May 26, 2009

Death is not Dying

Tobey, a friend, and I watched this video Saturday night ... and were deeply moved. Moved not only by Rachel Barkley's difficult story (a 37 year-old mom of two who is riddled with cancer has only weeks to live); moved not only because of her courage in the midst of that cancer; but moved, especially, by how clearly, profoundly, thoughtfully, and humbly she presents the gospel of Jesus in the course of this 55 minute talk to 600 or so women in Vancouver.

Watch this, Christian. It is well worth the 55 minutes that you might otherwise have spent on Animal Planet tonight. You won't be disappointed. And then, ask your pastor if you might show it to the ladies in your church. And bookmark it to send to a friend who has cancer ... or who is happy and healthy, but desperately in need of Jesus.

A Million and One Ethiopians

I read 2 Chronicles 14 in my devotional time this morning … and it caught my attention more than some other chapters in Chronicles because of a very noticeable ‘E’ word tucked into the chapter. 2 Chronicles 14 tells the story of a certain Zerah, a military commander from Ethiopia who brought a million man army to fight against Asa and the armies of the Lord. Imagine a million man march from Ethiopia to Israel!

At any rate, the Ethiopians were routed before the Lord that day … so that they fled before Asa and his men. Verse 13, in fact, says that these million men were “shattered” by God Himself. That got my attention. A million Ethiopians shattered … and going to their death without hope and without God. And that brought by attention back to 2009 … where we can say the same thing, only for slightly different reasons. Millions of Ethiopians are “shattered” today because they reject Christ, or follow a Christ of their own making rather than the biblical Jesus. And, just like their ancient counterparts, they are going to their graves “without hope and without God in the world.”

Millions and millions of Ethiopians marching to their deaths. That makes the work of Pastor's Training Institute seem really small and insignificant, doesn’t it? Sixty or so men, trained in a tiny little room, through translators, by a handful of young, American city-slickers? Can they possibly stand up to the avalanche of bodies and souls sliding daily into Ethiopian graves … and, beyond them, into hell?

We’d better hope so! And there is hope, isn’t there? 2 Chronicles 14 isn’t the only place where the Bible mentions Ethiopia, is it? No! Fast-forward a few centuries to Acts chapter 8. In that chapter, the numbers are a little different. This time we do not find a million Ethiopians descending in their chariots upon Jerusalem … but one, single, solitary man. And this Ethiopian didn’t meet, as his ancestors had, with the fury of the Lord ... but with His mercy! He didn’t meet God’s armies, but God’s preacher, Philip, who proclaimed Jesus to him! And the African man was changed forever … and “went on his way rejoicing”! “Went on his way” … where? Well, presumably back to Ethiopia; and, presumably, bringing the good news with him!

Why were there so many Christians in Ethiopia so soon after the close of the New Testament? Probably because there were already a lot of Jewish people in that part of the world who readily accepted that the Old Testament Messiah was the New Testament Jesus. And possibly also because, if tradition is right, Andrew the apostle may have gone there with the good news. But I think the early spread of the gospel in Ethiopia may have had something to do, also, with this one Ethiopian man who went to Jerusalem on religious pilgrimage, and met Philip (and Jesus!) on the way back home.

One solitary man can make an incalculable difference if it’s the gospel of Jesus that is coming from his mouth! So maybe the millions aren’t such daunting numbers after all. Maybe there is a lot more strength behind PTI than would outwardly seem possible. Maybe there is one man whom God is going to touch, to send on his way rejoicing, and to use to woo untold masses to Jesus. Would you pray for them (especially as the pastors come together in mid-June)? Would you ask the Lord to raise up another Ethiopian eunuch (or thirty or forty of them)?

May the Lord smite a million Ethiopians once again … this time with a repentance that leads them to Jesus, and to life eternal!

May 18, 2009


I have recently had an interesting exchange of letters with a couple of men in leadership with LifeWay Christian Resources (the literature selling and producing branch of the Southern Baptist Convention). The reason for the exchange was my astonishment and grief over LifeWay’s insistence on selling ‘Christian’ books which are heretical (not just a little off kilter, but outright soul-damning) in their theological orientation, but which happen to be selling a lot of copies right now (e.g. William Young’s destructive little book entitled The Shack).

Apparently I am not the only stick-in-the-mud out there who thinks that the denomination’s literature arm ought not be selling such rubbish. So LifeWay has come up with a compromise. They are still going to sell soul-damning, heretical books (they do make a lot of money off them you know!), but now they are going to shore up the problem (supposedly) by inserting a “book briefing” inside each copy of such books, reminding people that they should “read with discernment” … not imbibing the heresy, but still enjoying the “helpful” aspects of the book.

