SteveMurrell.com | Reluctant Leader

Browsing Category Church

Blog / Church

The Pain of Prophetic Preaching

May 7, 2018

Unique
NASHVILLE—
Because I live in two nations, I get to be part of two local churches, one in Manila and one in Nashville. For obvious reasons, Victory Manila is 99% Filipino. For reasons that are not as obvious, Bethel is approximately 55% black (African American and African immigrants), 35% white, and 10% other (Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern). This means that I am an ethnic minority in both of my home churches. This also means that there are worship styles, communication styles, and hairstyles that I simply do not understand (and probably never will).

In the past year, I have had multiple conversations with black and white members of my Nashville church. Sometimes, my black friends feel like certain topics are not addressed enough, while some of my white friends feel like those same topics are addressed too much. In a multiethnic church, it seems that when certain sensitive topics are addressed, no one is fully satisfied. This is what I call “the pain of prophetic preaching.” And this pain is not unique to my multiethnic home church in Nashville.

If you have an honest conversation with multiethnic church members in London, Johannesburg, or Singapore, while the specific details might be different, the sentiments will probably be the same. Some want certain topics to be hit harder and more often from the pulpit, while others prefer those same topics to be discussed privately or not at all.

O the pain of prophetic preaching. What’s a preacher to do? If anyone ever lived with the pain of prophetic preaching it was Jeremiah.

He was born a priest, but before he was born, God decided he would be a prophet (See Jeremiah 1:1-10). I bet there were many times Jeremiah wished he could have lived the relatively uncomplicated and uncontroversial life of a priest.

But no, God called him to be a prophet, and that meant he had to preach uncomfortable topics like idolatry, adultery, immigration (sojourners), religious pluralism, colonialism, racism, the shedding of innocent blood, orphan care, government corruption, and poverty, to name a few. It is common today for people to think that faithful obedience to God results in prosperity and popularity. Not so for Jeremiah. His faithful obedience resulted in unjust incarceration more than once. It also led to brutal beatings and death threats. Because Jeremiah was faithful to his prophetic call, he was neither popular nor prosperous. He was hated and despised by the very people he served.

After a season of preaching prophetic sermons that no one except God wanted him to preach, Jeremiah let out a brutally honest and desperate prayer (aka a prophetic complaint). “Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me” (Jeremiah 15:10).

You know it’s bad when a preacher brings his mother into a conversation with God!

Notice that Jeremiah described himself as a man of strife and contention to the whole land. That’s pretty bleak, but it gets worse. He notes that, unlike a banker, he neither lends or borrows, yet all of them curse me. I doubt that every single person actually cursed him, but on some days, it seems that way when God calls you to be a prophetic preacher. Jeremiah discovered that being a faithful prophetic preacher can sometimes destroy relationships and increase stress.

How did God respond to Jeremiah’s complaint, and how might He respond to ours? God responded with a rhetorical question: “Have I not set you free for their good?” (Jeremiah 15:11)

God’s response contains two important reminders for everyone whose calling causes them to be unpopular. First, the call of God sets us free from the concerns and temporal value systems of the prevailing culture. Second, the call of God is for the good of others, not necessarily for our immediate good.

While most preachers reading this blog will not experience Jeremiah’s level of persecution, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that even modern prophetic preachers should expect some level of opposition because “the prophetic act, now as always, is decidedly upstream and against the grain.” (If you’d like to read more on this, check out Brueggmann’s book, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word) That “decidedly upstream and against the grain” phrase sure explains the difficulty of preaching certain topics. But faithfulness to the call demands that we preach them anyway.

Question: Does faithfulness to God’s calling always guarantee immediate earthly blessings?

Answer: No, but it always honors God and always produces eternal rewards.

Therefore, I suggest that preachers boldly and wisely preach whatever God says to preach, especially if it is “decidedly upstream” and against the prevailing cultural current.

Blog / Church / Miscellaneous

Should the Church be More Inclusive or Exclusive?

April 4, 2018

Narrow-Path

NASHVILLE—One of the biggest challenges that Christians face today is reconciling the seemingly exclusive claims of Jesus with the postmodern cultural value of inclusivity.

