Are All Religions True?

One of the things modern people often say about different religions is that ‘they are all basically the same’: they teach about being a good person, about a higher being of some sort, but all lead to the same place – just different paths to the same thing. While this position sounds good, we must understand that it turns out to not even be close to true, and that’s important because we should be seeking out not what is easy to live with as human beings but what is ultimately true, and lines up with reality.

University of California, Berkley, professor Huston Smith explains, “As soon as the notion of sameness, between the religions, moves beyond vague generalities, that every religion has some version of the Golden Rule, it falls apart on the fact that the religions differ in what they consider essential and nonnegotiable.”[1] Smith is saying that when we dig into any religion we will find contradictory ideas when compared to other religions. This is true about a number of foundational beliefs around which religions are shaped. Here are a couple of examples:

1 – God

Religions differ on their views of who or what God is. Christianity says God is one God in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), eternally one but eternally distinct. An eternal community, which is why there was love and humility and servanthood, before there was a universe, or people. This is by definition how John can say things like “God is love” (1 John 4:8). You can’t have love without community of some sort, which this view of God allows for. This description of God is known as ‘Trinitarianism’.

Islam and Judaism on the other hand have a Unitarian view of God, wherein there is a strict oneness to God that does not consist of this plurality, or trinity, at all. In fact, both religions see this concept as a heresy. In contrast to Islam and Judaism, Buddhism and atheism says there is no God, while Hinduism says there are hundreds of millions of gods. Which religion is right? Modern western culture says ‘they all are’ and ‘they all teach the same thing’. Clearly we are ignoring the facts, and being irrational, which is the one thing an informed skeptic does not want to be.

 2 – Jesus

Consider also the question of Jesus Christ himself. Christianity says it’s essential that Jesus died to pay the sacrifice for sin, taking on the wrath of God and then rose again from the dead. If these things did not happen, belief in Christianity is “vain”, and useless, and Christians are “still in our sins,” and the most “pitied among men” (1 Cor. 15:13-18). Their view of God, and salvation, is not just different, it is wrong. Islam is vastly different than Christianity in that it says that Jesus didn’t die on the cross at all, and thus, that he did not rise from the dead either.

The reality is: Jesus died or he didn’t die. Islam and Christianity can’t both be true at the same time. There are massive implications on every level of life and civilization to the claims of these faiths and it’s the height of laziness to claim them both somehow true at the same time, even if it is in the name of civility. Someone once said, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and it is nowhere more clear than in this postmodern effort.

Pluralism in India

When I was in India, we were sitting at the top of a mountain. The team I was leading, and I, were praying together and talking around the campfire and off to the side there was a Hindu man worshipping and praying to Shiva and Vishnu and what he called “the monkey god.” He came and joined us by the fire and told us all about his beliefs and then we told him about Jesus. None of us around the fire that night said, “Hey, both versions of reality are true and reliable at the same time.” That would have been a mockery to our beliefs and to his.

The reality is that our options are that one view is right, or at least more right than the others, or that all religious views that have been developed so far in civilization are possibly wrong, but not that they are all right. That is not only the most irrational position but the laziest.

Steve Turner wrote a poem about the absurdity of this postmodern approach to life:

We believe that all religions are basically the same. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation. We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him. Reality will adapt accordingly. The universe will readjust. History will alter. We believe that there is no absolute truth except the truth that there is no absolute truth.[2]

Turner’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek as he satirizes the modern approach to truth.

And it should be.

Overcoming the Monster: What Story Are You Telling?

In Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots, he outlines the fact that every story we tell ourselves as human beings – since the beginning of time, whether around the campfire or in a big budget superhero movie – all fit into seven basic categories:

1 – Overcoming the Monster – The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland. (Beowulf, Nightmare on Elm Street, Star Wars, Jaws, The Dark Knight, James Bond, Jurassic Park)

2 – Rags to Riches – The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. (Cinderella, Aladdin, Pretty Woman)

3 – The Quest – The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. (Iliad, Indiana Jones)

4 – Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with experience. (The Lord of the Rings, Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Interstellar)

5 – Comedy – Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. (Much Ado About Nothing, Mr. Bean, Dumb and Dumber)

6 – Tragedy – The protagonist is a hero with one major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. (Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Breaking Bad)

7 – Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. (Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me).

