An Open Letter from One Pastor to the Millennial Generation

Dear Millennial Generation,

I recently ran across a piece titled, “An Open Letter to the Church from My Generation,” written by a college student in South Dakota. Dannika Nash, the writer of the letter, says she speaks for your entire generation in rejecting the traditional church because of its stance toward homosexuality. Perhaps her claim is correct, but for some reason I doubt it. It just seems unlikely that one young woman from South Dakota represents the views of 80 million people.

Nonetheless, Ms. Nash clearly struck a nerve. More than 10,000 people shared her letter on Facebook and Twitter. At the very least, she represents a significant minority of your generation. Many of you are tired of the ongoing culture war over homosexuality. You have friends in pain, people who feel rejected by the Church (and consequently by God), and you want to ease their suffering. You’re tired of voices on both sides of the issue shouting at one another, yet making little progress in truly understanding one another.

I wonder if you would be surprised to find that many evangelical pastors and leaders are similarly dismayed by the anger and hostility surrounding this issue? Most of us aren’t eager to go to war over moral, political, or cultural issues, when our primary purpose is to make disciples of Jesus.

Ms. Nash would certainly classify my church and its pastors as deeply conservative. We hold traditional views when it comes to the Bible, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and yes, on issues of marriage and sexuality. When we select leaders, we expect them to act in keeping with biblical standards of integrity in every area of their lives, including the sexual area. We occasionally preach to our own congregation about homosexuality and other issues of sexual morality, because we recognize that sexual sin is a huge stumbling block for those trying to follow Christ.

However, our church exists to make disciples of Jesus, not to make people polite, nice, good, or socially acceptable. Most of the evangelicals I know would agree with that statement. The core of our message is that Jesus died and rose again to save sinners, and we are all sinners. Sin is an equal opportunity killer, and grace is an equal opportunity savior.

For that reason, it troubles me that the first question Millennials (and others) often ask me about my church is how we feel about homosexuality or gay marriage. I’m certainly not a celebrity pastor, but reporters occasionally call us for quotes. Without fail, they want to talk about homosexuality — do we hate homosexuals, do we really think the Bible is against them, how often do we preach sermons on the topic, etc. I’ve decided I simply can’t answer those questions apart from a broader discussion about Jesus and the gospel. I do not want to participate in an argument about morality without a discussion of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It’s unproductive at best, and dangerous at worst. Usually that means the reporter in question finds somebody else to provide a quote, somebody who will simply condemn homosexuals in stark terms without referencing the gospel. If you’ve ever wondered why the Christians quoted in the media seem to be of the strident and angry variety, that’s why.

I don’t represent all evangelicals, or all traditional pastors, or “all” of any group. However, I know that my church and many others want the chance to talk to your generation about Jesus. Yes, we’ll talk to you about homosexuality if you insist, but we’d much rather talk about Jesus first. We would rather talk about sexual morality in the context of discipleship, for those who are already committed to Jesus and His church.

If you are a Millennial who finds yourself suspicious of the traditional church, we would like to know you and to talk with you. I wonder if you would be willing to first consider Jesus Himself before asking me about homosexuality? What if knowing Jesus and believing that He freely offers eternal life ends up changing everything for you? In the final analysis, I mostly want you to develop a living and active relationship with God. I trust that once you meet Jesus, His Spirit will begin to work on those areas of your life that seem so impossible to change. Why make a decision at the age of 20 that you must always act, believe, and think just as you do now? Why refuse to entertain the possibility that a close encounter with God might dramatically alter your plans, your activities, and your perception of who you are?

If you trust Jesus, you’ll find that becoming more like Him is a life-long process, one that is simultaneously encouraging, exciting, and difficult. There are peaks and valleys along the way, and there are moments where you would rather not submit to what He’s doing in your heart. Every single Christian struggles with doubt and sin. Those who grow deeply with Jesus agree to keep seeking change, even though we sometimes resist the plans of the One transforming us. We don’t get to decide what God does in our hearts before He begins the process. If we tell Him that certain areas are off-limits, we’ll be sorely disappointed when He starts tinkering around in those areas.

So here’s my question: Would you be willing to consider Jesus apart from your preconceptions? You might think the church is wrong about homosexuality. Your pastor might misunderstand you or struggle to help you. But Jesus fully understands you, and I think His Spirit is most active among His people in the church. You might think that you’ll find your own way spiritually, apart from faithful friends in the church, but the Bible and my own experience both suggest that spiritual growth is a team activity.

If you’ve been hurt at church in the past, I’d like to suggest that you try again. I’m not saying that you should search for a church that endorses everything you do and think — that’s not a church, that’s a fan club. Instead, look for a place where the pastors and the people are fiercely committed to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Look for a place where they agree to help you, where they provide accountability and correction in a context of grace. Then dive in and seek help to grow closer to Jesus, even if it hurts at first, and even if you don’t agree with everything.

