Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Evangelical Scandal and the Cult of Personality

Recently, I received an email about  another scandal in a well-known megachurch.  It's pastor was accused of marital infidelity and sexual abuse by several women. This revelations was followed by the usual round of people defending the women and other people defending the pastor.
Frankly, I don't care how it comes out.  Neither side is my business.
Whichever way it goes, people will leave the church. Maybe the church and its hundreds of ministries will survive, or maybe it won't.   Either way, the church universal loses.
As a committed evangelical, may I suggest that at least some of the problem lies with a fundamental flaw in our own movement? American religion is overwhelmingly evangelical.  We have a long history of revivals and great awakenings.  But is there something missing in Evangelical religion that lends itself to scandal? I believe there is.  Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.
George Marsden, writing on the evangelical movement in American culture, points out that we have acheived the dominance in American religion by a crusading spirit.  Evangelicals have  thrown themselves behind a succession of social reforms--Anti-slavery,  dropping the gold standard,  temperance, anti-Communism, abstinence, and anti-abortion. We define ourselves by our ability to move the masses to change.  Marsden suggests while Evangelicalism has been effective in changing culture, it has been poor at maintaining change when it has happe ned. I believe he is correct.
The thrust of our message has been a social, not individual. Joining Jesus means joining the church.  Joining the church means joining a cause.  We are invited not only to  come to the Cross, but to join the people who are crowded around the cross, and to act, think and vote just like them.
We measure success by numbers.  How many people came the altar?  How many people joined?  How many people voted?  How many CD's, books or study guides were sold?
As these movements grow in size and self-importance, we no longer are a facet of God's work--they become God's work.  Following the cause becomes identical with following God.  
Social movements need institutions and institutions need money. leaders must become symbols,  ideas become slogans and,  illustrations becomes icons to clearly promote a brandable caused.  Everything becomes symplified and sloganized  in order to attract a crowd.  The pastors cease to pastor. Instead, the pastor becomes the "fundraiser in chief".  He must push vision constantly in order to keep the workers and money coming.Preachers must dedicate their lives to maintaining the growth of the institutions instead of being humble followers of God. Modern religion centers as much around hero worship as God worship.  When the hero fails, people blame God and abandon the church.  The sins of the leader become the sins of the church.
I pity these leaders. They often find themselves trapped inside a golden cage.  How can you continue to be a simple follower of Christ when  thousands of people depend upon your voice just to make it through the day?  If what you say does not please them,  they will blame you, God and the church?
No one can take this kind of idol-worship forever without it going to their head. When we put our leaders on a pedestal, sooner or later they will stumble and fall.
What's the solution?  There's no easy one. Here are some suggestions, though
Stop thinking of the pulpit as a pedestal for super saints.  Lifting up leaders sets them up for moral failure--it practically guarantees it. Attention is as addictive as heroin to many preachers. The more they get it, the more they crave it. e need to quit lifting up leaders and do a better job of lifting up Christ.  The primary relationship in God's economy is that between Christ and Christians, not Christ mediated through the leadership of a high-profile leater.
Encourage real humility and vulnerability in church leaders.  Humility a missing virtue among evangelicals. We seldom hear preach on it. Instead, we preach about how important we are, how visionary we are and how desperately God needs us, instead of how desperately we need God.  Our preaching tells people that God must have their money and their participation or his work can't succeed.  This is a denial of the power of the living God.  We celebrate saints basde on how they transform the world, not on how they were transformed by the Gospel. Mose young  seminarians see themselves  as world-shakers and is terrified that God may send them to minister in small places in slow-growing communities.
Break up big churches.  I know this is a radical and unpopular, but even so.  The larger the church, the more it acts like a corporation. Leaders of large churches have little time to be pastors.  Their minds must be in keepoing the institution going.Leaders of large churches have a harder time staying humble before Christ when they are givenn  so much attention and control.  Members are not individuals so much as cogs in the big machine. There is little accountability to the members.  People never get close enough to see their real hearts.  They only see the image that is projected on the screen.  
There are strong arguments in favor of big churches.  One of them is that big churches are able to accomplish so much more than small churches.  They have excess money and members who can be devoted to the works of transforming the world.  But being a Christian isn't about what we contribute to the world. It is about who we are in the world.  Big projects and big accomplishments can warp our perspective when it comes to Christ.   In our concern for outer action, we neglect the virtues of inner submission--silence,  solitude,  self-examination,  contemplation, and most of all humility.
Small churches have the same problems. It doesn't matter what size the church but who is in control.  They are often just as worldly and power-hungry as big ones.  But in small churches,  everyone knows each other, and at least have the possibility of praying for each other, loving each other, and calling our bluff when we become too self-important.
If we must have large churches (and we probably must), then we need to make sure that there are small groups of people who hold each other spiritually accountable within the big organization.
Build people, not programs.  Programs in the church are things we do to help fulfill the calling of Christ. But programs are not the end of anything.  Building people into people who look, act and think like Jesus is the goal of it all.
If we have a successful youth program with hundreds of young people,  yet one child feels excluded or left out,  then our youth program is a not doing itt's job.  If we have a hundred men coming to our men's breakfast, but those who come are not becoming better people, we are not bing what we should be.  if we have a women's Bible study that fills the sancruaty, but our women are still lonely and isolated,  and are divided by gossip and backbiting,  we are not successful.   Being successful in ministry is not about being larger but being more Christlike.  It isn't about keeping institutions going, but becoming more like Him.
It doesn't matter who runs the church, so long as it is Christ.  His the one true leader. The rest of us are just folllowers.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

If Christ is in Me, Does He have a Southern Accent?

There's an old joke about a boy who was killing rats in the barn.  When he killed a big one, he took it to show his mother. 

"Lookee here!" He shouted.  "Beat it and whomped it and then!--"

He looked over and saw the preacher, who was visiting with his mother on a pastoral visit. 

"And then it went to be with the Lord." 

 We always assume that being holy sounds a particular way--that it is a lilting, comforting sound,  filled with comforting, God sounding sounds.  Preaching at funerals,  comforting the sick, and officiating at wedding has a righteous tone that seems to suggest holiness.  But those of us who  engage in God-speech are often oblivious to the fact that it actually makes some people nauseous.

Like the little kid in the above story, we speak God language because we think it's how we are supposed to speak, not the way we're born to speak. We speak in imagined accents of heaven, not the native accents of earth, because to us it sounds more righteous. But God is everywhere, on earth as He is in heaven. He listens to us constantly, not just when we are dressed up in our Sunday best.  He prefers us just as we are,  in all our earthiness an profanity.

