Five Things Every Christian Should Know - Number 1

"Umm... err... well... Uh, you see, it's like uh... God. Yeah God, uh... well, we didn't, umm... but God umm... Hang on, let me call my pastor. Wait right here."

Studies have shown that the number-one nightmare that all of humanity has in common is a dream in which a person's teeth fall out. Apparently, this nightmare is common to people of all races, genders, cultures, and ages, although I've never experienced it myself.

This may be the number-one nightmare shared by all of humanity, but my guess is that the comments that opened this post reflect the number-one nightmare shared by most Christians: "having" to share the Gospel.

Most of us have our prayer list of people we know who are not believers. We mention them to our Sunday school class, and pray that God would send someone to reach those people with the Gospel. That is, someone else. Truth be told, most Christians know deep down that if they were ever called upon to share the Gospel, they would immediately lapse into their best impersonation of Bambi in the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck.

Studies indicate that the average Christian can expect to lead less than one person to Christ in their lifetime. Think about that - the average American household has 2.5 kids. It doesn't take a math whiz to recognize there's a problem. If those statistics are right, the church can expect to atrophy at the rate of around .5 person per household. That's downright scary.

Stop and think for a second about the conversations you've had with unbelievers this week. How many of those could have turned spiritual had you had the intestinal fortitude to turn them? (Don't beat yourself up... according to Stat Counter, nearly 200 people read this blog every day, and at least 150 of them are in the same boat as you). Why are we reluctant to turn conversations to spiritual things when we talk to unbelievers? For the majority of us the answer is that we're scared the conversation is going to turn all the way to the point that we're going to be responsible for sharing the Gospel, and we're not prepared to do that.

The number one thing every Christian should know is how to present the Gospel clearly, precisely, and confidently. If this eternal life thing is so great, shouldn't we be prepared to share God's gift with others when the opportunity presents itself?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know God's sovereign, and will draw people to Himself. But there are too many people in the world who use their theology as an excuse to ignore God's clear commands. Of course God is able to bring people to Himself without our involvement; He's God. But He has made it clear through Scripture that He gives us the opportunity to serve Him by sharing the message of life with others.

Think of that: there is one message that far surpasses all the other messages that mankind needs to hear. Of all the messages of God, the message of redemption is clearly the most rich from man's perspective. And God allows us to be His mouthpiece to the world concerning His unspeakable gift. The least we can do is to be prepared so we're ready when God chooses to use us.

You don't have to be a theologian. You also don't have to be the incarnation of Dana Carvey's Church Lady. But every Christian should be willing and able to be used by God in sharing the greatest message I can think of. "God so loved the world..."

So where do you begin? Check out 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 for starters. Paul's presentation is simple, short, sweet, and to the point. Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead.

There are a ton of "methods" out there that you can use to present the Gospel: the Roman Road, The Bridge, Good News/Bad News, etc... I honestly don't prefer to use a "method" because Christians who enter the Christian life based on a formula tend to think the whole Christian life is about formulas and methods, and it isn't. But use the methods to think through your presentation, and then share from your heart. You don't have to be fancy schmancy with bells and whistles. But know the Gospel and pray to God that it will be on the test.

Five Things Every Christian Should Know - Part 1

"Are we going to have to know this for the test?"

This is the one question everyone in my Jr. High, High School, and College classes wondered about but never had the courage to ask. There was always one guy though; he had the courage to ask the question.

I love that guy. He's my hero. That guy is like the class sacrificial lamb. He tips his hand right there in front of everyone so the rest of us don't have to.

Students don't really care about the subject matter. We could Google search the answer if the question kept us up at night, but it doesn't, so we won't. We just showed up at Jr. High because it would get us to High School. High School would get us to college. College would get us a piece of paper that would let us really do what we wanted to do. We didn't want the answers from the classes we took; we just wanted the piece of paper.

But nobody's willing to say that out loud. So, we sat there dutifully taking notes for the first couple of weeks until we figured out who "the guy" was. Once he was identified, the pens went away, and the baseball caps were pulled over our eyes. Don't bore us with the details; just tell us what's going to be on the test.