You just might find that Jesus, through the mercy and love of His people, changes everything.

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Justice, Mercy, and Boston

In the past few days, Christians have discussed and debated on Twitter and Facebook our proper response to the arrest of one Boston bomber and the death of another. There has been a noticeable tension between those who see them as men in need of God’s grace and those who are just glad that they can’t hurt anybody else. Some have called for the living brother to be quickly executed, while others suggest mercy. So what does the Bible say about justice and mercy in situations like this?

Just a few thoughts (this is adapted from a post I wrote a few years ago after the death of Osama bin Laden):

Wicked men and women deserve punishment, and God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8; Ps 73:18-20). You don’t have to read the Bible for long before you recognize a clear pattern — God will decisively judge the wicked. If they are not judged now, then they will be judged in eternity. It is appropriate to rejoice that justice has been done (Psalm 58:10-11). Justice ultimately means freedom from the effects of wickedness and sin — those who would deny the ultimate destruction of the wicked also unwittingly deny the final salvation of the righteous.

The capture of these criminals provides a limited but real sense of justice for the people who lost friends and family members, or who were permanently damaged physically or psychologically through his violence.

Governments are established, in part, as God’s (imperfect) agents of justice (Romans 13:3-4). At their best, human governments act as enforcers of God’s will to punish evil-doers and reward righteous people. However, governments are established and run by people, so they are always imperfect. As hard as it is to believe, it’s possible that my own government could make a mistake in its execution of justice. Just because God gave the government the authority to punish evildoers does not mean that the government always does it correctly.

The justice effected by human governments will never be enough. We await a final and decisive judgment (Revelation 19-22). The justice brought about through human means may temporarily appease our need for justice, but will not fully satisfy it. For that reason, human justice can even make us grieve because it reminds us of how much remains to be done. How many really believe that the death or imprisonment of the bombers constitutes decisive judgment on all acts of terrorism and violence?

Finally, God does not delight in the destruction of the wicked, so neither should we (Ezekiel 33:11). Even as we rejoice in the accomplishment of limited justice, we recognize that a tragedy has occurred. Two men made in God’s image found themselves in a position worthy of severe judgment, and for one of them that judgment led to his death. We grieve that we live in a world where tragedies like this one occur all too frequently. We grieve for those who run toward violence and destruction rather than toward the saving mercy of Jesus Christ. And we pray for every man and woman to know Jesus and find forgiveness.

We also pray that we can be vessels of God’s mercy, to extend His grace to the next potential Boston bomber before justice has to be served yet again.

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Gosnell and God’s Image

Over the past week, my Facebook feed has been filled with the story of Kermit Gosnell, the abortion doctor who is now charged with several counts of murder. It is alleged that Gosnell killed at least 7 live infants over a period of several decades. He is also charged with the death of one woman who came to him seeking an abortion. (If you have not yet read the stories, I need to warn you that the case is extremely disturbing and the news coverage is often graphic).

Most of the posts on Facebook have focused on the news media’s lack of interest in the case, and the national discussion has centered around whether the media has a bias against reporting stories like this.

While the question of media bias is interesting, I think the deeper question is, “How could something like this go on for so long in a ‘civilized’ society?” What are the factors that lead a person to devalue human life to the point of cutting the spinal cords of healthy, live infants? And what kind of society allows it to continue unchecked for years and years, despite repeated warnings and complaints?

The real issue at the heart of the Gosnell story is that we lack a sufficient understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. In other words, the problem is primarily theological and spiritual. If we evangelicals lose sight of that, our responses will be short-lived and ineffective. In other words, we cannot simply attack the political and governmental issue of abortion without addressing a major deficiency in our own understanding of humanity itself.

Here’s the heart of the matter: If we fail to understand what it is to be made in God’s image, we will assign value to people using terribly inaccurate methods of accounting. Gosnell killed infants because he believed that they were less valuable than other people. That’s why he can confidently claim to be a “good person,” despite ample evidence to the contrary. I can almost guarantee that Gosnell’s defense will argue that he was doing the world a service by providing a way for young women to live in freedom and autonomy, without the burden of caring for unwanted infants. Because the infant is small and helpless, and can’t exert its own opinion, it’s deemed less valuable than bigger and smarter people. Gosnell assigned value to people based upon their abilities.

