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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christian Megathemes: Reaching Your Community by Intentionally Reaching Out

We're continuing our series exploring the Barna Group's recent outlay of six Christian Megathemes affecting the Christian Church in the last decade, hoping to provide not only insight but possible solutions to some of the problems the Church faces today. Click here to read previous entries.

Theme #4: Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.

In much of the Barna report there haven't been many bright lights.  However theme #4 generates some hope.  Barna writes:
Largely driven by the passion and energy of young adults, Christians are more open to and more involved in community service activities than has been true in the recent past. While we remain more self-indulgent than self-sacrificing, the expanded focus on justice and service has struck a chord with many. However, despite the increased emphasis, churches run the risk of watching congregants' engagement wane unless they embrace a strong spiritual basis for such service. Simply doing good works because it's the socially esteemed choice of the moment will not produce much staying power.
I think theme #4 resonates beyond the Christian culture to a general desire by the youth of the nation to find something more meaningful in their lives.  As we'll discuss next time, moral relativism has been a dominant influence in shaping the values of younger Americans ( as this Barna report shows)—and Christian youth are not exempt from its influence. Given that the boundaries of right and wrong have become so fuzzy as to practically disappear, it's no surprise that young people want to find something to grab onto in providing long-lasting meaning to their lives. Community service fills that need.

However, as the Barna report notes, "Simply doing good works because it's the socially esteemed choice of the moment will not produce much staying power." The church has a unique opportunity to do good things for their community; To do things which have a positive impact on those closest to the church itself. In so doing, the church must anchor these actions in the love of Jesus and the Christian worldview.

In his book How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin Schmidt notes that it was Christians who fought against infanticide, opposed the gladiatorial games, and began the first hospitals and orphanages. They did this because the Christian worldview held that all human beings were made in the image of God and their value was intrinsic to being human, not to the benefit they could offer the state. They also saw that as Jesus sacrificed Himself for them, they should sacrifice for others, thus reflecting their Lord's love of all people. They sought to be like Jesus.

Given that young people today, especially Christian youth, desire to do something deep and meaningful while helping their community, the Church has a great opportunity to reach out in love, to touch the lives of others and to show one way Christianity is still incredibly relevant in the world today.

Tips on Reflecting Christ by Community Involvement

For the individual:
  • There are many local rescue missions who reach out to the homeless.  Check the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions site for member organizations.
  • Call a local crisis pregnancy center and ask how you can help. You can find one close to you at
  • In whatever outreach you involve yourself, make sure they are a Christian organization with an orthodox statement of faith.  Your church may be able to recommend some. You will be assured that those they minister to are not only getting their physical needs met, but their spiritual needs, too.
  • Invite an unsaved friend to volunteer with you. You'll have time and an opportunity to expose others to the work of the church.
For the Church:
  • Be diligent to check out all the local social service organizations in your area for those that your church can recommend as being sound and faithful to the gospel effort.
  • Don't just keep a list of recommended organizations, but announce it and encourage participation from your congregation from the pulpit.
  • Have your youth groups plan on volunteering at least once yearly in some type of service project.
  • Think about creative ways your church can serve those in need.  How about a Saturday morning with all the single moms can bring their cars in and the church men can change the oil or provide basic services? How about a repair ministry to help the elderly fix portions of their homes? There are many ways your church can effective without having to expend more of the budget.
Photo courtesy Ed Yourdon and licensed by the Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christian Megathemes: Thinking Less About Stuff and More About God

We've recently been looking at the Barna Group's findings of six Christian Megathemes—dramatic shifts in beliefs, attitudes and actions of the Christian church—that have emerged in the last ten years. The trends are not healthy, and in this series I seek to provide some recommendations on how both churches and individuals can be proactive in reversing them. Click here to read previous entries.

Theme #3: Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.

