Taking the Mustard Seed View

Some pastors and writers I respect most often recommend taking a wider, bigger picture view of things. Of the past, the present, the future, of the church, of Scripture, etc. It’s always helpful to look past our own little worlds, whether they be our immediate individual sphere or national sphere. I’ve found this especially helpful when thinking about eschatology and missions; if we let our theology be shaped by our own little spheres, by social media headlines, by the headlines, by sensationalist media (where negativity and exaggeration sell), we would be, first, like most Christians in America, but more importantly, impoverishing our spiritual outlook and betraying our weak faith and trust in the amazingly big promises of God in Scripture.

In Sunday School we discussed the reality of the Christian’s life mimicking a graph of the stock market with its ups and downs rather than a straight line upward. That is, by only looking at a specific microcosm of the Christian’s life, it could be said to be on the decline or stuck in a downward trend. But taking the view of one’s entire life shows it to be ultimately one of progressive sanctification.

Later, we applied this to the history, present reality, and future trajectory of God’s church, namely in light of an article he recently read. If we take a micro view of history, things might look bleak. But consider the article, “Cracks in the Atheist Edifice,” published in The Economist in November. It discusses the exponential growth of Christianity in China. Namely, there were an estimated 67 million Christians in China in 2010, and many experts (foreign and Chinese) “now accept that there are probably more Christians than there are members of the 87m-strong Communist Party. Most are evangelical Protestants.”

Further, one expert says that with the current growth of the Christian church in China, there will be 250 million Christians there by 2030, making China’s Christian population the largest in the world. This rapid rate of growth is akin to that “seen in fourth-century Rome just before the conversion of Constantine, which paved the way for Christianity to become the religion of his empire. Even further, there are more than 2,000 illegal Christian schools in China, and half of the 50 most senior civil rights attorneys in China are Christian. Even more stunning: “missionaries have begun to go out from China to the developing world.”

Of course, the exponential growth of Christianity brings with it possible future issues related to the probable establishment of religious freedom, as the article insightfully explains:

“The paradox, as they all know, is that religious freedom, if it ever takes hold, might harm the Christian church in two ways. The church might become institutionalised, wealthy and hence corrupt, as happened in Rome in the high Middle Ages, and is already happening a little in the businessmen’s churches of Wenzhou. Alternatively the church, long strengthened by repression, may become a feebler part of society in a climate of toleration. As one Beijing house-church elder declared, with a nod to the erosion of Christian faith in western Europe: “If we get full religious freedom, then the church is finished.”

Ultimately, let’s not get caught up in headline reading chronological snobbery, geographical or political self-centeredness, or woe-is-the-American church cries. Just because things don’t look so good in the American church doesn’t mean God’s worldwide gospel plan isn’t ongoing. Let’s be encouraged and take the perspective the Bible takes on history and the trajectory of the world: the long view, the mustard seed view, the leaven view. After all, the church started with only 12 men.

The Psalms Cry Out To Be Sung

Since I have been wont to beat the proverbial drum about singing Psalms in corporate worship over the years (see inclusive hymnody, Psalms for Advent, predominant psalmody, and well-rounded worship), I think it appropriate to point you in the direction of another excellent resource on Psalm singing. William Boekestein is the very capable and humble pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA, a sister church of ours in the URCNA. That church is embarking on a four-year journey through the Psalms, and to kick it off he preached an excellent sermon called “Singing the Psalms.” Hop on over to Sermon Audio and give it a listen; it’s well worth your time.

In light of Calvin’s pithy saying that the Psalms are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul and Westermeyer writing that “the Psalms may be spoken, but they cry out to be sung,” Rev. Boekestein argues that “worship without Psalms is like preaching without Scripture, because it is missing divine inspiration.” He breaks his sermon into two main parts: why sing Psalms and how to sing Psalms. His basic outline is this:

Why Sing the Psalms?
1. Psalms were undoubtedly Israel’s inspired songbook.
2. Psalm singing is central to New Testament worship starting with Jesus and continuing today.
3. Psalms stretch our Christian consciousness.
4. Psalms help us to know Jesus better by revealing Him and presenting His experiences in prophetic form (Luke 24:44).
5. God commands it, and it is the Word of Christ (Colossians 3:16).

