Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On the Proper Use of Wealth

Despite having provoked an intriguing rebuke with my last post, I've decided to continue my recent probing of controversial topics. However, I should add the caveat that in this blog I make no claim to be pontificating either absolute truth or the exact will of God for the church. I would humbly submit that the point of offering my thoughts is not in any way to devalue truth by putting opinions in its place, but rather to pursue truth through the asking of hard questions from a number of different angles. When I do make criticisms, I do it out of love for the church, and in the hope that we can grow into something better. I do make a conscientious attempt to speak only about those areas I know well enough to say something edifying on the subject, and when I talk about areas that are foreign to my knowledge and experience, I usually try to add copious disclaimers. I'm open to being wrong about most things that I write, save in the case of orthodox theology, so if you want to submit a comment disagreeing with me, it's helpful if I know exactly what you're disagreeing with. Otherwise I don't learn much of anything from the process. Also, when I submit poetical thoughts rather than my ordinary offerings of wandering ideas, you're free to render any stylistic criticisms you like, or, if you'd rather, rhapsodic praises of my curious literary skills.

But in all seriousness, the topic I want to address briefly is one of major concern for the American church—the proper use of wealth. This is a touchy issue for most American Christians, mostly because we have a fair amount of wealth, we enjoy having it, and yet we still have a creeping suspicion that we need to justify having so much.

The Bible has a lot to say regarding wealth, but I’m not going to probe any of the Scriptural arguments here, which have been used both to advocate hoarding wealth as a blessing from God and, from the other side of the debate, radical poverty as a mandate for all believers. For those interested in seeing a biblical overview of the question, I would point them toward Dr. Craig Blomberg’s Neither Poverty Nor Riches.

I only have one insight to add to this topic at the moment. I’ve noticed that one question comes up in almost every American Christian circle when this issue is addressed: “Is it a sin to be rich?” This is an important question, but I would submit that it’s not the best question. It’s not the first thing we should be asking. It reflects at least a tinge of the mentality that we’re hoping to get away with as much as God will possibly allow us to have. A better question would be: “How can I use my wealth to glorify God?”

Some might answer that God is glorified when his children are happy. That may be true, but it ignores the larger context of the kingdom of God at this point in time. Is God glorified by his American children being happy and comfortable in lavish wealth, when at the same time many of his African and Asian children are wallowing in abject poverty? Or to glance at a situation closer to home, is he happy to have some of his children comfortable and secure when others, just a few miles away, are living on the cold and lonely streets of inner-city America? As a general rule, we cannot say that it is a sin to be rich. However, given the current circumstances of global inequity, I would say that the practice of making ourselves the objects of our own wealth is closer to being an inherent sin than it ever has been before.

So the question remains: How can we glorify God with the use of our wealth? There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable, but I would echo C. S. Lewis’ assessment when he says that the Christian principle of giving really presses to give beyond our means, to give to the point that it hurts, to the point where we actually have to trust God to honor our generosity and continue to provide for our needs. Voluntary poverty is a form of discomfort that can be very good for us.

We need not feel guilty about every expense we generate for ourselves. Right now our church is in the process of re-doing its kitchen, running an expense that could easily fund the construction of a number of complete village churches in places like India. However, a better kitchen will also be of use in the work of God through our church, and it would only be a problematic expense if we were not at the same time giving to the larger work of God in the world.

But many of our large expenses in America are fairly frivolous and are rarely edifying (if not downright destructive). For instance, a big-screen high-definition TV can easily run two thousand dollars or more. But who really needs a big-screen TV? That same sum of money could be used to completely support a native Indian ministry in his life and service for more than a year. Which use glorifies God more? That’s only one example, and of course there are always mitigating circumstances that determine the proper course of action in a given context. I would be hesitant to say that buying a big-screen TV is always an inherent sin. But I would say that conscientious Christians should seriously consider their motives before buying one.

