Thursday, October 20, 2005

Taking Root

When WHCC undertook five years ago to begin a relocation plan the driving purpose was to put us in a position to make a greater impact on our surrounding community, what we have referred to as “Copperfield and the surrounding areas.” That purpose continues to drive us. Our capital campaign slogan was “Building Up, Reaching Out.” Unstated but implied was the middle clause “in order to.” We were building bigger in order to better reach out. Our congregational slogan, imprinted in FIXED letters on our main sign at the intersection of Queenston and West which is seen by thousands of motorists each day, is “Seeking God, Sharing Jesus.” Unstated but implied is the middle clause “and as a natural consequence.” We seek God in our lives and the natural outflow is to share Jesus with others.

We have been on our new campus almost a third of a year now and I see many evidences of this driving purpose taking root and beginning to blossom. This kind of “missional” change does not take place overnight, individually or as a congregation. But I am inspired by things that are happening, some of which are:

Our Building a Successful Step-Family Conference with Ron Deal on November 5-6. This is a seminar for WHCC members, of course, but also for the community, which says, “Here is a challenge that many of you are facing. We want to come alongside you and offer resources and help in whatever way we can.” We are advertising this heavily in community publications, including the Houston Chronicle.

As quaint as it may seem (no offense Cindi and Suzy!), our Pumpkin Patch is making connections with people from our community. My office faces the front parking lot. Every day I see families who are not WHCC members park and get out and look for a pumpkin. In the process they have conversations with our friendly and welcoming members (thank you, Pumpkin Patch volunteers!), receive some literature about WHCC and upcoming children’s ministry events, and leave (we intend) a little more aware of WHCC (and having made a donation to our children’s playground!).

This week I met with the principal and her staff at Aragon Middle School, across the Queenston & West intersection from us. They are putting together an emergency evacuation plan in the event of a fire, gas leak, bomb threat, food fight, Astros game, etc. They wondered if West Houston would consider partnering with them in this. Here is what I told them: “We relocated for just this purpose, to be more available to the community and more invested in the community. We would be DELIGHTED to partner with you in this. Furthermore, let’s explore other ways in which WHCC can be of service to you.” Finally, almost as an afterthought, I said, “By the way, we have a great guy named Tim Davis who would count it a privilege to serve as a detention hall supervisor for any of your kids with disciplinary problems; just send ‘em on over!” (Tim, is this okay with you?).

This is our kingdom purpose, to join in God’s redemptive mission to the world as followers of Christ, who “spoke the Good News to people” (Mark 2:2) and “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). Exciting things are taking root at West Houston. Go Astros.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Where the Power Is

I attended a conference recently that challenged and inspired me. Its effect brings to mind a quote by T.S. Elliott which for some reason (I am not a literature buff) I stored in my memory years ago: “We must not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” Let me explain.

After I was baptized the summer before my senior year in college
I spent my first year as a Christ-follower participating in a dormitory Bible study and interacting with Campus Crusade for Christ, which was based out of Memphis State but had a small presence on my campus at Rhodes College. I worshiped at the Highland St. congregation but, college life being what it is, found myself more rooted in the campus ministry relationships. We placed a great deal of emphasis on the Great Commission and being “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). When my commission (ironic nomenclature, eh?) with the Marine Corps did not work out I was approached by Campus Crusade to go “on staff,” but turned it down to pursue a conventional job (my degree was in business).

On one of my weeks off I attended a 5-day Personal Evangelism workshop in Dalton, GA led by a preacher named Jerrie Barber. This planted the seeds which led me to go back to school two years later and eventually into full-time preaching.

My point is that my early Christian years directed me towards the Great Commission and an evangelistic commitment in my faith life. How curious that five years of school and thirteen years of “church work” actually softened that commitment. How sad that “church life” often (indeed, usually) leads us into maintenance and away from mission.

At this conference church leaders were challenged to focus on the “kerygma,” which is the New Testament term for the “core” of the gospel, namely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and its atoning benefit for those who will place their faith and trust in him. A helpful and more familiar shorthand for “kerygma” could be “the Cross,” as in Paul’s assertion that “the message about the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18). While certainly there is a place and a need for other teaching on more specific issues pertaining to Christian life, the kerygma must remain the item of “first importance.” As noted Christian apologist C.S. Lewis put it, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in; put second things first and we lose both first and second things.”

One speaker at the conference delineated three types of “issues” churches spend their time on: 1) the essentials (kerygma), 2) convictions (doctrine emanating from the essentials), and 3) preferences (matters of style and taste). Now which do you think occupies most of our time and, alas, disagreement in the local church? Paul talks about being sure not to “empty the Cross of its power” (I Cor. 1:17). The modern church, and its preachers, would do well to take heed.

I feel indeed like I have “arrived where I began and know the place for the first time.” Here’s to putting first things first. Will you join me?

The Afterlife, Part V

Three views of hell seem to prevail today among those Christians who are even willing to make the doctrine a part of their Christian worldview. I will lay out the three and then comment (for previous essays see

1. Hell is eternal separation. This is not a stated view but an implied one. In other words, the opposite of heaven is to spend a “Christ-less eternity.” Those who do not go to heaven simply die into nothingness.

2. Hell is eternal suffering. This is the historical and traditional Christian doctrine, unpleasant as it is. It stipulates that those who reject God’s grace extended in Jesus Christ will spend eternity in agony, being punished (or, if you prefer, existing in a state which is akin to punishment because of the suffering) continually. So, for instance, in Matthew 13:40-42, Jesus says, "As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

3. Hell is eternal destruction. This view is gaining more traction among scholars
who question the presumption view #2 makes about the eternal life of the soul, which has Platonic, not biblical, origins. In other words, the presumption is that if the soul lasts forever, and it’s not in heaven, then it must be forever somewhere, and if that somewhere is hell, then it must be in torment. This view notes how the Bible repeatedly warns that the wicked will “die,” “perish” or “be destroyed” and that none of this suggests endless suffering. In the words of Edward Fudge, author or Two Views of Hell and a leading proponent of this view, “The actual process of destruction may well involve conscious pain that differs in magnitude in each individual case – Scripture seems to indicate that it will. Whatever the case, God’s judgment will be measured by perfect, holy, divine justice. Even hell will demonstrate the absolute righteousness of God.” This view takes scriptures such as Romans 6:23 at face value: “The wages of sin is death…” In the face of such scriptures as Matthew 13 (see above), the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is not eternal but part of the punishment that precedes eternal destruction.

In my opinion, the view of eternal separation is too weak and the view of eternal suffering is too harsh. The view of eternal destruction seems appropriate both biblically (what the scriptures say) and theologically (what they testify about the character of God). This is not a pleasant topic but it is an important one.

And let me note that, to use a popular analogy, the Good News has always included both “carrot” and “stick..” My preference, style, and theology prompts me to emphasize the “carrot” of a redeemed, joyful, abundant relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit now and for eternity, and I would hope that to be the case for you as well. But my “biblical conscience” won’t let me ignore the “stick.” And perhaps one could say that our mission as a church is to live out and tell about the carrot with such persuasiveness that no one would think of settling for the stick.