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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

Finding Our Voice

One of the great challenges that all Christ followers – and particularly Christian leaders – face is finding our voice culturally, specifically in speaking to Generation Z. As a generation, they hold few things dearer than acceptance and inclusivity. To them, acceptance means affirmation. If you don’t affirm, you don’t accept. This unfortunately permeates all of culture, not just Generation Z, where to be considered “welcoming” is code for condoning all lifestyle choices.

So what kind of “voice” should we use? 

Biblically, there are three primary voices speaking into culture: the prophetic, the evangelistic and the heretical. The prophetic voice, such as Jeremiah’s, is clear in its denunciations and warnings. The prophetic voice is an admonishing one, a “thou shalt not,” a clarion call to turn to God and get right with God. It is not a popular voice for culture to hear. That is why it is not a popular voice for Christians to use. Quick: name a popular prophet. See? As an old seminary professor of mine once quipped, “Assume a prophet’s voice, expect a prophet’s reward.”

The second voice is the evangelistic voice. This is the apostle Paul standing on Mars Hill (Acts 17). It is the voice attempting to build bridges across cultural divides, to explain things, to make apologetic cases. The evangelistic voice is focused on calling people to a relationship with Christ as Forgiver and Leader.

The final voice is the heretical voice. To be sure, heretical voices in the Bible are never celebrated, but they are noted. The false prophets of the Old Testament and the false teachers of the New Testament are frequently detailed. As the apostle Peter declared: “There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). This is the voice that not only speaks against the gospel but also, more specifically, attempts to distort the gospel’s presentation to culture itself. 

The heretical voice is most at play and seems to be the most seductive for Christian leaders when attempting to engage culture. It is tempting to try to connect with a post-Christian culture by mirroring its post-Christian values and sentiments.

For example, Rob Bell, former pastor and frequent guest on Oprah Winfrey’s television network, maintains that a church that doesn’t support same-sex marriage is irrelevant. Bell had earlier questioned the existence of hell in his 2011 book Love Wins. Bell made the comments about gay marriage on an episode of Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, where he appeared with his wife to talk about religion and spirituality. He called the church’s acceptance of gay marriage “inevitable”, and the reason that it should be accepted is because loneliness “is not good for the world.”

“I think culture is already there,” Bell continued, “and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.”

His thinking is that for a church to be relevant, it must not only embrace homoerotic behavior but also jettison Scripture as any kind of authoritative guide to this or (seemingly) any other cultural issue in which public opinion goes against Scripture. The new source of revelation is personal fulfillment. In this case, no one should be lonely, so whatever fills the loneliness gap should be affirmed.

We must understand the danger of such an approach. Yes, it landed Bell on television. Yes, it was and is a popular stance culturally. But if the Bible is to be cavalierly abandoned as mere “letters from 2,000 years ago”, then historic orthodoxy has truly been abandoned. Christians embrace the Old Testament as inspired by God because Jesus did, and the New Testament as equally sacred because it is based on the teaching of Jesus and His apostles. If we relegate the Bible to less than the revelation of God, then we are relegating Jesus to less than the Son of God. As Christians, we can have robust discussions on the nature of inspiration, and certainly on the dynamics of interpretation, but not on the authority of the Bible itself.

That was established by Jesus.

Further, to adopt self-fulfillment and self-satisfaction as the ultimate apologetic is to make the self central to all things. This was, of course, the great temptation put before Adam and Eve in the garden that led to the fall of humanity. Pursuing whatever we desire is not what is best for the world.

What is best for the world is when we submit our desires to what is best for the world. And that is determined by God.

Finally, the “relevance” of a church is not found in its capitulation to culture, but its transformation of culture. Any student of ecclesiastical history knows that whenever orthodoxy was abandoned in order for the church to mirror culture, it led to the church’s great demise. We do not gain the world’s attention through a compromised voice but through a prophetic one. No one would argue the need for a winsome and compelling voice for Christ in our culture more than I; no one would argue the need for contrition for a lack of love toward those with a same-sex orientation more than I; no one would argue the need for the church’s relevance more than I. But if we follow Bell’s strategy, the church really will continue to be even more irrelevant than it already is.

Why?

