Friday, August 22, 2014

The Church's Basketball Jones



Today I hand the Ticker over to my ministry partner Nick Peters for a personal story -- which is thematically related to our last post.

***

Years ago, my wife and I were just married and getting into our rather strained financial situation. I am sure it was in 2010, because it was a Sunday, and was in fact my birthday that day, and while in town visiting my parents for the day, my wife and I went to the church that I attended when I left town.

Keep in mind we were still newlyweds then, as we would have been married just under two months at that point. I did not have a job, having been laid off from where I had been working three months before the wedding and we were struggling financially with no income whatsoever. We had some savings and some wedding gift money we were using, but that was it.

So we’re in the church service and hearing the associate pastor share about all the money that the church had raised for their mission project. How much was it? $2 million, and it took a long time. Now that the money was in, they could continue the ministry that they were doing of….

Going on mission trips to places like Peru, or going where Christians are being persecuted? Nope.

Setting up places to feed the hungry, and shelters for the homeless to stay in? Nope.

Giving aid to women who are considering abortion and setting up areas of benefit so that they will choose life? Nope.

Or dare I say it...supporting an apologetics ministry that was started by a former church member, who at the time who was in a serious financial situation? Nope.
       
The ministry was….

Basketball.

Yes. All that money was spent to focus on a basketball program.

Dare I say it, but give J.P. Holding or myself even 1% of all of that and we will go to town and start informing the masses about the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and drive our efforts to study more and more. You see, we’re going to do the work anyway. If we were poor and destitute, we’d still be doing the work. The reality is donations to a ministry like ours help us do it more. Give us a little and we’ll use it for a lot, such as building good websites and ordering books that we need and buying computer equipment to help us reach as many people as possible.

For people like us, our lives revolve around what we do. The support of others helps us to rest easy and know that we can provide for our families. Both of us would keep going into debt if we had to because the cause of the mission is that important.

Afterwards, my wife Allie and I figured we’d try to talk to the pastor about this. Allie was more blunt than I was, mentioning that we were poor and going broke.

Which was immediately followed by a request of how they could help us out in any way. Could they send a donation to us to help sponsor us?

Well. No. It wasn’t followed with that.

Instead, it was followed with a time of prayer together where we prayed God would open the doors of Heaven and help His servants.

Well. No. It wasn’t followed with that.

Rather, it was followed with a voice of sympathy expressing sorrow for our situation and the hopes that things get better.

No. It wasn’t even that.

It was followed with….

Nothing.

Naturally, my wife and I left and we have never looked back. When we did move back to the same area, we never even considered going there.

To this day, we’re still in a strained financial situation, but we have a small number of donors that give us some sort of support. But it’s a burden to me every time, especially knowing we can’t support ourselves independently.

Note in saying this I am not saying the apologetics ministry is the only ministry. By all means, there are several ministries that need to be supported, but we need to best prioritize the finances that we’re using. Is $2 million for doing basketball really the best usage of the resources a church has been given? Especially since many kids that could be reached could go off to college and be talked out of their newfound faith very easily.

I look forward to the day that the church wakes up to the waste that they have going on. The church has not been faithful with the resources God has given it, and it will be held accountable. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Bigger Barns Syndrome



This is a story of three buildings.

The first one is on a corner lot less than a mile from my home. It’s an unfinished concrete-block structure, surrounded by weeds, and it’s been that way for a while – a year or more. 

It started out as just an empty lot, and one day a sign popped up: “GOD DID IT!” For a while we weren’t sure what it was God had done (Mowed the weeds? Fertilized them? Picked up the trash?), until another sign popped up indicating that a local church was growing an expected to expand there soon. OK, I figured, that’s nice.

The lot stayed that way for a year or more, longer. 

Then someone started doing some construction. Concrete blocks began to pile up in the shape of a building. A new sign appeared naming a pastor.

