worship

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

The Power of Mercy and Love

Over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr said that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. This was because of the common racial separation within most churches. Some churches are working to change that but it's still prevalent.

But there's another type of segregation or division in many American churches. It's been around for a long time. It plagued Jesus and contributed to His arrest and crucifixion.

The trouble is, we—the church—say we want to welcome "sinners" into the church but when they come they often don't feel welcome. Probably hundreds of books and conferences and blog posts address the issue but with minimal impact.

Many things contribute to this dilemma but the real issue is the heart of the matter. A simple story involving Jesus, a religious leader, and a sinful woman illustrates it best.

A story within a story

Jesus told many parables, some short and some longer. Each one teaches a simple truth and is told within a specific context. The setting or situation preceding or following the parable gives insight to the purpose of the parable.

We find a short, simple parable in Luke 7:40-43 where the situation is critical for understanding its truth. Here's the parable—

“Two men owed a moneylender some money. One owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other owed him fifty. When they couldn’t pay it back, he was kind enough to cancel their debts. Now, who do you think will love him the most?”

Jesus was invited to Simon the Pharisee's home for a meal. During the meal, a woman with a bad reputation came in looking for Jesus. Simon's inner thoughts scoffed at the idea that Jesus was a prophet, let alone the Messiah because of this woman's attention to Jesus.

This prompts Jesus to tell this short parable of a moneylender forgiving what was owed by these two debtors. The amounts were considerable. The 500 silver coins were equivalent to twenty months of wages while the 50 coins represented two months wages.

The Pharisee answered Jesus' question at the end of the parable, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.” Jesus agreed but confronted Simon about the Pharisee's self-righteous, judgmental attitude towards the woman.

Those of us in the church too often fit the profile of Simon the Pharisee. We are quick to judge others as less than ourselves and forget the suspended judgment God showed us because of His mercy.

A study of contrasts

The two characters who interact with Jesus are polar opposites. On the surface, Simon the Pharisee represents the religious elite. He was well-learned in the Scriptures and traditions of his faith with an elevated status and reputation.

The sinful woman had a shameful reputation. She was well aware of her diminished status but she knows of Jesus and of His message to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven was near (Matt 4:17).

This woman risked rejection by both Simon and his cohorts and Jesus. After all, she knew what she deserved, unlike the Pharisees who considered themselves to be godly.

Oddly, no one dismisses her. Did she already know Simon and his cohorts from previous encounters? Her many sins (Luke 7:47) were likely known by many men.

Judgment and mercy

This story reveals a powerful picture of judgment and mercy.

Jesus was invited to the home of a prominent religious leader accompanied by other men (Luke 7:49). Women were only present as servers of the food and had little status then.

In those days, people didn't eat at tables with straight-backed chairs but reclined on the floor, often leaning on one arm while eating with the other hand and with their feet extended outward.

The woman approaches Jesus at His feet away from the table of men. At first, she stands weeping then bends down as she wets the Lord's feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and kissing them with affection and respect.

She opens a vial of expensive aromatic oil and begins to anoint His feet. It's an act of submission and worship. She pours her heart out to Jesus with her tears and the oil.

She was an immoral woman and Simon knew it. So he wonders how Jesus could even allow her to touch Him. Surely this Jesus couldn't be a prophet or the Messiah!

Simon couldn't see beyond her past or her gender. He didn't see her as Jesus did.

The power of mercy and love

The parable's powerful message is revealed as Jesus explains why He told it to Simon (Luke 7:44-47). It exposes the superficiality of Simon's self-righteousness.

This sinful woman with the shameful past showed a respect for Jesus unlike Simon.

Guests were customarily greeted with water to wash their dusty feet, a kiss of acceptance, and oil to anoint their wind-blown hair. Simon offered none of these to Jesus.

This woman washed Jesus' feet with her tears and hair, then kissed and anointed them with oil. Her respect was genuine. Her broken heart pursued Jesus in hope of redemption and she received it.

Simon the Pharisee didn't realize his own need of forgiveness because he was so full of himself. Another parable illustrates the strength of this self-righteous condescension towards others (Luke 18:9-14).

