Death by accomodation

One evening when I lived in Bradenton I had a rather memorable conversation with a New College student. Although by “memorable” I really only mean I remembered one thing. He came from a P.C.U.S.A. background (if I remember correctly his father was a pastor) and learned I was a P.C.A. pastor. Upon hearing those three letters “P.C.A.,” he offered his condolences to me and any hopeful ministry one with such a background could have with colleges students at New College. “I don’t think the P.C.A could have much to say to such students as these.”  Ironically we would soon have several New College students regularly attend our church.

What he meant was that a denomination as “conservative” (Jesus as only way of salvation, bible as final authority, male pastorate) as mine couldn’t have the same influence as one which was far less rigid on issues such as the aforementioned. 

Or in other words, in order to reach a skeptical generation one must give a little before it can take any ground. One must accommodate in order to see any success or headway. 

Well on the surface level, that would make sense. If you want to reach people who don’t believe in God, an institutional church, need for grace, regular corporate worship, tithing, bible study, then you should probably find some middle ground. On a purely pragmatic level I’ll admit this actually makes sense. 

If the unique exclusive claims of Christ offend modern sensibilities, then let’s broaden them a bit. We don’t want to be a church that offends those who don’t believe in Jesus, so long as they are good people, we’re on the same page as Muslims, Jews, all really nice Americans. This way we will seem so much more loving than those mean conservative folks. 

If Jesus’ sexual ethic seems a bit outdated, then let’s loosen that up a bit too. We think Jesus is okay with pre/extra-marital sex, all divorces when people feel unfulfilled, homosexual behavior when folks really love each other. 

One would think by ridding one’s church from such “deal stoppers”that it would open the flood gates for all kinds of growth. 

The problem, aside from the obvious abandonment of Jesus’ claims, is that actually doesn’t work. At all. In fact it does the exact opposite.

In his book Bad Religion, Russ Douthat writes:

The Episcopal Church (60’s-70’s), in particular, was fast becoming the Catholicism that reformers so earnestly desired-democratic, egalitarian, politicized, and sexually liberated….Liberal Protestants were selling exactly what the accommodationists claimed the public desperately wanted from religion, and nobody was buying it….”He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower,” the Anglican Ralph Inge remarked, and so it was with the accommodationists. 

Douthat says we’ve done that. It didn’t and doesn’t work, and is why mainline liberal denominations are falling fast and will keep falling.

He further gives us a clear sociological reason for why this doesn’t work.

The more firmly accomodationist Christianity defined itself by taking sides in this give-and-take, the more it came to be seen as just another faction, just another interest group, with nothing particularly transcendent to offer anyone.

If there is no longer anything distinct about Christianity, just stick with the rotary, Boy Scouts, social clubs and go fishing on Sunday morning. What’s the difference when you take away Jesus?

Or as Jesus so pertinently purports in his Sermon on the Mount:  

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.  Matt 5:13
 For the sake of gaining ground (friendships, clout, church attendance), it may be tempting to accommodate, but remember Jesus’ words and how they have wrung true throughout church history.

Only in a grace-centered, gospel-saturated, truth-telling community will folks see Jesus for who He really is. The funny thing is that in a denomination far more “conservative” than mine, we see that even they had plenty of “stuff to say” to a professor of gay and lesbian studies. They didn’t accommodate, but took seriously the command to be “conservative” on truth but “liberal” in love.

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Reflections on Tortured for Christ

I just finished reading the book Tortured for Christ by Voice of the Martyrs founder Richard Wurmbrand. You can get it for free here. Like the title suggests, this book is not a feel good book. In fact, I’m not sure I felt good one minute while reading it. However, I’m glad that I read it, and there are a few reasons why I would commend it to you.

How to do it through Christ vs How I did it through Christ.

