Worldviews, Worship, and Wineskins

The Gospel at Work in Every Context

Archive for the month “January, 2014”

The Oldest Wineskin of all

For several decades, the Chinese church has thrived in an “underground” fashion.  Pressure from the communist government has given birth to a church in the shadows, with no buildings, little organizational structure or seminary institutions.  Yet China has experienced the most explosive period of church expansion in history!  Is there a connection between the house church movement and rapid church growth?

Robert Fitts thinks so.  He wrote a short book called “The Church in the House: a Return to Simplicity” –download for free here:  Fitts himself qualifies his praise of the house church model by stating that he would never tear down what God is building (referring to “traditional” churches with buildings).  However,  he points out that the top two church growth movements (1st-2nd century and modern China) took place in people’s homes.  I don’t know if that claim includes the Great Awakenings or not.  But even if church growth in the great awakenings rivaled the 2 previously mentioned movements, the trends favoring house churches over any other model are compelling. There are several good reasons to consider transitioning, or at least planting new churches in homes:

1.  Autonomous house churches have very little infrastructure to pay for.  They may or may not have a paid pastor, so potentially the two greatest burdens of most church budgets would be removed, releasing lots of funds for whatever the Holy Spirit asks for!

2. In Fitts’ words, house churches are “born pregnant”, meaning that they are intentionally reproducible on a mass scale.

3. House churches create a space where the priesthood of all believers is easily exercised.  House church pastors need not be professional clergy or seminary trained.

4. Many people who would never visit a “regular” church would come to your home for a meal and a discussion on the Bible.

5. Smaller, newer churches are statistically more effective at reaching people for Jesus.

Basically, house churches have very few barriers for growth.  There are challenges, however.  Any institution with people in it is bound to have sinners in it!  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Jesus didn’t dictate a church structure to us.  His stamp of approval is no brighter or bolder for the house church movements than any other church trend where the people of Christ move together under the Lordship of Jesus.

One of those problems that immediately occurs to most people I have talked to about this is the question of childcare.  The author of this blog:

has experience that might be helpful in addressing those problems.  His insight isn’t applicable for house church members only.

In any case, if we consider the fact that ALL churches face logistical, interpersonal, moral and every other problem associated with any organization, this should remove any excuse for anyone (ordained or layman) interested in making disciples from considering how the house church model might be implemented in their own town.  Or their own living room.


An Atheist Talks About the Impact of the Gospel

I was ecstatic to read the recent article in Christianity today on the impact of 19th Century missionaries on colonial nations.  Matt Chandler of the Village church also referenced the article in his January 26, 2014 sermon here:

The reason I bring up this topic again is because of the ubiquitous attack in pop culture on the Christian faith.  The sins of the church of yesteryear (such as the crusades and witch hunts) are often brought up in order to besmirch the Bride of Christ.  We have enough of our own sin today to keep skeptics busy for a long time (thinking specifically of pedophilia in the clergy).  It’s time for us to celebrate the triumphs of Jesus Christ through the church!  Celebrate loud.  Don’t only celebrate the 19th Century missionary impact on democracy, celebrate the end of slavery, brought about in large part through the Christian convictions of William Wilberforce.  Celebrate the end of widespread cannibalism in the South Pacific.  Celebrate hospitals, and the foundation of modern science.  Celebrate the compassionate outreach of Mother Theresa, and many thousands like her who continue to labor quietly in the shadows of poverty, pouring themselves out in service to God and the poor.  It is easy to find the blemishes on the church, and sometimes the good points are overlooked.  So let’s look at them.  Remember the first and second great awakenings?  Remember how the police ran out of work to do in communities where revival took hold?  Did you know that in current day Africa, if a traveler encounters a village in the jungle with a visible steeple, he knows he will be safe there?  But if there is no steeple…no guarantees.  An atheist comments on his personal experiences in Africa, and the difference that Christianity makes there:     I don’t agree with his explanation, “It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.”  Humanity needs liberation from more than tribalism or groupthink: we need liberation from our sin nature, and that is only found in Christ.  In spite of all of the amazing accomplishments of mankind, we are powerless against the titan forces of sin in our own hearts.