Because it will cease to be the church.

The key in attempting to speak into culture with relevance, but not compromise, is found in the dynamic between translation and transformation. Theologian Millard Erickson, building on the insights of William E. Hordern, notes that every generation must translate the gospel into its unique cultural context. But this is very different from transforming the message of the gospel into something that was never intended by the biblical witness. Transformation of the message must be avoided at all costs. Translation, however, is essential for a winsome and compelling presentation of the gospel of Christ. It is precisely this interplay between translation and transformation that must be navigated by every leader in regard to culture. If transformation takes place, then we have simply abandoned orthodoxy for the hopeful sake of warm bodies, and the tickling of ears does not exactly have a welcome spot in the biblical materials. If translation takes place, we intentionally build bridges of cultural understanding but retain our prophetic voice in the marketplace of ideas.

Transformation is heresy.

Translation is the heart of our mission.

Knowing the difference is the crucible of leadership and the difference between being in the world and being of the world.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World (Baker).

Carol Kuruvilla, “Former Megachurch Pastor Rob Bell: A Church That Doesn’t Support Gay Marriage Is ‘Irrelevant’”, The Huffington Post, February 20, 2015, read online.

Millard Erickson, Christian Theology.

About the Author

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, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & 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.

Changing Directions

One of the key issues for any organization, particularly the church, is not the efficiency of the organization (which is doing things right), but its effectiveness (which is doing the right things). The church must rethink its current processes in order to determine if it will effectively fulfill the Great Commission. As the ancient Chinese proverb says, “If we do not change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

The church is far more than a human enterprise that rises or falls on the management and organization we bring to its efforts. All our efforts are worthless apart from the energizing presence and power of God (See Ps. 127: 1). Yet we must avoid a pious irresponsibility that produces passive believers who, as pastor Rick Warren says, “use spiritual-sounding excuses to justify a church’s failure to grow.” The balance is found in Proverbs 21:31: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Victory rests with God, but we must prepare the horse to the best of our abilities.

Rethinking may mean that the church has to change. Difficult as this may be, it is absolutely essential. It will prove ruinous if the church allows itself to maintain a business-as-usual approach. The change a church undergoes, however, cannot be merely cosmetic. It must go beyond “tinkering” – making small adjustments here and there to structure and format – to “restructuring” – introducing new models and changes to adapt with our ever-changing culture.

At the same time, change does not have to mean compromise. Interestingly, even such a dispassionate observer as the Atlantic Monthly noted that innovative churches “may be market-driven, culturally sensitive and cutting-edge, but this does not make [them] ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ on the fundamentals.” Author and pastor Gene Getz reminds us that this was the pattern for the New Testament church. He notes that what the early Christians said was consistent; the way they said it and how they went about such things as ministry or evangelism varied from situation to situation. They considered the directives as absolute, but their methods were relative and merely served to accomplish divine ends. There is no reason this first century paradigm cannot continue to operate in the church of the 21st century.

But along with a rethinking of processes, the church must rethink its attitude.

As I’ve often written, I fear that the contemporary church has become marked by a narcissistic attitude that places the individual needs and desires of the believer at the center of attention. The attitude is that the church exists for me and my needs; I do not exist for the church and its needs. As a result, the desire is not to learn how to feed ourselves – much less to feed others – but to be fed. Ministry is that which happens to us, not something that we make happen for others. Worship is evaluated by what we get out of it, not by what we give to God through it. Unless confronted, this attitude will inhibit the growth and effectiveness of the church far more than even the most archaic and dysfunctional of processes.

And this may involve the greatest rethinking of all.

The church is on a mission; it has a cause. The purpose of the church is to fulfill the Great Commission. We do not grow in Christ for our own sake, but for the sake of the cause.

And this is the attitude that must be recaptured for the church: people willing to step up to the plate, to become part of something larger than themselves – something that will live on for eternity. The church is the hope of the world, and unless we rethink our processes and, more importantly, our attitude, we will lose this generation for Christ.

One of the great scholars of the Renaissance, Erasmus, told a mythical tale about Jesus’ return to heaven after His time on earth. The angels gathered around Him to learn what had happened. Jesus told them of His miracles, His teaching, and then of His death and resurrection.

