The Whens and Hows of Reopening for Church Services

Evan McClanahan

As we navigate this fluid situation of quarantining and now reopening, advice and opinions vary across the board. As a church, we have limited those in worship and moved to live-streaming to continue, as much as possible, some kind of normal worship life.

Governor Greg Abbott gave a press conference on April 28 in between the time I wrote my weekly email and actually remembered to hit the “Send” button. At that point I suggested nothing would change for May. But given what he said, I may backtrack on that just a bit. He suggested a two-week period of retail, restaurants, and theaters opening at 25% capacity, and, assuming no significant outbreaks as a result, a 50% capacity goal for mid-May.

I was asked what we might do given those allowances, so I want to lay out a plan for us. Even with our normal attendance, we can gather at 25% capacity. That is, if our church holds about 300 folks and we have about 65 on average, we are at about 25% capacity on a normal Sunday. I suspect not all of our members will feel safe attending, so I think we would be well below that threshold. So I would say, in general, if you feel safe in attending on Sunday and beyond, feel free to do so. We won’t have a “full” service just yet and we may be wearing masks, but at least we can be in the same room.

For both practical and theological reasons, we will continue to take some precautions. Here is a link to the state’s recommendations. We will do or recommend the following:

  • Maintain social distancing in the nave
  • Not yet serve communion
  • Pass the peace with friendly smiles
  • Allow worshippers to grab their own bulletin
  • When we begin singing hymns again and using the LBWs, we will provide a pre-sanitized LBW for you and keep a stack of LBWs in the narthex
  • Wipe down commonly touched items like doorknobs, etc.
  • Following the advice and standards for church gatherings, masks are recommended but not mandatory
  • The Monday Night Bible Study and Sunday school will be on Zoom through May and maybe beyond
  • The services will continue to be viewable on YouTube Live indefinitely

A few more details:

We will not yet add our new 9:00 service and we will not yet gather in person for Sunday school. I will continue to teach that class via Zoom, but I will now begin that class at 9:45 so that it will end at 10:30, and any who want to show up for worship in person can drive to church between 10:30 and 11:00. I don’t think we can achieve 25% capacity in the Parish Hall and share food just yet.

Our first “Ask Me Anything” Bible study via Zoom on Monday night was fun. My plan would be to continue it with that format through May for sure and maybe beyond. Some who joined us on Zoom would likely not be able to join in person, so maybe that will become a combination of in-person and Zoom in the future as well. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to send them in. I spent some of Monday morning doing some fun research to find answers!

If the state moves to a 50% threshold capacity and beyond, then I would propose that we would host Sunday School at the normal hour beginning in June. I would like to let those last few weeks of May pass before we look at Communion again. But if all goes well, then June 7 seems to be a reasonable goal for our usual worship services resuming again with Sunday School gatherings as before and Communion during the service.

More could be said, but that is our plan for now. I hope to see you soon as you feel safe and as things return to normal.

1 Corinthians and Communion: Why are We Abstaining, Again?

3_102020_italy-virus-outbreak-2-58202_c0-312-7456-4659_s885x516Evan McClanahan

As the effects of Covid-19 seem to drag on interminably, tensions will rise and new questions will be asked. Phase 1 of the pandemic was our immediate need to cope: social distancing, shutting down mass gatherings, relying even more in the Internet to meet and get work done, etc.

Phase 2 is the emerging recognition that those emergency measures are now becoming our normal life, and not everyone is okay with that. This will lead many to ask if the costs of isolation are outweighing or will outweigh the benefit. Sides are starting to form and anxiety for a return to normalcy will only increase. (I am not a political pundit, but I suspect that the 2020 elections will largely be fought over the issue of  what risks we need to be taking as a nation to return to normal.)

Phase 3 is living with this new normal until a vaccine is developed. Will governing authorities begin to tell us how and when our Constitutional right to peacefully assemble? (They already are.) Are sports effectively canceled for a year and a half? Will we sink into a global depression? Have we already?

The longer this goes on, the more I wonder to what extent pastors need to address more than just the questions of this as it relates to church. Will churches be on the front line of constitutional fights? Is our time together in worship as “essential” as other services? Is this a good time to point out that we really do value human life, but we clearly favor some lives over others? (Some have.)

Well, as you can see, I’ve jumped straight into the polemics. Let me back off a bit and ask more pastoral questions, mostly dealing with Holy Communion. First, when shall we commune again? And why, exactly, are we fasting? Those are the two issues: our inability to gather and whether we have the spiritual right to commune even though others can’t or won’t be present.

In general, I believe the best policy is to fast from communion until we can be together again. (As I’ve stated before in person, “virtual” communion does not cut it and should not be encouraged.) What is the standing of “being together”? Well, if we are to continue to be obedient to our governing authorities Romans 13 style, then it means until the maximum number of folks together jumps from 10 to 50 or more. Paul’s frustration with the Corinthian community was that some were eating when others could not be present. Likely the gathering was on a Sunday – still a workday in the ancient world – and some had to work later into the day and therefore arrived to the gathering late. By then, some where already drunk and there was no food left. This is how Paul describes the scene, which was a scandal to him:

1 Corinthians 11:17-21 (Lexham English Bible)
“But in giving this instruction I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For indeed it is necessary that there be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may become evident among you. Therefore, when you come together in the same place, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For when you eat it, each one of you goes ahead to take his own supper, and one is hungry and another is drunk.”

