Month: August 2009

Where do you serve?

I had the privilege of speaking at the Convocation on the Rural Church, sponsored by Duke Divinity School this month.  The conference setting was the beautiful Kingston Plantation Resort at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the weather was great for a few days at the beach.

The group attending the Convocation on the Rural Church were United Methodist pastors because much of the funding came from the Duke endowment.  We had a wonderful 3-days with the group of about 100 pastors and spouses.

The first night of the conference we all gathered for a kick-off banquet.  Debbie and I found our seats at a table with 6 other men and women.  As we got to know each other, we noticed that the question of location came up several times.

But instead of asking, “Where is your church located?”  or “What church do you pastor?”  The question was almost always asked this way —

Where do you serve?

Debbie noticed it first, and then I started to pay attention to how these rural United Methodist pastors identified themselves.  The idea of service, not status, prevailed throughout the conference.  Of course, maybe I’m making a mountain out of the proverbial mole hill.  But I was touched, if I may get a little maudlin here, by the phrase used throughout the event, as one pastor identified him or herself to another.

“Where do you serve?” seems a much more genteel and appropriate question than “What church do you pastor?” The emphasis is on ministry as service, not status, and I liked that.  I’m going to try to remember to ask that question the next time I meet a pastor and need to know where he or she ministers.  “Where do you serve?” is a great way to identify what we do as pastors and leaders.

Sermon: I Believe in God the Father Almighty

Here’s the second sermon in my 13-part series on the Apostles’ Creed.  This week we think about the God we believe in, and have committed ourselves to.  I hope your Sunday is filled with the glory of God!

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed:
I Believe In God The Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth

Exodus 3:1-12 NIV

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

4 When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”

5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you  will worship God on this mountain.”

It All Begins With God

The first chapter in Rick Warren’s mega bestselling book, The Purpose-driven Life, is titled “It All Starts With God.”  And, the first sentence of the first chapter says, “It’s not about you.”  Obviously, Rick Warren was trying to make a point, and so were the authors of the first line in the Apostles’ Creed —

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

That’s it — 12 brief words that sum up what we as Christians, following in the steps of the original apostles of Jesus Christ, believe about God.  The legend of the Apostles’ Creed says that Peter penned this line, but as we mentioned last week, that legend is more story than fact.  But the words used here are real and were really used by early believers to describe their relationship with God.

Everything we say about Jesus, everything we say about the Holy Spirit, everything we profess about the church, salvation, judgment and eternity all depend upon the God we say we believe in.  We cannot relegate God to the backroom of our theology like the grumpy old uncle who we only allow in the living room from time to time.  No, it all does begin with God and that beginning will determine where we end up eventually.  So, let’s take a look at this God in whom we say we believe.

Moses Meets God

The text from the book of Exodus that we just read is a wonderful way for us to talk about God.  When we talk about our friends or family, very often we do it by telling a series of stories that we usually preface by saying, “Remember when….”

When we were in Douglas with my Dad for my brother’s funeral, my father began talking about his father,  which led us to bring up one funny story after another about my grandfather.  My grandfather, Charles Herman Warnock, Sr. was a small man.  He probably stood about 5′ 6″ tall, was bald from the day I knew him, and was a slim, small fellow.  My grandmother, Marguerite Warnock, was an ample woman, and so they made an interesting pair.  The nursery rhyme “Jack Sprat could eat no fat and his wife could eat no lean” always comes to mind when I think of them together.

My grandfather probably had an 8th grade education, and had made a living as a truck driver, a feed-and-seed salesman, and a part-time cattle farmer.  My dad told me a few weeks ago that Daddy Warnock, which is what the grandchildren called him, went several years without filing an income tax return or paying income taxes.  He told my grandmother, “They don’t know I exist.”

Well, one day two IRS agents showed up on their doorstep, and my grandfather spent the next few years paying his back taxes.  But one of the funniest things I ever heard him say was when I was a teenager.  We had gathered in their large kitchen, which had a huge fireplace and a table that would seat at least 12.  It was probably Thanksgiving or Christmas because Daddy Warnock was in his rocking chair, which sits in our living room today.  He was seated beside the fireplace, smoking a cigarette while the ladies were talking about what to have for supper.  Somehow the talk turned to spaghetti.  My grandfather turned to my grandmother and said, “What kind of tree does spaghetti grow on anyway?”  My grandmother, not a person to brook any foolishness, turned to him and said, “Herman, that’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.”  Or something like that.

We all fell in the floor laughing, but it wasn’t until I was with my dad a couple of weeks ago that he supplied the reason for Daddy Warnock’s question.  He said that they had been watching television the night before, and some documentary showed Italian women hanging their pasta on trees for it to dry.  Daddy Warnock obviously was not paying close attention, probably because he was trying to tell a story himself, and just caught the image of these trees with pasta hanging from their branches.

All of that to say, we usually talk about our relatives by telling stories about them.

Now, if you read theology books about God, you don’t get stories, you get concepts.  Well-meaning authors give lengthy descriptions of concepts about God, which go something like this:

God is omnipotent. He can do anything He wants to do, except He doesn’t do silly or pointless stuff like try to make a rock so big that God himself can’t pick it up.
God is omniscient. Which simply means, God knows everything.  He knows it without thinking about it, He just knows it.  He knows the deep thoughts of our hearts, and everything else.
God is omnipresent. He’s everywhere at once.  Which is how we can be worshipping here, and God is present with us, and other folks can be worshipping half-way around the world, and He’s there too.  Nice trick, if you can do it, and God can.

So, those are the big three things about God, but that doesn’t really tell us much about him does it.  It would be like my only saying, “My grandfather was 5′ 6″ and weighed about 125 pounds, and was bald.”  You’d get some kind of mental picture, but you wouldn’t really know much about my grandfather.

That’s why I chose this story today.  It tells us a lot about God.  It’s the story of God meeting Moses for the first time, at least as far as Moses knows.  It’s the story we call “Moses and the burning bush” and I’m sure when Moses spoke of God to his relatives, he said, “Remember that time God appeared to me in the burning bush? Have I told you that story?”  And like my grandfather, Moses would tell the same story again to the same people who had heard it so many times before.  So, let’s see what the story of the burning bush tells us about God.

God is a God Who Calls Us

The Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in God the Father…”  We don’t have time to unpack all the fatherhood of God means, but one thing I know it means is that God as Father calls us, just like my father called me in from playing to eat supper each evening.

God calls us.  Those three words themselves have great implications for our relationship with God.  First, for God to call us, he has to know our names.  And with Moses, God does.

“Moses, Moses” God calls from scene of the bush that is burning but not consumed.  Of course, God had to get Moses within earshot, had to get Moses in a place where Moses could hear God.  So, God had an angel appear as flames of fire in a bush to get Moses’ attention.  And it worked.  God got his attention, and then called out to him by name, “Moses.”

