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A Comment About “I Can Only Imagine”

A Comment About “I Can Only Imagine”

by Rick Shrader

If you know me you know I’m not a fan of Christian Rock or Contemporary Christian Music.  I see the advertisements for the music on the News or online.  The Rock band MercyMe was featured on Fox News one morning with vocalist Bart Millard.  That caused me to read a little and watch the trailer for the movie, read the lyrics and listen to the song.  I won’t go to the movie and I have no need to buy the album.  I don’t have a criticism of Millard’s motive for writing the song.  His father died in 1991 when he was 18 and he was searching for answers.  This is the way contemporary believers find relief.  Of course, Millard has won Dove awards and enjoys much popularity for his song and band.  I only have a basic criticism of the song.

The song “I Can Only Imagine” is asking the question what it will be like when we stand before God.  The lyrics of the second and fourth stanzas read, “Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel, will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you be still, will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall?”  I want to offer two thoughts.  First, our authority for what heaven will be like or any other Christian belief must come from what is Written, not from our own imagination.  What comes from our own mind is simple humanism.  One can imagine or dream or think about these things all day but you still won’t know anything for sure.  Secondly, I searched the Scriptures for anyone who stood before God the Father or Jesus Christ in glory where any bodily action is described.  I find only one action:  falling on one’s face in reverence and godly fear.  Isaiah cried, “Woe is me! For I am undone” (Isa. 6:5); Ezekiel  said, “And when I saw it [the throne of God] I fell upon my face” (Ezek. 1:28); Peter, James, and John saw the Lord transfigured and it is recorded, “When the disciples heard it, they fell on their face” (Matt. 17:6); when Saul of Tarsus (the apostle Paul) saw Jesus on the road to Damascus it says, “And he fell to the earth” and only later “Saul arose from the earth” (Acts 9:4, 8); and when John saw Jesus in His resurrected glory on the Isle of Patmos he says, “And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead” (Rev. 1:17).  Now I appreciate Bart Millard’s attempt to think about when he gets to heaven and sees Jesus, but if revelation, not imagination, is any authority, our feet will not want to proudly stand or dance.  They will fall at His lovely feet and praise Him for His grace that we are there at all!

 

 

The God Who Speaks

The God Who Speaks

by Rick Shrader

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             “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds” Hebrews 1:1-2

America is quickly leaving a word-based society and becoming an image-based society and so is the church of Jesus Christ. Christians have always been readers and listeners. The invention of radio was a simple diversion where simply sitting and listening began to overtake the struggle of reading. The advent of printed images in magazines increased the ease of perusing through a magazine where one could look at the pictures rather than read the articles. With moving pictures came the theater and the modern wonder of bringing images to life, which was eventually brought into the living room with the television. Few living Americans today have ever experienced a time when these things were not commonplace.

But movies and television are ancient history to today’s young people. They have not known a time without computers and the internet. Many young Christians have never experienced a church service with simple singing, praying, and preaching. Their world is a world wallpapered with images and sounds at home, in the car, at school, in the mall or restaurant, and also at church.

The epitome of image is the commercial—a professional moment created by people who want to make money that invades the world of people who live by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. If one wants to get a true picture of the moral level of a society, he only needs to go as far as the radio, television, or online commercial. Consider the commercial where a product is being sold that supposedly will help you lose weight or increase bodily function of some sort. The pictures shown portray a happy, loving, successful person who is experiencing a perfectly happy moment. But while the pictures are being shown, by law the commercial must audibly say that taking the product may harm you in a number of different ways, actually causing a reaction opposite of what was intended, and in some cases may even cause death. But these ubiquitous commercials obviously work evidently because people watch but do not listen. Of course, the next commercial break will feature a law firm telling you that if you’ve taken the same drug, call because you will be able to sue them for damages and false advertising.

Some feel that our image-based world began in the 1930s in Nuremburg when Adolf Hitler held the first multi-media rallies. Thousands of people crowded shoulder to shoulder watching huge pictures with lights and music. Hitler was spewing the worst audio message imaginable but people were persuaded to follow because of the visual effects. Hitler knew this better than anyone and specifically describes his goal of brainwashing by this image-based methodology, calling it “the magic of influence of what we designate as mass suggestion.”1

Some feel that this all started in 1960 with the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Nixon had been in the hospital and came to the debate physically weakened and looking emaciated. Kennedy, on the other hand, was young, tanned, and good looking. Those who watched the debate on television thought that Kennedy won, but those who listened on radio thought that Nixon won. Image wins in a debate every time. That is why today’s presidential debates are everything to do with image and almost nothing to do with substance.