Whether you are at a Starbucks or a law firm, a university campus or a preschool, inclusivity is what everyone seems to be striving for. It’s written in value statements. It’s expressed in public memos (sometimes after an employee Twitter gaff). And perhaps most importantly, it’s simply assumed to be an inherent good by most people in society.

Some churches have joined the movement, pushing for a more inclusive Christianity that is open to all. One church website put it this way: “Everybody’s in, baby…If you have breath, then you belong.”

In one sense, I hope that every church can embrace this kind of relational openness and inclusivity to outsiders, especially towards people in the LGBTQ and Muslim communities who have unofficially been excluded from evangelical churches.

However, many churches that embrace this language of inclusivity are not only advocating for relational inclusivity but also doctrinal inclusivity. This is where we, as Christians, must jump off the inclusivity train.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we see a model of intentional relational inclusivity and of radical doctrinal exclusivity.

For example, in John 4, Jesus scandalized his disciples when he engaged a Samaritan woman in conversation. Samaritans were the ultimate outsiders (even enemies) in Jewish society. Just in case later readers might miss this, John writes parenthetically, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). Not only was this woman a Samaritan, but she was a serial adulteress who had had five husbands and, as a result, was an outcast even in her own village.

These realities did not deter Jesus from welcoming this woman into conversation and inviting her to become a “true worshipper” of God (John 4:23).

However, Jesus’ remarkable relational inclusivity (which surprised both the woman and the disciples) was accompanied by clear doctrinal exclusivity. First, Jesus intentionally raises the issue of the woman’s sexual promiscuity by asking her about her husband(s). Her sex life mattered to Jesus not because it inherently disqualified her from a relationship with God, but because it had become a counterfeit god in her life—making it impossible for her to know and worship the true God.

While many proponents of “inclusive” Christianity want to take sex and sexuality off the table in conversations about faith and repentance, Jesus does the exact opposite and puts it front and center—not because sexual sin is more problematic than other kinds of sin but because sexual idolatry blinds us from the true object of worship.

After this, the woman asked Jesus a loaded question about worship: Does it matter where I worship? Jews worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem, but Samaritans worshipped on Mt. Gerizim (John 4:20). Again, here the doctrinally inclusive Christian might have responded, “It doesn’t matter where, how, or who you worship as long as you are sincerely worshipping somewhere, somehow, and something.” But that is not how Jesus answered.

The disciples might have expected that Jesus would reorient this woman’s worship toward Jerusalem and the temple, but that’s not what he did either. Instead, he reoriented her worship to himself. Jesus told her that the Messiah, the one that both the Jews and the Samaritans had been waiting for to show them the way to the Father, had come. And he told her, “I who speak to you am He” (John 4:26).

Jesus’ radical doctrinal exclusivity is echoed in a sermon of Peter’s in Acts 4 where he says, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you… And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (John 4:11–12).

Not only was this message preached to Jews and Samaritans, but Paul preached a similar message to Greeks in Corinth, saying, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man [Jesus] whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

The call to discipleship is a call for everyone—Jew or Samaritan, man or woman, black or white, American or Iranian, rich or poor, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, religious or secular—to abandon all other gods and to worship the one true God revealed in the person of Jesus.

Blog / Church

Singing the Cross

March 20, 2018

HymnalMANILA — A few days ago, I retweeted this quote from theologian and New Testament scholar Gordon Fee: “Show me a church’s music, and I’ll show you their theology.”

The sobering implication is this: your church’s theology will more closely mirror the music you sing than the sermons you preach.

This quote is both a critique and an encouragement for pastors. It’s a critique because Fee knows that many evangelical (especially charismatic) churches sing worship songs that have shallow (and occasionally heretical) theology. But it’s also an encouragement—an encouragement for pastors to see the entire worship service (both the singing and the preaching) as an opportunity to teach theology to the congregation.

Why is congregational singing such an effective mode of teaching theology? Because, unlike sermons, worship songs are sung over and over and over again. Therefore, though you can say a lot more in a thirty-minute sermon than you can in a three-minute song, a three-minute song—sung over and over again for many years—can have a much greater impact on the theology and spiritual development of someone in the pew.

Ideally, our preaching and singing should reinforce one another.

