By Andy Nixon
A glance around any congregation reveals a terrible truth. Too many of us are living like we are less than human. Inside each of us is a struggle between life and death, and at stake is whether or not we will live as the fully human or the walking dead. Think of the people you know with gifts that are undeveloped, friendships and marriages that are less than what they could be, or minds and hearts that are possessed with sinister traits such as jealousy or greed, and our condition becomes apparent. We are the living dead.
The Bible tells the story of our fall, separation from God, and the consequences that form our present, only half-alive, problem. Because of sin, death and evil now have a home in us, and it is in that reality human beings live every day.
What Christians may find surprising, however, is how the secular world tries to tell this story, too. People feel a struggle within. Non-believers know they are not fully alive. They see corrupting behaviors, gifts within them that go unused, and feel resistance when trying to change. All people are struggling to fully live, fighting something or someone that is holding them back. To put it in cultural language, they are zombies – living half-dead, and they know it.
The challenge for the church is to reach these zombies with the Gospel. Christians have a relationship in Jesus Christ that prevails against all that possesses fallen human beings. Through Christ, anyone can experience the transformation from the living dead into the fully alive. This is humanity’s one hope.
In American culture zombies are everywhere. While it is true that the original idea of the zombie came from Western Africa and Haitian voodoo culture, in America, the zombie changed into something else thanks to Hollywood. In 1968 George Romero released the movie Night of the Living Dead, and through that movie, the modern representation of the zombie came to be. The movie features all the hallmarks of the zombie tale. A radiation leak on a NASA satellite returning from Venus brings the dead back to life in Pennsylvania, a group of the unaffected barricade themselves inside a house, fight back, and then at last law enforcement organizes a plan to save the day. The zombies were slow and the makeup bad by 2013 standards, but Night of the Living Dead brought the “zombie” into the American cultural mainstream.
Since 1968 our cultural fascination with the living dead has only grown. In film, movies like I am Legend, Zombieland, the upcoming World War Z, and others have made zombies a mainstay of American cinematic storylines. In video games – where dollars spent on production are rivaling Hollywood budgets for films – games like Resident Evil, which has sold 50 million units and spawned dozens of other zombie games, have been top sellers and feature the fight of the living against the undead. On television, shows such as The Walking Dead focus on the same conflict of the living dead versus those truly alive. Zombies are everywhere in numbers when you start to look!
When stepping back and noticing this cultural trend, questions arise. What is behind our fascination with zombies? What does the zombie symbolize for our culture? Why do we retell this story of the living versus the half dead over and over? What are we saying about ourselves as we continually encounter this story?
My answer as a pastor? People want to be fully alive, but do not know how to find that life or live that way. Every person is engaged in a struggle against something that possesses them, whether corrosive behaviors, or evil and death and the fear both bring. The good news is that Jesus too fights against these forces and rightly postured the church to help people become more alive.
A second step into zombie stories reveals a pattern the church should also recognize. Virtually every zombie story is told in the same way, whether it is 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead. The typical zombie storyline goes like this:
• There is an outbreak (a virus, accident, etc.). People become zombies. Survivors gather, resist. A plan emerges to overcome. Victory occurs with external help (a cure, military assistance, other survivors).
Sound familiar? In many ways it is the church’s storyline:
• There is an outbreak (sin, evil). People are the living dead, less than God’s design. Survivors gather, worship, and pray. God delivers a plan. Through Jesus’ help, victories occur.
Through the zombie genre, our secular culture has created a story about the human condition. Human beings fear stumbling through life half-dead. We want to live life fully, not as a monster, and through the character of the zombie, the culture is speaking of its struggle. If listening, the church is perfectly poised to offer a cure, and will begin to teach people a way to fully live.
Jesus Christ: Zombie Fighter
Enter Jesus, zombie fighter. He fought the living dead. As the church seeks to engage a zombie culture, it must look back and see Jesus as the one sent by God to battle the evil and death that possess us in an effort to bring us back to life.
Take for example the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5:1-5. “They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.”
Does this passage introduce us to the first Biblical zombie? Clearly the man is possessed by something making him less than fully human. He lives in a cemetery, cannot be restrained, can break through anything, and has been placed by his fellow citizens in the graveyard as a last resort.
In spite of his possession, however, Jesus sees humanity still in him and takes action. The story continues in Mark 5:6-8: “When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!’ For Jesus had said to him, ‘Come out of this man, you impure spirit!’”