Whether it's fortunate or unfortunate, we can't be that haphazard with the Christian life. Life isn't about getting the piece of paper, it's about serving the Sovreign God of the Universe. And there's no "guy" asking the question for us. What exactly should we as Christians know to make it in the Christian life? I believe there are five things every Christian should know, and plan to spend the next couple of blogs talking through them. Some of them will be obvious, and some of them will probably surprise you. In each case, I'll try to do my best to describe exactly what it is the believer should know, and why they should know it.

First, a disclaimer: I didn't find these five things listed in Scripture, and I am not God. Therefore, my list isn't inspired. I don't intend to say that you're a bad Christian if you don't know #3 on my list, and certainly don't mean that you have to know all five of these things to go to heaven. Don't doubt your eternal security based on my list. These are simply the five things I believe every Christian should understand in order to faithfully live out the Great Commission, "Go and make disciples of all nations."

And oh yeah... this will be on the test.

Pimp My Devotional Time

Maybe you've seen the TV show "Pimp My Ride." It appears on MTV about as frequently as Britney Spears gets married, so your chances to catch it are fairly good. The basic idea of the show is to take someone's broken down jalopy and overhaul it into the newest, baddest, most hip car on the block. I've only caught the show once or twice, since I'm usually disappointed. I rarely think the end result is better than the original product. The first car had character; the end result has a DVD player and won't break down on the side of the road. Where's the excitement in that?

A few years ago I allowed Prof Hendricks at Dallas Seminary to "Pimp My Devotional Time." I had been doing the whole devotional book plus a chapter of Proverbs a day thing for a while which was fine, but it's hard to find a good devotional book for guys, and I wasn't getting the type of big picture study that I felt like I needed. It was tired, run down, and needed an overhaul. So, on Prof's recommendation, I revamped the whole thing.

I put my devotional book on the shelf to be a placeholder for my dust collection. Now, I dedicate my entire month to the study of one book of the Bible in its entirety. On the first of the month I begin a new book, and on the last day of the month, I end it. No exceptions. Each month I alternate between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Last month, for example, I studied the book of 1 Timothy. This month, it's Malachi. Thursday I'll begin the book of Matthew.

The result has been unbelievable. I find that each month I'm excited to start a new book, and by the time I'm starting to get bogged down with the book, it is time to move on to a new one. The new system gives me the ability to move at my own pace at the depth I desire. I don't have to rely on an author of a devotional book to gauge my spiritual need or maturity.

You can really begin to understand a book after thirty days of study. For some books, like Philemon, I'm able to almost memorize the entire book. I'm able to study the background of the characters, the history of the times, and to experience life in Philemon's skin by the end of the month. But even with the huge books, like Genesis, I'm able to get a big picture that gives me the ability to see the overall purpose of the book, and how it's organized. It helps me understand what God says, and why He says it when He says it.

With this approach, I've also liberated myself from an unfortunate "checklist" mentality. Before, for whatever reason, there were days I would miss devotional times. (Get off my back... it's happened to you too). On the day following my miss, there was always an uncompleted page in my book glaring back at me. Often I would complete two days' worth of devotionals just to fill in the page. I got in the horrible habit of completing pages so I could check them off and get rid of the guilt. There's not one thing spiritual about that. I'd submit to you that if you're doing a devotional time sheerly because you feel guilty about it, you really shouldn't be doing a devotional time.

Offering God less than your best just so you can say you went through the motions is exactly what God judged the Israelites for in Malachi. (Malachi was my book of this month... I should know).

God said to them beginning in Malachi 1:13, "You also say, ‘How tiresome it is.’ You turn up your nose at it,” says the Lord who rules over all, “and instead bring what is stolen, lame, or sick. You bring these things for an offering! Should I accept this from you?” asks the Lord. (14) “There will be harsh condemnation for the hypocrite who has a valuable male animal in his flock but vows and sacrifices something inferior to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord who rules over all, “and my name is awesome among the nations.”

