On Saving Mr. Banks and the contextualization of the Gospel

Over the holiday break I had the opportunity to watch the film, Saving Mr. Banks. I didn’t log onto Rotten Tomatoes and look at any reviews on the simple grounds that any film starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson is well worth seeing. Tom Hanks already proved that he can save Private Ryan, so why not Mr. Banks?

My favorite Tom Hanks film remains Cast Away where he portrays a Fed Ex employee who gets stranded for years on a deserted island, but, in the end, delivers his package. Once I saw Emma Thompson portray Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility I needed no reviewer to tell me that she is one of the greatest actresses of our time. Putting Tom Hanks with Emma Thompson in the same film may not have produced the famous sexual chemistry between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but it portrayed another classic struggle of all time. It is the struggle between “Form and Function” or “Style and Substance.”

The film brings us into the inside struggle between P. L. Travers, author of the book, Mary Poppins, and Walt Disney over the rights to turn the book into a full-fledged film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. In some ways it is a classic tale of contextualization. How do you preserve the original message of the book while presenting it in a different format (book to film) for a different generation? This is the “form and function” tension. How do you change the form or format while yet remaining true to the original function or purpose of the book? Can Dick Van Dyke dancing between several animated penguins (a major point of contention between P. L. Travers and Walt Disney) help to preserve and communicate the book’s message for many generations, or does it cheapen and trivialize the message so that the substance of the book is lost?

I couldn’t help watching the film, Saving Mr. Banks, from the perspective of the challenge we face as communicators of the gospel. On the one hand, the gospel message does not change. Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross and raised from the dead to deliver condemned sinners like you and me. That basic message does not change. On the other hand, walking into a church today is more like walking into a Starbucks or Panera Bread than walking into a hushed sanctuary or an exalted cathedral.

Pastors today are sometimes asked to speak their message between a bunch of dancing penguins. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that going to ‘church’ in the first century was neither a Starbucks or a Cathedral type experience. As it turns out, both of those expressions are highly contextualized for their respective times.

Occasionally readers of my blog leave with the impression that I am one of those who stand against various moves to contextualize the gospel. The evidence for this might be seen in my criticism of mega-churches or my criticism of contemporary choruses or a host of “gospel lite” expressions which have found their way into my sermons or blogs. However, for the record, let me say that I am actually an enthusiastic supporter of contextualization. I am amazed and impressed by the creative methods Christians have employed to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ. My criticism is not with either the “style” or “form” of much of what I see around us in the contemporary Christian world. What I find extremely disturbing (and which has, therefore, produced quite a few blogs over the years) is when in the name of “contextualization” the substance of the gospel is forgotten or lost.

I would never criticize someone who put the Apostles’ Creed or prayers of repentance to a contemporary tune. But I have criticized those churches which dropped the Creed and prayers of repentance completely because they are not “seeker sensitive.” So, I’m OK with dancing penguins on either side of Dick Van Dyke. However, the moment the film is no longer about Saving Mr. Banks, but about how to fly a kite, then I think we need to step back and re-evaluate if we have forgotten the whole purpose of contextualization in the first place.

Three Cheers for Southland Christian Church

From time to time I have blogged about some of my concerns about mega-churches in North America.  It is not hard to find examples of how contemporary Christianity in North America has been co-opted by the culture and by a whole host of market driven assumptions.  I have observed on several occasions that mega-churches are far better at assessing where people are culturally than where they should be culturally.

Nevertheless, there also comes a time to pause and heap praise where praise is due.  I am continually impressed by many of the ways that Southland Christian Church is making a great impact on our community.  Southland is one of the largest churches in central Kentucky.  They have multiple campuses, and are based in Nicholasville, Kentucky.  They are showing the whole nation what a large church can really be.  Led by John Weece and a large staff, the people of Southland are showing us how the church can make a big difference.  Let me give you a few examples.

They have mobilized hundreds of people to serve the poor and feed the hungry and have demonstrated before this community what it means to love those in our midst who are in need.  Southland’s service to the poor makes you proud to be called a Christian.

