Monday, January 27, 2014

In case you do need to leave a church ...

Earlier today I read an article giving five bad reasons to leave a church, and for the most part the article was right on. Most of the excuses were in fact focused on personal taste and "what's in it for me?" rather than on theology and service -- that is, the worship of God and doing whatever small part people can do to make him known.

That said, of course, there are legitimate reasons to leave having nothing to do with selfishness; in fact, leaving a particular assembly may be necessary for continued spiritual growth and in fact charitable. Here are some:

1) Theological infidelity. If someone stands up in the pulpit and rejects the counsel of Scripture or suggests that knowing Jesus isn't all that important -- that he or she doesn't believe in the supremacy of Christ or that the Bible represents ultimate truth -- run, don't just walk, away.

2) Moral failure in leadership. I'm talking about not just pastors, either; if even lay leadership uses its position in the church for its own benefit the members will reflect that, and no one grows as a result. Inappropriate sexual conduct and misuse of money represent only examples of such.

3) A focus on "traditions." There's nothing wrong with traditions in and of themselves; however, they become a problem when God wants to move away from them, which is His perfect right. I know of at least one church that shut down completely and another that's still limping along because they simply wouldn't -- or couldn't -- move with the Spirit of God.

4) Ministry opportunities. You may be very satisfied where you attend, but God may call you out to do something different (such as a plant or even a foreign mission). In that case, staying in your church represents disobedience.

And even if you do leave, make sure you do so graciously, with malice toward none and, if any of the first three apply, even with tears -- because if you truly love the church you're exiting you will need to grieve. But on the other hand, God will reward your obedience with something better.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Margaret Sanger – pro-life icon?

On this 41st (or, for that matter, any) anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that stripped states of regulating most abortions, people tend to hyperventilate.

Of course, one particular woman stands out as a villain – the late Margaret Sanger, founder of what’s known today as Planned Parenthood, which I understand is the largest abortion provider in the country. Four years ago a pastor preached a message that she was a racist baby-killer who sympathized with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany.

I decided to check her out – and do you know what? Nothing could be farther from the truth; she simply wasn’t the monster she’s been made out to be.

Next thing you’re going to tell me is that she was against abortion, you might say.

And you’d be right – because, it turns out, she was.

(You don’t have to take my word for it; just check out her Wikipedia entry. It’s all there.)

Sanger was a public health nurse in New York City in the early 20th Century and witnessed first-hand the squalid and overcrowded conditions in which many of her clients lived – she noted that many of their children didn’t survive infancy or toddlerhood. Perhaps for this reason she came up with the idea that they needed to find a way to limit the number of children. But for her, the “disgrace to civilization” that she called abortion, which in her day was illegal though common, and infanticide just weren’t options.

Was she a eugenicist? Sure, but so were a lot of people in that day, and she didn’t believe in eugenics as policy – it was always, always to be carried out voluntarily and, important, never for racial or ethnic reasons. She even expressed horror at the treatment of Jews in Germany at the hands of the Nazis in the early 1940s. (So much for her being a Nazi sympathizer.)

Didn’t she speak to the Ku Klux Klan? Not exactly – to a women’s auxiliary, and according to her autobiography, she was “unnerved” by the experience.

Though I have always opposed abortion, I think this is one situation where those of us who are “pro-life” have allowed our hearts to get ahead of our heads. I don’t pretend to know when or why PP began providing abortion services – Sanger died in 1966, six years before Roe – but demonizing her doesn’t help our cause. I would even think that we might have some things in common.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The imminent revival, part 6: Addressing unjust economics

My pastor has often said in his sermons, "God is a good provider, but man is a poor divider." The last decade or so is a prime example of what he's been talking about.

Fifty years ago began President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty," which used government programs and political action to help lift those who were suffering from the lack of not only funds but also resources. Of course the debate as to whether the "Great Society" worked is still out there, with its critics spending hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to insist that the programs were counterproductive.