This observation – that we find these same basic story structures all over the world, and throughout time, is fascinating in and of itself – but the thing I was pondering recently, especially since we just came through eight straight parables Jesus taught in Matthew 13 at our church, was the power of stories and their place in our lives, and more specifically, how we can leverage that to influence others in every area of life from ministry, to business, to even raising our own kids.

Trump vs. Hillary 

Let me use an illustration from American politics. It surprised everyone that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the end. The media, the politicians, and the institutions were all surprised, and of course there are complex reasons why he did beyond my understanding, but I think one reason he won is because he told a better story than she did (whether that story is true or mean-spirited, etc., is again, not the point). Whatever one thinks of the content of the story he told, they must admit it was a clear, large, simple, and compelling. It was about bad guys and good guys and an old America which was perfect and wonderful, and simple solutions to get America back there again (a combination of “Overcoming the Monster” and “Voyage and Return”). And it was a story that invited people into it.

The power of story is its ability to influence and capture the imagination of millions of people, and to influence them in one direction or another. Not to equate the one with the other : ), but this is the same reason Jesus brought his message of salvation and the kingdom in the form of stories and not just prose. Stories inspire, re-frame the world, turn facts into meaning, answer our biggest questions, and in so doing, change our very behaviour. It’s why we shouldn’t just answer our kids questions with straightforward answers, but tell them stories about why the answers are what they are. Frame their lives in the context of the larger narrative of the world to help them find their place in it.

What story are you telling?

What churches, ministers, charities, and businesses need to ask when thinking about how they get their message out most effectively is “What story am I telling?” “Is it compelling, big, inspiring, and inviting enough?” “Is it clear, or convoluted and complicated?” “Is it boring or exciting?” “Am I presenting just facts, or something more – a mythology?”

I am watching the Netflix show The Crown right now. Elizabeth’s coronation as Queen is one of the most moving scenes of the whole show, and while the guests are watching it on TV, there comes a part in the ceremony when they put a barricade around the Queen so the audience can’t see and a group watching the TV ask why they blocked the cameras, and the answer one of the characters gives is telling:

“Symbol upon symbol,” he says. “An unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy, blurring so many lines no clergyman or historian or lawyer could ever untangle any of it.” “It’s crazy,” one of his guests remarks.

“On the contrary, it’s perfectly sane,” he replies. “Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose, when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. Wrap her up like this and anoint her with oil and hey, presto — what do you have? A goddess.”

The sub-story

As a Pastor and church leader I have the greatest story of all time to tell on a weekly basis: the story of the gospel of Jesus, and how it in many ways is the combination of all of the seven basic plots (think for instance how the story of Jesus is all about “Overcoming the Monster” of Satan, sin and death, how it is “Voyage and Return,” of Jesus from Heaven to earth, and a “Rags to Riches” story as well, with Jesus as a poor baby who is vindicated in the end). The question for a church leader then, as an example, becomes the sub-story that you invite your city, community, church, or guy in the coffeeshop into as a local expression of that larger story of the gospel.

What local monster can you overcome? What global ones can you kill together? When we do our annual Golf Tournament, this is what we do. The Monster of slavery and sex trafficking needs to be defeated and we are invited in to overcome it. What great Quest and adventure are we all on as disciples of Jesus to “get to the location” of heaven in the end, “facing many obstacles and temptations along the way”?

