Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Should a church try to be "culturally relevant"? Is culture bad? Should a church "embrace culture"? How does a church balance "culture" and "Scripture"?

Preliminary Points
There is great deal of sin being embraced by our current culture (such as immorality, immodesty, vulgar speech, irresponsibility, abortion, and violence). In fact, in every culture throughout history there has been a great deal of sin being practiced, promoted and endorsed. No society is ever "sinless". However, just because a particular behavior, idea or practice is popular in current culture, does not necessarily mean it is always sinful. Some popular ideas are neither right nor wrong and some might even be good.

We often have the tendency to shy away from anything that is popular in our current culture for the fear that by embracing one of the actions of our current culture, that we must by proxy, be endorsing all of it. At times we create our own specific “congregational/church culture” and assume that anything outside of our particular “culture” must not be right. We must be careful to not create walls and boundaries that God did not create. 

Culture is not the enemy... SIN IS! The church is designed to mold and shape itself with current cultural practices that are not sinful, in an attempt to better reach those in the culture where it exists. It is true that doctrine cannot be compromised in an attempt to be “culturally relevant”, however, many of our expediences and practices can be changed in a way to make them more culturally viable. 

Some Ideas
Modern American culture is very technology oriented. A church in an urban American city must embrace and use current technology if it wants to be relevant. On the other hand, a rural church in Kenya would not be culturally relevant if it had free wifi, plasma screens and an interactive online presence. 

Dress and the organization of worship activities is another way in which a congregation can be culturally relevant. Without rejecting Biblical standards of modesty a congregation should not dress in way that might put up a barrier in reaching the lost. The dress of a congregation in a wealthy Southern community is going to need to be different from the dress of a church in a college town on the West Coast. A suit and tie would be very out of place in a church in the Hawaiian Islands, as would a flowered shirt, shorts and flip-flops in a large congregation in a wealthy suburb of Nashville.

The type of singing in worship is one way in which the church has a history of being culturally relevant. God has only authorized vocal singing in worship, however, the style of the singing must be relevant to the particular culture of the congregation. In the early years of the church, chanting, repetition and responsive singing was culturally relevant. In the first half of the 20th century, 4 part harmony with multiple verses and a chorus was culturally relevant. Now, the norm is the more simple and repetitive “Praise Songs” which are often nothing more than just verses set to music. Each one of these styles of singing are pleasing to God, but are also different and relevant to the their current culture. 

Preaching styles and sermon length need to be culturally relevant. The Gospel is always culturally relevant, but the delivery and style of the message must mirror the current trends in a particular culture in order to be the most effective. The style of preaching in a congregation that is predominantly African American will often differ from an elderly White congregation. The style and length of a lesson delivered in a lecture hall before Graduate students may be longer and more in-depth than a lesson given in a congregation with a great number of parents with children who are struggling to be somewhat quiet for more than 15 minutes. In a culture of rapid facts and instant information, a series of shorter lessons with very specific conclusions and applications may be more relevant. The preacher must not only be a student of the word, but also a student of culture.

When a church meets on Sunday, how we structure our worship, how long we conduct Bible classes and in what format are all questions of “how can we best reach our community?". Just because a congregation has "always done it this way!", does not mean it is the only way, or the best way. Often times a traditional practice, due to repetition, subconsciously becomes a matter of doctrine in our minds. A church must always evaluate its practices and ask "is this action Scripturally binding our not?" If it is not a matter or Scripture, then it can be changed in order to be more effective. 

Some would try to soften the message or tolerate sin under the guise of being “culturally relevant”, but when that takes place, no one is reached with the Gospel! Culture is not the enemy. If we can change our methods in a way that makes us more effective without compromising the Message, we need to do it. The Apostle Paul wrote:
“...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” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).
If a congregation is wise in their approach to outreach and practice they will find ways to be as culturally relevant as they can be without compromising the Truth. Tolerating sin under the guise of being "relevant" is wrong and will always be. Neglecting to teach the Truth in order to "reach more" is actually reaching less. Culture is not bad, the church needs to work to find ways to mold and shape its expedient actions and practices in ways to best reach the society in which it exists. 

By Cliff Sabroe

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What does it mean to be “baptized with fire”? Does it mean that the Holy Spirit is burning inside of you?

This questions is concerning Matthew 3:11 which states,
"As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.
In this passage John the Baptist is emphasizing the greatness of the coming Messiah. Although John was a great godly man, he was insignificant compared to Jesus. John’s baptism was “with water for repentance”, but Jesus was going to baptize with two things, the Holy Spirit and fire. When examining this passage there are three terms that need to be defined and examined in this context. They are 1. Baptism, 2. Holy Spirit, and 3. Fire.

What does “baptism” mean?
The term “baptism” is usually used in the New Testament in reference to the act that takes place at one’s conversion when they are buried in water symbolizing Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. The word, however, is not always in reference to a religious action. “Baptism” in its most literal sense means to “dip or immerse” (Arndt 131). When examining Matthew 3, the definition “to immerse”, would make sense with water baptism as well as the Holy Spirit and fire. This article will explain the last two terms further.

What is the baptism of the “Holy Spirit”? 
Since the term baptism means “to immerse”, what does it mean when John said that Jesus would “immerse with the Holy Spirit”? Later in (Acts 2), the Apostles were gathered together and the Holy Spirit comes on them (like an immersion/baptism). The text reads,
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)
In Matthew 3, John the Baptist (a prophet) is explaining that when Jesus comes, He will be able to immerse people with the Spirit of God. This is what He did in (Acts 2) and later with Cornelius and his household in (Acts 10). In fact, by inspiration, the Apostle Peter defines for the reader what was meant by the phrase “baptized with the Holy Spirit”. In (Acts 11:15-16) he says, 
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”
Being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” means to be immersed with the Spirit. This happened to the Apostles in (Acts 2) and to Cornelius’ household in (Acts 10).

What does it mean to be “baptized with fire”?
There are many well-meaning people who ask to be “baptized with fire”. They make this statement out of confusion because they were taught that the fire in this passage is in reference to a “burning in ones heart” that the Spirit produces, or maybe in reference to the “tongues of fire” in (Acts 2). Both of these are assumptions that are far from the truth of this passage.

The term “fire” is used 3 times in (Matthew 3) and in no less than 12 verses in the entire book. Every single time this word is used, it is discussing hot, burning fire, as one would find in a furnace or in Hell. In (Matthew 3:10) John says, 
"The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”
The fire mentioned in (Matthew 3:10) is a destructive fire. It is a fire intended to burn up the pruned fruitless branches of a tree. A similar illustration is given in (Matthew 3:12) where John continues by stating, 
"His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Again, in this verse fire is destructive, it is designed to burn up the worthless chaff after it is separated from the wheat. If the fire mentioned in vs. 10 is destructive, and if the fire in vs. 12 is destructive, one MUST conclude that the fire in vs. 11 is also destructive.

This passage is stating that Jesus will not only immerse people with the Spirit, He also has the power to punish by immersing them in destructive fire.

Jesus will judge the world some day. The “fire” mentioned in (Matthew 3:11) is the same as the fire in (Revelation 20:15) which declares, 
And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
The lesson for the reader of this passage is that John the Baptist was a great prophet of God who prepared the way for the coming Messiah. The Messiah/Jesus was greater than John, for Jesus has the power to save and also to punish.

By Cliff Sabroe (Quotes from NASB95 Bible) and citation from
Arndt, William F. and F. Wilber Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.  Chicago: University Press, 1952.