Archives For The Church

This past week I had the privilege of taking part in a weekend conference for the Chinese Evangelical Free Church of Los Angeles. Like many Chinese churches, this church consists of three congregations: English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

Though the whole conference was great, perhaps the most impactful moment came on Sunday morning as all three congregations worshiped together. We sang the same songs, and words were displayed on the screen in both English and Chinese. We were told to each sing in our own language, and the worship leaders shifted between singing in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin (or maybe just between English and Cantonese OR Mandarin—I have no idea).

Here’s what this was like from my perspective as a visitor. The tunes were familiar. The instrumentation and setting were familiar. I had sung these songs before and genuinely worshiped God through these words.

But around me: a kind of controlled chaos. It’s almost like being at a concert where everyone’s trying to sing along but doesn’t quite know the words. Or being in a church service when the worship leader introduces a new song: everyone wants to sing, but they don’t quite know when to sing which words. I could hear others singing in English, but I could hear other sounds mixed in as well.

A touch disconcerting? Yes. Initially. But highly moving? Absolutely. The thing is, the slight challenge of continuing to sing when all of the sounds don’t match exactly was quickly drowned out when I considered what was happening.

We all had the same love for God in our hearts. We all had the same basic concepts that we wanted to communicate in song. And when we pushed those words through our vocal chords and out into the room, the sounds didn’t match. But God heard our voices and the cry of our hearts. He was worshiped in three languages simultaneously.

If you think about it, that’s an extremely simplified version of the praise he will receive when people from every nation, tribe, and language praise him in unison (Rev. 7:9). God loves diverse praise, and this was a small taste of the full reality.

That morning, our mismatched words didn’t fight each other as though two people were trying to sing different melodies at the same time. They complemented each other, like a well-sung harmony—not identical, but creating a fuller and more beautiful sound.

For me, it was a reminder that what unites us is greater than what divides us.

I don’t understand Cantonese or Mandarin, and I wasn’t the only one. Others could not understand much English. I was very different from many in that room in terms of my national heritage, my cultural assumptions, my communication style, and the overall look and feel of my everyday life.

And yet I stood there with hundreds of people who were more profoundly like me than not. The color of our skin didn’t match exactly, but we had all received matching hearts, compliments of the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25-27). We couldn’t all communicate directly, but the Spirit was producing the same fruit in all of our lives (Gal. 5:22–23). Our lineage stems from different continents, but we are all citizens of the same country—and I’m not talking about America (Philip. 3:20). We walk different paths every day of our lives (aside from this one weekend), yet we are all following the footsteps of the same Man.

This was a powerful reminder that I am inseparably connected and eerily similar to people I have only briefly met (and multitudes I have never and will never meet) and who externally are almost nothing like me.

Invisible ChurchJesus is the light of the world. As profound as that statement is, it gets crazier. Because this is a title that Jesus claims for himself, and then also bestows upon us.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Jesus shares his identity with us. He is the light of the world, and we have been filled in that light. And Jesus intends for us to shine.

Consider Jesus’ lamp illustration. A lamp gives light. That’s just what it does. A lightless lamp is an inherent contradiction. It’s pure nonsense.

Imagine coming over to my house for a chat. We grab some coffee and sit down. The room is dark, so I reach over and turn on the lamp sitting between us. Then I say, “Oh wait, just a minute.” Then I grab a basket off the floor and set it over the lamp, completely blocking its light. “Ah, there we go. Now what were you saying?”

Jesus’ example here is absurd. I’m willing to bet that you don’t know anyone who has ever turned on a light, then covered it up so that none of its light escapes.

And yet—and here is the tragedy of the whole thing—it’s our everyday lived experience to encounter Christians who claim to be filled with the light of the world, yet never emit a single ray of that light. “Well, yes. I’m a Christian. But I’m not crazy. I mean, there’s nothing about me that would hint at the person of Jesus Christ.”

Martin Lloyd-Jones

Martin Lloyd-Jones

Martin Lloyd-Jones speaks some strong words in commenting on this passage:

“As I understand it, and it seems to me to be an inevitable piece of logic and interpretation, there is nothing in God’s universe that is so utterly useless as a merely formal Christian. I mean by that, one who has the name but not the quality of a Christian.” (from Studies in the Sermon on the Mount)

It’s not that we must become the light or we must act as light: we are the light. A basket over a lamp doesn’t make it any less a lamp. So first we need to examine ourselves and assess how we are relating to Jesus as the light of the world. And if he is truly in us, then we are the light, so we must act and live in accordance with what we truly are. The light of life shines within us, so we must find all of those ways in which that light is obscured by a basket. What things in your life cover up the light of Christ? If the light of the world shines through you, what in your life is keeping the people around you from seeing that light?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer also gives a blunt comment regarding this passage:

“Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.” (from The Cost of Discipleship)

This was a big statement for Bonhoeffer to make, but he backed it up with his life. When Bonhoeffer, who was a pastor in Nazi-dominated Germany, had the opportunity to stay abroad until the trouble passed, he decided that he could not be away from the German church in this dark hour. And at the greatest possible cost, Bonhoeffer reminded that church that they could not hide their light, even if it meant losing everything.

Jesus is the light of the world, and he has chosen that he will continue to shine in this world through us, his church. We cannot afford to lose a single ray of that light. Every one of us has to take this seriously, because together we make up that city on a hill. An invisible city is the farthest thing from God’s intention. We are that city on a hill, shining with the true light of life that scatters the darkness of this world.

The western church, as you know, wades around in a thick sludge of individualism. We admit it. We bemoan it. But sometimes we don’t realize just how deep our individualism ancient mss1runs. As I peel back the many unforeseen layers of my presuppositions, I often see individualistic tendencies governing my beliefs and behaviors. A few posts ago, I wrote about the individualism that colors our buzzphrase “feeling called to…” For this post I want to look at the individualism that has given rise to the idea that you can understand the Bible by yourself.

Put frankly, you can’t understand the Bible by yourself. You need the community of God to rightly interpret the text.

You may think this is heresy—or Catholic—but hear me out. I don’t want to deconstruct a presupposition for deconstruction’s sake. My aim is to bring us back to a more biblical view of the Bible. I want us to study the Bible in community because that’s how the Bible was meant to be read, studied, and lived.

Can we really not understand the Bible by ourselves?

No, we can’t. In fact, we need several things to happen before we can even read the Bible.

First, we need textual critics to plow through all the manuscripts and determine what’s the most accurate version of the Bible. There are currently over 5,000 different manuscripts (or portions of manuscripts) of the New Testament with over 300,000 differences. It takes a lot of work—a lifetime of painstaking education and laborious study—to be able to sort through the pile of parchment to come up with a New Testament that best reflects the original words of Jesus, Paul, Luke, and Peter. But do not fret. This can be done with remarkable accuracy, though I’ll save you the details. My point is: you need other believers (or some non-believers!) to do this work before you open your translation and read. You cannot just read the words of Jesus and Paul without some human mediation.

Second, you need someone to translate these manuscripts from Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic into the version(s) that you read. Some of our English translations come from a single scholar (e.g. Eugene Peterson’s The Message). Others ancient mss 2come from more than 50 or 60 different scholars (e.g. the NASB, ESV, NLT). In other words, you need a community of believers to translate the original languages of the 5,000 manuscripts, compile and edited by many textual critics, before you can read the Bible. Again, you cannot just read the words of Jesus and Paul without many human mediators.

Third, you also need a publisher. Before the 15th century, when the printing press was invented, your “publisher” would have been a scribe whom you would pay big bucks to hand-write a copy of the Bible. Today, there are many publishers who have taken this scribal role to edit, print, and bind your Bible. Again, many people are involved in this process—a process that ultimately ends with an ESV Bible at your nightstand.

Once you’ve received your copy of the Bible and are ready to read, you still need help to rightly interpret it. Now, there is a layer of truth that most every believer can understand by simply reading by themselves. But I don’t think we fully appreciate how much of our understanding of the Bible comes from history, tradition, and our current leaders and pastors (i.e. community) without even knowing it. Most of our crucial Christian beliefs were formed through a community of believers wrestling with God’s word. The trinity, the atonement, your view of baptism, and the end times were all shaped, in part, by the community of God’s people led by thinkers such as Tertullian, Anselm, Zwingli, Luther, Ryrie, and others. Even our doctrine of salvation by grace through faith was heavily influenced by the fact that Martin Luther was hyper-attracted to Romans and Galatians instead of James and Revelation—both of which he despised. If Luther and his community emphasized James, Revelation, and, say, Matthew (none of which mention justification by faith alone), what would be the center of our view of salvation?

Now, none of this should be disturbing, because God works through community. God worked through Luther and the Reformers to rightly correct the church’s view of salvation by opening his eyes to Paul’s words in Romans and Galatians. To bible studysay we need the community to rightly understands the Bible only means that God works through community. He raises up gifted teachers who have the ability to study, synthesize, and articulate God’s truth better than others.

This is why Paul says that God has given “pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). Or in the words of that castrated African: “How can I [understand what I’m reading] unless someone guides me” (Acts 8:31). If we could just study the Bible on an island, or on a chariot, and build ourselves up, why would God feel the need to gift teachers to guide us?

Community: you can’t live without it; you can read without it.

Spray PainterIn recent years, there has been a sharp increase in books published on Christianity and the arts. This seems to be increasingly on the radar in many of our churches and theological circles. Unfortunately, this renewed emphasis on art stands in contrast to the past four or five hundred years in which the Protestant church has been sometimes ambivalent and often hostile toward Christians serving in the arts.

Even with the renewed emphasis on the arts, however, many of our churches are unsure of how to relate to the artists in our churches. How should we view their calling as artists? How does that calling fit within the overall life and mission of the church? What role should we play in shaping their spiritual and even artistic lives? What role should the artist play in shaping ours?

These are important questions, and unfortunately, the church doesn’t have a great track record in answering them with insight or sensitivity. If you’re wrestling with some of these questions, I’ll point you to a couple of resources that will help you think this through.

  • Philip Graham Ryken“How to Discourage Artists in the Church.” This is a short online article written by Philip Graham Ryken, arts advocate and president of Wheaton College. It’s humorous and insightful, and will orient you to some of the pitfalls of misunderstanding artists in your church. (For those wanting a bit more, Ryken wrote a great little book on how Christians should relate to art in general: Art For God’s Sake).
  • For the Beauty of the ChurchFor the Beauty of the Church. Each chapter in this book began as an address for a Christian arts conference, and carries some insightful thoughts for how art should enrich our churches.

There are many excellent books on the arts, but I mention these for their specific focus on art in the church. If you want to look more into the arts from a Christian perspective, take a look at our blog series on the subject, or consider the following books:

 

 

A recent editorial piece in Christianity Today written by Mark Galli titled “Higher Ed at a Crossroad” caught our collective attention at Eternity Bible College. The article presents the case of a particular seminary to exemplify ways Christian Colleges may provide a high quality, low cost education with an emphasis on the importance of the local church.

Money TrapWe strongly believe in making quality biblical education affordable and accessible to the local church, and have actually already implemented many of the suggestions Galli makes. We believe that we exist to serve the local church. Therefore, we work hard to keep our costs low so students can graduate debt-free, and be available for whatever assignment God may have for them without the ball-and-chain of debt. Tuition at Eternity is $175 per credit hour. The total cost of tuition for a 4-year bachelor’s degree at Eternity is $22,400. The average tuition per year at private non-profit colleges is $35,000. That means students can earn a 4-year degree at Eternity for about 65% of the cost of attending most other colleges for only one year!

We are assuming demand, since most of our faculty are full time ministry practitioners serving in local churches, and they know the needs of the local church. We have our entire degree program online, so that students can stay in their local church and still get a high caliber Bible education. We even offer our Introduction to Discipleship Counseling class for-credit at no cost.

We have also taken material from our college-level courses, focused on the key points, and presented them simply and attractively through our Silo Project.These self-paced mini-courses work well for those who want to learn about the Bible, theology, and ministry but don’t want to mess around with college credit. They can also be easily incorporated into Small Groups or Adult Fellowships.

All of our students are required to be actively serving in a local church. We see our mission as equipping men and women to serve in the local church, and recognize that they need to be doing it as they are getting their education, not after they get it. We work hard to avoid the artificial ‘Bible College Bubble’ by having a very small and efficient campus, no dorms (students have to live in the ‘real world’), and even encourage students to live near their church and commute to classes. While serving in their local churches, every student is required to have mentor. Through these mentor relationships we are able to assess the spiritual growth of students and learn how they are applying their knowledge in real life service to the world, through the church.

We are finding that many churches are excited about why we do what we do, and how we do it. If you are part of a church who wants to join in this shift in Biblical Higher Education, we have many ways you can partner with us.

We are thankful that Mark Galli and others are calling our attention to a growing and immense problem in biblical higher education. And we are pleased to let you know that at least one school in the U.S. is doing something about it as well!