Cities as Pivitol Ministry Centers

Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach to our church from Colossians 2. As I introduced the topic of the sermon I also gave our church some context for Paul’s letter. Specifically, I wanted them to understand Paul’s mission strategy of reaching the cities like Rome and Colossae. The following is an excerpt from my sermon:

Paul’s fellow minister, a man named Epaphras, had taken a mission trip to the city of Colossae. The city was located in the Lycus River Valley– or what is now southwest Turkey. Populated by Greeks, Romans and transplanted Jews, the city had once been one of the largest in the world. In the century leading up to Epaphras mission trip Colossae had lost a lot of her prominence in the Roman empire. Paul’s missionary focus was on the metropolitan areas in the empire. When he formed a strategy for accomplishing Jesus’ mission to proclaim the gospel to the entire world, he knew he had to go to the great cities in the world.

That’s because change comes to the world from the cities. That’s where culture is created, and that’s where you have the largest and most diverse populations of people. People come from all over the world to the cities. So, if the world is going to hear the good news of God’s rescue in Christ Jesus, then the cities are the pivotal places of ministry.

Il Grande Disco by Arnaldo Pomodoro Bank of America Plaza 101 S. Tryon St. Charlotte, NC
Il Grande Disco by Arnaldo Pomodoro
Bank of America Plaza
101 S. Tryon St.
Charlotte, NC

Do you realize that’s one of the reasons Christ Community Church was started here in North Meck? 25 years ago God knew that this area around the lake would be home to some of the most mobile people in our world– you all. You came to the city for work. And for many of you, the work you found required you to travel.

And what you haven’t yet realized is that God was allowing your company to pay your way so you can be a witness to the light of the gospel all over the nation and this world. The companies in city of Charlotte are sending you out to be a good worker, yes, but as you go you get to influence the entire world with the gospel. To make converts, and plant churches in places that have not yet heard the news of Christ.

That’s exactly how Paul believed the entire world would hear about Jesus. That’s why he went to Rome. He focused on the places where the entire world population was present. And that’s why we are hear in Charlotte.  God has called us to Charlotte in order to reach the world.

God called our church to minister in an urban and suburban context north of Charlotte. He calls other churches to other urban, suburban, and rural contexts. The whole world needs to hear the gospel. My prayer for my church, located in a wealthy city, is that we would leverage the opportunities available to us because we live in the city to take the gospel to the ends of the world.

I also want to point you to another church I’m excited about. A fellow pastor that I have huge respect for, Spence Shelton, has announced that he will be planting in Charlotte in the future. I can’t wait for this guy to get to the Queen City. No single church can meet all the needs of a city, and so I am thanking God for sending Spence and his family. If you want to check out his thoughts on our city, what she needs more than anything, and how you can pray for him check out this blog post.

If you would like to read the entire text of the sermon you can here: Abandon Irreligion and Religion- Colossians 2- Notes.

Photo by: Dave Morrison Photography. Used in under the Creative Commons Attribution License. View the original here.

Aquinas and Culture Part 2: How Do I Teach the Church about Culture?

My post, Aquinas and Culture, drew not a few readers. If you haven’t read it, I basically argued that the epistemology of Immanuel Kant created a division between the sacred and the secular that the evangelical church is still reeling from. I was asked by a fellow student if I would ever give a rather philosophical explanation of this topic to a church. The following was my response. Keep in mind that this was posted on a discussion board, not in a term paper.

The only places I would mention Plato, Aristotle or Kant by name are places like Manhattan or Boston. Mentioning the philosophers in these places may actually help the listeners be more open to the gospel presentation. It may show them an effort on the part of the speaker to understand their culture. I currently serve at a church in Charlotte, NC; a city full of bankers. For my context, and I believe most US contexts, I wouldn’t explain the relationship between Christ and culture in the way I did here.

There are three common kinds of texts I go to when teaching the topic of culture: creation, the miracle narratives of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus.

We were made for the garden of God. That was our home. It was a place that fit us and suited us. All of our deepest needs were met there. And there, in the garden, we see a divine mandate to humanity to have dominion and subdue the earth; to work and produce culture from nature. Man was created in the image of a supremely creative God, and therefore, when we are creative we are like God. The initial chapters of Genesis show us a people who are called to display the glory of God by creatively engaging the natural world and produce culture, and we create culture (art, music, education, justice systems etc.) best when it mirrors and reflects the true reality about God, humanity, and our world.

Secondly, the miracle narratives are all given to us in the context of Jesus’ kingdom proclamation. In other words, the miracles display to us what God’s kingdom is like. According to the miracles, God’s kingdom is a place where hungry people are fed, justice is restored, people join at marriage banquet celebrations, sick people are healed. In other words, the kingdom is a place where humans flourish and culture is created. The miracles point us back to our original intent, and propel us forward, as N.T. Wright says, “to sketch out in pencil, what God will one day paint in ink.” The miracles are signs, but they are more than that. They are actually models for us to follow. We should see Jesus feed the hungry and do the same, knowing that we were hungry and God fed us. We should see Jesus heal sick people and raise the dead, and so, pour ourselves into the staving off of sickness and death. In creating a culture where hungry people are fed and sick people are cared for we act out signs of the gospel and the kingdom. These are not the gospel– but a rightly ordered culture of food and medicine point people to the one who hates hunger and sickness and who will ultimately abolish them from the world. This is what I meant when I said that culture prepares people for the gospel. When we, who care for the sick neighbor, tell them of the great physician who can heal their true sickness they can respond, “I have seen you act this out.”

