Archives For Church

On May 5, 2015

Bringing Heaven to Earth

So I wrote a new book! Actually we wrote a new book. I co-wrote it with my good friend and preaching buddy Josh Ross, and it comes out today! As in you can buy it on Kindle or iPad and read it right now. And if our mothers haven’t already bought all the copies, you can actually go into your local Barnes and Noble and buy it today.

I always thought that if I was going to have a book in a Barnes & Noble it would be because I walked in there and left it. But it’s there, hiding between Joel Olsteen and The Shack is a little book that came out of how the Gospel changed and is changing both of our lives. The book is called “Bringing Heaven to Earth”

Let me tell you about it.

Heaven & Earth

This is not another book that offers Proof That Ninety Seconds in Heaven Is for Real. Enough trees have been killed to make the point that sometimes people have near-death experiences. And sometimes they see things that would confuse even the writer of Revelation.

This isn’t one of those books.

14213-Bringing Heaven to EarthRather than try to describe heaven in detail, this book looks closely at what heaven has to do with earth. The world we live in matters. And what we think about tomorrow impacts how we live today.

About 10 years ago, I was starting to become disenchanted with what it meant to be a Jesus-follower and what it meant to belong to a Church. I had too small of a view of the Gospel and what a Church could do in this world. And then, partly because I read Surprised by Hope and partly because of a series Rick Atchley did at the Hills Church, I found myself calling all my old friends and telling them something like, “The Gospel is bigger and better than we thought it was”

This book is what those phone calls were trying to say. Josh Ross and I are very excited about this. This is more than a book for both of us, it’s written from a local church and to local churches.And our hope is that local churches will engage with this and put skin on it in their own local communities.

I have a hunch that there are lots of people where I was 10 years ago and we want you to know that the Gospel is bigger and better than most of us think. We wrote this book because we think God made this good world and hasn’t given up on it and neither should God’s people.

Good News for a Change

We wrote Bringing Heaven to Earth because we are Christians who are concerned about the church’s witness. Many Christians care a lot about saving people’s souls. We care about that too. But we’ve noticed that often people who want to introduce more people to Jesus find themselves at a loss when it comes to living a robust life of discipleship.

We don’t believe the primary purpose of following Jesus is to enjoy the gift of heaven. Rather, it is to be united with Christ in His love and mission. The call to conversion in the New Testament isn’t a decision for salvation, but a decision for Jesus. It is more than a change in status; it is a shift in allegiance, passion, and calling.

Some Christians care a lot about justice and mercy ministries. They want to change the world by serving the “least of these” but often find themselves angry at those who don’t see things the way they do. There are a lot of people who set out to save the world—for a few months or even years—but oftentimes they eventually grow bitter and weary. We think they need a bigger, and far better, story to enter into.

We wrote this book because we are convinced that it’s time for some good news for a change. And we believe that the real good news leads to all kinds of change in this world.

Here’s what some people (who aren’t related to us) are saying about this book:

“Oh, the difficulty of balance in this walk of faith. We tend to lose it. At least I do. I find myself on the side of the path, entangled in small issues and controversies. This book calls us to keep our eyes up. To keep the big things the big things. The authors offer a much needed and much welcomed reminder.”

— MAX LUCADO, pastor and author

“For many Christians, heaven is just some place we fly away to. But Ross and Storment clear the clouds to reveal the ways in which heaven matters in the here and now. Earth is full of heaven, they say, but you have to know where to look and how to participate in it. Finally, a concept of heaven worth believing in!”

— JONATHAN MERRITT, author and senior columnist for Religion News Service

“It’s about time someone dismantled the view that Christianity and the church exist to be God’s waiting room until we make it to heaven. Jonathan and Josh dismantle the fairy tale of heaven being a place of naked, winged babies playing harps on clouds. They replace that with the vision that Jesus and the New Testament both expect heaven to burst forth out of the church.”

— TIM HARLOW, senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church, Chicago

“We live in a world that faces innumerable challenges, and the authors remind us that faith in Jesus gives us the power to be his holistic witnesses to the restoration and reconciliation work found only in Christ. You will be inspired and equipped by reading this book.”

— DANIEL HILL, author and senior pastor of River City Community Church, Chicago

“Christians need to get past all views of the future that do not impact the pres- ent. That is how Jonathan and Josh help us; they call us to a view of ‘then’ that matters ‘now.’ Bringing Heaven to Earth is a timely challenge to a church in need of a new way of telling time.”

—Rick Atchley, Senior Minister at The Hills Church of Christ, Fort Worth, Texas

“In Bringing Heaven to Earth, Storment and Ross show us that how we think of heaven truly matters only when we are able to see how it impacts the way we live, day in and day out. This book doesn’t disappoint.”

—Colt McCoy, NFL quarterback and coauthor of The Real Win and Growing Up Colt

“For believers and nonbelievers alike, the idea of heaven often seems sentimen- tal, escapist, and irrelevant. But in this powerful and inspiring book, Jonathan Storment and Josh Ross make heaven and earth collide. The good news is that heaven is a party already in full swing. So pull up a chair to the banquet table and be sure to bring a friend.”

