Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Growing Up

January 12, 2010

“Obsession is a young man’s game”

–Michael Caine in The Prestige

It’s funny how you can age ten years in the space of just one, while at other times you can go ten years and hardly age a year. It’s a variable process, it turns out. It’s all about what you learn — what you experience in the space of a year. Having said that, I feel I’ve aged more years than I know how to count just in the last 12 months. Little of it is blogworthy, unfortunately, thus the occasional hiatus in posts. Well, some of it may be perfectly appropriate for sharing with the general public, but I just haven’t always had the time or the nerve.

In another movie, Michael Caine calls Idealism “youth’s final luxury.” I don’t know why both of these quotable quotes came from the same actor’s mouth, but they’ve both been in my mind lately. Idealism has always been a close companion of mine, but over the last year or so I’ve had to bid farewell to this dear friend. Life just hasn’t afforded me the room to keep him around.

Take the decision to baptize my third daughter, for example. Several months ago my six-year-old began asking to be baptized because she professes faith in Christ and could see no reason not to make that public. A couple of years ago I baptized my two older daughters in a swimming pool on New Year’s Eve. Back then, we were still meeting with the same house church that we called home for the last decade, and a swimming pool was the most logical location. Now, however, my family and I have joined ourselves to a (very) traditional Baptist church, and the question of baptism has become more complicated.

I wanted to baptize my third daughter myself, just as I had baptized my two older daughters a couple of years before. As her father, and as one of the two people who introduced her to a relationship with God in the first place, it just made sense. But now that we attend a church with more than a thousand members, I have had to come to grips with how things work in that world. In this world, only the ministers do the baptizing. If I want to do it myself, it’s back to the swimming pool — only now, we’re no longer meeting with our house church, so whom do we invite to witness this event?

A month ago I spoke about this with the ministers of the Baptist church we joined. The preacher was gracious enough to agree to let me do the baptizing, right there in the baptistry, despite their usual tradition of “ministers only.” I guess he trusted me and we have some mutual friends, so I’ve got credibility with him. But a week before the baptism I learned that two other fathers spoke with one of the other ministers and were denied this same request after my conversation with the preacher, unbeknownst to him. This was a dilemma. In order to stay true to his word, he was willing to take the heat for letting me do the baptism. But I couldn’t do that to him. In the end I thanked him for his willingness to accommodate but told him I’d just let the guy who usually does it baptize my daughter. That was a very difficult thing for me to do, but I knew I had to do it.

That’s called growing up. Like obsession, idealism is a young man’s game, I think. Lately here alot of my decisions have been about choosing to do what makes sense under the circumstances rather than doing what fits my ideals. Does that mean I’m compromising my values, my beliefs? I dunno. I still believe the same things, still have the same values. I just realize now that I can’t always have things the way I think they should be, not when they affect other people negatively. In the end, the right thing to do in a given situation is whatever demonstrates love. That may or may not coincide with what I think should be done. But that’s where I’m at these days.

Growing up is scary. It involves changing into somebody you weren’t before. It requires putting away the toys of your youth and handling things that weigh more, that can do more damage to more people. I only hope I handle them wisely.

The baptism was yesterday, and it went great, by the way. Both sets of grandparents drove across two frozen states to celebrate this occasion with us, and one friend from our house church even came with two of her children to be a part of the event as well. That meant a great deal to my family, of course. My wife made a couple of great meals for everyone and they all had a good time together. My daughter Catie felt genuinely honored by the whole thing, and she’ll never forget it. Things turned out great, after all.

Nine Marks and Holiness

October 29, 2009

dever_9marks1I always like it when an author asks questions like: “For what purpose does your church exist? How do you know if it is fulfilling its purpose? How do you know that things are going well in your church?” (186)

In other words, What’s it all for?

I find myself drawn back to that question again and again. It’s like a North Star or the Big Dipper for me. I can make sense of what’s going on around me as long as I can relate it to that question. I can tell that Nine Marks was written largely in response to so many wrong answers to that question. Many books out there pre-suppose that bigger must be better (how could a church that’s growing by the thousands be bad, right?). Dever takes dead aim at that. Numbers, according to Dever, are not the best indicator of a church’s success or health.

Paul hoped the Corinthians would grow in their Christian faith (2 Cor. 10:15). The Ephesians he hoped, would ‘grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ’ (Eph. 4:15; cf. Col.1:10; 2 Thess. 1:3). It is tempting at times for pastors to reduce their churches to manageable statistics of attendance, baptisms, giving, and membership, where growth is tangible, recordable, demonstrable, and comparable. However, such statistics fall far short of the true growth that Paul describes in these verses, and that God desires. (215)

So what is a good indicator of this growth and maturity?  For Dever the answer is holiness (190).

What then is the evidence of true Christian growth?  According to [Jonathan] Edwards… the only certain observable sign of such growth is a life of increasing holiness, rooted in Christian self-denial. (215)

Do I agree with this?  It depends.  Only a fool would presume to disagree with a theological heavyweight like Jonathan Edwards.  And here I go…

I see a flaw in this conception.  It’s very Reformed and I recognize it clearly.  You naturally feel bad for disagreeing with it.  But I think the way we understand holiness is skewed.

Earlier in the book, Dever explains that we were created to bear God’s image and reflect his character.  “Our lives are the storefront display of God’s character in His world” (191).  Well put.  And I’m cool with the holiness target as long as it is defined in those terms.  What makes us “holy” (i.e. specially marked — different) is our tendency to love as He loves.  Since that’s the essence of his character, then our differentness is expressed fundamentally in that very thing.