Then it all stopped. And it’s been stuck at “bare concrete block” stage for more than a year now. The sign naming the pastor disappeared. A new one naming a different pastor popped up. And that’s where it stands as of today.

The second building is one I’ve talked about here before. It’s the one associated with Celebration of Praise Church in nearby Clermont. The details are messy, but the sum of what happened is, this church decided to go deeply into debt to buy some new land and build a new facility, complete with things like a pool and spa. Then there was some kind of dustup with the congregation splitting, and the body that remained was saddled with the debt, which they couldn’t manage. They ended up selling the whole facility to the city of Clermont.

The third building is another uncompleted eyesore like the first. The local leading Christian TV station, Channel 55, had this vision of building a skyscraper right along Interstate 4, the main drag in town, up in the metropolitan county just north of Orlando. It was 18 stories high, and was to be the tallest building in that county; it was given the ostentatious title, “The Majesty Building”. Construction started in February 2001 and was planned as a sort of “pay as we go” project.

Problem is, after a little while, people stopped paying.

For a long time there was no visible progress, just a concrete skeleton. There was also a construction crane that never seemed to be doing anything. Word was that it cost so much to put the crane up that it was more cost effective to let it stand there doing nothing than to take it down. Then, finally, they put the glass walls in (for most of it, anyway), and the crane went down. But as of this day it’s still an unfinished behemoth, to say nothing of a monumental embarrassment that’s seen by tens of thousands of motorists every day.

You’ll have noticed the obvious theme by now: Christians addicted to the new and often spectacular building project. But there’s a hidden dimension that’s not so obvious, which is the needs that go unmet and the projects that go undone because we chose the new and spectacular instead.

The key question I have is, why do we ever go for the new and flashy when we haven’t finished with our prior assignments yet?

As far as I can tell, none of these projects were necessary. All three of them had buildings they were already doing just fine in. The TV station sure hasn’t gone off the air for lack of this new building. How about instead of a new building, they produce some more quality programming? Some material to disciple rather than entertain? How about they use those funds to do some community leadership – start a new ministry to feed the hungry, or help support an already established one (probably a better idea), then do some TV specials on that ministry? This obviously needs doing – we still have hungry people around here, and they can’t eat an unfinished building. Further, a documentary on how Christians feed the hungry is a far better witness than a shiny new building, even if it does get finished. Right?

Obviously, I’m not saying that all such projects end up like the Majesty Building. I’m also not saying there are not times when we need a new building (like when the old one is e.g., uninhabitable). But this building project offers us a sobering lesson:

This I will do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and goods. (Luke 12:18)

My nearby lot, Celebration of Praise, and the Majesty Building, have too much of the scent of “laying up treasure for ourselves.” Let’s finish what we start and finish what needs finishing before we start building bigger barns.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Musicians' Gambit, Part 2: Casting Crowns


From the July 2011 E-Block.
***
For this installment of the series on Christian musicians, I have purposely chosen the group Casting Crowns (CC) -- one I have been told by many listeners is perhaps the most theologically solid of the CMC groups out there. What remained to be seen is whether that was in any way significant, or if it meant simply something like, "Chuck got the highest grade in class...he got a D. Everyone else got an F." 

The good news: It doesn't mean that. CC does a fairly good job, as good as can be expected given the amount of time and the creative restrictions they have. Much of their orientation is set towards pricking the conscience of the church, as in this popular song: 

She is running
A hundred miles an hour in the wrong direction
She is trying
But the canyon's ever widening
In the depths of her cold heart
So she sets out on another misadventure just to find
She's another two years older
And she's three more steps behind

Does anybody hear her? Can anybody see?
Or does anybody even know she's going down today
Under the shadow of our steeple
With all the lost and lonely people
Searching for the hope that's tucked away in you and me
Does anybody hear her? Can anybody see? 

