Tag Archives: church

Child preachers and the power of the pulpit

This makes me so sad:

But I appreciate the fact that the reporter got it right, this kid has a passion for the pulpit, and all the excitement it represents.

It also illustrates how worthless most pastors have become today.

Oh, and for anyone who isn’t familiar with the child-preacher phenomenon, here is a rather poignant documentary:

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Book review: Radical Together by David Platt

I have read a lot about David Platt’s first bestseller, Radical, so when I saw his latest book, Radical Together, on the list of books to review for booksneeze.com, I jumped at the chance.

Radical Together is meant to explain how to take what David wrote in his first book, Radical, and live them out. To do that David uses a lot of examples by way of illustration, mostly from his mega-church, Brook Hills.

David begins by telling how he and his family ended up at Brook Hills following the devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina. David uses this incident to introduce us to the notion that God sometimes does radical things to get our attention. Like flooding an entire city, destroying lives and property and displacing millions.

For us the flood depicts the radical call of Christ to Christians and the [local] church. When Jesus calls us to abandon everything we have and everything we are, it’s almost as if he is daring us to put ourselves in the flood plain. To put all our lives and all our [local] churches, all our property and all our possessions, all our plans and all our strategies, all our hopes and all our dreams in front of the levee and then ask God to break it. To ask God to sweep away whatever he wants, to leave standing whatever he desires, and to remake our lives and [local] churches according to his will.

David then talks about how he reluctantly came to be the pastor of Brook Hills. He was asked to preach one Sunday and the people there liked him. But he didn’t want to go because he didn’t think he was qualified. David uses this story to express a concept from Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God bible study, that God operates on a mystical plane and that we should expect to find God in whatever it is we don’t want and are (or think we are) wholly unqualified to do.

All of this is in the first chapter where David is describing a problem found in most churches where people are busy but their business is not necessarily geared towards productive ends.

I mostly agree with David’s assessment but he seems to equivocate a lot between church as the body of Christ and church as a particular 501c3 non-profit organization.

At the same time we were studying James, we were going through our church budgeting process. To be honest, I hate budget season. As a pastor, I believe this is when the church comes face to face with hoe prone we are to give our resources to good things while ignoring great need. Christians in North America give, on average, 2.5 percent of their income to their [local] church. Out of that 2.5 percent, churches in North America will give 2 percent of their budgeted monies to needs overseas. In other words, for every hundred dollars a North American Christian earns, he will give five cents through the church to a world with urgent spiritual and physical needs. This does not make sense.

From this David draws the conclusion, which appears to have formed a large part of his previous book, that American Christians are greedy and materialistic. Never mind the fact that Americans out-give all other nations on earth. Unfortunately David seems to think that Christians are required to tithe (exactly how does a charity “earn” anything?) and that local church businesses are the best, if not only, means of giving aid and comfort to the poor. Oh, and we are also told that the people we should be primarily concerned with are the poor in nations other than our own.

From here David begins building his case for what he considers a radical Christian life. Put simply, that life is spent asking the same question Charles Sheldon asked in his book In His Steps, “What Would Jesus Do?”

Throughout Radical Together what struck me the most was how ordinary the message was. While I respect David’s desire to call people to live lives that are more consistent with their stated Christian beliefs, what I kept thinking was how neurotic a person who actually takes David’s (or Sheldon’s for that matter) message seriously.

Through Radical Together it seems like the overall message is to go out and make big changes. That thinking about the problem and are fully planning and, as Jesus said, counting the cost are something we should avoid in favor of, basically, living in the moment.

The only bright part of David’s book was where he brought up and championed the home/small church model. It was refreshing, though somewhat perplexing considering the context, to read a mega-church pastor advocating the employment of all believers equally in the body of Christ and that meeting in a small intimate context is more conducive to the discipleship we are called to practice among the body of Christ.

In the end I wouldn’t recommend Radical Together to anyone to read. If you want to read a “get busy for Jesus” book you would do better to read Sheldon’s classic, In His Steps. Or better yet, throw off the existentialism inherent in the notion that in order to truly follow Christ one needs to be “radical”.

Book Review: The Next Christians by Gabe Lyon

Gabe Lyon brings into clear focus the mountains that modern Christians will need to move if they are to avoid being altogether cast from serious public consideration.

In his book, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America first accurately diagnoses the problem facing Christianity in America and then offers an excellent 10-point outline of characteristics that are common of the Christians he believes, and rightly in my estimation, are going to be the best bet in turning that tide.

