Should Christians Fast?

The gospels tell an interesting story that calls into question the practice of fasting for modern day Christians. In the story, the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask why Jesus’ disciples aren’t fasting. Here is Jesus’ response:

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, on that day they will fast.” (Mark 2:19-20)

Just as it would be inappropriate to fast at a wedding, during a time of celebration, so it would be inappropriate for Jesus’ disciples to fast while in his presence. Now is a time of celebration. Those who fast do so with mourning and sorrow.

Jesus acknowledges that a time is coming when his disciples will fast, on the “day” that he has been taken from them.

Here’s the question: During what time period is it inappropriate for Jesus’ followers to fast? There are two possible answers:

1.       There was a short period of time when Jesus’ disciples could fast, either between the crucifixion and the resurrection or, more broadly, between the crucifixion and the coming of the Spirit.

2.       It is appropriate for Christians to fast any time after the crucifixion.

In defense of the first option, Christians can say with confidence that Jesus is with his people through the Holy Spirit today. The Spirit indwells individuals and the church corporately. We are a resurrection people. Post resurrection, post Pentecost, we are in a time of celebration. We only await the consummation of the celebration, the final wedding feast. As a resurrection people, enjoying the presence of Jesus through the Spirit, it would be inappropriate for us to fast.

There are a few problems with this argument, though. The first problem is historical. The practice of fasting has continued unabated since the founding of the church. That’s a lot of historical evidence to overturn. You might reject the value of such historical study but you still have to deal with the biblical evidence that the practice of fasting continued in the early church. The church set apart Paul and Barnabas through a process that included fasting (Acts 13:2). Then Paul and Barnabas set aside elders through the same process (Acts 14:23). Finally, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against the fasting of the Pharisees but, in doing so, assumed that his followers would continue the practice. His issue wasn’t with fasting itself but with the way in which it had been warped.

It is true that we are a resurrection people and that we can enjoy the presence of Jesus now through the Spirit, but we also live in an in-between time. We are just as much a people of the cross, a people waiting, a people in the wilderness of temptation. There’s still a gap between where we are and where we are going. That gap leads us to godly sorrow and confusion. In this place of godly sorrow, either coming from the injustice we see around us or the injustice we see within us, fasting remains an appropriate response for those seeking God.

Is it inappropriate for Christians to fast? No. There are times and places where it will be an appropriate act of worship.   

Heaven has a wall?

There’s a meme floating out there that states “Heaven has a wall and strict immigration policies. Hell has open border policies.”2dxqfh

I don’t address all memes out there (especially political ones!), but because I have seen this one shared numerous times, and because it is potentially damaging to our understanding of the gospel, I thought it was worth a comment.

Some truth?

First of all, like most pithy sayings, there’s an element of truth here. That’s what makes it compelling to Christians. The most obvious Scriptural reference to heaven having a wall is in Revelation 21:9-27. Here, the New Jerusalem is presented as a great city with a wall and twelve gates. The gates are always open, though nothing impure can enter the city, nor those who are shameful or deceitful. The only people who enter are those whose names are written in the book of life.

Perhaps the author of this meme didn’t have John’s vision in mind. Perhaps he was thinking more generally. Heaven really is restricted to those who have been saved by Jesus, a gift we receive by faith in Jesus. There’s an exclusivity to the gospel that makes many of us uncomfortable, but which is undeniably taught in Scripture.

And so, the logic goes, if heaven has a wall and entry criteria, then so should America. That is the logic of the metaphor. It is true that borders, in principal, are okay (think skin, the walls of a house, the membrane of a cell, etc.), and I’ll grant that level of logic to the meme.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with this metaphor.

Problem #1: What else this implies about America.

Metaphors tend to carry a lot of weight, intended or not, and this one does too. The metaphor compares America to heaven and ends up implying quite a bit: In the America is heaven metaphor American citizens are heavenly citizens. Non-citizens are the heathens who have to pass some test. The government is God, which has the right to do “extreme vetting” however it sees fit. Etc. All of these fit into the nationalist idolatry prevalent in our culture today. Perhaps those who share this want to keep the metaphor limited to the wall. That’s fine, but it’s not all that gets communicated.

