Category Archives: Culture

A Changing Spiritual Landscape

There has been much discussion in our country this week about how to interpret a new research report from the Pew Research Center on the state of religion in the United States in 2015.  You can watch the editor of the report talk about the research on the PBS Newshour.  The most common national headline has been about the “decline in Christianity” in the USA.   But if you dig deeper into the numbers, they reveal something more nuanced and interesting:

As Ed Stetzer writes in USA Today, evangelical Christianity continues to grow in our country.  The most massive decline is among those who used to associate with mainline Protestant traditions or the Roman Catholic Church.  Now, when asked, a growing number of them self-identify as having no religious affiliation.  This isn’t necessarily growth in the number of atheist or agnostics, but growth in the number who have no religious affiliation.

Russell Moore reads the report as saying that nominal Christianity (a form of civil religion) is in rapid decline because fewer people feel pressured to say they are Christian when they are not.  In other words, they don’t feel any social obstacles to revealing their true religious convictions.  Moore thinks this is bad for America (a decline in general Christian identity) but maybe helpful for the church (in making true Christianity more clear).

I personally think the report reveals what we see all around us every day: a decline in the importance of religious faith for many people in our country.  The research shows an increase in the disinterested middle of the nation – those who simply don’t care about God and religious faith at all.  This is seen in the fact that former self-identified “Christians” are not converting to another religion, but to no religion at all.

Here’s my take: as a church, we are living in a time in our nation’s history when more and more people are apathetic toward the church and indifferent toward issues of faith.  We live in an era of constant distraction and entertainment, and we are seeing the results around us – a lack of attention toward faith and worldview.  What does this mean for us as a church?  A few things:

1- We need to feel an increasing urgency for evangelism right here in the United States.  Many times, we wrongly assume that Americans are Christian or have heard the gospel.  This is an increasingly wrong assumption.  May we be the generation who takes serious our charge to re-evangelize the 320 million people who live in America.

2- We need to prioritize our outreach to the next generation.  The highest percentage of Americans who describe themselves as having “no faith” are the youngest millennials.  We need to prayerfully consider how we can share the gospel effectively with the newest generation of young people.

3- We need to live as an attractive counter-culture inside the larger secular culture.  I believe one of the reasons that non-Christians find Christianity unattractive is that the Christian community fails to present a true alternative to the larger cultural narrative.  In other words, we look too much like the world around us.

This Sunday, I’m starting a sermon series called Contrast: A Study of 1 John where we will be looking at the distinguishing marks of the Christian faith and the Christian community.  The apostle John helps us understand how we can know that we have experienced the true Christian faith and not a distortion of the truth.  I hope that you will join us for this powerful and life-changing study of God’s Word.

What were your take-aways from the Pew Research?

Five Lessons Learned From Preaching on Race

Preaching on race in our church over the last five weeks has been one of the most formative experiences of my ministry.  I have grown in my understanding of racialization in our society today, and I have grown in love for my neighbor.  I am so thankful to have walked through this journey with our congregation at Cityview Bible Church in Round Rock, TX.  Their faithful feedback, honest reflection, and personal obedience has shaped the way I think about race today.  Here are five lessons we learned as a community of faith as we explored what the Bible teaches about race in light of the grace of the gospel:

