Author Archives: Derek Vreeland

Making Decisions is Counterproductive to Making Disciples

AT in Maine from FrenchyRecently I was listening to a representative from an evangelical ministry make a broad appeal to pastors and church leaders to sign up for their next event to introduce non-Christians to Christ. I was familiar with their overall strategy, and I was familiar with the specific event he was describing, but something caught my attention in listening to his appeal. He described how their ministry had seen numerous decisions for Christ over the years. (I did not doubt his statistics; this was a well-known ministry that had been around for a long time.) The report of the “success” of their evangelistic endeavors was followed by a bleak picture of American life – increased destructive behavior (crime, violence, abortion, drugs etc.), increased secularism, increased hopelessness, decreased church attendance, and the increase of young adults leaving the church. This picture was then followed by his announcement of another nation-wide event to do something to bring real hope, life, and salvation. The strategy was somewhat different, but the goal was the same: get people to make a decision for Christ. While listening, I had this thought: If your ministry has seen so many decisions for Christ made across the nation and around the world, then why is there such a decrease in church attendance? I had already seen the material to be used in this ministry event; it (like all their other events) culminated with inviting people to make a decision for Christ. I tried not to become cynical, but I continued to think, why would I invest time and resources in an event that does not seem to have lasting fruitfulness? After all, our goal is not simply to get people to make a decision for Jesus; our goal is to make disciples of Jesus.

The seeds of doubt regarding the effectiveness of “making decisions for Christ” go back to reading Scot McKnight’s book King Jesus Gospel where he argues we preach a weak gospel when the emphasis is the plan of salvation (which includes making a decision). This most recent experience only solidifies the conclusion I came to some time ago: a push to make decisions for Christ is counterproductive to making disciples of Christ.

The gospel preached in Acts was neither an invitation to make a decision for Christ nor an appeal to invite Jesus in your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior. The gospel preached by the Apostles in Acts was the proclamation that Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, had arrived and we killed him. While Jesus did enter into death, God raised him from the dead and exalted him to a place of authority. And now “let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The proper response to the gospel is “repent and be baptized…and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). There is not talk in the sermons preached in the book of Acts about making a decision or asking Jesus into your heart or life.

Do not misunderstand my point: repenting, being baptized, and receiving the Holy Spirit certainly do require making a conscious decision. God will not force us into repentance. He will not twist our arm or beat us into submission. We must of our own volition choose to repent, be baptized and receive the Spirit, but these are not necessarily one-time events.

We repent and we continue to live a life of repentance.
We are baptized and we continue to live out of our baptismal identity as buried and risen with Jesus.
We receive the Holy Spirit and we continue to allow our lives to be immersed in the life of the Spirit.

Living out our response to the gospel is a much better picture of discipleship than making a decision for Christ. So how does should this critique shape evangelical methodology?

We must abandon the invitation to make a decision and we must resume the invitation to come and follow Jesus. This approach sounds much more like an invite to a party than a high-pressure sales pitch to purchase a new car. This approach is much more about belonging to a community than making a personal and individual choice. This approach may not appeal to the masses, but we will make disciples from the few who see the power, position, and authority of Jesus.

I agree that with this approach – inviting people to follow Jesus and be his disciple –we will not see the outward, numeric success seen by other groups going out getting people to make decisions, but I have repented of measuring success by numbers. I have repented of desiring success at all. I have turned away from ambition & success and turned towards faithfulness & fruitfulness. I want to make disciples of Jesus. I want to make more disciples of Jesus. I want to see people following Jesus and allowing the Holy Spirit to conform them into the image of Jesus, but this is a slow, arduous process.

So Instead of making a decisions for Christ in order to get saved, let’s follow Jesus and find ourselves being saved.


Posted by on March 8, 2013 in Ministry


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From Hate to Healing: The Story of Lundan and Eliphan Gomango, IET missionary in India

IMG_4749Lundan lived deep within the forest, in the village of Kharbana just outside of a highly populated coal mining town. Lundan lived with hate in his heart and he lived with a painful skin disease. “My skin had grown as thick and rough as that of a water buffalo,” said Lundan, “It had become rough and I was itching. I needed to go to the doctor to get some pain relief.” He spent all of his meager savings on the best hospitals in the state. He saw doctor after doctor, but found no relief from his painful condition. He even went to the local tribal magicians looking to relieve his pain. They offered animal sacrifices and chants, but Lundan could not find any relief.

His pain continued, and so did his hate. He began to direct his hate towards Gomango, a Christian missionary from a nearby town. Gomango was no stranger the Kharbana village. He had scaled the mountainous area of his homeland and descended into the forest looking for villages where the name of Jesus had not been heard. Kharbana, Lundan’s village, was once such a place where the Gospel of Jesus had not been preached, at least, not until Gomango arrived. When he first entered Kharbana, the villagers looked at him with great suspicion. They questioned who this outsider was and why he was talking about a new religion. Suspicion turned to anger as Gomango challenged the village to turn away from their alcoholism and turn in faith to Jesus.

Lundan’s anger had turned into hate. He loved the locally-brewed alcohol in the village. He did not like the presence of this outsider. He did not like him talking against their alcohol and talking about this unknown God, Jesus. Lundan’s heart was hard and filled with hate. He devised a plan. He would sharpen his arrows and prepare his bow and kill Gomango the next time he came to the village. Lundan thought, “Surely no one will find out if I kill this one man in the forest so far from his home.”

On his next visit to the village, Gomango showed up unannounced. Lundan did not have time to position himself in a place to carry out his plan to kill him. Instead he had to look at him face-to-face in the presence of others in the village. Gomango called out to Lundan calling him “Uncle.” He said, “Uncle, you should pray to Jesus.” Gomango knew of Lundan’s painful skin condition. He knew Lundan longed for some relief from the pain. Indeed Lundan was making plans to visit another doctor in a nearby town. He left the village with words of Gomango repeating in his head “Pray to Jesus…pray to Jesus…pray to Jesus.”

