Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mr. President, You Can't Fix This

     Like the rest of this nation, I was shocked and deeply disturbed by last week’s senseless attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While these shootings are, by their nature, evil, they are even more horrific when they involve children. I join with Christians around the world to lift in prayer the community of Newtown Connecticut and those families directly affected by this atrocity.

     Sunday evening I listened to the President as he spoke to the residents of Newtown at a prayer vigil being held to remember the victims. Beyond any political agenda or party platform, I heard a man who has been genuinely affected by this tragedy. I heard a man who truly wants to do something to make this situation better and wants to try to prevent such acts in the future. If however, I could speak to the President in this moment I would tell him, “Mr. President, you cannot fix this.” It is, as you once stated, “above [your] pay grade.” No government legislation will be able to prevent the next school shooting – just as United Nations sanctions cannot prevent the next terrorist attack. The problem is much bigger than that.

     This attack has been repeatedly referred to in the media as “evil,” and it most assuredly was. It was an evil act in a succession of evil acts that stretch back to the fall of man recorded in the third chapter of Genesis. It was preceded by the shooting at Columbine High School, the Rwandan Genocide, the WWII Holocaust and thousands of other massacres that have marked human history. The problem is not in the law, it is in the people, it is in us. The problem is our sinful nature. The problem is that we are sinners and we desire sin. There is no law that can correct it; there is no law that can contain it.

     There is only one cure for this condition – the Gospel. This is a time for Christians to compassionately and confidently proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying land. Only He can truly soothe a grieving heart and only He can effectively change our sinful nature. It is important that we, as Christians, take every opportunity to share the love of Christ and His Gospel during this time of national sorrow. Anything less is a fa├žade that can only mask the pain and ultimately betrays our calling.

     We must direct the conversation. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted at this critical moment. Unfortunately, it seems that we are allowing the national discourse to steer our dialogue. Both the left and the right have seized this moment to proclaim their position on gun control. Whether we are for or against gun control is not the question. Every moment we spend focused on this issue takes away time from the Gospel; it diverts our attention away from what really matters – Jesus. We must give our attention to Christ and Him crucified.

     This tragedy, like the ones before, has shaken this country and left us with far more questions than answers. While we can never claim to have all the answers, what answers we do have must be born from Scripture. They must come from the profound teachings of God’s Word. We cannot be content with greeting card theology or the superficial teaching Sunday School quarterlies. When asked “why would God allow this to happen?” I recently heard a nationally known religious leader reply, “Well, I prefer not to think about questions like that.” The problem is, the world is thinking about questions like that and we can’t hide. 

     As Christians, we are to always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us (1Pet.3:15). That hope is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and the world needs to know.

In His Service,

Monday, September 10, 2012

Facebook Christianity

     It is amazing that ten years ago most Americans had never heard of Facebook and now over 750 million subscribers visit it regularly. There can be no doubt that social media sites have had a significant effect our society and it may be years before we truly understand the extent of these changes. Much has been written about the potential dangers of social media as it pertains to its effects on real interpersonal relationships. Dr. Alex Lickerman recently noted that the problem “…comes when we find ourselves gradually substituting electronic relationships for physical ones or mistaking our electronic relationships for physical ones.”

     The interweaving of social media has even affected the modern vernacular. For generations the title ‘friend’ has been understood to include some type of affection, esteem or connectedness. While for most it does still convey this same meaning, it now needs to be clarified. Social media “friends” are quite often not connected by the same feelings of affection or esteem. In fact, it is not uncommon for these “friends” to have almost no connection at all. In cyberspace friendship can consist of only a few mouse clicks. Of course, these “friendships” can be severed just as easily. Whereas once a person would only have a few close friendships in which they would invest themselves, now they can have thousands of “friendships” that require no effort at all.

