God Bless America – Reflections on the Basics Conference at Parkside Church, Ohio

I have a confession to make.  I love America.   Yes there are many aspects that are disturbing and things that grate to a European, but I do love America.   Having returned from a really eventful trip to the US I thought I would write down some reflections before the jetlag wears off.  I had intended to write an update every day but that was a bit optimistic – I was kept really busy and just did not have the time

https://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/usa-2015-day-one-new-york-new-york-i-love-it/

However I thought I would summarise everything in the following way.

1) God has Blessed America –  America is a blessed nation. Visiting New York and seeing Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty is a great reminder of how much blessing has been brought to and through America.  For many decades, with all its faults, the USA has been a bastion of liberty and freedom.   Its hard not to love America.

2) God Continues to Bless America – We saw this at Parkside.  To preach in a church where there is sound biblical teaching and a real and deep love for Jesus and where God continues to bless was fantastic.  I preached to around 3500 on Sunday.  But it was not the numbers, nor the massive building that really struck me.  What really impressed was the leadership team and the workers in the congregation.  I am sure (because they are human) that Parkside is a church shot through with problems, but that is why the Lord has blessed them with a collective leadership which certainly seems to work together well.   Another note is that we are often quick to criticise praise bands and the excesses that sometimes happen, but too slow to offer praise when they get it right.  Alistair Begg clearly regards the praise as vital and that was shown in the Parkside praise band who I thought were balanced, biblical and stimulating.  We made some new friends and I have to say that both Annabel and I were really impressed with Jeff and Terry who were a bundle of energetic joy, compassion and wisdom, and our ‘minder’ Jonathan, who looked after us and did so with a graciousness and humility which glorified Christ.  America is blessed when she is served by many such ordinary extraordinary Christians.   The generosity of the Lord’s people was overwhelming and humbling.

The Pastors conference was a sell out – with 1267 church leaders attending.   It was a joy to preach and share with them.  And it was an incredible experience to share with Tim Keller and Alistair Begg.  God continues to bless the US with such pastors. Alistair is a gift of God, (from Scotland!) whose local church and wider ministry is a significant factor in the US Church. He has a wonderful ability to explain and proclaim the Word of God clearly.  Tim is just the sharpest exegete of culture I know – the fact that he is also a superb exegete of the Bible and brings the two together is what makes his ministry so helpful to many of us beyond his own congregation.   But it was not just the well known pastors. One of the things I loved about the conference was the fact that so many ‘blue collar’ pastors were there, battered and bruised, and hungry for the Word of God.  I felt at home with them!   I love Tim Keller and Alistair Begg, both of whom are great gifts to the Church and for me personally a great help to my ministry, but the Basics conference was not about them.  It was about the 1267 men who are going to go back to their (mostly) small congregations and preach the Word of God – which cannot and will not return empty.  It was an honour to be with them.

Keller,Begg and Congregation Jeff

I should add as a kind of footnote here that I was richly blessed here (as was Annabel).  I was not really looking forward to this conference.  I feel out of place in most settings and certainly a big US conference with great speakers was not my native environment!   I know that it is the Word of God whoever brings it (and that is my comfort) but surely you can understand how out of place I felt.  And yet God blessed me greatly.  Tim and Alistair did not behave like ‘celebrities’ and I loved working with them.  In fact I thought that the balance between the three of us seemed to work well – even on the panel where half way through I got a massive migraine and thought I was going to throw up!  (I thought at the time – do I walk off or stay and be sick in front of everyone? As I did not want to become a YouTube hit, throwing up over Tim Keller and Alistair Begg,  I just prayed that the Lord would take me through the last 30 minutes! Thankfully he did). Most of all I felt at home amongst the ‘blue collar’ pastors.  I wondered if my Scottishness, directness, weird sense of humour and passion would translate.  All I could ask for was that some would be helped and encouraged, and that appears to have been the case. What was especially encouraging was the number of those who told me that they were greatfull for Magnificent Obsession, The Dawkins Letters, Awakening, and Engaging with Atheists. It is humbling to know that something you have written in Scotland is being used in the US and elsewhere.

You can get the sessions, photos etc and reports here –

http://www.parksidechurch.com/partners/basics/

3) God Bless America – We need to pray for this because all is not well in the US.  Its political system is in trouble – prone to corruption, dumbing down and short termism. It is terrifying that someone with the reputation and inabilities of Hilary Clinton could actually become the most powerful person in the world – primarily because she has the backing of the corporate world which will grant her $2 billion of a war chest.  Some of the alternatives ain’t all that great either!  There are many other problems in the US (materialism, racism, sexual confusion, economic injustice,  crime etc) but I think I would sum it up this way.  With Christianity the US is a great country – without it I suspect it will become a hell on earth. Freedom without Christ will lead to destruction of all that is good in the US, and of course the destruction of freedom itself.  Which is why we need to pray that God would bless America.   Perhaps the greatest symbol of the US is the Statue of Liberty…that is what we should pray for…that the US would continue to be a free country ‘under God’ which honours God and his word, and says

