The first session was delivered by Stephen Witmer, pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship and author of A Big Gospel in Small Places, and focused on why small places warrant care and attention.
Which isn't an entirely unreasonable question to ask. As addressed in the previous post, there are good reasons so many resources are spent on places that will have a big impact on a lot of lost people very quickly. Fulfillment of the Great Commission requires that the gospel spread fast enough to reach the world, and with the size of the world's population and the rate of its growth we need to step up that effort some. Being strategic and looking for the places with the fastest growth and largest reach helps ensure as many people as possible hear the gospel as quickly as possible.
The problem is when we only put resources into those places. Because the fact is, if the gospel is going to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible, someone needs to be going into the places between the strategic launch points. Whether they go from the hub cities, or from neighboring communities, or rise up from within, the farm towns and small places will need to have someone going to them. The model that relies on pouring resources into hub cities cannot then remain in hub cities or its entire justification breaks down. If these are points chosen for their ability to expand then they must expand into the places that were not chosen. If we're focusing on Boston for its ability to impact places like Townsend and Sturbridge, at some point we need to be sending people and resources to Townsend and Sturbridge. That's the point.
Which is fine as a logical and logistical explanation for why there must be investment both in large and small places, but Witmer, as befitting a speaker at a conference for ministers, focused instead on scriptural reasons.
The primary thrust of the argument Witmer presented is not that the hub city model of church planting is wrong or that it relies on expansion, or even that it fails in some way. The argument was firmly rooted in the claim that ministry in small places is, itself, an expression of certain truths about the gospel that simply are not represented by ministry in large places. Where large-place ministry showcases the universal reach of the gospel in its scope, immediacy and power in its rate of expansion, and the wisdom of the gospel through its careful consideration of method, small-place ministry shows how the gospel is also small, slow, and unstrategic.
One of the condemnations of the gospel message I have actually received in my life is that if an all-powerful and all-wise God wanted the world to know the truth of Himself and His message, He should have had the foresight to deliver it somewhere other than a backwater corner of an ancient empire. And I've heard the counterargument that Galilee and Judea actually sit on fairly important trade routes and would therefore have some strategic value to the spread of such a message, but Witmer would appear to argue that the atheist has noticed something about the gospel that we are too quick to dismiss: that Galilee really is a backwater corner of the Roman Empire and really should raise some questions about its utility in a global mission.
Perhaps the answer is that the gospel isn't, at its core, utilitarian.
Is that not what we see in the life of Jesus Christ, anyway? We take for granted that Mary and Joseph were of the line of David, so He fulfills that prophesy, but have we just been assuming that David had no descendants at that time in a more noble position who could have raised the Son of God in some degree of pomp and splendor? Why pick the great-grandchildren that live in a dusty little town doing menial trade work? Why make arrangements for this child to be born in a stable away from the hub city of the region? They run off to Egypt and make no impression on the people there worth recording, then return to Nazareth where Jesus lives in obscurity until His mission begins in earnest and He spends most of that mission wandering around places where crowds could find nothing to eat. He consistently whittled down the number of people following Him, to the point that despite having a massive following at various times and whole cities that wanted to declare Him king and appearing after His death to hundreds of people at once, only 120 are still hanging around waiting for His promise to be fulfilled at Pentecost. How often we consider a church of 120 people to be too small to notice!
Witmer notes that the Kingdom begins very small in scripture, and that God consistently shows concern for what is small. The small places like Bethlehem, the smallest son of Jesse, the smallest bit of faith, the jots and tittles of the Law. In ministering to the small places, we are continuing the work that God has always had for these locations.
"The gospel gives us permission to have slow ministries." One thing that strikes me is that, while we do have moments of explosive growth in the church in Acts, the way in which we read the book can sometimes make us think it was always like that. One story right after another, with Paul being saved outside of Damascus and then going out and beginning to preach and going home where he's pulled by Barnabas to Antioch and then turned around and sent on their first missionary journey. But we know from his other writings that Paul spent at least 12 years coming to understand the gospel with which he had been entrusted before the vast majority of that even happened. How often we try to rush things to fit our timetable, this idealized version of the story in our heads, when God intends to take the time to make sure it's done right.
