Why can’t communion be our altar call?

I wonder how many Biblical literalists take John 6:53 literally. In it, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus isn’t being “metaphorical” or “mystical.” He clarifies any confusion as to what He means by His flesh and blood in Luke 22:19-20 when He breaks the bread and passes the cup. For the first 1700 years of Christianity, communion was the centerpiece of our weekly worship (even for most of the Protestants who broke off in the 1500’s). The revival movements of the 1700’s and 1800’s effectively replaced the communion table with the altar call as the climax of worship in evangelical Protestantism at least (yes, that is an oversimplification). What I don’t understand is why communion and the altar call can’t be the same thing.

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My father’s burden

I remember when I was little, I would sometimes wake up late at night and notice a light in the study downstairs at my house. My dad would be in there typing on our old Apple 2 computer. I asked my mom about it, and she told me it was “grant time.” Every year, in the final week before my dad had a grant application deadline, he would put in a full night of writing after a full day of work. My memory of “grant time” was probably the main reason I didn’t pursue medicine like my dad and all his nine brothers and sisters. The irony today is that many nights I find myself staying up late typing on my computer just like my dad did. And it’s because of a burden I have inherited from him. Not only is my dad a dedicated and accomplished medical researcher, but he has also taught Sunday school for over thirty years, and he has several unpublished manuscripts for philosophy books that he has poured himself into. My father’s burden is that he wants God to make sense to people; this legacy has shaped much of who I am today. Continue reading

Is what I’m doing or thinking or saying building trust or undermining trust?

There’s a song stuck in my head from our mission trip: “Is what I’m doing or thinking or saying building trust or undermining trust?” I learned it from a woman named Katie who has one of the most gentle, Christ-like spirits of anyone I’ve met in a long time. I think if God wanted to teach the world something, he would get the best results using someone like Katie whose demeanor builds trust. Being an impulsive, opinionated firebrand, I am convicted by those who actually embody the gospel that I love so much in theory. Continue reading

Amendment 1: when did legislation replace evangelism?

Two weekends ago, our church’s men’s retreat examined and discussed one of my favorite scripture passages, 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have; yet do so with gentleness and respect.” This verse summarizes for me
what evangelism is supposed to look like. Our men covenanted to live so that people in our lives would have a reason to ask us about Jesus and then have an answer for them when they do. It is out of this fundamental concern for
evangelism that I am most troubled by North Carolina’s Amendment 1 initiative. I just can’t see how a legislative initiative to permanently revoke the rights of people whose lifestyle many Christians disapprove of is anything like the model for public witness that Peter gave us. When did legislation replace evangelism as the Christian means of building God’s kingdom?

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How do we get you back next week?

Let me be honest. Easter is a bittersweet holiday for me as a pastor because I shake hands with hundreds of people who I know I won’t see again until Christmas. I grew up going to church every week, so it’s hard to put myself in the head of someone who comes just for the holidays. Not judging, just sharing where I’m coming from. I was going to write a list of things we need to do as the church to get people to come back the week after Easter, but honestly I don’t know the answer. So I decided instead to invite honest dialogue with any of my readers who are or have been twice-a-year Christians, hoping that you might consider and answer this question: What can we do to get you back the week after Easter? Continue reading

Beauty Will Save the World #1: Beauty over Conquest

The title of Brian Zahnd’s brand new book Beauty Will Save the World is taken from a quote in Fyodor Dostoyevski’s novel The Idiot. Zahnd’s book is a prophetic call to turn away from the ugliness that evangelical Christianity has acquired in the last thirty years due to the loud, angry people who claim to represent us; our consequent identification in the public sphere as an anti-intellectual, xenophobic, populist partisan voting bloc; and our canned, formulaic theology that has produced exponential growth among our megachurches, but seems to be bored with and disdainful of the depths of mystery within God’s Word. Zahnd writes that all of evangelicalism’s various strategies for political and cultural conquest turn ugly when they cease to emulate the “cruciform [which] is the aesthetic of our gospel” (7). Zahnd contends that “our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ” (xvii). Continue reading

Trolling vs. Evangelism

Christian Piatt recently posted on Red Letter Christians about the problem of “trolls” in the Christian blogosphere. For those of you who are unfamiliar, “troll” is a term that’s used for people who enter into Internet discussions for the purpose of heckling and sabotage rather than genuine dialogue. As you might imagine, calling someone out as a troll is a very subjective assessment that is often unfairly deployed.