Although I'm somewhat nonplussed by the effort to relate the Gospel to modern neuroses of loneliness, as is done here, it remains that this is a powerful and proper indictment of the irresponsibility of the ekklesia at large to act as salt and light. Even I relate to warnings against "lofty glances from lofty people" -- for apologists, in their own way, wear a "scarlet letter" in the eyes of many modern Christians. (it's not a sin, as what the song alludes to is, but it does make the "lofty glances" all the more ironic). 

The theme of meeting modern psychological needs is repeated here as well: 

The love of her life is drifting away
They're losing the fight for another day
The life that she's known is falling apart
A fatherless home, a child's broken heart
You're holding her hand, you're straining for words
You trying to make sense of it all
She's desperate for hope, darkness clouding her view
She's looking to you
Just love her like Jesus, carry her to Him
His yoke is easy, His burden is light
You don't need the answers to all of life's questions
Just know that He loves her and stay by her side
And love her like Jesus, love her like Jesus 

First century Christians, as agonistic peoples, would probably be astounded to learn that we had turned Jesus into a personal psychologist this way. Still and all, CC does get this much right, again: The salt and light is missing and we're controlling both the shaker and the switch. And although I wouldn't recommend using Jesus in such a cavalier way, our general mission of support does fall within the parameters of comfort and counsel, even for what would be termed a modern emotional problem. 

The call to action theme can be seen yet again here:

What if the armies of the Lord
Picked up and dusted off their swords
Vowed to set the captives free
And not let Satan have one more?
What if the church, for Heaven's sake
Finally stepped up to the plate
Took a stand upon God's promise
And stormed Hell's rusted gates?
...
And what would happen if we prayed
For those raised up to lead the way?
Then maybe kids in school could pray
And unborn children see light of day
What if the life that we pursue
Came from a hunger for the truth?
What if the family turned to Jesus
Stopped asking Oprah what to do?

Ouch. Had to love that last line! I could nitpick about the dispensational tinge, of course, but other than that, these are magnificent statements of the need for us to recognize valid and proper authority -- and take action on it. The rest of the song I find a little questionable in terms of how it envisions prayer:

He said that He would hear
His promise has been made
He'd answer loud and clear, yeah
If only we would pray

But, it's not made clear what exactly is meant by an "answer," so I can't object. 
The lyrics further on do imply that an "answer" implies also action on our part, though, so there's probably no "magic wand" view of prayer here.

In contrast, here's one that takes Jesus a little too close for comfort:

Living on my own, thinking of myself
Castles in the sand, temporary wealth
Now the walls are falling down
Now the storms are closing in
And here I am again
Jesus, hold me now
I need to feel You in this place
To know You're by my side
And hear Your voice tonight

We've written before of this too-intimate language, when used by writers like Stanley and Lucado, so there's no need to discuss it further here. In contrast, here's a set of lyrics that are unusually meaty in the theology department, for CCM: 

Looking out from his throne
Father of light and of men
Chose to make himself known
And show us the way back to Him
Speaking wisdom and truth
Into the hearts of peasants and kings
He began to unveil
The word that would change the course of all things
With eyes wide open all who'd see
The word is alive
And it cuts like the sword through the darkness
With a message of life to the hopeless and the frail
Breathing life into all who believe
Simple strokes on a page
Eternities, secrets revealed
Carried on from age to age
It speaks truth to us even still

I think if John had written his prologue to music, this probably would have been something like what it would have ended up as. And then we have this from the same song, which sounds a bit like chapter 1 of Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict:

The Bible was inscribed over a period of 2000 years
In times of war and in days of peace
By kings, physicians, tax collectors, farmers
Fishermen, singers and shepherds
The marvel is that a library so perfectly cohesive
Could have been produced by such a diverse crowd
Over a period of time which staggers the imagination
Jesus is its grand subject, our good is designed
And the glory of God is its end

Basic though it is, it's hard not to be pleased by the effort to add a dash of historical confirmation when most groups are emphasizing nothing but feeling.

