A while back I posted that my wife, Adrian, and I were putting our daily Bible Study up during the COVID pandemic and inviting others to study along with us. All of those videos can be discovered at our YouTube Channel.
But I’d also like to share that the studies are also being uploaded as a podcast to all major podcast providers (iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, etc. ). If you’re like me, you’re listening to podcasts whenever you’re in the car, when you get ready in the morning, during your workout, etc. Just search for “2 Steps Forward with James and Ade” wherever you get your podcasts.
Please check it out, and if you’re inclined, leave a review.
Or, subscribe to our channel on YouTube where all the videos are archived. Here are a few examples of recent studies…
It has been a LONG time since I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down and writing a post. I miss it. I love writing. More on that at a different time…
In short, one of the reasons I’ve been writing less is that I believe primary information mediums have changed. Podcasts became in the late 2010s what blogs were in the late 2000s. Podcasting is still a rapidly growing field. But I’ve also had a strong desire in recent years to put together a modern, relevant Bible commentary in a format that works for contemporary Christians. And so I’ve been sketching out podcasting plans for the past couple of years. Eventually, what I want to now introduce you to, will be turned into a podcast format.
The goal? A daily Bible Study that is accessible to Christians, able to be leveraged during our many multitasking opportunities throughout the day – in the car, during exercise at the gym, getting ready for bed, etc.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed my plans ahead a bit, but I’ve already laid out an entire biblical paraphrase. One chapter per day, I want to lay out the 1) WHAT?, 2) What does this MEAN?, and 3) What does this mean FOR ME? of Scripture in three daily devotional thoughts for each chapter. My wife, Adrian, is helping me and trying to keep me on track so that I don’t stray too far into abstract biblical nuances, but stay grounded in matters relevant to Christians in their daily lives.
We’d love for you to come along on this journey with us! Check out the videos below, subscribe to the channel, and stay tuned for the podcast version.
Again, all of the videos, and much more content, including weekly worship services, additional studies, children’s ministry, and worship music can be found at our St. Marcus YouTube Channel.
Last Thursday my wife and I decided to go see the new live-action (technically “photorealistic computer animation”) The Lion King film. My wife has always been a huge fan of the Disney classics, watching each possibly hundreds of times. I saw them once when I was a kid and was content with that. But I’m always game for heading to the theater, so this is the movie we landed on.
The new film was really well done, receiving mostly positive reviews. The script stayed pretty true to the original, with some clever 2019 updates and embellishments. The music, of course, is undeniably spectacular, as most Disney music tends to be. Without question though, the most fascinating aspect of the experience for me was going back and watching, as an adult, a film that I hadn’t seen in 25 years. Processing a work of art as an adult after you did so as a child can be a startling venture. You see things. You pick up on subtleties, messages, and themes that you originally missed.
For instance, what struck me instantaneously was the classic opening scene. As the sun rises over the horizon, all the animals from across the Prideland come and gather around Pride Rock. Elephants, giraffes, hippos, monkeys, antelope, birds of all sorts, and critters that scurry across the ground – these are creatures that generally don’t get along. These are natural enemies. They rank on various tiers in the food chain hierarchy. And yet, when they hear that opening anthem, that call to gathering, they drop everything they’re doing, lift their heads and turn, and proceed to march together in unison. Some are traveling on one another’s backs. Some are hitching a ride on the elephants’ tusks. Creatures from all over the known world, who aren’t supposed to go together according to the world’s divisive categories, are gathering as one.
Why? Well, something special is clearly going in the world on this day. When we arrive on-site, we see that a wise old baboon, who serves as something of a high priest over the Serengeti, is hoisting a lion cub, the prince, the Son of the King. The king is named Mufasa, and this new king is named Simba. The high priest baboon, Rafiki, lifts Simba up into the air and all the creatures unite to praise him in perfect harmony. Not only that but after their initial vocal burst of celebration, they bend down before their King in reverence. This is worship.
Obviously, The Lion King isn’t a distinctly Christian movie. In fact, there are lots of non-biblical concepts taught throughout. But like all great film and literature, the Messianic allusions throughout the movie are hard to miss when you’ve become conditioned to looking for such things. So, for instance, the very first piece of advice that Mufasa (Father) gives to Simba (the Son) is that the people don’t need a typical king found in this world. They don’t need a king who takes, but a king who will give of himself. Clearly this is a story of a Sacrificial Savior as King.
Today, what I want you to see primarily is how this iconic opening scene is an overwhelmingly accurate picture of the worship that will take place at the end of time, and then reflect on what the ultimate picture of worship teaches us.
See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne … In a loud voice they (i.e. the elders and all creatures from all nations, tribes, languages, and cultures) were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
Application 1 – Public Worship is directed toward a Lamb on a throne who was slain for you
According to what John sees in Revelation, worship at the end of time will have all of its energy and all of its focus directed toward a Lamb on a Throne Who was Slain for Us.
Now there are lots of interesting specific details about the worship that’s going on in this vision. There are lots of stringed instruments (Rev. 5:8). There are sweet smells (Rev. 5:8). There is diversity (Rev. 5:9). There are countless participants (Rev. 5:11). There is undeniable intensity and passion (Rev. 5:12). There is appropriate posture (Rev. 5:14). Etc.
And yet, while there are actually many details, the style is nonetheless nebulous. Somehow the style is fitting for “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev. 5:9) This should teach us that the culturally conditioned stylistic preferences that we use in our worship services probably make don’t matter too much. We have no idea what the style will be in heaven and therefore should never consecrate a human style. Objectively, the one detail that we can know for sure that will take place is that all of the concentration will be on a Lamb on a Throne Who was Slain to take away our sins.
Consequently, it stands to reason that in our own worship services, we would champion music that primarily directs us to the Lamb on a Throne Who was Slain.
Additionally, it also means that the primary thing someone like me, a pastor/worship leader, should ever be doing in worship is directing you repeatedly to a Lamb on a Throne Who Was Slain for you. Hold your ministers accountable to this. I’ve told my congregation that if I’m ever primarily giving you life advice, teaching you personal empowerment and self-worth by any means necessary, or offering 5 Ways to Become More ________________, you need to get rid of me and get a different worship leader that WILL point you to the Lamb on the Throne Who Was Slain. I’m not suggesting that preaching would never contain practical life advice. The Bible is chock full of wise and godly life lessons and teasing out the implications is also part of preaching. But John’s Revelation tells us that true Christian worship is ultimately and fundamentally aimed at the Lamb on the Throne Who Was Slain for us.
Application 2 – Worship in your daily life is directed toward a Lamb on a throne who was slain for you
You’ll notice in Revelation 5 that it doesn’t tell you what day of the week it is. We have zero indication that John is describing a scene unfolding at 10:30 am on a Sunday morning (assuming that were even possible in eternity).
This teaches us that every day of salvation will be directed towards the praise of a Lamb on a Throne Who Was Slain for our sins. Not just Sundays. Therefore, the more the other 167 hours of the week are directed the same way, the more heavenly-aimed and godly our days become.
