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I Kissed Debating Goodbye

Fourteen years ago, when I was in seminary, a professor made a startling confession. The truth came out during a chapel service on campus, where he was the keynote speaker of the day. The professor began his sermon by stating that he had a confession to make. He explained in nebulous terms how he had been unfaithful, how he had lost sight of his first love. After a few minutes of remorseful talk he made the bombshell announcement: “I have been having an affair (dramatic pause) with books and ideas.”

As you might have guessed, the professor’s message didn’t have the affect he intended as numerous students audibly scoffed at his announcement and “having an affair with my books” became the running joke on campus for the remainder of the semester.

Although the professor’s delivery wasn’t successful, he was making an important point about himself, seminary culture, and modern evangelicalism: we’ve come to love propositions about Jesus more than Jesus himself. This misplacement of our affection is no more evident than in the arena of debating.

The Culture War

It was during the culture war of the late 20th century that evangelicals took the offensive, looking for any opportunity to promote and debate Christian beliefs. The context didn’t matter—workplace, college campus, coffee shop, family dinner, or even a funeral service. For it was declared that “truth” was at stake and it was one’s Christian duty to speak up anytime a word was uttered that contradicted Christian beliefs.

In this fight for “truth,” evangelicals became much more interested in defending the words of Jesus than living the words of Jesus, and the love of neighbor was reduced to speaking the “truth” regardless of how inappropriate the setting may be. “Truth divides,” “The truth is offensive,” and “The greatest act of love is to tell someone the truth” became justification for speaking the “truth” at any time, in any place.

Intent on defending the Bible and its teaching about Jesus, Christians lost sight of what it means to love Jesus and love their neighbor.

From Debate to Discussion

In post-culture-war America, there has been a gradual shift away from debating and towards discussing. I believe this shift provides a wonderful opportunity for Christians to get reacquainted with our first love and to live the faith we so adamantly profess to possess. Just consider the difference in tone, attitude, and spirit between a debate and a discussion.

Debate. A debate is a rhetorical contest where there’s a winner and a loser. In a debate your goal is to defeat your opponent. To this end, you project supreme confidence, focus on the strong points of your position, and downplay the shortcomings of your position. In a debate you don’t value the opinion of your opponent, you dismantle them, and you only listen to your opponent in order to craft a counterargument.

Discussion. In contrast, a discussion is an exchange of ideas, where there’s no winner or loser. In a discussion your goal is to gain greater understanding of one another’s position. To this end, you project humility, graciously communicate the strong points of your position, and freely admit the shortcomings of your position. In a discussion you value the opinion of each participant because you respect differing points of view, and you genuinely listen to the perspective of others because you believe every human being on the planet has something to offer you.

As Christians our fight isn’t against people or culture; our faith is not rooted in well-reasoned arguments; and we are not called to live a Pharisaical existence. We’re called to be lovers of Jesus and doers of his word. We’re called to be people of compassion and peace.

So if you ever find yourself getting drawn into a debate, let me encourage you to run away before you’re headlong into a torrid affair. And if anybody ever asks you why you don’t debate, just tell them that you’ve kissed debating goodbye.


What Makes Me a Postmodern Christian

I admit it: I’m postmodern. And despite the negative connotations the word has amongst Christians, particularly conservative Christians, “postmodern” is a term I embrace. In this post I’ll explain the foundational difference between a modern and a postmodern worldview and offer my perspective on what it means to be a postmodern Christian.

Modern Christianity

The birth of modern thought ushered in a new way of understanding the world, that we can acquire objective, absolute knowledge through the use of pure reason. This radical shift in thought away from faith introduced a new Christian worldview. Instead of embracing the inherent uncertainty of faith, modern Christianity sought to prove the Christian faith through the use of reason. We see this shift from faith to reason in the 20th century debates between old-earth atheists and young-earth creationists. In the end, Christians claimed victory in the debate, arguing that they won because it requires more faith to believe in evolution than it takes to believe in God. In other words, the modern Christian has been arguing that the world should believe in God because it is the most reasonable understanding of our existence, which requires less faith than any other option.

In modern Christianity’s pursuit to prove the existence of God and justify faith, it has undermined the essence of our faith—trust in God. It’s for this reason that I’m not a modern Christian.

Pre-modern Christianity

Realizing how modern Christianity has undermined the essence of faith, many Christian theologians, educators, and pastors claim to be pre-modern, adhering to a worldview grounded in faith that is then supported by reason.

In theory, the idea of returning to a pre-modern worldview sounds like a sensible solution, unfortunately, it’s not a realistic option. We can’t go back in time. We can’t undo what we’ve seen and learned over the past 500 years. 500 years ago, people thought the earth was at the center of the universe; that the earth was flat, heaven was up, and hell was down; and that every unexplained event was either a miracle or a declaration of God’s judgment. Today, we have a different perspective on our planet’s position in the cosmos; we have a fuller understanding of the inner-workings of the natural world; and because we can explain the reproductive process in scientific terms, we don’t view “the miracle of life” as being much of a miracle anymore.