I’ve read books called Crazy Love and Radical. They are designed to challenge and convict the American Dream mentality that has crept into American Christianity. I think both writers have a voice that we need to hear-though in the end both fell short in my opinion of providing the necessary gospel motivation. Sometimes the best way to inspire folks (or at least it works best for me) is not to say, “Here’s why you should do _____,” but to see someone live out “Here’s why the gospel of Jesus motivated ME or OTHERS to do _______.” That’s the book in a nutshell. This joker lived through two different multi-year prison sentences under the communists, enduring constant torture and yet still loving his enemies. Instead of someone telling me this is how to do x, I could see how Jesus did it through His people. There are great books on reconciliation, but the most powerful book I’ve read on the subject is As We Forgive, which shows how the most bitter of enemies HAVE BEEN reconciled. The same thing goes with Tortured for Christ. It’s good to read books on how the gospel can help me follow Jesus as well as how the gospel tangibly empowers folks to follow Jesus despite awful tortures. Both have a place on our book shelves. But I have to admit that being more pragmatic myself I really like to see examples. These books help me apply my theology (Head), and be motivated (Heart) to my actual life (Hands). Jesus can really empower people to persevere through such torture. He does it all the time.

What would I do?

I felt something while reading this book. I don’t even know how to describe it. Perhaps a mix of fear, anger, heaviness, sadness, conviction for my complacency….But part of me had to ask the honest question, what would I do if threatened with torture, and the reality of leaving behind a wife and kids that often wouldn’t be taken care of (it was illegal to help them)? I’ve had kidney stones and I can imagine doing anything that would stop such pain. How would I hold up? How would you? None of us can with pride say what we would do in such a situation. But we can say with hope that God will never leave us nor forsake us, nor will he allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (I Cor 10:13). He will give us the power on that day to do what we need to do to follow Him regardless of how much of a wuss we are. We can say, “Well its me, I can’t imagine enduring that…” But God has had martyrs in every century since the gospel burst onto the scene. I would imagine that folks might have had similar fears. With books like this one, we know that there are many who have been empowered to endure torture and death. Young and old. We can see them. It’s not just theoretical, but historical. I need that.

Complacency

We are complacent in the West. We need to repent. Our problems are minor compared to what our brothers and sisters face every day in certain areas. We don’t need to feel guilty for where we were born or live because God has determined the places where we were born or live so that we would hear the gospel (Acts 17). However, when our suburban Christianity begins to look not much more different that our suburban non-believing neighbors, we ought to think that something is wrong. We do need to repent over the energy we spend trying to make ourselves more comfortable (demanding bigger houses, better spouses, etc..) and fix our hope on Jesus. Instead of demanding the comforts of heaven NOW, we can be spending our energy praying and longing for God’s will in heaven be done on Earth. Ironically, we’ll find more comfort and joy that way.

Our boldness should increase

In Philippians chapter 1, Paul recognizes that his prison time is currently making his fellow Christians bolder than ever. God used the persecution of one to make another bold. I hope that I become more bold, not fearing the “Gosh, you’re weird or intolerant” remark. In the end, if I continue to drink deeply of the gospel and rest in God’s assurance and protection over me, I’ll get bolder. But because the bible says persecution does indeed have an emboldening effect, I hope that as we read about and pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith we grow bolder by the day.

Top 10 books I read in 2011

A plethora of “Christian celebrity” pastor types put up their list of top 10 books that they’ve read for the year. I’m not a Christian “celebrity,” but for those open to hear from “D-Lister” (and I know that’s even pushing it!), here are my top 10 books from this past year of which I commend to you.

1.) Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This book was a page turner and I loved every page. Well written and truly redemptive in all senses of the word. The story of a world class runner turned WWII downed aviator. He barely survives 50 days at sea only to be captured and put in a POW camp. How about that for a bad day? Floating at sea for 50 days only to be discovered by Japanese. Wow. You’ll be astounded at the journey, the camaraderie, the perseverance, and then the forgiveness of the story. My review here.

2.) Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian faithfulness and homosexuality by Wesley Hill. I did a quick review of it here. This book chronicles the struggle of a Christian dealing with same-sex attraction, but understanding that is not God’s will for him. It really gives us a glimpse into the life of a believer who wants to remain faithful to Christ. In so doing, he takes heat from all sides: the pro-gay side; with those in the church who feel uncomfortable even discussing the issue; as well as those in the church who seem to have all the answers on why gay people are gay and how they can be fixed. Challenging and a good one for all of us to read. A great picture of sanctification: washed and waiting.

3.) When People are Big, God is Small. This one from Ed Welch is a brilliant but simple and practical guide to all of those who struggle with fear of man. It will draw your attention and your sense of need away from yourself and onto Christ. It is challenging, and at times offensive, but in a good way.