My new philosophy on quiet times has freed me from the legalism of offering an inferior sacrifice to the Lord so I can check it off my list. Instead, I'm actually growing. I can see the benefit. My life is being changed by the text, and I understand Scripture better when I'm done.

So beginning Thursday, give it a shot. Pimp your devotional time. Just think: In just over 6 years you'll have studied each book of the Bible for an entire month. And you'll grow closer to the God of the Universe, and better understand His plan for the ages. What do you have to lose?

Christian Perspective on Torture

I'm back from an early Thanksgiving celebration with my mom's side of the family. Although I'm furious with the local radio stations for jumping the gun on Christmas music, the holidays are truly my favorite time of year. The entire trip was great, but the highlight of the weekend was listening to the technologically-savvy Pyromaniac attempt to explain the intricacies of a wireless network to my 80-year-old grandparents. I'll probably get blogrolled as "annoying" for saying it, but he might have had a better chance had he tried to explain supralapsarianism.

A week or so ago I got into a discussion with a very educated person in one of the secular forums I read. The topic was "torture" and whether or not the United States government should torture prisoners of war in an attempt to gain critical information that might save lives. I took the position that torture might be necessary in some instances, and she took the opposite side. The discussion was going along fine until someone posted the following comment:

"I find it amazing how many so called Christians favor torturing Iraqi's. So called Americans who spout cliches about freedom and human rights as long as it is our freedom and human rights. But they are certainly willing to throw those moral values away pretty quick."

The fact that Christianity is not about human rights or freedom aside, the comment made me think about values we do hold dear and how they come in to play when we talk about this issue. And while I have in no way changed my position, the above comment made me realize that we as Christians need to be very careful when they talk about issues like this so as to both defend what we believe and clearly articulate the way our values play into these issues.

The first issue in play as we discuss torture is the value of universal human dignity. Scripture teaches that all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) - a little lower than God and crowned with glory and majesty (Psalm 8:4). As a creation of God, in His image, each human should be seen with dignity as such. Many of us as Christians are very good at pointing to this argument in defense of a pro-life stance (and rightly so), but the argument is tougher when we're discussing a rabid terrorist who wants us and our families dead.

Secondly, vengeance ultimately belongs to God (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19) Hebrews 10:30). He is the judge, and the ultimate avenger of the innocent. It is not the job of the Church, individual Christians, cultures, governments or armies to execute vengeance or judgment on evil doers at their own bidding.

Thirdly, although I would argue that the government may be used as an agent of God to execute His judgment (Romans 13), we must be extremely careful in claiming that the judgment we execute on prisoners of war is God-ordained judgment on these men. We have to tread very carefully when we speak with "authority" about God's intentions, even when they seem to be obvious. Speak when God has spoken, and remain silent where God is silent.

Personally, I find the practice of torture absolutely deplorable. And yet, I am convinced that such acts might take place in certain educated, specific, controlled situations, and remain completely in line with the values and principles found in Scripture.

(It should be noted here that I am not arguing for the abuse of prisoners for sport, or for the personal enjoyment of the soldiers involved. It shouldn't even have to be said, but such acts are reprehensible, disgusting, and inherently wrong. The acts for which I'm arguing are acts conducted on known terrorists with terrorist ties who are suspected to be withholding information that could be used to protect innocent lives.)

The inherent dignity due to a terrorist POW as one created in the image of God is not greater than the dignity of the person or persons that terrorist intends to kill either directly or indirectly through the withholding of information. If a person held my wife at gunpoint, I would be foolish and sinful to not protect my wife in that situation if I was able. The very analogy makes my stomach churn, but I believe it is apt. If anything, it is over states the point, as we're not debating the use of lethal force against terrorists, but the physical coercion of a terrorist in order to gain information. When we're forced to make a choice, it is foolish to sacrifice the dignity of many people for the dignity of one.

In order to protect the dignity of its citizens, it is my belief that government is completely with in its God-ordained boundaries to engage an enemy of that dignity in whatever way necessary. It should be done as minimally as possible, and only when necessary as a last resort, but if necessary it should be done.

The failure to protect individual human dignity is as egregious a sin as the failure to respect it.

No Place Like Home...

