I will be joining a group of pastors and leaders from diverse denominations this week for extended time in prayer – sharing our concerns with God and deliberately listening for God.
Pray for us as we gather that we might be honest before God and one another and that we might listen carefully to all that God is speaking into our lives.
N. T. Wright observes,
We are quite happy to hear about the “God” of Western imagination, less ready to hear about the God of Israel. We are quite happy to hear that “Jesus is God,” in some sense. That, we have assumed, is what the gospels are telling us. We are less ready to hear that the God of Israel had promised to do certain specific things, in particular to establish his sovereign rule over Israel and the world, and that Jesus was embodying this intention.
(Wright, N. T.. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (p. 84). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
As the 4th of July draws near I wonder…how deep have we buried Israel’s God under our Western secularism and American Exceptionalism? Across the nation this coming Sunday many churches will honor our nation (as our church will do) by reciting the Pledge to the United States Flag. We will sing along with the national anthem and we will sing of God’s might and power on display as God’s truth goes marching on!
How do we recover the identity of Israel’s God? N.T. Wright has written volumes about this challenge. Other authors have offered their own interpretations. Opinion writers regularly challenge evangelical believers about how our patriotism sometimes appears to overwhelm our faith.
As a pastor I am responsible for leading a group of believers in a particular location to evangelize and to disciple ‘all’ nations. In order to fulfill these assignments we need to consider our strategy of ‘evangelizing.’ Are we leading people to follow Jesus as He is revealed in God’s Word or as we interpret Him through our lens of American Exceptionalism and Western secularism? Do we disciple new believers according to biblically accurate models, or are we trying to create disciples who will mimic us – thinking like middle class Americans?
As we observe the 4th of July – American Independence Day – let us endeavor to use our freedom to carefully read God’s Word, to seek and save the lost – leading them to a life changing relationship with God – the God of the Bible who performs miracles, who guides and directs history to His ultimate purposes – and helping new believer grow into faithful followers of Jesus as He is revealed in God’s Word – being faithful to the models and principles we see in the pages of the New Testament.
The demise of Christendom
Christendom: defined by McLeod (in Mark A. Knoll, In the Beginning Was the Word):
A society where there are close ties between leaders of the church and secular elites; where the laws purport to be based on Christian principles; where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, everyone is assumed to be Christian; and where Christianity provides a common language, shared alike by the devout and religiously lukewarm.”
Quoted by Mark A. Noll, In The Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492 – 1783 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5-6.
The rise and fall of evangelicalism
Mark Noll, in The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitfield and the Wesleys, Volume 1: A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movements, and Ideas in the English-Speaking World (Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity Press, 2003, quotes David Bebbington’s ingredients of evangelicalism:
- conversion, or “the belief that lives need to be changed”;
- the Bible, or the “belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages”;
- activism, or the dedication of all believers, including laypeople, to lives of service for God, especially as manifested in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies); and
- crucicentrism, or the conviction that Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin (i.e. providing reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humans).(p.19)
After 25 years in the same church, the same house, the same community I don’t see significant signs of change. Attendance has peaked and fallen several times during these years. Right now we are in a trough – we are experiencing a deeper decline than previous years. The community around us – indeed the entire county – is aging. The economy in southern Oregon recovers much more slowly than other regions – such as Portland, Bend, and even Medford. Most of the school districts in our region are seeing declining student numbers. There are a few outlying districts where numbers are increasing, but evidence suggest these smaller districts are simply attracting students from the larger districts. There is an affordable housing crunch – higher priced homes are available, as are homes/apartments that are on the low end of the scale. Service sector jobs are growing – but with mandated minimum wage hikes and significant increases in purchasing medical benefits hours are being cut.
Reading Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals (The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017]), as well as other books mentioned above is challenging me to ask: are our convictions rooted in God’s Word or merely in the traditions we have been taught about God’s Word. The first few chapters of FitzGerald’s work are a brief historical review of the First and Second Great Awakenings in the US and their influence on the rise of what is called the evangelical movement. In those chapters the author raises several important issues:
To what degree do the philosophical underpinnings determine the resulting convictions?
How significant an impact do influential/prolific writers have on passing on their convictions? As a corollary, to what degree are pastors and the folks in our pews/chairs simply accepting of received tradition?
