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The Bestsellers
June 01, 2014

A short time ago I launched a new series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Joel Osteen (Your Best Life Now) and Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez). Today we look at one of the bestselling Christian novels of all time and one of the very few books to receive the Diamond Award.

The Shack by William Paul Young

The ShackWilliam Paul Young was born on May 11, 1955, in Grande Prairie, Alberta (Canada). However, he spent most of his younger years in Netherlands New Guinea where his parents served as missionaries among the Dani, a stone-age people group. He later said, “These became my family and as the first white child and outsider who ever spoke their language, I was granted unusual access into their culture and community. Although at times a fierce warring people, steeped in the worship of spirits and even occasionally practicing ritualistic cannibalism, they also provided a deep sense of identity that remains an indelible element of my character and person.” When he was six he was sent to boarding school, but soon thereafter his family left the mission field and his father returned to Canada where he pastored a series of small churches. Later Young would tell how he suffered abuse both at the hands of tribespeople and at the hands of those at the boarding school—abuse that shaped and scarred him.

Young attended Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon where he earned a degree in religion. Shortly after his graduation he married his wife, Kim, and began seminary training while also working at a church. In the years that followed he held a variety of jobs, ranging from sales to janitorial.

When he was thirty-eight Young engaged in an extramarital affair. His marriage survived, but he was forced to think hard about who God is and what he expects of his people. He says that by 2004 he had come to a place of “peace with myself and peace with my sense of who I believe God to be.” But even then he was in a difficult financial situation after a series of bad monetary decisions. In 2005 he was working three jobs and had lost his home.

It was in this context that Young decided to write about his evolving understanding of God in the form of a story, thinking it might be of interest to his children. He called it The Shack. After he sent the manuscript to his children, he began hearing from them and from others that he ought to consider publishing his work. He forwarded a copy to Wayne Jacobsen who offered it to twenty-six different publishers. After the book was rejected by every one of those publishers, Jacobsen and his colleage Brad Cummings created Windblown Media and published it themselves. In 2007 they printed 11,000 copies. Little did they know that the book would go on to sell 20 million.

The Shack is a book that seeks to provide answers to the always timely question “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?”. It is a tale that revolves around Mack (Mackenzie) Philips. Four years before the story begins, Mack’s young daughter, Missy, was abducted during a family vacation. Though her body was never found, the police did find evidence in an abandoned shack to prove that she had been brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer who preyed on young girls. As the story begins, Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his Great Sadness, receives a note from God (known in this story as Papa). Papa invites Mack to return to this shack for a time together. Though uncertain of what to expect, Mack visits the scene of the crime and there experiences a weekend-long encounter with God, or, more properly, with the Godhead.

Each of the members of the Trinity is present and each appears in bodily form. Papa, whose actual name is Elousia (which is Greek for tenderness) appears in the form of a large, matronly African-American woman. Jesus is a middle-aged man of Middle-Eastern descent while the Holy Spirit is played by Sarayu (Sanskrit for air or wind), a small, delicate and eclectic woman of Asian descent.

The reader learns that Mack has been given this opportunity to meet with God so he can learn to deal with his Great Sadness—the overwhelming pain and anger resulting from the death of his daughter. There is very little action in The Shack and the bulk of the book is dialog. The majority of the dialog occurs as the members of the Trinity communicate with Mack, though occasionally the author offers glimpses into their unique relationships with one another.

The False Teachers
May 29, 2014

A few weeks ago I set out on a series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notable false teachers and to examine the false doctrine each of them represents. Along the way we have visited such figures as Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Ellen G. White (Adventism), Norman Vincent Peale (Positive Thinking) and Benny Hinn (Faith Healing). Today we turn to one of the chief proponents of the popular but sinister prosperity gospel.

Creflo Dollar

Creflo DollarCreflo Augustus Dollar, Jr. was born in College Park, Georgia on January 28, 1962. Though he was raised in a church-going home, he did not have a conversion experience until the summer following his freshmen year at West Georgia College. Even after this experience he felt no pull toward full-time ministry as his heart was set on being a professional football player. It was only after that football career was cut short by injury that he began to consider other options. In 1984 Dollar received a Bachelor of Science degree in education and soon began work as a educational therapist. The next year he married Taffi, with whom he would eventually have five children.

While recovering from his football injury, Dollar had begun to lead Bible studies among his fellow students and he gained a reputation as a skillful and charismatic teacher. He called his study “World Changers Bible Study.” By 1986 he had determined that he was not meant to be a therapist but that the Lord was calling him into full-time preaching ministry.

He and Taffi founded a church and they held its inaugural worship service in an elementary school cafeteria. Only eight people attended that service, but the congregation soon grew and was renamed World Changers Church International (WCCI). In less than ten years the church had grown exponentially and Dollar’s sermons were being broadcast over the radio through Creflo Dollar Ministries. In 1995 WCCI moved to its current location, the 8,500-seat World Dome in College Park, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.

