8 Questions for the American Church

Do you ever feel like you just don’t care? Like somebody is talking to you about something, and you know that you are “supposed” to care about it, but all you can manage is a good fake smile. I feel that way sometimes, and I even want to care, but I don’t. At least, not completely. I just stand around trying to care, not doing anything but selling popcorn for the thing everybody else is so gung-ho about.

I honestly have developed an eye-twitch. Maybe it’s not involuntary, but it helps suppress other less appealing emotions I have to deal with when selling said popcorn. Did I ever say I wanted to get into “vocational” full-time ministry? I better read through my archives, because if I did, I was smoking crack. But don’t misunderstand me, the glass is not half empty. It’s half full. I mean, that’s what you want to hear, right?

So here are some questions I have. Not directed toward anyone in particular, but rather the American Church at large.

1. Why does a church have to be run like a business? When you run an organization like a business, even non-profits have expenses and income. Expenses, income and profit… but our 501(c)3 laws tell us that motivation and intent define what profit is. And if you run it like a business, what happens when the cash is gone? Pack up, go home? Are churches so dependent on the non-profit business model that they can’t function without that structure? And with a business comes the necessities for running a successful business: marketing, corporate policies, top-down structure, customer service, salesmen, etc.

2. Why do evangelical Christians, most especially the Boomer and X generations, think that huge costly stage productions are cool? I would ask the churches why they do huge costly stage productions, but there’s no need – the answer is in the people they are bringing in. At least, the Boomers and Xers. Maybe some Millennials are being swayed – those who are a little too caught up in the coolness factor of the Passion/Giglio movement. So I ask, why do Christians settle for theatrics? The rock bands, the videos, the dramas, the surface-deep theology…

3. A huge portion of the ministry world right now is wondering where all the 18-30yr-olds are. Traditional churches are way off base, trying to win Millennial hearts with the same style tactics that worked on the contemporary Boomer generation. Oddly enough, it seems to have partially worked for Generation X (the current 30-40yr-old group). Mainstream churches have caught on by offering completely alternative services, often with louder or different music, a grungy feel and a subcultural hipness. Really progressive churches move beyond even that by dabbling in to the “emerging” movement, where Millennial-focused worship gatherings throw out all of contemporary and bring all of ancient and traditional back. My question: is ANY OF THAT WORKING? Where are all the 18-30yr-olds?

4. What exactly is so great about a single local church launching and maintaining a bunch of video-fed satellite “multi-site” campuses across a city, State, or the country? Is it better than planting new churches? I don’t know. I do know that I bought into the multi-site “revolution” way too quick for my own good, and I will now admit I see its shortcomings. The real issue that multi-site churches highlight is the fact that “church” is so consumer-driven that it can now be franchised. The saddest truth is that there are dying churches out there who actually think partnering up with their local megachurch will make things better. Show me the money!

5. Why do so many evangelical Christians automatically associate themselves with the Grand Old Republican Party? I mean sure, most Republican politicians hold true the same social ethics as Christians. Like pro-life, keeping “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill, federal marriage definitions, and criminal executions. Oh yeah, and war. I hear that James Dobson of Focus on the Family will help start forming a new party if Rudy Guliani wins the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, simply because Rudy is liberal on social issues (abortion, gay-rights, etc). I think it will be GREAT to see Christians start thinking for themselves. On the other hand, I’d rather call myself a canuck and head north before enjoying the theocracy that a Christian-focused political party would create.

6. Why do so many American Christians hate? They hate gays, they hate Muslims, they hate Mormons, they hate people who drink and smoke, evangelicals hate Catholics, and vice versa. Sometimes the hate is completely authentic, transparent and maniacal like the insane members of the Westboro Baptist Church (who recently got fined $11 million for protesting at a soldier’s funeral). Other Christians show their hatred through their actions in utter disdain for their words of love.

7. Why are the difficult theological concepts held from the general Christian masses? At seminaries, pastoral students debate and toil over every imaginable aspect of God, the Bible and the Christian faith. But the toughest real issues stay in seminary and never make it to congregations. It’s almost as if pastors don’t trust that people can handle raw truth. They have to package truth, water it down occasionally, and add a dash of humor to alleviate the seriousness of theology.

8. Was Jesus more like Mr. Rogers or William Wallace? That’s a random, fairly shallow question, but here’s my answer: none of the above. From what I’ve read, Jesus wasn’t all that terribly meek like Mr. Rogers. He did hang around kids a lot, I suppose. But he also wasn’t a war general, fighting and killing for his life and freedom. Soldiers kill, fight and die for others’ freedom. Jesus died, minus the fighting, for everybody’s freedom. The Jesus I read about in the New Testament seems more like a Ghandi, or a Dalai Lama, or a Martin Luther King, Jr. He was like a pacifist, a non-violent protester. A revolutionary with a message of hope and peace. From what we know, he never wielded a sword against any other Jew or Gentile. Please forget about the violent Jewish stories in the Old Testament long enough to realize that Jesus came to change all of that. Did 1st century Christians fight back against persecution? No. That’s the kind of faith I want.