I think it’s a pipe-dream. And here is what I wrote (about LifeWay’s “read with discernment” memo inside the front cover of The Shack) to the LifeWay rep with whom I have been corresponding:

Does LifeWay honestly think that most people will be more influenced by a single-sheet, prosaic, memo-like piece of paper ... or by a whole book's worth of well-written narrative, penned by an undoubtedly gifted writer?

My purpose here is not to re-open the can of deadly worms that Young has opened in The Shack. Rather, I am simply trying to illustrate that LifeWay’s solution … a half-sheet of boring and non-specific prose, stuck into the front of a highly riveting book … is like trying to fight a five-alarm fire with a garden hose. It’s just not going to work. Young’s artful, interesting, emotional story-line is going to win out over LifeWay’s lackluster little memo every time.

And here is the application for you and me …

Boring, lackluster, non-enthusiastic testimonies (at work, at school, and with our own children) will not stand up to the winsome, powerful presentations of the ‘gospels’ that are offered to our teens, our children, and our neighbors by classmates, teachers, musicians, artists, and global thinkers whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of the Bible … but who show, through their actions and voice tones, that they actually believe and care about what they say!

In other words, which is more likely to impact a teenager … a mom who yawns through a sermon on justification, or an atheistic professor who is excited beyond belief about human gene theory? Which is more likely to impact our children … dads who are clearly more excited about their work prospects than the Bible, or an unbelieving classmate who is riveted by some political cause? And which is more likely to impact our co-workers and classmates … the church-goer behind the desk to the right who never has enough courage to say what He really believes, or the articulate Muslim behind the desk to the left who pauses to pray all through the day every Friday?

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe what I wrote in the last two articles. The gospel is more powerful than we can imagine … and has the power to convert people even if it is spoken in the most mono-tone of voices. But our testimonies to the gospel are not so. Our testimonies can either be bright and winsome … or BOOOORRRING! That’s why The Shack, and the articulate Muslim, and the atheist professor are making more of a difference in the marketplaces and universities of this world than many a Christian. The devil is busying sculpting interesting, provocative spokesmen for his schemes. Yet many of us are content with a lifestyle that reads more like an interoffice memo than a fascinating story.

May 5, 2009

Odds and Ends

A few notes to pass along:

*PTI-Ethiopia is gearing back up for a June training session. Also, the format is morphing a bit. Read up on it here ... and please do pray.

*A book recommendation here. God has been stirring us, ever so slightly, to think about and pray for revival. Won't you pray with us? And get this book and see if the Lord doesn't stir you, too.

*Also, a footnote on the last two, football-analogy driven articles ... remember that analogies only go so far. While I used Ohio State football as a metaphor for the power of the gospel, it should be noted that the analogy breaks down pathetically when they are matched up against an opponent from the Southeastern Conference.

Fake Punt?

At the risk of turning into one of those pastors who always uses sports illustrations … the football analogy that I used last time suggested so many more possibilities that I feel like I have to write again. But first a brief recap. Last time, I wrote about the widespread use of gimmicks in the church – pizza blasts, Jesus slinky’s, evanga-cubes, and so on. I do not doubt the zeal of many of those who use these things. They are sincerely trying to reach people for Jesus. But I wonder if these marketing strategies don’t end up doing more harm than good. And I also believe strongly that the use of such techniques betrays a lack of confidence in the simple gospel. Analogy? It’s the less-talented football teams who have to resort to trick plays. When a team like Akron plays Ohio State, for instance, they are forced to resort to chicanery because they don’t have enough talent to take on the Buckeyes straight up. They can’t just run their normal plays because Ohio State is too big, too fast, too strong. So they use smoke and mirrors. They gimmick their way, perhaps, into a touchdown or two. And so it is with those who resort to gospel gimmicks. They don’t (perhaps merely subconsciously) believe that the gospel itself is powerful enough to win the game straight up. They think it needs a little bit of help from a clever coaching staff. And so the evange-cube is born!

What can we say about these things? Let me point out three more lessons:

1. Sometimes trick plays work. Occasionally the Akron Zips might fake a punt and end up with a thirty yard gain for a first down. And, occasionally, someone might genuinely come to Christ by means of a pizza blast. God sometimes uses offbeat methods and blesses them in spite of themselves. And God always uses foolish, sinful messengers to share the good news. But just because something occasionally works doesn’t mean it should be the norm. A team that fakes a punt every game is probably going to finish the season 1-11.

