Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Church on a Mission

Simple and straightforward. Certainly it is possible to critique how "missional" is often done, and certainly room to critique some of what those who coined the term went on to do, but to me what is presented here is simply Biblical...

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Social Network and Transformational Christianity

First: thanks to one of my parishioners for asking me if I were going to blog about The Social Network. We also need to acknowledge, from the first, that The Social Network is an exaggerated account of the events surrounding the creation of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, we hasten to add, it was not exaggerated enough to elicit any libel suits from Mr. Zuckerberg!

The Social Network is a fascinating study in human nature untethered to any sort of moral obligation, and casting about in the electronic equivalent of the lawless American frontier. Though he becomes the world's youngest billionaire, Zuckerberg is presented as a man unmotivated by money. According to the movie, Facebook has its beginnings in a drunken revenge stunt an obnoxious, eccentric Zuckerberg wreaks on his girlfriend. Utilizing Harvard's existing cyber social network, and using an algorithm developed by his friend Eduardo Savarin, he erects a site where people can compare the "hotness" of girls on campus.

This attracts the attention of Harvard blue blood twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. They had hatched an idea for a social network limited to Harvard, and Zuckerberg agrees to help. Presumably using their idea and funding, Zuckerberg starts out to develop "The Facebook." As is common in such dorm room startups, he appoints his friends, including Savarin, to the key positions in marketing and development.

There is no question that Zuckerberg is an eccentric genius, and he quickly becomes a celebrity at Harvard. The network begins to spread to college campuses across the nation. He meets up with Napster founder and cyber bad boy Sean Parker, and, at his instigation, Zuckerberg relocates the operation to California, where the pool of talent is larger, and hedge fund managers are eager to invest in response to the pair's audacious antics.

At the heart of the story is a gaping moral vacuum. Zuckerberg seems absolutely free of any capacity for empathy. He is unrelentingly cruel to his girlfriend, and appears to have almost an autistic detachment from her. He blatantly lies to the Winklevoss brothers, whose value to him, at least in this telling of the story, eludes the watcher. The saddest thing of all is his deep betrayal of his one loyal friend, Eduardo Savarin, who, at Parker's instigation, he writes out of the company.

Yet, there is an even deeper moral abyss at the heart of the cyber world. Zuckerberg's theory is break things in order to fix them --smart business strategy, indeed. He hosts competitions for hackers to try and take down Facebook. His goal is to be the one site that never crashes. Yet, even here we see the amoral world of the cyber genius. The cyber genius, in this case, is not motivated by success, or rendering a service, or any larger moral good (though we need to note that Zuckerberg himself has either changed in this regard, or is better than he is portrayed in the movie). Sean Parker's goal with Napster was to take down the record industry, even as he protests this will make music better (if that is the case, it hasn't happened yet). We see this in the broader world, as global financial systems and missile defenses are subjected to relentless cyber-attacks, from the relative safety and anonymity of obscure cubicles.

The whole story is told through the eyes of the deposition as both Savarin and the Winklevosses sue him for their rightful share of the Facebook fortune. In this retelling, Zuckerberg remains the genius whose real motives are elusive. He claims not to care about money. He does care very much about reputation. He winds up sacrificing reputation to make money. His motivation for his betrayal of his friend and his early backers remains shrouded in the mystery of his detached character.

All of this has me thinking about how Christians function in relationship to the world. I have the honor of speaking at a conference on this very subject this weekend. There is a rising cry in our circles to remember that we are aliens and strangers in this evil world, and all that exists is destined for fire. I would certainly affirm that the Bible teaches we are pilgrims and aliens here. Yet, and at the same time, this is God's world, and he calls us to think and act as Christians in the broader culture. He brings glory to himself as his people seek to honor him in whatever their hands find to do. Locally, we have a stunning counter-example to Facebook, albeit on a smaller scale. This is the story:

To help pay his college tuition, Joel Bomgar began working as a field network engineer for a Jackson, Mississippi-based systems integrator in 2002. When not in class, he could be found driving around the Jackson area in his 1979 Buick LeSabre providing IT support to local businesses. Often, the non-billable drive time in the air condition-less LeSabre took longer than the actual service calls. It didn't take long for Joel to realize “there had to be a way” to spend less time driving in the Mississippi heat and more time solving his clients' problems.
Unable to find an existing solution that would allow him to access and manage his customers' computers over the internet, Joel decided to take matters into his own hands and develop his own technology.