We get this again several times in Scripture.  My favorite story of God calling someone is the story of young Samuel.  Samuel, a young boy growing up in the Temple with Eli the kind, elderly priest.  One night Samuel hears a voice calling him, “Samuel, Samuel.”  Thinking it’s Eli, young Samuel gets out of bed, and goes to Eli.  Eli says he hasn’t called Samuel and sends Samuel back to bed.  Two more times Samuel hears a voice calling his name, “Samuel, Samuel” and two more times Eli says it isn’t him.  But on the third time, Eli realizes that God is calling Samuel, and so he tells young Samuel, “The next time you hear the voice, say, ‘Speak Lord, for thy servant hears You.'”  Samuel did, and God was calling Samuel to serve God, too.

God calls us.  He calls us by name, he calls us to serve Him, he calls us to be in fellowship with Him.  William Willimon in his book, Who Will Be Saved, says in his chapter titled, The God Who Refuses To Be Alone, “God is determined — through Creation, the sagas of the Patriarchs, the words of the prophets, the teaching of the law, and the birth and death of the Christ — to get close, very close, too close for comfort in fact.”

God calls us because God wants to be near us, to love us, to save us — which we’ll get to in a minute.

God is a God Who Comes Down To Us

But, if we just say God calls us, we might miss the fact that for God to do that, He has to be present with us.  God, says the writer of Exodus, comes down to us.  Of course, when God comes down to us in the person of Jesus, we call that the Incarnation — God with us, Immanuel.  That’s the Christmas story.  And, so every Christmas we gather here at church, or at home, and we say, “Remember the time when God came down to us?”  And we tell that story.

But here God comes down to his people, the nation of Israel.  God comes down to Israel because God has heard their cries, sees their predicament, and is acting to save his people.

God comes down to us because he loves us.  God comes down to us because he hears us.  God comes down to us to save us.  That’s the story of God that we need to tell over and over.  For God is not just a God who calls us to serve him, he is a God who comes down to us to speak to us face to face, to call us personally, and in-person.

In Western thought, our concepts of God tend to be of the removed God — the transcendent Being — who rules and reigns forever, world without end, amen.  We ascribe lofty attributes to God, attribute great power and majesty to God, and well we should.  But we must never forget that those are concepts, too.  That all we really know about God we know from the times that God has revealed Himself to us — in the burning bush, the voice in the night, and in the birth of a baby named Jesus.

In the Old Testament, and in this book of Exodus especially, we see God not as just the God of Mount Sinai, surrounded by smoke, fire, and thunder.  But we also see God who comes down to us in a rather small burning bush.  Who speaks to Moses in an understandable voice, who calls Moses by name, who knows his weaknesses and strengths, and who has come down to save his people.

When I was about 8, I got a bicycle for my birthday.  Lots of kids get bicycles, and mine was a red Schwinn bike.  My dad worked with me in the front yard, holding the rear fender of the bike while I tried to pedal and steer all at the same time.  After several wobbly attempts, I began to get the hang of it, and my dad went inside.  Thinking like only an 8-year old can, I thought it would be really funny to play a trick on my dad.

So, I laid my bike on its side, and then positioned myself under it, with my legs all tangled up like I had crashed in spectacular fashion.  I then started yelling for my dad, “Help, help, help me!”  Or something like that.

It must have worked because the front door opened, and my dad bounded down the steps with a look of horror on his face.  He bent down to comfort me, and about that time, I said, “Gotcha!  I was just kidding.”

Well, he wasn’t amused, but he wasn’t really mad either.  He told me something about the boy who cried wolf, and then went back in the house.  But I never forgot the look on his face.  He was concerned, worried, he had heard my cries, and he was coming down to help me.  I felt kind of bad that I had tricked him, but I also felt kind of good that I saw he really was concerned.

God is a God Who Saves Us

In the New Testament, Jesus poses the question in the gospel of Luke, that is interesting.  I like this in the New Revised Standard Version because it shows the difference between us and God dramatically:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  — Luke 15:4

Which one of us?  None of us would do that.  We would say “at least I’ve got 99 sheep here, not bad.  You know you’re going to lose a few here and there.”

But not God, the good shepherd.  He goes after the one that is lost until he finds it. Not until it’s dark, or until it’s cold, or until he’s tired.  No, God searches for the lost sheep until he finds it.  And, he leaves the other 99 while he’s looking.  That’s not the way we would do it at all.

But Jesus goes on in that same chapter to tell about a woman who lost a one coin out of the ten she had.  She opens the curtains, lights the lamps, moves the furniture, sweeps the floor, and searches carefully until she finds it.

But, Jesus still isn’t finished.  Then he tells the story about a lost son.  The prodigal son.  A young man so selfish and self-centered that he took his inheritance, left home, and lived it up until all his money ran out.  He makes his way home, contrite and ashamed.  And Jesus says, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him.”

How is that possible?  The father is looking for him.  Everyday, watching the horizon, looking down the dusty road where the last time he had seen the back of his son leaving home.

But this time, he sees the younger son headed home.  The father runs to greet him, hugs and kisses him, throws a party, calls the neighbors, and celebrates the return of the son who was dead, but who now is alive again.

And we would have not done any of those things, except maybe look for the lost coin, because after all that’s real money.

God saves us.  He saves us from ourselves, from sin, from the devil, from our mistakes, from missing the mark.  God saves us, because that’s what God does.  God told Moses, “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”

God heard not only the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, he heard the cries of the nation 1500 years after Moses.  Occupied by a foreign army, victimized by their own corrupt clergy, God heard his people and came down and saved them through Jesus.

And God still saves us today.  He saves us from sin, and for glory.  He saves us because he loves us.  He saves from a bitter place, to bring us to a better place.  God saves us.  Who of us would do that?  None, but God would.  Who could save us?  None, but God could.  Who did save us?  No one but God did.

And so we say with the apostles’ today,

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.  Amen and amen.

Barna Bungles Small Church vs Big Church Survey

imagesI first saw it on Twitter — “Big differences in what small churches believe vs. big churches” — or something like that.  Then, I saw it again a couple of days later.  So I clicked the link and found myself staring at a Barna Group survey turned into a nice bar graph compliments of Church Relevance.

Normally, I like Barna’s stuff.  I’ve got some of his books, and generally the Barna folks provide some helpful insights into the world of church and opinion.  But the more I looked at their survey, How Faith Varies By Church Size, the more concerned I became.  In short, Barna bungled this one.

The survey summary runs like this:

  • Of 17 questions about belief and behavior, there were significant differences between those surveyed who attended churches of 100 or less, and those who attended churches of 1,000 or more.
  • Both groups had in common that they prayed during the week.
  • Barna states: “On all 9 of the belief statements tested, attenders of large churches were more likely than those engaged in a small or mid-sized congregation to give an orthodox biblical response…”
  • And again: “On seven of the eight behavioral measures, attenders of large churches were substantially more likely than those of small churches to be active.”

