General Conference is Here

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818The lead up to the specially called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has been fierce. I have recorded my thoughts here several times on the various plans, Judicial Council decisions, and the actions of organizations like the Wesleyan Covenant Association (and even gotten more than one “talking to” about it). But now, the time of speculation, commentary, and wish making has come and gone.

General Conference is here.

While I have been outspoken about a lot of this, I’m afraid that my ultimate hope has been misunderstood somewhat. Here’s what I want for the United Methodist Church: A fresh movement of the Holy Spirit to overpower all of us – the delegates, clergy, laity, and everyone – and cause us to once again bring about the kingdom here. Yes, I would love for us to find a way to continue in ministry together but I also realize that God’s kingdom is much bigger than the UMC. That’s the thing: We are supposed to be about kingdom work. We need to get back to the work of evangelism.

While some disagree, the biggest problem in the UMC is a lack of evangelistic zeal. We have been so distracted by debating about LGBTQ inclusion that I fear we have forgotten our first love. Regardless of what happens in Saint Louis, we have got to get back to our mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We – and I definitely include myself – have been distracted for far too long.

When the delegates have all gone home and we are calculating the fallout from Saint Louis, the “last, the least, and the lost” will still be there in the world. They are thirsty for redemption and for new life. No resolution, plan, or debate is going to save them; only Jesus Christ can do that. It’s up to us to reach out and show that love to them.

I have my convictions and I am prepared to stand by them. Support your chosen plan, make your voice heard (with the knowledge that it’s the delegates who will ultimately decide). But no matter what does or doesn’t happen, can we all agree that we have got to get back to work for Jesus? If nothing else, I hope we can agree on that.

I am praying for our delegates, the bishops who will preside, and for the church as a whole as General Conference begins. I hope you will too. Below are some ways to follow along in real time if you would like. Above all, pray… And then act.

Streaming link
Social Media Hashtags: #UMC, #GC2019, #UMCGC

Pastoral Thoughts on the Wet/Dry Vote in Powell County

cross-grave-cemetery-tombstone-161136.jpegMy brothers and sisters,

I greet you all in the name of Jesus Christ and I hope that this writing finds you all well.

As you all know, Powell County is at a crossroads. Soon, we will go to the polls and decide our primary elections as well as whether or not to allow liquor and beer sales within the county. I realize that we all have our opinions on the issue – I have mine as well. I believe that scripture teaches that drunkenness is a sin (Ephesians 5:18, Romans 13:13, Galatians 5:21) but as far as scripture’s teaching of consumption of alcohol in general, there is a mix of interpretations. At least today, I will not get into that. When it comes to the wet/dry vote, I feel there is something else that needs to be said right now.

I have been made aware by some members of the community that there is a campaign of harassment and shame being waged against some of the people who signed the petition to have the wet/dry issue placed on the ballot. I also know that there have been letters sent to at least a few pastors in the county – one of whom is me – suggesting that any pastor who does not participate with this group is not really a Christian. The tactics being employed by this group of both lay and clergy persons are disturbing on many levels. I believe that their tactics are harmful and hurt the witness of the Christians in Powell County. Further, I do not believe that such tactics are characteristic of a follower of Jesus Christ and is doing more harm than good.

I ask my brothers and sisters who are involved with this group to carefully consider the teachings and example of the Lord in such matters. One such example is found in John 8 when Jesus stops a mob from stoning a woman who had committed adultery. Jesus simply causes the members of this mob to examine the conditions of their own souls: “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” (John 8:7b NLT) Another teaching that Jesus gave that speaks to this is found in Matthew 7.

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. 2 For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.[b]

“And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye[c] when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5 NLT)

I’m sad to say that this group is reminding me more of the Pharisees than of a group of concerned followers of Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters, we can and should advocate for our beliefs. I have no issue with that. My issue is the method by which this is being done. We can not allow our passion for an issue to allow us to resort to fear and shame in order to make our point. This is not Christ-like behavior and will only contribute to the stereotype that Christians are judgemental and hateful. I urge you all to please reevaluate the tactics being used and consider employing other methods. Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35 NLT).

Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians: “So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’” (2 Corinthians 5:20 NLT) Brothers and sisters, we must remember that we represent Christ with everything that we say, think, and do when we claim the name “Christian.” We will not win souls with shame and hateful tones of voice. That’s not how Jesus ministered to the woman at the well and so many others. Let everything we do in the name of God be done with nothing but love… And let’s mean it.

In Christ,

Rev. Jonathan Tullos
Christian, Disciple, Pastor of Shiloh UMC Stanton, KY

“Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth?”

26220101_10159794806340147_6943418189534145442_nIn the summer of 2016, I had the honor of attending the Wesley Pilgrimage sponsored by Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Along with seeing sites significant to the history of Methodism and learning from some of the greatest Wesley scholars available, I also had the opportunity to meet people from many different places and from many different backgrounds. Two of my fellow pilgrims hail from nations in Africa. Ande (“Andy”) is an ordained Elder from Nigeria and Julu is a lay leader in Liberia. Both are two of the most committed Christians and United Methodists I have ever met, not to mention that both are just extremely nice men. Both are working hard to make their homes better by taking seriously the call to discipleship and mission.

Both were also among the people President Trump insulted with his “shithole countries” remark.

The words that President Trump used to degrade immigrants from third world nations – many of whom are refugees escaping extreme poverty and war – are the most reprehensible words that I have ever seen or heard attributed to the president. I realize that our political leaders are just as human as you and I but, simply, they can’t say things like that and not expect to be held accountable. The President of the United States wields much power with their words and the words that President Trump used to demonize human beings who are of sacred worth in God’s eyes are beyond comprehension. I join the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops in denouncing the president’s statement and I, too, call it what it is: It is racist. It is evil. It simply can not be tolerated.

I refuse to be complicit in his unbiblical and unchristian statement through silence.

Like many pastors, I follow the Revised Common Lectionary most weeks. I know some view this as “quenching the work of the Spirit” but I disagree, especially when the readings are so prophetic and timely to what is happening in our world today. Sunday’s Old Testament reading is from 1 Samuel 3:1-20 where God calls out to Samuel and declares a judgment upon his own father Eli for not heeding God’s word. The Gospel reading is from John 1:43-51 and the part that strikes me so much as far as this week’s big news is concerned is found in verse 46 where Nathaniel says, “‘Nazareth!’ exclaimed Nathanael. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’” Nathaniel is soon converted as he realizes that, yes, something good has come out of the s***hole Nazareth – the Lord Jesus Christ.

God is still speaking. Are we still listening? Even more so, are we ready to actually heed his word and do what we are expected to do as Christians? Can we stop judging and hating people who look different than us and who are from different places? Can we stop condoning and even defending evil words and actions from our elected officials and our clergy? When will God’s people stand up and shout “no more!” and then actually rise up to do something about it?

All people are made in God’s image. All people are of sacred worth.

All means all.

Worship leader and songwriter Matthew West has a song called “Do Something.” The man in the story names several ills of the world and shouts to God, “Why don’t you do something?!” In the song, God responds: “I did, I created you!”

So, I say again: When will God’s people stand up and say “no more?” I don’t know about you but this one is choosing to respond.

No more!

It’s Time For Some Tough Love

widetableFriends, it’s time for a dose of reality and some tough love. First of all, I am sick and tired of all the bruhaha over NFL players kneeling, standing, not standing, staying in the tunnel, staying in the locker room, or whatever they choose to do. My social media feeds have been filled with nothing but reactions for and against the actions that NFL players, coaches, and owners took or did not take in response to President Trump’s remarks calling for the firing of NFL players who protest during the national anthem (the fact that he used language that I would rather he didnt is another story). There has been great passion displayed by people arguing on both sides of the issue, a passion that I admire and find very commendable.

I just wish we would show this much passion about things that actually matter.

One thing I have noticed during my existence in this world is that we tend to display lots of passion about sports, politics, and which celebrity is pregnant this week. However, that same passion is rarely placed where it is actually needed. Our priorities are all messed up. We care about things that have absolutely no bearing on the greater good of the world and care little to none about suffering, oppression, and the other things that we really should be so passionate about. While we (collectively) have been pouring our energy into what an athlete does or does not do during the national anthem, here’s what I did not hear much about.

