On Honoring the Sabbath

family-at-churchWhen I was a kid, going to church was an absolute no-brainer. I can hardly remember any Sunday that I missed. I actually don’t remember missing any particular Sunday until I was well into my teenage years, unless I was on a youth group field trip or desperately sick. If I spent the night with a friend, I went to church with them. Even when I was in college, I went every Sunday with few exceptions. Indeed, it was that weekly attendance that saved my faith as I was presented with alternative truth claims…from my religion professors no less!

When I was in seminary, I observed that weekly attendance by seminarians was not practiced by every student. I was shocked! If they didn’t have to be somewhere, many of them would choose to stay on campus. For myself – and later my wife when we were married – it was never a question of if we would worship on Sunday morning, but where. We took advantage of our free Sundays and worshipped at Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal, and Orthodox churches, and I still remember many of those Sundays quite vividly.

So my credibility as a weekly worshipper is quite high. However, my credibility in encouraging others to worship weekly is now quite low, because I’m the pastor, and such encouragement is expected from me. Pastors talking about church attendance is almost as popular and as common as pastors talking about money. For good reason, pastors are often seen as men who do little else but harangue their poor members for more time and more money. In some cases, it is because the pastor’s own ego is at stake, and that eventually is rejected by those tired of hearing that message. So if I tell my church members to go to church, I’m just another pastor lecturing them on how to spend their time, with self-interest to boot.

Still, I observe that we have many members for whom weekly attendance just doesn’t happen. It is foreign to me because it is all I have ever known, so I really don’t know what to do with it. I would like to begin, though, by simply stating what I think we all know: the third of our Ten Commandments is to honor the Sabbath Day. While that day has moved from Saturday to Sunday (the day of resurrection and new creation), that commandment still holds because it is part of God’s moral law. God’s moral Law never changes because He never changes.

While that commandment does not necessarily include the worshipping of God (it there only speaks of the necessity of rest so as to “hallow” the day), we certainly understand that worship of God is included as part of our Sabbath rest. Indeed, as one matures as a Christian, I believe that worship is transformed from an energy-taker, to an energy-giver. Luther says this about this commandment: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Beyond the mere command, I believe it is God’s desire that we worship not because we are told to, but because we cannot see ourselves doing anything else, at least for a portion of our week. Like I desire my children to actually want to be obedient, I believe God wants the same for us. I have thought many times about how we might change our worship to make it more accessible or “enjoyable”. I’m certain that many who visit or even our members find it boring to do the same thing again and again. But I cannot escape the commandment or the feeling that my desire to make worship more attractive kind of misses the point entirely.

The truth is that when any of us are not present, for whatever reason, good or bad, it is a loss to the Body. I am encouraged when we have many brothers and sisters together, sharing our life together. And I am discouraged when there are not many of us present. So as any good pastor should, I encourage you to be present in worship on Sundays. Let us be an encouragement to each other.

Prison and Theonomy: Approaches to Incarceration. Sin Boldly Episode 80

imagesI was joined by David Collingsworth of KPFT’s The Prison Show and Carey Appling to discuss the modern state of the American prison system and theonomy. Is our prison system the equivalent of slavery? Does it actually rehabilitate offenders or even try? Is there a legitimate Biblical alternative? How should Christians think about prison? Those are just a few of the questions we look at in this episode.

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 also finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release.

A Defense of “Drive Thru” Ashes on Ash Wednesday

 

shirleytimpeterOn Ash Wednesday, I have every intention of being outside, ready to dispense ashes to college students who want some. In the past, a handful have taken advantage of the convenience of this approach. That effort, such as it was, is quite mild compared to what some pastors do: go to train stations or bus stops, or, as one Lutheran Church in Clear Lake did, hold up signs for commuters to get “drive through” ashes in the church parking lot. According to one news account, there was a line of cars full of people waiting to get ashes. The church also handed out a prayer card of some kind and offered a prayer for the occupants of the car.

This reminded me of several other attempts to meet busy Americans where they are. There have been a number whole drive-through services where congregations hosted a gathering of automobiles in a parking lot. Yes, there were people in those automobiles, but it was clear that when the preacher looked out, he didn’t see people, but the glare of the blue sky on a windshield. Microphone in hand, he held a service right there in a parking lot. (I wonder what they did if it rained)

I believe drive-through communion has also been tried. As the automobiles gather, congregants get their own communion wine-and- bread packet and at the right time, they open them and receive what is supposed to be the Lord’s Supper. (By Luther’s definition, it probably is not the Lord’s Supper, but who can be sure?) There was probably some accompanying reading from scripture and perhaps a short sermon.