2. The normal playbook sometimes results in slow (but genuine) progress. That is to say … while a fake punt may yield 30 yards in a single play, the more powerful Buckeyes methodically work their way down the field on an 11 play, eighty yard drive that takes six minutes. And so it is with the gospel. Sometimes the gimmicks yield quick, noticeable results. Not always lasting ones, mind you; but quick ones. At the same time, the steady preaching of the gospel from the pulpit and the regular sharing of it at work and school may not seem to explode the church with rapid growth. But over a full game, five or six long, methodical scoring drives will always result in victory. Slow and steady wins the race … especially when the alternative is gimmickry.

3. Trick plays eventually backfire. For every time an Akron or a Bowling Green pulls off a beautifully executed half-back pass … there will be several more times when a team like Ohio State snuffs the trick play out … and throws them for a ten yard loss. And so it is with gospel gimmicks. They almost always eventually backfire … and harm the cause of Christ in the process. How so? Well, how much can you fit on an evange-cube, for instance? Not a lot. So you inevitably leave things out that are crucial to the gospel. You don’t have room to explain that Jesus is both fully God and fully man … so you leave it out. You don’t have room to explain the new birth, and the fruits of it in the life of a real believer. So you leave that for later. You don’t have space for many scriptural references or proofs, so you just paste a verse or two in here and there. And people end up ‘believing’ in a Jesus who hasn’t been fully explained to them. They end up being told they are born again without understanding what that even means, much less being given time to discern whether or not it has really happened. And the gospel is, little by little, eroded.

Not to mention the fact that thinking people can see that a team which is forced to resort to gimmicks must not be all that powerful. A gospel that is forced to use games, and prizes, and jokes, and pizza to attract people must not really be the power of God. For, if God were in it, they wouldn’t need all the claptrap! Thinking people see that. And thinking people have largely written off evangelical Christianity because it seems no different than so many marketing strategies. So maybe it’s time to return to the old playbook, run the ball up the middle a few times, and let the power of the gospel flex its muscles!

May 4, 2009

Gimmicks or Gospel?

Tickets to see a Christian comedian. An invitation to a pizza blast. A Jesus slinky. All opportunities I got in the mail in recent days. In the next few days I will probably get two or three conference invitations, a flyer advertising a seminar on how to incorporate art into our worship service, and not a few glossy handbills with headshots of cool-looking guys with goatees who want to speak to our youth group! Maybe some of these folks will be in it for the money that is to be made off evangelical event-planning. But many of them will be sincere people who want to help our church ‘take the next step’, reach more people, become more effective, and so on.
I’m tempted to buy in. After all, I like pizza. And I want the church to grow. And I have been recently growing a little facial hair of my own! But I can’t help but wonder what the earliest Christians would have thought of all our lights, cameras, and action. They spread like wildfire all over the known world – within a single generation – with none of the marketing strategies and religious techniques that we employ.

It’s not that there were no clever people back then. It’s not that the secular world didn’t have gimmicks in the first century, the same as they do today. It’s just that, somehow, the early Christians decided that Christianity was much simpler than all that. Not because the faith is unsophisticated or backwoods; but because the gospel of Jesus (lived and preached in a biblical manner) is so powerful. Do you see? It’s not that the early Christians would have called a youth pizza blast sinful. It’s just that they didn’t need such things.

They didn’t need gimmicks to keep people’s attention. The idea that there is a heaven, a hell, a “Judge of all the earth”, and a “propitiation for our sins” was enough to keep the culture’s eyes wide open (and sometimes their hands on their swords). The gospel didn’t need any help. Nor does it today.

Imagine a football game. Some teams, who know that they are far out-talented (say Akron taking on Ohio State), resort to trick plays – fake punts, onside kicks, flee-flickers, and so on. And sometimes Akron’s gimmick plays may work. But watch Ohio State in the same game. They don’t fake punts and field goals when they play Akron. They don’t have to throw halfback passes. Why? Because the talent on the field is so far superior to that of Akron that all they have to do is line up with a simple game plan, execute it, and watch the scoreboard light up in their favor.

Now I ask you … which is the gospel? Akron or OSU? Is the gospel so overmatched by modern culture (by TV, internet, and modern attention spans) that it has to resort to gimmicks in order to be effective? Or is the gospel is so powerful that Christians can just go to work or school or the public park, living it and sharing a simple faith, and expect to see results?