While attending a pastor’s conference in Denver some years ago I listened to a young pastor explain why we must now fill our preaching and teaching times with multiple visual aids, because today’s youth are now learning from multiple sources that feed all the senses of sight, sound, feel, and even smell. This is how they learn today in school and the church cannot afford to be behind in its pedagogy. Another pastor then asked why the American student ranks almost last in most of the important educational categories world-wide. The leader had no answer.

Ironically we call the historic period of image-based worship the dark ages. Carl Trueman has written, “As regards the cultural trend away from words to images, one could make a case for seeing this as, theologically, an undoing or a reversal of the Reformation and a reversion to aesthetic and sacrament-centered church life of a kind that defined much of medieval Catholicism.”2 He refers to a time when the images filled the beautiful cathedrals and sight and sound became the essence of worship, not the preaching of the Word. God brought Christianity out of this first with a Renaissance of learning, then the invention of the printing press, and finally (and most importantly) a return to the Book in the Reformation. The Reformers believed that God speaks through His Word and therefore the Word must be central in any worship service—sola scriptura!

Much has been written and spoken about the effects of postmodernism on our image-based culture. Authur W. Hunt, III, wrote, “Much of what is going on in our church sanctuaries falls under my definition of postmodernism—that is, a turning from rationality and an embracing of spectacle.”3 Trueman points out that postmodernism has left us with two dangerous results: the death of the author and the medium as the message.4 Postmodernism posits that language changes so quickly that we cannot know the original intent of the author. The author, for all practical purposes, is dead.   Therefore, we have to read all writing, especially old writing, without trying to discover the author’s meaning but rather ask what it means to us right now. In postmodernism this is the only possible knowledge we can gain from writing. No wonder Americans today do not believe we can even discover what the writers of our constitution meant. This is why so many argue for a fluid meaning rather than a historical meaning. Applied to the Bible, however, this means that for all practical purposes God is dead and the only question we can ask is what the Bible means to me, not what the original writers meant. This also means that exposition of a text is largely a waste of time. Emotion and inward searching of the soul become a better hermeneutic.

On the heels of this, the medium virtually becomes the message. How the message is conveyed basically determines what the message is going to be. In this way the hearers (or experiencers) become the final authority. If the author of the text is dead, the hearer becomes his own god by determining what message can fit the medium. Is this a return to medieval Christianity? Have screens and speakers taken the place of icons, altars, incense, and stained glass? Albert Mohler wrote, “Though most evangelicals mention the preaching of the Word as a necessary or customary part of worship, the prevailing model of worship in evangelical churches is increasingly defined by music, along with innovations such as drama and video presentations. Preaching has in large part retreated, and a host of entertaining innovations have taken its place.”5

If God has spoken and speaks today through His Word, the Christian has an imperative that cannot be compromised. The preaching of the Word is God’s ordained means of communication and the exposition of that Word is the most important job of the teacher or preacher. And, we might add, filling of the Spirit Who inspired the sacred text, becomes the most essential methodology in worship. Hebrews 1:1-3 and 2:1-5 make important statements about the God Who speaks.

God spoke in time past

God spoke at sundry (various, NKJV) times and in divers manners. Beginning in Genesis chapter one, we find, “And God said, let there be light” (1:3); “And God called the light Day” (1:5). This pattern continues throughout the six days of creation. In addition, and wonderfully, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speak among themselves (one in essence, manifested in three persons) “Let us make man in our image” (1:26); “Behold, the man is become as one of us” (3:22); and later, “Let us go down and confound their language” (11:7). From the beginning God has been a God who speaks. God spoke unto the fathers by the prophets. From Abraham and the patriarchs to Moses and the prophets, God spoke in various languages, visions, dreams, handwriting, inspiration, and other miraculous means.

When liberalism tried to “demythologize” the Bible, it wasn’t to take myths out, it was to remove any mention of God speaking through these miraculous means. This has been Satan’s method from the beginning, “Yea, hath God said?” But when Eve “saw” the fruit she was more impressed by the visual than by the word. Why will the unbelieving world today not accept creation? Because it was a miracle, and they have long ago decided that the miraculous never happened and that God has not spoken.