The great reformer Martin Luther sometimes used language that would make a sailor blush.  Elijah mocked the priest of Baal with profanity.  Jesus and His disciples were mocked because of their Galilean accents. The idea that there is one way to speak to God an another to speak on earth cannot be supported in the Bible. 

But what about the majesty of God?  What about preserving in feeling of holiness and reverence?  Go ahead, if you wish. There is certainly nothing wrong with honoring God in every way, and if using "Thee" and "Thou" while praying helps you do that,  then do it.  We need to remember that God isn't like us. 

But the notion that God should only be addressed in some kind of holy language and not in others,  just doesn't hold water.  It denies the Biblical truth that God is everywhere and with us in every moment in life.  He is with us when we sleep, when we wake, in our bedrooms and our bathrooms.  He is with us always.   He speaks our language,  we do not speak His.  He adjusts His ears to understand the words coming out of our hearts.  We cannot understand all He says, but he knows everything we say. 

The Christian goal is to become more like Jesus in our thoughts, feelings, and behavior of Jesus. But while we are becoming like Jesus, Christ is entering into us more fully into us. While we are becoming like Him,  He is also adapting Himself to become more like us.  He appreciates our character and upbringing and rejoices in our individual humanity.  His personality is revealed in what is uniquely ours.  We do not have to sound like anyone else.  Our Christlikeness is not conformity to some cultural norm, but only to His image revealed in us.   

Our personality interprets Christ to the world in a special and unique way.   Fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes or Ebenezer Scrooge have been portrayed many times by many actors, and no two portrayals are alike.   each actor presents a faithful interpretation of the author's vision, but adjusting interpretation of the character to his own personality and times.  The same is true of us when we imitate Christ.  Christlikeness is an ongoing process of the Word becoming flesh in us. We remain faithful to Christ, but we all retain our own personhood. In this way, Christ's personality fits many people, each showing a unique aspect of the overall message.  The word became flesh--our flesh-- and still dwells among us today.

Christlikeness isn't killing our personality but a reimagining of our ourselves as Christ--not be coming something we're not, but we being more ourselves than we ever have been. We don't lose our accent--Christ takes our accent.

We are not mere imitators of Christ, but interpreters of Him to the world. This is not possible through self-suppression.   It requires the renovation of our hearts into the personal characteristics of Jesus--love, joy, peace, patience,  kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, meekness, and self control.  Outer affectations only make us look ridiculous. Christ makes us real.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Case Against Strategic Thinking

A friend of mine, a retired army colonel, once told me that in this world there were four kinds of people, but the army could use only three kinds.  First, they needed smart, creative people, who knew their field and could think strategically. These became generals and admirals, who planned campaigns.  Second, they needed smart, non-creative people. They knew how to carry out orders and get things done with efficiency. These became sergeants, corporals, and chief petty officers.   Next came the dumb,  non-creative people, who did what they were told. They made ideal privates and enlistees.  They just followed orders and did what they were told. The fourth kind of person, which the army could not use,  was dumb but creative people.  They were always wanting to do things their way, even when they had no idea what they were doing.  These people have no place in the army, according to my friend.  
Evidently not, because there are so many of them in the church!
The Bible gives us a pattern of command in the Kingdom of God, which is much simpler than the military.  Christ is the head, and no one else. We are His body.  We don't have to be creative--we just listen and follow orders. 
Nevertheless, most of us are not really fond of that arrangement.  We don't like listening to God. We prefer doing things our own way.  We church leaders think of ourselves as field commanders with God as the distant general back at headquarters.  He has left it to us to order the troops for battle, and he doesn't seem to care how we do it. 
Underneath our supposed faith in God, we don't really trust our Commander to make the plans for the battle. We are practical deists. We know that God gave us orders and instructions, but we presume He has no interest in the day-to-day running of the church--that he had delegated day-to-day decision making to poor fools like ourselves, and that He is incapable of giving us ongoing guidance.  For the most part, we understand the goals we are supposed to be pursuing, but we blindly stumble around with our eyes closed to his daily commands, failing regularly.We don't think of Christ as the living head of the church,  but a symbolic head, like the queen of England.   All the queen does is just show up and receive her subjects' accolades.  For the ambitious and self-important leader, we prefer it that way.  God might interfere with our plans.  Stephen Vincent Benet once wrote, "We're surer of God when we know He's dead." 
If God had really left the world alone, it would be up to us to plan the strategy.  But God is not dead, He is alive, and he hasn't left the earth. Jesus body may have ascended into heaven, but the Holy Spirit is still here and communicating with us on a daily basis, not only through the written Word but also through His presence within. So why are we concerning ourselves with strategic thinking?  That's His job.
The church on earth views itself far too often as a non-profit religious corporation, modeling its leadership strategy after business, politics, and sports. We are obsessed with developing strategic thinkers. Just look in the Christian bookstore and you will find title after title about church leadership training and church growth. Many of the writers are trained or even teach corporate executives and businessmen in secular business.  Yet rarely do we find books on being faithful servants good followers, or on learning to follow the Master's voice and direction.  There are many books on how to be generals, but few books for privates. 
God is not someone to whom we give titular obeisance while we plan how to run His earthly empire. does not tell us just exactly how He plans to win the world.  All he asks is that we be faithful in doing our job where we are.  Instead of worrying about the big plans,  He asks us to attend to small things--being loving towards those around us and faithful in our private behavior and attitudes. 
Military campaigns look different whether you are a general or a private. If you are a general, you see the overall picture like pawns on a chess board. But to the private, they look like confusion. In every army,  soldiers say to one another that if they were running things they would have done it differently.  Ordinary soldiers do not know the overall strategy.  That's OK, they only know how to sit down, be quiet, and wait for orders.
So if we do away with strategic thinking, what do we put in its place?
In place of strategy, pursue discernment. It is the job of every Christian leader to accurately discern what God is saying. 
Discernment isn't easy, and it isn't an afterthought. We cannot discern the will of God by having an opening prayer at meetings. It takes time and effort to quiet our inner, willful voices within and hear the voice of the Spirit.  This is not because God isn't talking, but because we are not naturally inclined to hear.  We must listen with humility--real humility, not the playacting that passes for humility among most of us leaders. We must set aside our business, cleverness, and egos long enough to let Him lead. We must join in the prayer Jesus prayed at Gethsemane--"Not my will, but yours be done."
When we do hear God, the first thing we hear Him calling us to is nothing. Hearing and following God is not about what we do but who we are.  Before God calls us not to evangelize the world, transform society, reform worship or to rescue the poor,  He calls us to be like Him. Before a soldier gets an assignment, he must first learn to be a soldier. Before an officer graduates officer training school, he must first be a better soldier than the other.  In the church, no one should be a leader who is not more loving to others, more devout in prayer, more enthusiastic about the Word, more forgiving or his enemies and more at peace with himself than the average member of the church.  If we accomplish all the good things in the world, but we are not this,  we are sounding brass or clanging symbols.  We must learn to be still and listen
We say "Someone has to lead--it may be me." If we were merely presidents or CEO's this might be true. But the real problems of this world are too complex for our puny minds to imagine.  We think that having the Bible has prepared us to be strategic thinkers, but that isn't true.  We also need the life-giving Spirit.  It is best to keep our focus on small matters, things we can understand than to presume to have knowledge that is beyond our human capacity.
The first command that we teach a dog is "Sit."  Once we learn to sit in stillness before God and be content with letting Him control the big things,  we can follow His lead. The first command God teaches us--indeed the only command that matters--is to sit until ordered and obey.  Just listen to God in the daily moves and let Him lead us.   Thinking strategically is not our job. Our job is just to follow where He leads.
The church doesn't need any more generals. We already have an excellent one!  But if we are content to be privates in the army of God, He can still use us.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Elephant in the Room

