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.

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?

 

My Charge to the 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

We live in a world which if it were reduced to a jar with a label on it, that label would probably include the word impossible.  We live at a time when almost everything around us is framed by impossibilities…

●  Peace among Israelis and Palestinians…impossible
●  An America where the threat of terrorism is a distant memory…impossible
●  A congress where Democrats and Republicans engage in healthy, respectful dialogue and work collaboratively across the aisle for the good of America…. impossible
●  A world marked by cultural stability where it is safe to walk the streets at night and crime is low…impossible
●  A society where a man and a woman in their twenties with their whole lives in front of them, stand at the altar of a church and pledge their entire lives to one another – to be faithful until death separates them – and actually do it… I’m afraid too many people would say, nah, …impossible

Most people live in a world of impossibilities… As Thoreau put it we live “lives of quiet desperation.”  Hope is low…expectations are lower… suspicion reigns…cynicism is on the throne…and truth itself is on the scaffold.

Yet, here you are, graduates, poised on this day to go out into this very world framed by such impossibilities.  I charge you, therefore, class of 2012, to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what transforms the impossible into the possible.  Indeed, it is the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ which totally reframes the world and all of human history.  It is these two great singularities – incarnation and resurrection – which reframe a world of despair and cynicism into the larger frame of hope and promise.  This old creation is broken and wounded, but you know that the New Creation is already breaking in!  You are its heralds and ambassadors. You are capable of thinking thoughts that the world cannot think.  You are capable of sacrificial acts which the world cannot fathom.  You are capable of dreaming dreams in a world that only knows ever-maddening nightmares.  You can think about possibilities.

The whole ministry of Jesus was framed by impossibilities…incarnation and resurrection…a virgin birth and an empty tomb.  Someone once said, Jesus came into the world through a door marked “no entrance,” a virgin womb.  He left through a door marked “no exit”, a tomb of death.  Two great impossibilities made possible in Jesus Christ. Nobody had ever walked through those doors before.   In Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest impossibilities are made into possibilities.

Graduates, you would have under-heard the gospel if you believed that the incarnation and the resurrection are mere isolated historical events.  They are historical events, but they serve to re-frame and re-order the whole of human history even today.

You can go out into this world and in Jesus Christ see the impossible made possible.  You can work for peace, because the prince of peace is the Risen and Ascended Lord.  You can re-engage in government and live free of bitterness and cynicism, because the government rests on his shoulders.  You can wage holy war against crime, because God’s love for the world is always greater than Satan’s hate of it.  You can boldly rescue men, women, and children from human trafficking, and the downward spiral of drug addiction because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein.”  You can sit with husbands and wives who walk into your office and say “we have given up, our marriage has no hope.”  And you can say, without blinking, God still has the last word in your relationship.  You can preach the gospel to lost sinners and believe afresh in the power of God’s redemption because the cross is still the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.  I charge you to go forth as ambassadors of hope!  Do not get caught in the net of despair.  Do not get trapped in the web of cynicism.  Do not get swallowed up by all the impossibilities.  Instead, be in Christ, where all impossibilities can be reframed by the hope of Jesus Christ.

 

Missional Movement – Social Consciousness: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The sixth reason I am a Methodist lies in the fact that Methodism has managed to retain its DNA as a missional movement. Historically, Methodism was born as a renewal movement within the Anglican Church. Wesley carried this missional renewal emphasis right out into the streets of his day. He brought the Gospel to broken, hurting people who had been marginalized and forgotten by the church of his time. Wesley famously declared that “the world is my parish.”1

Throughout the history of the church there has been a healthy tension between the active and contemplative traditions. The earliest monastic traditions idealized desert hermits such as St. Antony (251-356) who is often cited as the founder of monasticism. They were the forerunners of the great contemplative stream. Our minds run quickly to the great masters of this tradition such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the Rhineland mystics (e.g., St. Hildegarde or Meister Eckhart), Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton. This broad contemplative tradition has given the church many gifts, such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the lectio divina. This remains a long and wonderful tradition.

