When the wreckage washes up

This Vanity Fair piece about how Tinder is changing dating culture was disturbing, though not all that surprising. (Some offensive content at that link, but that’s kind of the point.)

My first response was to plan on sending my children of both genders into seclusion from about ages 15-35. My second was to want to punch the guys quoted in the article, and give the girls a hug.

My third, most rational response was a sense of mild encouragement. The wreckage of the sexual revolution is beginning to wash up on the shore. As the Tinder generation ages, the whole sex-without-intimacy thing will, for many, become deeply unsatisfying. It will also leave them with incredible baggage as they attempt to build marriages and families (still pretty popular among the upper-middle class). Some of them will show up in our churches, carrying this baggage. This is an opportunity. What will we do?

I was a church kid in the 90’s. “True Love Waits” was pretty much the extent of our Christian teaching on sexuality. I was fortunate to get that at home as well as at church, and don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for it. It protected me from a lot of (certainly not all) sexual sin and brokenness. But it’s no longer enough. And as we look at where we are now, in the church as well as in the world, we can see that it was never enough.

It’s not enough to assume biblical sexual ethics. To the extent that most people even know them, they reject them.

It’s not enough to tell people what not to do, because most people have already done a lot of what’s on that list.

It’s certainly not enough to say “Told you so!” when people show up at our churches with sexual baggage.

Here’s where my sense of mild encouragement comes in. The church has Good News for the sexually broken. Not just “here’s what you should do” or “here’s what you should have done,” but good news for where they are. Suffering the effects of their own sin, others’ sin, or quite likely both. Wondering if there is hope for their marriage, or their singleness, or their struggle with temptation of various kinds. Wondering if they are irreparably screwed up, damaged goods.

We have good news for these people because we are these people. We have experienced, are experiencing, the grace of God in the face of our brokenness. My sense is that increasingly this will be a felt need among our neighbors. Let’s be the kind of people who step in to the messy places, show compassion, and offer hope.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

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Actually, our church looks a lot like the book of Acts.

Donald Miller, whose writing I enjoy, had a  disappointing article a couple of weeks ago on why he doesn’t go to church very often. Plenty of people have offered critiques on the piece as a whole, so I won’t do that, except to observe that most members of my small, young church could give a better explanation of why church matters than this best-selling Christian author.

I do want to respond to one point in Miller’s followup post.

Your church likely looks nothing like the church in the book of Acts, which, was not much of a prescription on how to do church anyway…

Unless you are Shane Claiborne, your church probably doesn’t look anything like the church in the book of Acts, so let’s not get self righteous.

Yes, the irony meter is spiking in that last sentence. And yes, a better conclusion than Miller’s would be “Well, I’ll saddle up with the imperfect church that God provides and try to help make it better.” But the more I thought about this critique, the less sense it made.

Certainly our churches are flawed. We have many blind spots. We can always do more to care for each other, to teach the Bible more powerfully, to serve the poor in our city, to share the Gospel more consistently. But actually, the church I serve looks a good bit like the church(es) in Acts. And I bet yours does too.

  • We devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer, like in Acts 2:42.
  • We share with each other sacrificially when one is in need, like in Acts 2:45 and 4:34-35.
  • We gather on the Lord’s day to worship, like in Acts 20:7.
  • We receive the preached Word with joy, like in Acts 8:8 and 13:48.
  • We take up offerings to help the poor and do other good works, like in Acts 11:27-30.
  • We pray for boldness in sharing the Word, and for God to move in power, like in Acts 4:29-31.
  • We ask God to work miracles for the sick, like in Acts 3:1-7 and about a hundred other places.
  • We work to train and recognize godly leaders, like the deacons in Acts 6:1-6 and elders in Acts 14:23 (and elsewhere).
  • We bring these leaders together to make biblically-informed, Spirit-guided decisions on doctrinal and practical matters, like in Acts 15.

We need to grow in all of these. And I would love to see some things I don’t see. I would love to see God adding to our number daily those who are being saved, like in Acts 2:47. I would love to see undeniable miracles pointing to the power of God, like we see throughout the book. I would love for us to pray more faithfully and more boldly. In short, I would love to see revival in my city, as we see it in several cities in the book of Acts. But revival, miracles, conversions– these are God’s work. Faithfulness is our job; fruit is his.

Church-bashing is a popular sport right now, and you can always find the ammo. Many of the critiques are true. But there are many imperfect-but-healthy churches filled with many imperfect-but-growing Christians seeking to be faithful and obedient. Being part of one of these churches, appreciating the good and trying to help correct the flaws, is one of the best things you can do for your own spiritual growth. And we need all the help we can get.

A case for weekly communion

At the church I serve, we take the Lord’s Supper every week. We don’t think this is the only way to go, or that it makes us more spiritual than churches that practice monthly or whatever-other-interval Communion. And yes, it’s more work for the preacher to also prepare a somewhat-different meditation on the Lord’s Supper each week. But here are some reasons I’m glad we do it the way we do.

the Gospel every week

We want to make the Gospel clear in every sermon. Since we generally preach through books of the Bible, and our emphasis in preaching will reflect the emphasis of that day’s passage, the core of the gospel will be more obviously presented some days than others. Weekly Communion gives us one more opportunity to preach the center of the Gospel every week.

