China Tells Christianity To Be More Chinese

Is this a case of government oppression or the Chinese church coming into its own? How to understand “sinicization.”

The headlines out of China last week sounded ominous. In strident language not heard in a long time, the head of China’s Protestant church gave a speech supporting the government’s policy of reducing Western influence on religion and making it “more Chinese,” a process dubbed sinicization in English.

Is the move a step toward tighter government control, an opportunity to further indigenize and contextualize the faith, or perhaps both? As with most things in China, the answer is complicated.

This sinicization campaign has been going on for a few years. While outsiders have observed it with growing alarm, many believers in China understand that though the government may have a political agenda, it might also provide opportunities for outreach.

The Chinese National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, convened at the beginning of the month in Beijing, and Premier Li Keqiang delivered his annual work report speech. According to the National Catholic Reporter, he reiterated the government’s commitment to “fully implement the [Communist] Party’s fundamental policy on religious affairs and uphold the sinicization of religion in China.”

The following week, Xu Xiaohong, chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which oversees Protestant Christianity in China, spoke on his support for the policy and vowed to press on with its own five-year sinicization plan. Xu claimed that anti-China forces were using Christianity to subvert state power.

“[We] must recognize that Chinese churches are surnamed ‘China’, not ‘the West,’” he told delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “The ...

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LifeWay to Close All 170 Christian Stores

The nation’s biggest Christian retail chain ends its brick-and-mortar operations.

LifeWay Christian Resources, the largest Christian retail chain in America, plans to close all 170 stores this year and shift its offerings entirely online.

“The decision to close our local stores is a difficult one,” said acting president and CEO Brad Waggoner, who is succeeding longtime LifeWay president Thom Rainer.

“LifeWay has developed close connections with the communities where our stores are located, and we have been honored to serve those communities. We will continue serving local congregations as they meet the spiritual needs of their neighbors.”

The Southern Baptist affiliate announced in January initial plans to reduce its locations this year due to declining sales and financial pressures, but ended up deciding it wasn’t viable to keep any stores open past 2019. Rainer said they did all they could to save the stores, which span across 30 states.

“Our retail strategy for the future will be a greater focus on digital channels, which are experiencing strong growth,” Waggoner said in an announcement on Wednesday. The chain will continue online sales through LifeWay.com.

LifeWay’s store closures come two years after its competitor, Family Christian Resources, shut down all 240 locations in the midst of mounting debt and bankruptcy. Cokesbury Bookstores closed all 38 retail stores in 2013.

“As someone who spent 20 years working in Christian retail, I am sad that there will be 170 fewer physical stores where people can find and purchase Christian books, Bibles, and resources,” said Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) president and CEO Stan Jantz in response to LifeWay’s news.

“Certainly in the short run, adjusting to this new reality ...

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When Loving Your Neighbor Means Fighting Hookworm in Alabama

In the Black Belt—once cleared for cotton plantations—rural black communities suffer the consequences of poor land stewardship.

In 2013, the septic system at Jesus Christ Church of God the Bibleway failed and sewage began leaking into a neighbor’s yard—not uncommon for rural Alabama, an area plagued by sewage problems and a related upsurge in hookworm cases. A warrant was issued for the arrest of the church’s pastor, Bishop Ira McCloud.

The public health department accused McCloud of failing to fix the problem after multiple warnings. But McCloud had actually been trying to resolve the problem for months by connecting the church to a city sewer line; it would be cheaper and easier than buying a new septic system. The city, however, wasn’t making it easy.

When McCloud heard there was a warrant for his arrest, he immediately turned himself in. “I walked into the station and didn’t know what to do, so I put my hands up,” he recalled. “I had tears in my eyes when they took my picture.”

McCloud, fortunately, didn’t have to spend a night in jail. The sheriff’s department told him to go home; they weren’t in agreement with the state’s orders to make the arrest. With the problem unsolved, the city later threatened to shut off the church’s electricity and take the property away.

Leaking sewage systems—and the subsequent legal problems they cause—aren’t unique to Alabama and can be understood with a deeper “reading of the landscape,” an exercise recommended by ecologist Kristen Page, a faculty member at Wheaton College. She references Job 12: “… speak to the earth, and it will teach you.” It can help us understand our role as a part of creation and our connection and responsibility to our neighbors, she explained.

“Christ will ...

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Pastors and Power: Part 4

What Does It Look Like to Embody Gospel-Shaped Power?

In this final post, I want to address practical ways pastors and church leaders can properly and biblically use power to help foster healthy churches and communities.

I suggest five key elements you can implement.

First, structure a church with pastoral accountability.