I suspect that holiness means, for many people, that there’s a bunch of things we don’t do.  We don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t chew, don’t run around with folks who do.  We don’t listen to those kinds of music or watch these kinds of movies, etc.  It’s all about avoidance of dirt, keeping ourselves clean and undefiled by contact with the world.  But that sounds exactly like the kind of “perfection” that we people think up on our own.  It’s all about us.  Our goodness.  Our righteousness.  Our status.

Loving someone, on the other hand, gets you dirty sometimes.  It means going where they are, and in many cases doing what they do.  Like Jesus going to all their parties.  Was that being holy?  We know we’re supposed to say yes but come on!  Doesn’t that really mess up our categories just a bit?  I have often wondered, if the incarnation had happened first in my day, and if I were to run into him somewhere, would I have associated with him?  I wonder sometimes if I would have only been offended by him.

The ultimate mark of maturity in a church is that they love well.  They love one another and share that love with the world around them.  Will that make them a large church?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

I know what ingredients make a church large.   A dynamic speaker in the pulpit.  Gifted musicians.  Well-run programs (choir, children’s activities, support groups).  These things work.  But I don’t think they produce mature saints.  I don’t see them making what I’ve heard called “disciple-making disciples.”  For that to happen, I think smaller is actually better.  Even if we’re talking about a huge network of smaller groups.  Healthy churches in the future, I believe, will not meet in gargantuan buildings with thousands of people in attendance.  They will consist in hundreds of small groups meeting for encouragement, instruction, discipleship, worship, etc.

One can dream, right?

Nine Marks and Ownership of the Church

October 15, 2009

dever_9marksPermit me a couple more negative critiques of Nine Marks, after which I will go back to telling you where Dever and I agree.

Dever says:

“In a funny way, when we hear expositional preaching we become less dependent on the preacher.  We’re more concerned about the Word of God.  And so, if your pastor is away, if God calls him somewhere else or if he’s gone and someone else is in the pulpit, that’s okay.”(206)

I get what he is saying, and ideally we want this to be true.  Too many churches (including one I know very well) are built entirely around a single personality.  When that person leaves, the church as it used to be ceases to exist.  Ideally, as Dever would like it, the preaching of the Word, not the preacher himself, would be central to the life of the church.  Dever argues that expositional preaching will safeguard against the cult of personality.

But I say the preacher is still too central either way.  An expositional preacher still dominates the gathering of the saints way too much.  The whole worship service points to the moment when everyone else gets very quiet and very still in order to let the one guy do all the talking.  The very existence of the monologue teaches the rest of the Body of Christ to be passive.  It screams volumes about who really has the ability to “minister.”  I agree that it is a problem when a church becomes overly dependent upon one personality.  But the bigger, deeper, more universal problem is that churches in general depend too much upon the guy who fills the pulpit, regardless of his preaching style.

Topical preaching isn’t the problem.  The pulpit itself is the problem.

Well, that’s oversimplification, of course.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone getting up in front of a church to preach and teach.  I’d like to see more people do it.  That might help us see more of the Body as viable vehicles for God’s word.  Ultimately, furniture is not the problem–lopsided functioning in the Body of Christ is.

Elsewhere, Dever says this:

“Joining a church increases our sense of ownership of the work of the church, of its community, of its budget, of its goals.  We move from being pampered consumers to becoming joyous proprietors.”(157)

Again, I’m feelin’ ya, Dever.  Isn’t that what all church leaders want?  Don’t we all want to see the average church member catch a sense of ownership of the mission and purpose of the church?  But how can I feel like a proprietor when I have no say in what is taught, what is sung, or how the church goes about its work?  If I am not on staff, I am out of the loop.  Merely becoming a member changes very little.  If I really want to make a difference, I have to become a pastor myself.

murrowI wrote an article several years ago entitled “Why Men Don’t Go to Church.”  It must have struck a chord with a number of people because it still gets quoted on people’s blogs from time to time, and it even helped one author think through his material for a book he later wrote using almost the same title.  In my article, I argued this same point–that the only way to make much of a difference in the direction of a church is to crossover and become one of the clergy.  As long as that’s the way it is, I’m afraid the consumer mentality will be very difficult for most church members to avoid.

***

One more thing I gotta take issue with:  Dever’s take on different leadership models was three-quarters right, in my opinion.  But the first of the four leadership styles he proposes is called “the boss,” and he considers it a legitimate mode of leadership in the church.  I do not.  Dever gives good scriptural support for the other three:  the example setter, the support giver, and the servant leader.  His top-down “boss” model just doesn’t mesh well with the other three or with the New Testament.  The scant scriptural references he gives to illustrate it (238) just don’t say what he seems to think they say.

To me, this “commanding” mode of leadership flies in the face of Dever’s earlier chapter on authority in the church, which I liked very much.  In that earlier chapter, he cites Matthew 18:15-17 to illustrate that, in the church, the ultimate court of appeal is the church itself–not a specially-marked individual or group of leaders.  He also recognizes that when Paul sought to correct the saints in Corinth, “he instructs the whole church–not just the leaders–to take action” (223).  Likewise, when the Galatians heard that they were supposed to get circumcised in order to be good Christians, he made his appeal to the whole church, not to a dominating group.  “They had an inescapable duty to judge even those who claimed to be apostles” (224).  Where’s “the boss” in those scenarios?  It’s not there.

