Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Thinking Outside The Cultural Box

In 1 Corinthians chapter 9 the Apostle Paul defends his Apostolic authority, yet at the same time he models the heart of a servant.  Even though he has been called by God into this very important work, he shows himself to be willing to humble himself and to be flexible in his methods. In this passage Paul speaks of Christian liberty as well as Christian responsibility.


It is easy for Christians sometimes to be heavy handed in our “spirituality”.  In our geographical church culture we seem to feel that we have a handle on how we should worship.  We often look down on, and are critical of others who “do church” differently than we do.  We also often have the idea that lost people should see things the way we do, and we go about our worship, our ministry activities, and our witnessing using jargon, rituals and “code words” that are familiar to our “church culture” but absolutely foreign to those we claim we want to reach for Christ.


I grew up here in the Bible Belt, the son of a Baptist preacher. Dad was a bivocational evangelist who also often served as pastor to small churches.  Growing up we “did church” a certain way in the churches where Dad pastored or held revival meetings.  We prided ourselves on not having a “printed program”, yet every service was the same basic ritual.  There might have been some old hymns like Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross and Rock Of Ages, but most of the  music was primarily Southern Gospel “quartet style” music.  There was usually a piano accompaniment and in some churches an organ may have been involved.  There might be soloist or trios or quartets who would use a guitar.


Prayer was something that was done a certain way.  We always had a “Family Prayer” time in the service where everyone would shake hands with one another and gather around the altar for what is often called choral prayer (everyone praying out loud at the same time).  If a person was called upon to lead a prayer individually he might stand at his seat, or even kneel in the aisle or come to the altar to pray.


There was always a time for testimonies.  Messages were usually topical and fiery.  Not a lot of scriptural exposition, very little doctrinal teaching, and usually filled with a strong evangelistic thrust followed by an emotional invitation or “altar call”. Legalism was pretty common although we were always talking about the Grace of God.


It went without saying that those who were members of our churches were expected to fit a certain mold.  There was not a lot of cultural diversity among us, and as a result, those whom we sought to reach with the Gospel, looked, acted, and fit into the same basic culture to which we belonged.


It wasn’t until I went away to Bible College that I learned that many Christians worshipped and looked a little differently than us.  Later, through becoming familiar with missionaries and making short term mission trips, myself, I learned that there are Christ Followers in other places and cultures who look, act and worship very much differently than we did.


Eventually the little light bulb came on over my head that “our way” is not the only way, nor is it necessarily the right way.  It is simply part of the culture that has slipped into churches in our geographical region over the years.  By the same token, methods that we have long used to reach out to lost people are not the only methods, nor are they always the right methods to reach people in a changing culture.


Paul says some pretty radical things here in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, that I think would be wise for us to consider as we ponder how best to take the Gospel to the world around us.


“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.


Paul made an intentional decision to think outside the box in the methods he used to share the Gospel.  The message never changes my friends, but the methods MUST be flexible.


We know that it is impossible for us to do EVERY ministry we would like to do, but it is very important that we be open to new manners of worship, new ways of doing ministry, new ways of getting the Gospel out and doing missions.  NEVER changing or watering down the MESSAGE, but looking for different ways to reach those who may not look or act just like us, and those who live outside our culture and customs.


Our success in fulfilling our role in the Great Commission depends largely on whether we will hold to our local customs and methods as the “only way” or if we are willing to think and act outside the cultural and customary box in reaching and discipling lost people for the Kingdom’s sake.
What do you think?

Monday, February 10, 2014

"All The Lonely People..."

I don't know how many total funeral services I have conducted in my 42 years of ministry. I should have kept better records back then.  I have, however, kept such records in my past eleven years as pastor of Westmoreland Baptist Church.  Today was the 131st funeral I have done since being called to WBC.

I have conducted services in our church sanctuary, other church buildings, various funeral home chapels, in a private home, in mausoleums, and simple graveside services in several cemeteries. Today was one of those graveside services.

Some funeral and memorial services had hundreds in attendance.  Some, not so many.

The most unusual funeral service I have conducted was while pastor at my previous church in Kentucky. One of our members, an elderly lady,  had previously told me of the deep sadness in her life after one of her three grown children had gone missing in 1950.  Never a word from the missing daughter, no idea of where she might be, dead or alive.  Then in 1999 word came to her son about a "Jane Doe" who had been found dead in South Carolina six months earlier.  The county coroner had for some reason decided not to bury the body until efforts could be made to identify her.

The coroner combed through hundreds of FBI Missing Persons reports dating back for decades.  Lo and behold, circumstances led the coroner to believe that this may have been the young lady from Kentucky who had been reported missing so long ago.

Dental records, finger prints, and a positive ID by her brother, brought the body home to Ashland to be interred in the family plot.  The grieved 93 year old mother was able to finally get closure, and to view the body of her long lost child one last time, only 3 months before her own passing.  The attendance at that funeral was very sparse.  Less than 10 total family members attended. Small crowd, but all loving family members - some of whom had never met the deceased.

Today, at a cold (20 degree), snowy grave site in Wayne County, West Virginia, I conducted a service that I felt was under even more sad circumstances than that Kentucky funeral many years ago.  Today I delivered the brief funeral message for mourners of a 90 year old widow lady who was being laid to rest beside the body of her long deceased husband.

Gathered at that grave plot were three mourners, the funeral director, and myself.

There was not a family member present even though her family name is one that is fairly well known in the area.

At the wishes of the deceased, the service was unannounced and private. An obituary notice will not be published in the local paper until later in the week. She died childless.

Although connected to a rather large family, there was apparently very little interaction between this lady and the in laws and nieces and nephews who lived in fairly close proximity. I understand that the last contact she had with any family was around Christmas time when a nephew and niece had visited her home.

I am totally unaware of all of the family dynamics involved in this situation.  Furthermore, I am totally unequipped to make any judgments about it.  Usually when there are cold relationships between family members, there is enough blame to go around.

What I will say is this.  How sad to lay to rest someone who has been on this planet for 90 years, and so few people seem to have had any type of warm relationship with her.

Only God knows the whole situation surrounding today's service.  But I was reminded anew that there are many lonely and perhaps forgotten people around us.  Lennon and McCartney touched a chord when they wrote these words in their ballad, Eleanor Rigby:

"All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came."

Perhaps there is an Eleanor Rigby in your family.  Maybe there is one in your neighborhood.  Perhaps even in your church.

I believe Jesus would seek out those who are lonely as well as those who labor and are heavy laden.  As His followers, shouldn't we?