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December 07, 2005

I love the expression “ink has been spilled.” Unfortunately it is not entirely valid in today’s world in which most nonverbal communication happens in a virtual realm of fonts, screens and pixels. As far as I know there is no phrase that adequately replaces it (“keys tapped?” “pixels sent?”). So I will use it even though it doesn’t make perfect sense in this context.

In the past couple of days the blogosphere has been buzzing about the article first printed in the Kentucky Herald-Leader announcing that many of the megachurches in the United States will not be holding services on Christmas morning. “The list of closed congregations on Christmas Sunday reads like a who’s who of evangelical Protestantism: Willow Creek Community Church, the Chicago area’s largest congregation; Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich.; North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.; and Fellowship Church near Dallas.” A whole lot of ink has been spilled (See? There it is!) discussing this. This news was greeted with outrage on two or maybe even three levels with some people protesting the cancellation of Christmas services and others protesting the cancellation of Sunday services (and some people, I suppose, protesting both).

As you might expect, I have an opinion on this matter. I am, after all, a blogger and opinions come with the job description. It was for a good reason that I posted this morning’s article (We Have Christ’s Own Promise, And That Cannot Fail) before this one. Sometimes I need to remind myself of my love for the church before I deal with such issues. I truly do love the church and I know that God is proud of her. But I suspect he is upset with many believers over this issue. This is much like my relationship with my children. I love them dearly, of course, but sometimes I am deeply distressed by what they do or say. Sometimes I am even ashamed of their behavior. This may just be an occasion where God is shaking His head in dismay as He looks upon the church.

This morning Yahoo news published an article which features a quote from David Wells. A similar article has since been printed on Fox’s news site. Clearly this story is finding a wide and a surprised audience among unbelievers. “This is a consumer mentality at work: ‘Let’s not impose the church on people. Let’s not make church in any way inconvenient,’” said David Wells, professor of history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical school in Hamilton, Mass. “I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing.”

I agree with Wells to some extent but would like to add something else. First, though, let me express my agreement that the seeker-friendly megachurches do not in any way wish to inconvenience their target market. This is fed by a consumer mentality within the church that sees the unchurched as consumers who need to be led to accept the product offered by the church. Wells is also right in stating that this simply feeds the rampant individualism that is endemic to our culture. These churches have catered to that unbiblical, me-centered mentality. And it is a shame.

But I think there is a little more to the story. The churches that are closing their doors are, by and large, seeker-driven. The leadership of these churches have decided that, because of the incovenience of attending church on Christmas morning, most seekers will not bother making time for a church service. We see this in the words of Cally Parkinson, spokeswoman for Willow Creek Community Church. “If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched, basically the people who don’t go to church, how likely is it that they’ll be going to church on Christmas morning?” she said. If there will not be seekers in church on a Sunday morning, the leaders of these churches do not feel there is any reason to go through all the bother of opening the church doors. If a church’s philosophy of church is such that church services are viewed as being primarily for seekers and driven by seekers, there is little purpose in holding a service that only believers will attend. What we see in this decision is a clear manifestation of the ramifications of the seeker-driven mentality.

This takes us back to an article I wrote last week where I asked whether evangelism is the chief end of man. And it takes us beyond that to the question of whether or not evangelism is the chief end of the church’s corporate gatherings. This is a wide topic and one I will not address today. But suffice it to say that if the gatherings of the local church exist primarily for the benefit of believers, and I believe they do, churches that close their doors on Christmas morning have made a grevious error and have prevented their people from enjoying a morning of worship and fellowship before God. They have deprived Christians of a joyous time of rememberance and celebration.

