Month: October 2011

Podcast: The Kingdom and Your 15 Minutes of Fame

Jesus reminds us that although our culture values fame and fortune, in the Kingdom of God service and humility take priority.  Here’s the link to the sermon from Matthew 23:1-12 that I preached on Sunday, October 30, 2011.

Podcast: The Two Greatest Commandments in the Kingdom

Jesus summarized all the commandments in two simple phrases — love God, and love your neighbor.  But while these phrases may be simple, living them requires a lot from the followers of Jesus. Here’s the link to this sermon from Matthew 22:34-40.

Sermon: The Two Greatest Commandments in the Kingdom

If the two greatest commandments of the Kingdom of God are love God and love others, the question is How do we do that?  It might mean crossing boundaries that divide us and seeing others differently than we do. 

The Two Greatest Commandments in the Kingdom

Matthew 22:33-40

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The Greatest Commandment

The command that takes priority over everything else is to love God.  But running an inseparable second is the command to love your neighbor as yourself.

Loving God has some very specific expressions.  If you love God you do not attempt to make God in an image of your own imagination.  You do not worship other gods.  You keep a special day for worshipping God. You shall not use God’s name inappropriately.

Reverence for God’s name and day; faithfulness to God as the only God; refusal to make God in the image of our own imaginations, thereby controlling and limiting God.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves involves action also. But to clarify who our neighbors are, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.  A Jew traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is beaten and robbed.  Another Jew, a priest, passes him by.  Still another, a Levite, also passes him by.  Of all the religious leaders, these two classes should have known what was most important.  The priest administers the sacrifices for sin.  He should have known that people take precedent over piety.  The Levite, also a member of the priestly class, should have known that ceremonial laws of purity did not release a person from aiding another individual.  Neither stopped to help.

Along comes a Samaritan. Samaritans were hated by the Jews because of their racial makeup and their religious belief.  Sounds like the 21st century, doesn’t it?  So Jesus picks the most extreme example he can find of someone that no self-respecting Jewish man would be caught dead around.

The Samaritan violates purity laws by being soiled by the blood of the victim as he puts him on his own animal.  He finds help and nursing care for the victim, makes sure he will be taken care of, leaves money for his care, and promises to pay more if that is not enough.

Jesus then asks, “Who was neighbor to the man who was robbed and beaten?”  Not even able to utter the Samaritan’s nationality, the answer is given, “The one who showed mercy to him.”

With that, Jesus radically changed the meaning and boundaries of neighbor.  Neighbor now meant a wider group than just Jews.  Neighbor now meant those whom we were sure were destined for destruction and hell. Neighbor now meant a half-breed race, not our equals, not even worthy to be in our company.

And loving our neighbor meant putting ourselves at risk, giving up our own schedules, resources, time, energy, reputation, and taking not just immediate responsibility, but long-term responsibility for our neighbor.

It meant, as Jesus would say, “laying down your life for your friend.”

In China this week, the world was horrified at the behavior of some Chinese in the city of Foshan.  The internet was buzzing as the video of a little 2-year old girl was viewed over and over.

Two year-old YueYue, which means Little Joy, was with her mother at the market in Foshan.  Like two year-olds can before anyone is aware, she wandered off from her mother.  Video shows her walking down the narrow street of the market, right into the path of an on-coming truck.

The truck hits little YueYue knocking her down.  The driver, aware he has hit something (later he would say he was on his cell phone), slows, then speeds off.

That would be tragic enough, but the next series of events is what brought the nation of China to re-examine its own morality.  As YueYue is lying the the road, 18 people pass by her.  Most are walking, but one man on a motorcycle steers around the little girl.  And then, another vehicle runs over the toddler again.

Finally, a woman pulls the limp body of YueYue to the side of the road.

Perhaps because the whole incident was caught on video, the nation of China, at least for a moment, had to look at its own sense of community.  The question was asked in different ways, “How could we not come to the aid of a small 2 year old child?”

Jesus’ teaching of loving God and loving neighbor has some very important practical applications.

But we also have to look at what else Jesus did to love his neighbors.  We have talked previously about the parable of the banquet.  The king in this parable had prepared a banquet for invited guests, none of whom were able or willing to come.  So the king sends his servants out into the city to invite others.  And then when there is still room, he sends them back to the highways to invite those simply passing through town.

We like that story because it speaks to us about the openness of the King’s banquet.  But what Jesus was doing was changing the meaning of neighbor and community.  Remember that Jesus himself was accused of eating the tax collectors and sinners.  Apparently Jesus’ table fellowship violated the custom of the day, and made everyone uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable that they sought to discredit him, to shame him from continuing that practice.