The third megatrend Barna discovered is that American Christians, especially young Christians, tend to minimize the intangible aspects of their lives like developing a deeper and more meaningful faith for the more tangible and material. They report:
When asked what matters most, teenagers prioritize education, career development, friendships, and travel. Faith is significant to them, but it takes a back seat to life accomplishments and is not necessarily perceived to affect their ability to achieve their dreams. Among adults the areas of growing importance are lifestyle comfort, success, and personal achievements. Those dimensions have risen at the expense of investment in both faith and family…. Practical to a fault, Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities. Because we continue to separate our spirituality from other dimensions of life through compartmentalization, a relatively superficial approach to faith has become a central means of optimizing our life experience.
While Americans have always been known for their pragmatism, I feel that this shift is significant and different. The desire to get things done and accomplish goals is not bad in and of itself, and it has helped grow our country. But that desire should always be guided and guarded by understanding that there are bigger ideas to which we are beholden. Growing a strong agricultural economy is good, since it feeds people and raises the standard of living. But if such an economic model relies on slaves, then it should be abandoned. The bigger idea of all human beings having equal value outweighs economic concerns. Therefore, giving up the pragmatic approach to slave-driven agriculture and facing an upheaval in the economic model of the South was necessary.

As Christians, we should always judge our actions and desires in this way. Paul instructed the Thessalonian church that they should "Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" ( 1 Thess. 5-:21). But, the only way one can measure anything is by a standard against which they may compare it. As C.S. Lewis noted, one cannot tell what a crooked line is unless one first has a some idea of a straight line. Barna noted part of the problem when he wrote:
The turbo-charged pace of society leaves people with little time for reflection. The deeper thinking that occurs typically relates to economic concerns or relational pressures. Spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity are rare.  (It is ironic that more than four out of five adults claim to live a simple life.)
This is a huge problem with the practice of Christianity in the modern world. The noise of this present age has trained us to be uncomfortable in quiet reflection. Try this experiment and see how you do – the next time you have to travel for some distance, say 30 minutes or so, turn off the radio or iPod and any other distractions.  See how long you can go without needing any distracting stimulus to counter the silence so you can think. Most people will get very uncomfortable after less than ten minutes in such circumstances.

Paul, when writing to the Colossian church instructed them to start thinking more circumspectly about matters of faith. "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." (Col. 3:1-2) We need to relearn how to be quiet and train our minds to think about specific thing very deeply; we need to be intentional in concentrating on the things of God. By avoiding wrestling with ethical and theological questions, we are doomed to hold a very superficial view of both Christianity AND life. That is not only sin, it is a travesty of living.

Tips on becoming more spiritually reflective and less superficial

For the individual:
  • Set aside some devotional time each day, with some of that time reserved for reflection. Start with smaller quantities of tine, say 10 minutes, and gradually increase it as you become better at reflection.
  • Don't try to rush through your devotional reading, but think about different ways the verses may apply to you.
  • Start journaling or blogging. Writing down your thoughts forces you to express them in a cogent manner and the act of writing gives you more time to see if what you feel is really what you mean.
  • Pick a book that's a little above you intellectually. Determine to not only read it, but to understand it. This may require additional helps, such as commentaries or reference works. That's OK. The goal is to stretch yourself.
For the Church:
  • Pastors need to stress the concept of thinking through passages of scripture.  This doesn't come naturally, so your congregation will need to be trained on how to do so.
  • Preach the importance and the scriptural commandment of developing the Christian mind.
  • Rather than simply preaching against the superficiality of the world, we need to model how to think through issues. Hold an apologetics class or a Sunday School class and offer up some real ethical dilemmas. Talk through each aspect of the choices people may make.  Here's a good example from a Harvard philosophy class.
Image "American way of life" by AnaïsFernandes - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christian Megathemes: Breaking out of the Holy Huddle

Yesterday, I started a series where I take a look at the Barna Group’s findings of six Christian Megathemes that have emerged in the last decade. These themes are dramatic shifts in beliefs, attitudes and actions of the Christian church—and they need to be addressed since they’re a danger to the health and effectiveness of Christianity. You can read the first article here. Barna’s original list can be found here.

Theme #2: Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.

The second in the six megathemes Barna identified seems a bit counter-intuitive until you give it some thought. He reports:

"Despite technological advances that make communications instant and far-reaching, Christians are becoming more spiritually isolated from non-Christians than was true a decade ago. Despite technological advances that make communications instant and far-reaching, Christians are becoming more spiritually isolated from non-Christians than was true a decade ago. Examples of this tendency include the fact that less than one-third of born again Christians planned to invite anyone to join them at a church event during the Easter season; teenagers are less inclined to discuss Christianity with their friends than was true in the past; most of the people who become Christians these days do so in response to a personal crisis or the fear of death (particularly among older Americans); and most Americans are unimpressed with the contributions Christians and churches have made to society over the past few years."

