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Christian pollster George Barna says, “Local churches have virtually no influence in our culture.” When I first read this statement it stopped me cold, right in my tracks, a total focus while I tried to get my mind around the implications of what Barna was saying. Could this possibly be true? And if it is, what does it mean? If churches are no longer influencing culture, what is?

In his new book entitled Revolution (Tyndale, 2005), George Barna describes seven dominant spheres of cultural influence: movies, music, television, books, Internet, the law, and family. Then he says culture is also subject to several second tier influencers: schools, peers, newspapers, radio, and businesses. You’ll notice that the church is not listed.

According to Barna, in year 2000, 70% of American adults interested in faith matters looked to the local church for information. By year 2005, this number dropped to 30-35%. In 2000, alternative faith-based communities provided faith information to about 5% of the population, while five years later this number jumped to 30-35%. Meanwhile, in 2000, 20% of American adults turned to media, the arts, and culture for information about faith, while in 2005, the number of adults seeking faith information in media, the arts, and culture increased to 30-35%.

In other words, in the new millennium, the church is rapidly losing its once powerful influence upon culture, while corresponding increases are taking place in alternative faith-based communities and media, arts, and culture. People are beginning to look outside rather than inside the church for cues on how to live out their faith in everyday life.

These statistics evidence a rather astounding shift in American worship patterns, credibility and authority imputed to institutional religion, and willingness to seek faith information in a variety of new media sources. If you acknowledge the reality and significance of these trends, it suggests at least these considerations for the local church:

-- the church needs to engage the culture not run from it,

--the church needs to learn more about current culture, including values, worldviews, and trends,

--the church needs to learn how to communicate within current culture—in other words, learn how to share “the old, old story” in perhaps “new, new ways,”

--the church should work to equip Christian people with the ability to lead and transform current culture, not just follow it,

--the church needs to learn new media, drama, the arts, video and audio, computer gaming, the Internet, and more for God’s glory,

--the church needs to learn to share its methods with and through excellence or excellent techniques (methods), because fervent piety without excellence is no longer effective.

I am not for a minute suggesting the Church should change, dilute, or hide, its biblical message. I’m not saying all churches need to be the same, be progressive and “non-traditional,” be “hip,” or in any other way simply forget generations who continue to learn in established forms. These generations still need access to established forms of worship, so that these people may continue to learn, grow, and serve the Lord.

I am saying that if the Church or local churches ignore cultural trends, Barna’s statement will be realized. If you do not believe this, look at European countries where churches have been silent, culturally irrelevant, or non-existent for years.

I think Barna’s statement is downright scary. I don’t think I want to live in a culture where the biblical church has no influence on culture. That’s one reason I work in a Christian university, in part because I think the rationale for Christian higher education is stronger than ever. Christian universities like Cornerstone University graduate men and women whose biblical worldview has been developed and sharpened, who have been given an excellent preparation in their field of interest, who understand the culture in which we live, and who wish to influence that culture for the cause of Christ.

We need not be afraid, because God is Sovereign over change as well as history and tradition. But we do need to be active, even proactive. We need to live out our faith. We need to help and to lead our churches toward greater cultural impact.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2005

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.

 

I wore a Santa Claus suit to a university department Christmas party this week. It occurred to me that this is something I wouldn’t have done a decade or more ago. In fact, during my early days at the university I had a beautifully tailored Santa Claus suit and gave it away.

It’s not that my Santa Claus suit collided with my convictions. It’s just that I didn’t want to run the risk of offending anyone who didn’t like the idea of Santa Claus. And back then, our transformation from a more rules-oriented denominational college to an emerging, biblical worldview-based Christian university had just begun. People were more sensitive then to what we sometimes call “externals,” the dos and don’ts of Christian faith.

Wearing a Santa Claus suit today is not a signal that I don’t care anymore about what people think. Rather, I made the decision to wear the suit because a staff member with a great sense of humor—Vicki Pratt—asked me to wear it just for fun, so I did. And it was a lot of fun.

I respect people whose convictions lead them to reject “playing Santa Claus” with their children or grandchildren. If their decision does not in itself violate the moral will of God, and this one clearly does not, than they are certainly free to enjoy a Santa-Claus-free Christmas. More power to them. They simply need to avoid the temptation to judge others who disagree with them.