This is the second in a series of "rants" about the state of the evangelical church today.

The “the elephant in the room” of the evangelical church is this--In spite of sincere efforts to convert the culture to our side, we have managed to alienate most of it.  This group includes a sizable number of our own children, friends, and neighbors. We are focused on converting the culture, but at the moment the culture seems to be doing a far better job of converting us. 
I’ve been an evangelical for roughly half a century. My experience has encompassed Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Salvation Army churches. I cannot tell you how many sermons and articles I have read about the need to tell others about the Gospel. Even so, there is far less practice of Christian virtues among evangelical Christians than there were fifty years ago.  The moral, ethical and spiritual teachings of the church have much less impact on the way people live today, in and out of the church. It does not take a prophet to foretell a future of evangelical churches if these trends continue. Millennials are the least religious generation in American history, and the ones coming after them will be even less interested, if this trend continues. 
The elephant in the room is this—that modern evangelicalism is still about five miles wide, but it is only about an inch deep.  Most people in church leadership acknowledge this, but there is great debate as to what to do about it.
Speaking of elephants, do you remember the old story about the four blind men who stumble across an elephant on the road?  Each one touches a different part of the beast and comes to a different conclusion.  One blind man touches the ear and thinks it is a banana leaf; another touches the leg, and thinks it is a palm tree; a third touches the tail and thinks it’s a rope, and the fourth, touches the side and thinks it is a house.   Each one, seeing part of the beast comes to a logical conclusion it’s nature, but none of them see the whole.
Let me suggest that when it comes to the shallowness of modern evangelical Christianity, we fall into the same kind of trap. Each of us, coming at the problem with our preconceptions and perceptual biases, recognize the need for change in the church, but none of us see the whole picture.  We see a part of the elephant, but not the whole.
One tradition within the modern evangelical church examines the head of the elephant and concludes that there isn’t much there.  They perceive the problem to be the modern Christian mind.   They look at the theology of the modern evangelical church and see it as woefully inadequate.  In appealing to the broadest possible common denominator of people, we have dumbed down Christianity to the point where it loses all appeal to people above junior high school level. 
Mark Noll once writes that the problem with the evangelical mind is that there isn’t much of an evangelical mind.  For more than a hundred years, evangelicals have not been known for the depth of their intellectual thought.  Most evangelicals know very little about the faith or history of the church beyond the basics. Many hunger for the greater intellectual depth. This I believe is the reason for the growth in interest in Calvinism, Puritanism, the early church Fathers, and even Thomas Aquinas. There is a growing hunger for a deeper grounding in the rigorous thinking of older generations.
Another tradition touches the heart of the elephant and finds it barely beating. These are the pietists, Pentecostals, and charismatics. They aren’t worried much worried about the mind as they are the passion of the church. The evangelical church concerns itself with doctrinal conversion and skips heart conversion.  The Holy Spirit has been replaced by business-school planning techniques.  The church talks endlessly about developing leaders but hardly at all about following the leadership of the Spirit.  Modern evangelicalism has bought into a practical deism that says God gave us commandments but left us alone for us to come up with our own practical plans on a daily basis.  We have no faith in a real, living Christ who can lead us day by day by the power of the Spirit. We would rather trust in our own planning an cleverness than to rely on a daily leadership and power of the Spirit.
We know God through His word. But His Word was given two thousand years ago. We fail to recognize the living presence of God in our lives right now. 
A third tradition stumbles upon the trunk of our elephant—the practical, working part of the animal—and realized it is weak.  They conclude that there is too much talk and not enough action. They conclude that evangelicalism has concentrated more on souls the souls of people, but neglected the poor and needy.  Our outward lack of human concern seems to be the problem.  Not only that, but evangelicals have failed to recognize that their own lifestyles are heavy on consumerism and consumption and short on simplicity and sacrifice. If we are not willing to live like Jesus, we will never be able to attract people to Jesus.
The fourth tradition stumbles on the elephant and notices that its feet are not rooted in the ground. If our desire to be contemporary and new,  we have lost sight of the importance of history and tradition.
One valid criticism of the modern megachurch movement is that megachurches frequently do not last for more than one generation. That is because they are usually based on the personality and initial vision of their founders. Once the church leadership passes, there is nothing to sustain it.
Traditional churches are no nearly so personality-driven. They are rooted and grounded in the past, freeing them from the tyranny of the present.  They are like oak trees instead of flowers. Flowers are prettier, more attractive and fast-growing, but they don’t usually last for more than a season. Oak trees last for a long, long time.
I once asked a class of students to trace their church historically back to Christ and the apostles.  One student wrote that Christ founded the church and passed it on to the apostles.  Then the true church was lost for nineteen hundred years until her pastor came along and rediscovered it.  I wanted to ask her if that meant that Luther, Calvin, Francis of Assisi,  Mother Theresa and Billy Graham were all going to Hell.  I fear would be.
People seek connections with something larger than themselves, that will last for more than a generation. That is why a growing stream of believers are leaving evangelical for Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican. Traditional Reformed and Messianic Jewish groups.  There is a longing in many evangelicals to connect with something classic and timeless, that was not invented yesterday.
Regarding these four traditions, it is not my intention to condemn or criticize them, any more than it is to criticize those who are not part of any of them.   But the elephant in the room remains, and each of these four traditions has correctly discerned a part of the problem. I am just not convinced though that any of them see the whole picture, any more than I claim I do myself.  The shallowness of modern evangelicalism is not in one area of life but affects the head, heart, actions, and traditions.
Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about evangelicalism as a culture that is complete in itself, but as a piece of a larger mosaic called the Body of Christ, which includes many perspectives and approaches. In our day,  it is not one part of the church that is threatened by secularism but all of it.
The elephant in the room is this—that we have forsaken the imitation of Christ, and made Christ into an imitation of ourselves.  We have not focused upon the totality of life built around Him and made our own interests primary in our lives.
The process of sanctification or theosis is the process of becoming like Christ in every way, in our head, heart, hands, and habits.  It isn’t a question of where we have failed be like Jesus, but whether we are seeking to succeed. We will never be perfect, nor should we expect to be. But that doesn’t mean we should stop seeking to be like Him in all ways. If we lose sight of Jesus and just focus on our own failings, we will continue to do them over and over again. But if we keep our eyes on the totality of Christ, we are in a better place to become more like Him in every way. 
This blog, the Faith Matrix, has been making the case that we need a balanced approach to the Christian life cannot just grow in one place--we must grow at all.  We need to study pray, work, and seek the wisdom of the past. Instead of emphasizing our distinctive, it is time to start learning from one another, if we ever see the whole of what it means to follow Christ. 