But its critics often, and deliberately, miss the point that it wasn't about money -- it was about resources. That is, get folks boots so that they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They never talk about that, perhaps because they realize that doing so will cost them power.

Which is spiritually ruinous, because when you have economic, cultural, political and social power you won't want, or feel that you need, the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have said many times that so-called religious right groups, led by media "ministries," were in fact in God's way, and I'm glad that they finally seem to be crumbling. With all their emphasis on "cultural" issues, they completely ignored that folks were suffering due to policies instituted by people they supported (and whom I suspect supported them financially). You never heard poverty discussed in Christian media because, frankly, industry -- who for the most part didn't care about abortion or gay marriage -- had basically bought them off. In this way "conservative Christian" groups became in fact theologically liberal.

Let's never forget that economics is a Christian issue and that bad economics, including denying opportunity to the powerless, represents sin.

So what does this have to do with spiritual awakening? A number of things.

First, we will no longer allow non-believers to determine the church's agenda; we will not only encourage people to live by Kingdom values but carry them out ourselves and thus show the world, "This is how it's done." Second, many of us Christians living during difficult economic times -- and who may have been caught up in the American dream-turned-nightmare -- will recognize that they were, in the words of Ecclesiastes, "striving after wind." Third, and related to the second, folks will realize that whatever they have comes from the hand of God and as a result develop humility. Fourth, and most importantly, we will finally identify with those that are suffering and learn what it really takes to minister to the "least of these" -- because we may have been there.

If we do these things in the power of the Spirit we won't be able to build churches fast enough, if only because we will offer something much different from the world.

I won't say that programs are wrong in themselves; they simply reflect a failure of the church "to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with [our] God," as mentioned in Micah 6:8. Sometimes that means challenging the powers that be, including ourselves -- and that means we need to be ready to abandon our personal and cultural agendas.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The imminent revival, part 5: Something I overlooked

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I’ve been predicting a spiritual awakening for some years. But something that I didn’t see until recently: A return to church-based ministry.

Of course ministry should be based in local churches – after all, they’re the ones charged with winning souls to Christ, discipling them and fitting people for service in the assembly.

What happened? Well, in the 1980s we saw the rise of “media ministries,” generally parachurch groups without any responsibility to any larger body. While virtually all of the people involved were churchgoers, there seemed to be on one above the personality out front – and that proved their undoing.

Some fell victim to scandal (e.g. Jimmy Swaggart). Others focused on income to remain on the air and thus focused on the culture war and political matters, where they were bound for failure. In still some others, the point person died (witness Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy). Whatever, in the long run I would surmise that such groups have shown to be ineffective spiritually, though they did have some impact.

I would say, however, that the end of the age of media ministries came with the dismal showing of Republicans in the 2006 general election.

With most of these folks already off the scene by then, Focus on the Family, fearing that the GOP was about to lose big, convened “Stand for the Family” rallies in several battleground states, including Pennsylvania (more specifically Pittsburgh, as it was in practice a shill for the embattled Sen. Rick Santorum, who hailed from here). Not only did they didn’t have any positive effect but they may have even backfired – Santorum lost by 18 percentage points. (James Dobson, who founded and headed the organization, hasn’t been heard from since.)

But shouldn’t we try to remove evil from society? you may ask. Well, understanding that this world is hopelessly full of sin, how do you propose to do that?

This is where the church comes in. God calls us to live by alternative Kingdom values and influence the world that way, not to take the levers of power for our own aggrandizement, and the church is best suited for that role. Hopefully pastors and lay leaders are teaching the Scripture verse-by-verse and focusing on knowing Christ and making Him known in their respective communities.

I suggest that’s what Jesus meant when He said, “The Kingdom of God is among you” – that is, not to be found with any localized movement such as the “Toronto Blessing” or the “Pensacola revival.” Folks won’t need to travel hither and yon to see the “next great move of God”; they can – and should – experience it at home.