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Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Wishful thinking or prophetic observation?  That’s the question I’m left with after reading “The Next Christians” by Gabe Lyons, author of the popular book “UnChristian” and founder of Q.  He begins the book with what could be considered bad news by defenders of the status quo but good news for the thesis of his book.  The news is this: Christianity in America is undergoing a sea change which spells an end to the cultural dominance that evangelicalism has enjoyed for nearly 200 years (a point which is hardly news at this point).  In a nutshell, the church is losing influence in the world of the 21st century.  However, this is not necessarily bad news for Lyons, who sees a new breed of Christian emerging: the next Christians of the title.  In the past, he maintains, there were primarily five kinds of Christian.  Those who separated from the culture were insiders, cultural warriors, and evangelists while those who acceded to the culture were blenders and philanthropists.  All of these kinds of Christians had flawed methodologies, according to Lyons, and were not effectively sharing the Gospel with the culture.  The good news to Lyons is that the “next Christians” which are emerging are restorers, who do not flee from the culture nor blend in with it but instead are restoring the culture which they are in to a model of God’s Kingdom through five paradigms.  For example, instead of being offended they are provoked to action, instead of criticizing culture they create, and so on.  Lyon rejoices that the old paradigms are withering on the vine and are being replaced with those who are restoring culture by advancing the Gospel.   

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  If Lyon’s prediction is right, then I rejoice with him.  I would love to see the church take seriously the charge to proclaim the Gospel in such a way that culture is changed as people place their faith in Jesus.  I agree with his caricatures of the negative types of Christians and would love to see the church be seen more as a force for good and restoration instead of as a source of comedy for Jon Stewart, Lewis Black and Stephen Colbert.  However, I have a number of reservations.  First, I wonder where all these Christians are that he describes as the “next Christians”.  The book is filled with many anecdotes of people doing things right (though not all of them are Christians: one example he gives is of the gay movement), but I wonder if these anecdotes represent a real quantifiable movement or just a few isolated examples.  He states in the last chapter that it too early to chart this movement which leads me to wonder if his examples are truly representative or are just examples of what he would like to see.  After all, a person could find examples of any kind of Christian in small numbers to list in anecdotal form.  Second, I felt that he danced very close to a message of a social gospel where leading people to Christ is less of a priority than painting schools and cleaning up city parks.  Mind you, I don’t think this is what he is saying, but it would be very easy to come away with that conclusion.  His last chapter insists that sharing the Gospel is of prime importance, but I wish that point were made more clearly and throughout the book (then again, maybe I’m just an “evangelizer”).  Third, I don’t get any idea from his book about why he thinks these “next Christians” are becoming the prime moving force in Christianity.  Is it simply because people are embarrassed to be called Christians due to the negative stereotypes of the other Christians, is there some movement of God, or is this the result of a concerted preaching and teaching emphasis?

All in all, I recommend the book because all of the strategies that he describes the next Christians as employing are commendable if the Gospel is being truly and clearly proclaimed in the process.  I can’t say that this was a life-changing book, but only because it seemed based more on what he thinks should be backed up with individual stories rather than a description of what actually is: I’m simply not convinced that the examples he gives represent a vast movement in Christianity that will be the dominant model of Christians in the coming years.  The book is very well-written and he drops enough big names to clearly indicate that he travels in well-heeled circles in the evangelical subculture, so he carries some credentials by the company he keeps.  I received this copy of “The Next Christians” from WaterbrookMultnomah as a part of their Blogging For Books review program in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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I was talking to a couple yesterday who just joined the congregation where I am currently ministering.  We were talking about different aspects of the church which would be relevant for a new member: doctrine, vision, history, ministries, leadership, where the bathroom is…  I was very curious to know more about how they found the congregation and what their initial reactions were– good and bad– since they were seeing things through “fresh eyes”.

Then he asked something which really touched and humbled me.  “How long are you going to be here?”  In other words, do you plan to stick around for a while?

That really got to me, because it shows me just how important the longevity of the minister is to the health of the local congregation, and I think there are some warnings to both ministers and congregations here.