Implication: People who attend small churches aren’t “orthodox” in their faith, and aren’t as involved as people who attend large churches.

But here’s the kicker: Barna acknowledges that “six out of ten” demographic attributes were not alike at the small versus large church.  Small church members were older; large church members were significantly younger.  Small church members were less educated, while large church members had more college graduates. Large church members had 16% more registered Republicans than small church members.  Barna states that “3,014 interviews were conducted” but the total respondent numbers in each column add up to only 1,334 — what happened to the other 1,680? I could go on, but you get the picture.

But wait, there’s more!  Barna uses the term “Protestant” to identify both small and large churches.  Well, that covers a lot of territory.  I would expect to see some theological and behavioral differences in my church (100) versus Joel Osteen’s church (30,000), and we’re both Protestant in some loosey-goosey sort of way.  My point is that if Barna had compared small United Methodist churches to large ones; or small Baptist churches to large ones; or small Assembly of God churches to large ones, his survey might (I think definitely would) have yielded a different picture.

Also, Barna doesn’t disclose the real questions, only his “description” of the actual survey questions, but they do admit that non-sampling errors could arise from question wording, question sequencing, and even the recording of responses.  To top it off, the survey is not reported by age or other personal profile markers like education, i.e., respondents from both small and large churches who are 40 years old. So, you can’t compare what one demographic in the small church believes versus the same demographic in the large church.  Barna is comparing apples to oranges to use a well-worn cliche.

Why am I so lathered up about this?  Because this “survey” implies that small churches aren’t as “orthodox” in the faith as large ones, based on Barna’s own definition of orthodoxy.  It’s a disparaging view of small churches, casting suspicion on them for belief and behavior of their members, and that aspersion from a flawed survey that is not fully disclosed.

The interesting footnote to all this is that house churches — under 20 in attendance — have results similar to mega churches.  Barna has a dog in the house church “revolution” fight with his book by the same name, so I question the validity of this conclusion, especially since he provides no place on his chart for detailing other house church responses.

One has to wonder what the point of this survey was if it does not provide any helpful comparison of large church versus small church life due to its flawed design.  Either Barna rushed this one out the door too fast, or there’s another shoe about to drop on small churches.  What do you think?

Sermon: I Believe, An Introduction To The Apostles’ Creed

Tomorrow I begin a 13-week series titled, Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed. Tomorrow’s message is the first in the series, “I Believe: An Introduction To The Apostles’ Creed.” I hope your Lord’s Day is wonderful, and that your affirmations of faith, whatever form they take, will help your members “watch their life and doctrine” as Paul admonished young Timothy.

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed
“I Believe: An Introduction To The Apostles’ Creed”

1The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

6If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. 7Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

9This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance 10(and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.

11Command and teach these things. 12Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. 13Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

15Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. — I Timothy 4:1-16 NIV

Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely

Paul the apostle is writing to his protege in the ministry, a young man named Timothy. Paul knows Timothy, knows his mother, knows his grandmother, and Paul knows that Timothy comes from good stock. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul reminds Timothy of his heritage as he writes —

“I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” 2 Timothy 1:5

But, in this letter, Paul’s first to young Timothy, he admonishes the young preacher to —

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

This must be pretty important stuff because Paul says Timothy will save both himself and his hearers if he heeds Paul’s advice.

We’re pretty familiar with telling each other to watch our lives, watch how we live as believers. Gerhard Lohfink said that the church is a “contrast society.” By that he meant that Christians, gathered in community together, live differently than the world around them. Live in contrast to the normal, or accepted rules of the greater society.

And Christian history overflows with our best moments when we rose to the challenge of being a contrast society. In times of early persecution, Christians went to their deaths in the arenas with the testimony of Christ on their lips. Simon Peter himself, when faced with crucifixion, requested to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy to be put to death in the same manner as his Lord.

Down through the centuries Christians have nursed those struck down by plagues, when no one else would care for them. Putting their own lives in danger, and many did die, Christians cared for those abandoned by society and government, earning the admiration of generations that followed.

Christians have opposed war, worked for the abolition of slavery, insisted that the hungry be fed, and those in poverty lifted up. We have watched our lives both personally and collectively as Christ’s witnesses for over 2,000 years. Have there been colossal failures? Of course, but at least we now recognize them to be such, and admit freely that as part of looking to our lives, we have the duty to repent of past sins both individual and communal.

So, we’re familiar with self-examination and community conscience which is driven by our commitment to Jesus Christ.

But if there is anything we lack in the 21st century, it is the other half of Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “watch your doctrine.” In our family of faith, doctrine has become the embarrassing uncle, the one we never talk about, but are related to anyway.

In seminary, my professors used the ridiculous illustration of medieval theologians debating about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, to illustrate how silly those times were. But doctrine today has taken on the same kind of silliness in our society.

But let me stop here and clarify what I mean by doctrine, and what I think Paul meant by doctrine. I do not mean “Baptist doctrine” and of course, neither did Paul. I do not mean the things that distinguish this congregation from our near neighbors who are worshipping at the Methodist church, or the Presbyterian church, or the Episcopal church this morning. What I mean, and I think what Paul meant when he uses the word “doctrine” are those beliefs that distinguish us from the rest of the world, from those who do not share our faith.

The danger Paul saw for young Timothy was two-fold:

First, that Timothy would not live an exemplary life and would therefore lose his effectiveness as a young preacher. That’s why Paul tells him to watch his life, how he lives, what he does, the actions he takes, the behaviors he engages in. That’s why Paul says to him, “12Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.”

But secondly, Paul was also concerned that Timothy would get blown off-course by “every wind of doctrine,” by old wives tales and false teaching. Paul writes, “1The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.”

The Christian movement is over 30-years old at this point, and already there are challenges to the apostles. The Judaizers were telling non-Jewish believers that they had to become observant Jews before they could become Christians. Paul countered that falsehood with his letter to the church in Galatia.

The Gnostics were claiming that Jesus only appeared to have a body, and wasn’t really flesh-and-blood like we are. Or, that the Christ Spirit descended on the human Jesus at his baptism making him the Christ, and that this Christ-spirit left him before his death on the cross. John the Beloved answered that heresy in 1, 2, and 3 John.

So rather than the first century being a time when all followers of Christ were going in the same direction, it was a time of intense challenges to the very heart of the good news.

An Outline for Watching Our Doctrine

Okay, enough history for right now. So, what does that have to do with us here 20-centuries later. Just this: the Church under assault by the similar forces today. We just finished an 8-week study of the challenges that every church faces. In the face of secularism, pluralism, nominalism, materialism, criticism, postmodernism, and atheism what are we supposed to do?

Well, in dealing with each of those challenges, I talked about watching our lives — how we live and relate to the world around us. But beginning today, I want to spend the next 13-weeks talking about how we watch our doctrine. And as our outline for this look at Christian doctrine, I am using the Apostles’ Creed.