Even so, the question of wealth should only secondarily be seen in a negative light. The positive considerations are where we should fix our eyes: How can we most glorify God through the use of our money? How can we reflect the character and values of God with our wealth? Are we reflecting his heartbroken affection and care for the poor? The use of our wealth should be a delightful dance of joy as we enter with all our hearts into the work of God in the world. It’s not a question of feeling guilty about not giving enough; it’s a question of feeling ecstatic about being used by God in radical giving. We have the incredible opportunity to change the world forever through the immense riches God has given us, and that is a wonderful thing indeed.

Every use of our wealth is an active expression of implicit values. Let’s make sure that those values line up with the heart of God.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Should All Churches Be Multi-Ethnic?

In our chapel service today here at Denver Seminary, we had a speaker who was advocating for embracing a multi-ethnic paradigm for churches. The sermon seemed to get a good response, and he was obviously passionate about this ministry. However, at the risk of critiquing what is undoubtedly a good work of God in his church and others like it, I’m going to play devil’s advocate against his views. I haven’t read the literature produced by this debate in recent years (multi-ethnic versus homogeneous composition of churches—is one more to be preferred than the other?), so these are my own musings, and I’d love to hear comments or opposing points of view.

First of all, to state my position, I would say that this whole debate is not nearly as important as the major advocates on either side make it out to be. Is a multi-ethnic church a better reflection of a biblical paradigm? In some ways. Are homogeneous churches as effective in honoring God? I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t be. In my view, there is no compelling reason why we need to make a general rule that one way is better than the other. Advocates of the multi-ethnic perspective will claim biblical precedent in Paul’s writings about Jews and Greeks, but I think their case is weaker than it seems at first glance.

Anyway, the speaker today went so far as to claim that segregated churches were, in some way, inherently sinful, and that the fact that 92.5% of America’s churches are ethnically homogeneous is deplorable. This is actually fairly simple to rebut, but first let me point out the amazingly positive side of multi-ethnic ministry. In places like urban America, where racial tensions often continue to run high, a multi-ethnic church can be a powerful symbol and tool of the work of God in bringing peace and reconciliation. Further, multi-ethnic churches give us an authentic foretaste of heaven, of bringing together people from every tribe and tongue and nation to worship God with one voice. It is a beautiful work of God. Ministries like this should be applauded and emulated in contexts where such churches are a legitimate possibility.

However, this speaker’s message made me feel that this was a case of rhetoric having gone too far. In attesting to the marvelous work of the Spirit in their midst, some multi-ethnic churches have begun to declare that their way is the best way for the Spirit to work, and that anything other or less than that is somehow lacking or sinful.

There is a remarkable biblical precedent for multi-ethnic churches, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s an obligatory mandate. Paul’s concern was largely to keep together churches that were planted as multi-ethnic groups. Jews and Gentiles came to Christ together in his ministry and formed families. When cultural tensions arose, Paul’s emphasis was on keeping those families together. If multi-ethnic churches are planted, they should go to great lengths to stay multi-ethnic. But if homogeneous churches are planted (and almost all the churches planted in the history of the world have been homogeneous), should they be frantically seeking out people of other cultures to join their congregation just so they can match a multi-ethnic ‘mandate’? I don’t think so.

The other difficulty in extrapolating cross-cultural principles from the New Testament context is that divisions between Jews and Gentiles were not merely about culture, but also about perceptions of value. Jews, heirs of the old covenant and the promises, could be seen as devaluing their Gentile Christian brothers if the old Jewish customs weren’t kept. Likewise in 20th century America, most questions of segregation revolve around issues of perceived value. The segregation of schools was an expression of a cultural bias—that white people were somehow better than black people. But none of the homogeneous churches that I’ve been in reflect this value-distinction. The reason churches are segregated is not because white Christians believe they are better than black Christians, or vice versa, but because of cultural differences.

