Tag Archives: Discipleship

What Will It Cost Me to be a Christian?

“I have good news for you, but it might cost you your life. Would you like me to continue?”

Imagine that you answered a knock at your front door, and these were the first words out of the mouth of the man standing on your front porch. What would you do?

A pastor in Vietnam, who must remain nameless because of danger to his life, starts telling people about Jesus with these words. He might be eating dinner with someone, or walking down a street, or sitting in a grassy park. He strikes up a conversation, and when he feels led by the Holy Spirit to share Jesus with a person, he says, “I have good news for you, but it might cost you your life. Would you like me to continue?” He says that most people ask him to continue, because they want to hear the good news. Many go ahead later to receive Christ into their hearts. The good news of Christ brings them forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, but the threat of losing their earthly life is not an idle one. When persecution comes, as it does for many Vietnamese Christians, it is not a surprise. This pastor warned them.

Vietnam is one of only five countries in the world today with a communist government, and communist governments as a matter of fundamental conviction consider religion to be an annoying problem, if not, indeed, a threat to the state. In Vietnam, the major source of religious persecution derives from the government’s determination to keep religion under control with the undisguised objective of eradicating it. The religions that do persist in the country, dominated by the Buddhist demographic, often view Christianity with no less contempt than the government does, leading to threats and violence against Christians, which the government is loath to prosecute.

For generations, Christians in the USA have believed that they were safe from persecution by the culture and safe from prosecution by the government for their religious words and deeds. No evangelist in the USA has ever started his sermon by saying, “I have good news for you, but it might cost you your life. Would you like me to continue?” It has not happened yet, but it could happen. Already, a preacher who said, “If you listen to me, the IRS may initiate an audit of your taxes,” would not be off base. There is considerable evidence that the federal administration at the highest levels wants to suppress and repress the expression of political and social views based on Christian teaching and wants to restrain and impede the exercise of the civil rights of citizens who choose to advocate for moral and legislative action in keeping with Christian principles.

It has been common in US history for people with Christian values to attempt to enact legislation and to influence policy decisions that embody the values by which Christians shape their lives. There has always been controversy about that, because there are always people who have differing, even completely opposite, views. The discussion has been brisk at times, but only the advent of social media has allowed the mass attacks such as those mounted against the owner of Chick Fil-A or Hobby Lobby. Only in the past five years has it been even thinkable that someone could lose a job for taping a Bible verse to her own computer screen at work. Only in the past five years has a professor been threatened with loss of tenure for declaring that evolution is not proved to explain biological species. Only in recent months has it been conceivable that a county clerk could be jailed for acting on her Christian principle that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. It has always been true in the USA and everywhere around the world that some people think Christian ideas are weird or old-fashioned or out of touch with reality. However, only recently has there been a growing pressure at all levels of government to shut up Christians and shut down Christian activism. Advocate for laws against eating meat if you are a vegetarian. Advocate for the end of oil exploration if you believe that solar is the only just energy source. Advocate for men to be permitted to urinate in women’s restrooms if they feel feminine at the time. But do not advocate that bakers be permitted to decline orders for wedding cakes celebrating same-sex marriage.

Such developments change the way Christians rear their children. My parents read Bible stories to me. They taught me to pray before eating. They took me to Sunday School and church faithfully. They talked with me about moral questions. But never did either of them say, “I have something to tell you, but it might cost you your life.” I am not sure what I would have done if they had talked to me that way. I do know that such a statement would absolutely have captured my full attention.

What do you say to your children? Do you dare continue teaching them to believe God and act on his teachings without warning them that they could suffer for doing so? Jesus said that the gate is narrow, and the path even moreso, that leads to eternal life. There are a lot of people on an interstate to somewhere, all singing “A Mighty Fortress,” but one wonders what the traffic on that interstate would be if the government or the culture or both decide to put a stop to the influence of Christians in the USA.

What you need to say to your children might even cost you your life, and it might cost them their lives if they heed what you say. Do you plan to continue?

By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, planned for release in the summer of 2016

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Time for Bible Reading

Why do we need to read the Bible every single day?

Life is full of challenges. Some are big, like mastering the software your employer requires you to use for your daily work. Others are simple, like brushing your teeth. Yet when you write down a list of all the things you need to do every day, simply doing all of them may be the biggest challenge of all. Continue reading Time for Bible Reading

No Christian is Perfect

 

ChurchPointsToChristReally good fiction may not be a true story, but the best fiction is always truth. For example, In the novel Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier, there is a startling and insightful commentary on the failure of self-identified Christians to live up to the faith we all profess. In the early nineteenth century, a Christian group offered to provide Cherokee Indians in the Blue Ridge mountains some Bible stories translated and written in the Cherokee syllabary. Before agreeing to the distribution of these stories, the Cherokee leader, Bear, asked for samples of Bible stories, which he heard with some interest. Describing the outcome, the author concludes the matter this way:

In the end, [Bear] said he judged the Bible to be a sound book. Nevertheless, he wondered why the white people were not better than they are, having had it for so long. He promised that just as soon as white people achieved Christianity, he would recommend it to his own folks.   p. 21

Any Christian who has talked with very many people about what it means to be Christian has heard a similar response. Most people express it by saying that they don’t want to be Christians because of all the hypocrites in the church. They, like Bear, want all the people who claim to be Christians to “achieve” Christianity before they themselves undertake it.

