A Response to Rachel Held Evans and the Millennial Exodus from the Church

Rachel Held Evans, popular blogger and best-selling author, has an article on CNN.com that’s created quite the frenzy on the interwebs. The last time I checked, the article had been shared 163,000 times on Facebook. The piece is titled, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” and it’s striking more chords than a youth worship leader. Evans has also invited people to join in the conversation, hence my blog post.

In the article, Evans seeks to diagnose why so many young adults are fleeing much of America’s churches. She believes the cause of the exodus is because millennials are finding less of what they value in the church—and please don’t suggest to her that it’s found in “hipper worship bands.”

Evans states:

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

In short, the church needs to change or it will become obsolete.

Personally, I’m smack in the middle of millennial generation (24). I’m also pastor at a church, so I have some stakes in this game. I know my voice is just a drop in the blogosphere ocean and that there have already been some great responses to Evans herehere, and here, [and here] but I wanted to add my two cents.

WHERE EVANS IS SORT OF CORRECT

Not everything Evans has to say is incorrect. I agree that many churches do need to change but not because millennials are leaving. They need to change because they’ve wandered from the truth of the Bible.

Many churches rely on the power of politics to save them, not the Gospel. Many churches rely on emotional experiences to fuel their worship, not an intelligent faith. Many churches care more about preserving their own comfort, not the souls of those around them. Many churches believe they are without sin, not sinners saved by grace. Many churches care more about the amount in attendance, not the individual.

There are many things wrong with the churches in our country and in the churches around the world. In my own church. People sin, therefore the church is full of sinners. Sinful people will jockey for positions. Sinful people will gossip and commit adultery. When a church is full of sinful people then the church will be full of sin. But then again, that’s kind of the point. Isn’t it? Jesus didn’t marry a spotless bride. He married her to make her spotless. We are all in process of healing and the church is the hospital.

Does that excuse the sin that occurs in the church? No. Churches should continually evaluate themselves and repent of sins committed. When repentance does not happen in a church, that’s when you can tell something is really off.

When I talk to people who have left the church, millennial and all other, many times it turns out because they were never shown that church was worth it. They were always preached to about the truth but they never saw the truth actually lived out.

I have friends who have grown up every day of their lives in church, hearing that marriage is sacred. Then they get to college and find out their parents are getting divorced because the father or mother had an affair. It’s no surprise that they are repulsed by all the traditional marriage talk. All they’ve seen are empty words. In their minds, all this church talk is pointless.

Enough with empty words. The church needs to first believe that the truth does work—that the Gospel has enough power within itself to save anyone (Romans 1:16). It’s a message that has sparked revival regardless of persecution or zeitgeist. Jesus promised that if the church was built on the Gospel, then the gates of hell could not even prevail against it (Matthew 16:18-19). I think it can survive a few angst-filled twenty-somethings.

WHERE EVANS IS INCORRECT

I think one of the biggest problems with Evans’ evaluation is she doesn’t recognize that millennials are at least partially responsible for their own exodus from the church.

Yes, I know many have been hurt by people in the church. Yes, I know the church can be frustrating at times. But millennials need to stop playing the victim. Regardless of what’s happened to them in the past, they still get to make their own choices. They have the same Bible that their parents have. And millennials are willfully leaving the church.

Why are they leaving? Whenever I talk to someone who has vacated the church, they typically voice one of the reasons that Evans states in her article. But I’ve found there’s usually something deeper going on. Even if all those things Evans listed in her article were found in a church, I still don’t think a large majority would go to church. This is proven by the fact that there are whole denominations who meet her criteria and they’re actually seeing a decline in attendance across the board.

Millennials are not leaving the church because they have no other choice but to desert the sinking ship. They’re leaving because they don’t care about the church. They don’t like being under authority or having someone call them out for their sin. They want an institution that looks just like them and when they can’t have it, they huff off the basketball court, ball in hand. It’s individualism and consumerism to the core.