Now, I know that the congregation should not be based solely on the minister.  There is a real danger when a congregation sees the minister as the personification of the congregation or when he has too much power in the church to a negative effect.  We are all in the priesthood of believers and the minister is no closer to God than anyone (though he should be held to a high standard).  But, let’s face it, in a lot of ways the congregation will take on the personality, doctrine, and vision of the minister as he is often the point-man of the church.  He is the one people look to as a leader in the church (even if he has very little leadership responsibility or is just a hired hand).  He also literally has a bully pulpit since he is in front of the congregation constantly in his preaching and as the “face” of the church.  Let’s face it, no matter how good the congregation is, if you can’t stand the preaching you’re not going to last long.  He is also the person that people will have the most contact with in most churches in an official capacity.  I think most visitors to a church will judge a church by its worship service, the preaching, ministries offered (usually for children), and the friendliness of the people, probably in that order (flip worship and preaching depending on how interested in doctrine a visitor is).

I’ve also found that congregations that have the best long-term growth usually have a minister who has been there for a long time.  I can think of three churches around here which have steadily grown and are seemingly healthy and have had a minister there for over 20 years.  Contrast that with congregations that change ministers every three years and are extremely unhealthy (not sure which is the cause and which is the effect, though).  Some churches will have flash in the pan growth with a dynamic preacher, but if he leaves soon so will the growth.

All of this is just to say that it’s a humbling responsibility to be a minister.  Yes, you are usually hired, but hopefully you consider your ministry not to be a job but a calling to be a shepherd.  I hope that ministers will consider the impact they have on their congregation before they consider an opportunity to leave.  Yes, there are valid times when it is best to leave and many valid reasons to do so, but that decision should not be made lightly.  And, congregations should think very hard before they rush out to dismiss their minister.  Again, there are valid times to do so, but often ministers are let go because it’s easier to change a minister than to actually start being the church or to make the “lay leaders” be held accountable.

A new couple joining a church most likely has decided that the preacher is someone with a heart for God and a good message if they commit to join.  I can understand why they might be reluctant to be part of a church where that might be changing.  I hope that congregations and ministers alike consider the importance of the shepherd to the “sheep” of the local congregation.  Congregation: pray for, encourage, and support your minister if he is a man of God.  Ministers: take seriously the trust you’ve been given by your congregation and lead well and live a life worthy of your calling.

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I made a decision last year to preach through the Gospel of Matthew verse-by-verse.  In preacher-talk this is known as expository preaching.  You take a book of the bible and go through it systematically and in order, much in the same way you would read a letter from a loved one (which is really what the bible is, after all).  This is different from topical preaching where you take an idea or theme, “forgiveness” for example, and jump around preaching from different places in the bible where “forgiveness” is dealt with.  In the worst case, preachers will preach on whatever they want and just cherry-pick verses to bolster their point with little regard for context or approriateness, but that’s hopefully not the norm.

I’m not going to say that there is only ONE way to preach, like a lot of guys do.  There is a place for both kinds of preaching and so long as the Word is faithfully examined I am happy.  Besides, even with expository preaching the preacher ends up looking at other sections of the bible where the topic of the passage is dealt with (this last week I preached on temptation and quoted verses from 1 Corinthians, James, 2 Corinthians, 1 Peter, Genesis and 1 Kings, for example).  However, I do think that expository preaching, for the most part, is the best way to preach the bible as far as getting across what God meant and being true to the context of the bible.  In addition, it helps keep preachers from just preaching what they think and using the bible as a proof text while ignoring things they don’t want to preach on (for example, next week I’m preaching on fasting, something I normally wouldn’t do).

In the last year I’ve really enjoyed going through the Book of Matthew in this way and have learned a lot from taking each verse in order to see what God is saying.  I just finished preaching through the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and learned so much more about prayer and God’s heart than I would have in just preaching a series on “Prayer” and using the Lord’s Prayer as an illustration.  I’ve also had to deal with some hard subjects, like divorce and remarriage, that I might have just avoided if I were just preaching topical sermons.

Once again, I’m not criticizing topical preaching, but I do want to encourage preachers to consider expository preaching and for everyone to listen to great expository preachers like John McArthur, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll and John Piper (among others).  I think you will see that their preaching opens the bible in ways that you’ll enjoy.

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In the last few years I’ve really struggled to find what I am looking for in a church family.  For the most part, it’s a moot point.  As a minister I don’t get to shop much for a church family; I’m pretty much bound to the congregation I preach at and though I strive to mold that church into the model of what I think Jesus wants out of his congregation the leaders and the congregation have a lot to do with whether those changes are made.  My wife and I have long asked ourselves, “What congregation would we go to if I were a plumber who just moved to this town and were looking for a congregation to be a member of?”

