Surrogate Parent

If there’s one criticism I consistently hear being leveled at the Church, it’s that we’re irrelevant. Our message — both in our songs and our preaching — simply doesn’t matter to the daily lives of ordinary people. Someone even launched Relevant magazine as a way to combat that mindset, especially among younger folks. (Wait. Does saying “folks” make me sound old and irrelevant?) The quest for relevancy led to the rise of the seeker movement: churches discarded anything “old” to attract “seekers,” those looking for a “relevant” church (hence this is also termed the attractional church model). Hymns, neckties, organs, pulpits, and a host of other things became irrelevant — and were subsequently discarded with little to no further reflection.

The preaching in those attractional churches is designed first and foremost to be, well, attractive. That’s not a bad thing — until you think about it. It puts an emphasis on avoiding negative topics, like sin and hell. It frequently eschews exposition of the biblical text for a more topical approach. That quickly descends into un-anchored motivational speech (to be fair, expository sermons often become mere theology lectures). But, it is said, at least those topics are relevant. They engage issues in the daily lives of ordinary people. Yes, but they just don’t seem to do so by anything more than proof-texting.

At its base, the quest for relevancy changes the nature of church services. Not only its form, which is always subject to change, but its nature. Church becomes a consumer product, entertainment, instead of participatory adoration. Moreover, it shifts the primary place of discipleship from the home to the pulpit. That may not sound like it, but that’s a problem.

I firmly believe all preaching must be evangelistic in nature — and overtly so. Yes, other concerns are addressed, but a sermon must present the gospel in order to be an actual sermon (I expand on this elsewhere). That means it is of limited use for teaching us how to theologically navigate such things as Facebook, the opioid epidemic, or tattoos. These things are best considered in a small group discipleship format. Ideally, that setting is the home, as Christian parents catechize their children and equip them to reflect on their life experiences from a Christian perspective. This is one reason discipleship should begin in the home. Beyond that, small groups based out of a church are good resources, as are larger-group teaching times.

This is my ideal, but ideals often crumble when they collide with the real world. Let’s admit very few parents engage in home discipleship, and with the rise of the Nones from Millennials and Gen Z (those who list religious affiliation as “none”), it’s fairly probable the average age of conversion will increase as those not raised in Christian homes come to faith as adults. Younger people who begin to attend church for the first time will need — and indeed want — clear moral teachings, biblical principles they can apply to life. In short, they want the “relevant,” and the local congregation becomes a surrogate parent to teach them the things they never got at home.

On the one hand, it’s tragic the church is now forced to play the role of home-based disciple-maker. These truths were to be passed down to our children and our children’s children. They were not. The people should have been taught at home how to think theologically. They were not. That we now, as a Church, must alter our worship to provide basic moral education signifies the failure of the family unit and our experiment in abandoning our Sunday school classes and small groups.

On the other hand, Cyprian of Carthage once said, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his Mother.” The local congregation is a place for fellowship, for nourishment, and for worship. It provides nurture in many forms. That’s why she is our mother. If other mothers fail at the task of discipleship, then she will step in as a surrogate mother of sorts, adopting the orphan and instructing him/her in the paths of righteousness. That is the only way she can see her children saved.

Part of that instruction, however, is a simple truth, a basic axiom: the Christian faith is always relevant. Scripture, whether chapter and verse or underlying principles, will always apply to any situation. The realm of public theology is designed to create pathways, bridges between “real life” and the pertinent texts/traditions. We would do well to promote the discipline and help act as the surrogate parent for so many who come to our doors without knowing anything in advance.

Just not at the expense of true worship, of adoration, of praise of the One we came to learn about. God is not a thought experiment; He is a Divinity with whom one relates. May we evangelize and teach. May we baptize and catechize.

May we parent.



My favorite verse in the Bible is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” As much as I love that message of incarnation, I can’t say it’s my life verse. The one I stumbled into for that job, the verse I remind myself of daily and use to make decisions, is far less pleasant (but no less true): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

What can I say? I like the cheery things in life.

