Christian faith

Many Altars but One Gospel

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Most religions have some form of an altar as a means of worship. Primitive altars are where sacrifices, sometimes animals or humans, were made to appease a deity or god. In the Old Testament, altars were part of the worship of Israel using prescribed sacrifices for specific reasons.

Altars can also be figurative. In most traditional churches, a table or cabinet serves as an altar where certain elements of the worship service are placed. More contemporary churches might consider the front platform area as an altar.

Physical altars or places to offer gifts or sacrifices are common in many cultures around the world. I'm more familiar with Thailand and the Philippines. I've traveled and ministered in Thailand many times. It has an abundance of altars in many places.

Most religions have some form of an altar as a means of worship

Land of many altars

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation, and Buddhism breeds and thrives on an animistic belief. One look around at all the spirit houses and altars or shrines erected throughout the nation makes this clear.

It is difficult to preach the Gospel in Thailand and see genuine conversions to following Christ—both culturally and spiritually. The truth can get lost in the various layers of culture and spirituality present in Thailand and in other nations.

Living in another culture different than your own helps you see things from a different perspective.  This is one of the values of true cross-cultural missions. In a sense, I had two home cultures—American and Filipino—while living in the Philippines for fifteen years.

Living in another culture than your own helps you see things from a different perspective

Although they are quite different from each other—one is western and the other eastern philosophically—a vast difference exists between both of those cultures and Thai culture, at least on the surface.

Is there really that much difference between how Christianity is practiced in America, Roman Catholicism in the Philippines, and Buddhism in Thailand? Perhaps not as much as you think.

Buddhism and altars

Buddhism with its thousands of gods is intertwined in its origin with Hinduism, an ancient religion with millions of gods or deities. How can there be so many gods?

Most ancient religions were prone to associating deity or god-likeness with creation. This is noted in the first chapter of Romans (Rom 1:25). It's termed animism—the worship of non-human things as if they had souls or spirits.

Animism exists throughout the world today, even in unexpected places and ways.

It's common to see small altars of fruit, toys, incense, and other things offered in many places to many gods throughout Thailand. Ancestor worship is also mixed into many ancient religions with animistic belief systems.

Most ancient religions were prone to associating deity or god-likeness with creation

Roman Catholic shrines

Throughout the Philippines, it is common to see both Roman Catholic statues or images along with Chinese religious symbols, where ancestor worship is common. Shrines to Mary and to the infant Jesus are found in homes, businesses, as well as in churches.

Riding in a Filipino cab one day, I noticed the driver—a Roman Catholic—had a Chinese religious symbol hanging from his mirror and a Christian image or two on his dashboard. As he drove me across town, we talked about Jesus. "He's my protector, I trust in Him," said my taxi driver. 

It made me realize how many Christians in America have a similar approach to covering all the bases. Of course, as evangelical Christians, we don't see it that way.

Many Christians in America have a covering-all-the-bases approach to their faith

American altars and shrines

People in animistic cultures have a difficult time with the typical western approach of sharing the Gospel in bits and pieces—"Jesus died for your sins" or "God so loved the world." It's difficult for them to disassociate these bits and pieces from what they already believe.

When bits of pieces of the truth spoken without their greater context come across as abstract truths. Abstract truths connected to testimonies of success and blessing as often occurs in evangelism, lack the scriptural frame of reference to be understood well.

People in such cultures can both accept and reject the Gospel readily. They pick and choose between what appeals to them and what doesn't fit their belief system and worldview of life.

Are American Christians much different than religious people in other places?

The church potluck

American Christians tend to pick and choose what does and does not appeal to them regarding the Gospel, and with doctrine and practice. It's as if the gospel and Christian beliefs are laid out on a table as with a church potluck.

Perhaps it doesn't seem this way, but consider how many different Christian churches exist. Often times, the only distinction between one church and another is the presentation or methodology of the church service itself.

There's too much to get sidetracked on with this issue, but consider what draws you to a certain church or type of worship service. What do you expect when you go to church?