Jesus drives the demons out, where they then enter pigs and force the swine into the sea. But the man is healed, his humanity is restored, and the townspeople, hearing the commotion in the graveyard, come running to see what has occurred. Jesus takes the once living dead and offers the chance, in this case for a man from Gerasene, to become fully alive. Romero would love the scene.
When preaching this story to The Loft – the church I serve with the mission of reaching the unconvinced for Jesus – I summarized the story this way. Jesus takes on the living dead within and around us. He can take on the zombie you and I have become by removing what possesses us, and offer us real life.
A second Jesus story further illustrates the zombie-fighting role of Jesus. Jesus tells this story in Luke 11:24-26. “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
The theme of the passage is that within and around us rages an ongoing battle against what possesses us. In the Biblical story, evil and death are out to grab us, where in a zombie film it may be radiation or a virus. Of course, in the Biblical story, the stakes are much higher. In the passage above, Jesus describes an ever-escalating fight with evil.
As a pastor, I wonder if it is time in our preaching to return to these basic themes of good versus evil, life versus death, and speak boldly about what can possess us. After all, isn’t the church the place where Jesus continues his fight against what possesses us and makes us live half-human?
Let me confess that when it came to preaching about possession or using a text like Luke 11:24, in the past I would shy away. Surely the congregation I serve would think me crazy? But as I read the gospels, saw Jesus in his fight against demons, and watched our culture so easily talk about a human being becoming possessed and changed into a zombie, my thoughts changed. Pastors can speak about what possesses us, the demons within, and our culture is already telling us it is a message the culture is waiting to hear.
Finally, God gave me an experience. On a mission trip to Haiti (the home of the zombie), I got the chance to attend Haitian worship services along with others from our church. As I listened to the preaching, I was taken aback by how freely the pastors there spoke of evil and demons and called upon Jesus to cast out what had laid hold of a person. The worship was vibrant and powerful. I left with the awareness that the vibrancy of the worship was directly connected to the severity of the struggle in which the Haitian Christians were engaged. Upon coming home, it was time to talk about possession, and how good and evil, and life and death are waging war within us.
The church is the community of the saints. It is the place where Jesus and believers work together to become completely human. In the zombie film the church is like the place where survivors gather and then work together to figure out what to do.
In United Methodism, John Wesley expected pastors and churches to be about this task when he asked pastors, “Do you expect to be made perfect in this life?” In other words, are pastors going to fight against what holds them back, become more like God’s intention for us, and then work with congregations on how to achieve the same?
This victory over evil and death, of course, only occurs through the power of Jesus Christ. Think of the witness though, as Christians lead increasingly more fully human lives. Others around us will take note and ask the question – How did you become like that? How can I be more alive? Then we have a ready answer – Jesus and the church – a relationship with both helps us live fully human. If we as the church return to this basic task of creating people who are completely alive, the world will see. Because even though it can express through metaphors like the zombie that we are the living dead, our culture has no solution to this pandemic.
The world knows we are the living dead, and it is time for the church to step into the fight and offer the cure. His name is Jesus Christ. He fights zombies.
Andy Nixon is the lead pastor of The Loft, a campus of The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. Over the last five years, The Loft has grown numerically in worship from 250 to 1,300.
By B.J. Funk
Perhaps someone you know has an annoying, irritating habit. Very likely, so do you – though you probably aren’t aware of it. A very dear person in my life –someone I love – has a habit that, should I say “almost drives me crazy.” I stew when I see it. I sulk. I give her looks of disapproval. The more I pursue an end to her habit, the more she pursues “showing” me that she will not change. I waste valuable time in frustration.
This has gone on for years without even the slightest change. Are her actions hurting me? Not at all. Are they directed at me? No. It is simply a matter of her habit “getting on my nerves.”
Maybe you have someone like that, too. It could be that they pop their knuckles, play constantly with a strand of hair, laugh too loudly, talk incessantly, or chew with their mouth half open. They might intrude into your space constantly, blink their eyes habitually, or bite their lip. When they pray, they could say, “Dear Lord Jesus” after every other word, or look straight past your face when you are talking to them.
Are you thinking about that irritating person? I thought so.
One day, while I was in the midst of anguish over this person, a thought dropped into my heart. I did not seek it nor did I plan it. I believe the Holy Spirit gave it to me concerning this irritating habit. Simple and to the point, it was absolutely profound in content: What has this to do with eternal realities?
