Digital Church: Option or Aberration

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.

Hebrews 10:24-25

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.

What does this mean for churches?

According to leading Christian researcher, Thom Rainer, 6,000-10,000 churches are dying every year in America. Put differently, every week, 100-200 churches close. 

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
  • peer encouragement
  • Confession & Absolution
  • Sacraments

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
  • studies
  • 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. 

Conclusion

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. 

How Do You Know What To Believe: What Flat Earthers and the Aaron Rodgers/Mike McCarthy drama have taught us about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Flat Earth Theory

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. 

science101.com

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. 

Packer Drama

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. 

Eric Gay/Associated Press

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. 

For instance, Jennings and Finley have been notoriously bitter and critical of Rodgers since their time with the organization. So you have two witnesses of the events who pin the blame on Rodgers. On the other hand, dozens of other players have come to Rodgers’ defense. 

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Posted at Bread For Beggars

Why American Christianity is So Conveniently Non-Sacramental

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?

Baptism

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

Holy Communion

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…

Finish article HERE.

The Modern Trend of Guilt Without Guidance

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. 

If you’re skeptical that our country is attempting to think less morally, read any of entries of revolutionary psychotherapist Albert Ellis in the journal of the American Psychological Association. I appreciate Ellis’ contributions to counseling. I frequently use his A-B-C model of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy in my own counseling. But he very obviously believes that devout faith, fear of punishment from a rigid God, limiting your happiness on the basis of guilt, etc., are all psychologically unhealthy. In 1961, Ellis publicly criticized religion, saying it was, “on almost every conceivable count, directly opposed to the goals of mental health.”

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 animalsrecyclingdietary habitsvaccination, 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.

Luther, Diet of Worms (1521)

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. 

(Read the rest of the post HERE at Bread for Beggars)


KonMari, Detaching from Stuff, and Traveling Light in this World

Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has become a huge success for Netflix. The show was green-lighted as a result of the global success of Kondo’s best-seller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and features Kondo’s unique teaching, known as the KonMari method.

Kondo says that she derived her method from the Shinto religion. After an anxiety attack in her college years, she became convinced that the episode resulted from having become too obsessed with the wrong things, i.e. the clutter, in life. Consequently, the KonMari method has one evaluate an item’s worth by holding it in their hands, and keeping only that which “sparks joy.”

There’re obviously flaws to the “does-it-spark-joy?” system. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but if you’re holding a screaming, poopy-diapered baby in your arms, it’s unlikely that (and probably worrisome if) unmitigated joy is running through you. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t get rid of the child. Or, for instance, I’ve never had any pair of socks spark joy when holding them in my hands. Yet I still recognize their value. Or, on the other hand, for some, holding a bag of cocaine might actually spark tremendous joy inside, but by all means, you need to get rid of that thing.

That’s simplistic. But that’s my point. The method itself is logically too simplistic to be a significant life tool. Nonetheless, the method’s popularity is clearly tapping into a public sentiment – i.e. in a postmodern, subjective, “you do you” world, we don’t know how to reasonably assess value. The result has been that this generation is developing an unwitting, but significant, awareness of Jesus’ teaching that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

To read the rest of the article, go to Bread for Beggars.

Starting this week, the day after his posts go live, we are going to be hosting follow up conversations with Pastor James Hein. Join us on Facebook Live, Friday, February 22 @ 12:15 pm central or check back here to watch the live embed. Click here for the Facebook Live link then click “Interested” to get a reminder to join us on Friday afternoon. Please add comments and questions to the Facebook Live post.

Plastic Souls: The actual threat attached to Artificial Intelligence

If you ask inventor and famed futurist, Ray Kurzweil, the world will be run by artificial intelligence within 30 years (27 to be exact). The man has been called a “restless genius” by The Wallstreet Journal, “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes, “Edison’s rightful heir” by Inc. Magazine, and “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence” by none other than Bill Gates.

The Law of Accelerating Returns

In one of his best-sellers, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil proposes something called The Law of Accelerating Returns. In short, this is the idea that technology, throughout human history, hasn’t increased at a linear rate, but at an exponential one. So, for instance, if you transported someone in a time machine from 1750 to the present day, the technology would have advanced at such an incredible rate (e.g. cars, planes, moon landing, phones, TV, computers, internet) that the incomprehensible differences might actually drive the poor guy insane. But if you transported someone from 1500 to 1750, the same gap of years, while some aspects of life might still amaze them, the shock would be significantly less. And if you wanted to travel back even further for someone to be shocked by the technological advancement of 1500, you might have to go back an entire millennium. Again, technology is not advancing at a linear pace. It’s advancing at an exponential rate.

