Keeping a “wall of separation” between Church and State

President Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson

Baptists had a very important role in the formation of the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state”. Thomas Jefferson made this phrase famous, and in part, it was due to the influence from the Baptists. Jefferson had written two letters. The first of the two letters was addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802, in which he mentioned this concept of a “wall of separation between church and state”. This letter was written in response to alleviate concerns that Baptists may have had about any creation of an official State Church. Baptists were not anti-religion (as some secularists may prefer to portray). Baptist believers loved religion and their Christian faith. What they abhorred was one official state religion, for fear that the State’s politics would interfere with the church’s affairs and cause corruption.

President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Baptist Association of Connecticut dated January 1, 1802.
President Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Baptist Association of Connecticut dated January 1, 1802. It was a letter in response to concerns raised about creating an official state church.

Today, some misinterpret the phrase “wall of separation” to mean that we are to keep all religious involvement outside of the public square for fear it might be perceived as it being sanctioned or approved by the state (example). However, this was not what Jefferson had intended; what he had intended was exactly the reverse. This revolutionary concept of having a “wall of separation” between church and state was made in response to the State’s intrusion upon the church’s right to determine its own affairs. It had over-stepped its bounds, as proven in the Crowns persecution of Baptist and Quaker believers. The one and only intent for this conceptual wall was to keep the government’s hands completely off how churches and what Christians believed and live out their faith.

After stating all of this, I would also opine that the State does have  place to maintain religious liberties and freedoms for its people. Today, our courts have done a disservice by deconstructing the precedent of an accommodationist approach historically established by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the framers.   The separationist approach will completely distance any concepts of religion from the public square; whereas, the accommodationist approach will not prohibit or inhibit religious ideas and speech from flowing freely in the public square (e.g., public prayer, reading of scripture, etc.). Personally, I prefer the accommodationist approach over the separationist approach.  Keeping religion actively flowing freely in the public square creates a healthy religious atmosphere in society, which I feel would still be a good thing for today’s seemingly over-secularized western society.

Pray for the Persecuted Church

Nov. 4, 2012 is International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Most of us in the western hemisphere have no idea these horrendous tragedies acted against Christians are actually still happening today around the world. Let us pray for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, for their protection, but more importantly, for patience and long-suffering. This is to truly practice loving our enemies.

Amos 5:21-24 from The Message

A university student from my church recently shared with me a passage from the book of Amos that struck me because it relates so well with today’s church.

Amos 5:21-24 from The Message (MSG)

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want”

How’s that for relevancy?

Good sermon passage.  It should strike people pretty hard. I think I may be preaching on this in the near future.

Is church membership important anymore?

Joel OsteenIn some churches,  50% of those in attendance might not be official members of the church.  In some evangelical mega-churches, and in many cases in large church, there are many attendees who are not members. What could this mean?  …that some go church-hopping and never become an official member of that church?  …that there’s a lot of seekers in attendance?… or that the pastors do not stress on the importance of membership.

In some other churches (e.g., mainline churches (e.g., Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, etc.; and even the Southern Baptist Convention), it’s quite the opposite.  The church membership roster might be twice or 3x greater than the actual attendance.  What could this mean?  that people have just stopped coming to church, period?  Or that they switched to different churches or denominations?  Or that they stopped coming to church the day after they got baptized or became a member?

In either case, church membership doesn’t seem very important to more and more people today, especially to the Millennial generation.  Why isn’t it important anymore?

Who was Henry Alline?

First Great Awakening

As part of my orientation into the Baptist Church, I started doing some research on the early Baptists in Canada and rediscovered the importance of spiritual revivals.   Though Baptists had an even earlier history in Europe, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many early Baptists in  Canada and the American colonies had its beginnings in the revivals of the Great Awakenings.  God used and is still using spiritual revivals to call His people back to Himself.

Many Baptist churches in the Maritimes were established upon the foundation set by the leadership of one of the most influential preachers in early Canadian history, Henry Alline, who was central to spiritual revival in Nova Scotia.  Alline was regarded by his contemporaries as Nova Scotia’s George Whitefield—dynamic, eloquent, and uniquely spiritual.