  1. We are often blind to our own prejudices (whether they are toward those of another race or a subgroup inside our own race) because they are rooted in pride. We need the truth of the Bible and the power of the Spirit to open our eyes to our own racial stereotypes.  We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are personally beyond all racial biases.  We are not, and we need to own that race matters, even today in 2015.
  2. People want to talk about race in a constructive way, but are not sure how or where to have the conversation. I was amazed at the participation in our small group each week during this series and the feedback from the elders, staff, and congregation.  Not everyone agreed with everything I had to say on the subject, but everyone was thankful that I had broached the subject.
  3. White evangelicals tend to over-individualize racial problems today and fail to see systemic injustices in the culture at large. As long as racial problems today are seen as the result of individual racists, then we can let ourselves off the hook personally if we don’t see ourselves as racist.  We fail to see that we live in a culture with systems that can also be racially unjust and treat groups of people differently.
  4. Racially isolated people can more easily create stereotypes of other races than those who are genuinely connected to people from other races. This is another reason that diverse congregations and schools and civic organizations are so important.  It is too easy to unfairly categorize people that you have never taken the time to know.  And because we are naturally drawn to those who are most like us (the homogeneous unit principle), we are always in danger in moving toward racial isolation.
  5. In order to build a unified, diverse, multi-ethnic congregation, individual congregants must make the decision to value diversity more than their own cultural preferences. If we believe the Bible mandates the local church be both unified and diverse, then each one of us must make the choice to lay down our personal preferences for the sake of the whole.  The goal of building a healthy multi-ethnic church is one where our personal consumerism directly conflicts with the Kingdom of Jesus.

I hope these lessons will help you to take a next step in building bridges of love and peace between people of different races.  For in the end, if we believe the first chapter of the Bible is true, then there is really only one race – the human race, created in God’s image to worship and serve Him forever.

What makes up a worldview?

This Sunday at church, I am starting a new series for Easter called The Gospel Among Other Stories.  You can read more about the series on our church website.  Basically, we will be discussing the different stories that we believe, the narratives that shape our lives – telling us who we are, what is important, and where life is headed.  Some philosophers call these stories “worldviews,” ways of seeing and making sense of the world around us.  In his book on basic worldviews, James Sire gives a set of questions that are answered in every worldview:

1- What is ultimate reality?

2- What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?

3- What is a human being?

4- What happens to a person at death?

5- Why is it possible to know anything at all?

6- How do we know what is right and wrong?

7- What is the meaning of human history?

Every person lives their life according to a set of answers to these questions.  Many people have not reflected on the core story they believe, but it still shapes our lives.  Or to say it another way, everyone believes something.  The question during this series is simple – where does your story lead?

Homosexuality Resources

As I wrapped up our series “Him & Her” yesterday (where we explored the Bible’s teaching on gender over the last six weeks), I addressed what the Bible teaches about homosexuality.  My goal was to be compassionate and clear at a time in history where the church has struggled to be either.  You will have to be the judge if I succeeded in accomplishing this goal.  My prayer is that the sermon was God-honoring and helpful to those who listened.  I’m including some other links to resources that I found helpful in preparing my sermon.

Sermon Audio from June 17, 2012
Sermon Manuscript

Additional Resources:

Tim Hawks’ Sermon on Homosexuality (audio)
Matt Chandler’s Teaching on Homosexuality (video)
Exodus International (website)
Living Hope Ministries
A Christian Response to Homosexuality (article)
A Christian Perspective on Homosexuality (article)
Desiring God Resources on Homosexuality (various)


Men & Women

One of the greatest areas of confusion around our globe today centers on gender issues.  We are all aware that our personal gender and the gender of others is important, but we are unsure why and for what purpose.  As a global generation, we tend to distort gender in two ways:

1- Some think that one gender is superior than the other.  In more traditional and hierarchical cultures, men are seen as more valuable than women.  Many have carefully documented the abuse that women face at the hands of men worldwide (see Half the Sky by Kristof & WuDunn as one of the best).  This includes female infanticide (leaving girl babies to die after birth or aborting pre-term girls because parents want to have a boy).  This includes forced marriages, rape, sexual abuse, poverty based on being underpaid, lack of education, and birthing complications (lack of access of basic healthcare, especially in childbirth).  These circumstances demonstrate the impact of cultures where men are seen as superior to women.

In more progressive cultures, women are seen as more valuable than men.  Women are understood to be smart, caring, and wise while men are understood to be brutish, stupid, and foolish.  More often than not, women are given custody of kids in a divorce, fathers are devalued in their role in the home and the culture at large.  Men are portrayed as being unable to do anything of worth or value without the guiding hand of a wife or mother to guide their steps.  Education is built on models that favor girls over boys, and boys are told to act more like girls.  Overall, masculine energy is seen as destructive rather than constructive.

