Sharing the Gospel With Un-Churched People

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Lately my ministry has taken a new and notable turn.

I suppose if I wanted to pick a “start date” to the whole thing it would be a couple months ago when a man from our neighborhood walked into our church and decided to start regularly attending.  He and his wife work in law enforcement.  He grew up religious but she did not.  Neither one of them had attended a church in years.  But he was starting a new business venture and his mentors were religious folk who argued that you must have a proper relationship to the Almighty if you are going to succeed.  So he decided to give us a try.  I have been meeting regularly with his family since then and we have become fast friends.

Awhile after that, I received an email that a woman from a sister church had been electrocuted and was now in the burn ward here in town.  I found myself down by the hospital one day so I decided to drop by and say “hi.”  I discovered a rural couple who worked as farmhands and lived, or rather died, from paycheck to paycheck.  Their faith was brand new.  They had only been baptized on Easter Sunday, mere weeks before the accident.  As such, their faith was also fragile and an electrocution had provided an incredible challenge.  I walked out of the hospital that day vowing to see them as often as I possibly could.

Shortly after I got an email out of the blue.  It was from a family who lives 50 miles away from our church’s building.  They were both bookworms and very heady thinkers.  They grew up religious but had since walked away.  Now they were feeling called back so they did what bookworms do, which was a survey of all religious sects ranging from atheism to Islamic fundamentalism.  Somehow the Church of the Nazarene won and they now wanted to meet a Nazarene.  She had read everything on Nazarene.org!  I haven’t even gone to Nazarene.org in the last year.

Then last week I received a phone call from a woman who had just moved to town.  She was young and had been an addict for the last decade.  She met a pastor who introduced her to Jesus, after which she moved here to start a new life.  She needed a church.  She had moved in with some friends who were also former addicts starting a new life and now the group of friends wanted to make church a go, something about a higher power who wanted to freely give to them the self control they needed to live better lives.

So suddenly I am an evangelist, talking to people about Jesus who know nothing about him, or at the very least are very suspect of him and his followers.  Here I am explaining elementary truths of our faith to the unlearned and trying to defend our faith to the unsure and this twice weekly!

But I don’t feel like an evangelist.  Only one of those above groups are in anyway a product of my church’s ministry.  There was no program, no sermon, no outreach event, no bible study that drew these people in.  Instead I did something far more profound.  I answered my phone and replied to emails.

So too, I found that I have not done much of the talking with these four brand new Christians.  Instead I have tried to listen.  That is not always easy for me but it has come more natural in these times.  They all have incredibly different stories and backgrounds but all of them need a listener.  They needed someone to listen while they tried to figure out this new thing called, “faith” and what it meant for their families and lives.  In one conversation, I spent an hour just nodding my head, only saying the occasional, “oh interesting.”

I have walked away from these four groups thinking about ministry programs and practices.  I have all kinds of ideas about how to help their fledgling faith.  There are bible studies we could plug them into.  There is money we could give.  There are programs and outreach events and even church plants that will help connect them and their family members and friends to the work of the Nazarenes.

And yet, whenever I play those ideas out in my head they all end bad.  There is a certain powerlessness to my daydreaming, like imagining nightmares.  After all, I have been in this game long enough to know that church programs are most often the worst thing for a young faith.  In fact I worry that introducing them to more church people would destroy what little faith they had.  Good church people are just not understanding or compassionate enough to new Christians.

But deeper than that is the reality that people don’t need programs.  They don’t need events and they certainly don’t need to be a church’s, or even a Pastor’s, project.  In fact as I have entered hospital rooms and shared a meal with these people, I am all the more convicted that they just need presence.  They need someone who will show up in their hospital room, someone who will drive 50 miles to honestly try to tackle their questions, someone who will invite them over for dinner and games and tell jokes and laugh with them.