Jesus warned Christians that this would be a problem when he told his disciples that their love for each other would be a mark of his reign in their lives. In another place he said that we should do good works in such a way that it made people praise God, not us. Jesus expected people to watch his followers and notice what they did and what they did not do. We should all be alert to the fact that our lives are viewed by people as the expression of our relationships with Christ, or the lack thereof. Christians regularly bemoan the fact that people who do not know Christ use imperfect Christians as an excuse to reject Him.

This is why all of us should be very careful to point to Christ, not ourselves. It is Christ we offer to people for their salvation, not ourselves. It isn’t even the church. The church, the family of Christ, is a good thing, but it isn’t Christ. People are not saved by the church; they are saved by Christ. Those who are saved by Christ fellowship with him and with other believers in the church.

People who reject Christ because of their issues with some of Christ’s followers are looking at the wrong standard. The only way we can hope to get past that problem is by seeking the character trait of humility. We know that John was right when he wrote, “what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is”(1 John 3:2 ESV). We know that we are not perfect.

When we invite people into Christ’s kingdom, we must point them to Christ, not to other Christians. Yet, we all are called to live a faithful testimony to Christ, and that means we must be as much like him as we can manage. People do not all mature at the same rate, so it takes longer for some people, but if we keep our own eyes on Jesus, all of us should certainly demonstrate growth, even if we don’t demonstrate perfection. We must resist the temptation to try to pretend we are anything but works in progress. One of the reasons churches traditionally have spires, arches, and lofty windows is that designers want them to point people’s attention away from earthly things to heavenly things.

When Christ was about to ascend to heaven, some of his followers gathered to be with him. Not one of them was a perfect example of what a Christian should be. Each was a flawed, but redeemed, individual. Jesus did not say, “When you become perfect, then go into all the world.” He said, “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV). Imperfect though we are, we are chosen. We, the imperfect, must go ahead and share with the world that good news that Christ died and is alive in order to save sinful, imperfect human beings. We don’t run ahead of sinners and cry out, “Follow me!” We walk beside them and say, “Let’s go to Jesus.”

By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com

photo credit: 20140911-DSC02640 Teweksbury Abbey Gloucestershire.jpg via photopin (license)

Fewer People Claiming to be Christian Might be a Good Thing

Statististics show that it is not as popular to be a Christian in the US as it used to be

Numerous groups study US demographics. The studies do not probe the convictions of the people interviewed. Instead, they rely on the self-identification by individuals interviewed. The precise numbers reported vary slightly from study to study, but overall, it is clear that fewer people self-identify as Christian today than in 1990. The American Religious Identification Survey in 1990 reported that about 86% of American adults self-identified as Christian, but by 2008, that proportion had fallen to 76%. Other studies report that increasing numbers of American adults claim no religious connection at all.

Christians in general have deplored the drop in numbers of Christians in the population. They likewise complain of the erosion of Christian values in the culture or of real aggression against Christians. Courts are full of cases that involve various aspects of the cultural conflicts that demonstrate that US culture no longer considers Christian values and practices to be the norm for the country. In fact, despite ample evidence that the population of the original thirteen colonies was predominantly Christian, it is not uncommon for contemporary American citizens to say that this nation was never a Christian nation. The younger the demographic, the more likely it is that American adults will claim no connection with religion in any form.

Christians who hold a Christian worldview should rejoice that the word Christian is coming to mean a distinctive worldview

In a 2009 report, the Barna Group defined a Christian worldview:

For the purposes of the survey, a “biblical worldview” was defined as believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today. In the research, anyone who held all of those beliefs was said to have a biblical worldview.

The surveys of American Christians from which this report was drawn revealed that only 9% of Americans hold the worldview described above. This statistic correlates closely with statistics that show marked declines in the number of people who regard the Bible as sacred or as a source of useful guidance for daily life.

Nevertheless, if people used to say they were Christian out of habit or fear of the culture rather than out of faith, then maybe the declining numbers mean something good. Maybe the change in the statistics actually means that people do not want to self-identify as Christians if they really do not choose to live by Christian teaching.