—Richard Beck, blogger, author, and professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University

If you’d like purchase a copy, you can find it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million and wherever books are sold. If you’d like to download the first chapter for free, you can click on this link: Bringing-Heaven-to-EarthSneakpeek And if you’d like to disagree with anything you read in it, please feel free to talk to Josh.

Thanks for reading and to God the Glory!

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” -G.K. Chesterton

Un-Cool Desktop

For the past few weeks I’ve been writing a series on the problematic relationship that I think Christianity has with our desire to be seen as cool. And today I’d like to lay my cards on the table for my biggest problem with why I care about this, and why it concerns me.

It’s because the Church that called me to Jesus was anything but cool.

Chances are if you’ve read this blog for long, or have ever heard me preach, you’ve heard me talk about this little 10 person church before. It was for me a slice of Heaven on earth, it’s what I picture everything I hear the word church, and who I think of when I write every sermon.

Our worship leader had down syndrome, our preacher was mentally unstable, and our record attendance was 36 people. As much as I loved these people, I was still your average teenager prone to lots of insecurity and whenever we had guests I was often embarrassed by belonging to this group of people.

Every Age Has a Spirit

Often I would go to my other friends churches, and they didn’t look anything like the one I belonged to. They had people who were actually paid to preach or lead worship, they had gone to the trouble of printing bulletins and graphics for their the new sermon series and they had youth ministries, heck at my church, I was the youth ministry! And sometimes at these youth groups that I would hear the people talking about following Jesus in a way that was dismissive of the way their grandparents did.

They might talk about how Jesus was the original rebel and he certainly didn’t care about all that old crusty doctrine the way their Aunt Betty did (which ironically enough was a doctrine itself).

I learned that Jesus loved D.C Talk concerts and when true-love waited or when Christians kissed dating goodbye, He loved lock-ins and Christian athletes and could cause touchdowns for those who were confident that they could do all things through Him who gives them strength.

I know I’m being pretty sarcastic here, but I’m wanting to make a point. The great temptation of every age is to assume a level of superiority, a chronological snobbery that we’ve somehow been able to evolve past all the sin of previous generations. But today go to any church with a youth group and you’re likely to hear the very things I just mentioned as examples of how wrong we used to be in the very same dismissive spirit that people used in the generation before them. 

But the problem I had then is the one I still have today. I couldn’t write off the older generations because I was sharing life with them, I saw them wrestle with how to be faithful disciples in the world while trying to hold onto the tradition that they had passed on from the generations before them.

And this is my biggest problem with Cool Christianity…in order to exist, cool has to rebel against something, and the main way Cool Christianity thrives today is by rebelling against the Christianity of the previous generation.

In an article for the New York Times a few years ago called, “Ideas & Trends: Alt-Worship; Christian Cool and the New Generation Gap,” John Leland talked about how the the younger generations of Christians are rapidly reinventing church to be something far from what their parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced. Leland ends his article by posing this question:

“If religion is our link to the timeless, what does it mean that young Christians replace their parents practices?”

I think that’s a great question. How does a historic faith (a faith based in things that we believe happened in history) rebel against the faith that we inherited without changing the very nature of what that faith is? Cool is rooted in the moment, the way of Jesus is rooted in a tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Re-Generation

Think about how many times early church planters like Paul tells the churches to organize themselves in a way that helps widows and senior saints pass on their way of life to younger Jesus-followers. Paul will go from these super theological statements about the God who gives grace to all people and who has loved us from the beginning of time to saying things like, “Make sure the older women are teaching the younger women how to love their families and live holy lives.”Jesus loves you Hipster

Paul has this idea that church, like Jewish synagogues before would be a place where younger people and older people would be sharing life and offering generous critiques and wisdom for how to follow Jesus well.

In every healthy church I’ve seen that’s still the case, and those churches are rarely cool.

I like the way that the pastor Jonathan Martin talked about this when he was planting his church a few years ago. He said from the beginning that the church they wanted to plant wasn’t trying to be cool, it was trying to be faithful. Here’s his words:

“We are your grandmother’s church. And your great-grandmother’s church. And your great-great-grandmother’s church. I had grown weary of the clichéd church advertising that said, ‘We aren’t your grandmother’s church.’ I understand what they mean by that. It’s a way of saying that our church has electric guitars rather than pipe organs. I didn’t grow up in churches with pipe organs, so I have no reason to be defensive about them now. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with the careless language. The desire to cut ourselves off from those who came before us is no virtue. Even when we are flatly, and perhaps rightly, embarrassed by the behavior or the history of our churches on some level, we still exist in continuity with them. We are forever tethered to our grandmother’s church, and this is as it should be. Our grandmother’s church has given us many good gifts. But even when it has been very wrong, it still belongs to us.

This is at the heart of Christianity and the problem facing churches today, cool lives in the moment, the church lives through the centuries. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and linked to the generations who have gone before us, we must be faithful to the purposes of God for our generation, but we must also remember we belong to a tradition. We belong to the Kingdom of God and a democracy of the dead.
On February 26, 2015

UnCool: The Church Is For God

Un-Cool DesktopChristine Frost never set out to attract the attention of the entire world. The 77 year old nun had no interest in that kind of platform, she was just serving the LORD by serving the poor.