How to Sing the Psalms
1. Sing Psalms by way of personal appropriation: they must become ours.
2. Sing Psalms with an attitude that reflects the attitude of the psalm.
3. Sing Psalms with gratitude when the Psalms don’t express our current attitude (especially laments).
4. Sing Psalms with love for the work of God in Christ, as they remind us of our Suffering Savior and our Conquering King.

His discussion of the Psalms stretching our Christian consciousness was especially helpful, and what I would like to summarize here. He contrasts this aspect of the Psalms with much of the contemporary self-focused, self-reflective, comfortable worship music today by highlighting five examples of this consciousness stretching.

Psalms Stretch Our Christian Consciousness
1. Psalms help us to fight when we would rather coast (e.g. Psalm 144). The Christian life isn’t a nice euphemistic “journey,” but a war. The Psalms help gird us for spiritual battle.
2. Psalms help us lament when we would rather rejoice (e.g. Psalm 143). Laments are the most frequently appearing Psalms. We can sing them because they remind us of and identify us with suffering Christians worldwide; they remind us to prepare for trouble and trial, because it’s coming; and they remind us to bring all our troubles to the Lord. They also remind us of Christ and His suffering. See my post on singing Psalms of lament for more.
3. Psalms help us to repent when we would rather cover up (e.g. Psalm 32, 51)
4. Psalms call timid Christians to be bold with God (e.g. Psalm 44), especially since we can speak boldly through Christ.
5. Psalms help us worship when we would rather complain (e.g. Psalm 42).

There are many more helpful points of teaching and application in the sermon, so I commend it to you. Rev. Boekestein is also an accomplished author, with a co-authored book on Advent and children’s books on the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort.

Kneeling at the Threshold of Unspeakable Mystery

“Normalizing the language of the marketplace within the academy and the church confuses and ultimately subverts our deepest purposes: in the one case, to promote critical thought and exchange of ideas free from coercion by those in positions of political or economic power, and in the other, to call people to something so radically different from the terms and paradigms of this world that it can be spoken of only in the variegated, complex, much-translated, much-pondered, prayerfully interpreted language of texts that have kept generations of people of faith kneeling at the threshold of unspeakable mystery and love beyond telling.”

-Marilyn Chandler McEntyre in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, 2009), p. 16

Scandalously Comprehensive Love and Judgment

Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012) examines post World War II American Christianity and its lamentable decline. In the chapter on the 1960s and ’70s hemorrhaging of mainline denominations (“accommodationists”), he explains some of their major faults. Interestingly, similar words could be written about much of today’s Christianity as well, as much of it is repackaged liberalism marketed as new and revolutionary. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun.

“Genuine mysticism ultimately depends on genuine belief, and it often seems that all of these efforts were just so much ‘play’ with little connection to actual conviction…The old foundations of Christianity were being undercut by the social revolutions of their era. Yet they had failed to identify any new foundation that could inspire real piety, real allegiance, real belief.

“Here their emulation of Jesus proved fatally incomplete. In their quest to be inclusive and tolerant and up-to-date, the accommodationists imitated his scandalously comprehensive love, while ignoring his scandalously comprehensive judgments. They used his friendship with prostitutes as an excuse to ignore his explicit condemnations of fornication and divorce. They turned his disdain for religious authorities of his day and his fondness for tax collectors and Roman soldiers into a thin excuse for privileging the secular realm over the sacred. While recognizing his willingness to dine with outcasts and converse with nonbelievers, they deemphasized the crucial fact that he had done so in order to heal them and convert them – ridding the leper of his sickness, telling the Samaritans that soon they would worship in spirit and truth, urging the woman taken in adultery to go, and from now on sin no more.

“Given the climate of the 1960s and ’70s, these choices were understandable. But the more the accommodationists emptied Christianity of anything that might offend the sensibilities of a changing country, the more they lost any sense that what they were engaged in really mattered, or was really, truly true.”

-Ross Douthat in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), p 108 [emphasis his]

Woe is Us: Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites

Christians love to hate themselves. Or at least like to think that others do. Christians think that everyone else thinks that Christians are racist, homophobic bigots! Christians are just as immoral as non-Christians! Christians also love to paint themselves in a negative light. Christians divorce at the same or higher rates than non-Christians! Young people are leaving the church in droves, never to return! The sky is falling!