Problem #2: What else this implies about Heaven.

What’s worse is the way in which this metaphor works backwards. If America is like heaven then heaven (and its immigration policies) is like America. That’s a comparison that strikes at the heart of the gospel. Let’s think about how this works.

Heaven, as understood through strict nationalistic immigration policy, is primarily concerned about security. Those who want to enter must wait outside and show themselves worthy to enter. They must prove they are not dangerous and they must show how they can contribute. Citizens of heaven (Christians), on the other hand, are either in by birthright or because they have already gone through extreme vetting and have shown themselves worthy.

That vision of heaven is about as far from the gospel as you can get.  When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven it is both uncomfortably exclusive (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) and radically inclusive “whoever believes in me will have eternal life”).

The Pharisees and teachers of the law, the ones who imagined themselves citizens by birthright, the ones who were worthy and had something to offer, the ones who passed the “extreme vetting” were offended that Jesus came to invite the prostitutes and sinners into that same kingdom. But they had it backwards: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). He goes on to excoriate the Pharisees: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

According to the gospel, when it comes to entrance into the kingdom of God, we’re all unworthy asylum seekers. We come with nothing to offer. We come without credentials. We come, even, as enemies of God. It is only by God’s radical grace that comes to us and invites us in that we could gain entrance. And then, having been forgiven much, we share that same goodness with the world – a welcoming and hopeful vision of heaven.

This isn’t really a post about immigration. I’ve written a more systematic post about that here. Instead, I’m concerned about two things:

(1) Are we misusing Scripture to make a political point? I think this meme does just that.

(2) Are we allowing an earthly political vision to impact the way we view or express heaven? Again, this post does just that. Even if we manage to understand this meme in a very narrowly defined way, when we share it we are sure to present a picture of heaven that is inconsistent with the gospel of grace, expressed in the mercy of Jesus.

10 Books that Influenced the way I think in 2018

This isn’t the list of the best books I read in 2018, but the books that challenged or influenced the way I think. Even if I didn’t agree with all of their conclusions, they stimulated my thinking. I could tell these books were influential for me if I brought them up in conversation, went over their contents more than once, or actually changed the way I lived.

10. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams: Life without God is absurd, and this is the world of Douglas Adams. This book is bit like a humorous version of Ecclesiastes, except that Adams doesn’t recognize the irony of it all.

9. Five Views of the Church and Politics (IVP): This book provided me with key paradigms to understanding how different traditions have understood the relationship between church and politics.

8. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission by Christopher Wright: This book, along with the podcasts being published by The Bible Project, have given me a deeper understanding of how the Bible fits together as a whole.

7. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H.W. Brands:It helps to see things in historical perspective. Class warfare and political corruption are nothing new. We’ll get through this (well, probably).

6. Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble: Noble invites us to examine the ways in which our message, and the way we share it, can help people understand the gospel.

5. The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor by Mark Schatzker: You won’t see food in the same way again. Also, I think the quote “The chicken situation is dire!” will stick in my head for a while.

4. Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters: Big churches and small churches are different, and that’s Ok. This book made me more critical of advice given specifically with big churches in mind, and more comfortable with my own small church.

3. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics by William Lane Craig:This book gave me some great tools for apologetics and strengthened my faith.

2. American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales: Nancy Jo Sales effectively shows the dangers of social media, especially for girls, and the corrosive effects of porn and hook-up culture.

1. Becoming a Welcome Church By Thom Rainer: This book didn’t only change the way I think, but it drove me to pursue a few specific changes in our church.

What is a Christian vision of Authority?

I have recorded and published a new podcast in my “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?” series. This one takes on the topic of authority.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Introduction:

  1. Christianity uses the language of authority. For example: God is sovereign, Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus is the King. Christians are servants, of Christ.
  2. As a culture we have become uncomfortable with authority. It feels oppressive. Freedom comes when we throw off authority. In fact, a lot of good has come from throwing off oppressive authorities.
  3. There have been many abuses of human authority in the realms of government and religion. We misuse authority when it becomes merely a tool of the powerful against the weak as a way of securing self-interest.

