January 1, 2010
The Church in Exile
We live in a spiritual society. Bookstore shelves are lined with books on God, angels, the afterlife and spiritual self-help from every conceivable perspective. The evidence of a growing spiritual hunger is overwhelming, but as the sales of books on spirituality increases, attendance in churches is declining. Many Americans now profess to be “spiritual but not religious”—which is not a rejection of God altogether but a rejection of the God manifested by institutional church. It is the God revealed in the lives of Christians that is so distasteful to those seeking spiritual truth. The American church has entered a cultural, moral and intellectual exile. The outside world rejects the church and its teachings because it believes the church has nothing to offer.
Our exile is analogous to Israel’s experience of exile in the fifth century B.C. God had judged Israel because of their idolatry, injustice and ritualism—in short, they had failed to love God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves. By the time of Nehemiah the people of God had been living in exile for a hundred years, Jerusalem lay in ruin and the Jews bore the communal weight of guilt and shame. Israel had become a laughing stock, the object of guilt and shame. Abraham’s children, who were to be a blessing to the entire world, were scattered throughout the Persian Empire, and Nehemiah understood this exile as the consequences of Israel’s sin (Neh 1:4-11).
Christians have been exiled from the cultural, moral and intellectual center of our society. With every article detailing the moral failure of a Christian leader, new accounts of priestly impropriety, lawsuits over church property or Christians amassing fortunes in the midst of poverty, we grow increasingly irrelevant. This irrelevance is not the result of the church’s inability to keep up with contemporary musical tastes or its insistence on traditional theology. Our exile is the consequence of our failure to live out our vocation: making disciples. This vocation is more than convincing people to pray the sinner’s prayer or apply for church membership; it is the process by which we help people discover the new life made available in God’s kingdom.
Disciples of Christ are not defined primarily by what they believe but by who they are—or perhaps more correctly, whose they are. But when the outside world looks at the church, they do not see people living changed lives marked by love and holiness. They see a group of people living defeated lives of compromise, desperately trying to convince the world they have all the answers. We must accept that the only proof for the truth of the resurrection is a life changed by the grace of God.
Nehemiah was called to unite God’s people and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, fulfilling God’s promise of restoration. So how do we begin “rebuilding the walls” of integrity and trust? It would be tempting to begin by rethinking how we structure our churches—casting a new vision for what a community of believers should be, but Nehemiah knew that the first step is repentance (Neh 1:4-12). We must confess our sin, not just our private sins but also our corporate sin. The sin of the one is the sin of all—we learn that lesson all too clearly from Achan and his family (Josh 7). This is a slap in the face of Western individuality, but it is absolutely crucial for a genuine understanding of community.
Of course, our job doesn’t end with confession; it is only the first step. We must prepare ourselves for the long journey ahead. So grab your hammer. We’ve got work to do.
March 1, 2009
The iPodization of Our Culture
Being a pastor, I am deeply concerned with the church’s interaction with culture, especially as it affects evangelism. Postmodern culture is supposed to be marked by a profound urge for community. The longing community is supposed to be a determining factor as to who postmoderns are and how they relate to each other. Social scientists point to the proliferation of chat rooms and online forums as evidence of this communal longing.
Yet, I am noticing a chink in the armor of this component of postmodernism. I am beginning to sense that people today are afraid of community. Postmodernity does not seem to foster an interest in being in community at all. There is a contemporary distancing from others that some are terming the “iPodization” of our culture.
I work out at least five days a week at the Lexington Athletic Club. iPods are ubiquitous there. Every jogger, biker, elipticalite, weight trainee—virtually everyone—has an iPod strapped to their arms and ear buds plugged into their heads. While they are exercising in the same room, they are working out in different worlds. One is grooving to Dave Brubeck. Another is headbanging with Haste the Day. Still another is praising the Lord with the Dave Crowder band. No one talks to anyone else. No one even looks at anyone else, not even a casual glance. I could get more personal interaction on a New York subway! We see the same thing at public gatherings or on the streets of any major city. People walking along, white buds stuck in their ears. They are in their own little iPod worlds. Is this what we mean by community?
Doing It My Way
When you check out at the grocery store, do you hunt for the friendliest checkout clerk, or the shortest line? Or do you go to the even “friendlier” U Scan station? That’s right. You buy the groceries and you check out yourself. U scan, U bag, and U pay. You don’t have to talk with anyone, unless some produce you bought doesn’t have the magic numbers attached. When that happens, a computer voice tells you to wait for a cashier. Who waits? I just put the produce aside. I didn’t need it anyway. (I’m not alone. I’ve watched others at the U Scan stations do the same.) What kind of community does U Scan create? I think postmoderns don’t like each other.
How about the ubiquitous ATMs. We don’t have to talk to a teller anymore. What about “Pay at the Pump”? We don’t have to interact with the gas station attendant. It’s starting to sound like solitary confinement. Hey, for some postmoderns, perhaps that’s really what they’re seeking.
In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), Robert Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends and our neighbors.
Here’s an online description of the book:
So what does all of this mean for our culture? What does all of this mean for the church? These questions need to be asked and discussed. But perhaps you don’t want to talk? Then turn up your iPod!
March 1, 2006
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
We live in a vid/aural culture. Video images stream into our living rooms and across our computer screens. We have come to expect, yes even demand, high quality images to enhance everything from our computer’s screen saver to our church’s bulletin covers. While video images for such things can be found readily on web sites, where do you go to find images for your sermons? I’m not talking about images that can be projected while you’re preaching; I’m talking about images embedded into your sermons. Where do you go?
There’s a resource available from InterVarsity Press: The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. The book’s subtitle will help you understand the approach of this resource: “encyclopedic exploration of the images, symbols, motifs, metaphors, figures of speech and literary patterns of the Bible.” I also like the following description from the flyleaf: “The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery explores the dazzling variety in which the Word of God comes dressed in the clothes of everyday life. It traces the trail of images from Eden to the New Jerusalem. It captures the plotted patterns of biblical narrative. It surveys the imaged texture of each book of the Bible.”
A couple of short excerpts from articles will demonstrate the value of this resource, especially for preaching and teaching:
The editors of this volume—Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III—have covered the waterfront from A to Z (well, almost, there is no entry for the letter “X”). Here is just a smattering of the topics covered: Aaron’s rod, Baal, Cain, eagle, face, Gabriel, Habakkuk, idleness, jackal, keys, labor, madness, Nahum, oak, pain, queen, race, sabbath, tabernacle, unbind, vale of tears, wages, year, Zechariah.
As you study in preparing to preach and as you work on a sermon, you’ll find this book triggers mental images that will help your congregation not only hear, but “see” your sermon. In a vid/aural culture, there’s not a better way to communicate!