The Bible rejects this view of gender as contrary to the Creator’s original design.  The Bible’s first statement on gender (in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible) says that God made both male and female in His image.  In other words, the creation narrative teaches us the equal value of men and women in God’s sight.  Beyond that, the gospel of Jesus Christ also teaches the equal value of men and women.  Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that there is neither male nor female in Jesus Christ, but that we are all one in Christ.  His point is that Jesus died for men and women, and that in Christ, we are co-heirs to the promises and benefits associated with the gospel. Here we see that creation and the cross teach the equal value of men and women in the sight of God.  This biblical doctrine challenges both traditional and progressive worldviews on their view of men and women.

2- Some think that men and women are the same.  Instead of appealing to the biblical narrative to establish the equal value of men and women, some seek to eliminate all distinctions between men and women.  If gender differences give rise to oppression, then the solution must be (some would say) to remove gender as a meaningful category at all.  This leads whole sections of our society to ignore gender completely or to explain gender differences as social constructs more than essential realities.  The result of this view of gender has been equally devastating for culture at large and relationships in particular.  The practical result of this worldview is the expectation of women to act like men and men to act like women.  This impacts the way we date, our view of marriage, and our view of parenting.  Huge consequences flow from flattening the differences between male and female.

Of course, this worldview flies in the face of the universal experiences of the human race.  We are different.  At a minimum, we can all agree that men and women are different biologically.  Our bodies are not the same.  Whether they were designed by God to be that way (which the Christian Bible would teach) or not, we are not physiologically the same.  As much as I might want to have a baby, my body will never be able to do that.

Beyond that, we are different in our responsibilities before God.  This teaching is uniquely biblical, but it also squares with human experience.  God has given us unique roles and responsibilities based on our gender differences.  Many of his commands are universal, but some are gender-specific.  By understanding this, we can learn how God has uniquely wired men and women.

The Bible has much to say about this important issue.  I hope you will join us starting this Sunday, Mother’s Day, as we begin a six-week series on biblical manhood and womanhood.

Contextualization & Syncretism

Good missionaries know that they must contextualize their ministry to their receiving culture.  Missionaries seek to present the eternal truth of the gospel in a way that a non-Christian culture can understand and respond to God’s voice.  The most obvious form of contextualization (though not always the most simple) happens when a missionary crosses a language barrier to communicate the truth.  For example, a missionary from Texas who travels to France to spread the gospel must first learn how to speak French before they do anything else.  This is called contextualization – learning how to communicate effectively in a different culture.

What is clear for missionaries in foreign cultures is not always clear for missionaries on their home turf.  In other words, learning to communicate the gospel to a people group that is foreign to you makes the contextualization steps abundantly clear.  The missionary sees quickly that he is an outsider and that he needs to adopt new styles of dress and speech and patterns of behavior in order to work in this new cultural context.  But what does contextualization mean in your own cultural context?  How do use the language and patterns of your native culture to effectively communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ?

One of the reasons that this is exceedingly difficult is because the line between contextualization and syncretism is thin.  Whereas contextualization is entering a cultural worldview for the sake of clearly communicating God’s eternal truth in an understandable way, syncretism is the merger of two worldviews into one new worldview.  In other words, if we are not careful in our missionary work (especially in our own culture but also in foreign cultures), we will enter the worldview of those around us not to challenge it but in order to adopt it and merge it with Christian theology.

When you travel overseas, syncretism is fairly easy to see.  If Christians in another context have adopted non-Christian beliefs from their culture, you are more likely to see them as an outsider to both cultures.  But discerning syncretism in your own culture is exceedingly difficult.  Let’s look at two biblical examples to further illustrate the difference between effective missionary contextualization and unhealthy theological syncretism.

