The Lost Art of Discipleship

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I’ve been at the congregation I currently serve for about 1/2 a year. One of the first tasks on my plate when I arrived was to assemble positions for a pastoral team. We knew we needed more manpower, but we didn’t yet know exactly what qualifications and skill sets would best serve the needs of our healthy-sized church and very large school.

As I studied and prayed, I began putting together a detailed grid of pastoral roles that I believed might best serve our needs. And by God’s grace, one of our vacancies has recently been filled. We now have on staff a Dr. and a Prof. and a Skipper/Senior Pastor, which I suppose makes me…that’s right, Mary Ann.

Our hope/prayer is that by early 2017 we’ll be able to add another pastor. One of the questions I’ve been most frequently asked by those who know I’ve been involved in forming the roles grid is “What would that pastor do?” It’s a perfectly legitimate question and one that I myself have considered while in the process of laying out the responsibilities. But within the question lies a problem. The pastoral position is being perceived primarily as a series of tasks to accomplish rather than a relational role to fill.

There’s an important principle that’s been discovered, mostly popularized in the business world, referred to as the Dunbar Rule. In short, the Dunbar rule is named after an Oxford anthropologist named Robin Dunbar, who stated that a human being cannot maintain more than 150 meaningful social relationships. Technically, the range is from 100-250, but the typical number used is 150. Dunbar’s findings have been considered essential to the development of things like social media.

If Dunbar is correct, then this is a hard and fast rule of human capacity. None of us, no matter how talented, can adequately maintain more than a few hundred relationships at most. This has to be seen as the max potential for a human. While anthropology and psychology are often considered soft science, they are still data driven, and human relationships have to be considered somewhat scientifically. So consider relationships like this: Usain Bolt, the fastest human alive and can run at a max speed of approximately 28 mph. You absolutely cannot expect humans to run at 50 mph. Similarly, if the person with the highest relational aptitude possible can manage 250 meaningful relationships (more likely 150), you simply cannot expect a single man to pastor 500 members effectively for a prolonged period of time.

This has massive implications for churches, many of which have been woefully understaffed for ages – partially due to unrealistic congregational expectations and poor stewardship, partially due to ministerial arrogance. This as much as any other factor has led to the insane ministry burnout rate (the average pastorate in the US has dropped to about 4 years, far faster than most other professions).

A lesson on ministerial size dynamics needs to be learned. The common New Testament word used for “church” is the Greek word ecclesia. It is NOT a building (Acts 17:24); it’s a body of believers gathered around Word and Sacraments (Eph. 2:20-22). As a group of people rather than an inanimate structure, a minister’s work must be understood not merely in performing tasks, but in fostering relationships, of which we now know there is a numeric ceiling.

Consider the analogy the Bible offers of pastors as shepherds. Did you know the max number of sheep a shepherd is capable of overseeing himself is recognized to be around 400? In fact, there’s a fairly sophisticated counting system developed long ago by English shepherds, called Yan Yan Tethera, in which they can keep track of their sheep, up to 399, by counting on their fingers. Occasionally a shepherd can handle a few more sheep, but even this number can only be accomplished through an extensive support system of sheep dogs.

Point being, even 400 SHEEP are difficult to account for by one man, let alone humans who have significantly more independent (and rebellious) wills. If overseers are truly called by God to shepherd a flock, a congregation had better be mindful of numbers, and furthermore have a number of other well-trained sheep dogs incorporated into a system of accountability.

What does this all mean? It means churches have to get smarter about human relational dynamics. Since every active member seeks some sort of relationship with a pastor, you cannot reasonably anticipate a pastor to shepherd more than 200 people. If that’s the expectation, you will almost invariably, over time, struggle for survival. So you have to decide whether you’re staffing to expand, maintain, or survive. Similarly, in the same way that every human can only have so many “meaningful relationships”, every human can also only have so many “close” personal relationships as well. Consequently, a larger church’s goal should not be that every single person in the congregation knows everyone else. But everyone should know somebody. In other words, no one in The Body will know everybody, but everyone in The Body should know, serve, and be accountable to somebody.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek outside of Chicago, the massive church American churches were aspiring to be, notoriously admitted in 2007 to Christianity Today that “We made a mistake” by being overly dependent on programs at the expense of “age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and relationships.” The church needs more discipleship.

In a world of fragile egos, driven by numeric likes, views, and hit counts, churches developed consumer-catering, bigger and better programs and lost the art of discipleship. Numbers aren’t evil. They’re necessary and helpful. But there is not a direct correlation to ministry success. The greatest attendance boon in recent U.S. history for American churches were the two Sundays following 9/11. Logically then, by measuring success in terms of numbers, the best “attractional program” for your church would be an Islamic terrorist attack.

Obviously, numbers cannot be the endgame. If healthy discipleship leads to increased numbers, then praise be to God. But inflated numbers that exist apart from actual relationships are a disservice to the Church in the long run.

