Does It Matter?

imageA headline in the online edition of Christianity Today last week caught my attention as it declared “Americans Warm Up to Every Religious Group Except Evangelicals”.

Without getting mired into the details of the Pew Research Study upon which the article was based, (If you’re interested, <click here> ) I will just note that it was based upon a recent survey of 4200 Americans as to how favorably they viewed various religious groups: Jews, Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Evangelical Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Atheists, and Muslims.

The main point emphasized by the article was that every religious group received a notably more favorable rating than it had received in 2014 with one glaring exception – evangelical Christians, who remained steady at 61% favorability.

On the surface, that might not sound so discouraging unless you drill a little deeper into the results. Removing the responses of evangelical Christians, who rated themselves very highly, drops the favorability rating of evangelicals down to just 32% among non-evangelicals. Additionally, the research revealed that respondents from the Millennial generation viewed evangelicals equally favorably as they viewed Muslims and atheists. Take a moment to let that sink in!

Several suggestions were offered concerning the meaning of these results. Personally, I believe there is increasing confusion over the very term “evangelical Christian”. Among the American population in general today, it often carries more of a political meaning than a religious one.

But what concerned me perhaps more than anything in the article was a statement at the end by sociologist Brad Wright, who was quoted as saying,

Ultimately, evangelical Christians might do well not to spend too much time worrying about what others think of us. Christians in general, and evangelical Christians in particular (depending on how you ask the question), are well-regarded in this country. If nothing else, there’s little we can do to change other people’s opinions anyway.”

I can’t help but think that such attitudes might be contributing to those disappointing results revealed above – especially among Millennials. Does it matter what others think of us? Is there anything we can do to change others’ opinion of us? On both counts, I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes!”.

In the span of four chapters in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes three statements that we ought to keep in mind in our daily interactions with those who cross our path:

  • “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” (2 Corinthians 2:15 NIV)
  • “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3 NIV)
  • “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20 NIV)

Taken together, these passages paint a beautiful picture of lifestyle evangelism – the kind of life that prompts questions about the source of our hope. (1 Peter 3:15)

Does it matter what others think of us? … Absolutely! As his ambassadors, what others think of us reflects upon the Christ we represent. As letters from Christ, what others think of us either opens doors for witnessing or closes ears to our message. And the aroma we project will either draw others to Christ or drive them away. If it drives them away, it is probably not the pleasing aroma of Christ we are projecting.

Does it matter? … Maybe we should ask a Millennial.

“When people sense a Jesus-like attitude and spirit from us, it clears the path for relationship; and perhaps for a testimony that just might be heard without defensiveness.” – Dave Desforge

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Remembering Paulette

By Julian Wells

In memory of my dear sister, Paulette Wells Cargile. Born on Valentine’s Day, she was a sweetheart to everyone whose life she touched.

imageDeparted from our presence,

And yet, still so present

In our memories,

In our hearts,

In faded photographs

Preserved in time by her selfless labor of love,

In the character of two daughters

Who continue to grace us with her spirit.

Loved by all who knew her,

Missed by all who remain behind.

Waiting in glory for those who share the Savior

Who gave her life that knows not time.

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:3-4 NIV)

(Note: To learn more about Paulette and the impact she had on my life, <click here> to read A Servant’s Heart.)

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Congregational Diversity

“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” (Acts 2:5-6 ESV)

imageThe words from the pulpit pierced my heart as the pastor challenged us to look around the congregation and notice that the crowd we formed that morning was likely the most “racially homogenous group” we routinely gather with in any given week.

While that might have been a bit of an overstatement, the message was clear. It was also very timely, coming just a week before the start of Black History Month in our nation.

Our text included the verses from Acts that head this post. When the promised Holy Spirit fell that fateful day of Pentecost, the impact was explosive. After Peter’s powerful message, three thousand souls were added to the one hundred and twenty believers that had remained together after Christ’s ascension. In the immediate aftermath of that event, Luke says And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47 ESV)

The Bible describes another day when the diversity of a gathering of worshipers is emphasized. It occurs in Revelation chapter 7 where John describes a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb … and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV)

We live in between these two church gatherings featured so prominently in the Scriptures. As I reflect upon the pastor’s convicting words that morning, many thoughts and questions surface in my mind:

  • Given the emphasis placed on the diversity of these two gatherings, why is the congregation with whom we worship every Sunday usually the most racially homogeneous group we will be a part of all week?
  • What does the fact that I had not even noticed the lack of racial diversity in that particular congregation in my assessment of it as a potential future home say about me?
  • Does being heartened when I see minority visitors in our congregation and making a special effort to greet them mean that I have overcome the influences of racial prejudice that permeated the culture of rural Georgia in the formative years of my youth? Or am I attempting to mask any vestiges of those influences that remain?
  • Should it matter so much that, as Dr. Martin Luther King once famously remarked, 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning remains the most racially segregated hour of the week in our nation? If it does, then what is the best approach toward seeking a remedy in the local church?
  • What message does it send to the unchurched when they see how racially segregated our churches remain in a culture that has made great strides in racial diversity?

While racial diversity can be a sensitive topic, it is a conversation that those of us within the Body of Christ, who have been given a ministry of reconciliation, (2 Corinthians 5:18) should be having as we move closer to that day John speaks of in Revelation 7. Whenever I visit churches where racial diversity is more the norm, inevitably I come away encouraged, anticipating the day when all our differences will disappear in the light of our Savior’s presence.

Clearly, I have presented more questions than answers here. But then reflecting on the questions, whether we can find honest answers or not, is not a wasted exercise. It fosters introspection, helps reveal who we are, and more importantly, who God desires us to become. Scripture is divinely inspired and designed to accomplish that very purpose.