Witmer repeatedly noted that we should "want revival more and need it less." By wanting it more he wasn't saying we don't desire it hard enough; rather, the point was that we too often treat the big explosive moments as the whole picture and judge ourselves and others by whether or not these experiences are happening. But our validation shouldn't come from how quickly we outgrow our buildings or double our baptisms. These things are great, and we should value them and seek after them, but we cannot treat them as the whole picture of God's work. We should want to see everyone we've ever met come to church and make a profession of faith this Sunday; but when we consider ourselves a failure for having any less, we lose sight of the fact that our entire role is to be faithful in the task. Faithfulness is always marked more by time and consistency than by results.
According to worldly wisdom, the gospel is a mess. Sending your own son to die on behalf of people who hate him in order to win some of them over is a terrible strategy by any human standard. Having all of the work in establishing your religion happen in a place that has no strategic, economic, or cultural importance just seems like poor planning. Pouring yourself out into the lives of a handful of illiterate fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot while turning away scribes and people ready to install a new king almost sounds like planning to fail.
But this is the foundation of our faith. The gospel, and the ways it gets worked out, isn't always going to seem like it makes sense or that it's aimed at making the biggest impact in the fastest way possible. The nature of the gospel actively stops us from thinking that we can only justify the use of resources on the best available options. It gives us permission to focus and really spend time and effort on people who can bring nothing big or new to the table. In fact, it basically requires us to do so. To do anything else not only fails to showcase the way God has consistently worked across the centuries, but also kind of suggests that we think we're big enough deals to have warranted His attention. We misrepresent God and ourselves and only encourage heightened egos if we act like the gospel only belongs to the strategic few.
The last thought I have in my notes from Witmer were his words, that "if you are viewing your people as a stepping stone to somewhere bigger and better, you cannot be loving your people." Is this not what it call comes down to? If we will not love the handful who gather in the small church an hour outside of anywhere, how can we think we deserve to be shepherds over the thousands that gather under a dome in the city?
The third week of the study we're doing in Kyle Idleman's series, Gods at War, is titled "Love." It focused on the practice of putting other people into a position where you expect them to fulfill and complete you, to be the lover for you that God alone can be.
While the lesson was titled "Love," it really came down to significance and meaning. The video for the week, as well as many of the questions, leaned heavily on the way people use love and its trappings to find value and significance in their lives. Where last week's idol was built up by our desire to find comfort and peace in this life, this week feeds on the desire to give this life meaning.
But, as we discussed in the group and was touched on in the leader's guide, we don't search for love in just one way. All forms of love can fall subject to this idol. Family relationships, friendships, romantic partners, strictly sexual partners, and any other place where we seek to fill this need for companionship can fall into the trap of expecting the other party to define our lives and our worth. I can assure you I have even known people with a love for their pets that may have been idolatrous in this way.
Where the idols of pleasure are insidious because they seem to work, the idols of love are insidious because they don't. See, they don't fail us in a way that makes us realize they aren't worthy of our affections; rather, empowered by our culture's push for particular flavors of romance, they fail us in ways that make us feel like we are unworthy of them. We look within ourselves for the flaws, the thing that made this pursuit not work, and punish ourselves and change ourselves and do everything we can in our own power to make ourselves worthy of our idol's attention.
I've personally watched this play out. The type of idol I have historically struggled with the most as been self (which looks like it'll be covered in a later lesson), and before meeting my wife I was engaged to someone who very much seemed to, in retrospect, fall into making an idol of us, or me, or at least some aspect of our relationship. And those two idols worked together really, really well. There were things going on with her that I wanted to help her with, and because of my idol that meant I needed to fix them for her, and it often came off as though I needed to fix her. While her view of me meant that she kept striving to be good enough for me, to get that feeling of value and affirmation from me, and she could never quite do good enough to get it, so she would try harder and push herself farther and I'm seeing that these things are destructive and expressing my desire to see her not hurt herself and she's just hearing that she's failing even worse and this was just a constant downward spiral that almost destroyed us both.