Give me your feedback.  Do you agree or disagree?  I love to hear your feedback.   Also, if you like this blog, share it with your friends, and subscribe.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Breaking Out of the Evangelical "Three-Step"

(Note:  this is the first of a series of 'rants' regarding the state of the church today. My intention is not to be critical of all the good Christians and churches who are working hard to present the Kingdom, but to express some heartfelt concerns about the direction of American Christianity in general.  I claim no infallibility--in fact I am sure I am wrong somewhere.  Neither do I claim these 'rants' to be balanced.  I merely offer my perspective.  Others may see things differently,  and they may very well be right as well.  I only merely offer my thoughts to provoke conversation.)

Ever since I was a teenager, I have self-identified as an “evangelical” Christian.  While people use the word “evangelical” in different ways, for me it means taking the Bible seriously as God’s Word and taking seriously the task of telling the world about Jesus.

Evangelicalism is more than just a statement of belief--it’s a culture in which I feel at home.  I’ve lived in that culture for a half century. It’s my spiritual home town and I’m comfortable here. 

Living inside a culture makes it hard to view it objectively because so much of what we think and feel comes from our environment.  We are unaware of our perceptual bias.  We cannot imagine other ways of looking at being Christian besides that of our own experience. But if we take seriously the Biblical teaching that we are all sinners, then we must believe that our evangelical world isn’t perfect. The world around us certainly sees our faults, even if we don’t.  If we wish to present the Gospel creditably, we must believe that even the evangelical tradition has its problems.

George Marsden’s book Fundamentalism and American Culture makes an astute observation about the fundamentalist/evangelical culture. He points out that it is a religion based on a never-ending campaign. We are good at crusading for salvation and various social causes.  But we have been historically unsuccessful holding ground. There have been tremendous revivals which have brought thousands to faith in Jesus, yet many of those converts disappear when the fires of revival die down.

But if we look at the two-thousand-year history of Christianity, short-lived revivals were not the norm.  People who were converted stayed converted. In the first three hundred years of the faith. The Roman Empire was converted to Christ despite fierce persecution.  Puritans and the Lutherans transformed the face of Europe.

Even so, American evangelicals are rapidly losing ground.  We are seeing a whole generation  turning against us rapidly—not because they have not heard the Gospel, but because they have not seen its benefits. Maybe it’s time we asked ourselves why.

The problem isn’t Jesus—it’s us. There’s something missing in our interpretation of the Gospel. 

One of the most quoted verses in evangelicalism is the Great Commission--Matthew 28;18-20, “Go into the world and make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.”  We are good at keeping part of this commandment, but not the rest.   We have gone into all the world.  There’s still more to be done here, of course, but there are now Bible-believing churches on every continent and in nearly every country.  Now, much of our effort is aimed not at spreading the Gospel where it has never gone, but trying to reclaim parts of the world where the Gospel was once widely known but has been waning for years. Places like South Korea, Latin America, and Africa are now sending missionaries to us. We are still good about bringing people to the edge of discipleship. We still teach people to pray, read the Bible, share the Gospel and give to Christian causes.  Christian churches talk incessantly about the need to bring their friends and neighbors to church.

We enfold them into the organizational church. We sell them Christian T shirts, bumper stickers, music, and a wide variety of simple “Bible” studies which tell them how to be better fathers, mothers, workers, etc.  Most of what these “Bible” studies give is advice that is not very different from what they would could get from non-Christian experts, but with illustrative material from the Good Book.

We still stress the need to “witness” to others.  Witnessing is usually defined as being a nice person, inviting friends to church and telling them about Jesus. When we are successful in our efforts those people are then enfolded back into our churches. 

Over and over we dance the evangelical three-step—1) win them to Jesus, 2) give them basic training, and 3) send them out to win others.  “Discipleship” is defined as a short-term process or rudimentary training, culminating in training in stewardship and evangelism. Winning others to Jesus is seen at the sole work and purpose of our belief, and getting people into the church is our goal.  Then, if our churches are attractive and entertaining enough to keep people coming back, and if the cost of discipleship is not presented as being too high, they may keep coming back, and the three-stage process can be repeated many times before people start to tire of it.

Eventually though, people do get tired of it, and start to fall away.  We hardly notice at first, since new people keep coming. One by one, the old converts drop out, and we hardly see them.  People come in but are not permanently changed. They still do not forgive their enemies, love their neighbors, or turn the other cheek. They are what they always were, but now they are doing it with a Christian label.  The longer the dance keeps up the more they tire of dancing, and the harder it is to get others to join in.  Christianity, which is supposed to be lifechanging, becomes a multilevel marketing scheme guaranteeing salvation for the next life without bringing about lasting change in this one.  Eventually, society gets wise to it and stops responding.

The Great Commission is true, but we never finish it.  The last part of the Great Commission says, “Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.”  The Great Commission doesn’t end with conversion and baptism--it begins there. After that, we begin the process of learning to do what Jesus commanded in every area of life.

Winning the world to Jesus isn’t all the Great Commission says—it’s not even the main point. The Great Commission is about establishing God’s Kingdom on earth by living like Jesus told us and having an ongoing day by day walk with Jesus. If everyone found out how to go to heaven but did not change on earth, the Great Commission would still not be fulfilled.  Letting people think it’s okay to hate others, ignore the hurting, stay unforgiving and live basically selfish lives because God forgives us is not the purpose of discipleship. 