Today World Changers Church International serves nearly 30,000 members each week through the main campus, 6,000 through an affiliated congregation in New York City, and thousands more through many satellite campuses across America.

Dollar is known for his extravagant wealth which includes two multi-million dollar homes, expensive cars, and even a private jet. Creflo Dollar Ministries made headlines several years ago when it was one of six ministries audited by U.S. Senator Charles Grassley. “My goal,” he said, “is to help improve accountability and good governance so tax-exempt groups maintain public confidence in their operations.” The ministry was deemed uncooperative. MinistryWatch, an organization that reviews Christian ministries based on their financial accountability and transparency awarded Creflo Dollar Ministries an F rating and has added it to their Donor Alert listing. Dollar made headlines again in 2012 when his daughter called police to their home, charging that Dollar had choked and hit her. Dollar denied the charges which were dropped after he completed an anger-management program.

May 28, 2014

The prosperity gospel has not produced a new generation of great Christian hymns. Neither have Positive Thinking or Progressive Christianity. There is a reason we would not expect them to. The fact is, the deepest songs come from the deepest truth. The most faithful songs come from the most faithful expressions of the Christian faith. The richest songs come from the richest understanding of who God is and what God has done.

As Christians we are told to sing from the gospel, for one another, to the Lord—a ten-word summary of Colossians 3:16 which says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” As Paul writes to this Colossian church, he wants them to realize that every Christian needs singing lessons. If we want to sing a song that glorifies the Lord, we first need to apply some lessons.

The first lesson is this: The gospel must be the basis of your song. Before you can sing a song that glorifies God, the word of Christ—the gospel—needs to be dwelling within you. Paul has just said: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” That is a glorious message, and one worth singing about. There is, quite literally, nothing better than this in the entire universe. You will never hear a better, richer, sweeter message. If you want to sing a God-glorifying song, you first need to have that rich, sweet message dwelling within you.

The second lesson is this: The gospel needs to dwell richly within you. It is not enough to let the gospel dwell within. Before you can sing—really sing—you need to have that gospel dwelling richly within. To dwell in you richly, a message must be rich. You can’t fill yourself with a shallow, trite, silly message and expect that it will dwell richly. And this is exactly why the prosperity gospel has not produced the next generation of great hymns of the Christian faith. This is why we don’t look to churches dominated by positive thinking for rich, gospel-centered songs. Where there is a shallow and unbiblical message, there must also be shallow and unbiblical songs. Conversely, a rich message generates rich dwelling, and that rich dwelling generates rich contemplation, and that rich contemplation generates rich songs.

As we sing to God, we proclaim who he is, what he has done, and what he requires of us. We also cry out to him in supplication, asking him for those things that he delights to his people. If this is true, it is a call to substance in our songs. We have thousands of great songs at our disposal, so why would we waste our time with songs that don’t say much at all? The richer our understanding of God, the richer the expressions of praise and the richer and bolder the requests we can make in our song. If we know God only as the one who dispenses riches, our songs will ask for nothing more than wealth. If we know God only as weak and barely holy, our songs will tell of a too-small God, a God unworthy of our worship. But if we know God as he is and if we know what he has accomplished through his Son, our songs will be full of rich, sweet truth.

We sing best when that gospel is dwelling richly within us. God is not looking at the quality of our tone or the perfection of our pitch. He is looking at the heart. Tone and pitch matter, but when you stand with the congregation and sing to the Lord, it is your heart that is far more significant. You can be utterly tone deaf and sing beautiful music in the ear of God when the gospel is dwelling richly within and when you are singing to exult in the Savior.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

May 26, 2014

Every now and again I like to write about one of the Bible’s tricky texts—those passages in the Bible that Christians tend to misunderstand and misuse. 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 is just that kind of text. In these verses Paul makes two statements about divorce. Before one he says, “not I, but the Lord” and before the other, “I, not the Lord.” Here is the text:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.

When I come across this text in books or blogs, I often find authors suggesting that in the first statement Paul is drawing upon a statement that is binding on all Christians while in the second he is either expressing humility or a kind of personal opinion. In either case, they highlight the full authority of the first statement and then diminish the authority of the second statement, saying something like, “Paul was humble enough to say that this was simply his understanding of the situation” or “In the second statement Paul was expressing his personal opinion.”

However, the contrast here is not between divine revelation and personal opinion. Rather, the contrast is between two different kinds of authority, each of which is from God and each of which is fully authoritative and fully binding.

In the New Testament we find the new Christians drawing upon three different sources of authority: The Old Testament scriptures; the teachings of Jesus; and new revelation given to the Apostles. Each of these was considered authoritative revelation from God. So sometimes we see New Testament Christians drawing from the Old Testament, sometimes from words Jesus spoke while he was on earth, and sometimes from new teachings given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Never do we find these sources of authority ranked or contrasted as if one is more important or authoritative than the others.