I am waiting for the gasps of disbelief to die down. A Baptist preacher using the Apostles’ Creed. Baptists don’t believe in creeds. In the 17th century when Baptists emerged as a denomination distinct from the Separatists and Puritans and Anabaptists, one of the hallmarks of our history was our insistence that we not have a creed.

Baptists emerged from the group called the Radical Reformers. Of course, the Reformers in the 1500s were Martin Luther (from whence came the Lutherans); and John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli (from whom came the Presbyterians). Other figures would follow like John Knox in Scotland.

Baptists came along after the first wave of the Reformation, however. Not satisfied with the reforms of the Reformers, the precursors of the Baptist denomination disagreed over many points that Luther, Calvin, and others did not reform. For instance, the Radical Reformers believed that communion was only a symbol, not a means of grace; and, that infant baptism was not scriptural. Luther and Calvin continued to baptize infants, and so a further rift in theological thought occurred.

In 1640 or so, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys had gathered a small band of followers together. Smyth declared the church he had started as disbanded, then proceeded to baptize himself, and then re-baptized all of his followers. That, as best we can tell, was the beginning of the Baptist denomination.

Among all the other things Baptist rejected were creeds. Tired of the domination of an authoritarian church hierarchy, Baptists began shedding as much Catholic influence as we could.

* We abolished a professional class of clergy.
* We abolished a centrally-controlled church, asserting that each local church was a full and independent expression of the kingdom of God.
* We abolished infant baptism, declaring that we would only baptize believers, and they had to be adults initially.
* We deleted the word sacrament, replaced it with the word ordinance, and reduced the ordinances to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
* We instituted a democratic form of church government.
* We declared the preached word to be the central event in worship, not the eucharist, and we designed our meetinghouses without center aisles and with a the pulpit as the focal point of the congregation.
* And, we declared the Bible as our only creed.

Creeds had been forced as confessions on unwilling and unrepentant converts, and often repeated without meaning or conviction. In their place, however, Baptists substituted long documents called “confessions.” The Baptist Faith and Message is our Southern Baptist version of our confession — the things we say we believe and that others who are in fellowship with us believe.

The Apostles’ Creed has suffered a fate similar to the mechanical clock.  The 12-hour clock was invented by Benedictine monks in the 12th or 13th centuries, who believed that having a device to call the monks to prayer at precise times, and at the same times each day, was a good thing.  Today of course, we are slaves to the clock, dividing our days not into times for work and prayer, but into nanoseconds by which we live our busy lives.  So, just because the Creed was abused, or employed in less than ethical or spiritual ways, it can still focus our hearts and minds on the central truths we hold dear as Christians.  And even Baptists have acknowledged the value of the Creed.

At the founding of the Baptist World Alliance in 1905 in London, Baptists from around the world stood together in that opening meeting and recited in unison The Apostles’ Creed. On the 100th anniversary of the Baptist World Alliance in 2005, in England again, Baptists from around the world again stood and recited together The Apostles’ Creed. So, even though Baptists do not say the Creed regularly, or officially acknowledge it as a summary of our belief, we have recognized The Apostles’ Creed as a common statement of the things we believe in common with other Baptists, and other Christians through the centuries and across cultures.

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed

We stand again at the crossroads of our culture. The church is beseiged like no other time since the first century in which it was founded. And in the midst of this assault we are more unprepared as a community of faith to give an answer for our faith than we have ever been. When challenged in the public square over the tenets of our faith, whole denominations are more likely to waffle on issues of faith in the attempt to not offend, than we are to give a clear statement of that faith.

The Apostles’ Creed is not Scripture, nor is it a substitute for Scripture. Rather, the Apostles’ Creed is a summary of what we believe Scripture to be teaching. Like our own Baptist Faith and Message, the Creed emerged at a time of great challenge to the church.

The legend of the Apostles’ Creed is not true, but it is interesting. The story goes that after the Day of Pentecost, as the Spirit was scattering the apostles to the four corners of the earth, the 12 came together and each penned a line that would express the faith they carried. The Creed was called “the faith delivered” or the “Symbol” and it was said in one form or other as early as the end of first century. It took the form in which the church has it today by the fourth century, and was itself an answer to those who challenged Christianity.

I believe we need the Apostles’ Creed today, and we need it in our own lives and in this congregation.

* We need the Apostles’ Creed because it is the oldest expression currently in use of the beliefs we hold in common as Christians.
* We need the Apostles’ Creed to connect us to the church of the first century, and to the faith of the Apostles themselves. For even if the apostles did not write the creed, it was certainly what they proclaimed as they carried the Gospel to Jerusalem, and Judea, and the ends of the earth.
* We need the Apostles’ Creed to humble us, and remind us that we are not the first generation to have followed Christ. There is a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, who have handed the faith off to us, and to whom we are responsible for its transmission to our generation.
* We need the Apostles’ Creed as a clear expression of what we believe when called to give account of our faith.
* We need the Apostles’ Creed to remind us of the whole counsel of God.
* We need the Apostles’ Creed to help us affirm the uniqueness of Christ.
* We need the Apostles’ Creed to remind us that the Holy Spirit is still with us.
* We need the Apostles’ Creed to remind us that we do indeed believe in the church, in an age in which the church is being attacked or ignored.
* We need the Apostles’ Creed to draw us into a new appreciation for the communion of saints,
* to make us newly thankful for the forgiveness of sins,
* and to remind us that there is indeed a life everlasting.

Mostly, we need the Apostles’ Creed as a brief expression of our faith. The Creed is short enough, only 109 words, to commit to memory with only a few recitations. It is broad enough to join us to the greater Christian family that transcends denominational division. The Apostles’ Creed stands as the oldest and most concise expression of the beliefs we hold as followers of Jesus Christ. It provides an outline for our self-reflection on the great doctrines of the faith, and gives us an concise way to speak of that faith to others.

A pastor friend of mine told the story of a young woman who was a member of his church. In a group of friends one evening, the conversation turned to religion. As friends do, the conversation was wide-ranging, and opinions on religious belief were offered. Finally, the conversation turned to what each person believed. Some of the young adults spoke in vague generalities, or were unable to articulate their faith at all. When the conversation turned to this young woman, someone asked her, “And what do you believe?” She told her pastor later that before she could form other thoughts, the words to the Apostles’ Creed that she had said every Sunday growing up in her United Methodist church poured from her lips:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.


Paul said, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Ministry Pornography Is Not What You Think

Ed Stetzer coins the phrase “ministry pornography” to describe a new kind of lust in the hearts of pastors and staff members, and it’s not what you think! This 3-minute video is worth watching.