The kingdom of God is wherever God rules. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for His kingdom to come on earth.  Whenever we in our lives submit to the rulership of God, the kingdom has come to us individually.  When we commit to being under God’s tutelage and seek to live like Him, we are in His Kingdom of God today. 

The problem with the way we are presenting the Gospel, is that we’re selling condos in an unfinished building.  We invite people to dine on meals of undercooked food. We are inviting people to join us in living a life we’ve barely tried ourselves.  It’s good to invite people to know Jesus, but all the while we should be seeking to know Him better ourselves. The Kingdom of God needs to be completed in us by learning to obey all that He commanded. We must complete the Great Commission in ourselves by learning to obey what He commands, if we are to produce lasting fruit.

Discipleship isn’t something we do for a few weeks or even years, but it is a lifetime pursuit. It isn’t just something we do to prepare people for membership and service, but for a lifetime of being formed into Christ’s image.

 The process of discipleship is first laying aside our past ways of thinking and feeling, as well as our sins and habits.   The second part of the process is becoming one with Christ in our wills, thoughts, feelings, and behavior—imitating Him in all things.   We evangelicals tend to measure progress by how much we have laid aside of our old life, instead of how much we have put on of our new life in Christ.  We focus on transforming everyone and everything else around us while the one mission field over which we have absolute control—our own inner lives—goes unevangelized. We win the world—we just don’t win ourselves. To help others, we must complete the Kingdom in ourselves.

Being a witness is not something we do, but something we are. When we are like Jesus, then we are a witness.  People who look at us, see our sins more than they see Jesus. We are not world changers or conquerors, but empty vessels unless we are transformed by the Spirit. 

Here are some questions we need to ask ourselves and our church.

Ø  Do we really “take no thought for tomorrow” or do we worry about the future?

Ø  Do we love our enemies, and pray for the welfare of those who don’t like us?

Ø  Are we committed to being like Jesus, or comfortable in our own hidden sins and hypocrisies?

Ø  Do “abide in His love”, knowing that God likes and knows us personally?

Ø  Do we have empathy for our neighbors, or do we ignore them?

Ø  Can we trust in God when we don’t have all the answers?

Ø  If we don’t experience God’s unconditional love in our souls, how do we expect to give it to our non-Christian neighbors?

What do you think?  Are evangelical churches strong enough in teaching us to observe what Jesus commanded?  Are churches too shallow in what they teach?  Let me know what you think, and join us here for the follow-up blog in a few days.

If you like this blog, please share it and subscribe to this blog.  There are more “rants” on the way. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The limits of Hope

The idolatry of hope can take at least two forms.   The first is to provide a false promise of escaping our struggles without pain or effort, by the promotion of baseless dreams, or fantasies.  

We need to be careful with dreams.   Dreams that are not rooted in realism on one side and in faith on the other become stumbling blocks to achievement.  If we fantasize about getting in shape, anticipating the pleasures that would be ours, our fake pleasures may become substitutes for real pleasures that come only after months of painful effort.   Hope that does not include effort is not hope at all, but life-denying fantasy. 

Here is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of our modern civilization.   We live in a society where fantasy is fast becoming our main commodity.   Movies, video games, music, fashion industries are all about selling fantasy.     We dream of being thin while becoming fatter, of being richer while becoming poorer, of being popular while becoming more isolated from others.   Marx once called religion the “opiate of the masses.” Today, it is fantasy.  

Fantasy produces a feeling of success while we fail, of strength while we become weak, and of knowledge when we know nothing.   Our dream based society has become the destroyer of real hope.

The other danger hope creates in us is confusing conditional, temporary hopes with unconditional, permanent ones.   In this case, the methods for achieving hopes may be confused with the hopes themselves.   Then, we the achievement of our conditional hopes leads us away from the realization of permanent, lasting ones. 

Security is a promise from God.  It comes because He is over all things.  God does not tell us, though how He will fulfill His promise.   He may do it by providing us with enough finances to save for the future, or He may use other means.  

Jesus told this parable.  

"The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.  He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'

"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do.  I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years.  Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." ' 

"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.  Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'

"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." 

Luke 12:16-21

Idols are often hard to recognize, since we often rationalize them by saying we are only trusting in God.   We would be better off with no security in this world than to confuse our temporal sources of security with real protection from God.  

Financial savings can confuse us into thinking that we are more secure than we are. Even if our finances are more secure, the hope we have is not leading us to trust in God, but could really lead us away from God.  

All human hopes are conditional on circumstances which lie always in the hands of God.  We can build walls to protect us against enemies, but the can not stop the plague. For every earthly precaution there is something that can and will in time overcome it. 

The turtle is a remarkable animal, which has survived on earth for millions of years. They move slowly because they can.  There are few natural enemies it needs to fear.  But millions of years of successful defense could not prepare the unfortunate turtle crossing a road on a summer evening for an eighteen-wheeler traveling sixty miles an hour. 

When our hope is in our own cleverness or strength, there is no certainty of success. But when our hope is in Christ, and our hope is aligned with His will, hope gives us strength and confidence facing forward.

With this blog, we have finally finished the eight facets of the matrix. But this is not the end of the blog.  I have a few more “rants” I will be putting up soon.  I will also be looking for other bloggers and material to fill this blog.

Soon, I will be launching a faith matrix website, and will be offering materials for sharing there.

If you have enjoyed this series, let me know, and share the posts that are meaningful. 

Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The disciplines of Hope

How do we develop hope? Here are some activities may help:

Being Thankful

In everything give thanks,” Paul wrote “For this is God’s will.” (1 Thess. 5:18) This isn’t a suggestion but a command.  He does not say to give thanks if we feel grateful, but to give thanks whether we feel anything like gratitude or not.  It is wonderful if our heart can be involved, but it is not necessary. In time our heart will catch up with the rest of us, and we may feel something like gratitude, but it isn’t necessary. Give thanks anyway.

Thankfulness helps to orient our mind towards ultimate purpose and destination.  It is an acknowledgement that is or can be part of God’s great satisfaction. Thanksgiving lifts us out of the tyranny of the moment and helps us see the vistas around us 

In the novel The Hobbit Bilbo Baggins his friends are stuck for weeks in a dark, foreboding forest.  Despairing of their predicament, they send Bilbo to climb one of the highest trees and look around.  Once above the treetops he feels fresh air and sunlight again and is greatly encourage.  More importantly, he sees their destination, the Lonely Mountain, is not far away. 

Thanksgiving gives us a glimpse above the treetops. We may be stuck in the muck of today, but it reminds us that we are actually making progress. Thanksgiving is the assurance of our souls that we are holding to the right course. 