I believe the best course of action is to withhold from eating and enjoying until we can reasonably be together again. Granted, even without a pandemic we are not all always able to be present. But so those who are willing to be present in the company of others are not privileged, we will refrain until we get the go-ahead on 50 persons gathering, lest it appear that some in the congregation can participate in the meal while others cannot.

In a similar vein, Paul reminds the Corinthians that, in Christ, they possess certain freedoms, but for the sake of others, they should refrain from certain activities. The issue in Paul’s day was eating (or not) meat sacrificed to idols. He actually spends quite a bit of time on this topic in 1 Corinthians. Here are his summary thoughts:

1 Corinthians 10:23-29 (Lexham English Bible)
“All things are permitted, but not all things are profitable. All things are permitted, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good but the good of the other. Eat everything that is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for the sake of the conscience, for ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and it’s fullness.’ If any of the unbelievers invites you, and you want to go, eat everything that is set before you, asking no questions for the sake of the conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This is offered to idols,’ do not eat it, for the sake of that one who informed you and the conscience. Now I am not speaking about your own conscience, but the conscience of the other person. For why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?”

Obviously our situation is not the same, but I believe the principle can be applied. Would it be wrong – absolutely wrong, that is – to have the Lord’s Supper for those willing to show up? I do not believe so. However, for the sake of those who do not feel safe gathering in a group at this time, we will refrain from eating. This is not so much a “weak conscience” issue as much as an issue of prudence. As this situation carries on into the summer, I suspect the same differing views that our country holds regarding the prudence of getting back to normal life will be held among those in our congregation. While Communion could be offered at any point, so as not to be a stumbling block or point of conflict in the community, we will wait until it is prudent for us to gather so no one feels left out due to a need for caution.

Perhaps this is a time for us to grow in our understanding of our other means of grace, the Word. Join us for Bible study, read more on your own, listen to a Bible podcast, etc. Get an extra dose of the Word while we await to share the Supper again together. As many who have gone before us in a time they could not share the Supper, the Word will prove sufficient for a living faith.

On the Necessity of Pressure-Free, Fear-Free Ministry (And How to Achieve It)

Evan McClanahan

At best, I am a “jack-of-all-trades” small-church pastor. Like most of my colleagues, I am pulled in a dozen directions each day. Within one hour, there is a good chance I will need to unclog a toilet, write part of a sermon, and pick up my children from school. Within one day, you can throw in updating the website, reaching out to visitors, running a baseball practice, and doing evangelism to college students. I am not a systematic theologian or an expert in any one field. Indeed, if I were to ever write a book about anything, it would be the only thing I think I know just a tiny bit about: how to achieve a pressure-free, fear-free ministry.

What do I mean by that? Well, it is no secret that fewer people darken the door of many of our Lutheran churches. And yet, the institutions we built continue to need support (i.e. people and their money) if they are going to survive. Something has to give. The answer is simple and I have heard it at many a council meeting: “We need to grow!” Well, yeah, that is the easiest, best, and clearest solution to our present “problem”. But if it were easy, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in, now would we?

So, this problem and solution has thousands of Lutheran congregations (and those of other denominational stripes) in a state of near panic. Programs are offered. Stewardship drives are launched. Maybe, just maybe, real evangelism efforts are begun for the first time in years. The language of “discipleship” overtakes the language of “membership”. The band section pushes the organ further into the corner. “Something must be done because if you keep doing what you’ve been doing you are going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.” Some kind of change is required because we’re going to die at our current rate.

The worst change of all in this panicked state is that people come to be seen as commodities for our ministry. How contrary that is to the ministry to which we have been called! We jump on visitors as though they are our salvation. “You, dear visitor, you are the solution to all of our problems! You (and of course your checkbook eventually, but we’ll just take your mere presence for now) are exactly what I need to justify my ministry and save my salary.” No doubt we are tempted to do what James told us NOT to do: offer the better seat to the rich. I mean, let’s get real people: we have children to raise and our salary is usually directly connected to people in worship and that offering plate. The temptation is real!

That is bound to affect your relationship to people, no? We can’t really be objective or put the spiritual needs of others first so long as we are fighting for survival, can we? We can’t really even do evangelism in a spirit of freedom if we need them to help save our institution, can we?

No, we cannot. This is why Paul was a tentmaker. In 1 Thessalonians 2:9, he writes: “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” Paul specifically did not want to be dependent on those to whom he was ministering because he could easily be tempted to tell them what they wanted to hear or they could have an undue influence on his teaching. Pastors today will no doubt monitor their sermons based on what the most generous in the parish may think of them or we may hide our teachings so we do not turn off prospective members.

Paul sought, and worked for, freedom in ministry. He fed himself so he was not dependent on others to feed him. He took on a second vocation so his interactions with Jew and Gentile alike would not be marked by fear or pressure. His needs were covered, and that meant his relationships were authentic and without manipulation or coercion from either end.