Those are my questions. I don’t expect many answers as it was mostly all rhetorical and intended for you to read whilst I vent my frust…er…feelings. As I type this I realize the common thread woven through those questions is my desire to see an actual real-life bona-fide revolution in the Church. Until then, there’s not much to talk about.

So sit back, relax, enjoy the productions. I’ll make some popcorn for you.

I’m a Heretic

Oh wow. Here’s a a small snippet from the online discussion going on at Pantano right now: “The Webster’s definition of heresy: ‘1. a religious belief opposed to the orthodox doctrines of a church. 2. any opinion opposed to established views.'”

With that definition, there’s no question that I’m a heretic… in fact I embrace my “heresy.”

Guess it depends on whether “church” refers to Pantano, the church down the street, the global Church, or the New Testament church as established by the Apostles.

Don’t panic, Pantano isn’t falling apart, we just had a pastor give a controversial sermon on Biblical inerrancy and literalism. He didn’t actually address the issues or provide answers, he instead shared his struggle in the past with accepting that everything in the Bible was historically “true.” What upset some people was that he said it was “okay” for a person to believe everything was 100% true, and it was also “okay” for a person to not believe that everything was 100% true. Fun stuff. Our Lead Pastor and Lead Elder are giving a sermon this weekend to address the discussion. They are defending the position of the sermon, but also addressing the very real issue that some people were hurt or wounded.

So, if you’d like, join me in my heresy. Challenge established views when the established views are wrong.

Am I Internally Motivated?

If I truly was, I wouldn’t have time to even ask the question.

“The more I consider this, the more I think that true disciples who are truly doing the work don’t have a lot of time to think about their standing before God or their motivations or about their own sin. They simply go out and do the mission to which they were called.”

Dan Edelen, in a comment on his blog Cerulean Sanctum, discussing the post The Two Christianities

Thanks to Carl for referring me to this great post.

A Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God

After reading this blog post, I felt disgusted with what this guy had to say. I was really disappointed to see yet another “emergent legalist” (I made that term up, but it fits nicely) damning churches, especially churches without membership, by-laws or elders. (What he said about worship, however, I mostly agreed with).

The one thing that frustrates me most about the emerging postmoderns (and moderns, as this guy seems to be) is how damning of churches they are. There has to be a way to fit things in and let everybody do church the way they see best. You think Christ came to have people argue over how to worship Him?

So that’s been stewing in my brain and I’ve been frustrated with Christians in general, and then I came across this presentation for a new book – A Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about. I need some time now to process that link (and I need to order the book for sure), but compassion for the ordinary person is where my heart is currently focused.

Passion for the Extraordinary, compassion for the ordinary. HEH!

You mean we don’t stop getting older?

It happened 3 months ago, but I’m just now realizing the full scope and damage of an ever-moving life and reaching 24 years. Life is short and eternity is long. To quote Pastor John Piper, “too long to regret a wasted life.”

Although we have no control of it, we are…we exist, and will exist forever. I understand the truth of it, but not the why. Why are we here at all? Is it to love, honor, and praise God? I can’t help but have a mind of reason that seeks the cold, hard facts of life, the universe, and everything. (“42” is almost an acceptable answer – it’s easy to remember). So to reflect on the idea that eternity is “too long to regret a wasted life,” I keep arriving at the conclusion that I regret much, and can’t find a peaceful resolution.

Our pipes froze two nights ago, but thankfully didn’t burst. Others’ pipes did burst, so I can’t complain that I didn’t get to shower until the afternoon. We certainly covered those evil copper protrusions last night. It’s really cold in Tucson for some reason! What happened to global warming?

Just love.

I finally listened to the Catalyst podcast episodes with Rob Bell (pastor of Mars Hill). I recently made conversation with some friends about what we consider “deep” or “profound” in reference to sermons and worship. Rob Bell, in my humble opinion, is deep. Not lofty theological, but intelligent and challenging even while stating what might appear as the obvious.

From the podcast: “God is glorified when we do good. That’s a sacrament in itself; that’s an act of worship. To turn every act into a utilitarian purpose (I’m doing this in order to get…) makes everything pragmatism. And what you have Jesus saying is, no, it’s not love ‘in order too’ or love ‘so that;’ it’s love. Period. Just love. Period.”

He goes on to say that the Church should revolutionize by not gathering for the purpose of gathering (a common interpretation of Hebrews 10:25), “but get together so that you can inspire each other to go out and change the world.”