When He finished, Michael the archangel asked, “But Lord, what happens now?”

Jesus answered, “I have left behind eleven faithful men who will declare my message and express my love. These faithful men will establish and build my church.”

“But,” responded Michael, “what if these men fail? What then?”

And Jesus answered, “I have no other plan.”

There is no other plan outside the church for God’s redemptive work. It rests in our hands and in our hearts.

So let the rethinking begin… and begin now.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Baker). Reference the endnotes for additional source information.

Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church.

Gene Getz, Sharpening the Focus of the Church


About the Author

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, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & 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.

When I was a freshman in high school, I tried out for the varsity basketball team. On the first day of tryouts, the coach ran a scrimmage, periodically sending players into the game to see how they played. When my turn came, I intercepted a pass on the very first play. Then I took the ball the length of the court, skyed over every other player and made the prettiest layup you ever saw.

The coach instantly blew the whistle, stopped the game and called me over to the bench. I was walking 10 feet off the ground. I just knew my shot was so good that he had to stop the game just to tell me. I envisioned that ESPN had called and wanted the footage, and that Sports Illustrated had every intention of running a photo of me on the next cover. The shoe deal with Nike was only a matter of time. So I walked – actually, strutted – to the sideline.

My coach said, “White, that was a great shot. Your form was great; your intensity was great. Only thing is, you went to the wrong basket – but it was a great shot!”

Is there a right and a wrong basket in the spiritual game? Is Christianity the only way to score with God or simply one of many ways? For today’s unchurched person, this is hardly academic. The religious landscape of modern American society can be nothing less than bewildering. Religious groups, sects, cults, movements, philosophies and worldviews abound in incredible numbers and diversity.

Add to this mix one of the most pervasive, fundamental convictions of contemporary American society: All roads lead to God, and to say that one way is right and all the other ways are wrong is narrow-minded, bigoted and prejudicial. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me. Searching for God is like climbing a mountain. Since everyone knows there is not just one way to climb a mountain – mountains are too big for that – each person can choose from a number of paths. All the ideas about God contained in the various religions of the world are just different ways up the mountain. In fact, though different religions have different names for God, the names all refer to the same God.

Is it true that a lot of roads lead to heaven, which means we really don’t have to worry about which road we’re on? Is it true that no person, no religion, no group, no book has a handle on the truth? Is it true that all religions are basically the same and all religious leaders are essentially of one mind so that ultimately all spiritual pursuits lead to the same place? If so, people need not look for spiritual truth. They just need to decide on spiritual preference.

If you embrace the idea that multiple paths lead to God and you turn out to be wrong, the consequences are enormous. So let’s explore the reasons why people hold to this belief:

1.  There Are So Many Religions

The sheer number of faiths from which to choose convinces some people that there is more than one path to God. Religious pluralism has existed for centuries, but people have never been exposed to as many faith options as we are today. As the number of religious options increases in one’s mind, the idea that one option represents ultimate spiritual truth lessens. Yet the mere presence of options has little to do with whether a particular faith might be true, nor whether ultimate spiritual truth actually exists. The simple fact is that a test may be multiple-choice, but that does not mean it has multiple answers.

2.  The Belief That All Religions Are Basically the Same

The idea that all paths are legitimate is also fueled by the sentiment that all religions are basically the same. Many introductory courses in world religions on the high school and college level stress the common denominators of religion throughout time and culture. While these courses may reveal certain similarities, it is also true that they contradict each other in crucial areas. For example, Christians believe in God, while some Buddhists don’t even teach that there is a God. Christians also embrace Jesus’ claim that He was God in human form who came to restore our relationship with God. Muslims, on the other hand, don’t believe that Jesus was God at all. Christians believe in truth and error, right and wrong, morality and immorality, while adherents to the various forms of New Age thinking contend that there are no absolutes and everything is relative.