I am lucky. My call is in the middle of one of America’s largest cities. Demand for space near downtown is constant and, as a congregation, we have slowly stewarded our property to be attractive to tenants. When I got here, we made around $5,000/year on rental income. Ten years later, that total over $60,000 and growing. We are currently in the midst of an expensive remodeling project so we can lease out our kitchen to commercial vendors. When that is done, we will do the same for a second kitchen space. To put it simply, given that we are a small congregation, we either needed to find a way to supplement our ministry or I needed to find a way to supplement my salary. Like, I said, I’m lucky, and we have been able to walk a path of the former rather than the latter so I can focus on ministry full-time. I do not take it for granted.

I know other pastors who are willing to do whatever it takes to carry on in ministry. One gentleman I know drives busses and I’m guessing saves his parish tens of thousands in the process. He is behind the wheel in the mornings and afternoons, but free in the middle of the day. How many pastors – you know, with our fancy degrees and high learnin’ and all – would be willing to do that?

In each case, ministry can be done freely and without pressure. I do no look at visitors or prospective members as commodities. I do not estimate how much they will give. I do not even care. We have bought ourselves the freedom and the time to do ministry as it ought to be done, without being a burden to anyone. Those who give do so freely without so much as a stewardship campaign or those encouragements to tithe. Oh, and the rental spaces we created are also a blessing to those who need them. As far as I can tell, everyone wins.

To pastors and congregations I would simply say it is time to get creative. What spaces can you overhaul, rent out, or reimagine? Are you willing to become more of a community center than a mostly-empty church? Pastors, what else are you qualified to do? Driving a bus may not be a dream job, but the benefits are good. Whatever the cost on the front end, the ability to conduct ministry free of fear and free of pressure on the back end is worth it and then some. Authenticity may not be for sale, but supplemental income can definitely buy your freedom for ministry.

Rethinking Two Phrases We Say Every Sunday, Part 2: “Shed for you and for all people”

bowl_chaliceEvan McClanahan

This essay is the second in a two-part look at some of the things we say week in and week out, things said so often we take them for granted. And yet, just because something is often said does not mean it is true. The first essay looked at the statement in our creed related to Jesus’ descent to hell, or to the dead. This week, I want to look at the Words of Institution, the words said at the consecration of the Lord’s Supper. Specifically, did Jesus really say “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people”? The first half of that sentence is not in dispute. But is the second half a good translation? Should it read “for all people” as the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) has it or “for many” as the Bible seems to suggest?

All of the liturgies we use are assembled from various bits of scripture. The Words of Institution, as printed in the LBW, are a combination of several passages. As I believe that all of the Bible is inspired by God, I am certainly okay with that. It is really a question of how much these words speak to the extent of the atonement of Jesus.

It would be best to lay out each time this sentence is said in scripture for comparative purposes. To be consistent, I’ll use a literal (almost word-for-word) English translation, the Lexham English Bible, for these four quotations. (This is my new favorite translation, by the way, in part because it uses God’s self-given name in the Old Testament instead of replacing it with the LORD.)

Matthew 26:27-28
“…Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Mark 14:24-25
And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. Truly I say to you that I will never drink of the fruit of the vine any longer until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 22:17-18
And he took in hand a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. For I tell you, from now on I will not drink of the product of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

1 Corinthians 11:25
Likewise also the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Let’s notice a few things. Luke and 1 Corinthians do not say anything about who benefits from the new covenant, whether it is “many” or “all people”. Luke doesn’t say anything about a new covenant at all and Mark and Luke have a temporally-relevant phrase not included in the LBW’s Words of Institution about how Jesus will not drink any more wine “until the kingdom of God comes.” Matthew and Mark do address the question of who this covenant is for and they both say “for many”, not “for all people”.

The question is why and when did these translations change? I believe the answer relates to the historic debates between Lutherans and Calvinists on the extent of the atonement. To put it simply, the question is, “Did Jesus die for all people or only for the elect? If Jesus did die for all people, why aren’t all people saved? If he did not, does that lessen Jesus’ sacrifice or make God look capricious or cold?” After all, that means God effectively judged people to hell before they were ever born.

I won’t presume to answer those questions here. Lutherans, as is somewhat typical of Lutherans, answer that we cannot fully know the answer to the problems of logic by asserting that even though Jesus died for all, not all are saved. (Just like we believe that Christ is present in the bread and wine but we don’t really try to explain how. “Paradox” and “mystery” end up being frequently used words by Lutherans.)