As he continued his trek to see the doctor, Lundan began to speak the words, “In Jesus’ name.” He did not know how to pray to Jesus, so he just continued to say, “In Jesus’ name…in Jesus’ name…in Jesus’ name.” He continued repeating these words as he entered the clinic to see the doctor. After the doctor examined him, he gave Lundan the same sad news he heard from all the other doctors—nothing could be done. Lundan asked the doctor if he could give him a shot with some kind of medicine. He was confident Jesus would heal him. With an uncertain smile, the doctor gave him the shot. As Lundan made the long walk back home he continue saying, and at times shouting, “In Jesus’ name…in Jesus’ name.” He made it home safely and went to bed trusting Jesus to heal him.

The next morning, he woke up without pain. He stepped out into the sun completely healed of his skin condition. At that moment he put his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He began to tell others what Jesus had done for him and his entire household began to believe in Jesus too. The story of Lundan’s healing spread throughout the village and now there is a group of 70 believers who gather together to worship Jesus. Lundan plays the village drum during their times of worship. He says with a smile, “These hands that rose to kill the missionary will now only worship the living God.” Gomango’s faithfulness to reach this unreached village with the Gospel of Jesus Christ combined with the wonderful grace of God has combined to see the birth of a new church where Lundan and others can discover the goodness of God.

Indian Evangelical Team (IET) is a multi-dimensional Christ centered ministry, whose primary call is to share the love of Jesus Christ with those who have never heard His name and disciple them to be devoted followers of Jesus Christ. To learn more about IET or to f how you can support the work of the gospel in India go to

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Posted by on December 7, 2012 in Ministry


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The Jesus Life

John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, makes things simple for us. He writes:

Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
(1 John 5:12)

The logic here is indeed simple. Jesus equals life. No Jesus, no life. While the logic is not hard to follow, the challenging question is this: what is this life John talks about? Jesus himself said he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). What is this life we have in Jesus? What is this life Jesus embodies? This eternal life, everlasting life, abundant life, resurrection of life, bread of life, Spirit-giving life, light of life, self-giving life, what is it? There are obviously those around us who do not “have the Son,” they do not acknowledge Jesus in any form, and yet they have some form of life. They at least have biological life, intellectual life, a social life, etc. So what is this life Jesus talks about?

I tried to take a stab at understanding this Jesus life in my book on the Apostles’ Creed, as I reflected on the last line of the creed, “I believe….in the life everlasting.” Here is my attempt at making sense of the subject of life:

Although we may lack the ability to clearly define life, we can see it when contrasted to death. We clearly understand the finality and termination of death. Whenever any animated person or thing loses animation, we say it is dead. Death is the end of existence. Batteries die; toys die; dogs die; people die. If death is the end of existence then life is the presence of existence. We can nearly all agree we avoid death because it is bad. Humanity continues searching for an existence free of death, a life everlasting, because death undermines everything we consider important and precious. (Primal Credo, pg. 153)

Life is the “presence of existence,” but it is more than mere existence. We can find some help from the world of Greek philosophy. Aristotle used a word, which for him was the goal of human existence. The word was eudaimonia. It is difficult to translate into English. It used to be translated “happiness,” but a more accurate translation may be “human flourishing,” that is, “reaching your full human potential.” What Aristotle called “human flourishing,” Jesus called “life” and it is only available in Christ. He is the full embodiment of this life, so we can rightly call it the Jesus life. It is the ability to become fully alive and reach one’s full human potential physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, etc.

The bigger question on most people’s mind may not be “what is life?” but “how do we experience it?” The best way to answer that question may be in the form of a mathematical formula. The Jesus way plus the Jesus truth equals the Jesus life. In other words you have to both confess the truth about Jesus and walk the way of Jesus in order to experience the Jesus life.

The truth about Jesus is that he is God’s son and our Lord. This truth we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus is God’s Son, God’s only son, eternally begotten of the Father. As the Son of God he is the “spittin’ image of his father.” He is not another god or a created god, but he is fully God. He is God’s son and his is our Lord. We do not make Jesus Lord by any act of prayer or confession on our part. Rather God made Jesus Lord when he raised him from the dead. God made Jesus Lord (which means boss, master, ultimate authority) over the entire planet. When we confess this to be true, we are pledging our allegiance to Jesus.

Some people want the Jesus life by only confessing the Jesus truth. They wrongly assume if they just say a prayer or cry out to Jesus that BOOM they begin to experience the Jesus life all at once. But this is not true. Confessing the Jesus truth is not enough to experience the Jesus life, because the Jesus way plus the Jesus truth equals the Jesus life.

It is easy to accept the Jesus truth. It is hard to walk the Jesus way.

The Jesus way is the trail Jesus blazed for us. It is the new way to live as a human being. The trail head is the two-fold command to love God and love neighbor and the signposts are the beatitudes he proclaimed in Matthew 5. While the Jesus way includes all Jesus taught, you could sum up the Jesus way in looking at Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5, 6, & 7. In this sermon we could describe the Jesus way like this:

The Jesus way is the way of peace, not anger.

The Jesus way is the way of purity, not lust.

The Jesus way is the way of marriage, not divorce.

The Jesus way is the way of integrity, not begging people to trust you.

The Jesus way is the way of non-violence, not getting back at those who hurt you.

The Jesus way is the way of generosity, not taking advantage of people.

The Jesus way is the way of love, not hate.

The Jesus way is the way of authenticity, not hypocrisy.

The Jesus way is the way of prayer, not empty ritual.

The Jesus way is the way of forgiveness, not bitterness.

The Jesus way is the way of fasting, not pigging out all the time.

The Jesus way is the way of giving, not hoarding.

The Jesus way is the way of trusting, not worrying.

The Jesus way is the way of mercy, not judging others.

The Jesus way is the way of asking God, not living in despair.