  • The entire island of Puerto Rico – very much part of the United States as they are a territory – is without electricity or communication. Most of their houses have been severely damaged or destroyed. Their supply lines are all but completely shut off. They are in desperate need of aid and it may take years for the Puerto Ricans to recover. The damage has been described as “apocalyptic.” On top of all of that, a dam was heavily damaged and is likely to completely fail.
  • A mass shooting in Antioch, Tennessee at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ killed one and wounded six others, mostly older people who had gathered for worship. The local media reports say that if an usher had not intervened to fight the shooter, the situation could have been much worse. One of the wounded is their pastor, Rev. Joey Spann, and he remains in critical condition. It’s unknown what the motive of the shooting is.
  • People in Florida, Texas, and other places impacted by recent hurricanes are continuing to recover from the damage sustained during those storms. People are still living in shelters and many have no homes to go to.
  • Homelessness still exists, children are still going hungry, people are still addicted to drugs and alcohol, and families are still being torn apart due to these addictions and much more.

As long as these things are in existence, I simply don’t have time to worry about what someone does or does not do when the national anthem is played. And, frankly, if you’re a Christian… Neither do you.

The Old and New Testaments are rife with teachings about caring for the poor, seeking justice for the oppressed, loving our neighbors, and being kind but it seems like we ignore those things. We expend so much time and energy on petty political differences when we could be putting our energy into much more productive endeavors. If we used that energy toward ending hunger and homelessness, those issues would be gone tomorrow. If we used all that energy to working to end drug and alcohol addiction, the number of lives changed for the better would be astounding.

If you are a Christian and spend more time behind a keyboard or holding a smartphone using it to argue political ideology than you do working on things that break God’s heart, you’re not in line with the teachings of Jesus (I include myself in this rebuke). Does that sting? Good, it should.

We need to do better by using our passion and energy toward things that actually matter. In ten years, I can promise you that what an athlete or a team choose to do during the national anthem will not have one bit of bearing on anyone’s’ life. In ten years, we likely won’t even remember that this was a debate. But in ten years, someone could have a better life or even be alive in the first place because you put the phone down and invested in your energy into something – or someone – that actually matters.

And if you’re a Christian, that’s your duty as a disciple.

The Journey to Perfection

92aba00b06181159f052f909ec08e648-john-wesley-gospelI came to Mississippi to have my yearly meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (DCOM) where my ordination candidacy resides. On my way down from Kentucky, my car started having some trouble and it’s currently undergoing automotive surgery, therefore I have been spending some extra time down south. As I obviously was not going to be preaching at Shiloh today, I decided to worship at First UMC in my hometown of Philadelphia, MS. Their associate pastor, Rev. Ryan McGough, preached on the account of Nicodemus’ journey of faith as described in John’s gospel. One of the points Rev. McGough made was that, like Nicodemus, our faith journey is much more than a moment in time, it’s a life-long process of being perfected in the image of Christ.

When I was in paramedic school I was in the midst of my field internship shifts. I was so ready to be finished and to finally be a medic. I was riding with a crew from a rural service one day and I expressed these sentiments to my preceptor. He said, “Paramedic school gets you ready to pass the written test and to pass the skills check off. Getting through paramedic doesn’t make you a paramedic. When you get your gold patch, you are then a paramedic. But that’s all you are. From there, the real education begins. You will have a choice to make: Do you want to be a paramedic or a good paramedic? One will get you a job but the other will make you a better provider every shift and you will advance. Maybe you will go on to be a critical care medic or maybe even an instructor. But know this: The journey to being a paramedic doesn’t take long. The journey to being a great paramedic is a marathon, not a sprint.”

I’ve said such a few times myself and I will maintain this forever: The process of sanctification is a lifetime process, it does not occur overnight. Salvation is much more than a moment in time in front of an altar rail at a church or tent revival, it’s a journey with Jesus that we all take together as one body of Christ. Salvation is not as simple as punching our fire insurance card, it’s something we have to be invested in for the long haul. It takes faith in God to work in our lives, patience, and persistence.

Perfection in Christ has no express lane.

Persons who are being ordained as Deacons and Elders in the United Methodist Church are asked a series of traditional questions that John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and every bishop since have asked ordinands. One of them is this: “Are you going on to perfection?” Saying that one is “going on” to Christian perfection indicates that this is no one-time thing. This is a process. If you think that one sin too many is going to keep God from loving you, that’s just not true. As Rev. McGough said today, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Persist! Go on! You can do this through the strength of Christ!

