Demo: How Pastors Can Preach about Religious Feeedom

My friend Dr. McKay Caston (who happens to also be my pastor) preached a sermon recently that demonstrates how pastors can and should preach about religious freedom.

It is fine example of speaking the truth in love and preparing a congregation for the rising tide of persecution in America.

McKay has agreed to let me post the audio here and share his sermon notes below. You can follow his blog here.

I encourage you to share them with pastors and church leaders and prayerfully encourage them to engage this critical issue before they too are made to care.

Take a listen: 

Sermon Notes

Few of us who saw the image will soon forget it. Just over a year ago, a line of twenty-one Egyptian Christians dressed in orange jumpsuits, were kneeling on a beach near Tripoli in Libya, just moments before masked ISIS executioners dressed in full black beheaded them simply for being Christians.

And yet, as disturbing as those images are, when we think about persecution, it can feel distant and disconnected from our ordinary, daily lives.

What I want us to understand today is that religious persecution is notsomething that will remain distant and disconnected. We in the West have largely taken religious freedom for granted. But in the coming days, and even now, when we pray for the persecuted church, we will not only be praying for believers around the world, we will be prayingfor ourselves and our own children.

Creekstone member Bill Blankschaen has recently co-authored a book with a well-known radio personality. The title, You Will Be Made to Care, has served to raise awareness concerning the rising tide of religious persecution of Christians in our own culture in our own day.

Some Christians are losing their jobs while others are being sued for not embracing culturally acceptable, politically correct views. With these instances multiplying, it is likely that every true disciple of Jesus is going to feel the the pressure more and more, and sooner than later.

Christians are going to be increasingly tested. Like gold is purified in extreme temperatures, persecution will test our faith. For some it will purify it; for others, it will show that our profession was just fools gold.

So, as we discuss the theme of the persecuted church today, I want to ask those of you who are not Christians to stick with me to the end. If you find yourself offended, know that I do not intend to unnecessarily offend. But truth can be offensive. And yet the goal for truth is not to offend, but to set us free. Sometimes truth must do its work of disruption in our lives, so that grace can do its work of redemption. That is where I want us to land before we’re done today. So, stick with me, and if you still have questions or want to discuss this further, I’m glad to stick around and talk more in person.

So as we look at John 15, we need to know that this is the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. His disciples are about to see what real persecution looks like up close and personal. As his closest followers, they will need to be prepared, will be tempted to resist persecution, will be called to endure it, and respond to it like Jesus.

So, first, Jesus…

I.  Prepares them for Persecution (v. 18) 

18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 

Jesus does not want us to be surprised or shocked if the world hates Christians. When Jesus speaks of “the world,” he is describing humanity apart from grace, where “the world” means the ways of the world in contrast to the ways of God. Or, we could say the wisdom of the world in contrast to the wisdom of God.

For example, the world says that if someone hits you, you should hit ‘em back. Revenge is assumed by the world. The world says that it makes sense to live together before committing to marriage, and of course, God’s design for marriage between one man and one woman is now deemed an unacceptable, antiquated, restrictive position. In fact, to advocate for God’s wisdom in sexual ethics is considered hate speech. Again, this doesn’t surprise us, because, as Bill Blankschaen has written, “Truth sounds like hate to those who hate the truth. But God’s design for human sexuality isn’t hate; its like the new app you download on your phone that has a few steps of orientation, that enable the user to maximize the benefit of the app so that they can enjoy it and be blessed by it. The same is true with God’s design for human sexuality and marriage. To skip his orientation or to reject his design is to undermine the design.

Speaking of design, another topic that divides is the issue of human origins: intelligent design vs Darwinian evolution. Additionally, a well documented contrast between the wisdom of God with the wisdom of the world concerns the value of human life from the moment of conception and how that bears on the issue of abortion.

Now, I know that a number of you have had abortions, and I suspect it is likely that you deeply regret that decision. I am so sorry for that wound in your soul being reopened.

I that has happened, I want you to hear something right nowand hear me clearly, even if through tears – I want you to know that is that there is ABUNDANT mercy and grace for you through Jesus. In fact, Jesus made a decision for you that far outweighs your decision to have an abortion. He made a decision to endure the penalty for your sin-even the abortion. That decision he made for you has powerful consequences —  that can empower you to move forward with hope in the light of God’s grace as someone who can be convinced that you are fully forgiven and perfectly accepted by God. That is what the cross says to you. In Jesus, there is a grace that is greater than all of our sin!

The truth is that all human beings stand before the cross of Jesus as equals. In fact, the cross demands human equality and refuses to allow any room for moral superiority of one person over another.

