Thursday, November 09, 2017

A Christian Nation?

When populist Christians declare that America is -- or once was and needs to be again -- a Christian nation, what do they mean? Christians and secularists often engage in debates about this subject without ever defining terms, which is unfortunate since doing so might alter the character of the debate.

Theoretically, those using "Christian nation" language could be doing nothing more than making a sociological statement, which would in itself be noncontroversial, since hardly anyone would deny that Protestant Christianity, more than any other religion, institutional or otherwise, has had a prevailing influence in the United States and most other western cultures. Even those who are not  Christians of necessity must deal in some degree with Christian terminology and norms in order to participate in American culture. It is part of the air that we breathe.

Nonetheless, when those on the religious right speak of a "Christian nation," they are talking about more than sociology. They mean to say that Christianity is normative to what the United States is, and that departure from that norm is a betrayal of national values. Perhaps even more significantly, they would often say, departure from that norm potentially forfeits divine blessings.

Yet, it remains to further ask about the evidence of such a departure and, perhaps more notably, what would a return to being a Christian nation look like?

Do people that talk this way mean that Americans in mass will begin to worship the triune God of Christian teaching, and be justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone?

No, they don't seem to mean that. Rather, people who talk like this seem to have in mind moral reform: if we "returned to God" by "turning from their wicked ways," then people would stop having sex with people other than their spouses, would stop drinking too much or at all, would not go to vile movies, would be less vulgar in their speech, and so forth. While all of these things may be good developments to some degree or another, what those promoting this vision of "Christian America" have in mind is not really distinctive Christianity; it is moralism. They are not looking for belief in the death and resurrection of Christ, but for moral improvement of the nation.

Thus, it is of more than passing interest that those pressing the idea of a Christian nation set off on the wrong foot by misunderstanding what the word "Christian" means. If they reoriented toward a proper definition of "Christian," they might understand that the matter of bringing about Christian commitments is not something a nation can do exercising the power of the sword, but it is something only a church can do through the preaching of the Gospel.

In a different context, the Apostle Paul warned those who exchanged the Christian Gospel for concerns about law keeping in order to establish a basis for entry into God's kingdom that they had "fallen from grace." Those calling for America to be restored to its status as a Christian nation believe that they are saying something about the status of the nation, but, in fact, they are revealing more about the state of the church. It is the church, not the nation, that has lost track of the basic meaning of terms, and it is the church that needs to hear the Gospel again in order to be called out of its apostasy to the good news of Christ.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Reformation Project: Theses 36-54

36. God is pleased with His people because of Christ.  In this regard, our good works do not add to His pleasure in us, which is already complete.  Christian growth and grace occurs in response to God’s work in regeneration, is guided by God’s Word, and is motivated by love and gratitude for God’s grace.
37.Our destiny, as individuals and as the Church, is not under our control.  God alone orders our steps.
38. Churches that by either false emphases or by shrouding the Gospel mislead people into thinking that “God helps those who help themselves” teach a message that is completely opposite the biblical message that “Christ died for the ungodly.”
39. That faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen emphasizes that faith is our empty handed trust in the provision that God freely and completely provides.  Faith is neither a technique of positive thinking nor a weapon by which we force the hand of our sovereign Lord.
40. Encouraging Christians to live simply in order to set aside provisions to support the work of the church and to fulfill the second great commandment is admirable, but it should never be confused with the notion that such giving will guarantee a return of greater material comforts and blessings.  Those who encourage the neglect of family responsibilities on the basis of such supposed guarantees commit great evil in the name of Christ.
41. The notion that the expected ideal Christian life is one of prosperity and material ease is so inconsistent with both the teaching and the examples of Christ, the prophets, the Apostles, and others among the saints as recorded in Scripture, that this way of thinking is utterly irreconcilable to Christian teaching.
42. The term “Christian” is not categorically something that applies to nations.  There is no biblical basis for using the term in this way nor for suggesting that the United States has some unique role in God’s redemptive plan, through which He is creating a people of every people and tongue and nation.
43. God’s means for the church to bring about changed lives and social structures is Gospel proclamation.  The death, burial, and resurrection, as opposed to methods for creating political solutions to social problems or for seeking psychological well-being, form the foundation of the Christian’s hope.
44. Those who claim to speak or who are viewed as speaking for the church should take care not to commit the church, as a matter of orthopraxis, to political positions upon which the Bible does not make a clear declaration.
45. Biblical warnings about the human propensity for self-centeredness and self-promotion should give pause to those who would use the Gospel message as a method for building self-esteem.  That we love self too much, not too little, is frequently the Bible’s message to us.
46. When God created all things, He pronounced His creation good, and since the Fall, creation has groaned while awaiting its final redemption. Consistent with God’s plan for redeeming not only lost humanity, but the creation realm, as well, the goal of the Christian is not escape from the material, but the subjection of all things to Christ.
47. While the image of God in man has been defaced by the Fall, God in His goodness continues to shower His common grace on all.  The contributions in arts and culture of all of those utilizing those creation gifts must not escape the attention and appreciation of believers, who long to bring every thought captive to the Lordship of Christ. 
48. The notion that some people are better used by God due to their spiritual superiority is dangerous to those individuals and the Church and is an affront to the Gospel of Christ. The kind of priesthood of celebrity that has emerged in much of the church needs to be greatly resisted.
49. Neither the charisma nor the perceived spiritual goodness of Christian leaders should inspire a level of trust among Christians that precludes the need for proper accountability with regard to financial and moral concerns within the body of Christ.
50. The demonstrated failure of age based divisions in church structures as an effective means of keeping children, teens, and young adults in the Church must be faced in order for the Church to return to the Bible’s covenantal based pattern of family oriented worship as normative in the body of Christ.
51. Christians who share a common faith in the ecumenical creeds and the doctrine of justification by faith alone should endeavor to find common cause in those things while in no way disavowing other beliefs which cause them to differ.
52. Regardless of one’s eschatological viewpoint, neither the prospect of Christ’s return nor the hope of heaven should preclude one from thinking hard and acting wisely with regard to the issues confronted in this life.
53. Believing that the growth of the church and the spread of the Gospel are dependent on the power of God above all else should compel us to pray first of all, rather than to regard prayer as an afterthought once we have prepared our clever plans.
54.The notion that we are the real actors in a spiritual drama, with God intervening only upon our asking, pervades too much of the way that the Christian life is discussed.  This resembles a deism punctuated by occasional miracles more than it resembles Christian faith.

