Every now and then I try to take some time and reflect on why the intentional teaching ministry of the church remains important. Whatever shape it takes, why is equipping and a teaching in the church, for the church, and by the church valuable?
At least one reason is the growth of secularism, pluralism, and "indifferentism" in America. Very simply stated, secularism is a worldview that pushes God to the margins. It's fine to believe in God on your own, the secularist may say, just don't bring any religious ideas or reasoning into the public square. Pluralism flows out of the reality that we are surrounded by people who believe very different things than than us - and it often goes a step further to say the no one religion can be exclusively true. "Indifferentism" (this is my term, I think) tries to explain the religious apathy of the "nones" and "dones" - those who adhere to no single religious expression (the "nones") or those who have "tried out" some religion and - for whatever reason - didn't stick with it.
So what does all this have to do with catechesis - an intentional and systematic approach to teaching in the local church? Here's what:
As the Brookside Institute works to build and reinforce foundations of the Christain faith, one of the things we keep coming back to is theological formation. And that means I'm always on the lookout for places that champion the value of robut theology.
I found support for strong theology in a place I didn't expect earlier this week: in an article by David Millard Haskill titled "Liberal Churches are Dying. But Conservative Churches are Thriving." The whole article is worth reading - I encourage you to check it out. But I wanted to simple include a few key quotes from the article here:
Over the last five years, my colleagues and I conducted a study of 22 mainline congregations in the province of Ontario. We compared those in the sample that were growing mainline congregations to those that were declining. After statistically analyzing the survey responses of over 2,200 congregants and the clergy members who serve them, we came to a counterintuitive discovery: Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline. The results were published this month in the peer-reviewed journal, Review of Religious Research" (bold emphasis added).
Or a little further down:
Outside our research, when growing churches have been identified by other studies — nationally and internationally — they have been almost exclusively conservative in doctrine. As we explain in our academic work, because of methodological limitations, these other studies did not link growth to theology. But our work suggests this is a fruitful avenue of research to pursue" (bold emphasis added).
The bottom line? This research supports the case that theology matters. And strong theology actually bears fruit and leads to health (rather than the opposite). Let's keep at it!
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Christmas is officially five days away (!!), and that means many of us are considering last minute gift ideas for others in our lives. If you're looking for ideas for the "reader" you know, here are six accessible suggestions based on books I've read and recommend, or books that are very much on my radar screen to read soon.
Each of these suggestions has been recently published (in the last 2-3 years) and will be linked to an Amazon page where you can learn more. You'll see they're listed under 6 categories that I try and stay loosely tethered to:
What other books (in any of these categories listed above) would you suggest people consider? List 'em here!
Christmas is lots of things. It's devotional - it should stir our hearts, prompting our reflection and worship. It's action-oriented - it should lead us to give of ourselves and serve others.
And along with everything else it is, Christmas is theology. Big theological truths seep out of Christmas like sap comes out of the Christmas trees when they're cut down. In very short order, here are three theological truths that go hand-in-hand with Christmas.
Christmas tells us a lot about God.
God isn't some distant deity or a "capriciously malevolent bully" as some have claimed. In Christmas, we discover that "God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son..." (John 3:16). In Christmas, we see in the biggest way possible that God is a giver. And not only that God is a giver - but that God is a sacrificial, joyful, generous, over-the-top Giver.
Christmas defines the Incarnation.
The incarnation basically means that God became flesh. "Incarnation" helps us understand that Jesus was 100% God AND 100% man - both at the same time. (If you want to dig in deeper into the incarnation, read Stephen J. Wellum's recent God the Incarnate Son: The Doctrine of Christ or do some study on the Chalcedonian definition of Christ - a 5th century statement working to theologically articulate Christian orthodoxy around the two natures of Christ in His one person.
Christmas underlines our need for Jesus
When Jesus came into the world, he came into a world that NEEDED to be saved. In John 1 we get this Gospel writer's pespective on Christmas, and it underlines our need for Jesus.
In describing Jesus as light, John 1:5 tells us that Jesus came to shine in the darkness (i.e., evil). John 1:10-11 tells us that Jesus came into a world that was so darkened in its perception, twisted in its desires, and rebellious toward God that though Jesus made the world, "the world didn't recognize him." Instead, v. 11 tells us the world rejected Him. All of these things underline the truth thats sin is THE PROBLEM in our world and our hearts.
Sin is WHY we need Jesus. And so Jesus comes - is born of the Virgin Mary, lives a sinless life, dies on the cross for our sins and is raised to life again on the third day - so that "all who believe in His name can become children of God" (cf. John 1:12).
Let's not forget these (and other!) theological truths that go hand-in-hand with Christmas. Let's allow these truths to fill our minds, stir our devotion, and motivate our own action in line with the good news that Jesus has come, and that He's "God with us" (Matthew 1:23).
The weeks leading up to the coming of Christ are known as "Advent" in the Christian church - a period of waiting, anticipation, and reflection.
During this Advent Season, I've been reading through Tim Keller's Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ as one way to foster personal relection on Jesus' coming to earth as a baby. (I'm not all the way through it yet, but I know enough to definitely recommend the book.)
In chapter three ("The Fathers of Jesus"), Keller reminds us what the incarnation (Christ coming to earth as a baby) is all about:
The incarnation did not happen merely to let us know that exists. It happened to bring him near, so that he can be with us and we with him" (p. 55).
