Tag: God

The Ethics of Outreach

‘No Muslim Parking’ Sign Angers US MuslimsI have read lots of articles on church outreach in my thirty years of ministry. I’ve even written a few myself. However, I have never read an article on the ethics of outreach. Maybe it’s time for a look at the ethics of outreach. Here’s why.

In Hibbing, Minnesota, according to the KSMP-TV, the local Fox affiliate, a Muslim woman who had registered for a September 28 conference was asked to leave when she showed up for the meeting wearing a hijab. Previously the women’s conference advertising had stated, “All women are invited,” according to the station.

Ironically, the event organizers were People of the Book Ministries, a Christian outreach ministry to Muslims. Cynthia Khan, presenter for the conference, said that videos and material “offensive” to Muslims would be distributed. For that reason Khan asked that Rania Elsweisy, the hijab-wearing Muslim woman, be escorted from the conference.

As a result of Ms. Elsweisy’s ejection, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a discrimination lawsuit against People of the Book Ministries.

“The only reason I was kicked out of the event was because of my religion, Islam,” said Elsweisy. “It is truly hurtful to be treated like you are lesser than somebody or that you don’t qualify to be talked to and treated equally as others,” according to the station’s website.

While the public discrimination suit will be worked out in civil courts, there is something ironic about a Christian ministry ejecting a member of the very group they claim to be trying to reach.

While I do not question the intentions of People of the Book, I do take issue with the ethics, or lack of ethics, involved here. Add to this incident a Texas megachurch that offered cars, flat-screen TVs, bikes, and other prizes for attending church on Easter, and my conclusion is that Christians do have an ethical problem with some forms of outreach.

All of this brings up the question, “Is there an ethical standard for Christian outreach programs and ministries?” Let me suggest five ethical standards that Christian outreach programs should adhere to:

1. Outreach must be open and transparent to all, including those being reached. In the Minnesota example, presenters knew that their material was offensive to Muslims, and probably for self-evident reasons, did not want Muslims present. However, Christians must ask themselves if our attitudes, strategies, and materials aimed toward those we are trying to reach are hostile, demeaning, or degrading, should we use them at all. Lottie Moon, a Southern Baptist missionary to China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lobbied to have the label “heathen” dropped when referring to the Chinese people she ministered to.

2. Outreach must exhibit a genuine love and respect for individuals and their cultures. Demonizing the “other,” especially in the fraught relationships between the Muslim and Western worlds, may be an effective fundraising technique but is a poor strategy for loving neighbors who may not be like us. Jesus used the “other” — a Samaritan — as example of neighborliness in his parable we call the Good Samaritan. That’s quite a difference from presenting material that is known to be offensive to another culture.

3. Outreach must be grounded in the Deuteronomic command to “love God” and to “love your neighbor.” Jesus taught that these two commandments summarized all the Law and the Prophets. In other words, all we need to know and practice as followers of Jesus is love for God and love for others.

4. Outreach ends do not justify unscrupulous means. Evangelism methodologies continue to struggle with the idea that Christians must do “whatever it takes” to reach the world for Christ. However, the means we use to reach the world must be consistent with the message we present to the world. Christians cannot trick, deceive, misrepresent or mislead others into the Kingdom of God. Neither can we buy the attention of non-Christians through games of chance, lucky numbers, or attendance incentives. Jesus fed people, but he fed them after they listened all day, not to get them to listen.

5. Finally, although this is the first ethical principle, outreach must be modeled on the Trinitarian action of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The theology of the Triune God must inform our purpose, our practice, and our presence to those who do not know the good news of God. Trinitarian outreach is characterized by love, self-giving, incarnation, sacrifice, humility, patience, winsomeness, and hospitality.

