When couples get married in UBF, it has become common to say, “They established a house church.” The terms house church and family are used almost interchangeably. The recent Peoria conference featured “house church reports” in which married couples spoke about their experiences with marriage and ministry. These reports were memorable and well received, and I enjoyed reading them as they were posted at www.ubf.org.
Now I don’t want to be a party pooper. But in case you haven’t noticed, I believe that how we talk about ourselves is significant and worthy of examination. People really do notice our terminology and wonder what it means. So I would like to raise a question. Is it okay to equate a house church with a family?
Why the Sabbath? I wish I had asked this question earlier, but until now, it has escaped my attention. I recently stumbled into a surprising discovery that the Sabbath is not on the periphery of my life as a Christian; rather, it is at the core.
As a practical matter, for most of my life as a Christian, “the Sabbath” has equaled Sunday worship service. As a UBF chapter director, there was never enough time on Sunday to engage in activities other than those directly related to the worship service, such as message preparation, prayer, worship service program rehearsals, driving students to and from the service, visiting those in need, and so forth. I often tried to squeeze in one or two one-to-one Bible studies before dinner. My Sabbath was as, if not more, hectic than any other day of the week.
Here is a question that I have been thinking about: Is it possible for Christians to emphasize the Bible too much in their personal lives and ministries?
I have posed this question to several longtime members of UBF, and without exception, they immediately answered, “No.” Many committed evangelical Christians in other churches will instinctively react in the same way. We have always regarded Bible study as a good thing, and more of a good thing is always better. Or is it?
Before asking for your reaction, I will provide some background and explain why, in certain respects, I think the answer could be: Yes, it is possible for Christians to emphasize the Bible — or a particular approach to the Bible — too much.
How are believers supposed to deal with remaining sin in their hearts? Those who align themselves with Reformed theology believe in the total or radical depravity of human beings’ hearts. So, even though a believer is free from the dominion of sin (Romans 6) he or she is still under the influence of sin. In order to deal with the influence of sin in the believer the Holy Spirit must put to death or mortify the misdeeds of the body (Romans 8:13).
This putting to death the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit is the subject of John Owen’s masterpiece,The Mortification of Sin. Owen, a Puritan pastor and theologian, lays down this thesis: “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days, to mortify the indwelling power of sin. The principal cause of the performance of this duty is the Spirit: ‘if by the Spirit.'” Mortification of sin is putting sin to death at the root level. To “mortify” is “to take away the principle of all [its] strength, vigor, and power, so that [it] cannot act or exert, or put forth any proper actings of [its] own.”
Have you heard of Jamie Oliver? Jamie is a charismatic, passionate TV chef from Great Britain who knows how to cook and cares about social issues and the well-being of others. (Needless to say, I am a great fan!) Recently, ABC aired a series called Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which documented an experiment to change the cooking and eating habits of local schools and people in Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington had recently been named America’s unhealthiest city. And so Jamie arrives, trying to abolish processed food in school cafeterias, including chicken nuggets (his “favorite”), French fries (which were actually counted as vegetables by the USDA), flavored milk (which contains more sugar than soda), and pizza for breakfast.
Jamie’s website states: “This food revolution is about saving America’s health by changing the way you eat. It’s not just a TV show, it’s a movement for you, your family and your community.” I found this show extremely interesting, not only because it deals with food, but also because it teaches some valuable lessons on evangelism. In fact, Jamie is a perfect evangelist for his cause.
In 1942, C. S. Lewis published The Screwtape Letters. The story is written as a series of letters from a senior demon, Uncle Screwtape, to a junior demon (his nephew), Wormwood. Each letter is advice on securing a man’s soul and covers many different aspects of life. Because it is written in from a demon’s perspective, Christians have to get used to the unique dialogue and characters, such as “the patient” (a man), “our father below” (the devil), and “the Enemy” (God). While the whole book is well worth reading, here I will focus on one particular concept in chapters 8 and 9, the Law of Undulation.
The Law of Undulation is explained as the peaks and troughs humanity experiences in every area of our lives, such as our work, friends and, most importantly, our relationship with God. Peak times are characterized by feelings of richness and liveliness, where everything is new and exciting. Troughs are full of numbness and poverty. Humans are by nature unstable and, according to Lewis, this roller coaster of feelings is the “nearest approach to constancy” that we will ever have.
The other day I walked into the elevator at work and pushed the button for Floor 3. The doors began to close, but then immediately opened back up. So I pushed the Floor 3 button again. And again the doors immediately opened back up. I walked out of the elevator and back in. That’s when I realized something. I was already on Floor 3! I had been thinking deeply about a database script I needed to write and was distracted.
After having a good laugh, I thought: Isn’t this how we sometimes react to God’s answers to prayer? We pray and pray for something or someone, but don’t realize that God already gave us an answer. Sometimes I think God must be thinking, “What are these people doing? I answered them already!”. It is amazing that our God is a patient God.
This is also something I experienced in my practical life the past several months. Since coming to Detroit six years ago, I’ve been praying to find a stable job. A few months ago, I realized that God already gave me the means to find a stable job. There is a specific skillset I have that is quite rare among technology people. When I re-organized my jobsearch based on that skillset, my phone and email inbox were suddenly swamped with job possibilities. God had already answered my prayer; I just needed to take action with what I had. This is a major life lesson I’ve been learning in recent years. Be thankful for what I have and look to what God has already given me for answers.
People in UBF speak an unusual dialect. Our conversations and writings are full of UBFisms which are immediately recognized and understood by longtime members of the ministry but sometimes indecipherable to those on the outside. There is nothing unusual about this at all. Think of any academic field or profession. Or a group of teenagers communicating by email and text messaging. Wherever people share interests and experiences, a common language will start to emerge. In some respects this is good sign. It shows that we are a real community with significant interpersonal relationships. But if we are not careful, UBFisms can lead to unnecessary friction and misunderstanding.
Some UBFisms reflect our ministry’s Korean origins. Think about how we attach titles (Missionary, Shepherd, Doctor, …) to peoples’ names. This was an attempt by Korean missionaries to implement in the English language the polite honorifics of spoken Korean that acknowledge differences in seniority between a speaker and listener. Many North Americans in UBF have grown accustomed to this, but to newcomers it can be disconcerting. In Korea it may be helpful to refer to a newcomer as a sheep. A sheep is someone to be treasured, treated with deference and love. For students in Korea who value group loyalty and sense of belonging, being called a sheep could make them feel special. But for students in America steeped in free expression and individuality, being called a sheep can be humiliating.