The Biblical, Beneficial, Beautiful Call to Church Membership

Note: I’ve had occasion to work on several essays recently for different things I’m doing. This is the first of them; I figured I’d post it here if anyone is interested.

The Church (both big and little ‘c’) is a big deal in God’s story. This shouldn’t surprise Christians, but often it is overlooked. Scripture resonates with concern for the community of Christians in the world. The Church, Paul writes to Timothy, is the “household of God”,  a “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). He elsewhere pictures it as Christ’s “body”, as if our Lord who is physically absent from the earth is at the same time really and physically present through His Church (1 Corinthians 12). While it sometimes makes evangelicals comfortable, the oldest creedal confession of Christianity includes belief in the “holy catholic church”, and this profession is echoed by church fathers, theologians, mystics, monastics, reformers and missionaries throughout the ages.

It is for this reason that we talk about the importance of “church membership” as something undertaken by the individual Christian. It is true, in one sense, that one becomes a part of the Church simply by believing in Christ. Some theologians have called this the “invisible church” – the communion of all saints through the ages – and it is an important doctrine. However, Christianity is a religion where invisible and internal truths are always meant to be joined with external realities. Faith in one’s heart must be joined by outward profession, belonging by baptism, new life by obedience, and so on. Our concern is not with whether we are invisibly and internally a part of the Church but what implications this has for our visible, external lives.

Church membership, while its specific forms vary, is the way we act out our invisible membership in Christ’s body in the visible world. We join ourselves to a local expression of the body of Christ in a public and binding way precisely because we are to act out with our lives what Christ makes true of our hearts. If we are part of the Church, we should also join in membership with a local church.

In what follows, I’d like us to spend a little time looking at the biblical commands, the practical needs, and the missional blessings of church membership, then end with a few practical recommendations for those seeking to obey Scripture in this area. Continue reading

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An Extraordinary, Ordinary Story

The sermon I preached this morning on Ruth 2 at Grace Chapel is available here.

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Blessed are the Hungry

Image“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)

I’ve always felt this was one of the rawest of the Beatitudes, and hence one which has often been stirred up in my heart. “Hunger and thirst” is no half-hearted language. Jesus isn’t talking about that 11:30am growl in your stomach or that midnight hankering for ice cream. It is a blessing on people who are aching, starving for something – for righteousness Matthew tells us, although Luke simply has Jesus blessing those “who are hungry now.” It is a blessing on the stomach twisting up on its own emptiness, a dust-choked throat and a swollen tongue. It is a curious blessing indeed.

What does it mean, to hunger and thirst after righteousness? It means first of all to make God’s ways our desires. This is the primary preacherly application, but it is true even so.  It means that the gaping pit in our stomach is our sin, and that we long to replace it with the meat and potatoes of Christian discipleship. Jesus blesses longing for virtue, for obedience, for faithfulness in the face of temptation. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness defines our diet; it is passing on the sugar-puffed dainties of worldly vanity and the arsenic-laced morsels of sin because our appetite is for the hearty and heady fare of Christlikeness instead. We must desire to be conformed to His image; we must long for it like the man stumbling across sand dunes longs for a sip of water.

Yet if this is a part of the answer, the part we all nod knowingly to, it is only a part. Hungering and thirsting call us to consider their object, but also its absence. Those who Jesus blesses in the beatitude are not the satisfied but the starving. His promise is not for those who have arrived but for those who feel the weight of the journey. Jesus has no use for people who do not crave holiness, but neither does he cherish those who believe they have achieved it. Jesus is blessing those people, people like us, who fall short, who fail regularly, who hang their heads and beat their breasts and beg for mercy. Continue reading

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Who Sits Beyond the Sun?

The sermon I preached on Ecclesiastes 6 at Grace Church in Fremont on August 5 is available here.

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Framing Jesus

My wife and I recently had some maternity/family photos taken by a gifted friend of ours. I have always been fascinated by photography as an art form, particularly by its minimalism. All the photographer really has to work with is the stuff of the external world – he or she can tweak a few colors on a computer afterwards, but photography at its finest is all about taking what is there and portraying it in an artful way. Just through a small shift in framing, a contrasting of foreground and background, or a shift of the weight of the elements, a photograph can make someone look ominous or playful, beautiful or jarringly bizarre (a great difference from my photos, where everyone comes out looking dull and slightly stoned.)