They also have never lost sight of the core gospel message.   I did a survey of dozens of church websites one Saturday afternoon.   It was Southland Christian church which had the clearest presentation of the gospel on their website.   This is also reinforced during their weekly services.  On occasion I visit Southland and have found John Weece’s messages to be thoughtful and biblically sound.  He always points people to Jesus Christ.  More recently, the church has challenged hundreds of young people to read Timothy Keller’s book, the Meaning of Marriage.  It is a fantastic book which sets forth a strong case for the importance of traditional marriage and the long term joyful impact of fidelity.  I have heard testimonies of young people who have had their entire understanding of marriage revolutionized by being a part of this reading project.

These are just a few examples which demonstrate that Southland Christian Church is not just another mega-church.  They take their faith seriously.  They are certainly a model for other churches  – large and small – in the way they demonstrate the in-breaking Kingdom of God through word and deed.

I attend another church which is also doing some wonderful work in the community.  Our church recently successfully planted a new church in Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital.  At some point I’ll blog about them as well.  But, today I want to pay tribute to Southland Christian Church.  Keep up the great work, Southland!   In a day when the media is full of churches and church leaders who embarrass us, it is great to see men and women who make us proud to be a part of the church, the most amazing movement in the history of the world.

The Voice of Anselm Rises again

Anselm was a well known 11th century Benedictine monk who has mostly been forgotten by the contemporary church.  He was the Archbishop of Canterbury and was known for his courage.  His ministry was marked by many conflicts with the power brokers of his day as he insisted on the truth of the gospel.  He was also known for his great theological mind.

I would like to focus on Anselm’s argument for the existence of God.  Today the church is standing against a headwind of atheism.  This wind of atheism cannot last long because it has no foundation and offers no positive vision.  Nevertheless, the gusts of atheism do kick up from time to time and, tragically, slay thousands in their path.

Anselm’s ontological argument is powerful by virtue of its simplicity.  If God exists, Anselm reasoned, then He is the source of our life and capacity to think.  Therefore, it would be impossible for us to think of a God greater than the one who actually does, in fact, exist.  Therefore God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”   Anselm’s argument came back to me this week when I was reminded of an outspoken atheist named Bobby Henderson who a few years ago introduced what he called the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” religion as a parody against all religions.

Henderson’s basic point was that because it is impossible to prove that God exists, then, equally, no one could disprove his counter claim that the world was actually created by the great Flying Spaghetti Monster.  This, inevitably led Bobby Henderson to found the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and a religion known as, you guessed it, pastafarianism.  However, the Flying Spaghetti Monster has exercised no redemptive acts, and by Henderson’s own account, exists only inside his head.

It wouldn’t take even an elementary school child five minutes to “think” of a dozen ways that the God of their deepest longings and hopes is greater than the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  So, if Bobby Henderson wants to “invent” a God, he at least should stretch the limits of his own imagination.  For indeed, the God of Biblical revelation is truly beyond even our greatest conception of him.  This God is not only attested through Scripture, but through countless ages in the lives of those who have been transformed as well as those who have been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  This is, after all, transfiguration Sunday.

Thanks, Anselm, you have reminded all the jaded 21st century cynics that even the mind of Bobby Henderson testifies against his own argument.

The “Yes” of God in Jesus Christ

The great poet Samuel Coleridge wrote a poem entitled The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  In the poem a ship is being followed by an Albatross, one of the great birds of the sea with a wingspan of up to twelve feet. They live on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean.   In the ancient world it was widely regarded as a good omen for a ship to be followed by an Albatross. However, in Coleridge’s classic poem one of the sailors Albatrozshoots the Albatross with a crossbow and kills it, bringing sure doom to the voyage. The sailor who shot the bird is made to wear the dead Albatross around his neck. This is where we get the common saying that someone is wearing guilt or shame “like an albatross around their neck.”

It is a helpful image because sometimes we do fall into the trap of thinking that God has laid an albatross of guilt around our neck.  He is somehow “against” us.   He is forcing us to carry some huge burden.  Perhaps we have a mental picture of an angry God who is just waiting for us to slip up so that he can say “I gotcha.”  We often live under a cloud of internal condemnation and carry the weight of guilt and fear like an albatross around our neck.  However, the Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that all the promises of God are “yes” in Jesus Christ.  God is for us.  Brothers and sisters, God is for you!  He stands with you this day and His word for you is always “yes.”