Part of my attraction to Luke 9:23 is the role it played in my call to ministry. In a last-ditch effort to avoid it, I decided to do the wrong thing and use my Bible like a Magic 8-Ball. “God,” I prayed, “there are so many different directions I can go in life. Why should I sacrifice those lives for this?” Close eyes; open Bible at random; immediately read Luke 9:23-26. It was a bad method for discernment, I know, or maybe it was my own Augustine “tolle lege” moment. Regardless, it did the trick, and here I am. And every time I think of that verse, it reminds me of the cost of discipleship, that Christ bids a man come and die, that it’s “Not my will but Thine,” and that no matter how rough the road, it will always be worth it.

But crucifixion and cross-carrying, however, metaphorical they may be, are never pleasant tasks.

When we consider how a Christian lives in this world, how one engages one’s culture, we have to keep in mind the painful truths of Luke 9:23. Our lives are to be cruciform, and that has many dimensions. The first is the most obvious: the denial of self, the killing of ego and death of the old creature to become a new creation. I think we often view this as the “negative” side of cruciformity, the “thou shalt nots” of a cross-shaped life. To be fair, there are plenty of those. To be holy is to be other — other than normal, other than sinful. The Bible points to many things absent from a life of holiness: murder, lust, sexual immorality in all its iterations, drunkenness, deceit, etc. We as Christians cannot simultaneously carry a cross and indulge in such things.

Beyond biblical proscriptions lie a host of other choices to be made vis-a-vis the “nots.” A cruciform life takes into account a holistic portrait of living; after all, you can’t crucify only your hand or your foot. So we need to evaluate our other lifestyle choices: books we read, television shows we watch, movies we see, music we listen to, clothes we wear, places we go, company we keep. Careers, hobbies, everything is subject to scrutiny through a cross-shaped lens. And maybe the biggest cross you’ll carry is abstaining from an addiction, turning off the television, or letting go of an old friend. Choices shouldn’t be made lightly, and the underlying question is this: does the practice/show/etc. bring you closer to God, or is it hurting your relationship with Him? If it’s a case of the latter, it definitely needs to go. It just got added to your self-denial, a little extra weight on the cross you carry.

On the flip side, dying to ourselves daily means a series of “thou shalts,” too, and some of those are equally difficult. To deny myself means at times a specific denial of my right to justice, fairness, or vengeance, and instead calls for the love of the one who wronged me. We call this forgiveness. And forgiving someone, as we all know, is incredibly hard at times. It requires us to set aside pride and ego in favor of humility and love — not love of the wrongful act, but of the flawed human being who wronged us, the sort of love that prays for their good. Love itself can seem a burden, for love requires an endless number of self-sacrifices. In short, it requires us to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily so we can put the good of others ahead of the good of self. And that’s hard. It hurts.

And it’s worth it. Every step of the way. Because they will know us by our love.

Living a cruciform life, letting every action reflect the cross of Christ and be framed as cross-carrying discipleship is the way a Christian is called to experience this mortal coil. It is how we lose this life to gain a place in the next. It is how we follow our Lord and live for his sake. For his life, too, centered around a cross.

I Love Jesus and I Love Religion

The current mindset of much of the world is one of atheism, or, at best, a sort of apathetic agnosticism. A potential cause for the problem many postmoderns have offered is that “religion” is simply turning people off from the faith. They don’t like the rites, the prayers, the rituals, the commitments. A growing number of those who identify as Christians are taking the same stand. “I love Jesus,” they say, “but I hate religion.” You can buy any number of t-shirts with the now-common phrase “Relationship not Religion”  or even “Relationship > Religion.”

I hear you. I do. I am not a fan of hollow religious observance, either. I firmly believe everything a church does (and thus everything a Christian does for the sake of his/her Lord) should have deeply theological reasons behind it. When I say “everything,” I mean, “everything.” Everything from how much Scripture is read on a Sunday to what gets put out in the clothing program to how we decorate the sanctuary to the architecture of the building itself. On the individual level, how often we attend church, what songs we sing, what media we consume, how we treat our friends and ourselves . . . the list is literally endless. We must be thinking about these things from a Christian perspective. We need to understand why we do what we do, and we must do everything for a reason.

Somehow, we’ve lost sight of that. We’ve turned worship into a consumeristic “get people in the door” enterprise instead of a means of evangelism and discipleship. It’s easy to say we don’t like religion when we don’t understand what happens in the Mass, or hate repeating the same words in a praise chorus over and over again, or when we almost fall asleep listening to the pastor recite the same prayer or same sermon each and every Sunday. It becomes stagnant. It dies. It becomes “religion.” (Air quotes.)

