Leaving the Faith by Losing the Focus

This post originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can click here for the original article.

Another high-profile Christian voiced his decision to “fall away” from faith. To be fair, Marty Sampson did walk back the position, saying that “he hasn’t renounced the faith.” Nevertheless, both Sampson and Josh Harris chose to invite the public in their season of struggle and straying.

As one would imagine, such public displays of de-affection has led to a range of reactions from the social media sphere—support, shock, and outrage, to name just a few. As we all wrestle with such public vulnerability and rawness, we must always begin with prayer for those who are struggling, and those who have laid the proverbial line in the sand regarding their denial of the Christian faith.

As we pray, there are two particular things I believe those secure in the faith can do. First, we can seek to understand why such people fall away. Second, we can discern and devise ways we can strengthen our discipleship environments to allow the full spectrum of seekers and strugglers have safe environments to belong, become, and believe (and keep on believing).

To help our understanding of why people wander or are tempted to wander from the faith, we can look at the Book of Hebrews, which addresses the need for endurance to not fall away and the environment that tempts one to fall away.

The Endurance to Not Fall Away

The writer of Hebrews addresses believers who were undergoing severe persecution to the point that they were tempted to waver in the faith. So the author writes a letter aimed at encouraging them to endure. In Chapter 11, we find the “Hall of Faith”—and these words:

Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. For by it our ancestors won God’s approval. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. (v. 1–3) 

In an environment where people experienced pain and suffering, which ignited feelings that buffeted their faith, the author described the essence of faith. Faith isn’t about the reality of the moment, but on that which is hoped for. Faith is something you believe, even though you cannot tangibly see it nor fully explain it.

And it is faith that receives the approval of God.

After briefly describing the essence of faith, the author moves to provide examples of Old Testament saints who exercised faith. Abraham, for example, was told by a God he just met to leave his hometown and go to “a place” that this God would show him. And he went!

Although Abraham is a fallen and flawed individual with a roller-coaster life of obedience and disobedience, he had a fixated faith. He believed God. Not only did he believe God—which was accounted as righteousness—but he believed he was moving towards a city built and established by God.

God wired all of us in a very complex pattern of mind, heart, spirit. All of us have emotions we feel.

But faith is not about fixating your mind on the feelings of the moment, but on directing your heart towards the promised future.

Many of those who have followed God had to discover this reality:

  • Take Abraham, who lied to Pharaoh when he felt afraid.
  • Sarah felt desperate and told Abraham to sleep with Hagar.
  • Moses killed an Egyptian when he felt indignation.

But each of them overcame their doubts, fears, and anger and continued on living faithful and faith-filled lives towards the future promise. And what was the future promise? Jesus. The Son of God who is higher than the angels, greater than Moses, instituter of a superior covenant, the perfect sacrifice for sin, the King of the unshakeable kingdom, and the steadfast anchor of the soul.

For the Old Testament saints, fixating their eyes on the future promise balanced their lives when buffeted by feelings of doubt, anxiety, and fear. And just to think that the author of Hebrews describes the New Testament saints having been provided something better (Heb. 11:40)!

The bottom line is that when our lives are centered around feelings, they become shaky; but when our lives are centered around faith in Christ, they become secure.

The Environment that Tempts One to Fall Away 

But what’s the environment today that is making people like Josh Harris and Marty Sampson question and even walk away from the faith? For starters, it’s not like the environment the audience of Hebrews experienced. Today, there may be philosophical, relational, and verbal hostility towards those of the Christian faith, but not life-threatening hostility as many of our brothers and sisters face in other parts of the world.

The cultural environment in which the Church of the West now find herself is one that is pluralistic, skeptical, hyper-individualized, personalized, and syncretized.

Our culture operates as a marketplace of competing ideas. Therefore, is truth real? Is there really one way to God? To heaven? This pluralism, coupled with a dismal track record of institutional and authoritative integrity, has caused systemic skepticism.

People question everything. But not only that, our culture is one of hyper-individualization and personalization where the individual’s needs and desires are prioritized over others. Given this cultural landscape, there’s a syncretistic tendency for individuals to craft their own morals, views, and standards to create a worldview and micro-narrative that works for them.

The church is bombarded with these cultural mortars daily. And at the heart, the Christian faith runs counter-culture to many of these environmental mortar shells. And what I think happens is that over time these shells have a tendency to test the faith of Christians by tempting them to take their eyes off Jesus.

