Results tagged “Culture” from Reformation21 Blog

The Old Testament's Message to Our Culture

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What can the Old Testament possibly say to our culture? It seems a million miles and sometimes a million years away from our time, our generation, and our problems. How can something so old address all the new challenges of globalization, sex-trafficking, the digital revolution, etc.

There's no question that the Old Testament is a challenging read; it doesn't yield its wisdom quite as easily as fortune cookies. However, it does repay disciplined and prayerful reading and research. Remember it was the Old Testament Paul was referring to when he said: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

So let me give you five ways the Old Testament speaks profitably to our times:

1. The Old Testament explains our culture. 

If you enter a play at the half-time interval you wouldn't expect to understand the second half of the drama. You'd be left scratching your head at much of what followed, and make numerous false conclusions and judgments as well.

Similarly, if we only read the New Testament, we are coming in half way through the third of four acts, and can't really have a hope of grasping where the story has been and is going.

The Old Testament unfolds the drama of a perfectly good and beautiful creation in Act 1 followed by humanity's tragic fall into sin in Act 2. Act 3, which opens in Genesis 3, begins the story of redemption, and gives us hope of a climactic final Act 4 when all things will be made new for those who follow the story and don't walk out to write their own ending.

We'll never understand or be able to explain our culture without watching the whole drama from the beginning.

2. The Old Testament supplies moral standards for our culture.

Although there is much debate about which Old Testament laws apply in our own day, it's not as difficult as it is sometimes made out to be.

God gave three kinds of law in the Old Testament. First, He gave ceremonial laws which focused on the kinds of sacrifices and worship Israel was to give to God. The New Testament makes clear that these were temporary laws which pictured and pointed to the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, and expired with His coming. To hang on to these laws is to embrace the shadow of a person when he's standing right in front of you.

Second, He gave civil laws, which were tailor made to fit the unique historical situation that Israel was facing and to preserve that nation in the face of multiple hostile threats from within and without. While there are some permanent principles of justice at the core of these laws, the particular application and penalties were limited to the ancient state of Israel until its destruction at the hands of the Romans in 70AD.

Third, God gave his permanent and unchangeable moral law, summarized for us in the Ten Commandments., and confirmed for us in the New Testament. Again, there are culture-specific applications of these ten principles in the Old Testament, but it's a relatively easy task to extract the principles and apply them to our own day which so much needs objectively true and reliable moral standards to drive away the fog of moral confusion and relativism.

3. The Old Testament gives hope for our culture.

While God gives us His law by which to order our lives and our culture, we fail again and again in implementing and obeying them, resulting in serious national, personal, economic, military, social, moral, and spiritual consequences, just as it did for Israel.

On numerous occasions, we find the world in general, and Israel in particular in the depths of depression and degradation. Think of Noah's time, the Tower of Babel, Israel in Egyptian slavery, the times of the Judges, most of the Kings, Israel in Babylonian exile, etc.

The Old Testament paints a dark, dark picture of sin and its awful effects. And yet the Lord, in mercy, came again and again to raise up godly leaders, to revive His church, and to renew and re-create the culture. The darkest days often preceded the brightest dawn. What hope of renewal this grand historical narrative gives us in the midst of our own downward spiral.

4. The Old Testament points our culture to Jesus Christ.

The Old Testament contains somewhere between 300-400 prophecies of Jesus Christ. Of these, approximately 40-60 are startlingly specific. From Genesis 3:15 onwards, the hope of Israel and of the world was in a Promised Messiah, a coming Savior who would defeat evil and deliver those caught in its snares.

Jesus said that the Old Testament was all about Him (Luke 24: 27,44). When Jesus was encouraging the Pharisees to read the Old Testament, the reason He gave was, "They testify of me" (John 5:39). These books were speaking about Him, telling people about Him, drawing people to put faith in Him, even before He was born! "Moses wrote of me" said Jesus (Jn. 5:46). That's almost 1500 years before Bethlehem! Traveling even further back to 2000 BC, Abraham "saw" Christ's day way down the road of faith and rejoiced (John 8:56). Jesus Christ is God's message of hope and renewal to the world. Always has been and always will be. Our task is to use both Testaments to shine the spotlight attention on Him as the only way to God and the only Savior from sin.

5. The Old Testament calls us to evangelize our culture.

In some ways, the Old Testament seems very narrow. God appears to be focused exclusively on the tiny little nation of Israel and let all other countries perish. However, that's to completely miss the point. It's true that God chose Abraham and Israel through whom to fulfill His plan, but His ultimate purpose for Abraham was that through His descendants "all the families of the earth would be blessed." And though Israel was blessed with unique favor and revelation from God, it was called to be "a kingdom of priests" through whom God would mediate His Word of salvation to the nations.

Although Israel often failed in this mission through its nationalistic pride (Jonah being the prime example of this), God continued to hold out the vision of a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-ethnic church in the prophets and Psalms, an emphasis confirmed by Jesus' great re-commission to go out into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.

I hope you can see that though God gave the Old Testament to a particular people at a particular time in a particular way, that He wrote it in such a way that it is still powerfully relevant to us and our culture in 2016.


Dr. David Mur­ray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is also pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church. He is the author of Christians Get Depressed TooHow Sermons Work and Jesus on Every Page. David blogs at HeadHeartHand. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpmurray
Karl Marx didn't write all that much about religion, but what little he did was radical, programmatic, and rather clever. Here is almost his entire commentary on the meaning of religion as a cultural phenomenon: "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." He wrote this in 1843. 

Context 

The year is interesting. Opium had been available in Europe in limited amounts at least since the turn of the sixteenth century, but its reputation spread during the first half of the nineteenth century and by 1843 it was attracting literary attention: the addict Coleridge wrote his supposedly opium-inspired "Kubla Khan" in 1797 (published in 1816), de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater appeared in 1822, Tennyson's "The Lotus-Eaters" in 1832, and in America Poe's "Ligeia" appeared in 1838. (Opium also had a cameo in Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844.) 

But 1843 was a significant year in European opium consciousness for a more sinister reason. For several decades Britain's East India Company had been smuggling a superior form of the drug into China. The company contrived this lucrative operation to equalize the massive trade imbalance created by the English demand for tea, silk, and ceramics and Chinese indifference toward anything the English had to offer except silver. The amount of opium entering China surged in the 1830s. When the Chinese government adopted aggressive anti-drug measures, the United Kingdom declared war. After their decisive victory the British demanded China open up and cede Hong Kong (effectively ending China's ability to prevent the opium trade). They also demanded China pay Britain's war bill and, in dumbfounding arrogance, insisted they compensate opium smugglers for their losses. The year was 1842. 

Critique 

This is the backdrop to Marx's opium metaphor at the center of his materialistic critique of religion: 

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. 

Religion must be intensely criticized for at least two reasons: as an act of intervention for an already addicted population and to warn everyone not already addicted away from its subtle power. 

The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true sun. 

To extend Marx's metaphor along lines laid down by Lenin, capitalists are as eager to push religion on the proletariat as East India Company traders were to push opium on the Chinese people; and the oppressed and exploited proletariat is just as greedy for more religious product as the millions of addicted Chinese were for opium. 

Critique of religion as a form of intervention was clearly in order, from the marxist perspective, and that critique combines two claims: a moral argument (MA) that religion or at least certain religious beliefs entail a particular social injustice of one sort or another and a pragmatic argument (PA) that continued religious devotion, at least to the criticized beliefs, is a hindrance or obstacle to social progress in some significant way. Hence the MA & PA case for the de-Christianization of culture. (This combination is also applied to Islamic societies--more on that some other time perhaps.) 

The MA & PA case rests on several notable assumptions. Among them, that there is an eschatological mandate to pursue social justice, that there is a known transcendent moral order that defines justice, that each social injustice represents a systemic practical problem of culture, and that the religious beliefs being criticized are obviously false. Not everyone who employs the MA & PA case seems to recognize these assumptions and some may find it difficult to account for some of them without resorting to myth. 

Awkward assumptions aside, the MA & PA case is enthusiastically employed by those eager to de-Christianize their culture in one way or another or even altogether. 

Cases 

I first began to see this combo in my undergraduate studies in Geography. We were assigned Lynn White's much-discussed essay, "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," in which he argues roughly this: 

MA: What Christianity traditionally teaches about nature (creation, human dominion, etc.) has led to the great injustice of the current ecological crisis. 

PA: To make any progress in addressing the ecological crisis we must overthrow those particular influential Christian beliefs that prevent effective action. 

White, an active presbyterian and son of a presbyterian minister, advocated revising traditional Christian doctrine along lines he detected in the writings of Francis of Assisi. Although his argument is surprisingly shoddy, it was radical, programmatic, and rather clever--as rhetorically potent qualities in 1967 as 1843. 

So, Marx used the MA & PA combo to criticize religion for economic oppression and White used it to criticize Christianity for the ecological crisis. Others have used the MA & PA case to criticize supposed Christian teaching on a host of other cultural issues, including equality for women, ethnic and religious minorities, and non-heterosexually identifying people. In each instance, the critique runs more or less like this: 

MA: What Christianity traditionally teaches about X has led to the current social injustice. 

PA: To make any progress in addressing this systemic cultural problem we must overthrow those particular beliefs that prevent effective action. 

Same sex marriage is a recent example of the rhetorical potency of this critique; transgender restroom use is apparently (and bizarrely) going to be the next. 

So What? 

We must admit that these criticisms are not always or altogether unfounded. Whenever the church is criticized by the world our first response should be self-examination before God to see if there are any sinful ways in us--any harmful beliefs we hold, for example, that really do generate or perpetuate actual injustice in the world. 

But we should also recognize the MA & PA case for what it is or is often intended to be: an ideologically mandated form of cultural intervention to "protect" people from the offense of the gospel as it is preached and lived out by the church in the world. This one-two combo for the de-Christianization of culture, in other words, goes far beyond questioning the role of religious conviction in the public square; it underwrites a campaign to check and even overthrow religious conviction wherever it is found, demanding we either revise our beliefs to fit the cultural climate or abandon our intolerable faith.

Socialism Is Evil

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In a recent blog post I urged the biblical basis for the spirituality of the church.  One of the points I made is that while the church does not meddle in civil government, it most certainly may speak against social evils.  Christians and pastors can and should speak out on evils such as racism, government sponsored torture, or, in this case, socialism.