The ultimate relational inspiration for the Church naturally is Christ himself. To properly minister to us, an infinite God became a man of self-restricting finitude in the person of Christ. Jesus spent the three years of his ministry pouring himself quite intentionally into 12 young men. This is not to say that he didn’t ever minister to others, but counting his twelve disciples, his converted brothers, his female followers, etc., Jesus’ church numbered about 120 members shortly after his resurrection. The Holy Spirit moved these trained leaders to ministry action and then on the day of Pentecost 3000 were converted. By the way, guess what 3000 divided by 12 is? ANSWER: 250. Granted, they were about to scatter throughout the Mediterranean world, but they were still accounted for. The early church continued to add to their numbers daily (Acts 4:4 says there were now 5000) and by Acts 6 we see the number dynamics coming to a head. Some of the widows were being overlooked. So, they decided to add 7 more men as laborers. By the way, guess what 5000 divided by 19 (i.e. 12 +7) is? ANSWER: 263.

Human relational numbers are perhaps soft science, but they’re quantitative and real nonetheless. I’m convinced Jesus and the early Christians understood this long before Robin Dunbar.

Jesus “discipled” and began the Christian Church with a congregation of about 120. If you’re a pastor and you think you can handle considerably more than 150, you may very well have an ego issue. If you’re a church member and think your pastor should be able to handle considerably more than 150, you may have unrealistic expectations – like a “we want our pastor to have more meaningful relationships than Jesus did” level of unrealistic expectations. Jesus poured himself into the lives of a specific group, and the lasting result was that he brought salvation into the world and provided a firm foundation for his Church.

For churches that have had unrealistic expectations, the solution is not merely to learn and try harder, but to repent and become new. Jesus offers both forgiveness and guidance. And by commissioning us to “make disciples” he encourages us to pour ourselves into the lives of a few who are eager to learn and minister themselves, and likewise, place ourselves under the leadership of someone else we can learn from.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)

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3 Insights on Finding PEACE in Your Life

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The day before Jesus is crucified, he assures his disciples that though he is soon going away (within the next 24 hours), he’ll leave them peace.

Specifically, he says:

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:26-27)

So, Jesus dies, rises, ascends into heaven and sends his Spirit.

Shortly thereafter, a deacon named Stephen calls the Jewish leaders to repentance over what they did to Jesus. For his troubles, for his truth, they stone him to death. At the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, a Czech priest by the name of John Huss, was burned at the stake for confronting the Roman Church at the time for corrupting the Bible’s teaching about sin, grace, Church, and Holy Communion. About 500 years after that a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged two weeks before the US liberated the concentration camp in which he was being held. He knew this was coming, but he couldn’t for a single day sit by idly and watch Hitler’s regime murder innocent Jewish men and women without opening his mouth.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” (vs. 27) Really?!?!

And while nothing to this degree has quite caught us yet, let’s be honest. When the family member goes into the hospital again or you get that unfortunate diagnosis; when this month is yet again one of those “okay, I guess I’ll try to pay of this debt with that credit card now” months; when you realize your significant other has said or done the unthinkable…

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” (vs. 27) Really?

There’s only two possibilities. Either Jesus is lying here…which doesn’t mesh with the countless other reasons we have for trusting his credibility in the Gospels OR Jesus is offering us something here that is much bigger, much more profound than what we initially might think he’s saying.

So, let me share with you three insights into what Jesus is actually telling us about genuine peace.

I. Fear Kills Peace

“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (vs. 27)

You might assume that PEACE is the opposite of many seemingly negative emotions – sadness, anger, fear, etc. Not really. There are many occasions where the Bible tells us to rejoice (e.g. Rom. 12:12; James 1:2; Phil 4:4), but it never says that being sad is wrong. In fact, in a sinful world, there are many things we should be appropriately sad about. And the Bible actually talks about the reality/necessity of righteous anger (e.g. Eph. 4:26; James 1:19), but encourages us to be angry at the right things and to process our anger in healthy, productive ways. Point being, peace can’t be the opposite of sadness or anger. The ultimate proof of this is Jesus himself, who became sad and angry throughout the Gospels.

But you know what Jesus never got? Afraid.

Arguably the most spiritually negative emotion that you and I face, the one that I think all the other spiritually problematic emotions flow from, is fear. The Apostle Paul tells the young pastor that he mentors, Timothy, that the Spirit of God “does not give timidity (i.e. fear), but power.” (2 Tim. 1:7)

So, I’ve had a lot of people come to me before whom I’ve counseled and I’ll ask what they think God wants for their life. Many have said, “I think God wants me to be happy.” And it’s true that God seeks our ultimate happiness – a lasting joy in heaven – but in this lifetime, in a sinful world, it’s impossible (and arguably unloving) to make us feel happy all the time. If you’re happy when you’re loved one dies, or your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you, or you lose your job, or you see injustice in the world, if you’re happy at that point…that doesn’t make you strong, it makes you a sociopath, totally out of touch with reality. God does not guarantee or even encourage happiness at those times, but he does say you logically have no reason to be…afraid. Why?