That has certainly been the case with me. Thanks largely to the impact of God’s Word in transforming my mind, today I can confidently echo another more encouraging quote by Dr. King: “I may not be the man I want to be; I may not be the man I ought to be; I may not be the man I could be; I may not be the man I truly can be; but praise God, I’m not the man I once was.”

And I might add, I’m not the man I’m going to be as he who began a good work in me brings it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV)

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Reflections on Super Bowl LI

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Corinthians 9:24 ESV)

imageSuper Bowl LI is now in the history books. While I am disappointed that my home team, the Atlanta Falcons, fell short in their quest to capture the Lombardi Trophy, I must readily acknowledge that this year’s game definitely lived up to Super Bowl hype. As I reflect on all the related activities that always surround the game, there are several applications for gospel ministry that come to mind.

Time Investment: I am struck by the immense volume of television coverage devoted to pre-game analysis, opinions, advice, predictions, and post-game analysis as compared to time spent actually playing the game.

Ministry Application: Many of us, myself included, sometimes tend to over-prepare and under-minister. Churches devote a lot of attention to offering program after program, Bible study after Bible study, and multiple leadership/teacher/discipleship training opportunities. These are worthwhile activities designed to help us grow spiritually and equip us for the mission field outside our walls.

But all too often, rather than being a means to an end, they become an end in themselves. We can develop the false notion that somehow our participation in these activities defines us as a strong Christian or a devoted follower. And yet, the time we spend in hands-on ministry, being salt and light to the world around us, often pales in comparison to the time spent in preparation.

Jesus said, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17 NIV) In his teaching, our Lord emphasized the kind of people we ought to be and the kinds of things we ought to be doing. Clearly, he was more interested in our actions, rather than the depth of our knowledge. Paul famously said, “We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV)

Distractions: The Super Bowl is the ultimate football game. But we surround it with distractions as if the spectacle of the game itself isn’t enough. Inevitably, there is tremendous media buzz over the commercials, pointing to just how consumer-driven our society has become. (Although I must admit, this year’s commercials were exceptional!)

Then there’s the halftime show – this year with Lady Gaga. Widespread speculation concerning how outrageous her performance might be or what political statement she might make prompted Fox to televise her show with a five-second delay. Ignoring those concerns, she delivered a jaw-dropping, energetic, and acrobatic performance.

But can’t we just enjoy the game? After all, this was the Atlanta Falcons vs. the New England Patriots – the epic battle of good versus evil. (As to which is which probably depends on where you’re from.)

Ministry Application: As witnesses, we have been commanded and entrusted to go into all the world and share the greatest story ever told – the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. While doing that, we must be mindful of avoiding the distractions the enemy employs to take the focus off of that message. To name just a few, these include: “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men“, (Mark 7:7 ESV) Christian celebrity, commercial concerns like book royalties and TV exposure, and worship services that feel more like Gaga-style rock concerts..

All these things tend to take our focus off of Christ, cause divisions within his church, elevate man instead of God, and needlessly dilute our message. Look no further than the Corinthian church for a Biblical case study on this.

Great Comebacks:  In sports, the most exciting and memorable games involve great come-from-behind victories. Last night’s game was a classic example. After being down by a score of 28-3, the Patriots scored 31 unanswered points to win what many are already hailing as the greatest Super Bowl ever. Certainly, it was the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

But it is not the greatest comeback in human history. That occurred on an Easter morning 2,000 years ago when our Savior cast aside his grave clothes and left an empty tomb behind. And he has one more comeback to pull off still. Like the first one, it too will change history. In fact, it will make all things new. And the audience for that comeback will exceed that of all the Super Bowls combined.

“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’” (Revelation 1:7-8 NIV)

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Rise Up!

This was going to be the year – the year I was planning to turn away from watching so much football. It had been my favorite spectator sport for years, but my interest had begun to wane. Several factors were responsible for my declining interest:

  • In spite of a shocking upset of Florida State, Georgia Tech only won three games in 2015.
  • After a very successful run as the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, one of the classiest coach in college football, Mark Richt, was dismissed.
  • The salaries being paid to head coaches had grown exorbitant, especially when compared to university presidents. In my mind, college football was becoming too much like big business, or like the NFL.
  • The documentary, Last Chance U on Netflix revealed disturbing exploitation of football players at a community college program in Mississippi. If the things that series revealed were going on at a community college, I could only imagine what must be happening at the power schools.
  • Alabama won yet another national championship- Ho-hum.
  • The movie, Concussion, starring Will Smith, painted a picture of the NFL seemingly disregarding the evidence pointing to the dangerous long-term impact of head trauma with its players. Other documentaries, like Gleason and books like Ben Utecht’s memoir, Counting the Days Until My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter To My Family, left me hoping my grandchildren would pursue other sports.

And so, I intended to devote many less hours to watching football in 2016 and devote more time to writing or a number of other worthwhile and productive activities. I purchased no tickets for Georgia Tech games. And then, a series of events occurred:

  • Georgia Tech won nine football games in 2016, including an exciting comeback win over the Georgia Bulldogs in their rivalry game and a Taxslayer Bowl victory over Kentucky.
  • The ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) had the best post-season record of any conference ever, its teams winning 9 games against only three losses.
  • In perhaps the most exciting game of the year, Clemson (an ACC school), defeated those bullies, the Alabama Crimson Tide, to win the National Championship.

And now,

The Atlanta Falcons are playing in the Super Bowl!!!!!

imageSo fly high, Matty Ice and Julio Jones! (my favorite former Alabama player) Rise up, you Dirty Birds. Take it to those lying, cheating, ball-deflating New England Patriots. The hopes of my championship-starved home state of Georgia rest on your mighty shoulders.

As far as those other issues I raised earlier, I heard this week that concussions are down 11% in the NFL this year. So there’s that!

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