Category Archives: Christian Culture

Watching God Grab Hold of People

For the past several months–since October–someone at my church has given a testimony every Sunday. Each one builds from the statement, “Because of Jesus….” Each is a story of life-change.

Anchor Community Church is located in a low-income neighborhood near downtown Fort Wayne. Lots of dysfunction, lots of messy backgrounds. Eighteen registered sex offenders live within a half mile of the church. People from shelters and half-way houses find their way to us. Too many of our people live in survival mode, struggling to get by day to day. These are the type of people who come through our doors and find what they need spiritually.

These people are also some of the most genuine, unassuming people I’ve known. And so, when they give their “Because of Jesus” stories, they don’t sugar-coat anything, or try to make themselves look good or admirable. They just put it all out there, unafraid to tell people, “This is who I am, warts and all.”

In these stories, I’ve learned so much about the people who worship with me each Sunday. Stories of addictions, of abusive childhoods and abusive marriages, of losing jobs, of abortion, of cutting, of poor choices galore, of losing loved ones way too early, of life spinning hopelessly out of control. And then, because of Jesus….

Almost every Sunday, I have tears in my eyes. That was the case with the most recent story, from an older lady. She became acquainted with Anchor when living in a homeless shelter. Her story moved me deeply.

I need to hear stories like this. I need to know that God is working in people’s lives. Intellectually, I know he is. But I need to see it, and see it regularly.

When I was growing up, I saw it regularly in altar calls. I don’t want to be one of those persons who acts as if methods used in earlier days were always better. But, I’m just sayin’, it impacted me when I saw a grown man or woman walk down the aisle, in full view of everyone, and kneel humbly at the altar. It told me that God was speaking directly to people’s hearts, and that here was a person whom God had grabbed during the service and shaken up. The person just had to go make things right, and didn’t care who was watching.

Could he/she have made things right by staying in the pew? That’s what we do today. With “all heads bowed and every eye closed,” we invite people to quickly raise their hand to signify a life-changing commitment. Only the pastor sees. Is that better than asking someone to walk to an altar in front of everyone else?

I can remember various times, growing up and as an adult, when I came under conviction during an altar call, and wrestled with the idea of getting out of my seat and trudging to the altar. I would usually tell myself (if the speaker didn’t emphasize it), “If Jesus died on the cross for me, why can’t I muster up the courage to simply walk down to the church altar?” Yet, it could be a mighty struggle. I’ll bet you’ve experienced the same struggle.

Sometimes I made the walk, sometimes I chickened out. Would I have responded more often if I could have just raised my hand quickly, so that only the evangelist, God, me, and assorted peekers would know? Probably. Would that have been better? Most certainly not. Maybe it’s my background, but simply raising a hand, with nobody seeing, trivializes the idea of making a commitment or taking a stand for God.

It’s not only good for the person making the commitment. It’s good for everyone else in attendance, because it shows them, “God is working in people’s lives.” As a child, I regularly saw people making decisions for Christ. But as an adult, with our enlightened secretive methods, not wanting to put anyone on the spot, I rarely see this.

Which is why these “Because of Jesus….” testimonies mean so much to me. God is working in the lives of these people with whom I worship, some of whom have been broken in unfathomable ways. I need to see God grab people by the lapels and shake them up. I know that he does it, whether or not it involves journeying to an altar. But seeing it and hearing about it sure pumps me up.

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About that “Merry Christmas” Litmus Test

Back in December, while writing a Christmas greeting for one of our denominational websites, I started to write, “Happy Holidays.” But I chickened out and used “Merry Christmas” instead.

This year, conservatives–and we United Brethren are mostly conservatives–made a really big deal out of saying “Merry Christmas.” Barack Obama was chastised for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” on something or other. (Even though, as our chronicler of petty outrage, Jon Stewart, showed, all other recent presidents have done the same thing.) A governor (was it Rhode Island?) was lambasted for doing the same thing. Newt Gingrich made a point of wishing everyone–well, not everyone, but at least his base–a Merry Christmas at the beginning of a recent debate. Pander pander.