Fear comes whenever we venture into self-sufficiency. So, for example, Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, perfect paradise. They were naked and felt no shame. They disobeyed God when they ate from the tree he told them not to eat from – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And what was their reaction? They immediately ran, hid, and tried to cover themselves up, because they felt vulnerable, exposed, and afraid. Satan’s lie was to convince Adam and Eve was that they were worthless slaves of a demanding God. He made them afraid of something that wasn’t real. So they moved away from God’s Word and God’s will, they disobeyed God…and that’s when they found out what fear really was. They attempted self-sufficiency. And they broke the planet. And then they were afraid.

So, it works like this. If you believe you are small in a big universe that you have to control, you will understandably be overwhelmed and afraid. If you believe you are big in a big universe that you have to control, you’re delusional and will be humbled. But if you believe you are small in a big universe that God controls for your good, you will not only not be afraid, but you will feel valuable and loved.

II. Phony Peace is Tempting

The second point is an encouragement not to fall for cheap substitutions. Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (vs. 27)

1) Mental Avoidance

St. Augustine opened up his Confessions with a prayer that says, “My heart will not rest till it rests in you, O LORD.” In other words, every human being on this planet is naturally restless. And every one of us is uncomfortable as a result of that. So, what do we do? Our first instinct is to self-medicate the discomfort. We look for peace by any means necessary.

One of the things that’s always been fascinating to me is there are many different preferred methods to this self-medicating. So, we all know that obviously when someone turns to hard recreational drug use or crazy excessive alcohol consumption, they’re probably trying to quiet the demons. But there are many more socially acceptable ways to self-medicate. Shopping a little too much. Eating a little too much. Becoming all-consumed with sports or Facebooking or Pintresting, or TV/movies, gardening, music, hobbies, or even more noble-sounding causes. Doesn’t matter. Why do we do those things excessively? Yes, they’re pleasurable, but if crazy science fiction movies are so inherently good/pleasurable, then why doesn’t everybody gravitate towards them all the time? Why isn’t everyone flooding online message boards at 3:00am talking about the release date of the 7th Avengers movie? It’s because that might be my preferred method of escapism/self-medicating. It’s disproportionately pleasurable because it’s my drug of choice. Since we’re unique individuals, we look for a personalized self-medicating cocktail to sip in order to find peace. Recreation is one thing, recreation for escapism is another.

None of that makes problems go away. It merely distracts us. If you have crazy high unpaid bills, and you get overwhelmed and sit down and play 8 hours of video games, you’ve maybe calmed down your body chemistry, but you haven’t objectively helped your situation. In fact, now you’re just 8 hours closer to bad credit and bill collectors. True peace is NOT dismissive mental avoidance.

2) Changed Circumstances

I’ve shared with many of you how earlier on in life I struggled a great deal with anxiety and depression. So, I bought this at-home wellness program called “Attacking Anxiety and Depression” and there were some things I took away from it. One of the most important things, and something that I’ve read a variation on countless times since in other mental health literature, is that when confronted with a stress-inducing situation, there are really 3 things you can do (from a secular standpoint). You can 1) Flee the situation; 2) Change the environment/situation; or 3) Change the way you feel about the situation.

Most people recognize that fleeing the situation is generally not a great option. There are some cases that might obviously call for it – e.g. an abusive relationship. But it’s probably not healthy long-term to constantly bounce from job to job every time you don’t like something. Furthermore, some situations simply can’t be fled – health problems obviously can’t be fled. So most recognize fleeing an unwanted situation as an non-ideal option. The first instinct for most of us, rather, is to try to control an environment – to change all the circumstances. The biggest problem with this option is that a high percentage of our stress in life comes from interacting with other human beings, individuals with their own wants and wills. In that case, the more you attempt to control them, the more it typically aggravates the situation. Furthermore, circumstantial peace is always going to be…circumstantial. Intermittent. Erratic. True peace is NOT a mere change of circumstances. Wouldn’t you rather have a peace that was constant and relentless?

So what secular scholars largely agree on is that when it comes to a situation that is robbing you of your peace, fleeing is generally not a productive option, and changing an environment permanently is generally an impossible option. So 90% + of the time, the best option is to change the way you feel about a situation.

So your family member passes away, and someone says, “Just don’t let it bother you. It’s time to move on.” You get diagnosed with cancer. “I’m sure it’ll all work out!” People actually give pat answers like this all the time. And I know they’re trying to be friendly and helpful and much of the time they’re simply trying to diffuse the social awkwardness of the situation, but honestly, how do you know it’s all gonna work out?! On the basis of what can you proclaim that my unemployment, my loneliness, my health crisis is all gonna work out?! You can’t.

So, changing the way you feel about negative life situations may be the best option, but you still need a basis for why you’re going to change the way you think and feel.

So there’s mindless peace and baseless peace, but neither of those has any real value.