I'll be leaving Dallas for a few days beginning tonight. The Pyromaniac's in Tulsa for Thanksgiving, which means that entire side of the family will drop everything to head his way. (Actually, don't tell him, but Darlene's the one we really want to see.) We'll be doing the Thanksgiving thing this week instead of next, so Phil and Darlene can head back to Southern California in time to cook their Thanksgiving pizza on Thanksgiving day.

Yeah, you read me right... Thanksgiving pizza. Mothers, beware of moving your children to the left coast. It really does warp your brain.

Chances are, blogging will be sparse over the next week or so, since I always feel bad making the 4 hour trek to Oklahoma only to sit in front of the computer, something I could have done here in Dallas. Plus, I'm working on something right now regarding the Christian perspective on torture as it relates to the interrogation of prisoners of war. The topic came up on a secular bulletin board I read, and one of the posters indicated the concept of physical coercion during war is an anti-Christian concept. Within limits, I'm convinced that it isn't. If the topic is still a big news story next week when I get back, I'll crank something out.

Until then...

Take it off...

I'm beginning an official campaign against the "Jesus Fish."

Earlier today during my morning commute, I was within inches of being an agent used by God to usher another person into Glory. There I was, minding my own business while listening to Mike and Mike in the Morning, eating my Fudge Graham Balance Bar, drinking my Coke C2 (the breakfast of champions), and working on the list of things I needed to accomplish today. Traffic was heavy, but not nearly as bad as it can be at 7 o'clock in the morning on the way in to Dallas.

Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I saw a streak of blue come flying across my rear view mirror. A middle aged man in a brand new Tahoe shot from the left lane to the right lane, causing three different cars to swerve onto the shoulder to avoid the early morning opportunity to swim with the Trinity River fishes.

As the Tahoe goosed the gas, missing me by a fraction of an inch, the car in front of him slammed on his brakes join the traffic jam already in progress ahead of us, obviously having been distracted by the commotion behind him. The Tahoe reacted by slamming on his own brakes, and swerving towards the left shoulder only to realize that the left shoulder was protected by a concrete barrier. With cat-like reflexes, he swerved back into the center lane, narrowly missing a car whose driver had already suffered a corronary because of a first near-miss. She honked, which allowed the Tahoe to swerve back into my lane where he finally came to a stop.

That's when I noticed the Jesus fish on the back of his car. Not just one, but a family of 5 Jesus fish; a mommy and daddy Jesus fish followed by 3 little Jesus fish.

It would have been cute if I hadn't developed an incontrolable urge to strangle the guy.

The Jesus fish isn't a good idea. It's hard to represent heaven when you drive like a bat out of, well, you know...

Under the Radar

Last week, I was pretty rough on the makers of "End of the Spear," for casting a gay activist for a lead role in the new movie documenting the life of Jim Elliot and his partners in ministry. Although I stand by my original post, there is something about this movie that is praiseworthy, and I want to make sure to point that out as well.

When was the last time the Christian community put out a high quality, high caliber movie, with high quality actors that wasn't overtly Christian? I can't think of one since Chariots of Fire, which means it's high time for one.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with overtly Christian movies. I loved the Passion of the Christ, despite its mystic Catholic underpinnings. But the Christian community doesn't always have to be blatant in portraying its message. In fact, being less overt with an agenda is often more effective than making the agenda readily apparent.

Let me give you some examples:

One of my favorite sitcoms, Seinfeld, contains an episode in which one of the characters is attempting to decide, with the help of her friends, whether or not her current boyfriend is worthy of her birth-control method of choice. She only has a few, and they're expensive, so she doesn't want to waste it on the wrong guy. The subtle agenda? Casual sex is normal to the point that it's not even a topic of conversation. The issue for "normal" people is not whether or not to have sex outside of marriage, but whether or not a current sexual partner is worthy of the "good" birth control.

Another popular sitcom that is extremely funny is Will and Grace. The show is funny, and two of its main characters (Will and Jack) are likeable and funny. They're also both gay. Jack is the stereotypical gay man, if you will, while Will is an average, good looking guy that would pass under the "gaydar" of most heterosexuals. The subtle agenda? Homosexuality is completely normal behavior practiced by many "regular" people.