Hugh Freeze and Christian Hero Worship

 

di3ucyvaw1ladvtwc7fs
Photo Credit: Deadspin

If you are in tune with the college football world and have been anywhere near a TV, computer, or smartphone then you already know what happened to Hugh Freeze. Coach Freeze is now the former head football coach at Ole Miss. So, there really is not any need to rehash the events because you probably already know all about it. Commenters from all corners were quick to pounce on Freeze. I do feel that we should remember that Coach Freeze is a broken human being just like any of the rest of us and he is as much in need of a savior as you and me. He is a child of God and we should absolutely be praying for him and his family right now. While I made my share my snarky comments (one of my weaknesses is getting too caught up in the Mississippi State – Ole Miss rivalry), I do feel that we should all remember that prayer is the most appropriate response from any of us right now.

I also feel that this points to a major weakness within the Christian church, especially in the more evangelical realm. We tend to celebrate Christians who are famous and we put them on a pedestal. More often than not, it’s the ones who are put on a pedestal who take a major fall. There are exceptions to this rule (at least as far as we can tell) but many who we tend to lift higher than others in the kingdom have been set up for a major moral failure or even worse. Unfortunately for Hugh Freeze, he is just the latest in a long line of famous Christians who have been celebrated and next thing we know we are left asking questions about their integrity and whether they were even faithful disciples in the first place.

Here’s what I know about people like Hugh Freeze, Tim Tebow, and other people who are famous and Christian: They are human, they are broken, they are in need of a savior. In other words, they are just like me and you. We run the risk of being profoundly disappointed when we hold human beings to such high standards that we tend to do in these situations and then a fall from grace occurs. The pressure of being held to such high standards alone can be enough to make someone vulnerable to temptation.

The fact that they are famous does not make them special in the eyes of God. They do not have special standing with the Father due to the fact that a lot of people know who they are. Yes, a famous person can be used of God to spread the good news of Jesus Christ but here’s the thing: So can any one of us. You and I have the same capability, in the ways that the Spirit has gifted us, to do some major work for Jesus Christ. Just imagine how much would be accomplished for the Kingdom if we stopped expecting others to do the work of God and instead allowed ourselves to be used.

We don’t have to be someone like Hugh Freeze or Tim Tebow to be effective for Christ.

We also face a profound danger when we lift famous Christians so high up: We run the risk of idolatry. Whether we are talking about a person or a cell phone, we can be so in awe that we can end up toeing the line between profound respect and worship of that person or thing. This is not something that we set out to do but this trap is an easy one to fall into. We must be careful when we hold people in such high esteem to not cross the line into idolatry.

I believe that God does smile when someone uses their platform to bring glory to His name. I believe that it’s right to be proud that a brother or sister who has a powerful voice willingly uses their position to tell people about Christ. But we must remember that all people have the unfortunate common trait of being imperfect and in need of Christ. We also should remember that while such people may be of God, they are not God. We must be careful to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

And when one of the famous among us in the church has a fall, let us be quick to offer the love of Christ rather than ridicule. I include myself on the receiving end of this advice.

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:23 (NLT)

Are We Almost or Altogether Christian?

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – Brennen Manning

For the last few weeks, we have been doing a sermon series called The Words of Wesley. I am preaching a few of John Wesley’s sermons but they are somewhat shortened and are in modern language as opposed to the “King James” English that Wesley used. Today’s sermon was “The Almost Christian” where Wesley discussed the attributes of one who is an “Almost Christian” and one who is an “Altogether Christian.” Wesley’s message can be boiled down to say that the Almost Christian seems to be doing everything that a Christian ought to do – going to worship, appearing to reject sin, even praying, etc. – but they lack a sincere faith. A sincere faith and desire to truly serve God are what separate the Almost Christian from the Altogether Christian. In other words, Almost Christian looks and even sounds Christian but they are merely going through the motions for nothing because they lack faith.

