The Cross and the Church

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

Being a Protestant growing up in a Roman Catholic neighborhood, I learned early on how to tell the difference between churches from the outside. Protestant churches displayed an empty cross, signifying the risen Lord, while Roman Catholic churches portrayed a cross depicting Jesus hanging on it, signifying the crucified Christ.

At least in those days churches displayed a cross, the ultimate symbol of the heart of the Christian faith—the death of Jesus on the cross and the resurrection from the empty tomb for the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation.

Today, for whatever reason, numerous churches are abstaining from having a cross either on the outside of the building or inside in the worship center or sanctuary. Their reasons may be noble—to provide a more welcoming atmosphere for visitors from other, non-Christian faiths; to be less threatening to those who don’t understand what it means; to provide a comfortable worship atmosphere for those who are turned off by all of the talk about blood and crucifixion and nail-pierced hands.

One has only to scan the internet to find multiple explanations and excuses, justifications and smooth answers to why churches have made such a decision.

But don’t be fooled. The cross is the most potent symbol that we have to convey what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Yes, it IS stark, it is bold, it can be viewed as gruesome, it is an offence to some who don’t understand it.

Yes, it can be misused as in those who aren’t believers who, nevertheless, wear a cross on a necklace or in some other manner.

But rather than hide it, we can be using it as a teaching and evangelistic tool to help others learn what the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are all about.

Traditionally, church buildings were constructed with many adornments, all of which served, not a decorating purpose, but a teaching function. In the days when large numbers of people were illiterate, stained glass windows told biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Moses, Abraham, David, Jesus, the Apostles and others. It was through seeing those characters in the portrayals on stained glass that people came to know, love and be touched by the stories that they were unable to read.

And, in our traditional churches, so many things that we see again and again proclaim the stories of the Bible. A piece of art depicting Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane; a baptismal pool or font demonstrating our burial to sin in Christ and our resurrection to new and eternal life with Him; A communion table with carvings of grapevines around it to depict His living presence in our worship and the biblical references to Jesus as the vine and us as the branches; three steps from the main floor to the platform where the chancel or altar reside representing the Trinity—the list goes on and on.

In our Evangelical churches, we have become used to few symbols and a renewed emphasis on singing praises and hearing the word.

However, a year or so ago Polly and I worshiped in the Bratislava International Church in Slovakia. After so much time in worship filled with reading words off of a huge screen that dominated the sanctuary, it was moving to me that the sanctuary, located in an historic Lutheran building, focused not on people or slides, music stands or coffee mugs, but on a painting of our Lord Jesus Christ. With no one up front leading, how refreshing it was to see and meditate just on that portrayal of Christ.

It seems that as churches remove art work and symbolic items, including, and especially including, the cross, they are either replaced with nothing or with other items whose symbolism is hidden, confusing, or unknown. We know of one church that in the past few months has displayed deer antlers, huge circles and “decorations” in the shape of a Christmas tree hung upside down.

To remove or ignore the cross is to cheapen our worship experience and to invite new Christians into a shallow, non-committal acceptance of Jesus Christ.

In a famous quote from his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross (my emphasis), grace without Jesus Christ.”

Or, even more clearly, it is to hear the gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship. In contrast to this is costly grace:

“Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Pastor Rick Warren wrote, “A church without the Cross is no longer a church. Just a social club.”

The scripture and hymns tell us about the power of the cross—both as a symbol in our houses of worship, and in our life.

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles 1 Corinthians 1:23

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  Galatians 6: 14 (All quotes from the NIV)

When we remove or hide the crosses in our churches, we are risking inoculating people against the Gospel. When seekers think that becoming a Christian is like eating chocolate ice cream with no consequences for behavior or lifestyle or vocation, we weaken the Gospel, weaken the church and negate the tremendous sacrifice for us as sinners in need of the redemption which we can receive only through Jesus who died on the cross for us.

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’ertake me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me,
Lo! it glows with peace and joy.

When the sun of bliss is beaming
Light and love upon my way,
From the cross the radiance streaming
Adds more luster to the day.

Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,
By the cross are sanctified;
Peace is there that knows no measure,
Joys that through all time abide.

