Archive for November, 2011

Evangelism is more about belonging than believing

November 16, 2011

I just finished reading George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism. I’m taking on faith that the author knows what he’s talking about when he talks about Celtic Christianity—because I know very little about it outside of this book!

He argues that Patrick, Columba, Aidan, and their successors were far more successful at evangelizing the Celtic peoples of Ireland, England, and Scotland than those missionaries following the “Roman model.” In general, the Roman model assumes a “one size fits all” way of doing evangelism. It says that people must become “like us” first, before they’re ready to receive the gospel. Consequently, it often ignores large groups of people who don’t look and act the way Christians are supposed to look and act.

The Roman model also places a greater emphasis on reason than relationship. It is more about one-way communication than two way conversation.

Even though the Roman model of evangelism doesn’t work as well as the Celtic model, it still predominates in Western Christianity, be it Protestant or Catholic.

One of the author’s main insights about Celtic evangelism is that belonging precedes believing. In other words, non-Christians are invited to participate in the life of the community. They are given opportunities to explore the faith. They ask questions. They experience authentic Christian people living out their faith. Over time, they discover that they, too, believe the gospel and make public their decision to be a Christian.

The primary task of evangelism, therefore, is help “people to belong so that they can believe.”

I wonder how well Vinebranch’s recent experience with Coffeehouse fits this model. In a small way, wasn’t it an easy and non-threatening opportunity to help people “belong”? It gave outsiders a chance to experience a small measure of Christian love and hospitality. They didn’t have to know anything church etiquette, doctrine, or liturgy in order to enjoy good music, good food, and good coffee. And I think we made everyone feel welcome.

Following the Celtic model, however, we’ll also need to provide further opportunities for these same people to participate in worship, future service projects, or small group activities. Will we do that? Since we didn’t try to gather anyone’s personal information—how do we comfortably do that?—we’ll need our members to invite people back.

We have much to learn, I’m sure, but it’s a start.

George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 45.

To be pulled out of self-centeredness

November 16, 2011

As I was sitting around just this evening wondering why, after so many years of being a Christian, prayer often comes with such great difficulty, I stumbled upon this passage from George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism.

In your spiritual life, do not engage in endless ongoing self-assessment and spiritual navel-gazing. Canon Bryan Green, a great Anglican evangelist in the Celtic tradition, once said that too many Christians remind him of the fellow who planted a small bush in a pot and watered it every day—and pulled it out of the soil every day to see if the roots were growing! (Of course, they were not.) The purpose of the spiritual life, after all, is not to reinforce the pride, self-preoccupation, and narcissism that are our original sin, but to become open enough to the Spirit to be pulled out of that self-centeredness; to be reconciled to God, others, and creation; and to have the marvelous freedom of largely forgetting oneself for stretches of time—before regrouping in scheduled times of discipline.1

George G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 98.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

November 14, 2011

Last Friday, Vinebranch played host to its best Coffeehouse yet. (Coffeehouse, in case you’re not from around here, is a free music event that Vinebranch worship leader Stephanie Newton organizes in the fall and spring.) I performed the Dylan song “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” with the Vinebranch Band. This version of the song was made famous by the Byrds on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 1968.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been less nervous singing and playing in front of people. I hope you can tell that we’re having a lot of fun.

How do we “keep alert”?

November 11, 2011

These small, ceramic oil lamps are like the ones that the wise and foolish bridesmaids used in the parable. Photo taken at Herod the Great's Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem.

I said at the beginning of our sermon series on Jesus’ parables in Matthew that his parables have a way of stepping on our toes. At times, they make us deeply uncomfortable. They’re filled with good news, to be sure, but there’s also at least a little bad news, too. But even the bad news is good because it motivates us to repent and change.

About last week’s Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14, which includes the troubling part about the underdressed man getting bound and booted out to a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” I said the following:

I know that we don’t like to hear these frightening words of judgment, but it seems clear to me that Jesus is aiming these words directly at us—at the church. As a warning… Maybe one reason Jesus puts it so sharply, so severely is because he knows it’s better for us to be judged now—while we still have time to repent and change and, as Jesus says elsewhere, to live a life “worthy of repentance”—than to face eternal consequences later on, at final judgment.

This week’s parable from Matthew 25:1-13, traditionally called the Wise and Foolish Virgins, will step on our toes and judge us as well. The punchline of the parable comes in v. 13: “Therefore keep alert because you don’t know the day or the hour.”

The “day or hour” in the context of the chapter that precedes it may refer to the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of Israel in A.D. 70, which was for Jesus’ fellow Jews a cataclysmic event that vindicated Jesus’ words about God’s kingdom, including his words of judgment in Matthew 23:37-38: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is left to you deserted.”

The church has also interpreted the “day or hour” to mean final judgment (after the Second Coming) or our own deaths. In his own notes on the text, Wesley doesn’t take a stand. And, like him, I hardly think it matters. Jesus’ point is the same, whether Jesus is referring to a specific historical event in the first century, the Second Coming, or our own deaths. The parable’s stern warning is for each of us.