The Jesus way is the way of the Golden Rule, not selfish ambition.

The Jesus way is the way of discernment, not ignorance.

The Jesus way is the way of knowing God, not playing religious games.

The Jesus way is the way of building life on the Rock, not building on sinking sand.

This Jesus way sounds difficult. I know. It sounds hard. I know. It sounds like a lot. It is, but this is why the Father pours out the Holy Spirit through the Son upon the Church so we may have a Helper who can empower us and shape us to live the Jesus life. It is a difficult way to navigate, but God gives us the Scriptures to be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It is a difficult way, which is why God has called us to the Church where we can make friends who can encourage us along the Jesus way.

It is a tough, uphill climb, walking this Jesus way, but the summit is the Jesus life.

And the Jesus life is measured in love.

The capacity by which we love is the capacity by which we experience life.

We love because God first loved us. He initiated by sending his Son. We respond by faith and love. We walk the Jesus way by love. If we lose our way along the trail, we return to the trail head of loving God and neighbor. This Jesus life we all so desperately want is measured out in the love we receive and the love we give.

The Jesus way plus the Jesus truth equals the Jesus life.


Posted by on November 30, 2012 in Life, Theology


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My Day After Election Day Prayer

Our church happily participated in Election Day Communion, sort of. We decided to offer (Day After) Election Day Communion because we have a regularly scheduled prayer and communion service every Wednesday at noon. We offered communion the day after the election for the same reason churches offered communion the day of the election: we feel partisan politics are dividing Christians and we believe this division deeply grieves the Holy Spirit. I certainly understand that Christians deeply committed to Christ are simply not going to agree on who they vote for. I accept this. What I do not accept is the hate, mockery, acrimony, and hostility experienced in the church over political ideologies. When we enter the voting booth (or sit at a table with our ballots as I did at my polling station), we may divide into categories: blue/red, liberal/conservative, Democrat, Republican, but we cannot bring that division into the body of Christ.

The solution: communion.

At the Lord’s Table, when we come to partake of the body and blood of Christ, we are united. We leave all of our distinctiveness behind when we come to the table. We come to Jesus’ table to find our unity, which is in him. We do not divide into righteous and sinful people, when we come to the table. We come as sinful people to the only Righteous One. At the table we find what unifies us is not policies, candidates, or political platforms, but Jesus Christ himself. In receiving communion we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes; we proclaim our true hope is in the Crucified King who is ruling now and will come again.

In our (Day After) Election Day Communion service, I was asked to read John 17 and pray a prayer in response to this reading. I was planning on praying something spontaneous, but 10 minutes before the start of the service I wrote the following words. I offer this as a prayer for Christians the day after the 2012 Presidential election:

A Day after Election Day Prayer

Holy Father,

We are grateful to be your children, invited into your family, called by your name. We believe you have sent your son, our Lord, Jesus Christ who has defeated sin, death, and principalities and powers through this death, burial, and resurrection. We thank you that while Jesus humbled himself in his incarnation and remained obedient even unto death that you raised him up and have exalted him to a position of power and authority over the nations.

May his rule and reign by known here and now among all of us who are baptized into his name. May his prayer for us be answered by you. May we who live in this fallen world be made one, just as the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are one. May we no longer be divided by race, gender, class, or political ideology  but may all of those who put faith in Christ be made one, united in faith and love, that the world may see the glory and beauty of King Jesus.

For the glory of God the Father, by the power of the Spirit, and in the name of Jesus we pray.


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Posted by on November 7, 2012 in Life, Ministry


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Scot McKnight & The Gospel

Last week we hosted the Faith & Culture Conference 2012 at Word of Life Church and our featured guest was Scot McKnight, former professor in religious studies at North Park University and now professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary. Scot is an important theological voice, particularly in the evangelical world. I knew of Scot from his blog: and from his books: Jesus Creed, A Community Called Atonement, and, most recently, The King Jesus Gospel. I had been preparing for his arrival at our conference by re-reading The King Jesus Gospel and by listening to four lectures he delivered last year at Truett Seminary.

At our conference, I enjoyed both listening to Scot and talking with him over lunch and on the ride to the airport. I found him to be engaging, thoughtful, and relatable. I like Scot, not that my feelings about Scot as a person adds any credibility to his theological work. I believe what he is saying about the gospel and modern evangelicalism is true and deserves a wider audience. I would say this about Scot whether I personally liked him or not. I like him because he talks a lot about Jesus. He is deeply committed to both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. I also like the fact that he calls N.T. Wright by his first name, “Tom.” He has a friendly relationship with Wright and there is no denying N.T. Wright’s influence on Scot’s work in the area of New Testament studies.

The bulk of his message through three sessions at our conference was drawn from his work in The King Jesus Gospel, where he makes the startling argument that the “gospel” preached in modern, American evangelicalism is not the gospel preached by either the Apostles or Jesus himself. What modern evangelism calls the “gospel” is really the plan of salvation, that is, how someone receives the gospel. In Scot’s view, the gospel includes the plan of salvation, but is not limited by it. He further argues that preaching the plan of salvation as the gospel creates a “salvation culture,” where preaching the apostolic gospel, as recorded in the New Testament, creates a “gospel culture.”

Scot opened his first lecture with the question: “What is the gospel?” He says this may sound like a stupid question, but in the current climate of evangelicalism, it is complete pertinent. Some say the gospel is justification and others say it is justice, but in the New Testament, the gospel is the story of Jesus fulfilling the story of Israel. In looking to the Scripture for the gospel, Scot proposes we start with 1 Corinthians 15:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)

The gospel is a story, the story of Jesus culminating in his death, burial, resurrection, and appearance. It is the story of how Jesus became the Jewish Messiah and the Gentile King, how Jesus became the Lord (the supreme ruling authority) over both Jews and Gentiles. The Gospel is primarily about Jesus and not salvation. Soteriology (what we believe about salvation) flows out of Christology (what we believe about Jesus). There are clear differences between the gospel as defined in the New Testament and the plan of salvation as defined by modern, American evangelicalism.