Of course, we do point to Bible passages for our defense that seem to indicate that Jesus died for all. They don’t solve the logical problem that faces us, but they do seem to indicate that Jesus died for all. Calvinists, of course, say our understanding of those passages is wrong. Those passages are:

1 John 2:1b-2
And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one, and he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 Timothy 2:5-6
For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, the testimony at the proper time…

So, in general, we are left with a few decisions. Is Jesus speaking to the extent of his atonement or the nature of this new covenant? The texts indicate that Jesus clearly says “for many.” The Greek word there, pollon, is not translated “all” anywhere in the New Testament, but is always translated “many”. Go here to learn more. Yes, Jesus may be addressing the extent of the atonement which we may agree includes “all”, but he is specifically addressing a new covenant. Covenants are not usually made with the whole world (the promise to Noah that the earth would never again flood perhaps being an exception), but with God’s people. Yes, in Christ, that covenant expands to include people from all nations, unlike the Mosaic covenant which was really only for the twelve tribes. But “the elect” are a real and limited people, and Lutherans do not deny that. So while Christ’s death may have been for all, all are not saved and, therefore, all are not part of this new covenant. We are brought into this covenant by faith and, clearly, not all have faith.

I also looked into some past Lutheran hymnals. None agree with the LBW. The 1917 Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church reads, “this cup is the New Testament in My Blood, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins.” The Lutheran Hymnary of 1913 reads the exact same. The 1941 LCMS hymnal The Lutheran Hymnal reads, “This cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.” The 1958 Service Book and Hymnal which preceded the LBW reads the exact same as the 1917 and 1913 hymnals listed above. For what it’s worth, Roman Catholics use “for many” as does the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

So, to be honest, this feels like a bit of an innovation that was meant to make a theological point rather than come from the text directly. Because the LBW has already been printed (42 years and counting!), it may be bad form to change the words now and break with our “new” tradition. And the translation change is theologically justifiable from a certain perspective, that of Jesus’ sacrifice being for “all” (even though his covenant is with “many”). So I won’t change what I say on Sunday mornings.

However, we should be aware of what changes were made by the editors of the LBW and why. There is really no defense given what is clearly the most literal reading of the Bible. But perhaps now we simply understand better why we say what we do.

Rethinking Two Phrases We Say Every Sunday, Part 1

Descent to the DeadEvan McClanahan

Ours is a liturgical church. Among other things, that means we often say the same things in our worship service, week in and week out. In our creeds, rites, and prayers, we do not seek innovation and we understand ourselves to be preservers of traditions that have come before us. That also means that the exact words we say – because they are said so often and reflect eternal, unchangeable truths – need to be perfect. They are full of meaning and they become, through sheer repetition, part of who we are. So each one has no room for error, or we should at least understand the nuances involved in their being chosen.

Over the years, I have become interested in – or even concerned by – a few of the translation choices in the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW). Of course, I went years without noticing them. I just took them for granted, trusting that they were words etched in stone at some point, rendered perfectly by those who knew better. Only when I studied a few theological areas in particular did these words stand out. The question is, are these words faithful to the Bible and ought they be used? After all, as much as I may love the LBW, I do not regard it as inerrant!

To which words am I referring? The first words are found in the Apostles’ Creed referring to Jesus “descent into hell”, or “to the dead”. The second are found in the Words of Institution, where Jesus says, “This is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.” As space is limited, I’ll examine those words in next month’s Minute.

To the LBW’s credit, the main translation presented in the Apostles’ Creed has an asterisk by it. Regarding Jesus, it says that he “descended into hell”, while the asterisked version is  “descended to the dead.” I assumed for a very long time that the alternative version was offered for those who simply did not like the concept of hell or didn’t want to say the word, as in when people will say “H” “E” “double hockey sticks.” “Weaklings!” I may have thought to myself.

As it turns out, there are real theological issues here. Chief among them is simply what is meant by “hell” and what is meant by “the dead?” Biblically speaking, they are not the same thing, and there is only one verse (1 Peter 3:19 “…in which [Jesus] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison…”) to support the statement.

“Hell” is generally considered the final place of judgment for those who did/do not trust in Christ. It is where the devil hangs out and from where his demons are dispatched. But no dead people are there…yet. Among “the dead” is a kind of in-between world that is not positive, but it is not hell, either. “Sheol” is the Old Testament Hebrew word for this shadowy place and it is the place where all of the dead go as they await judgement. “Hades” is the Greek equivalent of “Sheol.”

We have one parable that may further inform us, however. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Lazarus is said to go to be near Abraham while the rich man goes to Hades, and there is a chasm between the two. Neither goes, strictly speaking, to “heaven” or “hell”, but one definitely gets the sense that you would rather be with Abraham (I would call this place “Paradise”) than Hades. Jesus also references Paradise when he says to the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

We need to consider another fact before we can answer the question of where Jesus went. For us, as we understand time, the gates of heaven and hell are not yet open. Because Jesus has not yet come again to judge the living and the dead, no one person is in heaven or hell, but rather, they are all in Hades or Paradise. When Jesus does come again, the floodgates to both places will open and Jesus’ work of salvation will be complete.

So where did Jesus go? Did he go to the full depths of hell, the devil’s domain? Or merely to Hades? The truth is that the Bible does not sufficiently answer the question, and it really depends on what you believe Jesus was doing through his preaching in the first place. Was he going to present the Gospel to those souls, presumably Old Testament saints, who died without the full knowledge of the Gospel in order that they might come to faith in Christ? Did he preach so that there would not be any one person, past or future, who did not have the possibility of hearing the Gospel? Or did he go to Hell to essentially spike the football in the devil’s face, and even exercise his dominion over hell itself?

