Christians

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

Repentance—Not Just for Unconverted Sinners

The word repent and the idea of repentance conjures stereotypical images. Perhaps you imagine someone with a half-crazed look wearing a signboard with the word emblazoned on it— REPENT!

People familiar with the Bible might imagine one of the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah or John the Baptizer, whose ministry directly preceded and announced the public ministry of Jesus.

John was not a mainstream kind of person. He wore rough clothing, ate locusts and honey, and lived outside the city limits. If you wanted to hear him, you went to him. He didn't do house calls, and his message was direct and impartial (Matt 3:1-12).

It's time to ditch the stereotypes and misconceptions about repentance.

Strong reactions

Last week I posted Repentance—the Heart of the Matter. I wanted to reframe the concept of repentance in a more biblical sense than what is typically thought or expressed by others.

The word repent stirs all sorts of responses. Not all are helpful. Why do the words repent and repentance stir strong reactions? Perhaps the word itself is misunderstood.

This is a follow-up to my previous post but more directed at the value of repentance for Christian believers. The topic of repentance is more typically considered in light of those who are nonbelievers or unconverted—those who are not Christians.

And yet, much of the biblical focus on repentance is directed towards those who believe in God and claim to be His people. The Old Testament is full of examples.

The word repent stirs all sorts of responses—not all are helpful

The meaning of words

Most of the time, we get our understanding of words by how they're used. The words, "Oh, I love you," are understood based on how they're said. It depends on the intent of the speaker—is it spoken with romantic passion or sarcasm? Different intent and tone result in different reactions.

So, it's good to find the original meaning of a word, then understand it within its context. I'll give some biblical examples of this later. But first, some definitions from their Greek origins.

  • Vines Expository Dictionary defines repent (the verb)—to perceive afterwords, and repentance (the noun)—afterthought or change of mind.
  • MR Vincent sheds more light on the subject saying, repentance is the "result of perceiving or observing," or "to think differently after." After what? He points us to what the apostle Paul says in 2 Cor 7:10—Godly sorrow brings repentance....

Repentance is the outcome and action of godly sorrow.

Another perspective

Most often, the idea of repentance is understood as turning away from sin. Yes, but why? If repentance is to "think differently after" as MR Vincent puts it, then we ought to consider what precedes this change in thought and behavior.

This understanding, coupled with biblical examples, helps me see repentance as turning to God, which causes us to turn away from sin and our former way of life. I pointed this out last week.

Most often, the idea of repentance is understood as turning away from sin

If you look at the three parables in Luke 15, each focuses on what was lost and found—a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son (Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 33). The simple truth of each parable reminds us of the rejoicing in heaven "over one sinner who repents."

In the longer (third) parable, the lost son realizes his situation would be better if he were accepted as a mere servant in his father's household (Luke 15:17-24). The father gives him a very different reception than expected or warranted (see Luke 15:28-32).

God's perspective or our own?

Someone might ask, "Does it really matter? Isn't the idea to change your ways?" This is where our problem lies. We often see repentance as something we need to do.

I've heard many preach and teach this perspective, but is this what we read in the Scriptures? Again, I addressed this in my previous post.

Is repentance based on our own effort to change or a response to God's mercy and grace after experiencing God's kindness?

Is repentance our effort to change or a response to God's mercy and grace?

The message of Jesus—Repent!

When Jesus began His public ministry, His message was one of repentance (Matt 4:17). This also was the message John the Baptizer (Matt 3:2, 8). John spoke to the religious and non-religious in a tone that carried a sense of judgment.

Repentance takes place when our mind and actions change after an initial hardness of heart

But when Jesus was confronted with a situation that demanded justice, He showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11). The woman's accusers wanted Jesus to condemn her.

But after Jesus wrote on the ground in front of the men accusing her, they quietly left one by one. Then Jesus said to her— 

“Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:10-11 NKJV)

More examples

Another example of this change of mind after is seen in the parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-32). This parable illustrates the same mindset of changing the mind and action after the initial response of these two sons to their father.