What does this look like? Well, when your ego bleeds a little as you forgive someone who has wronged you, you’re directing your day towards the Lamb on the Throne Who Was Slain for you. When you resist temptation as an innocent lamb, you’re directing your day towards the Lamb on the Throne Who Was Slain for you. When, despite the chaos of the circumstances surrounding your work, your health, your relationships, you remain calm because you know exactly who is sitting on the throne powerfully ruling all things on your behalf, you’re directing your day towards the Lamb on the Throne Who Was Slain for you.
Eternal worship WILL BE incredible. But the worship here today can be otherworldly, heavenly too. Just point it in the right direction.
Can’t entirely explain it. I’ve had the overwhelming urge to write about money management recently. It might be the fact that my church will soon be partnering with a generosity/stewardship consultant for the upcoming year. Or, it might be the consumer freakout that is Amazon Prime Day – an important annual holiday in which we American consumers are reminded not to pay full price for pressure washers, flatscreens, and survivalist party straws like idiots, when we could be saving 16% off. And this all with that Amazon doomsday clock ticking down in the upper righthand corner of your browser. Yes, the digital sales Rapture is more panic than excitement; more an opportunity to brag to others of the deal you got rather than fill a legitimate need in life.
But this is the sickness of American consumer mentality. It’s literally an addiction. A paranoia. An apocalypse.
So, yeah, the idea that we Christians probably need some financial guidance is warranted. And considering the climate, the idea that some of the Bible’s directives may possibly offend the consumer shouldn’t surprise us either.
Why not begin with the point that will likely be most controversial?
The first thing that probably needs to be said is that in the history of God’s people, a “tithe” (a giving away to God of 10% of what has been received as blessing) has not been controversial to God’s people. Even prior to the Mosaic Law, Abraham gave “King Melchizedek, Priest of God Most High” a tenth of everything he had (Gen. 14:18-20). Upon receiving a vision from God at Bethel, Jacob promises to give God a tenth of everything God blesses him with.
The tithe system is later codified into Mosaic Law for God’s people in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. From the regularly collected tithe, God provided for worship celebrations, for the Levites (who had no allotment of land in Canaan), and for the marginalized of the believing community (i.e. widows, orphans, foreigners, and poor). You can read all about this in Deuteronomy 14:22-29.
For a few thousand years, God’s people got into a regular rhythm of giving to the Lord their tithes, their firstfruit offerings (Lev. 23:9-14), their best. This didn’t come naturally. The Children of Israel needed to be taught to express gratitude and trust in the same way that your children do. No one thinks it’s legalistic to teach a child to say “thank you” when someone gives them a ride or holds the door open for them. We understand that gratefulness is a necessary, learned attitude and behavior. So God programmed opportunities for his children to grow in this way. The tithe was one of these chief opportunities. The tithe was what God said was an appropriate way for believers to express 1) GRATITUDE for all that the gracious Lord had already poured out into their lives, and 2) TRUST that this same God would continue to meet all of their needs moving forward.
The tithe wasn’t controversial for Old Testament believers, but that doesn’t mean they always liked it. In one of the most scathing, but nonetheless hopeful, rebukes in Scripture, God says through the prophet Malachi:
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”
No question. For the Israelites, tithes were good. And necessary. And blessed.
The question for modern believers, however, is “Does this still apply to me?”
The tithe fell under the Old Covenant of God’s people. This included Sabbath regulations, dietary restrictions, guidelines for circumcision, etc. Most Christians are (rightfully) not overly concerned with obedience to such commands. Why should the tithe be any different if it’s baked into that Mosaic code?
The transition from Old Covenant Judaism to New Covenant Christianity is admittedly a challenging study. For our purposes here, however, as a general rule, the New Testament specifically and overtly mentions the aspects of of the Old Covenant that were culturally conditioned for that particular time and place. So, for instance, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that festival regulations and dietary restrictions and Sabbath rules are no longer necessary for God’s people when he says, “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.” (Col. 2:16) Or, Stephen and Paul make it clear that Temple treks and special ceremonies are no longer necessary when they say “(God) does not live in temples built by human hands”. (Acts 7:48; 17:24) The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that special sacrifices are no longer necessary when he says, “Unlike the other high priests, (Jesus) does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” (Heb. 7:27)
These are big changes. No Temple. No sacrifices. No diet restrictions. No worship day regulations. No circumcision (Gal. 5:1-12). Massive changes.
But when you come to the issue of tithing, you notice something fascinating, from the Man himself. During Holy Week, in the midst of one of Jesus’ fiesty interactions with the Pharisees, he calls the hypocritical religious leaders out on their financial management. He says:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Notice that the Pharisees were really fastidious about their tithing, right down to offering a tenth of the herbs out of their spice racks. Jesus’ rebuke here is that they used their tithing as an excuse to not feel guilty about overlooking care for the poor and needy. But look at what he says next: “You should have practiced the latter (i.e. mercy), WITHOUT NEGLECTING THE FORMER (i.e. tithing).”
Far from abolishing the tithe, Jesus appears to uphold it.
And even if one is still convinced that the tithe is strictly an Old Testament command…fine. Consider nonetheless the very premise of the tithe. God, at one point in the past, said to his people, “On the basis of all the grace you’ve received from me, it is appropriate for you to give a tenth of all you are blessed with as a way of expressing 1) gratitude for blessings that have been received and 2) confidence in future blessings that will be received.” Well what about us? As a New Testament, New Covenant believer, on the other side of the cross of Jesus Christ, have we received more or less grace than the Old Testament believer? I don’t know how one could argue we’ve received less grace. And if 10% was the appropriate expression of gratitude and faith for the Old Testament believer, how does that become anything but a starting point for New Testament believers?
I have zero doubts that some might consider me legalistic for even mentioning a percentage to Christians when it comes to their offerings. To that, I’d say, for starters, that I think we have very different definitions of legalism. I’m certainly not suggesting that someone is saved by their tithe. That’s ludicrous. I’m simply pointing out what makes sense in light of the gospel. It’s no different than when the Apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians to not grieve over deceased loved ones who have passed away in Christ in the same way that the pagans grieve for their departed. He basically says, “That doesn’t make gospel sense. You’ll see these people again!You’re not acting in line with the gospel!” (1 Thess. 4:13) Paul again uses the same technique with the Apostle Peter when Peter is guilty of racial insensitivity in Syrian Antioch (Gal. 2:11-13). Paul is not trying to shame people. He’s simply telling them that they’re not acting in line with liberating gospel truths.
What is the gospel truth about our financial management? It sounds like this: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9) The idea that the king of heaven left his throne, to come and pour out his riches at the cross, so that I, who have spent so much of my life hoarding and thieving his planet, could be forgiven and now set free to live in eternal riches…that’s the crazy economics of the gospel of Jesus. And it radicalizes your finances. At that point, the only sensible thing to do then is “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, (knowing that) all these things (i.e. worldly needs) will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33)
One of the more important books I’ve read in the past year is called Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble. The premise is essentially that Christian witnessing to a non-believing world has become more difficult in the 21st century, not so much because the world has become increasingly hostile to the gospel, but that those who would be potential candidates for witnessing are less available for engagement.