When I do that I think I am evangelizing.  I think I am representing the good news that “God is here!”  By showing up I am a parable of Jesus, who himself showed up to tax collectors and sinners.  I stole that idea I stole from Brian Hansen, by the way.

And the good news I share by showing up is, as John Wesley put it, “Best of all, God is with us!”

God is with us in our hospital beds.

God is with us in the depths of the despair of addiction.

God is with us when we start new business ventures.

God is with us when we ask tough and hard and deep questions.

God is with us when we sit around a campfire and make s’mores.

God is with us when we sit around a table and eat dinner together.

God is with us wherever we go and I hope that by showing up I can at least preach that great news.

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Sola Fides: A Wesleyan Pastor’s Return to Faith

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I grew up in what some people still call a faith tradition.  I was taught that it is by grace we have been saved (read Romans) and that grace is sort of activated through faith.  That is standard 4 year old Sunday School terminology in the Evangelical world.

It was reinforced in every grade and every age until I went to college where over time faith took a back seat to every Wesleyan’s favorite buzz word, “love.”  In college and seminary we talked a lot about love.  Love became that word that both began and ended all theological discussions and debates.

So now when I read Scripture my head just naturally bolds and underlines the word “love” in the text.  If love appears in any pericope, I know what my sermon is going to be about.  If it doesn’t appear, I try hard to make it appear, sometimes a bit too hard.

And I think our tradition is justified in that hermeneutic.  After all the great Apostle Paul himself said, “Now three things remain:  Faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is more important than faith, more important than grace, more important than doctrine and knowledge and data.  Love is the crowning virtue, the eternal truth, the reconciling doctrine.  See, just that one verse is enough to get me waxing poetic about love.  I guess you could say that I am in love with love.

And to my great frustration, it would seem the other half of evangelicalism, namely the Calvinist half, doesn’t agree with us Wesleyans on that.  Actually the Calvinists have become so numerous in Evangelical circles that they are not half of us.  They are 9/10s of the movement.

And this huge majority just likes faith better than love.  They talk about it more.  They bold and underline “faith” in the text.  if faith isn’t in the text they find a way to put it there.  And every one of their sermons quickly follow behind, adopting the mantra, “believe or be damned.”  Now, I know that is not a fair generalization but it does seem to at least describe the majority of their tradition.

Lately as I have been reading and studying Exodus, and through Exodus revisiting what Paul has to say about laws, works, circumcision, Abraham, Moses and the old covenant, I have rediscovered they may be onto something.  Faith has incredible value.  After all, “Abraham had faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

As I have studied that one verse and how Paul uses it, I have come to believe that faith didn’t allow God to overlook Abraham’s sins, but faith made Abraham stop sinning.  Faith is what makes us holy and righteous.  Faith is what makes us innocent, though we be guilty.  Simply put, as a good Arminian, this is imparted righteousness, not just imputed.

If I am right about this, that means faith is about holiness and holiness, in turn, is activated by faith.  If we want to express holy love, we must first trust God.  In fact, love without trust is not very loving.  You might say that faith without works is dead and love without faith is six feet under.

And therein lies one of the problems of the entire Evangelical tradition.  The great Reformers, Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, fully understood that faith meant trust.  But their heirs, gradually over many centuries, started defining faith as a mental assent to doctrine.  So now when we talk about faith, we are not preaching trust, we are instead claiming that “by correct doctrine you are saved, not works.”

As I have talked to people who preach this false faith, I have come to believe that they think the entrance room to heaven is going to be an SAT exam room.  You will be given a test with a bunch of true false and multiple choice questions and if you don’t pass it, you are going the other way.

But faith isn’t about doctrine.  It is about trust.  We trust God like we would trust any employer, any parent, hopefully any spouse.  We trust that God has our best and the best of the world in mind.  We trust that God created the cosmos and so can save said cosmos.  We trust God to provide for us when we are starving in a desert.  We trust God not to kill us for petty reasons.  We trust this God to heal us, if not in the present, than in eternity.  And, yes, we trust God to raise us from the dead after sin has claimed our mortal lives.