These are the widespread effects of the gospel on society.  What about localized effects?  What impact has Christ and his life-giving message of forgiveness made on you or someone you know?  How has the power of the Holy Spirit delivered you from bondage?


Scientism: The belief that any useful truth is testable by the scientific method, and that any hypotheses lying outside the scope of science are not relevant.


There are two main problems with scientism. The first is that the main premise (all truth is scientific truth) is not testable scientificaly, ergo, it is self-refuting. The second is that it reduces the idea of truth to data. If carried out to its logical implications on a societal level, we would have no tool to understand our moral compass, with is not a testable instrument. Furthermore, this argument ignores genuinely scientific fields of study which rely on forensics rather than the scientific method (for example cosmogeny and archaeology-both of which examine questions about unrepeatable events in the past).

Reaction to the Cost of the Calling

The cost of discipleship: death to self.

Encounter. Encourage. Engage.

magnetic forseSalt is a mineral, not a spice. True salt will always be salt. Things can taste salty from their proximity to salt but that doesn’t make them salt. Salt remains salt without compromise. If salt lost its flavor, it wasn’t salt in the first place and never had any eternal value as salt.

Jesus concludes His challenge of the crowd that follows Him in Luke 14 with a metaphor of salt and it’s saltness. He says that salt without its flavor is worthless. It’s no longer of any value as salt or as manure.

This isn’t the Jesus that we often picture with a lamb around his shoulders. He’s calling out kings and the position of royalty He is offering has great worth, but cannot be obtained from the middle ground of compromise. You’re either royalty or you’re not. There are no common kings.

What was the result? A church…

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Demonized, 19th Century Missionary Caricature Vindicated by Meticulous Academic

We all know him.  The narrow, preachy, white, colonial missionary who disrupted indigenous cultures world-over during the hey-day of imperial powers.  He is guilty of bringing euro-culture and displacing tribal customs.  He is rumored to have a colonial agenda, rather than a great-commission heart.  He is ugly.  And he is real!  But as it turns out, his impact is far outweighed by far more numerous missionaries that had a positive impact, doing work that many evangelicals today would consider markedly liberal.  I always had a feeling that the caricature was very 2 dimensional.  Thanks to Dr. Woodberry, we know the truth.

“Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”

Devastating Arguments Against Christianity (Courtesy of the Internet)

Good food for thought.

Well Spent Journey

I’m writing this post primarily for my own convenience. During my online journeys to r/atheism, “freethought” blogs, and beyond, I encounter the following arguments so frequently that it seems sensible to fact-check them all at once.


The Claim: “Religion has been the primary cause of war and oppression throughout the history of mankind.”

photo source:

The Truth: In their comprehensive Encyclopedia of Wars, Phillips and Axelrod document the recorded history of warfare. Of the 1,763 wars presented, a mere 7% involved a religious cause. When Islam is subtracted from the equation, that number drops to 3.2%.

In terms of casualties, religious wars account for only 2% of all people killed by warfare. This pales in comparison to the number of people who have been killed by secular dictators in the 20th century alone.


The Claim: “Thanks to modern science, the days of religion are numbered. Humanity’s superstitious…

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2 Ways We’re Failing to Proclaim the Gospel Faithfully

2 Ways We\’re Failing to Proclaim the Gospel Faithfully.

via 2 Ways We’re Failing to Proclaim the Gospel Faithfully.