I bring up socialism because I have noticed that it is becoming fashionable for Christians to denounce capitalism and laud socialism as a more biblical alternative.  I get how this happens.  Under capitalism, sin wreaks its usual havoc and the system is blamed for the injustice common to fallen human society.  There are biblical principles that seem to push back against capitalism - such as concern for the well-being of others - which really should be addressed to how people use the system rather than the system itself.   To be sure, capitalism itself provides no tonic for the disease of sin.  Moreover, Christians should be discerning enough to scorn the adolescent egotism of Ayn Rand-style capitalism and realize the need for government intervention against capitalistic abuses.  But in reacting against these, Christians should also have enough discernment not to endorse a system so inherently evil as socialism. 

So, biblically speaking, why is socialism evil?  Let me suggest three reasons:

1.       Because socialism is a system based on stealing;

2.       Because socialism is an anti-work system; and

3.       Because socialism concentrates the power to do evil.

 

Let's look at each of these briefly:

1.       Because socialism is a system based on stealing.  The whole point of socialism is for the government to seize control of private property, mainly involving the proceeds of peoples' work, in order to give it to others.  (Note the compulsory aspect of socialism, which so differs from voluntary forms of communalism.) This activity is the very thing pronounced as evil by the 8th Commandment: "You shall not steal" (Ex. 20:15).    Throughout the Bible it is assumed that individuals have responsibility and authority over the property in their possession.  For instance, even when Peter was accusing Ananias of being greedy and dishonest, the apostle admitted the man's right to dispose of his personal property (Acts 5:4).  While there is a legitimate basis for government taxation, the simple taking of one's possessions in order to give them to others is not one of them.  Socialism is evil because it inherently involves stealing.

2.       Because socialism is an anti-work system.  Socialism promises to give a blessed life for free.  Today, Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders promises to give free education, free health care, and free vacation time, etc.  (Of course, since government does not create wealth, these things are only free as the money to give them is taken from others.)    As I listen to Senator Sanders, I wonder what incentive there would be to work hard.  Why would I put myself through the ordeal of discipline, sacrifice, and sweat, much less risk-taking business endeavors, if I can have a wonderful life without working for it?  In contrast to the ethos of socialism, the Bible is explicitly pro-work.  Paul writes: "Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need" (Eph. 4:28).  Here, the apostle not only urges selflessness with one's possession, but explicitly denounces the socialist ethos.  "Work!" the Bible says (2 Thess. 3:10).  And on the basis of your own work you should provide for your needs and you should voluntary support the church and others in need.

3.       Because socialism concentrates the power to do evil.  The Bible's concern about human sinfulness (and its general approach of de-centralizing power) argues strongly against socialism.  Under capitalism, the individual has discretion to dispose of his or her wealth, which in some cases involves vast resources.  This may be done virtuously or sinfully depending on the character of the individual owner.  Under socialism, however, a small number of government masters has control over almost all of the resources of the entire society.  Unless one believes that politicians are inherently more virtuous than private citizens (and where one would get such an idea is a mystery to me), then this concentration of power is certain to work extraordinary amounts of evil.  Under capitalism, access to scarce resources is determined by how much money one has, and one's money generally reflects the market's value on his or her work contributions.  This will sometimes seem unfair, depending on one's perspective.  But under socialism, access to scarce resources is based on government favor.  This structure virtually reduces the society to slavery, eventually impoverishes everyone, and unfailingly promotes a culture of corruption. 

For these biblically-based reasons, I would urge Christians to refrain from giving praise (and political support) to socialism and candidates who promote it.  Alongside the Bible are the lessons of history.  To students of such arcane history as the 20th Century, the prospect of socialism is chilling.  There is a reason why some Americans want to erect a wall to keep illegal immigrants out, whereas socialist countries have built their walls to keep people in.  Socialism is a nightmare to those who actually experience it, whereas capitalism is deemed a paradise - without Christ, a false, materialistic paradise, to be sure - to those trying to get in. 

Capitalism does not offer salvation: only Jesus can deliver us from our sins.  Socialism, on the other hand, is a manifestly evil system from which we should pray to be delivered.

Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church, in Richmond, VA, celebrated its ninth Sunday on December 21, 2014. Time seems to be moving quite quickly. Before you know it, if the Lord wills, we will have finished our series through the book of Exodus. We average about 50 persons in attendance each Sunday. That includes people from various ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. It is quite a blessing to see what the Lord is doing in our church.

Since the first service, our liturgy has remained the same. We have several scripture readings, a confession of sin while kneeling, preaching of the word, administration of the Lord's Supper weekly while sitting around a table and partaking of a common meal, benediction, etc. You can view our liturgy here (sample_liturgy.pdf).  We hope to add the sursum corda next year. Interestingly, our liturgy is not entirely different from the most recent all black Baptist church I visited. Consider also the latest partnership between some Pentecostal and Anglican churches. What is my point? As I shared in parts 1 and 2, the liturgy is not what is keeping minorities away from Presbyterian and reformed churches.

In part 3, I began to introduce music into the equation. Is a certain genre of music keeping minorities away from our churches? Is it the way its sung? Here are some of my thoughts regarding those questions.
I wonder if what may be keeping minorities away from our churches is less about the genre of music that is sung and more about the way in which we sing it. In many of our churches, especially if they consider themselves, "old school," generally we know what to expect musically--hymns and psalms utilizing traditional tunes with very few instruments. As an aside, we sing hymns from the Trinity Hymnal at Crown and Joy. There is nothing wrong with these musical preferences, but what I have noticed more recently among churches that are increasing in ethnic and cultural diversity is that they are singing many of the traditional hymns using more modern tunes. Minor chords, more upbeat tempos, and choruses are utilized. These churches have attempted to contextualize the music, particularly as it relates to the tunes, while maintaining the rich and biblical lyrics associated with traditional hymns.

Depending on the church's context, this seems to help. Minorities, especially if they have a church background (see part 1), may feel more comfortable during the singing aspect of the Lord's Day service because the tune is more fitting to their previous church experience. (Here is one example). Unfortunately, in my opinion, not all churches are willing to do this. They are unwilling to alter this segment of their church service to help minorities feel more comfortable in an already foreign situation (i.e., reformed and predominantly white). 

I think if we consider our local congregations more as missionary establishments it may help us. In other words, it seems that missionaries, when thinking soberly, note their cultural context. They pay attention to the dialect, cultural practices, musical tastes, food, clothing, living arrangements, etc. This helps them minister to the locals in that community. If we adopted that mindset versus catering almost primarily to those already in our churches, or even those with similar preferences whom we foresee joining us, we might be more willing to change certain aspects of our music. As I write this, I also confess that I believe the church is for Christians, yet it is also a place for non-Christians to attend and be saved. What might those elect saints, who have yet to embrace Christ by faith, be listening to musically? Will taking that into consideration as well as implementing it, within reason and biblical standards, help them feel more comfortable in our midst? Regarding those who have a church background, will taking into consideration what those saints are listening to musically, who may later become reformed, help them feel more comfortable when they visit us? One African-American comes to mind, one who has been in a Presbyterian church for over 10 years and has a Pentecostal background. This person does not like the music at that particular Presbyterian congregation. What can we do for someone like that?

What about churches that are unwilling to adapt? If one's church will not change the tunes associated with many traditional hymns, are they hopeless? If they reside in diverse contexts and are unwilling to change their current musical practices, should they toss in the towel, so-to-speak, regarding diversity? Or what about those churches that are willing to change their music for the sake of ministry contextualization but do not feel equipped to do so? I hope to address those questions in other posts. 
Various social media websites and the news outlets are still ablaze after the #FergusonDecision. While I am concerned about how the world is reacting, both positively and negatively, I am also concerned about how the Church is responding. As I shared here, what I am observing further confirms that we, as followers of Christ, are still divided on these issues. Unfortunately, while disagreement is one thing; we can disagree on issues related to ethnicity and culture, terminating friendships and assassinating someone's character are completely different. (Yes, I have seen these things occur). The latter must cease.

In light of all the current dialogue about ethnic and cultural issues, specifically as they surround the #FergusonDecision or more broadly the conversations in general, allow me to provide 3 don'ts of ethnic/cultural conversation. These mistakes are being made all over the place, and it does not aid in this most important discussion.

I do not claim that these are standard across the board, specifically as it relates to blacks and whites, but from the vast majority of conversations with brothers and sisters in the faith, these observations seem quite consistent. 

3 Don'ts of Ethnic/Cultural Dialogue While Speaking to African-Americans:

1. Don't tell us we make everything about race. It is easy to avoid conversations about race, or ethnicity, when it is not a category you are accustomed to discussing. To the same degree and in the same manner we have had to be concerned about the color of our skin, you have not. Driving, shopping, and walking while black are things that will never concern you. Instead of telling us we make everything about race, it will be helpful for you to learn about our pain because there is truth to our story.

2. Don't be so quick to respond. #blacklivesmatter . At times, it seems like you have no desire to sympathize with us. While we do not expect you to feel our pain as we do, surely you can weep with us. The racial/ethnic tension in this country has existed for hundreds of years, and it is still present today. At times, however, it takes more subtle forms. When we mention this unfortunate reality, please refrain from pulling the trigger of your keyboard so quickly or providing a verbal rebuttal. Just listen. You may gain a new friend and/or develop a deeper relationship with us.

3. Don't quote other African-Americans in support of your position. We know there are African-Americans who disagree with us in certain areas. Quoting from one of our own, according to the flesh, may do more to hurt your position than help you. From an extreme perspective, it may appear like you are trying to turn us against our own. From a much narrower point-of-view, when you quote an African-American, it is akin to quoting "your one black friend." In other words, you only use him when it is to your advantage. 

3 Don'ts of Ethnic/Cultural Dialogue While Speaking to White Americans:

1. Don't make us feel guilty. There are many of us who desire to help and move forward in this highly charged area, but we sometimes feel as if you are pointing the finger at us without giving us an opportunity to say, "We are on your side." Furthermore, you sometimes make us feel as if everything is our fault when, in fact, many of us are immigrants, and our ancestors had nothing to do with much of this tragic history of this nation.

2. Don't disregard our position simply because we differ. Sometimes we feel as if you do not want to hear our position because we may have another perspective. Is it wrong to disagree? Perhaps in conversation you may convince us of your position, or quite possibly we may convince you of ours, whether in part or in total. But please listen to us. We feel like we have something valuable to add, too.

3. Don't act like we do not care. We know there are many issues at hand, issues that are far more numerous than we understand. Nevertheless, that does not mean we do not care. We want justice to be upheld. We want God to be honored. We do care. We will never be able to walk in your shoes, but we can walk along side you to hear your frustrations and pain. 
According to some sources, Officer Darren Wilson could have been indicted with one of several crimes (e.g., first degree murder, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, or others) for killing an unarmed African-American young man. Many around the world were quite disgusted at his actions. Others believed Officer Wilson acted rightly and was simply seeking to defend himself from the attacks of Mr. Michael Brown. 