For example, my takeaways from Marty Sampson’s post were:

  • Pastors fall
  • Christians can be the most judgmental people
  • No one talks about the hard issues of Christianity
  • The Bible is full of contradictions
  • How God can be love but then send people to hell
  • The Christian faith is not for me
  • Christianity seems to me like any other religion

Question….where’s Jesus?

There’s something similar with Josh Harris’ post. If you read his post in its entirety, there’s nothing about Jesus.

On a deeper dive, it seems that the Christian faith—that they once so boldly declared—ceased working for these men.

All the reasons why they are leaving the faith or struggling with the faith have little to do with the actual essence of the Christian faith—Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.

Without knowing these men, it seems that what transpired—and we will continue to see it in the lives of others as we move further into this century—is that they grew weary trying to understand, interpret, communicate, and explain the infinite through the lens and to the lives of the finite.

And as a result, focusing on the secondary and tertiary issues of the Christian faith allowed their eyes to wander from the author and perfecter of the faith.

Anytime we take our eyes of Jesus during turbulent storms—be that physical, philosophical, practical or emotional storms—we drift away from Jesus. [Peter is the poster-child for this.]

Exhortation and Conclusion

To the Joshs and Martys of the world, I get the difficulty of navigating the intersection of the Christian faith (and all the voices present there) and contemporary culture. I understand the emotions, the doubts, and the skepticism that such a congested chaotic environment can cause. And I truly believe there’s no shame in doubting, questioning, wrestling, and even struggling with the unknowns of how our faith intersects with a broken and finite world.

On the other hand, like the author of Hebrews did to believers living in a hostile land in the first century, let me remind us all that lying at the core of our faith is the King of Glory who died, was buried, rose from the dead, and sits at the right hand of God. And he is in the process of making all things new.

Therefore, don’t give up. Don’t walk away. Endure! “Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (Heb. 10:35–36).

Indeed, there’s a mystery to the faith, but there’s also a great master and perfecter of our faith who conquered death and sin. Resist the temptations to take your eyes of Jesus. Rather, as the old hymn suggest,

Turn your eyes to Jesus and look full into his wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

Redeeming Rural

This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can click here for the original link.

A couple weeks ago the Laxton house couldn’t agree on a movie for family movie night, so my wife clicks on Hoosiers. Now, a movie as old as Hoosiers certainly raised my children’s eyebrows—and even complaints—since they weren’t born in the century that churned the movie. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the storyline of the 50-year old Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) who moves to rural Hickory, IN to coach the Hickory Huskers. Through a battled journey, Dale victoriously leads the Huskers to the echelon of Indiana High School basketball—the State Championship.

Underneath the grand storyline (main plot) is a subplot. And this subplot has stuck with me as I continue to think, dream, and plan for rural ministry through the Rural Matters Instituteat the Billy Graham Center. What’s the subplot you ask? Redeeming Rural

In this post, I want to outline three redeeming (wrongs made right) elements seen in the subplot and exhort the church today to enact a similar redeeming quality in their mentality, ministry, and mission to rural areas. 

Redeeming the Rural Mentality

Early in the movie, Myra, a teacher at Hickory High, engages Norman Dale describing the rural-nessof Hickory. She vociferously notes that Hickory doesn’t appear on most state maps and that the only thing that comes through Hickory is a train. She goes on to explain that people—especially 50-year-old men—don’t move to Hickory for good reasons. 

I think Myra’s understanding of Hickory has been (and to some degree continues to be) a realistic understanding of many today—even those in the church. For decades the church has promoted ministry and mission in the urban (and suburbia) areas, as these centers continue to experience upticks in population. 

When figure heads of evangelicalism call young leaders to give their lives in strategic areas like cities, and when large denominations have church planting initiatives that focus their resources and efforts on cities, it’s no wonder why there has been a vacuum of leadership, resources, and ministry-aid for rural areas. And if someone does move in or stay rooted in rural areas to do ministry, they probably face the Myra’s of the world thinking they had no better opportunity or offer elsewhere. 

It’s important for the church to reverse engineer such a negative mindset towards rural areas. Rural places do not need to be seen as places of inopportunity but prime locations for opportunities. The problem Hickory faced and that many rural areas today face is that fewer are willing to mine and leverage the potentiality of resources of small towns to [figuratively speaking] “put” them on the map. 