Born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1748, Alline arrive to Nova Scotia with his parents and experienced a spiritual conversion in 1775 at the age of 27. Henry Alline began to preach in 1776 during the spiritual revival that swept the Maritimes, in which most, if not all, protestant churches were impacted.  Whether it was in Nova Scotia or New England, crowds flocked to hear him wherever he went.  His ministry lasted only eight years from 1776 until his premature death in February 1784 at the young age of thirty-five.  All though the timespan of his life and ministry was short, God used him powerfully, and later, his predecessors, to make a lasting impact in the evangelical and Baptist landscape in the Maritimes during this period of the First Great Awakening, 1778-1783.

Alline often spoke of this personal spiritual experience in terms of “New Light” and “New Birth”.  Today, we would probably speak of his New Light experience as equivalent to what we know as the “Spirit-filled” and “born again” experience, which is expressed in his words, “Attracted by the love and beauty I saw in the divine perfections, my whole soul was inexpressibly ravished with the blessed Redeemer . . . my whole soul seemed filled with the divine being”. Church historian George Rawlyk says: “Sometimes his preaching, ‘charged with emotionalism’ as it was, and delivered in a ‘fervent and eloquent manner’, in a resonating tenor voice, became superb poetry. Sometimes, the poetry was sung as a spiritual song and followed immediately by an almost frenzied outburst of words directed at specific [types of] people in his audience.”   For example, it might be directed it at young and old, at fisherman, community leaders and soldiers. Rawlyk says he probably did not have time to prepare his sermons.  He preached “as the Spirit moved him” and used words full of evocative and powerful imagery.  Between 1777 and 1783, in his trips crisscrossing Nova Scotia and the New England states, it is estimated that Henry Alline may have preached fifteen hundred sermons.

Between 1776 to 1784, Henry Alline established  five churches in Nova Scotia and two in New Brunswick that were known as New Light congregations.    These congregations did not start out Baptist in polity.  All but one of these New Light congregations eventually organized to become a part of Regular Baptist and Free Baptist denominations in Atlantic Canada. By 1810, there were about 28 Baptist churches in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Part 4: Religious and spiritual landscapes — urban vs rural

Have you noticed a decline in evangelism in your local church?

In most rural communities, the visible church is more stable and will likely remain (although many historic mainline churches are closing).  Naturally, change in rural communities do not happen as frequently; therefore, people will have the opportunity to integrate their spirituality and their religious life when they feel a need to do so (e.g., some may even decide to enter a church after a long absence after Baptism, Confirmation, wedding/funeral, or the odd Christmas worship service).

However, in the urban communities where the visible Church is less likely to be a permanent fixture.  Fast-paced change is common place (due to construction and new developments).  If an established or historic local church were to disappear from a major intersection in “City X”, the religious loss might not be very apparent; however, the spiritual void will eventually be felt by people whether we know it or not.

What does this mean for the visible Church in urban settings today?  The visible church triumphant must continue to remain and become a more visible part in our urban communities.

Are we, the Church, trying and working hard enough to make the visible Church more visible in our urban settings?  Hardly.

Tragically, many congregations of the historic mainline denominations are shrinking and disappearing from the religious landscape.  This will continue for the foreseeable future because they are failing to  help people make the connection between people’s spiritual lives with their real everyday lives.  There is a currently a huge void and lack of vision for evangelism in reaching out to people with Jesus’ Gospel message.

This means that our contemporary evangelical churches must continue to take responsibility and carry the load for evangelism and mission in urban communities.  Thankfully, many churches have not forgotten or lost their passion and vision for evangelism and outreach.  As Christ’s visible Church triumphant in North American society, we must remember and carry out Jesus’ Great Commission from Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.

Is your local church doing taking responsibility in carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission from Matthew 28?

[ see previous post: Part 3: Religious and spiritual landscapes — urban vs rural ]

Part 3: Religious and spiritual landscapes — urban vs rural

Is there still a need in people’s lives to express their spirituality in some way, shape or form–and within community?  Our  western culture seems to have taken individuality to the extreme where religious community life has been secularized and devalued to the sidelines of life, and even ignored.  Participation in religious community life has now become totally voluntary… but maybe this is good.  It separates true and genuine Christian believers/seekers who voluntarily commit to their beliefs from those who follow Christianity due to involuntary happenstance or family heritage.  As religious community life becomes more marginalized, what distinguishes the visible church from the invisible church will be pared down.  The expression of true spirituality and religious life will become more apparent to secular eyes.