And, if you think that we are beyond that kind of prejudice today, let me give you an illustration from our own past here in the United States.  Not far from here, in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, four African-American students sat down at the counter in the Woolworth’s department store and ordered coffee.

Their actions, immediately labeled sit-ins by the media, challenged the rules of table fellowship in our southern way of life.  Of course, the north was not any better, with its own ethnic divisions, but one wrong does not justify another.

Violent struggle accompanied sit-in after sit-in in Greensboro, in Nashville, TN where Debbie and I grew up, and at lunch counters across the South.  Why?  Because someone was challenging the rules of acceptable eating partners and practices.

What Jesus did, both in the story of the Good Samaritan, and in the parable of the banquet, and in his own life was to break down the boundaries that separated some of God’s children from others.

Jesus’ message to the Jews was that the Kingdom of God isn’t just for you.  It is for all of God’s creation.  Which is the same message the Old Testament prophets proclaimed when they prophesied that the nations of the world would come to the mountain of God.

That same vision is the vision John sees in the Book of Revelation, where there is not just one, but 12 trees of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, plural.

What we as followers are Jesus are to do as demonstration of our love of God and of our neighbor, is to expand our definition of neighbor.  To break down barriers to the Kingdom of God, to invite as the Gospels say “the good and the bad” to the King’s feast.

A wonderful thing happened in India this week.  Two-hundred and eighty-five little Indian girls got all dressed up in their best dresses, fixed their hair, and carried tiny bouquets of flowers to a very special ceremony.

These girls all had something in common.  They were all named “Nakusa” or “Nakushi” – which in India means “unwanted.”  Their parents, in an act of supreme cruelty, had labeled their own daughters with a name that expressed their own displeasure at having given birth to a girl.

These girls were stigmatized from birth, ridiculed in school, and faced a life of rejection.

But someone in the provincial government in India wanted a better life for these unwanted girls.  So the girls were given the opportunity to change their names.  And, they were allowed to choose their own new names.  As you can imagine, many of them chose the names of the most popular movie stars in India; others chose the names of goddesses; and others chose names descriptive of the life they hoped to lead – names that meant prosperous, or beautiful, or good.

One little girl said, “Now in school, my classmates and friends will be calling me this new name, and that makes me very happy!”

John said in Revelation 22 –

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

That’s what will happen when the Kingdom of God is fully come.  Everyone receives a new name.  That’s exactly what Jesus was doing.  Changing the names of those who were called sinner, or tax collector, or prostitute, or unclean, or adulteress, or leper, or poor.

To all of those he gave the name “loved by God.”  And that is what it means to love God and to love our neighbors.  Simple words, but life-changing behavior.

Six Dramatic Trends Impacting Small Churches

Six Dramatic Trends Impacting Small Churches

In his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, Professor Mark Chaves of Duke University identifies six new trends affecting U. S. congregations, including small churches.

In the chapter titled simply “Congregations,” Chaves examines sociological and demographic trends which are shaping church congregations. These six trends are:

Loosening denominational ties.  Of the 300,000-or-so congregations in the United States today, 1 out of 5 is an independent church, not affiliated with any religious denomination.  And, although this may seem apparent, a full 20% of all Protestants (which includes everybody not Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc) attend an independent church.  In addition, in the churches which are affiliated, funds sent by the churches to denominational headquarters have fallen from 5% of church receipts in 1998, to 4% of receipts by 2006.  While some churches may have stopped or redirected giving to their denomination in protest of unpopular actions, Chaves believes the drop in sharing reflects the “rising costs of running a local congregation.”  My own church reflects this trend as we have shifted the allocation of funds in recent years more to our own local missions efforts and less to our denomination’s.

Greater use of technology.  This trend, unlike some of the others, is obvious and observable, but Chaves provides specific percentages of churches employing digital technology.  For instance, 74% of churches now have websites, and 79% of congregations now communicate with their members via email.  But only 32% are using visual projection in worship.  I thought the use of projection in worship was higher than that, but obviously some changes come more slowly than others.  What we are quick to embrace in our personal lives, we might not embrace so readily in our corporate worship experiences.  Our own church confirms this trend.  While we maintain a church website, and use email and an online phone tree for contacting our members, we do not use projection in our traditional worship service.  In this one area, small churches might be skewing the percentages since there are more small congregations than large.