The thing is, we don't have to prove our worth to God, He isn't going to put us into that same trap of striving to show ourselves good enough to warrant His love. He just pours it out, freely. Going to the cross while we were still His enemies. Calling out for us while we were not yet seeking Him. It's important to recognize this because the idols of love have twisted it and make us miss the real benefits of confession. Confession, when done in a Biblical manner, isn't part of an abusive relationship where we need to be constantly reminded of how inferior we are so we can be beaten down and twisted into a state of constant pain and self-abuse and attempts to prove ourselves. Even a healthy marriage has issues sometimes, and communication about those issues that cause friction so they can be addressed and handled in a healthy way is necessary; and this is a more accurate picture of confession. We are identifying the places in our relationship with God where we are experiencing friction and distance and clearing the air, not to prove we are unworthy and grovel for a taste of acceptance, but because we have already been accepted unconditionally. It is an act of walking forward together in openness and honesty. It is not a means of gaining access to a deeper love from God but a practice born out of an existing access to the fullness of His love.
Abusive, and manipulative, and controlling idols of love have given us a false understanding of what it means to talk candidly about the things that hinder our walk. And works-based salvation models have made this problem worse. But if we will be vulnerable, and honest, before our God and our fellow members of the body, we can experience the freedom and relief that comes from a truly confessional life; marked not by a seeking after meaning and value in love, but by a comfortable recognition of the value we already have to the One who loved us first.
On Saturday, October 19, I attended the Central/Western Massachusetts event for Small Town Summits. As I've started to do with sermons and other studies, I wanted to blog through my processing of the things I saw and heard there. While not officially part of this series of posts, I did also blog about some pretty personal struggling I have had that were addressed by God through the event. Before I do posts on specifics, though, I wanted to paint the big picture of the day and explain what Small Town Summits is.
I've been involved in church planting, in some capacity or another, since 2008. In that time, in my experience, the focus has been on strategic placement of new churches or revitalization efforts. If you want to get a sending network involved or a church to give money or a team to come together, you've had to sell them on how big the impact of that church could have. Talk about the millions of people that live and work and pass through the city. Talk about the colleges that bring in large numbers of students from around the world and then send them back out, hopefully (with your church's help) carrying the gospel with them. In a pinch, you can sell the town's impact to its smaller neighbors and role as a hub of commuters that work in the bigger, more important city.
There's good reason for targeting these locations, and Small Town Summits explained at the event that they recognize their importance. The problem being raised, however, is that there are millions in America, billions around the world, who do not live in nice strategic locations, and our laser focus on making a big impact has left far too many of these people without a gospel witness and so many small town pastors feeling like they have no support.
The instinct is to read the description of small places and assume they're rural, but it was explained that that isn't always true. While a great many rural communities would qualify, so can cities and regions within cities. The best definition for their target communities would seem to be a negative one; if the community cannot be described as a hub of culture, economy, influence, government, or education, and would therefore be overlooked by strategy-focused church planting efforts, they want to be there. The summits are designed to be affordable and easy to access, hosting them across New England. Their next listed event is a Bible Training for Women in March 2020.
The summit was a great time. I met people who came from southern Vermont, the Berkshires, the Worcester area, and southeastern Massachusetts. I was able to meet the new pastor of a small church I preached at during their pastoral search and get some updates on how they're doing and exchange information. I made a lot of connections and had some great conversations and picked up some ideas that we may be able to adapt in our church. I got to catch up with some friends I haven't seen in a while who came in for the event.
As will be discussed in the following posts about each session, we basically had two main speakers and they both did a great job of presenting the importance of small place ministry and some practical concerns that arise in that context. The worship was very good and, while I had only heard one song before, any confusion on my part was my own fault for forgetting to listen to the tracks I was emailed in advance. The food was great and the hour given for lunch gave us plenty of time to meet the people sitting around us.