     It is this minimal commitment that makes these cyber-relationships so problematic for Christianity. The idea of relationship is central to the Christian faith. Christ died to pay for our sins so that we might enter into a relationship with God. He established the church so that we might be in covenant relationship with one another. These relationships however, cannot be reduced to a click of a mouse or an occasional pithy comment on a computer screen. They require commitment; they require investment. Our devotion to Christ cannot be limited to a “religious view” on our profile page or by “liking” the Bible. Jesus said that if anyone wanted to follow Him, “he must deny himself, take up his cross daily.” (Lk 9:23). This must be a real-life commitment, not just a few clicks of the mouse.

     While my respect for God’s Word prevents me from carelessly translating Scripture, I cannot help but believe that a modern version of Matthew 7:22 might be, “On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we “friend” you on Facebook, post Christian comments, and “like” many stories that included Your name?” Our fear should be that His response would be the same as it is written, “I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!”

     There is nothing inherently wrong with Christians expressing their faith on the internet. On the contrary, if we are truly in love with Christ then we cannot help but share that with the world. The problem comes, as noted by Dr. Lickerman, when we substitute the electronic relationship with Christ with for the real relationship with Him.

In His Service,

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Urban Challenge

     While no one can pinpoint the exact date, experts agree that 2008 was a pivotal moment in human history. It was in 2008 that the urban population of the world crossed the 50% mark. For the first time in history there are more people living in urban areas than in rural areas. In addition to this, the United Nations projects that by 2050 over 69% of the world’s population will reside in urban areas. This urban migration has produced mega-cities with populations that eclipse many countries in the world. In fact the 20 largest cities in the world are larger than 85% of the states in America. The population of Tokyo rivals the entire state of California, the largest state in the U.S.

     Urbanization is more than just the relocation of people. The urban environment presents challenges and opportunities that are far different than its rural counterpart. In dimension, cities are simply bigger, faster and louder – they are just more. While many can legitimately debate whether bigger really is better, there are some real advantages that come with economies of scale. It is highly unusual to find a first class medical center in a small town. Cities offer a wider variety of job and educational opportunities as well. Of course the downside is that cities also suffer from higher crime rates and increased levels of the moral decay that is so prevalent in the world today.

     Cities are not only bigger, they are also denser. People live much closer together. Where in rural areas it is not uncommon to have families separated by acres, in urban environments thousands often live in a few blocks. For example, the population density of Tokyo is 22,938 per square mile and New York, America’s largest city, is almost 17,000 people per square mile. Even with people living in such close proximity, urbanites often find themselves isolated – even in a crowd.

     Urban living also forces diverse populations together. While rural populations tend to be more homogenous and segregated, urban populations often find a wide variety of people groups living very close to one another. With varied backgrounds, ethnicities and even languages, personal biases lead to increased tensions.

     So, what does this mean for Christian missions? It means that we are going to have to rethink our model. For generations we have been captivated by the idea of taking the Gospel to the jungles and savannahs of the world. We romanticize the missionary who leaves the comforts of home to tell the primitive natives about Jesus and neglect urban masses. Even in America, the influence of Christianity is much greater in rural areas than in the inner cities. As a result, we are losing the cities of the world.

     The cities of the world have become places where too many Christians are hesitant to minister; much less live. There is too much crime, it is too dangerous, there is not enough space and the schools are not making the grade; there are plenty of reasons for Christians to stay away from the cities. However, we must remember that the fireman runs into the fire, not away from it.

     We live in an urban world and over the next 30 years it will become more so. If we, as Christians, are to fulfill Christ’s commission to make disciples of all nations, we must accept personal responsibility for the cities and urban centers of the world. How can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe without hearing about Him?

In HIs Service,

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Fred Luter's Election

     The election of Pastor Fred Luter as the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention was a historic moment in the history of the denomination. It is an indication of just how far we have come as a denomination in terms of race relations. However, it also serves as an indication of how far we have yet to go. The fact that Pastor Luter’s race is even a point of discussion reveals that race is still a factor.

     This spring the NFL held its annual draft. The top two quarterbacks available were Andrew Luck from Stanford and Robert Griffin from Baylor – one white, one black. For months the experts analyzed their respective skill sets. They broke down every game film and rated their strengths and weaknesses. Every aspect of these two men’s lives and athletic ability was scrutinized and discussed ad nauseam. However, one thing that did not seem to be part of the public debate was their race – because it would seem that in the NFL today it doesn’t matter. Quarterbacks are judged by wins and losses – not by melanin.