III. The Only Peace is Christ

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (vs. 26)

Jesus says here, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” (vs. 27) We saw what kills peace. And we saw what the world might call peace that’s really not peace. How does a Christian find true peace?

When you look at the context of this section, which we read earlier, you notice that Jesus is talking to his disciples about his imminent death. He’s leaving them…like the next day. He’s going to die tomorrow. And he says, “I’m leaving you…peace.” The Bible commentators will tell you, this is Jesus’ will.

Before someone passes, they leave a last will and testament. And those who are beneficiaries of a will do not receive their inheritance until…the testator dies. In other words, what we’re learning here is you’re never going to find lasting subjective peace (i.e. you’ll never feel true peace) in this life until you recognize you have objective peace in the next one, based on the death of Jesus. You will fear death unless you realize you have a better life coming to you. You will fear loneliness unless you realize he will never leave you. You will fear occasions that threaten your family unless you recognize that he’s promised all your needs will be met when you seek him first. You will be haunted by your past mistakes unless you realize that Jesus has paid the debt we owe to our Father for our sins. You will be tormented by regret unless you believe God works all things out for your good – by grace he turns the knots you and I make into beautiful bows. How can we be sure?

On the cross, what Jesus did is he endured the fear of a child detached from his parent. One of the scariest experiences of life is when you’re a little kid in a grocery store or shopping mall and mom or dad tells you to stay close, but you think you know better, and then you wander off. At that moment you realize that trying to do life your own way actually brings terror, not liberation. What Jesus got on the cross was cosmic lostness, the fear of a child alone in the universe, but he did it so that you and I could have peace. In fact, when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” (Matt. 27:46), it’s hard to understand because we don’t use words like forsaken much today. The eloi eloi lama sabbachthani here literally means, “You’ve abandoned me. You’ve left me behind.” See what he’s doing? He’s switching places with us. On the cross Jesus voluntarily faced the fear, abandonment, rejection that we deserved, and in exchange we received the warmth and acceptance and love from the Father that he earned.

And the more times you realize that nothing, even literally murdering him, will cause Jesus, your Lord and Savior, to abandon you – the more you will have peace. You do this day over day, and it’s not instantaneous, but I guarantee a year from now you will be a more peaceful, less anxious, fearful person.

If you would like more gospel resources for attacking issues of sadness, fear, anxiety, & depression, I’m currently teaching a sermon series R-E-L-A-X: Gospel Keys for Overcoming Anxiety & Depression, available here.

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The Rise of Trans Culture and the Evidence of Gender

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In what was the first high profile public confrontation of what will undoubtedly be many over the gender bathroom issue, the NBA recently pulled it’s All-Star game for the upcoming season from Charlotte, North Carolina. When millions of dollars are lost, this stuff gets heated quickly and this issue doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

I recently preached through a series titled The Design of Love. In the series, we meditated on Scriptural directives about relationships, marriage, gender, and sexuality.

Our society’s perception of genderedness has most definitely shifted over the years. But in a strange way, I’m increasingly convinced that the biblical sexual ethic is once again being affirmed. My  conviction is that biological and sociological study inevitably catches up to theological truth. And as far as society’s gender envelope has been pushed, it seems to me that once more a biblical point is being made.

From the 1960s, the western world went through a supposed “sexual revolution.” The sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll cliché was appropriate for a period characterized by the pursuit of feeling good. But the thinking on these pleasures changed. Recreational drugs, while obviously still an issue, became universally recognized as a massive hindrance to success in life. Rock n’ roll accidentally tripped on hairspray and quickly became shockingly uncool, all but dying as an art form by the 90s. And the perception of sexuality changed too.

During the sexual revolution, sex was largely understood as merely an appetite. You get hungry, so you eat. You feel sexy, so you have sex. This is a rather low view of sex that’s been around at least since the paganism of Corinth, when the Apostle Paul quotes them by saying, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” (1 Cor. 6:13) when talking about sexual immorality. Apparently many in 1st century Corinth were champions of that sexual revolution too. When they felt the hunger for sex, they would seek out male and female shrine prostitutes.

During the American sexual revolution, sex was perceived as a mere physical, mostly external thing we do. In tow with a feminist movement touting that a woman could do anything a man could, the societal perception shifted to men and women being essentially the same, our genderedness only running genital deep. It was a sexual equivalency culture of sorts.

And then came the 90s. One of the eye-opening aspects to the 90s was the coming out of many celebrities. Ellen Degeneres, George Michael, Melissa Etheridge, Nathan Lane were just a few of America’s favorite entertainers who put a face on homosexuality in the 90s. The overall number of celebrities and various industry leaders who felt comfortable sharing their sexual identity must have multiplied by ten in the subsequent decade.

In essence, what you had was many famous figures saying, “Please don’t make assumptions about my sexuality based on externals. My sexuality runs much deeper.”

And biblically speaking, they’re right.

blog - trans culture 2In more recent years, as same-sex marriage became the law of the land, and thus common, the attention obviously shifted to transgender celebrities like Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner.