The brevity of the event does mean that there were a small number of topics that could be handled well, but the ample time to make connections with people serving across the region should prove to make up for that over time for anyone who wants to put in a little effort to do so. All in all, I feel it was a day very well spent, I was personally impacted in a big way by the summit, and I look forward to pursuing some of these new relationships and attending more summits in the future. If you are in New England, I encourage you to go to their website and try to attend an event near you as soon as it becomes available.
Recently I was struggling with a situation and I tried to jot down on my personal blog how I was feeling and it ended up being a lot longer and more personal than I'd expected. But I posted it anyway, and some people started to respond that it has resonating with them in some way or another. And I realized that I need accountability and encouragement on this matter, and that people reading this blog may also benefit from the things I said.
So I decided to cross-post it here with this disclaimer. I also want to note that part of it takes place at or in response to an event hosted by Small Town Summits, which is an awesome work happening in New England that I would encourage you to check out and support and learn from. A link to their website appears in the story below. I also took notes at that event that I was planning to explore some more and share what I learned on this blog; so I wanted to make you aware that while I touch on some things here that I will also touch on in later posts, the focus here is on the impact those things had on my story. Note that because this was originally written for my personal blog rather than this site, it has a somewhat different feel than some of my other posts. I have not edited it in any significant way, only added media and one little note I realized I had missed.
Click "Read More" below for the rest.
Near the end of last school year, I shared a very short sermon I gave in class called Living the Life. I knew at that time that the topic would need more time than the parameters of the class allowed, so I stated I would be returning to it when I had the opportunity to preach at my church. That sermon was called Snapshot of the Christian Life and was delivered at Highland Baptist Church on June 9, 2019.
During the 2016 election campaign, I expressed concern about Donald Trump for a number of reasons, most of which were fairly widely shared by people who didn't vote for him. But there was one I said at the time I was concerned about more than any of the others, because I was concerned it offended a more important party than ourselves and would be, I believed, the hardest to counter once he was in office.
I stated that putting Donald Trump in the White House would legitimize a practice calling itself Christianity that has little, if anything, to do with Christ. That his election would not only encourage the false teachers he surrounded himself with during his campaign, but that it would embolden a host of problems that the church was harboring and failing to address. This past Sunday, the sermon touched on one of the ways I feel that concern has been realized.
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing [mother] tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
The big question of the sermon was, do we reach out to the people around us with the same love and passion that Paul is here describing? He noted that churches in America have a particular opportunity of world evangelism based on the fact that the world is coming to us, rather than requiring we go to it. And when they come here, we have an opportunity to reach out and build relationships and show the love of Christ to them by sharing, not only the gospel, but our lives with them. But, of course, that relies on us actually welcoming them. So the sermon reminded me of some things.
God of our Sojourning
"Thus has the LORD of hosts said, 'Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.'
Zechariah 7:9-10 (NASB)
In Deuteronomy, God repeatedly makes the case that part of the reason Israel should remember to care for the sojourner among them is that they were, themselves, sojourners in Egypt. It's worth noting that, during this address, Moses isn't speaking to people who were adults in Egypt; this is after the forty years of wandering, when the generation that came from Egypt had died out. This is not a command given to the generation that remembers Egypt. Israel as a body was a sojourner, and is told here that it must never forget that fact.
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God's] OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.
There are two grounds on which this argument stands. The first is that, while we are not under the Mosaic law as a people redeemed by grace, the ordinances given to Israel nevertheless point to some understanding of who God is and what His people should look like and we can learn from that; in this particular case, we need not conceptualize the lesson being given, as we may with laws like those banning mixed fabrics, since the reminder to care for the foreigner is given an explanation already.
The second is the nature of that explanation, and the fact that it has not changed. That the heart of God goes out to the foreigner remains equally true as long as God's heart remains the same, and we know that He does not change. And His call to remember the days of sojourning are true for Christians who sojourn in a fallen world just as much as it was true of Israelites who sojourned in Egypt.
How can we be the people of God if we will not act how God calls us to act, and love how He has loved us?