The Lutheran Confessions acknowledge that this is a mystery, but they fall on the side of a full descent into hell. This is what is written in our Formula of Concord: “For it is sufficient that we know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and delivered them from the power of death and of the devil, from eternal condemnation and the jaws of hell. But how this occurred we should [not curiously investigate, but] reserve until the other world, where not only this point [mystery], but also still others will be revealed, which we here simply believe, and cannot comprehend with our blind reason.”

While I could go either way, I tend to believe that the purpose for Christ’s descent was to preach to those who had lived before Christ in “mere” expectation of his arrival. Therefore, while I have no issue saying hell, it seems to me that he went not to confront the devil (he already did that on the cross and at his temptation), but to offer those who had not yet heard the good news the chance to hear it. As it is a mystery, I can go either way. But when I say “hell” or “the dead”, I’ll have a better sense of what I mean by those exact words.

(How and When) Will Kanye Save the Church?

E3NY5VG2E5AAVISYTM7ZWBYPTMEvan McClanahan

You know the story of the Prodigal Son, right? A father has two sons. One essentially wishes his father dead by asking for his inheritance early only to engage in loose living and then squanders his money. He returns home (literally) covered in shame and his father welcomes him with open arms. The second son self-righteously does everything right and is angered that “this son of yours” gets a hero’s welcome when he was disobedient to begin with.

Most pastors these days focus on the second son for, in the church, our biggest sin is not loose living but self-righteousness. (If only!) Both temptations are wicked and soul-crushing. But what a useful parable it is! Especially when once thoroughly secular celebrities become Christian. The parallels are hard to miss.

Here stands the church telling everyone how to live, presumably with the voice of the snide older brother: “don’t fornicate”; “don’t do drugs”; “don’t love money;”, etc. The world usually doesn’t listen and even judges us for preaching a message of prudence and thrift. The world proceeds to make a mess of things. But then, one celebrity comes from the world and, on occasion, says, “You know what, you were right after all! I’ve made a mess of things. Time to return home.”

We – the Church, those who have been preaching the right message this whole time – welcome the sinner home, especially if he is a celebrity. For we are so very hopeful that – FINALLY – someone with some actual influence can help us out. The heathen refuse to listen to us, so maybe they will listen to a former fellow-heathen. He, by virtue of his wealth and fame, apparently now has credibility. The tide is turning! We are winning! We have won over Kirk Cameron, Bob Marley, Larry Flynt (for a few months), Anne Rice, and now Kanye West. Our 400-year pagan experiment is drawing to a close!

Well, that is a slight exaggeration. Few people’s hope are that high due to one celebrity conversion. Right? In all seriousness, what are all the dynamics of a celebrities conversion to Christianity? Ought we to be skeptical? Hopeful? Disparaging? Praying? Do such conversions help or hurt? I would like to lay down a few principles that would apply to any conversion, even those of celebrities. Perhaps this will help us know how to feel about a famous person’s conversion.

1) God would have us all repent and believe, for that is the universal message of the Church to the world. God is no “respecter of persons” so he is not more joyful or surprised when a movie star confesses Christ compared to anyone else. In short, there is simply no ontological/intrinsic “extra” value to a celebrity’s conversion. The angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents, no matter their net worth.

2) Truth is not a popularity contest. The fame of a confessor does not make his or her confession more true. Either the Bible is God’s Word and we can believe it or it is not. A famous person endorsing it does not make it true any more than a famous person converting to Mormonism makes it true.

3) We should be as hopeful for a celebrity’s conversion as much as anyone else’s conversion. Jesus tells us the parable of the soil/seeds for a reason. We know in advance that some seed falls on rocky soil, worn soil, thorny soil and good soil. Only time will tell if a new convert will persevere in the faith. So we should pray for the Kanyes of the world like we would pray for any other new convert.

4) It is probably naive to believe that celebrities will help to break the hardened heart of an unbeliever, but we should hope for it, anyway. The problem with rooting truth in popular terms is that the moment a celebrity claims to have discovered it, that celebrity will likely become passe. Sure, Kanye, for example, may have carved out a new audience for himself among believing Christians. But his conversion will likely cause everyone who already thought he was old and out of touch to be absolutely convinced of that now. In other words, ironically, Kanye lost credibility with the world the moment he confessed Christ. (That is what Jesus predicted.)

5)  By the logic of “a celebrity becoming a Christian helps to justify our belief”, then a celebrity who renounces his Christianity justifies that belief. In other words, if celebrities have outsized influence one way, why would they not have the same influence the other way?

6) There are no shortcuts to discipleship. Just as the numbers of those who come to faith as a result of a Billy Graham revival are remarkably low, so too will the numbers of Kanye’s converts be. Oh sure, perhaps thousands will become Christian because if it’s good enough for Kanye, it’s good enough for us. But how many will stay the course in being faithful disciples of Jesus? That is the goal, after all.

