How is the culture trying to absorb Christians?

Not too long after I moved to the community of Sycamore I made an interesting discovery. I was walking around the church property checking things out when I came across two trees with a board wedged between them. Evidently, the board had been there for quite some time because the trees have grown over the edge of the board, so much so that you couldn’t pull that board out of there if you wanted. You would have to cut it out.

Now, I have no idea how long that board has been wedged between those two trees. But what I do know is that those two trees didn’t grow over that board overnight or even in a matter of weeks. Instead, that board was quietly and slowly absorbed by its environment over a long period of time.

What happened to that board is a good illustration of what could happen to us and what we are in danger of every single day. As those who are supposed to live set apart lives, we are in danger of being absorbed by our environment. Specifically, what I mean is that we are in danger of losing our unique Christian identity and beliefs. To be sure, that loss isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a slow and subtle process that takes place over a period of time. A process we must guard against. But how?

How can we avoid being absorbed into our environment?

Daniel provides a good example. He lived during Israel’s exile – a period of time when Israel was carried off from the Promised Land to Babylon because of their disobedience to God (Da 1:1-4). The exile happened in several waves. Daniel and some of his friends found themselves in one of those waves (Da 1:6). It is here that Daniel begins to teach us how we can avoid being absorbed into our environment. What did Daniel do? How did he avoid being absorbed into his environment?

He Understood the Babylonian’s Plan

Beginning in Daniel 1:3 we read,

“Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king.” (Da 1:3–5)

The Babylonian’s plan was to immerse the youth from high ranking families in Judah into the culture of Babylon. They would be given new names, clothing, and a new diet. They would also be taught a new language and be schooled in Babylonian literature and customs. All of this would take place over a 3 year period. Essentially, they were attempting to absorb the Israelites into their own culture by giving them a new worldview, and they were starting with their youth.

Daniel, however, wasn’t fooled by all the glitz and glamour, the perfectly prepared meals, and a chance at acquiring a high ranking position in his new home. He knew their plan and what it entailed. He knew he would have to give up his heritage, his connection to Israel, and more importantly his faith. As you read through the rest of the chapter and book, you see that Daniel resisted their attempts to absorb him into their culture. Over the years, he remained faithful to God. As a result, he was able to have an impact on their culture and king. To be sure, Daniel’s actions took courage, and he did experience persecution and suffering, but he was also successful in accomplishing his God given purpose – to glorify God. He was able to do that because he knew the Babylonian’s plan.

How is our culture trying to absorb us?

While Daniel knew the Babylonian’s plan, we may not always know how our culture’s plans to slowly absorb us. While we don’t have time to discuss them all, I do want to point out one major tactic our culture is using to slowly absorb Christians and change our worldview, and that is through the use of entertainment. Look at what one author has to say,

“Those who produce it [speaking of entertainment] want to instill their values, and thus far they have been very successful in doing so. Much of what is produced for viewing on television and in the movies and much of what is produced lyrically in popular forms of music is clearly depraved. Every form of God-hating thought and behavior, from blasphemy to sexual perversion, is glorified, and we as Christians watch or listen to it hour after hour after hour. And then we wonder why there is so little discernible difference between the thinking and behavior of Christians and non-Christians.” [1]

So the world uses entertainment. The world uses entertainment because it is a powerful worldview shaping tool that exists in many different forms – social media, news, talk shows, print media, novels, television, YouTube, video games, the arts, etc. Entertainment comes in many different shapes, sizes and forms. Americans are voracious consumers of these entertainment mediums.

Entertainment’s Ability to Shape Our Worldview

Entertainment has a powerful ability to shape our worldview because when we are being entertained we generally let our guard down. After a hard days work, the last thing we want to do is put in more work analyzing that which we are seeking to be entertained by. I know that’s true of me. After I have worked all day in my study – reading, writing, thinking, and interacting with others, after I have taken care of the kids, played with them, bathed them, and put them to bed for the night, I’m worn out. The last thing I want to do is analyze the worldview significance of the show or YouTube video I’m watching, the novel I’m reading, or the podcast to which I’m listening. In reality, I don’t want to do much of anything. All I want to do is relax on the couch as a passive consumer for a few minutes before I go to bed.