Faith is all about trust.  And when we trust God enough to enter into a loving relationship with God, we become holy.  God’s holy love emanates out to us and saturates us so that we become a people not defined by our hatreds or lusts but by a trusting obedience in the God who created us and everything else.

Correct doctrine will not save you.  The tongues of men and of angels will not save you.  Good works definitely won’t save you.  Only God will save you and only if you trust Him and out of that trust, obey.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Theology of Luck

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Now I know what you all are thinking.  You all read that title up there and immediately assumed that in what follows I would not miss one opportunity to tell jokes and makes puns concerning the word “luck.”  But have some faith people, I am more disciplined than that, albeit not much more.

Actually that is absolutely what I intended to do until I looked at the one sentence reviews inside the front cover of this book and saw that they all did the same.  You just need to know they stole the idea from me.  Or maybe my brilliant ideas are not that original or maybe I am just that.  .  .wait for it.  .  .unlucky.

Still, I should open this review by noting that, like the authors, I believe luck is a thing.  By all indications when God put together the structures of the cosmos, God seems to have done so by programming a fair amount of random number generators.  We have just about proven this to be the case.

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Now let me back up right there and note that us Christians have to account for the fallen nature of creation.  Paul seems to imply that all creation was subjected to futility or chaos because of human sin.  So the random number generators and the chaos they bring about could have been the result of our sin or they could have been all part of the plan from the beginning.  Or some could be one and the rest the other.  Either way, luck, or if you prefer “randomness,” is a reality and seems to imply we don’t have a micro manager God on our hands.  I personally love that considering I loathe micro managers, especially ones that randomly decimate towns in the Bible belt with tornadoes every Spring.  I mean, after all, a God of the Bible would know those lousy liberals in the north deserve those tornadoes way more than those devout Southerners!  (Yes, I am joking there.)

So the question is:  What does all this say about God?

That is precisely the question the authors of “Theology of Luck” try to answer.  I don’t want to spoil the end for you, because I hate spoilers more than micro managers.  So let’s just be brief and note that according to Fringer and Lane, a macro manager God is also a relational God.   This God seems to prefer to partner with us in order to bring about good purposes in spite of the randomness and chaos and luck that abounds.

They make this argument in enticing and provocative ways, using a fair amount of relevant Scripture passages, examples from every day life and references to fictional pop culture.  In fact, the amount of Scriptural and cultural exegesis is remarkable given the extremely low page count.

On that note, it is common knowledge that there is a growing disparity between the church and the universities.  The pews are frequented more and more by less educated, blue collar types who either don’t want to study or don’t have the time.  The classrooms are full of people who love to study and get paid sums of money so that they have time to do so.  The problem, some argue, is that the academics seem to silo themselves off from the pews and embrace ever greater concepts using an ever expanding vocabulary.  At the same those in the pews silo themselves off from the university and get stuck at “Jesus loves me.”

If that is a real problem, than what we need are more mediators.  These people will frequent the classroom and the pew in equal measure and be able to write in ways that explain deeper concepts but using a more common vocabulary.

“Theology of Luck” is such a book written by such people.  It explains higher concepts of God’s nature without trying to sound overly smart.  Its examples are rooted in the world of the pews and its exegesis is simple enough that any sixth grader could follow along.  We desperately need more books like it.

In closing, I was involved in a Facebook discussion awhile back with some academic types.  We talked a bit about the bare minimum education pastors should be expected to have.  One of the things we eventually agreed on is that every pastor should be able to teach the equivalent of a Sophomore level theology and bible class.  Since then I have used that as my standard for teaching and preaching.  I want my congregants to know what every Sophomore Bible student knows.  (Actually I want them to know more than that, but I am willing to compromise.)  “Theology of Luck” fits that criteria precisely.  It is readable, fun, accessible and still deep and provocative.  Any run of the mill pew sitter could read it and interact with it and learn a lot from it.