As much as I might like the idea of returning to a pre-modern worldview, it’s not possible. Hence, I’m postmodern because I can’t be pre-modern.

Postmodern Christianity

In contrast to modern thought, postmodernism rejects the belief that we can acquire objective, absolute knowledge through the use of pure reason. In rejecting the certainty of knowledge, early postmodernists concluded that absolute truth does not exist and that all truth/knowledge is relative to one’s own perspective and community. (I’ll address the issue of absolute truth a little later; however, it’s worth noting here that many conflicting ideas emerged within modernism over its 400+ year history and we should expect the same to occur within postmodernism, particularly since we are less than 50 years into the movement.)

As a postmodern Christian, I reject the modern premise that we can acquire objective, absolute truth through reason.

Knowledge is subjective. As much as I would like to think that I’m an objective observer of the world, I’m not. I’m only human. I cannot understand the world beyond the limits of who I am and what I’ve experienced. As I wrote in Dying to Control, “To think I can transcend my whiteness, my maleness, or my life story and understand the fullness of truth is to guarantee my being blind to the white, male, privileged bias of my [worldview]. And when I’m blind to my whiteness, I’m racist; when I’m blind to my maleness, I’m sexist; when I’m blind to my privileged life, I’m classist.” Therefore, as a postmodern Christian, I believe gaining a fuller, more objective understanding of the world begins with acknowledging my own subjective perspective.

Knowledge is uncertain. By definition, faith demands a degree of uncertainty. To speak in certain terms—to say “I know for sure…”—is to undermine the essence of faith. Further, for me to speak in certain terms takes my focus away from God and my faith in him and places the focus on me and my ability to reason. As a postmodern Christian, I have no illusions of being able to prove my faith, and therefore, I unapologetically confess my faith in Jesus Christ.

Knowledge is not inherently good.  The Bible teaches us that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor. 8:1). Unfortunately, modern Christians did not heed this warning and here’s what happened: the “quiet time” became the primary means of spiritual growth; biblical knowledge became the measuring stick of wisdom and maturity; the need for doctrinal purity divided the Church into irreconcilable parts; and, to this day, the modern Christian holds to the axiom that the greatest act of love is to tell someone the truth. The tragic irony in the modern pursuit of more knowledge is that it has blinded the modern Christian to Jesus’ teachings about what it means to love thy neighbor. Given the potential dangers of gaining knowledge, as a postmodern Christian, I believe the motivation for pursuing more knowledge should be greater and more sacrificial acts of love.

As a postmodern Christian, I believe that God is the source of objective, absolute truth.

To understand why early postmodernists concluded that absolute truth does not exist, it’s important to recognize the dissonance between the hope of modernism and the reality of the 20th century world. Modernism was supposed to discover absolute truth, which was then supposed to usher in a utopian existence—peace and prosperity for all of humankind. Instead, modernism provided people in positions of power and authority a means to rationalize their oppression of the poor and the weak; and with two World Wars and the fear of nuclear annihilation, people began to realize that more knowledge might not be such a good thing after all. It was in the midst of the world teetering on the brink of utter disaster that early postmodernists concluded that the problem in the world was modernism’s pursuit of knowledge.

However, there’s another option. Instead of the flaw being knowledge, maybe the flaw is humankind. As I see it, the problem with modernism wasn’t the pursuit of knowing; the problem was humankind’s sinful desire to gain power and control over the world and our eternal destiny. As a postmodern Christian, I believe in absolute truth, but I believe that truth is found through humble submission to God, for God alone is the Giver and Sustainer of life and the Arbiter of good and evil.

Therefore, in closing, instead of placing my faith in the most reasonable option, or concluding that all truth is relative, I choose to: 1. Acknowledge the limits of my humanity 2. Submit myself to God 3. Place my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and 4. Pray for the Holy Spirit to lead me into grace and truth. This is the essence of my faith, and living in the 21st century, this is what makes me a postmodern Christian.


What the Church Can Learn From “The LEGO Movie”

It’s hard for me to believe that the smartest, most forward-thinking commentary I’ve ever heard on American culture came in the form of a movie. And it wasn’t an artsy, indie film. It was a hilariously clever children’s movie.

Now I realize I’m a little slow—people have been talking and writing about The LEGO Movie for weeks— but please forgive me, I just got around to taking my kids to see it this past weekend. (I know, I know, I’m a terrible parent.)

One thing I love about The LEGO Movie is that it’s written in a fashion that allows people to view the film from various perspectives. Fans of culture can comment on the film’s exposé of pop-culture and branding. Business analysts can rant about the film’s anti-business, anti-capitalist message. (Or did it have a pro-business, pro-capitalist message?) Political commentators can write about the film’s portrayal of political systems. And religious writers can speculate on the meaning behind the myriad of religious allusions and images.

I, however, am a thinker, and therefore I connected with the movie from a philosophical perspective.