First, let’s look at Paul’s missionary work in Athens in Acts 17:22-34.  In this passage, Paul goes to the place of religious practice for his receiving culture, the Areopagus, and intelligently engages the pagan culture.  He obviously had read their poets and knew their philosophers.  He spoke their language and knew their customs.  Paul identifies with them and speaks highly of their religiosity.  However, in the midst of entering the Athenean worldview, he also challenges it with biblical truth.  He enters the worldview to challenge the worldview – which is the key of missionary contextualization.  Please note in this passage that Paul goes to the people he is ministering to and does not critique their morality.  He gets below the surface of their activities to their idolatry.  He wants to speak to their foundational beliefs, not their outward behaviors.  He understands the worldview of those he is trying to reach (and explains it clearly) so that He can engage it intelligently and challenge it biblically (with the metanarrative of Scripture).

To see a clear illustration of crossing the line into syncretism, let’s look at the Israelites in Judges 2:11-15.  Instead of driving the foreign peoples out of the Promised Land like they hand been commanded, the Israelites assimilated the religious beliefs and practices of those around them into their own faith system.  This is essential to understand.  They did not abandon Yahweh completely.  They abandoned Yahweh uniquely.  In other words, they continued to worship Yahweh and bring sacrifices to Yahweh, but they also wanted to include the gods of the Canaanite religions in their worship.  This is called syncretism – adding the gods of another worldview into the Christian worldview to form a new melting-pot religion.  The result is a mixture of Christian language and theology with pagan language and theology.

You can see why the missionary has a difficult task – to study a worldview at the level of understanding it and being able to communicate within it without adopting the beliefs and values of that worldview.  In our current American culture, the dominant worldviews are materialism, hedonism, secularism, pluralism, naturalism, and moralism.  As we engage each one of these religious systems (which they are) with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must be aware of the danger we face of uncritically adopting the idols associated with each.  Moving forward, the challenge for Christian missionaries is to effectively contextualize our work without falling into theological syncretism.  May God give us wisdom and insight into our tendencies as His servants so that we can avoid the traps that would hurt our witness for Christ.

Marriage Under Seige Murray has written a new book called Coming Apart where he examines the changes in American culture over the last 50 years.  One can argue with his suggestions of how we fix some of our cultural problems, but one cannot argue with the data he has collected.  He wrote a summary article in the Wall Street Journal providing some of his most startling findings.  Among them, he wrote, was one that strikes at the foundation of the American soul – the rapid decline of marriage.

The 2010 US Census confirms Murray’s conclusion.  The NY Times reported in December that one of the most startling findings in the 2010 census is that married households are not a minority in the United States.  This is a dramatic shift.  In 1950, 78% of American households were led by married couples.  In 2010, that number had slipped to 48%.

I have seen this trend first-hand in my own neighborhood in suburban Austin.  One of our next door neighbors is a single adult woman who has never been married.  The other next door neighbor is a single dad who has been divorced and is raising his daughter.  Our new neighbor across the street is a newly divorced father.  I am not throwing stones as these neighbors in any way.  I love them all and we are glad to call them friends.  I am simply making an observation of those living around us on our small cul-de-sac in middle America.