Why? Fewer and fewer people are asking the primary philosophical questions:
Where did we come from?
Where are we going?
What determines good & evil?
What is the meaning of life?
It’s tough to sit on any of those deep questions for any length of time when your phone is chirping every 42 seconds, your email alerts are popping up, and all 9 seasons of The Office are available for streaming on Netflix for a limited time only.
The average person is so incredibly distracted by life, that they’ve run out of time to broach the existential questions about the meaning of life.
“Distraction and secularism have shaped the way modern people tend to find or create meaning in their lives. … a culture of technological distraction inclines us to look for meaning in preoccupation, novelty, consumer choices, and stimulation. So long as we are moving on to the next thing, we feel that our life has some direction and therefore meaning.
Noble, Disruptive Witness, pg. 62
The end result is that the average person has so many devices to help them feel better that the most readily available solution to “feeling bad about myself” today is not the grace of God, but the scrolling of Instagram or falling deep into a YouTube hole, which offers its own innumerable assembly of prophets and vloggers who will share with you their vision for the good life. Thus, what your feed is most likely telling you is that the problem with your life is not that you’re sinful and need the grace of God, but that you’re simply doing life wrong and need to troubleshoot. Try these 3 steps. Do you. Life hack. Feel better. And if that doesn’t work, the reasonable solution is to track down a better 5-star iTunes podcast or doorstep-in-two-days Amazon Prime product that offers a greater shot at success.
The well of potential life solutions is deeper than it’s ever been. And it seems that people won’t listen until they’ve drawn from the bottom.
And in case you weren’t sure they didn’t want to listen– read the room– the AirPods literally plugging their earsfrom your interaction should be sufficient signage.
My favorite new example of how traditional evangelism techniques might not accomplish the desired results in the modern world came the other evening on The Late Show. Host Stephen Colbert was asking guest Keanu Reeves about his current projects, including the upcoming Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third installment in the highly successful series which began in 1989. Reeves explains how the predictably wacky premise of the new film revolves around the two main characters writing a hit song in order to save the universe. At around 9:45 in the clip linked below, Colbert then asks, “What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?” The audience laughs, amused by the sudden shift of conversational gravity. Reeves breathes deeply and muses, “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”
At this point, the audience pauses, laughs, and then cheers as Colbert and Reeves shake hands to end the segment.
The problem is that, while resoundingly applauded by the American public, the response doesn’t make much sense. And herein lies the perfect microcosm of shallow, distracted American spirituality – i.e. that which is applauded is sweetly sentimental but nonsensical.
Colbert’s question to Reeves was “What do you think happens when we die?” This, or some close variation, was actually one of the main leading questions in evangelism tracts of the 20th century. Clearly, the implied point of the question, as Colbert states it, was to ask what happens TO US when we die. Reeve’s answer, however, said nothing about what happens to the deceased. The thing that he said happened is that those who love us will miss us, which should be obvious, and assumed by anyone who has ever been to one funeral.
But with a slight misdirection, responding to an incompletely asked question, Reeves was able to take a devastating, divisive, life-altering question (which worked for years) and turn it into a saccharine notion lapped up by an adoring audience. Seriously, who asks a question about the inevitability of death and generates a response which causes people to sound like they’re fawning over newborn puppies?!
How does one even begin to evangelize in this climate?
Satan has burrowed deep into a society that has somehow seemingly become inoculated to life’s most pressing questions, distracted to the point of disinterest. What can we do?
When Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, a mute and deaf demon-possessed boy was brought to him. Typically the disciples had been equipped to carry out this ministry by this point – the healing, and demon-driving power that Jesus had anointed them with. But this time they found no success. So after Jesus drives out the demon himself, the disciples, perhaps perplexed, perhaps embarrassed, ask him privately:
“Why could we not cast it out?”
Jesus replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer (and fasting).”
Mark 9:28-29 (ESV)
This comment by Jesus is admittedly a bit peculiar, but most commentators take it as suggesting the disciples had started to believe that their ministerial success was dependent on their own gifts and methodology. Jesus therefore points them to practices (prayer and fasting) which represent total dependence on God.
As the environment for evangelism has become more difficult in America, we want to balance two things:
The fact that we need to be faithful, thoughtful, humble, and courageous in being willing to augment methodology. Just because something became an effective method for doing ministry in years past doesn’t mean it’s equally valid today. Cultures change. The spiritual forces of the world attack from new angles. The Apostle Paul was willing to share the gospel by presenting formal teaching in the synagogues (Acts 17:10-15), conversational dialogue at riversides (Acts 16:11-15), hymns sung in prison (Acts 16:16-40), or academic presentations in educational settings (Acts 17:16-34). That’s the type of contextually appropriate flexibility we want to emulate.
That said, we also need to be comfortable with the idea that the primary goal of evangelism is the glory of God, not the affecting of humans. Old Testament prophets, one after the other, seemed to often lack effectiveness in their messaging. The lack of change caused to their once faithful society was not due to the messengers’ lack of faithfulness, but due to the stubbornness of the audience. In other words, it’s entirely possible that you could pray unceasingly, preach fearlessly, and do so in the most thoughtful, culturally sensitive style imaginable, and not a single soul be converted. Since you’re not the one that grows the plants, but rather the sower who scatters the seeds, you can be perfectly faithful despite not a single plant sprouting. If the societal soil is well worn and depleted, it’s even possible that the blooming is less likely. But in that fruitless scattering, God is still glorified by your sowing.
Jesus doesn’t need you to accomplish spiritual results.
That’s his job. A farmer certainly pays attention to fruitfulness as an aspect of wise management, but he also understands that his job is to faithfully carry out the process, not deliver the results.
In a culture where the soil to cultivate souls appears hardened, the results might be fewer and far between, but the opportunity to glorify God is as ripe as ever.
So witness to his grace.
Unapologetically tell them that you are certain what will happen to you after death because you know that your Redeemer lives. Do so with the fierceness of a martyr and the sweetness of a sinner saved by grace. And then let Him do his job.
As a kid, there was an anticipation, almost uncomfortable longing, attached to holidays. Holidays, be they religious or secular, seemed to break up the routine of life. There was special food, special music, special lighting, special smells because after all, these days were…special.
As an adult, perhaps jaded by repeatedly learning that no Christmas present is going to solve all my problems, as well as discovering that large gatherings often generate as many “incidents” as they do tender moments, holidays actually cause a little anxiety. When digging an artificial Christmas tree out of the basement, I can’t help but calculate how many days this thing will be up, how long it’ll take me to untangle lights, and how much I’ll resent taking it down in January before I wonder whether or not it was worth it. A bit Grinchy, I know.