Jesus had to overcome the stigma of what comes out of small towns. Nathanael, prior to following Jesus, is quoted as saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The church must redeem the mentality towards rural areas by seeing them as places of great potential.

Redeeming Rural Ministry

Hoosiers depicts a great deal of brokenness—a town inhospitable to outsiders, a teenager who had suffered great loss, a town drunk living in shame and isolation, and a failed basketball coach in need of a second chance. Who knew rural towns had so many problems? [When I think of small towns, my mind typically goes to Mayberry—a quaint little town with very little problems.] 

The reality is, rural areas aren’t immune to the depravity of humanity. Whether it’s an area with a sparse population of 26 or a small town of 26,000 every single person is in great need of redemption. Every area, regardless of how small has wrongs that need to be made right. 

Residing in rural communities are cold hearts of pride and racism that need to be melted. There are tears of grief being shed that need a shoulder to rest. There are frustrated addicts that need faithful advocates. There fractured marriages in need of healing counsel. There are orphans that need a family. There is the unemployed searching for meaningful employment. There are failures in life longing for dealers of hope. There are prisoners in need of visitors. And there are searchers for purpose in need of people of direction. 

In order to redeem rural ministry, the church must focus on the needs of people rather than the number of people in the area. 

Redeeming Rural Mission

When thinking and discussing rural, almost everybody wants to focus on size. For many, size dictates importance. That’s exactly what some thought about Hickory, IN. This concept of the importance of size has creeped into the church’s understanding and impetus of mission, which has deterred many away from focusing on and going to rural areas.   

Today, more than ever, there is a need to redeem rural mission. To do so we must understand a few things. 

First, the size of the place has no bearings on the scope of God’s mission. God has called the church to go into all the world! A Christ-centered mission will have a church moving for and towards the whole world regardless of location.

Second, the purity of God’s mission isn’t the call to scale or multiply, but to faithfully make disciples.

Redeeming rural mission will require the church to decommercialize God’s mission. Instead of going where we will get the biggest bang for our gospel-buck, we will go where the Spirit prompts. 

Third, the size of the place does not affect the size of the impact. In fact, mission to rural areas has the potential of seeing greater community impact. If you did a cannon-ball in the middle of Lake Michigan, few will see and experience the impact; if you did a cannon-ball in a swimming pool, everyone around (and in) the pool sees and experiences the impact. Rural areas are the swimming pools the church can do gospel cannon-balls that can be felt and experienced by many in the community. 

In closing, after overcoming the less than 21st—Century cinematic affects, the Laxton children sat through the entire movie. They were captivated by the overall storyline of defeat, struggle, redemption, and celebration that captivated their imagination, spoke to their hearts, and inspired their lives. 

While my kids were into the overall drama of the movie, my mind raced to how basketball transformed a small rural town in Indiana. And to know that the church has something so much greater than basketball! 

My prayer is that the church will not neglect its responsibility to take the gospel into the rural areas of the world. To do so will require the church to redeem rural by seeing such areas as places for opportunity, people in need of ministry, and platforms for mission. As the church does this, there will be a glorious subplot of the gospel redeeming rural communities for the glory of God and the good of the world! 

We’re Not from Here

This post originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer.

When people ask me where I’m from, I think to myself, That it’s a tricky question. Do I answer where I currently live, where I currently moved from, or where I was born? In all honesty, I think they are trying to locate the accent they hear from the words coming out of my mouth. So, I answer, “Memphis, Tennessee.”

Truthfully, I’m not from Memphis. I’m actually from Munford, Tennessee. But most people wouldn’t have a clue where Munford is located. It is a town about 30 miles north of Memphis.

Munford was a small town. Growing up, there was no McDonalds, Walmart, or BP Gas Station. Everything was mom and pop. It wasn’t until years later, after I had moved, that Munford began to commercialize. Munford was your typical small southern town—simple, conservative, religious, connected, and friendly (still to this day I tell my wife about the “index finger” wave). This was the cultural environment in which I was raised and in which I became a Christian.

At the age of 15, I sensed a call to vocational ministry and began to lay out my future plans; I planned to attend college, then seminary, and finally land at a church serving God in some capacity. Participating in several overseas mission trips as a teenager gave me a perspective of the world that was bigger than Tipton County. Thus, I never thought I would stay local.

