Three Sundays in April (Part 4)

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 19, 2020, the Sunday after Easter, Donald Trump watched the service at Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in West Plano, Texas.

What did he hear?

Jack Graham is sixty-nine-years-old and a life-long Southern Baptist. He has a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Southwestern in “Church and Proclamation.” After serving several Southern Baptist Churches in Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, Graham came to Prestonwood, a prominent Dallas-area megachurch, in 1989. Today the church claims 45,000 members. Graham was president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2002-2004.

Graham has strong court evangelical credentials. Here are some of his greatest hits:

  • Has has defended Trump’s immigration policies.
  • He is part of the Southern Baptist faction who opposed Russell Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump.
  • He has supported Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
  • He believes that Trump is the “most pro life president” in his lifetime.
  • He rarely misses a photo-op with Trump.
  • He was one of the several evangelical leaders who prayed for Trump at the “Evangelicals for Trump” gathering in January 2020. (I wrote about this event at USA Today).
  • He signed a letter criticizing Christianity Today after former editor Mark Galli wrote an anti-Trump editorial. (He said the magazine was “increasingly liberal and out of step and out of touch with conservative Christians and churches”).
  • He defended Trump during impeachment, calling the proceedings against the president “ludicrous” and a “sham.”

When Donald Trump pointed his browser toward Prestonwood Baptist Church he watched a few praise songs and then saw Graham interviewing Texas governor Gregg Abbott. The Republican governor knew that his primary audience was not Graham or those sitting on their couches at home awaiting Graham’s sermon. Abbott was talking to the President of the United States. Abbott said that “Texas wants to lead the way” in opening the nation’s economy. He told Graham, “put your faith in God and Texas will once again rise-up to be the number one economy in the United States of America.”

Graham’s sermon was titled “We are Alive.” It was based on Acts 2, a passage chronicling the coming of the Holy Spirit and the first days of the early Christian church. Christians around the world celebrate these events on Pentecost Sunday. This year, May 31 is Pentecost Sunday. Since Southern Baptists do not follow the historic Christian calendar, Graham felt comfortable preaching on Acts 2 six weeks early.

Graham’s delivered a standard 3-point message. Based on the text, he exhorted his listeners to “exalt” Christ, “evangelize” the world, and “engage” the life of the church. Because several listeners had made professions of faith (by contacting the website on the screen) the week before–Easter Sunday–Graham wanted to make sure that these people got connected with a church characterized by these three practices. Those in the evangelical world call this “follow-up.” Billy Graham (no relation to Jack Graham as far as I know) would have new converts fill-out “decision cards” and the Graham organization would “follow-up” with them to make sure they got connected with a local congregation. This became very controversial during the 1957 Billy Graham New York Crusade when some of the decision cards were distributed to the “liberal” churches of the Protestant mainline. Jack Graham does not want this to happen to his new online converts.

In Graham’s first point, “exalt Christ,” he came closest to reminding Trump that because of the events of Holy Week there is another leader in charge. (Unlike Greg Laurie on Palm Sunday and Robert Jeffress on Easter Sunday, Graham never acknowledged the fact that Trump was watching). “Christ is King,” Graham said, and “there is no president or King above him.” I am not sure Graham meant this as a political statement addressed to the current President of the United States, but he said it nonetheless and it is true. But such a statement does not seem to match-up with Graham’s court evangelicalism. I don’t think he has teased out the full political implications of Christ kingship. He is not alone. Most evangelicals have not thought about the Kingdom of God in this way. As a minister, Graham represents an alternative Kingdom. Yet he wants to rely on the corrupt king of an inferior kingdom to advance the mission of the superior and victorious Kingdom to which he holds his higher loyalty. If you view the world through the eyes of faith, this does not make sense. It is also a form of idolatry.

Graham’s second point, “evangelize” the world, represent the classic evangelical understanding of the church’s mission. Christians should preach the “simple” message that Jesus died for the sins of the world, rose again on Easter Sunday, and offers eternal life to all those who believe. When Christians do this, Graham notes, they are following the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20. In that passage, Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Italics mine). Jesus had a lot to say during his ministry about the ethics–including the political ethics–of His Kingdom. The Great Commission is not just about evangelism as Graham defines it. It is also a call to discipleship.