Even if we present-day Christians are no longer in danger of dying at the hands of Roman soldiers, we know that we will die at some point. Even if the end of history doesn’t occur in our lifetimes, our own personal history ends at our deaths. Time is running out for all of us.

How do we live in the meantime?

I’ll explore this question in my sermon on Sunday. But one thing seems clear: We can’t live in a state of constant vigilance—and it’s not because we’re complacent or lazy. As humans, we simply can’t stay alert for very long. 

Doesn’t our nation’s experience in the wake of 9/11 prove that? Remember how vigilant all of us were in the days, weeks, and even months following the attacks? We had color-coded threat levels each day. We were screened before going into football stadiums and concert venues. We were waiting for the next attack. We were fully expecting another attack. And it didn’t happen (at least in our country).

A couple of years later, a country singer scolded us, asking: “Have you forgotten?” He was telling us that something was wrong with us Americans for falling asleep.

I don’t think that’s fair. In a sense, we had forgotten… but in a good way. We can’t live our lives constantly reminding ourselves of that day, constantly feeling anger, indignation, and a sense of loss. I can’t imagine that’s good for our health, physically or spiritually. We have to move on. It’s gracious that God has made us in such a way that we can move on and heal from terrible tragedies.

Don’t get me wrong: I trust and hope that there are plenty of people who are paid to stay alert and on guard for another attack. More importantly, I trust and hope that systems are in place that safeguard against attacks, even when individual humans fail. My point is that most people, most of the time, can’t live their lives on alert. Even in this parable, after all, both the foolish and the wise bridesmaids fall asleep. What matters is that when they were awakened, some of them were ready.

So what do we do with this parable and its warning to keep alert? In a sense (please don’t take this too literally), we have to do on a small scale what our country did on a large scale following 9/11: We have to build a new system into the fabric of our lives that will help us to be ready for our death or the Second Coming or final judgment, even during those times when the end of the world is the furthest thing from our minds.

How do we do this? No secret here. We do what Wesley always said we should do: We “attend to the ordinances of God.” We pray. We gather together weekly for worship. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We read and study scripture. We fast. We serve. We love. In one lovely turn of phrase, N.T Wright calls these activities a means of “keeping short accounts” with God—which is exactly my point above about being judged now so that we’ll avoid judgment later.

We make these mundane and often difficult tasks of spiritual formation a part of our normal routines so that when times aren’t normal—when unexpected, unpredictable, and unforeseen events occur—we’ll be ready. In biblical terms, “being ready” is the essence of wisdom.

Easier said than done, I know… but that’s why we have each other. That’s why we have church.

N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part Two (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 126.

I wish I Tebowed more!

November 10, 2011

Why does this image offend anyone?

If your name has become synonymous with kneeling in prayer, then I suspect you’re doing something right.

Here’s a recent New York Times article on the swirling controversy surrounding Denver Broncos starting quarterback Tim Tebow. The article says that Americans are more divided than ever over Tebow’s outspoken Christian faith. The controversy came to a head recently after a Detroit Lion defender sacked Tebow and, in a tasteless, mocking gesture, knelt in faux-prayer.

Whatever… Tebow’s a tough guy. I’m sure he’s taking it in stride.

The article suggests that you either love Tebow or you hate him. If that’s the case, put me down in the “love” column. I would be bothered by Tebow’s public displays of faith—not that they seem any more prominent than those of many other Christian athletes—if I sensed that there was anything phony or self-righteous about them. But I don’t.

And I think this lack of hypocrisy is what bothers some people more than anything else! Suppose Tim Tebow genuinely believes what he says he believes? Is he for real?

Of course he is. That Tebow’s sincerity bothers so many people is a measure of our phony and superficial culture.

I aspire to be as real as Tebow!

Sermon for 11-06-11: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? Part 8: The Wedding Banquet”

November 9, 2011

John Harvard statue

Today’s sermon is Part 8 of our 10-part series on Jesus’ parables from Matthew’s gospel. Our scripture is Matthew 22:1-14, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. 

God loves us with a love that we can’t comprehend. Like the king in the parable, God invites all of us into this heavenly banquet. But as verses 11-14 make clear, simply accepting the invitation and showing up isn’t enough. As I emphasize in my sermon, living the Christian life isn’t mostly about getting started; it’s about finishing. As football coaches sometimes say, “We’ve got to finish the drill.”

Are we living our lives in such a way that we will “finish the drill”? Even if we’ve gotten off course, as long as we have life and breath, it isn’t too late to repent and change. 

Sermon Text: Matthew 22:1-14

The following is my original manuscript.

I think I’ve only met a few people in my life who went to Harvard, and one of them is a member of this church. I was talking with her at a Christmas party once, and… well, she probably doesn’t like me very much. When she told me she went to Harvard, I turned on the charm and said, “Harvard? Isn’t that a safety school for people who can’t get into Yale?” [Rim shot.] I was kidding. Trust me, I know that Harvard is no one’s safety school. In fact, just this year, of the 34,950 people who applied for admission into Harvard, the college accepted only 2,158. That’s an acceptance rate of 6.2 percent, which makes Harvard the most exclusive of all colleges.