Increasing informality in worship.  Chaves notes that more churches incorporate “drums, jumping or shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, applause, calling out amen, and visual projection equipment” in worship than before.  Even in our very traditional service, we have made a conscious effort to “loosen up,” and our members applaud as their expression of appreciation for music or other presentations.  As you might imagine, dressing more informally, especially among younger people, is also part of this trend toward informal worship, which is a part of the larger trend of dressing informally in our social and work lives as well.

Aging membership.  People in the pews are getting older, according to Chaves.  While five of the six trends mirror changes in the wider culture, this trend of an aging membership is ahead of the rest of our society.  In the 1970s, church membership was about 3 years older than society at large.  Today church attendees on average are 5 years older than the wider population.  “Only when it comes to the aging of their people are congregations on the leading edge of a demographic trend,” Chaves notes.

Increasing member education and affluence.  In addition to the increase in age, congregants also have increased in educational level, with more college-educated than before; and, in income level as well.  In my opinion, while these increases are welcomed at the local church level because they represent both enhanced levels of potential leadership and giving, the downside is that congregations as a whole may have moved away from the most marginalized of society – adults with lower incomes and educational levels.  These “working poor” formed the backbone of Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostal denominations in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  If they are being left behind as church congregations grow in both education and affluence that would be a tragic abdication of the church’s mission in the 21st century.  In our own community, the “working poor” represent the largest unreached population among our local churches.

Increasing growth and popularity of large churches.  Two things are clear in Chaves’s research.  First, there are more small churches than large churches.  That’s the good news for small congregations.  The median size of congregations remains unchanged at less than 100.  Specific estimates range from 75-90 participating adults as the median size, which means that half of all churches are smaller, and half are larger.

But, the second fact brings discouraging news for smaller churches.  While the median congregation has less than 100 participants, the median church member attends a church of 400 participants.  In other words, well over half church participants are in churches that are much larger than the median.

Chaves reports this trend to larger churches by saying: “The biggest 1 percent of Protestant churches, for example, contain approximately 15 percent of all the people, money, and staff” in that denomination.  This trend toward larger churches is growing and is evident across all denominations.  This trend toward larger churches is occurring in evangelical and mainline denominations whether they are growing or declining; and, in liberal as well as conservative ones.

Chaves notes, “There are more very large churches, and the largest churches are bigger than before, but the key development is that people are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches.”

However, Chaves also notes that on the whole, religious participation in America is declining.  He cautions that this trend toward “concentration (more people in bigger churches) has not increased because megachurches have figured out how to attract the ‘unchurched.’”

The implications of Chaves’s findings in this rise of larger churches is, first, the obvious one that the movement of participating church members is from smaller congregations to larger ones.  But, secondly, that movement may or may not be solely the result of the attraction of larger churches, but may also result from the shift of population from rural to urban areas.  We are, in other words, swapping members from smaller to larger, from rural to urban churches.

Chaves also notes that the rise of megachurches creates the illusion that church participation on the whole is on the rise. That is not the case, however.  Although an amazing 60% of American adults have attended a service at a congregation in the past year, only about 25% attend church on any given week, and that number is unchanged over several years.

Additionally, if you think that emerging churches, or “spiritual but not religious” are outpacing the traditional local congregation, think again.  Chaves reminds us that traditional, institutional churches remain by far the “most significant social form of American religion” in our culture.

Mark Chaves offers small churches a mixed bag of information to deal with in his book, American Religion.  Some of these trends are observable (aging members, more technology), some are welcomed (higher education and affluence levels), and some are problematic for small churches (neglect of working poor, and more members in more larger churches).  But the startling fact that should spark our imaginations in both small and large churches is Chaves’s conclusion:

 “The religious trends I have documented point to a straight-forward general conclusion:  no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is going up.” – American Religion:  Contemporary Trends, Kindle loc. 1209.

 This observation should spur both large and small church leaders to a renewed sense of mission, critical self-examination, and innovative methods of outreach.  Whatever the realities of the small church versus megachurch conversation, American Christianity as a whole is falling further and further behind in reaching and impacting the people around us.  That is the most disturbing trend of all, in my estimation.

Disclaimer:  I purchased American Religion: Contemporary Trends from Amazon at my own expense, and received no inducement or other consideration to quote from, or use this book.  This article is the result of my own reading and reflection and was not suggested by the author, publisher, or publicist connected with the book. -CW

How Evangelicalism Changed And Why It Needs To Change Again

Evangelicalism has thrived in America because of its ability to adapt to its culture, according to Randall Balmer in his book, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond.

Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University and a contributing editor to Christianity Today, writes in this brief book published in 2010 by Baylor University Press, that five historic shifts have shaped evangelicalism uniquely as “America’s folk religion.”  These shifts are:

1.  The shift from state church to free church.  Balmer contends that the First Amendment, which guarantees that the government shall not establish or impede religious expression, set evangelicalism free from state influence to flourish or die on its own.  Unlike Europe where acts of toleration permitted dissenting groups to exist in the shadows of the state-sanctioned church, the First Amendment assured that American churches would be allowed to “compete” among themselves for the attention of the American public.  This freedom was not only a freedom to worship, but also a freedom to freelance the Christian faith by any person or group who chose to do so.  Balmer notes, The genius of evangelicalism throughout American history is its malleability and the uncanny knack of evangelical leaders to speak the idiom of the culture…”

It is this freedom to change that has enabled evangelicalism to flourish and adapt to the culture around it.  However, there are dangers associated with adapting to the culture, which Balmer addresses in the book.

2.  The shift from Calvinism to Arminianism.  Balmer illustrates this important theological shift by describing the differences in the First and Second Great Awakenings in America.  The First Awakening was dominated by a sense of helplessness expressed by Jonathan Edwards in his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon.  Revival and salvation were God’s work, and sinners were at the mercy of God as to their eternal destiny, according to Edwards.

But by the time of the Second Awakening, preachers like Charles G. Finney believed that revival was “man’s work.”  Finney published a manual telling how others could hold revival meetings and included details about location, songs, and even the mourners’ bench.  This shift from hyper-Calvinism (“God’s work) to hyper-Arminianism (“man’s choice”) changed the ways in which the gospel was presented, and changed the focus of evangelical life.

Balmer explains the recent renaissance of Calvinism among those who believe in a person’s ability to “decide for Christ” (an Arminian belief) as an attempt to reclaim the intellectual high ground despite the shifting history of evangelicalism’s theology.

3.  The shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism.  How could one’s view of the millennial reign of Christ, a rather esoteric theological doctrine, influence the practice of evangelicals in America?  Balmer points out that the evangelicalism of the nineteenth century grappled with some of the great social issues of its day.  Evangelicals were on the forefront of the battle to outlaw slavery, clean up the effects of alcohol, create public education opportunities for poor children, and secure the right for women to vote.  Great institutions were founded to care for the sick, educate the illiterate, feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and rehabilitate the fallen.

Balmer believes that this urgency to reform society and cure its ills came from the postmillennial idea that Christ would return after a 1,000-years of peace and righteousness.  However, with the twin horrors of the Civil War and then World War I, the hope of a 1,000-years’ of righteousness brought in by human effort faded from the evangelical imagination.  Evangelicals turned their attention to the salvation of “souls,” separating spiritual souls from the harsh reality in which those souls struggled.

J. N. Darby provided the theological impetus for this shift with his doctrine called premillennial dispensationalism.  Darby’s theology explained neatly the epochs of God’s dealing with mankind.  It also freed Christians from creating the millennial kingdom because believers would be taken out of the world until Christ came to establish that kingdom himself.  One of the results of premillennialism was a disregard for creation.  This issue is still with us today.  In 2008, Richard Cizik resigned under pressure from his position at the National Association of Evangelicals.  Although not the immediate reason for his resignation, Cizik had drawn criticism for advocating care for the environment as an evangelical issue.

4.  The shift from engagement to disengagement and back again.  Facing the twin pressures of attack on their beliefs from the scientific community via Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the academic community via higher criticism of biblical texts, evangelicals sought to define themselves by enumerating an indisputable list of “fundamentals” to which they subscribed.  This differentiation between evangelicals and “liberals” in both academia and science played out in the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Fed up with being portrayed negatively after the Scopes’ trial, evangelicals began to withdraw from the wider culture, establishing their own schools, colleges, seminaries, and other institutions to counter the encroachment of “modernism” and “liberalism” on their families and churches.   But in 1947, Carl F. H. Henry published his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, and a group of evangelicals founded Fuller Theological Seminary.  Both events marked the re-engagement of evangelicals with American culture.  Billy Graham’s Christianity Today became the journalistic voice for an active and thoughtful evangelicalism.

5.  The shift from the marginalized to the powerful.  Re-engagement was to take a right turn after the election of Jimmy Carter as president in 1976.  Carter, initially the darling of conservatives, soon became their whipping boy.  With the IRS threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of the ultra-conservative Bob Jones’ University, the rise of the Religious Right began.  Denominations and churches which had begun their ministries to the lower classes and the marginalized of society, shifted to embrace the power of politics and the prestige that went with it.  Balmer sees this shift as the “capitulation” of evangelicalism.  But he believes that the Religious Right was dealt a “mortal” blow with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  Balmer may or may not be correct about that, but what he does hope for, in his own words, is…

“…an evangelicalism for the twenty-first century that takes seriously the words of the Hebrew prophets who called for justice, an evangelicalism that honors the teachings and the example of Jesus, who asked his followers to act as peacemakers and to care for “the least of these.”  Such an evangelicalism, I am confident, would look rather different from that of recent years.”