Finally, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a powerful statement that this world isn’t inherently evil, and will be redeemed albeit through fire. The resurrection tells us that God will redeem all of his creation. God would not allow his Holy One to see corruption. He raised the skin and bone of Jesus. I believe this to be a powerful sign to us that our business is not just to work towards the redemption of embodied souls, but to preach the redemption of the cosmos, including culture. Our final state of existence isn’t on a cloud as disembodied spirit. It’s ruling and reigning bodily in the city of God. Christ is the firstborn from the dead. He has broken through the wall of death, into life, and we follow after him into new life and new culture.

Some of you will notice my appropriation of language from Tim Keller. I am indebted to him and, in many ways, find myself unable to be as originally expressive as he is. Therefore, I copy him.

Aquinas and Culture

NERD ALERT: As posts on this site go, this one is in the uber-nerd category. My apologies.

Earlier this week I had to answer the following question in a discussion board for school: Why does the church in NA often struggle with finding a good tension between being in the world but not of it? Other ways to state the question are, “What is the relationship between God and this world” or, “What is the relationship between Christ and Culture?”  The following was my response:

The short answer to this question is that we stopped reading Aquinas. The long answer is that the church in North America struggles with the tension between being in the world and not of it because we don’t know what to do with Immanuel Kant. His Critique of Pure Reason severed the relationship between the worlds of the physical and the metaphysical. Before Kant, theologians and philosophers wrestled with the relationship between ideas and matter. For Plato ideas were supreme and matter was illusory. For Aristotle, nature was the primary location of knowledge and truth. In other words, Plato believed universals to be located in the world of ideas (Forms). Aristotle believed that universals only exist in their instances. Kant’s work argued that reason overstepped its boundaries. The metaphysical, says Kant, is off limits. Don’t go there.

Idealism and Realism

Aquinas (before Kant was born) objects. The world of metaphysics is real, and we can have true knowledge of it. We can have true knowledge because the source is God himself, and he has given us two distinct avenues of knowledge: nature and special revelation. Ultimate reality is defined as God, but Aquinas doesn’t side with Plato. External reality, as we experience it, is real, but it is fallen. Therefore Aristotle isn’t right either. The answer, therefore, is to avoid any extreme view of the relationship between “being in the world but not of it”. We reject Plato’s idea that the external world and it’s products of culture lead us away from truth and is to be escaped. We reject Aristotle’s idea that products of matter/culture are the containers of universal ideas. We also reject Kant’s impenetrable wall between knowledge about the physical and the metaphysical.

We don’t reject the the physical world or culture or their imperatives. We don’t completely adapt to the fallen world or culture and accept their fallen imperatives. We see the world as something created with meaning and charged with purpose. Culture, though fallen, is a good thing to be engaged in and created, and it’s highest use is when it prepares and points a society towards the ultimate creator. There is therefore, as Niebuhr interpreted Aquinas, no real antithesis between the divine law and natural law, between the Creator and creation, between Christ and Culture. One simply prepares the individual for the other.

My apologies to those of you who have read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Aquinas. I tried my best to digest them without being sloppy for this discussion board.

Gospel Contextualization

Using the hermeneutical spiral, evangelicals have been seeking to avoid either extreme on a spectrum described by Richard Lints in his book The Fabric of Theology. At one end of his spectrum is a cultural fundamentalism that believes we can read the Bible and express its theology in culture-free, universal terms; at the other end is a cultural relativism that holds “that the Scripture can have no other meaning than that which is permitted by the conceptuality of the present-day situation.” Tim Keller, Center Church. p. 105

Ultimately, those of us who are trying to find the sweet spot on this spectrum have to accept and reject certain forms and artifacts of culture. It would be wise, as we do so, to continually, and explicitly state two truths: God’s Word is authoritative (as the spiral metaphor suggests), and the gospel challenges even the forms we deem appropriate.

The Kingdom of Fullness and the Emptied Lord

Last Sunday our church gathered and remembered the Lord’s death by observing Communion. Over the past few years I have seen a trend towards making Communion as efficient and quick as possible. We have songs to sing, and sermons to preach and Communion eats up valuable time. Communion is rigid and inflexible; completely the opposite of our modern and mobile church goer. Communion is solemn, and sitting quietly makes the people in our busy culture squirm and fidget.

As I met with our worship pastor, Brandon, to plan the service I told him that I wanted to slow down. Jesus commanded that the church observe two ordinances: baptism and Communion. The observance of these two ordinances are a visible representation of Christ’s presence with his bride, and we should never treat either of these with words like efficiency or speed.

I believe that baptism and Communion, when held in esteem and practiced with wonder, deliver a kind of spiritual power and vigor to the church. They tie us to our history, to the apostles. They challenge our culture of assertive, go-getter philosophies by reminding us that salvation is accomplished for us, not by us. Communion is rigid; as rigid as the justice of God. And, yet, nothing more visibly demonstrates the pouring out of grace.

The sermon I preached was from John 6, the miracle of the loaves and fishes. My goal was to demonstrate that God’s kingdom is a place where hungry people are fed, and where dead people come to life. Jesus feeds the multitude, and offers them eternal life. He shows them how the hunger in their bellies demonstrates the need for a new kingdom. This world is starving and dying, and only those who look to the Son of God will experience eternal life. But how does that kingdom of fullness and life come to us? It only comes, Jesus says, through his broken body and blood poured out.

BreadFor my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.

I have posted my unedited sermon manuscript below, and I would love to hear your thoughts on Communion and the kingdom of God.

John 6 Sermon Manuscript