People love fish out of water stories. In her first book, In the Land of Believers, Gina Welch straps on the scuba suit and tries to live with the fish. While growing up in Berkeley and attending college at Yale, Gina had heard all about “evil evangelicals” and their agenda to conquer American society, force their religious views on everyone, and mandate public prayer to Jesus only. When she moved to Virginia to attend graduate school, she knew she was entering the heart of Red State evangelical fervor and hoped to educate herself by reading a “fleet of books by liberals out to dissect the evangelical body politic” and New York Times reports on the weird practices of these fundamentalist Christians.

But after living in Virginia for a short time, where a third of the population is “born-again”, she felt a disconnect between the liberal reportage on evangelicals and the people themselves. The caricatures didn’t fit the characters, and she needed to find out which side was right about these Christians. She “wanted to know what [her] evangelical neighbors were like as people, unfiltered and off the record, not as the subjects of interviews conducted by the ‘liberal media.’” (5) The best method, she surmised, was to pretend to become one of them—so she got “saved”, was baptized, and even went on a missions trip with the right-wing fundamentalist evangelicals of Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church.

Her journey begins like the life of a newborn calf—clumsy and awkward as she stumbles about, searching for the strength in her legs. Unsure of what to wear, how to speak, or even where to go, she trips her way through the “front door” experiences of the church until she hits her stride with EPIC, a ministry for singles. At EPIC she made friends with other young single women, fended off awkward advances from single men, and even went on a weeklong missions trip to Alaska.

inthelandofbelieversHer prose is engaging and honest. I couldn’t put the book down, finally finishing it in one sitting at 2am on my birthday. Gina treats the people she met and came to be friends with honorably, exercising no vendetta, neither caricaturing nor whitewashing. We see them as they are—evangelistic, hopeful, Christ-centered, prayerful, homophobic and staunchly conservative. I came away with a great deal of respect for my fundamentalist brothers and sisters. They seem to be far more faithful and committed Christians than myself.

Gina’s journey from suspicious unbelief to sympathetic unbelief is fascinating to watch as it unfolds. In the midst of her deception she seems to have authentic encounters with God and discovers a genuine love for the friends she has made. She even found herself grieving over the death of Jerry Falwell!

The most rewarding development of her journey was her newfound understanding of evangelism. She had always thought of evangelism as an exercise of religious imperialism designed to subdue every soul in the world and force them to believe precisely the way the evangelist believes. For her, and for many liberals, it is solely about power. But she came to understand that evangelism is rooted in empathy. Because evangelicals sincerely believe people are lost and doomed to hell without Jesus, evangelism is an exercise of love and hopeful rescue from the worst fate that could befall a person. After watching her friend Alice led a couple to the Lord in Alaska, Gina writes, “Giddy tears were filling my eyes. …I was wired with delight, and I wasn’t even a believer. But one didn’t have to believe to see that this was indeed the birthing room, and if it wasn’t the birthing room of God in that moment, it seemed to be the birthing room of fresh possibility.” (244)

In many ways this is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s sad because Gina had authentic experiences with God while living a lie, and because of her deception she couldn’t see him in those moments. It’s sad because her deep friendships were a sham, but her friends didn’t know it until much later. It’s sad because her words make me long for the warm, safe cocoon of fundamentalism, where the world makes sense and there’s an answer for everything. The people she deceived were flawed but good, limited in their understanding and yet full of grace and forgiveness. They truly cared for nonChristians, and though they’ve been hurt by her, I suspect they still truly care for Gina.

On one level I’m deeply grateful that Gina wrote this book, as it helps to destraw the evangelical strawman, and replaces him with flesh and blood people. I wish she could have gone about this project without such sustained and profound deception, but as Alice says after discovering the lies, “You wouldn’t have known if we were being real with you.” (326) Do the ends justify the means? I don’t think so. But the ends are still important. Though Gina Welch swam with the fish for two years, she never managed to remove the oxygen tank. But I still hold out hope that someday she’ll learn to breathe underwater.

Questions: What do you think of the ethics of living undercover with a group of people in order to understand them? Do the empathetic ends justify the deceptive means? What does Gina’s book contribute to the cultural conversation at large? Can atheists and Christians, conservatives and liberals, learn to get along through empathy and mutual understanding?