A Christian vision of Authority:

  1. Jesus came as a King, but did not act like the people thought a king should act (with power, coercion, military strength).
  2. Instead Jesus came in humility. He taught an “upside down kingdom”. He died on the cross.
  3. Nevertheless, his death (and subsequent resurrection) was an act of victorious power over our most vicious enemies: Sin and Death.
  4. The pattern of Jesus’s life and death undermines the human vision of authority of the powerful over the weak and gives a truly Christ-centered vision of authority that serves instead of demanding service.
  5. Finally, God has authority as Creator that humans can never have. Abuse of human authority comes when we reject Jesus’s pattern or try to take God’s authority for ourselves.

You can listen to the podcast here. You can also subscribe through any number of podcasting Apps.

If comfort is your god… (Sermon brief on Jeremiah 1)

Tomorrow I will be preaching on Jeremiah 1, looking specifically at the patterns in Jeremiah’s call. Here I have attempted to crystallize one of the ‘big ideas’ of the text:

If comfort is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you to do when it threatens your comfort.

If happiness is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you do do when it threatens your happiness.

If the approval of others is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you to do when His approval is all you can expect to receive.

God will not only ask you to do things which promote your comfort, happiness, and approval of others. He will ask you to do hard things that threaten them.

Those who follow the pattern of Jeremiah follow the LORD simply because the LORD is their God, and they are not free to disown Him.

Do I need to forgive someone right away?

“Do I need to forgive someone right away?”

This question came up during our church’s Q&A after the sermon that Pastor John has been holding. I decided it might be interesting to expand on this in a podcast. Here it is.

Can’t listen to the podcast right away? Here’s the basic outline:

  • We use the term “forgive” in two senses: (1) Stop feeling angry/resentful toward the person who hurt you and (2) Restore the relationship with the person who hurt you.
  • In the first sense, it is possible to immediately give up the right to judge to God, but it may take a while for resentful feelings to go away (and that’s OK).
  • In the second sense, full restoration might not be possible, and even then, the nature of the relationship may need to change.
  • Biblical forgiveness aims towards reconciliation, but it’s possible to live at peace even when new boundaries need to be put up.
  • You can (and should) decide immediately to give up vengeance to God. But, emotional and relational healing take time.

This is obviously just a partial answer, I would love to hear other responses.

5 Takeaways from Small Church Essentials

Book Recommendation:  Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of under 250

Most books and podcasts on church strategy are written from the perspective of a big church leader. It’s easy to see why. Big church leaders have a platform. They’re successful. People want to hear what they have to say. We tend to equate size with success and so, if we want to be successful, we seek out those who have “made it.”

smallchurchessentials

Karl Vaters is a small church pastor who has written this book specifically for small churches. In doing so, his advice often challenges some conventional wisdom of church growth books.

While this book covers a lot of ground. Here are five takeaways I got out of the book:

  1. The world needs both big and small churches.

Though written from a small church perspective, this is not an anti-big church book. Vaters praises God for big and small churches alike. Big churches can be healthy and effective or unhealthy and ineffective. The same is true for small churches.

Vaters isn’t interested in the comparison game. Both big and small churches have a role to play in the larger body of Christ. Those churches can play complementary roles.  Vaters isn’t concerned about size, but about effectiveness: “We don’t need fewer big churches or fewer small churches – we need more healthy, active, passionate churches of all sizes, working together.”

  1. Small churches are different from Big churches, and that’s OK.

One of Vaters’ central theses is that a lot of advice given by big church leaders to small churches doesn’t work. Is that because small church pastors are lazy or ineffective? Is it because they’re not gifted or good leaders? Lots of small church pastors tell themselves this, but Vaters disagrees.