The Gospel

The Plan of Salvation

1. Exemplified in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Exemplified in the “Four Spiritual Laws”
2. True to the teachings of the Apostles True, but not the gospel
3. A story framed around Jesus Principles framed out individual human beings
4. Highlights the Person who is the good news Highlights our benefits
5. Focuses on how God made Jesus alive again Focuses on how we are made right with God
6. Produces disciples Produces decisions
7. Depends on declaration/creativity Depends on persuasion/rhetoric
8. Creates a gospel culture Creates a salvation culture

There is a correct response to the gospel and most of the time the plan of salvation presents this response. The biblical call to response to the gospel is repent, believe, and be baptized. However, the plan of salvation (as noted in #6) above focuses the attention on simple belief in terms of a decision. In a salvation culture, people talk about making decisions for Christ, but too often we see this decision-making fail to lead into disciple-making. For Scot (and myself and others) this disconnect between making a decision and becoming a disciple is hurting evangelicalism and dampening our missional efforts. After all, Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples of the nations, not go and lead people to make decisions. Certainly to repent, believe, and to be baptized requires a decision, but the decision is not to “ask Jesus into our hearts,” but it is a decision to become a disciple of Jesus and the Jesus way. Furthermore, if the gospel is salvation, then the gospel becomes a presentation of how Jesus meets my spiritual needs, keeping me at the center of my proverbial universe with Jesus as the means by which I get right with God. If we see salvation (or justification by faith) as an outworking of the gospel and not the gospel itself, then Jesus remains the center focus as both the means and the end (See #3, 4, 5 above).

As a friend of mine, who was at the conference, said, “The gospel is more than justification, but never less.” I am not denying the truth of justification by faith alone through grace alone. I am not denying the truth of salvation and the experience of conversation. I am not denying the need for a decision to respond to the gospel. I am not denying the benefits we receive from the gospel. But I do agree with Scot, these things are not, in and of themselves, the gospel preached in the New Testament. One piece of evidence Scot offers in making this bold claim is the sermons recorded in the book of Acts. If you read through the 7 or 8 sermons in Acts you will not see anything that looks like the plan of salvation. You see a story, the story of Israel and the story of how Jesus became Lord.

I have been growing in the conviction that all our work in the church and life should be gospel-centered. In this regard it is important for us to get the gospel right and for this reason we should listen to Scot McKnight.


Posted by on November 2, 2012 in Theology


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Stanley Hauerwas’ Response to September 11, 2001

The following is from Stanley Hauerwas from Duke Divinity school. (It was originally posted here.) I am providing the entirety of Hauerwas’ response because I think it is an important Christian response to 9/11. It is important because, there is an alternative to the “war on terror.” I offer this for those who have ears to hear.

September 11, 2001: A Pacifist Response
By Stanley Hauerwas

I want to write honestly about September 11, 2001. But it is not easy. Even now, some months after that horrible event, I find it hard to know what can be said or, perhaps more difficult, what should be said. Even more difficult, I am not sure for what or how I should pray. I am a Christian. I am a Christian pacifist. Being Christian and being a pacifist are not two things for me. I would not be a pacifist if I were not a Christian, and I find it hard to understand how one can be a Christian without being a pacifist. But what does a pacifist have to say in the face of terror? Pray for peace? I have no use for sentimentality.

Indeed some have suggested pacifists have nothing to say in a time like the time after September 11, 2001. The editors of the magazine First Things assert that “those who in principle oppose the use of military force have no legitimate part in the discussion about how military force should be used.”1 They make this assertion because according to them the only form of pacifism that is defensible requires the disavowal by the pacifist of any political relevance. That is not the kind of pacifism I represent. I am a pacifist because I think nonviolence is the necessary condition for a politics not based on death. A politics that is not determined by the fear of death means no strong distinction can be drawn between politics and military force.

Yet I cannot deny that September 11, 2001, creates and requires a kind of silence. We desperately want to “explain” what happened. Explanation domesticates terror, making it part of “our” world. I believe attempts to explain must be resisted. Rather, we should learn to wait before what we know not, hoping to gain time and space sufficient to learn how to speak without lying. I should like to think pacifism names the habits and community necessary to gain the time and place that is an alternative to revenge. But I do not pretend that I know how that is accomplished.

Yet I do know that much that has been said since September 11, 2001, has been false. In the first hours and days following the fall of the towers, there was a stunned silence. President Bush flew from one safe haven to another, unsure what had or was still to happen. He was quite literally in the air. I wish he might have been able to maintain that posture, but he is the leader of the “free world.” Something must be done. Something must be said. We must be in control. The silence must be shattered. He knew the American people must be comforted. Life must return to normal.

So he said, “We are at war.” Magic words necessary to reclaim the everyday. War is such normalizing discourse. Americans know war. This is our Pearl Harbor. Life can return to normal. We are frightened, and ironically war makes us feel safe. The way to go on in the face of September 11, 2001, is to find someone to kill. Americans are, moreover, good at killing. We often fail to acknowledge how accomplished we are in the art of killing. Indeed we, the American people, have become masters of killing. In our battles, only the enemy has to die. Some in our military are embarrassed by our expertise in war making, but what can they do? They are but following orders.

So the silence created by destruction was soon shattered by the need for revenge—a revenge all the more unforgiving because we cannot forgive those who flew the planes for making us acknowledge our vulnerability. The flag that flew in mourning was soon transformed into a pride-filled thing; the bloodstained flag of victims transformed into the flag of the American indomitable spirit. We will prevail no matter how many people we must kill to rid ourselves of the knowledge Americans died as victims. Americans do not die as victims. They have to be heroes. So the stock trader who happened to work on the seventy-second floor becomes as heroic as the policemen and the firemen who were doing their jobs. No one who died on September 11, 2001, gets to die a meaningless death. That is why their deaths must be revenged.

