Monthly Archives: February 2008

Changing Faith

Research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently came out on the changing landscape of faith in America. I wasn’t surprised at all to see how many people reported changing their faith or having a personal belief system without any real loyalty to a denomination or systematic theology.

Being spiritual seems to be in vogue while being a doctrinal purest is clearly not something that appeals to Americans under 50. I believe this shows the impact of post modernism as well as the failure by institutional Christianity to encounter culture and people where they live.

Pew’s research showed a fluid and diverse religious framework in America.  The NY Times reported that the group with the largest gain was people without an affiliation. According to the Times, “More than 16 percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth largest ‘religious group.'”

The number of people who declare themselves as unaffiliated increase as people age. The unaffiliated are largely under 50 and male (1 in 5 men fit this category). This is the demographic that does not fit into most churches and will struggle unless churches learn how to encounter them where they live.Higher levels of unaffiliated Americans does not mean people are any less religious in the past. It is just that they look at faith as a more personal thing with less allegiance to a specific church or doctrine. Interestingly, many of the unaffiliated are not atheists or agnostics. They just don’t like being put in any particular religious box. All of these changes coincide with the rise of house churches as well as non-traditional Christian fellowships.  I believe all of this sets the stage for dilution of traditional doctrine. New ways to be Christian will likely emerge. Views that were once thought irreconcilable may come closer together in the court of public opinion. That doesn’t necessarily change truth. But it may altar our understanding of it. I foresee the development of more mixtures of Christian thought with other worldviews and concepts. The buffet mentality toward Christian faith may just be taking off. This comes with pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, more people may actually take ownership of their faith and let it change how they live. On the downside, they may throw out some things that are essential or develop worldviews that blur necessary distinctions. Losing what makes one faith unique compared to another is kind of like having a painting with only one color.


Beware Who You Believe In

Barack Obama has been calling people to “Stand up for change.” He has a big campaign banner behind him that says, “Believe.” He encourages supporters to chant, “Yes, we can!”

Stevie Wonder got the crowd at a campaign event to chant a song in honor to Obama. (See Youtube clip Obama talks about “we” and “us” on the campaign trail.

I have been wondering why so many people think so highly of Obama. I have also struggled to see why people think he is a charismatic speaker. Many have compared him to Martin Luther King. Obama’s voice is much weaker than King. I don’t know that I would hire Obama to be the voice talent for a commercial.

Obama seems to have done far less than in his life than many of the other candidats running for president in this election. Obama is certainly no where near King in terms of his significance to the civil rights movement. That might change if he becomes the first black President. 

A co-worker said he thinks that people have flocked to Obama’s message because Obama paints broad, positive narratives just like Reagan did. I think my co-worker may be onto something. While their policies are very different, their opptimism is very similar.  

I think that people have flocked to Obama for a variety of reasons. Some like the idea of an African American president. Change is a popular theme because so many are tired of our political situation right now. This includes many who are tired of anyone with significant tenure in Washington D.C. Others are attracted to Obama because he is very young and has the GQ look. Many like his positive speeches and simple messages. I find that hard to understand because so many people say that they care about the issues. It seems difficult to put issues first when rhetoric is primarily what a candidates has offered on the campaign trail. And that seems to be the case with Obama.

What does bother me is how people have looked at Obama as more than just a political leader. There is almost a cult following developing around him within some segments of the population. With all the star power behind Obama, it can be easy to see why people who have previously not cared about the candidates are taking notice this year. Look at the following site to see what I am talking about: 

Now, I don’t believe that Obama is really a messiah figure, the Antichrist or secret Muslim extremist. I do believe that some people are going crazy over him without really knowing more than the caricature depicted on TV. And I am especially concerned when any Christian looks at any poltician (including a Republican) as God’s man or unduly puts faith in government to solve all of our problems. There are some things that I like about Obama. There are many that I don’t.

What concerns me the most is how we as Americans are so hungry for an earthly king and yet we keep God out of our schools, businesses and communities. And if we allow God in, it is only on our terms.

Somebody named Michael recently commented on Cerulean Sanctum: “I think Obama epitomizes what people want from America’s self-help, therapeutic culture: a great speechgiver who posits no real solutions. Unlike the average motivational speaker, preacher, therapist, or any other practitioner of pain relief, Obama offers (from what I hear, since I am not following his campaign) nothing except empty platitudes about how people want change. Never mind what change we want or what change he might bring. We want change. Vote for change! After he is elected…and I think he probably will be the next U.S. President…most of his followers will not want to accept the changes he pushes and/or will be disillusioned at how little anything changes in D.C.”