I grew up in one of the few places in America where multi-ethnic churches are still a genuine impossibility. Maine, especially northern Maine, is almost entirely Caucasian—most from English stock, some from French, and some from Swedish. The only other major cultural group, the Native Americans, have been largely absorbed into the New England subculture. So it feels a little silly for me to hear that churches are unhealthy or sinful if they aren’t multi-ethnic. Or consider some of the historic traditions of the faith, whose worship has been shaped by a particular cultural context, such as Eastern Orthodoxy. Would we claim that they are sinful if they don’t abandon those cultural conventions to embrace in their worship services African-American hip-hop praise choruses? Of course not. There is a richness that comes from the gospel fully engaging and fully transforming a single culture.

Only in the past century and still in only a few scattered countries of the world are there a significant number of churches that even have the possibility of becoming genuinely multi-ethnic. I would be hesitant to agree that multi-ethnic churches are an inherent mandate for the Kingdom when most of the churches throughout history have had little possibility of being multi-ethnic.

Further, I don’t think homogeneous churches are ever going to go away, and for good reason. I’m something of a cultural critic, but here I have to pause and tip my hat to the power of culture. I still attend a homogeneous church, even here in multi-ethnic Denver. It’s a little Mennonite Brethren church in the southwestern suburbs, almost entirely Caucasian in ethnic composition. We have a good mix of ages, and we love God and love each other. It’s not that we’re aiming to be exclusive, but we are trying to engage the culture we come from and to worship God in and through that culture.

The reason why I’m an advocate of cultural homogeneity is that culture is something we can’t entirely get away from. It shapes who we are. It shapes how we think. And it also shapes how we worship. I’m not simply speaking about the way we use music in our services. I’ve found that preaching the Gospel within a homogeneous culture is much more powerful and effective than trying to continuously preach outside of and around and across cultures. Why is it that mission agencies are now realizing that native missionaries, or those with similar cultures to the target group, are more effective than Western cross-cultural missionaries? Because the Gospel can be given deeper insights by someone within a culture speaking to others who are also in and who understand that culture. Why, while I was in Angola, was it better for the Angolan pastors to preach on Sunday mornings than it was for me? Because I didn’t know the culture, and the other pastors did. They could speak to the people’s hearts in a way that I couldn’t. As a missionary, I know that the Gospel can and must be presented across cultural boundaries. However, as a preacher and as a lover of the English language and Western thought, I also know that the Gospel can be infused with much richer insights and applications if I am speaking to those of my own culture rather than to those of another culture. But that is not to say that homogeneous churches should not embrace cross-cultural fellowship and dialogue. I’ll deal with that more fully below.

I would also claim here, though this is more difficult to substantiate, that having homogeneous churches allows for the full and robust development of theology within specific cultures. The early church did not stay homogeneous for long. Jewish cultural influences were rapidly absorbed into the broader Greco-Roman milieu. But the incredible thing is that that largely homogeneous Greco-Roman church produced from within the resources of its culture the thought-forms and the creeds that have shaped and driven Christian orthodoxy for millennia. Likewise, if we were to demand that African Christians and Western Christians join completely in worship and life together, we might be muting some of the genuine African impulses and end up short-circuiting the development of an indigenously African Christian theology. The insights that arise from African and Asian and Muslim-background churches do not arise because they mixed cultures in their worship, but because they had the freedom to engage their own cultures and see the Christian story through that lens.

I should also say a word about comfort. It has become spiritually fashionable of late to bash the pursuit of comfort in our worship, and especially to bash the ‘church-shopping’ phenomena of searching around for a body that fits one’s own interests and tastes. These reactions stem from good motivations, but probably go too far. American Christians as a whole are too comfortable and too self-centered in how they see worship, but that doesn’t mean that comfort is bad and that we should take no regard for our own tastes in worship forms. Church should be a place where we can, more often than not, be comfortable in the worship of God and relate to him in ways that are meaningful to us. Church is about what honors God, and what honors him is people being able to connect with him in powerful and meaningful ways. Different sorts of people have different ways of connecting with God. Therefore, because God is honored when people desire to connect with him, I see nothing wrong in churches forming from groups that all enjoy connecting with him in similar ways. My suspicion is that the people who remain in multi-ethnic churches are often those who are more predisposed to enjoy cross-cultural worship forms and who generally feel comfortable within that context.