Graham calls himself a “gospel preacher” and subtly distinguishes this kind of preaching from the kind of preaching that helps Christians grow in their faith. “Gospel preachers” like Graham are always trying to ignite a revival. They want to get people saved in the way I described above.  Revival is thus a major theme in Graham’s April 19 message. Such an appeal to revival might even perk-up the ears of Donald Trump, especially since Graham talks about “revival” during this service in both spiritual and economic terms. The message is clear: President Trump and Governor Abbott will revive the American economy and spur a spiritual revival. People will return to church, preach the Gospel, and lead more people to salvation. We know that Trump already thinks his presidency is responsible for a great revival in the church. Now Graham, by inviting Abbott to his service, is implying that Trump will continue to be such a spiritual leader by opening the economy. These two ideas are inseparable in the mind of this president.

But again I ask, what might such a revival look like? Graham said that once the economy comes back, the church will “turn the world upside down.” If this is true, did Trump get the message? Does Graham understand the meaning of such a message?

Graham believes that a revival will come when people accept Christ as Savior, but “turning the world upside down” seems to be a revolutionary political act. I imagine that Graham thinks this means revived Christians will turn the world upside down by reclaiming it as a Christian nation characterized by conservative Supreme Court justices, the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, a restoration of biblical values related to marriage, the defense religious freedom, and the flourishing of a free-market economy. When the revival comes, America will be great again.

As I listened to Laurie, Jeffress, and now Graham talk about the large numbers of people making “decisions for Christ” after watching their coronavirus services, I thought about the mid-20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr‘s critique of this kind of evangelism. Writing in the context of Billy Graham’s New York crusade, Niebuhr said that Graham’s success depended on “oversimplifying every issue of life.” Evangelicals like Billy Graham, he added, failed to address “the social dimensions of the Gospel.” Billy Graham’s gospel, Niebuhr argued, “promises new life, not through painful religious experience, but merely by signing a decision card” (Life, July 1, 1957).

So I return to my question: What might Jack Graham’s revival look like? Will it announce the Kingdom of God by speaking truth to the corruption and immorality of this presidential administration? Will it cause Christians to address the structural problems of race in America? What will such a revival mean for the “least of these”–the poor, the immigrant, the unborn, the elderly? How might such a revival inspire Christians to care for the creation?  Or will this be a Christian nationalist and capitalist revival? Or perhaps it will be solely a pietistic revival, with little effect on sin-infested social institutions and practices.

N.T. Wright has been a lodestar for me during this series.  Here Wright in The Day the Revolution Began:

True, in recent years several thinkers have made a distinction between ‘mission’ (the broadest view of the church’s task in the world) and ‘evangelism’ (the more specific task of telling people about Jesus’s death and resurrection and what it means for them); but the word ‘mission’ is still used in the narrower sense as well, often referring to specific events such as weeklong ‘evangelistic rally.’  Part of my aim in this book has been to widen the scope of the ‘mission’ based on what Jesus did on the cross without losing its central and personal focus. I hope it is clear, in fact, that this task of telling people about Jesus remains vital. But I have also been arguing that the early Christian message is not well summarized by saying that Jesus died so that we can go to heaven  That way of looking at the gospel and mission both shrinks and distorts what the Bible actually teaches. It ignores Jesus’s claim to be launching God’s kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’ and to be bringing that work to its climax precisely on the cross. It ignores the New Testament’s emphasis on the true human vocation, to be ‘image-bearers,’ reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.” (p.356-357)

According to Wright, the vocation of the image-bearing Christian extends beyond Christian Right talking points.

Finally, in point three of his message, “engage the church,” Graham talks about how the church grew in numbers, prayed together, and studied the scripture. This is good. But it is also a pretty selective view of Acts 2. For example, Graham fails to mention Acts  2:42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

What might this passage mean in the larger context of debates over the opening of a capitalist economy defined by individual accumulation of property and possessions? How might this passage in Acts relate to the “spiritual awakening” Graham believes is coming to America and the world?

I have been reading Eugene McCarraher‘s provocative book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. In his discussion of early 20th-century businessman Edward Filene, McCarraher writes, “‘The right and power to buy must lead to a great new religious awakening,’ Filene proclaimed, ‘a religious experience such as humanity has never had an opportunity to know before.”

If Trump managed to make it through the entire service, he learned that his attempts to open-up the economy will lead to a religious awakening that will make America great again and secure him the evangelical votes he needs in November.