The Reformation Project: Theses 31-35

31. Building genuine, respectful relationships with unbelievers consistent with the second great commandment can result in opportunities to evangelize our neighbors and is far superior to programs that create artificial and manipulative relationships as the basis for sharing the Gospel.
32. The miraculous healings of Jesus and the Apostles verified the authenticity of Jesus as Messiah and should not be regarded as any indication that physical healing is part of what is offered through Christ’s atonement other than in an eschatological sense.
33. Jesus’ statements about the necessity of the new birth and the teaching of Paul that those apart from Christ are dead in trespasses and sins reveal the necessity of the Spirit’s role in regeneration for anyone to be saved.  While God uses human means to accomplish His purposes, only the work of the Holy Spirit brings the dead to life.
34. The notion that we are the real actors in a spiritual drama, with God intervening only upon our asking, pervades too much of the way that the Christian life is discussed.  This resembles a deism punctuated by occasional miracles more than it resembles Christian faith.
35. Just as our justification is entirely a work of God’s grace, so also our sanctification is entirely a work of the Spirit of God.  While God’s liberated children observe His commands out of

The Reformation Project: Theses 21-30

21. The presence or absence of excitement or other emotions provides no evidence regarding whether a work of the Spirit of God is taking place.
22. In whatever style of worship churches employ, they must always use the Bible as their guide.

23. The use or non-use of liturgical forms neither quenches nor indicates the movement of the Spirit of God.  The clearest evidence of the Spirit’s presence and work is the clear proclamation of Jesus as Lord.
24. While joy and celebration are certainly one aspect of the Christian life and Christian ministry, the Bible confronts us realistically with God’s presence and providence through every type of circumstance of life.  The notion that all worship leads to celebration should be shunned along with superficial forms of praise and gladness, even if a Christian can maintain joy in the Lord in hard circumstances.
25. In preaching the Word of God, the minister has a responsibility not only to expound biblical truth faithfully, but also to model the proper manner of reading and interpreting Scripture.
26. Rightly dividing the Word of Truth requires a proper understanding of the Covenant of Works and of the Covenant of Grace, as found in Scripture, seeing Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of both.
27. Preaching and teaching the Bible requires expounding its themes in proper context.  The Bible must never be used as a kind of book of quotations used to provide ancillary support to the things that we wish to talk about.
28. Belief in the authoritativeness and accuracy of Scripture does not require viewing it as a technical manual on every subject that it addresses. 
29. The bumper sticker maxim that “Jesus is the answer” is not true unless the correct questions are being asked.  The minister has an obligation to point his listeners toward concerns for which the church has unique importance, principally the proclamation of the Gospel.
30. Worship services and sermons that focus most of their attention on what we are doing, and that have as their goals to get congregants to do something, rather than to believe something, are inherently legalistic, even if such legalism takes a softer form than that sometimes promoted in churches of a prior generation. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Reformation Project: Theses 16-20

16. Because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, those delivering the Christian message must not do so in a way that tends to bring believers back under a burden of condemnation.