At least my 40,000-foot plans panned out. I attended Union University, graduating with a degree in Biblical Studies. Prior to graduating, I met my wife. As newlyweds, we embarked on seminary at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Full disclosure, I was your typical Bible College, young seminarian. I was consuming so much Bible, theology, and Greek—in addition, serving in local churches—that I was overweight with pride.

Shedding pride 

But there were two practical things that happened that help shed some of that overweight pride. I was part of a church planting team in urban Atlanta and a few years later—upon completing my MDiv—I entered a PhD program in Missiology.

Remember, I’m from Munford, TN—population under 5,000. I found myself on a small church planting team in urban Atlanta where there were 5,000 people in a few blocks. No building, no budget, no people.

How in the world do you reach people—without borrowing members from other churches—with no church building, no members, and no money? Maybe I was a bad student, but from my perspective, neither college nor seminary had prepared me for this environment under these conditions.

There, I learned the precious principles of proximity and presence. It was great that college and seminary had built a theological foundation. But that theological foundation would be useless unless first, I knew the people living around me and, second, I knew how to contextualize the gospel and church in their heart language.

The second practical thing that led me to shed some of my pride weight was my PhD studies in Missiology. In that program, it occurred to me that I’m not as smart as I thought. In addition, it taught me that if the church is going to reach a changing culture, we must change our perspective and our paradigms. Both lessons require a posture of humility.

I remember reading a statement by Ed Stetzer (at the time, one of my professors, now my boss), that if the 1950s came roaring back, there would be so many churches ready to engage. That’s so true of many established churches.

But then, one of the problems with Western Christianity is that it is a copy-cat culture. We copy what we perceive is working.

The church growth and seeker church movement captivated so many young leaders 20 years ago, and since then, such churches have popped up all around the U.S. to the point that they’ve saturated many of the suburban and urban markets.

Why do I say, “saturated the markets”? Because there are those like Aubrey Malphurs and Rick Richardson that accentuate, based upon research, that only a fraction (10 percent or less) of church growth is from conversion growth. In other words, the church is having a difficult time engaging an ever-changing culture with the good news of King Jesus.

Navigating the unfamilar…

I woke up to the realization that I was no longer in quaint, conservative, religious, down-to-earth Munford years ago. I had to wake up from my presuppositional stupor if I was going to be evangelistically effective.

The lessons I’ve learned over the years remind me of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy woke up realizing she was no longer in Kansas on Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm. She was in Oz. Oz was a strange, unfamiliar land. Oz was a place of witches, lollipop guilds, lions, scarecrows, tin mans, and flying monkeys. Dorothy had to learn how to navigate Oz if she wanted to get back home.

Navigating unfamiliar, strange, and even hostile territory was something the people of God in Jeremiah 29 had to do. Could you imagine being a captive, taken from your homeland? You find yourself stunned, marginalized, uncomfortable, oppressed, and even despised.

Wondering what to do, God tells them to settle down—for they will be there 70 years! He proceeds to tell them to get back to the basics of family raising, field planting, and community building. In addition, he tells them to seek the peace and prosperity of the city of Babylon.

In short, God tells His people to enact Promised Land life in Babylonian captivity and to engage the Babylonians with grace and mercy.

Talk about a tall order for a marginalized, oppressed people!

Also, in God’s directives, you won’t find instructions to retreat, to become sub-cultural hermits. They weren’t to sit and sulk—longing for the good ol’ days back in the Promised Land. They weren’t to become mean-spirit, violent, and intolerant. They were to navigate the new, strange, unfamiliar, even uncomfortable land with grace and grit.

Truthfully, the Western Church today is like Dorothy in Oz and the Israelites in Babylon. Foreign and unfamiliar describe their environment.

In such environments, there’s a natural inclination to long for home. And that we do. But, I’m not talking about a home in which we go back to. And it’s not a home that is three-clicks-of-the-heel away. Our home is a future City—The New Jerusalem.

While we wait for home, let us as the church of the Living God, the Bride of Christ, live for the peace and prosperity of the unfamiliar, the strange, the one different than us. Doing so will require a posture of humility, a heart of grace, and a mind of understanding. And this is the essence of our podcast, Living in the Land of Oz.