Since the incident occurred months ago, the conversation about police brutality, the history of African-Americans in this nation, and ethnic, or race, discussions have more frequently occurred in a condensed manner. People have wondered whether this was an isolated incident. Others have thought that African-Americans, far too frequently, have their lives taken by white law enforcement? Still yet, some posed the question, "Was this even about race?" They further mused that some African-Americans make certain situations about race, or ethnicity, when they should not; it only makes matters worse.

With all the conversations that happened, whether on social media sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) and/or in the news, the world, and literally I mean the world, waited with baited breath as the verdict concerning Officer Darren Wilson was announced. At about 9PM Eastern Standard Time (EST) on Monday, November 24, 2014, St. Louis County Prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, announced that a grand jury comprised of nine whites and three blacks did not indict Officer Wilson. Many people were shocked. Others thought the appropriate decision was made.

How do you feel? I write to those who are frustrated. Does the verdict remind you of all the years of oppression our people (cf. Exod. 2:11) have faced? Do you feel rage? Do you want to express it somehow, but for fear of misunderstanding you do nothing? Do you write something on Facebook or Twitter secretly hoping people will validate your concerns by 'liking', commenting, or retweeting your post? Do you wonder about the Brown family and how they are feeling and healing? Mr. Michael Brown Sr. said

"We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions. While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen. Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera."

Despite Brown, Sr.'s comment to "channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change," perhaps one of your chief concerns in moving forward is that some white people seem to stand in the way. "How can we make change positively if they seem to oppose us?", you may think. Or perhaps you continue to ponder why more whites do not understand your pain, and instead of seeking to better comprehend you and your position, they assume they know, then write things on social media (e.g., "Don't make this about race") that are extremely insensitive and only further frustrate and offend you. It may seem as if #blacklivesdontmatter. 

Do you wonder if some whites lack concern that another image-bearer has lost his life? Deep down, do you wish they would remain silent and simply "weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15) instead of telling you, "A decision has been made. Color does not matter. The facts are in"? As I have been taught in my marriage, sometimes it is best to remain silent and enter into another person's world insofar as one is able to better garner another person's position. 

I know you are hurting. I am, too, because the Ferguson, MO incident reminds me of so many other things, not to mention we have not progressed as far as we should have regarding ethnic, or race, relations in the church. Nevertheless, my plea to you, as brothers and sisters in Christ and according to the flesh, is that you realize whites, particularly white Christians, are not your enemies. The same flesh that was torn and blood that was shed for you was equally broken and poured out for them. We are called, therefore, "so far as it depends on you, [to] live peaceably with all" (Rom. 12:18). As difficult as that may be at times, are you willing to do that? More pointedly, are you willing to be at peace with your white brothers and sisters, and even reconcile with them if they have offended you, before the Sunday comes when you participate in the Lord's Supper? Do you realize what may be at stake if you do not?

"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died" (1 Cor. 11:27-30). 

The context of the aforementioned passage includes, but is not limited to, reconciliation with each other (cf. 1 Cor. 11:17-22). If we have not attempted to mend the brokenness of our relationships in the local church, we drink judgment upon ourselves. In fact that is why some people were dying in the first century. It is frightening to consider how seriously we should take participating in Communion.

You see, just as God, the offended party, has reconciled us, the offending party, to himself through Christ by pursuing us and ultimately sending his Son to a cross, so, too, we must pursue those who have offended us in an attempt to fasten the loose areas in our relationships with them. Along with all the pain and confusion we may experience during this time (#FergusonDecision), we must maintain hearts full of forgiveness and love (Col. 3:12-17). We must grow together; we must live together; we must love together. We have enough problems in the world. Far too often those same problems exist in the Church, when in fact the Church should be a place of refuge and comfort.

To get to that place, however, it will take time and many more conversations, but God is able. In his providence, he has brought us thus far. He continues to create a people for himself, a people from every tribe, nation, and tongue, who should be willing, ready, and able to worship the Lord under the same roof, live together in neighborhoods, and have these kind of conversations. Our communion more broadly (i.e., relationships) and our Communion more specifically (i.e., the Lord's Supper) all point to our salvation, redemption, and reconciliation with God through Christ, as well as our reconciliation with each other.

Please pursue and reconcile with those who have offended you. Take the more difficult road. It will be that much sweeter as you participate in the Lord's Supper and look across the pews knowing you are truly one in Christ and that no temporal issue has caused separation. I really and truly hope it works out that smoothly. I also hope that, as you pursue those who have offended you, God will be glorified in the reconciliation of his people as you seek to learn from each other and grow together.

Less Gushing, More Blushing

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Biographical description many pastors write for the web site of their church: "Married to the most beautiful woman in the world."

"We have the best youth pastor in the country."

"He's the smartest guy in every room..."

I often joke that the most beautiful woman in the world must be getting very tired.  How would you like to be the wife to thousands of pastors?

The line about the youth pastor came out of the mouth of a seasoned pastor.  He clearly wanted us to know how special our youth pastor was. I remember thinking that our senior pastor could not possibly know every youth pastor in the country to make such an assessment. Even if that were possible, it would mean our senior pastor would be God, for only God can determine who is really best, or more importantly, faithful.  

The last quote is a direct quote from the address of an evangelical leader about another evangelical leader. Both guys certainly have much to offer, but it shows how even good people can get caught up in hyperbole.

When I was doing radio, one of my most faithful listeners told me that I "was the smartest guy on radio."  I told him that was depressing to hear. Was the bar really that low?  A bit more seriously, I gently asked him if he had listened to every single show on American radio.  He was simply trying to encourage me, but again it demonstrates how much we Americans love superlatives.  "Good, better, best.  Never let it rest.  Till your good is better, and your better is best."  

There is nothing wrong of course with shooting to do excellent work.  I attempt to do so myself.  But the amount of cheerleading among Americans, including us evangelicals, needs to be seriously monitored.

Evangelicals aren't the only ones doing this sort of thing.  Sure, many of us continue to say D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was the "greatest preacher of the twentieth-century," but Baylor University got in the act when it posted its "12 Most Effective Preachers."

We Americans love this stuff. Who are the people that really matter?  Perhaps we know one of them. Maybe if we follow them on Twitter they will return the favor. Spoiler alert: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones does not have a Twitter account.

Not only do those who supposedly matter get our attention, but big things do as well.  Big Christian conferences are a cottage industry in America. Good things surely happen at such events. I've attended and spoken at some.  However, are we enamored, even being seduced by these big events?  Are we in danger of trumpeting the impressive numbers as a barometer for their legitimacy? It's hard to even entertain such questions, especially when lots of money and jobs are tied up with them. 

About a year ago I was talking with a dear friend who does men's ministry in Canada.  He is Canadian, but has spent quite a bit of time in the US. As we talked about various ways to minister to men, he mentioned that Canadians are suspicious of big things. It is why Promise Keepers was not a big deal in Canada, but was the thing for many years here in the States.  Promise Keepers has now gone the way of the Dodo bird, but other big things are amply filling the vacuum that was temporarily left.

Perhaps a restaurant chain can help us gain a better perspective.  Here in Austin we have several places which serve barbecue.  One in particular stands out for its tagline.  Rudy's bills itself as "The worst barbecue in Texas."  You can't set the bar any lower than that.  Actually, the barbecue is quite good as the consistently brisk business attests.

Maybe Christians ought to consider a little less fanfare about how great their particular organization does things. Triumphalism is endemic in American culture, but do Christians really need to go along with such silliness?

Years ago, I interviewed Cal Thomas on his important book, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? Thomas co-authored the book with Ed Dobson. Both authors served in positions of influence during the heyday of The Moral Majority.  When Jerry Falwell died, Cal Thomas wrote a moving obituary, but still was willing to say what needed to be said:
The movement [The Moral Majority] also had its downside, because it tended to detract from a Christian's primary responsibility of telling people the "good news" that redemption comes only through Jesus Christ. At times, this central message seemed to be replaced by one suggesting that a shortcut to moral renewal might come through Washington and the Republican Party.
My only disappointment with Blinded by Might was that its message did not get out earlier.  Imagine if Thomas and Dobson instead of being vilified or marginalized for writing were honored by The Moral Majority for having the courage to speak truth to power.  Now ask yourself this diagnostic question: How many people do you know who have given a pointed critique to their own Christian organization and not suffered repercussions for doing so?

"Less gushing, more blushing" would furnish the kind of culture where people can appropriately raise concerns within their organizations without being labelled a troublemaker.  A sign of real health in any organization is where concerns, even pointed ones, can be openly discussed without any fear of reprisals.  

  

David George Moore is the author of three books, most recently, The Last Men's Book You'll Ever Need. For those who would like to interact with Dave (no yelling or rants, please) you may find his blog at www.twocities.org  

Mike Brown: We're Still Divided

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Are you watching the news? Are you reading blogs and news reports about the recent death of 18-year old Michael Brown? Have you watched the protests that have and will continue to occur? Are you, in any sense, moved to pray or talk to others about this?

I have scanned the internet for various stories on this unfortunate incident. It is unfortunate because someone is dead and families and those in his community are grieving. I wish I could say this is a unique occurrence; it is not. As one author said, "Michael Brown is not special. In all its specificity, the 18-year old's death remains just the most recent example of police officers killing unarmed black men."

To be quite honest, this angers me for many reasons. One reason is its frequency. In Los Angeles, where I was raised for part of my life, I was accustomed to seeing white spray paint on the ground that outlined the newly deceased young black man's body. I was submerged in stories about police brutality toward my people. Do not let the preacher's robe and Presbyterian polity fool you. I come from a place to which many of you cannot relate. 

Despite my current position as a PCA minister, these are still my people, and I completely understand the frustration and anger they feel. But you are my people, too. And thus I believe we must work together for the sake of the gospel to better understand each other in light of the now deceased 18-year old Michael Brown. 

Did you notice the distinction I made in the previous paragraph between "they" and "you"? Let's be transparent: the majority of both readership and authorship on this blog are white. Do not be ashamed that you are white. I am unashamed of this visible difference. You should be unashamed, too, and take great pride in God's creative genius to create us visually different. Yet, simply because we are in Christ does not flatten the beauty of ethnic and cultural distinctions that we maintain. Galatians 3:27-29 provides no grounds for such a conclusion.

With these ethnic and cultural distinctions, therefore, we may see the Mike Brown proceeding through a different lens. For some of us this simply highlights what we have always known, or at least believed, to be true: young black men are unsafe in this nation. For others, perhaps some of you, especially if you have been following this event, may wonder, "Why do they (i.e., African-Americans) have to make everything about race?" Based on your observations, you have concluded that blacks, and/or other minorities, unnecessarily pull the proverbial race card. Some African-Americans, or other sub-dominant cultures, might respond, "Why do whites always dismiss the possibility that race, or ethnicity, was a motivating factor in said event?" 