This is quite the pickle, if you think about it. Millennials are choosing to abandon Jesus’ bride. They’re leaving the only institution Jesus said He would build (Matthew 16:18-19), the people Jesus chose to die for (Ephesians 2:16), the family they were adopted into (Ephesians 2:19-22), the body they were called to function in (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), the pillar of truth for the whole world (1 Timothy 3:15), and the bride Jesus is coming back for (Revelation 21:1-7). Most of the New Testament is about Christ working in and through the church. Most, if not all, of the epistles were written to churches or their leaders. If you look at the New Testament, I think you’d have a hard time justifying that you can love Jesus but not the church.

Perhaps it’s the millennials who need to change.

If millennials truly love Jesus and want to please Him, they should choose to stay with His bride, not abandon her. If not at their current church, then they should dedicate themselves to find one they can at least tolerate to be in. If they see problems, instead of whining about them, they should do something about it. They should be the change they want to see (to loosely quote someone millennials love to quote). We always talk about making a difference. Here’s our chance to impact the only organization Jesus promised to build. In His mind, there is no plan B to reach the world.

One final thing I think Evans missed is all the millennials who haven’t left but are instead trying to make a difference in the church. I get to see them every day.

The overwhelming majority of the 1500 person church I serve at (named Ekklesia) is made up of millennials. And we are in Eugene, Oregon, one of the most unchurched states in the nation. Ekklesia is also a diverse crowd. Some grew up in the church but many didn’t. Many got saved through hearing the Gospel preached day after day. We are racially diverse (especially for Oregon, one of the whitest states in the Union). We are economically diverse.

And we do do just about everything society would advise against. Get this, we preach the Bible for 45-60 minutes every Sunday and Wednesday—and they’re expository sermons. We believe in the exclusivity of the gospel. We believe in traditional marriage. We believe in the inerrancy of the Word. Yet millennials come. And it really has nothing to do with us because we haven’t tried anything special—unless you count our hip, Greek, one-word name. Both our campuses meet in middle school gyms. We don’t use formal liturgy. We don’t have wine for communion. We didn’t have strategy meetings and focus groups to try and figure out how to best reach the young crowd. We just opened the Bible. They just showed up and never left.

There are churches reaching young people. I could name off more in our city and more in Portland who are doing the same thing. They are faithfully preaching the Bible and wondrously seeing people changed.

As we look at trends like the one Evans has pointed out, we also have to remember that being a Christian is not going to be considered cool. Persecution is guaranteed all throughout the Bible (John 15:18-20, 1 Peter 4:12-19). The Gospel is going to be seen as foolish to most people (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). We don’t need to freak out when these verses are realized in our lives. Instead of capitulating to the spirit of the age, we need to hold fast even stronger to the truth, trusting that Christ will see His church through.

Book Blurbs (Summer 2013)

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. I think I made the outlandish promise in 2011 to do a “Book Blurbs” once a month. I believe that was also the last time I did a “Book Blurbs” post. Well, the series is back for today. Hopefully it will decide to stick around longer.

My reading appetite has been all over the map lately. Sometimes I’m craving a deep theological book, sometimes it’s a suspense novel, and sometimes I just want to watch TV. (Hence the gap in Book Blurbs.) Here’s a short list of books I’ve been ingesting and two books I have yet to read, but am dying to do so.

The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith
by Matthew Lee Anderson

I just purchased this book on my Kindle and I am pumped to dig into it. Anderson is a super-blogger from Mere Orthodoxy and is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Another great read that really helped me write my post on tattoos). The End of Our Exploring is focused on how to question, doubt, and interact with the ambiguities of the Christian faith.

Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent
by N.D. Wilson

Wilson is one of my favorite living authors, having written Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World and the Ashtown Burials series. The Tilt-a-Whirl is a mind-blowing book that I’ve recommended before on this blog and so I have been anticipating Death By Living ever since I hear about it. While the former book focused on living, this one focuses on the reality of death and how that effects our living.

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
by Tim Keller

This book is Keller’s life philosophy on the church. The face of our culture is changing. America is becoming more and more a post-Christian society. People are moving away from the country and rural areas and are flocking to the cities. These cities are shaping culture and creating culture for the entire country. Through this massive tome, Keller seeks to answer the question of, “How do we effectively do church in such a new environment?” The result is a very interesting and provocative book. I’m not sure if I agree with everything Keller says in here but at least he’s trying to do something.