Automobile-friendly services aside, there is a larger movement called “simple church.” These are churches that do away with the “formality” of traditional church life and usually meet in homes. There are no clergy, vestments, or liturgy. It is an attempt to pare things down to their barest elements and avoid the traditional trappings of Church. For it is those trappings, don’t you know, that distract the Church and keep her from her true mission. It seems the traditional church was due for this critique because some of these “simple churches” are doing quite well (others disappear within a year of formation). I’d like to respond with two thoughts. The first is that not all of these outreach efforts are equal. The second is that there is no easy way out of actual Christian community, if that is indeed what you seek.

First, what is the difference between adminstering ashes on Ash Wednesday to total strangers outside the context of worship and administering the sacrament to strangers outside the context of worship? The answer is pretty simple: ashes are reflective of God’s Law, the finality of death, and our shortcomings in holiness. Unlike the Gospel, which is God’s alien work that specifically comes through hearing (Romans 10), the Law of God is already written on the hearts of men and it can be observed through general revelation. It seems to me, in other words, that administering ashes is the simple proclamation of the Law; and that act may be done at anytime to anyone, because in truth, people already know it! When the Prophets shared the Word of the Lord with the people, they did so in public places. Indeed, the Law may best be shared in public places so that men and women will come to realize their need of the Gospel.

The sacraments form the community (Holy Baptism) and feed the community (the Lord’s Supper). They are means of grace, and they are not to be monkeyed with or distributed to any and all. Careful discernment has always gone into administering these sacraments, and for good reason. They are God’s holy means. They are  given to strangers on the street because, unlike the Law, they are reserved for the Christian community. It’s one thing if a non-Christian partakes of the sacrament unknowingly in a service; the pastor should probably not be taken to task for that. But to invite such conflict by administering so publicly? Bad idea.

Christian community is something to be cherished. It should never become a matter of convenience, or something where the participants are looking for the least they can do yet still be considered members. To put it crassly, if we are not even willing to leave the parking lot to participate in worship, are we even part of a community? Would that kind of rank minimalism be tolerated in any other kind of community? Why would the church promote it?

Fortunately, these ventures are rare. I don’t see drive-thru churches becoming a model for evangelism. But I will defend the public dispensation of ashes. For instead of giving away the grace of God as though it were cheap, we are imposing on foreheads the cost of grace: the cross which crucified an innocent man.

A Roman Catholic Apologist on Galileo, the Crusades, and the Inquisition. Sin Boldly Episode 79

Paul Flangan of Catholic Apologetics joined me for a conversation on Galileo, the Crusades, and the Inquisition. All three are common attacksthe-mighty-king-of-chivalry-richard-the-lionheart-fortunino-matania-1881-1963-660x350-1428610386 against the Church, and certainly not without some merit. But what do these three events really tell us about Christianity, and are they as bad as many make them out to be? Mr. Flanagan offers a lot of insight on each of these tales of heresy, war, and the battle between science and faith.

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 Podcast app also finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release. Otherwise, it takes a few hours. (I think Apple wants to make sure we don’t violate copyright law.)

HB 948, Abortion Myths, and Why Joel Osteen is NOT a Motivational Speaker. Sin Boldly Episode 78.

1024x1024Texas Legislator Tony Tinderholt has proposed legislation (House Bill 948) that would abolish all abortion in Texas. This episode looks at the details of that bill and the possible fallout. We also take a step back and look at some common myths about abortion that justified it becoming legal in the first place. Then we take a look at Joel Osteen and refuse to let him off the hook for being a mere “motivational speaker”. He says he’s a pastor who loves the Word of God. Judge him as such.

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 Podcast app also finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release. Otherwise, it takes a few hours. (I think Apple wants to make sure we don’t violate copyright law.)

Joel Osteen is NOT a Motivational Speaker

If you do any kind of evangelism ijoel-osteen-the-power-of-i-amn the Land of Joel, Joel Osteen’s will quickly come up. It will probably come up even if you are just having a casual conversation about religion. Love him or hate him, his is the face of Christianity in Houston, the person about whom everyone has an opinion. I have spoken with ardent supporters and members/attenders of Lakewood who defend him and I have spoken with opponents of Osteen who see him as a false teacher betraying the God he claims to serve.

Most of the folks I speak with, including some of his supporters, are quick to point out that Joel isn’t really a traditional pastor, but rather a kind of innocuous “motivational speaker” who just wants to help others. They concede that Joel does not talk much about sin, forgiveness, the cross (1 Cor. 2:2), and instead has carved out a niche as the “power of positive thinking” pastor.