When my wife Erin and I lead Marriage Conferences we often end, not by cute stories and how-to’s of ‘communicating better’ and ‘having a better sex life,’ but by explaining that the most important thing for their marriage is to be swept up into the mission God has for their lives as a married couple: to together push back the evil in the world, to love and bless the poor, and to fight sin and Satan in the lives of their friends and families, and in their own hearts, and that if they are busy in the trenches doing that they won’t have time to turn the guns on each other. Usually at the end of this rallying cry people cheer and amen and clap. And when I ask them why they usually say they’ve never thought of their marriage in this context of the global spiritual war around them and their place within it before and it helps to frame their problems (usually making them look small and insignificant) and give them something to work toward together.

So, if you own a business, or lead a church, or even just a family – what story are you telling to frame your lives, your product, or your mission? Is it big enough? Clear enough? Compelling enough? And does it invite people in? If not, work hard at figuring out a way to do so. Why? Because, as Elias Canetti once pointed out, in his Nobel Prize winning book, The Voices of Marrakesh:

“The largest crowds are drawn by the storytellers. It is around them that the people throng most densely and stay longest…their words come from further off and hang longer in the air than those of ordinary people.”

Indeed.

And as a Pastor I admit, I want people to linger. I want people to stay longest, to hear the greatest story ever told and one that can change their lives now and forever. A story about a God who loves them, and died to save them. Who overcame the monster for them, so they never have to. Who turned a Tragedy into a story of Rebirth – and who now invites everyone to experience the joy of that accomplishment.

Why Church Leaders Need To Stop Hanging Out With Each Other

Quote

It is pure invention that popes, bishops, priests, and monks are to be called the ‘spiritual estate’; princes, lords, artisans and farmers the ‘temporal estate’. That is a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy.
-Martin Luther (1483-1546)

I love my friends who work in churches (pastors, directors, etc.,) but  I have come to realize that the friendships and relationships I have with those not in formal church ministry are far more important and for good reason. I will break down three reasons, and the reason I bother to note this at all is not to dis those of us who work in churches (God knows we need all the encouragement we can get as days can be dark), but because I want to encourage all of you who work hard at your normal, everyday, 9-5, shift work jobs who never get the air time you deserve. After all it is your work that supports and allows those in church gigs to have their jobs! This is for the teacher, the stay-at-home mom, and the dentist. I want you to know the crucial role you play in my life. The reasons I feel compelled to write this are mostly unknown to me except that I sense that: (1) There are some of you out there needing the encouragement right now, (2) The record has to be set straight: formal ‘ministry’ jobs (pastoring, etc.) are not necessarily the ‘toughest jobs in the world’, which is often what people working in ministry say and (3) I think vocational ministry people need to encourage you as much as you affirm us.

First, you teach me how to be a good pastor. Of course, I have a ton to learn from other pastors and church leaders in my life as I read, talk to them and get advice. In many ways, though, you have far more to teach me than they do. When I am out with people, I am always asking questions: “What would you do if this or that happened?” and “What is your opinion about X, Y or Z?” Recently, I was out with a business owner and instead of posturing myself as, “I am going to teach you things now as your pastor”, I asked him for his advice. He began his answer with, “Thanks for asking”, likely because no one working in a church had ever asked him for advice! Now, let me be honest. I don’t say this to brag or make you think I am ultra caring. In fact, it is somewhat the opposite. I think, at times, my litany of questions are self-serving. I am a student of YOU. I want to understand you on a deeper level, so I can be better at my job as a pastor, a leader, a communicator. I want to know how you–the custodian or the CEO – processes tragedy in your life, or quits smoking, or stays married. Once I understand you better, I can better explain the Bible to you and lead where I think God wants us to go.

Second, you teach me how to be a good Christian. You teach me about following Jesus in the real world versus following Him in the world of church meetings, conferences and exegesis classes. Just when I think leading a church is the hardest job on the planet, I remind myself of the cops and the small business owners and the recovering addicts who make up our church. I realize again that the real world is hard. It’s hard to show up at a person’s home and be the first to tell them their loved one has died in a car accident. It’s hard to run a business in a world full of sharks. It’s hard to stay clean and work at your sobriety in a society of accessibility. Add on these jobs to being a follower of Jesus and things get interesting and difficult and, at times, grey and complicated. As a Christian, I need to lean into learning these everyday realities. Decisions between one bad thing over another. Confusion over what God is calling us to do when there is no clear choice. God is humbling me every time I put myself in your shoes.

