God Rests Too Inconsequentially in the American Church

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Twenty years ago Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary church historian David Wells wrote,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.

David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 28.

A Worship Book that Will Edify and Instruct

imagesIn the last few years, books on worship seem to be either so practical as to be thin on their biblical and theological development, or conversely so abstract and philosophical that they are of little value to the church. Daniel Block’s newest book, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014) splits the difference between these extremes. Rather than being arranged chronologically, the chapters are arranged topically in a most helpful way. Block’s approach is thoroughly biblical, plumbing the depths of worship throughout Scripture, yet it is very accessible. There is a heavy emphasis on principles derived from the Old Testament (which he argues should be called the “First” Testament), since, as he argues, the majority of instruction concerning worship comes from that part of Scripture. He does not shy away from the New Testament, however, and spends a fair amount of time in the Gospels, which are often under-represented in books on worship.

Because we often use the term “worship” to refer to congregational singing in a corporate church service, some may be mistaken about the contents of the book. Although Block does apply his biblical theology to congregational singing, the focus is much broader. His early chapter topics include: the object and subjects of worship, daily life as worship, and family life and work as worship. The content of these chapters is simply outstanding. My copy of the book is so thoroughly marked and highlighted that there is hardly a page on which I did not find an insightful gem worth noting. The later chapter topics still follow the format of biblical theology (moving through Genesis to Revelation while noting the progression of revelation), but they have more application to corporate gatherings of the church.

Block helpfully sums up his 400 page study with a one sentence definition of worship: “True worship involves reverential human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign in response to his gracious revelation of himself and in accord to his will.” This careful thesis is eloquently developed throughout the volume, and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting both an academic and personally edifying guide to biblical worship.

Preachers should be like naughty children

I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills…and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross–and then be brave enough to stick around while [the congregation] goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

But preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free from their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they wont be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already accepted them, in advance and dead as door-nails, in Jesus. Ergo, the absolute indispensability of trust in Jesus’ passion. Unless the faith of preachers is in that alone–and not in any other person, ecclesiastical institution, theological system, moral prescription, or master recipe for human loveliness–they will be of very little use in the pulpit.

Robert Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching

The Revenge of Measuring Success by Results

I was sure that the long-standing practice by evangelicals and fundamentalists alike of judging success by numerical results had died a long overdue death in the 1990’s. My seminary education had instilled in me the commitment to judging my ministry as a pastor by the standard of whether it pleased God or not, that is, whether it was faithful to Scripture. Numbers mania had gone the way of the dodo by the late 1990’s.

Or so I thought. Pragmatism seems to have returned with a vengeance. In order to survive the ever-changing ministry environments of the past decade, many ministries seem to have made their peace with whatever changes of philosophy will keep their doors open.

To make matters worse, not many members seem to have noticed. Ministries that once prided themselves on their conscientious commitment to a thoroughly Scriptural philosophy and practice have overthrown all core values in a matter of a few years (or sooner). And those who challenge the turn to pragmatism find their protestations falling on deaf ears.

Carl Trueman, church history professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and ever keen cultural critic, writes about the turn to pragmatism he sees:

This all takes me back to a question I have raised before: in a world where success is the ultimate sacrament of absolution, who is there with the credibility to call the successful to account?  Not the man in the small church.  Suspicion that he is motivated by envy will always undermine his authority in such a context.  And, if we are honest, envy will likely always be a part of the motivation for such criticism. I preach total depravity, after all, and it is also the one example where I can honestly say I consistently practice what I preach.  What pastor of a church of fifty does not want to be pastor of a church of five hundred?  The church I serve has ca. 90 on a Sunday.  Yes, I would love a few hundred more.  If we ever got to four hundred, I hope we would plant a church, as long as I did not have to drink zinfandel and grow a soul patch.  But yes, I would be lying if I said I did not have a twinge of envy at those whose ministries are – well, you know, successful.  I guess that is the word.

So what about the successful?  Will they point out the problematic excesses of the self-promotional culture which seems to pervade much of the modern conservative evangelical church?  One can only hope so; but history gives little cause for optimism on that score.  Nobody wants to bash the successful, for our culture assumes that that would be to identify with failure and mediocrity.

