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Blog / Church / Miscellaneous

Should the Church be More Inclusive or Exclusive?

April 4, 2018


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.

Uncategorized / Videos

Five-Minute Leadership: Engaging the Campus with Chris & Cherelle Johnson

March 28, 2018


In this episode of Five-Minute Leadership, Pastor Steve sits down with Chris and Cherelle Johnson, leaders of Divine Unity Community Church, an Every Nation church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Chris and Cherelle talk about how they intentionally engage college students in their church and personal lives. Chris shares, “One of the things that college students look for is family…when you are able to provide a piece of home in a place where they feel foreign, it welcomes them in and it opens up their heart….We intentionally get them around families and homes that are pursuing the Lord Jesus.”

To hear more, watch below.

Blog / Miscellaneous

The Necessity of the Cross

March 27, 2018

Garden of Gethsamene

NASHVILLE — For almost a month, I have been blogging about the importance of preaching (and singing) the cross. But as we begin Holy Week, I want to take a closer look at the importance of the cross itself.

When Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, just a few hours before He would be arrested, tortured, and executed, He prayed: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Knowing what was coming, Jesus, in His humanity, was searching for an alternative to the cross. But He concluded His prayer, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).

Why didn’t God the Father find another way? Why was it necessary for God the Son to go to the cross?

A common modern objection to the cross goes like this: Why couldn’t a good and loving God find it in His heart to simply forgive (and forget)? Why did He require the death of His sinless son as a substitute for sinful humanity?

At first glance, the question seems to put God (and Christianity) on the defensive. We expect our children to forgive and forget. Why can’t we expect the same of God? Why does this (seemingly) “bloodthirsty” God work the redemption of humanity through such inhumane means? Why does a just God will such a cosmic injustice—the death of Jesus by crucifixion? Why was the cross necessary?

The answer to these objections hinges on the question of God’s justice in relation to human injustice.

The question “Why can’t God just forgive and forget?” can only be asked by someone of great privilege who has never experienced the depth of human injustice.

A few years ago, a college student from Stanford was accused (and eventually convicted) of sexual assault and the attempted rape of an intoxicated female who was found unconscious next to a dumpster. During court proceedings, the defendant’s father made an appeal to the judge to not deal too harshly with his son. In a letter, he wrote that prison time was “a steep price to pay for twenty minutes of action…”

The father of the perpetrator wanted soft justice—even a passing-over of justice. He was basically asking the judge: “Why can’t we just forgive and forget?”

Can you imagine the victim of this brutal injustice hearing these words in court? Can you imagine what her father and mother thought? They were not content just to forgive and forget. Something terribly wrong had been done to this young girl and they wanted justice.

In a letter to the judge, in which she directly addressed her assailant, the victim wrote: “You should have never done this to me… But here we are. The damage is done, no one can undo it. And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on.”

This letter poignantly illustrates the necessity of the cross. God, because He is just, cannot simply forgive and forget. His solution to the sin and injustice of the world will not, and cannot, ignore the cries for justice from people who have been oppressed and abused, like that young girl. God, by His very nature, must make things right and righteousness requires justice.

But there is more.

God is not only seeking to restore the victim; He is seeking to redeem the victimizer. He is not only on the side of the oppressed; He is actively seeking to bring the oppressor over to the side of righteousness. This is good news because we are all victims and victimizers, oppressed and oppressors, plaintiffs and defendants.

Here we find the beauty and glory of the cross.

The cross was necessary “so that he might be just and the justifier” (Romans 3:26). For on the cross, God in Jesus secured justice for every victim of injustice, and at the same time, He bore the punishment for every perpetrator of injustice. On the cross, Jesus identified with the unjust suffering of the oppressed, and at the same time, He experienced the just punishment due to oppressors.

Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

To borrow (and adjust) the words of the letter quoted above, from the cross, Jesus makes this appeal to each one of us: “You should have never done this to me…But here we are. The damage is done, and only I can undo it. And now you have a choice: You can be in denial, or we can face it head-on. I accept the pain; I accept the punishment; and we move on.”

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.


Five-Minute Leadership: Engaging with Intentionality with Shaddy Soliman

March 14, 2018

5minuteLeadershipLogoFINALIn this latest episode of Five-Minute Leadership, Pastor Steve sits down with Pastor Shaddy Soliman, our Every Nation pastor in Lake Mary, Florida, to talk about practical tips for engaging your community.

Pastor Shaddy shared this about the Four Es: “We’ve been going for almost eight years now, and it’s been a very, very successful journey for us because it [the Four Es] gives a definition and a direction for how we really, truly make disciples.” To learn more, watch below.

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.