Saying “Merry Christmas” has become a litmus test of orthodoxy, a show of rising above the PC police (just as wearing a flag pin became a silly litmus test of patriotism during the last Presidential campaign). Among conservatives, it became politically INcorrect to say “Happy Holidays.” I knew that if I wrote “Happy Holidays” on a denominational website, I would find myself under assault from some of our constituents, calling me liberal or a compromiser or ashamed of my Lord’s name. Junk like that. So I wrote “Merry Christmas.” Pick your fights wisely, is my rule.

But I grew dismayed as I watched the lunacy of turning “Merry Christmas” into a fetish. The hysteria was continually pumped up by that watchdog of Christian orthodoxy, FoxNews, which was ever on the lookout for instances of Happy Holidays, just as it once zoomed in on lapels in search of flag pins.

Through it all, I realized something: I prefer “Happy Holidays.”

Why? Because it’s more accurate. “Merry Christmas” applies to one day, December 25, celebrated only by Christians. But this is a season of multiple holidays.

Obviously, we have Christmas and New Year’s, and it seems nice to wish people happiness on both holidays. Then you have Hanukkah for the Jews–why wouldn’t I want to include a wish of happiness for them on their series of holidays? And Boxing Day in Canada and the UK, and Kwanzaa for African-Americans, and Las Posadas for Mexicans (a festival surrounding Joseph’s search for a place to sleep in Bethlehem). For Swedes, St Lucia Day (Dec. 13) is a big deal. Epiphany, on January 6, commemorates Jesus being presented to the Wise Men. For whichever holiday(s) you celebrate, I wish you happiness. Not, “Merry Christmas, but for any other day, you’re on your own.”

The holiday season goes way beyond the solitary December 25. America is a pluralistic society, which works only because we gladly make room for people of all faiths and traditions. Why is it wrong for a Christian to include them all in a generic “Happy Holidays” wish?

So a retrospective, belated, and therefore somewhat cowardly “Happy Holidays” to all of you. And if you want to question my patriotism or Christianity, then may you, amidst your happiness, choke on some fruitcake.

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Winter – Spiritual Warefare in Peacetime

Here’s a great quote from the late Dr. Ralph Winter:

People who are won to Christ rarely understand that they have been recruited to become soldiers in an all-out war. However, admittedly, individuals on their own can’t “win a war.” To win a war you need a whole lot of things.

The United States during the Second World War would be an example. Swarms of servicemen (including women) swirled about on planes, trains, and buses, heading off to ports of departure for the various theaters of war around the world. Eleven million were sprayed out across the globe in the Army, Air Corps, and the Navy.

But 200 million civilians staying behind were equally occupied by the war. As millions of men disappeared from their jobs, women took their places. A largely women’s workforce (“Rosie the riveter”) built entire ships in 30 days, medium bombers in four hours. Nylon was needed for parachute cords – no more stockings. No more coffee: incoming ships had no room for such trivialities because more crucial goods took their place.

Any idle moments or unused material were instantly challenged by “Don’t you know there is a war on?” Family outings on Sunday became illegal if any gasoline was used. It had other more crucial uses. You could get a huge fine for unnecessary driving – driving unrelated to the war, like, yes, a family outing on Sunday!

Today, when Evangelical believers get together, they don’t compare notes on how to win the war against the “works of the devil.” They compare prices on home furnishings, vacations, adult toys. Truly, they don’t know there is a war on! To them we don’t live in a wartime economy but a peacetime context.

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How to Do Church

Quote from Perry Noble about the church he pastors, Newspring:

We do not have the corner on the market when it comes to a movement of God.  We aren’t doing church “the right way.” We aren’t doing church a better way. We are doing church the way God called us to do it

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Done with Christianity…as We Know It

A number of dynamic, young, different-thinking megachurch pastors fly a little bit under the mainstream radar. I’m thinking of people like Perry Noble, Craig Groeschel, Francis Chan, David Gibbons, and Rob Bell. They are the future of evangelical Christianity. And yet, some of them strike fear into the hearts of mainstream, baby-boomer evangelicals, because they don’t toe the party line. They are stretching evangelicals in some directions we’ve been ignoring during the past 30 years as we’ve been focused on wielding power–something tese young pastors show little interest in.

