Category Archives: culture

Why we are sponsoring a child with World Vision

Before I go back to my series on quitting church, I wanted to weigh in on a current controversy that still lingers. I know that for some this is old news but late in March, World Vision announced that it would start hiring individuals in same sex relationships. Two days later, the organization reversed its decision after the uproar in the evangelical community against it. You can read more about the controversy here.

Today, I stumbled upon this podcast in the Gospel Coalition site where a pastor re-tells how he and his congregation reacted to the controversy.  To be fair, the podcast had some positive points. If you are looking for hatred or caricature image of conservatives you will not find here. Here was a pastor looking to engage people with same-sex attraction, while still holding a biblical view of marriage.

However, what was sorely missing from this discussion was any allusion to the impact this controversy had on sponsorships. The pastor did encourage people to sponsor again but this was a very short portion of the broadcast. Maybe, this was a tacit show of priorities in the evangelical mindset right now: fighting culture wars first, helping the poor second.  Some estimates claim that as high as 10,000 lost sponsorships. This is when I decided to write something about it. I honestly find it tremendously un-biblical (to say the least) to neglect the poor in such manner. What was missing from this podcast was that this was not about cultural wars but about helping the most vulnerable in the world. Both presenter and the pastor totally neglected this very important point.

What makes really upset is that even after the policy was reversed, past sponsors have not returned.  World Vision probably considered this decision not because of pressure from society but by realizing that to hire the most competent people; they may need to consider those in same-sex relationships. Honestly, if this is the standard for doing business with a company then evangelicals should not buy anything from most Fortune 500 companies. The majority of them already hires and provides benefits for people in same-sex relationships.

I hope evangelicals who oppose same-sex marriage will realize that the child in Kenya needing help is more important than a political statement in the US. This is an example of trying to win a battle while missing its impact in the overall war. I do not have space in this post to list all the verses in Bible in which points toward caring for the poor and or God’s negative view of those who do not.

After this controversy, we decided to start sponsoring a child ourselves. We thought we needed to put our money where our mouth is. I encourage all of you to consider doing as well, REGARDLESS of your thoughts on same-sex marriage. For Christ’s sake, let us never forget the least of these.



Why do we go to church? – When church attendance hinders faith

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation outside of the church)

The statement above summarized the belief the Medieval Western church held in regards to the importance of the church. For centuries, Christians have attributed the local church as the center of salvation and spiritual growth. There were exceptions, as the monastic movements in the early 2nd – 4th century reminds us, who believed spiritual vitality was to be found in the desert. Yet, for most of church history, the focus has been on institutional participation. There is much to be said about finding spiritual nourishment outside church services. But what if church participation actually hampers and limits spiritual growth?

Let me explain. In the last weeks I’ve been looking over two books that shed some light in the current transition in the North American church. The first one is the The American Church in Crisis which summarizes current trends based a 200,000 church database research. The second one is Quitting Church in which a journalist compiles the stories of people who have recently left the church. The picture painted by these books is revealing and cannot be ignored any longer. Let me quickly summarize them in a few bullet points pertinent to our topic above:

– Every denomination in the US is currently undergoing either decline or slowing growth. While some churches are growing, the overall trend is clear: a smaller % of the US population will be attending churches in the future.

– While there is a net growth (opens minus closures) of 300 churches in the US, this is far below what is needed to keep up with population growth.

– Single women, people over 35, influential people, mature Christians and even charismatics are leaving the church in significant numbers. The millenials are in no hurry to get and in and single men stop considering it an option a long time ago.

– People that left the church over time show little sign of missing the experience and some have found alternative ways to fill their spiritual needs.

As one who works with data for a living, I appreciate both these authors research and reporting of their findings. Their analysis of the problem is right on. Yet, both seem to ask the same question as the next step: “What can churches do to get them back?” Usually, the answer goes: plant more churches. Now, you have to ask, is the approach to current problem to do more of what has not worked in the past? I understand the value of church plants and how they tend to grow (or die) faster than established churches. But really, is that the best we can do?

A group who is not captured by these statistics is those who stay but struggle. Given my personal experience and those around me, even married couples with children (for long the prime demographic of church attendance) are starting to have doubts. I am also overwhelmed by the stories of hurt from  church plant experiences – life plans shattered, families falling apart, promises un-kept, depression, financial ruin to name a few. I hear a lot of things from seminary friends these days but planting a church is not one of them. This is not a good sign, possibly foreshadowing a future decline beyond the current trends. When you see so many faithful and strong Christians struggling to stay in the very institution designed to help them grow, you have to wonder: Maybe the surprise shouldn’t be why so many people are leaving but why so many have stayed.

What if the right question is not how to get them back (or keep them in) but how to help them thrive spiritually wherever they are? Much of the books written on the topic seem focused on helping churches become more efficient organizations so they can grow enough to make up for their losses. This is a business mindset way to address the problem that can only do so much. You can market a product in a 1000 different ways, but it will still not sell if people don’t want to buy it. And by the way, word on the street is that customer service is very poor. Certainly, this is not just a business problem but an issue of institutional survival.

What if the problem is more systemic? What if the local church centered system has become obsolete and believers need new ways to fill their spiritual needs? What if the church can thrive outside of the “church” instead of confined in it? What if the local congregation is no longer the center of spiritual growth and formation? What would this world look like and how would it function?