Top-down is simply not the style of leadership envisioned by Jesus or the New Testament writers.  Bottom-up is more like it.  Or even the “alongside” kind, as Dever characterizes two of his four styles.  But top-down won’t do.  Maybe things in the world work that way.  But not in the church.

It will not be so among you,” Jesus told us (Mk. 10:43).   How quickly we forget.

Nine Marks and the Centrality of the Preacher

October 12, 2009

dever_9marksLet me begin my most critical post about Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by affirming something I really like about this book.  Dever places the speaking of God at the fountainhead of the life of the church.  I completely agree with him there.  Several pages in his first chapter sound just like a section in my book about the centrality of the Word of God in the life of the church.  He argues that God’s people have always been constituted as a people by the speaking of God (44).  He points out how often “the word of the Lord came” to Israel–3,000 times (45)!  He illustrates from Ezekiel how God gives life to dead things by simply speaking to them (46).  He goes on to teach that “His Word not only gives us life; it also gives us direction as it keeps molding and shaping us in the image of the God who is speaking to us” (51).  Absolutely right!  Couldn’t agree more.

But I contend that God speaks through the whole church, not just through one man.  That perpetual “guy up front” concept may have been exactly right for the Old Covenant people of God, but he is up to something else now.  I wish everyone could see this.  God told us that when the fullness of time had come, he would pour out his Spirit on all his people, not just on a select few.  When he said, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28), he was using what in Hebrew poetry is called a merism (also defined here).  It means every one of God’s people will have his Spirit and every one of them will become his spokesmen.  And in case you missed it, Peter announced that Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled the day the church was born (Acts 2:14ff).  In the New Covenant community, everyone becomes a mouthpiece for God.

Reformed thinkers don’t see it that way, and neither does Dever.  Reformed theology tends to blend together the Old and New Covenants so that each one bleeds into the other, affecting what we see in each.  While Hebrews tells us clearly that we have NOT come to Mt. Sinai (Heb.12:18-24) but to something much better, several professors at the Reformed seminary I went to actually taught that Sinai is our best model for how worship should happen today.  For them, it is an extension of something called the “regulative principle of worship.”  God’s people gather to the feet of an elevated platform to hear him speak his demands and the people respond with “all this we will do.”  In this model, only one person is authorized to speak for God, and that’s the preacher.  That’s the model that Dever apparently adheres to, and it still makes my Baptist stomach turn.

Listen to Dever’s unqualified championing of this regulative principle in preaching:

“Permit me to suggest that the one-sidedness of preaching is not only excusable but is actually important.  If in our preaching we stand in the place of God…then surely it is appropriate that it be one-sided…the univocal character of God’s Word comes as a monologue to us” (33).

Did a Baptist really write that sentence?  I can hardly believe it!  Where does he find support for this in the New Testament?  Surely he is back at Sinai with our Reformed friends, but he assumes this model rather than demonstrating it.  Reading the following statement, I’m certain of it:

“…there is something appropriate about us all gathering together and listening to one who is standing in the place of God, giving His Word to us as we contribute nothing to it other than hearing and heeding it” (54, emphasis mine).

Standing in the place of God?  I heard an Orthodox priest tell me the same thing once.  That’s the Orthodox/Catholic view of the role of a priest.  It shouldn’t even fit within a “Reformed” ecclesiology, but somehow it has anyway.  I’ve never understood how.

Peter said we should all speak as those speaking the very words of God (1 Pet.4:11 ).  That’s why I can’t support this notion that one guy gets to be the lone mouthpiece of God when the church assembles.

I just don’t follow this reasoning:  First he argues that the New Testament teaches a plurality of elders.  At first it is assumed that elders are synonymous with pastors (aka shepherds).  But then some distinctive singular office called “the preacher” emerges and becomes synonymous with THE pastor (suddenly singular) with no warning or explanation.  Dever says: “My main role, and the main role of any pastor, is expositional preaching” (39).  Says who?  What verse did you get that out of?  More crucially, why do you insist that this function falls only to one person in a church?  Why aren’t at least the other elders “preachers” as well?  And what happened to the rest of the members of the Body of Christ to make them suddenly passive receptacles for such a uni-directional ministry?

This is the point where Dever and I part ways, and it’s a crucial point.  Dever himself argues that the preaching of this singular individual, since it is the only way for the church to hear from God, “is far and away the most important [mark] of them all…if you get this one right, all of the others should follow.  This is the crucial mark” (39).

Well, there you have it.  It all hangs on the preacher, and he’s all alone in his role.  All the hopes and dreams for life in the church rise and fall on the capabilities of one individual.  Forgive me, I simply cannot find the priesthood of all believers in that notion.  I certainly cannot find a living, functioning Body of Christ supplying its own needs through what every joint supplies (Eph 4:15-16).  We’ve got two very different models here for how a church functions, and I don’t see any way they can mesh.  If Dever’s model is your model for how God communicates with his people, then I don’t think we’re thinking about the same thing at all.

One man cannot feed God’s people week after week, year after year without them  becoming passive receptacles.  A room full of ears sitting underneath one giant mouth.  That’s just not the Body of Christ.

Last Sunday I went to church at a local Baptist church.  For the first hour, in Sunday School, I sat quietly, listening to a lesson on the second coming.  It was taught by an intelligent woman who did a good job teaching it.  There still were a number of points I would have disagreed with if it had been really appropriate to do so, but under the circumstances, that would have been just rude and annoying.  So I sat quietly and listened.  When that hour was done, I filed into the sanctuary for another hour to hear the choir sing and the preacher preach.  When that was done, my family and I went home and put on our comfortable clothes and ate lunch.