Discomfort can be healthy in the Christian life, because we can learn a lot when we’re outside our comfort zones. But it doesn’t make us more spiritual to be constantly outside our comfort zones. It sets us up for emotional and spiritual disaster. Furthermore, the kind of discomfort we should be prodding people towards is not necessarily cross-cultural discomfort. There is nothing spiritually meritorious in being thrust into culturally uncomfortable situations. Rather, the discomfort we need to encourage is discomfort with sin. Culture is not the issue, sin is. I have no problem with people enjoying worship forms that they’re comfortable with, but I do have a problem with people finding churches that leave them comfortable in their sin. So my advice is: be wary of church-shopping, but don’t bash it too much. It is important to find places where we can worship God comfortably and authentically from within the cultural forms that engage us.

Having said all this, I should also note that I think it’s very important for congregations to have fellowship with brothers and sisters of other ethnicities and cultures. The reason is not that we’re biblically mandated to do it—plenty of churches have never even had the opportunity, and I believe God was honored through their worship just the same. No, the reason is that cross-cultural fellowship is simply mutually beneficial. We learn to embrace and love those unlike us, to learn their unique cultural perspectives, which often shed light on our own. My wife’s home church in Pennsylvania is a good model of this. They’re pretty much homogeneous in culture and ethnicity, but they are good friends with a nearby Hispanic church. The two churches don’t often worship together, simply because they enjoy different ways of connecting with God. But they do fellowship together somewhat regularly, and continue to build relationships of friendship and love that are mutually edifying.

In sum, then, I don’t think one model is better than the other. Both have very positive aspects that we should consider and embrace. More than anything else, context will drive whether a church is multi-ethnic or homogeneous. If you’re planting a church in an urban area, it might be a very good idea to plant it as a multi-ethnic community. If you’re pastoring a church in a place that doesn’t have many other ethnicities around, then engage your own culture as fully and fiercely as you can with the power of the Gospel. God is honored in both.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Idealistic Thoughts on Charitable Foreign Policy

