Friday, September 22, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 3

Thesis 3:  Rather than focusing on the circumstantial question of “what would Jesus do” in a given situation, it is more important to understand what Jesus has done for the eternal salvation of His people.

 For the last couple of decades pastors and youth ministers have advised teens and others to make decisions about what to do, where to go, and who to spend time with by asking themselves a simple question:  what would Jesus do?  The intent was to say to 16 year olds:  if Jesus would not have gone to that party or done that with a girl, then you shouldn’t do that either.  At some point that simple pastoral approach to addressing teen behavior became the subject of a major marketing campaign including the initials WWJD on an array of bracelets, t-shirts, and other products.  While that approach to pastoral care is not totally without merit, it is in many ways overly simplistic and runs the risk of reducing the life of Jesus into a kind of Aesop’s fable.  Additional problems have become clear as the marketing buzz elevated WWJD as a central tenet of how some viewed Christianity and the Christian life, in high school and beyond.

Most fundamentally, one can easily see how easily WWJD becomes a pretext for idolatry and self-worship.  For one thing, thinking about the life of Jesus and of us in this way instead of grounding our Christian lives in Gospel truths reduces Christianity to a mere moralism.  Sadly, surveys have shown clearly that many of the same teens and young adults (and older ones, too) that have proudly worn WWJD memorabilia have also remained woefully uninformed of the facts of the gospel and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is interesting, but on some level not surprising, that the same churches that have assured us that they have protected their people from the legalistic excesses of past generations have nonetheless managed to address the nature of Christianity primarily in terms of what we do.  To talk about what Jesus might theoretically do without laying a foundation as to what he has done for our eternal salvation results in churches failing to teach what God has done in Christ for our redemption while also undercutting much of the biblical motivations and empowerment for Christian living.  When one loses the necessity of the regeneration, the power of the Gospel, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the motivation of gratitude in response to divine grace, all one is left with to motivate Christians to faithfulness is some sort of legalism. That today’s legalism is kinder and gentler than that thrust upon past generations offers neither comfort nor power to believers today.

In addition, frequently the question of what Jesus would have done in a given situation is not even answerable, because Jesus never confronted that particular issue in any of the gospel records.  Without a clear biblical example, many will frame the issue in a manner that lends itself to the desirable answer, and then essentially assume that the choice I want to make is identical to what Jesus would have done.  Self-interest is not in every instance wrong, but shrouding it in a cloak of divine sanction is both wrong and delusional.  One sees this clearly when this is applied to politics.  In published articles in recent years, people on the religious left have asked what Jesus would do and have expressed confidence that he would not drive an environmental menace such as an SUV, while those on the right have taken a similar approach to ascertaining with certainty that he would advocate a preferred approach to tax rates.  Of course, Jesus never addressed either of these issues, and while various principles might be found from his teachings that would provide clues as to his views, to say that the answer is not clear cut would be an understatement.  These attempts to co-opt Jesus as a supporter of political programs are delusional and manipulative, if not idolatrous.  The same results can occur when applying this approach to personal decisions and ethics.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 2

2.  A church does not honor the Word of God if its priorities are not set by that Word. 
While the leaders of the fastest growing churches in America tend not to define themselves with the doctrinal clarity that was common in past generations, most would be defined as on the conservative side of the divide over the “battle for the Bible” that has marked the last 150 years of American Christian history.  That is to say, most of the leaders of these churches, along with their informed members, would claim to have faith in an infallible or inerrant Bible which stands as the ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice.  While many of these churches would shun any labels that identify themselves with past sectarian battles (many even eschew denominational identification in their church names and only accept accomodationist labels such as “contemporary” and “seeker sensitive”), culturally and theologically they should be generally regarded as conservative.  Statements of faith found on their websites – with diligent searching – commonly affirm Scripture as “the supreme source of truth,” “truth without any mixture of error,” “without error,” and with similar phrases. None of the pastors of these churches, if asked, would deny belief in miracles, and all would affirm faith in the historicity of the resurrection and other biblical events and claim the Bible as the authority for what they teach.  All would believe in some form of creationism or intelligent design, and many would hold to a young earth version of that teaching.
But, do claims to hold the Bible in high regard carry any weight when the Bible’s priorities do not drive the priorities of those making the claims? 
Several years ago, I visited a church on a Sunday while traveling.  Bulletin inserts provided to the members and attendees outlined the beginning of a process that the church was undertaking in order to define its “core beliefs.”  In order to facilitate that process, the inserts asked members to respond to a survey, which included questions along the lines of why the respondent decided to attend that church and why they thought that unbelievers in the area might become interested in visiting the church.
These questions might have had relevance if the church had set out to understand whether it was welcoming of visitors or doing an effective job at integrating newcomers into the life of the congregation.  That these types of questions were being used to develop “core beliefs” is more than a bit disturbing.  A church’s core beliefs cannot be derived from a poll of members, much less than from the suggestions of unbelievers.  Core beliefs for a church come from the Word of God, and they are ideally expressed in confessions of faith adhered to by the congregation.  In addition, while a church’s vision and mission might be localized to a specific missional context, the beginning point for understanding these things is not found in demographics, geography, or the gifts of the minister or church members. The beginning point for understanding these things is in Christ’s Great Commission and other relevant passages in the Word.
The misunderstanding of the church being described may be extreme, but this particular malady is not.  Churches developing their self-understanding around the notion that the customer – that is, the seeker – is king should recall that early Christians met their death for refusing to say that anyone other than Jesus is Lord.  The priorities of the biblical preacher must not arise out of the felt needs of his listeners, nor out of personal hobby horses, but they must reflect the priorities of Scripture applied to the congregation.  If the Bible is authoritative, it must be the authority for what is preached, and its primary message must be the focus of the church’s message.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 1