It also gives insight into how the message of repentance Jesus declared was received by various people—tax collectors, prostitutes, and the Jewish leaders. Those who knew their life was not right with God received it well but the religious leaders rejected His message.

Again, in one of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus they had abandoned their first love and needed to repent.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5 ESV)
The idea of repentance is a turning back to God as our first love.

A final thought

Repentance is something we all need to practice. It's not just the act of turning away from sin, but turning to God so we may turn from sin. None of us are without sin, no matter how long we've had a personal relationship with God through His grace.

Repentance is something we all need to practice—believers and nonbelievers

In fact, once we have a relationship with Jesus because we experience His forgiveness and the renewal of His Spirit in us (Titus 3:4-7) as we turn to Him in repentance. But believers are to put sin to death, not just turn away from it (Col 3:5). But that's another topic for another time.

Repentance is our response to God's kindness and goodness, not our own effort at goodness. Our own efforts at producing righteousness will meet with repeated failure (Rom 7:15-25). 

But when we turn to God first, He will guide us out of our battle with sin—our selfish nature—(Gal 5:16) and bring transformation from the inside out (2 Cor 3:18).

Repentance is our response to God's kindness and goodness not our effort to be good

I find the need to practice repentance on a daily basis—how about you?

Go! Get Out of the Bubble!

Bubbles_Juneau
Bubbles_Juneau

No doubt you've heard the phrase, living in a bubble or something similar. It was coined a few decades ago, based on the movie of a boy with an underdeveloped immune system who had to live in a bubble-like environment.

This made-for-TV movie came out in 1976 (The Boy in the Plastic Bubble), combining the life stories of two boys with rare diseases. Of course, the movie dramatized the story (added some fiction) and a romantic theme far from reality.

But the concept of living in a bubble—like an incubator—caught hold as a cultural expression. In real life, these boys were unable to venture out of their bubble-like environments without fatal consequences. And yet, their great desire was to live outside the bubble.

Imagine what it would be like to live in a sterile environment without physical human contact. 

Living in a bubble

It wasn't long before people applied the phrase living in a bubble to other situations and people. For example, the office of the U.S. presidency is bubble-like, with the 24/7 Secret Service guard, and screening of people with whom the president will come in contact.

Today it could apply to people focused on their cell phones, gaming, and social media in a virtual bubble. The phrase came to describe anyone isolated from the world around them.

Living in a bubble can describe anyone isolated from the world around them

Sadly, this describes many Christian believers.

Many Christians live in an insulated Christian world surrounded by other Christians and locked into Christian-oriented media and music. And, many Christians like it this way. They don't want to leave this protective bubble—their faith bubble.

And so, the world around them is untouched by their Christian beliefs and values. Why? Intentionally or not, we've constructed an ivory tower of faith.

Not as Jesus intended

This is not what Jesus had in mind when He spoke of the Kingdom of God on earth. Not at all.

This bubble-like isolation isn't reflected in Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God. What Jesus intended for His followers is seen in several parables and other teachings.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sent out twelve disciples to "preach the kingdom and to heal the sick" (Luke 9:1-6). Later, in the last year of the Lord's ministry on earth, Jesus sent out seventy others in the same way (Luke 10:1-12).

Here are His final instructions to those who would lead the church after His departure—

But the Holy Spirit will come on you and give you power. You will be my witnesses. You will tell people everywhere about me—in Jerusalem, in the rest of Judea, in Samaria, and in every part of the world. (Acts 1:8 ERV)

This is echoed in all four of the gospels and termed the Great Commission. Jesus intended for His followers to be empowered and go out with His message to the world around them.

Jesus wanted His followers empowered to go into all the world with His message

Getting out of the Christian bubble

For the "Boy in the Bubble," leaving the bubble put him at risk for his life. But it's different for us followers of Christ. Our spiritual life is at risk if we don't get outside the Christian bubble!

We need to engage people who have different values and beliefs than our own. Here's a blog post by Pastor Cary Nieuwhof that addresses this— The Evangelism Conversation No One Is Having.

I've posted similar or related articles related to sharing your faith without being aggressive or overbearing. But, we still need to get out of our faith bubble to engage people who don't share our faith. How will they know if we don't share God's redemptive message with them?