13-Week Series on The Apostles’ Creed

I’m working on a new 13-week sermon series on The Apostles’ Creed, starting this Sunday.  Here’s the schedule:

Why Christians Need The Apostles’ Creed —

Aug 23, 2009:      1.  I Believe: An Introduction to The Apostles’ Creed

Aug 30, 2009:      2.  In God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
Sep 6, 2009:        3.  I Believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Sep 13, 2009:      4.  Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary,
Sep 20, 2009:      5.  Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell;
Sep 27, 2009:      6.  On the third day he rose again from the dead;
Oct 4, 2009:        7.  He ascended into heaven, And sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
Oct 11, 2009:      8.  From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
Oct 18, 2009:      9.  I believe in the Holy Spirit;
Oct 25, 2009:    10. The holy catholic church; The communion of saints;
Nov 1, 2009:     11. The forgiveness of sins;
Nov 8, 2009:     12. The resurrection of the body,
Nov 15, 2009:   13. The life everlasting.
Has anybody ever done this before?  I’ve got some good books on The Apostles’ Creed and all the creeds in general, but what have you found helpful about the Creed, if anything?  Does your church use it?  Do you say it weekly? Have you used the Creed (or the Nicene Creed) as a basis for a doctrinal study?
Interestingly, Beeson Divinity School is hosting “The Will To Believe and the Need for Creed: Evangelicals and The Nicene Creed.” Seems like Baptists are waking up all at once to this creed-thing.  Who knew?

Sermon: The Future of Our Faith

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow, August 16, 2009.  The Future of Our Faith concludes this 8-part series titled, Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.  The preceding seven sermons are:

Here’s the concluding message.  I hope you have a wonderful Lord’s Day tomorrow.

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces: The Future of Our Faith

Revelation 3:7-8
7“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Reviewing the Seven Cultural Challenges

The passage we have just read was penned during a time of extreme challenge to the church of Jesus Christ.  The emperor Domitian persecuted the church more fiercely and relentlessly that previous Roman emperors.  Yet John’s words to the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2 and 3, contain words of encouragement.  Some contain words of rebuke, but as Jesus speaks to the church in Philadelphia, he offers words of hope for their future —

“See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” That is very much the position that the church of the 21st century faces — an open door, but with great challenges.

Over the past weeks, we have examined Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.

  • When we discussed secularism, we asked the question, Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
  • On the Sunday we looked at pluralism, we asked,  Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?
  • Thinking about nominalism, we did some self-reflection around the question, Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?
  • Looking at our consumeristic lifestyle and materialism, we wondered, Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
  • Taking a cue from pop culture and post-modernism, we wrestled with Why Is Truth No Longer True?
  • We wondered Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore? when we thought about criticism of the church and Christianity.
  • And finally, we talked about atheism, and asked the question, Why Don’t They Believe in God?

All seven of these cultural challenges are converging in unique ways, especially in regard to the community of faith we call the church.  David T. Olson in his book, The American Church in Crisis, states —

“In America our world is also changing.  The ongoing downturn in church attendance this millenium is partially related to external cultural changes.  Christian ministry faces more challenges today than it did 20 years ago….Largely unaware of these changes, many churches continue to operate in modes and mentalities that no longer resonate with our culture.”  Olson, p. 161.

With the exception of nominalism, which means that Christians don’t walk like we talk, the remaining six cultural challenges are all external to the church.  In other words, these are forces and challenges that lie outside our control.

— We cannot stop the rising tide of secularism as a greater percentage of our population concludes that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not necessary for a full and happy life.

— We are witness to our changing communities and the vast multicultural tsunami that is sweeping over America and the globe.  With easy access to international transportation, millions of new cultures have migrated to our shores, just as our forefathers brought the cultures of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Europe to American soil in the 18th and 19th centuries. With that multicultural flood also have come the faith traditions of Africans, Asians, Hispanics, and Middle Easterners — Buddhism, shamanism, Islam, and other non-Christian traditions.

— We are, and have been, participants in the mentality of a growth economy, relying on consumerism to fuel the economic engines of our nation, cities and states.  As a result, we find ourselves — Christians and non-Christians alike — suffering through the inevitable consequences of of the meltdown of materialism.  Churches and denominations have reduced budgets, laid off workers, downsized programs, and sold property in order to survive the economic downturn.

— While post-modernism defies a common description, the loss of confidence in the stories that to this point had sustained our nation and churches is being felt in lower church attendance, and the questioning of any claims to absolute truth.  The internet, for all its good, has also leveled the playing field between truth and falsehood, or truth and personal opinion, by creating space for all ideas, regardless of their credibility.

— And finally, we are seeing the church and Christianity attacked boldly and without hestitation by movements like the new atheism, or simply by individuals for whom church is not a necessary part of their lives.

The doom-and-gloom recital of decline and demise could go on for the rest of this sermon, but I think you get the picture.  We are facing some unique challenges.  The question is — what about the future of our faith?  Will the church survive?  Will Christianity disappear?  Will our grandchildren and great grandchildren find the same faith we did, or will church buildings become museums and art galleries as many have in Europe?

The Church Has Always Faced Challenges

Before we despair too much about the current set of challenges we face, we need to remind ourselves that the Church of Jesus Christ has always faced challenges.

At her birth on the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 may have been saved, but immediately the apostles were challenged, persecuted, and imprisoned.  As the church grew, new challenges emerged with each succeeding year.

At first the Roman empire believed that Christianity was merely a branch of Judaism.  As much as possible, the Roman empire allowed its conquered states to keep their traditional religions, as long as they posed no threat to the Pax Romana, and the goals of the empire.

But as Christianity grew in numbers, and Jews like Saul of Tarsus began persecuting Christians, the empire itself began to see the Christian church as a threat.  And even though the story of Saul who became Paul, turned out to be one of the great stories of the church, the empire increased its scrutiny of those who were called “christiani” or the little Christs.

By Nero’s reign, Christians were being made the scapegoats for everything wrong in the empire, much as Jews were vilified in Nazi Germany.  Persecution rose to such a crescendo by the reign of Domitian (81 AD to 96 AD), that John the Revelator was given the vision that became the Book of Revelation.  John’s message was one of encouragement in the midst of persecution to Christians facing martyrdom in the first century.

Persecution continued however, until the reign of Constantine who in 313 AD issued the Edict of Milan, which returned the property of Christians back to them.  In essence, Constantine’s decree legitimized Christianity and brought the Church into a partnership with the state.

In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle writes that the church goes through a major transformation every half-millennia.  She quotes Anglican bishop, Mark Dyer, who quips that every 500 years or so, “the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”  We’re in one of those times, according to Tickle.  And at least three other of these theological rummage sales preceded this one.

In the first 500 years of the church, the monastic movement took hold.  The Desert Fathers and Mothers, predecessors to the later monastic movement, fled the corruption of the church in the cities in order to live ascetic lives devoted to God.  The challenges the church faced then were both external and internal.  External persecution came from a hostile regime, until Constantine; but then internal pressure came from the church’s shifting partnership with the state after Constantine.  Those who fled to the desert also fled the corruption of the church herself.  Clergy under Constantine had become extensions of the empire’s bureaucracy.  Clerical appointments became political favors often handed out to completely unqualified and unsavory churchmen.