In an article in Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer points to four positive trends for Christians that make the statistics sound a lot less bleak:

  1. The word “Christian” will become less used and more clear
  2. The Nominals will increasingly become Nones
  3. Christians will increasingly change cultural tactics
  4. More robust churches will result from nominalism

When these points are probed, Christians who live in relationship with Christ and accept Christ’s call to a life of discipleship should anticipate that it may not be more comfortable to share Christ in the future, but it will almost certainly be easier to communicate the truth than it is when people believe that being a church member is equivalent to being Christian.

When people confuse church membership with being a Christian, it is harder to share Christ

Many Christians have discerned that friends needed Christ only to hear, “I’m already a church member,” when they bring up the subject. As long as people believe that church membership is Christianity, it is very hard to talk with them about a relationship with Christ. They already believe that they have their world in order. Many people hold the view that God will reward them for being faithful in church attendance as long as they say they are sorry for telling lies and gossiping. They have so thoroughly trivialized the meaning of being a Christian that it is a daunting task to make the gospel even comprehensible. Many American Christians have no more idea what Christianity is than the Pharisees had, for the same reason: they think it is about keeping the rules and obeying the church hierarchy.

It will be easier to confront someone with the truth about Christ if that person happily identifies as not Christian

For most of the history of the USA, it has been comfortable and culturally desirable to be a Christian. People who say that their religion is Christianity, even though they do not know Christ at all, are comfortable just the way they are. They have no interest in being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. They do not want to be bothered by their religion. They claim to be Christian the same way they claim membership in a gym or a country club, a membership that can make no uncomfortable claims on them, even if they do suffer pangs now and then over missing church, failing to work out regularly or not doing their part for the country club’s annual charity drive.

Today, the culture is smirkingly scornful of Christians. Their faith is seen in some circles as childish behavior, equivalent to clinging to an old teddy bear. In other circles, Christianity is aggressively targeted for having “imposed” its “rules” on people who want nothing to do with it. More and more, it is unpopular to claim to be a Christian. The popular choices are either to have no religion, or to be spiritual but not religious. In this context, many people who used to claim to be Christian are now abandoning that claim. Some Christian leaders speak of the change as “falling away,” but the truth is that the people who now assert their disconnect with religion seldom had any faith to “fall away” from. They simply got tired of the pretense. The people who leave frequently open blogs where they regularly rip away at their own pasts, openly declaring that they never believed in any part of their past “Christian” lives.

Christians always should applaud the truth, even the ugly truths. It is better for everyone when people do not claim to be Christian when they do not know Christ.

It is not a benefit for a church to be filled with “members” who have no relationship with Christ

Church leaders and grassroots members alike feel sad when membership numbers decline, but they should actually rejoice when people who have no faith in Christ stop claiming to be Christians or to be church members. Church members, and especially church leaders, who have no faith in Christ can lead churches in very bad directions. For example, church leaders who do not believe that the Bible is the inspired revelation of God, given by him for guidance in faith in life, have promulgated numerous heretical changes in churches across the USA.

In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America declared, ““The scriptural witness does not address the context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and committed relationships that we experience today.”In plain language, the ELCA stated that humans had outgrown the Bible. They had evolved to a place where they knew things God forgot to address in his revelation of himself. When any person who claims to be Christian feels that the Bible is an ancient, obsolete book about “the sacred” and not God’s guide for faith and life, then that person simply does not need to be a member of a Christian church. It is not a good thing for a church to have members that feel this way. The departure of “members” who feel no relationship with Christ and find no value in the Bible is no loss to the church.

It is good for the Kingdom of God when people who are outside that kingdom know and acknowledge that they are outside.

When Jesus was talking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, he explained why he had come into the world. Jesus said, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17 ESV) Jesus came to live in time and space because he loved people. After his death and resurrection, as he ascended to heaven, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV) Jesus wanted everyone who followed him to do what he had done. Christians are not saved in order to increase the membership in churches. They are not saved in order to give bigger offerings. They are not even saved in order to send food to Haiti or drill wells in Rwanda.

Christians are saved in order to love people as much as Christ did. They are called to share Christ with everyone they meet. The ultimate shape of each person’s calling is unique, so some do feed the hungry and some do drill wells. Some teach Bible schools and some treat lepers. However, no matter what they do, they are not doing it in order to fulfill any social obligation or to enhance the image of any church. Christians do what they do for the love of Christ and for the love of the people Christ died to save. It is not good for people who do not know Christ to think that church membership is a substitute for knowing Christ. It is not good for people to believe that they can outgrow God and simultaneously be part of his kingdom. People who believe that they are already part of the kingdom do not respond eagerly when Christians proclaim as Christ did, “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15 ESV)

If learning to be more Christ-like is important to you, visit the new blog “Love God and Others” launching today.

Can Christians Win a Culture War?