Granted, I’m a pragmatist, not a romantic. Putting the best construction on it, I’m certain that some Christians perceive grand holiday experiences as foretastes of the wedding banquet of paradise. Furthermore, I’d certainly admit that I have fond memories of holidays as a child. And I can definitely understand the desire to help create positive experiences and memories for your children. All of that.
But part of the point of my blog is to help Christians see things from multiple unfamiliar angles so as to have a more thorough, biblical understanding of truth. The more Christians I get to know, the more I realize how different the experience of holidays can be.
For starters, it’s probably worth offering the reminder that our modern English word “holiday” comes from the Middle English for “Holy Days.”
As Christians, it’s also probably worth asking whether or not certain days of the week, month, or year are truly “holier” than others. If you ask the Apostle Paul, the answer appears to be, “Not really.”
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.
That’s not the end of the discussion of holidays for Christians, but I think it’s the right starting point. From a Christian worldview, THERE IS NO DAY THAT IS MORE SANCTIFIED THAN ANOTHER. Any insinuation against that would contradict Paul’s theology.
Secular Holidays and Christians
So long as a Christian doesn’t idolize the celebrations of secular holidays, I don’t think anyone would say most aspects of such things are inappropriate for God’s people.
A more interesting phenomenon, from my perspective, is the desire of churches to piggyback on such celebrations. Many churches today seem quite comfortable dedicating the weekend worship to Mother’s Day/Father’s Day, a 4th of July theme, or hosting Thanksgiving worship. I’ve definitely even seen Valentine’s Day hijacked. The secular holiday incorporation exists to such an extent that, if you didn’t at least have a thematic prayer offered up on certain weekends (e.g. Memorial Day), there’d likely be a few complaints.
Yes, it certainly presents an opportunity to talk about a Heavenly Father as the ULTIMATE Father. Yes, there are also a host of listeners who also had very faithful fathers.
But since the holiday itself is designed to celebrate, the occasion can nonetheless create a potentially unhealthy distraction in a Christian worship service that is supposed to perpetually be themed on the celebration of Jesus Christ.
Or, for instance, consider 4th of July celebrations. Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae posted the following to Twitter on July 4, 2016…
He immediately received backlash from his large support base of white evangelicalism for “turning everything into a race issue.”
Nevermind the fact that many American Christians haven’t actually thought through the implications of whether or not the American Revolutionary War was a biblically just one.
Let’s simply address the race issue.
Thomas Jefferson, the original drafter of The Declaration of Independence, was a slaveholder himself. So were famed 18th-century Christian preachers, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Though an early draft of the document did originally include a denouncement of the transatlantic slave trade, the antislavery clause was excised from the final draft due to the objections of numerous delegates who benefitted from slavery. (Hine, Hine, & Harold, African American Odyssey, vol. 1, 7th ed., Boston: Pearson, 2016, pg. 93)
Bottom line, if people of African descent aren’t interested in anointing our country as God’s chosen nation in a worship service, they’ve got legitimate historical reason on top of theological reason. Similar sentiments could arise if Native Americans don’t feel quite the same way about Thanksgiving as many white Americans do. Don’t be surprised, or offended.
It is never appropriate for Christians to deify anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ.
So while we can appropriately give thanks for fathers and mothers and the blessings of a relatively safe, free, country of incredible abundance, we must realize that the line routinely and hurtfully can get crossed. Nor should we lose sight of what the Church actually is.
For this reason, I’m not sure how I feel about celebrating “secular” holidays as a church. The obvious advantage of celebrating decidedly Christian holidays in Christian worship is that EVERY Christian can equally celebrate Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Week, Ascension, and Pentecost. The same simply cannot be said for Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, 4th of July, et al.
The Christian Church is an intentionally counter-cultural body as contrasted against the surrounding secular culture.
Therefore, without saying “it’s wrong to celebrate such days,” it stands to reason that we should logically only be putting exclamation points behind aspects that unite us as the Body of Christ, not sometimes applicable holidays that help us overlap with secular society.
Christian Holidays and Christians
So I probably sound like I’m ALL IN on Christian holidays and totally against the celebration of secular holidays – a pagan Grinch of sorts. Again, notwithstanding the logical inconsistency of “secular holy days,” I’m not suggesting any of this is inherently wrong.
In fact, I’m not even suggesting that I’m completely enamored with the concept of Christian festival days. As a New Testament Christian, I possess a decidedly New Covenant mentality when it comes to festivals. And the general New Testament teaching on festivals, as mentioned, seems to be that they’re okaaaayyyy…until they’re not. Old Testament festivals were a shadow of things to come in Christ (Col. 2:17). Festivals are free for us to celebrate so long as our consciences are clear that the ultimate end goal is pursuing the glory of Christ (Rom. 14:5). But there exists a clear religious temptation to turn the celebration of these days, and their accompanying customs, traditions, and ceremonies into works by which we believe we’re achieving our own righteousness before God (Gal. 4:10).
My general takeaway from the Apostle Paul then is that while he’s not a legalist who forbids the ongoing celebration of festival days, he nonetheless recognizes dangers attached to them, and he wants New Covenant believers to steer clear of getting wrapped up in rituals that may lead to missing the forest for the trees – the reality that EVERY DAY is celebration in Christ Jesus.
This is perhaps a part of the reason why, for instance, for the first several centuries of Christianity, though some speculated on the birth date of Jesus, Christians don’t seem particularly interested in celebrating lots of special annual ceremonies like Christmas. Not until after 300 AD.
Early Christians writers don’t mention Christmas.
Irenaeus and Tertullian both give lists of Christian feasts that do not include Christmas.
Origen and Arnobius both seem to dislike the pagans’ celebration of birthdays. (McCracken, George, Arnobius of Sicca, the Case Against the Pagans, Volume 2, p. 83)
The earliest feast day in connection with the birth of Jesus was January 6, Epiphany, the day of manifestation. Historian Justo Gonzalez points out that December 25, which was a pagan festival date, began to take the place of Epiphany as a celebratory date in some areas of the Latin-speaking West, after Constantine (4th century). (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, pg. 112)
Gonzalez adds that the Christian calendar in the opening centuries was primarily a weekly rhythm – Sunday was a joyful celebration of Easter; Friday was a day of sorrow and fasting.
Aside from that, there was an annual resurrection celebration, but Christians weren’t even in complete agreement as to when that should take place and there became bitter debates about the matter.
The point here is that the Early Christian calendar, i.e. that which was brought forth in the Apostolic era, offered very little in the way of ritual celebrations. The saint veneration that occupies literally half of the liturgical calendar for many Catholics and Protestants today was unknown, and, I imagine, would be unappreciated by Paul and the Early Christians. It is a historical footnote fascination. Not guideline for worshipping Jesus.
Consequently, ritual celebrations are not inherently wrong…but they can become wrong IF they in any way detract or distract from Christ’s goodness rather than remembering and celebrating Christ’s goodness.
Holidays or No?