Sometimes people are wrongly accused of being trolls but other times people have every intention of being trolls. Continue reading

Evangelism a.k.a. Trespassing in Northern Virginia

I put up about 600 door-hangers today in townhouse communities around Burke. Townhouses are faster and there’s a classist assumption in my head that people who are “less established” are more open to trying out a new church. I’m really regretting that we didn’t move into a townhouse community. I absolutely hate the concept of townhouses because I want to have a half-acre garden, but there’s so much more community there. There were tons of little kid trikes and bikes out in the front yard. All of the kids were running around, playing, and laughing. And it’s very ethnically diverse. It would have been a great environment for my sons to grow up in, but I wanted to have a garden. Oh well.

Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what kind of return we get (if any). When we door-hanger for Sunday worship, it’s a lot harder to track whether anybody responds. But these door-hangers were for our LifeSign contemporary service where it will be very obvious if we have first-time visitors who don’t come in with a regular. The whole time I was door-hangering, I was asking God, “Just one… even one.” What I’m really hoping is that someone who is going through a hard time will have the courage to give church another chance. The goal is to reach people who are hurting, not to have a relatively full-looking sanctuary so that I can feel like I’m not a failure.

In any case, I had three somewhat paradigmatic conversations today. It always makes me nervous when people are outside while I’m spamming their houses in person. Usually they’re on their phones so I don’t want to interrupt them but it feels like bad form to put the hanger on the knob while they’re standing there so I skip over their house and do the next-door neighbors’, waiting for them to get off the phone but then they often don’t. Sometimes they go inside to hide when they see what I’m doing. So there aren’t too many face-to-face conversations, but today I had three.

The first was a girl with dozens of piercings and boy-cut pink hair. She was wearing headphones. All I said was, “Hey, how’s it going?” She grunted something and moved on. I really wanted to tell her how 9 years ago, I used to spend most of my time with people who looked exactly like her in an anarchist compound in the beautiful urban wasteland of inner-city Detroit, but I didn’t have the tats or piercings to prove that I used to be a wannabe punk. I think the reason I never marked myself is that I’ve never had the guts to drop out of my bourgeois identity completely. But I wanted to tell this girl that if she came to my church, I would feel a little more at home there myself. She was wearing headphones so I moved on.

Then I ran into a group of Latino kids playing outside under the shade of a tree. I started to just put the door-hangers up at their houses without saying anything, but they were staring at me so I went over and struck up a conversation. They were very friendly. This one girl told me about how she was Catholic but hadn’t been to mass since first communion. Then her father drove up and she wanted to introduce me to him, which made me feel creepy since I had been talking to his kids when I was a stranger. I told him that I was from a Methodist church but we were como catolico because we had communion every week, the only difference being that we had an informal worship service con guitaras y todo where kids were allowed to dance in the aisles. I usually tell Spanish-speaking people that my church is evangelico for categorization purposes. I guess Methodism really is como catolico and evangelico at the same time. Not everyone would agree, but I think John Wesley would be okay with that “both-and” definition.

So the third conversation I had was with a guy who told me he was Muslim. I suppose if I were a certain type of evangelical, I would have said in my head, Guess you’re going to hell, but what I said instead was, “Salaam alekum,” and he said back, “Walekum salaam.” I don’t know. I want to believe that somehow through the mystery of God, the need that we have to receive the atonement of Christ can be resolved in a different way through Islam. I don’t know anything about that religion. I’m not particularly interested in studying it in depth. But I didn’t see any point in debating theology with a stranger of another faith so I just exchanged the peace of God with him.

After I was done door-hangering, I decided to try cutting through the woods since my house is very close geographically to the townhouses where I had been, but because there’s a creek and a protected wildlife area, there are no direct roads, so I would have had to walk a couple of miles by road what was several hundred yards through the woods. I walked into what the map said was a public park. There was even a sign describing the park and the park rules, but the drive leading back to the park quickly turned into some redneck’s driveway with signs that said “Warning! Firearms in use. No trespassing.” So I jumped across the creek behind the redneck’s house and started walking through the woods.

Then it hit me that I was really trespassing. The fact that I was dressed in khakis and a polo shirt which had been my badge of legitimacy on the sidewalk became the reason that I would seem suspicious to somebody who came across me. What kind of man dressed up in preacher casual bushwacks through the woods? A homeless guy? A crazy drunk? A burglar? A predator of some kind? So I was hoping that I could quickly find my way to a road. I was using the “locator services” feature on my iphone as my compass. But what I found when I approached the houses on the road that my culdesac feeds off of was that every house had a fence-line behind it. Only in Northern Virginia! I was basically treading through a crack between the walls of suburban legitimacy. There were many thorns which made me very glad I was wearing my khakis. I had on sandals though and there were a lot of beer bottles on the ground, some broken.