Culture Shift: The Battle for the Moral Heart of America
by Albert Mohler

This book is very timely, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court cases. Mohler examines how the moral heart of America has shifted over the years—why it happened, how it happened, and what the results will be. Instead of fear-mongering, Mohler then tells Christians how we can react to such changes and how we can still make an impact for the Gospel.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories
by Flannery O’Connor

I simply love O’Connor’s short stories about a “Christ-haunted” South. Her stories are dark, gritty, and will make you squirm because you’ll realize she’s writing about us. O’Connor isn’t afraid to shine a light on the church and show that cracks of darkness have infiltrated the body.

God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China
by Liao Yiwu

Liao is a Chinese journalist and not a Christian but he was fascinated by believer’s resiliency in the face of Chinese Communist oppression and persecution. Liao set out to travel around China and unearth stories of faith, martyrdom, and revival. This book is an eye-opener about how widespread and devastating Communist persecution of religion truly was. But it is also amazing to see how these fellow believers reacted in the face of extreme opposition. The whole time I read it, I kept asking myself, “Would I have  been able to stand for the truth in the same way?”

Odd Thomas
by Dean Koontz

Sometimes you just need a great novel to sit down with. I’ve always enjoyed the adrenaline rush Koontz’s stories gave me and so I knew I needed to check out his most beloved character Odd Thomas. Odd is a young man who has been given a special gift: he can see dead people. No Bruce Willis does not show up. With the aid of his gift, Odd is able to combat the evil that seeks to stamp out his life and those around him. Odd Thomas narrates the book and he has one of the most unique voices I’ve ever read. He is funny, earnest, but also somber at the same time. Also, some have made fascinating observations that Odd Thomas is a sort of Christian hero for our day.

Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life
by Douglas Wilson

If you want to know how N.D. Wilson learned to write so well, look no further than to his father, Douglas. Douglas Wilson is also an accomplished author, prolific blogger, and the wit-master of the 21st century. Wordsmithy is a tiny, tiny book centered not on just writing, but on the writing life. Wilson contends that you cannot be a good writer unless you are living a good life. Each section is written in blog post length and can easily be read in five minutes—which is good because as soon as you finish reading a section you will want to go back and read it again. This is by far one of the best books on writing I have ever read. When you have lines like, “Look at the world, and try not to look at yourself looking at the world,” how could you not want to read this?

Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions
by Sam Storms

Including the fact that his name sounds like the alter-ego of a superhero, Sam Storms has a lot to offer in this book. It’s a very straight forward book, dedicating one chapter to each of the twenty-five questions—and Storm did not pick softball questions. Storms picked questions that really do burn in people’s hearts. Here are some examples: Does God ever change his mind? Are those who die in infancy saved? Will people be condemned for not believing in Jesus though they’ve never heard his name? Will there be sex in heaven? (Storms admits that this chapter is the first one everyone will jump to.) Can a Christian be demonized? This is a great resource book to refer to when you have a question but it’s also great to read through all together.

Out of Context: Matthew 18:20 – Where Two or More Are Gathered

carpool_sign_500To continue our series looking at commonly taken out of context verses, I wanted to take aim at one of the most famous of them all, Matthew 18:20.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Typically, I’ve heard it quoted in church services by pastors and worship leaders praying in front of the congregation: “Lord, thank you so much that You are here with us right now as we worship. Your Word says, ‘Where two or more are gathered, there I am also.’ We have at least three hundred here just to be safe, so we know for sure you’re here.” I’ve also heard it in small prayer meetings: “God we know you can hear our prayers right now because Sebastian and Helga are praying with me.”

It’s used as an encouragement to the others listening that God approves of their worship. We know something really extra-special and spiritual is going down because God is actually here with us.

I’m definitely not innocent in my use of this verse. This verse is so commonly used that it’s become another prayer-ism that people naturally say along with “Heavenly Father,” “Place a hedge of protection,” “Bless this food to our bodies” (Because you know, of course, nutrients only travel through your bloodstream if you pray—especially fast-food), and “In Jesus’ name.” Sometimes we don’t even think about it. We just say it.