Some Historical Context on the Death of John Allen Chau

Chau

Over at The Conversion, historian Bill Svelmoe, a historian of evangelical missions, offers some historical context to help understand the faith of John Allen Chau, the missionary killed last month by the native people of North Sentinel Island.  Here is a taste of his piece:

The recent killing of a 26-year-old U.S. missionary, John Allen Chau, on a remote island in India has raised many questions about global evangelical Protestant missions.

Chau was on a personal mission to convert the Sentinelese, a protected tribe who have avoided contact with the rest of the world. Indian ships monitor the waters to stop outsiders from approaching them. Chau, however, is reported to have asked fishermen to take him illegally to the island where the Sentinelese live. The Sentinelese are reported to have shot and killed him with arrows.

As my research on missionaries shows, this often unwise haste to evangelize the world was the founding characteristic of evangelical missions in the late 19th century.

From the beginning of the 19th century, Protestants sent missionaries abroad under mission boards that required seminary education and full funding for prospective recruits. By the end of the 19th century, however, some mission leaders believed that the established missions were evangelizing the world at much too slow a pace.

Evangelicals believe in a hell where the souls of those who don’t convert to Christianity will burn forever.

Missionaries are motivated by Christ’s words in the “Great Commission” to “make disciples of all nations.” In these biblical verses, the risen Christ commands his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel. This command has motivated the missionary enterprisefor centuries.

These leaders founded what became known as “faith” missions to greatly expand the missionary force. As I write in my book, the new missions began sending out highly committed but lightly educated and ill-prepared missionaries. Many had not even finished high school. Just a bit of Bible training was considered enough.

There were dozens of such missions by the early 20th century, each founded to Christianize a specific section of the globe, such as the China Inland Mission, the Sudan Interior Mission and the Central American Mission.

Hundreds of young men and women, often with families, were sent overseas with little to no training in anything beyond the Bible and no promise of funding.

Read the rest here.

I Found Common Ground with Darryl Hart for the Second Time This Year!!!

Hillsdale Church

This is the second time this year that Darryl Hart has agreed with something I wrote.  :-)(The first time was here).  Here is a taste of his recent post at Old Life:

Glad to see John Fea stand up for evangelism (in response to the news of John Allen Chau’s death) as something distinct from social justice:

Read the entire post here.

If ever get a chance to visit Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church I fully expect to see copies of the “Four Spiritual Laws” prominently displayed in the narthex right next to the free copies of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  (Or perhaps they prefer D. James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion!)

A Historian of Missions on the Death of John Allen Chau

TuckerWhen I was a student studying church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I read Ruth Tucker‘s book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions.  Tucker was teaching in some capacity at Trinity at this time, but I never got a chance to take one of her courses.  As a relatively new evangelical, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya was my first exposure to the evangelical missionary enterprise.  I found it to be a both inspiring and honest treatment of the subject.

Over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, Tucker reflects on the recent death of missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of the Sentinelese. (See my reflections here). She puts Chau’s story in the context of the so-called “Auca Five,” the missionaries killed in 1956 by the Auca Indians in the Ecuadorian rain forest.

Here is a taste of Tucker’s piece:

I am truly sorry about John Chau’s untimely death, and I certainly do not know his motives—whether any of my multiple-choice motives factored in. Was he really thinking he could bring the gospel without knowing the language? Even if he could have, he would have been seriously endangering the people. If the population of the island had died due to his bringing pathogens against which they have no immunity, wouldn’t that have been far worse?

Some will insist that Chau has potentially rallied a new generation of missionaries. Perhaps. It is indeed true that Operation Auca inspired many to become missionaries, but at what cost and at what neglect of sensible mission outreach?

In the end, missionaries evangelized both tribal groups that had defended themselves by killing the men they perceived to be enemies. In the first instance gifts were left at the perimeter of the tribal territory, allowing the people to make contact on their own terms. In the second instance, three women and a little girl visited the native people: Dayuma, leading the way, Bible translator Rachel Saint, and Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, and their young daughter.