If the church structure does not have pastoral accountability, we need to question that structure, regardless of denomination or ecclesiological association. Good pastors recognize the need for accountability and their own tendency towards brokenness and sin.

Godly pastors with developed heart character long to shepherd well and want to mitigate their own sin so it does not run amuck and damage the church. They are thoughtful, careful, and they structure churches with pastoral accountability. If you want to be a good pastor, structure your church so your decisions are held accountable.

Second, seek accountability.

It’s one thing to structure a system with accountability, but it is a whole other thing to actually seek and be open to receiving accountability.

I can offer some personal experience on this point specifically. I have a boss; her name is Margaret Diddams, and she is the Wheaton College Provost, the college’s Chief Academic Officer. She can and has called me out and shut me down, because she's my boss. We all need someone like that.

However, the reality is that most pastors don't have an identified group of people who actually hold them accountable. And the accountability must be fostered and received. For instance, pastors should want to surround themselves with leaders who are willing to tell them “No” to protect them from blind spots and for the overall health and direction of the organization.

If you have a group of leaders ...

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Delivering a Stillborn Baby Taught Me the Transience of Death

When I found out about my daughter's condition, I felt the destruction of my plans and hopes. But this place of limitation also revealed God’s profound love.

“How do you prepare for a birth and a death at once?” I asked a friend one morning in mid-July. “Can anything be more unnatural?”

Two months before, I had sat in a medical office listening to a doctor. His voice was unduly loud, as if he were speaking to a general audience. “Thanatophoric dysplasia is best described as a form of severe dwarfism,” he said. “This particular chromosomal abnormality will result in death either immediately or soon after birth.”

At the next appointment, I made my intentions clear. “I want to carry the baby to term,” I said simply. The consultant took his glasses off and swung them to and fro between his thumb and forefinger. He did a poor job of masking his surprise. “Well, of course, there is no pressure to make the decision quickly,” he said. “You may need more time to consider.”

I had made my decision, but it meant great pain in the days to come. I wanted my child for myself. I wanted a baby to hold, a toddler to laugh with, a daughter to teach. I did not want a deformed baby and I certainly did not want a dead one. But God began to challenge me: What if the days ordained for her do not include a birthday?

During those early months, I meditated on the verse in Isaiah that says, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot” (Isa. 53:2). The passage refers to the Messiah who would come as the suffering servant to carry the sins of the world. But the “him” in this verse was a parent—a parent watching a child grow knowing that child would ultimately die. God was not asking me to do anything he had not already done himself. I pictured, then, the circle of unbreakable love that exists within ...

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Azusa Pacific Drops Ban on Same-Sex Student Relationships, Again

Revised code of conduct shifts in favor of “uniform standards of behavior for all students.”

Azusa Pacific University (APU) has gone back and forth this school year on whether to allow students to date members of the same sex.

Last week, the Southern California Christian college decided, once again, to remove a ban on “romanticized” same-sex relationships from its code of student conduct.

APU had initially made the same change in the fall, only to reverse the decision when its board of trustees said it had never approved the change.

“APU is an open-enrollment institution, which does not require students to be Christian to attend, and the handbook conveys our commitment to treating everyone with Christ-like care and civility,” stated APU provost Mark Stanton. “Our values are unchanged, and the APU community remains unequivocally biblical in our Christian evangelical identity.”

APU, which comes out of a Wesleyan tradition and continues to uphold a traditional view of marriage, does not require its students to be Christian, unlike about a third of fellow members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities that require students to sign a statement of faith.

APU prohibits sex outside of marriage, and the student code revisions represent “uniform standards of behavior for all students, applied equally and in a nondiscriminatory fashion,” Stanton said.

The student government and Brave Commons, an LGBT student group, opposed the administration’s restrictions around same-sex relationships and had pushed for more clarity around the type of punishment students in same-sex relationships would face. Brave Commons issued a response Friday saying “the ban removal offers equal treatment of LGBTQ+ students in relationships as their heterosexual peers.”

In December, ...

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Templeton Prize Winner: Marcelo Gleiser, Physicist Who Beholds the Universe’s Mysteries

The agnostic is credited with bringing believers and religious questions into the scientific realm.

An agnostic theoretical physicist who has encouraged Christians to embrace the dual mysteries of science and faith is the latest recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize.

The 2019 honor goes to Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. The 60-year-old researcher has suggested that science and spirituality represent complementary expressions of humanity’s curiosity around the unknown.

“My mission is to bring back to science, and to the people that are interested in science, this attachment to the mysterious, to make people understand that science is just one other way for us to engage with the mystery of who we are,” stated Gleiser, a Brazilian and the first Latin American to win the prize.

