The Church in America is in a Missionary Situation

4645-everyday-church.jpgImagine you woke up one day to discover that you had become a missionary in a foreign land. The language, the culture, the worldview, and the values are all unfamiliar. Fortunately you are part of a team. What are you going to do? Together you are going to learn the language and the culture. You are going to explore how the Bible story interacts with the outlook of the people around you. You are going to try to connect them with at a relational level.

This is the situation in which the church in the West finds itself. The culture has moved on. It is not what it was a hundred years ago when it was significantly shaped by the Bible story. We need to wake up and realize we are in a missionary situation.

Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Everyday Church

The Revenge of Measuring Success by Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we would do well to consider.

Doctrine vs. Jesus? Some Musings on Sentimental Christian Pablum

 I’ve heard the song only a couple of times now, and so I can’t quote it exactly. But it’s message goes something like this: it’s not our interpretations that matter, it’s not our firmly held positions, it’s not the doctrinal points we argue over — “It’s still the cross!”

 The implication, of course, is that Christ’s cross is the center-piece of the Christian faith and its irreducible essential. And because the cross is so important, we should not fuss over such things as interpretations and doctrine. The cross of Christ — this is what is important, and this is what we are all about.

 What puzzles me is this: just how is that so? How is it that the cross of Christ is of central importance? And what does that mean? The fact is, there is no way to answer the question without giving interpretation and establishing doctrine — the very things that are said to be unnecessary! Clearly, it is not the pieces of wood formed into a cross that are essential to the faith. What is important is Christ crucified. But even that — Christ crucified — is virtually meaningless until we explain (i.e., interpret) precisely what its significance actually is.

 Now of course the significance of the cross is that in his death the Lord Jesus Christ offered himself to God as the substitute for sinners, standing in their place to make satisfaction for their sins. That is, his was the death of a penal substitute, and we who trust in him are freed from our sin and condemnation precisely because in our place he bore our wrath and endured our curse. This all is what the Bible makes a point to affirm for us over and again. But you see all of this is interpretation. It is doctrinal formulation. And such is essential to the Christian faith. It is unthinking and misguided to pit “the cross” against interpretation or doctrine, for apart from these “the cross” has no meaning whatever. In short, the song quoted above, for all its good intentions, is nonsense.

 For generations the church has been plagued by rising elements from within that decry the need of doctrine. We have had pietism and quietism and of course the run of the mill “Let’s just have Jesus” voices. “Why don’t we all just believe in Jesus and leave it at that?” Or, “It’s not doctrine that matters — life is what matters. Practical godliness and holiness are what are important!” But here we go again — what does it mean to believe in Jesus? Who is he? Why should we trust him? And what is godliness? And why is it so important? All this involves interpretation, doctrine, apart from which such well meaning assertions are meaningless and would reduce Christianity to nothing.

  We must understand that Christianity is built on propositional truth. It is distinctively a creedal religion. It is much more than that, of course. But to Christianity creed is basic. It rests on certain truth claims. There are certain propositions which are held up as true, apart from which there is no Christianity at all. Moreover, these truths have implications. And the claim of Scripture is that all this God has revealed in his Word for his people to learn and to believe earnestly in order to worship him and live before him aright. And so God commands us to “study” and “meditate” on his Word, “rightly dividing” it according to “the pattern of sound doctrine” the apostles have given us. Indifference to this Word — indifference to its truth claims — cannot in any way be said to be godly or noble. It is, in fact, anti-Christian.

 What God calls us to is not to shun interpretation. He calls us to interpret his Word carefully and faithfully. And what today’s churches need is not less doctrine but more doctrine — an ever increasing exposition and understanding of God’s precious Word. It his here, in interpreting God’s Word, we learn of a cross and a Christ of the cross, of a resurrection and a salvation for sinners fully accomplished and freely offered, of a coming judgment, and of a infinitely amazing and loving God who has done for us in his Son what we could not do for ourselves.

No, so far from shunning interpretation, we must relish it thankfully and pursue it worshipfully.


Country Club Christianity

I have never been part of a country club, but I have visited a few with friends who were members. And the experience has always been a good one. Country clubs exist because people are social beings. We like to mix with other people, make friends, and we like to share common interests — whether golfing or other amusement or perhaps a particular social agenda. Of course for some, it seems, belonging to a particular country club is a matter of pride — there may be a certain prestige associated with the membership. But still, the country club can serve a good purpose.  Friendships, amusements, activities, entertainment, social agendas — these are good things.

Even so, the country club is limited. Its purpose is not to address issues of eternal significance. It is not designed to help its members come to know God, find the forgiveness of sins, prepare for the final judgment, or provide instruction how to live faithfully before their Creator. These matters are simply not in its purview. It exists for other, more secular and temporal purposes.

There are ways in which the church and the country club are similar. Christians too are social beings, and we love to mix with other people, make friends, and share common interests. And this is one of the great values of the church. But of course a church which goes no further has missed the mark entirely. The church does not exist to address mere secular or temporal issues. The church exists in order to give a voice for God. Our whole reason for being is caught up in knowing, hearing, loving, serving, and speaking for God.  This is what the church is all about.

You’ve probably heard the criticism leveled at some churches — “They’re just a country club church.” Perhaps you have said it about some churches yourself. Such “country club churches” indeed exist, and it is surely one of the worst indictments they could ever receive. And the symptoms of country club Christianity are obvious. A country club church exists for social and secular and temporal reasons. It has a religious flavor, to be sure. But its focus seems to be on other things. Evangelism, seeking to win the lost to Christ, is not high on its agenda. Prayer is something we do before the meal or the preacher does for us on Sunday morning.  “Worship” is more entertaining than humbling.  One church service a week is more than enough, and that (the Sunday “worship service”) must not go too long — this, after all, is just one slice of our very crowded life. The preaching must not be too long, nor must it be too personal — if the preacher dares to invade our space and meddle, he’s overstepped his bounds. He must never make us feel uncomfortable — his purpose is to make us feel good.  And if anyone says “Amen!” (1Cor.14:16) during the sermon, he is probably a fanatic and will certainly get some funny looks from others in the congregation.