Admittedly, I’m writing this post from an angle – i.e. to challenge thoughts, habits, and benefits of holiday ritual. The very nature of ritual is to form habit, and almost transition from consciousness simply into a state of virtue. The nature of thoughtful critique then is to reconsider the merit of an existing habit. That said, I absolutely believe that one can fully celebrate holidays, or not, to the glory of Jesus! (1 Cor. 10:31) Without question, whatever you do, you shouldn’t do it (or not) because I said so. You should wrestle with biblical principles, pray, and be guided by the Spirit.
The gospel about holidays is that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
Though the world assigns subjective value and deems one day, one event, one moment comparatively better/worse than the next, our timeless Savior is always, constantly spectacular EVERY SINGLE DAY.
Jesus is never the emotional letdown of December 26 or January 2 or July 5. Every day is an opportunity to worship with full heart, mind, and body because every day Jesus is gracious beyond comprehension. Every day is a holy day in Christ.
The Biebs done gotta get his church on even when he’s out-of-town. And now that’s possible to do with his preferred church home (literally called Churchome) even on the road via their recently released app.
Shepherded by Judah and Chelsea Smith, Churchome, which is a west coast multi-site megachurch based out of Kirkland, WA, is the congregation of several Christian celebrities, including Justin Bieber, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and pro golfer Bubba Watson.
Say what you will about Bieber, but he has not shied away from telling his 100+ million Instagram followers about his faith in Jesus. Over the past several years, he has routinely posted clips of sermons, sang Christian songs, and offered professions of faith in Jesus with clear articulations of sin and grace.
So far as I can tell, Bieber is doing a pretty remarkable job of balancing enormous celebrity with a Christ firstset of priorities.
The Bigger Discussion
The bigger discussion is that news of his church’s app leads me to think about, however, is the technology-driven mutation of what it means to be a church. Certainly the definition of “church” hasn’t changed from biblical times, but the advent of digital technology is perhaps exposing some flaws in our current working definition.
So, for instance, virtually every Christian believes that “church” contains some element of biblical teaching. Most would also agree that the Christian Sacraments of Baptism & Holy Communion must be present in some form. The final essential criterion would seemingly be that it is an assembling of believers.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The primary Greek word for church, ἐκκλησία (pron: ekklesia), is used 114 times in the New Testament and basically means “assembly.” The word is sometimes used to refer to an assembling of 1) the body of Christ worldwide, over which Jesus is head (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22; 1 Tim. 3:15); 2) a specific region (Acts. 9:31); 3) alocal congregation (1 Cor. 1:2, Rev. 1:11), or 4) a specific group gathered for worship (1 Cor. 14:34-35).
Clearly, a church must be an assembled body of believers. But what does it mean to be assembled? Must we physically be occupying the same enclosed space? Must we be able to touch? If I can see and hear someone clearly, are we assembled?
So, for instance, when I FaceTime my mother for an hour, have we assembled together or not? Certainly, we’re more together than if there’s no communication. Certainly, we’re more together than writing letters. Yes, I’d still like to be able to give her a hug. But overall, I’d have to say that the communication is no less effective digitally than if we were sitting in the same room.
If we expand our scope of this phenomenon a bit, it’s perhaps helpful to understand that there have been some fairly influential American store brands that have also folded in recent years. American icons Toys R’ Us, Sears, and Blockbuster closed their brick and mortar outfits because they couldn’t navigate the American shift to digital engagement. It wasn’t that their products became inferior. It was that their products were not offered in the way that Americans were accessing products anymore.
Now, admittedly, churches are not retail outlets producing commodities for consumption, or at least they shouldn’t primarily be this. Nonetheless, it’s always telling to me whenever I give a presentation somewhere and ask church leaders,
“If an individual can get better preaching than your church’s preaching online, and if they can get better music than your church’s music online, why should they show up at your church?”
Most older church members are stymied by that question. It’s because they’ve come to understand “church” in terms of American free-market capitalism – i.e the consumption of spiritual commodities. Put differently, if I can get better commodities elsewhere and it costs less/is more convenient, it simply doesn’t make sense for me to show up at your big box retailer anymore.
This mentality is absolutely impacting the Christian Church.
From my perspective, there’s a 2-step solution that churches are going to have to be able to figure out in order to stay viable.
1) Establish your church as more than the consumption of spiritual goods.
Not to belabor the point, but I “consume” about five sermons/week, via podcast, manuscript, etc. I don’t need to show up at a building to hear a sermon. What I can’t accomplish by reading a book or streaming online content is:
experience peer accountability
Confession & Absolution
These things are tangible and highly relational. Furthermore, while I can take in many spiritual commodities online, I can’t serve others with the gifts that I’ve been given.
Churches that are not tapping into the spiritual giftedness of the members are arguably not churches (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Pet. 2:9).
They are, in essence, roughly 60-minute shows put on by clergy and musicians, the church professionals. And I believe that the young adult Christian population, in some respects, is rightfully rebelling against that show by their current lack of engagement.
In short, a church seemingly should embody a local mission that is what Christ himself would do if he was physically present in that particular city. And by his Spirit living in that local body, in some respects, Christ IS living in that city. Fortunately, Jesus gave us several years of earthly ministry and a Great Commission to show us what he seeks his people to work on together.
A simple summary of Jesus’ ministry can be found in John 6, revolving around the topic of bread. In Jesus’ ministry, he both offers literal bread to those who are physically hungry (John 6:1-15) and he uses this as a platform to teach about how he himself is the real sustenance of life (John 6:25-59).
He heals the sick.
He relieves the demonized.
He touches the marginalized leper.
He calls the impenitent to repentance.
He befriends the socially ostracized.
He builds bridges to the foreigner.
He cherishes the children.
And he invites everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, to freely receive forgiveness, life, and adoption into the family of God through his grace.
I have a hard time believing much of that can be accomplished by streaming content via a church app.
2) Make your commodities available 167.
Here’s the other side of it. And at first glance, it’s going to sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth. But this is the uniqueness of doing ministry in our current age.
We’ve already established that a church is WAY more than the consumption of spiritual commodities. And those of us who have functioned as though it is, need to repent. However, that doesn’t mean that a church isn’t responsible for producing quality spiritual content that feeds its people. Churches need to do that also.
But what churches need to adapt to today is the fact that the population is accustomed to having its content available:
1) when that content is needed and
2) when/where the user is available.
In an increasingly spatially and chronologically decentralized society, that content probably needs to be available more than several hours on a weekend in your church sanctuary. Local manifestations of your church community throughout the week in numerous locations, i.e. “small groups,” are probably necessary. Additionally…
podcasts of sermons
Q&A that members can access around the clock, on the road when out-of-town on business, and on the drive home from work are probably necessary.
Digital groups (social media, email, church app) that create constantly updated lists of prayer requests both help invoke the power of accessing God’s throne and help people stay connected to one another.
When society was predominantly Christian, believers could largely feel supported and find comforting spiritual community throughout the week on their own.
In a post-Christian world, believers need more specific access to intentional Christian community and content that appropriately shepherds them. Churches are responsible for meeting that need.
So if the Jews are willing to listen in the synagogue or the Temple courtyard, that’s where you go.