This is a public service announcement to not take all our Christian-ese as given truth. We need to think through what we say and do in the Christian life, even if it’s been said or done by pastors, and see if what we’re doing is actually founded on the Bible. If it is, then that’s great! If not, then we need to reevaluate our spiritual habits.

(1 + 2 = God) is an equation we really don’t need.

THE CONTEXT

Here’s the context to Matthew 18:20. It’s a little long, but stick with me.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Jesus here is teaching His disciples how things are to work in His kingdom, in His church. He has just finished teaching the disciples about true greatness (18:1-6), how to fight sin (18:7-9), and God’s heart for the lost (18:10-14). Then in verse 15 (our context), Jesus transitions to talk about how we deal with others who sin against us. Justice is not found in taking matters into our own hands but in an orderly system of checks and balances, and in restoration. Jesus gives the disciples four steps to follow in such a situation.

1. Talk about it

Jesus tells His disciples that if they’ve been wronged by someone else in the church, first and foremost they are supposed to confront that person one-on-one (18:15). Not gossip. Not put passive-aggressive statuses on Facebook. Lovingly face-to-face. The goal in all of this is restoration and redemption.

2. Take one or two witnesses with you

If for some reason the perpetrator does not believe you or is not sorry for their sin, you must take one or two people to again confront them (18:16). This shows the person proof that the accusations are not the result of a grudge but in reality seen by multiple people. Jesus says, “every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (18:16). Does that number sound familiar?

3. Have the leadership confront them

If the perpetrator again rejects your loving correction, Jesus says you and the witnesses are to bring it before the “church” (18:17). I don’t have time to explain it all, but I take this to mean the church leadership and not the entire congregation. Hopefully having all the pastors confront the person will make them see the severity of their sin.

4. Send them out of the church

If they still won’t repent, even after multiple confrontations, the church is to send the person out because they are willfully rebelling against God’s Word (18:17). They will bring others down if you don’t (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Timothy 2:16-19; Titus 3:10-11).

Then Jesus ends this sermonette with a reassurance, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (18:18-19). He’s saying, if you go through this process correctly then God agrees with you. This is encouraging because proper church discipline is not a fun deal for anyone.

As a part of His encouragement Jesus ends saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (18:20). Remember that number? It’s the same amount of witnesses needed to properly confront a person in sin. Jesus isn’t saying you need two or three people praying to Him to have Him present. Jesus is encouraging believers that if they go through this process of church discipline properly then He supports their decision.

It’s almost hilarious how different this is from the common misinterpretation of this verse.

IMPLICATIONS

So, is Jesus present when two or more gather in His name? Yes.

He is also present when only one gathers in His name. Or none. God is always with you (Psalm 139) and you can call out to Him at anytime or anyplace. He wants you to. He’s not waiting for a magical number of people to appear.

If that were the case, then what do you do if you have two people gathered but one secretly and nefariously has not gathered in Jesus’ name? Is fellowship broken? No.

Instead, we can come to Jesus at any time, knowing that He is ready and excited to hear from us.

Other Out of Context posts:
Philippians 4:13 – Can I do all things through Christ?
How to take a verse out of context

What I’ve Learned as a New Parent So Far

Real Men Change DiapersIt’s been eight weeks from yesterday since I became a new parent.

While Rebecca was pregnant with Madeline, the number one thing, by far, other parents told me was, “everything is going to change” (Even total strangers would say this to me, no joke). At the time, I had no idea why they felt this was profound wisdom. I knew things would change—it’s simple math that two is different than three—but I had no idea to what degree that change would be.

Right away when Madeline was born, it hit me: There’s no return receipt. She’s here in your arms. You’ve taken out a lease on a human for the next eighteen years. Hope you’re ready, Dad, because it’s happening anyways.

That sounds kind of scary (It was and sometimes still is) but I would never change it for the world. Now, almost two months into this game of parenthood, I’ve realized that the changes never stop and neither do the lessons. I by no means am an expert at parenting—not even close—but I’m learning tons of things through taking care of this little bundle of joy and diapers.

Here’s just a snapshot, in no particular order.

The Love of a Parent Is Different
That’s really the best way I can put it. Different.