So, you may ask, what about all the times when God (or God’s Word) says “No” to us.  Isn’t that the “No” of God?   It is precisely here that we have to listen to God’s “no” more carefully.  When God says “No” we must always listen carefully to the hidden “yes” behind every NO of God.  In other words, God only says “No” because He is standing with us and longs for our deepest joy in fellowship with him and others.  Most of what we want God to say “yes” to are things which bring isolation  and destruction to us.  God does not say “no” to crush our joy.  He says “No” because that is the deeper “yes” to our greater joy.

You may feel like you have “shot the albatross” in your life.  You have killed the very thing which was to bring you a blessing and now you must bear that guilt and carry that shame for the rest of your life.  But, today, hear the Yes of God in Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ, every sin has been paid for; every closed door flung wide open; every empty table filled with his abundance; every grave prepared for resurrection; every demon cast into the swine and sent over the hill; every broken wall has been rebuilt; every crushed dream has been renewed; every crooked way has been made straight; every sunset of despair has been turned into a sunrise of hope!  It is true that we do not yet see all of this.  We still await the final consummation. But, in Jesus Christ it is already breaking in!   Satan is being crushed under our feet.  The joy of the gospel is breaking upon us. The dead albatross is rising from our neck and taking flight to, once again, bring a blessing, not a curse.  Today, may you hear afresh the “Yes” of God in Jesus Christ.

Disruptive Evil vs. Disruptive Grace in Newtown, Connecticut

This past week we all learned of the horrible acts of evil committed by a 20 year old young man armed with an assault weapon in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In the end, 27 people were dead – 20 children (all 6 or 7 years old), 6 adults (including the mother of the killer) and the killer himself. This is a bold example of “disruptive evil.” It is the kind of evil which shocked and disrupted us at the deepest level. When the news came across the internet and television you could almost feel the shock and the depth of evil. Many of us were overcome with emotion and sadness. The normal course of our day and our lives was disrupted as the story of this horror entered our lives, and how much more so the lives of the parents and families of the victims. Jesus said that the devil comes to “kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10). This week we saw the devil’s work: children were killed, lives were stolen and families were destroyed. Apparently, it all happened in about two minutes.

Do Christians have anything to say in the face of such evil? Well, I think our first response is not to say anything, but to “weep with those who weep.” Our first response, like Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, is to share in the grief of those who are acutely sensing the depth of loss. We should first pray for those families. As a father of two children, I can only imagine the agony that news of such great loss brings. However, we must also remember that evil is not some strange outlier which occasionally raises up its ugly head in a kindergarten class or a movie theater. Rather, we live in a world which is headed towards death and destruction. The Psalmist declared, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any…who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none righteous, not even one” (Psalm 14:2,3). The evil which lost its cover and came so abruptly out in the open this week, is the same evil which is at work in the whole human race all the time in smaller ways.

In contrast, the gospel is about God’s intervention with “disruptive grace” which is even greater than the “disruptive evil” of this world. We are all headed towards death and destruction except through the merciful intervention of God. God has granted men and women free wills (or, more precisely, freed wills). This means that men and women are free to make real choices for evil or for good. Only free will truly makes love possible. God could have created a world of robots who obey his every will. But, obedience to God’s will is not the highest good. Rather, obedience which grows out of a love for God is. God wants our hearts, not just our obedience.

Love involves, by necessity, real choices, including the possibility of rejection. You can make someone obey you, but you cannot make someone love you. Therefore, the same free will which makes love possible also opens the door to the possibility of the utter rejection of God. Real choices which lead to evil, death and destruction are possible in this world, as we have seen this week. Both Mother Theresa and Adam Lanza made real choices in their lives. One chose to move to India and bring God’s love to the dying in Calcutta, the other chose to drive their car to the Sandy Hook elementary school and unleash evil.

This is part of a long narrative. Remember, on that very first Christmas when God the Father made the choice to send His son into the world, King Herod was soon found slaughtering infants in Bethlehem. The overlay of “disruptive grace” which ultimately trumps “disruptive evil” is a long road of redemption which winds though the ragged edges of evil and the crags of despair. Martin Luther King, Jr. summed it up well as he surveyed his own grim landscape of evil when he said “the arc of the universe is long, but it’s bent towards justice.”

