Saturday, April 28, 2007

God's House

A movement toward house churches in America shouldn't be accompanied by spiritual arrogance.

It was a hot, muggy day in City-X, China, as I hopped in a cab destined to arrive at a community university. For the first time on this trip, we weren't going to teach English. In this class session, we'd be the ones receiving instruction, from a student pastor in a second-story dorm room.

This house church service had everything my Western mind expected any normal church service should have--singing, testimony, and a lesson from the Word. But noticeably absent from this venue were all the trappings of American church, the huge projection screens and concert lighting, the rows upon rows of comfortable chairs that make giant, cavernous sanctuaries feel more like movie theaters than traditional houses of worship.

We did use technology in our worship. The makeshift music minister played Mp3s from a desktop computer to accompany our voices. But the service was altogether austere; we sat on a twin bed, and the other believers huddled around a table in the middle of the room that supported our notebooks, song sheets and Bibles. After a few testimonies, the pastor of the four-person gathering delivered a simple yet profound message from the gospel of Mark.

Although legal churches exist in China, they aren't accessible in every community. And even in communities that have Three-Self churches, many Christians hold underground meetings to avoid restrictions imposed by the communist government that limit the believers' ability to evangelize in their communities.

House churches in China have spread like wildfire in the last 50 years due to this political reality, and there are signs that Americans, though under a different political system, are beginning to follow their lead, returning to a trend that they see as an authentic representation
of the early church and a welcome rebuke to the megachurch generation.

Apparently, in the age of big-business Christianity, where churches sometimes meet in former basketball arenas, there is a quiet revolution going on. An article in the Colorado Springs Gazette mentions a Barna research poll that shows an eight-percent rise in house church attendance over the last decade.

While some purists applaud this sudden disillusionment with the institutionalized church, Christians should be cautious that a trend that started as a desire for intimate community may result in an ungodly reclusiveness. While Chinese churches meet in homes out of a political and economic necessity, Americans have long had the money and the freedom to meet in church buildings visible in the public sphere. A move back to homes could provide a less-threatening atmosphere for evangelism and pave the way for a church-planting movement (CPM) that missions organizations employ among unreached people groups. But those that meet in homes must watch out for feeling a spiritual superiority and arrogance that could accompany a mass exodus from a church structure they see as tainted by materialism and too heavily influenced by the culture.

The bottom line is that whatever is done should be done for the glory of God, whether behind the closed doors of a home or in a 15,000-seat auditorium. Both venues have their advantages and setbacks, and we shouldn't care as long as the Gospel is preached and Jesus is exalted. We can debate about the efficiency of our methods, but we're all a part of the same body, from the biggest organ down to the smallest cell. May the Head determine how we move.

What's in a Name?

Xenophobia should never dominate the public sphere.

Yes, I just used the word xenophobia, and if I'm honest, that's probably the only reason I'm writing this post. Without quoting Webster, the word--usually put to use in a cultural context--basically means "the fear or hatred of anything foreign."

As I was reading the paper today, I came across an alarming statement that indicated the racial polarization and xenophobia that some Americans harbor. The two-sentence blurb, printed in the "Sound Off!" section of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's opinion page, read like this:

Did you know that one of our presidential hopefuls is named Barack Hussein Obama? How does this sound--President Barack Hussein Obama?

Of course, the statement implies that an American president shouldn't have a middle name reminiscent of the deposed dictator of Iraq or a last name only one letter away from matching the first name the most notorious Arab terrorist in the world.

While I'm not a democrat or a supporter of Obama, I take issue with this statement because of the obvious fear and disrespect it fosters. It's understandable that Americans would have qualms about a name like this because we're fighting a difficult war against terrorists with predominately Arab names, but it's certainly not excusable.

This semester I took a class solely devoted to the question of free speech during wartime. While our country talks a big game about the liberties embedded in our Constitution, the reality is that the courts have a very spotty record when it comes to supporting these liberties during times of duress. Members of the Socialist party, a viable political institution at the time, were stripped of their liberties during the WWI era. Because of xenophobia, scores of Japanese-Americans were taken from their homes and shipped off to internment camps during WWII.