Many reviewers of Gabe’s book seem to get hung up on the opening line of the book where Gabe makes the case that it is often socially awkward if not downright embarrassing to be identified as a Christian in America. I wonder if these reviewers have had many lunch encounters like I have. There we are, sitting around the table laughing and cutting up and generally having a good time and then someone goes and makes a comment to the effect of “oh come on guys, its not like ANYONE believes ________ anymore”. You can fill in that blank with just about any Christian position but the one that I’ve seen most frequently cited is intelligent design which is commonly confused by non-Christians as merely an alias of young earth creationism.

I mention that not to take a pot shot at YEC but rather to demonstrate the insight found in Gabe’s conclusion that things are rapidly changing and we, Christians, must adapt to the prevailing social landscape.

After outlining the cultural shifts that face us, Gabe tells the story of meeting with a Hollywood movie producer who, after noticing the success of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, wanted to gain some insight into the Christian market. As a side note, I wonder if this meeting, with Lionsgate executives, is what influenced to brought about the movie “The Book of Eli”.

Gabe describes to them, and us, two major groups and their immediate subgroups. They are:

  • Separatists
    • Insiders
    • Culture Warriors
    • Evangelizers
  • Cultural
    • Blenders
    • Philanthropists

Gabe outlines each group and what characteristics differentiate them from the rest. This grid is valuable and might be worth the price of the book by itself. As some reviewers have noted, The Next Christians is a further contribution to the Christ and Culture series started by H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture”, and then Craig Carter’s “Rethinking Christ and Culture”, which are great if you want further reading on how Christians relate to the culture they’re in.

At the end of this section Gabe introduces a third overall archetype of Christian which is the main focus of his book, The Next Christians. Overall we can classify these Christians as “restorers”. Christians who aren’t interested in either separation or immersion in culture. They are, in short, culture makers. Subversive agents who seek to use culture where appropriate and transform it gradually to be more Christlike.

Gabe shares numerous anecdotes to illustrate his points. Gabe introduces us to ministries like “To Write Love on Her Arms” which gives a good example of how the Next Christians are characterized by rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty in the brokenness in the world. This isn’t altogether different than how Jesus, his earliest disciples, and many Christians throughout the ages have approaches the cultures in which they live.

Throughout the book Gabe gives good examples of how Christians should tactfully engage the world around them. Navigating the current cultural current by not being too abrasive nor being too complicit. But allowing Christ to work in them to transform hearts and minds.

To that end I was thrilled when Gabe made the observation that the next Christians are people who see every aspect of their lives as sacred. A great example Gabe gave on this point is a couple who moved out to California from the south and decided that since no Christian community existed where they moved that they would create one.

I believe Gabe hits the nail on the head when he writes about how the Next Christians are not interested so much in inviting their friends to church to sit through an event. Not that doing so is horrible per se. But the Next Christians are more interested in bringing Christ to the culture around them. Of being the church in the world.

Overall I found Gabe’s book to be a blessing. It is encouraging to hear how Christians are recognizing the changing landscape, are planning ways to deliberately confront the culture in more winsome ways, and finally, how they are throwing off the shackles of unbiblical traditions which have been dragging us down for quite a while now.

The Next Christians serves as a great field map to help us keep our cultural interface in check so we can more effectively engage with people around us.

And for anyone looking for encouragement about the future of Christianity in America, his book provides it in spades.

Distributed parking, distributed leadership

Our family doesn’t always visit a brick and mortar church, but when we do, my wife and I have a system to handle the parking conundrum. You see, we typically go to one of the many megachurches in the area and parking is predictably a nightmare. So what we generally do is ride around the parking lot scowling at people who are walking slowly back to their cars. We do this for a few minutes before we give up and agree to have my wife take the kids into the nursery while I finish the task of hunting down a parking space.

Hunting down a parking space at a large church on Sunday morning is harder than it sounds.

And yet, as silly as it sounds, this exercise helps illustrate something I believe the church in general could stand to learn.

You see, for most of the time during the week it is easy to find a parking space at most churches, large and small. The demand for parking places only spikes occasionally, usually on Sunday mornings between 11:00AM and 12:00PM.

I work with high performance computing systems a lot and I believe the principles used to solve the problem of crunching a large amount of data can be brought to bear in solving the problem of church parking.

When Toys R’ Us first launched their ecommerce website in 1999 they quickly found out that their servers were no match for the load that awaited them from a pre-Christmas rush. The next year, they decided to entrust their ecommerce store to another company that was able to solve the problem of handling large amounts of traffic.