Aristotle, in discussing rhetoric, divides it into three categories – logos (the logic and argument itself), pathos (the emotional feel and depth of the argument) and ethos (the perceived character of the speaker). Without going into the specifics of these categories, one of the key observations underlying them is that the idea itself (logos) is not enough to persuade or engage hearers; indeed, while Aristotle pays the most attention to that first category, he at times hints it is the least impactful and important. At least as crucial as the content is the way the discussion is framed and presented – truths are, in this way, a lot like photographs.

As a recent seminary graduate I’ve spent four years thinking about the content of Christianity. This is all wonderful stuff; books full of footnotes and Greek and Hebrew (and often Latin and German too, which we all pretended to follow), discussions about manuscripts and hermeneutics and theological categories. I love the content, and I don’t at all mean to denigrate its importance.

However, what was missing from the discussion, at least most of the time, was how we wanted to communicate these truths. How we portrayed them; what parts of them we wanted to emphasize. Indeed, at times we are almost hostile to these discussions because they seem somehow disingenuous. However, I think it is crucial to talk about these questions. Like a poor photograph, we can take all the content of Christianity and still manage to communicate it to people in unhelpful or unmoving ways. We can make it look ugly, or uninteresting, or unimportant. We need to think about the art of the message; how the set pieces of the gospel are weighed; how the portrait of Jesus is photographed. Continue reading

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All Dressed Up with Nothing To Say

I grew up in an evangelicalism which was unapologetically hostile to cultural engagement and participation. My high school friends and I spent hours debating whether we could listen to “secular” music and watch R-rated movies. There was a whole industry built around this idea, one which wrote songs and produced books and films which sought to mirror the forms of the surrounding world while purging them of any “worldliness” (often marketed by corporations with motivations not similarly purged). The closest I came to true cultural engagement in this bubble was reading a magazine by an unnamed Christian organization which assessed television and cinema based on how often they used words easily abbreviated by single letters. Interestingly, the most profound impact said magazine had on me was inspiring a months-long search to surreptitiously find out what the “c-word” was.

However, while this was my experience in my early teenaged years, the waters for me and for much of evangelicalism have irrevocably shifted. Through the influence of thinkers like Francis Schaeffer, publications like Mars Hill Audio and Relevant magazine and books full of words like “missionality” and “transformationalism,” I and many people around me started to realize that this ghettoized approach to culture was not something Jesus required of us. Indeed, it was detrimental to the cause of Christ.

We follow an incarnate Savior who ate with sinners and dialoged with intellectuals. The apostle Paul quotes Greek philosophers, Jude references non-canonical texts, and Proverbs gladly borrows wisdom from the Egyptians. As Augustine put it, “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found.” What’s more, the broader culture was not just a sphere to distill truths from, but also a stage on which the gospel can be performed. We could enter into the world as witnesses to Christ, taking every thought captive for His glory. We could disciple nations and cultures; we could stand before Ceasar and witness for Christ.

I say all of this up front because I still very much believe in this calling. We are not Gnostics only concerned with souls or solipsists only concerned with individuals’ internal lives. Christianity is the proclamation of a kingdom, a kingdom which is right now pressing against the gates of this world and will one day topple them. However, I can’t help feeling like the shifting waters which carried me out of Christian isolationism have for too many of the people who joined me in this exodus overflowed the other bank.

Some examples: I still occasionally read the “missional” publications, and for all their insistence on dialoging with culture what I see is instead simply applauding it. I hear lectures about finding God in “Sex and the City”, horror movies and mass-market hip-hop, but after having found God there no one seems to notice the sexual scars, splatter porn and glorified thuggery which surrounds Him. I try to have conversations about art or music or best-selling novels and discover that, while they’ve all read them instead of avoiding them, most of my Christian friends are still equally unable to wrestle with them in a cruciform way. Put simply, what I think we have lost is any sense of cultural critique.

I understand that part of this is simply a reaction to being told something that was once wrong is now okay. Teetotallers turn into drunks far more often than wine-lovers and beer-sippers once they’re told they’re allowed to have a pint or two. Many of my friends seem to have an angry little fundamentalist minister on their shoulders still chastising them for their worldly pursuits, and they’re doing everything possible to avoid considering he might be just a little bit right. The problem is, while it was a call for cultural engagement that set us free from a moralistic avoidance mentality, cultural engagement has too easily been replaced by acculturation.

