It’s become common among many Christians to blame all kinds of problems on the culture. “We mustn’t let the culture influence the church.”
But is that possible? Is that even desirable?
Consider some of the ways culture has impacted the way we “do church.” To begin with, all of our worship service—the preaching, singing, prayers, sermon, and even Scripture readings—are in English. But the Bible wasn’t written in English. Anyone who speaks more than one language can tell you there are some words that just don’t translate well. That’s why in numerous Bible classes and sermons the teacher will explain
“the original meaning of this word…”
Or the fact that we meet in “church buildings.”
Of course the earliest Christians didn’t have church buildings to meet in—they met in homes. It wasn’t until the third century that we have any evidence of a building specifically designed to hold Christian worship services.
Or the fact that we meet on Sunday mornings.
In the first century, Sunday was a work day, just like any other day. People would go work, then gather together after work with their Christian brothers and sister for worship. Sunday morning didn’t become a time of worship until the fourth century.
And what are you wearing today as we gather for worship? Take a look at a picture of a worship service from just 100 years ago and you will see people dressed very differently on Sundays than we do today.
Let’s talk about singing. Most of our songs are in four-part harmony. That’s wasn’t in use for the first 1500 years of the church. And of course PowerPoint for projecting songs has only been around for a couple of decades.
What about the Lord’s Supper? For most of history, wine was used for communion. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when Dr. Thomas Welch invented a process for pasteurizing grape juice so it didn’t ferment that grape juice was commonly used. Individual cups weren’t used for the Lord’s Supper until the early 20th century—and it didn’t become common until the Flu epidemic of 1918. In fact, whether or not it was biblical to use multiple cups during communion was a hot debate topic in the Churches of Christ in the 1930s.
Today a 25-30 minute sermon is pretty standard for most Churches of Christ. But it wasn’t always that way. Alexander Campbell would often preach for hours. People expected something substantial from their preacher. And the idea of offering an invitation at the end of a sermon? That wasn’t commonplace until the revivals of the 1800s.
Likewise, Bible classes weren’t a standard part of the Sunday gathering until the last half of
the Eighteenth century.
The examples could go on and on. The fact is, there is not a single thing that we do when we gather for worship that isn’t shaped by our culture. Sometimes this is for the good (I really like heat and air-conditioning!) Sometimes the purpose was good, but it had unintentional con-sequences. For example, putting the Scripture on PowerPoint helps us all focus on the same passage—but over time we may become less familiar with finding scriptures in our own Bibles.
So when we talk about the culture influencing the church, it’s not as simple as should it or shouldn’t it. Culture in and of itself is not good or bad. It just is. The important questions are: In what ways is culture influencing the church? And are these influences largely positive or negative? Answering those questions demands wisdom and discernment.
Sunday mornings on Sirius XM’s Bluegrass Channel (#62, I believe), there’s a program called “The Gospel Train.” It’s bluegrass music with faith overtones, including some of the old time hymns—“The Old Rugged Cross,” “I Come to the Garden Alone,” and the like—as well as more contemporary songs that reflect a gospel message, and the lifestyle that goes with it, all to the rhythmic accompaniment of banjo, guitar, and the requisite mandolin.
It’s music I enjoy, for the most part. It includes songs that are basic in style and in theology. There’s no real heavy lifting involved. They tend to focus on the simple side of one’s faith. Still, there can be much at stake in some of these songs. They include stories about men who gave up Saturday night taverns for Sunday morning pews; songs about walking the narrow path; of parents trying to raise their kids right (think Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder’s “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer”). There are songs about little country churches and being baptized in muddy rivers, and endless tunes about Heaven, with lyrics like these from the Steep Canyon Rangers’ number, “I Can’t Sit Down:”
Who’s that yonder dressed in blue?
Must be my brother, and he’s coming through.
Who’s that yonder dressed in gold?
Must be a prophet from the days of old.
Why don’t you sit down?
No, I can’t sit down.
I just got to Heaven, and I want to walk around.
In the simplicity of these songs, there is one constant. Over and over, the name of Jesus is never very far away.