Gregory the Great took the monastic tradition to a new level, and sheltered the great traditons of the faith — theology, liturgy, daily prayers, personal devotion — during a time when the Roman empire was collapsing and the Dark Ages were upon Europe.  Monasteries became the keepers of the flame, the repositories of faith and practice in a world that seemed to be losing its way.

The second great event came about 500 years later.  The Great Schism — the separation of the Eastern Church from the Western Church — divided a previously united, if fractious, Church into its two predominant cultures.  The Eastern or Orthodox church went its way with its icons and liturgy, while the Western church became consolidated in Rome.

The third great transformation was the Great Reformation of 1517.  We know the event that sparked the split.  A Catholic priest named Martin Luther posed his 95 theses — topics meant for discussion — on the front door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.  Challenging both the theology and the corruption of the church, Luther sparked a firestorm of religious fervor that brought new thinking and new theology to the western world.

Tickle believes we in the 21st century are experiencing another one of those “great” moments in the church, which she calls the Great Emergence.  Personally, I don’t think Tickle fully captures what is happening in the global church, but she at least gets credit for naming this fourth ecclesiastical rummage sale.

My point in all of this is that the church has always faced challenges — some external, some internal.  But, as the church has come through those challenges, she has been changed dramatically.

New groups, new liturgies, new theologies, new mission, and new believers came out of each of these great transformations.  Unfortunately, not all the tactics were peaceful, not all the arguments civil, and many died defending their version of the faith rather than the faith itself.

What Does The Church of The Future Look Like?

But, even though the church has faced and survived challenges in the past, what does that mean for us today?  With annual declines in church attendance, one wonders.  Examples are not hard to come by.  The Episcopal Church had set a goal of increasing attendance by 20% by 2020; instead, their attendance has declined by 7%. Southern Baptists have little room to brag either.  Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, has pointed out that the SBC has been in decline for the past 50 years, and the indicators for the future do not bode well for us either.

Lyle Schaller, renown church consultant, published his book, The Ice Cube is Melting, as a wakeup call to his own United Methodist denomination.  The Presbyterian Church USA launched a major effort to include more minorities in its congregations, only to discover that after an immense effort, their denomination still remained 97% white.

Churches of all flavors are facing tremendous challenges, and the methods of the past are no longer working.  In light of that, what does the church of the future look like?

First, to understand the church of the future, you have to look at the world of the world of the future.  According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2009 report, the world population will hit 7-billion by 2011.  The climb from 6-billion to 7-billion took only 12 years, and according to the same report, by 2050 the world’s population will stand at 10-billion.  That’s almost a 50% increase in people on this planet from where we are today.

Secondly, 90% of world population growth in the 20th century took place in less-developed countries.  In the 21st century, virtually all of the world’s population growth will take place in less-developed countries.  Africa and Asia will lead the way.  India will emerge by 2050 as the most populous country in the world with almost 2-billion inhabitants.  China will be second with 1.4-billion.

The US will rank third with 439-million by 2050, up from our present population of 307-million, another almost 50% growth.  But, in the US, most of the population growth will come from newcomers to our country, primarily those of Hispanic descent.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’ll be dead by 2050, so it won’t affect me.”

Well, you might be right, but most of the shift in demographics will occur within the next 20-years.  By 2020, whites will no longer be the majority race in the US, and in fact, there may be no majority race.

But, even if you think 2020 is a long way off, we’re already seeing significant signs of demographic shifts in our country, and in our region as well.

An example is the church I pastored in Stone Mountain, Georgia from 1980-1984.  I was called to Pine Lake Baptist Church when I graduated from seminary.  At that time the community was a suburb in the greater Atlanta area.  Middle to uppper-middle class subdivisions dotted the landscape, and our members reflected the white, middle class world of suburban Atlanta in the 1980s.

The year I came to Chatham, 2004, Pine Lake invited me to come back to preach their annual homecoming service.  We walked into a much different church than the one we left.

The platform had been reworked, and the organ replaced with a place for their new 4-piece band.  A couple of guitars, a drum set, and a keyboard stood to one side of the platform.  The choir director was from Jamaica, and the song selection was upbeat and happy.  The choir was made up mostly of west Africans, Jamaicans, and some long-term white members of the church.  Black and white deacons served together.  A Laotian church meets there each Sunday, conducting their worship in their native language.  The community around the church has changed from white suburban, to urban and ethnic.  Many are students at Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory University, or one of the other colleges and universities in the Atlanta area.  The church had lots of kids, young people and families.  It truly was an amazing experience, reflecting the trends that are changing the ways we live our lives, including the way we worship.

So, first the church of the future is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic.  Sunday morning will no longer be the most segregated hour of the week in our communities.

But, wait, that’s not all, as the TV commercial says.

The rising generation, called Millennials, will change our own country in ways we are just now beginning to see.  Millennials are young people born after 1980 or so.  As a generation, they are larger than my generation, the Baby Boomers.  We thought we would dominate society until we passed off the scene, but the Millennials are already upstaging and displacing Boomers in number and influence.

The good news is that Millennials are optimistic, and eager to make this world a better place.  They volunteer to help in soup kitchens, to build Habitat houses, to become Big Brothers or Big Sisters.  They work well in groups, are open to all ethnicities, and are generally accepting of others.

Millennials have been compared to the World War II generation, which Tom Brokaw labeled The Greatest Generation.  They are builders and world-changers, just like the World War II GIs.   They never have known life without a TV, a computer, a car, or a cellphone.  They are technology natives, ready to harness the power of the internet to do good and connect with friends.

And, they are staying away from the traditional church in droves.  Their criticisms of the traditional church sting, but must be heard.  They are also not interested in the issues that have driven evangelicals in the past 30 years.  Millennials see the culture wars of the 1980s as a remnant of a dying movement.

In addition to the world population, and the Millennial generation, the shift from rural to urban will increase.  Today about half of Americans live in small towns or rural settings, and about half live in large urban centers.  By 2050, 90% of Americans will be living in densely populated urban areas, reflecting the sprawl of cities that are already evident in places like Mexico City, Shanghai, and Mumbai, India.

In short, the world as we know it is changing rapidly.

An Open Door That No One Can Close

The church will have to change.  And it will change because there are increasing voices calling for the church on earth to reflect the diversity of the church in heaven — with people from every tribe, tongue and nation.  Although change will come more slowly to us here in Chatham, we are not immune to the challenges of our culture.  We must change.

And the question we must ask ourselves is not ‘Who is here?’, but rather, ‘Who is not here?’ And the answer to that question will reflect the changes in our culture for we are not reaching those of other ethnicities, the young, and those not like us.