Only . . . that’s not what “religion” means. That’s not what it means at all.

Somewhere along the way, the term got hijacked and cast in a totally negative light by atheists and believers (particularly evangelicals) alike. It’s used as a scapegoat by both groups, and both use “religion” to refer to the reason the world is in such sad shape. Atheists say religion holds us backs and keeps us from using human reason. The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd says religion keep us from truly loving Jesus and thus making a difference in the world. Frankly, I think they’re both wrong. I think deeply religious people are the ones who truly change the world. It’s hard to want to aid the inbreaking of the kingdom of God if you don’t think it exists. And as for the latter group, well, if you didn’t have “religion,” you wouldn’t have Jesus.

Let me explain.

A religion, in broadest possible terms, is a system of beliefs about what I’m going to call ultimates. It can be about a deity such as God, a pantheon of minor gods, the idea that everything contains divinity, or even that a particular way to think is the end-all-be-all which will unlock the secrets of the universe (as in scientism). However you believe you encounter ultimate truth about the universe, that’s your religion. Atheism is a religion in this way of thinking, too, because its belief about a deity is that there isn’t one; instead the universe claims the throne of the ultimate (as does science for many). Christianity is a religion, Islam is a religion, Buddhism and Sikhism and Baha’i and Zoroastrianism and paganism and . . . They’re all systems of beliefs about ultimates. About divinity and deity and the true nature of things.

Jesus was a deeply religious man.

All the rituals and rites and observances you don’t want to keep? Jesus celebrated his own version of them in his own time. He observed Passover and other Jewish festivals. He was concerned about personal holiness. He submitted himself to baptism. He attended and taught in the synagogues and the temple. He taught people how to encounter God in all things. He even instituted a new rite: Holy Communion, a.k.a. the Eucharist, a.k.a. the Lord’s Supper. Look at it this way: Jesus culminated one religion and established a new one right down to the rules needed to be in it and the processes and procedures, the rituals and rites, which adherents would need to follow.

Sounds like a pretty religious guy to me. Not like someone who would shy away from rituals and prayers and feasts and churches. It seems to me he embraced all of these and said, “This is the way you will draw close to me. I give you new things to do, new cycles and patterns of living which will reveal myself to you each time you live into them.”  It’s why we have bread and wine and why we immerse people in water: because God comes to us, reveals Himself to us, in these physical things we do, and in the doing, we proclaim Him to the world. These are the things which deepen and exhibit our relationship to the Risen Savior. These are the things we use to worship.

Do they themselves offer salvation apart from faith? Absolutely not, for salvation requires the grace of God, not the works of human beings. But they’re how we maintain our relationship with Him. I mean, you wouldn’t say you had a relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend if you never went on a date, right? You wouldn’t have a solid relationship with your friends and family if you never talked to them or hung out with them. You wouldn’t consider yourself an employee of a place for which you never work. Why do we treat the God who wired us for relationship any differently? Why do we believe we can have the fullness of a relationship with God when we do nothing to stay in touch? Do nothing He’s commanded us to do? Never visit His house, never receive the Communion elements, never celebrate the birth and the resurrection and everything in-between?

Again, Christ has commanded us to do these things, and as he himself said, “If you love me, keep my commandments. . . . Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:15,23-24). Just thinking about God, just saying “Yeah, I know he’s there, so I’ll try not to hurt anybody” will never be enough. You can’t be spiritual enough. And your relationship isn’t greater than the religion; the religion is the relationship, and that relationship will never be complete without the “religion” to go with it.

I love Jesus. I value my spirituality, and I treasure my relationship with the Triune God of grace and glory. And that’s precisely why I love religion. I could never come to God on my own terms. I could never do enough on my own; I couldn’t even know what to do. I could never know who He is without His revelation and His commands — without His religion. And for that reason, and because I know I have that personal relationship with a personal savior, I will stand boldly and proclaim myself a Christian, an adherent of Christianity, a member of the Christian religion.