For the past forty years she had worked to get poor, disenfranchised people into better housing, she and her abbey devoted themselves to serving people in what we call “the projects.” For four decades she had served these people no matter what faith they had or didn’t.

And so when she Christine Frost saw the black flag of ISIS flying over the entry of the apartments she’d spent the better part of her life serving she did what was only natural. She took that flag down.

The flag had already been flying for two weeks, and when journalists approached to take pictures they were threatened with bodily harm, people had complained to local authorities, who were trying to figure out what to do. And that’s when Christine Frost, the nun, known for her ability to organize bingo nights and speak on behalf of the marginalized, stepped up.

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

This plucky senior saint just walked up to the building with a step-ladder and took the flag down.

At first, no one in the British press knew what to make of this act of bravery. Some assumed it was a Christian vs. Islam thing, but it wasn’t, it was woman who had been faithfully serving her community in the name of Jesus for decades and she had no idea that what she was doing would be so very cool, she just knew it was right.

Getting Hugged by Strangers

I spent this past Saturday night hanging out with Kent and Amber Brantly for a fundraising event. I had the privilege of getting to interview Kent about his experience with serving West Africa and having Ebola. They were really incredible, humble people who have given Jesus a good name. But the one thing I wasn’t expecting is how many people wanted to hug them.

We ate dinner at the Macaroni Grill before hand and total strangers just came up and hugged him and walked away without saying a word.

Amber told my wife, “This has been happening a lot lately.”

Think about that, these aren’t people who are asking for selfies or autographs, they aren’t wanting to get anything, they are just wanting to say thank you.

If you know Kent, you know that the best word to describe him isn’t cool, he’s not edgy or image-conscious, he’s the furthest thing from a hipster. He’s not cool, he’s more than that, He’s trying to be faithful.

And this brings me to the problem with the American Christian’s preoccupation with being cool. Cool is built on rebellion, and it’s easier to sell rebellion than holding on to some kind of tradition. I like the way Paul Grant puts it in his book, “Blessed are the Uncool”

Was Jesus really a rebel? Yes, but Jesus didn’t rage against some abstract machine; he called people to an old way, the way revealed in the prophets. . . . Jesus rocked the boat, and defied the status quo, modeling courageous resistance of the prevailing winds. But in our contemporary culture, rebellion is considered a good in its own right—and a thrilling one at that. We’re out to transgress. But we don’t really have any agenda beyond rebellion itself.

It’s so tempting for Churches to fall into the trap of pursuing cool, we use words like relevant or cultural engagement, we want to show the world that we “get it” and that we don’t believe in dragons or elves, but when we pursue this, it quickly becomes where we spend our best energies and resources.

David Wells makes this point well in his book “The Courage to Be Protestant”

“the miscalculation here is enormous…The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God. And the further irony is that the younger generations [are not impressed, they] often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

Instead of battling to be relevant and cool, churches should be doing is engaging their communities and cultures by trying to be the most faithful version of themselves for God and for the world.

Our chief goal isn’t to be relevant, it is to be the people of God.

Who is the Church For?

A couple of years ago I read the great book by Andy Stanley “Deep and Wide” where he asked the insightful question, “Is the Church for members or non-members?” He’s asking the question because of the tendency that churches have to bend toward being internally focused, and Stanley very convincingly makes the point that the church exists for the people who don’t belong to her.

So I went to Jeff Childers, a member at Highland and a good friend, and I asked him that question “Who is the church for?” And in one sentence Jeff exposed a huge gap in my faith and view of Church.

He just said, “Short answer is the Church is for God.”

Immediately, I was like “Oh yeah, that’s the right answer.”

I realized that this was the missing piece in my theology, I still believe that the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her, but not first, She first exists for God.

Do you realize the great pleasure it gives God when we forgive people who are difficult to forgive? Do you realize when we reconcile racially/economically/politically we give God great joy because we are acting like His Son? We don’t’ do it because it’s popular, we do it because it’s who God is.

I don’t know of another reason that would cause someone to serve Ebola victims at the expense of their own health, or could cause an elderly nun to take down a flag at the cost of her own safety.

Sometimes the faithfulness of the Church catches the world’s attention and people are reminded that it is good news that Christians follow Jesus. And that may put an elderly nun on the front page of the Guardian, or it may get strangers coming up and giving you hugs at a Macaroni Grill.

But that’s not why we do it, the Church exists for the world, but not first, she first exists for God.

On February 3, 2015

Uncool: Embarrased to Say

“The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” -The Westminster Confession

Un-Cool Desktop

Alex was pretty well off in life, he probably came from a family with a modest income, and now he was on a fast track to having a pretty good life. He was lucky enough to be put in an imperial boarding school, and in 1st century Rome that meant that he was going to get to serve in the palace of the Emperor. If Alex played his cards right he might even get to serve the emperor himself.