7) Finally, it may be that even one soul comes to faith as a result of a celebrity’s conversion, and we rejoice at that. But in the long run, is it possible that more harm is done than good? If Christianity is watered down to a mere moment, decision, or feeling, and that comes to be what an even larger group comes to believe Christianity is, then, yes, more harm is done than good. Christianity is more than a decision to love Jesus. It is a lifelong pursuit of that love and it will come with temptation, hardship, and challenges unimaginable at the time that decision is made. So if and when anyone reduces Christianity to anything less than what it is, the result will ultimately be more harm than good.

I am hopeful and from what I hear, Kanye certainly seems sincere. Let us all hope so. For his fall would be tragic for him and an embarrassment for the Church. And the longer we prop up new converts without adequate community, teaching, and discipline, the less we should expect them to follow through.

A Review of the Social Justice Debate

On October 24, 2019, First Lutheran in Houston hosted a debate on social justice featuring Dr. Joel McDurmon and Pr. Doug Pagitt. As the host and moderator, it can be hard to know what is really going on while in the midst of the scrum. But having listened to it with a more objective ear, I would like to offer a few thoughts on the event and offer it here for your viewing.

Social Justice is the most important non-doctrinal topic that faces the Church today though, arguably, many view this topic as more important than a whole host of doctrines, namely the Trinity, deity of Christ, virgin birth, and much more. Various understandings and defenses of “social justice” have caused Protestant churches to split and divide as the concept is used to defend false or overly zealous teachings on human sexuality, environmentalism, and the past sins of racism, sexism, and much more.

Social Justice – whether we like it or not and whether that term is understood or not – is a tremendous wedge between conservative Christians and progressive Christians. Worse, many understandings of social justice as Christianity are really not Christianity at all. When concepts of race, in particular, divide Christians, we are missing the beauty of the Gospel and the unifying work of the cross. Sure, we should listen to true victims of true injustices. But constant separation due to past sins defeats the purpose for the death of Christ to begin with.

In general, conservatives see Jesus as a stabilizing force in society and they tend to find “social justice” merely code for Marxist upheaval. In general, progressives see Jesus as a destabilizing force who literally upended the entire world with his Gospel of love and redemption. Where you fall on that question determines which camp you are generally in today.

As that divide finds its way into more and more conservative circles (i.e. not just the mainline Protestant churches that have been drifting left for decades), genuine alarm has arisen and I hoped a debate on that topic would serve the body well. No, this debate is not between some of the loudest voices on this topic today. (It seems they can’t be gotten in a room together at the same time.) But these are clearly among the brightest voices who have clearly thought through these issues and their ramifications.

Normally for a debate, I would prefer more cross examination. But when this event was being sketched out, a speaker – who ended up backing out – wanted more of a conversational format. And in general that is what we have. There is not a lot of direct back-and-forth, but there is a lot of thoughtful clarifications on the dividing lines.

I particularly wanted Dr. McDurmon for this because, as a theonomist, he does not disparage the Law of God as the heartbeat of where to find justice. In other words, when we say Bible, we mean the whole Bible, not just the “lovey dovey” parts of the New Testament. As a conservative who is not knee jerk in all of his responses, I believed he would offer a thorough biblical response to the question. I believe he did so.

While he has been criticized by many on the right for having “lost his way” or abandoning theonomy, that is not my read on his progression. Rather, I see his study of the Old Testament Law as showing the way forward for us in the face of true injustices. And agreeing with those who point out injustice does not make one sympathetic to Marxism as many claim he has become. It indicates that someone does really care about injustices and seeks to understand true grievances. Do I always agree with all of his solutions? No. But I appreciate that he does think through the issues and does not resort to “get off my lawn” as the extent of his conservatism.

Doug Pagitt, meanwhile, is a name very familiar to those who have followed any number of discernment ministries through the years. He is one of the founding fathers of the so-called Emergent Church movement, and, generally, he promotes a view of the Bible and Christianity that allows for Jesus and Paul supporting radical social changes. What comes out pretty clearly in this debate is that he holds to a hermaneutic that sees the Old Testament priesthood and the Old Testament prophets in a theological war. The prophets – of whom Jesus is one – win, and so the biblical defense of constantly pushing for social change in the name of prophecy is born.

Mr. Pagitt is very kind and I am glad to have gotten to know him. But his biblical exegesis – while perhaps sophisticated – is utterly new and ultimately indefensible. Moreover, his defense of socialism (this word can be defined in a plethora of ways, but his advocation of large government passes my smell test) is ultimately unbiblical. Joel’s approach is to move the church to act and live in defense of the defenseless and to do this without the state. Mr. Pagitt actually works directly towards political involvement and, I would argue, only an increase in state power, influence, and control which ultimately comes “at the end of a gun.” (Those are Dr. McDurmon’s words.)

To sum, I believe Joel has a substantial case that the biblical view of social justice is to be discovered in the Law of God. Or, at least, that is a good place to start. Mr. Pagitt’s understanding of the biblical view of social justice derives from a pretty radical view of the bible that sees it as a testament to prophetic activity at the expense of the Law (a Law the priests pushed). That nebulous, moving target of prophetic progress does not lead to a coherent, consistent view of biblical social justice. It will far more likely end up supporting your political agenda.