Although he was still working his way through college, Joel spent many late nights coding and eating pizza to develop a functional remote support solution. Leveraging the solution he quickly doubled the number of customers he could support and cut his rather uncomfortable drive time in half. His new technology was paying off. The instant success led him to believe there might be a market for his creation, so he made up a product brochure, launched a static web site and waited.

Much to his surprise, his wait was short as he quickly began receiving calls and orders for the product. After making $24,000 in less than two months, Joel was convinced he had uncovered a significant market opportunity, but knew he could not capitalize on the opportunity alone. He soon enlisted the assistance of two friends and fellow Resident Assistants from school: Nathan McNeill and Patrick Norman – both of whom he knew were smart, hard working, dedicated problem solvers.

The trio knew little about starting a business but decided that they could, and would, make it work. Joel continued writing code and handling customer calls, Nathan focused on sales and support, leaving Patrick to focus on marketing. In the first six months after they graduated in 2003, these remote support pioneers used 90 lines of code, a one page web site and a simple keyword campaign to grow revenue from $0 to $100,000.

Determination and Innovation Pays-Off
Bomgar's founding trio has since successfully lead the company from a dorm room project to an industry leader. They credit the success to a discipline of focus and a set of core values based in Biblical principles. Bomgar is recognized
by industry analysts, professional associations and industry publications for its award-winning Enterprise Remote Support Solution – a solution which has fundamentally changed how companies around the world deliver remote IT support.

Could there be a deeper contrast between the ways of darkness and the ways of light than the difference between Zuckerberg and Bomgar? The story itself is one repeated countless times in the computer age. What makes it remarkable is the Christian men at the core, determined to live Christianly in a secular age, and in the midst of an industry noted for its moral inhibition.

Bomgar does not discriminate against non-Christians, and operates within the admittedly-restrictive boundaries of pluralistic law. Yet, it is unashamed of stating publicly how its corporate culture and values are shaped by Biblical precepts. You can see those principles here.

It strikes me as exceedingly strange that anyone would argue this is a bad thing. Yet theologues are notorious for taking obtuse and cantankerous positions. I, myself, am grateful for Christians endeavoring to do whatever they do to the glory of God. As Eric Liddell's colleague in Chariots of Fire told him, "It says in the Old Book, him that honoreth me, I will honor." Indeed.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Of Love For the Gospel and a Hatred of Controversy

The last two posts were out of character for this blog. That is deliberate. I have an aversion to controversy, though I love a spirited debate as much as the next person. I have occasionally loved it too much --true confession time.

Yet, the New Testament tells us that Satan loves to provoke controversy in the church. Far too often, we lay the blame for the controversy at the feet of those who are defending the truth.

I try to pick my battles very selectively. I am not always successful at this. I have occasionally engaged in over-heated rhetoric. Sometimes I have tried to interject levity, and come across as a jerk.

Yet, this particular issue is one worth standing upon. The gospel of free grace must be clearly defined, and heralded forth. Any muddying of the waters, any confusion of law and gospel, any making the grace of God contingent upon something praiseworthy in man, must be called out.

Now, back to our regular programming....

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Another Thought on the Federal Vision and the PCA: Despising a Confessional Birthright

The Presbyterian Church in America is a confessional church. This does not mean that it has created a document it places on par with Scripture, which can never be improved upon or amended, nor does it mean that every minister and elder must submit to every particular of its creed.

It does, however, mean that every minister and elder agrees that the sum and substance of that confession is a faithful and accurate statement of the faith delivered to us in the Word of God.

In the history of the Reformed world, many ministers have found adherence to a confession to be a theological straightjacket. The history of denominations seems to indicate that, with time, confessions themselves become mere relics, without any sort of binding authority.

I can appreciate that some men would not want to be bound by our confession, particularly in the way we have chosen to make it binding. Our denomination is a voluntary association, and such men probably would rightly find a more amenable home in a less conservative denomination, of which there are many.