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

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Watch your Ps and Qs, your punctuation and your terminology

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

It was John Long, the excellent religion reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, who first taught me to look for the fine points in religious writing.

United Churches of Christ with a saint’s name usually don’t use an apostrophe “s” in their name, while Lutheran churches do, he told me once over lunch. Thus a UCC church would likely be named St. Luke (not St. Luke’s) while a Lutheran church would probably be named St. Luke’s.

Seems like a small point—unless you are a Lutheran or a member of the UCC.

But, it is little uses of terminology that can tell us a lot about the nature of a church or denomination. Or, by misuse can tell about the religious knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of a writer or editor.

One of the most common mistakes that I run across in religious journalism, particularly in headlines, is the error of mistaking the aforementioned United Church of Christ with the Churches of Christ. And, what a difference there is. The UCC (emphasis on the United part) counts itself among the most liberal and ecumenical or interfaith of American denominational groups, while the Churches of Christ are, in contrast, among the most conservative and closed bodies.

The two would just as soon you not confuse them. The Churches of Christ even put this disclaimer on their website: The churches of Christ are not affiliated in any manner with the denominational church known as “The United Church of Christ”. Writers and editors, especially headline editors, take note!

It should also be noted that while there are broad denominational bodies such as Presbyterians or Methodists, Baptists or Lutherans, in actuality, these streams are broken up into multiple rivulets. Among the Presbyterians, for example, there is the most-often quoted Presbyterian Church (USA)—the most prominent and therefore most-cited, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and the list goes on—Wikipedia lists 30 such groups in North America.

So many, but it is usually only the PCUSA that gets mentioned in news reports—which can lead to distortion. In the summer of 2014 while the PCUSA was adapting its policy to more openly embrace same-sex marriage, the EPC and others were doing just the opposite—standing firm to their opposition to approving those relationships. However, in most news stories I saw reported by news agencies which cited “Presbyterians approve…”, only the PCUSA action was reported. An important part of the story was, thus, missing.

Then there is the use of terminology. I’m often able to ascertain the denominational background of a writer by their use, or more frequently, misuse of certain terminology.

For example, I saw an article some time ago that referred to Evangelical priests. There aren’t too many of those around. Nor do Evangelical churches hold a mass as I saw not too long ago in an article. Protestants generally have pastors or ministers (or, as some amusingly call them, coaches) while Roman Catholics have priests who are sometimes referred to as pastors. Yes, Anglicans/Episcopalians also have priests, so writers beware. And while Catholics hold mass, Protestants in general have worship services or gatherings.

Then there is the matter of how we pray. Roman Catholics and some of the more liturgical Protestant bodies often indicate that they “say” prayers, while most Protestants, especially Evangelicals, would disclaim that terminology in favor of the verb “to pray.” To write that a Baptist congregation “said” prayers for peace sounds to an evangelical like scratching your fingernails down a blackboard (assuming there are any blackboards still in use). Much preferred would be to say that a Baptist congregation “prayed” for peace.

There is, I suppose, the difference there between the reading/reciting of an already written prayer as found in a prayer book and an offering to the Lord that is spontaneous and unrehearsed.

While “proselytize” and “evangelize” technically mean the same thing—to convert (according to dictionary.com)—they signify different things to those outside a particular religious expression and those inside.

For many, to proselytize carries the implied meaning of “sheep stealing” or persuading a person to abandon their current religion for another—most commonly to leave a non-Christian body for a Christian church or movement.

On the other hand, to evangelize implies more than just a mechanical switch from one form of religion to another. For a Christian involved in an evangelistic outreach, it signifies a change of heart, a switch of allegiance to Jesus Christ and an acceptance of salvation through Him. Rather than just signing up for another religious system as one might switch from one car insurance company to another, it means a total change of religious belief and outlook and a resulting change in eternal status as well as worldly behavior.

So, some of those common “Christianese” words which we use without thinking may not always communicate to people of other Christian streams. All of us, not just religious writers, should carefully consider our terminology to accurately express action and faith.

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A welcome call and model for unity and diversity in our churches

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

The welcome statement by Southern Baptist leaders that called for wider ethnic diversity in North American churches highlights a long-standing deficiency in our congregations.

