Tuesday, June 24, 2014

I've got good news and bad news ...

The good news is that charitable giving was up last year; the bad news is that donations to churches dropped ... again.

Apparently Giving USA's annual report on charitable giving in the United States was released last week, but I just found out about it this morning. Contributions to charities increased by 4.4 percent in 2013 as compared to 2012 but remained lower than pre-recession levels. In 2007 (before the recession) Americans donated $349.50 billion to charitable causes while they gave $335.17 billion last year. However, since the end of the recession in 2009, contributions to charities have increased 12.3 percent. 

On the other hand, giving to churches has continued to dwindle. In 2010, 35 percent of charitable giving was channeled to churches. In 2011, the percentage fell to 32 percent and last year it was down to 31 percent. 

As disheartening as these numbers are for those who support church work, there was another figure that really grabbed my attention. According to Gregg Carlson, chair of the Giving USA Foundation, just over a decade ago, churches received over 57 percent of total charitable giving in this country. As of last year, again, that percentage was down to 31 percent.

That's obviously a huge shift in giving patterns in this nation just in the last 10 years. Carlson says that Giving USA attributes this shrinking percentage to the ongoing nationwide decline in church attendance that has continued for years, and this is, no doubt, a big factor. But aren't these trends (declining church attendance and declining giving to churches) indicative of a more fundamental change?

It's clear that, generally, church involvement in the traditional sense just isn't as important to Americans as it used to be. This isn't a new message--there has been abundant evidence for years that things have been moving in that direction. For the most part, within churches, we have done little more than tinker here and there with old formulas hoping that we might reverse these trends. Obviously that's not working in most cases.

I'm not trying to be the bearer of doom and gloom here. Make no mistake, I'm very confident about the future of the church. Jesus stated his intent to build his church and he said that not even the gates of Hades would prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Christ's church will not only survive, it will succeed. However, the church may well look quite a bit different than many of us are used to going forward.

Meanwhile, traditional expressions of church continue to do a great deal of good in this country. People by the millions worship, support important mission causes, engage in spiritual formation, and form transformational relationships in churches that operate in traditional ways. The "old ways" of doing things in church largely remain a valid means of faithfulness to the New Testament ideal of Christian community. But there are new expressions of Christian community springing up in our culture that are very different yet equally valid.

It's not my purpose to explore these new expressions of church here. I'm just underscoring the obvious in light of a new bit of evidence. The church landscape is changing in this country and it's changing really fast.  

That may be scary to many who are heavily invested in traditional expressions of church in this land. Yet I'm convinced that the command that Jesus gave to his followers in the gospels more than any other still echoes loudly through the Holy Spirit to his followers of this culture: Don't be afraid. In these fast-changing times, as individual followers and as part of the community of faith that is the church, remain faithful to the Lord along your journey of faith and don't be afraid.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

The numbers don't lie, but neither do they tell the whole story

The total population of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida added together is a little over 50 million. That's also the number of displaced persons that were in our world in 2013 according to a U.N. report released today. That's the highest number of dislocated people since World War II. Half of these refugees are children.

The figure doesn't include those who escaped the recent violence in Iraq. I read that 500,000 fled the city of Mosul alone when jihadists overran that Iraqi city last week.   

The numbers are staggering, but they do not come close to telling the true tale of woe of millions who have been forced to go on the run to find a safe place. They don't tell us about the squalid conditions in which many of them live. They don't tell us about the children begging and searching trash cans for scraps of food. They don't tell us about the human trafficking taking place in some refugee camps. They don't tell us of the children who have been stricken with diseases because their parents can't obtain basic immunizations for them. They don't tell us of trying to survive bitter cold and searing heat behind a piece of canvas or plastic. 

Fifty million displaced people is a terrible number but the reality of the daily lives of many of these millions is much, much worse.  

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Respect and building bridges

In an article posted this afternoon at the Washington Post web page, NBA coach Doc Rivers tells the story about the incident that led him to stop having his teams pray before games. It was 1999 and Rivers was the head coach of the Orlando Magic. He happened to look up when the team was engaged in its normal pregame prayer and he saw that one player, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, a Muslim, had his arms folded and he appeared very uncomfortable.

Rivers describes himself as very religious and he grew up in the Second Baptist Church of Maywood, Illinois. He says that he has prayed on his knees every night from the time he was a child and he still does. Even so, before the next game, Rivers made a point of telling the team that there were differing religious views represented among them. Instead of the normal group prayer, he asked everyone to close their eyes and he encouraged the players and other coaches to take a moment to compose themselves and to pray silently or simply to meditate as they chose.  

After the game, Abdul-Wahad came to Rivers with tears in his eyes and he hugged him and said, "Thank you. That is so important to me. No one has ever respected my religion. I'm going to give you everything I've got." 

It seems to me that when Christians insist on making a show of praying in places where non-Christians are present that we run the risk of burning more bridges than we build. Certain settings present exceptions, to be sure. But in most cases when we leave unbelievers with little option but to participate, actively or passively, in a religious rite that is not their own then don't we, perhaps inadvertently, express a certain level of disrespect for them? 