Today there are several companies that have developed what is commonly called “cloud computing” systems. In brief, a cloud computing system is when you take a lot of servers and hook them up so that they cooperate while processing a large load. That load could be crunching through a lot of data or handling a lot of web requests. Most of the time its a combination of both.

Cloud platforms like Amazon are built to handle the surge of Christmas traffic. But this creates a problem similar to what most churches face with regard to their parking lots. There is a lot of wasted capacity since, for the most part, the resources meant to handle the surge in demand sit idle.

To get more use out of their cloud, Amazon and others like Google started offering parts of their cloud to others. The idea being that you could develop a website, deploy it on their system, and if your site gets really popular it can expand to more of the cloud platform to handle the load. Amazon calls their solution elastic computing.

The key to large scale computing is to find ways to carve up the problem domain into small, manageable, bite-sized chunks, and then find a way to have many mouths devour those chunks.

Many churches, when they start to grow and face issues of scale, attempt to solve the problem initially by offering multiple services on Sunday morning. This often works well if the church is able to effectively cut the demand per service in half. This is not much different than attempting to solve large computational problems by utilizing larger servers. This is known as scaling vertically and is the preferred tactic of many smaller churches. However the problem is that it produces waste in terms of under utilized resources when there is no load (ie. the other 6 days of the week) and eventually a hard vertical limit is reached.

Many churches are coming to realize the importance of distributing the load when it comes to discipleship. But when it comes to teaching, most still operate in a centralized fashion.

There are many reasons the church needs to embrace a more distributed leadership model. Here are a few:

  • Having multiple teachers to handle the task of teaching believers is a Biblical concept.
  • If more churches were to implement it as the model of leadership, it would also have the added benefit of alleviating the enormous and unnatural pressure placed at the feet of one man or a very small group of men.
  • Having multiple leaders serves as an encouragement for others to grow. It would help solve the problem of unmotivated church members.
  • Having multiple leaders makes single points of failure, especially of the moral variety, less prominent and less devastating.
  • Having multiple leaders provides an excellent means of continuous error correction.

Along with the spiritual reasons, there are other organizational benefits:

  • Having multiple leaders means buildings can be more fully utilized. Groups can be scheduled to meet at various times throughout the week, distributing the load, instead of causing the load to spike on one day and hour.
  • Higher utilization of resources means less waste.
  • Distributed leadership means fewer and lighter crowds. This means visitors are more likely to find a place and are more likely to become intimately involved with a group of believers.
  • Distributed leadership means leaders are free to specialize. This, in turn, translates into higher quality teaching and a more educated congregation. This would also mean more believers would be better equipped for evangelization.

And finally; distributed leadership would mean my family and I would have a better chance at finding a parking spot on Sunday morning.

The upside down leadership model of the Christian church

Felicity Dale has written an excellent series of posts intended to answer the question “Do organic/simple churches believe in leadership?”.

Here is an excellent video which I believe summarizes what the Bible teaches with regard to leadership in the Body of Christ:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

-Matthew 20:25-28

Blind guides: What professional church leaders think about members who ask questions

In a recent Baptist Press article titled “When people criticize church leadership”, Thom Rainer took on the task of addressing why it is that

The level and frequency of criticisms toward pastors and other leaders has increased significantly in the past several years.

Thom’s observations begin with:

First, the standards of church membership have been low in many churches for many years. As a consequence our churches have more and more unregenerate members. Frankly, I would be not be surprised if some of the most vitriolic criticisms come from those who are not Christians.

I’ve heard this line of reasoning offered by several professional pastors so its hardly surprising that Thom would offer this as his initial point. What is surprising is the amount of arrogance required to sustain such a position. Who is Thom or anyone else to call into question anyone else’s commitment to Christ? Oh sure, we could if the person in question fit any of the Biblical criteria for doing so, but as far as Thom is concerned, merely asking questions is enough grounds to call into question one’s salvation.

Second, church members have been unwilling to take a stand when they see and hear unwarranted criticism toward the pastor and other leaders. This silence is shameful and sinful. Belligerent critics remain critics often because other church members are fearful of rebuking them. In some ways, the silent majority is just as wrong as the constant critics.

I’m not sure what churches Thom has been to, but in my experience quite the opposite is true. A member of the congregation is expected to face considerable odds if they wish to even raise a question regarding their pastor or leadership. And when they do, there is an inevitable wall of deacons and other groupies that usually descend on them like jackals to corral them back into line. This is what most pastors consider “unity”.

