Monthly Archives: February 2013

Contemporary vacuum

I recently…

We’re defining recently with the same loose definition as I apply to my idea of regular when I say “my regular blog posts”

… had a discussion, this discussion encompassed many, many different theological and doctrinal issues. The participants in this discussion had a somewhat varied religious backgrounds. There were Roman Catholics, somewhat contemporary Anglicans and a Baptist or two. The Anglicans came from a somewhat charismatic church… I say charismatic, but this is a relative term, they are charismatic in the sense that they have flag worship dancers up in front during worship. That is about as charismatic as it gets, there is also sporadic hand raising, but that’s really the extent of it. So compared to most Anglican churches I’ve been in (and my experience is admittedly rather limited) it’s EXTREMELY charismatic.

When the discussion swung around to salvation and what that is, and potentially what it looks like things went a little wobbly. I suggested (and I was being as broad and inclusive as I could be, possibly too broad) that given a certain time frame the believer should be able to recognize a difference his or her life from before they were saved, to after they were saved. The longer ago the salvific event was, the more stark the difference would be. However, even if we are talking about a really short time frame, the saved person should be able to recognize a change, their new nature should cause a desire for things they did not desire before, and a hate of things that they once desired. This increases as the holy spirit does his work of sanctification in the life of the believer. I was told, to a greater or lesser degree, that this was somewhat misleading, or harsh. Who was I to tell someone that if they have ALWAYS been a Christian, because they were raised that way, that they might be wrong? Well, I’m not here to tell anyone they are not a Christian, what I would like to do is help individuals work out their salvation, and to examine their faith according to what the bible describes. If a broad description of your experience is not outlined in scripture, e.g. you were always a Christian, then you need to examine, for yourself, why that is the case.

Grace is amazing, it is so sweet to hear because it took someone as wretched as me and saved me. I was lost before, but someone found me. I couldn’t see, but now I can. I was so wretched that this amazing grace first had to show me that I was in trouble, and teach my heart to fear God, and the consequences of my wretchedness, but it was that amazing grace that then showed me Christ and all my fears were relieved. How precious did that grace look, at the time that I began to believe it? Now I know that the troubles I have faced, that it was grace that brought me through them. I know that grace will lead me into eternity.

If the paragraph above isn’t shockingly obvious, then it must surely be ringing some pretty serious bells for you. It’s now a few months on from that discussion, and the thought struck me. “All of the people in the discussion would affirm that the hymn ‘amazing grace’ is perhaps iconic of Christianity”. The song encapsulates the ideas that you and I are wretches, that we were blind and lost! Something came along and first had to show us our sorry state and then show us what it had done for us. We were blind to the fact that we were wretches, and had to be show, and then we feared. But that grace showed us that there was a solution to our very desperate problem and our fears were relieved. It shows us that grace is the thing that brings us through dangers toils and snares and it is grace that will carry us to the finish! Grace does this and not us; we have no room to boast.

The hymns taught some fantastic biblical theology, things that we are losing as we move away from them into more contemporary Christian music. I’ll touch on something here that I hope to expand on in a loose series continuation of the problems with church growth. That is the idea that as we divorce Sunday services from the idea of worshiping God and learning about him through the preaching of the word, we begin to lose more than we might be aware of. Worship of God through song becomes something to make the crowd “feel”. The songs become more emotionally manipulative than they extol the virtues and wonder of God. So now we have emotive pseudo Christian spiritual songs making the individuals participating in the event that is the service, ready, hyped up and prepared for the life coaching and ego stroking that is to come. Contemporary worship (not all, but certainly a growing significant fraction) is leaving a gigantic theological vacuum. We no longer learn the very theology and doctrines that underpin a hymn like amazing grace and so it fires no imagination anymore. It doesn’t recall to memory what God has done for us, causing us to once again express our gratefulness in worship, it’s just another song to sing that makes us feel good. It’s amazing to me that I can have a discussion with people where we disagree  about quite specific things, but those same people will sing amazing grace with great fervor, never mind the underlying theology of the song is the very thing they were just denying.

If you are tired of behaving well so that in the end, God might look at your track record and allow you in because your goodness outweighs your badness and you are aware of the fact that you do indeed have quite serious badness to try to counteract. Or you are tired of trying so very hard because God expects it of you, and it’s what you are supposed to do. If you don’t do the good things then God will punish you with financial troubles if you don’t tithe, and you will get sick because you have not been praying hard enough… or your marriage will be in trouble if you don’t jump though spiritual hoop xyz. If you are weary of doing all these works, then come to the saviour in repentance and faith and he will give you rest. His yoke is easy and his burden is light!

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My, that’s a weird growth you have

A theme has been repeating itself in my awareness lately, in the same way that you start noticing how many of a specific model of car there are, once brought to your attention for whatever reason. This is the theme of church growth.

We process and accept things that are logical to us, things that we can understand and make sense of. Things that we can reason out and break down into logical steps that lead to a logical conclusion, logical to us at least. Which is all well and good, it wouldn’t do for us to go charging off doing things that don’t make sense or are not logical.