1. The Church’s message is not dictated by those outside the Church, but by the risen Lord, to whom all authority in Heaven and on earth has been given. 

Before launching into these theses, I should note that this part of my project was a joint effort engaged in along with my wife, Lanette.

Regarding the above thesis, most evangelical church leaders would contend nowadays that they are not changing the church's message; rather, they are merely changing the packaging in order to communicate it better to a modern audience. 

However, this hardly seems correct or even possible. That is not to say that these evangelical leaders are being dishonest, though one might suggest that they are too frequently more than a little naive on this issue. The truth of the matter is that taking a marketing approach that places audience interests at the forefront inevitably alters the questions that the church will be required to answer. Changing the questions of necessity alters the nature of the answers that will be given.

This is not to say that the church may comfortably practice irrelevancy, for that is also not consistent with the message of the Bible. To the extent that modern churches are reacting to irrelevant worship and preaching in their church experience, they have rendered a correct diagnosis of error on the part of those churches.

However, the trend has been for churches to focus almost entirely on temporal matters addressed in ways that make scripture's priorities and approach to be of tangential importance, while the redemptive history that functions as the priority of Scripture is mostly ignored. This thesis asks the church to consider that the risen Lord, not the tastes of audiences inside or outside the visible church, is the One who dictates the message that his ambassadors are instructed to proclaim.

The table of contents for this project can be found here.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Reformation Project: Introduction to the Resolutions

In late October of last year, I began this series of posts pretentiously entitled "The Reformation Project." The study began with 20 posts summarizing and analyzing my experiences in visiting the 10 largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. I wrote with a view toward the thesis that these churches present important clues as to the future direction of American Christianity. Following that section, I penned a series of posts regarding what my research suggested about the current state of evangelical worship, music, and preaching.

In many ways I found this research and the conclusions I reached to be distressing, but the point of this project has not been to depress Christians committed to historic Christian faith and practice. Just as Martin Luther 500 years ago looked at the church of his day with a sense of personal and ecclessial distress and set a fire that started a historic recovery of biblical Christianity, even so it is hoped now that Christians worldwide recognizing the needs of Christ's church might turn in a way that would be used of him to launch a new Reformation.

With that in mind, and in a feeble imitation of Luther, I will proceed to propose a series of questions for discussion that would seem to me to be worthy of the consideration of church leaders, whether they would share or reject my own perspective on the state of things. Unlike Luther, I will follow my theses with some brief comments for consideration.

What we do know is that current floundering does not mean that the church is in danger. We understand that Christ has promised that he will build his church and the gates of hell will not stand against it. Ultimately, the success of Christ's church does not rest on the efforts of his followers; rather it has been guaranteed by his resurrection and ascension into heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of the Father, in the place of authority. Whereas Adam failed to fulfill Christ's commission, and Israel followed in Adam's steps, Christ has succeeded, and we know that one day his temple will fill the earth.

To God alone be glory.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Reformation Project: A Final Word -- the Benediction

In the upcoming final section of this project a number of theses (it will be less than 95) will be presented regarding reform of the church. Before that, however, this section will close with a word about the use of the benediction at or near the close of the service.