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: Statue of LIberty copy
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Ellis Island Ellis Island Interior

All is not well in the church either.  I don’t like the celebrity culture, the emphasis on money, the corporate business mentality or the view that America = Christianity.  Yes much has been given to the Church in the US, but to whom much has been given, much is required.   I think that a great deal of the Church in the US is self-obsessed, consumerist, dumbed down and shallow.    How else can you explain a Church where Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and Rob Bell are significant figures?  But its not just the obvious false teachers.  My fear is that the Church is being invaded by the culture, rather than the other way round.   If the Church in the US does not waken up, then I suspect its decline will be even quicker than in Europe.  Once ordinary Americans work out that they can be rich, ‘happy’ Americans without God, then they will dispense with the Church, whilst continuing to pay lip service to ‘faith’ in God.   If all that the Church offers them is a ‘spiritualised’ version of the pre-dominant culture, then the collapse is certain.    My view is that the Church in the US is in deep trouble, and that therefore the US is in trouble.

Which is why I leave the US, thankful for the country and its history, thankful for what God continues to do in and through the Church, and yet with a heavy heart.  The storm is coming and I don’t know if the Church is ready.  The Church really does need to return to ‘Basics’.   The words of Robert Zimmerman are apposite (the whole song is – but I just give you the first verse).

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

The words of Jesus offer hope –  if the American church wakes up then maybe, just maybe, the candlestick won’t be removed…

3 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

15 thoughts on “God Bless America – Reflections on the Basics Conference at Parkside Church, Ohio

  1. You should have told me you were in my backyard, I could have come out to play. Glad you loved our little, very liberal, town!
    It’s a testament to the general goodness of people and how people of all races, creeds, nationalities, sexual preferences, and politics can co-exist in peace.
    No god required. Just Humanism in practice.

      1. I’m already in the light – the Enlightenment – not the Dark Ages ;-).
        I meant NYC, I see now you also talked about some other little town that you visited.
        BTW, I visited Edinburgh in 1996. Seemed pleasant.

  2. Thank you so much for being with us and ministering to us so generously brother. I am one of the “blue collars.” And I greatly appreciated your words here about our nation and the Church here. Our twisted concept of “Amerianity” – the strange confounding of Americanism with Christianity is a true challenge to the Church here. But our God is so much greater than even this. At times I am tempted to dismay over our land. But then I see 1,200+ praising God, gathered to hear the Word and to be better equipped to proclaim it in our various pulpits, and my eyes swell with tears of gratitude. May God revive us again – and our dear Scots brother too. May the world catch the vision of our glorious Christ, and the whole creation weep in praise. Oh for that day. We want so many more yet to come in, and still we pray with John – “even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

    From the Colonies: Reid

    PS – I am dreadfully certain he would not remember me, but please give my regards to dear Sinclair. We share the same surname – and the family motto: “dulcius ex asperis.” May the Lord always make it so.

  3. I get that your fear is that the church in the US is being influenced by the culture rather than being an influence for the good news of the Gospel David and as a result you left your time there with a heavy heart, perceiving that a storm is coming that the church is not ready for, that it has a reputation of being alive but is dead, backed up by the comment about “Americanity” but with the rightful assertion that God is much bigger than that.

    At the same time, within evangelicalism the highly respected Dr Martin Lloyd – Jones has argued against being “content… to be making protests, exerting influence… so that others can see the wrongness of their ideas and correctness of ours.” Lloyd – Jones, DM, 1989, Knowing the Times, Banner of Truth : Edinburgh pg251. The same can be true now as for then in 1989.

    My impression of the US from the occasions I have visited and worked there is that there is the wonderful culture of positive optimism about freedom and pioneering spirit about anything being possible. Of course the freedom does come if one has the means to have it and can come at the cost’s to other’s freedom. Therefore as God has blessed America, what America has also become is a culture in which there is greed, fear and retribution.

    What I am aware of is many abandoning church in the the US. Perhaps for reasons not dissimilar to what you talk of David.

    So what are the answers?

    Well, as individuals with any fear, my mind goes to the marvelous hymn amazing Grace. “T’was grace that taught my heart to fer and grace my fear relieved”. I would like to suggest that where there is need for change the best any one of us can do either as individuals or corporately is to be the change, that it whatever “wrong” there is in any of us to have a duty first of all to address that before exerting any influence on others, knowing that healing and strength comes with that in God with a fearsome awe of God and knowing that in his amazing grace any “wrongness” past present or future is covered in Christ’s sacrifice so we can have fellowship with God as if we never sinned, and that any “correctness” we have too is out of humanity being created with original goodness by God.

    With a healthy awe of God and hope for the future with God’s promises, Jesus giving peace, what place is there for worrying or a heavy heart to stick around?

  4. As I said to you on twitter I love New York as well so am glad you enjoyed it there.

    I like your comment of “under God”. As you probably know, these words were added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954 which was about the time of peak church attendance in the US. Since then there has been a steady fall in church attendance and people stating they have a belief.