American tend to pick and choose what they like and don't like about the Christian faith

Is your Christianity animistic?

For more than four decades, I've heard questions from prospective churchgoers like, "What do you have to offer that's better than the church down the street?"

Why are so many American Christians like this? Is it because we are so self-focused? Well, yes! 

We take the bits and pieces we hear of the gospel and Christianity and connect them to our own perceptions of blessing and success. In this way, our Christianity becomes more animistic than the gospel in the Bible.

Christians prefer bits and pieces of the gospel that connect to blessing and success

The western church promotes this with how we present the Gospel, Jesus, and various concepts of church-community. Consider the following questions—

What appeals to you about church, the Gospel (God's Story), and Jesus?
What is it you like or dislike? What makes you comfortable or uneasy?

Over the next couple weeks, I'll continue to look at this issue of altars and the gospel. Next week, I hope to challenge you to answer whether you come to God's altar or God's throne?

The gospel and animism—

The following articles may provoke you to thought, even upset you. I hope so. They are written by missionaries—one in Thailand and one in Zimbabwe in Africa. You can post responses on this blog or on social media— but let them be edifying and gracious

Animism and the Prosperity Gospel

Why Your Gospel May Be More Animistic Than You Think

IYOW—a Useful Acronym

Photo credit: https://www.articulatemarketing.com/blog/annoying-acronyms

Photo credit: https://www.articulatemarketing.com/blog/annoying-acronyms

Acronyms. Gotta love 'em… LOL (laughing out loud)! Whether it's government agencies or texting lingo, they've become an integral part of everyday life, at least for most of us. Like them or hate them, they are part of our information-overload culture.

But acronyms, as a rule, are context dependent. Unless you know the context they're used in you won't understand what they mean.

I know a group of believers and a ministry that goes by CIA—Christians In Action. Of course, when most people see these initials the Central Intelligence Agency comes to mind.

BTW (by the way), that reminds me of a great line from the movie, Red October— Capt. Bart Mancuso: "Central Intelligence Agency... Now, there's a contradiction in terms." [LOL]

Acronyms

Terminology and phrases used over and over often get shortened into acronyms.

When I did some work in the chemical dependency field we wrote reports for intake and assessment interviews. Comments were made about a client's social history (Hx) and recommended treatment (Tx).

These abbreviations are common within social services and helping professions. But outside of those fields, they may mean something else or nothing at all.

Acronyms are shorthand abbreviations for terms. It saves time and energy. But if you're not familiar with the context they're used in, it can cause confusion.

Christian lingo

Herein lies one of my pet peeves—the use of Christianese. It is a generic, catch-all phrase for Christian lingo and terms. I also call it Bible-talk or Bible-babble.

For the uninitiated (non-believers or new Christian believers) it is unintelligible talk. It doesn't make sense because there's no frame of reference to understand these terms and phrases.

As with most things I learn, I stumbled into a way of dealing with the overuse and abuse of Christianese. It wasn't discovered through research and study but in a desperate attempt to help my students understand the Bible and theological terms.

Solving a dilemma

In 1995, I established a Bible school in the Philippines with a curriculum based on the Inductive Bible Study (IBS) approach.

Working with students for whom English was a second language (ESL), I needed to find a way to help them learn beyond the typical transfer of knowledge—copying and repeating—a common form of education in much of the world.

How could I get them to understand well-known Bible verses beyond a surface familiarity?
How could I help them understand what it means to be born again or what redemption is?

IYOW—a useful tool

I developed the expression IYOW—In Your Own Words. I asked the students to define words and express Bible verses in their own words. It proved to be a challenging yet fruitful process.

Several years ago we had a group of Americans come over on a short-term mission (STM). They went out with our first-year students for an outreach mission in another area.

As part of our curriculum, the students had a class on personal evangelism along with the outreach (OR). This class required them to redefine common Christian terms related to personal evangelism.