An article by the Associated Press stated: “Nonwhite congregations made up 20 percent of the Southern Baptist Convention’s nearly 51,000 congregations in 2012, the most recent year statistics are available from the denomination. But less than one percent of those congregations are multiethnic. The vast majority of Southern Baptists attend a church predominantly filled by people of their own race, be it black, white or Hispanic. The situation is nearly identical in most Christian denominations in the United States.

“Despite that lack of integration, a phone survey of about 1,000 churchgoers by Lifeway Research recently found that only 37 percent of evangelicals thought their churches needed to become more ethnically diverse. The survey was not broken down by denomination.”

The article went on to quote Rev. Russell Moore, the director of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, saying “”My grief is we’re late to this party….”We should have been leading the way. The Christian church should be the first to speak to issues of discrimination and injustice … not sitting back.”

With the growing number of internationals in our cities, and even in our small towns, there is no lack of opportunity for churches to become more ethnically, nationally, racially diverse. Even in the small Southern town where we live, I was surprised to discover at a recent neighborhood cookout that there were at least eleven of us out of maybe 50 who attended who spoke Spanish—and most were not Americans who have lived overseas like we have, but were people who had immigrated and settled here in Carrollton.

Churches and denominations that want to see this ideal in action can look no farther than the more than 1,000 English-language international congregations scattered in major cities around the world where English is not the primary language.

Just one of those churches illustrate how people of multiple nationalities, races and denominations can, when united in Christ, come together to form a harmonious church that works diligently to serve the Lord.

In Central Asia, our church embraced active participants from 35 countries and nearly 30 different denominations. Our members hailed from Nigeria and the People’s Republic of China, South Korea and India, Afghanistan and the USA, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands, Brazil and Germany, and the list goes on.

Church-wise we worshipped together in the Lord though we came from Presbyterian and Anglican, Methodist and Assemblies of God, Baptist and Evangelical and many more denominational backgrounds.

The diversity and unity of these congregations isn’t just the happenstance of so many expats gathered in one spot. The successful ICs have been intentional in quickly integrating people into congregational activities including small group Bible studies, teaching Sunday school, tapping theological and preaching skills or inviting people to participate in governing bodies.

Some are more successful than others, but those that are the most successful are those (1) which are “of one mind” in Christ (more about that in a subsequent blog) and (2) willing to share leadership outside of the often Western majority.

International Congregations have found that intentional worship and service under the lordship of Jesus Christ is doable in a harmonious and productive style. And, their integration of people from all people, tongues and races demonstrates that it can happen in our home churches in the United States, England, Australia, Costa Rica, Ecuador or wherever.

Around 40 years ago, Dr. J.R. “Jack” Collins, was the executive director of the office of International Congregations and Lay Ministries, an umbrella organization that brought together and provided services to International Congregations (or Union Churches as many of them were called in those days). In speaking about the diversity, unity and faithfulness of these churches, I distinctly remember him saying “The International Congregations are the prototype of what the churches in the United States can and will be someday.”

Southern Baptists and others who are committed to the holistic nature of Christendom lived out in our churches can look to the international congregations around the world as a model of what we can be doing back home.

For more information on international churches, go to www.internationalcongregations.net. Note links to other similar sources on the left side of this website.

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Good News and Bad, Evil and Blessing in El Salvador

There is good news and bad news coming out of El Salvador these days. That country, which has, at times, been paralyzed by recurrent gang violence, seems again to be in the initial stages of a truce with gang members which has significantly reduced the spiraling murder rate.

CatholicFilly.com, a Roman Catholic publication in Philadelphia recently reported on efforts by Salvadoran Catholic authorities, encouraged by Pope Francis, to negotiate a renewed truce. Hidden away in the article are several nuggets which make one angry but also give hope.

To summarize, the country’s maras, or gangs (the largest of which is Mara Salvatrucha) observed a truce with authorities for 15 months in 2012 and 2013, reducing the murder rate by 66 percent.