Theology of Suffering: MIA

“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” Hebrews 13:3

I recently attended a worship celebration led by a nationally recognized professional team. The event was held at a large church. The auditorium was dressed in stone and dark, rich wood. A color coordinated cushion topped each theater-style seat and uniformed security guards patrolled throughout the event. It was a state of the art venue. The music was flawless. Eight modestly dressed worshipers gave their every fiber to the effort or glorifying their Master. Perhaps three thousand well-to-do 20 somethings added to their efforts and the result was unforgettable. This was no performance. It wasn’t a concert or a show, not a display of musical virtuosity: this was a no-holds-barred celebration of the King of kings.

In one conversation with a friend of mine directly afterward, I discovered that despite the fact that not a word about sin was mentioned or sung from the platform, the Holy Spirit had pressed his finger on both of our hearts over specific items. I wonder how many others heard His gracious, crushing whisper.

My soul was stirred over the affluence that I saw around me. Nearly everyone in the room (including myself) possessed a smart phone. Designer clothes and fashionable haircuts. Late-model cars filled the lot outside of the strategically located multi-building campus. Nagging the back of my mind was the disparity between the upper-middle class brothers and sisters nearby and the members of my spiritual family in the 3rd world. This perspective brought me to an unhealthy place of judgment toward American church culture, and for a part of the time, robbed me of worship to my Savior. We are the bride of Christ, warts and all. I don’t have any place to stand in judgment, my own sin being just as hideous to the One who took it upon himself.

But what of the disparity? Isn’t there something wrong with the picture I described? Recently, I traveled to southeast Asia with a team whose purpose was to learn how we might effectively minister to that part of the world. While there, we witnessed the grinding poverty and malnourishment that is wholly absent in the U.S. Many people in the towns we saw struggled to find adequate employment to feed their families. The resulting economic instability has resulted in the increase of child-trafficking as a means of income. Can’t feed your children? Sell them.

I can’t imagine that kind of desperation. Yet in the midst of that brokenness, we encountered faithful Christians, who would gather around a lone guitar or two and praise with such fervor that I thought the angels must have wept! What depth of faith those people must possess, who face sickness, starvation, corruption and depravity with an unaccountable joy. Surely, they possessed the “peace that passes all understanding”.

In contrast, we in America never miss a meal. We have climate controlled houses. We don’t generally worry about sickness. Many of us have become so accustomed to the comfort and ease of middle-class life that we miss out entirely on sense of desperation that drives deeper the faith of our 3rd world spiritual family. Another friend pointed this out when I shared my burden concerning the affluent church. He said,

“Living [outwardly] as a Christian is easier for us. I would contend that following Jesus is probably easier for them. They know Jesus on a level that most of us probably never will. They may be materially poor, but they are far richer spiritually.”

A legendary conversation echoes this sentiment. I don’t remember where I read or heard it, (perhaps Watchman Nee?) but the story is told of a Chinese pastor who visited the United States. While here, he attended several worship services. On his departure, someone asked him what stood out most about the American church. His reply was damning and accurate, I’m afraid. “The amount that they are able to accomplish without the power of the Holy Spirit.” Brother Yun, a house church pastor from China, is quoted extensively here and explains with much more authority the paradox I’m trying to communicate.

The poor church is rich in Spirit. The rich church is poor in Spirit. What is missing? What is wrong with this picture? I suggest that, in our haste to banish suffering we have cultivated a church that lacks depth and empathy. (I say this with trembling, lest I again fall into the sin of judging). In many churches, the subtle hues of prosperity teaching have crept into the message of the gospel. “Come to Jesus so he can fix your life.” Even in the worship service I attended, the thoroughly evangelical worship team sung mostly about what Christ does for us and not much about who he is. But is this the gospel?

Paris Reidhead, in his sermon titled “Ten Shekels and a Shirt” addressed this question thoroughly. ( He begins with an even more basic question: what is the chief end of being? “Humanism” says Reidhead, “says that the chief end of being is the happiness of man. Christianity says that the chief end of being is the glory of God.”