In light of CC's calls for action, it's somewhat more forgivable to see them also going the way of Mercy Me with the praise aspects in another song:

Oh God, You are my God
And earnestly I seek You
O how I long for You
In this dry and weary land
I’ve seen You in the sanctuary
And I beheld Your glory
So I can think of only one thing I can do
I lift my hands
I lift my hands and I will praise You all my days
I lift my voice
I lift my voice to You in this simple song of praise
I lift my eyes
So I will think of You through the watches of the night
Hear the voices ring as Your children sing
In the shadow of Your wings

So in the end, CC gets a B minus. Even so, that they do get a grade that high doesn't say much for the content of modern Christian music as a whole.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Ride in the Reconstruction Zone, Part 1


From the July 2011 E-Block.

***

At reader request, we’re now having a look at the teachings of R. J. Rushdoony, whose name is associated with a movement sometimes called Christian Reconstruction. I have never looked into this movement before, though I have been given all manner of negative reports, ranging from accusations that Rushdoony wanted to reinstitute stoning as a death penalty form to charges that he was a racist. 

Are any of these charges true? Well, if they are – they didn’t get any verification in the four small books I picked up this past month. In fact, none of the four books contained anything that radical – or a great deal disagreeable to, beyond a rather staunch Calvinism, and some factual errors of a common sort I’ve seen before. (Though admittedly, much of what Rushdoony deals in is also beyond my scope of knowledge.) 

How’d it go?

Law and Liberty -- this one’s just a basic apologetic for God as the source of moral law, hardly different from what we might find in C. S. Lewis. There are errors in fact; Rushdoony seems to assume modern romantic love was dominant in the ancient world [106-7], and he finds an idea of private property in the OT (which really doesn’t cohere with the notion of God as owner, and humans as tenants).

Revolt Against Maturity -- again, mostly non-controversial, though at times it was like reading a political book by George Will, not a religious book. Rushdoony makes the odd implication that the Hebrews held to modern ideas of what constituted conscience, though oddly, he is aware that the Greeks and Romans viewed it as external, not internal! His data on the meaning of image-language related to God and man is also in error, though these errors are not so great as to affect his arguments substantially.

God’s Plan for Victory -- an advocacy of postmillennialism and Calvinist predestination. This has some excellent discussion of the “rapture generation” and their indifference to improving things, which we can see paralleled in teachers today as well. There’s only one paragraph at the end that hints at what I have been told in the past to be Christian Reconstruction: “God has a plan for the conquest of all things by His covenant people. That plan is His law. It leaves no area of life and activity untouched, and it predestines victory. To deny the law is to deny God and His plan for victory.” But the details of that “plan” and what we’re supposed to do about it aren’t specified.

Christianity and the State -- this contains a great many political and historical essays, sometimes about obscure topics, and like the rest, is long on description and short on prescription. For example, one chapter favorably describes cities of refuge in the OT, but doesn’t say what we’re supposed to do with it. I was left wondering if Rushdoony was going to advocate setting up cities of refuge in modern times, but it never got as far as “do this.” One sentence does sum up things well [84]: “There can be no separation of religion and the state. The question is simply, which religion will undergird law and society?” He also has some very poignant criticisms of churches and hymns [114] that emphasize experience over doctrine, but also a rather outlandish statement in favor of Calvinism [115]: “Arminianism does not eliminate predestination; it denies it to God, and the state seizes it. Every denial of predestination leads to subordinationism (in Christology).” It does? Not that I can see.

My next task with Rushdoony will be to read two of his larger books -- The Roots of Biblical Reconstruction and Institutes of Biblical Law. It is the latter that I have seen targeted as a racist, bigoted source now and then; whether that is indeed true, I will find out on my own – though based on the above, it would imply that Rushdoony was either a dual personality, or cautious about hiding his prejudices. (For that reason – I’d ask readers not to unduly reveal to me anything they know about Rushdoony….for now.)