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Time to have the funeral

December 31, 2014 — 8 Comments

2015-aheadThis is a difficult post to write because it’s about something near and dear to my heart: the local church. And it impacts far more congregations than we’d probably want to admit.

Having served on staff for many years in Christian churches and ministry organizations, there’s a pattern of dysfunction that must be addressed. I look around and see so many churches struggling to be effective in today’s environment. While the reasons are often numerous, one in particular seems to wreak havoc, especially in terms of unity and momentum.

It goes beyond worship styles and preaching styles. It has little or nothing to do with denominational ties or affiliations. And it’s not something that prayer alone can fix.

A closer look, usually including honest conversations with members and staff ministers, often reveals that the key problem is a failure to appropriately move through the stages of grief. Whether related to a specific ministry — or a specific minister — drastic change, even over a period of years, can bring feelings of shock, denial, anger, sadness and despair. However, acceptance of the new reality is extremely difficult for many people, particularly those who place great value on tradition and history.

Inherent in the much-needed acceptance stage is the important process of recalibrating life and perspectives in light of the loss, whether real or perceived. This lack of emotional recalibration is potentially paralyzing and poisonous to the health and growth of a church.

Let me explain. Continue Reading…

Blue QuestionThe tides are changing in our culture today. It is obvious that churches and parachurch ministries are struggling to respond to all the changes. For me, it is important to base my worldview on the authority of Scripture — not the latest trends and opinion polls.

After reading this post, some will offer me encouragement for boldly taking a strong biblical position on Christianity’s latest intra-familial feud — the firestorm over World Vision’s earlier decision to begin hiring legally married homosexuals. Others will just as passionately criticize me as a non-thinking simpleton intent on keeping the proverbial pot stirred and giving a bad name to Christ. Yes, unfortunately, that is an accurate description of the diversity that exists among professing Christians. Whatever the case may be, please understand that this post at its core is not about me; it’s about a vital missing piece in church teaching today.

There’s no escaping the fact that the issue of homosexuality is frequently held out to be the sin that many evangelicals prefer to condemn. You can see this in news stories and especially in the comment threads on Christian sites. I contend that such condemnation of sin is, in most cases, not grounded in fear, hate, or contempt for sinners, as many would prefer us to believe. Rather, it is grounded in the biblical teaching that those who trust Christ for salvation will be constantly striving to die to sin — not deny it, excuse it, minimize it, justify it, or re-classify it. Indeed, each of us as believers must instead confess our sins and REPENT of our sinful ways. And we are ALL guilty of sin, or else we wouldn’t need a Savior.

It is this vital aspect of repentance that is so gravely missing from the teaching and preaching of many churches today. I’d go so far as to say that it’s the primary reason we’re facing such an increasingly hostile anti-Christian culture here in America. And it’s not hard to see why it’s so tempting for Christian pastors and teachers to not mention the R word — because it makes people very uncomfortable. Let’s face it: it makes us uncomfortable too.

When the world sees the church take seriously our own heterosexual sins (i.e., lust, adultery, fornication, debauchery, cohabitation, pornography, etc.) — often hidden and intentionally unaddressed —  then perhaps we will stand a greater chance of being heard when we speak against homosexual sin. After all, the capacity for sexual sin is not limited to those who engage in homosexual acts and relationships. It has been suggested that the porn industry in the U.S. would be dealt a serious financial blow if Christians suddenly stopped supporting it. My personal and clinical experience in Christian churches and counseling centers tells me this is not an unreasonable claim.

Only by the power of Christ at work within us are we able to resist our proclivity to sin — be it gossip, gluttony, slander, etc. It is a lifestyle of daily repentance and abiding in God’s Word that leads us to personal holiness. In their stated attempt to promote unity among professing Christians, the leadership of World Vision, like some mainline denominations and self-described progressive Christians, demonstrated a flawed understanding of the process of discipleship — not to mention a careless disregard for the historicity of Christianity.