As it is, ministers in our denomination vow to uphold the Westminster Confession of Faith and its two Catechisms. One might hope that we do this because we love it, and esteem it, not because we deem it perfect in the way Scripture is perfect. I don't think a man has to own every aspect fleshed out in the Westminster Standards, but we do have to subscribe to them as containing the system of doctrine.

In my last post, I highlighted the case of a man who, in the estimation of myself, and at least 28 other PCA pastors, members, and elders, does not do that. The presbytery of which he is a member found differently --they have exonerated the man, and we await the full report. In the meanwhile, the same court, without any sort of process whatsoever, determined that we who signed the letter are all liars. I ask you to judge for yourself.

The aforementioned man, in 2008, publicly stated this:

When will modern Presbyterians admit that this 500-year-old document is no longer sufficient? Man, everybody in conservative Presbyterian circles talks as if Westminster was the high-point, and therefore the end-point of Reformation era creed-writing. But it often strikes me to be exactly the opposite—a sterile document that signaled the end of creative theological reflection in the Reformed churches. And what do we think? This 17th-century scholastic document will be enough for the next 100 years? 500 years? Silly. Just silly.

Notice the language: Not only does he think that our confession is sterile, and signaling the end of creative theological reflection in the Reformed churches.

Now, it did nothing of the kind, of course. There has been all sorts of creative theological expression in Reformed churches, much of it unfaithful to Scripture, but much of it within the bounds of orthodoxy. It is hard to see how any scholar of the history of the Reformed faith could read such a statement without laughing, if he considers for a moment names like Edwards, Warfield, Bavinck and Kuyper.

Yet, that is not the main issue. Let us grant that the Confession is as he says it is: sterile. Let us grant that the document will not be "enough" (enough for what is left unsaid) for the next 100 or 500 years. Let us grant that it is silly of us to think so.

How, then, could this man, in good faith, own this confession? Why, then, does he not find another voluntary association which is more open to theological development than he perceives his own to be? Why, instead, does he continue to say to certain groups of people that he loves the confession and is quite happy laboring under its dictates, and then, in open forums, goes on to deride not only the confession to which he has subscribed, but all who hold it dear?

I have been instructed by his court to treat his words charitably. That is, of course, a judgment call, and an implicit judgment that, in the past, I have not done so. Judge for yourselves. Put the most charitable interpretation on these words that you can. What is your thought?

Monday, January 3, 2011


How many great Christians have said memorable things on the subject of yearning. We suspect (and in some cases know) that this was because of profound personal experience with it: at once wonderful and awful, sometimes overpowering longing for something beyond.

Augustine said it, "Lord, thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till we rest in thee."

Luther spoke of sehnsucht --the intensity of longing.

Lewis said it in many ways, among them "“The experience is one of
intense longing ... this desire, even when there is no hope of possible
satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else
in the world, by those who have once felt it.” One might argue that all of Narnia was the unfurling of this sentence.

No question that Augustine was talking about the soul coming to know God in this present world, but those of us who know God experience longing too. We long for the place where we finally fit, finally feel at home, finally have rest from our worries, happy fellowship with no tension, productive labor --when we finally and completely are able to fulfill that for which we are created.

As believers, we know that this longing is never fulfilled in this life. Yet, we keep looking for it here. We look for it in an irretrievable past --trying to "go home again." We look for it over the next hill of human notoriety or achievement, or the next geographic locale, or the next house, or the next amount added to our portfolio. We reach that particular place, and, like a mountain range, discover that there is another, higher peak beyond, the seeing of which creates even more longing.

Longing waxes and wanes, but its right target is the eternal kingdom of God. Our longing ought to cause us to cry out "Maranatha --come quickly, Lord Jesus." The whole creation longs for the revelation of the sons of God. We need consciously to target our longing in the right place, and work to cultivate contentment here in our present circumstances. When I figure out how that's done, I'll fill the rest of you in. The Puritans seemed to get it --they wrote some great and helpful little books. But, I am not yet where Paul was, content in every circumstances.

One of my chief sins, I think, is discontent. God help me. There is no pleasure in that particular sin, and yet I indulge it. Buddhism builds content by the destruction of yearning, and the acceptance of circumstance. To me, that is bleak beyond words. The Christian builds contentment by finding his joy in the source of all joy --communion with Christ. Yet, this is a cultivated discipline, and one which I need to pursue more diligently.

Those are my rambling Monday thoughts...