Pastors and church leaders are assailed weekly with the news that church attendance is declining, baptisms are at all-time lows, and young adults are leaving the church in droves. That news, distressing as it may be, cannot become the pretext for desperate and unethical outreach strategies that discredit the Gospel and further damage the reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Why We Still Need (Some) Monocultural Churches

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Immigrant children at Ellis Island. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Multicultural churches are all the rage these days. Conferences are packed with pastors learning how to start multicultural churches, or how to turn the churches they pastor into one. That long-overdue trend is welcomed because God is the God of diversity. In light of God’s call to reconciliation, churches ought to reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods.

But, we still need monocultural churches, particularly among newly-arrived immigrant populations. Here are six reasons why.

1. Monocultural churches can provide a safe haven for minorities within a dominant majority culture. After the Civil War ended in 1865, emancipated African Americans left their former white masters’ churches to form black congregations. The rich history of the American black church is one not only of worship, but as the hub of the African American community. For minority populations, especially newly-arrived immigrant populations, monocultural churches can provide this same safe haven today.

2. Monocultural churches allow for minority perspectives to develop and be heard. On a national scale, American Christianity was shocked into reality with the publication of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The subtitle should have been Freeing the Church from White Cultural Captivity, because Professor Rah writes compellingly of the “white captivity of the church.” Dr. Rah’s advocacy for other voices — voices of minorities — to be heard and respected could be realized if white churches and leaders recognize and listen to the voices from Korean, Laotian, West African, African American, and other churches whose members are in the minority in American cultural life.

3. Monocultural churches can provide a connection to home, customs, language, ritual and power structures that generations of immigrants wish to retain. The myth of the American melting pot has been debunked as Americans of all ethnicities have attempted to connect with their ancestral roots. For those in the minority, the identity fostered by language, dress, ritual, and customs is difficult to retain, but important to remember.

4. Monocultural churches can become points of transition, assisting newcomers to America as they navigate their new culture. When I traveled in China, I was always interested in talking to Americans who had lived and worked in China to find out what restaurants they frequented, where they shopped, and how they learned the Chinese language. The same need exists in new immigrants to this country. Those from their own countries can help new immigrants negotiate the meaning and pace of American life.

5. Monocultural churches help resist the marginalization of minority groups. The danger any minority faces is not only being assimilated into their new culture, but being absorbed and marginalized by it. Monocultural churches, like the black church, have given rise to a unique expression of the Christian faith, and established a unique place for its people in American church life. White churches and denominations must reject outreach to minority populations because they are the answer to white church or denominational decline.

6. Finally, monocultural churches do not confirm the notorious church growth teaching called the “homogeneous unit principle.” Church growth studies advocated that because people (usually white) found it easier to be with people like them, it followed that homogeneous churches would grow more quickly and easily. However, monocultural churches are not excluders, but incubators that allow potentially fragile populations to establish themselves, grow, develop a unique witness, and thrive in the rich diversity of American church life.

Of course, none of these reasons is intended to sanction prejudice, discrimination, or exclusion in any church. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem cared for its Jewish widows and its Greek widows as well.

However, before you jump on the bandwagon of exclusive multiculturalism, remember that historically monocultural churches like German Lutherans, English Baptists, Scottish Presbyterian, British Anglican, and others established themselves in colonial America. These monocultural churches became incubators for those who came to these shores seeking freedom, which included the freedom to add their past to a new American future.

Feed the Homeless to Turn Night into Day

Raleigh police stop food distribution to the homeless by a local group who has been doing this for years.
Raleigh police stop food distribution to the homeless by a local group who has been doing this for years.