Of the first, it should be noted that our government is not actually set up to operate that way. Whether or not the apostles would have been at the borders of the Roman Empire welcoming travelers is hardly relevant when their relationship to government was fundamentally different from ours. The simplest way to put it is this: in a governmental system designed to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, what we task the government with doing is something we are doing. This also comes up in matters of social welfare, the claim that we are called to support the widow and the orphan and help the poor, sure, but we are never called to empower a government to take our money and have them do the supporting.* But this creates a division where one does not exist. When we vote for or against a program or a candidate, we are telling the government how we want it to operate on our behalf. We are directing it to function as our arms in carrying out large-scale operations beyond the scope of what we can do individually. It is no different from giving money and input to our church, or our denomination, about things we want to see happen.
As such, there is no division. If we are going to show God's love to the sojourner among us, we have a direct responsibility to support programs that allow sojourners to exist among us. Our attempts to support programs that restrict or remove sojourners from our midst are nothing less than an act of rebellion to the mission of our God.
The second is personal/national safety and, while literally all available data shows that there is no considerable threat from allowing refugees (or immigrants in general) in, the main focus for us as Christians is that our nation ultimately doesn't matter and our lives are already lost. We owe our nation no more allegiance than we owe Kazakhstan, because, as stated above, this is not our home. We have certain obligations to respect the authority that we live under, but that does not mean we give that authority more power and worth than it deserves. Nor will it be eternal. America will fall someday, whether to mortal forces or to the coming Kingdom of our Lord. What, exactly, are we preserving? And is preserving it more important than obedience to God?
As for personal safety, this is never guaranteed to us. We walk the path of martyrs. It is better for a terrorist to walk into a church and be greeted with the gospel than to allow him to continue in ignorance of the offer of salvation, even if he destroys that church and everyone in it. It is better to lose our lives by opening our doors to the unsaved than to live a long life and stand before God having never carried out His commands because we were more afraid of man than of Him.
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 10:28 (NASB)
This week we discussed idols that fall under the broad category of pleasure. Most of the discussion centered around sex and food, but we did branch out to other things as they came up. One of the issues we talked about was the danger in trying to solve one's idolatry on one's own power; if we have made an idol out of food, for instance, we may try to solve it by going on a diet and exercising. But if that's all we do it's very likely we'll just set the exercising routine up as a new idol. The post-workout endorphin rush can be just as effective a god in our lives as the one that comes from eating to cope. There's a lot that can be said about this, but it's also true of basically all of the forms of idolatry that will be discussed in the series, so this week I want to focus on something that came up that was specific to the topic at hand.
See, our church is located in a town that has been significantly impacted by the opioid crisis. There's also a state college in town, with youth who have been exposed to addictive substances in their first outing away from home, and a not-insignificant level of poverty which tends to exist in the same space as various addictions. Between our food pantry, general outreach, and a growing number of members who live in the city, we interact with addiction. As such it was important for us to get this issue down.
How we view addiction will define how we treat addicts, and how we treat addicts impacts our ability to be effective witnesses of God's love to our communities. If we operate from the assumption that it is a moral or theological failing, we have a habit of being harsh and, in many cases, demanding change before they are welcome in our churches and outreaches--an approach that is not done in love or justified in scripture. So there is value in understanding the secular studies that have shown a medical aspect to addiction; however, if we hold only to that, and write all of the related symptoms off as always being addiction, we will never be able to recognize idolatry when it arises. We must help those who need help, support those who need support, and tear down false gods; and we must do so in a manner that always glorifies God and points our communities to Him in love.
We ultimately came to the conclusion that pleasure idolatry and addiction are broadly overlapping issues that may or may not arise in the same person, even with the same substance or practice, but are nevertheless distinct. That we need to get to know people well enough to be in a position to recognize the difference between a physical placebo and a spiritual one. Both addiction and idolatry need to be addressed, but in different ways, but in the end only Christ can cure either. We must put Him, and His guidance, first in all that we do.
Worship is something we do constantly and, in fact, cannot stop doing. Worship is the sum total of all the ways we organize our lives -- our schedules, our interests, our finances, our loves -- around the thing or things we believe will give our lives meaning, direction, and joy.