It’s not the same kind of love I have for my wife. The love Rebecca and I have in our marriage is work (more on that later), and it was cultivated over a long period of time. I showed up at her house one evening and kept bugging her for two years until she married me. We have ups and we have downs. It’s beautiful and it’s terrifying. Our relationship has to be continually nurtured. If we were to completely ignore each other, our love would grow cold and stale. It’s hard but it’s amazing. That’s marriage.

But the love I have for Madeline is completely different. The second she arrived on this earth, I loved her. I was tired, she was slimy and screaming, but I loved her. We don’t really have a relationship yet because she doesn’t know English. She hasn’t contributed anything to our family except human waste. She hasn’t done anything to earn my love. But I love her. I delight in her. I could stare at her for hours while she just kicks her feet. I want to protect her and give her everything she needs. She doesn’t need to give me anything.

I imagine that’s similar to how the Father loves us. We are poop-covered, crying babies, and God looks at us with loving eyes—delighting in us. That’s grace.

It’s Easy to Neglect Your Marriage When a Parent
I’d heard this one before and seen it happen to other couples, but it was another thing to experience it.

Before Madeline was born, it was fairly simple to find quality time with my wife. It was only the two of us at home and so it would just organically and spontaneously happen. But with the baby here, we’ve been on a continuous three hour loop: feed the baby, change the baby’s diaper, play with the baby, put the baby to sleep, take a deep breath, rinse and repeat. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day but you get older and more sleepy.

On top of that cycle, I have full-time work at Ekklesia and my wife is also trying to take care of the apartment. Oh yes, and we have to do these things called eating and sleeping. Add all of that up and what you get is two really tired spouses who love watching TV and sitting on the couch.

It took us about seven and a half weeks to realize that wasn’t working very well. One day we actually talked (What a novel concept!) and it felt like being with an old friend who had just returned from a long trip. We’d spent hours upon hours together and yet it felt like we hadn’t seen each other for weeks.

It’s easy to fall into the routine of just coexisting in marriage. Kids can easily dominate your relationship and dictate everything. I don’t want to send Madeline off to college and then return home, look at my wife and say, “Who are you?”

Pray Continuously
As I’ve shared earlier, I’m prone to worry and control-freaking. Having a newborn is just one more chance for me to spaz out.

I have to continuously pray because it reminds me that although I am not in control, God is. He loves Madeline far more than I ever could. He has a plan for her far better than I could ever create.

Prayer allows me to place Madeline into God’s hands and feel okay about it. It’s actually a freeing thing to know you are not in control.

Prayer also reminds me Who this is all for. I am not a parent in order to fix my deep identity issues or validate myself as a man. I am a parent to glorify God, exemplify the love of the Father, and point Madeline to the Gospel.

These are lessons I am still learning and will continually learn. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

We Were Created to Work

danger-man-at-work-hiMany people have a love/hate relationship with the word “work.” They like the idea of accomplishing goals and earning their keep, but the actual sweat and effort makes them squirm.

I often hear men boys complain about their workload—the hours are long, the work is menial, their boss is a tyrant, the amount of homework stresses them out, it hurts their fingers—but then with a little bravado in their voice they announce, “Well, it’s just my cross to bear. Work is a part of the Fall. Thanks a lot, Eve,” and then they’re applauded for their perseverance.

CREATED TO WORK

Those guys are wrong. Work is actually not a part of the Fall. Adam began working the very day he was created. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

Work has always been a part of God’s original design for mankind. We were created to work. We were created to cultivate. We were created to create.

What comes with the Fall is not the reality of work but the cursing of our work (Gen. 3:17-19). Now what we create resists. What we cultivate rebels just like we did to God.

Sin has entered into our work. Instead of working to spread the glory of God, we gravitate towards two different extremes—laziness or idolatry. One man may hide between his parents’ couch cushions to avoid working too hard at Taco Bell. The other works 90 hour weeks, neglects his family, his faith, and his health, all for a corner office.

Both are sin.

Work is a lot more difficult now, but we are still called to work and that work can still be good.

WHO’S THE BOSS

We were created to work but not for ourselves and not to create our own meaning. We work and create because—being made in the image of God—we are to reflect the God who created the world and works in human lives.