And if they should do so, they should consider themselves so lucky! (Okay couldn’t resist that last one.)

What’s Pastor Kevin Listening To: Mumford and Son’s “Not With Haste”

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I was at the county fair this morning and ran into a wonderful family from my church.  Their sons were in the sheep showmanship competition and did rather well.  While we watched the kids and the sheep (no pun intended) their mom gleefully informed me that there had a been a singing competition the night before and that the winners had both sung “Christian” songs.

I was delighted that the Christians had thrown down on those lousy non Christians.  I was even more delighted to find out that these songs had invited Jesus into their hearts to be their personal Lord and Savior.  I am so glad to know that the sins of these songs had been forgiven so that they could go to heaven when they die.  Certainly this is a sign of God’s great grace because most Christian songs I know have a lot of sins that need forgiving, like generic melodies, random key changes, less than clever lyrics and annoying vocals.  Still I am less excited about the prospect of these songs getting into heaven, or thinking these songs are the only ones we will sing there.

But it got me thinking about N.T. Wright and how he argues in “Surprised By Hope” that many expressions of every culture will survive Jesus’ second coming and be performed and enjoyed in the New Jerusalem.  I don’t think that will be limited to “Christian” music.  In fact, the lines we draw between secular and religious are weak human attempts to divide God off from the world that God wants to save.

Mumford and Sons’ album “Babel” does a lot to undo those frivolous lines.  Are these songs about a religious pilgrimage or a broken romantic relationship or both?  You can find scores of internet forums debating that question.

Being a pastor I have found the songs speak to my faith in ways “Christian” music seldom does.  And while I could write a 2 week long series in which I review each song individually, I will stick to the one that brings that album home at the very end.  After the highs (“I Will Wait” and “Lovers of the Light”) and lows (“Hopeless Wanderer” and “Broken Crown”), a brilliantly simple ballad called “Not With Haste” proclaims, “We will run and sing.  You will dance with me.  We’ll fulfill our dreams and we’ll be free.  We will be who we are and they’ll heal our scars.  Sadness will be far away.”

While many hear in those words the benefits of a healthy romantic relationship, I instead hear echoes of the New Creation.  In fact this week I told my wife that it might be one of the best songs about heaven I have ever heard.  For when we talk about the kingdom that is coming we are talking about being free and fulfilling dreams and sadness being far away.

And when Jesus comes we will certainly “be who we are.”  God didn’t create us to bear the scars we bear or wound others the way we do.  True humanity is not sinful.  We were made for love.  So when Mumford and Son’s proclaim, “we will be who we are” they might be talking about the freedom that arises from being and doing what you were created to do.

Beyond that the song is ultimately about hope.  Both secular and religious alike agree on that.  One internet comment I found proclaimed, “These are such unashamedly hopeful words. It’s not a reckless, foolish hope, but a hope that’s grounded in what he’s learned in the past. He’s not throwing caution to the wind, he’s believing with faith that the hopes that he’s clung to so tightly, even through the storms, will now come to pass.”

This week I needed unashamed hope.  Over the last two weeks I have experienced a lot of pain and suffering.  I have seen the scars in this battered and broken world.  I have talked to abused children, spoken to heartbroken parents, seen friends use and abuse each other, and watched a church do further harm.  I have been broken and on my knees (which are more beautiful lines from the song).  I have been tempted to put up a guard and struggled to keep my candle bright.  So I needed Mumford and Sons’ “Not With Haste.”  And I believe with faith that the hope I cling to as a Christian pastor will come to pass, even through these violent storms.

In that glorious hope, I long to see God save the entire “Babel” album and let it into the New Creation.  Otherwise we will be stuck singing “Jesus Freak” for all eternity and nobody wants that.

Until His Return, cling to hope.