I am a pacifist, so the American “we” cannot be my “me.” But to be alienated from the American “we” is not easy. I am a neophyte pacifist. I never really wanted to be a pacifist. I had learned from Reinhold Niebuhr that if you desire justice you had better be ready to kill someone along the way. But then John Howard Yoder and his extraordinary book The Politics of Jesus came along. Yoder convinced me that if there is anything to this Christian “stuff,” it must surely involve the conviction that the Son would rather die on the cross than for the world to be redeemed by violence. Moreover, the defeat of death through resurrection makes possible as well as necessary that Christians live nonviolently in a world of violence. Christian nonviolence is not a strategy to rid the world of violence, but rather the way Christians must live in a world of violence. In short Christians are not nonviolent because we believe our nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but rather because faithful followers of Christ in a world of war cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent.

But what does a pacifist have to say in the face of the terror September 11, 2001, names? I vaguely knew when I first declared I was a pacifist that there might be some serious consequences. To be nonviolent might even change my life. But I do not really think I understood what that change might entail until September 11. For example after I declared I was a pacifist, I quit singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I will stand when it is sung, particularly at baseball games, but I do not sing. Not to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” is a small thing that reminds me that my first loyalty is not to the United States but to God and God’s church. I confess it never crossed my mind that such small acts might over the years make my response to September 11 quite different from that of the good people who sing “God Bless America”—so different that I am left in saddened silence.

That difference, moreover, haunts me. My father was a bricklayer and a good American. He worked hard all his life and hoped his work would not only support his family, but also make some contribution to our common life. He held a war-critical job in World War II, so he was never drafted. Only one of his five bricklaying brothers was in that war, but he was never exposed to combat. My family was never militarized, but as Texans they were good Americans. For most of my life I, too, was a good American, assuming that I owed much to the society that enabled me, the son of a bricklayer, to gain a Ph.D. at Yale—even if the Ph.D. was in theology.

Of course there was Vietnam. For many of us Vietnam was extended training necessary for the development of a more critical attitude toward the government of the United States. Yet most of us critical of the war in Vietnam did not think our opposition to that war made us less loyal Americans. Indeed the criticisms of the war were based on an appeal to the highest American ideals. Vietnam was a time of great tension, but the politics of the antiwar movement did not require those opposed to the war to think of themselves as fundamentally standing outside the American mainstream. Most critics of Vietnam (just as many that now criticize the war in Afghanistan) based their dissent on their adherence to American ideals that they felt the war was betraying. That but indicates why I feel so isolated even among the critics of the war in Afghanistan. I do not even share their allegiance to American ideals.

So I simply did not share the reaction of most Americans to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Of course I recoil from murder on such a scale, but I hope I remember that one murder is too many. That Americans have hurried to call what happened “war” strikes me as self-defeating. If this is war, then bin Laden has won. He thinks he is a warrior not a murderer. Just to the extent the language of war is used, he is honored. But in their hurry to call this war, Americans have no time for careful discriminations.

Where does that leave me? Does it mean, as an estranged friend recently wrote me, that I disdain all “natural loyalties” that bind us together as human beings, even submitting such loyalties to a harsh and unforgiving standard? Does it mean that I speak as a solitary individual, failing to acknowledge that our lives are interwoven with the lives of others, those who have gone before, those among whom we live, those with whom we identify, and those with whom we are in Christian communion? Do I refuse to acknowledge my life is made possible by the gifts of others? Do I forsake all forms of patriotism, failing to acknowledge that we as a people are better off because of the sacrifices that were made in World War II? To this I can only answer, “Yes.” If you call patriotism “natural,” I certainly do disavow that connection. Such a disavowal, I hope, does not mean I am inattentive to the gifts I have received from past and present neighbors.

In response to my friend I pointed out that because he, too, is a Christian I assumed he also disdained some “natural loyalties.” After all he had his children baptized. The “natural love” between parents and children is surely reconfigured when children are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul says:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.2

Christians often tend to focus on being united with Christ in his resurrection, forgetting that we are also united with him in his death. What could that mean if it does not mean that Christians must be ready to die, indeed have their children die, rather than betray the Gospel? Any love not transformed by the love of God cannot help but be the source of the violence we perpetrate on one another in the name of justice. Such a love may appear harsh and dreadful from the perspective of the world, but Christians believe such a love is life-giving not life-denying.

Of course living a life of nonviolence may be harsh. Certainly you have to imagine, and perhaps even face, that you will have to watch the innocent suffer and even die for your convictions. But that is no different from those that claim they would fight a just war. After all, the just warrior is committed to avoiding any direct attack on noncombatants, which might well mean that more people will die because the just warrior refuses to do an evil that a good may come. For example, on just-war grounds the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were clearly murder. If you are serious about just war, you must be ready to say that it would be better that more people died on the beaches of Japan than to have committed one murder, much less the bombing of civilian populations.

This last observation may suggest that when all is said and done, a pacifist response to September 11, 2001, is just one more version of the anti-American sentiments expressed by what many consider to be the American Left. I say “what many consider” because it is very unclear if there is a Left left in America. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the support to the war on terrorism given by those who identify as the “Left.” Yet much has been made of the injustice of American foreign policy that lends a kind of intelligibility to the hatred given form on September 11. I am no defender of American foreign policy, but the problem with such lines of criticism is that no matter how immoral what the American government may have done in the world, such immorality cannot explain or justify the attack on the World Trade Center.

American imperialism, often celebrated as the new globalism, is a frightening power. It is frightening not only because of the harm such power inflicts on the innocent, but because it is difficult to imagine alternatives. Pacifists are often challenged after an event like September 11 with the question, “Well, what alternative do you have to bombing Afghanistan?” Such a question assumes that pacifists must have an alternative foreign policy. My only response is I do not have a foreign policy. I have something better—a church constituted by people who would rather die than kill.