The words hit me with a thud, but immediately made sense. If I believe I’m bound for eternity, then that fact should give redeeming and freeing substance to my everyday life. Taking this a little further, if I believe that eternal life starts now, then when I spend so much time worrying over something that irritates me, I limit God’s power and use of me today. Stress and worry can hinder me from hearing God’s perfect will for my life.
Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know Him, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). According to Jesus, we don’t wait until death to begin living in eternal life. We start when we begin to live for God and for His Son. If eternal life is “knowing God and Jesus Christ,” then my job as a Christian is defined. Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:12, “Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”
What does this have to do with eternal realities? has an amazing calming effect on me. When I am near this person and her habit, I concentrate on this statement. It helps me get things in the right perspective. Shifting my thoughts to the important takes my focus off of the unimportant. Besides, most people won’t change what they do just because it annoys another. If any changing occurs, if usually happens in the mind and heart of the one being annoyed.
This thought can be a guide in other areas of our lives, also. Every day, we have the opportunity to shun worries, fear and difficulties, and pursue eternal life. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that we are to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Praying, What does this have to do with eternal realities? takes our thoughts off of ourselves, our critical spirit, our need to have everything go our way, and places our thoughts on more important issues, like our eternal salvation in the now and beyond.
In the 1700s, fire and brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards prayed this prayer: “Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs.” Yes, Lord, help us see beyond the disappointments of today, the irritating habits of others, into the glorious eternal life you have for us right now.
On June 1, 2011, a civil unions law went into effect in Illinois that provided same-sex couples the same type of legal protections utilized by married couples. According to The New York Times, these rights included “emergency medical decision-making powers, inheritance rights, pension benefits, adoption and parental rights, and the ability to share a room in a nursing home.”
“In Illinois, a civil union is a legal relationship between two people – either of the same or different sex,” reports the American Civil Liberties Union, “providing all of the legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits that the law of Illinois grants to married couples.”
More than 5,000 couples in Illinois are registered with the state for civil union benefits.
Although Illinois recognizes all the legal benefits of civil unions, Bishop Sally Dyck has issued a public statement of support for a same-sex marriage measure in Illinois. In a statement to members of the Northern Illinois Conference, she writes: “While the United Methodist Church holds that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, it also holds the teaching and a long tradition (albeit a struggle every inch of the way) of civil rights. Marriage equality is a civil rights issue; it provides for all what is afforded to some. … Because I believe in marriage, it’s my belief it will be a benefit for this law to pass.”
The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president and publisher of Good News, issued the following statement in response to Bishop Dyck’s public campaigning for same-sex marriage.
“Good News is disappointed that Bishop Sally Dyck has chosen to advocate for the legislative approval of same-sex marriage in the state of Illinois. Since 2004, our church has said that we ‘support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.’ Indeed, our definition of marriage as a covenant ‘between a man and a woman’ dates back to 1972. This position received a 77 percent vote at General Conference in 2004 and still represents the one issue among all the sexuality-related issues that garners the broadest support across the church.
“We respect Bishop Dyck and have worked well with her in the past in relating to the Unity Task Force of the Council of Bishops which she led. However, we believe that for Bishop Dyck to advocate a minority position that is at odds with the stated position of the church fosters disunity and deepens the sense of disconnect felt by many United Methodist members. In 2011, more than 14,000 United Methodists signed a letter to the Council of Bishops asking them to support the denomination’s position on same sex marriage. The Council issued a statement of support. Bishop Dyck’s advocacy flies in the face of the Council’s statement.
“We share Bishop Dyck’s commitment to ensure the protection of the civil rights of all persons. However, there are other ways to ensure the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons without redefining the bedrock institution of marriage. We see no reason why the church should allow a secular, anthropocentric, hyper-sexualized Western culture to tell us what marriage is, rather than looking to the Scriptures and, with real concern for the rights of all, maintaining what God has revealed.”
Good News has been an independent, evangelical voice within The United Methodist Church since 1967. As a renewal and reform movement, Good News urges the church to be faithful to the biblically-based principles of its historic Wesleyan heritage. In our desire to see The United Methodist Church centered on Jesus Christ, we want to see our church engaged in vital ministry, growing disciples of Jesus Christ, and transforming the world.