Yesterday the city of Raleigh, North Carolina chose to make feeding the hungry a crime. The mayor and city council of Raleigh ought to read today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah 58:9b-14. Isaiah instructs Israel to stop oppressing people, to feed the hungry and meet the needs of the marginalized. Then Israel’s light will rise and their difficulties which seem like a long night will turn to the glorious light of day. Here’s the audio from my sermon today:

 

Why Samuel, David, and a Bunch of Others Need Us

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The book of Hebrews was written to encourage Christians of the first century to remain faithful despite persecution. Examples of great heroes of the faith like Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, Elijah and Elisha; and, events like crossing the Red Sea, the battle of Jericho, the survival of the lions’ den and fiery furnace inspired Christians then and now. But, there is a downside to faithfulness. Sometimes faithfulness to God doesn’t end triumphantly, but instead with the faithful being beaten, persecuted, displaced, and killed.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus knows what suffering is about. He endured the shame of the Roman cross in anticipation of the glory of the presence of God. The popular song, “Even in the Valley God is Good,” summarizes our response to suffering. For the first century Christians and for us, the most important thing we can remember is that God is present with us regardless of whether we triumph or whether we struggle.

Our lives contribute to the story of God begun by those in the hall of faith listed in Hebrews chapter 11 through 12. Just as we need them, they need our faithfulness to finish the final chapters in the story that God began in their day. Faith in the face of adversity is still needed today, and our faith builds on the witness of those who have gone before.

For the podcast of this message, click here:

[audio https://chuckwarnockblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/02-why-samuel-david-and-others-need-us.mp3]

The New Living Dead

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First it was vampires, now zombies. Our appetite for the bizarre and scary seems to know no end. Of course film-wise, it all started in 1968 when George Romero directed the cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. Even the Library of Congress has recognized that film as a giant in its genre, and selected it for the National Film Registry.

However the Apostle Paul may have been the first to write seriously about the living dead. In Colossians 3:1-11, Paul reminds the Colossian Christians that they not only “have been raised with Christ” but they have also died to their previous way of life. In other words, first century Christians were the new living dead–alive to Christ, but dead to the world out of which they had been saved.

Paul lists specific behaviors to which the Colossians should have been dead: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed. If those aren’t enough, he adds more like anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language. When we look at that list, our spiritual pride tells us we are not as bad as the Colossians. But before we get too self-righteous, we need to realize that Paul was simply reminding the Colossian Christians that before they came to Christ they acted like everybody else in their society. In Roman culture, sexual mores were lax by Christian standards, and society prized the strong, the rich, and the powerful. The Colossian Christians weren’t worse than we are, like us they had just been doing what everyone else was doing.

For Christians then and now, to be dead to our old life means to stop living like the culture around us lives. To be alive in Christ means to live as Christ enables, with new values, new ethics, and new behaviors.  In this new society driven by the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, there are no ethnic, political, or social divisions — “no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.”

Christians are the new living dead in the 21st century. It doesn’t take long to realize that our Western culture glorifies casual sex, worships at the cult of personality, and values material possessions as trophies of success. As the new living dead, Christians should be like dead people to the culture in which we find ourselves. We might be immersed in it, but we should not be enmeshed in a culture that is at odds with the Kingdom of God.

However, just because Christians are dead to culture doesn’t mean we are not a pervasive presence. Our living essence is salt and light, preserving and illuminating the world that God created and is redeeming.

The next time you watch a zombie flick, just remember: there are some experiences more amazing than horror film accounts of the dead who come back to life. The real living dead are followers of Jesus Christ who have been raised with Christ, but who are dead as mackerels to the culture around them.  Pretty incredible stuff when you think about it.

Continuing to Live in Christ

The challenge for Christians, both new and old, is to continue to follow Christ long after our initial profession of faith in Him. This must be hard because thousands of books have been written about how to faithfully follow Jesus as a disciple.

The apostle Paul gives us a big clue about how we follow Christ in his letter to the first-century church in Colossae. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him…” (Colossians 2:6a NIV).

In other words, Paul says, we follow Jesus in the same way we came to him. The question then is, “How did we receive Christ?” Here’s my take on what it means to continue to live in Christ just like we began with him:

1. Like the Colossians, we don’t trust the popular gods of our culture.

Roman culture in the first century embraced a pantheon of gods headed up by Jupiter and his wife, Juno. A host of lesser deities hung out on Mount Olympus. Romans called first-century Christians atheists because they didn’t believe in these rather fractious divinities. The Christians at Colossae rejected the gods of popular culture, affirming that Jesus Christ was the son of the One True God.