Most of the churches visited for this project did not use a benediction, and that is not surprising, though it was perhaps a bit of a shock that Fellowship Church Grapevine concluded its service with a video of the pastor performing rap music. Nonetheless, for much of American evangelicalism, the notion of a benediction has largely been lost. Thus, the word is either no longer used at all or it is used to mean nothing more than a closing prayer. The actual definition of the word, which has to do with the pronouncement of a blessing, has largely been lost. 

It should be noted that Scripture is full of pronouncements of blessings. Perhaps the best known, the Aaronic blessing, is found in the Old Testament. It was used at the close of the service I visited at Friendship-West Baptist Church.

"The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." [Numbers 6:24-26, ESV]

Most of the Pauline epistles conclude with a benediction.

Some years ago, when I was first learning about the significance of the various elements of worship, I heard a minister speak about the importance of the benediction, and he claimed that it was even more important than the sermon. While I am not sure I agree with that, one should not discount its value for the worship gathering. Michael Horton, in his book "A Better Way," describes it this way:

"... [T]he benediction could easily become (and too often does become) little more than a way of saying, 'The service is over, so good-bye.' But here, one last time, God addresses his people. Grace has the last word, as the people receive God's blessing through the minister with raised hands.... The covenant people leave [the church] bursting with thankful hearts because they leave with the assurance that God is on their side and that they stand under his blessing rather than his wrath."

Thus, the service ends not with law -- that is, a set of instructions for those now entering the mission field -- but rather with assurances of God's grace as his people go forth. A church that is reformed according to the word of God will appreciate the need for the minister's pronouncement of divine blessing.

"Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us[b] that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen." [Heb. 13:20, 21, ESV]

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Reformation Project: Why Megachurch Johnny Can't Preach, Part II

In my previous post, I noted the exceptionally bad preaching that I heard at most of the megachurches visited during this project. I even said that some of the sermons fell to the level of incompetence and gave two examples representative of that.

How could that be? How can it be that so many sincere Christians attending the largest churches in what is arguably the buckle of the Bible belt listen to ministers that perform their most basic task either poorly or even incompetently?

Without attempting to delve into the particular circumstances of those churches or pastors, I want to address more generically the reasons for a dearth of good preaching in American churches today, arguing that poor preaching largely results from a cultural conditioning that warps both the training of ministers and the expectations of those that choose them. There is a match that is made between the outlook and skill set of American ministers and those who show up on Sunday. However, that match is made somewhere other than heaven.

John R.W. Stott, in his classic work on preaching "Between Two Worlds," claimed that a preacher was a man who stood with one foot in the world of the Bible and the other in the world in which he resides, having the task of bringing the former world to bear upon the latter. In order to do that, a minister must have a solid grasp on the world of the Bible (he must also understand the world in which he resides, but that will not be the focus of this post). Many ministers do not have that, and I will defend the idea that their churches really don't expect them to.

Many young men thinking about ministry arrive at that place having spent most of their church lives in youth group, along the way developing a strong moral sense, perhaps a place of leadership among their religious peers at church, and a passion for serving Jesus. Both peers and older Christians are likely to praise their zeal, valuing religious enthusiasm in a young believer to such an extent that they don't want to discourage the young Christian by suggesting how much they have to learn. Thus, the sincere young Christian may not have a good grasp on the gaps in his Bible knowledge, and he also is likely unaware of the extent to which worldly mindsets have shaped his religious outlook. That is to say, he has grown up in a world that treats the customer as king and that thinks about life in therapeutic, not theological, terms.

This therapeutic and marketing orientation skews his approach to academic preparation for ministry. Of course, many church traditions will tell the young prospective minister that seminary or other academic training is entirely unnecessary, while in other instances he will complete his classwork under the illusion that it is irrelevant to his work as a minister. Churches will often reinforce that illusion, telling the sincere young man that studying dead languages or being able to explain the wrongness of various modern approaches to theology is not as important as connecting with people and helping them find Jesus.

Of course, seminaries are imperfect institutions that can be improved upon by something else. However, most of those criticizing academic training don't have in mind a replacement; they simply think that a sincere relationship with Jesus and good communication skills are enough, and this simply is not true. The result of this is ministers who lack preparation for ministry. They are steeped in the language of our therapeutic culture, and they have some level of understanding of how the church can market itself to broaden its appeal, but they are not able to think through the way the law functions in the lives of believers and unbelievers. They don't know how to express the role of church and Christian in their culture. They lack the ability, or perhaps the desire, to understand common areas and distinctions between morality and self-improvement from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. They don't know how to clearly distinguish between law and gospel.