If We All Love Jesus and America, Why Do American Christians Seem to Hate Each Other?

Evan McClanahan

image-assetA strong rhetorical argument against Christianity is that we disagree on so much, we can’t be trusted when we present a defense to the unbeliever. How can we recruit unbelievers to our faith if we don’t even agree with one another? And certainly, if one wanted to, one could easily go down a detailed doctrinal road here and consider all of the differences between all professing Christians. But I’m more interested in the current divide(s) on the social issues of our day, i.e. the “woke” church vs. the “still asleep” church. How is it that those who follow Jesus and have a pretty clear source of authority (the Bible) can come to such different conclusions on matters on social and political matters?

While surely an oversimplification, I’d like to pigeonhole Christians in three camps. There are surely substrata of these camps but these three have the advantage of explaining those many moments when Christians can’t seem to even begin to understand one another.

The first group sees Jesus (or Christianity at large) as a revolutionary, one who overthrows society as it is. The second group – at the opposite end of the spectrum – sees Jesus as a preserver of the way things are. A third group sees Jesus somewhere in-between, a constant agitator in the name of Biblical revelation.

The “Jesus as revolutionary” view certainly has a lot of scriptural credence. See the Jesus who eats with sinners, turns over tables, rips into the Pharisees, and lifts up the lowly and oppressed. It is very hard to read the New Testament as see Jesus as anything but one who fights for the hated and downcast.

But Jesus never ignored the Law of God in doing this work. He did not lay aside everything God ever revealed and say, “You know, forgot all that old stuff. Here comes a new life with no rules, no discipline, just love and freedom.” The Jesus as revolutionary view has tunnel vision and only sees Jesus in that light, or it at least highly prefers it.

So all of the bits where he does indeed defend the poor are not placed alongside his calls to repentance, “go and sin no more”, or his upbraidings of the Pharisees because they abused God’s Law. No, the “social justice” bits – if you will – are always presented in isolation. So you really end up with a Jesus who is not the Jesus of scripture and not the God of the Hebrew Bible. This is a Jesus plucked out of history and artificially created via selective quotation. It ignores the hyper-conservative culture in which he found himself, a culture which needed to be reminded of God’s love. In our permissive time, I’m not sure it is faithful to only focus on the “God is love” portion of the Gospel.

More conservative Christians have their blind spots as well. Again, this is more of an American problem because of the uniqueness of our founding. We had the luxury of starting afresh and in so doing, we end up assuming too much, namely that America is and always has been “a Christian nation.” Today’s traditional Christians will often defend particular politics assuming that Jesus would as well. After all, whatever America does – or has done – must be right because we used to be an even more Christian nation than we are now…right?

Well, hold the phone there, friend. Our nation was not as “Christian” as you might presuppose and once you get in the habit of rubber stamping the way things have always been, you might find yourself defending some pretty lousy people and ideas. The length of time an idea has been “normal” does not make it right. Christians must discern their context anew on a regular basis with no “golden ages” or “it’s always been this way” mantras blurring their vision.

So about that “Jesus as agitator” group…well, they are somewhere in that beautiful middle ground, no? Jesus is not content with the status quo, but he doesn’t throw out God’s Law, either. So “this Jesus” can both oppose homosexuality and defend the outcast. He can agree with the concept of private property (what would give rise to capitalism as we know it) and discourage greed (what is usually associated with capitalism as we know it). He can accept the reality of some institutions and work to destroy them at the same time. Consider slavery, for example.

This Jesus takes issues that are often grouped by our political alliances and picks them off, one by one. You may be right in understanding that Jesus would be at war with abortion. But you may be wrong in assuming Jesus is okay with that actual war your nation is engaged in. You might be right in understanding that Jesus lifts up the poor. But you may be wrong in advocating a paternalistic system of redistribution in their name. You may be right in pointing out that Jesus never approves of homosexual acts in the Bible. But you would be wrong if you believe that heterosexual sin is any better.

And so it goes. Each issue needs to be discerned on its own merits. Suffice to say that we should not assume we know Jesus so well that we develop significant blind spots into who he really was and how he really believes we ought to live. Jesus did not advocate revolution apart from God’s Law. Nor did he only affirm the status quo. He was the Truth and the Life, and believe it or not, both have enemies from all sides. Our call is to discern what Jesus might think of our own context without ripping him out of his own.

A Debate on the Biblical View of Social Justice

social-justice-777x437This debate features Doug Pagitt and Joel McDurmon looking at the question of the Biblical view of social justice. Doug is a proud progressive who feels that the teachings of Jesus – and the whole Bible – leads us towards progressive politics. Joel, a theonomist, seeks to draw specially on the Law of God – including the Old Testament – to understand justice from a Biblical point of view. There is agreement and disagreement, but always charity and a lot of great content here. Enjoy, and many thanks to both speakers for coming to Houston for this fascinating conversation. A YouTube video will be coming soon. For now, I wanted to share the audio.

If you want to listen via the podcast feed, that link is here.  That link will take you to iTunes. To subscribe to the Sin Boldly podcast with an Android phone, I recommend the Cast Box app, which easily finds Sin Boldly via search. Your iPhone (or iOS) Podcast app finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release. Otherwise, it may take a few hours from the time of publication until it shows up on the feed. To listen immediately, see below.

