Hybels has denied many of the accusations leveled against him, he did admit that he placed himself “in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.”  In some cases, he met alone with women in hotel rooms during his extensive travel on behalf of the congregation and the Willow Creek Association, an organization dedicated to resourcing the Church-at-Large.

In an article for First Things, Aimee Byrd takes on the scandal at Willow Creek and tries to lay out a way forward.  In her piece, she takes aim at the so-called “Pence Rule,” named for the current vice-president, who has publicly announced that he never shares a meal alone with a member of the opposite sex.  Ms. Byrd objects to the Pence Rule, writing:

To this rule Christians have added other prohibitions, such as sharing a car ride or an elevator, or even sending a text message to the other sex without some sort of chaperone… 

By putting up fences, we foster an individualistic, self-protective morality … We need to protect one another from abusers, not from godly friendship. That likely requires case-by-case boundaries, promoting the exercise of wisdom in different circumstances, rather than coercion both from predators and from imposed moral systems. The church should model real friendship, as well as call out predators. An expanded Pence Rule, with its basis in fear, won’t help us develop the discernment to know the difference.

As a man who follows the Pence Rule, I am less skeptical of the motivations behind it and more sympathetic to the benefits of it than Ms. Byrd is.  I have the privilege of working with many smart, kind, and godly women.  Yet, I would never put myself into a situation with one of these ladies where I was in a private setting that isn’t in my office during regular business hours.  This is not because I am scared of any of them, but because I deeply respect all of them and I want to guard not only my integrity, but theirs as well.  Just an appearance of impropriety can not only destroy reputations, it can confuse and burden a church that has to try to figure out whether or not an appearance of impropriety was, in fact, actual impropriety.

The crisis at Willow Creek reminds us that no person is immune from the wiles of human sinfulness.  Anyone, given the right opportunity and the right temptation, can self-destruct and deeply wound others in the process.  This is why guarding our actions and our interactions is so important. Guarding our actions and interactions can also have a way of deepening our love for others.  When we guard our actions and set boundaries, our hearts do not necessarily drift from people.  Instead, they can actually be propelled toward people.  After all, when we take the time to set appropriate boundaries in our relationships, we are saying that the people with whom we are in relationship mean so much to us that we are willing even to endure certain inconveniences – like refusing to be alone in private settings with them if they are of the opposite sex – out of respect and love for them.  We would never want to put them in any situation – even innocently and unknowingly – that would somehow compromise them or us.

When you love and care for someone, sometimes, it’s not just about what you do.  It’s about what you refuse to do.  It sounds like Bill Hybels may have lost sight of this.  Let’s use his loss as our lesson – for the sake of each other and the Church.  And let’s pray for Willow Creek, the women who have come forward to tell their stories, and Bill Hybels.  This scandal, with all the attention it has received, has wounded not just Willow Creek, but the Church.  The Church, however, has as its foundation a wounded Savior who endured.  It will endure too.

April 30, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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