Critique of Modernism

From the onset of the movie Lord/President Business embodies the spirit of Modernism. His insistence on everyone following specific instructions conveys the modern pursuit of discovering and implementing mechanical systems that reflect the natural order of things. And his statement, “All I’m asking for is total perfection” simultaneously mocks and characterizes the modern belief that if we properly understand and execute on our knowledge of the natural world we will eventually establish a utopian existence. In short, Lord Business, “the man upstairs,” plays a god-like figure by exerting his will as the arbiter of all that is right and good.

Critique of Postmodernism

In opposition to Lord Business there are the Master Builders. These creative beings are not bound by rules. They are innovative thinkers who seek new ways to connect LEGO pieces, and they believe that by working together they can defeat Lord Business.

Yes, the Master Builders represent a postmodern worldview, but just when you think the movie is a postmodern propaganda film, you’re taken to Cloud Cuckoo Land—a world where its inhabitants have an unrealistic worldview and are, dare I say, a little crazy.

We see this chaotic world for what it is the moment Emmet walks in and says to their tour guide, Unikitty, “There’s no signs on anything! How does anyone know what not to do?”

Unikitty’s response conveys the early postmodern reaction to modernism, ““Well, we have no rules here. There is no government, no bedtimes, no baby-sitters, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind.”

And when a Master Builder makes an astute and biting observation, “You just said the word no, like a thousand times,” Unikitty, with no hesitation, responds, “And there’s also no consistency.”

And there you have it. In one short scene, a postmodern worldview that suggests that we can live in a state of perpetual happiness if we simply abolished all rules is exposed as an impossible, self-contradicting illusion.

So then what’s the answer to absolute rule-following Modernism and absolute free-for-all Postmodernism?


“Emmet” is the Hebrew word for “truth,” and in The LEGO Movie, Emmet is the hero. However, Emmet doesn’t have the skills or persona of a hero. He’s just your average, unmemorable guy who enjoys his simple life in LEGO land. He embraces the culture, and he diligently follows the rules of Lord Business.

But when Emmet stumbles upon “The Piece of Resistance”—the cap to a bottle of Krazy Glue—he’s declared “The Special.” Instantaneously Emmet gains celebrity status and becomes “the most important, most interesting, greatest person of all time.” Through much of the film Emmet tries to convince himself that he is “The Special,” but in time he realizes that he’s not any more special than anybody else and announces that everyone is special—everyone has an important place in this world.

It’s at this point in the movie that the story takes its most unexpected turn. The movie transitions from the realm of fantasy to reality when we see a little boy playing with his father’s LEGOs in the basement.

In this transition to reality the philosophical message of the movie starts to become clear. “The man upstairs”—Lord Business—is a Baby Boomer businessman, which makes perfect sense. You see, the Baby Boomer generation is the last modern generation; they are the last generation born into a world that believes there’s one right way to think and one right way to build the world. Afraid of an uncertain future, the dad wants to glue his LEGO land together; he’s trying to preserve his vision of the world.

The boy, on the other hand, represents a postmodern worldview; he wants to deconstruct the modern world of his father and reassemble the pieces in new and creative ways. The son, however, represents a more mature version of postmodernism (not Cloud Cuckoo Land), a version that sees modernism and postmodernism working cooperatively. We see this cooperative storyline play out as the movie goes back and forth between fantasy and reality. In the fantasy world, Emmet realizes that Lord Business has all the power and that the fate of the LEGO world is ultimately in his hands. And in reality, the son tells his father that President Business doesn’t have to be a villain, that they could build together and that everyone could be The Special.

The Message to the Church

The philosophical message that The LEGO Movie offers the world also applies to the Church.

Baby Boomers are the last generation of modern Christians; they are the last generation that believes there’s one right way to think about Jesus and one right way to build his Church. Afraid of an uncertain future, Baby Boomer church leaders and educators are trying to glue their Christian institutions together; they are trying to preserve their vision of the church.

In response, however, we as the next generation of Christians can’t abandon the Church of our fathers or try to deconstruct it and rebuild it on our own terms. Yes, the Spirit is alive and active, leading us in new and creative ways, yet we need the experience, maturity, and wisdom of our fathers as we navigate our new world.

In the end, I agree with Emmet. I agree that everyone’s special—we’re all uniquely created in the image of God to do good works. And I also believe it’s time for modern and postmodern Christians to stop fighting with one another and work together for the common purpose of building His Church. For it was Jesus who prayed, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”


“Postmodern” is Not a Dirty Word

If you could walk into a thousand, randomly selected, churches around the country on a Sunday morning, I bet you’d be surprised by two things. First, you would be struck by how segmented the church has become. Two hundred years ago there were only a few denominations, a hundred years ago there were a handful of denominations, but today, there are tens of thousands of denominations and independent churches, each claiming that their doctrine is correct, objective, and wholly good. Because of their differing beliefs and traditions, churches from different denominations conduct very different worship services. Compare a Sunday morning at an Eastern Orthodox Church to a Sunday morning at an Assemblies of God Church, or compare an Episcopal Church service to an Evangelical Free Church service. Or how about this one: walk in during a baptism at a Catholic Church, then, walk in during a baptism at a Baptist Church. What?!