As we come to 1 Corinthians 7:10 we find Paul speaking about divorce and drawing directly from the words of Jesus. Jesus had said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). These words had been spoken, remembered, recorded, and made an integral part of the Christian teaching on marriage and divorce. On this basis Paul could says, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.“ He makes it clearly that he is reiterating what Jesus said.

But as Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he wishes to address an area that Jesus did not speak to specifically. While Jesus taught extensively, he did not teach exhaustively. One area he did not speak to is the case of a mixed marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. So as Paul addresses it, he does so by prefacing his words with “I, not the Lord.” In his commentary on 1 Corinthians Anthony Thistleton suggests it may be better to understand Paul as saying, “a saying of the Lord” and “not a saying of the Lord.” “To the rest I say (not a saying of the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.” He does not mean to say that his words carry less authority or that they are less binding on the Christian; rather, he is making it clear to them that this is a new teaching given by God through one of his Apostles. This makes it a teaching that carries every bit as much of the authority as Jesus’ words. Why? Because it is given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Though it did not come from the mouth of Jesus, it is still the word of God and binding on the Christian.

How should we use this text? We should use it to teach what God wants us to know about divorce and remarriage and what God wants us to know about Christians married to unbelievers. We need to highlight that both parts are fully authoritative because both parts are fully inspired by God.

May 21, 2014

Over the past few years an old form of Bible reading and interpretation has resurfaced and made quite an impact. It is known as Lectio Divina. I appreciate David Helms’ critique of this method in in his little book Expositional Preaching. Where others have, I think, come up with novel ways of critiquing it, Helm heads straight to the Bible. Essentially, he says that Lectio Divina often leads us away from the right meaning and right application of a text instead of toward it. Let me explain.

In one of the early chapters he writes about ways preachers can unfairly contextualize a biblical text. Preachers “are increasingly appealing to their subjective reading of the text as inspired. More and more, Bible teachers are being told that whatever moves their spirit in private readings of the Bible must be what God’s Spirit wants preached in public.”

He goes on to say,

One example of this kind of reading strategy has a long history. It goes by the name Lectio Divina. This traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural interpretation was intended to promote communion with God and, to a lesser extent, familiarity with the Bible. It favors a view of biblical texts as “the Living Word” rather than as written words to be studied. Traditional forms of this practice include four steps for private Bible reading: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. You begin by quieting your heart with a simple reading of the text. Then you meditate, perhaps on a single word of phrase from the text, and in so doing intentionally avoid what might be considered an “analytical” approach. In essence, the goal here is to wait for the Spirit’s illumination so that you will arrive at meaning. You wait for Jesus to come calling. Once the word is given, you go on to pray. After all, prayer is dialogue with God. God speaks through his Word and the person speaks through prayer. Eventually, this prayer becomes contemplative prayer, and it gives us the ability to comprehend deeper theological truths.

As Helm says, this sounds wonderfully pious. It even appears to come with solid Scriptural support in a text like 1 Corinthians 2:10 which says, “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” Stating his objection broadly first, Helm says, “Lectio Divina advocates a method that is spiritual as opposed to systematically studious. It substitutes intuition for investigation. It prefers mood and emotion to methodical and reasoned inquiry. It equates your spirit to the Holy Spirit.”

Of course many will object to that final sentence, but from Helm’s perspective, conclusions based on inner contemplation cannot be trusted in the same way as conclusions based on a close and studious reading of the text.

This method has gained popularity in recent years, first in private devotions and increasing in sermon preparation. “And even where it is not practiced by name, it is remarkably similar to the way a lot of young preachers are taught to prepare. They are told to read the Bible devotionally, quietly, waiting upon the Holy Spirit to speak. For you can be assured that what God lays upon our hearts from a text in the quiet of the moment he will use also in the lives of others. So ‘Preach it! It must be inspired.’”

What is the heart of the problem here? It is that the method leads to subjective, rather than objective, conclusions.

When we stop the hard work of understanding the words that the Spirit has given us and work exclusively in the “mind of the Spirit,” we become the final authority on meaning. We begin to lay down “truths” and “advice” that are biblically untenable or unsupportable. We may do so for good reasons, such as our sense of the moral health of our people or a genuine desire to renew the world we live in. But, nevertheless, we begin operating outside of orthodox doctrine. We confuse “thus sayeth the Lord” with “thus sayeth me.” We ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.

Let me repeat that final line: “We may ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.” That may just be the long-term consequence of this kind of preaching. Of course it has begun with the pastor allowing himself to trust himself in place of the Word.