Regardless of the motivations for doing so (to keep the faithful scared and the scared faithful? to fuel evangelism efforts? to increase altar calls?), it’s not right. Religious sociologist (and evangelical Christian) Bradley Wright (associate professor of sociology, University of Connecticut) tackles the most popular negative stereotypes of Christians that are passed off as common knowledge in his 2010 book, Christians are Hate-filled Hypocrites: And Other Lies You’ve been Told.

Wright systematically, intelligently, and factually debunks these common myths, ranging from the supposed immorality of Christians, the impending extinction of American Christianity, Christian demographic and intellectual makeup, Christian divorce rates, and non-Christians’ perceptions of Christians. Let me boil Wright’s thesis down for you: don’t believe everything you read in polls, don’t believe George Barna, and negative numbers about Christians need to be controlled by actual religious commitment. Wright heaps a liberal dose of (well-deserved) blame on Barna, but news media, pastors, bloggers, and sloppy researchers also share in the blame.

A common thread of Wright’s critique is that most polls are poorly constructed, poorly interpreted, and are merely alarmist nonsense. Most polls (Barna and Gallup are the worst perpetrators) are inaccurate. When controlled for church attendance (sociologists’ best way of determining how committed people are to their faith), the numbers aren’t alarming at all, and in many instances they are actually encouraging. Wright does acknowledge that some perceptions of Christians are accurate, namely in terms of race relations. Christians unfortunately do score low on racism and other prejudicial measures.

Controlled for church attendance and commitment, teenagers and young adults are not leaving the church in record numbers, and committed Christians have a very low divorce rate. Further, even with mainstream media and Barna spin, the general public does not think unfavorably of Christians. In fact, most of the negative perception of Christians has to do with the word “evangelical,” with people reacting unfavorably to that increasingly politicized term in poll questions. In a lot of ways, Wright’s book dovetails with Neil Postman’s advice in Technopoly to not believe poll numbers unless you know what questions were asked, and for what purpose.

Wright’s book isn’t perfect. It is repetitive, in that many of the conclusions can be summed up by controlling survey analysis for church attendance and committedness. There are dozens of graphs, charts, and numbers. But thankfully, Wright can write, and presents his data and arguments in an accessible, witty, convincing way. His arguments are a refreshing change to the doom and gloom so prevalent in American Christianity. His newer book, Upside: Surprising Good News about the State of Our World (2011), expands his thesis to a global scale.

The moral of the story? Don’t believe everything you read (especially if it comes from the pen of George Barna), and American Christianity isn’t as bad as you hear. The consequences of thinking pessimistically and not being informed of the true state of the church are that we spend resources in fixing problems that aren’t actual problems.

URCNA + OPC = joint psalter/hymnal

It’s times like these that I’m grateful for the speed and connectivity of the internet, social media, and cell phones. Thanks to Dr. Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C., and texts from a fellow committee member, the URCNA’s 2012 Synod just approved our committee’s recommendation to work together with the OPC on a common psalter hymnal. We are so grateful for this providential news, and pray for wisdom to create a strong collection of Psalms and hymns for the Lord’s worship. [photo credit: ReformedFellowship.net]

Distinguishing marks of Christians

I love the Belgic Confession. Much like the Heidelberg Catechism, it is passionate, joyful, earnest, and personal. In reading Article XXIX: The Marks of the True Church, I was all ready to breeze through the familiar three marks of the church. But then I got to what Guido de Bres writes as a natural but often overlooked follow up to the three marks of a true church. Namely, it is not enough to check the three marks of a church off a list, but a true church must go father: it must also be made up of true believers. True believers, like the true church, have distinguishable marks. However, it is true that a true church will by default have true believers. Where the gospel is preached and celebrated in the sacraments and applied in discipline, only there will true believers grow. Read on:

Article XXIX: The Marks of the True Church
“We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church– for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.” We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.

“As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works. Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

“As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

“These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.”

For an excellent children’s book on Guido de Bres and the Belgic Confession, check out William Boekestein’s Faithfulness Under Fire.