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Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

It was ten years ago that my Christianity Today colleague, Mark Galli, and I moderated a forum based on issues raised by the then-new book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. That CT forum featured an illustrious panel of pastors and theologians, including Elward Ellis, Robert Franklin, Charles Lyons, John Ortberg, and J. I. Packer. We discussed the book’s central theme (that evangelical theology actually contributes to the race problem in America) and grappled with its implications for the church. It was an important moment and hopefully a helpful article for CT’s readers.

Well, in a stunning reminder of how quickly time flies (and how old I’m getting), we are now looking at the ten-year anniversary of that seminal book’s release. In commemoration of this event, Indiana Wesleyan University is hosting “Divided by Faith: A Decade Retrospective” next weekend (Oct. 15-16). This unique conference will use that 10th anniversary as an occasion to reflect on the progress and missteps made in the arena of racial reconciliation and diversity among evangelicals over the past decade, and will feature a variety of scholars and panel discussions. You can find out more here. I’ll have the honor of interviewing Michael Emerson during the Friday-evening session.

If you’re in the area (or can swing a quick flight to Indiana), please think about attending. I’d love to see you there.

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Three recent articles have got me thinking about the current state of the American church. Each article explores issues related to the mission and future of specific subgroups and movements within the church. The various groups, one racial and the others formed around doctrinal and ecclesiological emphases, seem to reflect where we are today as a body—desperately searching for an identity and purpose that aligns us with God’s call, but sadly fragmented and self-centered in our attempts to get there.

The first article, “The Black Church Is Dead,” by Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, caused quite a stir when it was first published in The Huffington Post a couple months back. In fact, the article inspired the Religion Dispatches website to convene an entire forum around the subject. Glaude’s clearly provocative and attention-grabbing title overshadows an important point that he makes in the article: that many Christian leaders in African American congregations must move beyond the pomp and circumstance of the black church’s illustrious and prophetic past and concentrate on what it means to be faithful and relevant in this current era. I think this is a good message, not just for African American believers but for the American church as a whole.

The second article, this one from Sojourners, finds my good friend Professor Soong-Chan Rah asking the inevitable question: “Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?” This is not a new issue, but it’s interesting to see it wrestled with by Soong-Chan (a friendly but honest critic) and others who are slightly more sympathetic to the movement. The money line from Soong-Chan’s portion of the article:

In truth, the term “emerging church” should encompass the broader movement and development of a new face of Christianity, one that is diverse and multi-ethnic in both its global and local expressions. It should not be presented as a movement or conversation that is keyed on white middle- to upper-class suburbanites.

I couldn’t agree more. Yet, another part of me wonders if there’s a need for something like the “emerging church” in the first place. While I resonate with certain aspects of the movement (particulary its challenge to us to reexamine our traditions and cultural practices and ask whether they truly line up with what God’s calling us to be), I’m also put off by the whole branding and commercialization of the thing.

The third article, from ChristianityToday.com, is Brett McCracken’s excellent report from two recent conferences, the Wheaton College Theology Conference and the Together for the Gospel (T4G) gathering of Reformed leaders and scholars. As McCracken observes:

The juxtaposition of these two sold-out conferences, which represent two of the most important strands of evangelical Christianity today (the neo-Reformed movement and the “N.T. Wright is the new C.S. Lewis” movement), made the question (problem?) of unity within the church impressively pronounced.

In describing the differences between the two groups, McCracken writes:

For the T4G folks, protecting disputed doctrines against heresy is where good theology is born. Clear thinking comes from friction and protestation, from Hegelian dialectics (R.C. Sproul spoke on this), but not from compromise….

The exact opposite point was made at the Wheaton Conference by Kevin Vanhoozer, professor of systematic theology at Wheaton, who suggested that theologians like Wright (and, presumably Christians in general) are more often correct in matters they collectively affirm than in matters they dispute. This statement reflects the contrasting spirit of the Wheaton Conference as regards unity: It’s what we affirm that matters.