So we now have a rise of people who are more publicly saying, “I definitely FEEL male/female on the inside.” In other words, what’s en vogue today is people rejecting the idea that sexuality is only skin deep. That’s correct. Now, they’re missing the fact that sin absolutely wrecks all of us and can distort our sexuality too. But, in a strange way, Paul’s teaching on human sexuality is being affirmed – your gender is NOT just an external thing, it’s part of your hardwiring.

The current cultural narrative about genderedness is agreeing with the latest brain research – men and women are absolutely wired differently.

And you know who pointed this out quite some time ago? The Bible.

The Bible teaches that the original man and woman were created differently – man from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7), woman from the side of the man (Gen. 2:21-22). And if you include different ingredients in the recipe, you’re naturally going to pull a very different cake out of the oven.

When sinned entered the world there were also different consequences for the genders – thorns and thistles in the field for the man (i.e. frustration in his work) (Gen. 3:17-19), pain in childbearing and “desire” for husband for the woman (i.e. frustration in relationships) (Gen. 3:16). As a general rule, these tend to be areas from which men and women most commonly define themselves. By way of example, I can nearly guarantee that if I randomly selected 100 women from church and asked them, “How’s it going?” 75 or more would tell me something about their relationships – their spouse, their kids or grandkids. But if I asked 100 men from the congregation the same question, “How’s it going?” 75 or more would tell me about something they’ve done recently – their work, their hunting trip, their fantasy sports team.

Perhaps more vividly, my colleague recently commented that you don’t ever see a group of four men out to lunch with gift bags. Very true. And I’d probably counter with the fact that you rarely see a woman kill an animal, stuff its head, and mount it in her living room in order to brag to any visiting company.

Men and women are wired differently.

This is also why the Apostle Paul gives Christian husbands and wives different directives in order to meet the most fundamental needs of their spouses. “Wives, submit yourselves (offer respect) to your own husbands.” (vs. 22) And he says, “Husbands, love your wives.” (vs. 25) If we didn’t have different needs, God wouldn’t have to offer different directives.

Again, God wired men and women differently. As a society, there are some signs that we’re starting to once again realize that.

So I get that Christians have a tendency to lament how far a culture falls. I’m not even suggesting that’s completely unjustified (the Apostle Paul does something similar in Rom. 1:18-32). But take confidence in the inevitable victory of God’s revelation.

The gospel means that out of the darkness of death comes the dawning light of resurrection. Truth always rises to the top of a pile of lies. And as surely as our Savior Jesus rose from his grave, his Word rises to authority as well. Even in a dying world we can see his living truth.

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THE REASON Lives Matter

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Quite obviously, our country still has issues with ethnic relations.

Please notice that I very intentionally use the word “ethnic” as opposed to “race.” Did you know that the word “racism” actually comes out of the 19th century French Enlightenment period – a philosophical period that shifted mankind’s focus from God to man? It was at that point that humans started to believe there was such a thing as more or less evolved “races” of humans. But according to the Bible, there are only 2 races of humans – believers and non-believers – who descended from one race, sharing common ancestry dating to Adam and Eve. In other words, the mere use of words like “racism” are indicative of a larger problem – a loss of the public consciousness of God. This invariably leads to a loss of the value of human life. It’s a deep issue that has manifested itself in multiple ways.

The violence of the past month indicates that our nation, as a whole, apparently doesn’t have a particularly high view of human life. But we’ve also legally and publicly ended 60 million lives since 1973. Think those aren’t related? We’ve been demonstrating for quite some time now that we simply don’t care very deeply about other humans’ lives. Further indication is that another societal pillar – the relationship between citizens and the people we hire to protect them – is seemingly starting to break down as well now too.

Why?

Cornell professor Brian Tierney has all but proven that the concept of inalienable human rights and universal human value was brought into western philosophy by medieval Christian theologians. For the past 150 years or so, Americans have taken for granted the fact that all human life has value and all human beings possess rights. But that’s actually a fairly small sliver of time and place in history. Humans haven’t always believed in inalienable rights rooted in inherent worth. And we didn’t just stumble upon this idea by good fortune either. It is was received directly from the Christian Church’s influence on the West.

If you don’t believe that, just ask EITHER some of the smartest atheists OR some of the smartest Christians!

Friedrich Nietzsche said,

“Another Christian concept, no less crazy: the concept of equality of souls before God. This concept furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights.” (The Will to Power, 401)

Nietzsche would later go on to say that it was foolish to believe that the value system of Christianity would be kept if Christianity was lost in a society. He referred to these values as “shadows of gods.” And he concluded that if you remove the Christian foundation, the values too will go.

In more ancient times, guys like Aristotle, also certainly no believer in the true God, said,

“For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different, for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.” (The Politics)

No, Artistotle clearly did not believe all human lives had equal value. He felt some were too emotional and incapable of higher reason. Some, in his opinion, were closer to animals and it was okay to treat them as such.