Perhaps evangelicalism will remember its 19th century accomplishments of setting at liberty those who were captive, of healing those who were sick, of visiting those who were in prison, and of caring for those who were in despair.  If we as evangelicals are adaptable as Balmer contends, then perhaps we can adapt again to the crises around us, and again share the love of Christ with those at the margins of society.

The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

The myth that conservative churches are growing today because people are looking for theological fundamentalism is roundly debunked by Mark Chaves in his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends.  Despite the book’s mundane title, Mark Chaves sheds dramatic new light on the shape of the American religious scene today.  Chaves’s conclusions may surprise you and contradict what you have long heard.

In his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, Dean Kelley shocked the religious world by concluding that conservative churches demanded more of their members theologically and behaviorally; therefore, they attracted more people than liberal mainline congregations who focused on social and political issues.    The book’s credibility was further enhanced by the fact that Dean Kelley was a liberal Protestant, an executive with the National Council of Churches, and a member of the board of the ACLU.  The common wisdom was that if a liberal was identifying reasons for conservative church growth and liberal church decline, then it must be true.

Kelley’s book continues to be cited by conservative church leaders such as Al Mohler as proof of the inherent validity of the conservative agenda.  In an April, 2011 article, Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, quotes Kelley:  “Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general,” Kelley noted, “the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equalled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation’s population.”

For almost 40 years Kelley’s conclusions held sway as the conventional wisdom of American religious institutions.  Conservative churches grow, liberal ones do not, and it’s all because of conservative theology and politics.  Or maybe not.

While it is true that conservative churches are still growing, Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke University, has mined new data that paint a dramatically different picture.  Chaves says,

“Contrary to what many believe, this decline (of liberal Protestantism) has not occurred because people have been leaving more liberal denominations in droves to join more conservative religious groups.  Nor does the decline of liberal denominations mean that liberal religious ideas are waning.”  (American Religion, chapter 7, Kindle location 923.)

Chaves offers four reasons that conservative churches are growing, and they are not an echo of 40-years’ of conventional thinking.   Chaves concludes:

1.   Conservative churches are growing and liberal ones declining because of a differential in the fertility rates of each group.   This demographic fact accounts for 80% of the “shifting fortunes of liberal and conservative Protestant churches” according to Chaves.  Apparently women in conservative denominations have borne an average of one more child than women in more liberal or moderate denominations.  Over several generations this difference becomes apparent and dramatic.  But Chaves points out that the gap in fertility rates is narrowing between conservative and liberal denominations.  In the future this could be a factor in the slowing or decline of conservative groups as well.

2.   The flow of people from liberal to conservative churches is not a factor, but the decline of movement from conservative to liberal churches is.  This argument requires some explanation.  Chaves contends that the “pews of liberal churches are emptier now partly because a steady influx of upwardly mobile former evangelicals has been stemmed.”   Chaves notes that 28% of conservative Protestants born prior to 1931 “switched to a more liberal denomination as an adult.”  In other words, the more successful the pre-WWII generation was, the more they gravitated to more prestigious churches and denominations.  However, that trend dropped dramatically among those born after 1950, when only 12% of conservatives gravitated to more prestigious denominations.  Chaves’s conclusion is that conservative groups like Baptists have become more respectable in American church life.  Because of this new-found respectability, it is no longer necessary for upwardly-mobile adults to find a church that more closely fits their secular success.

3.   Conservative Protestants lose 12% of their youth as adults, but liberal churches lose 15%.  Clearly, over several generations the stickiness of conservative groups with emerging adults contributes to the stabilization of those groups.  Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, lose 20% more of those who grew up in liberal churches than do conservatives.  Obviously, this differential adds up over time.

4.   Culture has influenced the growth of conservative churches and the decline of mainlines.   Chaves contends that conservative churches benefited from a backlash in the 1960s and 70s against “liberalizing changes in personal sexual morality” and other social factors.  Conservative churches of that era attracted those who liked a more traditional approach to sexual mores including premarital sex, cohabitation, homosexuality, abortion, and other social issues.