He goes on to note that “the elephant in the room” at both events was an ongoing debate on the doctrine of justification between the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright and the Reformed preacher John Piper. Reportedly, both men took rhetorical swipes at the other during their talks, and drew cheers from their respective audiences.

I’ve been privileged to attend past theology conferences at Wheaton College, as well as events sponsored by those who would fall under that “neo-Reformed” heading. My sense is that God is doing good things in both camps. Conferences inherently are designed to bring together groups of people who share some likeminded affinity. Unfortunately, in the church those affinities are often framed in contrast to what some other group that we disagree with is or isn’t doing.

Even events that don’t have a readily apparent ideological agenda often feature undercurrents of elitism or snobbery. I love the Christian Community Development Association’s annual conference. It’s one of the best events at which to network, learn, and worship with other Christians who share my commitment to racial reconciliation, social justice, and incarnational ministry. However, even at CCDA we can sometimes give off a condescending vibe that suggests we’re the only ones who truly “get it.”

It occurred to me while reading those three articles that we spend a lot of time reflecting on who we think we ought to be as the church. Then, once we’ve gotten a critical mass, we brand it and stake out our special turf. Before long, we’ve got our own special line from Zondervan, IVP, or some university press and we’re packing them in at our annual conference. Unfortunately, over time, we wind up sounding like our way is the most effective way, if not the only way.

Emerging, missional, seeker-sensitive, Black, Calvinist, multicultural, Dispensational. And the list goes on.

It’s important to know who we are and what we believe in, but perhaps we waste too much time attempting to respond to or live up to historic monuments and cultural trends that we’ve proudly embraced as a way of defining ourselves or distinguishing our group from others. Usually what we’re saying when we do this is that the other parts of the church have gotten something wrong and we are preserving or reasserting what’s most important. That’s not always the case, and we may not always be that self-aware about it, but think about it a minute. Think about the labels you wear as a Christian—as a church. Then ask yourself why. Would you feel comfortable or secure giving up those particular labels and simply going about your business as a generic follower of Christ?

In the conclusion to his report from those two very different theology conferences, Brett McCracken wonders:

What if both conferences had merged and two seemingly antagonistic groups of Christians put aside their differences for a few minutes to just sing (in both conferences the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” was sung), side-by-side, in worship of the triune God who gives the same grace through which all who follow Christ have been saved?

What if?

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Seeing the news reports today about Rev. Ike’s death reminded me of a post I did a year ago about the pervasiveness of the prosperity gospel in black churches. In the comments section, I got a little push back from a member of T.D. Jakes’s church, which I appreciated. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to engage her in a conversation, and I worried that my post might’ve offended her or others.

Still, I’d be interested in hearing from any brothers or sisters out there who are members of churches that subscribe to a prosperity message. Would you be interested in interacting around some of the questions I asked my guest last year? If so, here they are: 

1. Do you feel insulted or offended by the negative theological critiques of the prosperity message? What are these critiques missing?

2. My guest said the term “prosperity” has become something of a cliché. What would be a better term to use? 

3. What do folks like me who don’t “get it” need to understand to get beyond the stereotypes about followers of the prosperity message?

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nextevangelicalismIf you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly encourage you to check out my friend Soong-Chan Rah’s provocative new book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Today, African, Asian, and Latin American Christians make up 60 percent of the world’s Christian population. The United States and Europe will soon no longer be the center of evangelical activity in the world. With this in mind, the book calls the North American church to break free of its cultural captivity to a Western/Eurocentric/White American mindset and to embrace a new evangelicalism that is diverse and multiethnic. You can find out more here at the IVP site. 