Our work is worship to Him. Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

You can be a pastor, a lawyer, a mailman, a student, a plumber, a stay-at-home mother, an accountant, or a barista and work hard and well, remembering the whole time your true employer is Jesus Christ. Negative attitudes and half-hearted service wouldn’t please an earthly boss, let alone our Heavenly One.

Jesus died that we would reflect Him in every aspect of our lives. How we flip burgers is not of little value. Everything matters.

That truth should encourage us to make those lattes or crunch those numbers to the best of our abilities—to the glory of Christ. Through your work you can show others how great your God is, that His transforming power infiltrates even the littlest of actions.

You don’t need a seminary degree or a title for permission to minister full-time as a vocation. A banker can make just as much an impact for the Kingdom as a pastor. But this is only possible if our work is for Christ and not ourselves. He is our Lord and Savior and He is the only One who can give our work true meaning.

For further reading check out Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.

This post was adapted from a previous post by me on the Ekklesia Eugene blog.

Out of Context: Philippians 4:13 – Can I do all things through Christ?

As a followup to my tutorial on how to take a verse out of context, I thought it would be beneficial to show and not just tell. I wanted to take a look at some of the most commonly taken out of context verses and place them back into their proper place. You’ll be able to see the implications of taking a verse out of its context and how it really does change the meaning.

Unfortunately for Christians, many of the favorite verses we quote are actually taken out of context. It’s usually not heresy, that takes some real skill, but what happens is we often take a belief that is consistent with American culture and force it into a verse (tip of the day: American doesn’t always equal Christian). I want to look at such an example today.

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, ESV).

This is a verse I’ve quoted to myself many times over the years. On the surface, the meaning seems pretty straightforward: “When insurmountable situations occur, I can rely on Christ’s strength to help me accomplish it.” Whenever I hit a hard test in school, I remember quoting this to myself (because I didn’t study) and it always gave me that extra boost of confidence for the test. In college, Tim Tebow used to wear this verse on his eye black during football games, carrying him to a national championship and Heisman trophy. I’ve heard of other believers using this verse to encourage themselves to ask that girl out, apply for that job, audition for American Idol, and countless other random things.

It’s the American dream with Jesus steroids.

The logic flows like this. Can Jesus do all things? Why, of course He can. He is God after all. If I’m saved, doesn’t Jesus live in me? Yes, right again. Then by the transitive property, I can do all things.

It sounds nice and I understand why people believe it, including myself years ago, but—and I hate being a wet blanket—this understanding of the verse is incorrect. It takes Philippians 4:13 out of its context.

THE CONTEXT

Here’s the immediate context of the verse:

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Alright, let’s unpack this to discover the correct meaning.

To give you some background, Paul is writing from prison to the Philippians. Paul had a good relationship with the Christians in Philippi, so naturally they were concerned for their imprisoned pastor (4:10). The problem was that although the Philippians were worried for Paul, they had no opportunity to express that concern through more gifts (they had previously given Paul a gift, 4:18, but wished to do more). Paul, sensing their concern, sought to reassure the Philippians that he did not need another gift. He writes, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (4:11-12).

What Paul? Aren’t you in prison? How can you be content with that? It’s because he knows the secret to being content—and he reveals that secret in the next verse.

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

THE IMPLICATIONS

Paul says, the secret to being content is Christ. In any situation, even if you are alone in a dark Roman prison, you can be content through Christ’s strength. That’s what Philippians means by doing “all things through Him.” It’s about finding complete satisfaction in Jesus Christ, even in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death.

So Philippians 4:13 is not talking about accomplishing anything through Christ. Can we do great things with Christ, things only possible with His strength? Of course. But Jesus is not Siri, waiting for us to give Him requests to fulfill.

I think such a belief can be subtly dangerous. It gives a whiff of the Prosperity Gospel—the idea that Jesus’ work on the cross accomplished for me not only spiritual victory over sin but physical victory over sickness, poverty, and hardship. It says, if I believe hard enough and take hold of that victory, Jesus will make me healthy, wealthy, accomplish my dreams, give me a hot spouse and kids that behave, and I’ll die at an old age peacefully in my sleep.

It’s about using Jesus as a genie to get more stuff.