Seminary vantage point
Wesley Seminary’s Ministerial Education Fund (MEF) distribution was mentioned in the January/February Good News article: “Money Well Spent? The Future of Theological Education.” I want to share the perspective from my institution. The revised MEF formula is weighted toward both the number of ordinands (based on a three-year average) and the number of United Methodist students who have become Certified Candidates. To begin to understand any school’s distribution would require looking at both the number of ordinands and the number of students. But this mathematical analysis is insufficient. Here’s the bigger picture.
Wesley gives preference in our scholarship program to our United Methodist students and, even as the MEF distribution has declined, we have increased our financial aid to them, totaling $783,958 last year. The UM Church is the principal beneficiary of our Lewis Center for Church Leadership, under the direction of Lovett Weems, with a budget of $533,000. We chose last year to spend $341,000 on programs to prepare United Methodist pastors from the Central Conferences, at the request of their bishops. And we have expanded our offerings in the Course of Study. By comparison, our total MEF distribution was $1,354,000 last year.
Beyond that, 60 percent of our full-time faculty are UM, as are all the members of my senior executive team. At least 66 percent of the members of our Board of Governors are required to be United Methodist and our chair is a pastor who leads the Virginia Conference delegation. Each of us serves the church at all levels and we work closely with Cabinets and Boards of Ordained Ministry.
Committing resources to programs like these – offering preferential scholarships, hiring faculty and staff, and recruiting board members – are all long-term investments that we are able to make because of the surety of MEF support we receive from the church which established us, and to which we are responsible. I know the other 12 proprietary schools of our denomination have similar stories.
Wesley Theological Seminary
Let me begin by saying how much I have appreciated the past few issues of Good News. The November/December issue continues to call attention to the aging and thinning of our congregations.
Dare I suggest that we should examine again our Mission Statement. So long as we focus on “transformation of the World” we will be kept in constant tension – and contention. Our recent national election demonstrated how polarized the citizens of our great land have become.
Our church is divided on similar issues. Our efforts are expended on utopian ideals of social justice regardless of scriptural support, or using Scripture to avoid caring for a hurting society. We can neither ignore clear commands of Scripture regarding abortion, sexual impurity, and homosexual practice, nor can we afford to ignore the commands both under Moses and in Paul’s instruction to the Church to care for the less fortunate.
If we cannot agree on what the goal of the world’s transformation should be, we are spinning our wheels, digging ever deeper into the mud.
I suggest our mission is rather to “make disciples of Jesus Christ totally committed to intimate, obedient fellowship with our Lord and Savior.” Only then will the Holy Spirit’s sovereign will transform our church and have, then, any hope of influencing the unbelieving world in which we live. Perhaps we would do better to remember our first mission statement, Matthew 28:20, “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.”
Our goal is too small. We are, or should be, seeking to partner with our Sovereign King.
The article, “Will Our Church Go Off the Cliff?,” by Thomas A. Lambrecht in the November/December 2012 issue was excellent. I showed it to my pastor and asked if it could be copied and given to everyone on our Leadership Team. I applaud the efforts of Good News to try to get the UM Church back to its Scriptural roots but sometimes when I come home from some of our meetings I do wonder if the denomination is already too liberal and too infiltrated with the world to be brought back.
I realize that the pastors are urged by the district superintendents and superintendents are urged by their bishops to do everything the bureaucracy sets forth, but at the same time, I wonder why they can’t seem to see (or acknowledge) what is happening.
My first question concerns how we can have “Vital Congregations” without teaching and discipling the present congregation? Possibly over half of our congregations are what many would term “pew-warmers.” They don’t have a vital, growing relationship with the Lord themselves, therefore, they aren’t interested in any reach-out programs. So much emphasis is being put on numbers and “doing” and too little on “being.”
I appreciated the article on John Wesley in the January/February issue. I can’t help but wondering what he would think of what the UM denomination has become today.
Keep doing your best for Him. It encourages me to know there are still some United Methodists out there that believe the Scriptures are the Word of God and are to be obeyed.
Rose M. Doubrava
Not Civil Rights
Bishop Sally Dyck was quoted in the January 14, 2013 edition of Perspective sent out from Good News: “Marriage equality is a civil rights issue; it provides for all what is afforded to some. … Because I believe in marriage, it’s my belief it will be a benefit for this law to pass.”
I was very disappointed in the response to the Dyck statement that no one challenged her statement that “Marriage equality is a civil rights issue.”