Country club Christianity. It’s not about God, really. It’s about relationships, entertainments, activities — a religious kind of secularism. A religion that is used perhaps to salve a conscience but a religion which makes no demands on life. A religion which is really very convenient and which exists precisely because it is convenient. But it is not a religion for discipleship. It is not a religion which calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and passionately pursue Christ.

Country club Christianity, in other words, is not Christianity at all.


The Only Professionally-Designed Ministry Simulation You’ll Ever Find!

A few years back through our Summit Christian Leadership Center, we developed a leadership training experience that is the first of its kind in the seminary world:  The Sweetbriar Baptist Church Ministry Simulation.

Our faculty and students have all been delighted and surprised at how powerful and effective this experiential learning environment is for helping participants strengthen their leadership skills.  Several dozen students have completed the simulation over the past few years, and each of them rave about how beneficial it was for them.

We still have five slots open for the next installment of Sweetbriar Baptist — to be held January 16-20, 2012. We’re so excited about this new resource that we’d like to make a special offer to our alumni and supporters.

If the church you lead (or attend) will agree to take up a special offering for our Students’ Scholarship Fund, you can send two participants to Sweetbriar at no charge.  This is a great learning experience for vocational or non-vocational church leaders!  The personalized feedback you get from our faculty will encourage you with your leadership strengths and give you real direction for how to improve in areas where you need to grow.

Time is running out, and space is limited.  Call Gail Banz today at 215-368-7538, ext. 139 or email for more information.

Why Pastors, and Not Professors, Are the Answer to Biblically Illiterate Congregations

Those of us who teach Bible and theology in Christian colleges and seminaries learn quickly to live with chastened hopes of making a significant impact on the church in America today. I am well aware that any influence I might ever have on believers outside my local church is indirect. That is, in shaping future pastors, church planters, missionaries, teachers, and counselors, I do have the joy of influencing believers all over the world through the graduates of our seminary. But my teaching and writing, especially the academic side, while necessary, is not what will transform churches.

Yale University theologian, Miroslav Volf notes that in his context of mainline liberal churches, theologians are completely irrelevant to the average churchgoer. He observes that while scholars address other scholars and students, the church is listening to other voices:

Theologians are on the sidelines. Like the streetcorner preachers of yesterday, they find themselves talking to a crowd too hurried to honor them with more than a fleeting glance.

“Theology, Meaning and Power,” in The Nature of Confession, ed. Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm (IVP, 1996), 45.

Now, the situation may not be as dire in conservative, Bible-believing churches, but the principle still applies to some extent. It’s not the college and seminary professors that will change the church. Pastors who faithfully preach and teach the Word to their congregations in the power of the Holy Spirit are the ones who will be the most instrumental in significant change. They are the ones who must keep their fingers on the pulse of the people in the pew and counter the various influences of error today. While professors can fulfill their role in training ministers, no one should live with the illusion that they are more important to the average Christian than they really are.

Like Barry Manilow Tickets at a Biker Gang Fundraiser

It is a fact that falsehood is never so false as when it is very nearly true.  It is when the stab comes near the nerve of truth, that the Christian conscience cries out in pain.–G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton lived a few decades before Neo-orthodoxy hit its stride and 70 years before Neo-orthodoxy’s expression in the emerging church reared its ugly head. Chesterton probably wrote these words about theological liberalism, but liberalism never used the sophisticated tactics of Neo-orthodoxy, which uses the same language as orthodoxy, but means entirely different things. Neo-orthodoxy’s use of words like sin, salvation, atonement, etc. areparasitic, stealing the orthodox terms, while gutting them of their meaning.

The emerging church is just the latest dress of Neo-orthodoxy mixed with postmodernism. While not every practice of emerging churches is wrong (some are a corrective of the errors of the traditional church and the seeker-sensitive church), the theology of many emerging churches is thoroughly Neo-orthodox. And as Chesterton says above, this makes the theology of the emerging church downright dangerous. It is error of the most devious kind. As one of my apologetics professors often says, if you want to kill a church, preach neo-orthodox doctrine. Every church that lets it in the door ends up dying.

What compounds the threat of emerging postmodern theology is its tendency to change the locks as soon as it gets in the door of a church. As soon as it starts infecting the host with its venom, it declares discernment and biblical critique to be mean-spirited, Pharisaical, and judgmental. This tactic immediately precludes any attempt to judge all things by Scripture. In no time, the hip, young emerging pastor (or “life coach” as they are wont to call themselves) becomes the sole authority, and coolness becomes the measure of all things. The very thing that would save the church, biblical authority and discernment, is cut off at the knees.

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Carl Trueman, sums it up best:

Of course, if we pause for a second and reflect, it will become clear that errors which are a million miles from the truth — denial of the resurrection, say, or of the deity of Christ — are unlikely to deceive most Christians or do much damage to the church.  Errors which are nearly there, nearly true, nearly within the pale of orthodoxy, perhaps which even use the language of traditional orthodoxy in nearly the same way as the orthodox do, are much more difficult to discern and to handle; and Matt. 24:24 seems to indicate that the deadliest falsehoods are akin to this kind. What a shame that the modern evangelical aesthetic regards exposing and opposing such as distasteful, divisive, and about as welcome as a prize of a couple of Barry Manilow concert tickets in a raffle at a biker gang fundraiser.

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