While there is nothing wrong with relaxing while being entertained, we must realize we are still being influenced, and in some sense to a great degree. Stories play on our emotions, shaping and changing us, while at the same time entertaining us. I was reading an article the other day in the opinion section of the newspaper. I can’t remember which newspaper it was, but the article centered on how to win people to your side. One tactic the article kept coming back to was the power of story. They told their readers not to enter into a debate, but to simply tell their story. They chose that tactic because stories affect and move people in a way that debate and argument can’t.

Our secular culture knows the power of story and they use it in the form of entertainment to try and shape our worldview.

Now, I’m not telling you this to ruin your time of relaxation at the end of the night. We can still be entertained, but we do need to think more carefully about that which we are allowing to entertain us. We should do that thinking before we get to the end of the day when our bodies and minds are worn out.

So if we want to avoid being absorbed into our environment, and as Christians we should because we can’t be salt and light if we are the same as our culture, then we need to know our culture’s tactics. While our culture uses other tactics, one powerful tactic used is stories in the form of entertainment to shape and change our worldview.

Question for Reflection

  1. What other than entertainment is our culture using to absorb us?

Resources

Post developed from my sermon How Can We Avoid Being Absorbed into Our Environment?

[1] Keith A. Mathison, Table Talk Magazine, July 2017, 16

Does a life of faith always lead to a life of ease?

In their book Health, Wealth, and Happiness David Jones and Russell Woodbridge, open by saying,

A new gospel is being taught today. This new gospel is perplexing. Instead of promising Christ, this gospel promises health and wealth…According to this new gospel, if believers repeat positive confession, focus their thoughts, and generate enough faith, God will release blessings, upon their lives. This new gospel claims that God desires and even promises that believers will live a healthy and financially prosperous life.”[1]

While these authors ultimately go on to show that is false teaching, there are many people who believe what these authors have described. Some even come to faith in Christ because they think it will provide them with a life of ease – a life free from pain, worry, difficulty, and hardship. But is that the case?

Does a Life of Faith Always Lead to a Life of Ease?

Well, I believe when we look at the latter part of Hebrews 11, the teaching is clear: A life of faith does not always lead to a life of ease (Heb. 11:32-40). If you remember, chapter 11 is considered the hall of faith. The chapter highlights for us the faith of the great saints of old. Near the end of the chapter as the author begins to wrap things up, he recounts for us in rapid fashion some of the things the saints of old faced. We are told they experienced war, injustice, lions, fire, torture, imprisonment, hunger, and even death.

If you remember, chapter 11 is considered the hall of faith. The chapter highlights for us the faith of the great saints of old. Near the end of the chapter as the author begins to wrap things up, he recounts for us in rapid fashion some of the things the saints of old faced. We are told they experienced war, injustice, lions, fire, torture, imprisonment, hunger, and even death.

Even though they faced these things, some of these faithful saints, by the power of God prevailed. Beginning in verse 32 we read,

“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” (Heb 11:32–34)

However, if you keep going in the text, you see a different picture. Beginning in verse 35, we learn that:

“…Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Heb 11:35–38)

Reading the latter verses may cause you to think that the faith of those who suffered and died wasn’t as strong as those who conquered, but that is not true. Their faith was just as strong. They made it into the hall of faith after all. What this teaches us, then, is that living a life of faith doesn’t always mean we are going to live a life of ease.

What About Those Who Preach a “Best Life Now” Theology?

Those who preach and teach a “best life now” theology for the faithful are simply preaching a false gospel. One that is foreign to Scripture. Scripture never claims that our life if going to be great now. After all, the founder of our faith was lied about, attacked, and ultimately nailed to a cross. As His followers, we can expect something similar. Jesus tells us just that in John 15:20,

“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…” (Jn 15:20a)

Living a life of faith, then, doesn’t always mean we are going to live a life of ease. It is crucial we take hold of that truth as we enter these tumultuous times.

The Times are Changing

As Christian Americans, we have experienced a number of years of freedom and peace. For the vast majority of us, persecution has been limited to sneers, jeers, and name calling. Times, however, are rapidly changing. Just consider some of the current headlines:

As these headlines from the last week make clear, the cultural and sexual revolution is pushing forward at an unprecedented pace. A pace that is causing Religious Liberty and Erotic Liberty to clash head on. As these two ideologies collide, persecution of the faithful is bound to occur, just like it did in biblical times and throughout Church History. A life of ease for the faithful, even the relative ease we have experienced in this country, may soon be coming to an end.

As we see the slow (or rapid) fade of a persecution-free life take place before our eyes, we need to think hard about what we believe because a “Best Life Now” theology won’t provide the hope, encouragement, and strength we need to hold fast to the faith when persecution is knocking at our door.