The psychology of success is fascinating: those who are successful often start as well-intentioned people; but increasing success almost always seems to bring in its wake an increasingly relaxed attitude to the rules, a fuzzier conception of right and wrong and an odd sense of entitlement whereby the successful come to think that, for them, the normal criteria of behaviour do not apply.  This incremental exceptionalism is reinforced by the failure of those who should check them from actually doing so.  It is almost as if, for all of us, success (and in church we typically mean numerical size and growth) is the ultimate criterion of truth and that therefore as long as it seems to be working, as long as it is popular, it must be true.  You can ape the Hollywood aesthetic; you can be increasingly vague on the hard teachings; but as long as the machine keeps working as it should, everybody is happy — or at least comfortable in their silence.

… As long as you pull in the punters, especially the young ones, as long as your name on the conference flier helps to sell tickets, and as long as your preaching is popular with the rising generation, those with the standing to state the obvious and do something about the excesses will generally not do so for fear of spoiling something which seems to be working as it should.  Indeed, you will enjoy the benefits of a powerful and heady perfume which gives the successful a high and hides the hollow reality from outsiders: the sweet smell of success.  You just can’t beat it.

And when it all blows up, you can be confident it will be nothing to do with anyone.  “Seriously, guv, I never even knew the man…..”

I think we would do well to consider.

10 Mistakes Churches Make in Choosing a Pastor

1. Not choosing the right people for the pastoral search committee
2. Prayerlessness
3. Being people-centered rather than Word-centered
4. Lack of follow-through and due-diligence by the pastoral search committee
5. Impatience that leads to the wrong decision
6. Failure to properly administrate the pastoral search
7. Inadequate communication
8. Failure to adequately budget for the pastoral search
9. Allowing the experience with the previous pastor to direct the calling of the next pastor
10. Spending too much time trying to call pastors who are not “reasonably gettable”

Chris Brauns, When the Word Lead Your Pastoral Search: Biblical Principles & Practices to Guide Your Search (Moody 2o11)

Pastors on Pedestals

The first danger I want to highlight is that of the celebrity pastor who is ultimately so big as to be practically beyond criticism.  Some pastors are just so successful as communicators that, frankly, they are placed on a pedestal and become, in both their precept and example, authoritative sources of wisdom to their followers.  In part this is because many rightly think that thankfulness, not criticism, should be the appropriate response to seeing the Lord bless a ministry. Who really wants to criticise a man who brings so many the good news? Yet in an age where sheer numerical success and the ability to pull in the punters and keep them enthralled is often assumed to be a clear sign of faithfulness, there are dangers of which we must be aware…

Praise God for preachers whose ministries are extraordinarily blessed; but let us hold them to the same exacting standards as Paul held the super-apostles in Corinth.   Celebrity ministers who act as influential lone rangers in constituencies where there is no accountability can prove remarkably dangerous.  And if they do not come up to snuff on standards of life and doctrine, let us not pretend otherwise, or trade off fidelity for eloquence or stage presence.  Make no mistake: tomorrow’s church will be the epitaph of today’s leaders.

Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary

Why Lausanne III, and All Ecumenical Assemblies for That Matter, Are a Waste of Time

As always, Carl Trueman is spot-on in this critique of ecumenical declarations. Here are excerpts of his essay:

Thomas Jefferson was no orthodox Christian but I have a deep suspicion that he should take significant responsibility for one of the greatest myths that currently dogs the church in the modern world.   In drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he helped to create the impression that declarations and petitions can actually achieve something…

The problem [with the Declaration of Independence] is that it has left a residual belief in the wider world that petitions can actually achieve something. This belief seems to exert a peculiar hold over the minds of many Christians, despite, I should add, all of the evidence to the contrary.  Indeed, the last few years have seen a number of petitions and declarations which have all, by and large, achieved nothing…