    I think religion is best when it is offered rather than forced. As you note there is a strong America=Christianity mindset and I wonder if, for some, the pledge of allegiance is basically their prayer and if they state they are a true American they believe they are a true Christian and church itself becomes a little superfluous? Not the message the founding fathers were trying to spread.

    It is interesting to only ever refer here to Hilary Clinton – do you rate all the Republicans so highly they dont get a negative mention? Ben Carson and his bible-backed tax plan? Ted Cruz rejecting the Violence Against Women Act? Carly Fiorina who took $millions in bonuses as she sacked thousands of US workers? Mick Huckabee who wants to increase US military spending by 50%? Ted Cruz, whose commitment to science is so strong he is anti-vaccine and a leading ebola scaremonger? Marco Rubio who favours the US economy over action to address climate change? That is some crowd to put on a higher pedestal than Hillary Clinton.

    All, of course, are pro-gun and pro-abortion (even with incest – nice), anti-immigrant (ironic given US history), anti-public healthcare and pro-low personal and corporate taxation and pro-believing Christianity is under attack.

    The 2016 campaign is going to be interesting.

    1. Douglas – I have not mentioned any of them (yet) because they have no chance of being elected… I suspect you mean ‘anti-abortion’ – which of course I hope you would be. After all how humane is it to kill another human being?

      1. You are of course correct. I did mean anti-abortion.

        I am pro-choice in terms of abortion although not all humanists would agree. For me, if every fertilised egg resulted in a child I might have a different opinion but as the main killer of fertilised eggs is the female body. Less than 70% of all fertilized eggs will even implant into the mother’s womb causing pregnancy to continue. From there, there is a 25-50% chance of aborting before a woman will even knows she is pregnant. Even then a further 10% fail to make it beyond the first trimester. If a soul arrives at conception then most souls on this planet die before being born. It makes even the worst abortion statistics pale in comparison. It also makes the policy of El Salvador to jail women who fail to carry to term somewhat suspect.

        I am in favour of evidence based decision making however so would be willing to look at the 24 week limit as well as looking at the infant adoption process. I like the Californian system for example, where birth parents can make a choice as to who adopts their infant (think Juno). I always find it bizarre that adoption is a process that is so much harder for people who want to be parents compared to the relative ease at which an unwanted pregnancy can occur.

        I am in favour of abortion in cases of rape and incest (especially for 9 year old girls – El Salvador again). I am also in favour however, of looking at strategies to reduce the demand for abortion because it is something that can be hard for a woman to do. I am in favour of more and better sex & relationship education for example and the Netherlands has an excellent education regime with very low abortion rates. I would also make contraception more available.

        (I think the Republicans have a bigger chance of being elected than you think but I would be happier with Clinton than any of them.)

  5. Being an American, an anti-capitalist leftist, and one who comes from the Reformed theological position, I have a different take on the points being made here.

    Point #1: God has blessed America. But the same can be said of every nation. Every nation has come into existence because of God’s allowance and blessing. But we should challenge something said in this point. We should question whether America has been a bastion of freedom and liberty. America is not just a nation, it also currently controls the largest empire. And whether America is that vast bastion of freedom must be tested both within its national borders as well as within the borders of its empire. And when people of color still struggle to gain liberty and freedom here, and where those from the LGBT community can still be harassed and fired from their jobs within the US national border, we should look apprehensively at the freedoms afforded to all within the confines of our empire to see if we are that bastion of freedom and liberty we claim to be. And when measuring the freedoms and liberty within the confines of our empire, we should remember that liberty – equality = privilege. And the existence of privilege is no indicator of the presence of liberty and freedom.

    Point #2: God Continues To Bless America But the same can be said of every nation. And we have to ask whether His blessing is more apparent in the plethora of environments and teachers in a nation that has religious freedom than in a nation that still has believers despite varying degrees of persecution. In addition, we have to ask what kind of blessing it is when God’s people seek to marginalize those in the LGBT community rather that to rely solely on evangelism to address sexually immoral behaviors. This attempt at marginalization is part of a larger effort made by Christians to exercise varying degrees of control over society.

    Point #3: God Bless America because ‘all is not well’ here. Can fully agree with that but the diagnosis will forever be true of America and every nation. In addition, we should note why God should bless America. It can only be because He has chosen to show mercy to it for we, like all other nations, certainly do not deserve His blessing.

  6. I’m the guy who tweeted “God Bless America” I enjoyed your ministry at Parkside and will read all your books and follow you with interest and profit. Hope you have recovered from your headache. We will pray for your beautiful and beloved Scotland. Thank you for praying for our beloved homeland, too. We do love America and long for God’s movement among us and grieve for what we have lost and we are deeply convinced that much, much more good has come from this great land beyond “canned cheese” and “the atomic bomb.”

    Consider me your friend, brother and admirer in the faith of Jesus–our greatest common loyalty!

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