These are real questions with which people wrestle, and events like the death of Mike Brown only bring to the surface the questions that have lingered for years. I wonder, however, how this affects the church. I am particularly referring to the institutional Sunday morning (or afternoon) gathered church. Does Mike Brown, and those like him--even unarmed poor whites who have been harmed by law enforcement--affect the institutional church? I maintain it does. 

Consider the recent and ongoing immigration debate. How has it affected you? What do you think when you see a Spanish speaking image-bearer, one who knows, or at least it is assumed, very little English? What has caused your conclusions? Do you remain unaffected by the outcry of some in the media who thrust names on them, such as, "illegal," "unwanted immigrant," or "wetback"? The point of the news, while to inform, is also to sway opinion, and I think we may lack transparency if we claim we are not, at least in part, somehow affected by what some branches of the media portray about immigration.

The same can be stated about African-Americans. For years in this nation, African-Americans have been, and continue to be, portrayed in shrouds of untruth. "We are lazy, good-for-nothings," some have and do say. "We are animals," it has been said. Or in the words of PCUS minister, Benjamin Palmer (1818-1902), "The worst foes of the black race are those who have intermeddled on their behalf. We know better than others that every attribute of their character fits them for dependence and servitude. By nature the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun, they are also the most helpless."

Whether one-hundred years ago or now, our views about other ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, and mentally (in)capable groups are largely determined by our context, and the media helps form our views within our context. All of this makes it difficult to have important conversations about Mike Brown, situations like it, and the church.

This is why we need a movement of the Holy Spirit. Amid the horrific realities of Mike Browns all over the United States, and even the incidents that occur which are not broadcast (e.g., unjust acts taken against poor whites), we must demonstrate that the church is different. We are unlike the world, which can segregate, almost immediately, based on the color of one's skin and other factors. Have you noticed that is what has occurred in the death of Mike Brown? Why do you think the pictures and quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have newly surfaced on the internet, largely from ethnic minorities? Why do you believe pictures from the 1950's and 1960's have been newly awakened? For many, history continues to repeat itself, and that angers African-Americans and other minorities. Perhaps we, specifically Christians, are also angry at the lack of representation in the 'Christian' blogosphere from others in the majority culture. Robin Williams is okay, but apparently Mike Brown is not.

There are potentially many answers to the lingering question, "What can we do?" The Transformatlists, Theonomists, and Two Kingdoms advocates 'can have a go at it,' as they say, discussing the church's role in this situation, particularly as it relates to the notion of justice. As a response to this situation, one of my concluding desires is to remind you of the Abrahamic (Gen. 17:4ff) and New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) promises.

You know, I believe it is extremely easy to notice the ethnic and cultural divide that has ensued due to the death of young Mike Brown, yet we might fail to see the same division in the church. It is there. You cannot miss it. If you are in a Presbyterian and/or Reformed/Reforming congregation, look around this Sunday. What do you see? Some are blessed to see diversity on numerous levels in their churches. Most are not. In large measure, we gather with those who are culturally, ethnically, mentally, and financially similar. The segregation that we see in the world, therefore, is, in much the same way, the segregation we see in the church. In other words, the same factors that contribute to segregation in the world are the same factors that create segregation in the church. Perhaps we are more worldly than we think?

Consider the Mike Brown matter in relation to the divisions we see in the church. What caused the uproar surrounding Mike Brown? Death and ethnicity--white cop, black man, one is dead. Is the church divided based on death? Yes. How many tens of thousands of Africans/African-Americans died either crossing the Atlantic during the slave trade or years after slavery was apparently abolished, were lynched in the south? Would you want to worship with someone who may kill you? The answer: be forced or voluntarily attend a different church. Furthermore, even when death became less of a threat, many African-Americans and other minorities were not permitted to worship with whites, and if they were, blacks were placed in the back of the church in what we now call, 'the choir loft.' 

Are we separated based on ethnicity? Of course. Why do we use terms like, 'the black church' and 'the white church'? Are we divided because of class and education? How many poor whites and blacks do we have in our midst? Are we frequenting the trailer parks and projects to announce the good news and invite them into our church family? By the way, poor whites and blacks, as well as those who do not have a degree, are also in the suburbs. 

Are we separated based on mentality capabilities? How many mentally disabled members do we have in our churches? Is our church a place where they, as well as their families, can feel safe, or have we made them feel unwanted because of the happenings mentality disabilities provide during Lord's Day worship (e.g., audible outbreaks). Are we divided based on culture? While many people have written about the Mark Driscoll situation, or perhaps better stated, situations, I have always been amazed at the type of people he attracted. I do not typically see those same people in Presbyterian and/or Reformed churches. Where are those who are tattooed from the neck down? Where are those who wear skinny jeans and have enlarged holes in their ears? Where are the punk rockers and the hip-hoppers? It seems, based on my observation, they/we gather with those who are like them/us.

Mike Brown: We're still divided.

Yes, what occurred to Mr. Brown is tragic and it grieves my heart. Was he even a Christian? I would hate for him to go from one tragedy to another. Yet, I wonder if this event is revealing a larger issue--the death, divide, and destruction that we have in our own churches. Both the Abrahamic and New Covenant promises reveal that God never intended his church to be divided as it is on Sunday mornings (Gen. 17:4ff; Jer. 31:31-34; Matt. 28:16-20; Gal. 2:11-14; Eph. 2:11-22). His promises are for all peoples (Rev. 5:9-10). Everyone, regardless of the distinctions they maintain, needs the good news of God, in Christ, come to save sinners. That must be our foundation; it must be heard; it must be believed; and the results must be manifest in our midst (i.e., a worshiping community that displays the demographics of the community). Only then will we be able to have conversations about the Mike Browns in our midst and better understand one's perspective(s) on such horrible situations. 
Church planting requires many administrative tasks. From setting up email accounts and registering the church's 501-C3 status to fundraising and sending update letters, one can easily spend over one-hundred hours on the front end tackling these necessary duties. In addition to these important matters, a church planter must also find a meeting location. Will it be a storefront or an elementary school, a hotel or existing church? Recently I secured a location for our church plant, but what I found along the way was quite interesting.

In our church planting location, there are several neighborhood churches that were built in the 1950s and 1960s. These are beautiful structures with amazing worship auditoriums, fellowship and dining halls, classrooms, and just about every other amenity one can imagine. 

As I visited these churches to inquire into renting their facility for Lord's Day worship (our first service is October 26, 2014), I typically received a tour of the premises by either the minister or some other church officer. I found myself daydreaming throughout the tour hoping that Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church would one day own such a beautiful facility. In most cases when I snapped out of my trance, I asked how many people attend the church. With such large worship auditoriums, many seating 600, I expected to hear a large number. However, the numbers reported were shocking.

50...40... 

When I asked a church officer why the numbers were low despite the large worship auditoriums, he responded, "People don't go to church anymore." In conjunction with this same sentiment, another church officer responded, "Our people are old and dying."

After these moving statements, these church officers reflected upon, in narrative fashion, the golden years in the 1950s and 1960s. There was a time, they suggested, when their churches were full. One could expect those in the neighborhood to either walk to church or make a short drive to arrive. All you needed was a building in the community and people came. Now, more people walk by the church than attend. Unlike yesteryear, when people move into the community, most of them are not churchgoers. As a result, some intimated, our church buildings remain in the community awaiting closure. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, I can only imagine no one thought their church would be virtually empty in about fifty years. They expected the preaching of the word to continue and their congregation to thrive. What a difference fifty years can make?

What does this have to do with you?

You may not have Lord's Day service in an auditorium that seats 600 (or perhaps you do); nevertheless, I wonder in what state your church will be in fifty years? Will you be telling the same story as those church officers?

Since we are no longer in a culture that can expect people in the community to attend our churches, will we experience the same shift numerically? Let's face it, our exegetical preaching, proper administration of the sacraments, and church discipline will not compel people (i.e., unbelievers) to come in. They are not seeking what we offer. By the way, if we are expecting generational succession to keep our doors open, we may be expecting too much. Our children may not stay in our town once they leave and cleave, find employment, or attend college. 

So what should we do, humanly speaking, to ensure our church doors remain open? "If we build it, they will come" no longer works. And while I am not suggesting we do things in the church simply to keep our doors open (see WSC 1), if we want the gospel to advance in the community, we need to be there. 

My suggestion is simple. We must remain committed confessional Christians who adhere to the proper preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments, as well as be active in prayer, evangelism, and mercy. Yes, I know God is sovereign, and he orchestrates which church doors open and close, but that does not grant us access to laziness in order to neglect the aforementioned. 

My hope is that not only will our churches thrive numerically now (whatever that looks like in our context), but in fifty years our churches will continue thriving as we see the gospel further embraced by those in our churches and the good news advancing to unbelievers in our communities. 
"Let's face it. It's music that keeps minorities out of our church," said a PCA layman during the question and answer section of my Sunday school class. I have heard many comments like this. Perhaps you have also. Is it true?

To your disappointment, I am only going to focus on the liturgical aspect of worship in this post. I am somewhat aware of the many worship war debates and how the emphasis is often music; I will return to that. For now, let us briefly consider liturgy and what that may be doing to provide (dis)interest to minorities in your community.

First, allow me to clarify some things, specifically in terms of what I mean by "liturgy" and "minority." I confess that every church has a liturgy, even those congregations that believe the Spirit should not be contained within a set structure every Sunday. Most often, at least in my experience, those churches still have a certain order, or flow, of worship that is fairly concrete. Liturgy, then, is the pattern or arrangement of one's Sunday service. In the context of this post, however, when I refer to liturgy I specifically mean that pattern or arrangement of the elements of worship that is often employed in Presbyterian and Reformed churches (i.e., what some wrongly title, "covenant renewal ceremony"; see also DPW, section II).  

As I use the term "minority," I am being extremely limiting as well. I am specifically thinking of middle class, African-Americans with some church experience. The ecclesiastical affiliation subsumes under three categories: Pentecostal/Charismatic, Baptist, and Non-Denominational. The reason for such constriction is because these are the classifications with which I have most familiarity. 

One final point. As I write this, I am assuming there are African-Americans in your community and/or the community in which the church building is located. From a previous post, which highlighted ethnic diversity and the lack thereof in many of our reformed churches, one gentleman asked, "How do you know that these monochromatic churches don't already "reflect the communities in which they are"?" In many cases, they might; regardless, I am writing from the perspective that your community is ethnically diverse, particularly as it relates to African-Americans. If the community in which you live and in which the church is located is primarily one ethnic group, we should expect the church to reflect that demographic. However, with the changing trends in many parts of the USA, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find communities that are primarily one ethnic group.