But that probably never happened.Alex graffiti

Because it turns out that the boarding school that Alex went to was really cruel. Today the ruins of this 1900 year old school are famous not for the education, but for it’s graffiti. The students drew all over the walls of this school, and one of them carved this picture, and along with it all we know about the student “Alex”

Alex’s peers carved a picture of a man worshipping a donkey on a cross. Then they added in crude language “Alexamenos worships [his] God”

And you thought Junior High was tough for you.

The Courage to be Different

One of the best books I read in years was a book by Francis Spufford, a British author writing on why he was still a Christian. In the U.S. Edition of his book, he wrote a preface to explain to people reading in America about what it was like to live as a Jesus follower in the U.K.

 In Britain, where I live, recent figures suggest that about 6 percent of the population goes regularly to church, and it’s a number that has drifted steadily downward over the past few decades, while the average age of churchgoers has just as steadily trended upward: presently the average worshipper is fifty-one years old. In the United States, by contrast, the equivalent figure (from 2006) is 26 percent of the population, with a youthful, rosy-cheeked age distribution. That’s not all, though. Some surveys, tellingly, reveal that a further 16 percent of Americans claim to be regular churchgoers. From the British perspective this second statistic is even more startling and alien than the first one. The idea of people pretending to be regular churchgoers because it will make them look virtuous—or respectable, or serious, or community-minded—is completely bizarre to us. Here in Britain, it is more likely that people would deny they went to church even if they actually did, on the grounds of embarrassment

These days the word persecution is thrown around a lot, generally centering around politics. But I live in a city where people often buy my meal, I get my haircut and eye exams and dental work for free just because I’m a preacher.  I’m not persecuted I’m privileged.

But with that said, I get it, things aren’t like they used to be for American Christians. The privilege is slipping a bit, however when I hear Christians talking in the media today about being persecuted I think the word they are really reaching for is embarrassed. 

And I get embarrassment. I’ve grown up in the Bible Belt, I’ve always lived in the South, I’m a preacher at a church in Texas, and when I get on a plane somewhere and someone asks me what I do, I often feel like a stereotype. I feel as if they assume I also get on television wearing tacky suits to ask for money, or maybe they think of the Religious Right or the Crusades, or the different atrocities that have been committed in Jesus’ name.

I feel in a word: uncool.

There’s lots of things to be embarrassed about, in the words of Bono “Christians are unbearable, I don’t know how Jesus does it.”

But In light of the very real and violent persecution that Christians in other parts of the world are currently facing, I’d like to recommend a passage of Scripture for all of us who live in a world that is growing more post-Christian.

The Smile of God

There is this one time in the New Testament, where Peter the disciple who followed Jesus, is writing to a church that’s facing real persecution. Slowly the Roman empire is becoming aware that they aren’t worshipping their gods, and the Roman Emperor is learning that they don’t worship him.

Rome doesn’t do nuance very well, What Rome understands is that the Cross works…Peter is trying to get the Christians to understand the same thing.

So Peter writes to these men and women and says,

It is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.

This is commendable before God?!!

In context, Peter is writing about people who are at the bottom of society, namely slaves, and Peter isn’t saying slavery is good and that slaves need to be passive toward gaining their freedom. Peter is writing at an entirely different level here, he’s assuming that certain options aren’t on the table, and he’s teaching people how to be Christian in whatever circumstances they find find themselves in.

Peter knows that to be the people of God involves suffering, and his initial advice isn’t to try and avoid it, it is to allow God to redeem it. Reading from a modern Western perspective this sounds absurd and abusive, but then it dawns on me Peter has seen this work before.

And a cursory look at Christian history says it’s been working ever since.

Brett McCracken points out that Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign has Christian roots. From Jesuit Priests to Wesley and Wilberforce, Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and have started the largest charities from Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, to Feed the Children, and World Vision. Jesus followers were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities. They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, and substance-abuse programs.

Today it’s trendy to care about these things, but Christians cared about it before it was cool, even when it was embarrassing to care about.

Now just because it can be uncool to be a Jesus follower, that doesn’t mean that if you are uncool you are necessarily being a good Christian. You might just be obnoxious. But I suspect that there is an aspect of following Jesus that will always be embarrassing and counter-cultural.

And this is my greatest concern with progressive Christianity. I believe just about everything my other progressive Christian friends believe, but sometimes I wonder if we believe it for the wrong reasons. I think the way of Jesus leads to social justice, equality and ministries of mercy, but I think the reason Christians are called to do that is to serve and honor God.

In my more cynical moments, I think that we talk about it so much so we can be seen as cool.

Think back to Alex in Jr. High, all we know about him is found by looking at what people wrote about him on the ancient world equivalent of a bathroom stall. But what we know from the rest of that period is that being a person who believed in Jesus was not just difficult, it was embarrassing.

People were shamed by their family, the rumors were floating around that Christians were cannibals, that they had deliberately started the fire that crippled the Roman economy, and that they were the worst of all people.

And Peter’s answer wasn’t to argue with them, it was for the Christians to live like Jesus did, for the pleasure of God.

We can’t justify ourselves, or offer an explanation for everything we believe in a way that is going to satisfy everyone, all we can offer is our lives of living like Jesus.