A few months ago, Paul Barker preached a short message on Revelation 19 at a training for Every Nation staff in Nashville. Describing John’s apocalyptic vision of heaven, Paul pointed out that Jesus was “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13). He contrasted this with the description of Jesus’ bride (the church) coming to meet Him. They were dressed in white robes, “with fine linen, white and pure” (19:14). This image, of course, points to the work of the cross; in particular, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. John was making the point that because Jesus’ garments are red (stained with His blood), our robes are white.

Justin Gray, the director of Every Nation Music, was captivated by this image and what it implied about Jesus’ work on the cross. This idea was eventually turned into a song that Every Nation Music recently released. Paul preached this powerful message to a few dozen people in Nashville, but because of the song, this truth will be sung by tens of thousands of people all over the world—hopefully, for many years to come.

My encouragement to pastors is this: as you make greater efforts to preach the cross in your churches this Easter season, make sure you also are singing the cross.

Here are my top ten favorite Every Nation Music songs that focus on the cross:

Red and White (Charts)
Savior on the Cross (Charts)
Find Rest (Charts)
All of You (Charts)
Beautiful Love (Charts)
Ruler of Nations (Charts)
Rise Heart (Charts)
Forever Found 
Oh the Blood
Oh What A Savior (Charts)

Blog / Church

How to Preach the Cross

March 14, 2018

 

PewsMANILA—Last week, I wrote about the importance of preaching the cross. We must continually emphasize the cross because it is something that most people (religious or secular) don’t want to hear—and it’s something that most preachers (evangelical or otherwise) don’t really want to preach.

So how do we preach the cross? Where should we begin?

My advice is to go deep into one crucial idea, text, or metaphor. So often when we preach, we try to say everything, and we end up with a sermon that is wide yet shallow. Piling on Bible verses and metaphors results in weak and ineffective preaching. Instead of going wide (and shallow), I’d recommend going deep (and narrow)  when you preach the cross.

I’d recommend choosing one (maybe two) of the following approaches for a sermon:

1. Preach the cross from the Gospels. I might take this one step further and recommend preaching the story of the crucifixion from just one of the gospel writers in any given sermon. Each writer has a particular theological emphasis in their account of Jesus’ life and death. It is worth unpacking each retelling of the crucifixion through the eyes of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

2. Preach the cross from the Writings of Paul. Preaching the cross from Paul’s letters gives us the opportunity to go deeper into some of the ideas about the cross only implicitly referenced by the gospel writers. Unlike the gospel writers, who convey their theologies of the cross primarily through narrative, Paul gives us a more explicit discussion of the meaning and implications of it. Again, different letters (whether Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Galatians) offer different emphases that are worth treating on their own.

3. Preach the cross from the Old Testament. The best way to do this is to follow the lead of Paul or the gospel writers who make explicit references to the Old Testament as they explain the significance of Jesus’ death. Sometimes it’s enough just to alert your listeners to the Old Testament reference they’re making, but sometimes it’s worth preaching an entire sermon from an Old Testament text (like Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53) that points to the cross and helps us understand its significance in a new way.

4. Preach the cross from a recurring biblical theme or motif. Though I typically like to ground my sermons in a particular text, sometimes it is valuable to ground the sermon in a particular theme which we can trace and unpack through several texts and stories. The key here is to focus narrowly on one theme—like blood sacrifice (see Hebrews 9:22), ransom (see Matthew 20:28), or substitution (Leviticus 16). Obviously, these themes are all related, but they are worth unpacking on their own. Each idea has profound implications for our understanding of the cross.

As we make the cross central to our preaching, we will be reminded that the cross is central to the Scriptures (from start to finish). And as we study and preach the Word with the cross in mind, we will remind our listeners (and ourselves) that the cross is central to the call to discipleship.

Blog / Church / Miscellaneous

Preaching the Cross

March 7, 2018

Cross-for-BlogMANILA—When I was growing up, my family did not go to church every Sunday, but we never missed Christmas Eve or Easter.

This image of the “Christmas-and Easter-only” churchgoer is always in the back of my mind when I prepare to preach in the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. If someone only went to church twice a year, what sermon would I want them to hear? How could I sum up the essence of the gospel in thirty minutes? What message would make the biggest impact? What words might make all the difference?

In these situations, we often imagine that “relevance” is crucial. How can I preach something that will make sense to everyone in the audience, especially the non-religious who usually don’t go to church? How can I make sure that I don’t unnecessarily offend any non-Christian hearing my sermon?

