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A Tale of Two Churches

If you haven’t heard, the Crystal Cathedral, long pastored by Robert H. Shuller and now pastored by his daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, recently filed for bankruptcy—apparently more than 550 creditors are owed $50 to $100 million. This is not surprising, given that while the church was supposedly in the process of cutting back, the continued to build and continued to put on multimillion dollar productions. The Crystal Cathedral with its 10,000 glass panes now stands as a testament to the churches own opulence and failed trust in health, wealth, and prosperity principles.

I don’t mean to be overly harsh on the Crystal Cathedral, but I do often wonder how many missionaries or how many children in need could be fed for the price of those 10,000 glass panels of which the impressive structure is made. Further, Schuller is well known for preaching a comfortable gospel and denying essential tenants of the Christian faith. That is why I was surprised to read that only 3 miles away from the Crystal Cathedral, Bobby Schuller, grandson of Robert H. Schuller, is preaching at a church called The Gathering.

I found this interesting because in the LA Times article, young Bobby Schuller was articulating a far different vision for his church than his grandfather. He said he wants his church to be about community and something “messy people with messy lives” can relate to. Volunteers arrive before each service each Sunday and take down the chairs and tables that that afternoon. More than 90% of the church funds go toward social justice issues such as homelessness and domestic violence. Young Schuller has set up his office in his garage and drives a Toyota Camry with over 200,000 miles on it.

Schuller says in short, their goal is “to make big Christians, not big churches.” In so much as that is true, I commend Bobby and his church, The Gathering, as the church’s calling is to make disciples not build big buildings. Of course the job o f the pastor is to lead his church in disciple making by preaching God’s Word (2 Timothy 4:1-2). I don’t know what young Schuller preaches—whether he preaches the Bible or not, I don’t know what he believes exactly, but I was encouraged to hear this story. Its encouraging to hear about churches giving more and concerned more about people than they are about numbers, big buildings and impressive productions.

So today, I prayed for Bobby Schuller, that he would preach the word, that he would continue to stand out from his father and his grandfather before him whose ministries, at least on the outside, did not always seem properly focused. I prayed that he would preach the word and I also prayed for my church. I prayed that we would be a church centered on the glory of God and focused on helping people trust wholeheartedly in a big God. I also prayed that God would help me be a more giving person and that God would make us a church known for giving to those in need.

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“How should an artist begin to do his work as an artist? I would insist that he begin his work as an artist by setting out to make a work of art.” (Francis Schaeffer, 1912-1984)

Do you have God-given talents? Use them! I remember talking with Drew Maust, who is with Wycliffe Bible Translators, a while back on Bible translation. I asked him why do YOU do Bible translation, of all things? He is a gifted linguist, a sharp mind, and a follower of Jesus. What that basically comes down to is what he said to me in response: “This is what I was made for.” God as our Creator made us uniquely creative in many ways. In culture, we have culture-makers. Artists are culture-makers. Musicians are culture-makers. Scientists are culture-makers. Authors are culture-makers. Theologians are culture-makers. And the list goes on and on.

Because God made you, you are made in the image of God. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The ways in which you bear the image of God are where you, as a person, create, reason, live in community, work, and rule in ways that point to the Creator. God is the best gift-giver. He is the best culture-creator. He does the best work. He is in perfect community with himself within the Trinity. In every way, God is big “C” Creator. As for people, we are uniquely gifted as little “c” under-creators. This is evident in what is said in Genesis 1-2, for example, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” One Old Testament scholar, John Sailhamer, believes the mandate of Genesis 2:15 is simply, “Worship and obey,” which sounds very similar to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s answer to the question: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

In view of the present subject, Genesis 2:15 then links worship and obedience with what we were created to actually do, and that isn’t completely lost in the Fall. Indeed the Fall was terrible, and we continue to see its pervasive effects on community, culture, the arts, the sciences, everyday life, and everything else. Without Christ as our Savior, we would be without hope and without God in the world. However, the Fall did not destroy the image of God that we carry. It effaced it, damaged it. But it is still there; and, therefore, every human being can still create, work, live in community, and make culture that points to the Creator who made us. The Fall distorts, damages, and hinders culture-making. And as fallen creatures, much of what is made in culture is in opposition to God; but I must make this point: Genesis 3:1-7 does not completely destroy Genesis 2:15 and the rest. And our imperfection even now does not either. This isn’t a question of whether the world is lost and unreconciled to God. Instead, it’s a question of whether human beings, as God’s image-bearers, can point to their Creator.