This idea is profoundly unhelpful. What happens if you don’t accomplish that goal you were pining for? You fail the test. You don’t get the job. You lose the game. Your mortgage goes belly-up. What went wrong? By the old logic of Philippians 4:13, either you didn’t believe Jesus could do it or Jesus can’t do it. Tell that to someone who just found out that their cancer came back and you’ll quickly see how this interpretation falls apart.

Paul couldn’t get the thorn out of his flesh. Timothy couldn’t heal his stomach ailment. What was wrong with their faith? Nothing. In fact their faith was strengthened because of their trials.

Knowing what this verse means in its context should actually give us more encouragement than less.

We are not promised that hardship will avoid us. We live in a broken world and it takes its toll. But we are promised that in the middle of the hardest things life can throw at you Christ will still be sufficient for you, His power is made perfect in weakness, and you can make it through His strength.

Now that is something far more valuable than getting an “A” on the test.

Fool’s Gold

Tucker Stipe is a really great friend of mine (Kyle). We both studied together in the Ekklesia School of Ministry and were co-workers on staff at the church. Tucker’s now chasing after an M.Div. from Knox Seminary in hopes to one day plant a church in Miami, Florida. Some of us are called to bear the cross, others are called to the beach. I have always admired Tucker’s humble honesty in bearing his own soul. He is one of the most authentic people I know and you will see that in his writing. I know you will enjoy what he has to say in this guest post. 

Fool's GoldFool’s gold, everybody has fallen for it… hopefully as a kid and not as an adult. More likely someone is naive when they go down to Mexico and buy a “solid silver” necklace only to find their skin turning green from wearing it. Fake jewelry is so commonplace that no one thinks twice when they see a high school kid walk in with fat “diamonds” in his ears, because we all know he got them at Claire’s. It is the substance of the jewelry that makes the difference, not its outward appearance. Some things are genuine on the outside and yet devoid of that purity at their core which would make them so valuable. Enter case study number one:

The church of Ephesus was a great church with phenomenal leadership at various times in its life. But not all that glitters is gold. Jesus had strong words for this church when He had John write to them in Revelation 2. They were commended for being doctrinally pure, morally pure, and for persevering in their witness, but at their core there was a grave problem. They had forsaken their first love. The text is a bit ambiguous as to what love they had forsaken, their love for God or their love for one another. Perhaps Jesus left it vague for a reason. Jesus Himself, when He walked the earth, said the second greatest commandment was like the first, thus linking the two! Genuine Christian love is impossible without a love for Jesus. It seems this church had lost the sweetness that comes from a heart filled with the Spirit of Christ. The church clearly upheld the truth boldly, but without love the truth is nothing but a club with which to beat thy neighbor with.

I personally feel this tension greatly. I must admit that this would be a sin area in my life that the Lord has been teaching me and growing me in. I have often been so concerned with upholding the truth and remaining morally pure that I have forgotten the love of Christ that must compel the first two pursuits. What I have found is this, as Jesus captivates my heart more and more I have a greater desire to be pure and orthodox and yet my tenderness and kindness with people grows, I have a much greater patience with people because I am so grateful for God’s patience with me. True love cares about more than doctrinal and moral purity; true love cares about the spirit of the individual. And thus true love speaks the truth but with tenderness and care for the whole person, recognizing our own faults.

At times I think highly of my pedigree, which leads me to that prideful condemning spirit. Enter case study number two: Paul the apostle had to come to the point where he realized his resume was not impressive enough (Phil 3). It was not his pedigree that made the difference, it was his “love for Christ” (pardon the paraphrase). When Paul found his “first love” his shiny exterior became of little value to him, he even called it as good as dung! I must point out however that, that did not mean that Paul threw out his “good works,” but it does mean that he no longer put his confidence in them. Their role in his life changed. Rather than trying to uphold the law to perfection, he acknowledged that he never could and relied on the sacrifice of Christ for his salvation and the power of the Spirit for his sanctification.