Morever, and more to my point, is that, people who voluntarily desire to become a part of an organized religious/faith community (a church) are not as prone to sliding into spiritual oblivion. Here’s a few cases I witnessed the past month that explains our human need to be in Christian community:

The other day, a stranger walked into our church during our prayer meeting.  he didn’t know us, and we didn’t know him from Adam.  I admired his courage to enter our church.  I suspect the reason why he came might have been motivated by his desire to express his thanks to God for getting him a new job, after having been unemployed for the last four months.  In our prayers together, I felt that our small prayer group was successful in helping him express his thankfulness to God for giving him a job.  I ended up giving him a bible to take home, and we all welcomed him to come again to join us for Sunday worship and Wednesday night prayer meetings (may the Holy Spirit continue working in his life).  Also another fellow had walked into our prayer meeting a month ago. I don’t know what motivated him to come but I sensed he had a need to come.  He wasn’t a complete stranger to the church because he says he knew someone from a while back.

All of us need to have  an outlet for spiritual expression.  Without it, we will ultimately become disconnected from true spirituality.  If the opportunity for one to access  such expressions are denied them, will their spirituality become lifeless and formless? 

[ next post expresses what we need to do about this disconnect. See previous post Part 2. ]

Part 2: Religious and spiritual landscapes — urban vs rural

Have we, as a society, kept our spirituality hidden away too much from the eyes of others for the sake of being tolerant? 

In my move from rural to urban, I have also noticed a big difference in how people approach spirituality (as opposed to religion).   Spirituality in the urban setting (especially on the part of the postmodern generation), is much more individualized, where one person’s spirituality might not  be the same as another’s approach.  This is fine, but when one’s spiritual life is totally disconnected from the religious community life and privatized, there is a hidden danger.  When a person’s sense of spirituality goes dry and empty without some kind of organized religion to support and back them up, their spiritual lives can slide into oblivion.   They may lose their entire sense of spirituality and never know how far they’ve gone because no one is there to keep them accountable.

Has the expression of individual spirituality become too privatized?

[ next post expresses our lack or need of spiritual expression in society. ]

Part 1: Religious and spiritual landscapes — urban vs rural

This will be the first post in a four part series.  I want to bring up and provoke some thoughts about differences in people’s attitudes toward religion and spirituality in both rural and urban settings. The Church is at a critical moment in the 21st century. Either we work to survive and thrive, or we curl up and die in a corner.  What has Christ called us to?

Have you noticed a difference in people’s attitudes toward religious and spiritual expression between rural and urban communities?

Having moved from a small community to a large one, I have noticed very big differences in the religious and spiritual landscapes between urban and rural settings.

In the rural setting, religion is still part of people’s normal everyday lives.  Whether or not they participate in organized religion, the established Christian church is there and is accepted as an integral part of the community.  It is funny how even non-church goers understand and accept the Christian church as  part of being people’s normal everyday life.  If the church were to collapse or close  in a rural community, there would be a marked void in their life because they will feel that something is missing.  I think this is due to how the church has remained somewhat integrated into the life of small communities.

In the urban setting, religion is hardly and rarely a part of people’s everyday lifestyle.  If a church is not sitting there in front of their face, it can very easily go unnoticed and be forgotten.  Furthermore, the impact of the Christian church is minimal and hardly felt in the midst of the busy and changing marketplace.  If an urban church were to suddenly disappear due to deconstruction to make room for a new condo and business developments, most people won’t even notice.  They will have forgotten that a church had even existed on intersection of Main Street and Central Avenue.

How is your local church integrated into your community (rural or urban)? Would there be an impact in your immediate community if your local congregation were to burn down or suddenly disappear?

[ next post touches on society’s approach to finding a connection with their spiritual lives. ]

Christian churches attacked by Muslim extremists

Sometimes I wonder if political liberation is always a good thing—at least for Christians around the world.  Egypt’s Coptic Christians and churches have been under attack again since yesterday.  Muslim extremists just burned down a church and has sparked new protests. (read New York Times and Catholic Online)

Since President Hosni Mubarak was kicked out, these Egyptian extremists are beginning to think they have free reign to persecute Christians.  Same thing happened to Iraqi Christians after Saddam Hussein was on the run.  It may be a political game of choose the leader who will hinder your personal interest the least—not necessarily choose who you think would make the best leader for the nation.