God has called us to change, to experience real, heart-level transformation into the image of Jesus Christ. But so many Christians see almost no amount of recognizable change in their lives. Despite the small groups, the Bible studies, regular church attendance, and even counseling, too many people struggle to change their sinful behavior, much less their desires.

How People Change is a fascinating book that presents absolutely nothing new whatsoever…which is why I like it so much. There are no seven easy steps, no 5 p’s of progress or ch’s of change. All that authors Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp do is present the gospel, thoroughly worked out in the trivial and mundane, but critical, moments of our lives.

6a00d8341c7a1453ef0133f4a17ed0970b-320wiThe problem for most of us, they say in the first chapter, is that we don’t understand how the gospel works right now. We get that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again; we get that he’s coming back and we get to spend eternity with him; but we don’t understand what all this means for overcoming my anger, lust, pride, envy, and so on. Our trouble stems from three blindnesses: 1) We are blind to the depth and pervasiveness of our sin; 2) We are blind to what God has provided for us to live the life he has called us to live; and 3) We are blind to the process by which God refines our character.

These blindnesses create a gap in our understanding of the gospel, and we inevitably find gospel substitutes to fill that gap. The authors have identified seven gospel substitutes that inevitably focus more on externals than on the condition of our hearts.

  1. Formalism | Participating in every conceivable church activity under the sun.
  2. Legalism | Always striving to keep the rules.
  3. Mysticism | Jumping from spiritual experience to spiritual experience–always looking for that spiritual high.
  4. Activism | Getting involved in the most important social causes.
  5. Biblicism | Focusing on acquiring biblical knowledge and theological correctness. (Nothing wrong with this one. Move along, move along.)
  6. “Socialism | Maintaining and developing friendships in the church through constant fellowship.
  7. “Psycholgy-ism” | Seeing every issue in life through the lens of psychology.

These are all false ways of understanding and living the gospel. “The lies that capture us as Christians usually seem to fit well within the borders of our Christianity.” (11)

The authors offer five gospel perspectives that will reorient us to the true gospel and away from the seven gospel substitutes that merely focus on externals. These five perspectives are:

  1. The Extent and Gravity of Our Sin | “Only when you accept the bad news of the gospel does the good news make any sense.”
  2. The Centrality of the Heart | “Everything we do is shaped and controlled by what our hearts desire.”
  3. The Present Benefits of Christ | “The hope of every Christian is a person, the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.”
  4. God’s Call to Growth and Change | “[God’s] goal is to free us from our slavery to sin, our bondage to self, and our functional idolatry, so that we actually take on his character!”
  5. A Lifestyle of Repentance and Faith | “The Christian life makes God’s work of change our paradigm for living, while we celebrate the grace that makes it possible.”

And that’s all in the first chapter! This is a tremendous book, but it is not light reading. This will take time, but it’s well worth it. Many of the most popular Christian spirituality books take shortcuts. This one doesn’t. I highly recommend this book to you. Chew it over. Read it carefully. Reflect upon it. You can thank me later.

Christians are the worst. So say the critics, many of whom come from within the Church. Everyone has a story of some Christian acting like a hypocrite, lying, committing adultery (or worse), or just plain being mean. The book UnChristian found that Christains (and Evangelicals in particular) have an image problem among nonChristians in America.

9780764207464Bradley Wright, a sociologist at UConn, says, “Not so fast my friend.” He believes that Christians don’t have an image problem so much as pollsters have a numbers problem. He doesn’t believe the polls, and doesn’t think you should either. The date, he claims, indicates that Christianity (and Evangelicalism in particular) is alive and well in this country.

To prove his point about the numbers game, Wright comments on a recent, shocking poll that claimed the only group of people who were viewed more unfavorably than Evangelicals were prostitutes. The truth, however, requires a closer look at the numbers. A disproportionately large number of people responded “Don’t Know” when asked if they had a favorable opinion of Evangelicals—more than twice the number of the next highest group. Maybe a lot of folks don’t know what an Evangelical is. The poll also asked people their opinions of Born-Again Christians. Maybe others didn’t know the difference between Evangelicals and Born-Agains. The point is, according to Wright, you can’t always trust a poll, nor can you always trust the pollster’s conclusions.

While I don’t have space to address all of the data (mostly encouraging) that Wright presents in the book, I do want to look at one issue that gets bandied about a lot these days, and that is the fear that Christianity is dying in America. Maybe you’ve heard some of the following statistics (11):

  • “Christianity will die out in this generation unless we do something now.”
  • “Only 4 percent of this generation is Christian.”
  • “Ninety-four percent of teenagers drop out of church, never to return again.”

