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I just finished reading Matthew Paul Turner’s book “Churched” as a part of Waterbrook Multnomah’s “Blogging For Books” Program.  Basically, they provide a copy of a book in exchange for an honest and thoughtful review of said book.  Sounds fair to me.

I was attracted to “Churched” because it sounded like a book which would give a candid and amusing look at what it is like to grow up in a fundamentalist church and hopefully provide some insight into how that journey ended once the author became an adult.  This book delivered on half of that expectation: much was said about the upbringing, but very little about how the author fared after becoming an adult.  Let me say from the beginning that this was a very enjoyable book and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for some light, enjoyable, reading; it would make a great book for reading on a plane, on the beach, or in any room of your house where you require short chapters that can be read easily.  “Churched” is Turner’s account of growing up in a fundamentalist church, written in more of a humorous tone than descriptive.  Early in his life his parents began attending IBBC, an independent fundamentalist Baptist Church led by the domineering Pastor Nolan.  What follows are a series of vignettes showing various aspects of life as a young fundamentalist as seen through the eyes of a young child.  His fundamentalist church is described in ways that paint it as absurd, extreme, “weird”, and hypocritical.  All in all it’s a good read.  Mind you, if you’re looking for deep theological insight, an honest examination of the perils of growing up as a fundamentalist or deep soul-searching about how our religious upbringing affects our later adulthood then this book is not for you.  However, if you are looking for an amusing and often funny book based on shared religious experiences then you will not be disappointed.  I found the writing style to be both endearing and slightly annoying at the same time; it is a mix of Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor.  That is, the humor is often forced and the descriptions of life in a fundamentalist seem a tad exaggerated for humorous effect.  To be fair, I don’t really know: his church could have been as absurd as he lets on, but I got the sense that he was portraying his experiences more as a stereotype or caricature of fundamentalist life than as it really happened.  If his goal was to just paint a caricature then the effect was good, but if he were really trying to describe things as they were then the accounts seemed hard to believe (again, think of Garrison Keillor’s descriptions of Lake Wobegon: funny, but a little hard to believe).  All in all, though, the description of his upbringing was very amusing and enjoyable to read, as long as you are expecting farce and not documentary (I was expecting documentary, which is why I was a little disappointed).  My other complaint is in a similar vein.  I expected that he would give some discussion as to why he rejected fundamentalism and how he came to the spiritual place he is now.  After all, the subtitle of the book is “One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess.”  The journey toward God is missing in this book.  Essentially he shows how absurd and, his words, “weird” his church life was a child and then jumps ahead in the final chapter to explain that he wandered from church to church until finally settling on Cross Point Church in Nashville after meeting with the minister, a Ryan Seacrest lookalike.  From what I could tell his reason for feeling comfortable at that church was that the minister did not highlight his hair even though it appeared that way.  I found the last chapter to be the most engaging: it was real, the writing was not forced humor or caricature, and it showed a bit of the spiritual journey of the author.  Unfortunately, there was little in the way of detail about how he ended up where he is now or an explanation about what he rejected in fundamentalism and why.  Yes, fundamentalism made him look weird compared to the rest of his culture (especially the way he portrays it), yes, they have extremely negative views about culture and yes, they are very ardent in their beliefs about the bible and morality, but what was lacking was an explanation as to why he rejected these things.  Often there were times when he would begin to explore why he rejected fundamentalism, like in a chapter when he is perplexed about why his dad is friends with a man who rejects Christianity or when he describes a woman who challenges his fundamentalism while he was witnessing to her.  I wanted him to go a little deeper to explain why these encounters were obviously profound to him, but he left those stones unturned along with any insight into his feelings toward them.

Still, I go back to my early assessment: if you want a deep book that explores spiritual truths, this is not for you.  If you want a good, amusing read in the tradition of Dave Barry, this is a great book for you.  To those who grew up as a fundamentalist you might find this book to be a fun look at your early life, to those who didn’t this book might be a good way to reinforce the image of fundamentalists portrayed in popular culture.

I would recommend “Churched” and found it to be worth my while to read: it’s a fun, easy read.  It is well written and there are many places where you will laugh out loud.  Turner’s new book is called “Hear No Evil” and I would be tempted to read it to find out if he gives more details about how he made the leap from fundamentalism to a grudging tolerance of church in general.  Oh, and here is my disclaimer: “I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review”.

Here is a link you can follow to read the first chapter: http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/catalog.php?isbn=9780307458018&view=excerpt

One verse at a time…

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.

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.

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.

Sorry…

Ok, this is the standard ‘sorry I haven’t blogged in a while” disclaimer.  No excuse really, just haven’t had the mojo.

Also, you may notice that www.insipidgarbage.com doesn’t work anymore, you have to go to www.insipidgarbage.wordpress.com instead; I decided to quit paying for the URL.  Then again, if you are reading this, you found the blog somehow.

I’ll try to get back to blogging soon.

Worth your time.

I know, there are a million new blogs out there every day, and most of them are not worth clicking on, much less reading.  But my friend has just started blogging and he is worth reading.  He has a way of putting things that is very insightful and will leave you thinking.

Check it out: http://remarkablycalm.wordpress.com/

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.