Our spiritual life is at risk if we don't get outside the Christian bubble!

One simple question— 

Are you willing to get out of your own faith-bubble to engage people about faith?


The Illusion of Obscure Language

Photo by https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske

Photo by https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske

A typical American Christian uses obscure archaic language with the expectation everyone else what they're saying. But this is an illusion.

As a general rule, Christian believers are oblivious to this illusion. Being in contact with nonbelievers and nominal believers in God and I'm keenly aware of this.

When talking to nonbelievers I find it necessary to use simple, non-Christian wording to explain spiritual truths and concepts. I wrote about how I saw this need in a previous post—IYOW.

When I answer a question about why the Bible says this or that, I'm intentional to explain what the Bible says without the usual Bible terms, common clichés, and phrases Christians often use called Christianese.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. A lot!

It's the language

Language is important. It's how we communicate thoughts in our minds and hearts so we can understand each other.

Christians don't need to become bilingual or multi-lingual, although that would be valuable and advisable when speaking to people from other nations. We need to be clear with our language—the language we use in everyday life and the language we use to share our faith.

Over the past several years, I've had the pleasure of interacting with many people of different backgrounds from mine, in various work environments. I've gained insight into the inner workings of street gangs and gained some perspective on the current worldview of twenty-somethings.

Working three part-time jobs gave me this opportunity. Each type of work and its social environment has its own collection of terms and catch-phrases.

Thankfully, when I ask for explanations and clarification, people are happy to help me. Some also admit their own ignorance of these things at one time.

This is how Christian believers need to be with nonbelievers.

An obscure language

I read somewhere that an obscure language in a far away land will become extinct soon. Why? Because only a few people know and speak it, and they will die soon.

In a way, this is my hope for Christianese—the general term for all those Bible words and Christian catch-phrases and clichés. 

I would love to see Christianese become a dead language.

It's already dead in one sense—only those who speak it know what it means. Even many of those who speak it don't understand it very well. Christianese is self-limiting in that way.

Why? Because it closes off understanding for those who don't know anything about God and confuses those who have a limited knowledge of God. It's obscure language.

Christianese is self-limiting. It's obscure language and closes off understanding for those who don't know anything about God

When Christians use specialized terms and catch-phrases with over used clichés, ignorance is not bliss nor is it enlightening.

When believers use this obscure language—Christianese—we close people out of our circle of understanding. We block the entrance to the Kingdom of God with obscure language.

Is there a solution? Yes!

Christian believers need to use simple and clear words when they share about their faith in Jesus. What we share needs to be grounded in real life experiences of faith.

Even the simplest of words, like faith, need to be explained without quoting Bible verses or using theological terminology. It's ok to use those terms and biblical wording, but be sure to explain what they mean with simpler words.

It's ok to quote Bible verses and use Christian terminology if they are explained in a simple, clear way.

Christian believers need to translate biblical, spiritual truth from what is obscure language to the unitiated—nonbelievers—into plain wording that anyone can understand.

How to explain Christianese

This takes some work on the part of believers. We need to understand the Bible verses and terms we use and put them in our own words.

This requires thinking through the meaning of words and phrases we use so they can be put into our own words—IYOW. That's the work—thinking—with the guidance of God's Spirit.

A simple way to do this involves two basic things anyone can do—

  1. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus handy and use it! (there's an app for that!)
  2. Read various translations and versions of the Bible, even paraphrases—these will give you some ideas of how to put things in different wording
  3. Oh, and one more thing—pray! As Paul says, "Pray continuely." (1 Thess 5:18 NIV)

I use my apps for the Bible and dictionary a lot even though I've been doing this for many years—putting things IYOW.

Give it a try! I use the God's Word translation quite a bit but there are many, many others to choose from.

This is important!

I come back to this topic from time to time because it is so important. It's important to me and important if we truly want to share our faith in the Lord so others can understand and believe.

What is your experience with confusing Christian lingo?

Share it in the comments, and maybe I'll write on one of your experiences. ;-)

Thanks for reading and feel free to share this post!

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/