The False Teachers
May 15, 2014

A few weeks ago I set out on a series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notable false teachers and to examine the false doctrine each of them represents. Along the way we have visited such figures as Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Ellen G. White (Adventism), Norman Vincent Peale (Positive Thinking) and Benny Hinn (Faith Healing). Today we turn to a post-Reformation nun whose mysticism has remained influential through the centuries. She represents the false teaching of mysticism.

Teresa of Avila

Teresa of AvilaTeresa of Avila was born on March 28, 1515, to a family that would soon number twelve. Sadly, Teresa’s mother died in 1529 and against her father’s wishes, she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avil. Very quickly she encountered significant health concerns and was rendered an invalid for three years. It was during this time that she discovered and developed a love for prayer. However, once her health was recovered, this dedication to prayer soon waned. At that time, and in that area, the Carmelites were a relaxed order and living as a nun was easy, respectable, and could even be glamorous at times.

In 1554, when she was almost 40, Teresa had an intense religious experience while she was before an image of the wounded Christ in the convent’s private chapel. She felt that Christ “was within me, or that I was totally engulfed by him.” Such experiences became more common and she became accustomed to Christ appearing to her and engulfing her in his love, though this was regarded with suspicion by her fellow nuns and by her priest confessors. There was suspicion toward anyone who claimed to be receiving special illumination or revelation from God.

In 1558, increasingly concerned with the laxity of Carmelite life, Teresa began to consider reform. This reform would require Carmelite nuns to completely withdraw from society around them so they could dedicate their time and attention to prayer, and through a life of repentance and penance, do works of reparation for the sins of mankind. Pope Pius IV authorized this reform and in 1562 she founded a new convent, insisting that the nuns survive only through receiving public alms. She would give the rest of her life to establishing and growing sixteen of these convents through Spain. Though it all, she would have ongoing and increasing mystical experiences.

She left behind a significant number of books including The Way of Perfection (1583), and The Interior Castle (1588), which many regard as a masterpiece of spiritual autobiography alongside Augustin’s Confessions. Beside her books, she left behind some 31 poems and 458 letters.

Teresa died of cancer on October 4, 1582. It was said that she died in a state of ecstasy and that as she died, any object she had touched sent forth a sweet odor. Forty years later she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV and thereafter named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI, the first female to be so honored.

False Teaching - Mysticism

Teresa was a mystic. Donald Whitney says mysticism refers to “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God.” Mystics are those who expect to experience “a direct inner realization of the Divine” and an “unmediated link to an absolute.”

At the heart of Teresa’s teaching was the ascent of the soul into sweet and unbroken mystical communion with God. She described four progressive stages in this ascent.

  1. Mental Prayer. The first is mental prayer, devout contemplation and concentration, through which the soul withdraws from everything physical around it. This happens especially during penitence and during times of observing Christ in his suffering and death.
  2. Prayer of Quiet. In prayer of quiet, the human will becomes lost in God’s will in a kind of supernatural state. Faculties such as memory, reason and imagination have not yet been quieted from outside distraction, but the mind and will are quiet in a growing experience of Christ’s presence.
  3. Devotion of Union. The devotion of union is a supernatural, ecstatic state in which human reason has become absorbed in God and only memory and imagination remain unclaimed. This is a state of bliss and peace where the higher faculties experience a sweet rest and the devotee experiences conscious rapture in God’s love.
  4. Devotion of Ecstasy or Rapture. This is a passive state in which the feeling of having a physical body disappears. Sense, memory and imagination are all absorbed in God. “Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow, a complete impotence and unconsciousness, and a spell of strangulation, sometimes by such an ecstatic flight that the body is literally lifted into space . This after half an hour is followed by a reactionary relaxation of a few hours in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. The subject awakens From this in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, producing a trance. Indeed, she was said to have been observed levitating during Mass on more than one occasion.”1

Followers & Modern Adherents

Despite significant opposition to her experiences and reform, Teresa gained a substantial following in her day and was influential on her generation of fellow Carmelite nuns and on other mystics such as John of the Cross. Her influence has only widened in the centuries since, and especially after her canonization. Her books have been the primary means of disseminating her ideas.

In days past her many admirers have seen her in many different lights. “George Eliot, who cast Teresa as patron saint of the frustrated bluestocking Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch ; Vita Sackville–West, who made Teresa into a twentieth century free spirit with (but of course) lesbian proclivities; and a range of feminist theorists, from Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex to the tenured denizens of numerous women’s studies departments. To them, Teresa was a postmodern “subversive” against patriarchal power structures both secular and ecclesial, androcentric metanarrative, and whatever else is currently deemed oppressive to the female sex.”2

In recent days her influence among Christians has grown, and especially during a resurgence of interest in contemplative prayer. Her doctrine of asceticism is considered a classic explanation and exposition of the contemplative life. Teresa’s understanding of the soul’s ascent and the mystical communion with God through contemplative prayer has been influential to the likes of those who have a fascination with mysticism including Brennan Manning, Richard Foster, and Watchman Nee, along with many who were (or are) associated with Emerging Christianity. We can also spot her direct or indirect influence in the works of bestselling authors like Sarah Young (Jesus Calling) and Ann Voskamp (One Thousand Gifts).