God spoke through His Son

Hebrews also makes plain that God spoke in the most unique way, through the incarnation of the Son both personally and prophetically. God spoke through Christ personally because Jesus Christ was God in the flesh and in Him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 1:19, 2:9). He is called the Word, or Logos (John 1:1) because He conveyed the true message from God’s mind to us.

But God also spoke through His Son prophetically i.e., through the very words that Jesus said. “For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him” (John 3:34. See also John 6:63; 6:68; 8:26; 12:48-50). This was an historic occurrence that cannot be erased. Our very calendar forever will testify to the fact that God spoke historically through the Son. The gospel is the historical fact of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This can never be undone. The preaching of it can fail, the belief of it can wane, but the fact of God speaking through His Son will judge men in the end.

God speaks to us today

Such a statement as this is much used and abused. I hold to cessationism, i.e., that the miraculous sign and revelatory gifts ceased with the apostles and are not operative for today. However, God also did something in the first century through the apostles which was for us today—He gave us His inspired Word, “once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Through the Bible God is still speaking with the same authority with which Jesus spoke. Hebrews 2:1-5 tells us that Jesus spoke to those that heard Him (the apostles) and the apostles’ words were confirmed by their own miracles. Mohler said, “If you do not believe that God now speaks from His Word—the Bible—then what are you doing every Sunday morning? If you are not confident that God speaks as you rightly read and explain the Word of God, then you should quit.”6

There have been two errors made historically about God giving us His Word. The first is that God never started. These are those who, through their liberal presuppositions, could never accept that God inspired a Bible. To them the Bible is as any other book, a product of good and enlightened men, but not a divine product of the Holy Spirit. The second error is that God never stopped. These are the cults who believe that God is still giving the gift of inspiration to add to the Word of God—Mohammad, Joseph Smith, etc.   But God spoke once through inspiration (of course, 66 times over 1500 years, but “once for all delivered unto the saints”). But every time we read the Word of God, God is speaking through it directly to us. That is why exposition of the Word is vital to worship.

And so . . . .

By leaving a word-based culture and turning to an image-based culture we are forfeiting the very power of God in our worship. It is not that we cannot use pictures, screens, power point and so forth, but these must always be secondary and illustrious to the main thing, the written and spoken Word of God. After all, God gave us two illustrations to use in our preaching: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But the difference in these illustrations and all others is that the very Word which they illustrate commands their use and explanation. An image-based worship is a return to a more ignorant time, not a progression forward. Arthur Hunt wrote, “Paganism never really died in modern western culture; it was only restrained. American Protestantism effectively suppressed many pagan forms up until the twentieth century; but the advent of the image-based media has brought forth a revitalization of the pagan gods in popular culture.”7 One would be hard-pressed to deny that the common scene at a rock concert is a return to paganism. In fact, it is the world’s idolatry. The church should be very careful in copying it.

Carl Trueman also wrote, “What we need to be concerned about is the replacement of preaching and doctrine in many generic evangelical churches with drama, with so-called liturgical dance, with feelings, emotions and mystical experiences, and, sometimes, with elaborate sacramental ceremonies which make the Catholic Church look positively Puritan by comparison. These all speak of the transformation of Protestantism from a word-based movement into something more concerned with aesthetics of one form or another.”8

If these warnings are not sufficient to make us pause, consider the warning in Revelation 13, a scenario which could realistically happen a short three and a half years from now if the Lord were to come today. Here the “beast” or antichrist is “worshiped” by the whole world, empowered directly by Satan. The whole worship scene is enhanced by “another beast” or the false prophet. This beast constructs the final multi-media, image- based worship service before Armageddon happens. He does it with “great wonders” and “miracles” (both from semeia, image, sign). The whole world will be tattooed with a “mark” upon the skin that shows solidarity with the movement. Is the world not conditioning itself for this type of worship?

Perhaps this article ought to be closed with Paul’s admonition to Timothy,

I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;   Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.   For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;   And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.        (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

 

Notes:

1. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (New York: Houghton & Mifflin, 1971) 479. Interestingly, this comes from a section titled “The Significance of the Spoken Word.”

2. Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2004) Kindle, 793.