I should write a book about my journey.  But here’s the short version.  I knew that I did not want to be in any of the dead, tradition-for-tradition’s sake, culturally irrelevant churches that are dying all around America (and sadly, that I was a minister in until coming to my current congregation).  When the average age of the membership is over 60, the worship style is stuck in the 50’s and the baptisms are measured in single digits per decade you know that this is not a church you want to be a part of.  That’s a no-brainer.

So, on Saturday nights and other times when I could attend a church as a visitor I would seek out the uber-contemporary churches, sure that they were what I would want if I were seeking a church.  For the most part I liked them better than the 1950’s era churches I was used to.  There was more energy, the music was more like what was playing in my car, the dress was more casual (why that mattered, I don’t know), and the sermons were more interesting.  Not only that, but these were the churches which were growing: their average age was in the 20’s, 30’s at most, the parking lots were full, their buildings were huge.  I would leave those churches feeling better about church and wishing that I were a part of them instead of the dying church I was in.

Yet.  Yet.  Yet, something was still missing.  It was almost like going from spinach to cotton candy.  Sure, it tasted better, but I didn’t feel like I was actually full.  I couldn’t see those churches being a place where I would grow if i were a member.  Sure, I enjoyed the show and the professionalism and the music, but that’s not really what being a part of the Body of Christ is all about.  It finally occurred to me that things like musical style and dress code (or lack thereof) shouldn’t really matter in the long run: those things are not what make a church.  I enjoyed the show in the contemporary church (it was like getting a free Christian concert), but could not see a lot of growth coming from there and the message preached was usually superficial and trite.  They seemed to be appealing to the lowest common denominator; not really challenging the congregation for fear of losing numbers.

What was the answer?  I thought about home churches, even liturgical churches, but it all seemed lacking.

I think I’ve finally found some guys who are doing it right.  What is “right”?  “Right” is faithfully proclaiming the Gospel, preaching the Word unashamed (one church I went to was loathe to quote scripture or have a cross displayed for fear of offending the lost), teaching the truth about sin, punishment, redemption, grace and sanctification while still being culturally relevant and having an impact on the world.  Translated, this means a church that has muscial and preaching styles which speak to the culture while not diluting or changing the message of the Gospel.  You can play music that sounds cool which says “Jesus is Lord and we are sinners in need of saving” instead of “Jesus is my boyfriend and I’m so happy”.  You can preach messages which are interesting to listen to and which speak to people in our culture without them being sappy, pragmatic, “How to be happier in our culture” sermons.  You can be a church that speaks to our culture without selling out to it.  You can impact the world with mission and love while still proclaiming the Jesus is Lord and the only way to be saved.

I’m glad to know that there are churches doing this.  Although my experience with them is only through podcasts and books, I think Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church in Seattle is doing this.  Matt Chandler’s Village Church in Texas is doing this.  They are actually impacting and changing their culture without selling out to it.  Here locally I’ve been glad to visit Sojourn Church in Louisville on a regular basis; I can honestly say that if I moved to Louisville as a plumber I would be more than glad to be a member there.  The worship is very relevant to today’s culture but their message is one of belief, repentance, and obedience to Jesus as Lord.  They speak the language of the culture, but in so doing they are speaking the Message of the Gospel.  And the cool thing is these churches are large, growing, appeal to younger people, and are making a difference in their cities.  They are showing that you can be “successful” in our culture while still being faithful to the Gospel.

My goal as a minister is to model that in my own congregation: to reach our culture (which is very different from that of downtown Louisville) without compromising the Gospel.  Instead of spinach, instead of cotton candy, it’s savory meat that only the Lord can prepare.

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Hard to Let Go

I was reading John 6 during my sermon yesterday about hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  John 6 is such a fascinating chapter in that it flies right in the face of what we do in the church today in the United States in the evangelical camp.  Jesus is preaching to the masses, over 5,000, and sees that they are hungry.  So, he makes them all a fish meal out of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes; you know the story.  But here’s where we usually quit reading.  The next day the crowds show up again, and then some.  Here’s the thing, though: they aren’t coming for Jesus’ preaching, they are coming for the free meal!  How do I know this?  Jesus says so in John 6:26.

Now, here is where Jesus goes against every church growth, seeker-driven church model out there.  I mean, let’s do the math.  He easily makes fish and bread and the crowds come to hear him; in fact, they CHASED him across the lake (he had to walk across the water just to get away from the crowds).  What would most church leaders (including myself) do if we found some simple device that would attract huge crowds?  We’d be making some fish sammiches!  Not only that, we’d be writing books about the fish-driven church and speaking at conferences.