Finally, reading these authors challenges me to ask- just how much American Exceptionalism has crept into our theological framework? As Noll observes in American God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) the covenantal theology undergirding the Puritans who settled colonial America – and even the Congregationalists – the idea of covenant became entwined with the growth of a nationalist fervor. Seeing America as God’s ‘chosen’ people, inheritors of the blessing of Abraham, led to an American Exceptionalism that continues to be manifest in the prosperity gospel, in confusion between patriotism and biblical Christianity.
One week ago we celebrated Easter. Apparently most of the people who regularly attend our church didn’t get the memo. Attendance was down – significantly. One week later it looks to be the same pattern – again. Attendance declining, offerings sagging, and my attitude sinking.
Karl Vaters, a blogger for Christianity Today, suggests answering these four questions after every event:
- What went right
- What went wrong
- Why it went right or wrong, and
- What we can do to improve it the next time.
Last week if it could go wrong it did. Two key singers on the worship team were mission – one out of town on a family emergency, the other home with an illness. The sound technician misunderstood simple directions. And did I mention that attendance was down – significantly?
So this week, what will go right? As far as I know my audio/video tech person will not be here, so I will attempt to sing and change the slides along the way. As of about 9:30am none of the children who often attend were here, so three frustrated teachers are wondering if they will ever have a class to teach.
Yesterday I attended a memorial service for the last of four people who had tremendous impact on our church and my family. These two families moved into our community and into our churches life with vigor and enthusiasm. Pastoring the same church for over 25 years means lots of transitions.
(The a/v volunteer did attend! Singing was more vigorous than even Easter Sunday! So, that went right!)
It’s now Monday morning. Another week lies ahead – praying that more will go right than wrong, and that I learn from what goes wrong to become more of what God has created me to be!
“Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (Haran’s son), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years and died in Haran.” (Genesis 11:31–32, HCSB)
Abraham, whose life and family comprise the bulk of the Old Testament book of Genesis, is an intriguing personality on many levels. His unquestioning obedience to God (Genesis 12:1-3); his failures (see Genesis 12:10-following; Genesis 16; Genesis 20:1-following); his aggressive protection of family (Genesis 14); and his unwavering willingness to obey God no matter the cost (Genesis 22) are remarkable.
One of the most interesting aspects ins Abraham’s life, however, is often overlooked – Genesis 11:31, “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (Haran’s son), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.” (Genesis 11:31, HCSB, emphasis added).
“They settled there.” Abraham’s father had left his family behind, with the exception of Sarai, Abram, and Lot in order to go to the land of Canaan. But he settled in Haran. Why? The Bible never reveals why Terah settled there. We do know from Genesis 12:1 and following that Abram did leave his father and his extended family in order to finish what his father had started.
One of my ancestors, Samuel McAdow, was an instrumental figure in the founding of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Part of the reason this group of churches broke with the traditional Presbyterian church in the United States had to do with the education of and training of ministers. In the early 1800’s as Americans were moving west at a significant rate, churches were being planted. Those men (and women in the Cumberland Presbyterian movement) acknowledging God’s call on their lives to serve as pastors often travelled back East for ministerial training. Having received their training in the larger cities of the Eastern seaboard, many of these men accepted the call to churches in those cities, leaving churches in the western regions without trained clergy.
Many of the churches being started in the early years of the 19th century was born of the revival of 1800. Needing ministers immediately one of the issues that the Cumberland Presbytery had to confront was how to accommodate these new churches. If men were required to attend seminary before pastoring many of these newly planted churches would die. So this group of men chose to break with the Presbyterian Church of the US and create their own denomination and innovate ways to provide education for pastors without requiring travel back east.
To make a long story a little shorter I found myself on the board of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky from 1993 – 2003. One of the things I am proudest of in that seminary and our other Southern Baptist seminaries is their willingness to provide educational training for pastors and other ministers while they are serving churches across the United States and even the world via the internet and the modular courses these institutions offer.
While I can’t be certain the Mr. McAdow had dreams of expanding to the west coast, I can look back and say that because of men like him and many others, I have been able to serve as a pastor while studying to receive both my Master of Divinity and my Doctor of Ministry degrees.
Maybe Terah saw something in Abram that only God saw, knowing that Abram was equipped in ways he himself was not. Maybe Samuel McAdow saw a future that included the spread of the gospel into the far reaches of the Northwestern United States and maybe not. I celebrate the fact that he at least began a journey that has enabled the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
 http://www.cumberland.org/hfcpc/minister/McAdowS.htm, accessed on 2/7/17.