Given all the chatter both in the press and online about how Christians are "forcing their views" on others through protests, legislation issues (such as California’s Prop 8), school curriculum, etc., how is it that Christians can be considered more ingrown? The answer is simple, those conflicts are not what defines Christianity. Christianity has always been about sharing our faith with others. We are each to consider ourselves as patients recovering from a terminal illness, and we need to share the antidote with all those who face the same diagnosis. That’s what Matthew 28:19 AND 1 Peter 3:15-16 are all about.

To a large degree, I think the presence of these moral conflicts in the public square has actually exacerbated the problem of insularity. People dislike being thought of as trouble-makers. It doesn't help that many of these stories paint Christians as the narrow-minded, backward bigots. See for example the recent stance that the Southern Poverty Law Center took in adding Christian groups to its hate groups list. Well, who wants to be lumped in with the Klu Klux Klan? So Christians become afraid of what others may think of us as being "Christian". We shy away from talking about our faith and we go along, just wanting to be liked. However, this is sin and a stark contrast from what Christianity has historically faced and still faces in much of the non-Christianized world. Just browse these headlines or read the first couple chapters of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to see what Christians used to face!

The other issue that bothers me is the fact that "most Americans are unimpressed with the contributions Christians and churches have made to society over the past few years." Christianity has always been at the forefront of cultural advancement. Christianity gave the world some of its best thinkers, artists, and humanitarians. We have Christianity to thank for orphanages, universities, and the view that all people are equal. Christianity is even at the center of our scientific advancement over the last several centuries. To hear more about this, you can grab a copy of my class "How Christianity Changed the World."

Many in the church have bought into the lie that faith is a "personal matter" and shouldn’t be shared. The Bible nowhere teaches this and it simply doesn’t make logical sense. What you believe forms the core of your worldview, which shapes all your actions.  Therefore, sharing our faith means sharing what's true, and that's something on one should be afraid to do.

Tips on becoming more outward in sharing your faith

For the individual:
  • Learn more about what a worldview is, and how beliefs have consequences. A good way to start is by listing to talks such as the one Dr. Robert Stewart gave at the recent EPS conference.
  • Start talking about beliefs with friends whom you have already developed already have a close relationship. Perhaps schedule a lunch date once a week. Then, invite a third person to join you so you can share your faith in a secure setting.
  • Study up on some of these "hot-button" issues so you can defuse claims of bigotry or hate when they arise.
  • Get involved with a Christian humanitarian organization, such as a rescue mission or an international relief agency so see some of the good Christianity offers the world.
  • Pray that God will give you opportunities to share – and when you see them, say something!
For the Church:
  • Churches need to begin training congregants on ways to share their faith in a winsome and attractive manner. It’s important to know the text, but it’s also important to know how to communicate it!
  • Offer real-world opportunities to take students and others out in faith-sharing exercises. We recently did this in our Apologetics Missions Trip to liberal U.C. Berkeley.
  • Invite an apologist to address your congregation and offer ways people may share their faith.
  • Go through a book or perhaps the DVD series The Truth Project in your small groups. Then have people talk about their experiences in sharing their faith. Everyone will be strengthened knowing that they are not the only ones who feel afraid or worried about not being liked.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christian Megathemes: Believers who don't know about Easter

The Barna Research Group recently released one of the most important studies I've seen in a while.  Looking back over the past year of research on Christian behavior and belief, they've compiled what George Barna terms six megathemes—shifts in the way Christians believe and act—that have occurred within the last decade. In other words, these shifts are taking place right now, and they pose a significant risk to the health of Christians and the Christian church as a whole.

In reading these, I don't disagree with anything found here.  In fact, many of them are fairly evident. But we need to do more than just spot them.  Therefore, let's look at them carefully and ask ourselves if we are guilty of allowing these attitudes to creep into our lives. Over the next few days, I'll take each point from the study and examine it in a bit more detail.  Then, I'll explore what steps we need to take to reverse the slide—both individually and as a church.