I could name many other offenses, but the obvious point is that for some reason, especially during wartime, we tend to have an irrational fear of the "other." Our country has come a long way in the past few decades, and it's good to note that violence toward Muslim-Americans has been minimal in the post-9/11 era. But we should go further by realizing that someone's name has nothing to do with their patriotism or their ability to serve faithfully in public office.

If Obama wins the democratic nomination, I'm not going to vote for him. But it will be policies and principles, not fear of the foreign, that guide my decision.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Providence and Pits

If you've read Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, you know that God's providence is the dominant theme throughout the book. It keeps Robinson sane as he ticks the days away on his makeshift calendar, his chances of rescue ever dwindling. Since God has control of everything, he reasons, there is no need to fear the island. Rather than cursing God for allowing his fate to turn for the worse, Robinson embraces the blessings God has given him, the most important of which is the ripped portion of the Bible he reads daily.

"Providence" is an old-fashioned word, a remnant from 18th-century speech. Theologians in those days threw it around quite often because it aptly described their God-centered view of world events. To them, God has everything under control, even our sin and rebellion. Providence encompasses much more than provision; it is the fulfillment of Romans 8:28 and beyond, the actualization of the fact that God is working on behalf of those who love him, at every second keeping the world from falling into complete decay.
A few weeks ago, Katy and I took a day-trip to Providence Canyon state park. Although the "Little Grand Canyon" is miles away from any of Georgia's major cities, it's a popular escape for those in Columbus and Albany who want get outside the concrete enclosure of city life. Katy and I walked the park's three-mile loop trail, which took us from the visitor's center down to the bottom of the canyon, then back up and around the rim, giving us some breathtaking views of the vibrantly colored topographical anomaly.

It was a beautiful Saturday, and Friday's rains moistened the red clay of the canyon's floor. We pranced between the puddles, our shoes squishing with each step. We had a picnic in the shadow of red, brown, and white cliffs, each with a unique mineral composition reflected in their appearance. As we trudged on, between the photo-ops and the scenic overlooks, I began to learn some lessons from a park whose name reminded me of the caring hands of the God we serve.

Providence Canyon was not made by God. It is the result of poor farming practices in the mid-1800s, when irrigation drains went awry, causing the soft soil to quickly erode. Despite farmers' efforts to keep the erosion in check, the sandy hills continually melted away, leaving the canyon as a deep scar, a reminder of farming errors in the region. But somehow this human blunder produced the landscape that attracts scores of visitors every year. What once was a mark of failure is now considered a thing of beauty.

This sounds strikingly similar to what God, in his providence, does for our hearts. He takes our perpetual mistakes, the trespasses of the flesh and constant erosion of our will, and turns us into testaments of his goodness and beauty. Our hearts, once filled with the scars of the past, now radiate with his love. As in the canyon's case, people should marvel at the transformation.

On another level, the canyon reminded me of the imminent change in my relationship with Katy. We're going to the real Grand Canyon for our honeymoon, and I can't even imagine how much more breathtaking it will be than this little human mishap. If I'm at all right, marriage relates to dating in the same way Arizona's canyon dwarfs the LGC. While dating has been beautiful, marriage will be the real thing, deeper and more majestic than either of us could have imagined. And just like the earth, God will have us in his hands.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Magazine Milestone

It took over a year to get it published, but whoever said perseverance pays off wasn't lying. This month's issue of Breakaway magazine--a Focus on the Family magazine for teen guys--features an article I wrote about one of my many trips to China.

This is my first article published in a national magazine, and I just received the go-ahead to write another one for their November issue. To read the full text, you'll have to check out the magazine, but the link above takes you to a preview of the issue. "Beyond Borders" is the title of the article, and the description is situated just above Relient K. It's pretty amazing to think that my article will be sitting in on coffee tables and nightstands across the country, reaching some 100,000 subscribers. I hope it inspires them to live a life worthy of the Gospel. May I be faithful with the small success God has given me, so he can trust me with more in the future.