Since actions speak louder than words, it seems to me that this setup is teaching me that I am a spectator–a passive recipient of ministry–and not a minister myself.  You can say every member is a minister until you are blue in the face.  You can preach all you want about mobilizing the “people in the pew” for mission.   But this arrangement undermines that message in the most fundamental way.  I’m sticking by my original contention that this has to change before average believers will ever come to see themselves as active participants in the mission of God in the world.

Think about it.  Isn’t it obvious?

Nine Marks and Reformed Stepchildren

October 10, 2009

rip-van-winkleReturning to Baptist life after almost ten years away, I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle.  Apparently, while I was gone Southern Baptists found something new to fight about.  Back in the day, the fight was over biblical inerrancy.  Then it was over speaking in tongues.  Then they decided to crack down on women in ministry.  I don’t really know what else–I lost interest nearly 15 years ago.  In fact, I left the SBC fold entirely.  I did something that, to my mind, was the most historically Baptist thing I could do:  I forsook denominational life and went primitive, meeting in homes with other non-conformists like myself.  We devoted ourselves to a thoroughly consistent belief in the priesthood of believers.  We had a great run for a while, too.  But the time eventually came when my wife and I needed to move on to something else (still not sure what!).  But I’m going to miss them and I know I’ll always thank God for my time with them.

By the way, have you heard the one about the guy who tried to start a Non-conformists Club?  He couldn’t get anyone to join.

Well, back to Dever’s book.  It turns out that while I was away, Southern Baptists got bit by the Reformed bug.  Not all of them, mind you.  Many of them vehemently oppose this new development.  They see Calvinism as a mortal enemy of evangelism, which is the Baptist’s main focus.  But huge swaths of young Southern Baptists have begun reading Puritans for their devotions.  They’re downloading John Piper and C.J. Mahaney messages.  They’re reading R.C. Sproul.  The’re reading Jonathan Edwards for fun!  What happened?

Well, I know the story, some of it.  A Calvinist became president of Southern Baptist Seminary and he cleaned house.  I read that 96% of the faculty got replaced in just a few years.  Small wonder, then, that tulips are blooming now in Baptist pulpits all over the country.  I’m sure there’s more to it than that, of course.  Ultimately I suspect Reformed theology has gained ground lately because it has substance and depth to it.  It has intellectual bite.  In an age when people know less and less what they believe, this tradition gives people something solid to stand on.

Incidentally, I happen to agree with much of Reformed theology, and not just because I studied at Reformed Seminary.  For all the things I don’t like about most Calvinists (like intellectual arrogance and a strong clergy/laity distinction).  I still believe in a sovereign God.  I still believe he had to quicken my heart before it could even sense its own need for him.  I’m at least a four-point Calvinist myself.  That won’t satisfy hardcore Calvinists, of course (I’m convinced that, unlike the other four,  one of the five points doesn’t come from scripture at all–it is inferred from the other four).  But I’m not that befuddled by a grassroots return to what Reformed folks call the “doctrines of grace.”  To my mind, most of this stuff just comes from reading the New Testament.  The idea of election, for example, comes from Paul, not from some French guy in the 1500’s.

But in the Baptist world I grew up in, this kind of talk would have made me the butt of many jokes.  I didn’t know of any Calvinists in the large SBC church I grew up in, nor had I even heard of them anywhere else except in Presbyterian churches.  I remember how amazed I was when I first read through the New Testament and discovered verses like Acts 13:48:

“When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (emphasis mine).

I brought that verse to Sunday School one morning and everyone insisted I must have been reading from a bad translation.

dever_9marks1But now as my wife and I have started church hunting among Baptist churches, we’ve discovered that most of them around here are preaching Reformed theology from the pulpit!  It’s like Bizarro world for Baptists!  One of those pastors handed me Mark Dever’s Nine Marks book and said, “Here is basically what I believe.”  I open the book and read him affirming the following:  “The history recorded in the Bible shows us very plainly that God is a creating God and that He is an electing God” (62).  He does not see a contradiction between election and evangelism.  He rather asserts that “God used the doctrine of election as an encouragement to Paul in evangelism” (143), citing as his proof Acts 18:9-10, which says:

And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.‘”

Belief in election isn’t the only evidence of the Reformed influences on Dever’s thinking.  One of his main points is that churches should be receiving a steady diet of systematic theology (a clear mark of a Reformed influence) and that they should learn a biblical view of God.  He then summarizes this biblical view of God by including a long excerpt from the classic statement of Reformed theology, the Westminster Confession (see 84-85).  He closes his extensive quote by saying, “This is the God who reveals himself in the Bible” (85).  That’s some pretty hearty props for Reformed theology there!

Then there is the notion of elders.  In the Baptist world of my growing up days, nobody had elders.  They had pastors, ministers of this and that, and then there were deacons.  But deacons just do grunt work for the church–taking care of practical needs and such.  Most of the time they don’t have any real authority in the church, like elders would.  Dever, however,  cites “a growing trend to go back to this biblical office”.  He contends that “the Bible clearly models a plurality of elders in each local church” (229).  My own reading of the New Testament reinforces this for me.  I’ve like the idea of a plurality of elders (grown locally) for a while now.  I just can’t believe the idea is gaining popularity among modern Baptists!