Today our cultural gods are power, money, and technology. Interestingly, like the gods on Olympus, our new gods often hang out together, too. Even though we all use power, money and technology, twenty-first century Christians are challenged not to place ultimate trust in these gods as the solution to our social and spiritual problems. Following Jesus like we received him means we continue to trust in him, and him alone, as the creator, sustainer, and savior of the world.

2. Like the Colossians, our politics is Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

In the Roman empire, citizens were required to affirm their loyalty to the emperor by stating, “Caesar is lord.” Paul radically altered the politics of his day by asserting “Jesus is Lord.”

We have difficulty appreciating what a bold confession “Jesus is Lord” becomes. To replace Caesar, who was believed to be the son of god and ruler of the universe, with a crucified itinerant Jew placed first century Christians outside the social norms of the day. Under emperors like Nero and Domitian, Christians suffered persecution as a radical, subversive sect who refused to acknowledge the emperor cult of their day.

Our political statement as 21st century Christians is still Jesus is Lord. That statement strips us of our primary allegiance to political parties, or even political ideologies as the ultimate guide in our lives. Our political leaders are neither the creators of the universe, nor are they the center around which all things revolve, despite the self-importance of those who live and work in Washington, DC.

3. Like the Colossians, we came to Christ and we continue to live in Christ because our relationship with God is personal.

In the Christian faith, we believe that God loves us, sent his son Jesus to die and rise again for us, and that we continue to know God personally. Unlike the gods on Olympus, who weren’t loving or personal, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus has always related directly and personally to His people.

Baptists, of course, have made a big deal of a personal relationship with God. Our Baptist forebears called this possibility the “priesthood of the believer” or “soul-competency.” Both of those phrases mean that individuals are capable of relating to God, and of receiving Jesus Christ as their Lord. Maintaining an awareness of our personal relationship with Christ models the same way we received Him as our personal Lord and Savior.

4. Finally, we continue to live in Christ because He is present with us.

For the first-century Colossian Christians the decision to follow Christ was a costly one. By rejecting by the popular gods of their culture, they cut themselves off from their families and friends who continued to seek the capricious favor of the gods of Rome. By refusing to acknowledge Caesar as lord, and by embracing Jesus as Lord, the Colossian Christians isolated themselves socially, politically, and economically.

However, the Colossian Christians were sustained by the presence of Christ in their midst. Stripped of social and political community, Colossian Christians experienced the presence of God each time they gathered together. The gods of Olympus never pretended to be present daily with their subjects. But the God who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the God who delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt, the God who brought Israel back from exile, and the God who sent Jesus was ever-present with the first-century church, too.

Elie Wiesel writes of the presence of God with his people in his book, All Rivers Run to the Sea.

“Here is what the Midrash tells us. When the Holy One, blessed be His name, comes to liberate the children of Israel from their exile, they will say to him “Master of the Universe, it is You who dispersed us among the nations, driving us from Your abode, and now it is You who bring us back. Why is that?” And the Holy One, blessed be His name, will reply with this parable: One day a king drove his wife from his palace, and the next day he had her brought back. The queen, astonished, asked him “Why did you send me away yesterday only to bring me back today?” “Know this,” replied the king, “that I followed you out of the palace, for I could not live in it alone.” So the Holy One, blessed be His name, tells the children of Israel: “Having seen you leave my abode, I left it too, that I might return with you.”

Wiesel continues:

“God accompanies his children into exile. This is a central theme of Midrashic and mystical thought in Jewish tradition. Just as the people of Israel‘s solitude mirrors the Lord’s, so the suffering of men finds its extension in that of their Creator. Though imposed by God, the punishment goes beyond those upon whom it falls, encompassing the Judge himself. And it is God who wills it so. The Father may reveal Himself through His wrath; He may even sharpen His severity, but He will never be absent. Present at the Creation, God forms part of it. Let atar panui mineiis the key phrase of the Book of Splendor, the Zohar: No space is devoid of God. God is everywhere, even in suffering…” — Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea.