If there is any comfort in this tragedy, it must be found in the knowledge that Jesus has borne all the evils and sins of this world on the cross, including the pain in Newtown, Connecticut. God alone knows the depth of this world’s evil. He alone has responded with the cross. The incarnation and cross of Christ is the ultimate act of “disruptive grace” which alone was sufficient to finally overturn the “disruptive evil” of this world. We do not yet see all things under his feet. However, in the end, God will judge the world and will set all things right. There are twenty children right now in the presence of Jesus who are counting on it.

Why The Church Is So Concerned With Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexual Ordination

I occasionally hear someone make the case that evangelicals have invested far too much energy fighting against same sex marriage and the ordaining of homosexuals as pastors in the church.  There are some who have become convinced by weak exegesis and, feeling the winds of culture blowing, have convinced themselves that the Bible doesn’t actually condemn homosexual behavior.  Texts such as Genesis 19:1-11 and Lev. 18:22; 20:13 and Judges 19:11-24 and Romans 1:18-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:8-10 and Jude 7, not to mention texts like Matthew 19:4-6 where Jesus himself clearly teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman, are all swept aside with some version of the question, “hath God truly said…?”   This is, of course, the well trodden response which first appears in Genesis 3:1 and has been a favorite wedge of the enemy against God’s Word.  I do believe that evangelicals must become more devoted readers of the Scriptures and less susceptible to specious arguments which erode thousands of years of faithful Jewish- Christian teaching.   But, I will need to devote more time in some future blog to address this problem.   In this blog I want to make a point of clarification about those who may agree that homosexual practice is wrong, but wonder why the church seems to be focused on this particular sin and not others.

Why, they argue, do we not seem to exhibit the same kind of righteous indignation against embezzlers or liars or landlords who oppress the poor, as we do against homosexual behavior?   Why, they go on to insist, do we single out this one sin when there are so many others sins we could – and should – oppose?  From this perspective, it seems like the church is doing the ecclesiastical equivalent of a “pile on.”

It is absolutely true that the church must take a stand against all manner of sin, whether it be shoplifting or rape.  All sin is, at its root, an expression of rebellion against God.  Therefore, the church must stand against anything which stands in opposition to His righteous rule and reign.  I think that sexual brokenness runs so deep in our culture that every pastor should take time to regularly address a whole host of issues along the “sexual brokenness” continuum, including pre-marital sex, fornication, adultery, pornography viewing, misogyny, etc.

However, the reason the issue of homosexuality has been highlighted so much in recent years is not, as is often said, because this sin is being singled out from all the others.  Rather, it is because this particular sin is seeking to be legitimized as normative in the life and experience of the church.  I expect the wider secular culture to embrace homosexuality as normative and, indeed, to be regularly bewildered by the strangeness of Christian teaching.  The point is, no one in the church has sought to promote the ordination of openly practicing adulterers or to legitimize the practice of usury.  If there was a movement among us to ordain oppressive landlords or habitual shoplifters, then I suspect that these issues would be regularly discussed as well.  No Christian is now saying that usury is a good thing, or that Christians should no longer consider it important to visit prisoners, or help widows in their distress.  However, we do have bishops who are telling the church that it is now permissible for someone to sodomize their neighbor.   The result is an attempt to legitimize homosexuality and same sex marriage, moving it from the “sin” category to the “sacrament” category.

So, to put in plainly, the church would rather not focus time and energy on homosexuality.   We actually don’t believe that homosexual practice carries a heavier moral weight than a whole range of other sins.  However, any attempt to relocate any sin from the New Testament “sin lists” to the celebrative, normative list must be addressed because it strikes at the heart of the gospel itself.

4 Things United Methodists can learn from the Episcopal Church

Asbury Theological Seminary had the recent honor of hosting Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).  He preached in historic Estes Chapel from the book of Esther and reminded us all that Haaman’s gallows are being built for all those who stand for righteousness, but we have been called to persevere and to be faithful for “such a time as this.”

For decades we all have witnessed the slow and demoralizing decline of the Episcopal church as it has followed that well trodden path from vibrant faithfulness which joyfully embraced historic Christianity to a place of increasing hostility towards historic doctrines such as the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scriptures, the atoning power of the death of Christ and the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those committed to orthodox faith watched in dismay as they increasingly heard statements from bishops and pastors and read decisions which were made by denominational bodies which revealed that many of their own leaders were no longer adhering to historic faith.   The tipping point came in 2003 when Gene Robinson from Fayette County, Kentucky became the first openly declared homosexual to be ordained bishop.  (He became the bishop of New Hampshire).  This became the presenting issue for decades of frustration with a church which had lost its way.