While that sounds like a contradiction to Chaves’s conclusions, it really confirms them.  If Kelley’s book identified conservative churches themselves (their membership demands, strict theology, etc) as the reason for their growth, the reverse was actually true.  As the culture became more conservative, people sought out more conservative churches.  In other words, conservative churches benefited from a turn to the right in the wider culture.  However, the opposite trends are now in play.  Even among conservatives the trends are for greater tolerance of other denominations and religions; greater tolerance for lifestyle diversity; and, less adherence to doctrines such as the inerrancy of the Bible.  It remains to be seen how this “liberalizing effect” plays out in church attendance and membership.

In the introduction to his book, Chaves points out that “The range of beliefs, attitudes, experiences, and practices that remain unchanged (in American religious life) is impressive.”  But he says, “even in the midst of substantial continuity in American religion there are signs of change in the direction of less religion.”

All churches and denominations including the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship face the same challenge: participation in religious life is declining in America, even if that decline is occurring slowly.  Mark Chaves’ book can be a helpful resource to those who are interested in understanding the reasons for religious decline in America.  The first step in that direction is to acknowledge that we may have been wrong about the reasons for conservative growth and liberal decline for 40 years.

Podcast: Clothes Do Make The Difference

In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus tells the story of a wedding guest who was not dressed appropriately.  Here’s the podcast of the sermon I preached on October 9, 2011, titled “Clothes Do Make The Difference.”

The Steve Jobs Phenomenon

Watching the news reports of those mourning the death of Steve Jobs, it struck me that for the first time in my experience people are genuinely saddened at the death of a business leader, rather than a rock star, a member of the royal family, or a politician.

Did Henry Ford’s death garner similar expressions of grief?  Or Alexander Graham Bell’s?  Or even Albert Einstein’s?  I don’t think so.  The closest experiences I can remember are the deaths of John Lennon (rock star), Princess Diana (royal), and the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert (politicians).

What is there about Steve Jobs’ death that creates this kind of public ritual of mourning where thousands leave flowers and candles in front of Apple stores around the globe?  Simply, Steve Jobs changed the way we live our lives.

Recently Debbie and I cleaned out our entire collection of CDs, and actually threw them away.  Granted, our CD collection was modest by most standards, but we actually threw away CDs we had paid good money for a few months or even years ago.  Why?  Because all our CDs, and all our new music is on her iPhone and my iPod Touch.  And on her iMac and my macbook, too.

We now have two Apple computers, an iPhone, an iPod Touch (we still have an old iPod Nano with the click wheel), and now we have Apple TV which replaced our cable connection.

In short, Steve Jobs made how we get our media, where we keep our media, and how we access our media more important to us than the media itself.  I pick up the free iTunes cards at Starbucks each week.  I’ll download the songs, which I may never listen to again if I don’t like them, just because I can.  My 32G iPod Touch is not close to being maxed out, and so right now what I put on my iPod isn’t as important as the fact that it’s on my iPod.

Whether we realize this right now or not, this is a revolution in media.  When I was in high school, I bought a lot of records, then a lot of 8-tracks in college, and then a lot of cassette tapes, and finally a lot of CDs.  I can’t remember when I bought my last CD, which says something about why record stores went out of business.

I must admit I have an Android phone — the new Samsung Galaxy S II — which is very similar to the iPhone 4S just released, except only better in some categories.  That might seem like a contradiction to what I am saying, but actually it proves my point.

Watch the 2007 MacWorld presentation when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.  Apple presentations are available now as video podcasts on iTunes.  Everyone interested in business, innovation, product design, or effective presentation techniques ought to watch that first iPhone presentation.  Jobs’ performance is right on target as he introduces the product which changed the mobile phone industry, and led to the eventual creation of Android by Google.

In 2007 all smart phones had physical keyboards.  In 2011, the best smartphones have touch keypads.  And on, and on.  Android exists because the iPhone was invented.  Period.  Now the Apple experience is available on non-Apple products. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery after all.

I have owned computers since 1981 when I bought a KayPro, before IBM came out with their Personal Computer, for ever after known as the PC.  I have owned an Apple IIc (which didn’t work very well), Gateways, Dells, Toshibas, and even a Radio Shack brand, but nothing beats my satisfaction with my macbook which I bought in 2009.

But, now because of Steve Jobs, I would give up my macbook before I would give up my mobile phone.  Why?  Because Jobs was right.  The iPhone did become “my life in my pocket.”

My phone, and my iPod Touch, contain all my music; all my recent photos; all my contacts; all my email; directions to any place in the world; the internet; a camera; a video camera; all of the books I can find as ebooks; lots of apps for all kinds of things I want to do, know, or track; and, I’m sure a lot of other stuff that I can’t even think of now.  Oh, my Starbucks card is on there as a scanable barcode, too.