If the Greeks are willing to listen in the marketplace or on Mars Hill, that’s where you go.
And if the Millennial is likely to listen on a podcast or through an app, that’s where Christian missionaries go.
The local church – the physical grouping of at least two or three believers together, gathered around Word & Sacrament – will never go away. But thousands of churches are going to close this year, not necessarily due to doctrinal issues, not necessarily for lack of effort, but potentially for the same reason Toys ‘R Us & Sears wishes it had thought like Amazon, or Blockbuster wishes it had thought like Netflix. It’s a basic inflexibility to be a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, or a Millennial to the Millennials (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
The amazing thing is that God has given us a gospel that powerfully forms hearts but is malleable enough that it can transmit through constantly transitioning cultural forms and languages. One of the perpetually clarifying questions of good Christian ministry is whether or not we’re willing to alter our theologically neutral forms yet never alter our theological content. The latter makes us faithful theologians. The former makes us humble, flexible ministers.
I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called “Behind the Curve” about the rising popularity of the Flat Earth social phenomenon. If you’re not aware of this, in the past five years, there has been a spike in people, led by proponents like Mark Sargent, who argue the Earth is, in fact, flat. They believe the idea of a globe is a hoax propagated by government and big businesses. And they have a number of pretty clever and imaginative ideas and explanations for circumnavigation, shadows, gravity, flight patterns, etc.
From my perspective, the Flat Earth discussion is more fascinating for epistemological reasons than for physical reasons. In other words, many of the scientific calculations can be tweaked if we just adjust some of our assumptions, say, about gravity. So the math of it all can be debated dependent on some questionable variables.
The bigger issue for me, as a pastor, is the question of why people believe what they believe? What are the factors? And what, if anything, can cause someone to change their beliefs?
In the end, lots of mathematics can be explained away. Additionally, we all know that pictures can be easily and convincingly doctored. Lastly, there’s no doubt about the fact that a century from now, some scientific perceptions will have changed. All of these factors, combined with a heightened spirit of distrust in cultural institutions, make the Flat Earth Theory an actual movement in 2019. Consequently, and somewhat surprisingly perhaps in our modern age, the evidence which has become considered the most convincing in debunking Flat Earth Theory has become….eyewitness testimony from astronauts.
While there has been some appropriate attack made over the years that eyewitness testimony cannot alwaysbe trusted, virtually no one argues that eyewitness account is still likely the most reliable information we have for determining truth, particularly when there is a preponderance of eyewitness testimony in one direction.
Within the past 2 weeks we saw the release of perhaps the most controversial sports journalism of the year. Tyler Dunne wrote a nationally debated article for Bleacher Report titled “What Happened in Green Bay?” A former beat writer for the Packers, Dunne pieced together a series of quotes from ex-players and personnel, some identified and some anonymous, creating a narrative for why the Green Bay Packers failed to win more championships during the prime of arguably the most talented player at the most important position in football.
According to Dunne and his cast of informants, the organization’s lack of Super Bowl wins was due to the palpable tension that existed between then head coach, Mike McCarthy, and MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But who is to blame for the fracture in that relationship? To what extent did any rift really impact the team’s championship aspirations?
If you ask two former Pro Bowlers quoted in the article, Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings, the problem lay in Rodger’s arrogance and sensitivity.
If you ask others who have worked around the organization for years, the issue was perhaps McCarthy’s stubbornness and complacency, epitomized by the suggestion of some that McCarthy was even skipping team meetings prior to game day in lieu of getting personal massages.
Others, telling stories of ex-General Manager Ted Thompson’s declining physical and mental health, negligence, and lack of intervention in his final years, will cite him as the main culprit.
Any way you slice it, the organization ended up looking terrible. Wasting the most bankable years of one of the most dominant players in NFL history is a big deal. It’s become the lead story of most sports programs and podcasts this past week. And the jury is still out on what the truth really is.
Rest assured, though, what is believed in the end will not primarily be a product of who has the most logical argument or who stated their position most passionately.
In other words, the 1) amount of witnesses, and the 2) character of the witnesses, play a major role in the plausibility of all the events described.
So while it remains to be seen what the final conclusion will be on who is primarily at fault, I do know how that conclusion will likely be drawn. What will be believed in the end will be the result of the preponderance of eyewitness testimony.
What is the narrative that makes the best sense when accounting for all of the relevant data?
What does all of this teach us about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Believe it or not, this stuff has everything to do with Holy Week, especially Easter.
A few decades ago, Christian philosopher Gary Habermas developed something called the “minimal facts” argument for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Habermas’ argument is that even if the Bible is neither inspired (which it is) nor entirely reliable (which, again, it is), the evidence that almost every historian, Christian or otherwise, actually does agree upon still points to Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
Virtually every historian (90%+) agree that:
There was a real Jesus of Nazareth who died by crucifixion early in the first century because, from the Jewish leaders’ perspective he was guilty of blasphemy, and from the Romans’ perspective he was leading an insurrection. (The writings of Roman historian Tacitus and Jewish historian Josephus, both non-Christians, are more than sufficient extant biblical evidence to confirm these points.)
Following Jesus’ death, his tomb, which had been guarded by Roman soldiers, was found empty. His disciples believed they witnessed his bodily resurrection both as individuals and in group settings.
Significant skeptics, like Jesus’ brothers and Saul of Tarsus, a notorious persecutor of the church, flipped from unbelievers to believers, and were so convinced that they too were willing to die for that belief.
We know historically there were dozens of other self-professed supposed Messiahs before and after Jesus, but Christianity was the only of these religions that persisted with enduring followers whereas the other founders simply died and were forgotten.
The best piece of it all to me is that the Apostle Paul, understanding that the claims of the resurrection are outrageous, challenges readers to test his resources. Look at what he writes in 1 Corinthians 15:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.1 Corinthians 15:3-8
It’s important to keep in mind that most scholars will date the writing of 1 Corinthians within 15-20 years of Christ’s death and resurrection. So when Paul mentions all of these witnesses in his letter to the Corinthians, he’s challenging readers not to take his word for it. He says that he has 500 witnesses lined up who will verify his claims.
Let me put it in modern context. If someone that I deeply respected told me that his friend had invented a time machine over in Madison, WI (an hour from where I live) 15 years ago, and that over 500 people could verify that they had traveled back in time, it would be difficult for me to believe. However, if this guy himself was a credible witness, and for that matter, was even willing to die for his conviction, I probably wouldn’t outright dismiss him, nor would I outright accept his incredible claims. I think what I’d do is drive over to Madison and ask some of those witnesses myself. It’s that important to me. If my entire eternity depended on it, I think I’d be that much more motivated.
Paul is specifically listing all of these characters in 1 Corinthians 15, less than 20 years after Christ’s resurrection, with the expressed intent that skeptics go and ask the witnesses themselves. Why? Because eyewitness testimony, though not always perfectly reliable, is still today the single most reliable information we have for determining truth, especially when there is a preponderance of evidence in one direction.