“For those who saw it as a great Christian martyr story,” Elisabeth later wrote, “the outcome was beautifully predictable. All puzzles would be solved. God would vindicate Himself. Aucas would be converted and we could all ‘feel good’ about our faith.” But that is not what actually happened. “The truth is that not by any means did all subsequent events work out as hoped. There were negative effects of the missionaries’ entrance into Auca territory. There were arguments and misunderstandings and a few really terrible things, along with the answers to prayer.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am actually waiting for Wheaton College history professor Kathryn Long to weigh-in on this.  She is the author of the forthcoming book God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martydom and Redemption in the Amazonian Ecuador (Oxford University Press, 2019).

ADDENDUM: A quick Google search tells me that Long offered commentary for this NPR piece.

What is the Great Commission?

Great Commission

Yesterday I did a post on John Allen Chau, the missionary killed at the hands of an indigenous tribe on the island of New Sentinel off the coast of India.  You can read it here.

It is hard to gauge exactly how the post was received based on “likes,” retweets, and Facebook comments, but I think its fair to say that about half of the readers (or at least those who responded in some way) liked the piece and half of the readers hated it.  Most of my academic historian friends disagreed (some stronger than others).  Most of my evangelical friends seemed to like it.  This doesn’t surprise me.

I have received comments on almost every point in the post, but I was particularly struck by the criticism of something I wrote under point #1:

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20.  It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.”  If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency.  It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more….

Here is one tweet that is representative of the criticism I received:

Several folks like Mr. Bailey have suggested that I don’t believe in social justice.  Not true.  Anyone who has read this blog or read Believe Me would know that this is not the case.  Here was my response to Mr. Bailey:

So I ask the question again?  What does the Great Commission mean to Christians?  Not just evangelical Christians, but Christians of all stripes?  Here is the passage from Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

As I noted above in the excerpt from my Chau post, I am specifically curious to hear how Christians interpret the phrases “make disciples” and “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Is the Great Commission just about caring for the sick and feeding the poor?  Or is it something more? What does “baptize” mean here?  And if it does not mean literal water baptism (or baptism with the Holy Spirit?), then how do we distinguish what is a literal exhortation in the Gospels from a symbolic or metaphorical passage? It seems that progressive Christians take the words and message of Jesus very literally when it comes to his comments about the poor, the rich, or the stranger.  I take them literally too.  But is there something I should know about biblical scholarship on Matthew 28 that would lead me to conclude that I should not take literally Jesus’s words about “making disciples” and “baptizing” them in the name of the Trinity?

And if the Great Commission is just related to acts of social justice, then how is Christianity any different than a non-religious group that does these things?

I am not necessarily interested in hearing from conservative evangelicals.  I already know how you are going to answer this question.  I want to hear from progressive Christians (evangelical or mainline Protestant) or Catholics or even Mormons.  What does the Great Commission mean in your understanding of Christian faith?  How do your churches interpret it?

Maybe I need to go to the library and take out a few biblical commentaries.

I apologize in advance to readers who are not interested in this conversation.  Thanks for indulging me as I work out some of these questions in such a public forum.

Thoughts on the Death of John Allen Chau

Chau

What should we make of the death of a twenty-seven-year-old missionary at the hands of an indigenous tribe on North Sentinel Island off the coast of India?  On Sunday we published Kate Carte’s twitterstorm on the subject.  Yesterday I linked to Ryu Spaeth’s piece at The New Republic.  Since then, evangelical historian Thomas Kidd has weighed-in at The Gospel Coalition.  The story has also elicited several interesting comments at my Facebook page.

Frankly, this story has so many moving parts that I am not sure I have a “take” on it.  It is a tragic story on all sides.  I have mixed feelings about Chau’s death.

Here are a few thoughts:

1.This is one of those cases where people of Christian faith who believe in the Great Commission (Mt. 28) might see it differently from those who are not Christians.  As an evangelical myself, I understand and sympathize with Chau’s zeal and his desire to convert the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island. Chau was passionate about his faith and his desire to share it with others.  Conversionism, missionary work, and evangelism are at the heart of evangelical faith.  Historically, this kind of passion and zeal has often led to martyrdom.  I am reminded of my friend who I wrote about in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  He signed his letters to fellow Christians with these words: “May you suffer and die for Christ.”

I am not saying here that Chau deserves to be called a “martyr.” I am saying that Chau is not the first person to die proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20.  It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.”  If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency.  It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more.  Chau took this call seriously.

2. Unfortunately, Chau was not a good steward of his passion and his commitment to the Great Commission.  He was a young man.  He had the potential of reaching so many lives with the good news of the Gospel.  We need more people in the church with his zeal for evangelism. Sadly, we will never get to witness his future ministry.