While it is important to seriously consider your audience when preaching, my advice this Easter is to preach what is undeniably the most offensive sermon you will ever preach. My advice is to scandalize your listeners—both the religious and non-religious.

My advice is to preach the cross.

In 1 Corinthians 1:21-22, Paul reminds us that “…it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…”

In this text, Paul identifies with every preacher as they negotiate the expectations of different audiences. The Jews (or regular attendees) wanted signs. They wanted to hear inspirational preaching about miracles and healing and provision. But they didn’t want to hear about the cross. To hear a message about a suffering, crucified God was not inspirational–it was a “stumbling block.”

The Greeks (or non-religious) wanted wisdom. They wanted to hear sophisticated arguments and eloquent public speaking (which Paul could do). They wanted someone to convince them, or at least entertain them. But they didn’t want to hear about the cross. To hear a message about a suffering, crucified God was not interesting; it was “foolishness.”

So if Paul knew that neither of his imagined audiences would want to hear the message of the cross, then why did he insist “not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified”? (1 Corinthians 2:2)

Why did Paul insist on preaching a message that neither the religious nor the irreligious wanted to hear?

Because though “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing…to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Paul did not preach Christ crucified because it was popular—he preached the cross because it was powerful. He did not preach to please his listeners—he preached to please his Master. He did not expect most people to respond with enthusiasm—he expected a few to respond with repentance.

If you find it difficult to preach the cross this Easter season, so did Paul. It will never be easy to preach the cross. Even in the lifetime of the apostles, the message of the cross was something that preachers wanted to skip over or minimize.

If your main goal with your Easter sermon is to retain your biggest crowd of 2018, then don’t preach the cross.

If your main goal with your Easter sermon is to impress the non-Christians in the audience with your pop-culture references and casual delivery, then don’t preach the cross.

If your main goal with your Easter sermon is to provide inspiration and motivation for your regular attendees, then don’t preach the cross.

But if your main goal is for people to experience the power of God, then preach Christ crucified, and watch what He does by His Spirit.

Blog / Church / Leadership

How To Talk About Charlottesville

August 14, 2017

 

White nationalists holding a rally on the campus of UVA.

White nationalists holding a rally on the campus of UVA.

WILMORE, KENTUCKY—I have mostly been unplugged from the news and social media for over a week now during my summer residency at Asbury Theological Seminary. However, I thought that this weekend’s events needed comment.

Because of the global nature of my job and the fact that I don’t pastor a local church in North America, I typically avoid commenting on American cultural and political issues. It is important—in fact, vital—for American pastors to engage these topics with wisdom, but this blog is written for pastors and leaders from every nation. I only engage American issues when they have global implications or unique global parallels.

There is much that could be said about the tragic events in Charlottesville this past weekend. We could talk about racism in America (and in the American church); we could talk about the need for multiethnic churches; or we could talk about the centrality of the gospel in racial reconciliation. Back in May, I wrote a series of blogs that addressed these very issues, which are linked in the previous sentence.

So instead of covering that ground again, I want to focus on communication: How we as church leaders should talk, preach, and even tweet about ethnic tension and racial reconciliation in our local contexts—whether we are addressing white nationalism in America, racial tension in southern Africa, or anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.

I am deeply troubled by both the events in Charlottesville and the ugly public discourse surrounding these events. I don’t expect CNN, NPR, or non-Christian bloggers and Instagrammers to get this right, but I do expect more from church leaders.

If we want to honor God, build up the church, and work for the common good, here’s how I think we should communicate (and encourage our emerging leaders to communicate):

1. Be clear about the issue. Now is not the time to be vague. Now is not the time to negotiate your parishioners’ political inclinations. We do not represent a news organization. We do not represent a political party that needs to worry about reelection. So please do not make a vacuous condemnation of “all hate, violence, and bigotry.” Be clear about what is really at stake. Paul was clear in his very public rebuke of Peter that his actions toward the Gentile believers were “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). We should make it abundantly clear that all race-based nationalism, in this case white nationalism, is not only culturally problematic, but antithetical to the gospel.