17. While those engaged in the “worship wars” have focused on matters of style, the far deeper concern relates to the increasing lack of biblical substance in corporate Christian worship, whether traditional or contemporary.

18. Any discussion of both the content and style of Christian worship must take as its beginning point the will of God regarding these matters as revealed in Scripture.

19. Worship needs to center on God and to glorify Him, not focus on ourselves or our experience.

20. The clearest evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity is that Christ is glorified and proclaimed as Lord.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 15

15. "He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ."

This thesis is in quotation marks, as it is directly pulled from Martin Luther's Heidelberg Disputation. Those theses, published two years after the more famous 95 Theses were nailed to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg, represent a maturing of Luther's Protestant convictions.  As others have noted, the Heidelberg Disputation furthered Luther's break with the medieval church by setting forth a relentlessly cross centered understanding of Christianity, of justification, and of the Christian life. Put another way, it was a theology of the cross, in contrast to the Roman church's theology of glory.

It is also liberating, because the person who believes much in Christ believes in work that is done. The one who does much, instead of believing, never can be sure that he has ever done enough.

Do Christians understand the liberty and rest that is found in cross centered Christianity? American Christians are known not for their relentless cross centeredness, but for their relentless activism. Yet, Paul said that the one that has been justified by faith (past completed action) has (present possession) peace with God.

This is the result of preaching that is cross centered.

Table of Contents for The Reformation Project

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 14

14.   That the world is passing away along with its lusts while the Word of God abides forever means that God’s Word is proclaimed in contrast to the dying world and should not be attached to it.

Is the mission of the church to proclaim law and gospel in order to give people a leg up in this life, or is it to do so in order to prepare them for the world to come?

Of course, the Bible has much to say about how we are to live in this world, but thinking about that in the context of the redemptive work of Christ is crucial. We live in this world as people who belong to the next. That is not to say that we are to take on a mentality of escapism, but it does mean that the verities that we live by in this life while inhabiting the kingdoms of this world reflect the reality that we hold a dual citizenship as emissaries of the kingdom of God's dear son.

Further, we should distinguish between the work of individual Christians and the mission of the church. While Christians will use their individual gifts and interests in pursuit of a whole range of vocations and hobbies, the church's focus is on proclamation of the mission of Christ.

Thus, while the Bible has much to say about living in this world, we should not take that as a means for finding our best life now or increasing our attachment with what is passing away, nor should we engage in a bait and switch with unbelievers by acting as though the keys we offer relate to a dying kingdom. The church's message is much too practical to stay focused on a world that is passing away. We speak of law and gospel, sin and grace, guilt and forgiveness, in order to deal with matters of ultimate, eternal importance.

Table of Contents for the Reformation Project

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 13

13. Christian efforts to make God seem relevant to unbelievers must never take a form that promotes irreverence or trivializes matters of supreme importance.  There is no relevance to be found in a trite approach to God.

One of the churches I wrote about in the first section of this study featured as the sermon the preparation of a smoothie in the style of a Food Network program. At another, the minister began his sermon with 15 minutes of jokes.

While it was not a part of this study, I also have seen a large local church create a brochure in which celebrities replaced the apostles in a mock up of Leonardo's Last Supper. The brochure announced a sermon series in which the minister would explain what Jesus would have to say to these famous people.

In another recent trend, some churches are now preceding their "worship experiences" with their praise bands playing rock music -- secular music with no pretense of relevance to worship -- in order to draw a crowd.

The church exists to proclaim the Lord of Glory, the Creator of all things, the Redeemer of the world. One may ask if these techniques give due glory to the one who is being proclaimed.

Table of Contents for The Reformation Project

The Reformation Project: Thesis 12

12. Substituting or confusing marketing for Gospel proclamation inevitably leads to syncretism.

By the term "syncretism" this thesis suggests that bringing a marketing orientation to the mindset of the church results in the amalgamation of the religion of the church with that of the culture it is trying to reach. Thus, the result is a weakening of Christian teaching and practice. The intention is that the church shape the culture; the result may be in  reverse.

Anyone that has worked in business knows the old saying that the customer is king, but that is an approach to church that Christians can never agree to and remain faithful to their true king. Early Christians preferred persecution and even death before they were willing to say that Caesar was Lord, and with equal conviction today we must say to the various ecclesiastical versions of Madison Avenue that Christ is Lord of His church.