For those of you who don’t know him, Soong-Chan is a brilliant theologian and pastor who for years led Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, a multiethnic, urban, post-modern congregation in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now a professor at North Park Theological Seminary here in Chicago, Soong-Chan has rattled a lot of cages over the years by calling attention to issues of racism and cultural insensitivity in the evangelical church and community. I included a story about the Rickshaw Rally fiasco in my book, Reconciliation Blues, and I blogged about Soong-Chan’s role in the Zondevan/Youth Specialities controversy a couple years ago. In addition, when I was the editor of Today’s Christian, I published an insightful interview with Soong-Chan about the Youth Specialities episode and his ministry of activism. Though he may have gained a reputation as a rabble-rouser in some quarters, I know him as a kind-hearted, passionate man of God who loves the church and lost people.

We’re planning to do an interview with Soong-Chan about his book for that other little blog that I’m involved with, UrbanFaith.com. If you have any questions you’d like to hear Soong-Chan address about the book or his ministry in general, please leave them in the comments area below, or send them to me directly through my website. We’ll publish the interview in the next couple weeks, so send your questions soon. Thanks!

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Love this tidbit picked up today by Rudy Carrasco at his blog. You can read the full report here. Any thoughts from Southern Baptists brethren out there? How is that aspect of President Akin’s message playing in local SBC congregations these days?

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It was May of 1988 and I recited this poem before an auditorium full of teachers, parents, and my graduating classmates:

‘Twas The Night Before Jesus Came
Author Unknown 

‘Twas the night before Jesus came and all through the house
Not a creature was praying, not one in the house
Their Bibles were lain on the shelf without care
In hopes that Jesus would not come there. 

The children were dressing to crawl into bed.
Not once ever kneeling or bowing a head.
And Mom in her rocker with baby on her lap
Was watching the Late Show while I took a nap.

When out of the East there arose such a clatter.
I sprang to my feet to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash!

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But angels proclaiming that Jesus was here.
With a light like the sun sending forth a bright ray
I knew in a moment this must be THE DAY! 

The light of His face made me cover my head
It was Jesus! returning just like He had said.
And though I possessed worldly wisdom and wealth,
I cried when I saw Him in spite of myself. 

In the Book of Life which He held in His hand
Was written the name of every saved man.
He spoke not a word as He searched for my name;
When He said “it’s not here” my head hung in shame. 

The people whose names had been written with love
He gathered to take to His Father above.
With those who were ready He rose without a sound.
While all the rest were left standing around. 

I fell to my knees, but it was too late;
I had waited too long and thus sealed my fate.
I stood and I cried as they rose out of sight;
Oh, if only I had been ready tonight. 

In the words of this poem the meaning is clear;
The coming of Jesus is drawing near.
There’s only one life and when comes the last call
We’ll find that the Bible was true after all!

I was one of the student speakers at the 1988 baccalaureate service at Auburn High School in Rockford, Illinois. One of the other scheduled speakers unexpectedly couldn’t make it to the service, so I ended up going last. I started my speech by congratulating the Class of ’88 (full disclosure: I should’ve graduated in ’87 but was held back in the fourth grade). Then I shared a little about my faith in God, performed an updated version of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and concluded with a reading of “Twas the Night Before Jesus Came.” It was well received, and I recall many people were moved by the service. But 20 years later, I’m having second thoughts.  

As I reviewed “Twas the Night Before Jesus Came” the other day, in preparation for a reading at a work Christmas program, I was struck by how harsh it must’ve sounded to some of the people in that Auburn High audience back in ’88. Thinking back on that event, I honestly don’t think I recited it with a spirit of judgment or condemnation; I simply wanted to impress upon my classmates and teachers our need for salvation through Jesus Christ.

In retrospect, if I had it to do over, I don’t think I’d use that poem. Instead, I think I’d want to share something that spoke more of the love, mercy, and grace of Jesus Christ. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. Or perhaps it’s just that I see more clearly my own desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. In any case, rather than the “fire and brimstone” treatment, I’d like to leave folks with a glimpse of God’s great love.