Unmeasured mercy and love

The simple truth of the parable and the whole story is summed up here—

“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (Luke 7:47 NLT)

God doesn't measure out His mercy and love, we measure it. We limit it based on our measure of others and we see ourselves as an exception to the rule. But this is self-deception.

How have you seen this same condescending attitude in your own heart? I know I've seen it in mine!

God's work of redemption is based on the Lord's nature and the power of His mercy and love. It will always be greater than any religious or spiritual status we think we hold.

This woman humbled herself, sought out and pursued Jesus, risked rejection and humiliation, and poured herself out at the feet of Jesus through her tears, kisses, and expensive fragrant oil.

This is a picture of worshipful surrender and submission to the Lord.

If we say we love Jesus, how can we offer anything less to the Lord than this woman did?

The full story in its context is found in Luke 7:36-50

If you're a follower of Jesus and part of a church fellowship, beware of a hardness of heart towards others creeping in and taking hold. It will limit your full devotion to Jesus and it will be felt by others. Self-righteousness excludes others and gives a distorted image of the Lord.

When we are mindful of how great the Lord's forgiveness is for us, we are less likely to look condescendingly upon others. When we find ourselves drifting towards self-righteousness, it's time to repent—to surrender our heart to the Lord and the power of His mercy and love!


If you're wondering if churches are still racially segregated, here's a post regarding that— The Most Segregated Hour of the Week?

An Unknown God—part 2

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Formulaic ways of presenting the gospel—the message of God's redemption of humanity—have been developed and taught to many eager evangelists. But I wonder how many times someone, prepped with an evangelistic formula, shares the gospel only to meet with disappointment and rejection? I know I've experienced this on both sides of the gospel—hearing it and sharing it. 

As a young man lost in my own spiritual search, two clean-cut college guys approached me at the beach to share the gospel with the four spiritual laws, telling me I could be a Christian and still own a sports car. Their approach was far off the mark for me. I experienced several other off-target attempts as I've shared before.

As with so many things in life, we can set ourselves up for disappointment with unrealistic expectations. Formulas and approaches go along with our penchant for results. But more and more I want to equip people with the story and heart of the gospel. Reading through all four gospels and the book of Acts it's hard to find any set methodology.

A city full of idols

As mentioned last week, when the apostle Paul arrived in Athens he saw a city filled with idols (Acts 17:16). This disturbed him but he still went to the Jewish synagogue to share the gospel, as he had done in other cities and regions.

He also went into the public market area to preach among those who were not Jewish (Gentiles). While engaging in discussions with those in the marketplace, he was questioned about what he taught, since it seemed so foreign to them.

Some philosophers wanted to hear more about this Jesus he spoke of and about the resurrection, so he was invited to Mars Hill (the Areopagus), the city court where much debate took place (Acts 17:17-21).

Paul's message to the Athenians

Paul realized the gospel he preached in the synagogue was foreign or strange to the ears of these philosophers, which is much like what cross-cultural missionaries experience overseas. It's also similar to sharing the gospel with those who have a postmodern mindset.

Based on this context, Paul adjusted his presentation of the gospel for a people who were ignorant of the Scriptures and the theology revealed in them.

I see three general parts to Paul's message at Mars Hill focused on connecting with the Athenians at a level they would understand. The text for Paul's message is found in Acts 17:22-31.

Connection

Paul first acknowledges they are "very religious," what we might call superstitious, as he sees all their objects of worship (idols). He establishes a connection with the Athenians by noting an altar to "the unknown god" (vs 22).

Paul says to them, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (vs 23). By saying this he stirs their interest because those gathered at Mars Hill "would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new" (vs 21).

He also establishes himself as an authority regarding this unknown God. He preaches to them, but in a way they can relate to as philosophers.

Creator and Sustainer

The first thing he tells them about this "unknown God" is that He is living and is the Creator of all (vs 24). Not only the Creator but the Lord over all He's created. He is transcendent above all and doesn't live in a temple or shrine created by humans. He wasn't imagined or designed by anyone.

He's not in need of anything people can offer. Instead, God is the Sustainer of all humanity to whom He gives life itself, breath, and everything else (vs 25). Paul goes on to speak of God's relationship with people from God's perspective.

All humanity began with one person (vs 26). It's God who established the seasons within a year and set the boundaries of earth, the oceans, and our atmosphere, as expressed in the ancient book of Job (chapters 38-40).