These are frightening statistics! And they’re also demonstrably false. Almost 76% of Americans self-identify as Christian, and 26% say they’re Evangelical. While 16% claim the title Unaffiliated, only 4% of our population are agnostic or atheist. (35) Not quite the death-knell of Christianity, is it?

Evangelicalism isn’t shrinking either, having held steady at 26% of the population for 30 years. While the number of religiously unaffiliated people has grown in recent years (largely from the exodus of political liberals from mainline denominations), a majority of those believe in God, believe the Bible is the Word of God, pray regularly, and consider themselves to be religious and/or spiritual.

The truth is that atheism is not taking over America. Despite the fears of many Christians, atheism has not grown in the past 20 years, and atheists constitute less than 2% of the total population.

This is a very readable book that will help to dispel some of the myths about Christians and Christianity in America. Things are not nearly as bad as they seem. And if you read UnChristian (like I did), and thought that things were hopeless for Christians (like I was), then this book will be a great encouragement to you. Cheer up, Christian. You’re not really the worst!

That screaming sound you hear is me pulling the arrows from my soul after reading Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods. His incisive writing cuts straight to the heart of the issue of personal and corporate idolatry, those “counterfeit gods” we worship and serve rather than Jesus Christ. Keller tackles four of the most prominent American gods—love, money, success, and power—unveiling their worthlessness and the inevitability of disappointment we will experience when we worship them.

counterfeit godsEach chapter reads like a sermon and concludes with a call to worship the true God and his son Jesus Christ. Through this repetition of structure, Keller calls his readers to abandon their false gods and worship and serve Jesus only. It is an effective literary and rhetorical technique (I can only assume that these chapters were originally written as sermons) in which the false gods are crushed and the true God is elevated to his rightful place on the throne of our hearts.

The real cunning of idolatry, he argues, is that we make idols of good things (or at least things that are morally neutral). Money, Sex, Power, and Success are not evil entities. They corrupt us not because they are inherently corrupting, but because we are inherently corruptible. “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’” (xviii) Idols occupy a place in our hearts that belongs only to God.

Many of the books I have been reading lately have an academic bent. Counterfeit Gods, while being intellectually rigorous in its own right, is a book that all Christians (and nonChristians, for that matter) should read. It will help you unmask your idols, and to see the deeper needs of your soul that you’re trying to meet through your idolatry. Only when we remove our idols from the throne of our hearts will we be free to fully worship the true, living God who loves us and sent his Son to die for us.

Yes, I’m writing a book. No, it will probably never be published. But that’s okay, because I’ll just self-publish it and buy a copy of it on amazon.com.

Anyway, I wanted to post a short chapter that I wrote to the blog to get feedback from folks. I suppose this is as good a way as any to determine if I’m on the right track or not.

The chapter is a reflection on the first sermon I preached at Ember, called The Divine Interruption. The sermon is based on Jeremiah 1, and you can listen to it in the sermon player on this blog. (Just scroll all the way to the bottom.) But you don’t have to listen to it to get this chapter.

So if you take the time to read this chapter, would you mind taking a few extra minutes to give me some feedback in the comments section? Honest feedback (positive or negative) only, please.

•••••
Racing Horses | Chapter 3
Reflections on The Divine Interruption

God is with those he calls. That was the lesson of the previous chapter, which was also the sermon I preached at the first worship service of Ember Church. That is an important truth to remember because when the storms of life come it will be the first thing you forget. When life gets hard, harder than you can bear, your first temptation will be to rage at God, “Where are you?! Where did you go?!”

The second temptation will be to question the veracity of your calling. “Maybe I was never really called to this,” you’ll darkly wonder. You will doubt your calling because the cruelty of your circumstances tells you that God has abandoned you. “If God is with those he calls, and God is obviously not with me, then I am not called.”

I wrestled with both of these temptations in my dark hours, often bouncing between the two in some sort of sadistic game of existential ping-pong. I would rage at God for disappearing when I needed him most, and then I would passive-aggressively despair that I was never truly called to ministry in the first place. Maybe I’m not even saved! Back and forth I would go, spiraling ever downward into an internal chaotic darkness.