Tens of thousands of Episcopalians rose up and exercised what is known as Anglican realignment.  This is a process where a church recognizes that its bishop is no longer faithful to the gospel so the episcopal “seat” is recognized as being effectively empty.  The church then has to come under the authority of a new bishop.   What occurred was truly remarkable.  Thousands of Episcopalians gathered up the courage to leave their churches.  They were like sheep without a shepherd.  However, the African church saved the Episcopalian church in the USA.  Bishops from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, among others, began to extend episcopal oversight to new “mission” churches in the United States.  By 2009 this movement had grown enough so the Anglicans in North America could stand on their own.  In June of 2009 most of these mission churches were brought together under a single umbrella known as the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).

When Robert Duncan was ordained as the archbishop of the newly formed ACNA he electrified the assembly by boldly challenging the church to plant 1,000 new churches in five years.  The ACNA is doing just that, and will easily surpass the goal which, at the time, seemed impossible.  All across America Episcopalians (who for generations had given millions of dollars to build some of the most beautiful worship spaces in America) have been forced to walk out and leave it all behind.  Entire congregations had to start all over again in schools, storefronts, homes, or renting space from other churches.  Within a single generation the ACNA will easily surpass the Episcopalian church in numbers.

Archbishop Duncan has effectively led this new movement by challenging his flock to be faithful to the gospel and to remember that the church is not about buildings, but about people and about reaching those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.  “Courage begets courage” is one of the most important words of advice from the Archbishop to his flock.  What he means by this is that if the people of God take a courageous stand, then it spreads and others are encouraged to take a stand.  The result is a new Reformation.  Because of their courage, Anglicanism in North America has been saved and is being transferred from one wineskin (Episcopalianism) to another wineskin (ACNA).  More importantly, they have also sparked a new reformation within the church as a whole and provided a pathway for others to follow.  What can United Methodists learn from the last ten years of turmoil within the Episcopalian church?

– First, those of us who are committed to historic Christianity must have the courage to speak out and unflinchingly take our stand with Jesus Christ and the gospel.  We simply cannot be silent when pastors, District Superintendents, Bishops or other denominational leaders make statements which are in variance with our own historic witness as a church.  We must do it in love, but we must do it.

– Second, we should not hold out hope that at some point those holding these so-called “enlightened” liberal views will pick up their stakes and leave the church and go start their own church and build their own seminaries, and so forth.   That is not going to happen.  History teaches us that Christians committed to historic faith build churches and Christian institutions.  Those who forsake the core teachings of the faith, generally speaking, do not build churches or Christian institutions.  Instead, they attach themselves to vibrant movements and then take over the structures which were built by the faithfulness and sacrifice of others.

– Third, we must earnestly pray that our denomination will re-discover its own past and be awakened to a new period of faithfulness, evangelism, church planting and societal witness.  The United Methodist church has millions of members who have kept the faith, so we should pray for our church and work earnestly for its renewal.

– Fourth, those of us committed to historic Christianity must deepen our ties to the global church.  While we hope and pray it does not happen, the day may come when we, too, might be forced to leave our beloved denomination and find episcopal oversight in Africa.  Many of our faithful brothers and sisters in New England and the Pacific Northwest may need to act sooner rather than later.

A university President recently commented to Archbishop Duncan that because of the determined faithfulness of the ACNA, his grandchildren will someday hear and believe the gospel.  This testimony is true.  We must recognize that we are fighting for the faith of our grandchildren.  May we have the kind of courage which befits the people of God.

 

Reflections on the Embassy Attacks

In recent days we have seen multiple attacks on American embassies or consulates in the Middle East, including those in Lybia, Egypt, and Yemen.  Dating back to the Iranian revolution in the 1970’s we have become accustomed to seeing this kind of violence expressed against America.  In watching the news of these recent attacks, and in light of our recent memory of the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, I was reminded of a book by Bertrand Russell which I read years ago entitled, The Conquest of Happiness.

In that book he makes a very important observation about life.  At one point he is discussing work and why humans spend so much time working.  He argued that work is, in part, based on the desire to build or construct something.  He is not merely referring to carpenters or skilled laborers who physically build things.  He makes the larger point that integral to the human fulfillment is the desire to do constructive things with our lives – building a family, building a business, building an institution, building a movement, building a bridge, and so forth.   He then goes on to argue that construction is, therefore, inherently more satisfying than destruction.