It is all by the grace of God worked out in our hearts that allows us right relationship with God and one another. We cannot forsake our “first love.” The trouble with this type of sin is we are really bad at seeing it in ourselves. Often like the church in Ephesus we need someone to point it out to us in true love. If you dare, I challenge you to find someone who knows you and is around you a lot, give them permission to be brutally, lovingly honest and ask them if you come across as high-handed, demeaning and condemning as you stand for moral and doctrinal purity. Then be humble and just listen; pray that God would give you eyes to see yourself the way He sees you. Don’t rebut or make excuses, just listen! It is only in real authentic community that you can get this kind of “real talk”.  If you think you don’t have anyone who would be qualified to speak into your life in that way, step one is bearing your soul with some people. This is where I am. Having moved across the country and only being here for about a month I need to bear my soul with brothers. God is asking me to reassess my life for Him and His people and to put no confidence in my flesh, but without a community to help me navigate these things I am sure to end up off track.

My fear is that I would look at myself 40 years from now and see a man jaded by ministry and who has lost his passion for making disciples and seeing lives transformed. If my confidence is in my flesh and my love is centered anywhere other than love for Lord and neighbor, then ministry will become a burden and I will continually be frustrated. Without community this slide is a guarantee, but God has called us into fellowship to guard us from this and to lead us to a pure confidence and love.

Tucker Stipe is a man who is after God’s heart. He longs to see the city of Miami transformed by the gospel. His driving passion is to know his Savior and to make disciples. Tucker blogs at gospelcolumn.com on the gospel, life, family, etc.  You can also follow him on Twitter @tuckstipe.

Blockbuster Sermons

anchorman-2-sequel-image-will-ferrellMovies and sermons have always had an awkward marriage. Preachers want to look cool, but they also want to help people—and they also want to look cool.

What’s cooler and more helpful than a movie? I’ll tell you: a preacher who knows about movies.

Back in the day, “Braveheart” was co-opted by many a preacher as a picture of heroism, masculinity, and sacrifice. “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” are heralded as a parable of the cosmic battle between good and evil. And recently “Man of Steel,” starring Superman as the Christ-figure, garnered its own sermon notes from Warner Bros, aptly titled, “Jesus: The Original Superhero.” Some churches have even created multiple sermon series based off popular Hollywood films.

With a slew of big blockbusters heading our way this year, I thought I’d get a jump on it and help all the preachers gain relevancy capital by lending them a few mind-blowing sermon ideas for upcoming movies.

The Wolverine
Plot*: Wolverine makes a voyage to modern-day Japan, where he encounters an enemy from his past that will impact on his future.
Sermon: Samson, Wolverine without claws and better hair.

jOBS
Plot: The story of Steve Jobs’ ascension from college dropout into one of the most revered creative entrepreneurs of the 20th century.
Sermon: iAM: How the existence of Apple is proof God loves us.

One Direction: This Is Us
Plot (Can you call it that?): Niall, Zayn, Liam, Harry and Louis’ meteoric rise to fame, from their humble hometown beginnings and competing on the X-Factor, to world domination, and performing at London’s famed O2 Arena.
Sermon: Don’t let anyone look down on you because you’re young, undiscovered, and in a boy-band.

Paranormal Activity V
Plot: Some crazy “paranormal activity” gets caught on camera and everyone freaks out, again (these movies are legion).
Sermon: Exorcism 101. Special song by Demon Hunter.

Thor: The Dark World
Plot: When Jane Foster (Thor’s human lady-love) is targeted by the denizens of the dark world of Svartalfheim (don’t ask me to pronounce it for you), Thor sets out on a quest to protect her at all costs.
Sermon: The Hammer of God. Note to the preacher: The “hammer” can be customized to what your church needs to hear (hell, purity, vegan food—whatever you like).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Plot: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.
Sermon: Deborah, the original Mockingjay.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Plot: The Dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf have successfully escaped the Misty Mountains, and Bilbo has gained the One Ring. They all continue their journey to get their gold back from the Dragon, Smaug.
Sermon: How to slay the dragons of life and take all the plunder for yourself (A 12 part series).

Anchorman: The Legend Continues
Plot: The continuing on-set adventures of San Diego’s top-rated newsman.
Sermon: As a dog returns to its vomit, so do producers with sequels.

This idea could make millions, not that it’s about the money. Don’t worry. It’ll all go towards a good cause: my petition to block Nicholas Cage’s “Left Behind” re-make.

*Plot summaries are somewhat from IMDB, peppered with my flair.