Dever points out that Baptist churches used to have elders, back in their earliest days.  He even says the first president of the SBC wrote a book advocating a plurality of elders in church life (229).  The idea just never got universal acceptance and it eventually fell by the wayside.  Now here we have a stirring of writers and influential preachers calling for a return to ways of thinking and governing which will strike many people as thoroughly un-Baptist.

For example, Monday night a local pastor paid me and my family a visit.  We have been visiting his church and he maintains the unheard-of habit of personally visiting every prospective member in his or her home at some point.  We chatted, discussed common acquaintances, talked theology a bit, then he prayed with us and for us.  I was impressed with the pastoral faithfulness that showed.  It went a long way toward making me like him.  So it didn’t bother me that much when I figured out that his views about the second coming are very different from mine and that he has no warm feelings for Reformed theology.

Sometimes I think those folks should just go ahead and become Presbyterians,” he said finally.

But wait a second.  I know just enough history to be dangerous, and I know that many, if not most, of the earliest Baptists were thoroughly Calvinistic in almost every way.  They just disagreed with the notion of an unregenerate church membership.  They believed in a believer’s church, where only professing believers get baptized (e.g. not infants) and where the State doesn’t own the church, or vice versa.  This put the earliest Baptists (and their ideological grandparents, the Anabaptists) at odds with the established churches of the Colonial (or Reformation) Era.  It got them exiled, arrested, or killed, depending on which country they inhabited.

Baptists have been called the “Stepchildren of the Reformation.”  That’s because Baptists really were like an offshoot of the Reformation–Calvinistic in theology but Anabaptist in church practice.  They saw churches as self-governed and composed of only regenerate believers, so they weren’t really Presbyterian to begin with.  And that’s not what people like Dever are after, either.  They belong to a committed minority of people who read the Scriptures for themselves and find there a set of teachings which do not fit perfectly with either the Established Churches of the Reformation or with the revivalistic churches that sprung up later in the U.S.  I don’t think they’re so crazy because “I is one myself.”

So there.  I admit it.  I’m a Reformed Baptist in my theology.  But I’m also organic/house/simple church in my ecclesiology, which means that I chafe when Dever goes on to claim that “In the New Testament, we find hints of the main preacher being distinct from the rest of the elders” (230).  I’m gonna need more than hints to buy that idea.  His only noteworthy evidence for this is Paul, who was a preacher but not a pastor by any means.  So he doesn’t really count.

Dever does what many pastors and theologians do:  He confuses the function of an itinerant apostle/church planter with that of a local pastor.  I know he does this because he did it earlier with Timothy and Titus.  He calls Timothy the pastor of Ephesus and assumes Titus must have been a pastor of  a church somewhere as well (177).  But the letters he cites make it clear that these guys were supervising large clusters of churches, and it fell to them to appoint pastors in each city where they planted a church.  Does that sound like the function of a local pastor to you?  That just doesn’t make sense to me.  All I can figure is that it has always been customary to call these letters “pastoral epistles.”  But that’s misleading.  And it seems to have misled Dever as well.

Here we find ourselves bumping up against the most sacred cow of evangelical church practice:  the single pastor tradition (by that, I don’t mean unmarried ones…I mean singling out one leader over all the others).  Even in a book that advocates a plurality of elders, we seem unable to conceive of a church without a main guy up front, doing all the teaching and preaching for the church.  It simply baffles me.

But I’ll take a shot at that in the next post:  Nine Marks and the Centrality of the Preacher.

Nine Marks and Real Conversion

October 9, 2009

dever_9marksHere’s another place where my concerns and Mark Dever’s concerns are similar:  Neither one of us likes the “once saved always saved” doctrine.

My issue with this is not that we are not saved by grace.  I’m a firm believer in that.  I don’t believe you earn your way into God’s good graces by self effort or keeping the Law.  But being saved through faith alone doesn’t mean your faith should be alone.  Real faith produces real change in the heart of the believer.

I don’t think we make this clear enough when we stress that you just pray this certain prayer and now you’re in.  In fact, I think the whole invitational setup is flawed, because it reinforces this notion that you enter the kingdom of heaven by making a once-for-all crisis decision during a semi-pressured moment in a worship service.  In many cases, this is a highly choreographed moment, perhaps accompanied by soft music, punctuated by impassioned pleas from the preacher to get up out of your seat and “come forward to make a decision.”  I know the historical roots of this practice well, and it carries no magical aura for me at this point.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I know a great many lifetimes of following Jesus began at moments just like this.  But it’s still just the beginning.  That’s what we don’t stress enough.  We’re beginning a lifetime of following Jesus, honoring his name and knowing him in an ongoing relationship.  That just doesn’t always get communicated, so all the emphasis seems to be on making this one move at a particular point in time.  That’s just too shallow an understanding of what it means to “get saved.”

I’ve often said it before:  I don’t like saying that I “got saved” when I was 16.  I’m still getting saved even as I type this post.  You better believe I still need it.  Does that mean something shifted and now I’m earning it, even though it originally was by grace?  Absolutely not!  It’s still by grace, every day.  His grace didn’t check out after I made a crisis decision as a hormonal teenager.  His grace is what keeps me believing even now.  Were he to remove it, you would see just how unChristian I really am deep down.  It’s like my old friend Joe Shelton used to sing, “I need a Savior/All the time!”

