Finding Cornelius #LukeActs2014

“He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sin through his name.” (Acts 10:42-43, NIV)

If I understand my historical-critical method and my ground-up Bible study tools, the key issue in Acts 10 has to do with insiders and outsiders, Jews and Gentiles.

In our context, though, the big question does not seem to be whether belief in Jesus is enough to make Gentiles righteous before God, but whether we need to believe anything at all. In verse 35 Peter says that all who fear God and do right are accepted by God. But even inside the church in our day people sound like they are arguing that you do not have to believe in Jesus Christ or fear God in any way. Just be our own lovable selves, and God would be unjust to do anything but give us a big high five at the pearly gates.

A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a question to his non-church-going friends. He wanted to know why they did not go to church. One response turned the question back on my friend. Why, the person asked, should I bother with church at all. My life is good just as it is. Why do I need church?

It strikes me more and more that most of the people in our context are like the ones Moses warned about in Deuteronomy 8. They think they neither need God nor have received anything from God. Most of us are like the ones mentioned in the Psalms who say “What do I care about God? He will not notice me.” Most of us are the people the prophets aimed their arrows at.

Cornelius and his household were not. They were “devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (10:2). He was ready to hear the news of Jesus Christ as good news because he was already conscious of his need for God.

In the church these days, it feels as if we spend a lot of time trying to talk people living in a Deuteronomy 8 mindset into changing their ways. We worry about being credible to people who say in their hearts, “I don’t really need God but if he can do something for me, well maybe.” Peter was guided to the Spirit to the place where men and women were eager for the good news and longing to know God better. What would it look like if the church today followed his example?

My problem with pluralism

On Friday, I attended afternoon prayers at the local Islamic Center with my colleagues from CPE. After the prayers were over, one of the Muslim gentlemen came over to our group and started to evangelize us with stories about how the Quran explains that Jesus did not die on the cross.

I appreciated his efforts, even if they were a bit of an embarrassment to our host. Our host tried to get us away from our evangelizer and apologized for his brother in the faith’s tactics. As it turns out, many advocates of interfaith pluralism find evangelism awkward and uncouth.

This is a big part of why I find pluralism so difficult to embrace.

I find it difficult because I live in a culture that wants to put claims on people that are inconsistent with the gospel. And here, when I speak of the culture contrary to the gospel, I do not mean people like my Muslim evangelizer. I mean majority American culture.

Pluralism is the watchword of that culture. It says what we believe about God does not really matter, so long as we keep it to ourselves. As long as what we believe stays locked up inside our own heads and behind our church doors, everything is fine. The culture wants us buying Big Macs and paying our taxes on time. Religion gets in the way of that, and so our culture tries to keep religion a private matter, something best not shared or discussed in mixed company. Our culture uses the word “preach” as a pejorative term. “Don’t preach at me.”

Preaching itself is a struggle against the notion that every American has a God-given right to decide for himself or herself what the truth is and to live the life that they think best suits them. Opening up a Bible and saying the God revealed in its pages is the one who should determine who we are and how we live crashes head long into much of the value system promoted in American culture.

This message goes under the cover of saying Christians should not try to convert Jews or Muslims, but there is no reason at all why the logic of the message is limited to fellow monotheists. Americans have a lot of beliefs and practices that run counter to the gospel.

If we think it is wrong to try to evangelize Jews or Muslims or Hindus, then why should we consider it okay to evangelize pagans or materialists or those who are vaguely spiritual but not religious?

In other words, I have a hard time with pluralism precisely because I believe the people in the churches I serve need Jesus Christ. If I thought they could be just as well off with any set of beliefs that they happened to find suitable for themselves, then I would not bother to preach. But if I am convinced that preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel is good for the people who show up in the pews where I serve, then I should think it is good for people who worship other gods as well.

Or that is how it seems to me.

Whitefield or Spong?

A pastoral colleague made this observation in passing recently. He noted that more entrepreneurial and risk-taking congregations tended to be ones with more “conservative” theology, by which he meant theology that looked a lot more like John Wesley and George Whitefield than John Shelby Spong.

I’m sure this is not a universal truth. I’m sure there are some Spong-loving congregations that do all kinds of new and risky things to reach new people. But I do wonder how true the the observation might be.

It does seem logical that a group of people who share a mission that places a strong emphasis on evangelism — as most “conservative” churches do — would be more likely to say results matter more than the methods by which those results are achieved. You could expect that to foster a spirit that favors more risk-taking.

What has your experience been? Do congregations that make evangelism a center piece of their mission tend to be more open to risk-taking?

Less Methodist = More Wesleyan?

Talbot Davis argues that a church becomes more Wesleyan by looking less Methodist.

[T]he sad irony is that many of the structures a local United Methodist congregation adopts in its effort to be faithfully United Methodist — structures that by and large arose in the 20th century — actually inhibit that church’s ability to be authentically Wesleyan.

What do you think?

Welcome to Corinth?

An online pornography site is taking its advertising public.

This story about the ad campaign — which I can’t figure out how to link to without linking to, but it would not be appropriate for reading in church, so be warned — calls the ads tasteful. This is a new meaning of the word “tasteful” that is unfamiliar to me.

This is the culture that tells the church it needs to loosen up about sex.