In the next blogs, I would like to explore this topic that has occupied my thoughts lately. I hope to provide some good information and insight but above all to start a conversation. I welcome your feedback and comments: positive or negative.

I don’t claim to be an expert on this but intend to become a disciplined learner.

Individualism and Community in Frozen

Maybe you are one of the few people on this planet who has not watched or don’t know what Frozen is. If you are parent, especially, the movie is unescapable. You have probably watched it many times and possibly hummed “Let it Go” in the office inviting puzzled stares from co-workers (check out the Jimmy Fallon version  or this one ). Frozen is more than an animated movie – it is a cultural phenomenon. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future books are written about its influence and meaning in our society. If anything, it should be a family favorite that I’ll watch with my girls for years to come.

There are a lot good things in the movie that would take a number of posts to fully unpack. In this one, I want to focus primarily on how the movie treats the conflict between individuality and community – a latent topic in our post-modern world. It starts vividly in the scene in which Elsa runs away singing the Oscar winning “Let it Go” sang by the “wickedly talented Adele Dazeem” (courtesy of John Travolta ). For some reason, the scene transcends the struggle of a girl’s coming of age to represent all of us in the discovery and affirmation of our individuality. I have to say, after watching a few times; the scene has moved me deeply. Suddenly, Elsa discovers that what she fears most is actually the very source of her greatest power. She has gone from being a scared little girl to a becoming a powerful woman. If the movie ended there, much could be learned. Yet, the story was not complete.

Part of her discovery of individuality is her decision to live alone, secluded in her ice castle. Elsa decides that the only way to be herself safely would be to stay in isolation. She is also unaware of how her power discovery was affecting her community. Arendale laid frozen by her own doing while she sat along in her castle. This is really where the movie goes beyond entertainment to share very much needed wisdom. It takes her sister Anna (which also happens to be our youngest daughter’s name – prophetic or what?), to make her see how her community was being destroyed by her assertion of individuality.

At first she resists the reality that she can’t live in isolation and is lost as to how she can help. Really, how much evil in the world is caused by fear rather than malice? A fearful person can also be a dangerous perpetrator.  It is only when her sister Anna saves her life in an act of self-sacrifice that she realizes that her power could be used for good.  Only when she turns her power to building her community that she can live in peace. In other words, the power of love was stronger than the power of her individuality. She could truly only be herself in community.

What an amazing message!  I may be reading too much into this (which is inevitable after you are forced to watch it 20 times!) but I hope that movies like these can help us understand the beauty and the peril of our individuality. Finding oneself is important and liberating. Yet, finding our true selves only happens in community. We live in this tension of discovering who we are while also learning our calling among the people God puts around us. Can we let go of our fears without letting go of each other? Let’s come down from our castles of isolation and meet in the plaza of human community.

Responding to an evangelical review of the Noah Movie

When you live close to tinsel town, somehow you start paying more attention to movies. Believe me, it is inescapable. I often get notices at work of streets closing because of some filming event. I never watched (or really cared about) the Oscars yet watched the whole thing last Sunday (and actually enjoyed it a little).  So, I was intrigued by a recent review of the upcoming movie Noah posted in Christianity Today. In it, Dr. Johnson outlines five negative features of the film. His review exposed more his own theological assumptions than the problems of the movie itself. Let me explain.

His first claim is that the movie’s portrayal of Noah, “does not ring true.” Dr. Johnson takes issue of when the movie shows a “darker” side of Noah who is struggling with the evil of humanity. In the theologian’s view, this does not sound like the Biblical Noah who is called “righteous” in the Bible. This then begs the question: Do righteous people never struggle with sin and or anger against evil? It sounds like the Noah does not fit the “Sunday school” picture of Noah as opposed the true biblical Noah. Now really, if the Bible is not shy in showing the sins of the righteous why are we so worried about portraying them as perfect?  So, instead of asking whether the movie’s Noah rings true, I start wondering if Dr. Johnson’s Noah is true.

His second negative feature is that the “environmental agenda is overdone.” That is, the movie shows Noah more concerned with environmental degradation then moral sins (sex and violence). What I find profoundly ironic (and a little sad) was the theologian’s inability to connect violence and environmental abuse. To quote him: “The textual emphasis is on “violence.” Not a word about hunting or mining; knowing this, the environmental agenda feels phony.” Really? So violence against humans is a sin but against the environment is not? Could it be that the movie is shining a light on a blind spot of our Western colonial theology that believes that one should respect human life but has no concern for any other type of life? I found it intriguing how he could not connect hunting and mining with violence. Not to say that these are sinful practices yet their abuse certainly constitute a violence of the worst kind; one that has implications not only for the environment but for humans as well. Maybe God is also concerned about the environment.

I could go on, but in trying to keep these posts under 600 words, I’ll stop here. I guess, what I am realizing is that God can speak through unlikely sources. I am not a defender or even a fan of Hollywood. To me, it is an industry beset by the same problems as any other. Yet, I wonder if God could be using prophets within culture and the arts to speak to us about what we have neglected for so long. Could it be that our theology is too small to accommodate a serious critique of environmental degradation as a sinful practice? Are we too busy making Biblical characters look like safe image while at same time denying the reality that they (and we all) struggle with sin?

I have not watched the movie and may change my mind afterwards. I am sure, I’ll find things I don’t like in it. Yet, is that really the point? I would love for any cultural means of art and entertainment to spread Godly ideas and encourage virtue rather than destruction. Yet, does that mean they have to agree 100% with my own evangelical theology?