The Manhattan Declaration is another example… For all of the excitement surrounding its launch, however, and the high hopes that it would have some kind of significant impact, it seems to have achieved almost nothing in the time since it was published and, perhaps most ironically, served in certain evangelical quarters as a source only of discord.  Evangelicals typically make the fatal mistake of assuming that the wider world actually cares about what they think. It does not: it increasingly regards us as fringe lunatics, rather as it did in the first century…

What puzzles me is the idiom by which these things are expressed. Do we really need a ‘declaration’ on these things, and what good is this actually going to do?  First, I might remark that, frankly, such sentiments as ‘We love God’ and ‘Jesus is unique’ are in a similar league of obviousness to the phrases ‘We oppose wife beating,’ ‘We consider clean water to be a good thing,’ and even ‘Disco music was a very bad idea (not to mention the white suits and chest wigs).’  To read some of the blogs and reports on the conference, you would think that something new and radical was being proposed.  Nothing I have seen could not have been found better expressed elsewhere by somebody else at some point in the past…

The question then becomes: did we need a gathering of thousands of church leaders (though no leader from my own church, local or otherwise, seems to have been present), at huge expense, to tell us these things?  Do most of us not belong to churches where such things have been part of the very reason for our existence from the very start? The conference presumably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to organize (if not more), before one even includes the hours spent by said church leaders away from the local postings to which they have been called. Is this a legitimate use of money at a point in time when many churches and Christian organizations are struggling to make their budgets?…

Now, I know that we want to find ways and means of expressing our unity in Christ; but to do this via a non-ecclesiastical root is not consonant with scripture and also leaves the gathering vulnerable to the accusation that it is self-appointed and unrepresentative. This latter criticism is particularly ironic, given the laudable desire of the organizers to be inclusive and, to quote the webpage, to be  ‘perhaps the widest and most diverse gathering of Christians ever held in the history of the Church.’ To play the postmodern card: one wonders who decided which people were ‘representative’ and thus received an invitation, and which were not and were left by the wayside

Maybe Lausanne III will be significant. I wish I could believe that. More likely, I suspect, it will go the way of Lausanne I and II: it will produce some inspiring documents, an interesting book or two, and perhaps give those fortunate enough to have been present a vision of the kingdom which may last for a few months or maybe a year. It certainly will not have any impact at local level: it does not have the mechanisms attached to it to do so.  Thus, for most of us, life will go on as normal, in all of its boring, mundane routine: we will ensure that the gospel is faithfully preached week by week from our pulpits, we will attempt to apply God’s word to the routine pastoral problems of our congregations, we will seek to reach out to the community where God has placed us, and we will, in these straitened times, strive to meet our modest budgets. In this context, a context very familiar to most Christians, some of us will wonder if the money and time spent in Cape Town might not have given a better return if invested elsewhere.

Read the whole thing here: http://www.reformation21.org/counterpoints/i-blame-jefferson.php

Maybe Evangelicalism (and Fundamentalism) Doesn’t Really Exist Anymore

Based on the reactions to the Al Mohler story in Christianity Today, Carl Trueman makes a strong argument against the existence of evangelicalism as a movement in any meaningful sense. This is a much abbreviated version of the same assertion D.G. Hart made a few years ago in his book, Deconstructing Evangelicalism. Both believe that the term “evangelicalism” has become so anemic that it cannot stand on his own.

Trueman’s point is something to consider, not only for evangelicalism, but also for other “movements,” such as fundamentalism. Think about it.

Unlike Parenting Children, We Never Outgrow Our Need to be Shepherded

There is one important distinction between the metaphor of father and that of shepherd. Children grow up and become less dependent on their earthly father, though the relationship continues. Sheep, on the other hand, are always completely dependent on their shepherd. They never outgrow their need for the shepherd to care for them, feed them, lead them, and protect them. The shepherd cares for the newborn lambs and is still there when the sheep grow old and weak. Therefore, the imagery of shepherd-sheep captures the comprehensive sovereignty of the shepherd over the sheep and the need of the sheep to yield completely to his care. The good news is that the Lord uses his sovereign power for the well-being of his flock.

Timothy Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (P&R, 2010), 13.