With that said, Christians are uniquely being restored by God’s re-creative work in total salvation. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) What we need to learn is to hold this verse, and the pre-Fall verses as well, in view of a Romans 7 humility. And in that, we should discerningly and faithfully determine in what ways we as Christians can be culture-creators who point the world to the Creator. Every human being is uniquely gifted and bears the image of God. Yes. And Christians are regenerate image-bearers, and uniquely gifted. As Christians, then, we should be engaged in the best culture-making! We should, in whatever we do as God’s regenerate image bearers, point the world to the Creator! Why? Because God cares about culture: the arts, the sciences, the academy, politics, “everyday” theology, community. He cares about high culture and popular culture alike, because they are part of the world God has made.

You may be incredibly gifted musically. Use your gifts! You may be imaginative with a gift for writing. Use your gifts! You may have a sharp brain, being gifted to work through complex issues and interpreting meaning in arguments. Use your gifts! Work on your gifts. Learn to use them even better. Do what you were made to do (like Drew Maust) to the best of your ability as God’s image bearers. Create culture, including popular culture, in a way that is creative, reasonable, workable, and that foreshadows our community together as a re-created people in Christ on a new heavens and earth.

Does that mean that you, as Christians, must make culture in a way that points the world to their Creator? Yes! Does that mean that you, for example, as a musician must only write hymns? No, although hymns are nice. Does that mean that you, for example, as an artist, must paint nativity scenes? No, that’s not it. What it means is that you were put here in the world as an image-bearer of God; now, as one who knows and follows Jesus, do what you were created to do. As a created being made by the Creator of all things, point to him in whatever you do.

In our next post, we will turn to consider what it means to live in the world while not becoming polluted by those things in the world which are in opposition to God. It will require some exegesis, so come ready!

“Let’s just be honest and admit right up front that the Bible pulls no punches and leaves no room for a public relations effort to clean up the dust storm.” (Al Mohler)

One objection to the previous post is that the Bible contains history. Real history. It doesn’t sweep sin under the carpet. In the Bible real people commit heinous sins. There is crime, racial prejudice, sexual immorality, lies, and the list goes on. And so someone might object,

“Isn’t it better to watch movies or listen to songs that are more in touch with reality, that show what the Bible actually teaches about human depravity, or the redemptive qualities of authentic heroes in movies? Aren’t these more worthwhile examples of art and culture?”

Maybe. It kind of depends.

Indeed there are movies, songs, TV shows not made by Christians that are genuine works of art, portraying redemptive themes in plots, characters, stories, and lyrics. They contain heroic characters that point to God. Honestly, such examples are few and far between; but they do exist. But let me say this: the Bible is better! It is true, the Bible does not gloss over sin in its overall message of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. And without human history depicting the realness of the fall, we wouldn’t get a complete picture of the importance of each part of the story.

Nevertheless, the Bible, in the wisdom of God, protects us from temptations to sin in ways that most uninspired movies or songs probably won’t. When David commits adultery with Bathsheba, I don’t know of anyone who is tempted to lust as a result. When I read and learn from other parts of the Bible, it’s the same thing. Simply put, God’s Word will not tempt you to sin. It is a greater revelation of truth than anything you will find in popular culture. It teaches you. And it protects you.

Does that mean you should completely disengage from popular culture? I don’t think so. That is certainly not what I’m saying. Instead I’m saying that your heart for Jesus is more important than your love for entertainment. Your time spent in the Word is safer and more valuable than trying to learn all you know about God, man and salvation from popular culture.

In the next post, we will briefly discuss culture-creating.

In this post, we will consider examples of what extreme moral legalism is not. This will serve as a corrector/balancer to our distaste for rules. Andy Crouch recently wrote, “Changing the world sounds grand, until you consider how poorly we do even at changing our own little lives . . . Beware of world changers, they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin.” This quote comes from a book titled, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, and it is a reminder that culture making is complicated by our war with sin.