In preparing for this sermon, I began to think of cultural Christianity. I have written about this before and how I long for the day when cultural Christianity is dead. I still long for that day. It was not that long ago – and somewhat this is still the case – that churches were filled with people who were only there out of expectation or as a means of material or political gain. Using the name of God for personal gain is nothing new but, as I wrote in my previous article, there was a time when one could suffer in business and politics if they did not attend any church or even the right church. If we take a good, hard, and honest look at why so many people attended worship services in the so-called “good old days,” we find that personal gain was a major motivation.

‘Merica.

Wesley’s sermon makes one take a good, hard, and honest look at their spiritual life to decide if they are truly an Altogether Christian. Toward the end, Wesley asked the congregation gathered at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, England that day a series of questions. For me, this one is the one that really strikes to the heart of whether or not one is an Altogether Christian.

The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All”? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing?

So much of what certain people who proclaim Christ engage in can be perceived that the answer to the question above is a resounding “no.” There are so many among us who are using the name of Christ as a means to gain political points. We have church choirs singing political propaganda songs under the guise of a worship anthem. We have an extreme end of a certain political party who insist that they are the only ones who are the true Christians in the political realm.

They may say this but the way they treat the poor and the marginalized say otherwise.

I don’t intend to go off on a political tangent but I do want us to think about whether we are truly part of the church and claim the name of Christ strictly as a means of personal or political gain. If we do the right things, say the right words, and have no motivation other than looking good than we are maybe an Almost Christian (if we are anywhere close to Christian at all). But if our motivation is nothing but the glory of God and we desire nothing but Christ, if we can truly ask ourselves the question above and shout a resounding “yes!” then we are an Altogether Christian.

So are you Almost a Christian or are you Altogether a Christian?

Lessons From The Hunger Games

panem
A map of Panem from the Hunger Games books, as seen at the Hunger Games Exhibition in Louisville, KY.

Jessica and I spent some time in Louisville, KY for a short get away. Wednesday before we came home, we went to see an exhibit of The Hunger Games movies at the Frazier History Museum. If you didn’t know, Jennifer Lawrence is from Louisville so it makes sense that this exhibition is right up the road from us. Some of the background information told of how the author, Suzanne Collins, came up with the idea for the books. It began when she was watching coverage of the Iraqi military action and she began to ponder how media coverage of violence desensitizes people to the true suffering involved in a war. For the storyline, she incorporated elements of Roman history, specifically the oligarchy and the violence of the battles to the death of the gladiators.

An argument could be made that this is also a reflection of modern society.

We simply can not deny that much of our current society reflects that of ancient Rome. Much of the political power is held by the wealthy, who are in the minority. We only care about our own comfort, our own well-being and as long as we are comfortable nothing else matters. We are oblivious to the suffering of those who are in poverty (and even having the audacity to say it’s entirely their fault), who are marginalized, and who are embattled in addiction. We have reality shows that keep us sedated, news coverage that exposes us to so much violence that we learn to tune it out, which crosses over into real life. We pout over our first world problems like not having the latest phone and forget that people in places like North Korea and Iraq are in fear of their lives on a constant basis. We indulge in excess of all sorts and waste enough food to feed many small countries while children all over the world hope for a bowl of rice. We also do all of this with a straight face while many of us claim to love Jesus and what he teaches, yet we would turn someone away from our churches because their sin is different than ours or because they are not dressed “appropriately.”

We are Panem.

In Revelation 3, we read the words of Jesus to the Church of Sardis:

“I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive—but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again.” Revelation 3:1-3a (NLT)

The American church claims that it is strong and, in many ways, this is correct. However, the American church is also very weak in its witness. We have equated our faith to God to the level of our patriotism. We have equated our relationship with God to how large our houses, bank accounts, and SUVs are. We have forgotten/ignored that Jesus was not a caucasian with perfectly maintained brown hair and blue eyes but rather was a Middle Eastern Jew who looks nothing like us. Many of us still look at Christianity as simply doing what is expected and going through the motions of being in a pew on Sunday morning rather than truly having a life of reconciliation and transformation. We treat our neighbors as sub-human while demanding respect for ourselves (and count any perceived disrespect as “persecution.” We also do not truly acknowledge the cruelty and brutality of his death and instead look at it as something “dignified” if we even truly believe it at all.

The question could be asked if it’s too late for the American church to make a turnaround. In small ways, it already is.  We do have devoted disciples who truly live out their faith and who do more than simply go through the motions. They believe the gospel of Jesus Christ and proclaim it not just with their words but also their Christ-like love. Jesus provided such encouragement later in Revelation 3.

“Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” Revelation 3:4 (NLT)

I believe there is much good in the American church but we definitely need to do better. The worst thing one who claims to love Christ can do is to simply go through the motions. Let us not be so desensitized and self-absorbed that we are oblivious to the reality right outside our front doors and beyond the walls of our church buildings. Let us also not be arrogant enough to think that the level of our discipleship is tied to material wealth. Let us not call ourselves Christians unless we are actually prepared to live out our faith, instead of simply wanting our fire insurance.

The people of the Capitol in The Hunger Games were so sedated by excess that they had no idea of the suffering in the outlying districts. Hypothetically, if they were aware they likely did not care. The American church is, unfortunately, the same in some ways. A lot of churches do amazing things but there are others that are so wrapped up in “doing” church that they have no interest in being the church. Where does your congregation fall? What are you doing – what are we doing – to not only proclaim Jesus with words but also with our living?

Are we the church or are we just playing church?

Patriotism in Church

bible-american-flag1There was a time when I was a volunteer firefighter. Sometime after I joined with Stonewall Fire and Rescue, I was having a conversation with the chief, at the time it was a man named Jimmy Andrews, and he told me something that I have continued to remember even since I have moved on from being a firefighter. Jimmy said that when he first became a firefighter he heard someone say that the following should be one’s main priorities (and in this order): God, country, family, the fire department, and everything else. Someone else once told me to always make sure that I “keep the Main Thing the main thing.” The takeaway from both of these bits of wisdom is that God should always be the number one priority over all else in our lives, period. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else.

We especially need to remember to keep the Main Thing the main thing when we gather to worship. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else. Now, that should be obvious but I feel like we can sometimes get carried away with celebrating other things to the point that it becomes idolatry. In other words, we forget to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

I’m proud of my country and I love the fact that we, as Americans, have a lot of freedom that we tend to take for granted. We are able to speak our minds, able to gather in worship, able to choose our elected officials and pursue our lives as we see fit. We can come and go as we please without a government official checking our “papers” every few miles. These are things we should be thankful and I feel that it’s appropriate for us to give thanks to God for these freedoms and for our country. Having a flag in the sanctuary is OK. I even like belting out “God Bless America” on Sundays around the patriotic holidays. These things are fine and, so long as they are done properly, I believe they are acceptable to God. But we do have to be careful not to cross a line and make our worship activities more about Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, and Old Glory than about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A few days ago I read an account of last Sunday’s worship service at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. I have to be very honest: Reading about this service – and watching some of it – made me very uncomfortable and I can’t honestly say that I would have wanted to be a participant in it. The author points out that the worship service was much more about American and very little about God.

The fact that there was a red, white, and blue hued cross made me cringe.

To me, this is a major problem that, unfortunately, seems to be an issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in churches in the United States. This does not seem confined to any particular denomination or type of church but more and more American Christians are equating their faith with their patriotism. This is nothing short of idolatry. In celebrating our country, we must be very careful to make sure that we do not place our loyalty to our homeland equal to or even greater than our loyalty to God. Our love for anything (or anyone) should not be equal to or greater than our love for God.

In scripture, we are reminded that we are to place nothing – absolutely nothing – above God. When God told the Israelites, “You must not have any other god but me” (Exodus 20:3 NLT) he wasn’t just talking about a statue of Buddha or the like. An idol can be anything that we are willing to worship or otherwise place above God. This includes patriotism. I want to emphasize that it is perfectly alright to be thankful for our country and to celebrate that blessing but we must be careful to make sure that we do not do so at the expense of our loyalty to God.

We must keep the Main Thing the main thing.

When a celebration of anything overshadows God in a worship service, the line between acceptable and unacceptable has not only been crossed, it has been ignored altogether. It’s also worth noting that in many countries such celebrations are virtually unheard of in Christian worship. I look back on the Wesleyan Pilgrimage I set out on last summer and out of all the churches I visited in England – Methodist or Anglican – I can not recall one that had a Union Jack anywhere on or in the building.

All I’m saying is that we must be careful to make sure that we do not cross a line that should not be crossed.