The first seven verses of Acts 6 tell the story of complaining by a group in the early church. In this case, the concern was warranted because a group of widows was being neglected. The Twelve appointed seven men to take care of the widows and thus, stopped the criticisms.

Though it may not be the central thrust of the text, we see clearly that a divided and critical congregation was a serious concern for early church leaders. The ministry had to continue, and the divisiveness had to stop. We also see that the entire congregation had a stake in this issue (verse 5, “The proposal pleased the whole company”). There was no sinful and silent majority unwilling to tackle this issue.

This exposes a common trait among professional church leaders. Thom assumes here, with admittedly no Biblical support, that the primary focus of church life is on the leaders. So much for that whole bit about the greatest being servants and all that jazz. No sir, that’s not the sort of stuff that will allow pastors to build massive churches based off of the tax free donations of others.

At least in principle, the solutions are simple. The standards of church membership must be held high, and the benefits are numerous beyond just dealing with critics. We can’t expect unregenerate church members to act like Christians.

Apparently regenerate church members are people who don’t cause any waves. They don’t ask questions. In fact, the really regenerate church members are barely distinguishable from zombies.

Its little wonder that churches today are bleeding members left and right. Or that the average “regenerate” church member is unable to answer even the mildest challenge to their faith.

Second, church members must be willing to confront the sinful behavior of the perpetual and ill-intentioned critics. While no church leader should be above legitimate criticisms, the tide has turned too far in the other direction. Criticisms are paralyzing too many good leaders.

Its fascinating that Thom spends so much time assuming that the bulk of criticisms are illegitimate and yet provides no concrete basis on distinguishing between the two. In fact, Thom’s remaining article addresses how to throw out what he considers to be threats to the church business. Little, if any, consideration is given to the question of how we are to tell if the pastor and leaders is wrong and what to do if they are.

My guess is that this omission is due to the underlying assumption of most pastors that they are “god’s men” and have somehow been rendered infallible (likely by their supposed special calling and subsequent ordination into the ‘priesthood’).

Even though Thom’s article is almost 100% wrong, it is useful in pointing out one thing. I believe the attitude Thom displays here is a large reason why men like myself steer clear of most institutional churches as much as we can.

Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit. -Matthew 15:14

Training, sparring, fighting

There are at least three elements that make up a solid defender of the Christian faith.

Training

You can’t fight if you don’t know how. You might be able to flail about, but you won’t be very effective. What’s worse is that you are just as likely to hurt yourself and those on your side than you are the enemy. Especially since part of the training process is developing the ability to tell the difference between friend and foe and properly take stock of a battlefield before charging off to engage the enemy.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. -2 Timothy 2:15

Sparring

The expression used of a 2nd lieutenant in the army is “butter bars”.

After completing OCS (Officer Candidate School), a large number of newly minted butter bars tend to think that they are General Patton reincarnated and have the belief that after months of schooling they know much more than 30 year combat hardened NCOs.

Like the army, we are prone to think that mere knowledge will be enough to face the enemy with, and unfortunately many (including myself) have rushed off into battle without spending the time to properly spar with our fellow brothers at arms first.

The reason for this is simple. We never want to go into battle without at least stress testing new tactics and ideas with our battle hardened comrades. Its better to find out that our armor and weapons aren’t up to snuff in the sparring ring where our opponent isn’t seeking to do permanent damage than it is to discover our shortcomings as the knife is plunged deep into our heart by a true enemy.

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. -Proverbs 27:17

Fighting

All the training and sparring in the world is pointless if it is not ultimately employed on the field of battle.

The primary means of advancing the kingdom of Christ is through winning the hearts and minds of those around us who have been captured by the enemies of false teaching and sensuous pleasure.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. -Ephesians 6:12

Because of this, it is incumbent on us to “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) to engage the enemy wherever we find him, in whatever form he happens to be in.1

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. -2 Corinthians 10:5

As we fight, it is important to keep in mind that the enemy is not “flesh and blood”. So when we are interacting with a non-Christian we should treat them with the utmost respect and civility. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight with every fiber of our being the thoughts and practices that have captured them.

The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. -G. K. Chesterton

At the same time

Training, sparring, and fighting should be ongoing activities in each Christian’s life. Some might object that new Christians shouldn’t be rushed into battle for fear of their being cut down. To that I propose that we “go to the lions” and teach our new recruits how to fight by going with them into minor skirmishes. Part of the role of a mature Christian should be designating and delegating strategic targets of opportunity for less mature Christians.