3. Christians have abused the Great Commission in ways that have led to violence, death, genocide, slavery, and other forms of imperialism.  Kate Carte is right about the so-called Pilgrim (and Puritan) invasion.  This is a history that today’s evangelicals must confront and I have spent the better of my career trying to get my fellow evangelicals to confront it.  But I am thankful, at least when it comes to missiology, that some thoughtful evangelicals have confronted it.  I don’t know of any missiologist teaching at a reputable evangelical theological seminary who would endorse the kind of imperialism practiced by the Pilgrims, 19th-century missionaries, or even 20th-century missionaries.  Moreover, I do not think contemporary missiologists would endorse Chau’s approach either.  His approach is not representative of evangelical missionary activity today.

4. Over at my Facebook page, historian Jonathan Couser writes that he “does not consider Chau a true missionary.”  He reminds us that the term “missionary” means “one who is sent” (from Latin, missus).  This, Couser writes, “implies authorization, commission from a sending church or agency.  So far as I understand, no church SENT Chau.  He got it into his own head to undertake a lone-wolf mission to an isolated people.”  This is a great point.  There is a reason why missionaries do not go to North Sentinel Island.  Churches and missions organizations bring wisdom, history, scholarship, and experience to the missionary endeavor.  Perhaps Chau did consult with a “sending” organization and simply ignored the advice.  Perhaps a “sending” organization would have been aware of the health risk he posed to the Sentinelese.

And now the attempt to recover Chau’s body has put others at risk.  It does not seem like he thought this through.  This is what happens when missionaries go rogue.

5.  Chau’s failure to work as part of the global Christian or missionary community is an example of the individualism at the heart of Western evangelicalism.  Chau’s trip to North Sentinel Island seems to have combined evangelical individualism with the adventure/adrenaline culture popular among American millennials today.  Chau seems to have ignored the wisdom of the church and the voices of other Christians in his life.

6. A lot has been made of Chau breaking Indian law by going to the North Sentinel Island.  No argument here.  But like Ryu Spaeth, I wonder when it is appropriate to break border laws and when it is not.  Is it appropriate to interpret Chau’s actions in the context of America’s immigration debate?  Many liberals and progressives defend undocumented immigrants crossing the border in the name of justice and compassion.  Others disagree.  Those who disagree suggest that undocumented immigrants are dangerous or a threat to American society.  They thus defend strict border control and punishment for those who enter the United States illegally.  (Caveat:  I am talking here about immigrants, not asylum seekers).

In Chau’s case, he understood his arrival on New Sentinel Island as an act of love and compassion.  He believed so strongly in the evangelical message of salvation that he thought it was worth breaking the law so that he could deliver this message to the Sentinelese.  Why such a strong defense of North Sentinel Island borders, but not such a strong defense of U.S. borders?  When should love and compassion define our understand of borders and when should it not? Do we only break the law for the ideas and moral principles that we like?

7.  As a Christian, I believe in the dignity of all human beings.  I thus believe murder is wrong.  I understand that the Sentinelese acted in self-defense.  But in the end, a life was lost.  This should cause us to grieve.  Murder is murder and life is life, whether the Sentinelese are noble savages or not.  Of course one might also say the same thing about Chau.  His arrival on the island put human lives at risk.

Tragic indeed.

Addendum: It appears that Chau did indeed work with a missions agency.  Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today reports that he was a missionary with All Nations missions.

Addendum #2:  At 12:14 am on November 27, 2018 I edited points 3 and 6 for clarity.

This Explains a Lot

Great Commission

According to Barna, 51% of churchgoers have never heard of the Great Commission.

Here is a taste of Barna’s research:

In partnership with Seed Company, Barna conducted a study of the U.S. Church’s ideas about missions, social justice, Bible translation and other aspects of spreading the gospel around the world, available now in the new report Translating the Great Commission. When asked if they had previously “heard of the Great Commission,” half of U.S. churchgoers (51%) say they do not know this term. It would be reassuring to assume that the other half who know the term are also actually familiar with the passage known by this name, but that proportion is low (17%). Meanwhile, “the Great Commission” does ring a bell for one in four (25%), though they can’t remember what it is. Six percent of churchgoers are simply not sure whether they have heard this term “the Great Commission” before.