So, why is this decline happening and how do we stop it?  There is no doubt that our cultural values have changed – away from the importance and sacredness of marriage and toward the inevitability and reasonableness of divorce.  Because of the shift away from seeing marriage as a lifelong covenant and toward a legal contract that exists for the pleasure of those involved, less people see the value of getting married and more married people don’t see the problem with leaving marriage.  What are some good resources available to help us in our marriages and in our churches?, if you are married or single or thinking about marriage, I would highly encourage you to pick up Dr. Tim Keller’s new book on marriage called The Meaning of Marriage.  This is my new favorite book on the biblical view of marriage, especially as it is set in contrast to the current cultural view of marriage.  Dr. Keller and his wife Kathy give us great insights into the Scriptures and great insights into our culture.  This book will help you understand the ways in which your view of marriage has been shaped by our self-centeredness and our idolization of romantic love while giving you a contrasting beautiful picture of biblical commitment.  In addition, as Dr. Keller always goes, he shows us how the gospel of Jesus Christ is both the best tool for understanding the meaning of marriage and for actually living faithfully in marriage.  While books like Love and Respect by Dr. Eggrichs are immensely helpful and practical in working on your marriage relationship, Dr. Keller’s book is one of the best in pushing back against the message we are hearing about the institution of marriage itself.  I highly recommend this book to you to read with your spouse to get a greater grasp on what marriage is, why it is important, and how we can should live in it., if you are a pastor or church-leader, I would recommend a new resource developed by Family Life.  Family Life has hosted weekend marriage conferences for years called Weekend to Remember.  Barie and I have been to two of these conferences and really enjoyed them.  However, we always wished that more of our church families could attend.  Well, Family Life has taken their best material from their Weekend to Remember speakers and put together a DVD-based resource for churches called The Art of Marriage.  Barie and I were blessed to attend a weekend retreat last week hosted by another church where these videos were shown.  I can testify to the quality of this resource.  I was really encouraged by the professionalism and helpful biblical teaching in these videos.  I am going to propose to our elders that we host a marriage weekend for our church in 2013 and use these videos.  I would encourage you to think about doing something similar.

It is important for all of us to know the forces that are at work against our own marriages and the marriages around us, both so that we can stay faithful to our own commitments and encourage others to do the same.


5 Ways to Live Counter-Culturally in 2012

Barie and I were having a fascinating conversation last night about what it means to live in this world but not look like this world (to paraphrase the prayer of Jesus in John 17:15).  Everyone wants to be “counter-cultural” but it seems like everyone follow the same patterns of behavior.  Counter-cultural trends tend to be about what you wear or where you live or how you vote.  But what about the choices we actually make?  Here’s five ways we came up with to live counter the values of American culture.  Share your ideas at the end.

1- Stay married.  At 32, I’m amazed at how many of my peers and neighbors are divorced – for many different reasons.  Research shows that the divorce rate in America is 41% for first marriages, 60% for second marriages, and 73% for third marriages.  Marriage is challenging, especially when children come, parents age and need help, and we change over time.  Buck the trend: stay married.

2- Live within your means.  We are launching FPU this month in our church and already I am fascinated by the number of conversations I’m having with people who are struggling to get their finances in order.  Dave Ramsey likes to say that “normal is broke.”  In our culture, the stats back up this claim.  Most families live each month spending more than they make and end up carrying the heavy burden of debt.  If you want to be really radical, live on less than your means and give regularly and generously to others.

3- Control your schedule.  Our culture equates busyness with significance.  If you are going from morning to night seven days a week, then you aren’t really living – or so we think.  Time poverty is a growing problem for western families.  If you want to live counter-culturally, say “no” to more activities and give yourself to things that really matter.  This is especially important in managing your kids.

4- Watch less TV.  I’ve written on this blog about our family’s decision to cut cable TV a year ago.  The US Department of Labor reports that Americans spend 2.7 hours per day on average watching television.  If you want to swim upstream in American culture, watch less TV.  Give that time to reading with your kids, dating your spouse, exercising, or something else constructive.

5- Read your Bible.  The average American family owns a Bible, but doesn’t read the Bible.  Even Christian families are more likely to revere the Bible than they are to read the Bible.  Biblical literacy has decreased culturally as less children grow up hearing the stories of the Bible at home, at school, and at church.  If you want to live counter-culturally, read the Bible personally and with your kids.

Those are my five this morning.  What would you add?

Too Much Stuff

On our annual Getting Away to Get It Together retreat during the last week of December, Barie and I talked about simplifying our life.  The word “simplify” surfaces every time we get time away from the daily grind long enough to talk about what we desire for our family.  Our desire was amplified this year because Barie was reading a book she got for Christmas called Organized Simplicity.  The author of this book challenges her readers to purge their life of everything unnecessary – to pursue an uncluttered life.  If it isn’t useful or beautiful, toss it.  She mentioned that you would be surprised how little stuff that you accumulate you actually need.

So, on Friday, December 30th, the day we returned to Round Rock from Dallas, we began the purging process.  We do a little of this every year after Christmas simply because we are making room for the new stuff we received as gifts.  But this year has been different.  What would normally have been a 12-hour project has turned into a two-week project.  Going through clothes, toys, games, movies, books, kitchen utensils, decorations, tools, etc every day has led to piles of trash bags in our garage – some headed for the dumpster, others for Goodwill.  I was so thankful when the garbage truck came by today so I could get my garage back!

This process has made me even more aware of a truth about the American life that I have always known, but have seen and felt in the last two weeks.  We have TOO MUCH STUFF.  Even after purging our 2100 sf house over the last two weeks, I feel like we could do it again and still have more stuff to throw away.  Junk we haven’t used in years, but put in a closet or on a shelf where it has just been collecting dust.  And you know what is ironic about this cycle?  All of this stuff was new and meaningful to us at some point.  We have been witnessing firsthand what Jesus warned us about in Matthew 6:19 – the treasures we collect on this earth will one day be trash.  Have you considered that?  Your most meaningful possession today will one day end up in at the bottom of a trash heap.  If that is true, shouldn’t we live with a different set of priorities?

Clearing out the old is the first step, but not the final step.  We must also start investing in an eternal portfolio, not a temporary one.  More on that later.

BookNotes: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

In a scene of intentional irony, Hilly Holbrook, the main antagonist in The Help, after giving considerable energy to making life difficult for every African American in Jackson, Mississippi, warns her friend Skeeter, “Be careful, Skeeter.  This town is full of real racists, and if they find out what you are doing, there could be real trouble.”  The reader and the movie audience laugh awkwardly, seeing clearly what Miss Hilly fails to see: she is the racist that she is warning others about.

Reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett is like entering a foreign country for someone who grew up after the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and 1970s.  I came of age in the late 80s and early 90s in a 5A high-school in suburban Dallas that was full of different nationalities, races, and languages.  Multi-ethnic education was the norm, with students expected to learn a foreign language, to read about different cultures, and to see people based on their character and not on their skin color.

So, when you step through the fictional historical door into the deep South of the early 1960s, you can’t even process what you are reading.  How did the generations of our grandparents and parents treat people this way?  And yet, deep in your heart, you know that while the character are fictional, the context is real: African Americans in the era of Jim Crow were treated as second-class citizens. 

One of the first funerals I did as a pastor was for a dear African American woman I only knew as Miss Hattie – who had worked for my grandmother and other East Texas families for years.  Miss Hattie and my grandmother became the dearest of friends over time, and when she was close to death, she asked my grandmother if I would come do her funeral.  She told my Nanny that she was so proud of me for becoming a pastor and giving my life to serve God.

Stockett’s book (and others like it that transport us to different places and times) make us aware of generational blind spots.  Today, we can clearly see the injustice of the Jim Crow era in the south.  But those who lived through it were blind to it.  As people in The Help often say, “it is just the way things are.”  We hear those words and wonder, why didn’t anyone stand up and say “this isn’t right”?  Of course, some did and slowly made progress.  But many didn’t.  We read and watch this story with embarrassment.  The question we must ask ourselves today is, what will the next generation see in our generation and wonder, why didn’t they do anything about it?  I think about that question often.

Are we blind to what is right in front of us?  Are we satisfied with simply saying, “that’s just the way things are today.”  Or do we fight injustice in our country and around the world with the passion that God feels against injustice?  What are our generational blind spots?  As the heroines in Stockett’s book do, I pray that we will have the courage to speak the truth about the injustice in our world.  Without truth, change is impossible.  But even beyond truth, I pray we will have the courage to fight for justice.