Link to the Catalyst Space
Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes
Link to Mars Hill Bible Church

Tips for writing a successful hymn

This article once existed on BBC’s servers, in their Religion & Ethics section. I found it through a Wikipedia link. It has since disappeared, but the Google Cache was still intact (thankfully). I’m saving it from eternal damnation, so enjoy this lost Internet gem!

Tips for writing a successful hymn
Stuart Townend

There are probably more hymns and worship songs being written today than in any period of church history. But relatively few will stand the test of time. And that has always been the case: for every “Amazing grace” or “And can it be”, you can bet there are several hundred trite, interminably dull ditties that did the rounds at the time, but have now thankfully faded into blissful obscurity.

So how can we make sure what we write is worth singing for years to come? Here are a few ideas that I try to put into practice myself:

  • Study the Scriptures. The best hymns demonstrate insight and understanding of the Bible, and consequently bring the truths of the Christian faith to life. If you don’t know the message of the gospel, you can’t write something that will enable others to worship in spirit and truth.
  • Be poetic, not pompous. Sometimes when people set out to write a hymn, they use phrases which might sound ‘hymny’, but actually mean very little. Make your phrases mean something!
  • Combine objective truth and subjective response. When a hymn is just a statement of theological truth, it may be accurate, but it can be dry. Equally, when a hymn is just about how we feel, it’s wishy washy. The best hymns powerfully express the emotions of the worshipper, but as an emotional response to the objective truth of the gospel.
  • Look for musical dynamics. A hymn should have musical peaks and troughs, and there should be a sense of building to a climax where the melody soars while expressing the main theme of the hymn.
  • Make every line count. I see hymns that contain a few good ideas, but some of the lines are clearly there as just ‘filler’, and let the whole thing down. Don’t just stick in a line because it rhymes, or because you couldn’t think of anything else to say.
  • Prune it mercilessly. Once you think you’ve finished, go through it carefully, and get rid of anything that distracts from the main theme you’re expressing. Better to have two compact, punchy verses than four rambling, unfocused ones.

So get writing!

Copyright © 2004 Stuart Townend.

Disclaimer from Philip: I don’t have official permission to repost this article. I’m relying on my legal understanding of Fair Use, the Internet and mirrors/caches. I don’t claim to have written this article, nor will I make any money from it by hosting it on my server. Don’t sue me!

The Case for ESV

I hate arguing for argument’s sake, but I do feel that the use of “The Message” in a church setting is impactful enough for my critiques to be heard.

The issue at hand isn’t one translation versus another. This issue is the philosophy behind the translation process. “The Message” is a colloquial paraphrase of the Bible, written by Eugene Peterson, a professor emeritus at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. The translation philosophy behind “The Message” is the idea that the words of the ancient authors were written in an informal, colloqiual language, and therefore, we as English speakers should have the benefit of reading Scripture in an informal colloquial version.

Conversely, other Bible translations, such as the English Standard Version, hold the philosophy that the original words of the ancient authors were inspired by God, and should be conveyed in any language as closely to the original as possible. The ESV is considered an “essentially literal” translation, attempting to be transparent to the original text. It isn’t
word-for-word as the NASB, but takes into account the differences between English and Greek in syntax, grammar and idiom. For tradition’s sake, the ESV carries the lineage of the original Reformation Tyndale-King James line of translations. In my own experience, I find the text highly readable, understandable, and applicable. It also carries a more conservative view than other modern translations in regards to gender-neutral language and looseness of style.

Consider the passage of the Lord’s Prayer:

Matthew 6:9-13, The Message:

With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:
Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best— as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Matthew 6:9-13, English Standard Version:

Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”

The phrase “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” in verse 13 didn’t appear in the majority of original manuscripts available, so it is only available as a footnote in the ESV. But you can see the paraphrased “You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.” does appear in The Message without any contextual footnote.

The ESV provides an essentially literal English translation of this passage (with which I’m sure you are familiar), and doesn’t attempt to interpret the meaning of the text. In Eugene’s version, he is interpreting the ideas for the reader. A reader of The Message will see “Keep us alive with three square meals” and will only see Eugene’s interpretation that the Greek “artos” (which literally means “bread”) means physical nourishment. (How else can one read into the phrase “three square meals?”). However, the ESV text is direct, and in this case actually gives a closer image of the original metaphorical meaning of the text. See John Wesley’s notes on 6:11:

“Give us – O Father (for we claim nothing of right, but only of thy free mercy) this day – (for we take no thought for the morrow) our daily bread – All things needful for our souls and bodies: not only the meat that perisheth, but the sacramental bread, and thy grace, the food which endureth to everlasting life.”