Certainly, “Twas the Night Before Jesus Came” is a clever little piece, playing off of Clement Moore’s classic story. Jesus is coming again someday, and the poem is a jarring reminder to get ourselves ready. Still, I wonder if there might’ve been a better way for me to share my passion that night. Many of the people in the auditorium that evening didn’t so much need to hear about the Second Coming of Christ as much as they needed to hear about his First Coming—how God loved us so much that he humbled himself to become a man so that he might save us from our sins and give us new life.

On this Christmas Eve, as I think about God’s wonderful gift to us, I pray that we’ll all experience his love and grace anew. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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I’m always a little intrigued by how easy it is for us humans to instinctively demand justice, yet how deep we have to dig in order to muster up any inclination toward mercy or forgiveness. What’s up with that? I understand that God has wired us with that desire for righteousness, to see “the crooked made straight and the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:4). But I also know how much trouble we get into when we presume to dispense judgment without mercy. Wouldn’t it be something if, instead of righteous indignation, our first instinct was one of grace and mercy? What would that look like?

I say all this because I’ve been fascinated by the response to a situation here in Illinois. Many of you probably know that our former governor George Ryan was sentenced to a six-year prison term for a variety of corruption charges that stem from his tenure as secretary of state. Probably the most notable and tragic result of Ryan’s crimes were the deaths of the six children of Scott and Janet Willis, who were killed in a fiery traffic accident caused by a trucker who obtained his driver’s license illegally from one of Ryan’s secretary of state offices. Consequently, many people view Ryan as an accomplice to murder.

Dick Durbin, one of our U.S. senators, recently sent a letter to President Bush requesting that Ryan’s prison sentence be commuted to the one year he has served already. (Coincidentally, Durbin is a Democrat and Ryan is a Republican.) In a truly gracious display that, unfortunately, has been drowned out by the cynical cries of favoritism and “politics as usual,” Durbin writes that the 74-year-old Ryan “has lost his state pension benefits and a commutation will not restore them. He would emerge from prison facing economic uncertainty at an advanced stage of his life.” He also notes that Ryan’s wife, Lura Lynn, is in declining health and would benefit from her husband’s presence. Durbin continues:

“For those who would argue that a commutation makes light of his crimes, it is clear that he has already paid a significant price and will continue to do so as long as he lives. Justice is a sword that should be tempered with compassion. Further imprisonment will not, in my opinion, serve the ends of justice.”

For this, Durbin has taken a major lashing from the public. On the Chicago Tribune website, one commenter opined, “Whatever good opinion I have had of Senator Durbin has just diminished to zero. He has just added to the belief that politicians stick together no matter what the crime. It is time that they not be considered untouchable where justice is concerned.” Responding to the criticism, Durbin said he had been “raised in a tradition of redemption” and that he believed Ryan has already paid a great price.

However, the overwhelming majority of folks seem adamant that Ryan should not be given any special treatment. Again on the Tribune site, in a survey that asks: “Should President Bush set Gov. George Ryan free?,” out of 1,977 respondents (when I last checked), a whopping 1,617 said “No,” while only 360 folks said “Yes.” That’s 82% whose natural and abiding impulse is to go by the letter of the law versus 18% who think the old guy has suffered enough.

Ironically, Gov. George Ryan’s other great controversial act was the moratorium he placed on Illinois’s death penalty because of several dubious cases where individuals were unfairly tried. Then, before leaving office in 2003, Ryan commuted the death sentences of every inmate on Illinois’ Death Row—167 in all—to life in prison.

What do you think? What’s the proper balance between mercy and justice? Would commuting Gov. Ryan’s sentence send the wrong message, or would it send exactly the kind of message our society needs to witness more of—one of compassion, forgiveness, and grace?

In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey writes:

Because it goes against human nature, forgiveness must be taught and practiced, as one would practice any difficult craft. “Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: it is a permanent attitude,” said Martin Luther King Jr. What greater gift could Christians give to the world than the forming of a culture that upholds grace and forgiveness?

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