Indeed I fear that absent a countercommunity to challenge America, bin Laden has given Americans what they so desperately needed—a war without end. America is a country that lives off the moral capital of our wars. War names the time we send the youth to kill and die (maybe) in an effort to assure ourselves the lives we lead are worthy of such sacrifices. They kill and die to protect our “freedom.” But what can freedom mean if the prime instance of the exercise of such freedom is to shop? The very fact that we can and do go to war is a moral necessity for a nation of consumers. War makes clear we must believe in something even if we are not sure what that something is, except that it has something to do with the “American way of life.”

What a gift bin Laden has therefore given America. Americans were in despair because we won the cold war. Americans won by outspending the USSR, proving that we can waste more money on guns than they can or did. But what do Americans do after they have won a war? The war was necessary to give moral coherence. We had to cooperate with one another because we were at war. How can America make sense of what it means for us to be “a people” if we have no common enemy? We were in a dangerous funk having nothing better to do than entertain ourselves with the soap opera Bill Clinton was. Now we have something better to do. We can fight the war against terrorism.

The good thing, moreover, about the war on terrorism is it has no end, which makes it very doubtful that this war can be considered just. If a war is just, your enemy must know before the war begins what political purpose the war is to serve. In other words, they need to know from the beginning what the conditions are if they choose to surrender. So you cannot fight a just war if it is “a war to end all wars” (World War I) or for “unconditional surrender” (World War II). But a “war on terrorism” is a war without limit. Americans want to wipe this enemy off the face of the earth. Moreover, America even gets to decide who counts and does not count as a terrorist.

Which means Americans get to have it any way they want it. Some that are captured, for example, are prisoners of war; some are detainees. No problem. When you are the biggest kid on the block, you can say whatever you want to say, even if what you say is nonsense. We all know the first casualty in war is truth. So the conservatives who have fought the war against “postmodernism” in the name of “objective truth,” the same conservatives that now rule us, assume they can use language any way they please.

That Americans get to decide who is and who is not a terrorist means that this is not only a war without clear purpose, but also a war without end. From now on we can be in a perpetual state of war. America is always at her best when she is on permanent war footing. Moreover, when our country is at war, it has no space to worry about the extraordinary inequities that constitute our society, no time to worry about poverty or those parts of the world that are ravaged by hunger and genocide. Everything—civil liberties, due process, the protection of the law—must be subordinated to the one great moral enterprise of winning the unending war against terrorism.

At the heart of the American desire to wage endless war is the American fear of death. The American love of high-tech medicine is but the other side of the war against terrorism. Americans are determined to be safe, to be able to get out of this life alive. On September 11, Americans were confronted with their worst fear—a people ready to die as an expression of their profound moral commitments. Some speculate such people must have chosen death because they were desperate or, at least, they were so desperate that death was preferable to life. Yet their willingness to die stands in stark contrast to a politics that asks of its members in response to September 11 to shop.

Ian Buruma and Vishai Margalit observe in their article “Occidentalism” that lack of heroism is the hallmark of a bourgeois ethos.3 Heroes court death. The bourgeois is addicted to personal safety. They concede that much in an affluent, market-driven society is mediocre, “but when contempt for bourgeois creature comforts becomes contempt for life itself you know the West is under attack.” According to Buruma and Margalit, the West (which they point out is not just the geographical West) should oppose the full force of calculating antibourgeois heroism, of which Al-Qaeda is but one representative, through the means we know best—cutting off their money supply. Of course, Buruma and Margalit do not tell us how that can be done, given the need for oil to sustain the bourgeois society they favor.

Christians are not called to be heroes or shoppers. We are called to be holy. We do not think holiness is an individual achievement, but rather a set of practices to sustain a people who refuse to have their lives determined by the fear and denial of death. We believe by so living we offer our non-Christian brothers and sisters an alternative to all politics based on the denial of death. Christians are acutely aware that we seldom are faithful to the gifts God has given us, but we hope the confession of our sins is a sign of hope in a world without hope. This means pacifists do have a response to September 11, 2001. Our response is to continue living in a manner that witnesses to our belief that the world was not changed on September 11, 2001. The world was changed during the celebration of Passover in a.d. 33.

Mark and Louise Zwick, founders of the Houston Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, embody the life made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus. They know, moreover, that Christian nonviolence cannot and must not be understood as a position that is no more than being “against violence.” If pacifism is no more than “not violence,” it betrays the form of life to which Christians believe they have been called by Christ. Drawing on Nicholas Berdyaev, the Zwicks rightly observe that “the split between the Gospel and our culture is the drama of our times,” but they also remind us that “one does not free persons by detaching them from the bonds that paralyze them: one frees persons by attaching them to their destiny.” Christian nonviolence is but another name for the friendship we believe God has made possible and constitutes the alternative to the violence that grips our lives.

I began by noting that I am not sure for what I should pray. But prayer often is a form of silence. The following prayer I hope does not drown out silence. I wrote the prayer as a devotion to begin a Duke Divinity School general meeting. I was able to write the prayer because of a short article I had just read in the Houston Catholic Worker by Jean Vanier.4 Vanier is the founder of the L’arche movement—a movement that believes God has saved us by giving us the good work of living with and learning to be friends with those the world calls retarded. I end with this prayer because it is all I have to give.

Great God of surprise, our lives continue to be haunted by the spectre of September 11, 2001. Life must go on and we go on keeping on—even meeting again as the Divinity School Council. Is this what Barth meant in 1933 when he said we must go on “as though nothing has happened”? To go on as though nothing has happened can sound like a counsel of despair, of helplessness, of hopelessness. We want to act, to do something to reclaim the way things were. Which, I guess, is but a reminder that one of the reasons we are so shocked, so violated, by September 11 is the challenge presented to our prideful presumption that we are in control, that we are going to get out of life alive. To go on “as though nothing has happened” surely requires us to acknowledge you are God and we are not. It is hard to remember that Jesus did not come to make us safe, but rather he came to make us disciples, citizens of your new age, a kingdom of surprise. That we live in the end times is surely the basis for our conviction that you have given us all the time we need to respond to September 11 with “small acts of beauty and tenderness,” which Jean Vanier tells us, if done with humility and confidence “will bring unity to the world and break the chain of violence.” So we pray give us humility that we may remember that the work we do today, the work we do every day, is false and pretentious if it fails to serve those who day in and day out are your small gestures of beauty and tenderness.