But it’s not just doctrine and tradition that has splintered the church. Consider cultural and contextual differences within a denomination. You have your conservative churches and your charismatic churches, your black churches and your white churches, your poor churches and your rich churches, your urban churches and your suburban churches, your southern churches and your northern churches, and the division goes on and on. It will metaphorically blow your mind.

The second thing that will surprise you on your whirlwind tour of church in American is what you won’t see. At first, you probably wouldn’t even notice, but eventually it would become painfully obvious: young adults are nowhere to be found. The casual observer may dismiss this phenomenon as a normal part of the maturation process and that the young people will eventually come back to church once they have children. Experts, however, aren’t so sure. In the world of church leadership there is a growing fear that the emerging generation has left church, and they’re not coming back.

Why are young adults abandoning the church traditions of their youth? Have they given up on God?

The Next Generation of Christians

One of those non-church-attending young adults is an emerging writer and a growing voice of the next generation. His name is Donald Miller and in a recent blog titled, “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere,” Miller confessed that he doesn’t attend church often because he doesn’t connect with God by singing, and listening to a sermon does not suit his kinesthetic learner style. He goes on to say that he’s fine with that because he connects with God in a different way: I connect with God by working. I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe God gave me my mission and my team and I feel closest to him when I’ve got my hand on the plow. It’s thrilling and I couldn’t be more grateful he’s given me an outlet through which I can both serve and connect with him.”

As you might expect, many, many Christians took exception to Miller’s blog, posting comments and writing open letters arguing for the primal importance of Christians gathering together to worship God in church.

A few days later, Miller posted a follow-up piece titled, “Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often,” explaining and defending his position.

In the opening paragraph of that follow-up post Miller made a passing statement that speaks volumes. He wrote, “…most of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church.” What?!

Let’s take a step away from the debate over whether it’s one’s Christian duty to be an active member of a local church and focus on the glaring implication of Miller’s statement (assuming that it’s accurate, which I believe it is). A significant percentage of influential Christian leaders do not even attend church. Forget the idea of their ministries being an outworking of the local church; their ministries aren’t even supported by the local church. And think about it, if the next generation of Christian leaders doesn’t attend church, what does that say about the next generation of Christians as a whole?

If you do a little research, you’ll see the issue with young adults not attending church isn’t that they’ve given up on God or Christianity; it’s that, like Donald Miller, they’ve given up on the institutional church, believing that they experience God more authentically out in the world, than they do inside the walls of a church building.

Why is that?


In 1996, Stanley J. Grenz wrote a book — A Primer on Postmodernism — describing a cataclysmic philosophical shift that’s transforming American culture. At the end of the first chapter, Grenz offered this sober warning to the church of America:

“The transition from the modern era to the postmodern era poses a grave challenge to the church in its mission to its own next generation. Confronted by this new context, we dare not fall into the trap of wistfully longing for a return to the early modernity that gave evangelicalism its birth, for we are called to minister not to the past but to the contemporary context, and our contemporary context is influenced by postmodern ideas.

“Postmodernism poses certain dangers. Nevertheless, it would be ironic — indeed, it would be tragic — if evangelicals ended up as the last defenders of the now dying modernity. To reach people in the new postmodern context, we must set ourselves to the task of deciphering the implications of postmodernism for the gospel.

“Imbued with the vision of God’s program for the world, we must claim the new postmodern context for Christ by embodying the Christian faith in ways that the new generation can understand. In short, under the banner of the cross, we must “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

The evangelical church has, by and large, ignored this warning, and now, 20 years later, Grenz’s exhortation serves as a prophetic and painful statement of what has happened to the church in America. Instead of “claim[ing] the new postmodern context for Christ,” the church has fought against it. Instead of “embodying the Christian faith in ways that the new generation can understand” the church has dogmatically defended its modern structures and beliefs. As a result, the church is failing “in its mission to its own next generations.

Yet, today, across much of evangelicalism the term “postmodern” is still a dirty word; you can’t even say it in some Christian settings without somebody gasping. As a pastor for nine years and a Christian leader for thirteen, I have been consistently challenged, rebuked, and condemned for even suggesting that a postmodern worldview offers helpful correctives for the modern church. And now, as a writer, the assaults can come from any direction. That’s why many young Christian leaders with a postmodern worldview who minister to postmodern people have left the church; they’re tired of being misunderstood and demonized by the people who are supposed to love and support them the most. Do you really think the primary reason Donald Miller doesn’t attend church anymore is because he’s a kinesthetic learner? Read his follow-up post; it seems clear to me that he and his peers of Christian leaders are so tired of defending their postmodern worldview from the attacks of modern Christians that they don’t even want deal with the potential conflict that could come by attending church on Sunday morning.

So, in the end, if the church is really concerned about the next generation — if the church really wants young adults to come back — then it needs to stop preserving its modern institutions and embrace a postmodern Christian worldview. And if it’s able to do that, then the splintered church in America might actually become what it was always supposed to be — the one, unified, diverse, glorious body of Jesus Christ.


