Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments, reflections

Doing church God’s way

A Sunday morning drive in our '63 Chevy Impala meant we'd soon be at church.
A Sunday morning drive in our ’63 Chevy Impala meant we’d soon be at church.

I was just a boy of three. It was Sunday, and time to go to church.

We lived near Clinton, New Jersey, but because there was no Nazarene church nearby, my parents loaded me and my two older brothers into our ’63 Chevy Impala. We drove 45 minutes down the highway to the Edison Church of the Nazarene.

When I would see the turn-off ramp, I would know that we were close to church. Excitedly, I’d say to my father: “Church, Dad!” I’d keep repeating the phrase until Dad would give-in and respond: “Yes, church, Greg.” I’d then make the rounds: “Church, Mom!” Finally, I’d insist on the same “Yes, church, Greg” response from my older brothers, David and Mark. It was a fun game…at least the first thirteen times.

My brothers grew tired of it. As we climbed into the Chevy the next Sunday morning, they made their case. “Dad,” they pleaded, “Tell Greg he can’t say that anymore. It’s annoying.” One parental lecture later, I’d learned my lesson. As we got to the turn-off this time, I solemnly intoned: “I’m not going to say ‘church, Dad.” When there was no response, I repeated: “I’m not going to say ‘church, Dad.”

What was true for me as a young boy is still true today: Being excited about going to church depends upon understanding what church is all about.

Continue reading “Doing church God’s way”

Posted in reflections

Have you been infected with MTD?

me-me-meThe songs we sing betray the theology we hold. In a church we recently visited, two lines from the choruses jumped out at my wife and me:

“I am a friend of God…He calls me friend.”

“He took the fall, and thought of me above all.”

There’s nothing wrong with experiential religion. As Wesleyans, we celebrate John Wesley’s “heartwarming” experience on Aldersgate Street in London 24 May 1738 when he received the assurance of his sins forgiven and reconciliation with God. God loves and cares for us and wants to enter into relationship with us. Still, I wonder: Does God exist for my sake, or do I exist for God’s?

Researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton set out in 2005 to understand the religious worldview of American teenagers. What they discovered was a truncated Christian understanding that they dubbed MTD – Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. MTD gives little thought to historic beliefs like resurrection, incarnation, sin, justification, or sanctification. Instead, what matters most is “being nice,” acting like a good, moral person – the “M.” Heaven exists and good people one day will get to go there. Further, God is someone to whom we can turn in times of trouble, but most days God doesn’t enter our consciousness – the “T.” But if skyscrapers start falling as on September 11, 2001, we run to God to comfort us. Finally, God is like the remote deity of 18th century deism, the Creator who is far away, uninvolved in our lives on a daily basis – the “D.”

How did we get to the place where God is nothing more than our lucky charm, a grandfatherly, non-demanding life coach to help us succeed? Albert Mohler places much of the blame at the feet of grown-ups:

All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life.

Mohler doesn’t criticize evangelism plans, so I’ll do it for him. For years, the 4 Spiritual Laws was the default method for presenting the Gospel. That presentation begins with the affirmation that “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” Notice who is at the center of that message? It’s YOU! You’re the one that counts. You’re so important that the God of the universe’s reason for being is you and this supposed tailor-made plan. You are the sun, and God is merely Jupiter, the largest planet revolving around you.

I don’t buy it. The Bible lays out principles for living that don’t put us at the center, but God. There are general guidelines for living — “Love God, love your neighbor.” There are the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes. If we live those out, then we are accomplishing God’s will for our lives. It’s all about God, not about us. Find out where God is at work, and join God’s mission. You don’t need a special invitation. We already received one in Scripture.

But let’s go back to those choruses cited above. They fail because they place the individual at the center rather than God. I’m not interested in fighting the so-called “worship wars” all over again, but you have to admit that some of the old hymns got it right. They exalted the Divine, God’s glorious attributes, effacing us and praising the Lord:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise!
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.