Some of this reminds me of my own growing up “in the church.” As a boy, my parents took me and my siblings to a small congregation in a small town in southwest Missouri. The original building had almost no classrooms—it had previously served as a short gym for the local high school up the street. After I turned ten, and we moved to a new building my father’s construction crew built, it became a warehouse for a local feed store. It was a musty place where one hundred or so souls met on Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday nights. There was no air conditioning, and I remember a couple of small electric fans mounted on platforms flanking the pulpit that blew warm air from one corner to the opposite. Below the fans were a couple of wooden boards, with one announcing the hymn numbers for that particular Sunday morning and the other the contribution for several running Sundays. We sang songs out of hymnals, a congregation of voices that included full baritones and tinny altos. It was all good. And simple.
From those years of growing up and developing a personal faith, I don’t remember much about sermons with deep theology, kind of like those bluegrass songs with simple words expressing simple messages. Mostly, I remember the relationships—friends and family who gathered together to express their love for the Lord and their love for each other. It was something that formed me. And I was reminded of it again last Sunday, as we came together as one after being divided three ways—early service, late service, online service—by the awkward logistics of Covid.
What made last Sunday so good for me was to see so many whom I had not seen for so many months. It was great to hear our voices in song, to hear the enthusiastic amens, and to share time and pew space. No deep theology involved. Just Christian folks coming together in common and communion. There was a blessed assurance to it all, amid reminders that the simple love shared by Jesus’ people represents a crucial cord of many strands, one not easily broken.
Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
Look at the stark contrast in the illustration below. A thriving tree and a dead branch. [Pause and think about yourself] In Christ we have life to the full; we flourish and produce fruit. Without Him, nothing.
Are you remaining in the Vine continually through prayer? Are you being nourished by meditating on His Word? Are you being encouraged by intentionally spending time with members of His body, the church?
“Remain in me, as I also remain in you” - Jesus
~ Matt Coppinger
(picture by Allan Huskins III)
"O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our time revive it; in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy” (Hab. 3.2).
These are trying times in our nation right now. What is in your list of concerns? Here is part of mine. The pandemic, the social unrest and racial violence that never seem to end, and it is simply overwhelming to ponder how many troubled people feel entitled (or whatever) to purchase assault weapons to use on their fellow citizens. When babies cry it is a sign that they need attention. Listen to this: There are many crying babies in our nation right now. Something is not right! …
People of faith have answers.
Do you remember the plight of Habakkuk? He was a godly man living in a time of injustice and complacency. He knew his people deserved to be judged, and he asked God when He would finally come and show His people the error of their ways. God answered, but now Habakkuk was even more confused. God would use an invading army to accomplish His purpose. How could God allow His people to suffer at the hands of evil-doers? God answered His prophet again, and told him, “Trust me. You will survive this if you keep your faith in me” (Hab. 2.4). … Can Habakkuk help us understand what is taking place in our land right now? It is tempting to make direct applications to our time. The times seem right for an Amos or a Joel to come and explain how we are experiencing the consequences of our behavior as a nation. Flash back to a time before the pandemic. Did you ever pray for the spiritual health of the nation? “O God, make yourself known in these times of moral decline!” … I am sure many prayers like that were said. Is God answering such prayers now? … Think about that for a moment.
We should be wary of making simplistic applications from the prophets to our time. However, the spirit of Habakkuk speaks to us. So, until a prophet arises, let us come back to the prayerful prophet and learn. Let us learn to pray urgently, honestly, persistently, for our land and its people. Let us pray for healing, and for greater faith. May this time of trial drive us toward God in a greater way. But most of all, from Habakkuk, let us learn to trust in our God. One of the greatest prayers of faith in scripture is found in Hab. Ch. 3. He knows his God as He had revealed Himself in the story of his people. He simply has no doubt about what God can do. After reciting God’s mighty acts in the past, he makes his vow to God:
“Though the fig tree does not blossom, though the produce fails, and the flock is cut off from the fold …. Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” …
We see here that Habakkuk was a realist. He knew what was liable to happen when the invaders came. But he also knew his God and he trusted him, even though he could not understand His ways! Habakkuk has left us big faith-shoes to fill. I am trying to put my feet into those shoes right now and believe in God as he did. How about you?