Of course, some will respond that Christians have a responsibility to understand the people to whom they are proclaiming the message of Christianity, and that is true, but it does not really get at the direction in which many would lead the church. In the name of marketing, it is common, nearly pervasive, nowadays to allow the tastes and beliefs of the unbelieving culture around us to dictate the purpose and elements of worship, the questions with which the church will deal, the church's mission, and the definition of missional success. This gives away a lot, and it is an approach that is inconsistent with Christian teaching on human nature and salvation, as well as the church.

Marketing approaches at best have a good intention of bringing Christianity to the culture, a project that is perceived as more easy in Dallas than in Dubai. Or, is it? Though different in many respects, the cultural values of both Dubai and Dallas conflict with the verities of Christianity. Often, we fail to notice the way our marketing has brought changes to the church not consistent with Christian teaching.

Table of Contents for the Reformation Project

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 11

11. The effort to proclaim the Gospel persuasively is not the same thing as a marketing program.

Churches go to great efforts to put butts in seats.

Not all of that is illegitimate. Certainly, efforts to gain the attention of unbelievers so that they will hear the gospel proclaimed is desirable so long as those efforts are consistent with what is required of us in Scripture.

However, it must always be recognized that faith in Christ is not equivalent to faith in our church brand, much less faith in the array of benefits offered by the local church.

In fact, any faith result produced by marketing efforts ought to be questioned, as scripturally saving faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God, and, as such, it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone that believes. It is the power of the Spirit, not our planning, that brings to life those that are dead in trespasses and sins.

It is important that our attention to branding not overwhelm any gospel proclamation so that the latter cannot be heard due to the cacophony of the former.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 10

10. The Gospel, being the power of God that leads to salvation for everyone that believes, is substantively more consequential and effectively more powerful than marketing programs and all other manner of human cleverness.

It is not difficult to understand why thoughtful Christians want to do a better job of messaging. All of us have had the experience of lamenting that too many Christians and churches of stating their cause in a way that puts the cause of Christ in a bad light. Why can't we put our best foot forward so that unbelievers don't associate the term "evangelical with Westboro Baptist, Pat Robertson, or Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Why don't outsiders even know that those three aren't even evangelicals?

There is nothing wrong with wising to gain a hearing for the gospel in the larger culture. However, church marketing efforts in recent decades have gone well beyond that, exposing a Christian tendency to trust in our own cleverness than in the power of the gospel.

To marketers, the customer is king, but in the church Christ is king. His ambassadors should be gracious and loving, but we don't have the authority as Christ's ambassadors to alter the message to soft sell it to an audience that is dead in their trespasses and sins, nor can we defer to the subjects that our neighbors deem relevant when our King has stated clearly the nature of His central message. And, why when we want to? When we recognize the direness of the human condition, we should see that only the power of the Spirit can bring the dead to life.

Table of Contents for the Reformation Project.

Monday, October 02, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 9

9. Given that Jesus’ message and manner of teaching sometimes resulted in people turning away from him (see, for example, John 6), one should not take numerical success or failure as any kind of evidence of faithfulness to God or the blessing of God.

There are many churches that reject the prosperity gospel (if you obey God, he will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise) that nonetheless believe it in a different form. They believe that their numerical growth proves -- more or less -- that God is blessing. God must be doing something, they argue, look at all of these people. Churches that are declining, on the other hand, must be cold and dead. God is not blessing them.

I heard a lot of this growing up, when this way of thinking was used to contrast the differing directions of liberal and more conservative denominations and churches. Liberal decline, it was said, was evidence that they had abandoned the gospel. Conservative growth proves divine blessing.

The fact that conservative denominations have plateaued (even as liberal ones have seen accelerated decline) has perhaps chastened this perspective, though it remains a part of individual churches and ministries. It also continues in a different form: we have plateaued due to lack of faithfulness -- if we got busy again with the Lord's work, we would have great growth.

I suppose that it should also be mentioned that some people will take decline as proof of faithfulness -- we are declining because we don't go along with the culture. This also may be narrow thinking.

Even while we hope for God's blessing on our work, we should recognize that growth might be longed for, but it in and of itself doesn't prove God's blessing. In some cases, at least, faithfulness to Christ might result in a period of decline, not the opposite. So it was with the ministry of Jesus in John 6. His refusal to give material bread while proclaiming himself the bread of life did not go over well with the crowd. That crowd abandoned him.

Jesus asked the core group of disciples if they would also go away. The answer indicated possible discomfort with what Jesus had taught, but with no doubt as to where they must remain: "where would we go? You have the words of life."