Lastly, you teach me how to be a good leader. In church settings, there is often a lot of theological discussion about methodology with Bible verses attached to each. There is little priority given to things essential in your workplaces and much needed in the church, especially as we try to reach post-Christian Canada, not first century Palestine. Things like: leveraging technology, ensuring we keep our staff lean and goal-oriented, executing ministry effectively, doing things with excellence and working diligently, like the men and women who we serve every day. Which is why in 2 Timothy 2:3-13, Paul called pastors to work like athletes, farmers and soldiers. Up early. Working hard. Heavy lifting.

500 years ago, Martin Luther popularized the idea of ‘the priesthood of all believers’, speaking of the average person’s work (blacksmiths, shoemakers, etc.) versus the clergy, arguing that all work is sacred work. There is no ‘Christian work’ and ‘secular work’. If a person is a musician, or a plumber, or a teacher, their work is just as important as the job of the priest or pastor to the unfolding story God is telling in the world. I believe with all my heart in the priesthood of all believers. When you are out there being a soccer mom, or running a publicly traded company, or trying to make it in show business, know that your work is fundamental to God’s will being done in the world. So, I just want to say thank you. For all you do. Waiting tables, running companies, being nurses. What you do matters, and it is not in vain. And while I hope I can teach you a thing or two as your pastor, know that you are teaching me everyday.

Q & A Friday: Is there a profile for a church planter?

Hey Mark. I was looking for some advice on church planting. I feel a strong call to plant a church in my city. I was just wondering how do I know if I am called and gifted to start and lead a church?

This is a delicate question for two reasons. First, because I don’t think one size fits all when it comes to church planting. Some planters are more adept at preaching and teaching, and others at caring for people. We need all kinds of different churches to reach all kinds of different people. Second, because it is such a specific question of calling, which is often hard to measure. For instance, when networks evaluate whether a person should plant a church, they are not evaluating whether they are fit for ministry, or being a pastor in general, but planting in particular, which is a whole other question. There were couples Erin and I were assessed with back in 2008 who were told not to plant a church, but that didn’t mean they should leave ministry altogether at all.

Having said that there are things the Bible says about this role which are important to reflect on. In Ephesians 4, Paul says that God has given certain gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (v. 7-11), what has come to be known as APEST. What are these roles? In their book The Shaping of Things to Come, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch lay them out this way:

The entrepreneur = the apostle (they start new works, are groundbreakers and strategists, who initiate an organizations mission – i.e., missionaries, church planters, para-church leaders, etc.).

The questioner = the prophet (they disturb the status quo, they question the way things are, are theologically deep, and communicate both their questions and their theological answers in a compelling way. They have a deep pining to see holiness around them and to connect people to truth).

The recruiter = the evangelist (they reach new people with the gospel, lead people to Jesus, and rally and inspire people on to mission; they take the message of the organization to those outside and sell it to them).

The humanizer = the shepherd (they love and counsel people well, care deeply for the soul and spiritual well-being of people, love one on one discipleship and relationships; they provide the organizational glue by caring for the individuals inside it).

The systematizer = the teacher (they take concepts and boil them down to simple ideas and sustainable principles for peoples lives, they explain and communicate well, and create sustainable systems for on-going functionality).[1]

In another of his works, Hirsch explains that these roles are not only different from one another but that they actually end up flowing chronologically in how they play out in the world. That each one progressively creates the environment for the next one to be activated:

The APOSTOLIC (a new missionary endeavor, a new church, etc.,) creates the context that gives birth to all the other ministries. It establishes the covenant community, which then leads to the PROPHETIC, which is a ministry that explains what God has to say to a community, and ensures that the holiness of God is honored and truth is respected, which then leads to the EVANGELISTIC, which, now that what God has said/is saying is made clear, one can come into relationship with that God. Without the evangelistic ministry there is no basis for pastoral ministry.