1 “In a Time of War,” First Things (December 2001).

2 Romans 6:3–5.

3 New York Review of Books, January 17, 2002, 4–7.

4 “L’arche Founder Responds to Violence,” Houston Catholic Worker, November 16, 2001.

The South Atlantic Quarterly 101:2, Spring 2002.
Copyright 2002 by Duke University Press.

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Posted by on September 11, 2012 in Life, Theology


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Why I am not Emergent (By a Guy Who Should Be)

I have been asked questions recently about the emergent church, specifically whether or not I am “emergent” and whether or not my church is becoming “emergent.”

The simple answer is, no. I am not emergent and the church I serve is not an emergent church.

My answer is simple, but the issues surrounding the emergent church are not. I was surprised when I was asked recently about the emergent church, because I thought the emergent church / emergent movement / emergent conversation was pretty much over. I remember hearing about the death of this movement back in 2010. (Read more here.) I suppose some people are still engaged in this conversation, but I haven’t heard much about it until recently. I took the title of this blog post from a book I read about four years ago, Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. In re-reading their introduction, I agree with their title. I am not emergent, but it seems like I should be.

I wear jeans when I preach and I wear typical hipster black-framed glasses. I drink coffee and listen to Johnny Cash (not to mention Bob Dylan, The Civil Wars, Mumford & Sons, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and The Black Keys). I own an iPhone. I spend way too much time on Twitter. I read theology. I read church history. My reading list includes N.T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, Dallas Willard, and Wendell Berry, among others. I use the language of story. I distrust some of what modernity has given us. I dislike people talking about going to heaven and prefer to speak of heaven coming to earth. So maybe I should be “emergent,” but I’m not.    

What is the “emergent church”?

The difficulty here is in nailing down exactly what “emergent” is. It seems to me that “emergent” has become a label―a derogatory label critics use to mark people they don’t agree with and simply dismiss them as false teachers or heretics. These kind of attempts to pigeonhole people saddens me. The way forward, when we find ourselves in disagreement with other Christians, is not labeling and dismissing, but conversation. Jesus said:

“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother…” (Matthew 5:22-23)

Later Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell your brother his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). If you have something against someone in the body of Christ or if someone has something against you, say it is a disagreement in beliefs, don’t just label them and dismiss them, but go to them, ask questions, listen to them, seek to understand where they are coming from.

Nevertheless, “emergent” is a label that is apparently still out there; so what does it mean?  Roger Oakland of Understanding the Times International wrote an essay on his ministry website entitled, “How to Know When the Emerging Church Shows Signs of Emerging in Your Church,” where he lists at least 14 signs of the emergent church. I have no indication that Oakland is an expert in this field, but I will use his 14 descriptions as a working definition of the emergent church movement. With the assumption that this description is an accurate picture of the emergent church, I will add some commentary explaining point-for-point why I am not emergent.

Signs of the Emergent Church (according to Roger Oakland)

1) Scripture is no longer the ultimate authority as the basis for the Christian faith.
I hold to the textual authority of Scripture. I believe the Bible is uniquely inspired by God and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). When I say textual authority, I mean the Bible is the ultimate written authority in forming Christian doctrine, ethics, and mission. The ultimate authority is Jesus. Scripture is not Lord; Jesus is. The Bible is the most authoritative witness to the life and teaching of Jesus. In this regard, I believe Scripture is sacred and therefore I read it and study it and teach it with a serious mind and reverent heart.

2) The centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ is being replaced by humanistic methods promoting church growth and a social gospel.
I do desire the church (both my church and the global Church) to grow, and I do desire the gospel to have a social effect, but for me, the gospel is central to all of my life and work as a pastor. The good news that Jesus is Lord, that he became the Savior of the world through his incarnation, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension occupies my thoughts, fills my prayers, drives my preaching, and shapes how I help people grow in the Christian faith. My intention is to allow the gospel, and not methodology or pragmatics, to be the unchanging center everything else revolves around.    

3) More and more emphasis is being placed on building the kingdom of God now and less and less on the warnings of Scripture about the imminent return of Jesus Christ and a coming judgment in the future.
I do not work to build the kingdom of God, because the kingdom of God is not something to be built. The kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God through Christ over his creation. I see myself as more of a messenger and servant of his kingdom. I pray for his kingdom to come, but Jesus has already pronounced the coming of the kingdom in his public ministry. Therefore, I hold to the presence of the kingdom now and the anticipation of the kingdom coming with the return of Christ. I do not know if I emphasize living in the kingdom now or anticipating the kingdom coming, but my desire has been to help Christians live in the tension between the “already” and “not yet” of the kingdom.

4) The teaching that Jesus Christ will rule and reign in a literal millennial period is considered unbiblical and heretical.
I do not call a literal interpretation of the 1,000 year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20:2-7 unbiblical or heretical. I would say it is not the best interpretation of the text. There have been numerous theological discussions regarding the “millennial reign” of Christ for a long time and Christians have not always agreed on the best way to interpret it. I do not believe this 1,000 year period is a literal amount of time, but rather a symbol. However, I will not call someone who believes in a literal thousand year reign of Christ a heretic. This is one of those secondary, non-essential doctrines Christians can (and do) disagree on and still remain within the biblical, orthodox Christian faith.  