What the Bible Says

At the heart of mysticism is the primacy of experience over Scripture. Mystics seek to experience God directly rather than through the mediation of the Bible. Scripture demands for itself a unique place in the Christian life and church and mysticism threatens to supplant it. One of the great challenges before every Christian and every generation of Christians is this: Will the Bible be enough? Will we affirm the sufficiency of Scripture—that the Bible is all we need for life and doctrine—or will we demand that God reveal himself to us in other ways, such as mystical raptures?

Protestants have long held to the doctrine of sola scripture—Scripture alone. Teresa wrote during the Counter-Reformation, the period of time in which Rome was responding to the challenge of these Protestant doctrines. Donald Whitney says, “the Scriptures alone—and not anyone’s individual experience nor the collected and distilled corporate tradition of the church—are our final authority. And the Scriptures are our final authority because the Scriptures are what God says. In this context sola scriptura means that the Bible is the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and Christian living, and thus the ultimate authority in spirituality.” The Bible is also “a sufficient guide for our spirituality. In other words, the authority for our spirituality claims its sufficiency as the director of our spirituality.” The Bible will guide us not only in what we know of God but also in how we know God.

Whitney offers two ways we cross this boundary of sola scriptura. The first is whenever

we seek an experience with Him in a way not found in Scripture. In one sense it is difficult to think of an example of an encounter with God for which there is nothing remotely similar in the Bible. Yet in another sense mankind seems to have a unlimited capacity to invent ways to “get in touch with God.” And all these have in common the presumption of the ability to experience God apart from the forms He has selected, and/or the presumption of the ability to experience Him immediately, that is, unmediated by God’s ordained means of revealing Himself to us.

A second way to cross the boundary of sola scriptura is

seeking to experience God in a way not inaugurated, guided, or interpreted by Scripture. Scripture should inaugurate many of our experiences with God, for the Scriptures are the clearest revelation of God. This is why He gave His Word to us, so that we would experience Him. And in a real sense we might say that all true experiences with God are ultimately inaugurated by Scripture.

When we understand the unique position Scripture demands for itself, we also understand the danger inherent in mysticism.

Note: Readers pointed out that initially I did not properly cite Wikipedia’s entry on Teresa of Avila; I appreciate having that pointed out and added a footnote as appropriate. It was clearly marked as a quote in my research notes but that did not make it to the article. As for the general tone of the article, it is meant to be informational more than biographical, by which I mean I do not provide exhaustive information about the false teachers; most of my interest is in the false teaching. Of course this does not excuse sloppy or inaccurate information and this article did not adhere to the standards I would want it to. I am traveling this week and, being away from my usual routines and my usual reference works, allowed myself to be sloppy in both research and writing. It would have been far better to save this for another week and to ensure it was of better quality. I will attempt to revisit this article soon and to do a better job of it. For the next few days I am in Australia preaching two to three times a day and I need to prioritize that (I’d really appreciate your prayers in this time as I have not adjusted well to the fourteen time-zone difference and am extremely tired); I will return to the article after I return to Canada. In the meantime, please do forgive me for my sloppiness.

May 14, 2014

The evening service may well be going the way of the dinosaur. What was once a staple of Christian worship, at least in some traditions, is increasingly being relegated to the past. Or so it would seem. I, for one, consider it a significant loss.

I grew up with an evening service—or an afternoon service, I guess. I spent a good bit of my childhood in the Dutch Reformed tradition which was wholly committed to a second service. Those Christians were very practical, so they worked around farmers’ schedules by having the second service at 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Regardless, there were always two services and very nearly every person in the church attended both. The first was dedicated to preaching God’s Word and the second to teaching through the catechisms and confessions. In my life, an evening service was as natural as breathing.

Not too long ago I wrote about Why I Love an Evening Service and said, “Of all the casualties the church has suffered in recent decades, I wonder if many will have longer-lasting consequences than the loss of the evening service.” While I shared why I love an evening service, I did not suggest why the evening service has fallen out of favor. Recently Thom Rainer speculated on it and offered six interesting ideas:

  • The advent of Sunday evening services in many churches was a cultural adaptation for its time. Its decline or demise is thus a cultural response.
  • The disappearance of blue laws (mandatory Sunday closings) allowed many alternatives to Sunday evening worship, and many church members chose those options.
  • There has been an increasing emphasis on family time. Families with children at home particularly viewed one worship service on Sundays to be sufficient for them.
  • Many pastors simply do not have the desire, energy, or commitment to prepare a second and different sermon. Their lack of emphasis was thus reflected in the congregation’s lack of interest.
  • When many churches began offering services on alternative days, such as Fridays or Saturdays, there was neither the desire nor the resources to keep Sunday evening services going.
  • A number of churches, particularly new church starts, are in leased facilities. They do not have the option of returning on Sunday evenings.