We thank God for small blessings in the middle of major disasters.  Terminally ill patients can sometimes be filled with hope, not of a long life, but of seeing a loved one again, going to a graduation, or feeling a sea breeze. Small thanksgivings can be ours in big disasters.  The discipline of thankfulness reminds us of our many blessings.

We thank God for big blessings in the middle of minor disasters. When we are late for work,  our car breaks down, or we are caught in a rainstorm,  we can easily forget that life for us is actually pretty good. When we feel bad about something we forgot to do, we forget that God has redeemed us and still loves us, wholly and completely. Giving thanks for big blessings helps us deal with small disasters. 


Affirmation is the practice of self-reminding.  We sometimes forget who we are and where we are going.  The daily practice of affirmation helps us remember this. 

Affirmation is not magic. Reciting to ourselves “I am a good person” does not really make us a good person if we are not.  No, affirmations must first all be the truth to have power. 

A good affirmation is based on our position in Christ. It is a statement of how Christ thinks of us, and what He can do with us. It is not a statement of our own abilities, but of His 

Here is an example of an affirmation I have written and used for years.

“Today, I will remember that I am forgiven

“Today I will remember my worth in God's eyes.

“Today I will remember to give others my honesty and friendship

“Today I will remember that I am already loved enough

“Today I will remember that I can do all things through Christ

“Today I will remember the shortness of life and to live inthis moment

“Today I will remember to be thankful for all things

“Today I will remember that I can trust Him

“And in trusting, hope, and in hoping, know

“And in knowing, rejoice.”

A good way of writing an affirmation for yourself is a “beloved covenant” described in Trevor Hudson’s book Discovering our Spiritual Identity:

 Sit down in a quiet place and recall your favorite verses from the Bible.  If you aren’t familiar with the Bible and are just starting out reading it, just thumb through and write down a few promises.  Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to verses that stand out to you.  After you have a few verses,  read them over and over slowly.  Don’t look for things to do or to pray for—look for what God says about you, and His relationship to you.  Take these verses and write them down.  Then go back over them for about ten minutes a day for a few days.  Let these statements sink into your soul. You will find that it really helps to build confidence and hope to know just what God thinks of you.


We usually think of patience as a gift, but it really more of a choice. It’s knowing the reasons for hurry, but choosing to ignore them-- a hundred times a day, if necessary. 

I may be in a hurry to get home, but I choose to slow down and be safe instead of speeding up, because I know that home will be there when I arrive.  I want to buy a new car, but I choose instead to save my money, because I believe in the future I can afford it. I think that school is too hard, but I choose to do my homework, because I hope to graduate one day. I make these choices because of hope for the future. By choosing to say “no” to my immediate impulses, I am expressing my hope of future reward. 

Do not confuse impatient feelings with impatient actions. We can still be patient even when we feel impatient. Worry is resistible, and the act of resisting it is what we mean by patience. In time, the feelings of impatience will give way to peace, but it will not happen until we choose to be patient.

Use your Imaginations

Sit down, and make a list with three columns on it.  Label the first  “1year from now”,  the next “3 years from now” and the third “10 years from now.”

Now, close your eyes and use your imagination. Picture yourself one year in the future, with God in absolute control of your life and your situation.  What would your life be like in the best possible future with God in control, at these three points in the future?  Don’t focus on what your occupation will be, whether you have accomplished your occupational goals.  Don’t imagine a life without enemies, struggles or opposition, but instead concentrate more on who you will be inside,  and what your attitudes and inner realities will be.  Not so much what your will be doing at this time but who you will be inside.  Then pray over the lists and save them. Look back over them from time to time as you approach the future.

Hope is faith for the future.  In order to have hope future, we must see God there.  This requires a sanctified imagination. We need to have an image of our future selves with God in control, and what our lives would be like if we were.

A pessimist envisions the future and sees all the things that can go wrong. This is useful, since we all know that things can go wrong and it is good to be prepared. But pessimism alone cannot motivate us to do anything good. The more we imagine bad things happening to us,  the more we are that our negative imaginings will actually happen.

An optimist envisions the future and sees what can go right.   Hope arises from these positive imaginings. But we must be careful where our positive imaginings take us. If we divorce our hopes from our faith they are just wishful thinking. Our hope must come from God, and His power to change us.  If we just hope to be a better, kinder person without being a more Godly person, there is no real reason to believe we will succeed.  If we see ourselves conquering our present calamities and we do not see God in charge and getting all the glory, then our real hope is not in Him but in ourselves.

Real hope is not imagining a future without problems, but imagining a future with God’s sufficiency. It is unrealistic to think we can live in a sinful world and find everything easy and uncomplicated. But it is realistic to imagine that in the future we may be better equipped to cope, when we pursue a deeper relationship with God. 

Circumstances are guaranteed to change for us, but the relationship we have with God, who is the provider of all things can get stronger with every passing day. With His help, we will better be able to cope with life changes because we learn to trust Him daily,  The struggles of today will make us more able to trust Him in the future.

We cannot change the world, but we can change ourselves.  In changing ourselves we learn to better  cope with the world. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

the Virtues of Hope

“Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.” Martin Luther

On a certain day each week, the convenience store in my neighborhood has a line stretching almost out the door as the lottery tickets for the lottery go on sale.  Never mind that the chances of winning are only slightly better than being hit by a meteor, the hope of sudden riches keeps them coming back.

Lotteries run on hope, but not realistic ones.  If a person had real hope for a win, they would sell everything they owned to buy tickets. Their hope is just a happy fantasy. Real hope demands the surrender of our souls.

Christian existence is a hopeful religion.  Our faith is not based on one hope, but on three: 

First, the ultimate hope of heaven.  The heavenly hope is that we will attain heaven in the next life.   If we lose our lives in this world, we have a new life in the next.  This hope has sustained martyrs and missionaries for centuries.

Second, the hope that the world may be improved.  This hope has spurred social renewal wherever the Gospel has gone. This hope keeps Christians active in evangelism and social change.

Third, the hope that we may become more like Jesus. It is the one that is most essential to spiritual growth—not the perfection of the world, but that we may attain a greater resemblance to Christ.    Our hope is for peace and assurance. for an inner life so strong that neither poverty or prosperity matters, not or the absence of personal problems, but for the ability to survive and thrive.  We place our faith in Christ in order that we might become like Christ, sharing in his Divine personality and nature.

 The Bible puts it this way:

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! . . .  Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.” 1 John 3:1-3

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Rom 8:29

The goal of the Christian life is to be Christ-like, not in one area of our lives, but in all of them. 

What does a hopeful person look like?  He or she will exhibit four characteristics—perseverance, patience, planning, and flexibility.