1.  The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.

This first megatheme is not surprising in its statement, but it is shocking in its depth.  Barna writes, "What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans—especially young adults. For instance, Barna Group studies in 2010 showed that while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ." He goes on to note that Christians even misinterpret something as fundamental as the person of the Holy Spirit to be "a symbol of God's power" which is a heresy taught by the Jehovah's Witnesses!

The irony, of course, is that we live in an age of the Internet, where Christians have more access to information than ever before.  But this means we need to first of all be interested in finding the answers and secondly be discerning when drawing from our sources.  I think this first issue is key.  People have increasingly taken a "buffet" approach to faith; give me a little of this thing, a dollop of that, but only what I like.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the belief system people build start to reflect the drawbacks of a buffet: they load up on all the sweets and fun foods, but skip the fare that may be a little more difficult but will make you healthier.

The writer to the Hebrews had the same complaint with that church.  He said "For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil."(Heb. 5:13-14) As Christians, we need to stop loading our plates with only messages of "Jesus loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life" and take in more of the green vegetables on the nature of God, the nature of Jesus, what salvation means, and other items. Apologetics is a wonderful way to do this, as it forces you to understand your theology and also be able to answer heresies, such as errors on the Trinity.

Tips on becoming more theologically astute

For the individual
  • Get some good books, like a systematic theology book or an apologetics primer and keep them handy
  • Engage in conversations with others about what they believe and what basis they have for holding to those beliefs (did they just like the belief, are they basing it from scripture, from tradition, etc).
  • Keep a daily devotion time, reading directly from the Bible. I recommend a chapter a day. Use an accessible commentary to help unpack the chapters that you read.  Wiersbe's series are pretty easy for the novice.
For the Church
  • We need to focus more on expository preaching, and not as many topically-driven messages.  Go through a book of the Bible from beginning to end with your congregation.
  •  Make sure theology is taught in Sunday school classes.  This doesn't have to be dry and lecture-like. Place the tough theological questions in real-world scenarios and act them out. Even children's plays and support groups should weave theology into its curriculum.
  • Seek to start an apologetics ministry in your church.  For some ideas, you can listen to a this mp3 that was recently presented at the EPS Conference in Atlanta.
Image courtesy ΙΣΧΣΝΙΚΑ-888 and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Who are Theudas and Judas of Galilee and why is Jesus Different?

There have been many teachers throughout the history of humanity whose life and teachings are supposedly word-changing—at least this is what their followers believe or have believed.  Such may be said about Jesus.  Of course, history has shown that Jesus' teachings did indeed reshape humanity. We even number our years by His coming. But have you ever thought about why? In the view of the movers and shakers of the day, Jesus of Nazareth was a backwoods preacher in a third-rate province of Roman Empire. With no army and no money or political influence, why is it that two-thousand years later people across all continents celebrate His birth with more fervor than the greatest of any of their heroes? It isn't because of Christmas; it's because of Easter!

As influential as Jesus' teachings were, they wouldn't hold nearly as much power unless there was something else accompanying it; something that proved His authority. I make such a claim because we see the same reasoning in the book of Acts. In Acts 5, the Jewish Sanhedrin was wondering what to do with this new sect of Jesus followers who won't obey their cease and desist orders.  Gamaliel, a respected teacher, comes before them and says,

"Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men.For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered.So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God."(Acts 5:35-39)

 The Sanhedrin should've understood this.  In John 2:19, when Jesus drove out the moneychangers, they asked Him what kind of authority he had to dictate what should and shouldn't happen in God's temple. Jesus replied "Destroy this temple and I will raise it up on the third day" speaking of His resurrection.

Some like to point to Jesus as being a great teacher as the explanation for His popularity.  But reducing Jesus to merely a good teacher neither explains the magnitude of His influence nor does justice to the things He actually said. Of course the teachings of Jesus were revolutionary and profound.  But Jesus was unique.  He claimed to speak with the authority of God, and backed up that claim by going to the cross, dying, and rising again. It is because of the resurrection that Jesus is held to be the source of authority on matters of God and mankind and it is because of the resurrection that we celebrate this season.
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