Bring back the theological debates. Let’s discuss predestination, free grace, sovereignty, salvation and providence. At least these weighty topics are worthy of our time and point us away from ourselves and self-interest to the character of God and how we can bring God glory. The only antidote for those infected with MTD is to get our eyes off ourselves and our own petty interests, to put God back at the center where God belongs, in both our lives and our worship.

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Image credit: Technorati

Posted in reflections

A genoux, petits enfants – thoughts on worship at Christmas

“On your knees, little children.” (A genoux, petits enfants)

This line from “Petit Papa Noël” sung by Josh Groban reminds us that – like many things in life – worship is something we teach our children. At Christmas time, adults supervise children in pageants at church. The little shepherds and wisemen arrive in their ill-fitting but colorfully cute outfits, and parent snap pictures, pride welling up inside. What are we teaching? From this activity, we teach our young that the Divine demands our allegiance, is worthy of our adoration.

Ideally, it is only to God that we teach our children to bow, in deference to the First of the Ten Commandments: “No other gods; only me” (Exodus 20:3, The Message). This is crucial, because to bow our knees to anyone or anything but God is idolatry, the setting up of false gods in our lives. But sometimes I wonder: When the Christmas pageant is done, the cookies are eaten, the fellowship hall vacuumed and we’ve locked the church door behind us, what are we modeling to our young the rest of the year? Even if we never verbalize “On your knees, little children” through our daily actions and reactions, to what other gods are we encouraging our children to give their devotion?

Merriam Webster’s fourth definition of worship is “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem.” As I look around our world, I see a number of things that – while wholesome within limits – can morph into something else altogether, usurping the place in our lives that belongs only to God. You probably have your own list, but here are three from mine:

Exhibit A – Media

ImageThis is a huge influence in our daily lives, and encompasses so many “gadgets.” Television is only the most obvious. By the time an English child has reached the age of 7, he or she will have already spent 1/7 of their lives – one full year – in front of the television screen. Is your living room set-up with furniture all centered around a big-screen T.V. or is it set-up in a way that encourages conversation among those in the room? Positioning of objects speaks of priorities.

Sometimes the advantage of living overseas is coming back to the United States with fresh eyes on my own country. Walking onto the platform of the Washington D.C. subway, I was amazed to see at least 80% of those waiting for the subway to arrive glued to their “smart phone.” We were all physically together, yet in spirit, we were inhabiting hundreds of different virtual worlds. Is it any wonder that Democrats and Republicans have trouble talking about anything big when in our nation’s capital we don’t even converse with each other about small things while standing side-by-side? Has our devotion to our gadgets become extravagant, edging out the rich, in-the-flesh relationships that otherwise might flourish? (This may be an ironic question on a web-based blog, so you have permission to stop reading and to spend some time with your twelve-year-old).

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Posted in Bible, reflections

Scripture: Our Rule of Faith and Practice

Philosopher Blaise Pascal once said that “man is only a reed, but at least he is a thinking reed.” Likewise, on the great tree of Christianity, the Church of the Nazarene is only a leaf, but we are a colorful leaf. Our emphasis upon holiness of heart and life, evidence of God’s transforming grace radically at work in us, helps us bring color to the branches of the Christian tree.

Sometimes as Nazarenes we get caught up on what makes us different from other Christians, on being the colorful leaf. We can forget that leaves are part of trees. The Church of the Nazarene shares much in common with Christians of other traditions, particularly those that bear the name “Protestant.” One common element is the emphasis we put upon the Bible as the benchmark for what we  believe, how we “do church,” how we hear the Spirit’s voice and how we decide questions of ethics and morality. In theology talk, we accept the Bible as our “rule of faith and practice.” [See discussion in Randy Maddox, “The Rule of Christian Faith, Practice, and Hope,” in Richard P. Thompson and Thomas J. Oord, eds., The Bible Tells Me So: Reading the Bible as Scripture, Kindle edition (Nampa, Idaho: SacraSage Press, 2011),  location 2098].

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