By the way, I’ve occasionally run into the argument that lots of people throughout history have died for their beliefs, thus making Christian martyrdom unspectacular. What these naysayers fail to understand is that, while yes, there have been many religious martyrs, those martyrs were dying for non-falsifiable philosophies, not historical facts. So, for instance, when a Muslim jihadist dies for Allah, I don’t doubt the sincerity of his belief. But his sincerity does nothing to prove the truth of his belief. This is very different from a 1st-century Christian dying because they believe they literally saw Jesus rise from the grave.
Those early Christian martyrs weren’t dying for theology.
They weren’t dying for a belief system. They were dying for historical facts that they had seen and touched. If they didn’t actually see Jesus, then they’re dying for a lie. You can convince humans to die for sincerely believed, but wrong, ideas. But it’s REALLY hard (as in, historically unprecedented) to get a massive group of humans to die for known lies.
This is the reason that all of the alternative explanations to the resurrection that were raised in the twentieth century by skeptics: Conspiracy Hypothesis, Apparent Death Hypothesis, Hallucination Hypothesis, Displaced Body Hypothesis, or Legend Hypothesis, have all been rejected by most contemporary scholarship for possessing severe logical flaws.
When the Pharisees demanded that they receive some signs from Jesus of his Messiahship, he said that the only sign they’d be given was the Sign of Jonah: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:40)
That’s the only thing people needed to believe then. And that’s still the only thing people need to know to believe today.
Always, always, always be pushing people towards the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It’s very tempting in our witnessing to get caught up in conversations about politics, human sexuality, origins, and ethics. If Jesus didn’t rise, any of the rest of Scripture matters. If Jesus did rise, none of my opinions or doubts matter. The preponderance of eyewitness testimony tells the truth. And if the truth is that HE IS RISEN, the implications are endless and eternal.
I would venture to say that I talk to several dozen young adults (18-30 years of age) every year who are actively entertaining the merits of non-denominational Christianity. Conversely, I talk to roughly zero young adults who are considering a switch to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. This probably tells us something about the direction the arrow of young American Christianity is pointing.
Admittedly, this conversation initially often has tones of style or programming attached to it, which is a fairly superficial critique.
The results are nonetheless very real. Barna’s research has shown that while Millennials are, in fact, somewhat likely to make a change from a non-liturgical church to a liturgical church (22%), they’re also significantly more likely to move from liturgical churches to non-liturgical churches as well (44%).
If nothing else, a major takeaway from this data should simply be that young adults are less committal when it comes to church allegiance.
A related component to the prevalent church migration, however, is a matter more important than style – the teaching of the Sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion.
There are many ways to teach the Sacraments. Obviously, you should first start with a biblical foundation. (If you’d like a Scriptural refresher on sacramental theology, you can find a summary in a message I preached back in Dec. 2017.)
However, since you have people on multiple sides of the debate of Baptism and Holy Communion, who ALL claim they’re faithfully using Scripture to arrive at their conclusions, then part of what this debate becomes is an issue of biblical interpretation. And therefore, I’d like to share with you today another valuable way to look at the debate.
Simply ask the question, “Which side of the debate over Baptism and Holy Communion lines up more conveniently with our current cultural ideology?”
In other words, we all understand the concept of twisting the Bible in such a way that it works in your best interest. And we all know that if your interpretation of Scripture consistently always works out in your favor, there’s a good chance that your hermeneutic (i.e. Scriptural interpretation) may be a little off.
So, to the point, which interpretation of Baptism or Holy Communion that exists in American Christianity more conveniently overlaps with American cultural ideology?
The sacramental understanding of Baptism is that Baptism is an adoption ceremony at which God the Holy Spirit places the name of the Triune God upon you, washes you with water and the Word, cleanses you of the eternal consequences of your sins, and gifts you the planting of the Spirit in your heart.
The sacrificial understanding of Baptism is that a believer who has become convinced of the truths of the gospel makes claim to those gospel promises by dedicating their life to Jesus Christ.
So which understanding of baptism lines up better with our current cultural climate?
American ideology is most definitely one of self-determinism and personal empowerment. We like to consider ourselves the product of our choices. This gives us a sense of control in a big world. It helps us believe we can turn our lives into anything we want if we simply make the right choices.
Consequently, in the same way that I’m taught from childhood to believe I can become the president of the United States if I just put my mind to it and work hard, I’m similarly culturally conditioned to believe that I can become a child of God simply through my own choice. A sacramental understanding of Baptism, on the other hand, whether referring to a child or an adult, seems to suggest I have little to no control, and am allowed to take zero credit.
So, if I’m determining which brand of Christianity would be supported by cultural overlap – liturgical or non-liturgical, sacramental or sacrificial – it seems obvious that non-denominational churches are going to find an advantage here.
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.Titus 3:4-7
The sacramental understanding of Holy Communion is that Christ makes himself truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine. This Real Presence assures us of the forgiveness of sins, strengthens faith, and renews our life and hope of salvation in the context of spiritual family. However, since this spiritual meal is powerful, it could either be taken to our benefit or to our destruction. Like pharmacists distributing spiritual medicine, clergy reasonably require education prior to participation. Consequently, we celebrate the meal only with those whom we are convinced will take the meal to God’s glory and their benefit.
The sacrificial understanding of Holy Communion is that, in the Supper, we remember the great love that Jesus showed to us as we receive symbolic representations of the body and blood that he gave up for us at the cross. As we celebrate this memorial meal, we enjoy the company of spiritual family. Since this meal is perceived only as a remembrance, and since it is good for all people – adults and children, brand new or long-time Christians – to remember who Jesus is and what he did, ALL are welcome to come up and partake.
So which understanding of the Lord’s Supper lines up better with our current cultural climate?
Perhaps the most appropriate word to define the concept of love in America in the 21st century is “inclusion.” Anything that comes across as exclusive, almost by mere cultural reflex, is perceived as unloving.
Sacramental churches believe that Holy Communion is more than just bread and wine, that it is Christ’s actual body and blood. They are naturally then far more likely to practice what is called “Close/Closed Communion.” In this practice, there are some sizable qualifications for participation. It is undoubtedly perceived by someone off the street as an exclusive practice.
Non-denominational churches generally believe that Holy Communion is simply bread and grape juice. They are naturally then far more likely to practice what is called “Open Communion.” There are few qualifications for participation. Some non-denominational churches would require that you at least be a baptized Christian, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Again, the logic is that there is very little damage that could come from remembering Jesus. It is undoubtedly perceived by someone off the street as an inclusive practice.
So, if I’m determining which brand of Christianity would be supported by cultural overlap – liturgical or non-liturgical, sacramental or sacrificial – it seems obvious that non-denominational churches are once again going to find an advantage here.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.1 Corinthians 11:27-29
Result: Anticipate Resistance
The point in this mental exercise is to see that if, like me, you hold a sacramental understanding of Baptism and Holy Communion, in this particular cultural moment, you should anticipate resistance. Culturally speaking, you’re essentially trying to run up a down escalator. A portion of the reason why non-denominational Christianity has taken a massive bite out of more traditional church bodies in the past several decades is that non-denominational theology tends to line up quite conveniently with the current American spirit.