Some will protest that services have been cancelled purely for reasons of necessity. “Cindy Willison, a spokeswoman for the evangelical Southland Christian Church, said at least 500 volunteers are needed, along with staff, to run Sunday services for the estimated 8,000 people who usually attend. She said many of the volunteers appreciate the chance to spend Christmas with their families instead of working…” This is also a manifestation of a seeker-driven mentality which focuses on getting people through the doors of a church but does not adequately challenge them in the way they live their faith. Christians should be excited to worship God and should be willing to rearrange their Christmas mornings to accomodate the worship service. That so few people desire to attend church shows a critical illness within the body of the church. This is no excuse.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with rearranging services on Christmas morning. Many people are away from home and, as with any holiday, attendance suffers for good reasons and bad. A church can compress two services to one, cancel Sunday school or cancel an evening service. Those are all secondary issues that fall under the “better or best” type of reasoning. But to cancel church altogether simply to cater to the desires of unbelievers is a whole different matter. At the very least the pastors should be waiting by the door to greet those who arrive. Even if no one walks through the door, at least the pastors have taken a stand for what is most important to them and have modelled Christ’s own love for worship.

Here are some other articles on this topic:

December 07, 2005

It is easy to grow discouraged at the state of the church. As a matter of fact, as one who has invested a lot of time and attention to studying the church, her health and what Jesus requires of her, I often find myself lamenting her state. Writers from all backgrounds and denominations have written about the church, and I have read many of these books and publications. The standard book begins with a few chapters outlining all the ways the church has failed with the rest of the book providing the solution. If only we did this or that or the other thing, we would make the church what she was intended to be. I have never read a book that gave the church a collective pat on the back and said “good job!”

Here are just a couple of examples of people who have taken on the church in recent years. Rick Warren wrote the mega-seller The Purpose Driven Church wherein he proclaimed that the church had lost sight of her purpose and had to rediscover it. Millions of pastors bought and read this book and began what Warren refers to as the Second Reformation - a Reformation of purpose. Not too long ago I counted six or seven books in the Christian bookstore heralding “the next Reformation,” yet all of them pointed towards a different basis for this Reformation. The men and women of the Emergent community continually write indictments of the church, showing how, in their view, she has failed in the modern world and is primed to be an even greater failure in the postmodern world. A person who is fully immersed in the Emergent church wrote me recently and wrote about “denominational distinctives that strive to keep us divided” as if churches are purposely focusing on the distinctives in order to drive wedges between them and other believers. There are any number of other authors that identify problems and tell us how to fix them. Many people are proud to be believers, yet are ashamed to be part of the church - the visible body of Christ. They portray the church as being purposeless, intellectual and ancient, knowingly and joyfully trapped in the past, snickering as we watch our neighbours fall into the abyss.

Yet the church is not a failure; the church which is the remnant of those who are faithful, who compose only a fraction of the wider, visible church, remain true to Christ and continue to do God’s work in the world. Jesus Himself told us that the road to salvation is narrow and only a few enter, so we musn’t be surprised when there are far more who turn their backs than respond with joy. This I can guarantee: 100% of God’s elect have been ministered to and changed by the Word of God. Every one of them has heard the preaching of a minister of the Word or has read a Bible lovingly and obediently translated which was delivered to someone who needed it most. Why do we dwell on our failures and shortcomings? Does this honor God and glorify Him for the battles that have been won and the lives He has changed through us?

Despite these victories we too often see the church as a failure.

I have a friend who has a high view of his own sin. He tends to sign emails as “your sinful, spiteful, hell-deserving sinner of a friend” or something like that. He never hides from his own sin, and I admire that. And while it is fully true that he is a sinner and no doubt feels spite and malice and does deserve hell, this is only half the story. In his view of his sin I think he often loses sight of the fact that in God’s eyes he is now a beautiful new creation, restored to the image of God. He has been bought with precious blood and adopted into the family of the king! I continually have to remind him that he is focusing on only half of the battle. His emphasis on his sin does not allow him to see the beauty of what he has become. And I think this is how the church often sees itself - it sees the bad and loses track of all the good things that the church has done through Christ.

The church, despite sin and failings and shortcomings and imperfections of all sorts is a glorious body and one that I know Christ is proud of. He has promised that the church will prevail and we can take refuge in that promise. If we were not such a sinful mess we would not need him at all! But because we are sinful and make constant mistakes, we need Him to lead and guide us as we act as His representatives on earth. I know that there is so much more we could do, and must do. I know the church is not all that God wants it to be. Yet I am confident that it brings Him glory and makes Him proud. So if you are part of this body, allow yourself a moment of pride and awe for what God has done in and through His body; thank God that you can be part of something so awesome, so glorious, so godly. And then put your hand to the plow and continue the work He has entrusted to us.