A biblical understanding of the image of God protects us against devaluing those who are physically weaker, less intelligent, or who wield less power in our society. Every human being bears God’s image, and His image is not tied to our mental or physical abilities. God’s image is not a matter of how smart or strong we are. Once we buy into the lie that some people are more inherently valuable to others, then we will inevitably drift toward abusing (or at least neglecting) those who are most in need of our protection. That theological deficiency is actually at the heart of the abortion debate, and as Christians we often forget that.

The image of God is best understood in terms of our potential rather than our current abilities. Every person, regardless of size, race, mental capacity, or even moral rectitude, has the potential to relate to God and to represent Him. Unlike the animals, our bodies and minds and spirits were designed for perfection, a perfection that has been temporarily defaced. For those who know Christ, that perfection will one day be restored. We will literally shine with the glory of God (Daniel 12:3). We will perfectly relate to Him without any hint of sin (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will finally demonstrate what it means to be made in God’s image.

Every single person, from the unformed infant to the well-educated professional, possesses the image of God. Because of that fact, we are called to treat each person with love and respect. Because of that fact, we are obligated to protect the weakest among us, those who possess the image of God but who are prone to abuse from those who don’t recognize it.

If we fail to understand and teach about God’s image, then our lives won’t accurately reflect the standards of God’s love and holiness. It’s not only the unborn and newly-born who need our protection, although they certainly need it. We’re called to protect everybody the world sees as unimportant or less valuable. If we can teach that concept in our families and our churches and our communities, then we have a much better chance of making a real difference in the lives of those around us. We have a much better chance of reducing the number of people who feel their only option is to go to a place like Gosnell’s terrible death clinic. More importantly, we have a better shot at communicating the Gospel, which is the only way to fix our broken image.

Everybody you know, even those you find irritating or annoying or stupid or weak, is made in God’s image. It’s a broken image, yes, but as Christians we carry with us the promise of redemption and restoration. So let’s shine like the stars we are, created to show God’s love and glory to a lost world.

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Christians and Taxes: On God and Caesar

Tax season is upon us. Depending upon a variety of factors, you’re either elated (“I’m getting $2000 back!”) or extremely angry (“I owe HOW much!?”). It’s probably safe to say that nobody likes paying taxes.

For Christians, I think the issue of paying taxes can be especially complicated. On the one hand, we’re aware that our tax money supports programs that we find morally or spiritually objectionable. (Interestingly enough, Texas A&M students recently fought over this very issue, with a group of Christian students attempting to opt out of paying the portion of their fees that will go to support an LGBT resource center). On the other hand, Christians can’t help but notice Jesus’ admonition to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). In the past few weeks, I’ve even seen this passage used as a way of telling people they shouldn’t claim any deductions or exemptions or credits on their tax returns!

What did Jesus mean when He said to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? I think the passage is more shocking than we often realize. The “give to Caesar” concept is usually repeated to mean that we should simply pay our taxes, but Jesus’ broader point is sometimes missed.

Jesus was saying something quite radical. Here’s the most concise way I can think of to explain his point: While the government has the right to take your money, they have no real claim on you. Why? Because God owns you — He owns everything about you, including your body, your time, your mind, your heart, your relationships, and yes, your money!

In the grand scheme of things, the government has two strings they can pull: money and force. They can take your money: like Jesus said, they printed it, and they can take it away. They can also exercise force: they can jail you or (in extreme cases) kill you (see Romans 13). Now I realize that those powers can seem quite significant to you and me. After all, without money we can’t eat. And the power to kill is an awesome power indeed.

Nonetheless, Jesus tells us that those powers are temporary and very limited. There’s a reason Jesus said not to fear those who can kill the body but who have no power over the soul (Matthew 10:28). The government cannot really affect anything of eternal value! God has control over everything, and he’s temporarily allowed the ruling authorities to have a very limited influence in the affairs of the world. (As a side note, that’s why the government can’t really define marriage any more than they can define the number of scales that belong on a fish. All they can do is offer money or take money from particular groups of people. The definition of marriage is well outside of their jurisdiction).

Too often we assume that the government’s decisions and laws have a dramatic effect on our ability to follow Christ or to practice our faith. We worry that if we pay too much in taxes, or if they take our money for causes we disagree with, that we will no longer be free for worship or discipleship. Believe me when I tell you that the government of Caesar was much, much worse than our own. Yet Jesus wasn’t worried. He knew where true power resided.

So how should we approach tax season, then? First, don’t panic or become angry. Yes, they can take our money. They will use it however they please. In a representative form of government like our own, we can express our disagreement and vote for new representatives. But in the final analysis, the government doesn’t own us. God owns us. When we become flustered or upset about taxes, it communicates that we have lost sight of what is truly valuable. (And I’m preaching to myself as much as to anybody else — my own tax return caused me one or two moments of despair this year).