In more modern times, academics like Princeton Bioethics professor, Peter Singer, has argued that human life only has worth on the basis of “capacity” – our ability to do legitimate reasoning. Consequently, he’s deeply in favor of abortion and euthanasia, because he does not believe infants and senile elderly to be capable of sound reasoning. The obvious question is WHO is the lucky individual who gets to determine who’s reasonable or not? Singer doesn’t have a good answer. He seems to think he’s qualified though. Somewhat paradoxically, he’s also considered one of the founders of modern animal rights.

Even Thomas Jefferson, arguably the least religious of the founding fathers, said:

“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?” (Notes on the State of Virginia, 163)

Jefferson is teaching that there is no basis for human worth and equality outside of this value being imbued by a divine Creator. Similarly, George Washington said that morality cannot be sustained apart from religion. John Adams said our Constitution only worked for religious people. And so on.

Finally, and perhaps most pertinently in light of the cause behind the most recent violence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “American Dream” sermon, said:

“You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. The whole concept of the imago Dei … ‘the image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected, to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, worth, and dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God.”

So, can I say it again? If you don’t believe Christian faith is the only basis for human rights, just ask either some of the smartest atheists or some of the smartest Christians. They’ll both tell you the same thing.

More importantly, ask the Bible itself. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just come up with the idea of human equality. He found it, and launched the most important modern civil rights movement – non-violent and totally effective – by doing theology. Dr. King knew it wasn’t enough for any of us to simply say that lives matter. He knew we had to have a basis, a reason why lives matter. And he rediscovered for our generation the beauty of the imago Dei. How? He reminded us what God’s Word has to say about it.

In Genesis 9:5–6, God says,

“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting…. from each human being, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind. (Gen. 9:5-6) (see also, James 3:9-10)

Make sense? Humans are incredibly valuable precisely because when God created them, he placed his image upon them. This is the reason lives matter. Apart from this teaching (known as the imago Dei) there is absolutely no true basis to make the case for the value of human life. Tierney, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Singer, Jefferson, King, and God all agree on this.

But the Bible teaches that because humans still retain the inherent worth of the image of God, Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, saw us as valuable enough that he would come and die to pay for the sins of every human.

“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” (Rom. 5:18)

And the proof is in the pudding. Christianity had answers for civil wickedness in the past. Christians ended the infanticide in the Greco-Roman world by taking these children in. Christians cared for the elderly and the sick during the plagues, when everyone else left them to die. Jesus was the one who spoke radically about ethnic relations between Jews and Samaritans. And Jesus was the Ultimate Nonviolent Protestor.

“He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)

Saved by Jesus and inspired by Jesus, the early Christians put their belief in the sanctity of human life on display. In doing so they presented a more beautiful truth than the world around them. Lives were lost but hearts were melted and the world was changed. The western world was led to place a high premium on the value of human life. But we’ve lost that because, as a majority, we’ve lost the Christian faith.

We won’t get it back by politics. We won’t get it back by Facebook tirades. And we won’t get it back by Sunday punchcard Christianity.

In the wake of last week’s murders, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a press conference, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country.” He’s right. We’ve put the weight of God on someone/something other than Jesus. We’ve asked our governement and its civil servants to accomplish the divine. So we’re constantly disappointed and kicking around shallow solutions.

If we regain the value of human life in our country, it’s only going to come because our citizens see the imago Dei. And the only ones we can assume would put this on display are Christians. So, if you’re a Christian who really wants to be part of the solution to our nation’s most newsworthy problem, it requires:

  1. Regular study to know Jesus.
  2. Regular repentance and thankfulness to comprehend Jesus’ grace.
  3. Regular courage to speak about Jesus.
  4. Regular sacrifice for others to show Jesus’ love.

God created us and placed his image upon us. We clearly matter.

God redeemed us by the blood of his only Son. We clearly matter.

God placed his own Spirit inside of us and has empowered us. We can make a difference if we move forward in faith.

Church, be the Church.

 

For more on the Imago Dei, please read here.

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The Cause of Superhero Culture

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Who will rise up for me against the wicked?
    Who will take a stand for me against evildoers?
Unless the Lord had given me help,
    I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. (Psalm 94:16-17)

Last week I presented on Ministering to Millennials at a conference in Phoenix. One of the last questions I received was about the superhero culture so prevalent with young adults. It’s become big business. Actually, it’s become the BIGGEST genre in the entertainment business.

To date, in 2016 the highest grossing films around the world are superhero/fantasy films. Currently the order looks like this – #1 Captain America: Civil War ($1.1 bil), #4 Batman v. Superman:Dawn of Justice ($872 mil), #5 Deadpool ($778 mil), #8 X-Men Apocalypse ($509 mil). Further telling is the fact that none of the top 10 movies in revenue are even remotely based in reality.