5) The teaching that the church has taken the place of Israel and Israel has no prophetic significance is often embraced.
I wouldn’t say the Church has taken the place of Israel. I would say the Church has fulfilled the vocation of Israel to be a blessing to all the “families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). Ancient Israel, as the covenant people of God, has now been expanded to include the non-Jewish (Gentile) nations. Jesus has expanded what it means to be the people of God shifting the sign of the covenant from Jewish ethnicity, circumcision, and observance of the Torah to faith, baptism, and obedience to Jesus as Lord.

6) The teaching that the Book of Revelation does not refer to the future, but instead has been already fulfilled in the past.
As mentioned above, there are many interpretive approaches to the Book of Revelation. Jack Hayford, in his introduction to Revelation in the Spirit-filled Life Bible, describes eight different major interpretive viewpoints of the Revelation. The two most dominant schools of thought are called “premillennialism” and “amillennialism.” The amillennial approach to understanding Revelation does interpret the book as a symbolic description of God’s present triumph through the church. I find the amillennial approach to be the most helpful way to understand Revelation, understanding the book not as a revelation of the “end times,” but a revelation of Jesus Christ. (See my sermon “A Traveler’s Guide Through Revelation” for a more detailed description of how I read Revelation.)

7) An experiential mystical form of Christianity begins to be promoted as a method to reach the postmodern generation.
The Christian faith does have an experiential dimension. God has come to us in Christ and makes his grace known to us by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said we will know the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, because “he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). We are able to know God by direct personal encounter, and not just know about God, by the work of the Holy Spirit. I do not promote this experience of the Spirit as a way to reach people. I teach this mystical expression of the faith as part of the normal Christian life.

8) Ideas are promoted teaching that Christianity needs to be reinvented in order to provide meaning for this generation.
Christianity does not need to be reinvented, because it is not a faith we create or recreate; it is a faith we have received. We contend, writes Jude, “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). My interest in reading church history underscores my desire to rightly understand this faith I have received. We do need to constantly rethink our methods and language in communicating the faith to the people in our world. In other words, we need to be good missionaries where we are, understanding our culture, so we can communicate the gospel in culturally-appropriate ways.  

9) The pastor may implement an idea called “ancient-future” or “vintage Christianity” claiming that in order to take the church forward, we need to go back in church history and find out what experiences were effective to get people to embrace Christianity.
I find great wisdom in learning from church history, as I stated above. My reading of church history is not so much a study of the experiences of those who have gone before, but the teaching (or theology) of those in the historic Church. I do not always agree with the various thinkers, leaders, and teachers in church history. (How could I when there is so much diversity over 2,000 years of church history!) Reading church history has been an act of repentance for me, because I have confessed my arrogance in thinking my generation of Christian thinkers and teachers have the entire Christian faith figured out.

10) While the authority of the Word of God is undermined, images and sensual experiences are promoted as the key to experiencing and knowing God.
I do not undermine the authority of Scripture, but I do believe the Holy Spirit plays a role in leading us into all truth. John Wesley taught that tradition, reason, and experience play a role in rightly interpreting Scripture. There are limitations to the role experience places in our understanding of the faith, because subjective human experience can easily lead us off track. I tend to rely much more on tradition and reason to understand the Scripture, but I cannot deny the role of experience in knowing God.

11) These experiences include icons, candles, incense, liturgy, labyrinths, prayer stations, contemplative prayer, experiencing the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of the Eucharist.
I still consider myself a novice in the school of prayer, but “contemplative prayer” to me is nothing more than thoughtful prayer, that is meditating on God’s word as a part of prayer. I do not see how this undermines the authority of the word of God, when it is a meditation on Scripture. I also pray the Psalms, the Lord’s prayer (both from Scripture) and well-crafted, biblically-rich prayers from The Book of Common Prayer. The sacrament of the Eucharist (i.e. communion) is the central piece of Christian worship and it has been that way since the beginning. Christians have disagreed on the proper understanding of communion, but a sacramental view has been most dominant. By sacramental, we mean that receiving the communion elements connects us in a mysterious way to the real presence of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16).

12) There seems to be a strong emphasis on ecumenism indicating that a bridge is being established that leads in the direction of unity with the Roman Catholic Church.
I believe in the communion of the saints. This confession is from the Apostles’ Creed. It means, in part, that I have a “common union” with all of those who are baptized into Christ. If you are a Christian (as defined by the Apostles’ Creed) then we are in the same family regardless of your denominational affiliation. I believe Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal Christians are members of the same Church, although we will have disagreements. I want to build bridges of conversation with Christians in other denominations (including Orthodox and Catholic), but this does not mean I agree with all of their teachings and practice, nor does it mean that I intend on joining their denomination.  

13) Some evangelical Protestant leaders are saying that the Reformation went too far. They are re-examining the claims of the “church fathers” saying that communion is more than a symbol and that Jesus actually becomes present in the wafer at communion.
I do not agree with all points of doctrine taught in the Protestant Reformation, but I do believe the Reformers were re-examining the church fathers (church leaders and writers from the first four centuries of the Church) in order to bring correction and reformation to the Church. Martin Luther, one of the Protestant Reformers, spoke of the “real presence” of Christ present in communion. This is the view I hold. I do believe communion has symbols, but it is more than symbolic. Jesus is present in communion, not physically, but “spiritually” by the Holy Spirit.   

14) There will be a growing trend towards an ecumenical unity for the cause of world peace claiming the validity of other religions and that there are many ways to God.
I believe Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Other world religions may contain some elements of truth. I believe other religions contain people who are sincere and authentic in their expressions of worship and devotion, but ultimately fall short of God’s glory. Jesus, as he said, is the way, the truth, and the life, the only way to the Father (John 14:6). I believe in the exclusivity of Christ and I believe in living in peace with those of a different faith. Jesus calls us not only to love God, but to love our neighbor, regardless of their ethnicity, social status, religion, political affiliation, or sexual orientation.


Posted by on August 24, 2012 in Ministry, Theology


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