3. Authur W. Hunt, III, The Vanishing Word (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003) 202.

4. Trueman, part 2, “”Short, Sharp Shocks.”

5. Albert Mohler, Jr., He Is Not Silent (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008) Kindle, 260.

6. Mohler, 764.

7. Hunt, 25

8. Trueman, 359

 

 

Having Respect of Persons

Having Respect of Persons

by Rick Shrader

In preaching through the second chapter of the book of James, we usually focus on faith and works in the second half of the chapter.  However, the respect of persons which James deals with in the first nine verses is just as needful, and perhaps much more, in our own day.  Faith and works is important, in fact it has been the water shed of differences between denominations and cults.  But James’ pointed words regarding our own reaction to people who come into our church, or you might say, when the world comes to us, is crucial as well.

It is important to define what “respect of persons” means.  We are generally right when we understand that it means we should have no partiality toward people, especially due to their outward appearance.  Even more specifically in this passage, we should not prefer one person as a prospective member of the church over another because of what appears to be a better social or financial status.  James presents the familiar picture of a rich man and a poor man coming into the church service (“Your assembly”) and the rich man receiving better treatment by the saints of God. 

“Respect of persons” comes from a combination of the word for “face” and the word “to receive.”  To respect one person over another is to receive his face above another, or, as A.T. Robertson put it, “to lift up the face on a person.”1  Douglas Moo says that “this word was invented by New Testament writers”2  because it is a rare word.

The word is used only four other places in the New Testament (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25) and in each place it refers to God as being without respect of persons either in salvation or in judgment.  James is the only one to apply it to believers, obviously teaching that we are to be like our heavenly Father in this regard. 

Douglas Moo also noted,

“But the Greek word here is plural—’acts of favoritism’ (NRSV)—and this makes clear that the prohibition has wide-ranging application.  The OT repeatedly stresses that God himself is impartial, looking at the heart rather than at the outside of a person, and God’s people are to imitate him in this respect.”3

Therefore we always translate “respects (plural) of persons” which indeed does widen the meaning of the idea.  There are many ways in which we show favoritism.  We pass by a person without speaking; we look at a person with a suspicious look; we speak but quickly move away  to other people.  But we also laud over an obviously well-to-do person; we follow up more quickly on a large family; we might even change what we do in church to keep someone from not liking us.

Hypocrisy is a kind of respect of persons because in being hypocritical we are changing our own face in sight of someone else for our own gain.  Pragmatism is a kind of respect of persons because we favor some people who can help us accomplish something, the end justifying the means thereby.  So being a respecter of persons is a kind of hypocrisy wedded to pragmatism.  We act in a way we shouldn’t in front of someone, with the purpose of using them for our own ends.  No doubt James saw something like this going on in his own congregation of believers.

Our own history

As fundamental Baptists, we have often had our faults in this matter.  Many of us remember the 60s and 70s when we boasted of the ten largest Sunday Schools in America, or when our churches were among the fastest growing churches in America.  In fact, there was an ongoing contest among the churches to see who would be listed in such reports.  Now, I certainly am not criticizing bigness as such.  There is nothing inherently wrong in a big church or in a little church, just as there is nothing inherently wrong in being rich or poor.  Either could be used for God’s glory and either can be used for selfishness.  But I am remembering, as one who was trained in ministry at that time, that what we really wanted was to grow and we needed people as well as people’s money to do it. Even worse, we may have pushed for altar results simply for the record of it rather than for the rejoicing of sinners being saved. 

I remember being a Bible College student (’68-’72) and fearing that if I left school to start or pastor a church, I might not grow fast enough and would be perceived as a failure by my peers or instructors.  Those were the days of church growth seminars where one could learn the latest method of increasing the attendance and altar result cards.  We all copied Jerry Falwell and Jack Hyles. 

Those days are probably still with us to some degree, but I think we have learned that growth for growth’s sake isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  There is a real hollowness in ministry when things are done by hypocrisy wedded to pragmatism.  People just become numbers or offering envelopes.  And I think our people felt it too.  I believe it is good for us to have dropped off the cutting edge of church growth dynamics.  We may not be in the news as much, but we are shepherding more than herding and I think pleasing God more.

 

The contemporary church

As fundamental churches decreased in numbers, evangelical churches took over.  The 80s and the 90s were given to a seeker sensitive style of ministry where polls were used to find out what would make the world like us.  The churches quickly became what was necessary to draw people.  If they didn’t like church buildings, the look of the building was changed.  If they didn’t like dressing up for church, everyone immediately became casual.  Not just “poor” like the man in James chapter two, but perfectly casual.  Casual with the most expensive casualness.  Ironically, a coat and tie became as nadir as the hobo of the 50s.  If you went like that, you were the one to whom no one spoke. 