Now, this is accurate. All of these things are idolatry (and I have, on more than one national holiday, gotten into some trouble for observing the ways in which this definition of idolatry seems to fit so well the way we treat our flag, and national anthem, and military/police, and nation, but that's something for another post), and should be recognized as such. We must acknowledge the ways that worship shapes our behavior and recognize where our gods are revealed. But I feel we don't always say clearly enough that idolatry is also passive.
What lies at the root of our goals and alliances? What is it we are ultimately trying to accomplish? We have to dig deep here. Sure, our reason for having a given job is to make money in order to meet our needs in order to survive, but is that it? Does it go deeper than that? What is it we intend to do with that life, with that money, with that title? See, if we don't go any deeper, if we let the question end at "I have a job so I can survive," then either we are using our survival as the ultimate governing principle or we are not allowing us to see what our ultimate governing principle actually is. Either way, any 'ultimate governing principle' in our lives functions as a god. It is the end to which we will devote our energy, our time, our resources, our gifts. It will be the final deciding factor in what jobs we take, what we do in our off hours, and how we view all of it. What is the purpose of our politics? Is it enough to want our country to look a certain way? I talked to a lot of one-issue voters in the last Presidential election, whether that one issue was opposing Trump or supporting a pro-life appointment to the Supreme Court or whatever else, in no case did any of them tell me their one issue was facilitating the spread of the gospel. It is possible the gospel was an underlying reason for their support of that one issue, but many of those cases gave me some amount of reason to doubt they were thinking that far ahead. The question was, in every case, what are you willing to sacrifice in order to see your one issue reached? What are you willing to accept as long as it comes with the promise of that one issue? The election cycle and the years that followed, I believe, show that we are willing to lay quite a lot at the altar of achieving our political ends.
We may not always be acting in a manner that directly interacts with our idol. We may not even really be thinking about our idol in a given moment. But we will fashion our lives and words and alliances in a way that draws us ever closer to what we believe our idol demands of us. We will give our idol priority in our schedule, in our relationships, and in our decision-making process. And that, even if not active in that moment, is part of worship. We need to ask ourselves occasionally, what is our ultimate governing principle? And whatever we say it is, do our lives actually reflect that? Because if they don't, then we're misleading ourselves about what our principle actually is.
By what standard do we judge others? Whether or not Christians should judge at all is not really the point here. What is the point is what standards people hold each other to. Think seriously about the criteria we use to gauge one another. Do we fundamentally look down on people in a different tax bracket as us, who vote different than us, whose family life is different than ours? Do we think a person's clothing or job title or race or address say everything we need to know about them?
To what do we give the right of judgment? What is it that we allow to measure the value of a human life? What is our standard of morality?
To this end, I have watched for a couple decades as white churches have made strides toward integration. These were mostly had through visible invitation to community; singing the occasional worship song in Spanish or Afrikaans to show unity with Christians abroad, making a point of inviting people from other ethnic backgrounds to become members, having major denominations make apologies for former racist practices and beliefs and expressing interest in moving forward together. Some of it was just different styles of church that non-whites were interested in trying out. It seemed to be working. Formerly all-white churches across the country had more ethnic diversity in their seats, and that was that.
Then, a few years ago, it fell apart.
Social Justice in the Church
So they left. Because what had become apparent was that they were never anything more than guests. What so many white evangelical churches had done was welcome people in who didn't look like them, but then kind of expected those people to start looking like them. White churches continued to have white leadership that talked about the desire for reconciliation but did not ask what it was that had kept people away to begin with. There were no changes to the culture of those churches, no involvement of new ideas about practical issues secondary to the gospel. Sermons would look at abortion debates and rail on and on about the value of life and the need to protect it at all costs and then turn away any discussion on black youth laying dead in the street because they felt racial discussion was divisive; or worse, they would condemn the dead and pray for protection of the shooter from the trials they faced for killing someone. I've known some who have left the faith, or at least the church, entirely; but many simply walked away from a place they came to understand they never really belonged anyway and went looking for the places that had always looked like them.