As our basement remodel project draws closer to completion, it is exciting to think about how we will soon be able to resume our elementary Bible classes! Sometimes as I work on the children’s wing, I imagine the basement full of excited children and wonderful teachers. Songs and laughter. Bible stories and fun activities designed to reinforce the lessons. A place where God’s Word is taught and modeled.
What an honor it is that we as a Church can come alongside our parents and join with them in the amazing responsibility to pass our faith on to the next generation. Helping our children to become faithful believers is not something that just naturally happens. All it takes is the failure to teach just one generation and genuine faith in God can be lost. How often in Scripture do we hear of a good king who was followed by a son who turned out to be a wicked king? What kind of men did the sons of the prophet Samuel or the priest Eli turn out to be?
I am reminded of God’s challenge to the Israelites:
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up, Deuteronomy 11:18-19.
As parents, we need to make the sharing of our faith with our children an important part of our day; it doesn’t just happen on its own. Setting aside, and guarding, times to read and study the Bible together. Praying together. Listening. Staying up late for the heart-to-heart chats. Helping them navigate life with a Biblical perspective.
As a Church, let’s come along side our parents in teaching the Bible and showing what a freed, forgiven, Spirit-led life looks like for our young people. Volunteer to teach. Write encouraging notes. And never underestimate the amazing power of praying for our children.
What a joy and honor to be a part of the faith journey of the next generation!
Each week, we take time to gather together and take the Lord’s Supper. We partake in the emblems that represent the body and the blood of Jesus, his sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. Three days after Jesus died on the cross, he rose from the grave. Matthew (28:6), Mark (16:6), and Luke (24:6) all use the same wording. They simply say, “He has risen.” This makes my list of “Understatements in the Bible”, things stated very simply, but are cause for great celebration. Jesus was dead. It was over. That was it. But if it ended there, God’s plan for salvation would not have been complete. Jesus needed to conquer death in order for the plan to be complete. Matthew 28:6 says it all, “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” It’s easy to skip over the full meaning of what has happened here, because it is put so simply. Today is a great opportunity to give the statement, “He has risen,” the attention it deserves. This is cause for GREAT CELEBRATION, PRAISE, and THANKSGIVING. Take time to thank God for sending Jesus, for the sacrifice of Jesus, and for raising Jesus after death on the cross.
Father in Heaven, holy are you. Thank you God for sending Jesus here to Earth as a human to be an example of how we need to be. Thank you God for having Jesus show us what it means to love our neighbor, to forgive those that sin against us, and to put our faith in you, God. Thank you for the sacrifice that Jesus made, the blood that was shed, the life that was given. Thank you God for raising Jesus after he was dead to show that death had no hold over him. We praise you Father for your plan for salvation, the promise to be with you in Heaven for eternity, and allowing us to approach You, talk to You, and praise You. It is in your son’s name that we pray, AMEN!
~ Tim Carr
Did you ever look at the gospels and notice the kind of people who came to Jesus? I’m not talking about the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others who came to trip him and trap him. I’m thinking of the ones who came just to hear him and to be with him, who came to be healed or blessed.
There was Zacchaeus, the “wee little” tax collector. Shunned because of his professions, hated for his relationship with the Romans, made fun of because of his height, Zacchaeus probably had few friends. Wealthy he may have been. Well liked? Not on your life. But he found in Jesus one who was a friend to “sinners” like himself. (Wasn’t one of his own disciples a former tax collector?) And so he climbed a tree …
There was a woman who was subject to bleeding. For twelve years she had not only been in misery physically, but had been ceremonially unclean, unable to live a normal life religiously or socially. Unable to have children. Unable to hope for a better future. The doctors tried their medicines, took her money, and pronounced her incurable. But she had heard that Jesus was different. His touch had opened the eyes of the blind and raised the dead. Unnamed and unnoticed, she slipped through the pressing crowd toward Jesus. If only she could touch his cloak …
There was John the Baptist. Before Jesus came preaching in Galilee, John had prepared the multitudes for him. Calling the people to repent in the greatest spiritual revival the people had ever seen, preaching the coming kingdom of the Messiah, and finally pointing his disciples to Jesus himself. Not long after, though, he was arrested by Herod, and John knew he was not long for this world. Doubts began to seep into his mind, questions for which he needed answers. Was the price that he was about to pay spent in vain, or was Jesus really the coming King. And so he sent messengers …
A Roman centurion with a sick servant. A military mob wanting a king. A synagogue ruler with a dying daughter. A young ruler wanting to know if he had done enough. All of them had one thing in common: desperation. They all came thinking that maybe, just maybe, this preacher from Galilee held their answers.