I was glad to see how well the students did but confounded by how the Americans struggled with the assignment. They had a hard time transferring what they thought they knew into words of their own.

They seemed to be bound by unspoken rules as if it wasn't proper to decode these terms into simple words. It is proper and useful, even necessary.

Seeing their struggle, I realized I had stumbled upon a useful tool for teaching the truth. Not only for my students but those who think they know the truth.

You try it!

Take a common biblical term (i.e.: salvation, communion, etc.), Christian expression (i.e.: altar call, accept Christ, etc.), or well-known Bible verse (like John 3:16) and put it into your own words (IYOW). You may find it more challenging than you expect!

As a matter of course, I try to decode certain terms even when used in Christian circles, especially within churches. I've found it to be helpful and insightful to challenge people to do the same.

Most all believers use Christianese expressions, which is not wrong in and of itself, but when we use them we need to explain them and make sure those who hear us understand what we say.

[See the links below for some more insight and a few laughs about Christianese.]

What are some Christian expressions or biblical terms you'd like to understand better?

Just put them in the comment section. Maybe it will be the basis for another post on the subject.


Christianese

For a fun look at Christianese check out this video (still one of my favorites)— Christianese

Here's another— "Do You Speak Christianese?" Bible Quiz

And another— Wise Fools: Top 10 Christianese Words/Phrases

For a more in-depth view of Christianese, here's a resource in development that might help, and give you a chuckle or two— http://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/

5 Foundational Truths of the Christian Faith

In a previous post, I pointed out that a general understanding of Christianity often revolves around moral goodness. Moral goodness in and of itself is certainly not bad, but it is not the basis of genuine Christian faith.

And yet, true followers of Christ ought to be good examples of moral goodness. But what is this moral goodness based on? It is not relative to any culture, nor is it gained by upholding certain laws. It is not even based on what a person believes.

But what a person believes and why they believe it is important.

5 Foundational Truths of the Christian Faith

There are at least five basic, foundational truths essential to genuine Christianity. This is from an evangelical perspective. The work of Christ's redemption is received only by faith because of God's kindness and favor referred to as grace.

  1. Jesus is the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith
  2. Jesus is the core of the Essential Gospel and the core of our Christian faith
  3. Jesus personally calls us to follow Him
  4. Jesus gave one all-encompassing command—to love one another as He loved us
  5. Jesus gave one primary mission to His followers called the Great Commission

Do you see the constant in all five of these foundational truths? It's Jesus!

Instead of rattling off Scripture references to base these on, I'll give a few references followed by some questions. Why?

Western Christian believers have a tendency to take in biblical knowledge without fully understanding it. This may enable someone to spout Bible references and beliefs, but it doesn't necessarily lead to internalizing truth.

When the truth is internalized it becomes embedded in us and readily available to share with others. But for a truth to be internalized a person needs to process the truth through their own thinking. This often involves some form of struggle to gain understanding.

Jesus the Cornerstone

There are several places where Jesus is referred to as the Cornerstone. One of those is found in Ephesians 2:20 another is in 1 Peter 2:4-8.

Why would this be an important and foundational truth of the Christian faith? 

Has this truth been foundational for you?

The Essential Gospel

The Essential Gospel—He Came, He Died, He Rose—is laid out in my book, The Mystery of The Gospel: Unraveling God's Story.

The key is to understand who "He"—Jesus—is. When Jesus asked His disciples who they thought "the Son of Man" is, Peter made an important and accurate declaration in Matt 16:16.

What are the two things Peter declares about Jesus?

Do you understand the significance of these two truths?

Jesus' call to follow

This basic invitation to follow Jesus is found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23) and is preceded by the revelation of who Jesus is and His relating the Father's plan for man's redemption.

What are two things Jesus says need to happen if we want to follow Him?  

What do these expressions mean to you?

The supreme command

Jesus gives one general command that He calls "new" in John 13:34-35, and it is by this we are to be known as His followers. 

What is different about this new command of Jesus and the command to love our neighbor as we would our selves (Mark 12:29-31)?