On January 27, 2015

Uncool: Losing Your Cool

“There comes a time when we must show that we disagree…We must show our Christian colours, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ…We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.”-C.S. Lewis

Un-Cool Desktop

Last month all the Cardinals of the Catholic Church came together for their yearly Christmas gathering to hear an Advent message from Pope Francis. From the outside looking in, Pope Francis appears to be one of the most kind and compassionate people in the world. He’s incredibly popular in much of the world, recapturing outsiders imagination for why the way of Jesus is still so beautiful.

But from the inside it’s a different story.

Francis stood in front of a room full of men who had given their lives and made great sacrifices for Jesus and the Church, and he gave them a list of 15 things that they as leaders were doing wrong.

And you thought your office Christmas party was awkward.

Seriously, read the speech, he accused these priests of having a Messiah Complex, of making efficiency an idol, of having “funeral face” and losing the joy of the LORD in their life, of being exclusive of loving money too much, of gossiping and worshipping prestige.

Merry Christmas guys.

Love Does…Weird Stuff

I spent last weekend at a men’s conference listening to Bob Goff, the author of the tremendous book Love Does, at one point during the conference Bob told the story about meeting with the Imam in the local Mosque where he lives in San Diego. Bob had started to work in several Muslim countries and he wanted to get more acquainted with the Muslim faith, and so he befriended a local Muslim leader, At one point in the conversation, Bob asked the Imam what the scariest day of his life was and the Imam told him, “That’s easy. It was September 12th, 2011”

Turns out that two of the terrorists who flew planes into the buildings on that dreadful Tuesday morning were members of this Imam’s mosque and after America was sucker punched, we were ready to punch back and we were looking for a target. So on the 12th, the Imam drove up to his Mosque early Wednesday morning to find over 300 cars parked in his parking lot. There was a group of people who had heard that this mosque had connections to the terrorism in New York and they were ready for some mob justice. And that’s when Bob said something happened that I find close to miraculous.

A group of Jesus followers surrounded the Mosque and linked arms and began to sing worship songs while they used their bodies as human shields to protect their Muslim friends entering the Mosque.

When I heard that story I found myself swelling with the best kinds of pride for these Christians. Not just because they were brave and sacrificial, but because they were faithful when it would have been easy to not be.

As soon as Bob told that story, I thought about my life on September 12th. My friends and I were scared, my parents were terrified (confident that Searcy Arkansas was next on the Taliban hit list) and everyone I knew was confused, sad and angry. I remember the world of September 12th like it was yesterday, and I can’t imagine the bravery it took for a group of Christian men and women to to stand in a California mosque parking lot and lock arms against an angry crowd.

I don’t think they were particularly courageous in regards to violence. I doubt that anyone would hurt a group of middle-class Christians singing, I think their courage took a different stripe all together. It was the courage to be uncool.

Remember the momentum culture had during the weeks following September 11th? Every news channel, every politician, every public figure seemed to be able to put aside their differences and focus their collective voices on comforting each other and confronting and making sense of the evil we had just witnessed. Unfortunately, it was also a terrifying time to be a Muslim, it was easy to lump the terrorist in with the Muslim faith, (which would be like lumping all Christians in with the KKK).  And in the middle of all that, a group of Christians stood against their peers, friends and neighbors and did what was in the moment the most uncool thing imaginable.

The Courage to Be Different

Last week some of the Highland Church leadership met with a hospital chaplain for a time of equipping. The chaplain was a middle class white guy who had spent the last 25 years in the hospital around people in crisis. And toward the end of our time with him, the chaplain told us this story:

Many years ago, a young gang leader in our city was shot in the head. He was immediately brought to the hospital where he would eventually die. The gang leaders family was obviously in shock and grieving, and to make matters worse his entire gang was hanging around outside the ICU ward discussing plans of retaliation. They were (not too subtly) coming up with a plan of action for their righteous anger.Canonization_2014-_The_Canonization_of_Saint_John_XXIII_and_Saint_John_Paul_II_(14036966125)

And that’s when the chaplain (not a large or intimidating man) went out to the waiting room and asked the entire gang to follow him to the chapel. He stood in front of this group of young men and told them that he understood they were angry, sad and scared, but that what they were planning was wrong and would ruin and perhaps end their lives and the lives of other people.

He told a room full of boys filled with bloodlust and rage and fear that they were wrong and that there was a better way to live, and then he bowed his head and prayed for God to give them comfort and peace and the ability to forgive and turn the other cheek.

And that’s exactly what they did.

As the years have gone by, many of those boys and their families have returned to quietly say thank you to the chaplain. They thank him for telling them something that is so obvious now but which no one was saying then. They thanked him for saying the uncool things to them when they needed to hear it.

That brings me back to Pope Francis, I think the reasons he’s so popular with most people is not because he’s chasing popularity but because he’s choosing who he’s okay not being popular with wisely. He knows that the world is going to be the world, but the Church is called to be different and so he’s able to say the most gracious things to people who are different than him, and the most prophetic things to those who are called to be different but aren’t.