Is liturgy keeping African-Americans out of our church?

It may and it may not. One ought not to assume that African-Americans are allergic to liturgy. Unfortunately, I have had many conversations with people who have suggested that, in order to attract African-Americans to one's congregation, there should be as little liturgy as possible. "African-Americans need to be free to express themselves," I was told, "and if you are liturgical, they will feel inhibited." Interestingly enough, my dear Anglo brothers were the ones making the aforementioned comments. How ironic?

In many traditional predominantly African-American Baptist churches, they have liturgy. In fact, I recently visited a church that was extremely dialogical and liturgical in their approach. They confessed their faith, had numerous scripture readings, call-and-response segments, and a host of other things that we would find in a Presbyterian and Reformed church. As an aside, though this is outside the boundaries of the three ecclesiastical categories previously mentioned, also consider looking at the liturgy at some African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches. They, too, are accustomed to utilizing liturgy that is present in our reformed churches.

It is not merely traditional black Baptist churches that employ liturgy but also a recent wave of Pentecostal churches. "Bishop Gregory Bowers is pastor of Penuel Missionary Baptist Church and also leads the Jubilee network of churches," which has partnered with the ACNA with the expressed intent to see God's church unified and employ common liturgy. 

While I have many testimonies of African-Americans enjoying, and even becoming fond of, liturgy, there are times when it is not quite grasped or liked. In my experience there are two main reasons why liturgy is not received well. First, there is a lack of understanding and familiarity with liturgy. Second, there is a dullness to the liturgy or more particularly, the liturgist. Allow me to explain the former by personal experience.

When I was first introduced to Reformed and Presbyterian churches, I knew very little about them other than the ministers preached the doctrines of grace. Singing from a hymnal, liturgy, and weekly Lord's Supper were foreign. Simply because I was unaware of such practices, however, did not make me skeptical nor hostile toward the practice. I believe I was eager to learn.

The first church my family visited was a bit off-putting, though. While the liturgy was, generally, outlined in the bulletin, the congregation said and did things that were not listed in the bulletin. For example, there were certain songs that were sang throughout the service that were not in the bulletin (e.g., the doxology). When people either stood up or sat down, that was not outlined in the bulletin either. For a newcomer, it seemed like there was a hidden code that I needed to know in order to properly fit in. That was a turn-off. Since I was already ignorant to many liturgical practices, the unfamiliarity with that particular church's liturgy did not help in my understanding and enjoyment of it.

The second issue (i.e., there is a dullness to the liturgy) is also off-putting to some African-Americans. If they are accustomed to Baptist, Pentecostal/Charismatic (and yes, I recognize there are differences), or Non-Denominational churches, there is normally a liveliness to the minister's leading of the service. He does not normally stand behind the pulpit with his elbows locked, hands latched unto the pulpit as he slightly leans toward the congregation telling us what is next in the liturgy with a monotone voice. The dullness, therefore, does not come from the liturgy itself but from the liturgist. African-Americans, in many cases, are formed by enthusiasm that comes from the pulpit. It is obvious the minister believes, or at least we hope, what he teaches. When that is not present, the liturgy can seem unappealing. 

Liturgy does not, therefore, ultimately keep African-Americans away from Reformed and Presbyterian churches. While there are some African-Americans who will not enjoy liturgy no matter how enthusiastic the minister is nor how much education is provided regarding the flow of service, in many cases, African-Americans do not mind liturgy. Although, again, this is anecdotal, I believe our church plant is a testimony to this truth (View image). God is drawing a people together, who will worship on the Lord's Day, using many of the liturgical elements found in the DPW.
The greatest threat to the Gospel in our age is not unbelief. It is not relativism or open hostility to the "narrow" Christian tradition. It is not even the hypocrisy of the church, which holds up the white banner of faith for all to see and then spatters it with the mud of pretense. As inimical to the Christian faith as these may be, there is something far more destructive to the Gospel, something we rarely consider, because it is too close for us to notice. The greatest threat to the Gospel is treating it as mere information.

If contemporary culture were a royal ball, information would be the ageless and debonair host, striking every lord and lady with his pristine smile, all the while masquerading as truth. His tangible personality would blind the guests to the fact that his clothes were too big--they belong to someone six inches taller, with broader shoulders and a fuller chest. Distantly, all of his guests would know that truth is what called them together and demanded something of them. But they don't see truth so easily. They see information, because he makes constant rounds with a silver platter of Hors d'oeuvres. The real host of the ball requires seeking out.

Continue on Place for Truth

Text Link - http://info.alliancenet.org/placefortruth/the-greatest-threat-to-the-gospel
Reformation 21 exists for the purposes of, "Encouraging biblical thinking, living, worship, ministry, and constructive cultural engagement." I desire to engage the latter in this post. To be clear, I am not playing the race card nor am I claiming to be a victim. I am simply highlighting some things that the majority of our readers may not have considered as they interact with people in the sub-dominant culture. Although some of these things may seem trivial, they matter to many of us. I hope this will provide a different lens through which to see your words and actions that may benefit our time together as we seek to glorify God and enjoy him forever. In a word, I am hoping this will help you become more culturally sensitive. 

In 1974, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) produced a committee report titled, "Problems of Race." It is well-worth getting acquainted with this document. In addition to this committee report, someone posed this question on the OPC website. "How can we find out more about the OPC's race relations perspective?" A member of the OPC replied, "I think it's important to note that, while all those mentioned in Galatians 3:28 are equal before God, being Christians didn't obliterate gender, racial or cultural distinctions. It simply means that all are equally valuable in Christ and before God."

Correct! Gender, ethnic/race, and cultural distinctions are still present. Galatians 3:28 does not eliminate those differences. Therefore, since these differences still exist, there are certain things that can be done or said that are offensive in light of our distinctions. While I do not and cannot speak for all people of color (i.e., those in the sub-dominant culture), here are a few things you might want to reconsider saying and doing as you speak with and interact with some of us.

1. "You are very articulate" - When I am invited to preach at a Presbyterian/Reformed congregation, this is normally one of the first responses I receive once the service is complete. My first thought is, "What did you expect?" My second thought is, "Were you expecting me to communicate in a fashion that is unrecognizable?" I understand you are trying to be courteous and encouraging in much the same way as others respond, "Good sermon, Pastor," but this is derogatory to me. Look at number 21 on this list. I am not alone. 

Wanting to explore this more, I began asking my white friends what type of comments they hear after preaching at sister churches. These friends, I believe, are good preachers and extremely intelligent. Of the tens I asked, only one heard a similar comment. Why then is it said to me?

2. "We're colorblind in our family" - I think I understand what you are attempting to say. Essentially you are saying that you are not racist nor prejudice; you desire to love and serve all God's people (Matt. 22:39). However, in our day and age the truth is color still matters, and I believe it should in the most positive respects. People of different ethnicities bring perspectives to the table that are extremely beneficial. West Africans have a different perspective than Western Europeans on certain issues. Cubans may see things differently than African-Americans in some cases. Why? One potential reason is because our perspectives are attached to the color of our skin and our ethnicity. In many cases, you cannot detach the two. Therefore, it could be perceived that to raise our families colorblind is to obliterate these valuable distinctions (i.e., issues revolving around color and perspective). It is okay to see color. I see you; you see me.

3. "Ask Leon, he's black" - I am not the spokesman for all African-Americans. In fact, some African-Americans may disagree with some of the information on this post. If you are asking me a question because I am your only black friend, perhaps you should arrange a way to garner more African-American friendships in your life. I promise we do not bite. We may give you a hard time and push your buttons, but the feeling is mutual. Let's learn from each other and seek to cultivate as many friendships across ethnic and cultural lines as possible. It will enlarge our view of the world.

4. "Are you related to...?" - I remember flying across the country to preach in a Presbyterian church. Once the service was over, a lady turned to my friend, who was seated behind her and happened to be the only other black person in the room, and asked, "Are you two related?" 

5. "Meet the Jones Family" - I understand your desire to make me feel comfortable when I visit your church, but I do not need to meet the only other black family in your congregation. I know you are seeking to make me feel welcome, but you take a risk in doing this. For one, what makes you think we will get along? Secondly, just because our skin is a certain shade of brown does not mean we are the same ethnicity. I am reminded of something a Puerto Rican family from my congregation said. "Just because we speak Spanish does not necessarily mean we can make all other visiting families of Hispanic or Latino descent feel comfortable."

Discussing ethnic and cultural issues can be difficult. I know some of you may be thinking, "Let's move on already," or "Leon is simply chained to the past." I can assure you that I am not raising these issues for the purposes of reopening a wound, attempting to be purposefully offensive, nor suggesting that all white people think/behave this way (despite the title not being qualified by the word, "some"); nevertheless, I do think these things need to be said if we are going to gain a better understanding of each other. Besides, it is tough to move on when we keep repeating the same issues from the past.

Trained

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It was an article about a European film director, usually hymned to the skies as a master craftsman and genuine visionary. It led me to an extended synopsis of one of his more recent films. I will not go into details, but it was a blow-by-blow account of the plot, complete with spoilers. The film was a showcase for the director's usual themes, and manifested his skill in carrying his audience along. It was this latter capacity which intrigued me, yoked as it was with the thematic and visual content of the film. Reading the synopsis gave me the opportunity to consider in the cold light of day what I would have been watching, and to consider what I would have been thinking and feeling had I been watching this film.

My responses might have been, fairly crassly, divided into two categories. There would have been responses arising from my fallen-though-redeemed humanity and my remaining sin: the fascination with the perverse, the indulgence of sinful sexual desires, and the satisfaction that comes from revenge, for example. Then there would have been responses that might have been traced more to common grace and something of the image of God: anger at injustice and cruelty, grief over loss, sorrow over suffering.

But here's the thing: as I worked through the synopsis, I began to understand that there was a developing twist in the tail (not to mention the tale). Up to this point, all one's responses - more or less sinful or righteous (though you will appreciate that I am not for one moment suggesting that you want to watch this film) - were being tagged to certain persons, events and relationships, running down what you might call normal channels. Then, at the denouement, when the twist in the tail becomes a sting, there would have been this horrible moment of torsion. At the moment of the reveal your reasonably normal though not necessarily righteous responses - loathing for this character, pity for that; physical attraction to or sexual desire for the one, anger at another - would be suddenly, violently, aggressively re-ordered. It is the moment at which you realise that all the categories in which you have been working are not what they seem, that the routes down which your thoughts and feelings were running are actually carrying you to a radically different location than the one you were anticipating.