What is a “Next Generation” Christian?

In attempting to define a “Next Generation” Christian, let me begin by saying culture is fluid, always changing, adapting, evolving. Look at American culture today compared to what it was like in the 1980s (the greatest decade ever), and then consider what life was like a hundred years ago. It’s bad enough when you have to drive to the grocery store at 6:00 am to get milk; can you imagine having to walk out to the barn every morning to “get” milk from your cow? And how did people ever survive the Houston heat without air conditioning—it’s hot as Hades down here during the summer! Technology has transformed the way we see and experience life.

But it’s not just technology that alters culture. Over the past hundred years the philosophical shift from a Modern to a post-Modern worldview has also had a remarkable influence on American society. Today I drank out of the same water fountain as a black man and my wife didn’t spend her day barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Ideologically, America is gradually moving towards being a pluralistic culture that values diversity and equality.

This shift from a Modern to a post-Modern worldview has had a profound impact on the values system of Next Generation Christians and how they live out their faith.

From ME to WE

Next Generation Christians are moving away from a “ME” worldview towards a “WE” worldview.

Grounded in the principles of Enlightenment philosophy, The United States was built on a foundation of rugged individualism. As Americans, above all else, we value our individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As a result of our individualistic focus, the Christian life in America has centered on ME having “a personal relationship with God” and ME “trusting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.” As for biblical teaching, the church in America has traditionally emphasized those biblical passages that address an individual’s personal responsibility to live a good, moral life.

In contrast, Next Generation Christians have a post-Enlightenment, WE perspective; they see themselves as members of a community, as participants in a movement greater than themselves. As a result, Next Generation Christians emphasize biblical passages that address communal responsibility and in particularly, they focus on Jesus’s “radical” teachings on loving thy neighbor and see his ministry to those in need as the model for Christian living.

From ME to HE

Next Generation Christians are moving away from a “ME” worldview towards a “HE” worldview.

One significant shortcoming of individualism is the potential to focus on oneself and to approach every situation from the perspective of “what’s in this for me?” Unchecked individualism further allows people to rationalize just about any self-centered, self-serving behavior or policy. This me-first attitude is prominent in the church as well with people asking, “What does Christianity offer me?” In the end, the church in America has capitulated to individualism and largely reduced the Christian faith to answering this one self-centered question: “What do I have to do, think, or say in order to make it into heaven?” For individualistically-minded Americans, even life after death is all about me.

In contrast, Next Generation Christians are not ME-centered, but rather HE-centered—God-centered. They don’t believe in self-determination—that “I can be whatever I want to be.” They believe in God-determination—that “I can be whatever God created me to be.” With an intense passion to honor God with the life they’ve been given, Next Generation Christians don’t dwell on the question, “What’s going to happen to me if I die tonight?” Instead, they focus on the question, “What am I going to do if I wake up tomorrow?”

A Next Generation Christian

So with this cultural shift from ME to WE and from ME to HE you might be wondering, “What does it then look like to be a Next Generation Christian?”

In his book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons puts it this way,

“The next Christians believe that Christ’s death and Resurrection were not only meant to save people from something. He wanted to save Christians to something. God longs to restore his image in them, and let them loose, freeing them to pursue his original dreams for the entire world. Here, now, today, tomorrow. They no longer feel bound to wait for heaven or spend all of their time telling people what they should believe. Instead, they are participating with God in his restoration project for the whole world.”

That, my friends, is the heartbeat of a Next Generation Christian.


Doctrine: When the Need to Be Right is Wrong

(Written by Dying to Control contributor, Mike Ballman)

The gospel of John tells us that Jesus, in his final hours of freedom before his arrest, trial and execution, devoted himself to prayer. I would guess that most of us, faced with a similar fate, would also feel a strong need to pray. The fact that he chose to pray when faced with imminent death is not that surprising. However, what is amazing about his eleventh hour prayer is for whom he prayed. The gospel writer tells us that his primary focus was not on his own needs but on the well-being of his friends; and not only his disciples but all who would believe in their testimony about him to the very end of time.

“20 I do not pray only for them (my disciples). I pray also for those who will believe in me because of their message. 21 Father, I pray that all of them will be one, just as you are in me and I am in you. I want them also to be in us. Then the world will believe that you have sent me.”

His prayer was that his believers in the First Century and forever after would be one—one voice, mind and purpose—unified in their great diversity thus demonstrating the power of Jesus to break down all barriers that we use to divide ourselves and belittle one another.

Fast forward to 2013, any cursory perusal of Facebook and internet articles will reveal that Christians are not unified. Not only are Christians divided along the same lines as the non-Christian world, i.e. liberal v. conservative, but Christians are even sharply divided within those camps, i.e. calvinists v. arminians; charismatics v. cessationists; dispensationalists v. amillennials and so on and so forth ad nauseum.

So then if Jesus prayed for his followers to be unified, why is there so much division?