We need to open our eyes to those around us like one of the rural Methodist churches whose pastor I met this past week.  They have a ministry to bikers — not motorcycle riders, but bikers. One of the men who works in that ministry, a biker himself, was asked to tell about what they were doing.  He stood before the assembly of 100 United Methodist pastors, plus Debbie and me, and with his scraggly beard, long hair, bandana on his head, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and he told about the biker ministry and said, “When you’re working with God, nothing’s impossible.”

Nothing is impossible for those who are faithful to Christ.  In the face of overwhelming challenge, there was one church, the church in the original Philadelphia.  Jesus told them, “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”

We can also be that church, the church of brotherly love, the church of the open door.  For it is Christ himself who has opened that door.  A door to the masses on earth today and the increasing populations in the years to come.  It is a door of opportunity that Christ alone can open, and no one else can close.

And, Jesus recognizes our limitations.  We may appear to have little strength.  We may appear to be unequal to the task.  But strength is not as important as faithfulness.  Jesus told the Philadelphian church — “You have kept my word, and not denied my name.”  To keep the word of Christ is to be faithful to Christ asserting in the face of changing cultures that Jesus is still the savior of the world.

What is the future of our faith?  Our future is not restricted by the changes in the world around us.  Our future is bound up with the purposes of God.  Our future is God’s future.  The door is open, the world is waiting, the Gospel still is good news.  We must walk through the open door, change our methods but not our message, and present the unchanging good news to an ever-changing world.

Jesus concluded his message to the church in Philadelphia with these words —

11I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. 13He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Our prayer is that we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to this church.

Sermon: Atheism – Why Don’t They Believe in God?

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  It’s the last in the series, Seven Cultural Challenges Each Church Faces.  The other six on the blog, and I hope they’ve been helpful.  I hope your day is a wonderful Lord’s Day!

Seven Cultural Challenges Each Church Faces:
Atheism – Why Don’t They Believe in God?

Luke 23:32-43
32Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[e] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”

36The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

38There was a written notice above him, which read:  THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

A Familiar Scene with a New Question

Here we are in a familiar scene — the crucifixion of Jesus.  Luke offers us a glimpse at the activity surrounding the cross of Christ, and paints a very graphic picture of Jesus’ last moments.

After Jesus is given over to the mob, Luke turns our attention to the others being executed that day.  In the company of Jesus, two men — both criminals Luke notes — are crucified with Jesus.  As the men are nailed to the crosses, and the uprights dropped into the ground, the mob works itself into a frenzy.

Shouts of derision — “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One” — fill the air.

Roman soldiers mock Jesus, offering him wine vinegar, and say, “If you are king of the Jews, save yourself.”  The Jews mock Jesus for not being the Messiah, and the Romans mock him for not being a real king.  They even nail a placard over his head which reads — This is the King of the Jews, adding insult to injury.

As if the crowd’s taunts and the soldiers’ mocking is not enough, even one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus joins in the hateful chorus, with a challenge that reveals his own self-interest — “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other thief rebukes him — “Don’t you fear God?” he asks.  Then, he addresses Jesus — “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus’ reassuring response must have brought comfort to the penitent thief, and strangely brought no response from the other one.

Normally, we focus on the penitent thief, explaining that paradise literally means “the garden of the king.”  Jesus’ assurance to the one thief was that he would be his personal guest in the eternal kingdom of God.

But the question I want us to ask ourselves today is this: Why did one thief believe in Christ, and the other reject Him?  Because today we’re dealing with our final cultural challenge:  atheism.  Why don’t atheists believe in God?

How could two thieves hanging an equal distance, one on the right and the other on the left of Jesus, come to such different conclusions?  The penitent thief even chastised the other by asking, “Don’t you fear God?”  Apparently he didn’t.

Atheism Finds Its Voice

In the past 10 years or so, atheism has found its voice in our culture.  In 2006, Richard Dawkins, British biologist and professor at Oxford, published his atheistic tome titled, The God Delusion.  In it, Dawkins contended that belief in a creator God was a delusion refuted by scientific evidence.

Dawkins is said to share the sentiment made popular by Robert Pirsig in his book Lila, “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.”[4]

Dawkins presented four arguments in The God Delusion:

  1. Atheists can be happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.
  2. Natural selection and similar scientific theories are superior to a “God hypothesis”—the illusion of intelligent design—in explaining the living world and the cosmos.
  3. Children should not be labelled by their parents’ religion. Terms like “Catholic child” or “Muslim child” should make people cringe.
  4. Atheists should be proud, not apologetic, because atheism is evidence of a healthy, independent mind.[4]

Christopher Hitchens published his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, in 2008.  Part of the movement called “the new atheism,” Hitchens, Dawkins, Sam Harris — author of Letter to a Christian Nation — and Daniel Dennett, philosopher, are called “the four horsemen” of the movement.

I struck up something of a congenial relationship with another atheist, John Allen Paulos.  Paulos teaches mathematics at Temple University, and I received an email from him after I had dismissed his book, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why The Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up, as just one more volume in the popular past-time of God-bashing.

Paulos offered to send me a review copy of his book, in which he challenged the typical Christian arguments for the existence of God.  Frankly, I thought he did a pretty good job of dismantling the standard proofs for God offered by Christian apologetics.  He was so stunned that I gave his book something of a “rave” review, as he put it, that he offered to buy me dinner the next time I come to Philadelphia.  I have yet to take him up on that, but heard from John just a couple of days ago.

Among other things, John indicts Christians in his book for the terrible treatment of atheists.  He has been the recipient of a lot of Christian vitriol directed his way, and finds that rather offensive, as I do to.

But, atheism, and its close cousin agnosticism, aren’t just for egghead professors.  In 2007, the Lilly Endowment funded a survey by Trinity College that revealed that 15% of Americans not cite “no religion” when asked for their religious preference.  The Washington Post summed up the findings this way —

“The only group that grew in every U.S. state since the 2001 survey was people saying they had “no” religion; the survey says this group is now 15 percent of the population. Silk said this group is likely responsible for the shrinking percentage of Christians in the United States.”

Northern New England has surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country; 34 percent of Vermont residents say they have “no religion.” The report said that the country has a “growing non-religious or irreligious minority.” Twenty-seven percent of those interviewed said they did not expect to have a religious funeral or service when they died, and 30 percent of people who had married said their service was not religious. Those questions weren’t asked in previous surveys.”

Granted, saying you have “no religion” doesn’t mean you’re an atheist, but the accompanying answers on religious funerals and weddings indicate that faith traditions are not as important as they once were in our culture.

Why Don’t Atheists Believe in God?

Atheists obviously don’t believe in God.  I’m reminded of the story about the little boy who was growing up in an atheist home.  He turned to his dad one day and asked, “Daddy, does God know we don’t believe in him?”  And while that is an amusing story, the reality is that fewer people see the need to center their lives around a god of any kind, much less the God who sent Jesus to save the world.

So, why don’t they believe in God anymore?

First, our culture has changed.  Religious faith, or at least church membership, is no longer required for one to be considered a good, upstanding member of society.  As a matter of fact, in certain circles — academia being one of them — religious faith is viewed as a non-scientific superstition, and those who hold religious views as deluded.