I agree completely. We need to be careful who we put our faith in. As a Christian, I will put my faith in Jesus and pray for our leaders.

Is More Ever Enough?

“It all goes back into the box. So what are you living for?…Every road apart from God leads to the box.”– John Ortberg, teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California

Using the analogy of life compared to a Monopolygame, Ortberg made the point that we play a game and in the end we may be playing to lose when we think we are playing to win. What is the real objective if we can’t take our stuff with us? Is it how we play the game and our attitude toward the game? Is it the relationships that we make or destroy while playing the game that are most important?

I believe that Ortberg hit on a key theme when he compared the modern American dream to playing a board game. Even for well-intentioned Christians, we can easily lose sight of what is lasting and most important. Just like in a board game, when the competition is over, we put all the pieces back in the box. We don’t take the pieces home with us or bronze the board to memorialize our victory. And even if we did, so what?

Why do some people (including myself) take board games so seriously? Why do we feel like failures in life if we lose a game of Risk, Monopoly or Chess? And why don’t we take eternity more seriously?

The thing we should want more of is God. The thing we should strive for as Christians is to battle against Satan, spiritual darkness and sin. It almost seems like too many of us are playing the wrong game because we have not read the instructions.

Hear more from this sermon at

Words that Make A Difference

Are sermons really where significant spiritual messages are transferred any more? I have been struggling with that question for more than a year. I can only remember a handful of sermons from the hundreds that I have heard in my life.

But just because I can’t remember many sermons, does that mean the content in them is lost to me? Or is it there in the deep recesses of my mind. Does it resurface when I really need it? How do those words and ideas impact my worldview?

I think that many sermons go in one year and out the other. This may not always be the fault of the speaker or even the listener. It may be the attitude that we take based on our preconceived notion of what a sermon is. The way sermons are structured and our attitudes toward them could make it difficult to really engage with the content.

Christians must purpose to struggle with the concepts and challenges unearthed in any sermon. We should strive to find preachers that we can connect with and understand. And we should do whatever it takes to remember a sermon long after the words were spoken. This may include taking notes of key concepts or making a habit of reviewing thoughts from a sermon a few days later. 

 Why do so many Christians treat the sermon as the pinnacle of a church service? Maybe this attitude has caused us to miss the personal significance of a sermon. If we don’t try to struggle with the message, why do we take time to listen?

Mars Hill Church in Seattle recently started a sermon series based on questions that were proposed by the congregation. This approach was modeled after what the apostle Paul did in his epistles where he would directly respond to real-world concerns of local churches.

Provide real connection with the audience, Mars Hill has prepared teachings on a topic. Also, it is doing something very unique during this sermons series. Pastor Mark Driscoll, the primary preacher at Mars Hill, will get up and take life questions that are sent in by the audience using text messaging. These questions are pre-screened although Driscoll does not know what the question is until it comes up on a screen. He then responds to the issue on the spot. It is pretty cool to see interactivity like this in a church setting.

Check it out at

What are some of your thoughts on the effectiveness of sermons? What are some of the sermons that have impacted you the most and why?

Slavery, Transforming Grace and the New Testament

The apostle Paul made a call to grace in the epistle of Philemon. Paul wrote it while in prison and appealed to Philemon, a Christian in Colossus, to accept and forgive Onesimus, a run away slave who also happened to be a fellow Christian. Paul wrote about a specific situation, which identified key differences in how Christians should view the world compared to pagans. 

Under Roman law, a master could severely punish a runaway slave. This included beating the individual, breaking bones, confining to hard labor or even death. Huge numbers of people were slaves during the first century. The Roman economic system depended on slavery.

The apostle Paul did not directly condemn or call for the abolition of slavery. However, he clearly didn’t support it either. Paul made a case for transforming grace that would eventually topple the slave system due to new relationships in Christ. 

Paul appealed to Philemon’s reputation, their personal relationship, Paul’s involvement in Philemon’s conversion, the transformation that had taken place in Onesimus’ life, and the new relationships created in Christ as slave and master became brothers. Paul recognized that Onesimus had wronged Philemon, yet he called on Philemon to charge whatever debt was owed to his account. Then, Paul carefully reminded Philemon of his personal debt to him as well as Paul’s apostolic authority. 

In one sense, Paul sent Onesimus back to his master to keep from undermining existing law. Also it provided an opportunity for Christ-centered grace to be exemplified in a real life situation. This epistle shows us one example of how the early Church dealt with the challenging institution of slavery. We can learn from this example today as we seek to deal with social injustice in the world.