I respect people whose convictions allow them to be at ease with the Santa Claus fantasy. If their decision does not in itself violate the moral will of God, and I see no scriptural indication that it does, than they are free to enjoy the harmless silliness of Santa Claus. More power to them. They simply need to avoid the temptation of ridiculing others who disagree with them.

Coming to terms with Santa Claus is a Christian liberty issue. On Santa Claus, God never says “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” Christian liberty means we’re both free to make and responsible for making our own decisions based upon God’s revealed moral will in the Bible.

God does give us principles to apply. He does say that the name of Jesus Christ is above every name. He says that Jesus Christ is the awaited Immanuel, the Messiah, the Savior. He does say that none other than Jesus Christ must be worshipped and exalted. He does say in different words, that Jesus, born in manger, is the “reason for the season.” According to the Word of God, you can’t take Christ out of Christmas and you can’t put him back, because no matter what a given culture says or does, without him there is no Christmas.

So is it possible temporarily to “displace” Christ with some overzealous, foolish, ignorant, or intentionally secularist emphasis upon Santa Claus? Of course. If this happens we need to understand it and respond winsomely. But is this what most people are thinking when they “play Santa Claus” with their children, grandchildren, or friends. I don’t think so. For most I think its light-hearted fantasy coming to us as harmless tradition, and Christians who noisily attack this don’t accomplish much other than making themselves look overzealous, foolish, ignorant, or over the top.

That’s why I wore a Santa Claus suit today. I respect people who don’t embrace the idea, and I would never intentionally offend them. But I disagree with people who go over the top with name-calling like “Satan Claus” or who question the spiritual integrity of people who are having a little seasonal fun.

In the face of intractable problems plaguing our world it seems to me that wearing a Santa Claus suit for a couple of hours is pretty tame stuff.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2005

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.

Several megachurches, in West Michigan and nationally, are getting mixed reviews in response to their decision to forgo Sunday services Christmas morning.

Many people have praised leaders in these churches for their sensitivity to family interests. Still others have criticized what they consider a lapse in spiritual commitment and a loss of a spiritual opportunity. Some people believe churches that close their doors on Christmas morning are simply demonstrating common sense, while other people are accusing these churches of kowtowing to secularist trends. Some people think churches planning to close on Christmas morning are admirably displaying a “big view of God and his work in the world.” Meanwhile these same churches are being cited for contempt of Christian tradition, irreverence, and a direct violation of “What would Jesus do?”

What seems lost in most of the commentary I have read is mutual respect and a consciousness that “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” And, therefore, that we should “stop passing judgment on one another.”

Whether to hold church services on Christmas morning is a classic Christian liberty issue if there ever was one. So Christians in any given church ought to be given the space to make a decision about when they schedule services without having their faith called into question.

Scripture tells us that we should “not give up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25), but nowhere does the Word of God mandate how often per week and on what day of the week we should gather for worship. When we meet, where we meet, how often we meet, what times we meet, how our services are structured, how long the services last—all these matters are left to our devising. Our patterns are more cultural than doctrinal.

Most of the churches that plan to dispense with services Christmas morning are also planning special or additional services during this coming week or the days after Christmas. So they will offer more spiritual programming during the Christmas season than less. Criticizing these churches, then, simply on the basis of their closed doors on Sunday morning seems self-righteous and legalistic. Citing one’s own plans to attend church on Sunday morning as a basis for one’s criticism is not much better. That tactic is what some might call “holier than thou.”

Some people have also accused No-Service-Christmas churches for “placing God second and families first.” This is an oft-repeated but not always applicable argument. In other words, it is possible to worship or to lift up something in our lives other than God. People do this everyday. It’s called idolatry, and we do it with everything from materialism, to recreation and hobbies, food, sex, golf, you name it.

It’s also possible to engage in an activity other than church, Christian service, ministry, etc. and honor God by doing so. Scripture tells us that “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Scripture also says that Christ should be given the place of “supremacy” in all things (Colossians 1:18). So here’s how that works: It’s possible to go to church on Christmas Sunday morning with a carnal heart and in no way glorify God and in no way give him supremacy in what we are doing. It’s also possible, in fact divinely expected, for us to “put God first” in whatever we are doing (as long as our activity does not itself violate the moral will of God).