The worst show of the respect of persons was the target audience.  Somehow a church determined who should be there and who shouldn’t, or at least whom they really wanted and whom they didn’t.  James would call this a violation of the “royal law” (2:9).  To not “love your neighbor as yourself” is to not love whoever is there, whoever comes in the door.  The word is “kingly.”  A king is supposed to love all of his subjects, and a church is supposed to love whoever comes in. 

I might add to this that there was a certain part of this movement that encouraged churches to push aside (or out) the older people because they would not give a proper impression to the younger generation that the church was trying to attract.  With their removal there was also the removal of their baggage: hymnals, choirs, coats and ties, etc. (and sadly their maturity). 

Was not all of this (like the church-growth movement of the 60s and 70s) truly a way of being a respecter of persons?  I think it was.  Ministry was plastic, a façade, something performed for a certain effect.  And that effect was success.   It’s not that 100% of churches then or now were driven by these motives, but too many of them were.

 

Even newer churches

Somehow I can’t believe that the emergent churches and other new brands of believers are any better in their motives.  Respecting persons is too much a part of human nature.  For the postmodern church to simply criticize the older churches as  being “modern” (i.e. molded by the modern, industrial, cookie-cutter age) and then to drop into the abyss of relativism, having no structure or stable values, is certainly no better.  In fact, it is worse.  The world will never adopt Christian principles on its own and to acquiesce to it in form and structure (or the lack thereof) is to respect the persons (the face) of the world in the worst way.  To say that the postmodern age is better than the modern or pre-modern ages is to become what the world wants you to become for your own gain.  It is to “lift up the face” to them in order to win them over. 

If we simply witness the popular writers of this movement (McLaren, Bell) and what doctrines and interpretations they have adopted in order to draw the postmodern generation, we need look no further.  The Bible is a human story, not an inspired record?  Hell is within each lost person, not a real place to which they go when they die?  To teach these things because the current generation will receive none other is to respect their faces too much.

 

Our culture

I agree with those who say that culture is not morally neutral, and in fact is the incarnation of a person’s (society’s) religion.  A thief steals because he believes it is right for him to do so.  Even if those reasons are nefarious, he was forced into it by circumstances beyond his control.  A liar tells a lie because for the moment it is necessary for him/her to do so.  These things are moral convictions that come from a person’s world view.  This is true for all of us.  If we have a Biblical world view we will talk, think, and do those things that we really believe from the Bible.  If those things are not Biblical, then we are hypocritical to say that we have a Christian world view.  Our culture is the way it is because it is the outgrowth of what society really believes.  Culture then is the incarnation of society’s belief system, good or bad.

It is human nature to respect persons.  A lost person may be made in God’s image, but he/she is fallen, a sinner who does not seek after God by nature.  Therefore, hypocrisy may become necessary for such a person to get ahead in this life.  Pragmatism is a way of life that makes even good things to be mere means to an end.  To respect persons in this manner is a way of life for the sinner, his culture, his real religion.

 

Our country

The respect of persons is seen in political campaigns in an unashamed fashion.  Even as we now try to evaluate why the president won and the challenger lost, the answers from the pundits is that we didn’t “appeal” to certain social groups in the country.  I don’t think there is any doubt that the president’s campaign was based on promising (once again) to give certain people whatever they want if they would vote for him.  Sadly, moral issues and personal failures (especially as the Commander in Chief) don’t seem to matter to people if they get the things they want from the government.  In other words, people are very willing to be the victims of this political respect of persons if it is an advantage to them.  For political parties and candidates to pander to people this way, to study the details of what will persuade them, and then to form a campaign and administration based on that is respect of persons at its worst.

 

Our churches

The most prominent New Testament command from our Lord is to love one another.  But this is like the commands to think right, it is plain but it is easier said than done.  We almost instinctively play favorites with people we know.  We must pray that the Lord will give us a genuine love of the brethren and a genuine interest (if not love) for the lost world around us.  Let us practice the royal law of loving whoever comes in the door.  After all, we spend millions going to all parts of the world, so we ought to be good ambassadors when the world comes to us.