Thus, the fascinating trend that Hollywood has fallen into in recent years is that the Academy Award for Best Picture each year ends up going to a film deeply rooted in painful realism, yet the movies that make the most at the box office are anything but reality. So we have this tension, as though the cultural elites, the arbiters of quality film-making, are trying to continuously bring us back to the harsh realities of life, all while the general populace is showing (with their attendance and dollars) that they’re yearning for something far greater than the present reality.

None of this, at least in retrospect, is surprising for Christians who take the Bible seriously. In the 20th century, higher academia did it’s best to refute the supernatural. But you simply can’t suppress the truth forever. Often, it’s like trying to press down a bubble under cellophane, it’s going to pop up elsewhere. And you certainly cannot suppress a supernatural God. The 20th century was a good try. But it seems as though the cultural corner has been turned. Even famous scientists, in somewhat controversial fashion, are now claiming to prove God’s existence.

But the rise of superhero culture in the 20th century serves as evidence of mankind’s collective subconscious acknowledging the truth that there exists a being who can surpass mere human capabilities.

C.S. Lewis, following previous theologians who had argued for the existence of God on the basis of something they called the sensus divinitatis (a sense of the divine), echoed,

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.” (Mere Christianity)

So, why is Wolverine’s ability to heal so compelling? Because there really is someone who can cure all wounds (Luke 17:19). Why is Superwoman’s ability to speak in any language so compelling? Because there really is a Spirit who works in every language (Acts 2:5-6). Why is Superman’s ability to fly so compelling? Because there really is someone who can be everywhere at any time (Jer. 23:24). Why is his X-ray vision so compelling? Because there really is someone who sees all things (Job 34:21). Why is Spiderman’s ability to swing between buildings of a congested city so compelling? Because there really is someone who can move through huge crowds without problem (Luke 4:30). Why is Nightcrawler’s ability to pop in and out anywhere so compelling? Because there really has been someone who did the same (Luke 24:31). Why is the Hulk so compelling? Because there really is actually someone strong enough to move mountains (Matt. 17:20) and cause the sun to stand still (Josh 10:12-13).Why is Professor X’s mind-reading so compelling? Because there really is someone who knows your deepest thoughts (Psalm 139:2). Why is Aquaman’s ability to influence sea creatures so compelling? Well….he’s really not all that compelling. I’ve always been sympathetic towards Aquaman’s relative lameness – but, truth be told, there really is someone who can control the fish for his purposes (Jon. 1:17).

Now what would you have if one person embodied all of these abilities and more? His name is Jesus. And he showed up to overcome the darkness of our present reality. You can only suppress his truth for so long.

I believe the undeniable superhero culture in which we currently live is only one of many indicators of a society longing for supernatural truth. For instance, as society rebuked not only supernatural talk of God, but also angels and demons in the 20th century, we experienced the rise of alien phenomena. So, if I said… “Mysterious extraterrestrial beings, less than ‘God’ but more than man, who though they do not fully dwell on this planet, interact with this planet using unexplainable advanced powers greater than those seen from the beings of this planet. And these beings typically either bring messages to the people of this planet or remove people from this planet and take them into a different realm (cf. Luke 16:22).” Am I describing aliens….or angels and demons? I’m convinced the former currently serves as a placeholder for the latter.

Or consider the fact that dark matter is the current theory for why the observable matter of the universe doesn’t either collapse upon itself or expand to stretch itself as uninhabitable for life. Somehow it’s okay that “dark matter,” which we cannot observe by any instrument, only by the effects it has on observable matter, is accepted by faith in the scientific community, while God, whose effects are also observed on everything, is denied. I believe the former, in a sense, is a placeholder for the latter. “(Jesus) is before all things, and in him all things HOLD TOGETHER.(Col. 1:17)

So what if a superhero actually existed? What if all superhero powers were actually placed into one person? What if all the great stories about heroes who come from far away to earth to struggle, sacrifice, and use otherworldly power to conquer our deepest villains – what if these great stories were merely leeching off the richness of the greatest, truest story ever told?

And what if our hero’s Spirit actually lives inside us now? If we work together as people whom the Spirit dwells in, the Church, what kind of healing power could we bring into the world?

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.(Eph. 3:20-21)

 

Millennials Might Kill Holidays…and Why That’s Okay

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I ran across an interesting article recently, the thrust of which was the idea that Millennials have turned once simple birthday party gatherings into “holy month” monstrosities. The author states:

But millennials took those simple pleasures for granted, and now, many parties have evolved into ravenous emotional beasts: month-long, highly intricate ceremonies that eat up all your savings and Facebook notifications. Absence is not an option. Sickness is not an excuse. The rise of the birthdayzilla has transformed birthday parties from simple one-offs to totalitarian birthday months, and everyone must comply.

Now it’s not particularly noteworthy that Millennials have pushed the boundaries of extreme behavior on self-focused holidays. It’s not even all that surprising to me that the author freely uses terminology like “HOLY months” to describe these events. Since humans were designed for worship, we carve out portions of our lives as sacred and we’re going to worship something as holy. Therefore, if you take God out of the social consciousness, we’re likely going to worship ourselves. Makes perfect sense.