I would argue that the greatest source of division keeping Christians from experiencing Jesus’ desire for unity is doctrine. There are roughly 41,000 protestant denominations in the U.S. alone. Can you guess the primary measuring stick used to differentiate them? If you guessed doctrine, you are correct.

The problem, however, isn’t doctrine itself, but how we misperceive and misuse doctrine. Doctrine is a human construct that helps us understand God; it’s a necessary tool to help finite beings make sense of an infinite God. Problems begin to arise when we start to view our ideas about God too highly, when we begin to revere our doctrine as though it were God or think our doctrine somehow protects or encapsulates God. It is at that point things start to get ugly; this is where we begin to fight for and defend our doctrine as though God or his character is somehow at stake. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are fighting a righteous battle for God when in reality we are merely fighting for our doctrine and for positions of power and influence, which brings us to another problem.

A good thing like doctrine goes horribly wrong when Christians use doctrine to exert power over one another and exclude one another from the kingdom of God. Jesus never required doctrinal regulations for inclusion in his kingdom. I can’t find anywhere in Scripture where Jesus says, “I will never leave you or forsake you as long as you can recite the Westminster Confession or know the five tenets of Calvinism.” Yet we as Christians continue to divide ourselves and cast judgments about who is “in” or “out” of the kingdom of God according to doctrinal beliefs even though we all pretty much agree about the basics of who Jesus is.  How can this be?

Unfortunately, it is in our human nature to seek to define God rather than understand him—to choose right and wrong for ourselves rather than trust God to lead us. That is what we do when we come to reasonable yet finite conclusions about God, and turn these conclusions into absolute, infinite dogma to exclude one another and exert power over one another.

That brings me to the doctrinal controversy dujour which is the Mark Driscoll v. John MacArthur feud over the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

I think Mark Driscoll does a good job of illuminating the heart of the controversy in an excerpt from his open letter to John MacArthur:

“…I then explain how important it is for us to rightly define our borders: who is in and who is out when it comes to essential Christian doctrines.”

I would argue that the heart of this issue and most modern doctrinal disputes is a power struggle to determine who will be the keeper of doctrinal correctness and who gets to decide who is “in” and “out” of the kingdom of God. Both parties are using doctrine to divide and not unite.

At this point I hear the keepers of correct doctrine crying, “How do we know the truth apart from sound doctrine?”  I would argue that Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever. We grow to know Jesus through the Holy Spirit through the diversity of community. If that sounds too elusive, too dynamic, too uncontrollable, too unmeasurable, then that sounds like a relationship with a God that is infinite and too big to be contained by finite doctrine.

So the next time you have the urge to post a preachy doctrinal Facebook quote, or shoot a condescending frown as you drive by a “liberal” church, or make jokes about the pope, or just downright think that your understanding of God is the most right—remember Jesus’ prayer for unity and don’t be an idiot.

Sermon 5: For the Shame of It All

For the month of September I was the guest speaker/preacher on Sunday mornings at Cypress Bible Church. The five-week series was titled “A Faith That Can Change the World.” Here’s a brief summary of the final sermon:

For the Shame of It All

For the past four weeks I’ve been talking about “A Faith That Can Change the World,” yet the reality is that more and more Americans are concluding that church is irrelevant–that church bears little significance to their lives–and as church attendance continues to decline, the murmurs of, “How is this relevant?” continue to grow.

But why? Why is the church in America struggling to communicate the message of Jesus Christ in a  meaningful way?

In his book Honor and Shame, Roland Muller writes:

“One of the basic foundations [in our western culture] is our belief in right versus wrong. This understanding is so deeply ingrained in our western culture, that we analyze almost everything from this perspective. Most of our forms of entertainment are built upon ‘the good guys and the bad guys.’ It is so familiar to us, that few of us question its validity. It is such an integral part of our religion and society, that we often cannot imagine a world where ‘right versus wrong’ isn’t the accepted basic underlying principle.

Almost every major issue the west struggles with involves an aspect of deciding whether something is right or wrong. We arrive at this basic tension in life because almost everything in our culture is plotted on [a matrix of] guilt and innocence.”

While Western theology has focused on the guilt of Adam and Eve, Eastern theology has focused on the shame of Adam and Eve. Muller writes:

“Christianity…in the eastern world was caught up in the shame-honor relationship that was prevalent in societies scattered from the Middle East to the Far East. Eastern Orthodox theology didn’t deal directly with sin, guilt, and redemption. They deal more with the issue of us being able to stand in the presence of God or not, and in our relationship with God, and with others around us.”

Now, at this point you might be thinking, “Leon, this lesson on culture is fascinating, but how is it relevant?”

It’s relevant because in American society we are experiencing an epidemic of shame.

Listen to these statistics. According to the US census Bureau:

  • “The number of divorced people has more than quadrupled from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996” 
  • “The proportion of children under 18 years living with two parents has declined from 85 percent to 68 percent between 1970 and 1996”
  • “The number of children born out of wedlock has increased from 10% to over 40% between 1970 and 2008”

These are staggering statistics! It typically takes several generations for a society to evolve, but in America, in the span of just one generation, the “traditional” family has disintegrated. As a result, we are a society burdened by the shame of our broken relationships. However, instead of addressing the issue of shame, the Western church continues to focus on guilt  and the penalty of sin. So as the church continues to preach Jesus dying for our guilt, people are slowly dying of shame.