We Have Been Approaching Church Decline All Wrong

2-700x438Evan McClanahan

If you care about the church at all—or hope to see its demise—you have likely found it impossible to ignore the latest news about church decline. Every survey (see here) tells a foreboding picture of the Church’s imminent demise. Fewer young people attend service; more people are unaffiliated “nones”; strident atheism has a rising number of heroes; those who call themselves Christian are doctrinally clueless and don’t even think Christians should evangelize. You put all that together and wonder what kind of a future the Church has.

But there are Biblical, theological, and historical reasons not to believe that that prevailing wisdom of the Church’s decline is actually news. That is to say, church decline is biblically predicted, theologically normative, and historically a trend. That such decline is happening now should not surprise us at all. Rather, we should continue to marvel that anyone goes to church at all.

But before I offer that bit of positivity, I understand the reason for panic when noting the significant statistics of church membership and attendance decline. I have long regarded the Church as an institution that not only should be preserved, but that its preservation was necessary for our American civilization to prosper.

Some, for example, are terrified of other institutions dying for the catastrophic results that will inevitably follow. Imagine the National Park Service pulling up stakes and allowing Hollywood to buy up Yellowstone. Or imagine the Girl Scouts coming to an end. Can’t you hear the women who have supported and participated in that organization for years becoming anxious about what will happen to our young women once that organization disappears? Or what of the Fire Department, your local Symphony, a university, or even your favorite restaurant chain?

The Church, as far as I can tell, plays a monopolistic role in communicating divine truth to the world. It’s pretty well impossible to overestimate the value of that. But it also acts as a critical instructor of norms, values, and morals. Should we be surprised at the rise of opioid addiction, pornography consumption, mass shootings, the breakdown of the family, and a dearth of authentic community as the very institution that provides those positives and fights those negatives is on the decline? No. In fact, it is all predictable and things will get predictably worse as the Church continues to be ignored.

That is why I achieve peak anxiety when one of the links above finds its way onto my Facebook feed. I know that there will be a tremendous social cost to our desertion of the Church. At best, we will have a relatively pleasant society that can’t remember from where it obtained its manners and morals in the first place. At worst, we will have a society with no manners or morals at all. I am expecting the worst and hoping for the best.

But as I said, there is no good reason for us to believe that anything else would be the case. Jesus tells us to expect this. From John 15 (NIV): “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” Well, he couldn’t be clearer, could he? There are simply no grounds in either Testament that would leave us to believe that friendship with Christ would lead to anything but enmity with the world. In such an environment, what else would the Church do but contract?

Theologically, the call to discipleship/membership is never presented as universal. Jesus says, “The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” However much you may despise Calvinism, there is no denying that there is a group of “the elect,” and God is under no compulsion to ensure that this is a robust group of wide acclaim. It is not God’s mission to create a body of substance to match our standard of success.

Rather, God rather mysteriously calls His people in His time to accomplish His purposes for His glory. And since the path to destruction is wide, what is the theological path that would lead us to believe that Christ’s Church should be substantial?

Historically, we have seen Church attendance ebb and flow. We currently live on the back end of a significant flow, the rise of Church attendance in the wake of post WWII optimism. Remember that the ‘50s were the best of times. That increase gave our nation confidence that the Church would always just be a staple of American civic life. We didn’t realize that that period was abnormal, and as modern philosophy seeped into the 60s and beyond, we are simply experiencing the regression to the mean.

Early American history was no religious golden age either. Church attendance was likely much spottier than we think. American civilization was course and crude in the early years and peak attendance was 60%. Great numbers to be sure, but how much of that was social pressures and norms rather than authentic desire to fellowship and desire? And still, there were 40% who bothered not to attend despite that!

When I think about my own congregation, we certainly have our struggles. But we also have a lot going for us which I won’t catalog here. And yet, given what we do on a Sunday morning and how we do it, I should not be surprised that we are a small congregation. To your average American, we probably look like we are practicing witchcraft with our fancy garb, pipe organ, and repeated creeds. It’s a wonder anyone shows up at all.

And that’s the thing. When we are worried about church decline, are we ever thankful for the people that actually are there? Or do we just lament those who are enjoying nightclubs and brunch instead? And consider what is being asked of them, sometimes more callously than at other times: give up your ambition to follow Jesus; give up your money to support the Church’s mission; show up here on a day off and probably another day as well; make new friends in a time when such friendships are unusual and uncomfortable.

Sure, you get spiritual rewards in return: peace, hope, love, joy, and the big one, eternal life with your loving creator and Father. All good things. But they must pale in comparison to the promises of the world.

The headlines of decline are really only the result of an unusual surge in church life after WWII. The headlines, in any sane world, should be screaming something like the following: “In Spite of Stories of Abuse, Regularly Being Asked for Money, Losing the Ability to Sleep In, Being Asked to Live a Moral Upright Life, and Losing Any Real Sense of Personal Autonomy, Millions of Christians Attended Worship Services on Sunday.”