Second, pay the taxes. That doesn’t mean that we can’t claim exemptions and deductions, as long as they are legal. However, we ought to pay what we owe without undue grumbling or complaining. Again, let’s try to keep things in perspective.

Third, give to God what is God’s. To put it plainly, everything belongs to God. Our bodies. Our minds. Our houses. Our money. Our churches. Our families. Everything. Our tax bill has no effect on our ability to trust God and follow Him. If we think it does, we’ve lost sight of His power. Once the government taxes us, they are held responsible before God for how the money is spent. So pay the taxes and then focus on what God has called us to do. Share the Gospel, study His Word, pray, give, care for the weak and needy, and love God. No matter what strings the government pulls, they cannot stop us from following God. If you want a great illustration of people who followed God faithfully in the midst of governmental barriers and persecution, read the book of Acts. It’s hard to read that book and conclude that the government has any real power over matters of eternity.

In summary, we don’t need to be threatened by this world’s kingdoms, since God’s kingdom trumps them all. He owns us and everything about us. Let that be our focus as we approach April 15th this year.

I’d love to hear from you: How do you approach tax season? Do you agree with my assessment or disagree? 

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Guest Post: Letting Go of Lesser Dreams

(This is a guest post from Erin Christian, one of our college interns at Grace Bible Church.)

Special thanks to Masterpiece Conference 2013 whose speakers Leigh Kohler (quoted) and Donna Stuart helped inspire this post.

If you’ve seen the YouTube video Pep Talk from Kid President, you know just how cute that kid is.  My favorite line is “It’s like that dude Journey said, “Don’t stop believing” …unless your dream is stupid, then get another dream!”  The video leaves you with the charge to give the world a reason to dance because everyone has the ability to do or be something awesome.  What is there not to love about that video?  It’s our generation’s version of the American dream. We all want to make the world a better place, regardless of if you love Jesus or not.  We tell our children they can be anything they want.  Dozens of reality TV shows are created so ordinary people can have a shot at reaching their dream of becoming the world’s best chef, model, singer, dancer, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong- I’m a dreamer if there ever was one!  I love how Eph 3:20 states that God “is able do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think.” I think like any good father, God wants to see our dreams come to fruition.  It doesn’t always feel that way, though.  I have recently felt like I am living in the realm of all things ordinary.  The great things I want to happen seem to be outside of my grasp. There are times when it seems like the Lord is doing the exact opposite of the good dream that I’m wanting.  I repeat: GOOD dreams – not sinful, selfish ones- but ones that will bring Him glory or grow me in my walk with Him or make a difference in the world! So when those ‘closed doors’ come, it hurts.

People often say once you’re willing to let something go, then God will let you truly have it.  The problem with that is you’re essentially willing to do anything to keep whatever ‘it’ is above all else, even if that means “letting it go.”  We find a holy way to preserve our idols. The truth of it all is that the Lord wants us to let everything go-even our best-intentioned dreams for His glory- in surrender to wherever He wants us.

I don’t know what your specific dream is, or what the weight of waiting feels like.  Maybe your dream is to raise a godly family, but you aren’t even dating someone.  Maybe it’s to end human trafficking, but you’re currently stuck having to study for a geology exam. Maybe your dream is to be part of the bigger solution, but you don’t know how your meager efforts will ever truly add up.

I’ve been there. Some days I am still there.  I’ve presented open hands before the Lord just to close them again.  What the Lord has been patiently teaching me is that our dreams and passions are not separate from our walks with God.  And they can never be accomplished without Him. We’re often tempted to seek God so that our dreams can be fulfilled. How backwards that is!  We seek God first. We become a living sacrifice.  We walk by His Spirit.  He wants our obedience and devotion more than He wants our great conquests against evil in His name. You see, our intimacy with the Lord will always have a direct correlation to the impact we have on others.  He wants us to love Him and love others, right where He has us at this very moment.  And I’m pretty sure that if the God of the universe is going to use us in some specific way, He knows where to find us.

So what do we do today? For we who have accepted Christ as Savior, we can choose to walk by His Spirit.  We can take His hand and let Him be our guide. We die to self by realizing that there our lesser dreams often have to die. They may be postponed, or they may never happen in the way we think they’re going to pan out.  I have had dreams of working for specific ministries, or places I would live in my twenties, or even men I thought I’d marry. These weren’t little dreams, but they were lesser dreams compared to God’s grand dream for my life. Prayer and dependence align us with God’s grand dream for our lives.  I love what Leigh Kohler stated so beautifully, “We are prideful to think we can change the world without our faces on the floor.” True joy is found right where He has us in this exact phase of life. He wants us to be a part of carrying out His ultimate dream- that all may come to the knowledge of grace found in Christ alone.

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