Paul challenged the evils associated with slavery while recognizing that the focus of the Gospel should not be confused with mere social reform. This could cause us to lose our heavenly mission for merely an earthly one. Instead of focus on slavery, Paul changed the dynamic to focus on brotherhood and mutual respect in Christ.  In a subtle way, Paul called for more than just forgiveness of a debt. It seems that Paul was urging Philemon to free Onesimus just as Christ had done for him.

In the first century, the Christian faith created a new paradigm where slaves and masters became brothers due to a change of heart that only comes through relationships. Paul’s instruction provides a deep justification for forgiveness and reconciliation.

A Walk with God

If you are like me, you can remember going for walks with loved ones. Sometimes these moments seem ordinary. Other times they become something extra special – a moment in time that you go back to when life starts to unravel.

The other day I went for a walk with God. It was just me and the creator of everything. I had not gone for a walk with God in a long time. I had spent lots of time with Him in other ways. But this was something special. It was dusk, and the wind howled around me. The force of the breeze bent the tree tops and caused me to think about going back home. But I pressed on.

I walked for quite a while. I spoke to God and listened a lot too. It was one of those moments that I felt very alive.

Probably the most significant discovery from my walk is that I need to do more simple things like take walks with God. I need to create more space to just “be.” I used to spend lots of time alone hiking and have gotten away from that in recent years.

So when was the last time you went on a walk alone with God?

The good news is that He is always ready. You just have to believe and go.

Quiet Life

The apostle Paul wrote the following in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12. Writing to early Christians, he encouraged, “Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. Then people who are not Christians will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others” (New Living Translation).

It is kind of remarkable that Paul wrote these words because he developed a reputation as a controversial figure who tended to cause a revelation or a riot when he came to town. His life was anything if quiet. He did work with his hands as a tent maker. And he tried to avoid unnecessary legal entanglements. However, he still found himself stuck in jail more than once.

The general idea here seems to be that Paul encouraged other believers to live above reproach. They were not to be busybodies or slackers. They were to be self sufficient if able-bodied. They were not to cause unnecessary quarrels. They were to try to live at peace with others as much as possible.

Paul encouraged early Gentile Christians to dare to be different and to live counter to pagan practices. Even the above exhortation might seem unusual because the Hellenists did not hold a high view of manual labor. Paul seems to encourage it as a way that Christians can relate to others, show humility and earn their way.

Is your life speaking volumes through its quietness?

“Holy” Law?

The Archbishop of Canterbury recently created a stir in Great Britain by suggesting that some elements of Sharia law should be recognized in the British legal system. I had never heard of Rowan Williams until today. The first thing that I noticed is that I liked his accent. Actually, I covet it. I wish that I sounded as smart as he does.

Williams made some interesting points. I agree with his major premise that some elements should be recognized. For example, marriage ceremonies by imams, private dispute resolutions according to Islamic traditions, etc. This would only be allowed in non-criminal matters. All parties would have to agree to it, and the decisions and practices could in no way violate existing laws. Thus, a Muslim couldn’t insist on Sharia principles without consent of the other party and in full alignment with existing British law.

Anything beyond that, I believe would be harmful for British society and would make tensions worse between the various ethnic groups in that country. If Muslims don’t like those apples, they can move to Iran, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Of course, any accommodation to Sharia principles would have to be approved by parliament and upheld by the courts.

I can sure see how the thought of even a tiny bit of Sharia law would cause concern for the average Brit. Most people hear the term Sharia law and think of stoning, beheading and belittling women. The archbishop was not arguing for those things.  

Sharia law might even seem like an oxymoron for some Westerners. I know that I think of Taliban rule and many fundamentalist Islamic practices as barbaric. Yet, there are some moderate aspects of their tradition that could fit into Western legal systems. In places where harmonization can be reached, we should attempt to find solutions so that we can all live together.

Of course, I would draw a line that preserves the rights of non-Muslims. While Muslims can practice their religion, it should never infringe on the rights of others not to practice it. For example, I would not allow the call to prayer to be broadcast in public except over a radio station or other non-intrusive methods.

Article on the Controversy

Interview with BBC

Barack Obama – A Muslim?

I have received e-mails from a few well intentioned Christians about the “Muslim” background of Barack Obama. Some of the details in this e-mail are accurate yet completely misleading. Other details are exaggerated or completely untrue based on published news sources from reliable journalists.

The e-mail tries to paint a picture that Barack was raised a Muslim as a child and attended a radical school for several years while living in Indonesia. The e-mail raises the question about whether or not Obama is secretly a Muslim who is bent on destroying America.