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought of posting another ‘vintage poem,’ an inelegant critique written four years ago today against the romance-obsessed culture of Christian undergrad campuses. But, having already subjected you to one old poem, and since I can do much better now (at least in terms of style), I refrained. Instead, I’ve decided to venture into a new topic, one ruled and motivated by the great theme of love—I refer, of course, to politics.
Now politics is an area that I have very little formal training in, but it seems to be the sort of thing where anyone with an opinion deserves to be heard (at least in democratic societies and as long as you’re not a racist). And the beautiful thing about politics is that no matter what you say, someone somewhere will disagree with you. So feel free to send comments and disagree as liberally as you like.
I listened to part of President Bush’s news conference this morning, and what struck me was that the rule of absolute self-interest motivated both sides of the issues at hand. It’s understandable—Bush is part of a representative government selected to look after the interests of America, and so every decision made will be made (ideally) on the basis of America’s good. Bush was saying this morning that the reason we’re keeping troops in Iraq is that if we don’t, a power vacuum will form in which unstable terroristic elements can spawn all the more (I’ve reworded his phrasing slightly). And, as we all know, terrorists are bad for America.
The other side of the debate, represented by those who advocate the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, also cite national self-interest. Our plan isn't working in Iraq, so we should cut our losses and get out before things get worse. Why should more American soldiers die for a political mistake, a mistake which, by most reports, has engendered even more anti-Americanism in the Muslim world? Jim Wallis called Bush’s recent plan for more troops in Iraq ‘criminal.’ It’s not technically criminal, since Bush is the commander-in-chief, but I suppose Wallis meant that Bush’s power is derived from the people, and that he’s purposefully ignoring the apparent will of the majority of the people in this matter. However, from what I’ve heard, calls for troop withdrawal certainly never go further than national self-interest.
This is entirely understandable and perhaps the only politically feasible way of running a country, but it isn’t as I would like it to be. I was in Sudan during the early months of 2004, when American forces were consolidating their control of Iraq and, at the same time, committing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I can remember sitting in the shade of an acacia tree with a group of Sudanese men, trying desperately to explain why the US was doing these things. They were all convinced that the US wanted to control the Middle East’s oil, and some also opined that this was Bush’s personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein. I tried to make the US sound somewhat noble—that we had invaded Iraq to give the people relief from a sadistic and genocidal regime—but none of them were buying it.
My question is, why can’t the US run politically on a more charitable level? Americans have, in general, been a very charitable people over their history (though certainly not as much as they could or should be). Why can't it be a valid political argument that we stay in Iraq as a stabilizing force until the Iraqi government has enough strength to stand on its own, for the good of the Iraqi people? This seems to be a fair question, since the majority of the violence in Iraq right now is not due to American presence (though admittedly some of it is). Rather, it's the result of long-running religious tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, a problem that the Bush administration certainly should have foreseen. My contention, then, would be that the American forces are currently doing more good than harm, since their removal would allow these Sunni-Shiite conflicts to expand, perhaps reaching the level of a mutually genocidal civil war. We saw that sort of racial/ideological genocide between Hindus and Muslims when the removal of British occupying forces left a power vacuum in India last century. Surely there's some place for charity in foreign policy. Many would recognize that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power was probably, insofar as it can be judged as an isolated event, a good thing. It was good for the cause of justice in Iraq. So why can't we say that American troops should be kept in Iraq as a service to the Iraqi people? That's not to say that the situation might not continue to disintegrate, but it almost certainly will do so if we leave.
The problem some would bring up is that we have no obligation to shed our own blood for these people, many of whom don't want us there at all. That's true--we have no political obligation, but I would contend that we do (or should) have a moral obligation. Further, I would say that other countries, and probably the UN itself, should now step in. They may not have agreed with the initial premise of the Iraq war, but that war has now morphed into something different, and they could be of tremendous help in establishing peace.
A political system that operates merely on national self-interest will always result in tensions, inequities, and wars. Why not encourage America to embrace a foreign policy of grace, leading to relationships of mutual reciprocity? We have more wealth than any civilization in the history of the world. Why not use that wealth in a much more radical way, to give so much that it forces us to scale back our current lifestyles while raising the standard of living around the world? Economic stability and equity will do wonders for the global pursuit of peace. Why not send out informal ambassadors by the hundreds of thousands, not to impose American imperialism on the world, but to work alongside other countries in actively fighting poverty and injustice? That, if it could be done with grace and with respect for native cultures, would do great things to better the public perception of Americans around the world. We, as a people and probably as a nation, do need to be less self-centered and more charitable. This would be a much more self-sacrificial foreign policy (not to mention a complete cultural revolution), and one that might not work, but it would certainly do more to foster peace than what we're doing now.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Psalm

In lieu of actually writing anything new this week, I thought I'd post a vintage psalm, written five years ago, when I first beginning to explore devotional poetry. It was written to reflect the style and sentiment of the biblical psalms. Hope you enjoy it.

The grace of the Lord is bountiful;
And His mercy without end.
All creation resounds His praise,
From the depths of the sea
T
o the heights of heaven.

Lord, You have kept Your servant close to Your heart;
I rejoice in all Your disciplines,
And Your Word is a comfort to my soul.
My flesh cries out against me,
My sins accuse me to my face,
But I will not surrender, for I know
Y
our salvation will never fail me.
My heart is abandoned to the Lord,
My spirit marked with a holy seal.
My life and my sustenance flow
F
rom the throne of my Master
The Holy One of Israel.
Though I suffer and I die,
N
ever shall I give up hoping in the Lord my God,
F
or His strong arm has worked salvation for me.