I couldn’t jump over a fence because then I would “officially” be trespassing but the longer I stayed in the woods, the more I panicked that somebody would find me. It caused me to wonder if a white man in the woods is as illegitimate and vulnerable to suspicion as a brown man walking on the sidewalk in a white neighborhood (as opposed to doing something socially appropriate like mowing the grass or blowing leaves or spreading mulch). The whiteness that serves as my universal passport loses its legitimacy outside the boundaries of suburban normalcy demarcated by the fence-lines of private property. Forgive the ridiculous presumptuousness of saying this, but I wondered if what I felt was analogous (though certainly not equivalent) to what undocumented immigrants feel or what Palestinians feel on the outside of the gated communities of Israel. After a somewhat distressing twenty minutes of trying to find a yard without a fence to walk briskly through to the safety of the sidewalk, I finally made it to a road, climbed up a steep hill, and emerged back into the freedom of my white bourgeois legitimacy.

Now maybe I’ve just read too much postmodern philosophy but it seems to me that trespassing in the woods behind the backyard fences of suburbia is somehow a metaphor for the timid attempts we make at evangelism here in northern Virginia. I don’t know that the people are necessarily unfriendly, but for a middle-class white boy like me, I see so many fencelines that it’s taboo to cross. Like what do you do about the fact that most doors don’t have doorknobs but latches that won’t hold a door-hanger secure? Do you open the storm door gently and slide the door-hanger inside of it? But it seems like inevitably when you start to do this, then the door sticks and creaks really loudly until five Rottweilers start barking from inside. What do you do when the door inside the storm-door is open and somebody is talking several feet inside the house? I always try to look at the ground and move quickly. I’ve developed a new fondness for doormats. We have card-stock door-hangers in plastic baggies, so you can usually slide them pretty quickly under the mat and run away.

I know that what we’re supposed to be doing is “invitational evangelism” (where you tell the people who go to your church to invite their friends to come). I’ve heard the lectures; I agree with them; I’ve made the lectures myself. But what do you do when you’re a pastor and nobody seems willing to do that? You put up 600 door-hangers and talk about it on facebook in a peppy and hopefully not-too-guilt-trippy kind of way so that somebody in your church might notice and take pity on you or possibly even be inspired to invite one of their friends to church. So as I sit here scratching the poison ivy or whatever my ankles got into during my adventures in the wilderness between the fencelines of suburban legitimacy(maybe that’s too guilt-trippy)… how about YOU invite somebody you know to church? 😀

God’s not at work unless I’m in charge

I’m continuing my travelogue through Willie Jennings’ Christian Imagination as a way of coping with the tedium of Virginia’s Annual Conference. Chapter two of Jennings’ book is called “Acosta’s Laugh.” It concerns the perspective of 16th Jesuit theologian Jose Acosta who was one of the first Europeans to develop theology within the context of the New World, in Acosta’s case Peru. Continue reading

Jesus: Cornerstone or Stumbling Block?

Sermon for 5/21/2011
Text: 1 Peter 2:1-10

At our Change the World event last weekend, we had a real deal Christian rock band here to close things out. But the problem with hosting a hard rock band in your acoustically challenged sanctuary is that rock musicians’ amps have only one setting – LOUD! We had about 100 people in the sanctuary at the end of our event, but a lot of them weren’t exactly hard rockers (some folks my mom’s age as well as parents of very small children). So the band’s first song blew all but maybe 15 people out of the sanctuary. It was really sweet how the pews were throbbing with the bass and that something taboo was happening in church. But I felt really bad for the band because I’ve had a similar experience before. I once forced a coffeehouse in Dothan, Alabama to close down early because I drove their customers away.

For what it’s worth, the band was really good; I bought their CD and I’ve been jamming to it in my car. I think our experience this Saturday is a helpful metaphor for the way that sometimes we drive people out of the room through how we share the gospel. When I was a freshman at the University of Virginia, I went around campus handing out pamphlets I had made to try to convert people to Christianity. I imagine that if I handed you what I wrote back then, this room would get empty pretty quickly. I thought the most important thing about the gospel was that I was right and other people were wrong. 1 Peter 2 says that Jesus is like a rock that some people trip over and other people make the cornerstone for their lives. In my brief sidewalk evangelist career, my pamphlets were like Jesus rocks that I kicked at other people to make them stumble so they could convert to my way of thinking. I didn’t realize that I was the one who was tripping over Jesus.