So the pressing question the church in America needs to address in the 21st century is this: “What are we supposed to do with our shame?”

There is an answer.

When Jesus was hanging on the cross, what was he wearing? If you look at the crucifixion account in the Gospel of John, you’ll see that the soldiers stripped Jesus of his clothes–all of his clothes–before nailing him to the cross. Yes, Jesus was naked on the cross. Do you think that was a coincidence?

You see, in bearing our guilt, Jesus also endured the shame of it all. With open arms, his naked body hung on display, exposed for all to see. In bearing our guilt, Jesus also bore our shame. Yes, the good news of Jesus Christ is about Jesus dying for our sins, but it’s also about God restoring our dignity and honor; it’s about God adopting us as his sons and daughters; it’s about humankind experiencing a restored relationship with God and one another. In a world of broken relationships, is there any message more important, more relevant?

For the church to be relevant in the 21st century, we need to get beyond the simplistic, individualistic message that “Jesus died to pay the penalty for my sins so that I can go to heaven,” and understand that Jesus bore our shame so that we can experience a restored relationship with God and one another today, tomorrow, and forever more. That, my friends, is a relevant message, and it’s the message of a faith that can change the world.

To listen to the sermon, click on the podcast link below.

Sermon 4: Don’t Be Fooled

For the month of September I was the guest speaker/preacher on Sunday mornings at Cypress Bible Church. The five-week series was titled “A Faith That Can Change the World.” Here’s a brief summary of the fourth sermon:

Don’t Be Fooled

Over the course of human history, there have been three people who have walked the earth without sin. Can you name them? …

Jesus is one. Who are the other two? …

The other two are… Adam and Eve, before “The Fall.”

Now, interestingly, the Bible contains detailed accounts of the serpent (i.e. the Devil) attempting to lead these three sinless people away from a trust relationship with God: Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and Jesus in the desert. By comparing and contrasting these two accounts, we can identify the tactics the serpent uses in his attempts to direct people away from trusting God, and we can observe what Jesus did differently than Adam and Eve in order to overcome temptation.

In the garden of Eden account, the serpent made a bold proclamation about what would and would not happen to Adam and Eve if they ate the forbidden fruit. The serpent said, “You will not surely die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

In this brief statement, the serpent employs three tactics to convince Eve that God is not good, that God does not have her best interest in mind, and that God is not worthy to be trusted. First, the serpent tempts Eve with self-preservation, encouraging her to take matters into her own hands, suggesting that eating the forbidden fruit would somehow make her life better. Second, the serpent tempts Eve with self-promotion, stating that the forbidden fruit would give her God-like knowledge and status. And finally, the serpent misrepresents God’s original command, twisting God’s words in a clever fashion in order to portray God as a liar.

We see the Devil using these same tactics in Luke 4, when he tempted Jesus in the desert. Realizing that Jesus was hungry because he had not eaten for 40 days, the Devil tempted Jesus with self-preservation by trying to goad him into turning a stone into bread. After failing on this first attempt, the Devil tempted Jesus with self-promotion by offering him all the kingdoms of the world for simply bowing down to him. Jesus refused the Devils offer, and so, the Devil tried one more time, misrepresenting God’s words in an attempt to trick Jesus into killing himself. But again, Jesus refuted the Devil.

In these two accounts we see the Devil using the same three tactics of self-preservation, self-promotion, and misrepresenting God’s words, but with very different results. Adam and Eve chose to trust themselves—to do what seemed right in their own eyes—and they walked down a dark and deadly path. Jesus, however, trusted his heavenly Father and did not go astray. Unlike Adam and Eve, who relied on their own understanding and intuition, Luke 4 tells us that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and led by God. If Jesus, the Son of God, relied on the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to lead him, how much more should we?

To hear more about the scheming tactics of the serpent and how we can avoid being fooled into eating forbidden fruit, click on the podcast link below.

Sermon 3: Blessings of “The Curse”

For the month of September I’ll be the guest speaker/preacher on Sunday mornings at Cypress Bible Church. The five-week series is titled “A Faith That Can Change the World.” Here’s a brief summary of the third sermon:

Blessings of “The Curse”

The second half of Genesis 3 is often referred to as “The Curse” or “The Curse of Man” where God punishes all of humankind for the sin of Adam and Eve. But I don’t see it that way. I have a different perspective. I see “The Curse” as a blessing.

The word “curse” is used only twice in Genesis 3. In verse 14 God curses the serpent above all other livestock and wild animals, and in verse 17 God curses the ground, making it difficult to cultivate. Nowhere in the garden of Eden drama does it say that God cursed humankind. Making this observation may sound like semantics, but I don’t think it is. By cursing the animals and the ground, I believe God is seeking to draw each of us to himself by exposing our frail humanity and our desperate need for him.  The primary intention of “The Curse” wasn’t to punish us, but to draw humankind back into a trust relationship with God.