Recent surveys of the US population tell us that more and more people who self-identify as Christians readily confess that they seldom or never attend church. Most Christian denominations could have told us that without conducting any surveys; they simply need to look at all the empty pews on Sunday morning, pews that once barely contained the numbers who gathered there regularly for worship. In the face of increasing numbers of Americans who simply answer “none” to questions about religious connections, the decline in the most conspicuous behavior related to a church connection raises two questions that must be addressed. First, what is the point of church attendance? Second, does a decline in that behavior have any impact on the outcome of conflicts between the culture and the free expression of Christian faith?

First, the point of church attendance is somewhat like that of regular gym workouts for the body. A person who joins a gym and never again sets foot in it is unlikely to achieve any goals such as muscle toning, strength building, or an increase in physical endurance. A person who joins a church and never again sets foot in it is unlikely to develop in understanding of Christian discipleship as a way of life, is not likely to be a good spokesman for the absolute truths that are tenets of the faith, and is highly unlikely to be willing to endure cultural and political ostracism on behalf of the faith.

Second, given that the person who does not attend church regularly is weak on all the central principles of the faith, this person is probably not likely even to recognize that there is a conflict between the culture and the faith. A person whose church attendance is classified “seldom or never” almost certainly absorbs the cultural trends and initiatives and style of thinking about the issues, never realizing when those trends and styles are directly contradictory to the faith he claims.

Pollsters focus on church attendance precisely because this behavior is public. Anyone who wanted to know if someone attends church could verify the truth for himself. Churches open their doors to all; it would be most peculiar if someone came to the door of a church and was turned away. However, the public nature of this expression of faith has led the culture, particularly the segment with no religious connections, to conclude that church attendance IS the faith. This misconception is expressed most notably in a federal regulation that defines a “religious employer” as a church or house of worship. This definition is mirrored in writings on atheist and secular websites, where the term worship is considered to be equivalent to religion.

Why should a Christian attend worship regularly if worship is not the same thing as religion? There are several reasons.

  • ·         Attending church nourishes a relationship with Christ. Worship is a crucial element of faith, even though it is not the only element. Christians put their faith in God, the Mysterious Three in One, and in church on Sunday morning, God is the center of attention. In prayer, hymns, Bible readings, preaching, symbols, and yes, rituals within the worship experience, God is the focus. If Christian worship is not all about God, then it is not Christian worship.
  • ·         Attending church nourishes a relationship with other Christians. This item is very often dismissed by people who visit a church. They either conclude that they “didn’t get anything out of it,” or that one or more people they saw were hypocrites. Churches must be filled with hypocrites or there won’t be any people there at all. There is a sense in which it can safely be said that every Christian is a hypocrite. Lutherans say that we are all simultaneously sinful saints and saintly sinners. Every church is full of people who do not live up the best Christian standards, but the fellowship sustained by worshiping together nourishes commitment to those standards and to the effort and self-discipline required to achieve them. As for someone who claims not to “get anything” out of worship, it must be said that worship is not about “giving” anything to the congregation; it is about giving to God.
  • ·         The Lord’s Supper is as essential to Christian health as good nutrition is to your body. This is the element of worship where a Christian actually does receive something, and it is a precious something. In this meal, Christ gives us his very body and blood, the body broken and the blood shed on the cross. This meal strengthens us and reminds us what he did for us. It feeds our zeal and courage to live and speak our faith with confidence.

Church membership and attendance have numerous other benefits for a Christian who wants to be effective when the culture attempts to suppress the free expression of our faith in the streets and byways, at work, in the gym, in stores and doctors’ offices. None of the benefits of attendance are likely to develop if a person attends in the spirit of checking off an appointment. The question pollsters ask is about attendance, but the value is not in the definition of the word attendance; the value is what happens when the Christian is actively involved in the mission of the church nourished by education and guidance in the principles and practices of the faith.

Can Christians win a culture war? Until recently, the influence of Christian faith, practice and even vocabulary was dominant in the culture of the US, so there wasn’t much of a culture war. The culture wars have increased dramatically during the last twenty or thirty years. The cultural changes reflect in part the fact that more people feel free to say they have no religious connections along with a real decline in such connections. It is hard to predict how trending will continue over the next twenty or thirty years. However, it is quite certain that no Christian who confuses the normal cultural values in the US with the values and teachings of Christianity will be able to refute, reject and repel aggressive assaults on Christian values.

Those of us who think deeply and seriously about the meaning of these conflicts must pray and work to invite and attract Christians to be active participants in the churches to which they allege connections. It isn’t really something unique to this century. It is actually simple obedience to Jesus’ call to make disciples. Making a disciple goes way beyond simply persuading someone to pray to receive Christ. Making disciples does not end with good annual statistics for baptisms. We make disciples when we are constantly and consistently mentoring new Christians in the faith while helping long-time Christians to mature and take on leadership of newer disciples. This is what happens when people regularly “attend” church. If we do these things, then more Christians will be effective representatives of the faith when culture and Christianity conflict.