The moments of clarity would come, however, when I remembered this message in conjunction with God’s undeniable call on my life. Despite my present circumstances, I could not doubt what God had done in my life up to that point, nor could I deny the deep draw to ministry within my soul. If I’m not teaching a class or preaching a sermon, then I’m writing a blog. If I’m not discipling young believers, then I’m thinking about what I would say to young believers in different circumstances. Ministry is something I can’t not do. It is God’s call on my life, and no amount of ministry failure can undo that calling.

Knowing that I was called then, it naturally followed that God was with me. I couldn’t deny the exegesis of the passage. It was clear as day in the words God spoke to Jeremiah. Perhaps that episode where God called Jeremiah to the prophetic ministry was a one-time, unrepeatable event. Even so, the principle behind God’s promise to be with Jeremiah and to rescue him is undoubtedly general, and applies to all ministers of the Gospel. Sometimes you need your head to pull your heart back from the edge of the cliff, and this was certainly one of those times for me.

Falling

At the beginning of the first chapter I wrote that Ember’s death felt like a failure, like I had stepped out in faith and fallen flat on my face. In the previous chapter I wrote that when you step out in faith it is not solid ground onto which you land, but rather the arms of God into which you fall. So which is it? Did I fall on my face, or did I fall into the arms of God? The answer, I believe, is “Yes.”

I fell on my face in the sense that Ember didn’t work out like I had hoped or planned, and the death of Ember was very painful for me. I also felt like a bit of a fool, seeing as how I couldn’t make the church thrive and survive, despite the near impossible circumstances. There’s a part of me that believes that, now that I’ve failed as a church planter, I’ll never be able to get another job in ministry again, and that I don’t even deserve one.

On the other hand, I fell into the arms of God in the sense that I was depending on him at a level I hadn’t experienced before. Even though God didn’t come through for me in the way that I wanted him to, my faith has been deepened. You never really know how sweet the still waters are until you’ve passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I also found, by laying Ember down, how redemptive failure and suffering are kingdom victory. I discovered how trials can be grace.

Is it possible that God would let us fall on our faces in order to teach us to trust him even more? I think so. In ways that seem backward and counterintuitive to us, stepping out in faith and falling on our faces is the same as falling into the arms of God. There are times when failure is the purest grace we can receive.

Success and Faithfulness

Success isn’t the point. It has never been the point. The metrics of the kingdom of God are in conflict with the metrics of the evangelical church. When Jesus says, “few are they who find [the path to life],” how can we obsess over how big our churches are? Shouldn’t we assume that the majority of the people who are already within our churches are doomed to spend eternity apart from God?

But I digress. Faithfulness is the point, not success. And it’s at least possible that some of the most faithful saints were also some of the most spectacular failures – so much so that we may have never even heard of them. If God has called us to an impossible task, then success is removed from the equation and all that is left for us is to be faithful.

In my experience, faithfulness meant laying the church plant down and becoming more present to my family in their time of need. Even though it was obviously the right decision, it still felt like failure. I suppose faithfulness will feel like failure sometimes.

Isaiah the prophet likely experienced this. God even prepared him for it by telling him, right from the beginning, that the people won’t listen to him and they won’t change their ways. We learn at the very beginning of Jeremiah’s book that he failed, too. After all, if he had succeeded in bringing Judah to the point of repentance, they would not have been sent into exile in Babylon. In fact, none of the prophets were able to stem the tide of God’s judgment against his people. In that sense, they all failed. Even Jesus failed. He was unable to convince the leaders of Israel that he was the Messiah, and in the end he found himself friendless, crucified like an enemy of the state.

You might be saying to yourself, “But that was the whole reason Jesus came – to die for our sins. He didn’t fail. He accomplished precisely what he set out to do.” That’s true, but how many of our congregations look like Jesus’s congregation? By our own Western, consumer-driven standards, is not the lonely figure of a crucified man the very definition of failure?

Every person – all the prophets, and even his own Son – that God sent to his people failed according to the world’s standards of success and failure. I think we ought to be paying more attention to that reality than we are. I think that ought to tell us something about what it means to succeed and fail in the kingdom of God. As I’ve already written, I believe that redemptive failure is kingdom victory. Our goal should not be to succeed on behalf of God, but to be so faithful to his call and mission that when we fail (because we will) our failure will be inherently redemptive, thus bringing about tremendous kingdom victory in the spirit of the Gospel, the crucifixion (redemptive failure) and resurrection (kingdom victory) of Jesus Christ.

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