Inevitably, someone is likely going to accuse me of not being a patriot or of condemning those who do acknowledge patriotic holidays during worship. That could not be farther from the truth. Sing a patriotic song recognize the military, say a prayer of thanks for our freedom (we will be doing all of these things at Shiloh this Sunday). I am not against these things. I am against a worship service not being centered on God and centered on other things, be it a nation, a celebrity, or anything else that is not God. These thoughts – which are mine and mine only – are only intended to serve as food for thought as to what boundaries should be set.

I will close with the words of the author of the article I linked above, as his concerns are also mine.

What would a Christian from another country say? Would they recognize their place in this church?

What about those for whom this has not been such a great country? What about those who still bear the stripes callously inflicted upon their ancestors’ backs?

What about those who don’t claim the Christian faith? Would they come away from such a celebration understanding anything about the gospel of Christ, and hear its call on their lives?

What would happen if Jesus showed up in the flesh? Would we recognize him as our guest of honor? Would we even recognize him at all? (emphasis his)

I don’t think so.

Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone desperately wrong.

God, forgive us.

And may it be so, Lord. Amen.

Cultural Christians

widetableDuring my first break from class today, I found an article published by The Babylon Bee that, while a parody, also had a ton of truth to it. If you’re not familiar with the Bee, this is a blog that lampoons the most cliche aspects of Christianity, particularly to the culture of Christianity. In this instance, the article is entitled “Local Pastor Longs For Good Old Days When America Pretended To Be A Christian Nation.” Here is a quote:

“’I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit,’ Reverend Frank Baxter of Garden Falls United Methodist Church reportedly lamented to parishioners at Wednesday’s potluck. ‘On Sundays, Americans used to close their businesses, shine up their shoes, and wear their very best clothes. Sure, they were sin-laden enemies of the Almighty and objects of His wrath, but at least they had the common decency to act like they weren’t.’”

While this is a completely made up statement by a completely made up figure, the sentiment expressed is all too often heard. I have heard similar statements from a variety of people, lay and clergy. When such statements are made, I think it’s a sign that the person saying it has missed something major that is occurring within our churches and within the Christian faith. First, it should be pointed out that congregations should not base their effectiveness solely on attendance figures. It’s not merely about numbers.

The “decline” we are witnessing in American Christianity is actually the death throes of cultural Christianity. This is a cutting away of the dead branches from the vine.

Jesus used such an analogy in John 15 when he told the parable of his being the vine, we (his followers/disciples) being the branches, and the Father being the gardener. Jesus makes it clear that the branches that do not produce fruit are cut off while the ones that do produce fruit are pruned and tended to. The fruits include such things as patience, love, kindness, works… all of this in response to our faith.

Simply showing up to church because “it’s what we do” (in other words, going through the motions) does not generally produce spiritual fruit.

Jesus did warn of the dangers of being a “lukewarm” Christian. John of Patmos recorded these words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea:

“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Revelation 3:15-17 (NLT)

I believe that the church is going to be much stronger than she is now. Contrary to what many of us want to believe, this is not all about numbers. This is about the discipleship fruit that is produced by believers. Cultural Christianity contributes nothing to the well-being of one’s soul because simply doing what is expected is not going to cause one to be made new. Yes, the church hit its heyday in the 1950s in terms of numbers, but this was also largely a cultural phenomenon. One was expected to go to church. One could lose business relationships, elections, and other standing for either not attending a church or by not attending the “right” church. Many used Christianity as a means to an end, thus many of these cultural Christians had no faith whatsoever. I won’t presume to judge the destination of their souls, but I will say that scripture is clear on the consequences of unbelief and non-repentance. If one is merely using their church as a means to an end, what does this say about their faith? (I understand this is strictly between God and the person, but the truth of the matter remains)

If one is merely using their church as a means to an end, what does this say about their faith? (I understand this is strictly between God and the person, but the truth of the matter remains)

The dying away of cultural Christianity is actually a good thing. Those who remain faithful will be proven to be the ones who truly love God, truly follow Christ, and who want to go out and make disciples. I actually welcome the time where not everyone attends worship or believes in God. I would rather someone truly believe because they have faith rather than claim to believe because they feel that claiming a faith will benefit them somehow.

Let’s remember that faith is not about numbers, bur rather it’s about transormation and dedication.