Artificial General Intelligence

Ray Kurzweil says that the world will achieve Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) by 2029. Without letting it get too tech-sounding, AGI essentially refers to the computational power of the human brain. We already have something called Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI). This is the ability of a computer to perform one specific task at an extraordinary speed, faster than human.

So, you’ve perhaps played chess on your computer before. Today, the best chess players and best Jeopardy players in the world are now artificial intelligence. 

Given a specific algorithm, a computer can routinely beat the brightest human mind in almost every specific task. Siri, the digital assistant on your iPhone, is another example of ANI. Siri has no self-awareness. But the program “Siri” can nonetheless access more information with more accuracy faster than any human.

Artificial Superintelligence

Kurzweil’s bet is that by 2029, Artificial Intelligence will be able to think through everything in life as comprehensively as any human. And by 2045, humans, now officially inferior, will essentially become subservient to Artificial Intelligence. This is called Artificial Superintelligence (ASI). In The Age of Spiritual Machines, the most fascinating, ominous quote of all actually comes from a somewhat crazed sounding guy that Kurzweil almost seems to admire – a Harvard mathematician named Theodore Kaczynski. That’s right, THE UNABOMBER. The line between genius and insanity is razor thin.

Kurzweil also, however, offers a less Doomsday, less Matrixy scenario than computers taking over the world. In this more optimistic case, humanity will graft the new advanced intelligence into our being, and become transhuman, which is seen as the next evolutionary step. The internet has already made all human knowledge accessible. But the next step is to have the brain’s neocortex seamlessly integrate this information from the cloud.

Imagine never having to read another book, learn another equation, or, for that matter, memorize another passage of the Bible.

What if you could simply download the Bible’s information and truly recall every detail of it as easily as you can recall details from your day? Kurzweil would suggest that we’re about 25 years out. The methodology of Catechism instruction is going to have to evolve. It’s hard to even comprehend the implications all of this might have for faith.

Read the rest of the article HERE at Bread for Beggars

Abortion Then/Now: What we can learn from how the Early Church dealt with abortion & infanticide

the-early-church-and-abortion

“Without God and the future life? How will man be after that? It means everything is permitted now.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Vintage, 1991), pg. 589

Communist Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany eliminated an incredible amount of human life. Stalin was responsible for around 20 million deaths. Mao Zedong’s regime is credited with a staggering 70 million deaths. Hitler comes in third with around 10 million murders attributed to his name. The twentieth century was the world’s great experiment in seeing what intentionally godless governments would produce. The end result was a century with more slaughter of human life than all other centuries combined.

Without question, the saving grace of the western world has been the presence of an inherited Christian worldview. Abraham Lincoln, William Wilberforce, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were able to make assertions about human rights and usher in civil rights reform based solely on a belief in the biblical Imago Dei (i.e. “the image of God”) – the idea that all humans have value because God himself imbued humanity with special value.

As the faith of a nation goes, so goes its perception of personhood.

Consequently, if you’ve been following trends of Christian religious activity over the past 20 years, it was no surprise to you that the New York State legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act on January 22, the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The act allows abortion at any point during a pregnancy (24 weeks had been the prior limit) if it is deemed “necessary to protect a woman’s life or health.”

If you’ve ever read Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s famous article in the NY Times from over two decades ago, you knew this was coming. If you realized that the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) targeted New York upon its founding in 1969, you knew this was coming. If you were aware that over a quarter of all pregnancies in New York already end in abortion, you knew this was coming.

When you’re raised in the United States, it’s perhaps easy to forget that abortion and infanticide have been quite common in world history. The reason they have been forbidden in the West for centuries is only because Western values were shaped by Christianity. Author Benjamin Wiker makes the case in Moral Darwinism:

“[T]he laws against abortion and infanticide in the West are only intelligible as a result of its Christianization, and the repeal of those same laws is only intelligible in light of its de-Christianization.”

Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), pg. 100.

A fairly apples-to-apples comparison of what we see happening today in America is what was seen in the Roman Empire. The Twelve Tables – the earliest known Roman legal code, written about 450 B.C.E. – permitted a father to expose any female infant and any deformed or weak male infant to the natural elements to let them die in the fields. Philosophers Plato and Aristotle, both recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy. (cf. Plato, Republic 5; Aristotle, Politics 2,7) Seneca regarded the drowning of children at birth as both reasonable and commonplace. Tacitus stated that the Jewish mindset: “it is a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child,” was but another of the Jews’ “sinister and revolting” teachings (cf. The Histories 5.5). The famous Roman medical writer, Celsus, goes into great detail in De medicina (cf. 7.29) about how to surgically carry out an abortion. Etc.

Some of these thoughts are new to America. But they’re not technically new.

So, the relevant question then is: How did the early Christians, with very little political, educational, or financial clout, react to the tragedy taking place around them?

To read the rest of the article, CLICK HERE to continue to the Bread for Beggars site.