One of the ironies of the Christian journey is that the newer we are in our walk, the more we think we know everything. Or at least that’s how I was at 19 years old. Now the swagger that some of us have as young Christians actually has a good source that just needs to be redirected. When we accept Jesus into our hearts and experience the Holy Spirit in our lives, it should be exciting to realize that we’re part of a new reality in which God can do anything. It’s appropriate to be fired up and want to tell the rest of the world about how God has transformed our lives and how He wants to transform the lives of everyone we meet. Still there’s one thing we need to remember not just when we’re new at this game but even those of us who have been on the road with Jesus for many years and that is that we’re all just babies who need God’s milk to grow into our salvation.

Notice that Peter says we “grow into” salvation. Most of us don’t think of salvation as a process; we think it’s something that happens in a flash. We say some prayer in which we officially tell God sorry for our sins and ask Jesus into our hearts, or maybe we say “I do, I do, I do, I will,” in response to a series of questions like the confirmands will be doing tomorrow morning. And then a switch gets flipped, our name gets written in the book of life, and we’re on the winning team so that we can talk smack to all the losers who will get left behind when God zaps us up into heaven. How many of y’all have heard of this thing called rapture? It’s the belief of some Christians that God will beam us out when the world’s about to end. According to Christian radio host Harold Camping, the rapture was supposed to happen tonight at 6 pm based on his calculation of numbers from the Bible. I didn’t want to say anything to jinx it but according to the clock, it looks like we have been officially “left behind.” I’ve been having debates on facebook about whether it’s Eastern or Central Time, so there might still be hope.

All jokes aside, the bottom line from Peter’s perspective is that salvation is a journey. What do we need to be saved from? Peter gives us a clue in the opening of his chapter when he tells his readers to rid themselves of malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and slander. These sinful qualities undermine our ability to receive God’s love, much less share it with other people. We drive other people out of the room when the gospel that we share is corrupted by the pettiness of our egotism. Even after we climb aboard the gospel train, God’s still got plenty of saving to do in our lives, because our hearts still need a lifetime’s worth of cleaning. When we give our lives to Jesus, that’s only the start of the journey. It means giving the Holy Spirit the keys to our heart so he can get in there to vacuum, scrub, and most importantly declutter all of our idols, those shallow things we try to worship when we fail to see that God is the source of all the world’s beauty.

This is what it means to “let ourselves be built into a spiritual house” in which Jesus is the cornerstone. We have to recognize that the house of our soul will always be a work in progress and we have to be open enough about our imperfections to allow God to continue to remodel us. Notice that Peter doesn’t tell us to build our own spiritual houses; it’s when we try to build them ourselves that we get in trouble. When I see the gospel as an affirmation of how right I am and how wrong other people are, I might not realize that I’m locking the Holy Spirit out of my heart but that’s what I’m doing. Becoming a Christian is not about swelling up with pride because I’m cheering for the right team. It’s about discovering the freedom that our savior gives us to admit that we’re wrong and let ourselves be transformed by God. As long as we’re cocky enough to kick Jesus around in front of us like a soccer ball, He’s going to be our stumbling block. Letting ourselves be built on top of Jesus as our cornerstone requires a completely different attitude, a radical humility which we can only receive from God as a gift.

When Peter tells us that we’re a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” these are beautiful words of affirmation. They were written to churches in the land of modern-day Turkey filled with people from the bottom of society who were under severe persecution by the Roman Empire. But these are not only words of affirmation. Peter isn’t giving his readers a compliment on what great people we are; he’s telling us what God has called us to be in order to get us to start living out our call. Peter isn’t talking about our accomplishments; he’s talking about our responsibilities. God has the power to transform us into a royal priesthood who can share His love with the world. He can do this and He will do this, but we’ve got to let Jesus be the cornerstone upon which our spiritual house gets built.

Peter says that the way we go from being “no people” to “God’s people” is by being the people who “have received mercy.” Accepting God’s mercy through Jesus Christ is the key to everything. Christians have all kinds of opinions about how this happens, how to make it “official,” when God knows or decides who gets in and who won’t. And so we kick Jesus around, like a big stone ball, taking pleasure when other peoples’ toes get smashed, thinking that we win the game when everybody else is too tired or too bruised to keep kicking. I’m not sure that I’ve fully accepted God’s mercy yet because I get far too much satisfaction from winning arguments about God with other people. Accepting God’s mercy means I stop kicking the Jesus rock around for the sake of my own glory and let God build me into a house for the sake of His glory. We do not build our spiritual houses on the rightness of what we believe about Jesus; our houses are built by God on the mercy that gets His foot in the door of our hearts. Don’t make Jesus the rock that you kick at other people; let Him be the cornerstone on which God builds you into His beautiful temple. That way, when others see the love of God in you, they will want the same cornerstone for their hearts.