Paul reminds us that we follow Christ in the same way in which we came to him. By rejecting the popular gods of culture; by our political confession that Jesus is Lord; by our personal relationship with God through Christ; and, by the presence of God, we continue to live in Christ in the same manner in which we received Him.

Singing a New Song

pianohymnbookLast Sunday we had an old-fashioned hymn sing at our church. For several weeks our members noted their favorite hymns, and our choir director collected and organized their requests. Last Sunday we sang the top 10 favorites, and we’ll sing the others during the future services.

My message that day was brief because we followed our hymn singing with communion as we always do on the first Sunday of each month. I departed from the lectionary to read an appropriate psalm —

“He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”-Psalm 40:3 NIV

After reading that short verse, I shared six types of new songs God has put in our mouths. My point was that the new song God has given us reflects who we are as God’s people in all the circumstances of life.

This new song is a song of praise.

This is what the psalmist says his new song is. No longer are we confused about who deserves our praise because the God of all creation is the only rightful object of our praise and worship. Charles Wesley penned the iconic hymn of praise when he wrote, “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace.” But the new song is not only a song of praise.

This new song is a song of unity.

When we gather on Sundays for worship, we sing together, lifting our voices as one people because we are part of a community of faith. Unlike the exiles in Babylon, who asked “how can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land” we are no longer strangers, we belong to the family of God, the community of faith, and our song is a song of unity. “We Are Called To Be God’s People” reflects not only our individual relationship to God, but our corporate, communal relationship as well.

This new song is a song of  justice.

We sing as celebration that one day God’s justice will prevail. In 2007, our church was asked to host the Martin Luther King Day service for our town. We were hosting the newly-formed Boys and Girls Club of Chatham in our church, which was the first racially-integrated afterschool program in our county. Both white and black worshippers filled our sanctuary on MLK Day for worship. At the end of that service, we joined hands and sang, “We shall overcome.” For the first time in Chatham, that song became, not just the song of the black community, but the song of justice for our entire community. Justice must be a part of our new repertoire of song because justice means that God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.

This new song is a song of thanksgiving.

Gratitude for God’s blessings, for God’s grace, and for God’s mercy should be part of our spiritual songbook. At Thanksgiving we sing, “We Gather Together” and “Come, Ye Thankful People Come” but thanks to God for God’s blessings should be sung more often than once a year.

This new song is a song of lament.

The problem with what is now called “praise and worship” featuring rock bands and full-stage lighting is that it leaves no room for sadness and sorrow. The psalmists wrote songs of lament, sang them with heartfelt emotion, and offered them as prayers for God’s mercy and grace. We need to lament as we stand in God’s presence, even in the 21st century. Perhaps especially in the 21st century. Lent provides a time of solemn reflection and self-examination. “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” reminds us of Christ’s sacrificial death. “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” asks in plain but mournful language for us to remember the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. We need to go to “dark Gethsemane” at times as prelude to the joy of Easter.

This new song is a song of confidence.

Christians hymns have always described our faith and hope in God’s presence now and in the future. “We’re Marching to Zion” asserts our faith that our lives have meaning and purpose, that we are on a journey whose destination is God. Songs that reflect the confidence we have in God’s love and God’s plan form the foundation for all the other songs in our Christian hymnody. Simply put, we sing because we believe. From the earliest psalms to the most contemporary musical expression, we Christians have sung our faith boldly and with great confidence.

The new song God has put in our mouths isn’t just one tune, with one theme, for all time. The new song God gives us reflects God’s presence in our lives at all times, in all places, and for all people. Sunday when you sing, think about what type of song you’re singing. Then connect that song to the work of God in your life and in the life of your congregation.

Finally, remember the instruction of John Wesley to “sing lustily and with good courage.” If you do, the second part of Psalm 40:3 just might become a reality — “Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”