Why the truce fell apart less than a year and a half after its implementation is a heart-breaking commentary. It seems the reasons were economic—security companies which were paid high fees to protect business people and various commercial enterprises lost significant amounts of money. A lower murder rate meant less income and thus they worked to dismantle the peace process. And, the gangs themselves felt the economic pinch when the bottom dropped out of their extortion income.

That money and wealth trumped peace and saving the lives of people is, indeed, very discouraging and a sign of the deep-rooted evil that is found in individual segments of our society.

On the brighter side, the article reported the involvement of both Roman Catholic and Evangelical churches and their leaders to work with the gangs.

Polly and I have seen this notable work in several Central American countries and I reported on it in several articles.

In El Salvador in 2007 we met Javier Osorio and his wife of Christ for the City who were living and working in a heavily gang-infested neighborhood. I wrote: El Salvador’s problems run deep. The explosion of gang activity has its roots in the country’s 1980s civil war that took the lives of 7,000 people, Pastor Osorio explains. Young people who fled to the United States with or without their families, mostly to Los Angeles, found themselves without work and family ties and thus attracted to violent street gangs. When the United States repatriated thousands of them back to El Salvador without work or any hope for the future, they carried their gang lifestyle with them.

Today, Mr. Osorio says, the gangs continue to grow and contribute to an increasing climate of violence in the country. He attributes that growth to:

  • Political issues. “Young people find themselves in political anguish and in the midst of a corrupt justice system that cannot control them,” he says.
  • Family disintegration. “Seventy percent come from divorced families or where there is marital infidelity and a macho culture,” he says. “Few families are solid and many are dysfunctional. We are counseling with many of them and holding courses for married couples.”
  • With many people working in the informal and thus under-employed sector of the economy, families are facing difficult poverty. In addition, many young people cannot find adequate work.
  • “There is no consciousness of God among many people,” Pastor Osorio says. “They say that 30 percent of this country is Evangelical Christian, but that is not so.

How are the churches of El Salvador and other Central American countries working to address these problems of poverty, violence and disentrancement?

Social ministries are one way. We met several pastors who established community centers to provide potential gang members with a place to be away from others of bad influence. Still others are providing technical training and job opportunities as a prevention against the gang lifestyle.

Many Christian workers blame the disintegration of the family for the problems of gangs, street children and much of the other problems that plague children.

But others have found that there are deeper needs, and deeper solutions.

Several years ago I read a book about gangs by a Mexican journalist. One of his startling observations was that there are only two ways out of a gang. One is by death, the other is by accepting Jesus Christ as savior and becoming part of an Evangelical church.

I was surprised to find that statement in a secular book, but not surprised that a relationship with Jesus Christ could bring a transformation of the most hardened gang members.

Two pastors who serve independent Christian churches in Honduras affirmed that to me in 2013. In an article, I wrote:  The two pastors agreed that the only way out of a gang is either to be killed or to accept Christ and join an evangelical church.

Pastor Rodriguez said that a former leader of a gang is now a part of his fellowship. “But if a member is allowed to leave and join an evangelical congregation he had better not ever leave the church. If he does, he will be killed,” he warned.”  

Other pastors and missionaries in Honduras affirmed that what is lacking among the Honduran churches and their ability to address the ills of society is the failure of both evangelistic outreach and discipleship. One Assemblies of God missionary with decades of experience in the country told me, “Winning people to Christ is one thing but making them disciples is another.”

Turner said that moving beyond the conversion experience and helping people to understand what the Gospel means in how they live their lives will be crucial to overcoming the country’s problems. He said that living the Christian life is not so much what he called “religiosity” but “requires a change in how we do things.”

Speaking about children who live on the street, often a major indicator or those who will become involved in violent gang activity, Thomas Smoak of Action International told me a decade or so ago: “The lack of a father figure is usually the main reason a child is working or living on the streets. Either the father is absent, in prison, or he is addicted to drugs or alcohol and turns violent.” Thomas adds that his center not only works with the children but with their family to overcome the problems that caused the child to leave home. “A Christian family is the key to success, he reflected. When a street child and his family accept the Lord, the child stays off the streets. It’s that simple.”