When you destroy something like tearing down the gates of an embassy, killing someone, turning cars over and lighting them on fire, the fulfillment in that kind of activity is fleeting and quickly subsides.  Constructive work, on the other hand, provides an ongoing sense of fulfillment and peace.  In fact, the deepest constructive work is never fully complete, so we have that ongoing sense of building, improving, making things better, and so forth.  With destruction, there is no such lasting sense of accomplishment.  Osama bin Laden came to symbolize one of the greatest acts of destruction in modern times.  However, he was not fulfilled by it.  He ended his life alone in a walled compound, spending his days with a sense of defeat and looking at pornography.

Those who march on embassies, kill ambassadors, burn buildings and turn cars upside down cannot avoid the fact that if their message is to be compelling and bring long term fulfillment they must demonstrate what they will construct once all the destruction is complete.  What is their long-term vision for life, for society, for the world?   The work of destruction is far easier than the harder work of construction.

Christianity, in the end, is not about destruction.  Ultimately, it is the greatest construction project in the universe.  The vision of Christianity is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God which is about reconciliation, peace, healing and the power of God’s love to overcome evil.

So, in the midst of a world of destruction and burning cars in the streets, keep on building, keep on constructing.   Let your capacity to love this world be greater than any force which unleashes hatred on the world.  Let your forgiveness be greater than any force of bitterness.  Remember, the cross is the greatest intersection of the world’s hatred and God’s love.  The resurrection is God constructing once again.  The Risen Lord defeats death.   Construction, in the end, always trumps destruction.

Thanks be to God.

 

What is the Book of Discipline?

One of the beautiful and cherished features of the Methodist tradition is the way in which the pastors are brought into a shared covenant with one another. The whole appointment system under an episcopal form of government (bishops and district superintendents) is made possible because of a shared covenant. We pledge to stand together. We all live as those under authority. If, in the wisdom of the bishop’s council, our services and ministry is needed in another location, we pledge to go – and do it with joy – because we believe in the shared covenant which undergirds the wonderful biblical principle that ministry is not about “us.” It is about building the church of Jesus Christ. A covenant, both in the biblical tradition, as well as in modern day United Methodism is not some vague notion, but it is rooted in specific agreements which, in our case, is outlined in the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is what binds us together and provides the “grammar” of that covenant. This has served us well since 1784.

It is, therefore, with dismay that Bishop Mel Talbert has called upon United Methodist pastors to defy the Book of Discipline regarding homosexual practice as being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and, instead, begin to marry homosexual couples. Yet, to do this defies the very covenant we have all agreed to follow. For a bishop to openly declare his defiance against the Book of Discipline and to receive no rebuke from the Council of Bishops is truly startling.

I am not writing this to focus on the homosexual issue per se, though that is the presenting issue which Bishop Talbert has thrust upon us. It applies to pastors who raise doubts about the bodily resurrection of Christ, or the efficacy of the cross, or a whole host of other examples which also break with the Book of Discipline. Bishop Talbert’s open defiance of the Book of Discipline is particularly worth noting because he is a bishop of the church. If a bishop is allowed to openly defy our discipline, then our covenant is broken and no minister can be held accountable. When a bishop is consecrated they take a vow before God to “uphold the discipline and the order of the church.” If this covenant is broken, then the Methodist church becomes a sea of independent churches with no shared faith or doctrine or experience. I applaud the Asbury Seminary graduates who pastor some of the largest churches in the country who initiated the open letter to the bishops asking why Bishop Talbert has not been held accountable (see www.faithfulumc.com). We eagerly await a response from the Council of Bishops. I was not a part of the letter which these pastors wrote, but they must have felt almost ashamed to write it. It is like people from a small town gathering together and pleading with the duly elected sheriff of the town to please uphold the law.

What many in the church long for is a church which is faithful to historic Christianity. What we long for are pastors and episcopal leaders who once again share in a common covenant. What we long for is a growing confidence in the Word of God, the supremacy of Christ and the power of the preached gospel in our ranks. What we long for is a faithful church, even as we recall the words of John Wesley when he said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

How long, O Lord, must we wait? Have mercy upon us and deliver us in this hour of need.