Question for Reflection

  1. Does your theology provide you the hope and strength you need to face persecution?

Resources

[1] Health, Wealth, and Happiness David Jones and Russell Woodbridge, 14-15.

[2] See also for in-depth commentary on these issues http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/08/02/briefing-08-02-16/ and http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/08/03/briefing-08-03-16/

Post adapted from my sermon: Is a Life of Faith Always a Life of Ease?

Image

How Can We Experience True and Lasting Happiness and Joy?

We live in a society that believes joy and happiness come when we attain complete self-autonomy; when we are controlled by no one but ourselves. This is evidenced by a number of legal and cultural battles that have been waged over the last year. Obergefell removed the Christian strictures on marriage. Bathroom ordinances are being enacted, struck down, and fought over. Just yesterday the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ abortion clinic restrictions. These cases and battles signal that any encroachment on personal autonomy and self-rule will not be tolerated.

More To It

These fights and cases, however, are about more than marriage, bathrooms, and terminating a pregnancy. They are about more than change and progress.

These fights arise from and signal our sinful desire to rule ourselves, to be our own gods.

It is believed, even if it is not admitted, that ruling our lives in place of God will finally provide the joy and happiness man desires. But, if you notice, one victory just leads to another battle. Another cause to be championed is always around the next corner. That’s because throwing off the strictures of God’s rule will never provide the happiness and joy we desire. The sweet taste of victory fades quickly, and a new battle that promises joy and happiness when won must take its place. The search is never ending.

The Search Can Be Over

The Psalmist, however, paints a different picture for us. He tells us that:

“Those who look to him are radiant” (Ps. 34:5a)

In other words, those who turn to, instead of away from, God will experience the joy and happiness for which they long.

So instead of casting off all reason and logic in an effort to rule ourselves, we need to turn to God. We need to submit to Him and His Law. He is our Creator, and living in the way He has designed will always be better for us in the end. It will provide the joy and happiness for which we long, as well as a well ordered and thriving society.

“Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8)

Question for Reflection

  1. Do you believe self-autonomy provides lasting happiness and joy?

Resource

Image

On Guard: Watching for the Things that Influence Us

Like most schools, Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth has a security staff that patrols the campus 24 hours a day. One of my good friends worked for them for a while. Since he was the low man on the totem pole, he had to work the night shift, which is not really conducive for a seminary student taking classes during the day, but he took the job anyways.

At night my friend had to patrol mostly by himself. As he did, he told me he always had to be watchful, never letting his guard down because he never knew who or what he might encounter.

In the same way, Paul tells us we have to always be watchful, not getting too comfortable and letting our guard down. Instead we must always be aware of what is influencing us.

What influences should we be watchful for?

(1) Culture’s Influence 

Everyday we are bombarded with messages on the tv, in the newspaper, and on the internet that have the power to shape our worldview — how we view or see the world. That’s a problem because as Christians, our worldview should be shaped by God’s Word, not by the culture’s word.

One way to avoid being influenced by the culture is to consistently run its messaging through the lens of the Bible. In other words, we must constantly check our culture’s ideas against that of the Bible’s. The only way we are going to be effective at checking the world’s ideas against the Bible’s is for us to know God’s Word, which is where we run into a problem. As senior research Professor David Wells says,

Every study on the internal life of churches shows that they are becoming increasingly less literate biblically. With that, our ability to judge where our culture is intruding upon our souls is diminished [1].

Wells’ research not only looked at new Christians, but seasoned Christians as well. His conclusion, then, is representative of both groups, which tells us that we don’t know the Bible as well as we should. In fact we are trending more and more biblically illiterate by the year. Our biblical illiteracy is the result of a lack of prioritizing God’s Word.

How should we response to Wells’ research? 

We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over it. Instead, we should feel the conviction, repent, and then commit to making a better effort in prioritizing God’s Word in our lives.

If you don’t know where to start, let me encourage you to start by reading through the Bible. So you don’t get too bogged down, start by reading two or three chapters in the Old Testament and one or two chapters in the New Testament. By doing that, you will read the New Testament faster, which is ok. When you get finished, just start back in Matthew.

As you read, write down questions your reading sparks, then spend some time later on answering those questions. Don’t get too bogged down in all the laws and genealogies you will encounter at the beginning of the Bible. If you find your eyes glazing over, just skim them while asking yourself, what characteristics do these laws reveal about God.