However, there were others who understood spiritual formation to occur in the world. This is the great active tradition. The mendicant orders such as Dominicans and Franciscans also renounced the world and entered into the consecrated life. However, they lived out their formation actively in the world, preaching the gospel and serving the poor. St. Dominic founded the Dominicans as a preaching order. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans as an order to serve the poor. Wesley loved both the contemplative and active traditions, but he was drawn more powerfully to the latter. Wesley formed his disciples in the context of actively serving in the world. Wesley understood, for example, that if you really want to be formed spiritually you should be eager to go out into a place of pain, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty serving the poor. While Wesley remained deeply committed to prayer and contemplation, his vision of the church existed as profoundly missional. Wesley took his new preachers out to the brick yards and into the prisons. For Wesley, not only is the world his parish, the world is God’s greatest spiritual workshop. It is on the anvil of a suffering world that God shapes and forms his disciples to understand what it means to take up their cross and follow him. Thus, the Wesleyan tradition is an active tradition, i.e., we believe that spiritual formation occurs in the context of active service in the world.

1Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 616. I quote this from the 1980 edition because I agree that this famous letter was more likely written to John Clayton on March 28, 1739, rather than to James Hervey on March 20, 1739.

The missional catechesis of Mr. Wesley: Wesleyan catechesis, part 4

We are examining the multi-faceted strands of the genius of Wesleyan catechesis.  So far, we have explored the role of God’s prior action in prevenient grace (part 1), Wesley’s notion of “waiting in the means of grace” (part 2), and the role of the community in spiritual formation (part 3).  Today’s blog will explore the missional side of Wesleyan catechesis.

Most readers of this blog will be aware that the Christian monastic tradition is a very diverse, multi-faceted tradition.  The earliest monastic traditions idealized desert hermits such as St. Antony (251-356) who is often cited as the founder of monasticism.  They were the forerunners of the great contemplative stream.  Our minds run quickly to the great masters of this tradition such as Bernard of Clairvaux,  the Rhineland mystics (e.g. St. Hildegarde or Meister Ecihart), Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton.  This broad contemplative tradition has given the church many gifts, such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the lectio divina (divine reading of Scripture).  This is a long and wonderful tradition.

However, there were others who understood spiritual formation to occur in the world.  This is the great active tradition.   The mendicant orders such as Dominicans and Franciscans also renounced the world and entered into the consecrated life.  However, they lived out their formation actively in the world, preaching the gospel and serving the poor.  St. Dominic founded the Dominicans as a preaching order.  Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans as an order to serve the poor.   Wesley loved both the contemplative and active traditions, but he was drawn more powerfully to the latter.  Wesley formed his disciples in the context of actively serving in the world.  Wesley understood, for example, that if you really want to be formed spiritually you should be eager to go out into a place of pain, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty serving the poor.  While Wesley was deeply committed to prayer and contemplation, he really couldn’t imagine catechesis which was not also missional.  This is why holiness for Wesley is never merely personal holiness; it is active, missional holiness.  This is crucial for Wesley’s view of catechesis.  Wesley took his new preachers out to the brick yards and into the prisons.  For Wesley, not only is the world his parish, the world is God’s greatest spiritual workshop. It is on the anvil of a suffering world that God shapes and forms his disciples to understand what it means to take up their cross and follow him.  Thus, the Wesleyan tradition is an active tradition, i.e. we believe that spiritual formation occurs in the context of active service in the world.

It is, of course, a grave error to interpret Wesley’s social activism as either a form of “works-righteousness” (we are justified through our works) or the kind of humanistic social agenda which so often masquerades as Christianity today.  No, this is why these reflections have been placed in the larger context of God’s prevenient grace (God in moving and acting before we get to the soup kitchen or to the mission field or to brick yards or to the pulpit), but also the importance of waiting “in the means of grace.”   All action in the world takes place as a response to his revelation (in the Word and in Christ).

In future blog posts we will explore two more features of Wesleyan catechesis.