     It has been suggested by some in the secular press that Pastor Luter’s election was designed to make the SBC more appealing to a wider audience. Many see it as a marketing strategy. To suggest such a motivation, in my opinion, cheapens this historic moment. As Christians we cannot allow ourselves to be controlled by demographic reports, marketing trends or popular opinions. We must be led the Spirit of God and a sincere desire to serve our Lord.

     President Luter was elected because he is the right man for “such a time as this.” He was elected because he is the man that God has prepared to lead the SBC today. It is my prayer that he will not be remembered as an African-American president, but as a great president. It is my prayer that he will be recognized, as Dr. Martin Luther King dared to dream - by the content of his character, not the color of his skin.

     Racism still exists in America and as Christians we are called to stand against racial inequality in any form. However, true equality cannot ever be achieved by our efforts alone. Racism, like war will only be eliminated when Christ reigns supreme in the hearts of all men. This is the reason we, as a convention, exist - “to reach the world for Christ. While there is still a lot of work to be done, we can celebrate this moment and pray for our new president as he seeks God’s guidance and direction.

In His Service,

Monday, April 16, 2012

Controling the Dose

     Let’s consider for a moment, Philippians 2:7, “…He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men…” In a few words God reveals to us a key component of His philosophy of ministry. Christ left the comfort of heaven and moved in with those to whom He would minister. He lived with them, He ate with them, and He fellowshipped with them. He knew what it felt like to work all day in the hot sun. He knew what it was to be tired to be hungry. He identified Himself with them, their concerns became His concerns, in a very real way - He became one of them. 

     This has been the standard model of ministry in mission fields around the world for centuries.
Missionaries leave the comfort and familiarity of their own homes and move in with those to whom they are ministering. They learn their customs and work beside them. They immerse themselves in their culture and walk a while in their shoes. They invest themselves in the lives and communities to which they are ministering. Many missionaries willingly sacrifice personal safety and risk their own lives as they become a part of their mission field. All of this is done for one purpose – to share the Gospel of Christ.

     At one time this was the model of ministry that was practiced by churches in the United States as well. The local church was interwoven into the fabric of the community. The majority of the members lived in the community, they worked side by side with their neighbors, they fellowshipped with them, they shared in the problems of their community and worked together solve them. All the while they shared the Gospel and made a difference where they lived.

     All of this began to slowly change in the 1950’s. As the United States began to experience unprecedented prosperity, countless numbers of upwardly mobile Americans left their urban neighborhood for the wide open spaces of the suburbs. Unfortunately many of these who fled the cities were Christians. Urban churches were left vacant as new congregations were established in the suburbs and many eventually disbanded. As the Gospel presence faded urban centers crime, poverty and despair crept in. As genuine hope faded people learned to anesthetize themselves with drugs, alcohol, illicit sex or anything else that would help them escape the harsh realties of the city. Today our cities are considered by many Christians to be the epitome of spiritual darkness.

     While most Christians agree that now more than ever our urban centers need the light of Christ, very few are willing to follow Jesus’ example to bring it. Most urban ministry is done by what my bother Keith refers to as “controlling the dose.” Suburban Christians come in for a day or a week and to do mission projects, prayer walks, block parties or other Christian activities and when our time is over we return to the security of our suburban neighborhoods. We carefully regulate our exposure to the urban environment; we “control the dose.” As a result we are never truly able to relate to those who are unable to control their dose. We can never really connect with those who don’t have a safe suburban home to run to. We don’t understand their problems because they aren’t our problems. We don’t live in their neighborhoods, we don’t shop in their stores and our children don’t go to their schools. We have managed to remove the risk and therefore the ministry from our Christian faith. We have managed to make Christianity neat, clean and safe.

     Jesus didn’t commute to His mission field or try to limit His exposure; He didn’t “control the dose.” He emptied Himself and assumed the life of those to whom He came to minister. If we claim to follow in His footsteps, how can we do any less?

In His Service,