So He does. Our task is to faithfully proclaim that word, praying that God will bless that proclamation with souls that will receive it.

Table of Contents for the Reformation Project

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 8

8. Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. The only thing that we contribute to our justification is our sins.

The first statement in this thesis is a classic statement regarding four of the five solas ("alones") of the Protestant Reformation. Understanding the meaning of justification is of vital importance to understanding what Christianity is about; yet, surveys have indicated that a sizable percentage even of active churchgoers lack familiarity with the term.

Is that important? Many modern churches attempt to minimize religious lingo, and there is a sense in which they have a point. Over the years, churches have developed ways of speaking that don't make sense to outsiders -- and one might argue that in at least some cases are unbiblical. It seems proper that in some instances that language that lacks meaning to hearers should be discarded.

But, churches cannot lose all of their religious terminology without losing their Christian identity. One might illustrate this way. Several years ago, I lived in Nashville when an NHL team -- the Predators -- came to town. I had seen a few hockey games on television, but I did not really understand much in the way of strategy -- players coming on and off the ice seemed chaotic -- and many of the rules were a mystery. What is icing? Why did they call offsides?

The NHL did not change its rules and terms to help southerners unfamiliar with the game to figure it out. In my case, I was able to attend a presentation by the team's radio announcers -- hockey evangelists? -- who showed highlights while explaining rules and the ins and outs of what was happening during the game. I even learned about the ethics of brawling!

Then, the game made sense. I have since attended many games, both in Nashville and since moving to Dallas, and I enjoy the sport.

Terms like justification are key words to Christianity: you don't understand the game if you don't get this. For the health of the church, the content of the above thesis must be taught.

According to the standards of my church, justification is " an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone." Thinking through those phrases will call to mind the joyful benefits of having been justified.

For more of this series of posts, see the Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 7

7. Christianity at its root narrates the story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.  That narrative constitutes the message of the church. A church that speaks often of other subjects and speaks only occasionally of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation is guilty of hiding the central message of Christ behind a shroud of peripheral subjects.

In both politics and business, experts will talk about the importance of staying on message. One may recall that in the 1990's presidential candidate Bill Clinton operated with a constant reminder from campaign staff: "It's the economy, stupid." As a general rule, candidates or businesses that lose sight of their central message do so at the risk of their viability. This is not to say that they don't care about anything else, but it is to say, as an old mentor of mine used to claim, that they need to keep the main thing the main thing.

Of course, churches and ministries don't always share the same values as businesses, not to mention politicians, but in this instance the parallels would seem to be instructive. Many ministers will quote Paul's statement about preaching "the whole counsel of God," as well as the need to instruct Christians in all things needed for life and godliness. True enough, but the church that loses site of its central message sets out on a course that will lead to faithlessness.

In truth, the Bible does not relate our story, but God's story, telling how he is operating in human history to accomplish his purposes, and at the heart of those purposes is his determination to redeem a people out of fallen humanity for himself. Every other subject that is a legitimate matter for the church's interest arises out of those themes.

Do non-Christians understand the church's message in this way? Probably not, as I am not sure that even many active church members can articulate this. The church will teach about many things, but all of the spokes flow out of the hub of creation, fall, redemption and consummation.

See here for a Table of Contents for this study.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 6

6. Christian proclamation must take proper notice of the distinction between Law and Gospel in the Scripture, and must proclaim both in their proper relationship to one another.

This is a fundamental distinction in Scripture, but one that I fear is completely passed over in many churches and not understood even by many life long church members and attenders.

Generally, the distinction is this: Law is what is found in Scripture when God requires something of us. Gospel is what we find when God makes promises with no condition other than that we take him at his word.

To get more specific, as many readers have no doubt heard, the word gospel means simply "good news." The good news in question is the announcement, as we find in I Corinthians 15, that Christ has died for our sins, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day, all in accordance with the promises of scripture.

Notice the character of the gospel as an announcement. It is news that we receive, not something that we do. I often hear people say that they want to "live the gospel," but this confuses categories. Certainly, a Christian will want to live his life in the light of gospel promises, understanding life as an expression of gratitude for what we have received by grace. However, we do not live the gospel. The gospel is not something we do. It is the announcement of what God has done for us in Christ.

In drawing these distinctions, I am not suggesting that the church should proclaim the gospel instead of the law. Rather, the church must proclaim both. The law points us to our need for Christ. To preach the gospel without the law results in people seeing no need for Christ. To preach law without gospel leaves people with a knowledge of their guilt and without hope. The church must proclaim them together.