And yet the sad truth is that there are professing Christians, some of us stand guilty here today, who have spoken to issues like abortion and homosexuality with a hateful tone of moral superiority, and in so doing have done a tremendous amount of harm to the cause of the gospel by disconnecting God’s truth from God’s grace. Now, we can’t change the truth. But we can change our tone when we speak truth – a tone of grace.

Because truth and grace were designed to go together. After all, in John 1, the apostle tells us that Jesus was full of truth and grace.

Have you ever paused to consider how challenging that is? For most of us, we tend to emphasize one or the other. Some of us find it easy to speak the truth. Others are much more comfortable with grace. But what I am learning is that grace without truth isn’t grace. It’s soggy grace, like cereal that has been sitting out soaking in milk all day. It had potential! 🙂 Conversely, truth without grace isn’t the fullness of truth, is it?  Here is the point: Truth must do its work in order for grace to have its impact. 

But for some of us, speaking the truth scares us to death because of the reaction we could face. Nobody wants to be hated! So, if we are honest, some of us will…

 II. Resist the Pain of Persecution (v. 19) 

19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 

Whether in junior high, in the fraternity or sorority, or among peers in the workplace, we want to be accepted. And yet Jesus guarantees that those who follow him will experience insult and rejection. They will be hated!

But insults and rejection are just surface types of persecution. What about when your lose your job because of Christian convictions? What if you were to become the object of a lawsuit for not complying with state mandated requirements that required you to fall in line with acceptable cultural views and practices? What if you or I face imprisonment, and worse?

Many of us probably think that this kind of persecution could never happen here. According to Jesus, we shouldn’t be surprised, and I want us to be prepared, just in case.

Because when the heat of persecution is turned up, many of us are going to look for ways to avoid it. Just being nice will not stop persecution. We will have to distance ourselves from Jesus, from his ways and wisdom. You will be forced to put your faith in the attic and adapt to the new doctrines of political correctness.  But for the true disciple of Jesus, this is not going to be an option.

So I want us to know, and not be surprised, that there WILL be consequences. Jesus says that you will be hated and persecuted.

As his disciples, we need to know this, so that we can…

III. Endure the Call to Persecution (v. 20) 

20 Remember the word that I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

In this verse, Jesus uses strong words to describe his relationship with his disciples. They are servants. He is the master. Yes, he is also their friend. But it is a friendship with the King. And they, as followers of the King, are going to face some serious heat.

Here is the deal. Receiving Jesus as your Savior is a free gift, where Jesus totally and absolutely covers the cost, paying down the debt of your sin and imputing the record of his own righteousness into your spiritual, moral account. But following Jesus – identifying with him – will cost you. It may cost you your reputation. It may cost you a friendship. And your family may turn on you. You may lose your job, your freedom, and one day, maybe even your life.

This is what believers in China have faced for years. And yet Creekstone’s mother church Perimeter received a report from missionary partners in China recently asking for us not to pray for an end of the persecution, which they say is growing in the church dramatically. They want prayers that they may endure the persecution!

Are you ready for THAT?

If so, then you need to know how to…

IV.  Respond to Persecution Like Jesus 

The Greek word for “persecute” in v. 20 has nuances of meaning in the New Testament. Some of these nuances are expressed in synonyms such as pursue, hunt, seize, choke, revile and mock.

Jesus was the object of all of these aspects of persecution and more. And yet he didn’t respond to hate with hate, but with the kind of love that was willing to go, suffer, and die on a cross for the world that hated him – rejected him. Rather than curse his enemies, Jesus blessed them.

This is why Jesus can tell us in Matthew 5:10-12, 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Or later in Mt. 6:43-45, “43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

It’s why Paul could write in Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

There is an old saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” The gospel tells us that Jesus endured the heat for us – not of the kitchen, but the heat of the judgement demanded by the law of God.

It is only when I know Jesus as the one who took the heat for me in crucifixion as my Savior, that I am motivated and empowered to face the heat for him in persecution as his disciple– and am motivated and empowered to respond to persecution like Jesus – not responding to hate with hate, but with the same mercy toward others that I have received from Jesus.

Now, it may be that you are just now coming to grips with the fact that Jesus took the heat for you.  You know that you have followed the ways and wisdom of the world… and you are waking up to the overwhelming offer of grace presented to you in the gospel and want to respond.

If you are ready for this to be the new day that leads to a new life by receiving Jesus as your Savior, Master and friend, then let me ask you to pray with me now.

It’s Time for Pastors to Be Bold or Go Home

It’s time for pastors to be bold or go home. The times require it of them.

Erick posted here about evangelicals needing to make a choice, rightly noting that “many up and coming evangelical leaders pride themselves on eschewing politics.”

But pastors and church leaders of all denominations and backgrounds need to make a choice: To engage the culture or wait until they are no longer free to do so.

The following sample from our new book You Will Be Made to Care book calls pastors to action:

The Resurgent Church should be unafraid to address the big cultural issues that their parishioners are already talking about around the dinner table and the water cooler throughout the week.