I once heard an interesting question, asked by an earnest and dear brother in the Lord. “Why wouldn’t you want to come to Jesus?” He wondered. From our 21st Century American perspective, we see Jesus as the one who saves us from hell and lines the road to heaven with daisies so our lives are that much more pleasant. I’ll not deny that God promises to provide for our needs, but I can’t help but think of Youcef Nardakani, the pastor who is serving time in an Iranian prison for simply being a Christian. He might urge the fence-sitters to consider the cost of discipleship. Multitudes before him have endured suffering and death on the behalf of Christ. In fact, it is a relatively rare historical space that we find ourselves in. The Bible makes it clear that persecution for followers of Jesus is to be expected. It is normal. It’s even good.

“we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

This is probably why the Chinese church is rumored to pray that persecution toward the church will break out in the United States. They have caught the significance of baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6). They, like many before them, have discovered that the chief end of being is to “know [Christ] in the power of his resurrection, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). Their hope is not in a higher standard of living, or relief from persecution. Their eyes are fixed on Christ and their hearts are anchored to a future hope.

How can we, the church, combat the lie of humanism without falling into the ugly sin of judging the Bride of Christ? How can I remove the speck from our brother’s eye without first removing the log from own? Perspective is not easily learned from an angry person, and suffering well can’t be taught from a pulpit. I wrestled with this question for some time before remembering Hebrews 13:3. The part of the body that is free from suffering is to remember the part that is not. We are to pray for them as though we were in the same predicament!

The key to this type of empathy starts with understanding the issues that the 3rd world church faces. You can find some helpful resources on the list of links below, and share what God speaks to you with others. Pray together and listen to how God would have you partner with your spiritual family abroad. Let us fight complacency in our own hearts, and be prepared to face our own suffering and sorrows with the faith that finds it’s anchor before the throne of God, seeking his face instead of his hand.

The Red Herring of Relevance and the Idol of Brand-Name churches

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment and worse tear is made.  Neither is new wine put into old wineskins.  If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed.  But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Matthew 9:4

In the previous post, I discussed the difference between the essence of the gospel and the cultural baggage that we attach to it.  The post was mainly addressed to folks who might not have considered which parts of their faith have a biblical basis.  Unfortunately, there has been a trend lately for those of us who have learned to practice this sort of spiritual inventory (which is healthy and good) to wage an internal ecclesiastical culture-war (which is not healthy or good).  This post is addressed to that crowd (including myself).  The bottom line is this: traditions in church are expendable, unity is not.  While human nature causes us to attach unwarranted significance to extra-biblical cultural elements, their unnecessary removal can cause more harm than good.  Want to take down the decorative cross in the sanctuary?  After all, the early church didn’t worship with images of crosses in their gatherings.  What if it causes deep hurt to half of the members of the body?  Is it worth it?

The best example I can think of church culture-war has occurred nation-wide in the past two or three decades and concerns music in the church.  The normal, healthy and good intentions of younger generations birthed contemporary styles of worship, which were not readily accepted my many traditional churches.  Individuals and entire churches reacted to this challenge in different ways.  Some have recognized difference between the expendable nature of cultural forms (wineskins) and the eternal nature of worship (wine).  (At this point, I may be stretching Jesus’ parable in Matthew 9 further than the text allows…exegetes correct me if I’m wrong!)  This “new wineskins” crowd accepted new styles of worship because of the felt need for relevance.  Others rejected modern worship outright and have stubbornly clung to the old wineskins.  Some have even gone so far as to propose that contemporary worship has the power to lead otherwise healthy Christians into sin!

How important is relevance?  Maybe we can conceive of relevance on a spectrum.  On one end are those church bodies who make relevance the flagship of their meetings.  You know the ones I mean…coffee bars, covers of secular tunes during the service, the removal of any traditional “churchy” symbols or furniture from the worship center.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand that some of these people are able to create a culturally relevant worship space without sacrificing the essence of the gospel message.  It is a false dichotomy to think that we can’t be relevant AND biblical (although some of them have clearly jettisoned the baby with the bathwater).  At the other end of the spectrum are the same folks who attach spiritual significance to the wineskins themselves and reject anything resembling the “world” as anti-Christ.   They are guilty of clinging the dead cultural weight that can hinder people from coming to Christ along with the wine of the gospel.  Some may even worship the hymns and traditions instead of the Christ who inspired them.  One group is prone to worshipping the wineskin and effecting change simply for the sake of change, the other is prone to maintaining extra-biblical traditions simply for the sake of tradition.