Steve Jobs changed the culture by changing the way we get, access, and use media of all sorts.  His creative genius, intuitive understanding of how we wanted to live, and his design sensibility combined to transform, not just a generation, but an entire culture.

No wonder we are saddened at his passing.

Sermon: Finding Your Place in the Kingdom

Stories are powerful vehicles for shaping a community.  But when his nation’s story becomes misinterpreted in the first century, Jesus retells it by placing himself at the center of that story.  

Finding Your Place In The Kingdom

Matthew 21:33-46

33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” – Matthew 21:33-46 NIV’84

Right Story, Wrong Interpretation

The parable that Jesus taught in the passage we just read seems very obvious to us.  Here is how we interpret the story:

The landowner of the story is God, the God of Israel. The vineyard that has been planted and nurtured by the landowner is the nation of Israel.  The tenants are the rulers of Israel both in the past and in Jesus’ day.  These rulers include the religious leaders of the day.  The servants the vineyard owner sends to collect the harvest are the prophets whom the evil tenants kill.  The son of the landowner is obviously Jesus, whom they also seize and kill.  In other words, this story is rebuke of the rulers of the nation, both political and religious, who have betrayed their calling to be the people of God, who have failed to produce the fruit of the kingdom of God, and who will lose their place which will be given to others.

Now, to a certain extent the religious leaders understood exactly what Jesus was saying, they just didn’t agree with his interpretation.  Not only did they not agree with the way Jesus characterized them, they saw Jesus as the threat to the nation’s stability, way of life, and religious practice.

In this passage we have the age-old account of one story and two interpretations of it.  The Pharisees would have said that they were preserving the way of life, the worship of God, and obedience to the Law of God in the face of overwhelming assault from Rome, the culture of the first century, and pagan influence.  Jesus obviously did not see it that way.

One Story, Two Interpretations

Let me give you an illustration of how one story can have two interpretations.  When the Roman general Pompey conquered Palestine, overthrowing the Hasmonean dynasty in 63 BC, he immediately wanted to confront the Israel’s God.  After all, the great Pompey, under the protection of the Roman goddess Roma had just defeated the Jews, which indicated that the god of the Jews was not as strong as the gods of the Romans.  It was kind of an ancient world version of  “my daddy can beat up your daddy” argument.

Pompey enters Jerusalem, finds the Temple, and barges into the Holy of Holies to confront the God of the Jews.  But once inside the most sacred room of all Judaism, Pompey looks around and finds no image, no statue, no representation of the Jews’ God at all.

Of course, we understand the reason for there not being an image of God in the Holy of Holies.  The 10 Commandments expressly forbid the making of any kind of “graven” image to represent YHWH, Israel’s God.

Pompey, of course, doesn’t know this.  All Pompey knows is that Rome has an image for all of its gods.  Therefore, if no image of a god exists it must be because the people do not believe in any god, and are therefore atheists.

See how the same story can be understood in two different ways?  That is the point of this parable.  Jesus is telling the Pharisees, and by extension all of the rulers of the Judea, that they have misunderstood the story of God and Israel.  And because they have misinterpreted the story, they have done the opposite of what they should have done.

The Story From Isaiah 5:1-7

The most powerful stories are the stories that are woven into the culture of a nation, into its very social fabric.

We have stories like that here in America.  What would the American story be if we did not have the story of the Declaration of Independence being written and signed?  And of course we all know John Hancock, and his story, because of his signature written larger than others.

What would the American story be if we didn’t have the story of Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin, self-taught by the fire of his family’s hearth, and rising to become president of the United States?  That story is the story that above all others that convinced a young America that anyone could grow up to be president.

And what would America be like without the stories of defiance?  The best example is the rousing speech from Patrick Henry that concludes, “Give me liberty of give me death!”  Those seven words are burned in our nation’s psyche and because of the value they represent, we as a nation support the struggle of people everywhere for freedom.

But at times the story gets confused.  For instance, it is a well-known fact that the United States government supported Saddam Hussein when it served our purposes.  We don’t tell that story because it doesn’t fit with the bigger story we believe characterizes our country.

We also don’t tell the story of how the Declaration of Independence really applied only to white males.  Women and slaves did not count in this great experiment we called democracy.  Thankfully we have corrected, or at least have attempted to correct, those parts of our story that don’t fit the greater story we tell about our nation.

But you get the point I am trying to make.  In the face of concrete facts to the contrary, human beings can rationalize, ignore, or rearrange current stories to make them fit the story they believe they are living.