This is an article I adapted from another I wrote almost exactly a year ago. For some reason it seemed timely.

August 30, 2005

Scott Hill, who blogs at Fide-O, wrote a short article called “15 Things I Learned at Saddleback.” I can’t quite decide if the article is hilarious or tragic.

“For my own integrity sake I took the opinion that if I was to speak with any authority on Saddleback Community Church then I would need to actually attend the church itself, and not just take other’s word for it. Since moving to California five years ago I have attended Saddleback 12 or 13 times. I am by no means an expert on this church, but I did want to share with you a few things I learned in my trips to this church.

“I learned if you take your Bible into the service you will be greeted immediately by an associate pastor, asking how your trip to California has been.

“I learned unless you have a Bible with 25 different versions then there is no reason to bring your Bible.

“I learned how to live single and Godly, from a guy who learned it between his first and second marriage.

“I learned when Rick Warren tells 2500 pastors to get out their paper and he will give them their sermon outline for Easter Sunday 2498 of them start hunting for a pen.”

Check out the rest of the short article here.

August 04, 2005

Hank HillI used to watch a lot of the show “King of the Hill.” For those who don’t know it, it is an animated show targetted at adults (like The Simpsons and any number of other shows these days, most of which are not worth watching). The main character is Hank Hill, a proud, Republican Texan who has dedicated his life to selling propane and propane accessories. He loves country music, football, Willie Nelson, Sweet Lady Propane, and of course, God. His love for God is presented as real, but somewhat inconsistent, as we might expect for a Texan who has lived his life amidst one of the strongholds of institutionalized religion. While it is a fun and usually innocent show, I stopped watching it a few years ago.

One episode from a few years ago caught my attention. It was called “Reborn to be Wild” and was nominated for an award by The Writers Guild of America. This episode continues to come to my mind these days, especially as I read Phil Johnson’s posts about the Fad Driven Church and Steve Camp’s articles about “God is my Girlfriend Songs.”

While my memory of the show is getting hazy, I found a substantial number of quotes from the show at various web sites, enough to provide a good summary of the episode. In this particular episode Bobby (Hank’s son who must be twelve or thirteen) becomes involved with a youth group and the far-too-cool youth pastor, Pastor K. Hank is reluctant to have Bobby involved in this type of group, where all the kids skateboard, listen to loud music and generally try to make God cool. Bobby becomes captivated by the group and seeks to impress his parents with his new friends.

BOBBY: These are my friends from the youth group. They’re cool and they’re totally Christian.

Bobby begins to absorb the message of this youth leader and begins to wear a “Satan Sucks” t-shirt.

PASTOR K: To be tight with the Lord, you gotta take your faith to the limit. You know what I’m talking about?
KID: The power!
PASTOR K: That’s right! Nothing runs without power. Your amp is useless unless it gets that juice, and so are we. So you gotta test all things to find the good.
BOBBY: But how do you know what’s good?
PASTOR K: It’s whatever sticks to your spirit, man, whatever God tattoos on your soul. We’re all searching for that eternal ink.

Bobby begins to show the influence of the pastor and the other kids.

BOBBY: And then Cain was all like “I ain’t s’posed to be lookin’ out for my bro, yo.”
LUANNE (Bobby’s Cousin): I didn’t know that was in Genesis.

Hank expresses his concern to Pastor K.

PASTOR K: Dude, you don’t have to act or dress a certain way for God. You can hang with him any way, anywhere. Don’t you think Jesus is right here in this half-pipe?
HANK: I’m sure he’s a lot of places he doesn’t want to be.

Meanwhile, Bobby has started collecting all the Jesus Junk that seems to be part-and-parcel of this little Christian subculture. His mother tries out one of his video games.

PEGGY (playing an “Exodus” video game): Whoo! I’m out of Egypt! And look at Moses dance!

Hank and Peggy talk to Bobby and express their concern with what he is learning and how he is acting. He pulls the “you just don’t understand” card that is always popular with teens.

BOBBY: You guys just don’t understand how I feel about Jesus!

A few days later Bobby ends up on stage, leading the crowd at a wild Christian rock concert.