Will and Grace would never be successful in accomplishing its goal of normalizing homosexuality if it was completely overt, over the top, and in-your-face. But by going under the radar, it has won the viewership of many people I know who would vehemently oppose its view on homosexuality, but love the humor and characters of the show. Meanwhile, week after week, the characters seem more real, and their behavior more acceptable.

While I'm at it, I should mention my friend Stowe Campbell. He's a student with me at DTS, but has spent years collecting and archiving episodes of various MTV television shows. His ministry, Know Consequences, talks to teenagers about the underlying messages of MTV's programs. Accompanied by video clips, the messages are pretty scary.

Even the Mormon community has caught on to the idea. Napolean Dynamite was an instant cult-classic that arose out of a dare. A secular man told a Mormon that it was impossible to make a high quality movie without foul language and sexual inuendo. The Mormon took the challenge, and produced Napolean Dynamite. Suddenly, the secular world takes notice. Mormons are just regular guys with great sense of humor like us. How scary is that?

Why can't the Christian community fight fire with fire? What's wrong with producing a high quality television show that highlights a good Christian family who are "normal?" What's wrong with producing a movie that presents good moral values accompanied by an interesting story line, good cinematography, and good acting? We don't always have to be on the attack with our message. Maybe we could invest some time and money into priming the pump so that people are able to see normal Christian people who are not so disconnected from the rest of humanity that we're seen as walking freak shows.

This is not to say that we should ever be scared, intimidated, ashamed, or afraid of boldly proclaiming the Gospel. May it never be! But if the Christian community is always involved in a full frontal assault against secular culture, we run the risk of being seen as antagonists instead of those who offer the message of reconcilliation to God. Meanwhile, the secular community isn't involved in a visible battle with anyone. They don't have to be. By going covert, they're slowly winning the war without firing a shot.

Goodnight Vienna

Goodnight Vienna! (And Guam, and Iceland, and United Kingdom).

While websurfing the other day, I happened upon Clustrmaps. This is one of the coolest things that I am aware of in the area of webstat tracking. Click on the map on the right sidebar and check out where our visitors are coming from every day.

Aside from the humbling reality that the words we write tonight can be read seconds later by almost anyone, anywhere, I'm completely curious as to how someone from Iceland happens upon a blog written by a nobody in North Texas, USA.

So drop us a note. How's life in Guam anyway?

And while you're at it, tell your friends in Big Sky Country that they really should get on the stick. We've got the United States surrounded with the exception of the Montana/North Dakota crowd. There's a reward for the person who logs on and posts a comment from the weirdest spot.

A Confession...

People who know me know that I have a fairly long fuse, and that I've learned to control my "passion" about a subject to a certain extent before reaching my breaking point. Rarely is the threshold met, but on certain occasions the stars line up and I go kamikaze on something that has been cooking for a while. I get irritated about things on a regular basis (hence this blog), but rarely do I go over the edge from irritation to explosion. But I almost got there last night.

I was sitting in class listening to a pretty good lecture on the book of Daniel, specifically Daniel 9, when the professor asked a rhetorical question about the overall theme of Scripture. Now, rhetorical questions by definition don't expect an answer, but the guy in the back row decided to give it a shot anyway. He responded with some gobbledygook about the "antithesis of the contrast of the realities of redemptive history and reprobation." Don't rub your eyes - it didn't make sense when he said it either.

The story isn't over, but I feel the need to make clarification.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. In every class, there's some genius who feels the need to either (1) Demonstrate his brilliance in front of the entire class by reading "Word Power" in Readers' Digest before coming to class, and figuring out a way to incorporate every word in their questions. Or, he feels the need to correct the professor in matters of theology. This is especially comical when 25 year old seminarians attempt to correct a 70 year old professor on matters of theology over which the 70 year old professor has written three books.