While the scientist considers atheism inconsistent with the scientific method—“You may not believe in God, but to affirm its nonexistence with certainty is not scientifically consistent,” he said in an interview last year in Scientific American—he has engaged Christian leaders and thinkers grappling with the universe.

Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, commended Gleiser for “bringing together people from different cultures and religious backgrounds into a global conversation on the importance of going beyond old stereotypes to celebrate the human condition and our role as planetary custodians.”

As director of Dartmouth’s Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement, Gleiser has made space for science and the humanities to work together around questions of meaning and spirituality. He has also participated in scientific dialogue with Catholic clergy, though as an agnostic he opposes biblical literalism and ...

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Power and Pastors: Part 3

Jesus schooled the world on how to understand and exert power.

This series is an expanded version of my talk from the GC2 Summit, December 13, 2018. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

Jesus schooled the world on how to understand and exert power.

Rather than wielding it through a sword, a harsh tongue or a prestigious position of authority, Jesus exerted power through two particular images: a lowly servant washing the feet of guests and a suffering sinner hanging on a cross. What’s amazing about these two images depicted by Jesus is that He had no business doing either. He was God incarnate. He created the cosmos. He was the sinless Son of God.

If anything, Jesus should have been walking around demanding people bow down and worship him. But that’s not how Jesus acted. Rather, Jesus exerted power through service and sacrifice. In short, he exerted power not to demand something from people but to do something for people. Therefore, Jesus sets the trajectory for how believers—especially pastors and church leaders—understand and exert power.

In Part 2 of this series, we saw that the power of the Fall calls for extraordinary discernment. But Jesus teaches us at least two more ways to guard against the misuse and abuse of power.

Recognize the Challenge of Power and Our Need for an Extraordinary Shepherd

Power is a challenge.

In every environment, regardless of the situation, power is a significant responsibility. Pastors often don't recognize the extent of their power and the danger of that power going awry. Religious structures often have less accountability for the people in power, and people are often not even aware of the pastor's power in their lives and in the lives of others.

Scripture addresses these concepts. We see descriptions of how pastors are to lead in places ...

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How Should Christians Respond to Christchurch Mosque Massacre?

Eleven evangelical experts weigh in as death toll of New Zealand Muslims hits 50.

Last Friday, Muslim worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, suffered a terrorist attack at the hands of an avowed white supremacist. 50 people were killed, with another 50 injured.

Prior to the attack, the citizen of Australia posted a lengthy manifesto to social media, filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes. He then proceeded to livestream the shooting. Some victims originally hailed from Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Given recent attacks on Christians in their places of worship, including many in Muslim nations, CT invited evangelical leaders to weigh in: How should Christians respond to Christchurch?

Richard Shumack, director of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology, Australia:

The thing that came to mind immediately is Jesus’ beatitudes. How should Christians react to Christchurch? With mourning, a hunger for justice, and peacemaking. Christians must mourn with their Muslim brothers and sisters, thirst for the perpetrators of this heinous crime to be brought to justice, and put every possible effort into brokering peace in an age of furious tribalism.

I also embrace wholeheartedly the poignant wisdom of Dostoevsky quoted by the Anglican bishop of Wellington, New Zealand: At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, “I will combat it with humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it.

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Five Churches that Shouldn’t Reproduce

There is legitimate reason to caution against a universal plea toward blind reproduction.

There is a growing awakening to the need of a multiplying church movement within North America, as the best—and likely only—means to bring the gospel within proximity to those who desperately long for good news.

As an advocate of this for many years, both as a church planter and as a pastor of a multiplying church, I am in complete agreement with this idea. I cannot envision a future where the gospel is accessible to all without the permeation of community after community with an Acts-esque behaving church.

But I would caution against a universal plea toward blind reproduction. In the clarion call to church planting, I have observed the launching of new congregations that have not necessarily been, from my limited perspective, a kingdom win.

There are some church ideas that, when are reproduced, actually seem to become more of a missionary liability than a gospel-engaging asset. Let me suggest five churches that, for the sake of the kingdom, should never be reproduced or exported. Please.

1. The Covetous Church: Those whose growth strategies comes at the expense of other churches. When a church planter’s sole idea is to gather the already evangelized in order to acquire critical mass (translation: a salary) and then theoretically execute a plan for the evangelization of his community, that planter is both imprudent and unrealistic.

Although the darkness emanating from the school of church growth has reduced a covenantal commitment to community into a transactional commodity within a free market religious economy, this is not a culture to be perpetuated.

Just because I can sustain a burst of grandeur to launch doesn’t mean my launch should come at the expense of existing churches. Covetous marketing schemes ...

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