Pope Francis doesn’t just go around kissing puppies, he’s told mafia leaders they are going to Hell if they don’t change their ways, that they have blood on their hands. He’s courageously rebuked a variety of military leaders, presidents, dictators and especially his own priests.

We so badly want to be popular, we want so badly to be seen as cool. But just a cursory observation of the way the world works reminds us, Whoever wants to save their cool will lose it, but whoever is willing to lose it just might save it.

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity either in locality or in speech or in customs. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians…the constitution of their citizenship is nevertheless quite amazing and admittedly paradoxical. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners…Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is a foreign country. -Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus from the 2nd century

gospel-of-mark-slider

At the Highland Church, we are coming to the close of our series of the Gospel of Mark. For the final three weeks of this series, we’re releasing several different videos we made earlier this year created from different locations in Jerusalem, in the places where Jesus spent His final hours.  Each week’s video will be a supplemental resource for that week’s upcoming sermon, and If you’re interested in watching the rest of these videos they’ll be posted weekly to the Highland Facebook page.

Antonia Fortress – Am I Leading a Rebellion? from Highland Church on Vimeo.

I like showing these kinds of videos because it’s important for Jesus followers to remember, this really happened, and it happened in a world much like ours.

Jesus didn’t just leave home and travel to a far county, he was born under Ceasar Augustus, and sentenced to die by Pontius Pilate. His life is the myth become fact, the God become man, the King who become a carpenter, and who steps into the calendar around 4 A.D.

This particular video is filmed in the Antonio Fortress, the place where the Praetorium Guard was assembled and where Jesus would have met Pilate. I think this video is an appropriate reminder on this election week for Christians to be reminded of this scene.

In a world where everyone seems to think they know who Jesus was and what His movement is about, but strangely seem to have lives similar to people who have no intention of following him, maybe it’s time to look again at the man who turned the world upside down.

Shooting this video here was a good reminder of how Jesus chose to serve and change the world. In his three years of ministry Jesus wasn’t very interested in politics, but after his three years of ministry the politicians sure were interested in Him.

Just a little historical background for those interested, The Antonia was a tower built by Herod for his soldiers to watch over the Jews during their festivals…especially Passover. During the entire time that Rome ruled over Israel there were six different revolts. And five of them happened during the Jewish festival of Passover.

This is why Jesus’ actions during his final week were so dangerous. When Jesus rides into town like a King, and start throwing tables around in the Temple courts, the rulers know that they have to stop this as soon as possible.

But they don’t know how.

Here’s Your King

I’ve heard people say before that the Jewish people didn’t have the authority to enforce capital punishment and kill Jesus, historically speaking that’s not true. The Jewish people were given authority by Rome to enforce justice and keep the peace (see Acts 8 where the first Christian martyr Stephen is stoned) The only hard and fast rule that Rome had given both Herod and Pilate is “no revolts”

As long as everyone just smiles and politely goes about their religion business than Rome is content to look the other way as you talk all you want about “freedom” and a “God who delivers”

But Jesus intends on being more than polite.

And so on the final day of Jesus’ life the Roman and Jewish authorities have to find a way not just to execute Jesus but to turn the people against Him. To this end, Jesus was taken to the Jewish courts and convicted of blasphemy, a charge  they didn’t kill him, instead they send Him to Pilate. But Pilate knows when someone is passing the buck, after all the business of the Jewish religion had nothing to do with him, so Pilate passes him off to Herod Agrippa, only to get him back from Agrippa a few hours later…without any sentence.

In a scene that is eerily familiar to modern day politics, nobody wanted to make themselves vulnerable by taking the blame…but Mark is writing in a way to tell us that’s exactly what Jesus was doing.

In a season of political unrest and power-grabs, Jesus is largely silent, quietly laying down his life. When He’s beaten and accused, He responds with grace and forgiveness and blood.

He may be like a King, but Kings are not like Him.

He’s leading a rebellion, it’s called the Kingdom of God and you can’t vote that in, but everyone can be a part of it.

photo-1So this past week, I did another podcast with my good friend Luke Norsworthy (I’m a glutton for punishment) Luke’s podcast has recently cracked the top 100 in religion podcasts on ITunes, so he’s obviously doing something right.

During this podcast, Luke shares his love for Mariah Carey, and how he lacks the ability to encourage, but loves to receive encouragement.

We talk about the great lineup of interviews he had on the show in the month of September, and how it applies to our lives of ministry, and our lives as Jesus followers. This interview spans everything from the way we’ve carved up the world into conservative/liberal to the challenges being parents has brought to our theology.

We talked about Dr. Amy Levine new book on the parables and how her interpretations are difficult to preach, but important for Christians to listen to. In the words of one of my preacher friends, Levine serves as a good speed bump for anyone who is tempted to say, “In the first century this is what Jewish people believed” as if anyone could summarize what all Christians believed 2000 years from now.

We talked about Peter Enns new, and somewhat controversial book about the Bible, and I try to hold Luke’s evasive little feet to the fire for a change.