Pastors need to equip them with a biblical understanding on relevant issues so they can be the ambassadors they are called to be.

Although I don’t think the pastor’s job is to preach on the news headlines, he should address the ebbs and flows of culture.

In their letters, Paul and Peter spent a great deal of time explaining how Christians should live in a culture with vastly different beliefs from their own. Pastors today need to do what the Apostles did then—preach on the reality of the times.

A pastor doesn’t have to talk politics, but he does have to talk culture.

He can’t detach himself so much from the society around him that he can’t relate to his flock.

Andrew T. Walker reminds us that pastors have a civic responsibility they cannot avoid:

Pastors need to first and foremost realize that by virtue of being a pastor you have a public office that is a morality-shaping institution.  So, I would say to the average pastor of a church in a town, is it is impossible for you not to be shaping morality in one direction or another.  It is a question of whether or not you are going to be shaping your congregants for a life in the public square positively or negatively.

How you shape your parishioners’ morality, pastor, will depend on the unique needs of your congregation and local community.

The pastor in America today, confronted by the collapse of marriage and the family, the hostility of secular government, and threats to tax-exempt status for churches, should preach a different sermon from the pastor in Nigeria, where Muslim terrorists might burst through the church door at any moment and kill them all.

Even though people halfway around the world may hear the sermon in a podcast, the pastor’s primary obligation is to apply the timeless truths of Scripture to his local congregation.

Pastors need to equip us spiritually to deal with the world, because ultimately there is a fight that’s happening around us in the unseen realm.

I don’t think we can understand what’s going on in this world unless we also have some level of a spiritual worldview to discern how we can see is only a part of the ultimate battle.

I don’t need a pastor telling me how to vote, but I do need a pastor encouraging me to follow my conscience in political matters, especially when I start to doubt it.

There’s been a dangerous overcorrection in a lot of churches, particularly Southern Baptist churches, in overreaction against the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition fights of the ’80s and ’90s. Pastors don’t need to be training up an army of political activists, but they certainly need to be training up an army of spiritual activists—and so much of the spiritual warfare in our culture goes on at the ballot box.

Too many pastors have tried avoiding anything that sounded political for far too long. But now there is nowhere to run—even pastors are being made to care.

Russell Moore points out that pastors and church leaders have work to do on two levels:

One of those levels is helping people as citizens to work for religious liberty and religious freedom, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. That is an inheritance that has been given in this country that we have the responsibility to steward.

We need to talk to people about why freedom of conscience matters.

And it doesn’t just matter because we’ve got the most votes and so we’ve got our rights. No, we need to be standing up for that mosque down the street and say the Gospel doesn’t mean we give the state the power to zone that mosque out of existence.

The Gospel means that the state doesn’t have any business with what goes on in people’s centers of worship. That [defense] doesn’t mean we think that Christians and Muslims are morally or eternally equivalent. It means that we have the right to argue with one another about the Gospel without the state coming in and using the sword to punish either one of us.

We articulate that and then, at the same time, we create people who are willing to prize their deepest held religious convictions above the penalty of threat—people who can’t be bullied. What I often tell churches is I have two jobs.

One job is to keep you out of jail. The other job is to make you willing to go to jail, because there’s one thing worse than going to jail for your faith, and that’s having a faith that’s too safe for jail. 

519gTca3AIL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_The full interviews with Walker and Moore are available for free but ONLY available until You Will Be Made to Care launches.

You can get them along with 11 hours of other interviews when your pre-order the book now.

If you are a pastor, I encourage you to take the challenge and derive encouragement from what you will discover. If you know a pastor or church leader, I urge you to pre-order them a copy.

They’ll thank you for it.

The Resurgent Church: Why I Struggle to Sing

A few years ago, I wrote a post at Patheos finally just being honest about what I thought about modern church worship music in evangelical circles. It struck a chord as I discovered I was not alone in my frustration.

I wanted to sing—and to sing in a way that didn’t make me feel as if I were back in grade school—and a lot of other people did, too.

Many people came out of the worship closet then, saying they had left the church entirely because of the pathetic state of music.

As a former pastor, I don’t endorse that decision, although I can understand it.

Others took offense, criticizing me for daring to speak an opinion on the matter, claiming that if I only knew how hard it was to be a worship leader I would never dare to critique any of it.

They claimed I was reigniting the flames of a “worship war.” Let me tell you, if there was a war, it’s been over for a long time.

And the Christian Church did not win.

Checking Out of Worship

I realize that my worship experience may be suffering from too little exposure to what passes for Christian radio Top-40 these days, but whenever I do tune in, I hear exactly what I’ve been hearing for the last decade and a half. No, the worship music industry hasn’t done the church any favors. In fact, it may have a lot to answer for some day.