(2) Bad Theology

I am often shocked by what some Christian bookstores put on their shelves, and advertise front and center as you walk in the door. Just because a book is on the shelf of your local Christian bookstore, doesn’t mean it can be trusted. There is a lot of bad theology out there, which means we have to always be on guard. Every sermon, Bible study, tv or radio broadcast; every book, article, or blog could be an opportunity for bad theology to creep in, so we must keep our guard up.

How do we guard ourselves? The same way we guard ourselves from culture’s influence — by knowing our Bible and using it. We must make it a point to check everything against God’s Word, just like the Bereans did when Paul taught them. I know many of you have heard the phrase “Be Berean’s”. Well, that’s what we have to be. We have to be Bereans in order to guard ourselves from bad theology.

(3) The Company We Keep

Back in Chapter 15 in verse 33, Paul says,

“Do not be deceived: Bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Cor. 15:33)

As much as we would like to think that we will remain strong no matter the people we are around, it’s simple not true. If non-Christians are our only friends, we are going to be influenced by them. I know this first hand. When I transferred to the University of Georgia, I roomed with some great guys but they weren’t Christians. As a result, I started living and thinking like them.

In order to combat the influence of non-Christians in our lives, we need a solid support network of Christians. I say it like that because I don’t want you to get the impression that you should severe all relationships with non-Christians, because we shouldn’t. As Christians we can’t just gather in our holy huddles blocking out the world completely. We must have non-Christian friends. We are called to make disciples. If we don’t know anyone who isn’t a Christian, it is going to be hard for us to win people to Christ. So we must have non-Christian friends, but we must balance those relationships with a strong Christian support network, one that will hold us accountable and help us grow in God’s Word.

(4) Our Own Actions 

I include this as something we should watch out for because our actions reveal a lot about our heart. They can tell us if we are being influenced by God’s Word, the culture, the company we keep, or our own sinful flesh. So when it comes to our actions, we need to ask ourselves: Are we treating each other harshly, or with love? Are we acting self-centered, or selfless? Are we greedy, or generous? Are we practicing sexual immortality, or sexual restraint? Are we worshipping idols (the things of the world), or Christ?

Our actions tell us a lot about our heart. They tell us a lot about what we are being influenced by, so we need to watch our actions carefully.

Question for Reflection

  1. What are other influences we need to be watchful for?

Resources

Image

Post adapted from my recent sermon: How can we live in the world, while living for Christ?

[1] David Wells, The Soul-Shaping Reality of the Gospel, an interview in Table Talk Magazine, January 2011.

6 Ways to Begin Developing a Gospel-Centered Culture

Over the last several years, there have been numerous ministries, books, conferences, blogs, and churches gravitating toward gospel-centered ministry. Thankfully, I was blessed to be a member of one of those churches during seminary. Through that church I came to understand that the gospel must be what all our ministries are based on, empowered by, and result from. After seeing that modeled for three years, when I left for my first pastorate, I immediately began working to create a gospel-centered culture within my church. Three and a half years later I am still working, but by God’s grace a lot of progress has been made.

Recently, I was asked what exactly I am doing to help create a gospel-centered culture here at Sycamore. Although my ministry and I are imperfect, I want to share with you six things I have been doing over my time here.

6 Ways to Begin Developing a Gospel-Centered Culture

(1) Preach the gospel

Pastor, your pulpit ministry has a huge influence over your church, which means if you want your church to be gospel-centered, your preaching must be gospel-centered. Gospel-centered preaching involves more than tacking the gospel on to the end of your sermon, as if it was an after thought. Instead gospel-centered preaching involves the gospel taking center-stage. You know that has happened when you use the gospel to encourage; convict; draw out; spur on; and promote joy, hope, and courage among your flock. So if you desire to create a gospel-centered culture in your church, make the gospel the center of your preaching.

(2) Counsel with the gospel

A pastor’s ministry doesn’t end after he steps out of the pulpit. In most cases, it is just beginning. That’s because faithfully preaching the gospel week in and week out will inevitable draw questions and sin to the surface, questions and sin that must be dealt with in the counseling room. Just like in the pulpit, the gospel must take center-stage in your counseling. You must not motivate your people to change through positive thinking and bootstrap mentality. You have to motivate them with the gospel. Doing so is not only what is best for them, but also it’s what will help create a gospel-centered culture in your church. As your people see the power and benefit of the gospel for both salvation and sanctification, they will begin applying it not only to themselves, but to those around them as well.