Each of those is intriguing in its own way and I suspect each of them, or a combination of them, is true in many churches. Rainer invited feedback, so I am going to suggest a few other ideas. I believe evening services may also have declined because of:

  • A diminished view of preaching. More than anything else, an evening service provides a second opportunity to sit under the preaching of the Word. When preaching goes into decline, and when people demand and expect more of a service than preaching, it stands to reason that the evening service will no longer prove a significant draw. Not only that, but a pastor is far less likely to dedicate himself to preparing a second sermon when preaching has fallen out of favor. Where the pastor’s job description used to have preaching at the very top of the list, today preaching tends to be just one of many important tasks that consume his time and energy.
  • The growth of amateur and professional sports. Sports dominate life in North America. Amateur sports have migrated to Sunday (a relatively new development) while professional sports are a Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening staple for many families. I sometimes wonder if Superbowl parties held at churches marked the beginning of the end, proving the ascendency of sport and the decline of church. Either way, unless you determine that you will not allow sports to interfere with church, sports will likely win at some point.
  • A diminished view of Sunday. Blue laws have been rescinded, and this is important, I’m sure. But I think we can dig a little deeper. There was a time in both Canada and America where Christian influence pushed a form of Sabbatarianism into the wider culture. Even though few people were convicted by Scripture, there was enough Christian influence to carry the day. As a result, sports, leagues, activities, and other entertainments tended to be held six days per week rather than seven. As Christian influence has waned, many of these activities have pushed their way into Sunday. Just about every league, every activity, every hobby, now has a Sunday component.
  • A diminished Reformed influence. While the number of Evangelicals may be increasing, the number of traditionally Reformed Evangelicals (by which I especially mean those forms that hold to a form of Sabbatarianism) has declined. The greater your commitment to a Christian Sabbath, the greater the likelihood that you will advocate an evening service as a means of redeeming the entire day. As Evangelicals have become less convinced about the Sabbath, many have become less convinced about making all of Sunday the Lord’s Day.
  • An amusement culture. Our culture is increasingly driven by a desire for entertainment. Evening services are not fun and, therefore, cannot compete with the growing entertainment options. If we measure what we do by entertainment value, an evening service will rarely win.

I want to add one more factor, separate from the others. I have seen that a lot of churches make their evening services drab. Coming to church a second time in a day is a significant commitment, and especially so for families with young children. The commitment only feels heightened when most other Christians have already stopped attending on Sunday evenings. While we should not measure our services by their entertainment value, there are things we can do to make those evening services interesting and applicable. A good evening service is a delight; a boring evening service is a chore. Many churches have undoubtedly had their evening service disappear because it did not receive enough love and care to keep it vibrant.

Is there anything you would add? What is your sense about the decline and the future of the evening service?

May 13, 2014

Daddy, why is it so hard to say goodbye?” She asked the question with tears rolling down her cheeks. She had come for the ride, and for a final chance to kiss me goodbye, as my wife dropped me at the curb outside terminal one.

Her sister, eight years old, had come along too. An eminently practical child, undisturbed by most emotional drama, she simply said, “Bye, daddy!”, gave me a quick peck on the cheek, and went back to her book. Her older brother had been content to skip the ride in favor of staying home. But she, the eleven-year-old, was distraught. She had been weeping for the entire half hour it took us to travel from home to the airport. Her cheeks were stained by tears, her eyes full of them, when she hugged me and kissed me and kissed me again. “I love you daddy. I’m going to miss you so much…” And a moment later, “Daddy, why is it so hard to say goodbye?”

My family is accustomed to having me travel. I do it fairly often—usually every month or six weeks. But most of those are short two-day trips and I am home almost before they really realize I’ve been gone. Plus, in some ways life is good when I’m gone—the family gets to eat out more, there is more “fun time” with mom, and one of the girls usually ends up in my bed. But every couple of years I go on a longer trip, like this one to Australia.

“Daddy, why is it so hard to say goodbye?” she asked. And I understood immediately that it was a good question, and a tough one for an eleven-year-old child. I don’t know all the reasons it is so difficult. But it is. We all know it. We have all experienced the pain of saying farewell.

I believe it’s hard because goodbye is an unnatural state. We were created for fellowship—unbroken, sweet communion with God and with one another. The first and most crushing goodbye was God’s goodbye to his people, to Adam and Eve, when they declared independence from him. They had severed themselves from his fellowship and it would take the death of his Son to restore communion.