Perseverance is the ability to keep on course, no matter what. A persevering person does not expect instant gratification, but is willing to continue without seeing results for a long period of time, in expectation of future benefits.

Consider the perseverance of a fisherman.  He may make cast after case with his bait, waiting for a big fish.  He may be out for days without the slightest nibble. Or consider perseverance of a salesperson.  She makes one cold call after another, getting yelled at, cussed out and hung up on countless times.  But when she makes a sale, it is worth the effort. Or consider the perseverance of a bodybuilder.  Day after day he strains his body to the breaking point. All he gets for his efforts are sore muscles.  Only after weeks of effort does he start to notice significant changes. Anything worth accomplishing only happens through frustration and discomfort. 

Patience is passive perseverance. It’s not what we do, but what de don’t do for the sake of accomplishment.  We feel we must do something, anything, but wisdom says wait for God’s voice.  We have hope that God will give us discernment and direction.  We are often tempted to jump at anything, but patience shows us the right time.

How do we discern when to wait, when to leap, and when to stay the course?   It isn’t easy. Patience is not waiting forever, but waiting on the Lord.  We must be attuned to hear His voice and His will. While we wait, we pray and be attentive, learning to recognize His voice when He calls, and keeping always before us the hope of God’s promise.   

Planning. While we wait, we plan.  Here we must make two distinctions about planning

First of all, planning isn’t worrying.  Worry approaches the future fearfully, anticipating all the bad things that can go wrong.  Planning is approaches the future hopefully, anticipating  how things may go right. Worry look at problems in big pieces, dreading how hard the whole task will be. Planning looks at the future in small segments. It doesn’t focus on the top of the mountain, but on what handholds and footholds we might try in the next few feet, and where we might attach our ropes. 

Flexibility. No plan ever goes smoothly. Nothing goes exactly as planned. Plans are always tentative, subject to God’s higher plan for us. Our plans need contingency plans, in case we need to go another way.  But they all should lead to our ultimate goal--conformity to the image of Christ.

We must not invest too heavily in our own correctness.  We are certain to be wrong at times, so we had better be prepared to change courses.  An inflexible person approaches his target like a bullet.  Once he is committed, there is no changing course, he will either hit or miss.  Most of them time, inflexible people miss their target. But a flexible person approaches target like a predator drone, guided intelligently to change course and make correction in her flight.  She has a much higher chance of hitting.  A flexible person bent on conformity to Christ’s image cannot miss in the end, since he or she has a distant target, and cannot help but come nearer to it at every moment.   

The hope of a Christian is certain, but the steps to that hope are uncertain. We need to keep our eyes on the hope, and not get bogged down in the details. Just keep moving towards our ultimate goal, which is to be like Christ. 

How do you maintain you hope?  What keeps you persevering.

I would love to hear from you, about how you maintain hope in your life. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Limits of Heritage

Since I’ve passed my sixty-fourth birthday,  I find myself doing what I swore I’d never do.  I am becoming nostalgic.  I love the music of the past, the items of the past, even the toys of my past.  Nowadays, the only place I find those things are in antique stores. 

That love of the past is nostalgia. It’s purely personal and depends on when I was born, where I was raised, and by whom.  

Nostalgia is a constant danger to Christians.  It is a form of perception bias that makes us think what we loved in the past is somehow qualitatively better than what there is today.  It causes us to judge more harshly the people and trends of today.

In one church I pastored, an old-timer shared a story he heard from his fathers about their church bought their first musical instrument—an organ.  There was a long, hard, and angrily debated.  When it was over, one of the elders shouted, “you can keep the Devil’s squeezebox!” and stormed out of the church, never to return. Today, the thought of an organ being a worldly instrument is far out of their minds—its music has been sanctified by nostalgia.

The old songs of today were the new songs of yesterday and were opposed by the people who thought they were dangerous innovation. Isaac Watts was savaged by his contemporaries for ruining the metrical psalms.  Choirs were looked upon as sinful by many churchmen of the Middle Ages.  Perception bias based on nostalgia keeps us anchored to the past and prevents our moving in the Spirit.

Think of tradition as the tail of a kite. It gives weight and stability in a hard wind, but if it is staked to the ground the kite will never soar.  Think of it as an anchor. An anchor is very important, but we must raise it to move. It’s important to understand the difference between a living heritage and pointless sentimentality.  Tradition is an enrichment to our faith. Traditionalism is an idol and competitor to faith. 

Tradition worship is a constant danger to Christians.  Those who worship tradition seldom realize they are doing it, or that there is anything wrong with it.  Traditionalism is when we cannot tell the difference between the house we worship in, and the church itself.  Traditionalism is when we believe all worship music must be in some traditional style, or that church building must have the same architecture, or that people should dress a certain way in worship.   It confuses cultural bias with faithfulness. It is when we cannot imagine that someone outside of our tradition can love God as much as we do, or that God can be pleased with people who look or sound differently.

We shouldn’t assume, however, that this is a problem only with “traditional” churches.  The tendency to confuse form with faith is at least as pronounced among “contemporary” churches as it is among the old-school churches.  The contemporary “seeker-sensitive” church has already become a tradition, and those who have grown up in it naturally assume that their worship style is “blessed” while old-fashioned traditional churches are not, based on their own biases and prejudices. In many contemporary churches, worship style is as heavily regimented as it is on old Protestant churches. 

Music is the language of the heart, but it is not a universal language.  If we use a musical language that is not understood or appreciated by those who listen, we may as well be praying in tongues.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that just because we understand or appreciate a musical or worship form does not mean it is bad, nor should we insist that people who cannot understand our musical language to be required to agree that ours is better.  To say that traditional or contemporary music is more “godly” is like saying that English is a better language than Spanish.  Our insistence on the spiritual superiority of whatever we enjoy is the sign of spiritual immaturity.

No matter how much we love the past, we still must live in the present. That means sometimes we must leave there safe place of our heritage and start something new, or reform it. Traditionalism can sometimes lead us to hang on too long to a church we should have left.   If our denominational has changed, or if we have, it may be to our mutual advantage to part.   The argument that “this has always been my church” is a weak one since the church never did belong to us.

A man once approached Jesus and offered to become a disciple.  He said he would follow him anywhere, once he had buried his father. Jesus’ response was gruff and brutal.  “Let the dead bury the dead, come and follow me.” Jesus wasn’t being unloving—He was just clarifying priorities.  If we cannot love God more than our past connections, we cannot be His disciple. Most of us may never be called upon to leave our family behind, or even the comfort of our church, but if we are we must be willing to go.  Our heritage and our faith may travel far together, but sooner or later our paths will diverge. Sometimes God will say, “leave your father and mother, and follow Me.”  When He does, we must throw aside nostalgia and be ready to go.