Put another way, the whole reason Christians ought to be engaged with culture is so that we can challenge it, remake it, and (at times) bear prophetic witness against it. We, like our Savior, are meant to walk in the world as witnesses to a greater world to come. To be in it but not of it. Instead, it seems like what started as putting on our suits to get in the door has turned into an attempt to blend into the crowd. We are, as it were, all dressed up with nothing to say.

A few particular points might clarify my concerns. First, we’ve misunderstood the nature of entering the cultural conversation. We’ve argued, rightly, that a conversation requires us to listen to and understand what the culture is saying. However, it is then our responsibility to talk back. We need to know the language and stories of this world, but only so that we can tell our own story back and show that it is greater than this world has ever imagined. We need to affirm those truths that belong to God, but we also need to challenge the errors. The whole point of finding God in the world is as a first step in helping the world find God.

Take, for example, the way we engage with art. Contra the isolationists, it is good and Godly to engage the cultural artifacts that populate the world around us. We should seek to understand artists and what they are doing, and we should admire the talents God has given (some of) them in producing works of great skill and beauty. However, if we stand in the gallery and sip our wine and nod appreciatively and then go home, we have only finished the first half of our calling – and a calling half done isn’t really done at all. It is only once we have brought Christ to bear that we have lived out the in-but-not-of life of the kingdom. Until we have said “That is truth, and look where it points!” or “Yes I see, but what about…?” or “I don’t think that’s quite right,” we have not engaged culture; we have only capitulated to it.

A second way we’ve gone off the rails is in confusing cultural engagement with consumerism and entertainment. I remember reading an interview with a group of Christians, many former adult entertainers themselves, who felt called to conduct outreach to members of the pornography industry. The interviewer asked these missionaries whether they struggled with sexual temptation in this setting and the response of one member of the group was something like “occasionally; but mostly Jesus doesn’t let me look at them that way.” Those brothers and sisters recognized what we often fail to; that the only way to engage with culture for Christ is to refuse to consume it on its own terms. You can’t evangelize porn stars while still treating them like porn stars; you cannot engage culture while making your primary aim to be entertained by it.

This, I think, often explains why so many Christians bristle at any attempt to seriously critique the world. We have not moved toward the culture missionally, hoping to change it; instead we have raced towards it hungrily, eager to stuff our faces with its desserts. We have moved from an unconditional “no” to an unconditional “yes.” However, neither of these answers is really allowable. To get uncomfortably specific, if you read The Hunger Games, or 50 Shades of Gray, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being in order to understand and critique them, or communicate more clearly with those who have read them, more power to you. If you read them for the excitement of kids killing each other, quasi-BDSM experimentation or continuous adultery, we have a problem. And given that second list, reading them purely for “fun” should raise a few eyebrows. We can biblically justify seeking to be culturally aware and engaged; we cannot justify being culturally entertained.

One last reality I feel more and more: we have confused cultural engagement with cultural acceptance. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard language of relevance and engagement used by some believers to critique brothers who are being perfectly engaged and relevant and simply saying things people don’t want to hear. It is no accident that Jesus starts His ministry talking in riddles and gets puzzled looks, and ends it speaking clearly and getting crucified. Being culturally relevant is replacing the old insistence that “thou art transgressing God’s decrees” with the clearer “you are giving the king of the universe the middle finger”; it is not a stammered “we’re all fine here now thanks… how are you?” We are to engage with culture to make the beauty and the offense of the gospel clearer, not to make them invisible.

One of the great pieces of our Christian heritage is the insistence that we are “aliens” and “sojourners” in the sinful system of culture and power that Scripture calls “the world.” In the model of Christ, we are called to be a part of the world around us; indeed, like Christ, we are to long for its resurrection. I will gladly insist on this reality against those who seek to partition off the Savior’s kingdom, to only give Him hearts and souls and not also offer Him bodies and communities and cultures and kingdoms. However, we cannot forsake the fundamentally alien nature of our engagement. We are not called to live – we cannot live – as natives. We cannot forget that right now our King sits in heaven, and that this world will not be our home until He brings heaven down to earth. Until that day, our task is to stand as prophetic heralds, embracing God’s truth and opposing and critiquing all that would set up against it. 

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Eating Jesus

I had the opportunity to preach at Grace Covenant Church in Grand Island last Sunday; the sermon mp3 is available here.

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