Recently, a group called Founders Ministries released the trailer to a new documentary called By What Standard? which boasted input from a wealth of Southern Baptist leaders and theologians. The description the documentary offers for itself is that it is attempting to reveal and counter views seeping into the church that threaten to water down the gospel. While the documentary has not been released, so no one outside of the production team really know what it will say, the trailer focuses on those who have criticized how the church has handled issues like racial turmoil and sexual assault.
There are two things about which everyone involved, even the leaders being presented as attacking the church, seem to agree on. One is that the existing attempts at racial integration have not worked and probably can never work; the debate is about why it didn't work and what to do about it. The second is that there is nothing that should be allowed to take the place of the gospel at the heart of the church; the difference is whether or not other things have any place in the church.
You see, when someone comes along and says that we need to seek input from the people who feel hurt by the church, to find out how the church hurt them and if it can do anything to fix that, they are not necessarily saying that the church should then use that input as the fundamental basis for their activities. They can, of course, there are cases of that happening; but most often what is actually being suggested is that we learn how to apply the gospel in a way that more accurately shows the love of Christ and our unity in Him to the people around us. It is not a compromise of the gospel to ask how different people are hearing the gospel and what we can do to help them better understand it in their own lives.
It is true that we should not allow anything into our churches that contradicts the Bible. I would argue it is just as true that we should not allow ourselves to reject things that work alongside the Bible simply because they weren't born in the church. Social justice is not evil; it can become an idol, but so can everything else. I daresay our idea of a perfect church can be just as much of an idol. The desire to preserve the culture of the church, a culture that so often looks far more American than Christian, is not less of an incursion than allowing work to be done about real issues people in the community are facing.
And this is why racial integration didn't work. It's also why so many victims of abuse have left. It wasn't because the black people or the assault victims in the congregation demanded too much, it was because none of their requests or desires were considered important enough to try. We had decided that the culture of the church needed to look how we had designed it and then called any concern or idea that came from outside the white male experience as being a distraction. And any distraction was labeled an attempt to subvert the good work of the church, a "godless ideology." The white church was white to the core and made the mistake of thinking that anything black came from outside the church and had to be guarded against. We sought to bring them in so we could see they were there but never gave them the means to make it their home as well. The abused cried out for us to help them, to show the compassion of Christ on them and condemn the work of their abusers for their violence, and we told them they mattered and were important but refused to behave in any way that would show this to be true.
And now that they're leaving, we're bickering over whether or not it would be Christian of us to set our ideal experience aside and allow the changes that would make us look like the first century church we were trying to emulate in the first place. We told them their presence mattered but never allowed them to feel as though they mattered as people, let alone as siblings in Christ, as equal participants in a church that can cross cultural divides. We opened windows in our cultural walls and then cried foul when people on the other side pointed out that the wall was still there. We silenced people who had something uncomfortable to say and then condemned them for feeling invisible and unwanted around us.
It is true that we must not let the gospel, or the Bible that delivers that gospel, to be dethroned from the core of who we are. It is also true that in our treatment of people who have come to us asking for action regarding pain in their lives, we have been wrong. And we have people now standing up and calling us to repentance for our arrogance and dismissal of people who we invited in and then hurt. And if we will not at least be humble enough to ask if we were anything less than perfect, to even briefly consider the possibility that we are failing to live out the call God has placed on us, then we cannot expect God to have much patience with us.
My wife used to make soaps and lotions and sell them at craft fairs. It was a short-lived affair but in the process she learned a lot about what goes into these things and how to make a good product. There were all kinds of things she added to these soaps for effect. Slices of dried loofah plant for scrubbing, some kind of berry-looking thing for scent, I never really understood a lot of where these things came from, but they worked.
I guess we'll see which one gets posted first.
The thing that seems to define much of this discussion is the concept of chemical purity. See, most chemicals and elements are reactive to some degree, so keeping them pure means keeping them isolated. If you let chemicals interact, you will usually end up with a reaction that turns both substances into something that is really neither of the original parts, and neither will ever be pure again.