One of the reasons that I appreciate this particular interview, was because I ask myself the question all the time, “Who gets to be conservative?” I believe that in many ways the people who consider themselves the most conservative are the ones who have added the most recent things to the Christian tradition. But to understand that more, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

We talked about Richard Rohr, and his ability to encourage the least of these, and his challenge to Christians who grew up in more rigid Christian homes to not become cynical about their background but learn to appreciate the way you were raised.

And then finally we talked about Scot McKnight’s wonderful new book “Kingdom Conspiracy” (a book I highly recommend) and why the way we talk about the Kingdom of God matters, and how it might not be what we thought it was.

Anyway, Luke’s podcast is one of the best ones out there right now, and one I listen to every week. It’s challenging and funny and one of the best ways to get to know some of our best Christian leaders and thinkers out in the broader Christian world, and if you’d like to subscribe to it, you can find his podcast here.

earthed

 

Drayton Naybers has watched a lot of young guys win the Heisman trophy.

And he says you can tell a lot about a guy’s character by his acceptance speech.

Sometimes they will just credit their hard work and weightlifting, or natural talent. But Naybers will ask, who taught you to work hard? Or bought the equipment? Who built the university, or recruited your teammates?

Who gave you the DNA in the first place?

“If this player has humility, he will express nothing but over-flowing gratitude when he wins-to his parents, to his teachers and coachers, to all the players on his team, and to everyone who helped him along the way…Humility actually is a form of wisdom. It is thinking clearly. It is simply being realistic. It is knowing who really deserves the credit and the glory for what we do

I like that, it’s not humility, it’s actually just being realistic.

The Church That Raised Me2012_04_26_11_04_19.pdf000

For every sermon I write, this picture is the background of the computer desktop. It’s a picture of my friend, Brian leading singing at the little 10 member church I grew up in. I write with this picture in mind, because this is who I write for, most of the people in this picture are dead, but it is when the saints gather for church that I feel they are the most present.

They say that preachers help form churches, but the reverse is true as well. Churches form preachers.

On an average Sunday morning, our congregation consisted of Bro. Foy, the patriarch of the church, who was more than a little mentally unstable. I’m not joking, and he is the reason I’m a preacher, because mentally unstable makes very interesting sermons, and passionate preaching. There aren’t many memories from my church childhood that don’t involve Bro. Foy.

The first funeral I ever did (I was 14), he wrote for me. I remember sitting up behind the pulpit with him, and him telling me that I was going to do just fine.

Words like liberal and conservative couldn’t be used to describe us, and we never used them ourselves. We argued, like any human community, and there were tense times (like when Foy started preaching against women wearing pants), but we apologized and forgave quickly.

We had too, after all we took communion together.

I saw the beautiful thing that is a community of reconciliation, and you’ll never convince me that this is not something worth giving my life for. But this kind of experience is rarely the case anymore. The common assumption is that for a church to grow they must specialize in one slice of the human pie.

From Generation to Generation

Over the past few years, I’ve read and heard some church consultants giving the advice that, in order to grow numerically, a church needs to pick between targeting people of under 40, or over 40. I hate that suggestion. I think it works against the very nature of Church, I think it helps us lean into our own selfishness and away from the people who we need to be frustrated by.

So next week, I’m going to talk about it. If you’re in Abilene, I’d like to invite you to come to the ACU Summit (Lectureships). For three days next week I want to talk about the biggest crisis I think the Church is facing. I want to talk about the ways we are trying to address it, and I’d also like to find out how other churches are dealing with it.

Again, this is not a crisis of morality or lack of fidelity to the gospel, or anything that stirs up controversy. The problem is that it is really hard to be a church of five different generations.  More to the point, we are not able to get older people and younger people to hang out together anymore. 

So much of the Scriptures are trying to create ways for one generation to pass on faith from one generation to the other., worked into the first five books of the Bible is the idea that this is the story that you tell your kids, for them to tell their kids. Paul even dedicates major portions of his pastoral letters giving practical ideas for how the churches he planted could do this.

And since we no longer live in the age of potlucks and bunko…how do we prioritize this at the local church level? How do we emphasize generational generosity and create atmospheres conducive for our senior saints to rub shoulders with our younger adults? How do we help each generation see how much they need the wisdom and perspective of the people around them?

These aren’t just rhetorical teasing questions…I’d love to hear your ideas, especially if you won’t be able to make it to Abilene. I hope to get some new ideas on how to implement this, and I may share some of your ideas in the class.

I’ve been greatly blessed in my life with godly mentors who have been willing to sacrifice to pass on the Gospel to some chump kid who they decided to invest their life in. I’m convinced the best thing I can do with my life, is to try and stand on the people’s shoulder who have gone before me, and leave something for the person who are coming after me.

In a world that tries to get me to believe that the universe spins on a top with me at the center, it’s good to be reminded that I am a tree in a story about a forest.

And the story of the forest is way better than the story about the tree

That’s what being part of a church is, we’re not doing that, that’s our crisis, and it’s time to talk about it.

(The class is meeting in Hart Auditorium 1:15-2:05)

Newsworthy

So I’m away for the next couple of weeks on study break, and wouldn’t have time to write for a few days. So this past week, I sat down with my friend Luke Norsworthy for his podcast to talk about this blog series. Luke is a great interviewer and I highly recommend subscribing to his podcast. He has interviewed Scot Mcknight,  Francis Spufford, John Ortberg, Barbara Brown Taylor, Ian Cron, and me (I obviously belong in such an elite list of authors).