BOBBY: I’ll say holy, you say ghost! Holy!
CROWD: Ghost!
BOBBY: Holy!
CROWD: Ghost!
PASTOR K: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want! He make me lie down in green pastures!
BOBBY: They’re green, y’all!

Hank confronts Pastor K one more time, expressing his disgust with the music, the look and the lifestyle.

HANK: Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making rock n’ roll worse.
PASTOR K: You people are all alike. You look at us and think we’re freaks. Come on, even Jesus had long hair.
HANK: Only because I wasn’t his dad.

Jessie (I cannot recall her relationship to Pastor K) encourages Pastor K.

JESSIE: Never come between a kid and his dad. If the man doesn’t want his boy praising like you, that’s cool.
PASTOR K: Yeah, but —
JESSIE: Now go finish the show before they start moshing out of anger instead of jubilation.

The show wraps up with Hank teaching Bobby an important lesson.

BOBBY: When I turn 18, I’m going to do whatever I want for the Lord. Tattoos, piercings, you name it.
HANK: Well, I’ll take that chance. Come here, there’s something I want you to see. (Hank takes down a box from the shelf and opens it up) Remember this?
BOBBY: My beanbag buddy? Oh, man, I can’t believe I collected those things. They’re so lame.
HANK: You didn’t think so five years ago. And how about your virtual pet? You used to carry this thing everywhere. Then you got tired of it, forgot to feed it, and it died.
BOBBY (looks at a photo of himself in a Ninja Turtles costume): I look like such a dork.
HANK: I know how you feel. I never thought that “Members Only” jacket would go out of style, but it did. I know you think stuff you’re doing now is cool, but in a few years you’re going to think it’s lame. And I don’t want the Lord to end up in this box.
BOBBY: Hey, what’s this picture? Mom used to have blonde hair?
HANK: Farrah Fawcett was very popular back then.

This particular episode was written by Tony Gama-Lobo & Rebecca May. I don’t know if they are believers, or merely outside observers, but they made some astute observations. Hank’s concern is one I share when I look at the way some Christian kids are encouraged to behave. Too often it seems that God is treated as just another product. Children are unable to seperate Him from the other fads that sweep through their lives when they are young. Beanie Babies and Ninja Turtles come and go. For too many children, God does the same. As long as God is all the rage they are happy to acknowledge Him, but as soon as He goes out of style, they put him in a box like all the other fads. He ends up on the top shelf, along with the Revolve Bible-zines, the “Got Jesus?” shirts, the purity rings and the WWJD bracelets. God is thrown aside as just another fad.

What is the solution? I’m not entirely sure, but I suppose I’ll have some better answers when my children are teenagers and are fighting this very battle. In the meantime, I’d be interested in your perspective (that’s right, you!).

July 18, 2005

Phil Johnson posted an article on Saturday called “The worst of times: Evangelicalism in critical condition.” He wrote, “…evangelicalism’s spiritual condition at the beginning of the twenty-first century is reminiscent of the medieval church just prior to the Protestant Reformation.” Then he retracted that statement. “No, I take it back. Things are much worse among evangelicals today than they were in the Catholic Church in those days. Modern and postmodern evangelicalism is just like medieval Catholicism was—only more superficial.”

He goes on to show how any number of hucksters on TBN bear an uncanny resemblance to Tetzel; how many of today’s songs sound much like the doggerls Tetzel used to peddle his wares; how the church has been overrun by superstition evidenced in a phenomenon like The Prayer of Jabez; and so on.

I think he’s right. I think elements of the church are in far worse condition today than in the years leading to the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation, those who considered themselves Christians had little access to the Scriptures. Most people’s faith was built on a blind trust in corrupt church leaders who in reality had only their own best interests in mind. Today we have more copies and translations of the Bible than ever before. We have translations of the Scriptures that are more pure and accurate than any since the original autographs. We have access to the teaching of some of God’s most gifted teachers of our day and of days past. And of course we have the Holy Spirit to lead and to guide us in truth. In short, we have no excuse for wandering away from the straight-and-narrow.