Now, I am not suggesting that every film (or any other medium) does this or does it invariably. Many films run very predictably to the outcomes you can predict from the first three minutes (think of just about any action film you wish to name). Others build a sense of tension before leaving you hanging with questions (Christopher Nolan seems to enjoy this). Others revel in this unsettling twist, this re-ordering of all your categories and expectations.

But have you ever stepped back and considered the level of mental and emotional and moral manipulation to which you are subjecting yourself? Even if there is no twist, it does not mean that you are not being trained to think and feel. Rather, you are having certain channels dug ever deeper and reinforced. This is the way to think, and feel, and act. These are the correct intellectual assessments, the appropriate emotional dispositions, the right moral judgements. Perhaps the film that leaves you hanging suggests that there are no resolutions, no right or even knowable answers.

Where there is a twist, have you wondered at the level of intellectual, emotional, even moral reorientation that might be occurring? If your sense of justice is suddenly ripped to shreds, and you realise that wronged character you have been rooting for is actually the perpetrator of the crime? If the sexual desires that have been consistently stirred up are suddenly revealed to have been directed toward someone who is not of the gender that you had been led to believe? If the person you have been horrified by as morally corrupt suddenly turns out to be, in essence, the closest thing you have to a hero?

These are not the only possibilities, but I wonder how much of this is happening, hour by hour, day by day. We complain about the ignorant bewilderment that there is in the world, at the erosion of common grace, at the confusion of moral categories, at the seemingly irresistible slide toward Sodom and Gomorrah. But - without wishing to sound paranoid - have we considered the influence of these kinds of media on the thinking, feeling and judging of the world? If these influences are being perpetrated by men and women with a thoroughly godless outlook and a very deliberate agenda, then the outcome will be entirely predictable - a thoroughgoing confusion and dissolution of thought, feeling and morality.

The same happens, in measure, among Christians. Some of us expose ourselves, perhaps thoughtlessly or even arrogantly, to what might be called a drip-feed for consistency were it not a torrent for volume, a relentless flow of the sludge of carnal attitudes and appetites. This flow threatens to overwhelm and erode all our distinctive thinking and feeling, to re-order our intellectual assessments, re-direct our emotional dispositions, and re-align our moral judgments. Isaiah made it clear: "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Is 5.20). Yet how often we allow such men and women unfettered access to our minds and hearts, competing with the revelation of God for our intellectual, emotional and moral allegiance. Then we are surprised at how much like the world the church has become, as if it were a thing unexpected, despite having made or allowed the world to be our teachers. It is hard enough to hold fast at the best of times; how much more when we thoughtlessly or arrogantly surrender ourselves to such influences! Under such circumstances, it will - it must! - have an effect on us.

I am not suggesting that the answer is a wholesale retreat from every medium of communication, any more than I think that Christians should try to take over the radio stations, television stations, and Hollywood studios, and go toe-to-toe with the godless in terms of production in the hopes that we can somehow start to push back.

But perhaps the first part of the answer is real discernment. First, discernment in whether to watch at all, because the first line of defence might be and perhaps should more often be the off-switch. A healthy dose of Philippians 4.8 would go a long way in some circles. Then, discernment in how to watch: we need to be aware that these words and images that flow into us are having an effect upon us, even in matters that might at first seem negligible or innocent. We must be conscious of how we and others are being manipulated and trained, and we must resist it where - deliberately or not - it skews all our categories. We must develop our intellectual, emotional and moral faculties through the Word of God: that must be our first, fundamental and final standard. Then, whatever and whenever we watch and hear, willingly or unwillingly, let us never suspend those biblically-tuned and biblically-attuned faculties, but rather bring all to the touchstone of Scripture, viewing and listening to all through the filter of divine revelation, and continue to think and feel and judge as God intends.

Try this exercise: for yourself, your friends, your children, for whomever. Think back to what you have watched or heard or read recently. Write out a synopsis. (Perhaps some would be surprised how spiritually ugly some graphic sounds-and-images appear when reduced to black on white, when our emotions are not being carried along and we are not more-or-less willingly suspending our faculty of discernment.) Trace the development of character and plot, note the ways and means in which your thoughts, feelings and judgements are being tagged or yoked, channelled and directed and perhaps manipulated. Consider what you are being taught and how you are being taught it. And then ask, if you are a child of God, "Is evil being switched for or confused with good, and darkness for light, and bitter for sweet? Are my foundations being shaken, and how and in what way and to what ends? Is this the way my heavenly Father would have me think? Is this conforming me to Christ?"

To be sure, there may be times when you are able to say, "I can keep enough distance here: I can read this article, watch this documentary, follow this series, read this book, watch this film, hear this program, and I can discern the processes at work, and establish a filter, and guard my heart." At other times you should say, "I do not have the wisdom to discern these things, and - even if I do - I would be a fool to imagine that I have the strength to stand," and so you would flee for safety. When you can see the manoeuvres of the enemy, even where you cannot prevent combat, you can at least prevent surprise. If we learn to see the battle in these terms, we might just begin to learn to fight the battle.

Ministering to the middle classes

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A little while ago, a friend wrote an article entitled "My Ministry is Harder Than Yours (and Other Lies We Tell)." The author, Mez McConnell, is a pastor in Edinburgh and one of the architects of 20schemes, a ministry seeking to establish gospel churches in some of the poorest communities in Scotland. Mez has a hard line to walk - straight as a die himself, he has to deal with the fact that his conversion story appeals to the seekers of the spectacular and that many people in more outwardly comfortable circumstances perversely think that there is a certain glamour to really hard ministry and, frankly, that helps to win some attention and some funds to the cause. After all, paying other people to go where you don't and do what you won't really eases the conscience.

One of the ways that Mez deals with this tension is to mock the middle classes. He is happy to do this in general and more specifically and personally. Recently, he lampooned (I can hear him sharpening the knives just because I used that word) the outlook and attitude of those who applaud him for having such a hard life. His response?
When I listen to men battling away around Europe (and the states) in well off areas, it makes me break out in a cold sweat.

How the heck do you evangelize in an area where everybody has a decent paid job, a nice place to live and possibly a car (or two) on the drive?

How do you break through the intellectual pride of a worldview that thinks religion is beneath them and that science has all the answers?

How do you witness in an area where the average house price is over £250k? How do you talk to a guy who feels no need for Christ because he is distracted by his materialism?

How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law abiding citizens, who don't cheat on their wives, beat their kids and spend their days stoned on the sofa watching reality TV?

Now that's hard.

That's more than hard. That, my friends, is brutal.
He went on to sing the praises of the straightforward, straight-speaking Schemer, the noble savage of the Edinburgh wilds, a square-jawed all-round good egg (come on, Mez, rise to the bait), open of heart and hearth.

Now that Mez has publicly admitted that I am harder than he is, I thought I might offer a friendly rejoinder - better, a supplement - to Mez's piece, confident that we probably see eye to eye on these things and the principles that underpin them.

I am writing not from the soft streets of Niddrie but from the rocky spiritual wastelands of middle England, from the London commuter belt, from . . . Sussex! Admittedly, I live in a 'new town' called Crawley, which has a reputation - perhaps unfairly - for being the local sinkhole (the descendants of London's dregs rehoused after the Second World War), so perhaps I get a little more credibility from those who count filth and crime as badges of honour. Indeed, Crawley is so little esteemed that one of the neighbourhoods to the east of the town, a richer part of this area, has removed the name from its signs so that it does not get dragged down to our level. That said, even though it is notoriously difficult to classify the middle classes (even the BBC says so), I don't think that there is much doubt that I try to reach many middle class people with the gospel. Many of my labours outside the church building are either in the town square, or door to door in a neighbourhood which calls itself - perhaps inappropriately - a village. Our church planting endeavours are currently centred on an undeniable village outside of Crawley that is the very picture of middle England. All this to demonstrate that I am, largely, in the environment that Mez describes as so unpromising a field for gospel labour.

And it is.

Mez's questions are good ones. He puts his finger on some of the real problems that exist. There is a carnal self-sufficiency that cushions many against the truth of the gospel. There is an educated arrogance that disdains the facts of scriptural revelation. You can encounter either a high parochialism that considers you to be and wants to keep you as a rank outsider (village life) or a sort of soulless suburbanity - the nurseries and daycare centres fill up first thing in the morning and then the place seems to lie empty until the school run (town life). Some streets seem designed to militate against community - houses with drives and garages but no paths that run from one property to the next. It is not just the homes that are detached and semi-detached, but the people themselves. Many of those to whom I speak are horrified at any suggestion that they are sinners. They love to look down their noses at the vulgar, and equate sin with a certain class of person, and certainly not their own. They are desperate to keep up appearances. They avoid admitting any need or weakness. Most speak to you through half-closed doors. Many have tasted religion, and found it empty or even bitter. They will put you off with polite fictions: they don't have time right now, or something similar. You say, politely, that you will try to come back another time. "That would be lovely," they say. Then you turn up again, and that's when they start getting offended - after all, you weren't mean to go back, it was all just a social game, surely? People fill their schedules with all the clutter of a comfortable life, so that they have a ready excuse not to chat, and a raft of excuses as to why they cannot give any time or effort to hearing more of the gospel. If you do get an opening, they might have a free window (delightful phrase!) in about three months time. Many homes are fenced, guarded and alarmed, and so are the hearts.

Truth be told, working in this environment only stokes the fires of my antipathy to the idea of a state church because so many of its teachings and practices at ground level militate against real and robust religion: witness the gentleman who informed me that he had been born as a Christian into a Christian home, baptised as a Christian, attended and served in a Christian church all his life, and certainly did not need someone like me telling him that he needed to be saved. I asked him how he faced the fact that the Bible tells him that he must be born again. "The Bible," he spat, "says no such thing," as he slammed the door in my face. I am not suggesting that this is true of all Anglicanism, but it is representative of the kind of Anglicanism and other ingrained religiosities, including Dissenting ones, that I face day after day. Mez says that people in the schemes are hostile to the church as an institution, a posh person's club: I have to contend with that and with the people who walk away because a simple nonconformist service is simply not churchy enough - they want more smells and bells.

But I would like to take you, for just a few moments, beneath the veneer, for that is all it is. And this is where I take issue with one of Mez's questions: "How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law abiding citizens, who don't cheat on their wives, beat their kids and spend their days stoned on the sofa watching reality TV?" You don't, because that's not the real world of middle England (or middle America, or anywhere else). (For the record, I know Mez knows this, and I know he's having a cheerful little dig at this point, but it is precisely this that I want to address.)