2. Be clear about the audience. Audience matters. How we address these issues from the pulpit should be different than how we address these issues on social media. Different audiences call for different strategies. Before we say or post anything, we should think about how different groups of people might receive the words we are trying to communicate. While this point is certainly in tension with the point above (about clarity), these ideals are not mutually exclusive. As leaders who are called to speak the truth in love, we should know that there will always be people in our audience who will find the truth offensive. But if we are thoughtful about audience, we will lower the risk of unnecessary friendly fire and potential miscommunication.

3. Be clear about the real enemy. Though it is easy to imagine those five hundred torch-toting white supremacists as the enemy, they aren’t the real enemy. Neither is David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump, or the alt-right. If we ourselves are not clear on the real enemy, we will inevitably demonize (and dehumanize) people and once again deny the power of the gospel. As Russell Moore so eloquently argues, we need to spend our energy “opposing demons, not demonizing opponents.” For our struggle is not against “flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This does not mean that we don’t hold people (especially leaders) to account for their sin. But it does mean is that we should see every human opponent not as an enemy to be defeated but as people to be won over.

Remember that we too were once enemies of God, without hope. But instead of coming to defeat us, Jesus came into the world to redeem us and entrust to us that same ministry of reconciliation. For two great examples of what this looks like in practice, check out this blog from Pastor Adam Mabry of Aletheia Boston and this video from Pastor Brett Fuller of Grace Covenant Church in Virginia.

 

 

Blog / Church / Discipleship / Leadership

Attracting Crowds or Making Disciples?

July 3, 2017

TOKYO AIRPORT — Observing the life of Jesus in the gospels is often an abrupt and painful reality check, especially in our social media saturated do-anything-for-fame ministry culture. I can’t imagine Jesus being obsessed with how many people “liked” his latest pithy post or how many people “friended” or “shared” his content.

His only obsession was to please the Father. We should be likewise obsessed.

Matthew reported that Jesus preached the gospel and healed the sick all over Galilee. (4:23) Because of his preaching and healing “His fame spread” which resulted in even more preaching and healing. (4:24) The predictable result of all this preaching and healing was that “great crowds followed him.” (4:25)

So, Jesus now has fame and crowds. The only thing missing (for modern success) is the fortune. But great fame, a massive following, and financial fortune did not matter to Jesus. And it should not matter to us. But it often does. Even in ministry.

What did Jesus do with his new found fame and huge following? How did he “leverage his platforms” in order to increase his following? How did he alter his “content” to increase his followers? How did he monetize his influence? That’s what we would do, right?

Notice carefully what Jesus did. “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” (Matthew 5:1 ESV)

Two important words: crowds and disciples.

1. “Seeing the CROWDS, he went up to the mountain.” Today when we see crowds in our Sunday service, in our campus ministry, or on social media we think we have succeeded. We must be doing something right and God is must be blessing our efforts. In order to be good stewards of our success, we do everything imaginable to maintain and grow our audience. Our first move is to leverage our platform for growth and influence. Jesus did the opposite. His first move was to walk away from the crowd.

2. “And when he sat down, his DISCIPLES came to him.” Unimpressed with his ever-increasing popularity, Jesus ignored the crowd and ascended the mountain. He traded a massive crowd of adorning followers for a small group of committed disciples. A careful reading of the gospels will reveal that the more crowds followed Jesus, the more he retreated to be alone with the Father and with his disciples.

Every leader of a growing ministry will be faced with an important decision: attract crowds or make disciples. Will we leave the crowds in order to make disciples, or will we allow the demands of the crowd to pull us away from small group discipleship?

Too many pastors and ministry leaders choose the crowds.

The irony of the situation is that very often, the leaders who choose making disciples over attracting crowds actually end up with massive crowds, but not crowds of fawning fickle miracle-seekers, crowds of disciples.

When your ministry starts to grow, choose wisely, my friends.

Church / Discipleship / Missions

Racial Hypocrisy, Lunch, and the Gospel

May 16, 2017
Depiction of Paul writing his letters.

Depiction of Paul writing his letters.

NASHVILLE—This blog is the final installment of an impromptu series on ethnic diversity and racial reconciliation in the Church. The first blog was inspired by a trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa; the second blog was inspired by a Sunday worship service at Bethel in Nashville; and this final blog is inspired by an argument between Paul and Peter in first-century Antioch. That apostolic argument led to a very public apostolic rebuke.