Hallelujah to our Lord,
T
he creator and sustainer of all things!
His power is beyond measure,
A
nd His love covers the children of His covenant.
Though my strength may fail
A
nd my spirit quail with fear,
I will cling to the hope I have in Him,
For He is gracious and understanding,
A
bounding in love forevermore.

Woe to the man who despises His disciplines,
W
ho regards His commands with scorn!
He will receive payment in full for all that he has done,
R
etribution for his wayward path.
He lives with his soul already in the grave,
F
or he has rejected the only Life of all.

But blessed is the man who chooses the way of the Lord,
Who cherishes His commands and decrees.
His feet are guided by God's endless light,
A
nd from that path the Lord will not let him stray.

Praise be to the Lord our God,
W
ho formed the wonders of the earth!
He has made His tabernacle among the sons of men;
The light of glory fills His Temple.
Praise to the Lord,
W
hose mercies never fail!
Praise to the Lord,
Who has redeemed the hearts of men!
Praise to the Lord,
For He is great beyond compare!
His wisdom and majesty fill the heavens;
T
he earth is consumed in the power of His might.
At the voice of El Shaddai the mountains tremble,
T
hey crumble and fall apart at the sound of His trumpet.

May the Lord be highly exalted;
May my lips never cease to sing His praise.
Oh, to shout aloud in the courts of the Lord,
T
o proclaim His greatness throughout all ages!
Ascribe to the Lord honor and majesty;
May His name be glorified forever.

Amen.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

One of the books I’m reading this semester is Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. It should be interesting. I, like Jonathan Edwards, am a New Englander, and New England has a not-entirely-undeserved stereotype of being rather sparse in both religion and affection. My only other exposure to the work of Edwards (aside from indirectly, through the contemporary writings of John Piper) was in high school, when his classic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” came up in our textbook of early American literature. It’s too bad that that sermon, which makes sense within the whole of Edwards’ works but which on its own fails to reflect the robust joy that permeated much of his ministry, has been the only taste of early American Christianity for most teenagers.

Nevertheless, that sermon reflects a part of the powerful theology that drove America into massive revivals, coming to its full flower in the Great Awakening. Why then does it seem so foreign to us? I’ve worshipped in evangelical churches all my life, and I’ve never heard a sermon like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I doubt many would fault Edwards for his theology, but some might be tempted to suggest that his theological focus was misplaced. The real reason why we would be uncomfortable hearing a sermon like “Sinners” in this day and age is a complex one. On the surface, of course, is the fact that it does make us uncomfortable, as well it should. That is its intent. But we’re Americans, and discomfort is something very foreign to us. We come to church to be revived and encouraged, not to be set upon by the guilt-laden messages of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers. Sometimes, though, I think we’d be well-served by a few hellfire-and-brimstone sermons. Jesus had a few of his own. Condemnation of sin and the beauty of grace can go hand in hand. In fact, they were meant to.

Aside from the issue of our own discomfort, though, we as evangelicals are also conscientious of the image we present to the world, and the image of a church that is hard on sin is not attractive to a world that loves its sin. We’ve spent too much time trying to convince people that sin makes them miserable. We should let them decide that on their own. They know as well as we do that sin can be a lot of fun. Our message isn’t to tell them about the empty holes in their hearts, but about the reality of what sin is and what it means in the eternal sense. Truth has a power all of its own, and even an unwelcome truth has the ability to draw people and to change the way they live. While hellfire-and-brimstone sermons may not be the best way of doing that and certainly shouldn’t be the main avenue of that message, it is a telling sign of the times that we have drifted so far away from that medium.

Another reason why we shy away from sermons like Edwards’ “Sinners” is that we have left virtually no room in evangelical worship for honest confession. Our worship is celebratory, and it should be. But the church is both human and divine, both holy and sinful, caught in the tense division between a fading kingdom and a dawning one. We have reason to celebrate Christ’s victory, but we also have reason to mourn our sins, and if we forget either of these pieces we put ourselves in grave danger.