Stroll with me, briefly, down some of the streets I know. I would like to introduce you, anonymously, to some of the people I meet.

You see, behind those manicured lawns and mock-Tudor frontages, behind those nice townhouse exteriors, behind those saccharine portraits of domestic bliss, are hearts full of sin. The people I go to are not nice, law-abiding citizens. Some of the tensions and feuds between neighbours are scarcely believable, fought out with icy silences and letters to local authorities rather than with bottles and bats, though the tensions often break out in angry, vicious speech that would make a docker blush. There are women and men and children with bruised bodies and battered spirits, the victims of family members. There is the abuse that leaves bodies more or less intact, and souls crushed and lives trampled. These men do cheat on their wives, they cheat on them with their PAs and their secretaries and their colleagues, and with Mrs Smith across the street.

They will cheat and steal with the best of them, but these are crimes to be winked at. They substantially disregard the law when it cuts across their comfort or their schedule. There is a double standard that reigns in many, in which others are to be considered despicable, while they excuse precisely the same spirit in themselves. They will lie through their teeth, often very politely. There is widespread drunkenness. Some of the most outwardly and ostentatiously religious are loathed by neighbours for their cruelty and callousness. As far as the people around them are concerned, that is the Christian religion, it is synonymous with hypocrisy, and they have learned the hard way to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Worldly religion feels like the bane of the evangelist's life - it gives people every excuse they look for to spurn the truth. There are in-crowds who defend their social territory like Rottweilers. There is every world religion imaginable, in purer or more bastardized form, all manner of false gods and foolish notions. You might also be surprised at the prevalence of witchcraft and Wicca and occult practices - and not mere game-playing - in middle England.

But there is more. You learn to identify the homes where that beautiful sports vehicle on the drive is clearly a status symbol, purchased and maintained at the expense of any real home life in the expensive but crumbling property behind it. Perhaps sadder still is the decaying house and the rusting car, often indicative of the man or woman who has over-reached, and has no time to do anything but earn the wage that keeps them clinging to that rotting rung of the social ladder.

There is the man on the pleasant suburban street who opens the door, pale, sweaty and shaking, underdressed, looking like he has the mother of all hangovers or is craving his next fix, or both. There is the man who politely tells you that he has been involved in spiritualism for years, is a fully fledged medium, and he is happy to talk for a while, but you should be warned that it might not always be him who is speaking. There is the frightening number of people who are dabbling, more or less, in all manner of paganism and utter godlessness, creating "my own religion" out of a horrible and damnable hodgepodge of alternative spiritualities, a sort of pick'n'mix approach to the soul. There are those who have an aggressive disbelief - they do not want to know. There is the flagrant homosexual, who wants to flaunt his or her lifestyle choice as deliberately as possible. There are men who have a string of women coming and going, and women with the equivalent. Some of those nice homes are actually, literally, brothels. I can walk you down a street where there live, behind what seems like a delightful facade, a dying churchwarden who has no time for anything from outside his religious traditions, an angry and aggressive atheist who hates humankind and especially Christian humankind, a man who exists in utter disorder and thoroughgoing squalor, surviving - barely - on the benefits that run out sometime in the middle of every week, and a pleasant older couple, the wife disabled, the husband who dresses as a woman for their mutual entertainment most evenings. I can take you to the parks where the kids - from those nice, middle-class homes - mope about with a joint during the day, largely abandoned by parents; many of those same kids roam the streets at night, offering themselves body and soul to one another, seeking some kind of companionship where the family has utterly failed. There are porn addicts and sexual abusers and drug peddlers; there are desperate, highly-strung, cut-crystal families trying to keep it all together and to keep up with the Joneses. There are dear old ladies with a blue rinse who spit venom at you because you dare to call them sinners. There are pillars of society who warn you that they will call the police, or even threaten physical violence, unless you remove yourself before you are removed. There are the people who know it all, and who - in truth - know nothing of eternal value.

As Mez says, it is hard:
Hard is trying to build authentic community among a scattered congregation. Hard is trying to foster meaningful relationships in a diarised culture. Hard is trying to engage in spiritual conversations with disinterested individuals. Hard is not having the freedom to pop into your friends house uninvited because it might not be polite.
So, how do you evangelize? Exactly the same way as you do anywhere else: you go to the people around you, you speak to the people in front of you, you seek to communicate to them in an intelligent and intelligible way the reality of man's ruin through sin and redemption through Christ, relying on the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of the blind to the truth as it is in Jesus.

I think that Mez would agree with me that, truth be told, you cannot glamorise the gospel ministry in any place. The fact is this: up and down every country, behind every door and under every rock, in every social class, behind the make-up of the whore and the society princess, under the street uniform of the thug and the suit uniform of the banker, lurks precisely the same lifeless and sin-spewing heart. Every man and woman, boy and girl, is by nature dead in trespasses and sins. Every one of them lies beyond every power to deliver them apart from God working by his Spirit through the gospel of Christ preached to every creature. All of them need the good news. All of them have their own spiritual cladding, have concocted their own sinful and proud defences, have armoured themselves one way or another against the truth about God and about themselves. Perhaps I might borrow some words from an impeccable source to describe the universal state of things:
As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one. Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes." Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Rom 3.10-19)
Those are the facts. All the world is guilty before God; all the world needs the gospel. All are in darkness, and all need the light. That is the reality, wherever you are labouring. Every preacher engaging with the lost could tell you the same. As Mez sez,
please, let's not compare our ministries on who has it toughest.

I promise not to if you don't. Let's just get behind one another in concerted prayer and support. Let's get rid of this spiritual one up-manship and face the facts that it's all a privilege anyway.
However, Mez has already conceded the high ground. It is clear who are the real tough guys. What we do, we warriors of the up-class urbs and the beatific burbs, is "more than hard . . . [it] is brutal." We don't even have the glamour of being applauded because people (apart from Mez) think it's hard. So, if you want a really hard ministry, come and visit us here in Crawley. There is always more work; there are not so many workers.
What is yellow on the outside but white on the inside? If you guessed a "banana," though the inside appears more cream than white, you would be close. The answer is, a twinkie. Have you eaten one? They are fairly inexpensive and only about 135 calories. If you eat too many you might get a stomachache. There is definitely not enough sugar in these bite-size snacks to give you a significant energy boost like Red Bull or Starbucks coffee. Nevertheless, they are fairly tasty. Eat them. Yes! Use that term to describe people. No! 

In the coming months I hope to write a 6-part series on some of the issues surrounding ethnicity in (broadly speaking) Reformed and Presbyterian circles. On the one hand, I am fully aware that many people do not believe there are any problems. I normally receive this response from those in the majority. Though I overstate my case for the purposes of this illustration, to say there are no problems is like the slave owner telling the slave, "Everything is okay." The slave owner is not aware, or perhaps suppresses, the myriad of issues surrounding the establishment because he is the superior; he is the majority. From the slave's perspective, however, issues abound. I do not categorize whites in Reformed and Presbyterian Churches today as slave owners nor do I classify African-Americans (or non-whites) in the aforementioned circles as slaves. However, based on personal study, numerous conversations, and personal experience, I think it is clear that we look through a different lens much like the slave and slave owner.

Blacks/African-Americans/people of color, albeit, are not the only ones who are concerned in the broader Reformed and Presbyterian world (in the United States). While the content of the articles I hope to write will primarily focus on issues between blacks and whites (I will provide details in the initial article briefly stating why I am approaching it from that angle), other non-whites wrestle with similar matters.

In response to my brief blog post titled, "Listen Up White America," a dear friend responded to me by email. He described some of his experiences as a Korean Presbyterian pastor. He said that the black experience in Reformed and Presbyterian "churches are very similar to what I have experienced. The most interesting part of it is that those racial experiences didn't happen to me until I arrived at [said seminary] and entered the larger (i.e., outside of the Reformed Korean-American community) Reformed circles. [M]any people at [said seminary] assumed I didn't speak English. It was ridiculous."

He went on to say that he believes Asians, though he can intimately speak as a Korean, are seen either as twinkies (i.e., yellow on the outside, white on the inside) or non-English speaking asians," what he called, "F.O.B.," which means "fresh off the boat." He said, "Most would initially identify us as the latter. It's sad, but it's the truth."
 
Is there any merit to his claims? Is there any truth seeping through his frustration?

I asked this pastor to further explain his thoughts.

"I'm not sure how to really explain it, so I will explain by showing the evolution of my ministry philosophy as a Korean-American pastor. When I first began ministry I had the big dream of pastoring a multi-cultural church. I thought it was great to have different cultures, races, and generations present together to worship God (I still do). However, at some point I realized such dream would be impossible."

He later wrote,

"If white folks want me as their pastor, I'd happily pastor them. If they can't see me as their pastor because of the color of my skin, then I'd be happy to point them to a pastor [with whom] they can identify. (Do I sound annoyed? I probably am still annoyed and bitter)." 

"...one last thought. The church can't escape the race social class system of [the] USA. That is: white men on top, then black/hispanic men, then Asians along with the female of [the] aforementioned races, then handicaps. I know this to be true in Hollywood (I was heavily in the music scene... ran into many record labels that wouldn't work with our band because we were Asian), and I'm finding that this is true even within the church. But I see changes... [Asians are] slowly shedding the image of kung-fu kicking Bruce Lee out of people's heads..."

I feel the pain and frustration of my friend's words. Do you? Is there hope for change? I believe so. 

Listen Up White America

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TMZ online (I did not post the link because some images may be inappropriate) recently published an article titled, "Chuck D: Listen Up White America...We Ain't Ni**as.'" Chuck D, if you are unfamiliar, is a rap artist who had his heyday in the 1980's. He was a part of a group called, Public Enemy. For some time, his music was extremely popular in certain communities. Now, however, depending on which online websites you visit, you hear his name every so often.

In TMZ's article, Chuck D was responding to Suge Knight's recent claims that we should banish the phrase, "African-American." Knight, a record label CEO (also once popularized for working with Tupac Shakur), believes that the term "African-American" is inaccurate. "I'm not from Africa," Knight expressed. While Chuck D agrees that the phrase "African-American" is not an ideal term, "ni**a" surely is not a good replacement, whether the word ends with "er" or "a."

As Christians, these types of conversations may appear foolish, but for many of us this type of dialogue is a reality. What should we call ourselves? Many employment applications call us "African-American." When you scroll down the list of choices, not many other ethnic groups are identified by a hyphen. 

As if that were not enough, some of us wonder what you call us? Let's not fool ourselves. The "you" in the aforementioned sentence is "whites." Although I have not conducted any statistical analysis, I do not believe it is a leap of faith to suggest that the majority of persons frequenting this blog are white. I do not mention that to be offensive but to state a potential reality.