The “motivational speaker” phrase comes up again and again. I’ve decided that it is either strange compliment or a weak critique. Mostly, I think it is how people come to peace with Joel, because in their hearts, they know something is wrong with what he is doing. It’s almost like an admission that he’s a sub-par pastor because he’s really acting as a motivational speaker. Or they are excusing him from his pastoral mandates because he has intentionally decided not to be a pastor. So he’s immune from critique by the discernment crowd because, well, he’s not really a pastor, he’s a motivational speaker.

The problem with letting him skate by as a mere “motivational speaker” is that it belies what the man says about himself, and by extension, his wife. Driving by Lakewood regularly, I am reminded that both Osteens are clearly labeled “Pastors” on their signage. So it is Joel who calls himself and Victoria “Pastor”.

If his exterior sign does not convince you that he really thinks of himself as a pastor giving sermons, then note how he begins each and every sermon. He does not begin by saying, “Now, just to be clear, I am not going to teach you the word of God. Today you are going to hear a motivational speech so you are encouraged.” Quite the contrary! He says this: “This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I can do what it says I can do. Today, I will be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess: My mind is alert, My heart is receptive. I will never be the same. I am about to receive The incorruptible, indestructible, Ever-living seed of the Word of God. I will never be the same . [sic] Never, never, never. I will never be the same. In Jesus name. Amen.” That is from Joel’s site here.

From those words, you certainly get the impression the guy thinks pretty highly of God’s Word and intends to preach it. Yet, his supporters and critics alike think of him as a motivational speaker. Well, which is it? What gives?

I say we judge him by the way he describes himself and hold him to that standard. He is not a motivational speaker. He is a pastor. He claims to have a high regard for the incorruptible and indestructible Word of God. (Couldn’t he have just said “inerrant” and “infallible” and fallen in line with other serious evangelicals?)

So stop giving the man cover! We have the right to judge him by his own words and judge him by the book he claims to be his authority. Test his ministry against Paul’s qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Listen carefully to his sermons with an open Bible, and follow each of his citations. (You should do the same for me, by the way.) Read them in their context and see if he faithfully explains the passage, or if he ducks and dodges and contorts and even lies. If he is going to insist on being a pastor, then judge him like one. Don’t let him off the hook as a “motivational speaker” when he never claims to be any such thing.

And when you’re in conversations with others and the name Joel Osteen comes up, listen for this description. Is this what others call Joel? If so, don’t let it slide. Remind them that regardless of what they think Joel Osteen is, he claims to be a pastor and should be judged as such. Then the question is not whether he is a good or bad motivational speaker, but whether or not he is a faithful pastor. If he is, great! He sure is doing a bang-up job of saving souls. If he is not, he is not only not a motivational speaker, he is a destructive force for the Kingdom of God and should be openly confronted by the Church as one who is not saving souls, but more likely killing them.

By claiming to be a pastor in Christ’s Church – but then giving the impression he is a safe motivational speaker – he is actually giving his adherents a false sense of security. He is convincing them that it is safe to believe his Gospel instead of the Biblical Gospel. He is practically winking at them and saying, “Trust me.” The question is: is he trustworthy? As a motivational speaker, absolutely! As a pastor, not even close.

Are Atheists Immoral? And the Super Bowl of Bible Stories. Sin Boldly Episode #77.

1606_atheistmorality_webbanner_400x225This solo episode looks at a handful of issues. We begin with an article by Herman Mehta who accuses a Christian author of calling all atheists immoral. Are they? Or do they have no standard by which they can ground the morality they want to affirm? By the way, I should have said, but didn’t on the show, that a denial of God is in itself an immoral act, but at the time I’ll confess I was thinking of civic life, not the spiritual life. From a spiritual perspective, atheism is always immoral and atheists are always immoral so long as they deny God. But they can be civically moral by secular legal standards. We also look at if religion is keeping abortion legal by ghettoizing the cause. To wrap it up, we look at the top 12 Bible stories and run a playoff to see which one reigns supreme. Don’t worry…I think they’re all great!

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 Podcast app also finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release. Otherwise, it takes a few hours. (I think Apple wants to make sure we don’t violate copyright law.)

Re-Examining the “If We Only Reach One” Mantra

 

As ministry drags and crawls its way to getting accomplished, done bap_face_in_the_crowd_01_press_hr4y sinful people in a sinful world for other sinful people, plagued by missed appointments, insufficient resources, egos the size of Mount Everest, and incompetent clergy, there is a common refrain that is often spoken to encourage the weary to press on: “It will all be worth it if we reach just one.” With that phrase, the tired and frustrated participants in ministry are given the strength to press on towards the prize, the reaching of one soul for Christ. A little extra energy is found, the frustrations become worthwhile, and a renewed sense of spirit comes over those who are growing tired of waiting for someone to respond.