In the words of Martin Luther, from his 1529 Small Catechism,

“daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”

I ask again, could a reader really have come to that simple theological conclusion from the colloquial phrase “Keep us alive with three square meals?”

John Piper (I assume he needs no introduction) taught a series of sermons during a collegiate retreat that has since been the most impactful, powerful, soul-wrenching, thought-provoking message I’ve ever heard. The series didn’t have anything to do with ESV (it didn’t exist at the time), but because of that retreat, I do have a deep respect for his theological bearings. I was surprised and excited when I found an article he wrote: “Good English With Minimal Interpretation: Why Bethlehem Uses the ESV.”

Compel Them To Come In

While searching for a Web 2.0 Bible study site, I found RedLettr, the apparent tool I was looking for, but it isn’t ready for use yet. I had the idea of making a social Bible study site myself, but then quickly realized how unoriginal the idea probably was. RedLettr sounds promising, but we’ll have to wait and see. UPDATE: I’ve been asked, along with only a few others, to participate in a pre-alpha run of RedLettr. Cool! I’ll post the juicy details as they come, provided there is no Google-esque NDA (I’m joking – there isn’t).

On to the story. While reading the RedLettr creator’s blog, I noticed a link to Evotional.com, which also sounded interesting. The “About Us” page best describes the purpose of Evotional.com, which by face value is not much more than a pastor’s blog:

The evolution of evotional.com is the convergence of three core convictions:
C1: The church ought to be the most creative place on the planet
C2: The greatest message deserves the greatest marketing
C3: The church belongs in the middle of the marketplace

Whoa! Talk about a forward-looking purpose, obviously intended for the “Media Generation” as I like to call ourselves (or “Millennial Generation” or more traditionally, “MTV Generation”). Evotional.com’s blogger, Mark Batterson, writes some interesting pieces, but one in particular used Luke 14:23 as the marketing slogan.

“Compel them to come in.” – Luke 14:23

What a great verse, I thought. We could use that to inspire and motivate hundreds of Christians to spread the Gospel in “compelling” ways. But I always need to see context, so here’s where Google comes in. First I headed over to BibleGateway and read Luke chapter 14 in my favorite translation (NLT). But, because BibleGateway only has Matthew Henry commentary (way beyond me in most cases), I googled “Luke 14:23” to see what others were saying. Put in context, Luke 14:23 comes from the “Parable of the Great Feast.” Here’s a quick sum-up for the unaware: rich man invites rich friends to dinner, rich friends blow him off, rich man’s servant gathers up poor and homeless from the streets, and then rich man tells servant to get anyone from the highways and outside the city and compel them to come in, and rich man declares his house will be full so that none of the original guests he invited could enjoy the feast. So as you can tell, it was one of those parables that Jesus told to the Pharisees. When I first read it, I could make connections with evangelism and relating the rich friends to people who reject God. So the “compel them to come in” slogan would work. But I dig deeper. Google searching gave me:

Andrew Wommack’s commentary on Luke 14:23 (an apparent televangelist, so I read this with caution)

A bible study on Luke 14:12-24

That second link especially helped in relating the allegory of the parable to the appropriate context. “Compel them to come in, ” as used by buzzconference.com and Mark Batterson, is not taken too horribly out of context, and doesn’t over-allegorize. But a word to the radical zealots: “compel” doesn’t mean crusade with guns blazing! In the context of the story, the master was telling his servant to “not take NO for an answer.” So in designing the media and creative culture of a church, we must compel our audience to come in. We should demand their attention. Create with such a quality that they can’t shrug it off as garbage or boring church junk. Does that mean an extremely loud and obnoxious local TV spot? Definitely not, since I said “demand their attention” not “repulse their affection.” Does that mean having a creative culture within your church (large or small) that incorporates arts, design, media and marketing? That is certainly a good start.

In the end, I had successfully used Google to study a passage of Scripture. Doing a search for “Compel Them To Come In” has almost 41,000 results. Some even have warnings against the usage of that phrase out of context, based on historical persecution. As with anything associated with the Internet, there are pitfalls and dangerzones to avoid, but be aware that Google can certainly provide you with a wealth of commentary on any passage. So until those Web 2.0 bible study sites are ready, Google is (rather, still is) your best friend.

Speaking of parables, during a recent study I had the feeling that some people were “over-allegorizing” the Parable of the Vine. At the time, the only phrase I could verbalize was “be careful not to extend the metaphor too far.” But “over-allegorize” is a perfect description of what we need to be aware of. I found some great Principles for Interpreting Parables, which include a rule for not over-allegorizing. What that means: not every specific detail given in a parable has an allegorical reference. Over-allegorizing and over-analyzing can suck the very life right out of an otherwise meaningful passage.