4.) The Trellis and the Vine. This book from Colin Marshall and Tony Payne challenges the reader to re-orient his view for how the church should work. Instead of having programs to fit perceived needs, programs should be centered around people. If people you have don’t fit into the program (either those who would benefit or those who would lead them), then nix that program. Start with people, not with a program that may have outlived its usefulness. These lads really focus on the ministry of the Word from believer to believer, and not just ministry of the Word as it is preached on Sunday. Each member is a minister. A pastor’s role is to equip members for ministry, which may or may not include ministry in a particular program. So much ministry is done one-to-one (these dudes are Australian so they say things a bit differently), which is good news. That kind of ministry is feasible given any budget or building limitations.

5.) No Bag for the Journey by Joseph Martin. A lad rides across the country on a bicycle before cell phones and emails and the like. More often than not Joseph Martin doesn’t even know where he will be spending the night or what he’ll be eating. God provided miraculously for him throughout this journey. Truly amazing story of faith and God’s faithfulness. But my favorite part was the epilogue where he comes to know and embrace the reformation re-discovery of the gospel of grace. So neat to see a man who grew up in Tampa, went to the same Catholic school I went to, come to truly rest in the gospel. When I finished the book I immediately found him on facebook and let him know I was the step-grandchild of the mother of his best friend growing up. You’ll want to meet this guy as well and pray for his journey as he continues to battle the liberal Episcopal church trying to cease their property.

6.) Generous Justice. I’m a Keller nut, so pretty much everything this lad writes I like. However, as someone who does not have a heart of mercy, but wants to be more practically and systematically merciful, this is quite helpful to non Keller-nuts too. It’s also a helpful read because it places the mercy displayed by the church and individuals in a practically scriptural framework with a number of examples.

7.) The Lost City of Z by David Grann. Legend has it it there was at some point in time an astounding, fairly complex civilization in the heart of the amazon. And so that, with the allure of glory, fame, gold, and the sense of discovering something that many thought may not have existed has drawn in many glory-hounds. So many have died. This book focuses its attention primarily one man’s fateful journey while the author risks his life to discover what happened and whether or not this city did really exist. Fascinating to say the least how such a city has brought so many men to their graves, and continued for centuries to do so.

8.) The King’s Cross by Tim Keller. A commentary on Mark, but more than that. It’s more like a series of sermons going through the gospel of Mark. I read much of it while down with the stomach flu so that’s possibly why it didn’t get as high a rating! Still, very helpful “walk-through” and application of the gospel of Mark.

9.) Gospel centered family by Tim Chester and Ed Moll. This is a short book designed to be studied and read in small groups or Sunday School. I loved it. Amy did too. So did/does our adult Sunday School class. It is practical enough to apply, but gospel centric enough to call for grace in grey areas. These authors attack idols graciously and truthfully. I appreciated the section on a family being missional and outward focused. That seems the last frontier yet to be tackled by most parenting books. Without this aspect, the family can easily become yet another idol.

10.) The Forgotten 500. The story of 500 or so airmen stranded in Yugoslavia and the miraculous evacuation that saw none of them be lost to Nazi resistance. It was a sad tale in some ways because this story was intended never to be told due to politics and communistic infiltrating moles. The rescue was in fact only a plus. What I was most challenged by was the picture of hospitality shown by such peasants. They gave out of their meagerness to help homeless airmen. A fun, challenging, insightful and informative read. Two of my reflections are here and here

 Honorable Mentions: These are books that were still good reads, but didn’t quite make the final cut.

The Idiot by Dosteyevski. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I did Crime and Punishment or the Brothers Karamazov, and it really didn’t quite have the same redemption as the former, but it gave me a picture of Russia and its struggle at the common level with religious, gospel, and atheistic thinking. Some decent illustrations of the gospel here and there. I would still recommend it to someone interested in exploring the mind and writings of this prophetic man.

Radical by David Platt. A good challenge to us all who tend to see Jesus as our means to accomplish the American Dream. We need to be challenged to give and live more sacrificially. I liked the personal and practical touch. I’ve already reviewed it here. Would have liked some more emphasis on grace as motivator and the “radicalness” of being a good worker, husband, churchmen, neighbor, etc…Still, David Platt plays the role of prophet to a complacent church and we should listen.

The Glass Castle. Powerful memoir. Still wonder if it is all true. Ultimately as redemptive as it could be without the hope of the gospel, so it left me a bit saddened. It did help give me a picture of WV outside to the suburban Teays Valley.