Our rationale would be, “Hey, we get ’em in with the fish and then we give them the Gospel.  We are just trying to attract our culture with fish, then they get the Gospel.”  After all, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that after coming for the fish Jesus would preach them the pure Word; what else would you expect from Jesus?

But what does Jesus do? Basically, he shoos them away because they were just coming for the fish.  He ups the ante and tells them how hard it is to follow him.  We see the payoff in John 6:66, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”  It’s as if Jesus would rather have committed disciples than crowds following him for the wrong reasons.

I gotta be honest: as a minister, I have a hard time with this.   Lately, I’ve been preaching sermons that are more and more Christ-centered: less focused on ‘felt-needs’ and more on exalting Jesus.  Those aren’t popular messages; I know, I’ve been stepping on my own toes (yesterday I pretty much told the “Christians” in my congregation that most of them needed to repent and get saved since they weren’t hungry for righteousness).  But the thing is, the more you exalt Jesus the more you alienate our culture; the more you speak about God’s grace and holiness the less you talk about ‘felt needs’ which are garbage compared to knowing the Gospel.  You tell people they need to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood instead of giving them “Five Tips for a Better Sex Life” or “Ten Reasons to Love Yourself” and you’re going to have John 6:66 in your church too.

I confess that I struggle with the idea of people leaving the church because the Gospel is preached the way Jesus presented it.  I’m like most ministers: I count the number of people sitting in the pews as an indicator of how “successful” we are as a congregation.  If someone leaves the church I don’t do like Jesus did to the Twelve and ask if they want to go too: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve (John 6:67).  Instead, I want to chase those who left and ask what it will take to keep them and maybe attract more of their friends.  Everything we do as a minister and as a church is measured (wrongly) by numbers, budgets, buildings and worldly success.

God, grant that we could be faithful in proclaiming the Gospel, trusting in Your sovereignty to attract those who are not just looking for bread and fishes but who will say like Peter did, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

I’m afraid that as a minister I am more tempted to go with bread and fish and attract people than to proclaim the words of eternal life and the true cost of  carrying the cross and take the chance of only having 12 disciples.  Dirty, dirty pride is what it is, though.  God, help me to be faithful.

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The shift from evangelism.

My friend Norm, who is a little older than I am, gave me a little historical perspective in his comment to my post “Taking It To the Streets”.  I was talking about the need for us Christians to get back to learning about evangelism instead of learning how to be cool so the world will like us and come to our building for our programs and concerts.  “Hey, we listen to the same music you do and watch the same movies, we even swear and dress like you… will you come to our church now?”

He recalled the emphasis in the past on evangelism.  The seminars, conferences, books and training focused on teaching people to share their faith one on one.  You can debate the efficiacy of those individual techniques, but you had to admire the fact that their focus was on teaching and encouraging Christians to share their faith with words and personal encounters, not just being cool so your neighbor wants to be like you.

Today it seems like the emphasis is not on the “layperson”, but on the ministers of the church, and the goal is not to teach and encourage people to share their faith but to have the kind of church that people will want to come to so the professional minister can wow the seeker with the cool sermon, cool music, cool building and cool programs.  Instead of making the Gospel relevant to the lost, we want to make the church relevant to the consumer.

I’m pumped about the Transformed conference coming up and am glad that there is someone out there trying to encourage Christians to live and share their faith.  With all the programs out there dedicated to teaching the church to look more like the world, the Transformed folks are a breath of fresh air.

Who knows, maybe the pendulum will swing back and we will focus on sharing the Gospel again, not just being an attractive commodity in a consumer world.

Thanks, Norm, for putting things in historical context, perhaps another Great Awakening will come as people see the church not as a consumer destination but a community of believers who have good news to share.

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You hate his wife?

They love Jesus, but they hate the church.

Um, isn’t that like saying that you like me, but can’t stand my wife (my bride)?  If that’s how you felt about my bride, I don’t think you would really like me that much, no matter how much lip service you gave me in a Barna poll.

Love me, love my wife, even if she is not perfect (though she is!).

Love Jesus, love his church, even if she is not perfect (and she’s not!).

Sure, there is plenty about the church that needs fixin’, but those who say that they love Jesus but not the church must not really understand what Jesus is all about: the friend of imperfect people who have been saved by grace.  Her dress might be tattered, but she’s still his bride.

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