When these are properly distinguished and declared together, those who hear can realize the grand truth that the terrifying chasm between a holy God and sinful men has been addressed in the Gospel, through which sinners have been reconciled to God in the death of Christ.

A Table of Contents for this "Reformation Project" can be found here.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis 5

5. Christianity is about what God does about our sins. If there is no teaching regarding sin – its origins, its reality, its universality, its guilt, its results, and its punishment – there is no reason for Christianity. 

When discussing the widespread disappearance of the subject of sin from American pulpits, it is easy to turn to the example of Joel Osteen, who has openly declared his refusal to address the subject in his messages, as he doesn't want to drag people down. However, beyond Osteen it is not difficult to recognize the change that has taken place in American pulpits, both evangelical and liberal, in recent decades. Among some, the subject of sin is removed in favor of psychological categories. The notion of sin is often soft-pedaled, and a variety of euphemisms have been adopted. Whereas Scripture declares people to be "dead in their trespasses and sins," ungodly," and even "wicked," modern pulpiteers that bother to address the subject at all are more likely to say that we are "messy" or "broken."

In many ways this is a reaction against another inappropriate way of preaching about sin in present and past generations. Ministers may have ranted against various public sins, generating shame among the guilty while offering no gospel hope. Certainly, that is not the alternative one would look for.

But, it needs to be recognized that soft pedaling sin does the disservice of diminishing one's sense of the love and grace of God. To say that we are messy or broken calls for certain kinds of solutions that may emphasize self-improvement; to recognize that we are dead in trespasses and sins calls for a more radical answer that only can be brought about by one who brings the dead to life.

Perhaps the most amazing verses in the Bible inform us that God justifies the wicked and that God demonstrated his love for us by dying for us while we were yet sinners. Indeed, that is remarkable love and amazing grace. If we don't know enough to recognize our status as sinners and our condition as wicked, we will never understand the greatness of God's love in our behalf. 

Does not the church need to rediscover a robust doctrine of sin?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Reformation Project: Thesis Four

4. Biblical doctrine teaches that Jesus, both God and man, was the Word of God who dwelt among us, was perfectly sinless, and by His sinless life and substitutionary death He both perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the Law and paid the penalty for the Curse upon all who are His, and His bodily resurrection validated the truth of His claims.  There is no sufficient reason to follow and worship Jesus apart from these doctrinal claims. 

This is one of several theses that ask the reader to interact with assertions as to the central core of Christianity. Identifying the central elements of Christianity should in turn serve to direct the church toward its core functions.

Modern church movements, in both evangelical and progressive expressions, center evangelistic efforts and their raison d'etre around a variety of themes: the creation of meaningful community, a mechanism for psychological wholeness, a basis for social justice, and so forth. These often are good things worth pursuing, and in some instances they may be proper emphases for the regenerate, but do these things really form the core of Christian teaching?

Scripture as a whole -- and Jesus in particular -- made claims regarding the person and work of Jesus, claims that are subject to historical examination and theological reasoning. Whether these claims are true is a matter of eternal significance. That being the case, they should form the center -- and much of the periphery -- of any properly constituted church.

See here for a Table of Contents for The Reformation Project.

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.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Reformation Project: the Priority of Preaching?

A recent news article in Christianity Today reported on a recent Gallup Poll that found "sermons that teach about scripture" to be the top reason that Americans go to church. Over 80% identified it as a priority. The report has been linked by numerous religious blogs hopeful that it points toward a renewed emphasis on biblical preaching. Certainly, such an emphasis would be welcome in these quarters, so one might be forgiven for wishing it to be true.

I must admit I don't believe it.

I do have a bias, as the poll would contradict my premise in the study involved in this project that suggests that the trends found in the large churches I visited are reflective of the future direction of American Christianity. In the majority of those churches, biblical content was minimal, and in some of them the handling of the Bible by the ministers can only be described as incompetent (readers are welcome to refer back to prior posts which can be found in the Table of Contents, and I will defend what may seem to be this harsh assessment in a future summary post).

Of course, it may be that these churches are not representative, but the fact that roughly 150,000 people in the largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex attend churches that do not for the most part feature sermons that teach about Scripture must be accounted for. Anecdotal experience would suggest that this is not limited to these large churches.

Of course, I am left with the need to explain how the poll could be so wrong. I will offer two explanations.

First, the poll relies on self-reporting, and such polls are notoriously unreliable when an answer is considered to be the correct one. As a well-known example, Americans have over reported actual church attendance for decades -- most people think that attending church is a good thing, so a larger than true proportion have reported attending church regularly as a result. In a similar way, there is reason to think American church goers would think that sermons teaching scripture provide a right reason for going to church -- what Christian wants to admit that Bible based sermons have nothing to do with church attendance? Thus, they give the answer that they believe to be right, perhaps without reflecting on whether it is consistent with their choice of church.