I have been called a "ni**er." The unfortunate reality is that it was not by a man holding on to his confederate roots in Virginia but by a (white) peer who attends a reformed church. You might wonder if he was joking when he used the term. My response: does it matter? You can read more about what has been said to me and how I have been treated here.

This is not a guilt trip but an introduction to a 6-part series that I hope to write beginning in either January 2014 or February 2014. If the Lord tarries and grants me life, I want to open a conversation--one-way initially--that highlights some of the difficulties that I, as a...black?--face in Presbyterian and Reformed circles. I am not alone regarding my concerns. I have had numerous conversations with "black" Presbyterian pastors about the current state (or lack thereof) of ethnic and cultural diversity in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. These conversations normally expand to a host of other issues.

I hope that the coming series will be understood in the manner I think I am providing it, not one laden with guilt but one that exposes certain realities; one that will also provide some suggestions for change. I hope the response is not, "Oh, not again," but, "Yes, we need to hear about this and change things for the glory of God." 

May the Triune God receive all the glory as we delicately talk about these issues. 

Review: "What is the Mission of the Church?"

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What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission
Greg Gilbert & Kevin DeYoung
Crossway, 2011, 288pp., paperback, $15.99
ISBN 978-1-4335-2690-9

Contributing to the ongoing debate in the "young, restless and reformed" movement about the nature and scope of the gospel, this book is very much of its time, place, and sphere. Written in a chatty and popular style, and assuming a fair amount in terms of the buzzwords, personae, and tensions of the discussion, it attempts to ground, explain and defend the mission of Christ's church as requiring her "to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father" (62). Given this conclusion, there may be some who - already so persuaded - find this book substantially redundant or simply irrelevant. The fact that it is written out of a specific milieu and addresses a specific issue limits it somewhat, given the assumptions that underlie so much of its discussion (for example, the different British social, political, religious and cultural perspectives - class? Anglicanism? - simply find no equivalent here). For all that, many of the questions raised and issues addressed need always to be considered, and for some already rightly persuaded, the authors' sensitive and carefully-qualified acknowledgement of their opponents' concerns make us ask whether or not, in embracing a particular notion, we may have missed other elements of the life of the church in the world. With plenty of insightful exegesis to support their assertions, attempts to define key terms, and helpful applications (especially to those still wrestling with these questions), there is much here to commend. Some up-front discussion and statement of the ecclesiological and eschatological perspectives and categories that so influence such discussions might have helped. Overall, those enmeshed in this debate as it is being worked out in 21st century America ought to read this book; those outside this sphere might find it a helpful prompt and reminder, but it will not be so essential.

The fourth wall

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Angus T. Jones, one of the stars of American sitcom Two and a Half Men, has gone online to explain that he no longer wants to participate in the show, describing its contents as "filth," as reported by the BBC.

I do not know anything much about the programme, the actor, the church, or the profession of faith, but such events as this - though minor in their own way - are, or ought to be, a trifle disconcerting.

First, I imagine that they are disconcerting for the studio executives who market their material as harmless fun, a little light entertainment. When one of your mouthpieces suddenly stands up and says it's a moral mire, it is hard to maintain that position.

But second, they ought to be a little disconcerting for Christians who are determined to believe that culture is morally neutral, that we can dabble in anything without it having an impact on us, that we can make dispassionate assessments of what are, in effect, vehicles for a certain moral vision, and that everything can be 'redeemed.' Here is a voice from the inside saying, "Don't be foolish!"

I thought I would add yet another postscript to the "sky is falling over American evangelicalism" conversation.  I think what Phil ends his post with is worth saying again.  So I will, just adding a bit. 

Fundamentally, American evangelicals can learn from global evangelicals that being winsome is better than being reactionary, that following Christ's agenda trumps any political agenda (Sean was great on this point), and that evangelicalism (yes, despite all the faults it has) is fundamentally about the good news of new life in Christ not about all things baseball, apple pie, and America.

As for the first part, not being reactionary, Rodney Clapp said something interesting over at Christian Century (be warned, don't go read the first part, you likely won't like it).  I thought the ending to be perceptive:

"It is in deep trouble because it faces a significant cultural and generational shift. Identifying itself with the wedge tactics of the political right, which is now falling (at least for a time) out of power, the movement cannot easily shake the image of being primarily negative and destructive. Indicators show that it is losing attractiveness not only among unconverted fellow Americans, but among its own young.

More significantly, evangelicalism is in deep trouble because the gospel really is good news, and reactionaries are animated by bad news, by that which they stand against. Undoubtedly Jesus Christ faced and even provoked conflict. But he embraced conflict as a path or means to the health and liberation--the salvation--of the world. And he hoped for salvation even, perhaps especially, for his enemies. If evangelicalism is innately reactionary, then it can follow Christ only by being born again."

Sean already said the second point, succumbing to the siren call of a political agenda, better than I ever could. 

As for the third point, Horton's latest, Christless Christianity, gets at it pretty well, not to mention everything David Wells has been telling us for the last twenty years.

One final point, looks like Darryl Hart, known to his readers as the mysterious D. G., was a prophet when he wrote Deconstructing Evangelicalism, after all.   

Maybe it's time for a new book, however:  Reconstructing Evangelicalism (dibs on the title and, being a good American, I do know some good lawyers).

I noticed that over on his blog Sean Lucas refers to fulfilling his lifelong dream of seeing the Boss in concert.  The week before Springsteen made his way through St. Louis' arches, he was in Hershey, PA, a mere hour's drive away and yet I missed it.  Alas I, unlike my buddy Sean, have unfulfilled dreams.  Just another page to add to my "Book of Dreams."  Or, as the Boss would say even more directly . . .
 
"I just wanna see you smile,
I just wanna see you smile.
Yeah, I'm gonna see you smile.
Come on baby, dream baby dream."
 

The Renewal We Need

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Writing in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, David Wells explains what our church and our culture need:

"The renewal of which we stand in need, I believe, is of both the understanding of truth and of our knowledge of the God of that truth. It is not one or the other but it is the one and the other. This written Word, this Word of dignity, accosts us because it is true in and of itself and because, as true, it is the vehicle through which we are summoned to stand before the God of that truth. It is by this Word that he, in fact, intrudes upon us, invades our private space, demands that our choices conform with his, and commands that we stand out as those who belong to another age and time, one which is eternal. It is this hearing, in fact, which will reintroduce the very unconventionality which is so conspicuous by its absence in our culturally conventional kind of believing today." 

 

Steve Nichols.JPG It was surreal moment: Steve, country boy from Lancaster, PA meeting his blues-idol, B. B. King, from Indianola, Mississippi. The blues singer happened to be in Jackson this week and Steve "dragged" me to "get some culture." The evening was a lesson in so many things, but will we ever team up again? In the words of the King himself, "The Thrill is Gone!"

Here Am I

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With apologies to Isaiah and Dick Cheney, I have emerged from my undisclosed location to offer my first post. Unlike my companions on this website, I am an utter novice at this. I read Wendell Berry, live next to Amish, and even drink milk from glass bottles. All of which is to say that the world of technology has passed me by. But I now consider myself a chastened, nay reformed, Luddite. Here's why:

Chris Brown.

Chris is a former student of mine who now serves as a missionary in the jungles of Peru. It's not that convenient for Chris to go to a bookstore or go to a library to stock up on books. He does, however, have the internet. Chris told me in an email, after he saw that I'm joining this blog, that he finds reformation21 edifying. Trueman, edifying? I'll let Chris's momentary lapse of judgment slide for now, but I will think of Chris as I post. I won't be all serious edification, in a didactic sense. After all, isn't the kingdom of God thinking, worshiping, eating and drinking, and even laughing together whether we're in the jungles of Peru or in undisclosed locations somewhere in Lancaster?

Malaga, Spain

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I've been spending some time with missionaries who have gathered in Malaga, Spain. They are all (more or less) affiliated with the PCA and some are Americans and the rest European nationals. Its been refreshing, not least to discover that issues of experiential Calvinism translate into European cultures and that some of the very same issues we talk about ad nauseam are the very issues they struggle with too.

Results tagged “Culture” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 20.2, 3, 4

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ii. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

iii. They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord with fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

iv. And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church.

In section two of this chapter we confess that God has given his people "liberty of conscience." What does this mean? The Westminster Confession states that God has freed us from "doctrines and commandments of men" which are in anyway contrary to Scripture or go beyond Scripture in matters of faith and worship. There are many possible examples. Undoubtedly the Westminster divines had in view both Roman Catholicism and high Anglicanism, with their many innovations and additions to worship and life, which bring about bondage to doctrines and commandments of men. 

Evangelical, Reformed and Presbyterian churches are not immune from the same kind of bondage, perhaps in subtler forms. In some circles it occurs when ministerial vestments become requirements, or when more than modesty and respect are required in congregational attire for worship. It may be requiring particular forms of schooling for the children of church leaders, or in expecting extra-biblical forms of address in prayer as a more reverent expressions of faith. Violation of liberty of conscience may be manifest in criticizing someone for not taking part in the church's annual strawberry social, or by the minister who pressures his congregation to vote for a candidate or party in a manner which downplays scriptural alternatives. Bondage to the rules of men occurs when traditions or personal convictions, even if not inherently contrary, but simply additional to God's Word, become doctrines and commandments in matters of faith and worship.

The Confession continues by placing a sober and God-glorifying responsibility on both individual believers and the church to protect God-given liberty of conscience: "to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also." The children of God have been freed to live according to his Word by the blood of Christ; their liberty of conscience is a subset of their Christian liberty. Our Savior calls us to be marked by a loving care that preserves the liberty of our fellow believers from unbiblical constraints of our own or others' making. (Gal. 2:4-5; Col. 2:20-23).

The final two sections of this chapter of the Confession turn to warn and guard against illegitimate and destructive claims to Christian liberty. We are to beware of using claims to Christian liberty as a cloak for the pursuit of sin or lust--a reality which can play out in many forms, including viewing movies that violate God's good law while stating we are "redeeming culture." Some might claim a Sunday at the beach under the umbrella of Christian liberty, while forsaking the assembling together with the saints in worship. There are a multitude of ways in which we can pretend or presume Christian liberty, while at the same time destroying the goal of Christian liberty: that being "delivered [from]... our enemies we might serve the Lord with fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life."

The same is true in our relation to lawful civil and ecclesiastical authorities, and their lawful exercise of that authority. Christian liberty, including liberty of conscience, stands in harmony with humble and cheerful submission to both church and civil governance, as they pursue the peace and order of their respective spheres. (Rom. 13)

Dr William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary