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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

*Editor’s Note:  As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on same-sex marriage this week, the Church & Culture Team felt it timely to take a recent address by Dr. White on the matter and turn it into a four-blog series that will be issued Monday-Thursday of this week. 

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Today we talk about one of the biggest cultural issues of our day:

Gay marriage.

Some of you here today are gay. And you are anxiously awaiting what I’m going to say. 

Well, first things first. Let me just say a few things to you.

As a follower of Christ, a pastor and Christian leader, I just want to ask for your forgiveness for the way Christians and Christian organizations have often treated you.

I’ve seen anger - even hatred - among Christians toward gays and lesbians that is repulsive and repugnant to me.

And it is repulsive and repugnant to Christ.

There’s an “us-versus-them” mentality as if war has been declared - a spirit manifested that shows nothing but contempt even to the point of “homophobia” (an irrational fear from some).

From those who went public after such events as 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina, and said it was God’s judgment on homosexuals or on those who support homosexuality.

From those who lead movements to try and get gays fired from public office, or to keep them away from fair housing or employment opportunities.

From those who use terms like “fag” or “faggots”, or hold up signs at funerals that say “God hates fags.”

So let me publicly apologize to those of you within the homosexual community for that insanity, and for the hatred you have felt and may have even experienced from the Christian community. That has been sin against you, and as a representative Christian, I ask for your forgiveness.

So that’s first. 

Second, I want you to know that you matter to God. He loves you, He cares about you, and He has a plan for your life. You are one of His precious children. Your orientation – and yes, I believe for many of you it is your orientation, not simply a random choice you made one day out of the blue – does not make you a second-class person to God.

Third, I want you to know that you matter to me.

Pastors and other Christian leaders haven't always made that very clear.

Let me tell you a couple of personal stories, because this is very personal to me.

I remember after I became a Christian, I had a friend in college who was probably the most openly gay guy on the campus. I really liked this guy, and I remember we were walking from class one day and in the middle of a discussion. We were near his apartment, and he asked me if I’d like to come in and have a drink so that we could finish the conversation.

So we went inside, and a lot of our conversation was on the spiritual side of things, as I was trying to explain my own decision for Christ; and he was very much in objection to that.

I’ll always remember though, what he said when we finished. I said, “Look, I’ve got to run – I’ve got another class to go to.” And he said, “Jim, you’re the first Christian who’s ever come into my apartment, and was just willing to sit and talk with me.”

I remember feeling just stunned by this.

All he’d ever experienced was rejection.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I'll never forget receiving a call from a funeral home in southern Indiana where I served as a pastor during my seminary years. A young man who was not connected with a church had died of an AIDS related illness.

Now keep in mind that was well over 25 years ago.

On behalf of the family, the funeral home had contacted pastor after pastor in the area. After finding out the details, each pastor they called had refused to even meet with the family, much less to serve them at the funeral service.

Finally they got to me – the young seminary kid.

He asked me if I would officiate at the funeral, and I said, "Of course I will." 

He then went on to explain how the man had died, and wondered if, after hearing the explanation, I would still be willing to do it.

“Of course!,” I said.

I can honestly tell you that it never even entered my mind not to serve this family. And I was disgusted and ashamed of my colleagues for not serving a family during such a time of grief. I knew then, some twenty-five or more years ago, that something was wrong with our attitudes and wrong with our spirits.

So please know, you matter to me. Deeply.

Fourth, I want you to know that you matter to this church. I can’t speak for every church, but I can speak for this one.

As a church, from day one, there has been an atmosphere of acceptance for everyone who wants to come and explore what Christ could mean for their lives; including those from the gay community. In fact, we were one of the first churches in the area to try to tackle the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

And every time we’ve discussed homosexuality, our goal has been to do it biblically – but also lovingly, sensitively and caringly.

I remember many years ago, the first time I spoke publically on the subject at Meck, we were just over a year old and meeting in an elementary school. We were in a series on issues related to sex and sexuality, and the final installment was going to be on homosexuality. 

I prayed and worked on that talk like you wouldn’t believe because I knew even then that we had a fair number of gay people attending Meck. And I had had several conversations with them about where they stood with their spirituality.

And they mattered to me.

They were people open to Christ, but burned by Christians.

They were people who were trying to figure out how the teachings of the Bible meshed with their sexual desires and lifestyles.

They were people trying to figure it all out.

I taught what I felt the Bible said as clearly I knew how. I tried to explain the Bible’s teaching, why it mattered, and what it could mean for all of our lives - gay and straight.

When the talk was over, a woman came up to me and said,

“Well, I’m one of your lesbian fans. I had a pretty good idea what you were going to say today. But what I didn’t know was how you were going to say it. And I just want to say ‘thank you’.”

And then she hugged me.

I then saw that she had bought about five or six cassette tapes (yes, it was cassette tapes back then) to give to her friends. 

You have no idea how much that meant to me and what a personal victory that was for me. She may have disagreed with what I said, but she sensed that our church was marked by love and grace. Not just about the subject, but for her.

Finally, I want you to know one last thing before we jump in.

We’re not fixated on this. We’re not trying to talk about this every few months. We’re not singling this out. We talk about all relevant issues related to sexuality. So we’re not trying to single this out, but it is a big issue. And has been for a while. But we’re in a series on Holy Matrimony, so it would be crazy to not talk about it here.

I want to approach this in three ways:  first, what the Bible says about homosexuality – specifically homoerotic behavior.

Second, how that relates to a homosexual orientation.

And then third, how all this plays out in relation to gay marriage.

So if that sounds like a good road map, let’s get started with the Bible.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from the fourth installment of “Holy Matrimony,” a series at Mecklenburg Community Church, Charlotte, North Carolina. If you would like to listen to this address as originally delivered, as well as the series of which it was a part, click here.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Meck's Secret Sauce

When people ask about Meck’s growth, or ability to penetrate the unchurched, they are looking for a silver bullet. A single program, method, or approach that they can take, implement, and see similar results.

Okay.

Here it is.

Our secret sauce.

We really are on mission.

We really are turned outward.

We really are after the unchurched.

Really.

Think of it like you would a car assembly line:

At the beginning of the line are the raw materials and parts needed to make a car: wire, engine, tires, chassis. Then, as those materials progress down the assembly line, a car is made. At the end of the line, the vehicle is rolled off for service. 

The dilemma is that many churches are specializing in one short segment of the assembly line:

There is no effort to collect the raw material needed to build cars, and there is little effort to roll finished cars off of the line for service on the road. Their mission is simply a maintenance program for existing cars where windshields are washed, fluids are checked, and tire-pressure is monitored. The goal is to keep cars that have already been built well-tuned and polished for the showroom.

Yet that is what is killing so many churches.

The mission cannot be simply to keep Christians happy and growing. Nor can it be about attempting to lure believers from other churches by having glitzier services and better programs. No longer can the mission be about us – it must be about those who have yet to become Christians.

But that’s the problem.

We like the mission being about us.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the character who, upon passing his reflection in the water, becomes so enamored with himself that he devotes the rest of his life to his own reflection. From this we get our term “narcissism,” the preoccupation with self. The value of narcissism is the classic "I, me, mine" mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of concerns. 

And it is just this spirit which has invaded our thinking.

A spiritual narcissism has invaded the church.

Eavesdrop, for a moment, on how we talk:

“I want to go where I'm fed," not where we can learn to feed ourselves, much less feed others. 

“I need to be ministered to,” as if ministry in the life of the Christ-follower is something that happens to us, instead of something we make happen through us for others. 

We walk out of a worship service and say, "I didn't get anything out of it," as if that was its purpose – our edification, instead of God’s. 

Where did that come from?

It wasn’t from our Leader.

He didn’t talk that way.

He said,

“I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” 

“Whoever wants to be first must become last.” 

“Whoever wants to be great among must become the slave of all.” 

“Not my will, but thine.” 

Yet a spiritual narcissism has invaded our thinking where the individual needs and desires of the Believer have become the center of attention. Which is why most churches have, as their primary focus, reaching and then serving the already convinced. So the mission isn’t making disciples, but caring for them. 

This is an uncomfortable truth. Because almost everybody who follows Christ, and almost every gathering of those Christ followers constituting a church, says the same thing: “We want to reach the world for Christ.”

Yet most don’t.

So where’s the breakdown?

Jesus knew. 

When questioned about His own missional emphasis toward those on the outside of faith, He said: 

Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what the Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.'" (Matthew 9:12-13, Msg)

The problem? According to Jesus, seemingly long-term “insiders.”

In other words, scratch the surface of a sacrificial, pick-up-your-cross, to die is gain, eat my flesh and drink my blood, Christian,

…and you have an it’s-all-about-me, spiritually narcissistic, turned-inward, meet my needs, feed me, consumer. 

Again, listen to how we talk:

“Of course I want to reach lost people,”

           …but I’m not going to see us change the music.

           …but I’m not going to lead a capital campaign to raise the money.

           …but I’m not going to park far away.

           …but I’m not going to risk stirring things up right now in the church.

           …but I’m not going to attend at a different service time.

           …but I’m not going to start a new church.

           …but I’m not going to stand for the pastor dressing casually.

           …but I’m not going to give money to launch a new site or relocate.

           …but I’m not going to watch someone on a video.

           …but I’m not going to put in fifty or sixty-hour weeks.

           …but I’m not going to let them start playing drums.

           …but I’m not going to change how I preach.

           …but I’m not going to give up my favorite seat.

           …but I’m not going to turn things over to a bunch of 20-somethings.

           …but I’m not going to attend on Saturday night.

           …but I’m not going to…

You fill in the rest of the blanks. I’m not even suggesting this list is what a church should do. But it does betray our spirit. 

The problem with outreach today is that the most basic and elemental issues related to outreach are resisted by the very people who say they want those unchurched people to come and find Jesus.

So our secret sauce is simple. It’s in a four-word mantra we say to each other all the time around Meck:

“It’s not about you.”

It’s about the person who isn’t even here yet.

Don’t like the new music?

It’s not about you.

Don’t like the new style of worship?

It’s not about you.

Don’t like the new dress code?

It’s not about you.

Don’t like what we’re doing with video?

The new website?

The…

It’s not about you.

It’s about them.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from the 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Click here to purchase mp3s of this and other #CCConference2015 addresses.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Cultural Missionaries

In the recent 2015 Church and Culture Conference, I gave a talk on the six strategic decisions our church has made that has allowed it to grow from one family to over 10,000 active attenders through 70% growth from the unchurched.

One of those six decisions was to be cultural missionaries, and act on it.

I think we all know what a good missionary would do if dropped into the darkest recesses of the Amazon basin to reach an unreached people’s group. 

They would learn the language.

They would try and understand the customs and rituals.

They would work to translate the Scriptures, and the message of the gospel, into their indigenous language.

When it came to worship, they would incorporate the musical styles and instruments of the people.

They might even attempt to dress more like them.

In other words, they would try and build every cultural bridge they could into their world in order to bring Christ to bear. Why is it that what would be so natural (not to mention obvious) to do in that missiological setting is so resisted in our own?

And make no mistake; wherever you are is your mission field.

But it’s not just about being a cultural missionary, but understanding what aspect of culture you’re after.

For example, think about all that is coming out in Christian publishing about the Millennials. The evangelical publishing world is fixated on why Millennials are leaving the church. They get them to write blogs, articles and books about their disaffection, and from this extrapolate what the church has to do and where it has to change in order to reach this generation for Christ.

Okay – think about that.

Why are we focusing on Christian Millennials who leave the church in order to learn how to reach non-Christian Millennials who are not in the church?

That’s misplaced missional energy.

The disaffected Christian Millennials are not abandoning Christ, just the church. Okay, so did their parents. And their parents before them. They either came back to the church, or reinvented it stylistically. 

Not exactly news.

What is news is the rise of the “nones,” which are those Millennials (and their parents) who are abandoning religion altogether. 

The real story you need to get as a leader isn’t about Christians wanting more of a narrative, wishing their pastor was more like Donald Miller, hating the big-stage production of the eighties megachurch, or anything else.

That’s an evangelical sub-culture thing.

The real issue is much larger.

So if we are going to talk to someone, and listen to someone, and learn from someone, let’s talk, listen and learn from Millennials that have not been Christians, much less churched. After all, they are the true Millennial mission field.

So be a cultural missionary, and make sure you are studying the right part of the culture.

But you can’t stop there. Once you get your cultural missionary work done, you have to act on it. 

Most pastors I know are versed in what it would take to build a cultural bridge. But they don’t act on it. And it’s because they feel like they are caught between a very unique rock and a hard place. 

Leadership knows that the church is not experiencing the growth they desire, particularly among the young and unchurched. They have a solid constituency, but they are older and, most definitely, churched. They are good people, giving people, serving people, but they like the church the way it is. 

Yet times have changed. Culture has shifted dramatically. Unless they reach the next generation, the church will simply get older and smaller, year by year, until it is a shell of what it once was. 

But if they attempt to implement some of the things they feel could make a difference, they run the very real risk of alienating their current base of support – the people paying the bills, serving in the nursery, and leading their teams. 

So they feel stuck. 

If they don’t change, they fear a slow death. 

If they do change, they fear a quick death. 

And if you are like most people, you would rather put it off as long as possible. So we do.

But where does it say we are called to survive?

So inherent within this is the courage to change, and change continually. In every one of our membership classes, we tell people the same thing: 

“If you like Meck the way it is right now in terms of style of music, or what we do on the weekends, be warned. It’s different than what we did 24 months ago, and I can guarantee you it will be different 24 months from now.”

Does that mean we lose people?

Yep.

But the mission stays strong.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from the 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Click here to purchase mp3s of this and other #CCConference2015 addresses.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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