In a world like this, goodbye is always accompanied by fear. It carries the fear that this may be the final goodbye. Alongside the goodbye is the knowledge that at some point we will each bid the other a final farewell, that there will be a final kiss, a final hug, a final “I love you,” at least on this side of eternity.

For my sweet girl to say goodbye to her father carries that entrenched fear, that deep-rooted inevitability that there must be a final goodbye. Goodbye is difficult only because this world is broken.

She misses me when I am gone, and I miss her. The separation is difficult—the separation from her good morning cuddles, her goodnight kisses, her for-no-reason tokens of love, her sighed “I love you.” But we are just a short week away; there are only a few mornings and a few evenings apart. We will only miss one drive to church listening to Anne of Green Gables and a few evenings of sitting together in the living room reading By the Shores of Silver Lake. But then there is the fear, that back-of-the-mind, out-of-sight but never out-of-mind trepidation that this goodbye might be the final goodbye and, even if it is not, that the final one must come.

It is hard. It is hard to be the girl who misses her daddy, and the daddy who misses his girl. But this is not the time for despair. This is not the time to mourn as those who have no hope. This is the time to give thanks to the one who guarantees that in him there are no final farewells, no permanent separations. It is the time to look forward with hope and joyful anticipation to the time we will never fear saying goodbye.

My girl and I may be separated for a few days. Or maybe the Lord will decide that I do not return from this trip. But even then, the separation will be short because we know, and we believe, in the words of the poet: “One short sleep past we wake eternally, and death will be no more.” In that day death will be gone, and so too will every painful goodbye.

May 12, 2014

Not too long ago a good friend of ours [I am co-writing this with Sean Harrelson] attended an evangelical pastors’ conference to tell people about his ministry to the disabled, to their families, and to their churches. There were nearly one thousand godly, theologically-astute, gospel-enamored leaders in attendance. What an opportunity, right?

As we spoke to our friend in the aftermath of the event, he told us that his booth, located in a prime spot in the busy exhibit hall, had generated a grand total of five conversations—five conversations in three days. Two of those were with inattentive attendees who apparently mistook the display for something else. In an attempt to escape the awkward moment, one of them uttered, “This doesn’t affect me” before turning his back and rushing away. Apparently booths displaying mentally disabled children and disfigured adults in wheelchairs do not attract crowds. Of the thousand people who repeatedly walked by the booth, only three engaged our friend. One pastor watched the promotional video, wept, and said “Thank you,” telling about his son who has a rare neurological disorder.

We love that man. We understand his reaction. We too are pastors. We too have seen disability up-close, in our churches and in our families. We too have wept and thanked our friend for his ministry. And we have a keen interest in why 997 aspiring evangelical leaders avoided The Elisha Foundation.

The Thing With Beauty

To be fair, there may have been many reasons. But our friend has manned his booth at many conferences and has usually experienced a great response with many meaningful conversations. So what was unique about this event? What we realized as we thought it through was that this conference had two significant emphases: beauty and mission.

Ours is a highly marketed culture popping with logos, sound bites, and all kinds of bling. Where the mainstream church of yesteryear was criticized for isolating itself from culture, our younger generation of evangelical leaders care a great deal for aesthetic quality in music, technology, architecture, interior design, and graphic arts. They value beauty.

We are grateful for this emphasis on aesthetic quality and the resurgence in art and creativity, and especially so when those same people value sound doctrine and biblical preaching. But make no mistake: beauty has become more than a catchword to many Christians today. Beauty has joined truth, worship and mission as a core value in many churches.

This conference displayed beauty at every turn and heralded beauty from the pulpit. It expressed that beauty is missional, that we can appeal to people better through beauty than through ugliness. And in that beautiful and put-together event there was just one area that stood apart: a booth covered with pictures of broken bodies and disfigured faces.

Could it be that the emphasis on beauty and the lack of interest in disability are related? We think it may be. After all, the disabled have a way of disturbing our commitment to beauty.

Beauty’s Purpose

Let’s be clear: There are good and biblical reasons for a focus on beauty and aesthetics. Our God is an aesthetic God. He created all that exists and pronounced it good and very good. He took rigorous care over the design of the tabernacle and priestly garments in the book of Exodus, demanding that they be exquisite in their design and creation. We see many places in the Bible where “beauty” is loaded with theological meaning associated with God’s glory and God’s salvation. Beauty is good!

Beauty serves an especially important purpose in this broken and sin-stained world. God is beautiful and God made us in his beautiful image. Every bit of beauty in this world is just a glimpse of his beauty. In his perfect Creation there was not a single stain of ugliness. But then we chose to be ugly before him. We chose to go our way instead of his way, and in doing that we became hopelessly marred and disfigured. Now God’s beauty highlights our lack of beauty. It draws attention to the stark contrast between God and us. What every Christian wants to do is give unbelieving people a vision of God’s beauty, and primarily, the beauty of the salvation he offers to people who have deliberately made themselves ugly through sin. God’s beauty draws those whom he gives eyes to see. In this way beauty is closely tied to mission. We tell people about a beautiful God who wants to bring a beautiful salvation to lead to a beautiful future.