A Trinitarian Perspective on the Family

Any discussion of the theology of the family must begin with and proceed from a Trinitarian perspective. The pre-existent Trinity exemplifies the family system, consisting as the godhead does of three persons united as one by unconditional love. Human beings, created in the image of this triune God, possess inherently a relational aspect. The relationship between the creation and the Creator, as typified by covenants, extends into the relationships between members of a family – and, indeed, to those between states. Finally, it should be recognized that the family is the primary social unit, making it the crucible of Christian discipleship and the first means of fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20.

First, the Trinity models agape, true unilateral, unconditional love. Even though the godhead is comprised of the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three form a cohesive unity (Deuteronomy 6:4). This bond evidences itself in the way all three persons have equal status within the Trinity, regardless of their respective roles. For example, the Son is obedient to the Father not out of a filial obsequiousness based in a sense of inferiority, but rather because the Son loves the Father irrespective of any external factor. Unconditional love provides the conduit for the relationships between each of the three persons. It is insufficient, however, to say that the three become one because of loving relationships; it is necessary to say that the Three-in-One is love itself, and the innate nature of that love is what provides for the relationality of the Trinity.

This relational nature is evidenced in humanity being created in the imago Dei. Even though many debate the exact meaning of being made in the image of God, perhaps the strongest contender is that humans are designed for relationships. Just as the Trinity exists in a state of relationship, so, too, must people be in a relationship. Since human beings are born of a mother and conceived by a father, it logically follows that even procreation is designed to create new life in the context of a relationship: the family. God then establishes His own relationship with the family and the individual by means of covenant. This covenant, for Christians, is the means by which redemption and reconciliation is achieved: imperfect people relate to a perfect God through a covenant achieved initially by the atonement of Christ and that is lived by ascribing to the rules and relationship mandated by God.

Covenant plays a large role in family dynamics. A covenant grounded in unconditional love is, in the West, the basis for Christian marriage. The two spouses covenant together to create a new family while vowing to remain faithful to each other to the exclusion of all other possible partners, and the vows are durable throughout any negative life events. The covenant provides a basis for the governing of the relationship. It may be extended to delineating roles and navigating other potential sources of conflicts such as money, in-laws, sex, and time management. As long as the covenant conditions are fulfilled, all will run smoothly. Thus the covenant relationship between God and humanity serves as a model for other relational covenants such as those between family and state or family and church.

This foundational relational – and foundationally human – social system functions as the first means of disciple-making. As children are born into a family, they enter a covenant community of unconditional love geared for a relationship. It is necessary for the family to teach those children their religious beliefs in order to aid them in attaining a relationship with the Trinitarian God. The earthly, nuclear family of the child is under special obligation to see to it that the child receives instruction in the faith. Discipleship begins in the home when parents begin the indoctrination of their children. It is true that the church plays a critical role in disciple-making, and children receive age-appropriate discipleship instruction from the church through various programs such as Sunday school and youth programs. If these lessons are not reinforced in the home, however, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that church teachings will fall by the wayside. Children learn by observation; if the parents do not exhibit a behavior in the home, then their children are less likely to exhibit it themselves. The family who displays Christian virtues and the unconditional love of the Trinity will raise children of similar beliefs and behaviors.

This has implications on how families view the social order. The family as basic social unit also comprises the basic Christian unit. Indeed, the family serves as a ready metaphor for the Church: all believers are brothers and sisters and share a common Father, God Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth. Ideally, this relationship between Christians is patterned after the pre-Fall intent of Creation: a world free of conflict that is defined by healthy sexuality, mutual empowerment, and Trinitarian relationship. All of these aspects were damaged by the Fall. Human sexuality has been twisted to become, in popular opinion, little more than a means of personal gratification; families are marked by power plays made by parents and children alike; and love is always contingent upon what someone can do for someone else. The role of the family, in both the church and the world, is to model the pre-Fall creational intent in order to remind society and the community of believers of the Trinity’s plan for the world.

The doctrine of the Trinity, then, has many implications for the family in society. Its model of relationship and unconditional love serves as the first example of how families are to conduct themselves. It also speaks to how family life should be grounded in covenant and how parenting is also a means of disciple-making. The Trinity shows us the pre-Fall intent of Creation, and this state is the true objective of the contemporary church in society, accomplished by espousing the values and relationality of the creational intent.