We don’t need to go on a guilt trip wondering if God is in third, second, or first place. He’s always supposed to be in first place “in” and “through” everything we are doing. If he is, then the rest of our priorities will take care of themselves.

In the Old Testament, through the prophet Samuel God reminded King Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). Meaning: a contrite worshipful heart trumps religious ritual every time. Saul never got it.

God further clarified this truth a bit later in the appointment of the shepherd King David, saying “the Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

On Christmas Sunday morning God will look not so much at whether we are in church as whether we have the right heart toward him.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2005

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.

 

Leadership and optimism go hand in hand. At least that’s what surveys and experience repeatedly indicate. Del Jones’ review in today’s edition of “USA Today” of recent surveys, CEO commentary, and scholarship found that leaders were more optimistic than others about almost everything at work. He quotes leadership guru, Warren Bennis, saying, “Optimism is all about possibilities, change, hope. Without those qualities, how can any leaders succeed?” General Dwight D. Eisenhower would have agreed.

In his excellent work, Eisenhower:  Soldier and President, late historian Stephen E. Ambrose noted that General Eisenhower saw two advantages in maintaining a cheerful and hopeful attitude when he spoke to his troops, one, the “habit tends to minimize potentialities within the individual himself to become demoralized,” two, it “has a most extraordinary effect upon all with whom he comes in contact. With this clear realization, I firmly determined that my mannerisms and speech in public would always reflect the cheerful certainty of victory—that any pessimism and discouragement I might ever feel would be reserved for my pillow. I adopted a policy of circulating through the whole force to the full limit imposed by physical considerations. I did my best to meet everyone from general to private with a smile, a pat on the back, and a definite interest in his problems.”

From a Christian perspective, optimism is a product of hope. In my book, Christian Liberty:  Living for God in a Changing Culture, I talked at some length about optimism and hope:

"A hope is only as good as its foundation or focus. Christian hope—a confident expectation of fulfillment—is based upon an objective source of divine personality, strength, and power in Jesus Christ.  It is not, therefore, a vain, irrationally conceived, frivolous human wish but a rational confidence in something real. Christian hope rests upon truth revealed in Christ, truth experienced in the Christian life, and truth expected in the coming of Christ's kingdom.

Christian hope operates between the extremes of fatalism on the one hand and utopianism on the other. Modernity's mentality was dominated by naturalistic humanism, optimistically espousing permanent growth and well-being in a secular leap of faith. Postmodernity, on the other hand, is witness to a new, desperate, if not nihilistic mentality that is uncertain about the future, technology, or life itself. The modern mentality dreamed of progress. The postmodern mentality has given way to pessimism, even panic. Neither Mod nor PoMo culture has an answer for death. A Christian hope rejects both positions as unwarranted and unbiblical extremes.

In the words of a popular Christian song, “because Christ lives, we may face tomorrow.” Our hope is grounded in a person of the Godhead and in an already accomplished historical event: Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The promise of our deliverance in time and ultimate reconciliation with Christ in heaven is sure. We may believe and, therefore, we may have hope.

Certainly a Christian can neither be an unqualified optimist nor an unqualified pessimist. Philosophic humanists generally embrace one extreme or the other, because they have no basis as Christians do for intellectually assimilating both good and evil. Christians should be optimistic though not with the irrational faith of the evolutionary theorist or the blind faith of Western culture in the idea of progress. Neither should any Christian ever be a pessimist. Pessimism is reserved for those who have not hope.

A Christian's optimism must be tempered by realism. The world and humanity are fallen and cursed. Evil continues, abated only by the restraining power of the Holy Spirit and God’s common grace. All of us are sinners in need of redemption. And realism serves as a warning against temptations to triumphalism. Humility, not bravado, must characterize the Christian hope. Christians should be both optimistic and realistic, or “optimistic realists.”

As optimistic realists with a well-developed Christian worldview, Christians should evidence humble hope and confidence in a culture that no longer believes either one is possible. If we do this, our lives become books with a message our neighbors can read, one that points them to the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

Hope produces resolve in the face of obstacles and resiliency in the wake of troubles, all of which are indispensable characteristics for a leader.

Christian leaders above all should be hopeful people, men and women who inspire their followers to do great things for God in an age hungry for real leadership, real ethics, and real hope.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2005

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.