As for God increasing the pain for women in childbirth, Genesis 3 does not refer to it as a curse. In fact, the pain of childbirth is shown to serve an important purpose. After Adam and Eve refused to take responsibility for eating the forbidden fruit, we don’t hear another peep, not a single word from Adam or Eve in the rest of the Bible, except for one place—the first verse of the very next chapter. Genesis 4:1 says:

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.”

Through the pain of childbirth, Eve realized that God is the Giver of life. The pain of childbirth is supposed to help us understand that, ultimately, we are not the creators of our children. When we see ourselves as the authors of our children’s lives, we run the risk of hijacking their lives, using them to achieve our unmet dreams and expectations; and instead of encouraging them to be who God created them to be, we push and manipulate them to be what we want them to be—beauty pageant winners, all-star athletes, and spelling bee champions. The pain of childbirth serves the vital role of exposing the truth that God alone is the Giver of life and that we need to encourage our children to be who God created them to be.

God cursing the ground and the animals and greatly increasing the pain of childbirth may sound sadistic, but it serves a vital purpose—it draws us back into a right relationship with God. Who turns to God when life is going great? Not me, that’s for sure. Success does not breed humility and gratitude. It’s the tough times—the trials and struggles of life—that give us perspective. It’s the pain of living in a cursed world that makes us stop and take inventory of what really matters in life.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t revel in “The Curse,” but I do see it as blessing because it’s through “The Curse” that we discover God as the sole Giver and Sustainer of life.




Sermon 2: Breaking the Sin Cycle

For the month of September I’ll be the guest speaker/preacher on Sunday mornings at Cypress Bible Church. The five-week series is titled “A Faith That Can Change the World.” Here’s a brief summary of the second sermon:

Breaking the Sin Cycle

Church, particularly on Sunday mornings, is supposed to be a place where broken people come to worship God. Church is supposed to be a place of grace and forgiveness, a place where love covers a multitude of sins. The tragic irony is that people feel more pressure to look clean and pretty—to appear as though their lives and their families are in perfect order—at church on Sunday morning than at any other place any other time of the week.

There’s something wrong with that.

If we believe that Jesus died for our sins and that He is the the Giver and Sustainer of life, and if we believe that we participate in a faith community that can change the world, then we need to act like it. We need to stop living like mannequins on display with plastic smiles; we need to stop playing nice-nice with God; we need to engage the messiness of life and the struggle we have in trusting God.

In the garden of Eden, we see the sin cycle begin the moment Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. In that moment the trust relationship between God and humankind was broken; instead of trusting God as the Giver and Sustainer of life, we began to trust ourselves, making our own rules, doing what seems right in our own eyes. And in doing so we entered the sin cycle.

The sin cycle begins when we feed the flesh. Just like Adam and Eve, whenever we rely on our own understanding and pursue more of something because we think we need it, or we think we deserve it, or we think it will make our lives better, we’re eating forbidden fruit, we’re feeding the flesh, we’re living apart from God.

As long as gorging ourselves with forbidden fruit gives us the results we’re looking for, we continue to feed the flesh. But when eating forbidden fruit no longer gives us the results we desire, or we fear that we might get caught, we try to cover and hide the truth. Adam and Eve tried to cover their naked bodies and shame with fig leaves, and when they heard God walking in the garden of Eden they hid from God.  When feeding the flesh stops working the way we expect it to, we move to phase 2 of the sin cycle—we cover and hide the truth.

Growing up, I had always been told that sin can’t exist in the presence of God. But here, in Genesis 3, in the story about sin entering the world, the first thing that God does is walk in the garden and call out to the man, “Where are you?” Does God not know what happened? Does God not know where Adam is? Of course He does. God is reaching out to the man, God is giving the man an opportunity to come out of hiding and confess to what he has done so that they can begin restoring their broken relationship.

The truth about sin is this: It’s not that sin can’t exist in the presence of God, it’s that sinful beings don’t want to be in the presence of God.

From the very beginning God pursues reconciliation with Adam and Eve. God calls out, “Where are you?”

The question is, “Do we trust God?” This isn’t merely a question for Adam and Eve. We’re all Adam and Eve. We all feed the flesh and hide behind the tree.  But what God wants us to do is to step out from behind the tree. God wants us to bring the truth to light and pursue reconciliation with Him and one another.

However, if we’re unwilling to face the truth, then we’ll move to phase 3 of the sin cycle—the blame game. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, Adam blamed Eve and God, and Eve blamed the serpent. And if we’re unwilling to take responsibility for our actions, then we’ll play the blame game too in order to justify our actions and continue doing what seems right in our own eyes.

So how do we break the sin cycle?

The answer is found in Jesus’ words in John 3:16-21. Not merely in John 3:16 (the most famous verse in American evangelical culture), but the entire passage…

To listen to the sermon, click on the podcast link below.