The Christian life is following Jesus. And there are some clear boundaries. There are components of culture that are in direct and explicit opposition to God. These are dangers in which we must guard our hearts against. There are also neutral (and possibly good) components of culture, which, because we struggle with sin, can distract us from the way, become idols in our hearts, and open the door to making other idols. In other words, we can be incredibly efficient idol-makers. Therefore, we must guard our hearts and look to Jesus.

Let me give you a clear example of what moral legalism is not. This one isn’t clearly connected to popular culture, but it will serve our purposes. In 1986, a talented basketball player named Len Bias was selected second overall in the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. By all accounts, Bias was a special athlete. An All-American his senior year in college for the University of Maryland, some sports writers consider Bias “to be one of the greatest players ever not to play at the professional level” (Wikipedia). In fact, just yesterday on Mike and Mike I heard Stuart Scott say that LeBron James is the best athlete in the NBA since Len Bias. However, as you read above, Bias never played a game in the NBA. Sadly, on June 19, 1986, Bias died from a cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose, just two days after he was drafted.

I suppose we could say the same about other stars whose lives were cut short by drug use: Elvis, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, River Phoenix. Further, though we know that not every drug addict dies of an overdose, we see how devastating drug addiction can be. Why bring up drug addiction in a series of posts on the Christian life and popular culture? Because you just don’t toy around with cocaine. You know this. This is what moral legalism is not! There are many clear boundaries over which we must not cross. It is not legalism to say that there are certain components of popular culture that we must reject, that we must avoid, and that we must not do or be entertained with.

In part 3, I wrote, “Scripture calls on us to guard our hearts, and this is a serious task!” Guarding your heart means rejecting some things outright. You need to guard your heart (from obvious dangers). You need to guard your heart from components of popular culture that are in direct opposition to God, such as pornography. That isn’t that difficult to understand. In practice, it can be hard. However, you know your heart and what tempts you to come off the narrow way.

That’s not all. In Andy Crouch’s warning above, he makes the point that culture-makers have to learn “the true meaning of sin.” The problem is: sin is not always obvious. In our weaknesses, we have a tendency to distort the truth. The remedy to our weakness, in part, is to remember that we are not superhuman! We need to be careful not to think too highly of our ability to resist temptations that we leave our hearts open to disease from worldly cancers.

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)

In the next post we will address an objection to these cautions.

“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

There is no simpler answer to the question of the Christian life than to say, “Follow Jesus.” What does a heart after Jesus look like? Jesus is the supreme example of one who lived to please God the Father. He never stopped running the race until he was done. The author of Hebrews says that we should consider Jesus “so that you may not grow weary and fainthearted.” The same can be applied to your life. “Follow Jesus.” It could also be stated differently. For instance, consider the singular aim of Jesus to set his sight on the joy set before him “so that you may not get distracted” while you live in the world. Following Jesus is what it means to live the Christian life.

Yet that simple answer does not let you off the hook when it comes to your life in culture. You need to work hard to understand exactly what following after Jesus looks like in your cultural context. Jesus would not let wrong assumptions by the religious leaders of his day take a pass. And I don’t think he would let you do that when it comes to culture either.

Here an illustration helps. This will require us to return to our definitions of extreme moral legalism and extreme license. Picture your Christian life as an adventurous journey in the world down a narrow way. On either side you find dangers. To one side you notice a hot-wire fence labeled “extreme moral legalism.” When you look beyond the fence you see what appears to be a safe house. (You know, something to attract/distract you from the way.) The fence is dangerous, of course. It is a hot-wire fence.

To the other side you notice a grave danger. Just off the narrow road is a steep ravine with jagged rocks at the bottom, and you notice it is labeled “extreme license.” Yet along the way you notice a colorful hang glider. You think to yourself, “What freedom! What thrills I would feel flying that hang glider.” But, you don’t know how to use the hang glider. You don’t have a first clue! Getting off the narrow way for a thrilling ride on that hang glider would be a terrifying and stupid mistake!

I realize this is not a perfect illustration. You may object, “What if I know how to use a hang glider?” You would be missing the point. What I want you to picture is that the way of the Christian life is narrow in the world. It is following Jesus. As Jesus set his sight on the joy that was set before him, which led him to the cross, to endure hostility from sinners, we must fix our eyes on Jesus, and follow him. The Christian journey indeed is not to be a worldly one. But, it is a journey in the world. Therefore, knowing precisely how we are to live as Jesus followers in the world in reference to culture will require still more work on our part.