The Lord’s Supper also demonstrates and explains the Gospel in a way that goes beyond verbal explanation. So people who struggle to pay attention to preaching are given an additional way to learn and appreciate its truth.

good for non-Christians

The fencing of the Table, where we announce that it is for believers and not for nonbelievers, means we can draw a clear line every week. It forces attenders to ask where they stand with Christ and is a reminder that the Gospel calls for a response. It is a relatively easy way to plead with people to come to faith.

good for believers, especially struggling believers

Weekly Communion means a weekly reminder that the promises of the Gospel are not just true, but true for me. It’s a reminder that God does not simply demand that I meet his standard, but that Christ was broken and poured out in order to meet God’s standard for me. It’s a reminder that he gave himself up for me, and that he continues to feed and strengthen me. Especially for our people who are struggling (to believe at all, with besetting sin, with besetting self-righteousness, with an especially difficult season of life), it’s an important reminder that we do not struggle alone.

practical considerations

With monthly communion, it’s easy for some people (mothers of young children, those who travel often) to go several months without taking the Lord’s Supper. Weekly Communion means that if you miss one week, you have another chance in seven days. It also gives our children more chances to see this demonstration of the Gospel, which is sure to lead to their asking questions that open the door to conversations about the Gospel with them.

as simple as all that

Again, taking the Lord’s Supper every week is not necessarily the mark of a more mature church, and it has its own challenges. But Communion is a gift God wants to give his people. He promises to strengthen us through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. So we feel like we might as well give him as many chances to do that as we can.

Good fences and good neighbors

I go to a monthly ecumenical prayer meeting for English-speaking pastors in Prague. It looks like the setup for a joke: couple of Baptists, a Catholic, a Pentecostal, assorted parachurch folks.

Denominations get a bad rap. Many people don’t see why we can’t just all get along, why there have to be so many different churches. (Actually my city could use more, but that’s another post.) But every month at this prayer meeting, I’m grateful to belong to a denomination.

Now that sounds bad. Allow me to explain.

It’s not that I think my denomination is the best, or that my flavor of Christianity is the only viable one. There are lots of great churches and groups represented at this meeting, a lot of people who love Jesus and are doing amazing things to proclaim him in Prague. There are also a lot of different perspectives. A couple of charismatic guys who pray in tongues under their breath. Several Baptists who would not have enjoyed seeing me baptize 4 young kids on Easter Sunday. A few female pastors who may or may not know where I stand on women’s ordination.  My favorite of the lot, for goodness’ sake, is the Roman Catholic priest whose ideological forebears tried to kill mine. And me, the Presbyterian desperately trying not to come across as a stodgy Presbyterian and keeping his theological humor to himself. (Although there’s been some promising banter with the Catholic priest.)

I respect all these people. I’m glad to pray with them for Jesus to be lifted up in our city. And if we tried to pastor the same church, it would be a train wreck. On second-level-but-still-very-important matters, we’d have no consensus, and we’d spend lots of time arguing and trying to force agreement when there wasn’t any.

As it is, we’re each free to search the Scriptures and follow Jesus the best we can. We can work more effectively, within the structure that best suits our personality and convictions, while wishing the best for each other and coming together to support each other in many different ways. We don’t debate theology at our monthly meetings; that’s not what they’re for. We don’t have to.

Yes, denominations exist in part because of sin and finitude. Yes, it’s bad to think our church is the only real one. But if you have a hard time with all the different flavors of Christianity, remember the proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.” And when the fences are good, it’s nice to have a neighborly visit.

“This man is not from God, for ________”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
(John 9:16)

Jesus has just healed a man who had been blind his whole life. But, as is so often the case, the Pharisees aren’t happy. This time it’s because he’s healed on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees had lots of rules about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. We’re not talking about biblical rules here, God’s rules– we’re talking extra rules added to make double-sure the people didn’t break God’s rules. Healing was work, Jesus healed on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus worked on the Sabbath, therefore Jesus doesn’t keep the Sabbath, therefore Jesus isn’t from God.

Problem: the Pharisees are wrong. Not wrong because Jesus doesn’t care about the Sabbath. Wrong because their interpretation of the Sabbath isn’t the same as God’s interpretation. Theological error leading to spiritual abuse of God’s people, and worse, rejection of God’s Son.

We do this too: write people off because they don’t check all the boxes we think they should.

  • “This man is not from God, for he’s not a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he is a 6-day creationist.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he’s in favor of female deacons.”
  • “This man is not from God, for his church has a steeple and he wears a robe.”
  • “This man is not from God, for he wears product in his hair and preaches on a screen.”

Of course, any time the Pharisees criticized Jesus they were wrong. That’s not the case with us– we can have entirely legitimate critiques of pretty much anybody. There are good times, good reasons and good forums to confront or debate on those critiques. When we’re deciding who to work with, who to read or listen to, who to recommend, these things matter.

But we should remember: we have our own issues too. Chances are we’re actually wrong on some of the issues we’re passionate about, and most of the people on the other side are doing good work for the Kingdom. Remember how the Pharisees missed the boat entirely, and don’t miss God’s work through people who think and work differently.