Almost all of the great liturgical traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and so on—give prominent place to confession in their worship. Together they stand and confess with their mouths that they have sinned—in what they have said, in what they have done, and in what they have failed to do. This is not a dead rote, but a vital piece of healthy communal discipleship. How many evangelical churches actively practice the exhortation of James 5:16—“Confess your sins to one another”? At best, members are encouraged to join accountability relationships, which are a step in the right direction, but which still leave no place for an honest dealing with sin in the corporate life of weekly worship.

Why is corporate confession so important? First, because by not talking about sin and confession, we have lost much of our sense of the horror and gravity of sin. We allow it to seep into our lives by small compromises with our flesh and with the culture around us until we are anesthetized into spiritual slumber. Why is it that Edwards’ congregation threw itself down in tearful protestation at hearing his sermons, while our reaction is merely one of mild revulsion at his repugnantly narrow theology? It’s not that his congregation was easily manipulated; it’s that we don’t understand anymore the terrible reality of sin. We have too often allowed what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” to creep into our churches, brushing sinful behaviors aside in order to focus on the forgiveness we find in Jesus. But unless we understand the horror of sin, then we cannot truly understand forgiveness or grace. Unless we understand sin, we will never understand the holiness of God. Revival does not come without acknowledgment of sin, and this may well be why revival came in Edwards’ day and has not come in our own (at least not in America). We have lost our sense of the fear of God.

Second, corporate confession is important because we need to be honest about ourselves. American Christianity is often caricatured as being a venue where believers merely hide behind holy masks. But people won’t be drawn to a church of false, albeit exuberant, holiness. They will be drawn to a church of breathtaking and forward honesty, to a church where people love one another amidst the struggles of dealing with a sinful world and a sinful inner nature. We have nurtured an environment in which once a person expresses faith in Christ he is (rightly) expected to walk in righteousness. What we haven’t done is nurtured the deep and vibrant sort of community that allows Christians to deal forthrightly with their continuing sins, openly loved and supported by their brothers and sisters in their fight for holiness.

Third, we need to make clear that there is forgiveness for sin. We need to show that there is a way of dealing with the monsters that torment us. There are some people who need no urging to feel the guilt and terror of their own sins—they have that in plenty, and what they need is to find relief and help in living a righteous life. Corporate confession, while general and sometimes vague, can still be a powerful means by which sinful people approach a holy God and find in his response the wonderful secret of amazing grace.

And fourth, we need corporate confession because we have accepted our culture’s insidious focus on the individual. Christians have begun to believe that their “private sins” are no one else’s business, that it’s somehow just between them and God. This is why sexual immorality is so rampant in the church today. This is why sins like gluttony, pride, and vanity are seen as individual failings and personal struggles. But these are all lies, and lies of the highest order. Sin in one believer’s life affects the life of the whole Body. Not only does relegating sin to the realm of individual struggle remove it from the robust power and corrective support of the community, but it eats away at the spiritual life of the local church itself. We are connected in a way that we cannot ever fully understand, in a way that even our greatest theologians will never be able to explain. We are one Body, and private sin is a public matter. My suspicion is that only when we begin to deal communally with our sin—when we begin to love each other as we ought and to live in holiness—only then will we see the enormous power and potential for the church as a Body and community. The fact of the matter is that we’re so blind at the moment that we don’t even know what we’re missing.

So how do we bring confession back to evangelicalism? Liturgy is a good place to start, in the communal confessions that have brought together believers from every land and every age. We also need to give time during worship services to allow believers to stand up and voluntarily confess their sin before the Body. I saw this done in Sudanese churches, with powerful and heart-rending effect. And finally, we need to hear more sermons on sin and righteousness. These are unpopular themes in today’s culture, but they are at the heart of the truth we believe, and truth is worth speaking, no matter what the cost.