True faith can't be forced. Jesus rebuked his disciples every time they staked out a position of power. Sure, we Christians wish that everyone believed in Jesus. But Jesus didn't attract others to follow him by disrespecting them and I don't think his followers will either.  

Monday, May 5, 2014

Government instructions on how to pray

The Supreme court, in a divided 5-4 decision, today upheld the practice of public prayer before town board meetingsrejecting the notion that overwhelmingly Christian invocations violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. There is a lot that I could say about this ruling, and I probably will. However, for the time being, I found it very interesting that Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion, gave some Supreme Court guidelines  for appropriate and inappropriate prayers for opening government meetings.

According to Justice Kennedy, prayer that is "solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends" is okay.  (I suppose in future court cases we might look for the high court to become arbiters of what constitutes "solemn and respectful tone.") On the other hand, prayers that do things like "preach conversion" are not okay. 

That's one thing about government sanctioned prayer. In the end the government starts telling you what to pray and how to pray it. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Is it fair to lump all Baptists together like that?

The members of Westboro Baptist Church are up to their normal evil. On Saturday they engaged in one of their famous homophobic protests at the University of Missouri. They stood outside the basketball arena in conjunction with a home game holding signs proclaiming hatred and violence against gays and lesbians because the entire Missouri football team was scheduled to be recognized at halftime. A few days ago Michael Sam, a star defensive player for Missouri and a NFL prospect, announced that he is gay.

I doubt that news organizations would have reported Westboro's latest antics except for what the students did in response. They turned their backs to the small group of protesters and formed a human shield. Then they sang the Missouri alma mater. So the protesters could not be seen or heard because of the actions of the students.

I really like what those students did. They didn't get in the faces of the Westboro protesters. They didn't make obscene gestures toward them or trade the church members' curses with their own. They simply turned their backs on them and drowned them out. Nice work!

But the main reason I bring up the latest Westboro protest is the way Yahoo Sports reported it. Assistant Editor Kyle Ringo didn't mention the name of the church in his article on the incident. Apparently he didn't want to give the Westboro folks any of the attention that they obviously sought. 

I initially saw the news about the protest at Yahoo Sports and I assumed that Westboro was behind it. However, I had to go to other news outlets to confirm this.  

I can't blame Ringo for attempting to deny Westboro another moment in the spotlight. I would be for nearly anything that thwarts the group in its hateful agenda. However, I'm concerned that Ringo might have unwittingly lumped all Baptists with Westboro Baptist in his approach.

Consider this line from the article: "Members of a Baptist church stood outside the arena holding signs that condemned the community's and school's support for Sam." In an article that nowhere mentions the specific church, Ringo's approach leaves the impression that this sort of activity could be typical of members of any Baptist church.

There is no question that there is plenty of homophobia to go around in many Baptist circles. There has been, unfortunately, no shortage of Baptist leaders who have, in recent years, grabbed headlines for spewing hatred against against the LGBTQ community. That said, is it fair to lump all Baptists with the singularly virulent homophobia of Westboro Baptist Church?  

In a USA Today piece on Saturday's protest, there are photos showing the Westboro protesters carrying signs declaring messages typical of their rallies such as "Death penalty 4 [homosexuals]" and "God hates [homosexuals]." Many, many Baptists do not share such sentiments.

I have a Baptist pastor friend who says that Baptists are like dogs. (Careful, don't jump to any conclusions before I finish his thought.) "If I tell you that I have a dog," he says, "I haven't told you much unless I tell you what kind of dog it is." Dogs come in a multitude of shapes, colors, sizes and personalities and it is much the same with Baptists.

Some Baptists are welcoming and affirming of members of the LGBTQ community. Many Baptists are welcoming but not affirming. Many Baptists are neither welcoming nor affirming.    

On the face of it, I don't think it's fair to lump all Baptists with the members of Westboro Baptist Church because many Baptists abhor their vile strain of homophobia. That said, to the degree that there is any hatred toward the LGBTQ community among Baptists, it is too much. After all, we follow the one who said the Greatest Commandment, the most important thing we do, includes loving our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus listed no exceptions to this commandment.
Addendum: I emailed this post to Kyle Ringo and he changed the article to include the name of the church.   

Monday, January 20, 2014

Calling attention to Jesus

In the sermon that I preached yesterday I mentioned a story that pastor and author Rob Bell told about a man that he called Bullhorn Guy. Bell and some of his friends were in the midst of a crowd of people walking toward a concert hall to hear a band. As they approached the venue, Bell could hear a man yelling angrily through a bullhorn. As they got closer, Bell heard the man yelling words like sin, burn, hell, repent, and Jesus. No one was pausing to hear more of what Bullhorn Guy had to say and no one was taking the pamphlets that he was trying to distribute.

Bell said that he wanted to tell that man, "Bullhorn Guy, I don't think it's working ... I actually think it's making things worse."

I agree that Bullhorn Guy's method of calling attention to Jesus is most likely counterproductive in our culture. But it's pretty easy to tell Bullhorn Guy that the way he calls attention to Jesus is probably a really bad idea. A good question for Christ-followers is this: What are we doing to call attention to Jesus?