The Story
We read about this confrontation and rebuke in Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, a city in modern-day Turkey. But first, a little background to help us understand why the rebuke was necessary.

In the first chapter of Galatians, Paul pleads with the church to hold on to the gospel. Before describing the real gospel, he mentions four false versions of the gospel that had infiltrated the church: a different gospel (verse 6), a distorted gospel (verses  7), a contrary gospel (verses 8, 9), and man’s gospel (verse 11). Unfortunately all four of these “gospels” are still being preached in the church today.

After exposing these four false gospels, Paul turned his attention to the true gospel and its implications on race relations in the church.

Despite the teaching of some legalistic Jewish believers, Paul wanted to make it clear that Gentile believers did not have to become Jews (i.e. be circumcised and follow Jewish dietary laws) in order to follow Jesus. In short, Gentiles and Jews are saved by grace alone, not by following religious traditions.

After a long discussion about the gospel and its implications for Gentile believers, Paul recounts his confrontation with Peter:

But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-13).

Paul’s Response
Here’s my summary of the situation. When Peter visited the church in Antioch—the first church in the New Testament that had a significant number of non-Jews—he hung out with Gentiles and even ate with them, something a good Jew would never do. But when Peter’s Jewish friends from Jerusalem came to visit, he suddenly stopped eating with the Gentile believers and reverted to the old mode of segregation.

Paul was deeply troubled by this behavior, twice calling it hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13).

First, Paul did not remain silent. And he did not talk about Peter behind his back. He “opposed him to his face” (Galatians 2:11). Much more could be said here, but the fact is, there are some issues that demand confrontation. This is one of them.

Second, Paul treated racial reconciliation as a gospel issue. “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas…” (Galatians 2:14). Paul did not treat the ethnic and cultural divisions in the church at Antioch as a minor issue. He did not treat it as a side issue. He did not treat is as a political, cultural, social, or economic issue, even though he could have. He treated it as a gospel issue. And gospel issues are always big issues.

Even though there was a history of political, cultural, social, and economic alienation that fed into and reinforced ethnic divisions between Jews and Gentiles, Paul chose to go straight to the heart of the issue—the gospel.

The Point
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26).
For Paul, it was simple. Though there was a long history of division between Jews and Gentiles, the gospel had changed everything. In Christ, we have all been adopted into the family of God—and family members eat together.

Blog / Church / Miscellaneous

Ethnic Diversity & Sunday Worship

May 10, 2017

Bethel diversity

NASHVILLE—After a long flight from Johannesburg, Deborah and I arrived back in Nashville early Saturday morning. The next day, as we walked into Bethel World Outreach Church, I was struck once again by the logo of praying hands (one black, one white) that appear on everything Bethel produces.

Many people don’t realize this, but Bethel borrowed that logo from our churches in South Africa many years ago. For them, it was a symbol of what the church should look like as South African society tried to heal after decades of Apartheid. Similarly for Rice Broocks and the Bethel leadership, the black and white praying hands represented what church in the American South ought to look like after its own painful legacy of racial segregation.

The praying hands are symbolic. They point to something. They remind leaders and members of the churches in both Cape Town and Nashville that God has called us to into a new community. One where ethnic, social, cultural, and political differences are subordinated to the central reality of the gospel: that in Christ, we have all been adopted into the family of God.

Paul, in his letter to the church in Colossae, put it this way: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

This verse, like the praying hands logo, reminds us of what the church ought to look like, who the church ought to be: a diverse people, united by the gospel.

And yet, so often our experience falls short.

Some churches simply aren’t diverse. And other churches, if they’ve achieved a level of diversity, struggle to find unity.

How can we pursue diversity and keep unity in the church?

In Colossians 3, Paul gives us the answer. After showing the church in Colossae what they ought to look like in verse 11, he then tells them how to do it. In verses 12-15, Paul lists the virtues that Christians need to cultivate in order to live in diversity and unity: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, love, peace, and thankfulness.

And in verse 16, Paul describes two central activities that diverse church communities need to do in order to stay unified: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

For Paul, the answer to the diversity and unity problem in the church was simple: word and worship.

In order to be the church that God has called us to be, we need to be a people who read, study, and meditate on the Word together. And we need to be a people who worship together.