Do you lean towards the past or towards the future?  Are you ready for new things, or do you want to hold on to the old?  

How do we separate what is actually God’s working in the past from our feelings of nostalgia?  Are you willing to embrace new thoughts and ideas?

Write a comment and share. I’d love to hear from you.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The disciplines of Heritage

Here are four ways we can get reconnected with our spiritual heritage—

Know the roots,

Taste the fruits,

Understand the teachings, and

Try the rituals.  

Know the roots 

Evangelicals are fond of saying that “faith has no grandchildren.”  While it is true of individual churches, it is not true of the church at large. What God started in Christ will not end because of our incompetency or neglect. Their work will stand until Christ returns, and on into eternity afterwards.  

Each generation of Christians brings a new perspective. The early church relied on the Holy Spirit and on the authority of the living apostles. The ancient and medieval churches, developed habits of devotion still practiced today.  The Sixteenth Century gave us thinkers and theologians who took us back to the essentials--Christ alone, Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone, for God’s glory alone.  Eighteenth Century pietism challenged the overly scholastic heirs of the Reformers to experience God with their heart.  Writers like Blaise Pascal and Jonathan Edwards put the heart and the head together. Puritans emphasized separation from the world and a whole-life commitment. Moravians, Anabaptists, and Methodists emphasized Christian community.  The Holiness, Pentecostal, and Charismatic movements cherished the warmth of the Spirit.  Millerites, Adventists, and Dispensationalists gloried in the Second Coming, while the Salvationist and Missionary movements emphasized societal and personal change. Every branch of the tree of faith has some dynamic and useful aspect to contribute to the whole. 

Start exploring the Christian heritage by discovering your own spiritual roots. Many times people criticize the differences between these groups as if being different was necessarily wrong.  But it’s not the differences that are bad, but the intolerance and hatred of people who see things differently, plus the prideful assertion that only our denomination is right that divides the church.  We can enjoy our distinctives without being intolerant of everyone else.

Our roots are worth preserving.  Each branch of our faith preserves a portion of the whole.  If one segment of the church is lost, we are diminished, and a piece of Christ is missing.

Taste the Fruits

What are the positive fruits of our tradition? Baptists are known for their upbeat worship and doctrinal simplicity.  Presbyterians emphasize education and the majesty of God. Methodists have a tradition of transformational social action. Pentecostals are known for their enthusiasm and the reliance on the Spirit. Lutherans emphasize grace and the sacraments. Catholics are marked by their elegant and elaborate worship and their emphasis on humility.  Every tradition of the church has aspects that all Christians may admire. 

We know, or think we know, our tradition only through the experience of our own home church.  This is like saying we know our country because we know our own back yard. Our heritage is larger and richer than we can possibly imagine.  Our own experience is extremely limited. Until we study the fruit of our faith tradition, we cannot fully comprehend it.

After we have tasted the fruit of our own tree, we should sample some of the fruit of others.  It is a sad mistake to think we can understand the whole of Christianity from our own limited perspective. Being a Presbyterian does not mean we cannot enjoy a Baptist revival or a Catholic cantata.  Other Christian traditions are not competitors—they are companions on our journey to spiritual maturity. 

Many recent authors have recently written the positive nature of Christian diversity.  Books such as Kenneth Boa’s Conformed to His Image and Longing for God: Seven Paths to Christian Devotion by Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe have explored the rich, historical landscape of the multi-traditional church. We can enrich ourselves from the Puritan writers, the early Methodist classes, as well as the ancient traditions of lectio divina and the daily office.  All lift up Christ, and each explores a different aspect of Him.  The more places we look, the more ways we learn to tune our hearts to God.    

Understand the Teachings                                                                                                                                                              

Of course, we should try to understand what our church actually believes.

All attempts to explain God ae really only metaphors. They are our attempts to explain the unexplainable.

 Most of the time, when comparing what churches believe, we focus on our differences.  This is unfortunate.  A more interesting study is to look at how traditions approach expressing the same truths.  The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians and the Second Helvetic Confession of the Dutch Reformed are similar, but not the same. The Eastern and Western branches of the church expressed the Trinity differently.   On issues where we disagree--such as baptism, church government, and predestination—there is much to be learned from both sides.  Debates over doctrine have been going on for centuries, and much careful thought has gone into all sides of these issues.  It is unlikely we could come up with any arguments that have not been suggested before. But reading the arguments helps us to understand the awesomeness of God and His Scriptures.   

God gave us scholars and teachers who debated, challenged, speculated, and questioned, discarding bad ideas and keeping good ones, seeking always for the truth, to give us a firm grounding in what it true.  We are free to doubt, disagree and speculate, also, but we must understand with whom we disagree.

Try the rituals                                                                              

Ritual is history lived out in practice. It is our way of remembering what should never be forgotten.

Not long ago, I attended for the first time a high Lutheran service.  When I entered the sanctuary, I was surprised to find the baptism font in the center aisle.  As people entered the sanctuary, the made the sign of the cross with their hands on their forehead.  At first, I was put off by this, but I came to realize what they were saying.  They were not being baptized multiple times but signifying that everything we do is covered by the grace, expressed in that original baptism.  Each time they entered, they celebrated that grace.  It was not the way I had seen it before, but it made sense, and it was beautiful.

Don’t be fooled by pseudo-knowledge passed down from uninformed laypeople. When visiting a new church, don’t assume you understand what people mean by it.  Take the time to read what the church says about itself, and hear their own reasons in their own words.  Don’t go by hearsay, but discover the meaning from informed people within that tradition.  You can accept or reject is, just make sure you properly understand it before you do.

Rituals speak to us when words do not.  A dying man asks for communion or baptism.  We child learns to fold hands in prayer and bow his head before he learns to speak.  People go to church even when they are too deaf to understand a word.  It is the actions themselves that preach louder than the words. 

Rituals remind us of God’s continual presence.  It is not necessary to do them all, but neither is it necessary to perform all physical exercise to keep in shape. We choose to perform the rituals which most closely remind us of God’s power and goodness.

Here are some questions to get you started thinking about your heritage:

Do I know the faith traditions of my parents and my grandparents?

Can I trace the history of my church back, without skipping large parts of that history?

Do I know what makes my church tradition different from others?

Can I accept other traditions of the church, without judgment or feeling compelled to point out why they are wrong?

What can I point to in my church tradition that makes me proud to be part of it?

What’s your faith tradition?  What do you like about it? What have you learned from the traditions of others?  What would you like to know about your own faith tradition, or from others? 

I’d love to hear what touches you in your own faith background.  Write a comment below.