Dever says, “We need to see an end to a wrong, shallow view of evangelism as simply getting people to say yes to  a question, or to make a one-time decision” (143).  Real evangelism, he asserts, includes a call to real conversion.  “Scripture presents us as needing to have our hearts replaced, our minds transformed, our spirits given life” (143).  But as he goes on to say, “evangelical churches are full of people who have made sincere commitments at some point in their lives but who have not experienced the radical change that the Bible calls conversion” (113).  He argues that this lies at the root of the immaturity of evangelical churches.  An abbreviated gospel produces shallow churches, with immature members.

I want to write some more about maturity, maybe comparing his definition with my own.  But for now, I’ll have to agree with Dever, who, even though he didn’t explicitly say so in this book, apparently holds to the more typically Reformed doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints”.  That’s a little different from “once saved always saved” because the implication is that a person who has genuine  faith and repentance will continue to have such as long as he or she lives.  “Once saved always saved” implies that as long as you did this one thing at some point, you’re done.  You’ve got your ticket.  You’re in.  But what does the rest of life look like from that point on?  Real conversion changes a person.  And it keeps on changing them.

Things that are truly alive, grow.  That’s just the way it is” (216).

I agree.

I desperately  need the Lord to provide that growth now just as much as I needed it almost 20 years ago.   You do, too…

Nine Marks and Church Growth

October 5, 2009

dever_9marksBefore I launch into my most fundamental problem with Dever’s book (the preacher as THE mouthpiece of God in the Church), I’d like to highlight a few places where I track really well with what he’s saying.  Ultimately, I believe this book is a call for a higher standard of maturity among church members.  That’s a topic that lately has become a concern of my own, so I can identify with it.  I’ll write some about that in the next post.

Dever calls for a rediscovery of “the corporate nature of following Christ” (30).  That’s why he is addressing the health of the church as a whole, not merely of individuals within the church.  That resonates with me quite well.  Whenever someone wants the “elevator speech” about the main point of my book, I generally say something about “the corporate nature of following Christ.”  It’s about the gospel leading naturally to community.  And it’s about not living the Christian life alone.  Dever seems to agree.

Dever also expresses a clear disdain for what Os Guinness calls “the exaltation of numbers and of technique” (quoted  on p.24).  He argues that many churches we regard as successful share the assumption that certain measurable things (numbers fed, saved, or joining the church) are the best indicators of church health.  They all seem to argue that “the fruit of a successful church is readily apparent” (27).  This misconception produces churches (and leadership styles) which are “pragmatic, results-oriented endeavors” with leaders who learn to specialize in subtle manipulation and sales techniques, always looking to “close a deal” evangelistically speaking.  “We misunderstand evangelism so badly we think we can tell from the immediate results whether we are evangelizing properly” (136).

On the contrary, Dever contends that “successful ministry [is] not necessarily immediately fruitful but [is] demonstrably faithful to God’s Word” (28).  He goes on to remind us that “God’s Word is replete with images of delayed blessing” (27).  Absolutely.  I happen to be clinging quite closely to that truth at the moment.  It’s becoming one of my closest friends.

Dever also seems to have a healthy appreciation for the value of loss and failure in the life of God’s servants.  On p. 73 he says:  “Disappointments have their purpose.  The ruins of our own cherished plans are often the steps to finding the true God and the good that He has for us.  The Bible is full of stories like this.”  Indeed it is.  And it’s refreshing to see this held in tension with all the other hopeful bits of advice and admonition that come with a book like this.

growthNine Marks is a book about church growth, but not the kind that most mean when they use that phrase.  Dever says we’re to be about “not simply growing numbers but growing members” (214).  This seems to be the central idea of the book.  He goes on to admit, “of all the ‘nine marks’ covered in this book, this is the one I first became concerned about” (216).

He and I may disagree on how to get from point A to point B in this matter.  But I still track with so much of what he says, I figure that’s a good place to start.

“Forget what the experts say” (p.54)

Right on, brother.

Nine Marks and the Definition of a Church

October 2, 2009

dever_9marksSo I’m making my way through Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, which a new friend gave me to read. It’s a popular book among pastors, and I never turn away a free book 🙂 I’ll take a few posts to interact with the book, giving my reactions as I go along.

Dever summons a consensus from several (Reformed) sources and concludes that three things must be present in order to proclaim a gathering of people a legitimate church: the preaching of the Word of God, observance of the sacraments, and exercise of church discipline.

Of course, there’s lots of room for interpretation there. How many sacraments do you count? And what if you don’t actually call them or label them as “sacraments” in the old Catholic sense of the term? At what point does really bad preaching disqualify a church from being taken seriously?

This is all beside the point that I want to make in response. What I really want to do in response to this is answer a question a brother asked me in Dayton, Ohio, a couple of months ago. His question was this:

What’s the difference between a house church and a cell group/small group?

This comes up as traditional churches debate how to integrate smaller community groups into their church structure. Someone on staff becomes convinced that “small groups are where it’s at” for whatever reason (better accountability, more authentic community, more effective missions, etc). Then they get busy figuring out how to make it happen. Do they phase out Sunday School or do both at the same time? And what will be the purposes and goals of these groups?

And what do you call them?

Life groups? Cell groups? Home groups? House churches?

Most of the time, I don’t get too hung up on what you name things. For example, I’d rather see good eldership and oversight exercised among a group of people than hear the “right” biblical term used for each function. Same goes for any other kind of spiritual gifting. It’s more important to have a gift functioning than it is to know the right thing to call it. I think some people are way too obsessed with terminology some times.