Our Mission

This final instruction of Jesus to His followers is found in all four of the gospels and the beginning of Acts. It is not optional. It is our primary mission and the heart of God for the world.

The first place we see the Great Commission is in Matthew 28:19-20. The other ones? Here's a hint—look at the end of the other three gospels and the beginning of the book of Acts.

Can you find each occurrence of it? How is this foundational truth at work in your life?

If you still aren't sure where these expressions of the Great Commission are, then check this post out—What Do You Not Understand About "Go"?

What's your view on these 5 foundational truths?

This post is not intended to be a complete guide to the Christian faith, that would require much more attention.

If you're looking for that, find a good book on biblical theology, such as—What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible's Story, Symbolism, and Patterns

Because I'm a proponent of intentional, relational discipleship and biblical theology, I see the Christian faith as a way of life, not a set of beliefs.

The Bible is our source for truth, but remember what Jesus says—

You carefully study the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. They do in fact tell about me... (John 5:39 NCV)

What are your thoughts on these five foundational truths?

I'd like to hear them and also your responses to the other questions in this post.

Please feel free to share it with others. Thanks for reading!

The Core of the Gospel

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Culture has an amazing impact upon people. It subtly shapes their worldview of everything in life, from birth through adulthood.

This impact is strong and resistant to change, but it will change given sufficient cause. The change can be either good or bad depending on one’s worldview, values, or beliefs.

For example, the enslavement of Africans, abducted and traded as if they were cattle, was culturally acceptable in European countries and America. Now, it is illegal and immoral. But that change did not come easily.

A major culture change

A British Member of Parliament named William Wilberforce challenged his prevailing culture in the late eighteenth century. He proposed legislative measures at great cost to his reputation, wealth, and health for more than forty years.

But change came in 1833 when slavery was made illegal in England. It had a ripple effect felt across the oceans of the world, which included the newly established United States of America, the former colonial territory of Great Britain. [1]

Religion and culture

In many countries around the world, religious conviction is tied to the intrinsic culture.

The Philippines is predominantly Roman Catholic, with a strong contingent of Evangelical (Protestant) Christianity, a significant Muslim minority, and ancient folk traditions.

Many Filipinos struggle with becoming born again, [2] because of the strong influence of Roman Catholicism—it’s rituals, traditions, and longevity.

Thailand is primarily Buddhist. Many Thais find it difficult to distinguish their national identity from their religion.

Likewise in Indonesia and Malaysia, where the world’s largest population of Muslims reside. In many countries, it is illegal to proselytize someone of Islamic faith towards another faith.

The impact of culture

In the early 2000's, our Bible school in the Philippines sent out two young Filipinas as missionaries to Thailand.

MJ and Ruchell learned the Thai language quickly and made friendships with ease. They lived out their Christianity with genuineness and simplicity and were well received by their neighbors, including the landlord of the simple apartment they rented in Chiang Mai.

As they built relationships, they offered prayer for their new friends. Prayer was accepted with gratefulness. But when it came to accepting the Gospel and Jesus, who was unknown to them, there was resistance.

They were Thai. They were Buddhists. They were afraid of changing their religion and no longer being true Thais.

American culture and Christianity

America’s culture is known for its respect for individual rights. As a result, Christianity in America is often self-focused and personalized.

Based on versions of the gospel, as given by popular preachers, many people regard Jesus as their best friend, someone personally interested in them, but not as their sovereign Lord. It is such a prevalent view it’s been categorized as a religious belief of its own—Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. [3]

A popular worship song about the Lord’s death on the cross goes,

“You took the fall and thought of me, above all....” [4]

The Father’s purpose for Jesus going to the Cross was, indeed, to bring redemption for all people. But a self-focused bias is not reflected in the biblical version of the gospel but is in a plethora of popular songs, teachings, and various Christian self-help books.

Culture bias

This cultural bias is exported around the world, reflecting an American, self-absorbed view of Jesus and the Gospel, which adulterates the gospel message. This has a crippling, often tragic effect.