However, there are some key lessons that we can draw out thus far. First, though there is freedom in Christ for Christians, and there is freedom of conscience when it comes to questionable issues, extreme license can be incredibly destructive for the Christian life. We must ask, what does a heart after Jesus look like? Second, Scripture calls on us to guard our hearts, and this is a serious task! “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life!” (Proverbs 4:23)

In the next post we will consider examples of what extreme moral legalism is not.

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” (Abraham Kuyper, 1837-1920)

Dr. Bruce Ashford argues that the Christian has a daily life mission in the world. He writes, “As I see it, we as Christians should live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in the midst of the cultural contexts in which we find ourselves.” In this post I want to apply that statement to the questions we have already asked about popular culture, and I will begin to illustrate it toward the end.

The terms need to be defined before moving on. What does it mean to live faithfully in the world? In these posts, we take faithfully to refer to a heart attitude toward pleasing God by submitting to his rules. What then does it mean to live critically in the world? We apply the term critically in these posts as intelligently discerning whether a given example of popular culture should be accepted or rejected. And, what is meant by living redemptively in the world? In these posts, we take this to mean that Christians should consider how they can live in the world in such a way as to foreshadow God’s restoration of creation and culture in the new heavens and earth.

In these posts there will be no grand aspirations to wrestle our topic into a Rick Flair figure four™. However, we should be able to lay the groundwork for conversing with culture in real life. We will begin here with a series of questions, with the first question taking up the remainder of this post.

The first question is: which is more dangerous: legalism or license? Speaking on the danger of sexual immorality Paul counsels: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). These words are timely today as well.

This first question concerning legalism and license is a sticky issue, in part, because of confusion over the terms. Because of this, we need to define these terms carefully in order to answer the question.

First, what is meant here by legalism? For the purpose of our discussion, what I mean by legalism is strictly in reference to morality. Therefore it will appear here as moral legalism from this point forward. What is moral legalism then? This will serve to indicate an extreme position where one rules that given questionable components of popular culture are dangerous and should therefore be avoided at all costs. This becomes especially unhealthy when used to bind the consciences of others. We will discuss what moral legalism is not later on (in order to [hopefully] avoid being indifferent about questionable components of pop culture).

Second, what is meant here by license? No, we are not talking about your driver’s license! Here we are talking about an extreme heart attitude toward boundaries where one might believe one has a warrant to imbibe anything and everything in the world in the name of Christian liberty.

I don’t like either extreme. However, I would argue that license to an extreme is more dangerous than moral legalism. The majority of Christians I know (at least at this stage of life) already have well-developed allergies toward moral legalism’s extremes. They find it to be joy robbing and erroneous.

With that in mind, the majority of Christians bounce around somewhere in between these two extremes. It’s an uneasy relationship. In the next post we will develop a middle road with principles gleaned from the Bible. What we will end up with serves to answer the most important question for the Christian life: what does a heart after Jesus look like? The answer to that question helps form what exactly it means to live according to Dr. Ashford’s statement above.

“If Facebook were a country, it would be the THIRD LARGEST country in the world, BIGGER than the US and Indonesia.” (Wikipedia)

Movies, TV, radio, music, books, art, video games, and social media. These compose what we call popular culture. There is high culture and popular culture. Culture is everywhere. We are in it. It is around us. We make culture. And in many ways we are culture. As for popular culture, we have recent examples such as YouTube videos, Justin Beibermania, Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, Twilight drama, Facebook, and Jackson Pollock. Pop culture is everywhere. In a series of posts I want to address the following questions: What are we as Christians to do about popular culture? And, what does the Bible have to say about conversing with popular culture?

This post series will begin by addressing the Christian life with some cautions and mandates. After these posts are complete, we will apply what we have said toward two major contributors to popular culture: books and social media. In the meantime, get ready to learn! We won’t fully answer our questions in these posts. So let that be a mandate for you to continue working through in your life what to do about popular culture. Feel welcome to post questions in the comment sections or to bring them up in conversation with your friends.

This is one of my favorite topics to discuss. I hope you are eager to jump into this series of posts where we will learn, at least in part, what it means to live Christianly in the world context in which we live.

If you’re interested, click here to watch a YouTube video on the social media revolution of 2010.