HOWEVER, I think it would help to call these small groups house churches and them treat them as such. If you work in a traditional church setup and you want to integrate the house church model into what your church does, don’t treat them like they’re anything less than bonafide house churches in and of themselves.

Teach them to provide their own ministry. Teach them to celebrate communion and baptisms together, in their groups. Teach them to recognize leaders among them and guide them through the process of learning to exercise their own church discipline.

In other words, treat them like real churches. Think of them and speak of them in that way. Don’t tie long strings to each group and micro-manage them like marionettes under your control. That’s the difference between a cell group and a house church in my opinion. House churches carry out all the functions of a church: teaching, prayer, fellowship, evangelism, discipline, marrying, burying, baptizing, communion, etc. They do it all.

Maybe they still gather together with the rest of the larger church on a regular basis. Maybe once a month, maybe twice, or maybe once every week. Whatever. The staff still trains, supports, and troubleshoots the microchurches that result from the larger church’s ministry. But everything they do serves to EQUIP those groups to find the guidance of the Spirit for themselves.

Is anyone doing such a thing?

Sure. I visited at least four churches like that this past summer. They ranged in membership from 80 people to about 4000. And I heard of several more. Such things do exist.

Not in my part of town, mind you. But some day.

For today’s post, I’ll let Dever’s definition of a church inform the formation of house churches, too.

There are at least a dozen other comments I’d like to make in response to Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. I’ll get to them soon enough…

Churches, Kids, and Pastors

October 1, 2009

Well, our church hunting may be nearing an end. It hasn’t been an easy process, lemme tell you. Turns out there’s a lot to consider when looking for a church! But we limited our search on a couple of factors:

Number one: We’re not looking all over metro Atlanta for the right church. We’re only keeping to churches that we can drive to in a matter of 20 minutes or less. The reason for this is that we don’t want to just attend once a week. We want to connect with some people in those churches for a while, and we want our kids to make some friends that they can hang out with and get to know. That’s just not gonna work if everyone we meet lives on the other side of Atlanta.

Number two: We don’t want to drag our kids to twelve different churches in this process. Besides wearing them out and stretching the more introverted ones beyond their capacities, I figure this would only teach them to be seasoned critics of churches (“I liked the couches at such-and-such church but didn’t like the music and so-and-so church”). We want to get their input wherever it’s relevant, but then we make the decision and they can just run with it.

Number one limits the geographical scope of our hunt and number two made us prioritize which churches to visit. In the end we had three churches to choose between, with pros and cons spreading evenly among all three — no obvious winner. This made us have to think really hard about what matters most in this hunt. What exactly are looking for? Are we looking to connect to a church long term, or just for a while? Are we looking for ourselves, or for the kids? If one church seems clearly better for them while the others are better for us, what do we do? Whole lotta hard questions to work through here.

Perhaps hardest of all, how does a die-hard organic church guy make his way back into a traditional, brick-and-mortar, Southern Baptist church without going berserk? I’ll have to get back with you on that one… Still working on it.

One thing in this process that has been educational for me has been visiting with pastors from each church. Since I’ve been in a house church for nine years, I didn’t have much interaction with pastors for quite a while. But now, in the last three months, I’ve had lunch and/or involved conversation with no fewer than SIX pastors and at least as many church leaders of other titles (elder, associate pastor, etc) plus I’ve got one more coming to visit our home Monday night. These conversations have been helpful for me, reminding me how folks “on the other side” of the institutional/organic divide think about things.

I’ve been reminded how much people see the preacher as the mouthpiece of God in the congregation. A house church like the one in my neighborhood believes whole-heartedly in every member ministering (even in the sense of everyone sharing and speaking in the meeting). Not so in a traditional church. At least three of the six men I recently spoke with clearly believe that it is their responsibility to feed the congregations they minister to. They see themselves as feeders rather than equippers. They see the congregation’s dependence upon them as a perpetual thing, and they feel that is how it should be.

One minister I ate with handed me a book, which I will blog about for the next few posts. It was Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, by Mark Dever.

It’s a pretty good book, all things considered. I believe it’s very popular (especially with counter-cultural neo-Calvinist guys) and I think I can see why. Dever says a lot of things that I can agree with. I like his attitude towards church growth experts (“Forget what the experts say,” p.54). Stick it to ’em. He sees the futility in chasing the latest fad in seeker-friendly church practice. I can identify with that. I can identify with much of what he says, in fact.

But Dever’s model hinges on a fundamental principle that I cannot accept: The absolute centrality of the preacher in the life of the church. Dever would probably say that preaching, not the preacher, is the center. Or more precisely, that the Word of God is the center. When you put it THAT way, I agree completely. But the practical outworking of that principle, in my mind, rests with the whole body of Christ supplying what each joint supplies (see Eph. 4:11-16). For Dever, God speaks through the preacher. And that’s how most of the pastors I speak with see it. Even the ones that believe in a plurality of elders, like Dever. The preacher is still there, and he’s still doing that function all by himself. He speaks. Everyone else listens. The end.

Well, more on that and other things in the next post. In the meantime, it looks like we’re going to pick the church that’s best for the kids. Two of the churches we’ve been looking at have too few kids to connect with. They also use programs that are heavily driven by point systems, candy, and other such “extrinsic motivation.” Honestly, that’s really a turn off. Do I want my girls learning praise songs because they get candy if they can sing the words correctly at the end of the lesson? Or learning Bible stories because if they do they get a chance to win a bike?