Once people do come to Jesus then the SHEPHERDING/PASTORAL function is initiated. The pastor cares for people to the point that they understand the need for Christlikeness, which is the environment for the TEACHING function, which leads the community and the individual to maturity, understanding and mission.

In light of this then we are in a better place to understand which gift set would best make up a church planter. To undertake the task of starting and leading a missional movement and be able to build the teams to minister to the new people one reaches is done most effectively, not exclusively of course, if a church planter is gifted within the first three categories (APE), with proportional skills in the others (ST).

In the context of a post-Christian context which is opposed to the gospel, and which needs to hear, see, and feel it afresh, one needs to have vision, and competency to move the pieces around the chess board at 30,000 feet, while organizing and inspiring teams of people in a sustainable way (A), have theological conviction/acumen and the gift to call others to repentance, truth, and holiness (P), and have a proven track record of leading people into a saving relationship with Jesus (E).

Once all this foundational, ground level work is done (and is done over and over again), the work of the ST’s takes over in order to grow, disciple, and train up disciples, leaders, those who have been reached by the work and ministry of the APE.

One last caveat: this is not ministry done by one lone ranger. The APE needs to gather around themselves all different types of people and activate them to the mission to reach and train up people, which is the whole point Paul makes in Ephesians 4. We have these gifts “in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (v.12). And thus the cycle begins of hopefully a healthy and reproducing organism that is reaching and discipling people in the ways of Jesus.

If you are interested in next steps apply for assessment at C2C Network, an amazing church planting network planting gospel-centered churches across Canada at an amazing rate!

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[1] Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrickson Publishing: 2003), 175.

Debunking myths: the church is against science!

If you go back through history, the church and science were at times at odds with one another; those disagreements, however, have been gravely exaggerated. When atheists speak of the church’s persecution of scientists, we hear stories of people being burned at the stake for scientific theories; we hear about Galileo, Copernicus and Giordano Bruno being persecuted by the church for a ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe – the idea that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around – and other such stories. Thrilling dramas, however, they are not true.

Historian David Lindberg speaking about the medieval era, writes, “There was no warfare between science and the church.”[1] Historians are virtually unanimous that there never has been a conflict, and that the science versus religion story is a nineteenth-century fabrication (by such writers as John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White).[2] The mythology of the church vs. science is more informed by famous plays – such as Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galilio, which present the man as a martyr for the cause of science, than actual history. The church did not persecute Copernicus or Bruno or Galileo for scientific theories. Don’t get me wrong, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake; but he “was not executed for Copernicanism but for a series of theological heresies centering on his view of the trinity.”[3] A gruesome reality indeed, but not one based on fear of scientific discovery.

Another modern example of this historical revisionism is the story of the medieval church believing that the Bible taught a flat earth, and then reacting in outrage when science came along and corrected it. Again, this is simply not true. From the time of the ancient Greeks, people knew the earth was round. They observed that the hull of a ship sailing from shore disappears before the top of the mast, and would see the reflection of the earth on the moon during an eclipse.[4] They knew the earth was round. The so-called flat-earth conflict is simply part of nineteenth century propaganda.

And so, Oxford professor Alister McGrath concludes, “The idea that science and religion are in perpetual conflict is no longer taken seriously by any major historian of science…. One of the last remaining bastions of atheism survives only at the popular level – namely, the myth that an atheistic, fact-based science is permanently at war with a faith-based religion.”[5]


 

[1] David Lindberg, “Medieval Science and Religion,” in Gary Ferngren, ed., Science and Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). 70.

[2] Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 85-86.

[3] Quoted in Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? (Washington: Regnery, Inc., 2007), 104. Italics added.

[4] Ibid., 103.

[5] Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, 87.