We can't just stop at telling Bullhorn Guy that his method stinks. We need to make sure that we are dedicated to calling attention to Jesus in loving, Spirit-led ways.

After all, we do consider Jesus worthy of calling attention to, don't we?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Does baptism mean anything at all?

Some years back, Baptist historian Bill Leonard said that questions about baptism used to be about how we do it.  Infants or adults?  Sprinkling, pouring, or immersion?  Stuff like that.  But now, Leonard says, the question has become, “Does baptism mean anything at all?”

Should we care about baptism? If so, why should we care?

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism gives us some great reasons to care about baptism. According to this passage (Matt. 3:13-17), Jesus insisted on being baptized and the Spirit came down and heavenly Father was pleased. 

When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John tried to stop him.  He said, “Look, you should be baptizing me, not the other way around.”  

The great John the Baptist tried to dissuade Jesus from being baptized. True, the passage suggests that John tried to stop Jesus because he considered himself unworthy to baptize the Messiah. Reason aside, however, verse 14 tells that John tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized

But Jesus insisted on being baptized. Why?

In his book entitled Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright mentions that Jesus’ baptism is one of numerous events recorded in the gospels that bring together three important vocations of Jesus: Messiah, servant, and God. Wright says that, in Israel’s history, these streams had been separate, but in Jesus they are gloriously brought together in one person.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism mentions a voice from the heavens which Wright describes as a sudden joining of heaven and earth through which the “royal vocation of the Messiah” is exposed. Wright also joins with many other scholars in noting that “[a]ll the signs are that Jesus understood his baptism as the moment when he was ‘anointed,’ like Israel’s kings long ago …”

In verse 11, we are told that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance—repentance of sin. Jesus had no sins of which he needed to repent. In submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus, as a servant, identified himself with those he came to save. In the tradition of the Servant Song of Isaiah 53, Jesus “was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12, NRSV).

The voice from heaven identified Jesus as “my Son” indicating, in the words of Wright, “Israel’s God was acting through him, in him, as him.” By the way, we should not overlook the mention of the Trinity in this passage as we see references to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

So, in Jesus’ baptism, we see an example of these three streams, Messiah, servant, and God, coming together in the person of Jesus. If passages like this one are to be believed, then Jesus was much more than a good man and a great teacher. Something much bigger and more wonderful was going on in him and through him. God was becoming King with a view toward seeing God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And baptism was and is part of that glorious plan.

Jesus insisted on being baptized “to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15, NRSV). Ben Witherington III understands this phrase to mean that “Jesus will do everything he can and all that is required to fulfill God’s loving plan.” 

What was happening in Jesus’ baptism? There was a glorious joining of the streams of Messiah, servant, and God coming together in the person of Jesus. Baptism was for our Lord one way that he did everything he could and all that was required to fulfill God’s loving plan.

No wonder Jesus insisted on being baptized.

But what does Jesus’ baptism mean for us now?

On a somewhat shallow level, we could say simply that, if baptism was important for Jesus, then it must be important for his followers. Even if we fail to grasp any degree of the meaning behind the ritual, the fact that Jesus insisted on being baptized should be enough to convince his followers to insist on baptism.

Yet there is more to this ritual than we can experience on the surface. In fact there is more to baptism than I can fully explain or, frankly, understand.

One thing that we can see readily is that the heavenly Father was pleased by Jesus’ choice to be baptized as our passage says. This hasn’t changed. When we baptize new believers today I am convinced that the Father says again, “I am well pleased” (v. 17, NRSV).

We can also easily see that the Holy Spirit, God’s real presence, was involved in Jesus’ baptism because, again, the passage says so. This hasn’t changed either. The Holy Spirit is involved in baptisms today just as surely as this was the case at Jesus’ baptism.

I cannot explain all the mysteries of baptism. There is more to it than just water and words.  If I could explain the depths of the meaning of baptism then I would be able to explain the depths of the meaning of love and I can’t do that either.

But I think there is something very important that we see in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism that brings into sharp focus one facet of what baptism means to us today. Again, Jesus said that his baptism would “fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). Baptism was for our Lord one way that he did everything he could and all that was required to fulfill God’s loving plan.

This also hasn’t changed. When new believers are baptized today they take an important step in doing everything they can and all that is required in fulfilling God’s loving plan. It’s important to note that baptism isn’t the last step in this regard—it's but one step, but an important one. A step that was important to Jesus himself.

Baptism is in part our promise before God and the church that we will leave the water committed to do everything we can and all that is required in every aspect of our lives to fulfill God’s loving plan. Jesus was baptized in part to lovingly identify himself with us—with those he came to save. When we submit to baptism we identify ourselves with him. We mark ourselves publicly as the subjects of this King who got in line with sinners at the Jordan one day and then embarked on a journey that would lead him to the cross of Calvary and to a tomb that he would leave empty.

Does baptism mean anything at all? Oh yeah. Jesus insisted on being baptized and the Spirit came down and heavenly Father was pleased. If it was true then it is true now and it was true then.