Another of these young pastors is Geoff Surrratt, pastor of the multisite Seascoast church in South Carolina. He recently posted a blog item called “I’m Through with Christianity.” I must say, I agree with practically everything he said. Let me offer just a few quotes:

  • “I am one of the many Americans who would no longer describe themselves as a professing Christian. I cannot in good faith associate any more with what the label Christian has come to represent in America. Christianity is now a set of political views, a way to distinguish different groups of people (Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus)….”
  • “In order to be a faithful Christian I can only vote for politicians who say they hold the party line on the right issues.”
  • “Christianity in America seems to be led by self-appointed spokesmen who attack others without charity, seek places of prominence wherever they go, and live outrageously extravagant lifestyles.”
  • “I love Jesus more and more the older I get, and I love the church with all my heart; I just can’t buy into the Christian thing anymore. So I quit. I am resigning from the Christian party, the Christian club, the Christian religion. I am going to devote the rest of my life to loving God with all my heart and loving my neighbor as myself.”
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Change Some Things, Don’t Change Others

Craig Groeschel posted “Working with God’s Seasons.” One point says:

If you had a singles ministry that worked for 9 years, but is no longer effective, celebrate the 9 years of success. Close it down and do something different. Don’t keep something on life support once its season has passed.

That applies to so many things whose time may have passed.

Most churches I know don’t hold a traditional Sunday night service–and maybe none at all (including mine). I grew up with that format, but since changing churches in 1989, haven’t attended a Sunday night service since. At my previous church, we did small groups, which were more effective. At Anchor we’ve never done anything on Sunday night. I wouldn’t call that “effective”…yet I don’t begrudge having the night free.

From my denominational perch, I see churches all the time that need to choose a different future, before one is forced on them. In most cases, they should merge with a nearby church, or just close. We were talking yesterday about churches in two different states that would be better off–the people would, and the cause of Christ in those communities–if they went this route.

There are many other things that need to turn out the lights. Christian organizations. Church traditions that mean nothing to current generations. Staid service orders. Women’s mission groups (okay, now I’m in trouble). Various church committees. 

On the other hand…in today’s society, we tend to treat as changeable some things that shouldn’t change.

  • If your marriage loses its spark, move on. Its “season” has ended, so admit it. Start a new season with somebody else. Wedding vows now sometimes replace “I will love and cherish you, til death do us part” with “I will love and cherish you as long as we are together.”
  • If you’re unhappy with something at church, take your toys and go elsewhere. Loyalty is outmoded. Go where your needs will be met, not where you can be used by God to meet other people’s needs. 
  • If a biblical teaching just doesn’t seem to work in today’s culture, or otherwise seems unnecessary to you, discard it. Watch whatever you want on TV and at the theatre. Engage in whatever sexual behavior society considers okay. Pile up debt as you pursue materialistic mirages. Don’t get too attached to biblical absolutes.
  • Tithing? Treat this quaint practice as optional. You’ve got too many financial needs to part with 10% of your income.
  • Smoking, drinking, pot–these are harmless. Everybody’s using them. We need to relate to our culture, so feel free to indulge.
  • If you experience any doubts or turbulence in your faith, hang it up. Maybe somewhere down the road you’ll want to rediscover God, but for now, if God just doesn’t seem to be pulling his weight, say good riddance. No sense clinging to something that doesn’t work for you. Because after all, it’s not about Jesus, it’s about you. 
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Is It a Sin to be Average?

A few days ago I wrote about the book “A Contrarian’s Guide to Spirituality.” Today I came across an article by the author, Larry Osborne, on It’s basically a rewrite of one chapter from that book, “Is It a Sin to be Average?” That chapter was very thought-provoking, and I’m glad it’s getting a little more play and discussion in Christian circles.

Osborne says leaders want to make everyone into a leader, a hard-charging Christian warrior who will conquer the strongholds for Jesus. But not everyone is made that way, or can be remade that way. Osborne says that in trying to make everyone in his church into a leader, “It overwhelmed my congregation and non-leader types with unrealistic and unreachable standards of spirituality. And I’m pretty sure it ticked God off…

“Like many leaders, I believed there was something seriously wrong with low-drive Christians. I tended to project my own passion and calling onto everyone else. Since I’d heard my call so clearly, I assumed anyone who didn’t share the same vision and fervor must not be listening to what God had to say.”