Seriously, every week Luke has a great new podcast, and I highly recommend it.

Anyway, this last week Luke and I talked about my new book How to Start a Riot, along with several other things that are close to our heart, like why we think the local church matters so much and why.

In this podcast, you’ll hear the story about my friend with down syndrome leading singing and praying for communion. It’s the story that best summarizes why I care about the local Church so much.

We also talk about all the interviews I’ve been doing with Christian Radio stations and the one time I kind of got hung up on in an interview. You’ll have to listen to the podcast for the explanation to that one, it’s hard to describe. {fbbcdd6b-e396-4b47-a8fa-8b5d6e015ef3}Img400

And finally we talk about one of the things that both of us have been wrestling with lately (and something I plan to write more about). It’s just this question: Who is the church for? For churched people? For unchurched people? I’ve said repeatedly that I believe the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her, and while I still believe that, I’ve changed my mind on what I mean.

 

 

P.S. All the proceeds for How to Start a Riot go to the Highland Church of Christ and her vision for “A Restoration Movement”

On April 1, 2014

Am I Leading a Rebellion?

“The world has only seen One Christian and they killed Him.” -Nietzsche

Protest the Status QuoRecently in the New York Times, Ross Douthat asked the question that’s been haunting me for years. Honestly, it was a question that I was surprised to see asked in the NY Times, because it seems like the evidence is piling up to that it is a question that has already been answered.

Here’s the question: “Is the Church good for the world?”

Douthat, is a Christian, he’s also an articulate conservative columnist for the Times, and I appreciate the way he consistently engages with the larger ideas and questions that are floating around the Western culture. But this one struck pretty close to home.

Here’s what he said:

Here is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation. Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.

In my experience, this observation is spot on.

I see the local Church as the hope of the world. But I have so many days and weeks where I realize that we are just as much a part of the problem as we are the solution.

Working With Jesus

The past few weeks, I’ve been reading through the Gospel of Mark, studying for a future sermon series, and one of the more striking things about Mark is how often the disciples get it wrong. In ways that are eerily familiar. They struggle with power and greed and racism and fear of the stranger and violent rage toward people they don’t like.

But Jesus continually keeps correcting and rebuking and challenging their whole notion of what it means to be a people of God. Until…

Toward the end of the Gospel of Mark, Judas betrays Jesus, he comes up to Jesus with a few Roman soldiers in tow and gives him the most treacherous of betrayals. He gives Jesus a kiss, and Jesus gives him a question.

“Am I leading a rebellion? That you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?”

Jesus’ question to Judas is pretty practical. Basically, he’s asking Judas, “is this really necessary? Name one time, you’ve seen me angry…Okay, name two.”

But I think the reason Judas brought the National Guard along with him wasn’t so much because of Jesus…I think it was because he knew the other guys he’d spent the last few years with. And rightfully so, the first thing Peter does is reach for what everyone else in that day would have reached for in that situation…the hilt of a sword.

Which means that Jesus’ question to Judas is also one a question for Peter.

“Peter, am I leading a rebellion or not?”

Because make no mistake about it, no matter how rebellious Peter’s swift move to action looks, it’s not a rebellion of the status quo, just an attempt at realigning it.

It is the exact opposite of all the things that Jesus has spent the last 3 years teaching Peter and in a moment of crisis his default move is back to the place he started.

Which is why it’s a question I’ve been asking a lot lately too.

To Live in Protest

Jesus people tend to buy into the same cultural idols and values, we divorce at the same rates, we are more segregated than almost any other sector of society, we use money the same way, we think of power, prestige just as much as other people.

Nietzsche once said that the world has only seen One Christian and they killed him. I get that. It’s easy to look around and see the inconstancy between Jesus and the people who follow Him. And the question seems to raise itself more and more often. “Is the Church really good for the world?”

But Douthat’s article didn’t just raise the question, he also gave a hopeful answer.Christian Protest

Just like the way Dr. King fought the racism of Southern America in the 60’s and Bishop Tutu fought apartheid in South Africa last decade, the answer isn’t to jettison the Christian faith it is to lean more into it.

The problem, according to Douthat, is that Christianity names all the flawed attempts that we have for living a good life, it gives us a vision for what the life in the Kingdom of God looks like and then the resources in which to live into that kind of life.

But if we just take the prescription and not the medicine we are in the words of the book of James “like someone who looked in a mirror and then just walked away without making the necessary adjustments.”

This is why surveys show that people who are invested in Christian community fare much better at the expectations of what a Jesus-following person should be like in the world. But people who are raised with a Christian way of thinking (like mercy, empathy, fidelity) but become dis-enfranchised from a local Christian community, or just nominally attached to it, find themselves doing much worse than people who have no faith at all.

Here’s how Douthat points it out:

For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some of the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.

Is the Church good for the world? In a word: Yes.

But only when she is different from the world. When She rebels against the way things are, in the ways that Jesus would.