As a journalist, I have seen many times where accurate information can be twisted to come to the wrong conclusion. I have also seen times where people believed lies because it was too difficult to check things out for themselves. Christians must be careful what we forward to others because it reflects back on us and Christ.

I have no idea if Barack Obama is really a Christian as he claims. That is between him and God. I don’t really know for sure about any person’s salvation other than my own. I will simply have to take Obama at his word. According to published news sources, Obama became a Christian years ago, long before he ran for public office. Thus, I doubt his faith is a marketing ploy.

Of course, someone being a Christian doesn’t impact my vote at all. I vote the person and his/her political beliefs. Obama’s political beliefs are far from my own. Thus, I won’t be pulling the lever for him.

I recently read a post by Mike Slaughter, the lead pastor at Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio. Slaughter wrote, “This email represents racism in one of its most subtle and evil forms. Racism demeans human beings by demonizing character and creating an element of fear…To disagree with a person’s ideas is American. To demean a person’s character is racist and un-Christian. It has no place in the church! ”

I completely agree with Mike Slaughter. Yet I do want to express my concerns about the ideas behind the Trinity United Church of Christ( where Obama is a member. It focuses on black empowerment and African issues, which is fine. I am all for recognizing our roots and encouraging people to stand up for themselves and be proactive in life.

While the Trinity United Church is a multi-ethnic church, it appears to be more focused on race than Jesus. That was my impression after reading its Web site and community magazine. I have never met anyone from this church. And I may have prejudged the community. But I am concerned when a church points to Louis Farrakhan (read the Trumpet magazine) as an honorable community leader. And I also believe that the focus of any church should be Jesus and not people or race. I wonder if what started out as good intentions has quickly become idolatry.

Now, I have no idea where Obama stands. Is he a black man first? Is he democractic first? Is he an American first? Is he a disciple of Jesus first? That would be the first question I would ask Mr. Obama if I ever met him.

Here are some interesting things that Obama has said about religion.

What Are the Essentials?

Some people mistakenly think that the early Christian Church was an ideal time of growth without challenges or theological disagreements. But nothing could be further from the truth. The book of Acts details how the apostles and elders struggled to understand God’s plan to include Gentiles in His Church. It seems that they were getting on the job training and inspiration as God called them to walk way outside of their comfort zones.

Some Jewish Christians found themselves at odds with Gentiles and some leaders, such as Paul and Peter. Probably the most clear example occurred in Acts 15:1-35. What amounted to the first ecumenical council met to discuss whether or not Gentiles had to follow Jewish customs if they were to be accepted as Christians.

The chapter on the Jerusalem Council covers a disagreement that arose in Antioch over whether or not Gentile Christians had to be circumcised and follow other Jewish laws. The dispute began when some Jews from Judea came and insisted that Gentile converts had to follow “customs taught by Moses.” This made sense to some Jewish Christians because the Jewish law came from God and Christianity started as renewal movement within Judaism. Paul and Barnabas argued against requiring Gentiles to act like Jews. The dispute was taken to Jerusalem to be decided by the apostles and elders.

The issue was far from trivial because it captured a key question as the Jewish and Gentile cultures clashed and new, revolutionary Christian concepts emerged. The key question was, “What exactly is essential to be a Christian in good standing within the Church?”

The above question had two major drivers – the need to keep Gentile Christians from falling into pagan, polytheistic practices and the desire to harmonize relations between Jews and Gentiles despite the religious barriers created by many distinct, Jewish religious practices. Gentiles came from a polytheistic, pagan culture that existed in sharp contrast to both Judaism and Christianity. Notice the discussion centered on practices not beliefs or doctrine.

Jews and Gentiles had been interacting as Christians ever since the mass conversions at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10. But it appears that how they interacted and what was required to be a Gentile convert may have varied from town to town. The Jerusalem Council was convened to resolve the debate once and for all.

A thorough debate took place. God had already made it clear that the Christian Gospel was for Gentiles too. Peter, Paul, Barnabas and James built a case that made requirements of Gentiles without putting stumbling blocks in their way. Gentiles would have to break from some pagan practices without having to completely conform to Jewish ones. They had to abstain from meat scarified to idols, food that had been strangled or was not properly drained of blood, and sexual immorality. The apostles and elders accepted these limited essentials and then sent a letter to the church in Antioch declaring their decision. This provides insight into how today’s Church can address some of its disagreements over doctrine and morality.

What are the essentials? Is being a Christian more about what you believe or what you do? How do we live as Christ followers in a world that is just as pagan, pseudo spiritual and relativistic as the cultures encountered in Acts’ account of the early Church?