What’s really quite intriguing to me, however, is the idea that Millennials are tampering with the traditional notion of holidays (i.e. from the Middle English for “holy days”). In other words, the surprising twist to me is not that the Millennial generation would consider their birthdays to be “HOLY days.” The unique and telling part to me is that they’ve moved beyond “holy DAYS.”

Millennials are largely asynchronous (i.e. not bound by traditional time structures). For instance, the idea of having to watch a TV show on a certain day of the week at a certain time not only seems foreign to the Millennial mind, but inefficient and wasteful. They do their classes online when they want. They stream entertainment content online when they want. They shop online when they want. Those are significant changes from prior generations.

Consequently, from the perspective of time, Millennials are pushing humanity to become less event (time) driven and more lifestyle (content & attitude) driven.

There are unquestionably some implications here for Christianity and the church.

For instance, for years humanity has thought in terms of special events. Even the Church has thought in terms of special events – Christmas, Easter, etc. But consider this – Would we have to have a Christmas Day (or Eve) celebration? Would we have to have an Easter Day celebration? Think carefully here… As Christians, we cannot help but celebrate the sin-removing, life-changing, eternity-altering facts of our Savior’s birth, death, and resurrection. That’s a given. But are we primarily tied to certain days for these celebrations? Or do these facts primarily tie us to new life (and new lifestyles) in Christ?

If there’s any doubt about this Millennial shift from time to content & attitude, event to lifestyle, just keep this post in mind next Christmas when you hear a Millennial say something like, “We’re ‘doing Christmas’ with my parents this weekend and then my husband’s parents next weekend.” That mindset, or language, didn’t exist several generations ago.

Without rehashing the entire history of why Christians arrived at certain dates for celebrations, I think many believers today are in tune with the fact that Christianity borrowed pagan Roman dates for its celebrations. Christmas was in all likelihood linked to Saturnalia. Easter was in all likelihood linked to Eostre. There remains scholarly debate about the exact years, let alone the exact dates, of Christians attaching themselves to these events. So the idea that we MUST celebrate on certain days seems a little silly. Furthermore, we know that Christians were NOT celebrating these events as specific holidays until hundreds of years after Christ’s life on earth. (Dr. Paul L. Maier’s In The Fullness of Time is my top recommendation for such corresponding data.)

The bottom line is simply this – the early Christians did NOT find it necessary to have special celebrations on special dates. The early Christians, did, however find it essential that if you were a follower of Christ, ALL 365 days of the year be fully dedicated to the life, death, and resurrection of the Savior. While the commercialization of “event days” like Christmas is widely understood, it remains a potentially valid case that perhaps such days are more detrimental than helpful.

So, am I advocating the removal of celebratory Christian festivals? No, not necessarily. And I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone is inherently doing anything wrong by celebrating on such days. The more relevant question though is whether or not God designed for the Christian Church to have such days, i.e. are they wise or not?

The words of the Apostle Paul to the Colossians should at least give us pause for consideration:

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Col. 2:16-17)

This would appear to give some legs to the argument that special day events were the product of religious observance, but lifestyle is the product of the gospel of Jesus.

At its peak, it’s believed that the Roman Empire had festival celebrations somewhere between half and two-thirds of the days of the calendar year. There seems to be something about the human heart that wants to make one day more sacred than the other.   Hmmm.

Realistically, do I think Millennials are going to overturn the concept of holidays? No. It’s been around too long. And I think there are too many Millennials who, while they aren’t wired to think in terms of events, nonetheless enjoy days off from work.

That said, do I think the way we perceive time is changing? Absolutely. Do I think that’ll have profound implications for the way we exist as The Church? Yes. And do I think that’s all bad? Nope.

Most of all, I’m excited for my time in eternity, about which Peter says, With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Pet. 3:8) At that point, I won’t be bothered by my stupid mistakes from the past. At that point, I won’t be anxious about the uncertainty of future events. At that point, I’ll just be…with the Lord, who by grace washed away my past and secured my future, so that I could finally live in the eternal moment. 

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The Idols We Never Knew We Had – Bible Study

A little different direction this week – wanted to share with you some of the other stuff I’ve been working on of late. Linked above is an interview with Northwestern Publishing House Editor, Daniel Schroeder, for the now available study “The Idols We Never Knew We Had.”

I had a ton of fun putting the lessons together and, after piloting the study on my own, was really pleased with the results.

A more nuanced view of idolatry has been one of the top two or three spiritual insights I’ve gained in my adult life as a Christian. I’m hoping to share some of the good news that I learned along the way. Please encourage your church to consider running the 8 week series, either on Sunday mornings or in a Small Group setting. You can purchase a copy at the links below.

A downloadable version is available HERE.

There is also a CD version available HERE.

NOTE: You will not be required to look at my adult braces during the course of the study.