Iraq’s experiment with democracy today is heartening. In an election that should give them their first full-term Parliament since Saddam Hussein was toppled, the people of Iraq turned out in remarkably high numbers, braving curfews, security, road closures, border closings, threats of insurgency violence, and more.

Is it possible for this ethnically, religiously, and politically fractious society to come together in a free, pluralistic and democratic state? President George W. Bush says, “Yes.” Most of us don’t know. All of us hope so.

For democracy to succeed it needs more than free, fair, and legal elections. It needs a culture that respects the rule of law, individual dignity and liberty, and freedom of conscience and expression. It needs people who believe in truth and justice, who respect property rights, who value free enterprise, and who above all recognize freedom of religion. It needs a people who understand something about the separation of church and state, even if it is not much more than the rather noisy, imprecise version found in the United States. For democracy to succeed, it needs a people who believe in a better tomorrow and who are willing to work together to achieve it.

Let’s hope and let’s pray that the Iraqi people’s new symbol of freedom, purple ink-stained fingers, will point the way to a workable, governable peace between long-standing enemies.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2005

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.

“Syriana,” executive producer George Clooney’s latest cinematic offering, is being widely praised by critics as one of the best films of the year, a thinking person’s film. I hope people are thinking---first, to skip this film, and second, if they do choose to see it, to recognize its leftist message.

“Syriana” is directed by Stephen Gaghan and contains some interesting acting performances by Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Jeffery Wright, and Christopher Plummer. The acting is good, but the story insofar as there is one leaves a lot to be desired. It’s an “R” rated film for language and violence, particularly a Clooney torture scene you don’t want to see (I closed my eyes).

I don’t go to the movies very often, but recently I saw “Narnia” and now “Syriana.

While these two movies could not be more different in tone and message, I’d tongue-in-cheek classify both as “fantasy adventure.” I enjoyed the first movie while I nearly walked out of the second. The first encouraged my heart. The second gave me a headache.

“Syriana” offers a convoluted, difficult-to-follow, choppy storyline, about greed and corruption in the American oil business and the United States government. In the “Syriana” view, virtually everyone is corrupt, except possibly for certain poor Arabic individuals. According to the film, these people’s poverty was caused by American greed, so they have “understandably” been drawn into extremist religious groups. These extremists eventually resort to terrorist acts against American interests as, according to the movie, the only thing they can do to make their political voice heard.

The CIA gets into the corruption act by assassinating an heir to his country’s throne, apparently because he is interested in elevating his people through enlightened means and is less friendly than his brother to U.S. interests. In the end of the film, American oil tycoons receive awards and Middle Eastern religious extremists become suicide bombers. The video symbolism is hard to miss: Americans succeeded by skewering others.

Everyone turns on everyone in this film. Clooney’s character is a U.S. agent who discovers he’s been “used” by his government employer—throughout his career. Damon’s character is an energy analyst who sides with the idealist prince, apparently with no qualms about his American roots or loyalties. Wright’s character looks for closeted skeletons to make a show of due diligence and to use as leverage against people, including one of his own attorney colleagues. Peete’s character turns against her husband, while Plummer’s character is a manipulative oil man. And so it goes.

The message of this film appears to be this: “The United States government and American “Big Oil” will do absolutely anything to protect oil interests and profits, including lie, steal, assassinate, or go to war. No one in government or in business tells the truth or can be trusted.”

So you walk out of this film with your anxiety about geo-politics in the real world having just jumped several notches. You no longer feel you can believe anything anyone says. You feel used, abused, dirty, and despairing.

While there undoubtedly have been and are dishonest and unscrupulous government and business people, this film paints with a very broad brush. It feels like Oliver Stone or Michael Moore directed it rather than Stephen Gaghan. It’s a “postmodern” film in that it offers us little beyond uncertainty and angst—because truth doesn’t exist.

Nowhere in this film will you find any intelligent notation or discussion of free enterprise, the multi-varied roots of religious extremism, American patriotism, people-who-hate-America-because-America-is-prosperous, or any other non-politically correct idea.

This film not only tells its story poorly, it tells a poor story. The critical acclaim “Syriana” is receiving tells us much more about the critics’ political perspective than it does the film’s cinematic achievements.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2005

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.