Why does Paul emphasize the Word and worship?

Because the Holy Spirit does something unique in His people when they gather around the Word and when they join together in songs of worship to God.

Like a tuning fork, the Word gives God’s people the right pitch to which they must all tune their hearts and minds. Without the Word, we have no unity. Without the Word, we are like a band trying to tune their instruments to one another rather than the tuning fork. (In case you’ve never tried. It doesn’t work.)

Similarly, when we sing together, we are once again allowing the Holy Spirit to do a work of divine tuning. But this activity not only engages our hearts and minds, but our bodies as well. When we sing, clap, and dance, God engages our vocal chords, our hands, our feet. And when we do this together, we are reminded of what—actually who—matters most.

We are reminded that only redeemed people can sing like this.

Though we are from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, one day we will all stand before the throne of God and cry out with a one voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10)

 

Blog / Church / Miscellaneous

Racism, Segregation, and Bad Theology

May 2, 2017

white-areaJOHANNESBURG—After a week of ministry in Australia and New Zealand, Deborah and I flew across the Indian Ocean to Johannesburg, South Africa, to preach at our Every Nation Word and Spirit Conference.

Before our meetings started, we visited the Apartheid Museum, a moving and powerful reminder of the ugliness of racism and the beauty of reconciliation. It was a humbling reminder that Christians in every age have blind spots that can only be identified and fixed when we intentionally walk in multiethnic and multigenerational Christian community.

Like the Jim Crow era segregation in the American South, Apartheid in South Africa was propagated, supported, and defended by Christians. Often our knee-jerk reaction to these painful realities of church history is to assume that the “Christian” defenders of Apartheid or Jim Crow were not real Christians. Maybe they were just cultural Christians; or maybe they were theologically liberal Christians who didn’t actually believe the Bible.

Unfortunately, history won’t let us off the hook that easily.

I am sure that some defenders of segregation in both South Africa and America were only nominal Christians and others may have been a part of churches that stopped believing the Bible. But many defenders of segregation on both sides of the Atlantic were members of churches that we might have attended had we been around in those days. To put it bluntly, many of them were Bible-believing Christians.

Not only did they defend racial segregation on national and cultural grounds, they defended it on biblical and theological grounds. They were wrong. They were sinning. And they didn’t see it.

It was a blind spot.

There were certainly many white South African Christians under Apartheid who were kind and loving to people of other races and did not personally discriminate against those from whom they were legally segregated. And yet, many of those same people saw nothing wrong with the Apartheid system they were living under. It was a blind spot.

The same could be said for my upbringing in Mississippi. I grew up in a white neighborhood, played golf at a white country club, played baseball on a white Little League team, and attended a private white prep school. In my world, segregation was normal, until I got involved in a multiethnic campus ministry and traded my white world for a world with color. As I developed friendships with people who did not look like me, I could see in their faces the pain of discrimination and the folly of segregation.

The sinful tendency to segregate on racial, ethnic, and cultural lines is not new.

In the first-century church, Jewish disciples often excluded Gentile believers from fellowship because they held to a cultural notion that Gentiles were unclean. This meant, among other things, that many Jewish believers refused to eat with Gentile believers. And this was not just a practice of a fringe group of Jewish legalists in the early church.

Peter and others among the original twelve participated in the segregation of Jewish and Gentile believers. For Peter to repent and change, he needed a powerful encounter with God, an unlikely friendship with a Roman soldier named Cornelius (see Acts 10-11), and a very public rebuke from Paul (see Galatians 2:11-16).

In every time and place, the local church has blind spots—areas of both personal and public sin that to them look less like sin and more like the status quo, that look less like oppression and more like law and order. Things that should break our hearts but don’t even catch our eye. Things that should be shocking but seem mundane. Things that will make future generations of Christians wonder: How could they call themselves Christians and not see that?

This sobering reminder from church history should remind us that planting multiethnic and multigenerational churches is not just an option for the ambitious church planter. Diversity is not an option. It’s a necessity. If we only build with people who look just like us, we will exclude the very people whom God has ordained to help us see our blind spots.

In the words of C.H. Mason, a Pentecostal saint of old: “The church is like the eye. It has a little black in it and a little white in it, and without both, we cannot see.”