The Gospel can be minimized and reduced into brief terms. When this happens, its importance and significance are overlooked. Biblical truth may be talked about and discussed without being passed on to those who need to hear it.

Ministries in America can focus more on getting people into the church than caring for the physical and spiritual needs of the people. Worship services can be more focused on presentation and performance than the Lord Himself, whom it is all intended to exalt.

A distorted focus

Are believers in churches being discipled unto the Lord Himself, or trained for doing certain tasks? The need to accomplish a list of spiritual activities can take the place of spending personal and intimate time with the Lord.

Things like spending time in prayer, devotions, reading the Scripture, serving in various ministries, and so on, are good things, but not an end in themselves.

The Lord desires His people to give themselves to Him.

These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. (Matthew 15:8-9 NKJV)

I want you to be merciful; I don't want your sacrifices. I want you to know God; that's more important than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6 NLT)

It's all about Him, not us

Christian activity can look past what is most important—the personal element. The Christian life is far more than the sum of all Christian activities to be done.

What the Lord considers most important is revealed in the story of Matthew 16:13–28. It’s not complicated or theoretical, but simple and essential.

It is the core of the Essential Gospel and the Christian life. It runs counter to the culture of the day—the culture then and now.

Whether the culture is primitive or sophisticated, the Gospel and the call to follow Jesus is not “...all about me,” nor any individual. It’s all about Jesus.

Do you see your own culture's influence in how you view Christianity?


This is an excerpt from my book, The Mystery of the Gospel, Unraveling God's Story

Footnotes for this excerpt are below—

[1] Reference for William Wilberforce— William Wilberforce

[2] Born again is a term Jesus used in John 3:3-8 when talking to Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee. It has become synonymous with a personal faith conversion to orthodox Christianity, especially within evangelical circles.

[3] Here are a couple links to articles about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)—

http://goo.gl/RvllH | https://goo.gl/fxIwRm

[4] The lyrics are from the song, “Above All,” by Lenny LeBlanc

The Path and 3 Prayers

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Well-meaning people have strived to find ways to please God for generations and generations. These efforts usually create some type of spiritual path or process to reach and please God. However, each of these efforts falls short of their goal because they start from the wrong point.

How does a person please God? In particular, how does a person live the Christian life? Doing good and not harming others ranks high among the many thoughts and ideas put forth.

Some see the need for a strict moral code and religious disciplines. Others may see it as more of a philosophy of being like Jesus, which can take on all sorts of approaches.

@@All humanity's efforts to reach and please God fall short of what He desires@@. The key is what Jesus tells us in the gospels. His way is much simpler and yet more challenging.

The path and the garden

Jesus' call to follow Him

In each of the three synoptic gospels, Jesus tells those who would follow Him what they need to do (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Here it is from Luke's gospel—

And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23 ESV)

People have varying thoughts about what it means to "deny" our self and to "take up" our cross. Even the simple call to "follow Me" is made complicated by various leaders and theologians.

How can we determine what Jesus meant? The simplest way I know is to look at His living example and how it fits with what He says. Life example is a basic essential to good leadership, whether to be a good leader or gain insight to what leadership involves.

3 prayers of Jesus in Gethsemane

Before Jesus went to the cross, He asked the Father if it could be avoided. This is also found in the first three gospels of the Bible (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). Matthew's gospel gives us the most detail and insight into these three prayers of Jesus (Matt 26:39, 42, 44).

Each of the three prayers is similar. Jesus asks His Father if the "cup" of suffering death on the cross can be avoided. Each ends with Jesus' willingness to do the Father's will over His own.

Reading through the details of this time of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, reveals how difficult it was for Jesus.

He tells the disciples that His "soul was overwhelmed to the point of death" (Mark 14:34 NIV). In Luke, we're told His sweat was "like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44 NIV).

All of this shows us the great struggle Jesus had with accepting the Father's will. This is why following Jesus may be simple on one hand, but difficult and challenging, as well.