Well, perhaps I’ve overstated the difficult nature of ministry. (I probably watched too much of that Scientology TV show!) In truth, ministry, when shared among the congregation, is a joy, and not such a burden. Still, it takes work to keep up a property, reach out to non-believers, hold and attend weekly services, clean up after events, etc. And in the end, we will often ask ourselves, “Why am I doing all this again?” And when the response is, “To nourish the faith of the faithful and to reach the nonbeliever,” the next question is often, “Well, how many nonbelievers have we reached?” And then comes the “If we only reach one” mantra. Wash, rinse, spin, repeat.

One can only hear a mantra so many times, however, before it stops ringing true. Or sometimes, it can just feel like a meaningless pick-me-up, or even a lie we tell ourselves to keep going. Especially in the land of “everything’s bigger in Texas” and where mega-churches are the default setting, it sounds like the kind of thing you tell yourself to justify your existence. It may seem that you aren’t really accomplishing anything at all. So you have to tell yourself the “only one” mantra to contextualize your failure. You have to tell yourself that because it’s the only thing that can make sense of the ministry itself.

Yes, perhaps the saying can come to be seen as that, the pat on the back after a tough loss, words of consolation in the face of defeat. But I’d like to reclaim it as more than a mantra. I’d like us not to let such words come across our minds glibly, but to really consider them and take them to heart.

The “only one” mantra is not an invention of ours. It springs from the ministry of Jesus. In the trilogy of parables about lost things, Jesus ends the series with one being found out of two (The Prodigal Son). But he begins with the Lost Sheep, a factor of one of 100. It is the shepherd who leaves the 99 behind who is faithfully serving his sheep. Jesus spends time with his own disciples, carefully teaching them and patiently waiting for them to see him for who he is. When it comes to crowds, Jesus doesn’t seek them and often dismisses them. It is individuals that he spends his time with.

And Paul does the same, faithfully ministering to small congregations of individuals but repeatedly being scorned by crowds (Acts 17). So the biblical witness stresses ministering to individuals, not just to the largest crowd we can gather.This is also supported by what we know about man generally. The Christian view of all people is that they are eternal beings. They are made in God’s image and “a little lower than the angels.” They are known by God, to the point where he knows how much hair is on our heads. So, really, how dare we think so little of one soul when God thinks so much of them! This is more than a mantra; it is an ironclad truth of reality: one soul is eternally precious to God. And while many more may choose to hate God and reject his love forever, the angels rejoice in heaven over one sinner who repents.

But we can make an even more extreme claim than the mantra suggests: we can do the work of ministry for no one and still be fulfilling our mission. Forget mega-churches! Forget even one! If no one responds to our ministry, does that make it a failure? No. Because outreach ministry is an act of worship, not really so different from our worship on Sunday morning. Both reflect a prioritization and an understanding of our relationship to God. In other words, witnessing is what we ought to do, whether we get a positive response or not.

Contrary to what some may say, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it still makes a sound. Of course it does! And if ministry doesn’t reach even one, that doesn’t mean it is wrong or foolish to embark on. Sure, all ministries should evaluate strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes certain ministries should be let go. But some are to be done no matter the result, even if the result is less than the one that inspires you to carry on.

Church Growth, Small Churches, and The Church Growth Movement

Well, I did it again. I way outpunched my weight class and I had three wonderful guests on Sin Boldly to look at the critical question of Church Growth in thchristcathedralinteriore Church today.  I was honored to be joined by a literal titan of church growth, Dr. Gary McIntosh of the Talbot School of Theology, Karl Vaters, author of “The Grasshopper Myth”, and Houston’s own Eugene Wilson. All three have looked at the issues of church growth generally, the Church Growth Movement specifically, and the benefit and role of small churches in the Kingdom of God for many years. I had hoped to go longer given the collected wisdom, but I believe a sequel is in the works already and perhaps even a conference…we’ll see. Many thanks again to Gary, Karl and Eugene. Learn more about Gary here, Karl here, and Eugene here.

If you want to listen via the podcast feed, that link is here. To view it on YouTube, 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 Podcast app also finds it easily on iTunes. If you subscribe to the show, you get the episodes immediately upon release. Otherwise, it takes a few hours. (I think Apple wants to make sure we don’t violate copyright law!)

Sin Boldly Episode 75: Daily Bible Study, Garrison Keillor and “The Exorcist” Regrets

I was joined to start the show by Pr. Steve Gjerde who offered his thoughts on the two-year daily lectionary, a great help in learning the grand sweep of the Bible. The rest of089ce80ef478b80dca60eed3328afdaf_400x400 the show looked at an article written that day by titular-Lutheran Garrison Keillor on the inauguration of Donald Trump, the common evolutionary view of religion, and “The Exorcist” author William Blatty’s two regrets upon his recent death.