Back to last night, the professor asked the back row scholar to clarify his answer. The guy replied back that God's ultimate plan for humanity was heaven or hell. Disagreeing, (heaven and hell are not eternal... God's plan for believers is and eternal state that includes a New Heavens and New Earth, and a lake of fire for unbelievers) the professor responded with another question.

This is where the story goes from making me mad to making me profoundly sad.

Looking directly at the know-it-all student, the professor asked him, "Where will you go when you die?"

"Heaven, I hope. Day by day I hope," replied Mr. Know-it-all, who suddenly didn't know at all.

"You hope?" asked the professor. "This is something you should know."

And he proceeded to share the Gospel with this guy, who has been in seminary nearly 4 1/2 years.

For 4 1/2 years this guy has been attending a conservative evangelical seminary dedicated to teaching believers to "Preach the Word." And somehow this guy missed the most simple and profound truth of all. "Jesus loves me, this I know."

I'm not blogging about this guy in order to give him a hard time. I'm blogging about this story because late into the night last night I was bothered by two lessons this story taught me.

1. It is entirely possible to worship the idol of black and white (and red) words on a page, and altogether miss the God they represent. The study of God's word is vastly important, but can't supercede a relationship with the God of which they speak which comes through faith in Christ.

2. We can't take peoples' individual stories for granted. I was fuming at this know-it-all guy trying to stump the professor with the student's infinite knowledge. Now, my response is compassion and sorrow for a guy who probably isn't even a believer. He can't help it. "The natural man can't receive the things of the Spirit because they're foolishness to him. He can't understand them because they're Spiritually appraised" (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Why Young Pastors Leave The Ministry

A recent blog on listed the top ten reasons young pastors leave the ministry. Although it's mostly intended as humorous, there are some pretty interesting things mentioned here. The tenure of a young pastor is around the same amount of time one could expect Liz Taylor to stay married... not good. This list explains why:

1. The discontinuity between what they imagined ministry to be and what it actually is is too great.
2. A life without weekends sucks.

3. The pay is too low (most pastors in my denomination make less money than a school teacher with five years experience).

4. They are tired of driving ten year old cars while their congregations trade in their cars every two years.

5. Many young pastors are called into difficult congregations that chew pastors up and spit them out because experienced pastors know better.

6. Even though the search committee told them they wanted to reach young people, they didn’t really mean it.

7. When the pastor asked the search committee if they were an “emergent church”, the members of the search committee thought he said “divergent church” and agreed.

8. Nobody told the young pastor that cleaning the toilets was part of the job description.

9. The young pastor’s student loans came due and the amount of money he/she owes on a monthly basis exceeds his/her income.

10. Working at McDonalds has alot less stress.

Although some of these are obviously intended as purely humorous, and there are other issues in play here such as the honesty and integrity of churches during the search process, it seems the majority of problems we face as young pastors stem from a lack of proper perspective. From my limited experience, the solution seems to be in the training and relationships pursued by young pastors.

First, the pastor needs to be prepared for ministry on the front end. Frankly, seminaries are not doing this well. The vast majority of seminaries with which I am familiar do a great job of churning out biblical scholars, but there is a huge disconnect between someone who can explain a passage and someone who can wisely apply it to leadership in a church. The value of internships, and apprentice-type learning environments should not be underestimated in the training of young pastors. These situations give the pastors a laboratory to experiment and fail with some type of safety net in play. Frankly, I wouldn't hire a pastor who hadn't served in some type of formal ministry training that included a prolonged internship; the risk is too high.

Secondly, young pastors must be connected to older pastors who can serve to help buoy a pastor through the inevitable messes he finds within the church. These relationships don't need to be formal, but they need to be existent. I thank God on a regular basis for the 3 men in my life who currently pastor churches, and have served as mentors to me during my various involvements in ministry. Their perspective, input, advice, and wisdom have kept me out of several messes, and have encouraged me through some extremely difficult times.

The NakedReligion Blog is right: McDonalds would be less stress, but the rewards of offering someone the opportunity to Super-size their value combo doesn't compare to the reward of being used by God in changing lives.

If you've got a young pastor, it might be worth encouraging him to pursue some of these relationships. Who knows? You might end up saving your pastor.