You can say that somebody is right and somebody is wrong, or say that everyone is wrong, but you can’t say that everybody believes basically the same thing. That would be intellectually dishonest in light of the facts. If God exists—unless He is some senile, confused, muddled, schizophrenic, unbalanced being who isn’t sure what He stands for—there is religious truth and religious falsehood among the competing views. And the areas of disagreement among those views are not trivial in nature. The nature of God, the identity of Jesus, and how we enter into a relationship with God are of paramount importance. To return to our mountain climbing analogy in which all paths lead to the same peak, the truth is that there isn’t a single peak, much less a single idea of what the peak even looks like. Instead, the mountain has many different peaks, which raises a significant question: How do you get to the highest one?

3.  The Idea That Sincerity Is What Matters

“It isn’t what a person believes that matters, but how he or she believes it; all that really matters is one’s sincerity.” Something deep inside of us knows, and I think correctly, that the nature of true spirituality is somehow connected with authenticity. But it is one thing to value sincerity and another to make sincerity the lone characteristic of spiritual truth. How you believe matters, but so does what you believe. If you say it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere, you miss a very important point: You can be sincerely wrong. If I have a headache in the middle of the night and I blindly reach into my medicine cabinet, I can sincerely believe I am taking an aspirin. But if I am really taking cyanide, my sincerity will not save me from the perils of the poison I’ve ingested. Sincerity matters, but it cannot be all that matters because sincerity alone cannot alter reality. Therefore, it is not simply the sincerity of our faith that matters but the object of our faith as well. Faith is very much like a rope – it matters what you tie it to.

4.  The Belief That No Religious Group Should Think It’s Better Than Any Other

Some people are offended by religious groups who think their religion is better than any other religion. They believe that because God is so big and our understanding is so small, it is nothing less than arrogance and narrow-mindedness for a single religious group to maintain that it holds all truth. To ensure that tolerance of other people’s views exists, one should not claim some people are wrong and some people are right—or that “wrongness” or “rightness” even exist. But let’s imagine a young student who is given a question on a math test in school. The question is: “What is 2 + 2?” The answer, of course, is “4.” But let’s say the child answers “37.” Is the teacher intolerant, narrow-minded and bigoted if he/she corrects the answer?

Everyone must avoid a spirit that persecutes people for their differing beliefs or denies them their religious freedom. But this spirit of tolerance is different from believing all points of view are equally valid. Just because you come to a conclusion about where you should place your spiritual trust does not mean you are intolerant of other beliefs. It does not even mean you deny that some truth can be found in other perspectives. As C. S. Lewis once observed, “If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through… If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions contain at least some hint of the truth.” Returning to our math student, there is one and only one right answer to “2 + 2,” but there are some answers that are much closer to being right than others.

5.  They Don’t Believe in Truth

Ultimately, the question is whether people believe in truth and today many do not. A study by the Barna Research Group discovered that 66% of all Americans deny the existence of absolute truth. As Allan Bloom has observed from his years teaching in a university classroom, there “is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of. Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”

The most enduring and accepted definition of truth is the correspondence between our ideas or perceptions, and reality. If I make the statement “It is raining,” it is true if I look outside and find that it is raining. What is true is that which actually is. The belief in more than one way to God is really a belief that truth does not exist or, even more to the point, that it doesn’t matter. Yet nowhere in life does this match our experience. There is not a single area of life where you can make any choice you want from a wide array of options and achieve the same result or experience. Even a skeptic as noteworthy as Sigmund Freud maintained that if “it were really a matter of indifference what we believed, then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gramme of morphia into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take tear-gas as a narcotic instead of ether.”

The question, therefore, isn’t “Is there truth?”, (there is, and we live our lives by it every day) but “Can spiritual truth be found?”

Perhaps now the most incredible spiritual claim in all of human history can be heard. Jesus said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Not a way, a truth or a life, but the way, the truth and the life. It is this idea that marks the Christian faith. In the Book of Acts, we read the apostle Peter’s proclamation: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ… Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10,12).

While there are many religions from which to choose, they differ radically from one another, and choosing where to place your spiritual trust is neither narrow-minded nor intolerant.

Truth exists, and it matters.

If all roads do not lead to God, then a spiritual search will lead you to the scandalous reality of one way. And for the Christ follower, that way is through a person:

Jesus Christ.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, A Search for the Spiritual (Baker). Additional sources can be found in the endnotes of this book.

Knechtle, Give Me an Answer.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


About the Author

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, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & 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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