And still they come. Those whose needs go so much deeper than surface level. Those who have tried solution after solution, only to see failure after failure. The desperate. And still he mends souls and puts lives back together. He is still the Prince of Peace. What a wonderful Savior we serve!
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Yes, it’s been a year. One year ago this past week the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. York College decided all classes should be held online instead of in the classroom. It was a year ago that the entire East Hill congregation met together for the last time. We went online for a while, then went to two services.
Few people could have foreseen the devastation and disruption the coronavirus would cause. Few people would have imagined that we’d still be dealing with its effects a year later. But I have to wonder—what have we learned? Are we hoping to “return to normal” as if nothing had happened, or are there some lessons we can take away from this past year? Let me share two truths that have been reinforced for me over the past year.
1) Technology can be a blessing—and a curse.
Most of us have spent countless hours online this past year. Zoom meetings, Google Meet, Facebook Live have become newly acquired skills for many of us. Many participate in worship services and Bible classes online. Many more have regular conversations with family and friends whom we cannot see in person.
While that cannot take the place of face-to-face conversations, imagine what life would have been like without this technology available. Technology has allowed us to stay in contact with others while still maintaining physical distance. It has allowed us to maintain some sense of community, even when we are not meeting together as an entire congregation.
However, technology has also allowed lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread at an unprecedented rate. It has helped to create an environment that is toxic, and has led to greater polarization between friends, family, and between brothers and sisters in Christ.
Every technology has both positive and negative uses. The internet and social media can be used for good or ill. It takes honesty, integrity, and good will for technology in general, and social media in particular, to have positive benefits.
2) Church is not about activities—it’s about people.
The church calendar has been pretty sparse over the past year. No mission trips, no youth rally, no potlucks. For a while we had no in-person worship services or Bible classes.
And yet the church did not stop existing. People still studied the Bible with each other, prayed for each other, cared for each other. Encouragement cards were sent. Phone calls were made.
Do I miss all the activities? Of course I do. But church is about so much more than what happens in this building for an hour or two each week. Church is about the daily conversations about Jesus, the little acts of service done in his name. This is where the real work of ministry is done.
So as we move forward, let’s learn from our experience this past year, and allow this experience to make us a better, healthier congregation.
~ Terry Seufferlein
Who isn’t inspired by Gideon?? There’s something we love about a reluctant leader. A small town boy, “the least of the weakest”, who followed God’s calling and, one fleece at a time, grew into the confident fighter who liberated Israel with 300 men. Fear and doubt turned into faith and rout.
Gideon’s calling came in desperate times at around 1100 B.C. A Bible reader first meets Gideon when an angel of the Lord shows up and addresses him as “Mighty warrior”. Irony is, at the moment, this not-so-mighty warrior is threshing wheat down in a winepress out of fear of the Midianites. (Judges 6:11-13) Raiding Bedouin tribes from the east had for seven years oppressed Israel—at God’s hand—destroying their crops and laying the land to waste. Israelites were fleeing to the mountains and cowering in caves.
The Lord chooses and finally convinces Gideon that he’s His chosen instrument to free Israel (Judges 6). God’s warm-up act for Gideon was to topple the altar to Baal and an Asherah pole back in his hometown, the Ephraimite village of Ophrah. In fear, Gideon does it under the cover of darkness (6:27).
Gideon amasses an army—which the Lord culls by a factor of 100—with which he proceeds to vanquish Midianites and Amalekites as numerous as locusts. (7:12) Those same 300 men, exhausted and outnumbered 50-to-1 (8:1-21), cross the Jordan to slay another army, then chasing down and kill two Midianite kings. #whew
Israel wants to make Gideon king, which he humbly declines (Judges 8:22-23), only to hatch a different plan: Make an Ephod. An Ephod was an apron-like garment worn by priests. Among ephods, there was the Ephod. A highly ornate vestment festooned with precious stones and embroidered in blue, purple, and gold. Only one person could wear it, the high priest, who resided with the Tabernacle in Shiloh. This ephod, the ephod, was a mouthpiece for inquiring of God. That’s what Gideon makes, and he puts it in his hometown of Ophrah.