Yet when we look at the men (and women) who are considered leaders of the church, we are shocked by their beliefs. We have men like John Eldredge, one of Christianity’s most celebrated authors, who advocates Open Theism, denying God’s total knowledge of the present and future. We have Brian McLaren and other Emergent leaders who, according to D.A. Carson have abandoned the Gospel. “If words mean anything,” he writes, “both McLaren and [Steve] Chalke have largely abandoned the Gospel…I cannot see how their own words constitute anything less than a drift toward abandoning the gospel itself.” We have Rick Warren trying to lead the church in a Reformation based on behavior rather than on the transforming power of the Word of God. There are countless other Christian personalities whose popularity seems to increase in direct proportion to their abandonment of the Gospel.

It is interesting that almost every grouping within Christianity agrees on the need for some type of Reformation. In my review of Hugh Hewitt’s book Blog I wrote, “A couple of weeks ago I was browsing through my pastor’s library and remarking on the number of people who lay claim to “the next Reformation.” Over twenty years ago, Robert Schuller told us it would be a Reformation of self-esteem and more recently … Rick Warren that it will be one of purpose. Other books tell us the next Reformation will involve breaking the church body into small groups, essentially giving the church back to the people in the same way that the first Reformation gave the theology back to the people.” Everywhere we look people are proclaiming the need for a new Reformation.

There is lots of bad news, but I would also suggest that we have as much good news now as we ever had, and certainly a lot more than there was in the time leading to the Reformation. We have multitudes of great teachers today - teachers whose work will by far outlive their time on earth. Teachers who, throughout their careers, have stood strong on the biblical principles that were rediscovered during the Reformation. As mentioned earlier, we have unprecedented access to the original words of Scripture and every resource we could ever hope to use to help us more deeply understand the Scriptures. The world is shrinking rapidly so that the Good News can go forth more swiftly and powerfully than ever before. Even the Internet plays a role, allowing access to like-minded believers from around the globe.

Johnson writes, “We don’t need more hype and activity and mass movements. We need the pure light of God’s Word—”the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises” (2 Peter 1:19). The alternative is a postmodern darkness that is shaping up to be worse than the murkiest spiritual gloom of the Dark Ages. We could sure use a new generation of Reformers.” Amen. We do not need a second Reformation. The first Reformation returned us to the principles that shape and define a biblical faith. What we need are Reformers, men who will humbly return to the Scriptures, asking the Holy Spirit to guide them to the truth, sparking the light that it might once more shine brightly into the gloom that is evangelicalism, and the gloom that is the world around us. We do not need a second Reformation: we need to rediscover the first.

July 06, 2005

I remember my introduction to Southern Baptist churches. My parents had just moved down to Atlanta and were attending Charles Stanley’s church (First Baptist). I had listened to Stanley on the radio while driving to work over the past year and was eager to see this bustling church with 15,000 members. I was amazed at the size of the building and quite impressed by the size of the sanctuary. But as it began to fill I came to realize that it could not seat more than a couple of thousand people. I knew there were two services, but even with that number there would not be anywhere near to 15,000 people attending. My parents assured me this was typical. This was an odd concept to me. I had only ever been a part of Reformed churches where attendance was near 100% each Sunday. If a family or individual did not attend for any length of time, the elders would be sure to follow-up to find the reason. If the reason was not biblically sound, the church would begin the painful process of discipline. It was assumed and enforced that believers both need and want to be a part of their local church fellowship. Yet here I was at a huge church, a church that was the envy of many, that had only a fraction of the membership sitting in the seats on a Sunday morning.

It was only later that I learned this is typical for Southern Baptist churches. A few months ago I read Richard Belcher’s book A Journey in Purity, a theological novel in which the primary character, a young pastor, combats the problem of bloated membership rolls. He faces all sorts of pain and trials as he attempts to make membership in his church meaningful. As hard as it is to believe, the conflict he faced is drawn from real-world examples.

Jim Elliff has written an article which is sure to draw the ire of many Southern Baptists. I assume Jim is not concerned as I know this is not the first time he has done that. The article is entitled, “Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination.” Ouch. Elliff suggests churches should reexamine the way they introduce other pastors. How’s this for an introduction? “Here is Brother ______, pastor of a church of 15,000 members, 5500 of whom do not bother to come on a given Sunday morning, and 12,000 of whom do not come on Sunday evening. He is here to tell us about how to have a healthy, evangelistic church.” Ouch again.