We also want the girls to be with us in the worship service. That knocks out one of my choices right there. Put that together with a few other details that I won’t belabor at this point, and we’ve probably got our church home for the next little while. I won’t lie to you…it’s gonna be a tough transition for a guy like me. But I’m putting my trust in the Father to know what’s best for us right now. I don’t know enough to make these decisions myself. What can you do?

On a side note, the surrounding community has done a great job of trying to help out the schoolchildren that lost their school last week in the flood. By the way, people here are dating everything now by saying “that was before the flood” or “that was after the flood.” Well, after the flood, the neighboring churches, schools, and businesses pitched in and bought supplies for the kids that have been displaced by the flood. Some neighborhoods got nearly two feet of rain in one day. I know my area got more than a foot just in the first evening. Anyway, here’s a story about the local news network presenting the kids with what they collected.

To Blog or Not to Blog

September 18, 2009

bloggingBlogging is a funny thing. It’s an online journal of sorts, but there’s a catch-22 when it comes to writing about things that really matter to people. The most interesting stuff to write about is precisely the stuff that you cannot write about. Not for public consumption, anyway. So you stick to things like theology, leisure, movie critiques or other general cultural commentary, yada, yada, yada.

In one sense it’s a journal. You want to express what you’re feeling about all kinds of things. But many of the most intense experiences are so personal to both yourself and to other people that you just can’t broadcast the details on the world wide web. Wouldn’t be prudent. Not gonna do it.

On the other hand, if you’re writing stuff for other people to read then you ought to talk some about the things that really matter in life. You want to share your experience and your reflections on that experience so that other people can learn from it as well. The most intensely personal stuff you write in a notebook and keep somewhere safe in your own home. The rest you can put on a blog. The trick is finding that line. Where does something become “not for public consumption” and therefore too sensitive to publish for all to see? Best I can figure, it’s when something could hurt someone else, or defame them. That’s not kind. You wouldn’t want someone doing that to you. So I guess the bottom line becomes:

The Golden Rule of Blogging: Publish about others what you would have them publish about you.

I imagine this is a difficult rule to apply for the kids in the generation below my own. I don’t know what you’re supposed to call them: Generation Y, the Generation Next, Millennials, whatever. Regardless of what you call them, the characteristics are pretty consistent. Kids that I teach have very little sense of a dividing line between public and private life. To them, it all looks the same. If a celebrity or a public official gets into a fight with his or her spouse/significant other, they feel we are all entitled to hear about it in detail. If a president calls a bone-headed rap singer an idiot (or something more “colorful”) then we should all hear the recording, even if it was supposed to be off the record. Even professional journalists with major networks seem to feel such an interjection should be immediately tweeted to the whole world. It’s funny, I know. But think before you share, will ya?

So I’ll give some careful thought about what could prove hurtful to someone else and I will try to avoid sharing those things. On the other hand, if my own experiences could be informative for someone else in a constructive way, then I say it should be shared. It should be shared with care that no one is unfairly represented, and it should be shared with sensitivity to the reputations of others.

But the bottom line is that this little thing we call the internet has revolutionized the way we all think and act. It has permeated our culture, even globally, creating a new age no less revolutionary than the industrial revolution of the last few centuries. People turn it on in order to help them think about things. It has become a primary public marketplace of ideas. Therefore, I think people who follow Jesus, the Lord of all things, should work to make his presence and his mind known in that realm. Cyberspace should feel the influence of the children of the King. We should be on it, calling things what they are and offering life to those who read what we say.

And it doesn’t always have to be Bible lessons and such. Believe it or not, someone out there may be strangely encouraged by the fact that I got up and went to work this morning in order to teach a bunch of ungrateful, immature teenagers who after two months of classes still can’t remember my name! Somewhere in the daily stuff of my life is something which may touch someone else’s. It’s virtual community, and I have reservations about it. But for some it’s the best they can get.

I suppose as my hairs are turning gray I am learning to think less about how the world should be and deal instead with how the world actually is.

At present, my circumstances force me to do the same thing about church. At the moment, I am persuaded to dream a little less about how church should be and think some more about how to work with the church as it actually is. That’s a new mode for me. But it’s where I am at the moment.

So if you’ve made it all the way down to the end of this post, you deserve to hear that I am no longer meeting with the church that I’ve been a part of for nearly a decade now. I moved to Georgia to be a part of a community of people when I was 25 years old. I tried to move when I was 20, but my dream was deferred until then. Now I am 35 and I announced to my brothers and sisters in this church that the Lord seems to be clearly calling my family and I to move on and follow Him somewhere else. He hasn’t told us yet where that somewhere else is. But I am trying to trust that the next step will become apparent when it is upon us.

For now, my wife and I (along with our four girls) are embarking upon something neither of us ever thought we would be doing. We are church hunting. This new adventure is uncharted territory, even for my wife, who did way more church growing up than I did. Her folks are ministers themselves, so they’ve done church relocation multiple times. But they always get called to a new church and they just go. You don’t hunt around and check out Sunday Schools, preachers, choirs, children’s programs, etc. You just join and work with what’s there. Doing it the way we’re doing it is much more difficult. So many factors to consider! Ultimately we’re listening for the voice of the Lord to make some kind of noise at the right time. But so far it’s just a lot of looking and hard thinking. Not my favorite adventure I’ve ever been on, frankly. But it is what it is. There’s a profound statement.

Maybe next I’ll write some about what it’s like for a radical house church guy to go church hunting around multiple traditional church campuses around town.