The key thought here is “to us”. Just because we can process and make sense of something doesn’t make it right, just because we cannot process something or something that is unintuitive does not make it wrong. That German guys cat would still be alive, or dead… er… the cat would be without apparent paradox, if there were not truth’s that defied apparent common sense. What is intuitive is pretty subjective, common sense is not so common.

As a simple example, it makes perfect sense to me that while wiring up a home entertainment system you think of everything as a river, or plumbing, you have a water source and some destination, the source for home entertainment is usually a satellite dish, and maybe a radio receiver, the destination is the TV and perhaps some speakers, you just have to link the source and destination. Usually it’s all colour coded for you as well! Many times the plugs can’t even GO anywhere else, they are shape and size coded for you even! Match the colours, make the source signal land up at the destination thingies, and bam! Entertainment for the family. It’s intuitive for me and seems like common sense, yet I spend an amazing amount of time setting things up for people to whom this is all un-intuitive, who tend to wire the TV and amplifier to their respective selves, and wonder why nothing works.

So, what does this have to do with church growth? Well, I need to be clear in saying that I think all Christians should seek to grow the Church[i]. Because A: in a sense we’re commanded to, and B: considering our belief’s about Jesus, and heaven and hell, it wouldn’t make much sense if I didn’t think so. Now on to the controversial stuff. I think many of the conferences for church growth are blatantly misguided. I’d go so far as to say that many are not of God because their chief end is rather blatantly financial increase, or to gain some sort of influence. However, dealing only with the ones that are misguided, let me explain my reasons for suggesting so. I think church growth right now is about market share. It’s a battle for share of an existing market of church goers, the better you are doing, the worse someone else is doing, as there are only so many church goers to go around. This may not be the intention, to be sure… but it is the result. I’ve spoken to many, many pastors over the years (not specifically about this perhaps, but it comes up quite a bit) and the consensus is that change in the size of the congregation is primarily due to the movement of church goers between congregations for various reasons. I’ve come to see that these reasons usually coincide with the steps taken in church growth strategies suggested by the conferences/church growth guru’s.

The basic premise is to make church attractive to the outsider, which usually leads to modelling the secular way of doing things. Worship becomes about putting on as good a production as you can afford to put on. Sermons are modelled on being as relevant to daily life as they can possibly be, without offending anyone . But remember, the focus is on the outsider, so relevance for their daily life is very often about how to live your life better “Five biblical principles for getting on with your boss”. The idea is that the guy on the street should feel welcome as possible at the service, so that we can reach him/her. If the church isn’t relevant to that person then they won’t come. Worship needs to be a tool to make the church an incredibly inviting place to be. It can and should be used as a tool to grow your church. If someone is going to be bored singing old songs, in what seems an old fashioned manner without any kind of engaging stage presence, to listen to a sermon that doesn’t make sense to him, and from which he can draw no practical application or that is possibly going to offend him (I’m certainly not a sinner!) that person is unlikely to come again.

Therefore, since we are seeking to grow our church and reach the lost, it makes sense to model worship after whatever is contemporary and popular. The production must be professional and it should be exciting. Participants should walk away from the worship and feel that it really touched them, that it moved them. I’ve heard many a time from many Christians “I did not enjoy the worship”. The sermon should be delivered by a charismatic individual practised in communication and presentation skills, akin to those for executives and business men, and the sermons must contain applicable information for the life of the listener, something that they can make sense of. It should be relevant to their lives and contexts. Sermons can be about living your life better in a tough world. How to really strive to be a better individual at work and at home, all based on “sound biblical principles”. Solomon the wise king can teach us about management and wisdom in the workplace, Jesus the wise and patient mentor of sometimes slow disciples can show us patient leadership of people that might not get it right at first, but that can become individuals that impact the world! Without this relevance, the church is worthless to the world. Our worship would be uninspiring, and un-engaging, our message would be impractical and irrelevant to today’s fast paced dog eat dog world, both in business and in the home. That is logical, intuitive, it makes sense, and so we model our church toward relevance for the seeker.

Only, there are a few problems.

  1. In trying to copy what the world can and does offer, is that we make bad, pale imitations. Outsiders come in and see an attempt at a U2 cover band (in style), giving information on how following some steps can make their lives easier, and often how they can follow some magical biblical formula that will invoke the power of God to propel that area of their lives forward.
  2. In trying to be “relevant” to the non Christian, and styling your Sunday church gathering in order to attract the unbeliever you are basically rendering the point of Sunday gatherings moot. Church services are the assembling of the saints, where we can worship God, and be taught from the scriptures by one called to preach and exegete from those scriptures, so that we might be fully equipped for every good work. We gather to learn, grow, serve the body and be fed. We then scatter in our daily lives to evangelise. This church growth model has flipped that idea on its head. They say we should gather to evangelise, and must under no circumstances ask to be fed at church, or that church is definitely not for the believer. Then we must somehow scatter to be fed…