Beauty’s Dilemma

Beauty is good, but allegiance to it can be damaging because so often the disabled do not fit our perception of beauty. The greater our focus on beauty and the greater our desire to be known for it, the more jarring their presence may be. A heightened emphasis on aesthetics simply creates a greater contrast. Could that contrast become so pronounced that it causes us to walk away from booths at a conference, or away from an opportunity to serve the disabled, their families, their churches?

Isaiah tells us that our Savior came into this world with “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Nor did Jesus surround himself with beauty. He spent most of his time with the blind, sick, diseased, deformed, demon-possessed, and dead. Why? Because they were Jesus’ mission. He had come to seek and to save the least, the lost, the last, and the lame, not the beautiful, the whole, the put-together.

What concerns us as we think about that conference, and toward our churches as they, too, pursue beauty, is the apparent contradiction between exalting the missional importance of beauty, but all the while ignoring or neglecting the disabled because their lack of beauty makes us uncomfortable. You cannot have true mission while ignoring the disabled! They too, are marred by sin, they too need to be told of the beauty of salvation, they too need to be our mission, they too are the church.

The Bestsellers
May 11, 2014

A short time ago I launched a new series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a bestseller that impacted me deeply.

The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn

Treasure PrincipleRandy Alcorn was born on June 23, 1954, in Portland, Oregon. His father owned a tavern and supplied amusement machines to other local taverns while his mother chose to stay home with the children. Randy grew up without any Christian background and first attended church as a teenager, primarily to pursue a young lady. It was at that church and at its youth group that he first heard the gospel. He became a Christian in 1969 and later married the girl he had followed to church. Very quickly he knew that he wanted to go to Bible college to study God’s Word and then to become a missionary. However, he soon found himself co-founding and pastoring Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring, Oregon, the church he continues to attend today. He pastored for thirteen years before an event that forever changed his life and ministry.

In 1989 Alcorn participated in some nonviolent rescues at abortion clinics. Like many others, he was arrested a number of times and spent a few days in jail. But one of those clinics won a judgment against him that required him to pay a hefty fine. Alcorn told the judge he would pay anything he owed, but he would not give a penny to people who would use that money to abort babies. In early 1990 he learned that his church would be forced to pay one forth of his wages each month to that abortion clinic. He immediately resigned his position. In fact, the only way he could avoid paying money to that clinic was to ensure that he did not earn more than minimum wage. It was at this point that he founded Eternal Perspectives Ministries. (Consider reading the full story.)

Since that day Alcorn has never earned more than minimum wage. All of his book royalties have gone to Eternal Perspectives Ministries and used to support missions, pro-life work, and other Christian causes.

Since 1985 Alcorn has written many books, but none have been more popular than The Treasure Principle which was published in 2001. Released with little fanfare and with only three brief endorsements (including John Piper’s who says, “Supercharged with stunning, divine truth! Lightning struck over and over as I read it.”) the book claims to “unlock the secret of joyful giving.” The “treasure principle” is this: You can’t take it with you—but you can send it on ahead. Alcorn says, “If we give instead of keep, if we invest in the eternal instead of in the temporal, we store up treasures in heaven that will never stop paying dividends. Whatever we store up on earth will be left behind when we leave. Whatever treasures we store up in heaven will be waiting for us when we arrive.”

Along with the principle he offers six keys:

  • Principle #1 - God owns everything. I’m His money manager.
  • Principle #2 - My heart always goes where I put God’s money.
  • Principle #3 - Heaven, not earth, is my home.
  • Principle #4- I should live for the dot but for the line [not for this short life on earth but for eternity]
  • Principle #5 - Giving is the only antidote to materialism.
  • Principle #6 - God prospers me not to raise my standard of living, but to raise my standard of giving.

A simple book, and a short one, spanning only 120 small pages, the book is the very opposite of The Prayer of Jabez and so many other books on giving and prosperity. He teaches the importance and the sheer joy of giving consistently and generously to the Lord’s work, all the while giving up treasures on earth in order to store up treasures in heaven.

Sales & Lasting Impact

Where many other books have seen explosive sales, The Treasure Principle has sold steadily over the past thirteen years. It took four years to sell its first 500,000 copies (it received the Gold Book Award in 2005) and another three years to reach one million copies, receiving the Platinum Book Award in 2008. Notably, 2008 was also the year another of Alcorn’s books, Heaven, attained Gold status. While these sales are not exactly slow compared to most other Christian books, they are slow when compared to other books that have attained Platinum status.

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