The good news is that once you get into Harvard, you’re very unlikely to flunk out. According to U.S. News and World Report, they have the highest graduation rate, 97 percent, among the top colleges. I’m proud to say that my alma mater, Georgia Tech, has the lowest graduation rate among the Top 40 best schools in the U.S. News rankings!

I bring this up because, well… in the parable Jesus tells today, it seems like God’s kingdom is exactly opposite of Harvard University. What I mean is, the acceptance rate into the kingdom is very high. The graduation rate… maybe not so much…  Read the rest of this entry »

“That people who follow us may be changed by our legacy of faithfulness”

November 7, 2011

The following was my prayer for All Saints Sunday. In the 8:30 service, people spoke out loud the names of departed loved ones and the congregation responded, “Lord, we give you thanks.”

Almighty God, from whom and through whom we have life: We thank you as sincerely as we know how for all the good gifts you give to us—the gift of Creation and all your handiwork; the gift of life; the gift of love, from which nothing can separate us; the gift of eternal life made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus. On this All Saints Sunday, we also thank you, especially, for the gifts of your faithful followers who lived exemplary Christian lives and who taught us through their example how we should live, who have finished their race and rest securely with you and all other saints until your Son comes in final victory and we all experience resurrection and new life. We hold these loved ones in our hearts, and during these moments ahead we lift up their names in remembrance…

As we continue to find inspiration from their legacies, enable us by your Holy Spirit to live in such a way that people who follow us may be changed by our legacy of faithfulness. Identify within us those blind spots of sin that prevent us from being everything you want us to be. Enable us to repent, grow, and change. We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who taught us this prayer… [Continue to the Lord’s Prayer.]

More on today’s sermon

November 6, 2011

Here's a cool picture from last Sunday's Vinebranch service.

I posted this on Facebook this morning: “John Wesley, eat your heart out! I am preaching about as historically a Methodist sermon as I’ve ever preached this morning. Curious about what that means?”

What it meant was that my sermon on the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14 shared Wesley’s interpretation of the “wedding garment” in verses 11-12. The wedding garment represented not justifying faith, as many of Wesley’s critics maintained, but personal holiness—the only qualification for entry into God’s heavenly banquet. As Wesley wrote in ¶ 18 of Sermon 120, from 1790, one of the last sermons he wrote:

Such has been my judgment for these threescore years, without any material alteration. Only, about fifty years ago I had a clearer view than before of justification by faith: and in this, from that very hour, I never varied, no, not an hair’s breadth. Nevertheless, an ingenious man has publicly accused me of a thousand variations. I pray God, not to lay this to his charge! I am now on the borders of the grave; but, by the grace of God, I still witness the same confession. Indeed, some have supposed, that when I began to declare, “By grace ye are saved through faith,” I retracted what I had before maintained: “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” But it is an entire mistake: These scriptures well consist with each other; the meaning of the former being plainly this, — By faith we are saved from sin, and made holy. The imagination that faith supersedes holiness, is the marrow of Antinomianism.

Faith and holiness go hand in hand. Sanctification, the process by which we become holy (which means our ability and willingness to love with Christlike love), is the necessary part of salvation that follows justification and new birth. We are saved in the first place in order to become holy. As you can tell from the above paragraph, Wesley constantly debated people who overemphasized justifying faith at the expense of sanctification. Wesley would have none of it.

These ideas, while not explicitly stated in my sermon, were very close to the surface. Again, I do kind of think that Pope John would be proud. I don’t like Wesley’s emphasis on personal holiness, but I suspect he’s right!

The 75 percent

November 4, 2011

I’ve been thinking, writing, reading, and even preaching about evangelism recently. I’m not sure what’s gotten into me. I hope the Holy Spirit! But I feel convicted about it. I feel convicted that I’m not doing enough in the area of faith-sharing. I feel convicted that I’m not providing enough leadership in the area of evangelism for my parishioners.

One impetus for this conviction, I’m sure, is some demographic information that Larisa, my fellow associate pastor, shared in staff meeting recently. The data showed that fully 75 percent of people living within a 10-mile radius of our church do not attend any religious services. So without even needing to get into difficult questions about proselytizing people of other religions (like, for example, how do we reach the relatively large Hindu population surrounding our church?), the fields are “white already to harvest.”

So our work is cut out for us. What will we do about it? And will we do it with a sense of urgency, eagerness, and enthusiasm?

I’m preaching this week on Matthew 22:1-14, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. This is another discomforting parable about the expansiveness of God’s grace, to be sure, but also the judgment that we all face for our efforts on behalf of God’s kingdom. Consider the urgency with which the servants in this parable went about their task of inviting. How do we measure up?

With all this in mind, consider this Facebook post from a United Methodist pastor friend of mine. What do you make of it? Do you agree with it? Does it bother you? Why or why not?

Master of my domain

November 4, 2011

Forgive the Seinfeld reference…

Yours truly has been doing this blogging thing for a while. I’ve published 611 posts since September 2009. I can safely say it has become a habit—and a good one, I hope. For this reason, I’m “upgrading” to my own domain name, I’m still a happy member of WordPress, and everything else will remain the same. All traffic to will be redirected here.

If you want to update your browser bookmarks, feel free to do so. Or not.