So much of our discussion of purity sounds like that. Purity culture means keeping oneself hidden away from anything that might possibly have some corrupting influence. Purity culture views any interaction with mess as permanently and negatively changing the person. You can never be pure again, there will always be a little bit of taint in your very being, the things you've encountered will make you something less like you and a little more like them and so we have to stay removed, isolated, untarnished. After all, so many of the most public Christian voices really are highly reactive, exploding at any exposure to that which they don't recognize as the church they've always known, so it's easy to believe that we really are just fragile little vials of goodness surrounded by a world of malicious reagent.
But I would argue that this is not the sort of purity we see in scripture. God commands the priesthood in the Old Testament to be cleansed before entering His presence, not because He is afraid of being corrupted, but because contact with the true purity of His presence would destroy them if they enter while dirty. Jesus sits down and eats with tax collectors and all sorts of sinners, and freely touches lepers. In all cases, Christ remains clean when He does so, and those He contacts go away more clean than before.
The purity of God is more like the purity of soap. Yes, there's still a chemical reaction involved, but it is one that must happen in order to make things clean. Soap is not pure because it is isolated, it is pure in such a way that it can make other things pure. This means that pumice, although just a rock, becomes both clean and a cleansing agent when put into soap. It means that soap, if left in isolation, is not made more pure; rather, it is made useless.
Christ came into the world, among other things, to make us pure. He does this by bringing us into Himself, exposing us to His presence, allowing the purity that He has to cleanse us. Like the pumice, we then become agents in His purifying work. We can trust that He has made us clean, no matter what we bring to Him with us. Some of that cleansing process may completely unravel things that we held together with gunk. Some of it may not be comfortable. But we are not pure by isolation, we are pure by interaction, and this purity is meant to be spread.
Now, there is a wisdom in considering what you add to that mix. My wife would soak lavender or other things in the oil for a while before using the oil to make soap, because it added scent to the final product. It made the end result a more desirable substance. The nature of soap is such that I could have, if I was the sort, added something nasty to some oil, like sewage or something else no one would really want. The soap would still work, it would cleanse both whatever I put in and whatever it came into contact with afterward. But no one would want to use it. It would have been a terrible decision for her business (and probably our marriage), but functionally, it would still be soap. Some of the things we choose to steep ourselves in operate the same way; they don't necessarily change the purification we're going through, but they do impact what the final result will look (and smell) like.
Where this analogy really breaks down is that God is not some blind, one-shot chemical process. He can, and will, purify anything we give over to Him. He is personal and reserves the right to fiddle with the details. He may require us to not engage with something any more, but that's handled on a personal basis. Adding something we shouldn't to the mix doesn't necessarily ensure that we will never be the result He wants, as He can cleanse even that. It is when we insist on keeping what does not match with the process He has for us, when we choose to continue pursuing our own notions rather than His plans, that we begin to stink. Even this can be cleansed if we will just stop and turn it over to Him, because the cleansing comes through interaction and not through isolation.
Christian purity culture fails because it is, fundamentally, not Christian. It does not reflect the person of Christ, it does not operate from the basis of His work in us. Listen: if you are in Christ, you are being made pure. Full stop. Your sanctification is a process, that purity is still being applied to you, and you should consider what you will do to help the final result of that process be one that is pleasing to God. But we can't sit around fretting about ruining ourselves with every little mistake. We can't allow ourselves to live as though dirty things from our past (whether done by us or to us) have irreparably corrupted us. We cannot hide away in isolation from a world that desperately needs the cleansing He can provide through us. We can trust that God will take everything, all of our experiences and issues and desires and skills, and purify them for His purposes. So instead of pushing purity culture as it now exists, let us consider pointing people to the Christ who makes all things new and trust Him to do that in and through our lives everywhere we go. Especially in the big messes we can't possibly handle on our own.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Gods At War
Gospel Of John
Gospel Of Matthew
Small Town Summits
Stanley E Porter
The Good Place
Who Is Jesus