Self-denial

Luke reminds us the basic call to follow Jesus is a daily choice, not a one-and-done decision. @@Self-denial is a continuing choice to not go back to our embedded selfish way of life@@. It's an ongoing act of repentance—turning to God and away from our selfish nature.

Denying our self is to acknowledge the futility of living by our inherent selfish nature, which includes such things as—self-indulgence, self-justification, self-fulfillment, self-righteousness, and whatever else that places self at the center of attention in our life.

Most believers don't move beyond this first step of following Jesus. This leads to a performance-based relationship with God similar to trying to live by the Ten Commandants of the Mosaic Law (Exo 20:1-17). It's not the path Jesus calls us to walk (Gal 3:3, 10-14).

@@Following Jesus requires living by faith, only possible through God's grace at work in us@@.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:12 NIV)

Our cross

Moving forward in the next step of following Jesus also requires a daily choice. As it says in Luke, we are to "take up [our] cross daily." The apostle Paul gives us a picture of these first two steps—

Brothers and sisters, I can’t consider myself a winner yet. This is what I do: I don’t look back, I lengthen my stride, and I run straight toward the goal to win the prize that God’s heavenly call offers in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14 GW)

This is illustrated by a swimmer doing the freestyle stroke. As the swimmer reaches forward with one arm, she pushes down and back with the other arm. It's a continuous double-action stroke along with a flutter kick that propels the swimmer over the surface of the water.

The cross was an instrument of death and a symbol of shame (Gal 3:13). Unlike the liquid and smooth stroke of a swimmer, taking up our cross—dying to self—usually involves a lot of kicking and screaming on our part. @@The selfish nature does not die easily@@.

None of us embrace shame or death easily, let alone willingly. And yet, this is what the call to follow Jesus requires—embracing a death to our selfish nature and life.

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, who was brought back to life, will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once and for all to sin’s power. But now he lives, and he lives for God. So consider yourselves dead to sin’s power but living for God in the power Christ Jesus gives you. (Rom 6:8-11 GW)

@@Following Jesus requires us to embrace death to our selfish nature and life@@.

Following Jesus

At first, most believers don't realize what's involved with following Jesus. I remember hearing it explained as signing a blank contract that Jesus fills in with details later, as we live out our faith in a daily way.

@@Denying our self and taking up our cross are prerequisite to following Jesus@@. As John the Baptizer said of himself in respect to Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30) This is the point of the first two steps—the decrease of self—the selfish nature.

I remember enduring prerequisite courses in college to get into courses I really wanted to take. After diving into those major courses, I realized the need for those prerequisite classes. They provided a foundation and framework for what I would learn later.

@@A most obvious essential to discipleship is following the example of Jesus@@.

This includes His three prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46). In each of these prayers, Jesus struggles with surrendering His personal will to submit to the Father's will, which was dying on the cross for the redemption of all humanity.

If Jesus, the Son of God, struggled with submitting His will to the Father, why should we think it won't be a struggle for each of us as we follow Jesus? This is why self-denial and dying to our self precede and lead to actually following Jesus.

Each step requires us to submit our will to God, just as with the Lord's three prayers. Each step is a daily, sometimes moment-by-moment choice. Each choice is a conscious decision to submit and surrender ourselves to the Lord.

A final thought

This continuous, daily choice to follow Jesus will put us at odds with the world around us. Following Jesus in genuine discipleship is the culture of the God's kingdom, and it's counter to the culture of the world around us.

At times, @@what Jesus asks of us personally may seem different and at odds to how other Christian believers live and follow Jesus@@. I often hear what Jesus spoke to Peter after restoring him from Peter's three denials of Jesus—

"...what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:18-22 NIV)

For me this means I need to keep looking ahead to Jesus, not at others or anything else that would distract me from faithfully following Jesus. I believe it's a personal call from Jesus to each of us.


If you'd like to get a better handle on walking this path of following Jesus, I highly recommend The Calvary Road, by Roy Hession.