However it is incumbent on all Christians to charge the gates of hell in order to advance the kingdom of Christ here on earth.

  1. I’m using the personal pronoun “he” here to refer to anything that “sets itself up against the knowledge of God”. []

Why I’m not enthusiastic about your church either

In a conversation regarding the post, Why I don’t want to go to your church, I came to the revelation that even if pastors and church staff are aware of the issue of declining church attendance that plagues most churches in America today, they still manage to miss the reason for the decline and thus their proposals for fixing the problem are doomed to failure from infancy.

First off, we need to look more closely at the problem.

When we define “the church” as a 501c3 non-profit organization, its little wonder that people are not enthusiastic about participating in programs that amount to glorified marketing schemes.

Rather, what we should do is step back and ask some hard questions about how we view the Christian life. What does it mean to walk in obedience to Christ, our Lord? What does it mean to live in fellowship with our fellow brothers and sisters who are also “in Christ”? And finally; What does it mean to let our lights sigh before men?

I believe that among other things, social media will help produce as significant an impact on the body of Christ as the printing press did.

So what of the solution?

Well the solution is not to merely get mad at people for not being enthusiastic about joining yet another civil club. Its also not to encourage them to be more active in your particular civil club. Its also not to get mad at them for preferring a more entertaining civil club down the street (you know, the one with the disco lights and full screen projector1 ). The solution is for us to admit that what the reformation started, it did not complete.

What I mean by that is this: The reformers correctly identified the dependence on the priests of the Roman Catholic Church as a problem. They also correctly identified the Bible as the primary source of authority. However in splitting with Rome they neglected to get rid of Rome’s worst habit, viewing the church as a business.

The solution to the plight of the American church, therefore, is to work on reclaiming a Biblical understanding of “church”.

We’ve been attending a home church with our 3 small children for a couple of years now. At first the whole “we’re going to church” used to confuse our kids when we would switch between going to a building erroneously labeled a “church” and a small gathering of believers living out the Biblical concept. Now, however, our kids are well aware of the two seperate and distinct meanings of the word “church” and they ask us whenever we tell them “we’re going to church”, “the building or the people?”

Believers in general need to come to the realization that the 501c3 non-profit club they have “membership” in is not the church spoken of in Scripture. Oh I’m not saying its wrong to be a member of such an organization, but we need to stop lying to ourselves and others by expecting such membership to amount to anything more than membership at the local YMCA.

So why am I not enthusiastic about your church? Because I’m not impressed by your programs, your entertainment, your pastor, etc.

However I am enthusiastic about the church, headed by Christ alone. Now that is something worth getting excited about.

  1. I’m thinking about Andy Stanley’s church in particular here. []

Why I don’t want to come to your church

Here is an excellent presentation by Don Stensing which is part of a series designed to examine why it is that church attendance in America is on a downward trend.

I think a key question in he asks is this:

Is the Gospel less relevant to Americans than before?
Or is it that churches are less relevant to Americans than before?

False maturity and its impact on the Christian church

I had a revelation the other day about the state of the Christian church. This revelation came while talking with a friend of mine who told me a story about a family member who recently “felt called” to go be a missionary (as if that werent possible where they were at). They lamented that their family member’s reasoning and plan was deeply flawed and largely based on emotion and not good solid reasoning and planning. He was thankful that their apparent call from God had been thwarted, however it was evident that he victory had taken a toll.

Now this friend came from a missionary family who have traversed the globe doing the work of evangelists. A more spiritually minded family would be hard to find to say the least.

My revelation is this.

Growing up we had looked to my friend’s family member as the prime example of what it meant to live a spirit-filled life. Thinking about it now its apparent that our measure of spiritual maturity centered on raw mysticism and behavior modification. Not, as the Bible indicates, a definitive growth in both behavior (orthopraxis) as well as wisdom and understanding (orthodoxy).

I believe that foundation has led my friend, who is very logically minded, to struggle with what it means to be a Christian. It not only places roadblocks in his walk of faith. But it exalts what amounts to spiritual infancy.

The sad part is that growing up we looked to my friend’s family member as a warrior. Because we thought they were mature (based on our flawed understanding of maturity) we thought they were also capable contenders for the faith (Jude 4).

It is now apparent, however, that what we did (and were allowed to do by our “elders” at he time) was put a sword in the hands of the most ridiculous and infantile among us and provoke the darkness with theirs and our own ignorance.

When my children get old enough to wrestle with these faith issues, one mistake I hope to avoid is providing them with both a false view of maturity and, from that, false heroes to look up to.