But he was confused by two parishioners. “Both were as godly in character as anyone I’ve ever met, and neither had a leadership bone in them….That caused me to start wondering if perhaps my definition of sold-out Christianity was seriously flawed…if there was room in the kingdom for mediocrity.” 

On the one side are driven, passionate leaders filled with a sense of urgency. “On the other side are lots of good and godly folks left to lick the wounds of countless well-intentioned but spiritually hurtful sermons, books, and seminars calling them to be something they know in their heart of hearts they can never be–and have no desire to be, if truth be known.”

Osborne concluded that churches must provide “pathways of spirituality that work for everyone,” not just for leader types. And stop making the low-drive people feel inferior and inadequate and guilt-ridden. Let them lead the totally biblical kind of life stated in 1 Thess. 4:11-12:

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

When Elijah complained that he was the only real God-follower left, God told him, “No, there are 7000 other faithful people.” I suspect God included in that number a lot of people who weren’t charging the heights, but were simply living a quiet life of faithfulness. Elijah was charging up San Juan Hill. But these other 7000 were no less pleasing to God.

We do this to laypersons, castigating the “pew-sitter” for not going out and changing the world for Christ. 

We do this to churches, expecting every church to aspire to be Willow Creek. 

We do this to pastors, trying to make them all fit a particular leadership mold, rather than allowing them to be who God has called and gifted them to be. Whether you pastor a church of 50, 100, 200, or 1000, you fall short of persons pastoring churches at the next level. Is there room to value a person who our sovereign God personally selected (called), and gifted, to be a great pastor to 100 people? 

Osborne raises important issues. They resonated with me when I first read that chapter in his book over a year ago. And they resonated with me again as I read the same thoughts on

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Rick Warren Interview

Real interesting interview with Rick Warren on the Christianity Today site, called “After the Aloha Shirts.”

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God on the Internet

Wanna be stretched?

An Alabama pastor, while attending the Innovate Conference in Granger, Ind., felt it was important to baptize one of his parishioners NOW. Not to wait until he returned to Alabama. So he conducted a baptism over the internet, with live video. Five days later, that girl died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm.

Tim Stevens, a pastor at Granger Community Church, tells about the baptism on his blog, and you can watch a video of the baptism. It gave me goosebumps.

Get used to this kind of thing happening. Imagine:

  • A pastor conducting a wedding over the internet, though he and the couple are in different states (or continents!).
  • Using the internet to dedicate the child of missionaries from your church who are serving overseas (as the entire congregation watches on a big screen).
  • Accepting new members into your church over the internet.

I’m sure the advent of radio preaching drew criticisms that people were substituting the radio for actual church attendance. Likewise with TV preaching. While we can agree that gathering with other believers is what God fully desires, it’s also true that radio and TV have reached a lot of people for Christ–people who, otherwise, might never have heard the Gospel.

Now we have podcasts and video streaming of church services, so people can “attend church” at their convenience. Nurses and policemen who work Sunday mornings can download a video of the service and watch it when they can. This is a good thing.

We also have multicasting–a pastor’s message is beamed to churches in several other locations. Last October, Pam and I attended a church where the message was being seen in several locations in that facility (including their own coffee cafe).

You can argue all you want about how “This isn’t what God intended.” But though I’ll always prefer the face-to-face, I have difficulty seeing technological tools as being anti-biblical.

The Apostle Paul himself was high-tech, for his day. He used letters to instruct, admonish, and encourage. He couldn’t be there in person, so he wrote letters. Letters which were multicasted from town to town, millennium to millennium. Jesus never wrote letters (that we know of). But we believe Paul’s letters were divinely inspired.

So why can’t God, likewise, be totally present in that internet baptism?

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Go Vs. Do

BusinessWeek had a superb issue about life in the office. One of the articles talked about working from home, and said, “In the future, work will not be a place you go, but something you do.” That’s not an exact quote, since I’m relying on spotty memory.

Most of my work can be done at home. I don’t need to go to the office. As long as I get my work done, whether I’m wearing khakis or pajamas, there is happiness in Whoville.

What about “church”? Is church a place you go, or something you do?

Or something you “are”?

Is Anchor a church because people go there every Sunday morning? Or because those people, during the week, represent Christ in their workplaces, pray for each other, show concern when fellow attendees are sick or experiencing hardship, etc.?

Is a marriage a legal status, or a relationship?

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