Too simplistic? Not at all. Politically, the only institution in Central America that can carry enough influence to work with the gangs, government and business community in forging a truce is the church. Spiritually, only the message of Jesus Christ can transform the hearts of those so prone to violence. I’m grateful for the position of the Pope and the work of both Catholic and Evangelical churches in those trouble countries.

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The Crucial Role of Discernment

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

Several years ago I decided not to officiate at a particular wedding service, but not, perhaps, for the reasons you may think in this age of rapidly changing social mores and church practices.

The wide-ranging debate over same-sex marriage and the stance of individual congregations, denominations and clergy concerning whether a pastor, priest or rabbi should or shouldn’t perform such ceremonies has rushed headlong without considering the broader, and more traditional, roles of clergy in counseling and pastoral care. A recent article in the New York Times has helped to remind us that there are many considerations for clergy when they are asked to function at a wedding.

As the article points out, the role of clergy in the United States is quite different than in most other countries around the world. In each of the six nations outside of the United States where I have served in a pastoral role at international congregations, clergy have nothing to do with the legal or civil process. In Central Asia, for example, a couple must go to the government-operated “Wedding Palace” where the appropriate legal papers are signed and a government employee conducts a brief wedding ceremony. Numerous businesses around the palace provide appropriate services such as gown and tux rental, photographer and the planning of a party or honeymoon trip.

On a Saturday afternoon we often saw a dozen or more wedding parties in front of the palace or in a nearby park taking photos and preparing to head for a restaurant.

In other countries the papers are signed in a government office or with a local attorney.

At a wedding we attended in Central America, the attorney attended and formally signed the legal papers publically as part of the service. Later, the bride’s pastor led a beautiful, meaningful Christian celebration of their marriage.

Thus, in most other countries, for the church and the pastor there is only a Christian service in which the couple presents their vows before the Lord and their Christian family. I have discovered that this step in the process is considered by many believing couples to be the actual moment in which they are married, no matter the legalities of a government office and ceremony.

Separating the two functions helps to remind us that the church plays a crucial role in the counseling and formation of a couple and in helping them to consider the meaning of their marriage vows in the sight of God.

As a pastor, I have always taken this seriously. I insist that the couple and I have at least three meetings in which we talk about their view of marriage and the teaching of the Bible about fidelity and the growth of their relationship in the sight of God.

Those sessions have almost always been enjoyable and certainly have been helpful to the couples as they discover even more about themselves individually and together.

At times they have also been revealing. I remember one couple who, I (and they) discovered, had never talked about having children. We were all surprised to find that the husband wanted nine or ten children and the wife did not want any!  It all worked out within a week after they talked and prayed and came back saying they had settled on two, maybe three.

In addition to counseling and mentoring, a pastor also has a crucial role of discerning. That means that the pastor must, in prayer, determine whether or not he will conduct a service. As the Presbyterian (PCUSA) Book of Order puts it, “If the pastor is convinced of the couple’s commitment, responsibility, maturity and Christian understanding, he may approve the marriage. If the pastor deems the marriage unwise he shall assure the couple of the Church’s continuing concern for them and not conduct the ceremony.”

Which brings me to the one marriage that I refused to conduct and another that I was happy to.

Several years back I counseled a couple at one of the churches I served overseas. They came to each and every counseling session fighting, squabbling, calling each other names or barely speaking. Despite prayer, talking, promises and a lot of hard work, the situation continued to deteriorate. Finally, I counseled them that they should wait at least six months before considering again the question of their marriage.

They chose otherwise, and found another pastor who officiated at their service. Sadly, a year and a half plus one baby later, they were living in separate countries, barely speaking to each other, and were involved in a nasty international custody fight.

Discernment, which a pastor must have the moral, theological and legal right to continue exercising, is crucial in deciding whether to participate in such a service. Any legal steps to force a clergy person to perform each and every service he is requested to do will encroach on his or her sacred responsibility of discernment.

On the other hand, around 45 years ago, I was scheduled to officiate at a wedding when the father of the bride came to me and begged me not to do the wedding and to counsel them to break off their relationship. After due prayer and consideration, I went ahead with the wedding.

I saw them recently, 45 or so years later. I am happy to report that they are still together and seem very happy.

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