Big church principles don’t work in small churches because they just operate differently. Vaters’ explanation for this is the law of large numbers. The law of large numbers states that large groups are more predictable than small groups. “The smaller the group, the more the idiosyncrasies of individual people and the relationships between them come into play.”

Here’s one example: Because of this unpredictability, it can be harder for smaller churches to do long term planning. “The smaller the church, the less predictably it behaves, and the harder it is to plan for.” Small church plans are subject to significant change: “In a small church, the addition, subtraction, or change in plans of just one person or family can cause massive changes that you can never adequately prepare for.” That’s not to say that small churches should make long term plans, but that planning will end up looking differently than what is done in large churches.

If small church pastors try to just drop big church programs into their church, it may prove ineffective, or even detrimental, acting against the strengths of the small church. “The very systems that bring stability to big churches can make small churches seem cold and corporate, negating the main reason why most people attend a small church to begin with – the personal touch.”

  1. Church health matters more than Church size.

Here’s what happens: Small church pastors go to a conference, read a book, scan an article, or listen to a podcast promising church growth. The pastor does his best to put it into practice but, since it is only written from a big church perspective, it doesn’t work as expected. The pastor feels discouraged, assuming he is the problem. He either gives up or just moves on to the next big thing.

Vaters wants us to know that some “big church” principles are just not likely to work in small churches because they operate differently. He also wants us to know that simple numerical growth is the wrong goal.

Instead of seeking growth, churches should be seeking health. Vaters defines health as “increase[ing] our capacity for effective ministry.” Therefore, “instead of telling struggling churches to get bigger, let’s help them become healthy. If those churches grow as a result of their health, that’s great. If not? At east they’ll be healthy.”

After all, if a church is unhealthy, growth won’t help. “If something is broken, you can’t fix it by making it bigger.”

So how does a small church become an effective church? That’s what Vaters wants to answer, and that’s what this book is about.

  1. Vision casting matters less in small churches

Big and small churches will have different strategies and different priorities. A lot of church growth books put a major premium on crafting a vision statement and then consistently casting that vision to the church. Vaters sees value in having a vision statement, he just thinks its not that important for small churches.

He gives several reasons for this. First, we have already been given a “vision statement” from Jesus: “We’ve already been given the biggest, most audacious God-inspired vision of all… We have the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.”

Second, small church pastors need to focus on the clear command in Scripture on equipping the saints for ministry. “If the burden of having to find, cast, and promote a unique vision for the church was lifted from pastors’ shoulders, we would feel free to become the equippers we’re meant to be.”

Third, while in big churches a top-down approach to vision casting may be necessary, in small churches the preference should be for a bottom-up approach. Vaters doesn’t see many examples in Scripture of top-down vision casting. Instead, he argues that “a healthy small church on mission with God can and should be hearing God through various voices in the congregation.”

Pastors and congregations should be listening to God together and then get to work doing the ministry. Once a church understands its call (through actually doing ministry) then it can craft a mission statement. In this bottom-up, action-oriented approach, a vision/mission statement might still come, but it does later in the process. “In most small churches, a mission statement should be the last thing we do, not the first.”

  1. In small churches, relationships (and friendliness) are a priority

While Vaters doesn’t put a big priority on “vision casting” leadership, he does put a big priority on relationships. “Small churches live and die on the strength of their relationships.”

Why do people generally come to small churches? To find meaningful relationships. Why do people visit a small church? Because a friend invites them. How do people grow spiritually in small churches? Meaningful relationships (including mentoring relationships).

Guest friendliness also needs to be a priority. Yes, this matters in big churches as well, but often people expect a level of anonymity when they visit a large church. That’s not true for small churches. “Walking into a small church for the first time can be an act of great vulnerability.” But small churches are positioned well to do just this. You don’t need a lot of resources to be friendly to guests and foster meaningful relationships.

Conclusion

There’s a lot more that could be said, of course, but I hope you get the idea. I especially recommend this book for small church pastors and leaders. There are a few things in the book that I would push back on, but this book did what good books tend to do, it got me thinking about things through a new paradigm. I really appreciated Vaters’ small church insights.