Second, one might argue that biblical preaching is sufficiently rare so that many church goers do not really know what solid scriptural preaching is. A clear and passionate presentation of practical advice punctuated with Bible verses is often confused with scriptural preaching.

This week, I spoke with an old friend who told me that her family had recently left their church of many years. While several of the reasons seemed valid, she added that she doesn't like expository preaching. Telling her that expository preaching is what I've done my whole life started an interesting conversation. What became sadly clear was that this life long, intelligent Christian really did not know what expository preaching really is, though she was sure she doesn't like it (probably because she associated it with a particular pastor).

It is not my intent here to argue about the validity of other approaches to preaching besides an expository one. However, I do think that this is an indication that many people have little understanding of what clear scriptural preaching should look like.

A reformation of biblical Christianity in the United States would require a return to scriptural preaching. One might hope that a day would come when the Gallup Poll turns out to be accurate.

Monday, May 08, 2017

The Reformation Project: what about the Music?

In the previous three posts, I addressed the subject of worship while scarcely mentioning the issue of music. This may mystify many readers, as Christians often reduce discussion of worship to the matter of musical style. When people talk about "worship wars," they actually are talking about battles over music. In my own analysis of visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, most of my discussion of what took place in the meetings other than the sermon centered around music, with relatively little attention given to other elements other than to notice their absence; however, this was not because I accept the assumption that music equals worship. It is difficult to spend much time describing things that aren't present, and many elements of historic Christian worship were minimized or absent.

Nonetheless, music is an important element of worship, and, additionally, many of these large churches would consider their music to be a major selling point to attendees. They may be correct. Tremendous amounts of time, money, and effort go into producing music with the highest production values that these churches can generate. If quality is sometimes lacking, energy, effort, and passion are not. Nonetheless, from the standpoint of proper Christian worship, these productions leave much to be desired.

Why is that? Is modern church music really adverse to correct Christian worship, or is this aging blogger merely showing his over wrought fixation on old ways of doing things?

Watching congregations divide, often along generational lines, over questions of church music has been sad to see, and one can be excused for feeling a sense of relief when recent writers have declared those skirmishes, with their sometimes devastating impacts on local churches, largely over. That said, it is possibly even more sad that such divisions have often taken place without important and substantial questions about the place of music in worship ever being asked. Churches have divided over style with very little controversy over substance. If many of the criticisms of "traditional worship" (meaning that which dominated the middle portion of the 20th century) had merit, and I believe that they did, then it is unfortunate that so much effort went into changing musical forms without really doing anything to understand the place of music in biblical worship. For all of the energy (which is sometimes confused with the work of the Holy Spirit) that goes into making modern church music, one might argue that the church is worse off than it was 50 years ago, not because styles and instrumentation are worse (that would be open to debate), but because congregations rarely addressed the substantive questions.

Thus, one might have wished that controversies over music had begun by addressing the most fundamental question of all: what is the purpose of music in worship? If that seems too basic, one might argue that churches still should have asked it, if for no reason other than to identify common ground prior to drawing swords. However, such a foundational question may prove not to be so basic after all, as rationales for the purpose of complex and dynamic music programs in churches are all over the map. Without agreement on purpose, it is no wonder that churches lapsed into conflagrations over personal taste and recent tradition, for without a common mission for worship music that is integrated with a robust appreciation for other elements of worship, one might not ever get to the questions of biblical basis, content, congregational involvement, and so forth. In fact, the vast majority of churches never did. While recent years have seen some music leaders adopt mission statements (everything seems to require a mission statement these days), this has largely come in the aftermath of churches establishing their musical direction, meaning that the influence was retrospective, not formative.

As a result, much of the music featured in the large, pacesetting churches I visited centered around performance by musicians using fairly sophisticated production lighting and sound before an audience that behaved no differently than middle aged audiences act at a pop concert -- some in the crowd watch and listen, some make some effort at singing along, some clap their hands and bounce and sway as their spirit moves them, and others stand with their hands in their pockets and perhaps even talk with those around them. Content is for the most part minimal and repetitive, with sentimentality trumping any clear biblical content. There were exceptions, but for the most part the congregation was not expected to sing. Though the words were printed on the screen, singing was difficult and at times nearly impossible due to the volume of the band (it is hard to sing when you can't hear your own voice), the use of unfamiliar music that often included unpredictable bridges known only to the band, and the use of music difficult to sing for undirected amateurs who had not practiced it.