And then Keller goes on to write about what it means to be with Jesus, and how can cultivate that "with-ness." The questions he is asking are these: "What does it mean to have Jesus in my life? What does it mean to be with Jesus?"
As he develops his responses, one thing Keller mentions - that we can too easily overlook - is that being with Jesus takes courage. Everything he has to say in this section is worthwhile (again, read the whole book), but let me quote from one of Keller's subpoints, that being with Jesus requires the courages to give up your right to self determination.
As you read through the extended quote I've included below, allow this to shape the way you view Advent, and the way you approach the coming of Jesus (and what that means for your life today).
If you're new to the idea of Christian apologetics, this topic is basically talking about introducing and explaining Christianity to others who may have questions about or critiques of the Christian faith. In this sense, apologetics is best seen as a servant of evangelism - sharing the good news of what Jesus Christ accomplished and offers.
1 Peter 3:15 is a great biblical "go to" for the importance of apologetics:
15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect... (bold emphasis added).
Obviously, explaining Christianity to others and answering their questions is a big category! (There are whole books written just on specific questions - like human origins, the existence of God, the problem of evil, the reliability of the Bible, etc.). And we don't want to give the impression that answering people's questions is ALL we need to be concerned with. Francis Schaeffer reminded us that the "ultimate apologetic" is Christians showing love.
With all that said, books on apologetics have their place and serve a valuable role. Here are 8 books on Christian apologetics I generally point people towards first. My challenge to you isn't to read all 8, but to choose the 1 or 2 that most resonate with you, and start there.
Here are my recommendations. Click on either the pictures or titles below to be taken to an Amazon.com site where you can learn a bit more about any of these books.
Recently I had the privilege of presenting at a Teacher In-Service for Cornerstone Christian School in the Bellevue, NE area. The topic I was asked to teach on was "The Need for Biblical Truth."
Here's an edited form of my first major point: Why does biblical truth need my attention?
I recently ran across a 2009 article where Christian apologist, speaker and author Ravi Zacharias talks about "Defending Christianity in a Secular Culture." The whole thing is good, and I encourage you to read it.
In a few places throughout the article, Zacharias draws attention to the value of equipping the church, in the face of a secular culture that is increasingly hostile or indifferent towards Christianity. Below are some short quotes from the article where we see this:
(This is an updated version of a post I initially composed on July 22, 2014.)
I've recently gotten a few questions from people asking very specifically how they can get emails with updated posts from the Brookside Institute blog, without having to remember to check in periodically on their own. They want to stay in the loop, but they won't always remember to go looking for new content. And when they do remember, they may not be near a computer or it may not be a convenient time.
I love this question. I love it that people want to stay in the loop, and that we're providing valuable enough content that people want to stay engaged.
Here's how I respond to this question:
There's no way that I know of to get emails specifically from the Brookside Institute, providing updated content as new posts are published. (If I'm missing something on this, someone please let me know!) However that doesn't mean there's no way to conveniently stay in the loop. The solution is to subscribe to something called a "feed reader" that will collect the content (the "RSS Feed") you want from sites you subscribe to. Then, you simply monitor your feed reader and can conveniently stay up to date on the content you've chosen to subscribe to.
Below I've included some detailed steps on how to subscribe to an RSS Feed and have it collected into a feed reader. Before I get into that, though, let me briefly share WHAT an RSS Feed is and WHY subscribing to the RSS Feed can be helpful.
D.A. Carson begins his book How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil with these words:
One of the major causes of devastating grief and confusion among Christians is that our expectations are false. We do not give the subject of evil and suffering the thought it deserves until we ourselves are confronted with tragedy. If by that point our beliefs - not well thought out but deeply ingrained - are largely out of step with the God who has disclosed himself in the Bible and supremely in Jesus, then the pain from the personal tragedy may be multiplied many times over as we begin to question the very foundations of our faith" (p. 11).
In other words, there is tremendous value in thinking about suffering and evil even when our lives aren't directly touched at the current moment by these things. But let's be honest: For most of us, thinking about suffering and evil isn't an abstract thought-exercise. Thinking about suffering and evil brings real feelings to the surface, it revisits personal tragedy we've experienced or are experiencing, and it brings sin and the brokenness of our world to the center of our attention.
For all of these reasons, then, reflecting on a distinctly Christian perspective of suffering and evil is vital. Whether suffering "feels" distant or near, there's value in both embedding ourselves in Christian truth and surrounding ourselves with voices who can relate and speak to our struggles. As D.A . Carson goes on to say, "The truth of the matter is that all we have to do is live long enough, and we will suffer" (p. 16).
Certainly, the Bible should always take pride of place in providing perspective and coming alongside of us as we experience pain and suffering. Books like Job and Lamentations can be precious here. And learning that Jesus relates to our pain and suffering - that He himself experienced injustice, loss, tragedy, grief, and more - teaches us that Jesus is our ally and a shoulder to lean on as we endure and address our own suffering.
Other Christian books can also play a role here - at articulating biblical truth in a helpful way, and sharing personal experiences of suffering, grief, and pain. With this last comment in mind, then, below are six books that I suggest to those who are looking for resources to help them reflect on a distinctly Christian perspective on and approach to the reality of pain, suffering, and evil.
(One more quick, but really important, comment: Working through issues like suffering, pain, and evil should never be done with just you and a book - as helpful as books can be. Remember to also surround yourself with Christian community and consider the value of pastoral and/or professional counseling if appropriate.)
All right, on with the book recommendations:
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