That’s exactly what happened within Judaism of the first century.  The story that Jesus was telling was actually taken from the scroll of Isaiah.  We know it as Isaiah 5:1-7.  And, when you read that passage of scripture, what Jesus was saying becomes even clearer.

Listen to these verses:

1 I will sing for the one I love

a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.

3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
5 Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
6 I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”

7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t the only person who would have understood instantly that he was paraphrasing this story from Isaiah.  Isaiah writes this “song” and then explains what he means.  The Pharisees, who were renown for knowing and interpreting Scripture, would have known immediately that Jesus was taking an old story, and reinterpreting it to blame them for the troubles of the nation.

But they still didn’t get it all.  Isaiah was writing these lines just years before the Temple, the first Temple built by Solomon, would be destroyed and the nation taken into exile during the Babylonian captivity.

Jesus was not only signifying that the nation and its leaders were to blame for their current state, but he was also extending the story and including himself in it.

And Jesus includes himself as the son of the vineyard owner, or the Son of God.

If that isn’t enough, to further make sure they get his point, that he is the Messiah, and that he, Jesus, has come to set things right, he also quotes from Psalm 118.  The psalm is one that was sung in procession going to the Temple.  It begins this way:

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

2 Let Israel say:
“His love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say:
“His love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear the LORD say:
“His love endures forever.”

On the way to the Temple, the worshippers are praising God.  But then the song turns to prayers for deliverance, and draws to a conclusion with the admission of the singers:

19 Open for me the gates of righteousness;
I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD
through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.

22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
23 the LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Of course, the Pharisees would also have understood that reference, but Jesus carries it one step further.  He brings in a passage from the book of Daniel, an apocalyptic vision from Daniel that shows the Messiah bringing judgment on all the kingdoms that oppose the work of God.  In Jesus’ day this would include the rulers of the nation.

Jesus talks about the stone the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone, or in some translations the capstone. The idea is the same in either reference.  The cornerstone was that from which all the other dimensions of the building were built.  If the cornerstone was not carefully hewn, if its dimensions were off, then the entire building would be built wrong.  That’s why a faulty stone was rejected.

But Jesus is not a faulty stone, he’s the true cornerstone.  But he is also the stone referred to in Daniel’s vision — the stone that shatters the kingdoms that oppose the kingdom of God.

Listen to Daniel 2:

31 “You looked, O king, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance.32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.

36 “This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king.

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.”

In one parable Jesus has identified himself with the God of Israel.  He has identified himself as God’s Son.  He has gone on to say that not only is he God’s Son, sent by God to the nation of Israel, but that he is the stone of judgment that will crush all those who oppose the kingdom of God.  He is the Messiah of God, whose kingdom will never end or fail.  Matthew says that the Pharisees recognized that Jesus was talking about them, but they were afraid to do anything to Jesus because they feared the crowds that followed him.

Ultimately, they will turn the crowd against Jesus, and they will kill the son of the vineyard owner, just as Jesus prophesied.

How Do We Find Our Place in The Kingdom of God?

What’s the point of all of this, and of this parable specifically?  Just this – if you misinterpret the story of God, changing it to fit your own preference, changing it for your own benefit, you lose your place in the Kingdom.

God’s work will go on.  God’s purposes will be accomplished.  God has a plan, God is weaving a story.  God’s people are part of that story, but they are not really God’s people if they don’t understand and cooperate with God in the fulfillment of that story.

The first century Jews made the same mistakes we still make today.  They compromised the word of God, making deals with the Roman empire for their own benefit and survival.  I am sure they justified it in the process by saying, “Be a realist, this is the best we can do right now.  We’ve cut the best deal we can get, under the circumstances.”

But God isn’t about accommodating his Kingdom to the standards of the world system that is opposed to God’s making all things right.  God’s Kingdom is coming, has been inaugurated, and God invites his children, his creation, into the joy of that Kingdom.

The fruit of the Kingdom that Jesus came looking for is found in trusting him as God’s Son, believing that in his death on the cross he defeated sin, death, and the grave.  And, in living the crucified life of obedience to Christ as a demonstration of the Kingdom of God now.

So we gather here today at this Table, a memorial to keep us from forgetting that this bread is not only bread that nourishes us in this world, but it is the Bread of Life that feeds our souls.  That this cup is not only the product of the crushing of grapes, but is the symbolic product of the shed blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

To find our place in the Kingdom we must not only know the story of God and what God is doing, we must interpret it correctly, make it our own story, and live our lives in light of its truth and power.