Have we like the frog in the frying pan become so acclimatized to the hue and cry of the “progressives” that we no longer react to the erroneous statements made by the progressives?
Were this issue a purely humanist issue, I would not now be commenting. I would have to agree that according to humankind’s laws passed by a culture that largely ignores God and passes laws to replace God’s will, marriage equality is a civil rights or at least a rights issue of some sort.
There is one huge problem that prevents this from being so. God! God created the marriage institution, mankind did not. God defined what constituted marriage, mankind does not get to do so (at least not permanently). God has provided from the beginning the precepts and concepts man is to live by. Mankind should not supplant those God given conditions and definitions. Having tried to replace God all these many centuries, mankind should not be surprised when God changes all of mankind’s meticulously crafted laws that supplant God’s will.
It really doesn’t matter if humanity deems some issue from the Lord, “not fair.” We don’t get to make that judgment against our Lord. Our job is to follow him, not question him.
His responsibility is to “direct our paths” if we will allow by our free will, for him to do so.
Therefore because God’s perfect will supersedes human law and will, “marriage equality” for people who choose marriage outside of God’s institution, is not a civil rights or any other rights issue. Would that Good News had said so.
By Jim M. Ramsay
A church in Alabama was discussing the issue of unreached people groups as part of their mission focus week. Church members were surprised to discover that at the local university, there were more than 70 unreached people groups represented among the student body! Unreached people in Alabama? Indeed. In fact, in my own county of Gwinnett in the metro Atlanta area the 2010 census states that 25 percent were born outside the United States. A local parent told me there are 30 nations represented at his children’s local elementary school. Many people within the American church community are simply unaware of the huge migrations of people from all over the world that have been taking place over the past couple decades.
This has enormous implications for local churches who want to respond to God’s mission to call the nations – people groups – to Himself. There is a variety of people groups now in most communities across the United States. Yet often the church is either unaware or ill-equipped to know how to engage them.
Throughout the Bible, God used the geographical movements of people to grow awareness of Himself. Consider Abram leaving his homeland, the Exodus, the Exile, and the persecution of the early church. Can we equally see the movements of people into our nation as something God might want to use for His purposes – so that more people from diverse backgrounds can know Him and worship Him? If so, what should be the American church’s response?
A comprehensive plan is beyond the scope of this column. But there are some practical ideas that could get the ball rolling. For any church in a university city, it is highly likely that there are students from other countries. According to the Institute of International Education, there were nearly 200,000 students from China and more than 100,000 from India alone studying in the USA this past academic year! The Bible is very clear on how God’s people are to treat people who come from distant lands. Yet statistics suggest that 75 percent of foreign students never set foot inside an American home while in the USA, much less the home of believers. International Students, Inc. (www.isionline.org) is a good resource for getting involved in this area. Many colleges and universities have adopt-a-student programs for international students and are in need of host families.
In most urban settings there are usually enclaves of specific ethnic populations, often with their own stores and restaurants. Those are great places to get to know people and build relationships. People often love to tell how they ended up here; asking them to tell their story is a great conversation starter. For many world cultures, hospitality is a high value, so people from these cultures are usually blessed by the offer and likely will offer it in return. In fact, a sense of rejection can come from the fact that new immigrants often are not invited into homes. They would find that unthinkable should the roles be reversed and a foreigner were to have arrived in their community.
Given increased tensions related to Islam, it is a critical time for American Christians to become equipped to build relationships with their Muslim neighbors. Christians must not give into the same fear that seems pervasive among many Americans. Most Muslim immigrants, many who left desperate circumstances to find their way here, are eager for friendships. A friend once shared that he asked a Muslim in a local community if the Christians spoke with him. He said, “Yes, they sometimes invite us to their churches, but never into their homes.” There are some excellent resources to help American Christians learn how to build deep relationships with people from Muslim backgrounds and engage in constructive conversations about our faith in Jesus. Seminars such as Jesus and the Quran (www.jaq.org) can help Christians gain this understanding.
As members of the body of Christ, we should be at the forefront of welcoming people, helping them in their new home, and sharing our faith in ways they can hear it. If we will embrace the opportunity God has laid before us, perhaps we might experience a bit of Revelation 7:9 in our own communities.
Jim M. Ramsay is director of field ministry for The Mission Society (www.themissionsociety.org).