What is clear Biblically is that unity is far more important than relevance.  While there is New Testament support for approaching ministry in a culturally relevant fashion (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) we see far more material calling us to walk in unity, grace and love.  When there were drastic changes to the format of early church worship, it seems to have been out of necessity (they were prohibited from using the synagogue so they met in peoples homes) rather than an intentional shift to become more palatable to non-believers. 

There are some positive results of intentional relevance.  But some unintended consequences of this intentional relevance are not good: people begin to view church as a product, a building or an experience, instead of the Bride of Jesus.  This is true for people inside and outside of the church.  Bigger, more successful churches brand themselves.  Their brands can accidentally eclipse the gospel and the person of Jesus.  Church brands can become an idol.  The methods of successful churches suddenly become the formula for all, instead of the Head of the Church universal leading each local church individually.  Consumer Christianity emphasizes the need for Christians to “be fed” instead of learning to feed themselves and others on the pure food of scripture (Luke 4:4)

On the contrary, new testament discipleship is decentralized, organic, Spirit-led and Christ-centered.  I am convinced that if we spent as much energy on corporate prayer for repentance and revival as we do on being intentional about the external forms of worship, we would see a drastic change in the hearts of our congregations.  If we spent more time connecting with God than we spend crafting a church product for consumption, we might see an organic, Spirit-led church born in our midst, without walls.  The seat of Church authority might shift from the brand-names of mega-pastors back to the Bible!  We might see the distinction between the professional clergy and the laity blurred.  Men might rise up and feed their own families spiritually, instead of buying into the lie that church leadership is up to the ordained and the worship service is an object of worship in and of itself!  If we take our eyes off relevance and place them on Christ, we might see a thriving Bride of Christ, lacking the tendency to squabble and divide culture into secular and sacred, because, “the earth is the LORD’s and all the fullness thereof.”  I pray that we might be obedient to the Holy Spirit’s commandment through Paul to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4:2  (Romans 14 is also very instructive on the question of church and culture.)

Ecclesiastical trailblazers, beware sacrificing the unity of Jesus’ bride for the sake of relevance.  The Christian religion is not a progressive religion.  Neither is it a regressive religion, in the sense that it should be stuck in the past or bound by tradition.  We must go back to the simple fundamentals taught us by Jesus, and we must look forward to his soon return.  But the essence of New Testament discipleship is grounded in it’s eternally existing and unchanging founder. Pushing change for the sake of change is like using a chainsaw where a scalpel is called for.  The sheep know the voice of the shepherd!  If they are trained to listen biblically, in time, Jesus will lead his church to where they need to be culturally.  If we are united under the leadership of Christ, he will tell us what the wineskins should look like and how to keep them from bursting.

In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.

The words of St. Augustine have often served as a helpful reminder for me to focus on what is important. A basic understanding of church history, or even a casual observation of current church culture will show us that Christians are famous for majoring on the minors. The recent media fiasco concerning Phil Robertson’s comments about homosexuality demonstrate clearly that Christians today are standing on the periphery of a gospel-centered platform.

Why is that? Jesus’ message is blissfully simple. Salvation and new life are found in him. Repent and believe the gospel. Love God and love others. Observe communion, baptise and make disciples.

There is something about structured religion that appeals to people. It tends to lend the religious a sense of merit and control, neither of which are compatible with the gospel. In New Testament discipleship, self-worth is eclipsed in the light of God-given value. Control is an illusion, and the mature Christian surrenders his illusions of control to his Lord. Instead of code-driven morality, Jesus leads his followers to a new system (a New Covenant, really), where disciples walk in the Spirit, not the law.