Take a look at some of these statistics:

  • Out of the Southern Baptist’s 16,287,494 members, only 6,024,289, or 37%, on average, show up for their church’s primary worship meeting (usually Sunday morning). For an average church this means that if you have 200 in attendance on Sunday morning, you likely have 500-600 or even more on your roll.
  • In 1996, the last time the SBC kept these statistics, the number of Sunday evening attenders was equal to only 12.3% of the membership (in churches that had an evening meeting).
  • When all factors are considered, these figures suggest that nearly 90% of Southern Baptist church members appear to be little different from the “cultural Christians” who populate other mainline denominations.
  • In the Assembly of God’s 1990s “Decade of Harvest,” out of the 3.5 million supposedly converted, they showed a net gain of only 5 new attenders for every 100 recorded professions. SBC statistics are startlingly similar.
  • In one church Elliff preached at, which he considers quite typical, there were 7,000 on the active roll, but there were only 2000 in attendance on Sunday morning, and a mere 600-700 on Sunday evening. When you account for those attenders who are not members of this flagship church (i.e. guests and non-member children), you have about 1500 actual members coming in the morning and 500 or so in the evening out of 7,000 members.

Clearly, and this comes as no great surprise to those who are part of or are familiar with the Convention, there is something wrong here. Elliff suggests five steps to begin to combat the problem.

First, pastors must preach and teach on the subject of the unregenerate church member. People must be made aware that they can be in a church but be unsaved. They must be encouraged to examine themselves in a way that will show if they are sincere or sincerely deceived.

Second, pastors must address the issue of persistent sin among their members, including their sinful failure to attend the stated meetings of the church. This can only be done by reestablishing the forgotten practice of church discipline.

Third, churches should be more careful on the front end of church membership. Membership must only be extended to those who show evidence of conversion rather than to those who have merely walked down the aisle or ticked the appropriate box on a card.

Fourth, pastors must stop giving immediate verbal assurance to people who make professions of faith or who respond to their invitations. Assurance of salvation is a work of the Spirit, not a task for the pastor.

Fifth, finally, and most importantly, pastors must restore sound doctrine. Elliff points out, correctly, that revival is largely about the recovery of the true gospel. True conversion and true revival follows the recovery of the true and full gospel message.

Elliff points out one further interesting fact. In the 18th and 19th centuries, attendance at Baptist churches was often two or three times larger than membership. So a church with 200 members could expect to have 600 people attending in the 1790’s and over 400 in the 1830’s. Today a church with 200 members would expect fewer than 70 attenders (and only 20 in an evening service).

Elliff concludes in this way. “The next time someone asks how your church and your denomination are doing, tell the truth. Tell them that we have a new confidence in the inerrant Bible. Tell them that we have seminaries that promote orthodoxy, and new evangelistic fervor among the true believers. Tell them we have a lot to be excited about. But also tell them that when considered as a whole, most Southern Baptists need raising from the dead.” And truly the evidence indicates that this is the case. The SBC is a largely unregenerate denomination.

One observation I have made about Baptist churches is that there is an obsession with numbers. This is something I have not seen in Presbyterian or other Reformed churches. Baptists love to gather numbers and compare the size of their congregations. The pastors with the biggest churches seem to have the greatest influence among peers. This obsession with numbers cannot be healthy. Which army would you rather have? Gideon’s first army or his last? No church, and no denomination, should call itself healthy unless more people attend than are on the roll. Elliff says, “We would be closer to the revival we desire if we would admit our failure, humbly hang our heads, and seek to rectify this awful hindrance to God’s blessing. When we boast of how big we are, we are bragging about our shame.”

Amen. How many churches boast about their shame? How many pastors are respected for what they should be ashamed of?

The Southern Baptist churches have incredible potential. But there is such a rottenness in the churches that surely they are achieving only a tiny piece of this potential. Elliff’s five steps may be a great place for churches to begin shaking off their shame and to recover a biblical perspective on church membership.

If you’d like to read Elliff’s article, you can find it here.