Where do you even begin?

On the campus of Indiana University this week, a fraternity was closed down after a video surfaced featuring about half the members of the house cheering on and engaging in sexual immorality with a pair of woman paid for their participation.

This might not be news outside of my neck of the woods. I bring up here because of the interesting history of the fraternity. Alpha Tau Omega bills itself as a fraternity founded on explicitly Christian — as opposed to Greek — ideals. The name of the fraternity itself is a reference to Scripture.

It is not really news that fraternities are hives of immorality. I know that. But reading the story did get me wondering how many of those young men had been raised in Christian families. How many of them ever give a second of thought to the Alpha and Omega after whom their organization is named?

There has been outrage over this incident. There have also been a fair number of defenders of the frat arguing that the morality police should keep their nose out of good, clean, consensual fun. This happens everywhere, they say. What’s the big deal?

It all has me wondering how the Church engages with the culture that forms young people who will do such things, make videos of them, and release them into the Internet. So much talk these days is about being contextual and meeting people where they are. If this is seen as normal by large numbers of people, where is the ground on which we might meet these young people?

Not the healthy but the sick

Thoughts come to me in odd places some times.

I was sitting in the back of a used bookstore in town Wednesday night. I was just sitting and listening to the people in the store. Downstairs, a group of teenagers were playing a role playing game, laughing and joking and reveling in being nerds. Upstairs, the staff were talking about Russian translations and high school classes and various other topics.

I found myself musing about what it would mean to witness to the gospel in that place at that moment, and I was instantly aware of the barriers that would make that difficult, not the least of which being that none of those people at that moment had any sense at all that they were in need of good news.

I prayed for them as I sat there and this thought came to me. I recalled Jesus’ first sermon in the gospel of Luke.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

I’ve read and heard that passage from Isaiah many times, but Wednesday night I found myself wondering if we should hear this as Jesus talking to the church about our target audience: the poor, the captive, the “blind,” and the oppressed.

Or maybe it is just a message for me and not the church. Or maybe it is just my own squirrel brain at work playing tricks on me.

All over my Facebook feed the last couple of days, people have been sharing this article by Carey Nieuwhof about reaching people who don’t think they need God. It seems like pretty good advice, but I wonder if maybe it is missing the point in a way.

People who find their lives comfortable and live indifferently to God have never been a very ripe field for harvest. This has always been the case. Read Deuteronomy 8 if you don’t think God knows this. Read virtually of the rest of the Bible for further confirmation. There is a reason the prophets were met with stones and chains.

As I ponder these things, I think of the way the early Methodist movement made its greatest impact among what John Wesley called “plain” people. Could it be that the ones who responded to Methodist preaching were people who had found the “happiness” their society offered them unattainable or false?

I recall Jesus Christ saying that he came not for the healthy but the sick. Is our chasing after people who see themselves as well-adjusted and basically comfortable a misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry?

Of course, a great counter point to my argument are all those beautiful and packed mega-churches sitting right in the heart of some of most affluent communities in America. Rich and powerful people have spiritual needs, too, I’ve been told more than once.

But I can’t shake this thought that my most effective moments in ministry have been with those who are already conscious of their suffering or unhappiness or pain. Perhaps it is just not my gift to shake the sand that so many people build their lives upon. When God has used me the most, it has been with people already aware that the flood waters and storms have washed away what they had been building their life upon. Could it be that discontent is the soil in which the seeds of faith find root?

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)

To which heart should we be relevant?

I was at the movie theater when a preview for a Hillsong movie played. One of the only two other people in the theater said to the man sitting next to her, “Why do they think we’d want to watch that?”

Her words reflect the culture in which the church find itself. The crisis of relevance has been with us for a long time. The idea that Christianity is not only unwelcome but also dismissed as ridiculous is gaining wider currency. And, of course, we in the church find ourselves wondering how to respond.

A good question for us is this: What is the cause of people’s negative reactions?

Many people will point to the church itself as a cause. They have no end of advice about ways we can make ourselves more attractive to those who disdain us. But allow me to propose a different interpretive approach.

Is it possible that people disdain Jesus and the church because they are unconverted sinners?

I don’t want to ignore failings of the church. We have many for which we need to repent. We are always in need of reform.

But let’s not forget our theology.

Wesleyan theology, to the extent it still takes Wesley as a guide, suggests three different states for the human heart.

The natural heart neither knows nor desires the things of God. It conceives of itself as happy and self-sufficient. God — if he exists — exists to service the needs of the person or the society. In any event, he should not go around interrupting movies or other activities. My companions in the movie theater had such natural hearts, perhaps.

The convicted heart — one under what Wesley called the spirit of bondage — is aware of God, but its dominant awareness is of God’s great goodness and the heart’s great unworthiness. It is the heart of one deeply conscious of his or her own failings and dirt. It often is the heart of one who feels shame or guilt. I like the old word “wretch” here because it describes one wandering far from God.

The converted heart knows the forgiveness and awesome love of Jesus Christ, and can say in the spirit of adoption Abba, Father, in communion with the holy God of the universe. The converted heart rejoices in God, rejoices in forgiveness, and counts all things in the world as nothing compared to knowing God.

The problem in Wesley’s view is not that we are out of step with the times, but that the fallen world is out of step with God.

Wesley would not be at all surprised to hear what my fellow movie-goer said. For him, though, it would be diagnostic. It would help him to understand the state of her heart, and perhaps form his own ideas about how he might speak to her if given the opportunity.

In writing this, I’m aware of a few things.

First, Wesley’s categories are derived from but not explicitly outlined this way in scripture. You can read Romans in a way to support this, but it is not the only way to read it. Second, I am aware that many of our contemporary theologians view Wesley as a historical curiosity rather than as a vital thinker for today. And these are theologians in our own tribe. Finally, these thoughts don’t touch on the relevance issues raised when we talk about worship styles or cultural forms that welcome or engage different groups. We need to distinguish between relevant styles of worship and relevant doctrine. We need the first. We need to be wary of the second if it means abandoning the gospel. Wesley went where the people were to bring them the gospel.

With all this acknowledged, I do think Wesley helps us think through the crisis in relevance in some ways.

He challenges the easy conclusion that if people don’t want to hear about Jesus we must not be packaging him well. Those with natural hearts should be expected to resist any talk of God and holiness.

He also causes me to reflect on the state of my own heart and those in the congregations I serve. Are we displaying the converted hearts of those who have received the spirit of adoption? Do we desire it? Or do we want the church to bless our natural hearts and soothe away any conviction we might feel?

These are the kinds of questions that arise when you spend time with John and Charles Wesley and then go out into the world.

It is why I keep reading and singing with them.

Paul in India

Tim Tennent writes about a modern-day apostle he met recently in India.

One of them (whose name cannot be shared for security reasons) is a former road-worker who was one of the earliest to respond to the gospel in the region. He shared with us his love for Christ and the amazing ministry God has given to him. He is constantly traveling, bringing the gospel to new villages all over this mountainous region. When many people of his age are thinking about retirement, he is thinking about which villages have not yet had the opportunity to hear the gospel. He has personally led over 500 Hindus to Jesus Christ. When we left the meeting, one of our Trustees turned to me and said, “I feel like I have just met the Apostle Paul.”

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.