Recently my wife and I saw the movie, LA LA Land. I may have to forfeit my man card for this: I thoroughly enjoyed the movie! Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, in my amateur opinion, did a fabulous job inhabiting the characters drawn for them by the writer. The music was exceptional and the story was intriguing.
Reflecting on the movie I am still struck by how our dreams change in the various eras of our lives. As young adults we dream of making huge changes in our world. The character played by Ryan Gosling dreams of reviving jazz – not by adapting it to the current culture – but by recovering the essence of jazz music as a creative art. The character played by Emma Stone has a dream of changing the world through her ability to tell and act out a story. The interplay of these dreams and their relationship drive the story.
I remember as a very young pastor attending the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-1980’s. The meeting was in Kansas City, MO and I distinctly remember ‘dreaming’ about one day serving as President of the Southern Baptist Convention. That dream has collided with reality. Pastoring a small church in a rural part of Oregon, at least according to recent Southern Baptist history is not a place from which to launch a ‘presidential campaign.’ Besides, my dreams have changed.
Just a few miles from where I live I can observe what is known as ‘Colliding Rivers.’ Wikipedia writes
The Colliding Rivers is the name of the confluence of Little River into the North Umpqua River at Glide, Oregon, approximately 12 miles (19 km) east-northeast of Roseburg. It is known as Colliding Rivers because of the nearly head-on angle at which the streams meet, the only place in the state of Oregon where a river meets its tributary in such a straight angle. Prior to the point of the Colliding Rivers, the Little River approaches from the south and the North Umpqua has completed a sharp bend and intersects the Little River.
The intersection of these rivers is a dangerous place. The two meet with force that is breathtaking to watch – even in the non-rainy season.
Whenever dreams collide, whether it be with other personal dreams, the dreams of a spouse, the dreams of other family members, conflict is inevitable. Whose dream wins? Do dreams merge and morph into another dream?
Many of my dreams have changed either by reality intruding, or by the dreams of another colliding into mine. Colliding dreams is not always a negative. In the case of the Little River and North Umpqua, the result is a more powerful, larger river that itself later merges with the South Umpqua and becomes even larger and more significant as it becomes the Umpqua River. Colliding dreams may create momentary confusion and conflict. But properly channeled, properly managed, colliding dreams can result in an even more fulfilling and more influential dream.
A recent article in The American Spectator asks the question: Is there still room for the sacred in the city? Exactly what role does a church play in the everyday affairs of any community? Perhaps a definition might help. Church is not simply a building, a piece of architecture, though there are many examples of beautiful buildings called ‘churches.’ Church is merely a word identifying a community of believers, people who share a common faith and a common way of worship and expression. Church is simply a community in the midst of a community.
So, is there room in a secular community for a gathering a people who have faith? What about for people who claim to have faith in God as expressed throughout the Bible? What about a community who believes that Jesus meant what He said when He said that He was the only way to the Father (see John 14:6)?
Matthew M. Robare cites a study done in Philadelphia estimating that “religious congregations contribute over $100 million to their community annually.” This value includes social services such as food banks, warming centers, clothing donations, and soup kitchens. In a world where state supported social services struggle to keep up these services are invaluable. But are these communities of faith merely present to fill in the gaps that federal, state, county, and city services cannot provide?
What happens when a faith community is no longer able to provide the financial and physical assistance to maintain a building? What happens when property once occupied by a faith community is turned into apartments and shops? What happens to those services that could have been provided?
I have no definitive answers to the questions posed. Other authors (see recently published David Fitch, Faithful Presence, IVP Books; Jonathan Leeman, Political Cbhurch, IVP Academic, and I’m sure there are dozens of others as well) are writing seeking to answer these questions.
Is there room for the sacred? Before a ‘church’ can be present in a community individuals need to be alert and aware of God’s presence in their own lives. Making room for the sacred is not easily done, it is not the result of a 5 – 7 minute ‘quiet time’ every morning. Making room for God’s presence in our lives requires a disciplined approach to waiting on God, nourishing our heart and mind with His Word, silence, and taking the time necessary to attune our hearts and minds to Him.
As a group of individuals come together – people who have spent time individually making room for God – we share our lives, we surrender to the authority of God’s Word, we seek to understand and apply God’s Word in the community in which we live. Then those living around us, those sharing our community, can truly begin to understand that there is room for the sacred, there is a place for God’s people to be God’s hands, God’s heart to the community.
 Matthew M. Robare, From Chapels to Condos, The American Conservative, January/February 2017, 6-following.