So I still struggle with what passes for singing in church these days, and perhaps more so than ever, as I have come to realize that the church in America is about to be sifted as never before.

The new book by Erick and myself You Will Be Made to Care not only challenges pastors and priests in the pulpits to speak up, it offers practical solutions for then to find a way forward. One of those is The Resurgent Church, a body of believers who actually live what they say they believe in a secular culture that is becoming increasingly intolerant.

Yet here we are in most churches all crooning endlessly: “Oh, how He loves us so” with our best faux Australian accents (because that’s what all the best worshipers use, don’t you know).

I know, I am painting with a broad brush. One must when discussing issues on a grand scale. There are always exceptions to every rule.

But let’s face it, much of what passes for evangelical worship music is empty. And here’s the thing: a lot of people in the pews agree with me but don’t want to say anything for fear of seeming harsh or, worse yet, “not right with God.”

The truth is that they check out when the “band” checks in.

Dumbing Down the Church

One of the main reasons the Church has lost so much of its influence in culture is that Christians no longer understand much about the faith “once for all delivered” (Jude 3, ESV).

The anti-intellectualism that swept through American culture swept through the Church as well, leaving a bunch of sincere folks focused on personal piety, but not at all certain of what they believe or why.

I lay the blame ultimately at the feet of pastors for their insipid sermons (another topic we address in the book).

But music has always been a powerful teaching tool in the Christian church. And it is here that we are paying a high price for our vapid attempts to sing in church, because the music has been teaching us that truth doesn’t matter all that much anymore.

Add that to the sermons, and it’s no wonder so many Christians can’t defend the truth.

Both sermons and songs have been dumbed down to offend as few people as possible and appeal to as many as possible.

In the process, Christians have lost their way on issues of doctrine, having little idea how to apply truth in their private lives and how to declare truth in the public square.

3 Things that Drive Me Crazy

I mentioned other concerns in my post then [See my post Why I’ve Stopped Singing in Your Church], all of which remain relevant and largely unaddressed.

But if I could sum up my concerns now I would say the evangelical Christian church is still guilty of doing three things:

  • Dumbing down worship. Yes, some truths are simple and should be expressed in that way. But not everything. The Apostle Paul tells us that there is milk (for young believers) and meat (for mature believers). Today’s modern worship music isn’t just all-milk all-the-time, it’s gluten-free, organic, soy milk. In other words, it’s so watered down it gives milk a bad name. We seem eager to make music in church that appeals to everyone, even the occasional visitor or the”seeker” who stopped in for the free coffee. Now don’t misunderstand; I’ve been in churches where the music is so horrifically performed that it drives people from the pews. But what most churches do is dumb down the lyrics to keep them accessible to everyone, thereby stripping the church of its deep doctrinal roots and preventing the people from understanding biblical truths they need to navigate the cultural storms ahead.
  • Repeating everything. Again and again and again…. oh, sorry. Tuned out for minute there. But seriously, when you make the words super simple and then repeat them 7 or 8 times, I can’t help but be insulted at what you must think is the intelligence level of the people in the pews. And no, changing the volume levels or adding more “feeling” doesn’t help. It makes me want to sit down or google something until it’s over. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for repetition. I repeat, there is a place for repetition. I repeat, there is a place — see what I mean? Once you go beyond that place, it just gets annoying and becomes a barrier to worship. If I had wanted to chant, I would have stopped off at the yoga class for a session of transcendental meditation to clear my mind. I don’t come to church to empty my head, but to have my head and heart renewed by God’s Word.
  • Performing, not singing. It used to be that the choir would stand to the side or even up and behind the congregation so as not to distract everyone from the true purpose of signing together. Somewhere in the last century, most evangelical churches adopted more of a concert model (or perhaps a tent-meeting model) for church music in which the choir and a few musicians would adorn the stage, facing the congregants. I have no doubt this trend started out for good reasons, but the end result has been less of an emphasis on people singing together and more focus on the performance of a select few. And when the majority of songs being sung are written for radio air-play and concerts in the first place, there is now little room for the typical believer to join in unless they have been blessed with vocal talent and forced to endure Christian pop radio throughout the week. Scripture calls us to sing together, not watch a handful of people do it for us. It’s like we outsourced worship to the “worship band” (a fundamentally flawed entity whose existence we can discuss at another time), instead of singing together with one voice.

The church is sitting on a treasure trove of songs from ages past (and some good ones from today). They lie neglected, spurned in favor of shallow jingles that make you want to either wave your smartphone and cheer or walk out.

We need to quit trying to create a mood and start trying to equip the saints.

The church in America is about to be sifted as never before.

It’s time for the church of Jesus Christ to quit playing around with mindless ditties and start worshiping in spirit AND in truth.

We’re going to need it.


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