Following World War II, as the GIs returned home on the GI bill, former soldiers went to school, graduated, got jobs, and moved to the suburbs.  Church nurseries were packed, as were sanctuaries.  God, home, and country were the pillars of society in the 1950s.  Of course, not everyone went to church, although a higher percentage of the population did then than now.  But, most everybody had an answer for the question, “What religion are you?”

Of course, that was long before a plurality of religious beliefs flooded our nation.  So the answer to the question, “What religion are you?” was usually Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian.  At least in the south.  But those days are over, and perhaps that’s a good thing.  Faith now is not a cultural expectation, but a personal experience.  But the option not to believe is just as accepted in our culture as the act of believing.

Secondly, atheists are often convinced that the only rational position based on science is that there is no god.  Scientists haven’t discovered God, have proven his existence, and have developed widely-accepted explanations for how life on this planet began, and how it sustains itself.  Atheists reject the idea offered by Christian apologists that if you have a garden, there must be a gardener.  Why? they ask.  Just because that’s how things work in our everyday lives, doesn’t mean there is a superior intelligence guiding us.

The New Atheism is also promoting a new name for atheists.  Apparently being called an atheist still carries a lot of cultural baggage with it, so the new atheists have come up with a name they like better.  They would prefer to be called “Brights.”

Granted, Brights does sound, well, all shiny and bright — luminescent, glowing, a kind of aura.  They are “bright” they say because they believe in science and rational thought, not superstition and tradition.  I’m not sure “brights” will catch on, but the name they have chosen says more about their view of themselves than anything.

Third, atheists often come to that position after a bad personal experience with the church, religion, or religious people.  And, they remind those of us who are Christians that there was a time when the Church killed those it considered infidels or blasphemers.  Of course, they are right.  The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the settling of the new world, all involved either the conversion or subjugation of those who were not Christians.

Although not an atheist, Ghandi’s observation, “If it weren’t for Christians, I’d be a Christian” has a stinging rebuke to it.  We Christians are our own worst enemy when it comes to appealing to atheists.

The opposition that Madalyn Murray O’Hair garnered after successfully suing to stop prayer in public school, led Life magazine in 1964 to call her “the most hated woman in America.”  O’Hair became the target of the wrath of the Christian community.  As founder of the American Atheists, she served as president of that organization until her disappearance and death in 1995.

Fourth, some view the existence of multiple religions as proof that none are right.  “If the Christians are right,” they argue, “then the Muslims are wrong; and vice-versa.”  Pluralism, which we explored at the beginning of this series, becomes the basis for not believing in anything.

Finally, I am sure some deny faith in a God of any kind because of their own personal tragedy, or their inability to understand the problem of evil and suffering in our world.  UNC professor Bart Ehrman, author of Jesus Interrupted, writes in his book that the problem of evil and suffering is what led him to become a “happy agnostic” in his words.  The loss of a loved one, an injustice or hurt, can shatter personal faith, or become a stumbling block to that faith.

Other reasons probably exist for why people choose not to believe in God, but whatever the reason, we as followers of Christ must find ways to engage our atheist and agnostic neighbors and co-workers as friends, not as objects to be converted or hated.  Jesus responded in love to both thieves hanging beside him, I am sure.  Only one believed that Jesus was the son of God.

Losing Faith and The Clues For God

Debbie and I were in the youth group at Dalewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee when we were in high school.  Our church didn’t have a paid youth minister, but we had great volunteers who opened their homes to us, took us on retreats and camps, and helped us find our own faith during our teenage years.

Two couples stand out in my mind.  Bob and Darlene Mendenhall, and Leonard and Norma Wills.  Bob was the manager of the Baptist Bookstore in Nashville, and he and Darlene had the entire youth group of about 25 kids over to their house many Sunday nights after the evening service, as did the Wills.  Debbie and I saw Bob and Darlene last in 2003, the year before we moved to Chatham.  We had the “World’s Oldest Youth Fellowship” reunion, and several members of our old youth group came.

But Leonard and Norma Wills weren’t there.  I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but during our high school years, Leonard stopped working with the youth at our church.  As a matter of fact, he quit coming to church altogether.  We missed him, prayed for him, but never heard exactly what happened.

Years later, in 2003, at the World’s Oldest Youth Fellowship, Bob Mendenhall told us what had happened to Leonard.  Leonard had become an atheist.  Apparently one night Leonard walked into his backyard in Nashville, and said, “God if you’re real, strike me dead right now.”  When nothing happened, Leonard concluded that God did not exist.

Faith is a fragile thing.  If you’re looking for reasons not to believe, they’re all around us.  War. Poverty. Disease. Famine. Suffering. Tragedy.  The list goes on.  If you’re looking for scientific proof for the existence of God, you won’t find it.  When the first Russian cosmonaut returned to earth, he proudly observed that he had been into the heavens, but hadn’t seen God.

When our grandson Wesley was about three, Blues Clues was his favorite TV show.  Blue, a cartoon dog, and his real sidekick buddy Steve, led preschoolers on a search for something that was missing in every show.  The kids could buy Blues Clues notebooks, so they could put the clues they found in them.  After enough clues were revealed, the mystery was solved.

A clue on the Blues Clues show was indicated by Blue’s paw print, in blue, of course.  So, if you saw a blue paw print, you knew that was a clue.  One day our grandson was standing at the front door, when he said, “A clue! A clue!”  He had spotted what looked like Blue’s paw print, even though it wasn’t blue, on the sill of the front door.

After writing the review of John Allen Paulos’ book, Irreligion, and posting on my blog, I wrote another article titled, Why I Believe God Exists.  I told the story of our grandson, that I just told you, and here’s the rest of what I wrote —

“The point of Blues Clues was to spot the clues and jot them in your notebook. Well, that’s kind of what we do as believers. We spot the clues of God. We make note of them. Those clues validate, not prove, that God is here, just like we read in the Bible. The Bible which contains the story of God.

So, I don’t need proof. I don’t need the philosophical sleight of hand that loses me in its twists and turns. I just need some clues. And a story. And a community to share it with. Do I agree with Paulos? I think he makes some good points, and I agree he presents his case well. It just doesn’t matter to me. Just as he states his unbelief, I state my belief. He finds no reason to believe; I find a million clues to believe.

In the New Testament, they just told the story of God and of Jesus. They told it to those who wanted to listen, and to those who did not. They told it to those who accepted it, and those who rejected it. They told it to those who loved them, and to those who tried to kill them. But, they told the story because they believed it with all their hearts. Which is where this story takes root, and flourishes, waiting to be told to others who have also seen the clues but need a story to go with them. That’s why I believe God exists.”

For those who do not believe, our lives are the only Bible they will read, the only presence of Christ they will experience.  Whether they come to faith or not, our job is to love them, just as God does.

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.