Historically the people of God have fallen into trouble when we construct “doctrine” that goes beyond what God specifically states in Scripture. For example, on one occasion an earnest and sincere brother in the Lord informed me that “there is no Christian music written in a minor key”. Others I have known wrangle over whether Christians are on biblical grounds reciting the pledge of allegiance to the American flag. One particular passionate and theologically well-informed brother told me that “divorce is never permissible.”  I suppose he had forgotten Jesus’ exception of marital infidelity.  In each of these cases, well meaning Christians took their opinion on a subject and decided that their position was the only biblical position, without having real biblical grounds.

Another comical example of believers falling into this type of ecclesiastical mistake took place in Papua New Guinea many decades ago. A great missionary effort was undertaken to preach the gospel to a primitive tribe where no “modern” man had ever ventured. This particular tribe had worn penis sheaths for generations. A penis sheath is an elongated gourd, placed over the male anatomy and suspended from a string around the wearer’s neck. It is designed to accentuate the maleness of the wearer, and in that particular culture had been elevated to the most visible status symbol in use. After much prayer, effort and sacrifice, the Spirit of God wooed that tribe and won them over to himself. Repentance and revival swept through the village and the new believers found themselves eager to share their faith with the tribe in the neighboring valley. The missionary who had labored so hard to bring the light of the Gospel to these people was ecstatic, but slightly confused when the men of the village began to manufacture many more penis sheaths. When he asked what they were doing, the baby Christians responded that the neighboring village didn’t practice the display of the penis sheath, and were they to become civilized Christians, they would obviously need to adopt its use.

I would never assume perfect understanding of how to apply the bible in our culture today. In fact, it seems the more I study the word, the less obvious its application becomes. Jesus never said, “divorce is always wrong” or “Thou shalt not compose music in a minor key”. He never told us what clothes to wear, what to eat or drink, what position to hold our bodies in as we pray, or a host of other cultural issues that we can become so focused on. (I understand that divorce is a universal rather than a cultural issue-the focus of this piece is on how we often go beyond what the bible has clearly stated). Why is that? We have a tendency to reduce real discipleship to a set of cultural boundaries: what not to eat and drink. Where to go and not to go. Which words are permissible to speak. Although we certainly have the potential to please or displease the Master by the observance of those issues, the clear instructions that he left us are happily few: love God, love one another, baptize the nations and remember him through communion.

This is why the church, the bride of Christ is a truly multi-cultural entity. Enemies of Christianity often criticize the apparent disunity in the church, demonstrated by the sheer number of denominations. To me, this demonstrates the a-cultural nature of the Gospel. God has not dictated a culture to us. He has not bequeathed us with a dead list of rules. What we have in the Good News of Jesus is the opportunity to relate with the creator of the universe, in a truly organic fashion. When we are faced with a difficult biblical question and find no clear indication in the word, we are brought to our knees in earnest prayer. (He often allows difficulty in our lives simply so we will spend more time with Him!) God wants us not to live by a code, but to walk in His Spirit.  Ergo the Gospel breaks through cultural boundaries. True worshippers of God find themselves in every tribe, tongue and nation, wrestling over his intentionally vague love letter, the Bible, and how to apply it in their lives.

I believe Paul was addressing this issue in his treatise on Love in 1 Corinthians 13. “For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known”.

Don’t get me wrong, there are issues on which there is NO room for variation. Only a few verses from the previous one I mentioned, Paul outlines one of our “non-negotiables”: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

Perhaps, then we can take our personal passions, particularly where they leave the bounds of clear biblical doctrine, and examine them in the light of Scripture. Maybe it’s time that we stop handing out penis sheaths to the world and live by St. Augustine’s advice, “In essentials, unity. In differences, liberty. In all things, charity.”

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