Perhaps no one said it better than my Public Catholic friend Rebecca Hamilton (D), state representative in Oklahoma, on her own blog on Tuesday:

The little g gods of self say that whatever people want to do is morally right. We refuse the real God and chase, like a dog following its tail, after this most picayune of gods — our ever-changing, never-satisfied desires. We fix our course on self-love, selfishness, self-righteousness, self-promotion; everything but self-awareness.

We lie to everyone to excuse our behavior, but most especially we lie to ourselves.

When a well-known Christian organization publicly departs from 2,000 years of Christian teaching on a matter as serious as the definition of marriage, it can not legitimately claim, as World Vision has done, that it is doing it to “unite Christians.” That’s a specious argument if I have ever heard one.

Here’s the inconvenient truth: Blessing sin is not an option for believers, as there is no basis for it whatsoever within the pages of Scripture. There are some extremely messed-up and shallow theological interpretations being championed as truth in today’s world. Sadly, many are being led astray by church leaders who espouse a very different gospel — not the gospel that leads to abundant life and eternal life, but one that appeals to the lowest common denominator and tramples upon the grace of God.

To be sure, World Vision is not known for its assertive evangelism strategy, yet it has always claimed to be unashamedly Christian in its mission, its action, and its hiring and staff conduct policies. Therefore, it was no surprise to me that the immediate and overwhelming outcry by World Vision’s partners, and subsequently by the evangelical community as a whole, was one of shock, dismay, and disbelief. There are, of course, many humanitarian organizations which do good work but which have no ties to Christianity, and many World Vision supporters clearly began to wonder if their organization was on track to become one of them.

Loving people in a very practical way involves caring for orphans and widows, feeding the hungry, serving the poor, and being advocates of justice in our communities and our world. But loving people also involves pointing them to the truths of God’s Word — because it is in the truth of Christ that we find freedom from the bondage of sin and self. The truth is that one cannot claim to be in Christ yet continue to live with unconfessed sin and an unrepentant spirit. We are to be constantly working out our salvation until the glorious day when we meet Jesus face to face.

I applaud the leadership team at World Vision for reversing course, identifying some of the blind spots that left them vulnerable to worldly influence, and confessing that their earlier decision was inconsistent with both the traditional evangelical interpretation of Scripture and their own mission statement. While I am grateful for the public acknowledgment of mistakes and missteps, I regret that great damage has been done not only to their own credibility but also to the Christian community as a whole. And when that happens, there really are no winners apart from Satan himself.

But more than all that, I am grateful that within the reversal letter Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, provided an example of repentance — which is something rarely seen on such a lofty scale. Many will see this as mere political pandering to the so-called religious right. Others will view it simply as a business decision to appease the organization’s evangelical base and thereby cut their losses. I prefer to see this decision as a heartfelt acknowledgment that one can love and care for sinners without compromising the integrity of Scripture. Certainly trust has been damaged, but the beauty of true repentance is that, in humility, it paves the way for reconciliation. I pray that for the sake of millions of children all over the world that this organization, through its ministry partners, will continue to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need. Surely that is something upon which we can all agree.

Christians in this country are facing difficult times. This week’s very public debacle is merely a premonition of things to come as we move forward in an increasingly post-Christian culture. I share Hamilton’s concern, as expressed in her follow-up post:

I am certain without doubt that the challenges to Christians are just beginning. We are not even really out of the gate when it comes to the dissolution and dissing that is heading our way.

Can they (World Vision) take it?

Can you?

I’m pretty sure that we’re all going to get the chance to find out.

As growing disciples of Christ, let’s strive to live our lives in accordance with the Scriptures, realizing that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The philosophies of this world will shift and shake, but the Word of God is a solid foundation on which to build our lives. May our love for Christ be evident to all, may our efforts to speak truth always be couched in love, and may we closely examine the nooks and crannies of our own hearts first and foremost.

After all, the world is watching. And they need Jesus.

For a more eloquent and historical viewpoint, be sure to check out Kevin DeYoung’s post: “Why Is This Issue Different?”

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