“Gideon made an ephod … and all Israel whored after it. And it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” — Judges 8:27
Gideon, the man who began his ministry in his hometown as a one-man wrecking ball against Baal, is the very one who brings idolatry back to Ophrah. Unlike the altars to Baal and shrines to the Canaanite mother-goddess Asherah, this idol was something worn by the priests of the one true God, Yahweh.
The people loved it, “whored after it”. Gideon’s was but the first of three ephods worn by wannabe priests in the book of Judges (17:15; 18:14-20,30). Such men and teachings are clouds without rain, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). In making his ephod, Gideon sought to establish in Ophrah the worship and glory to God that rightfully belonged in Shiloh. But this idol was different. It looked “holy”, new, flashy, and culturally acceptable. The kind of idol that, throughout history, God’s people are prone to welcoming into their minds, lives, and assemblies.
Today’s cultural idols not grounded in God’s Word are making their way into the worldview and teachings of Christians in areas such as sexuality, race, worship, the mission of the church, and the authority of Scripture. The blood of Christ redeemed us from the “empty way of life handed down to us” and we have spent enough time living as the world does according to its darkened understanding and futile thinking. (1 Peter 1:18; Ephesians 4:17-18)
Pagans acquiesce to culture. We’ve been cleansed, forgiven of our worldliness. What good is it if we, like Gideon and Ophrah, run full circle only to finish as better-dressed, appeasing idolaters, praying and singing in church pews? Let’s renounce living in fear, quit sowing our message in wine presses, and boldly live for God’s truth in this lost world.
— Mark Miller
It starts with food laws… Daniel, one of a group of Jewish captives who’ve been carried off to Babylon to serve its king, resolves not to eat the food the king has assigned. This might seem strange, but Daniel is required by God’s word to abstain from certain types of meat. He decides the best way to avoid “defiling himself” is to just eat vegetables. Most of the other Jews apparently decide they need not concern themselves with an 800-year-old law, especially since asking to be excused from the king’s menu might draw some unwelcome attention. As it turns out, Daniel and the three friends in his group, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (aka Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), receive God’s blessing for Daniel’s faithfulness and receive from Him gifts of knowledge and understanding. Daniel is even given the ability to understand visions and dreams. This quickly becomes important because Daniel is the one to whom God gives the ability to interpret a dream for Nebuchadnezzar. The dream and its interpretation teaches Nebuchadnezzar that Daniel’s God is a revealer of mysteries.
Later, Daniel’s three friends risk their lives to obey God’s command not to bow before the image that Nebuchadnezzar has set up. When Nebuchadnezzar hears that they will not bow, he retorts that he will throw them into a furnace, and then “what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” They refuse to comply and consequently are thrown into the furnace. However, God miraculously saves them from death by keeping them from being burned or even from smelling like smoke. By their faithfulness Nebuchadnezzar learns that their God has power to save.
Nebuchadnezzar has another dream. This time it’s one about himself and, as Daniel explains, means he’s going to lose his mind and live like a wild beast for seven “times” until he humbles himself. Daniel warns Nebuchadnezzar to repent of his sins so that the terrible thing the dream proclaims might be avoided. Over time, Nebuchadnezzar seems to forget about the dream, and in his pride congratulates himself for the great Babylon that he’s created by the power of his might and for the glory of his majesty. He is immediately changed and becomes like an animal eating grass and living in the wilderness. After the seven “times” are over, Nebuchadnezzar humbles himself. He learns that the Most High is sovereign and issues a proclamation to all people honoring the Most High for his eternal dominion over heaven and earth.
The lesson in this that if Daniel had not resolved to obey those archaic food rules, Nebuchadnezzar would have learned nothing about the Most High God. Those Jews who apparently decided it was best just to go along with the culture aren’t even mentioned in the story. They are ineffective and irrelevant. Daniel and his friends are the ones to emulate if you care about the lost. Obey God and keep His commandments. Amazing things will happen and the greatness of the Most High will be proclaimed by those who formerly didn’t know God. If you conform to the culture, you’ll become irrelevant and no one will learn anything about your God.