Thus, if part of the point of church music is for congregants to praise with their mouths, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. most of the music in these churches failed in that regard.

The biblical model of worship music is the Psalms. While some groups of Christians go so far as to say that only canonical music should be used in worship, this writer would not take that stance. Nonetheless, a look at biblical music (meaning that found in the Bible) reveals sharp contrasts and deficiencies in the modern church. For one thing, the biblical songs are substantive and God centered, qualities often lacking in modern church music, which often is thin and vague on content and centered on human experience. In addition, the emotions of modern church music are very different from its biblical counterparts -- biblical lyric is much MORE emotional. Almost all contemporary church music captures one, and only one, category of emotion -- celebration, joy, victory. As Carl Trueman has said, there is hardly any music in modern churches that can be sung by miserable Christians. In contrast, the Psalms, to borrow Calvin's phrase, carry the anatomy of the parts of the soul. Though God centered in approach, the Psalms manage to convey the entire range of human emotional experience.

Over the last half century, young Christians in particular were dissatisfied with music that seemed outdated and irrelevant to their experiences. To a large extent, their complaints were valid. However, ignoring the biblical data, they set out to make music reflective of generational experiences and tastes. For that reason, church music, like the rest of modern worship, remains in drastic need of reform.

In the next post, I will turn to the subject of preaching.

This is part of a series entitled "The Reformation Project." The table of contents for the series is here.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The Reformation Project: Who Is the Lord of Worship?

Of course, we know what the answer is supposed to be to the question as to who is the Lord of worship, but it is fair to ask whether correct answers mask a disconcerting reality.

A recent blog post aggregated at The Aquila Report argued that many modern Christians, especially millenials, doubt the importance of church attendance. This is hardly a novel realization, and all kinds of spiritual and sociological reasons for dismissive attitudes toward church, even by professing Christians, may be given; however, one might suggest that the most obvious reason is a relatively simple one: people who have spent time around churches often begin to doubt the importance of church because their church leaders have told them that it is unimportant.

And ministers feared the people weren't listening. In fact, they have taken in the lesson all to well.

Nearly everyone who has spent much time around evangelical churches has heard it said that what happens inside the church is not important: it is what Christians do when they leave that counts. Many have listened to such words before walking through church exits under signs that tell them that they are "now entering the mission field." While that may express a truth, it also underscores the idea that what happens outside the church's walls is what matters; what happens in the building doesn't really count. In fact, ministers and other Christians frequently dismiss the value of the walls and doors, insisting that the church is the people, not a place. Michael Horton has said that Christians have so often been told that the church is not a place that they have been left homeless. Further devaluing the significance of the gathered church, modern worship avoids any sense of transcendence and emphasizes an appeal to individual taste, not seeming to realize that if it is about me and my tastes, I can find that just about anywhere. One doesn't really need a church for that.

Thus, in many churches the people who are there come together and hear someone pray that God will join them. This contrasts with a more biblical approach that would claim that Christians don't gather to call upon God to join us; rather, the church has gathered because it has been summoned by its risen Lord. The risen Lord has gathered the church to a place where he distributes his gifts (see Ephesians 4 for one description of this). Through the preached word, God creates faith in the hearts of his people. Through baptism and the Lord's Supper he signifies and seals his promises he has made to us, thus reassuring our faith. With our confession of sin he assures us of his promises of pardon in Christ. In Christian fellowship he unites and encourages his people in vital, organic unity.

The preceding paragraph turns on its head the approach that many take to these elements of worship. In the thinking of many, preaching, praying, the sacraments, and singing are things that we do for God (professing our faith, for example). However, if I have explained worship biblically, it would show that the church gathers for worship because that is where God offers his gifts to us, not the other way around. If that takes the right view of things, then it reorients church members to appreciate the value of what is happening, but it also needs to reorient pastors and church leaders with regard to the nature of their task.

Some years ago, while traveling on a weekend I visited a church that I was not familiar with. At the conclusion of the service, the minister explained that church leaders were starting a process for evaluating the ministries of the church. As a step in that process they wanted to ask those present to take a survey about the church's "core values."

When I received a copy of the survey, I was stunned at the way they were going about discovering their "core values." All of the questions revolved around the notion of discerning what non-Christians that they knew would look for in a church. Now, no one of course would want to deny that there is a point to finding out what unbelievers think about the church, but is that really the place that we would look to find our "core values?"

Unfortunately, that is not really an uncommon reality, as churches increasingly are market driven, letting the desires and tastes of those apart from Christ set the agenda for the church.

Who is the Lord of our worship? The out loud answer is Christ. God knows our hearts.