Missional Leaders for the Church

Demographics don’t lie, you just have to be willing to listen to them. For example, if China has 90 million believers, but the vast majority of those believers are under 30 years old and the United States has 90 million evangelicals and the majority of those are over 50, then there is a demographic story that is not “heard” when one is looking at the raw statistics of Christian affiliation.

The USA is one of the fastest emerging mission fields in the world, but Christians probably won’t “feel” it for another 20 years.  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA the more likely one will question the knowability of truth.  This means a likely rejection of anything that might be described as divine, objective revelation.  The loss of confidence in human reason is almost palatable.  The language of “I think” has moved to the language of “I feel” which is quickly moving to the language of“whatever.”  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA, the more likely you are to discover a distrust of authority, institutions and, indeed, of all hierarchies. This includes a deep distrust in government, in churches and in church structures, including clergy. It also includes a rejection of any kind of metaphysical hierarchy which posits God as the sovereign Lord over His created order.

The younger the person, especially if they are white, the more likely one will find a growing skepticism about the reliability and trustworthiness of historical narratives. History is viewed as hopelessly mired in flawed and biased, agenda pushing perspectives which cloud any possibility of objectivity. Thus, all historical accounts  – whether the iconic account of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, or St. Luke writing his gospel, now lay beneath a new layer of skepticism and historical cynicism. According to quite a few Millennials, Bart Erhman and Dan Brown may have as much a bead on historicity as St. Luke and St. Paul.

On top of all this, we should not forget the gnawing loss of confidence in the inevitability of human progress, a belief cherished since the Enlightenment. The generation now in their twenties is the first in the modern period to not end their careers “better off” than their parents.  They will have less purchasing power, less post-retirement security and a shorter life expectancy (by as much as five years) than their parents.  This is the first backwards shift in life expectancy in the modern period. If you are under 25 years old you will almost surely live to see the day when the most Christian countries in the world will be China and India, whereas it will be quite difficult to find Anglo Christians in the pacific northwest. By 2050 the United States will probably have 329 million Christians (more than any country on earth) but the demographic of that Christian will be increasingly Hispanic, Korean, Chinese or India, and far less white Anglos of European descent.

These demographic facts are not easy to accept.  It is much easier to turn up the volume on our latest Christian CD, point to the hundreds of cars in mega-church parking lots, or pick up the latest Christian romance novel, rather than soberly face the fact that we are not passing the faith down to the next generation.   What should we do?  Here are three suggestions.

1.  Your church should plant at least two ethnic, non-Anglo churches in the next decade.  If you are in a major urban center, you will need to plant four.  This does not necessarily imply purchasing land and building buildings.  It may be as simple as starting a new service at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday focused on a nearby Korean or Hispanic populations.

2.  You must introduce rigorous catechesis for all members, young and old, enquiring and established.  We must re-teach the historic faith to this generation with a special eye to interacting with key objections and misunderstandings which are prevalent in our society.   Every pastor should insist on a course no less than six weeks long which introduces the candidate to the faith (historically, doctrinally and experientially).  After baptism, even more instruction, discipleship, and mentoring should follow, which brings people more fully into what it means to be a member of the church.  Incorporating members into small group discipleship settings must be the norm, not the exception.

3.  Evangelism must be at the heart of the church’s life.  The church must regain confidence in the gospel and the clarity of the good news.  I will let others speak for their own denomination, but one of the most striking observations I have made of my own denomination (United Methodism) is how confused and inconsistent and muddled the whole thing is.  Enormous energy is spent just trying to remember or recapture the gospel and fighting heresies at every turn. In the process, tens of thousands go unevangelized. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble and important struggle and every soldier in this struggle deserves our support and prayers.  But, I do long for the day when United Methodism gets refocused on our historic message and witness.  I see signs this is happening, but we’ve got at least twelve years before we see the tide turned. Like the famous frog in the pot of water slowing coming to a boil, the church has slowly taken on the skepticism and doubts of the world regarding the power of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. But, the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation.   Let me say it as clear as I can:  There are not multiple paths to salvation.  Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.   Jesus Christ really and truly and bodily and historically rose from the dead.  This good news is for the world. Jesus Christ is building the community of the redeemed, which is His body, the church.  We are called to live out all the realities of the coming New Creation in the present age.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, shall we?