Can church be expected to result in the salvation of the lost, well absolutely, because the pastor that is doing his job and preaching expositorily with the right hermeneutic (interpretive key) while feeding the sheep, will no doubt find a way to the gospel in every text he preaches from. After all, the bible is about Jesus, is it not? The power of the church to grow in number should never rest in patterning itself after the world, where our worship should conform or be inspiring and the speakers be trained like any secular speaker to deliver what is, for all intents and purposes, a secular message on how to be a better person. The power for the church to grow rests in the power of the Gospel message. Once we decide that is secondary to all the other things, actively or passively by losing sight of it through focusing on being as attractive as possible, we have lost the only relevance we ever had. If we are a mini model of the world with a moral twist, then we are as relevant to the world as any other worldly group. The extension of this is also that our message becomes one of post modern relativism, basically saying Jesus is one way to squeeze better performance out of life. Instead of the message that Jesus is the saviour that man kind most desperately needs in all things, for salvation and for sanctification. The message that God would convey has very often (most often?) been delivered by the apparently unattractive. So why have we suddenly made it a goal and, in some cases, the primary focus in so many of our churches to remove the core of our message so that it doesn’t offend anyone. Then we gussy it up like some cheap trinket in order to trick someone so they will buy it for a time, before someone else packages their message better that is?

Perhaps the definition of church growth needs to be more the act of growing the sheep in a church to know God more, focussing on their maturation and care, rather than attracting goats and trying to get them to behave like sheep. Sheep do sheepy things, goats to goaty things it is in their nature. Sheep desire that God be glorified everywhere, thereby growing the numbers in the greater church through the influence of the gospel being proclaimed by people whom it has saved.

[i] the global church, as opposed to individual local gatherings.

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Define your terms

When evangelical mega pastors set the world on fire with cool #tags of #significance and #greater I think they need to be more careful to define their terms. Whether passively or actively[i] this call to #significance or to something #greater resonates with every human being on a selfish level. Every person saved and unsaved desires significance, and something greater. So this sirens song sings to the selfish idolater in every human being. It will be heard as endorsement for seeking significance in the eyes of others, or greater things as measured by society in general. When you have not defined what the bible actually means by a life of significance, what exactly this greater thing is that you might be “called” to, you are merely justifying discontentment and endorsing the feeding of the inner idol of self that every one of us can, all too easily, set up. The bible does not call us to be discontent, but in every circumstance to be content. I find a wonderful irony here, in the passage I am thinking of that speaks to contentment. Philippians 4:13 is oft used in conjunctions with these battle cries to significance and greater things, because you can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens you! When we read in context Paul is speaking about how it is that he manages to be content in every situation, and it’s not through his strength, it is through Christ who strengthens him. It’s not Paul riling up the troops in order to break the shackles of everyday life and strive toward significance, with the promise that God is going to provide the strength to succeed in this holy quest for significance and greater things.

As a Christian, you are to, in a sense, lead a life of significance and you are exhorted to greater things. God desires a significant life, of greater things for the unbeliever as well. Great, so now I’ve just poo poo’d the idea of significance and greater things and in the next breath said that they’re right? Well I also said I think we really need to define our terms. Secularly, significance and greater things mean something radically different to what you might find biblically.

So, what is the summum bonum, the highest good? As a Christian I’d contend that it’s God. He is of greatest significance and worth. When he desires that we worship him it is because he knows there is nothing greater. Worshipping other things and spending our time on other things should be considered third rate, of no significance at all. So that said how do we find any significance there? If others esteem us for the impact we make on them, then they esteem something less than the greatest good, and our significance is not terribly significant. When your life esteems God and makes Him greater in the eyes of other people. When He is glorified more by you and by others because of what He does in you then your life is significant, but only because you have forgotten about yourself and others see less and less of you, and more and more of God. You don’t do this by striving to do it. It is a consequence of his sanctifying work in your life as you are faithful with what you are given. Not sacrificing your family and children on the altar of your quest for significance and greater things. The way the bible speaks about these concepts does NOT resonate very well with our sinful nature, and our self-idolatry. We are called to self-sacrifice, to die to ourselves, to humbly consider others as better than ourselves and to take up our cross every day! We are to become less and less significant in our own eyes. If you are learning more about God, about his work on the cross, and consequently you learn more about yourself and how much more you need him than you thought you did then God will use you as he sees fit. Not because you are aiming for significance and greater things but because you are being faithful with where you are and what you are given, and this is a consequence of the significance of the gospel in your life, and the growing revelation of the greatest thing which is God’s glory.
Quite simply, you are not #significant, what God does with you for his Glory and his names sake is #significant. The only way you are called to anything #greater is by the Holy Spirit enabling you to be disciplined and faithful with everything you have.

If your language would excite you as much before you were saved as it does after you got saved, then your language is wonderful manure to grow the narcissism that most people tend to. So you really need to change your language or at the very least, spend a significant amount of time defining your terms!

[i] When this is done actively then it is wicked, and I believe much of the seeker sensitive church growth crowd uses this language purposefully to bolster church numbers.

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