This is all necessarily an oversimplification for the sake of brevity. But I’m trying to point out that the Sacramental debate is one piece of a highly affective movement.
Consider the following aspects to non-denominationalism:
a non-sacramental understanding of Baptism and Holy Communion that aligns with American ideology
a less-committal approach to church membership or theological stance (i.e. NON-denominational)
an immersive sensory “event” designed to generate positive feelings
a sizable borrowing of the methodology of American business pragmatism
The confluence of these factors have contributed to the single most impactful shift in American Christianity over the last half century.
None of this rationale, by the way, disproves a sacrificial understanding of Baptism and Holy Communion. Just because a doctrine lines up conveniently with the cultural spirit does not make it true or untrue. But if you have a young adult who is considering a switch to non-denominationalism (and don’t kid yourselves, many are), it’s worth mentioning to them that there might be factors attached to their desire for change that, with a little guidance, they can easily recognize aren’t as noble as they might first believe. Almost every young adult that I’ve had this conversation with has acknowledged that our current cultural mindset favors a sacrificial understanding of Baptism & Holy Communion and all of them have been a little uncomfortable with that.
The obvious question for church leaders or parents then is: “What Can I Do?” So I’ll leave you with a couple DON’Ts and several DO’s…
In hopes of gaining some energy, and in an attempt to fuel my body with foods that don’t look like they were just pulled out of a 6th grade boy’s lunchbox, I recently did a Whole30 diet with my wife.
Unfortunately, I didn’t receive many of the intended health/mood/energy benefits that are sometimes achieved. But I did learn, for the first time, quite a bit about the guilt and desire that is sometimes attached to food. In fact, I was fascinated to see how much religious vocabulary is associated with dietary habits.
For instance, one transition I did successfully make was from multiple cans of Diet Coke each day to the preferred alternative of many who are health conscious – La Croix. I was shocked to see this label at the bottom of a La Croix (tangerine flavored) can. If you can’t see it clearly in the picture, at the bottom of the can, it says, “0-Calorie, 0-Sweetener, 0-Sodium = INNOCENT!”
Innocent. The only reason the word “innocence” would be advantageous from a marketing perspective is if you had a constituent of consumers who were riddled with guilt concerning their eating habits. The word literally means to be free from legal or moral wrong; without sin; guiltless.
Moral language like “guilt-free,” “clean,” “pure,” and “junk” has long been a part of the dietary world. The continued use isn’t too surprising to me. But in the bigger picture, what actually does intrigue me is the fact that our culture has been thoroughly unsuccessful in an attempt to grow intentionally amoral.
This spirit is still prominent today and actively being passed on to a new generation. Just last month, one of the most widely read articles in the NY Times Op-Ed section was “Raising My Children Without The Concept of Sin.”The author laments her fundamentalist upbringing and insists that her children can be forces for good in the world without ever experiencing the feelings of guilt she believes are linked to communities of faith and religious dogma.
My point is that our society has become intentionally less aligned with biblical morals, but it has not actually become less moral. And this means that we have a young generation that has become highly moral about issues like treatment of animals, recycling, dietary habits, vaccination, and smoking, to name a few.
By the way, I’m not at all intending to disparage young adults from caring about such issues. Each of the issues I just listed impact God’s creation and are therefore worthy of careful consideration. I’m merely suggesting that 50 years ago, no one would have considered “consuming aspartame” a moral issue. Even though there are obvious biblical encouragements about how we steward our bodies (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:19-20; Rom. 12:1-2), the chemical contents of foods are really not on the radar of New Testament Scriptural directives. Issues like sexual immorality, greed, gossip, coveting, or disrespect of authorities, however, are overtly Scriptural, but register proportionately less on the average young adult’s moral compass than they likely would have 50 years ago.
What we see then is that young adults are not inherently worse than prior generations. They have just as much of a conscience as prior generations. And they seemingly possess just as much willpower to fight what they perceive to be evil. The problem is that the cultural GPS has been recalibrated. In catechismal terms, you could say that young adults have just as much Natural Knowledge of God as they had before, but they lack a culturally robust awareness of the Revealed Knowledge of God.
A little thought experiment might help. Imagine driving down the interstate on a pleasant summer day. The possibility of an accident certainly exists. If you’re careless, or if someone driving near you is careless, an accident can ensue. However, if you’re driving on the exact same highway in January, as the roads get more slippery, the likelihood of an accident goes up. If the guardrails get taken off the highway, the chance for fatality rises again.
Most Christians I’ve worked with experience some level of guilt. However, many of them also inappropriately feel guilt over a biblically neutral issue far more than what they experience over an obvious sin.
The cars aren’t more poorly designed than they were years ago, but the overall conditions have worsened. And spiritual wreckage is more common.
So what do you do? If you can’t control the external conditions, the only reasonable solution would be to become more skilled in the operating of your own vehicle. Cars need to slow down. Better driving instruction needs to take place up front. Vehicles need to be tuned up more regularly.
So, for instance, it may not have been essential to teach the principles of Christian identity formation in 1950. There was so much cultural force pushing people toward God, churches, biblical ethics, etc. that there was actually some assistance from your community. But in 2019 – an intensely individualistic, relativistic, meritocracy of a society – I’m not sure if you can survive from childhood to adulthood as a Christian unless you’ve repented of “performance-based identity” for the sake of an identity rooted in the righteousness of Christ. The cultural elements have become more antagonistic, more hostile, to the Christian faith.
Similarly, in 2019, you need Christian instruction on what to actually feel guilty about. Most Christians I’ve worked with experience some level of guilt. However, many of them also inappropriately feel guilt over a biblically neutral issue far more than what they experience over an obvious sin. I know lots of students who feel horrendous about getting a B+ instead of an A. I know many people, women and men, who hate themselves for weighing 5 more pounds than they believe they should, and are riddled with guilt if they indulge in the carbohydrates contained in a single sandwich. I’m stunned in having seen a young adult walk around a building for 20 minutes looking for a recycling bin because the normal garbage was unacceptable. This same individual was unconvinced that a sexual relationship with a young man she was not married to, so long as there was mutual consent, was a spiritual problem.
What’s happened in recent decades is that the spiritual guardrails have been taken off of society, individuals are driving more recklessly, and we’re far more exposed to crazier elements.
A week ago, a college student asked me if it was ever wrong to go against your conscience? They had heard a minister once say that. I’ve heard similar sentiments. If I had to guess, I believe the minister was partially quoting from Martin Luther’s famous statement at the Diet of Worms (1521). When asked to recant of his obstinance to the Roman Catholic Church, he replied:
Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I shall not recant. For my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.
The important thing to notice is the first half of Luther’s statement. He says that his “conscience is held captive by the Word of God.” A conscience that is held captive by the Word of God would be wrong to contradict precisely because you’d be contradicting the Word of God. Searing a conscience that is accurately calibrated to the Bible is indeed sinful.