And, they don't know how to relate the Bible as a single story from Genesis to Revelation while also distinguishing the interpretation of various genres of Scripture. This means that they lack the skill to model good Bible interpretation to their congregants.

Those that are tasked with teaching simply must have preparation that allows them to understand deeply. Many ministers lack this, and they sadly don't desire it. What we are talking about is mental work, but it doesn't require the minister to be an intellectual giant by any means. He only requires the preparation and the desire to think about ministry of the Word in this way.

Many don't. Their churches don't expect them to. And weakness in the church is the result.

Megachurch Johnny can't preach, and for the most part their churches don't care.

For those interested, the Table of Contents for the entire "Reformation Project" is here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Reformation Project: Why Megachurch Johnny Can't Preach

I really do not like criticizing preachers. The task of preaching is foundational to a pastor's calling; thus, Christians frequently refer to their pastors as "preachers." Some denominations highlight the importance of preaching in the terminology that they use for ordinands, emphasizing that they are being ordained, for example, to "the ministry of the word and sacrament." Besides this, it is the most visible aspect of a senior pastor's responsibilities. Some people so associate pastoral ministry with preaching that they jokingly -- one hopes -- will say that the pastor only works one day a week.

Joking aside, it is not possible to overstate the importance of preaching to Christian worship and to worshiping Christians. "Faith comes by hearing," Paul writes in Romans 10, "and hearing by the word of Christ." He has already asked how someone can hear without a preacher. Thus, preaching is a means of grace by which God creates faith in the hearts of his people. That is important.

Yet, preaching is a difficult task. Most pastors will address their congregations more than 40 times per year, and those in churches with a second weekly service might double that. Ministers frequently have additional teaching responsibilities. Speaking so frequently to the same group of people requires great effort. Congregants don't expect to hear the same sermon portions over and over, meaning that a sound minister must each time do sound exegesis of his text, illustrate it to make it more understandable and apply it to the lives of the people. A pastor who has been at his church for 10 years will have presented over 400 sermons heard by at least some of the same people.

All pastors must be capable at each of those areas of preaching -- exegesis, illustration, and application -- though each minister will find his particular gifts more oriented toward some of these than others. A minister who is a master of illustration may struggle to come up with meaningful applications. Another may be good at applying the text, but he struggles to lay the groundwork of what is to be applied. Some pastors -- even those with seminary training -- may struggle with their skills at biblical exposition. Yet, it is a grave error not to work on that area. One can't really be said to be preaching the Word of God if the person is not doing some basic study that allows him to ground his sermon in the text. As the Romans passage quoted earlier indicates, it is the preaching of the Word that God has pledged to use to create faith in His people. He may use other things, but he has not promised to do so.

So, it is a bit painful to have to say that many (not all) of the pastors I heard preach during this project were in a very fundamental way incompetent at their most basic task. They did not display a basic ability to preach the Word; nor did they have the ability to do the most rudimentary analysis of the biblical text.

It would not seem that their members are aware of the utter incompetence. Who would want to say that they go to a big church where the pastor lacks basic competence at preaching?

Because it may seem to readers that this judgment is harsh, perhaps it is necessary to clarify what is meant. I am not suggesting that these ministers were poor orators. All were charismatic personalities with the capacity to hold the attention of large audiences Nor do I mean that I had doctrinal disagreements with their sermons -- I frequently did, but their incompetence went well beyond the idea that there are different interpretations of a text in the Bible. Rather, they used the Bible in a way that was not credible to one holding to any doctrinal position.

While I could cite numerous examples, two will suffice to convey what I am driving at. The pastor of Fellowship Church Grapevine used the Bible as a sort of Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations, mining the biblical text for verses that had a word or phrase that he wanted to incorporate into his sermon, even if the context of the text showed that the text could not be appropriately used in that way. Thus, he used Acts 1:8, in which Jesus said that the disciples would receive power from the Holy Spirit for world wide witness, as analogous to a power cord he used with his blender and ultimately as a proof text for God's help for blended families. This is, of course, nonsense.

In the same way, the pastor at Covenant Church read a passage that concerned the diminutive size of David and talked about it as though it concerned the large size of Goliath. It was an impossible reading to justify.

There are other examples I could cite. To be fair, some of the ministers used the Bible responsibly. However the fact of the matter is that a significant percentage of the pastors of the largest churches in the metroplex are incompetent practitioners of their most basic responsibility. And, their listeners dont seem to know it.

How can that be? I will have more to come.