God makes Himself known and seeks people out so we may know Him and have a relationship with Him (vs 27). He is the Sustainer of all life and Paul relates this truth to what their own poets have said (vs 28), making another point of connection with the Athenians.

Challenging the status quo

Paul begins challenging them to think differently about God, "the divine being," since we are "God's offspring" (vs 29). God isn't like any of the idols or images their artisans have imagined because God is Spirit and not restricted to human or physical constraints.

Then Paul tells them that their ignorance of God, whom they call unknown, is no longer acceptable to God. A day of judgment is coming and people need to repent and turn to God for the timing of this judgment day is already determined by God (vs 30).

He then introduces them to Jesus but not by name. There is one person whom God has appointed as the one who will be the judge. This person is known by His resurrection from the dead (v 31), an unparalleled supernatural event.

The resurrection is the open door into a personal relationship with God and eternal life. This is a truth Paul made clear to a church he planted not long after this message (1 Cor 15:20-22).

Response

One of the criticisms I've heard about Paul's message to the Athenians is the poor response to it as if the response to Peter's message on Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41) is some kind of norm. It wasn't the norm then nor is it now.

Most of the reaction of those who heard this message was to the concept of the resurrection from the dead. It's a great dividing line of faith. Although some mocked the resurrection others wanted to hear more, and some believed and joined Paul (vs 32-34).

As I've made clear in an earlier post, we American evangelicals tend to be very results oriented. It seems to be in our Christian-culture-DNA. But we don't see this with Jesus nor the early church leaders. They were committed to discipleship which is a long-term investment in people.

Evangelism or discipleship? Both!

Jesus invested more than three years in His chosen apostles. Paul spent a year (with Barnabas) teaching the church in Antioch, then a year and a half in Corinth, and two years in Ephesus (Acts 11:26; 18:11; 19:10).

Evangelism needs to be linked with discipleship to be effective in fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15), for church planting (the book of Acts), and to equip the church for ministry (Eph 4:11-13).

There should never be a choice between evangelism or discipleship, as to which is better. It's not either-or but both in concert with one another.

So, what are your thoughts on all of this and sharing the gospel in our times and within our culture?

Be sure to look at the notes and cross-references below and please share this with others if you find it helpful!


Here are some cross-references to go with each verse and the 12 elements I see in Paul's message to the Athenians—

  1. Paul observed the religious pursuit of the Athenians (vs 22)
  2. They focused on "objects of worship" [idols] (vs 23)
  3. Paul identified the altar "to the unknown god" as a point of connection (vs 25)
  4. He presented the Living God as Creator of all (vs 24)
  5. God is transcendent above human or earthly origins (vs 24)
  6. God is the origin of life for all people and all that exists (vs 25)
  7. All humanity is descended from one person and God is sovereign (vs 26)
  8. God makes Himself known and seeks relationship with people (vs 27)
  9. God is the Sustainer of life and connects God's nearness to all with their own poets (vs 28)
  10. God is Spirit and not restricted to human or physical constraints (vs 29)
  11. A day of judgment is coming, people need to repent and turn to God (vs 30)
  12. Jesus is the judge and proven to be so by resurrection from the dead (vs 31)
  •  Here are the Cross references—
    • vss 22-25– Psa 19:1-6; Rom 1:20; John 4:24
    • vs 25– John 1:4-5; Gen 2:7; Isa 42:5
    • vs 26– Gen 5:1-4; Dan 4:35-37
    • vs 27– Rom 1:20; Eccl 3:11; Psa 139:7-16
    • vs 28– Psa 82:6; Col 1:16-17
    • vs 29– Psa 115:3-8; Rom 1:22-23
    • vs 30– Matt 4:17; Luke 24:47; Rom 3:23-26
    • vs 31– John 5:21-27; Acts 2:22-24; Rom 2:11-16

A Human Flaw

I was a praise and worship leader for four decades. I suppose I could still lead, but my role in life and ministry is different now.

I miss that role at times, especially when I see leaders overly concerned with their performance and presentation of the music. It grieves me when I see this for that shouldn't be their focus.

It's easy to see that American culture exalts good performance and entertainers. But this is more of a human flaw than a cultural one.