(3) Motivate with the gospel

When it comes to motivation, the tactic most people default to is guilt. I think that is because it works, and it is what comes natural to us. While guilt can motivate in the short-term, it can’t and doesn’t produce lasting and healthy results. That’s because it leaves our people feeling beaten up and, at times, depressed. I know you don’t want that for your people, which means you have to use something other than guilt to motivate them. You have to use the gospel. So the next time you need to motivate your flock to volunteer, tithe, reach the lost, or deal with their sin, apply the gospel, rather than guilt. It is not only what’s best for them, but also it is what will help create a gospel-centered culture in your church.

 (4) Talk about the gospel

I don’t know who said it first, but whoever said, “Your people aren’t really hearing what you are saying, until you are tired of saying it”, was right. Which means, if you want to create a gospel-centered culture in your church, you can never tire of talking about the gospel.

(5) Give gospel-centered resources 

If you are anything like me, you not only grew in your knowledge of gospel-centered ministry through your local church, but also through books, podcasts, videos, and articles. Just as you benefit, your people will as well. So as often as you can, give your people gospel-centered resources to read, listen to, and watch.

(6) Pray for a gospel-centered culture

Prayer is powerful; it truly can change things. It can change the hearts of men, it can bring about healing, and it can change the culture in your church. Often times I believe we forget the power of prayer. When we do, we begin to rely on our own strength, know-how, and ingenuity. But that alone won’t do when it comes to creating a gospel-centered culture because people’s hearts and minds need to be changed. The only way that is going to truly happen is if God changes them. So if you want a gospel-centered culture to take root in your church, go to the Lord in prayer, asking Him not only to change your own heart and mind, but those of your congregation as well.

Question for Reflection

  1. How are you working to create a gospel-centered culture in your church?

Resource

Image

On the World’s False Promises

De Maupassant’s narrative, A Parisian Affair, begins with a pretty woman living in the country who dreams of Paris whilst sleeping next to her snoring husband.

She had never “known a thing beyond the hideously banal monotony of regularly performed duties, which by all accounts was what happily married life consisted of.” For her, Paris is a dream world of escape – the city of lights, “representing the height of all magnificent luxury as well as licentiousness.”

The Promise

The woman’s lusty view of Paris has been cultivated by a steady diet of newspaper gossip, creating in her mind the model of a very different kind of man to her white-collar, small-town, conservative husband. Instead she dreamed of

“Men who made the headlines and shone like brilliant comets in the darkness of her sombre sky. She pictured the madly exciting lives they must lead, moving from one den of vice to the next, indulging in never-ending and extraordinarily voluptuous orgies, and practicing such complex and sophisticated sex as to defy the imagination. It seemed to her that behind the facades of the houses lining the canyon-like boulevards of the city, some amazing erotic secret must lie.”

The Fear of Missing Out

The woman, no longer able to resist the lure of the city, gripped by a nineteenth-century version of “the fear of missing out,” concocts an excuse to travel to Paris.

Giving Into the Allure of the Promise

Once arrived, she searches the streets looking for tantalizing scandal and spectacle. She fruitlessly searches the cafes, “Nowhere could she discover the dens of iniquity about which she had dreamed.”

Her dreams decomposing, she by chance happens upon an aging celebrity writer in one of the new department stores. Throwing aside her usual reserve, she aggressively flirts with him. The writer takes her on a tour of the sights and sounds of Paris.

At the theatre, thrillingly, “she was seen by the entire audience, sitting by his side in the first row of the balcony.” As the entertainment ends, the writer bids her goodnight. She, however, is determined to cross for the first time into the landscape of adultery and offers to accompany him home.

The Let Down

After an awkward and unsatisfying sexual encounter, the woman lies awake in the writer’s bed, wondering what she has done. She spends the night staring at the unattractive features of the man who, like her husband, snores and snorts through the night. She continues to stare, repulsed as the man’s saliva dribbles down his mouth as he sleeps. She flees home feeling as though

“Something inside her, too, had now been swept away, through the mud, down to the gutter and finally into the sewer had gone all the refuse of her over-excited imagination. Returning home, the image of Paris swept inexorable clean by the cold light of day filled her exhausted mind, and as she reached her room, sobs broke from her now quite frozen heart.”

Question for Reflection

  1. When did you discover this world cannot satisfy us?

Resources

Quoted from Mark Sayers, Facing Leviathan, 55-56

Image