Let’s let the Lord build the church.  I think I say that with the understanding of our great responsibility in the gospel outreach.  I don’t mean that in a cold, uncaring way.  I mean, let’s love all the brethren and let’s love them because they are brethren and not because they are some advantage to us.  Likewise, with those we meet who need Christ. 

At the same time, we must not let the world dictate to us the terms of the gospel.  That would be to respect their person more than to respect God’s own Word.  If that costs us converts, so be it, it didn’t really cost anything because those would have been our own converts, not the Holy Spirit’s.  We must give the gospel to everyone but we will not win every one.  That is Biblical too.

Let’s not trick people into coming to church.  Let the cults tell people one thing and then reveal the reality to them later.  Paul told Philemon that the communication of his faith would become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing that was in him in Christ Jesus (Phile. 6).  Let’s be real.  Say everything we are, do what believers do in church, put our name on the door, and don’t be ashamed or let our faces change because someone who doesn’t have the Spirit may not understand.  Rather, let us begin to show them what the real love of God is.

 

And so . . . .

Perhaps we could say with Isaac Watts of old in Psalm 48,

 

Far as thy name is known,

The world declares thy praise;

Thy saints, O Lord, before thy throne,

Their songs of honour raise.

With joy let Judah stand

On Sion’s chosen hill,

Proclaim the wonders of thy hand,

And counsels of thy will.

Let strangers walk around

The city where we dwell,

Compass and view thine holy ground,

And mark the buildings well;

The orders of thy house,

The worship of thy court,

The cheerful songs, the solemn vows,

And make a fair report.

How decent and how wise!

How glorious to behold!

Beyond the pomp that charms the eyes,

And rites adorn’d with gold.

The God we worship now

Will guide us till we die,

Will be our God while here below,

And ours above the sky.4

 

 

 

Notes:
1. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures  in the New Testament, vol. vi (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1933) 29.
2. Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2000) 102.
3. Moo, 102.
4. The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts (Morgan, PA:  Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997) 85.

 

Hiding The Gospel From Faith Alone

Hiding The Gospel From Faith Alone

by Rick Shrader

No thinking person likes it when a salesman beats around the bush before explaining the reason he’s talking with him.  Who likes to get those dinner-time calls asking for someone by name, as if it were an old friend, that turn out to be telemarketers?  Beating around the bush, bait and switch, hawking one’s wares, have always been seen as distasteful measures.  But sometimes I wonder if that isn’t what happens in many of our evangelistic churches.  I grew up in one of those “fastest-growing Sunday schools” in the 50s and 60s.  The pragmatic methodologies were well known for building a large church.  Then, in 1995, when I read and reviewed Rick Warren’s larger book, The Purpose-Driven Church,1 I responded, “what’s new here?  This is the same old philosophy with newer (and I think much more harmful) methods.”

Pragmatism always breeds slowly creeping humanism into churches which eventually acts as the anodyne to compromise.  I remember how, as a teenager in that large church, it angered me to hear the evangelicals criticizing the fundamentalists for their “nickels and noses” methods of building big churches.  But it’s been an interesting phenomenon fifty years later to see the evangelicals, who now have the bigger churches, defending the very things they once criticized.  In fact, they have gone so far beyond what the fundamentalists used to do in methodology that it pales in comparison.

Paul was plain in saying, “For we are not as many, which corrupt [lit. “hawk”] the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17).  “But we have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully [lit. “adulterating”]; but by manifestation of the truth, commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).  To the Thessalonian church he wrote, “For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloak [lit. “pretext”] of covetousness; God is witness” (1 Thes. 2:5).  Millard Erickson, writing about the dangers of our own postmodern culture concluded, “We should therefore expect to find that we cannot simply make Christianity completely compatible with postmodernism, or completely postmodernize Christianity, without thereby distorting the Christian message to some extent.”2

I’m trying not to write just another article on methodology.  I am trying to make a specific point that I have noticed by watching these changing methodologies:  that perhaps we use these because we really don’t trust the effectiveness of our own faith.  I don’t know anyone who has criticized new methodologies who would say that all human help or persuasion is wrong.  But it seems to me that for various reasons we simply do not trust that the gospel by itself, or the local church by itself, or the Word of God by itself, would be sufficient to win anyone to Christ in our culture.  So we  try to draw them in and keep them by methods that actually do more to hide our faith than to propagate our faith.

It may be that we don’t really like Christianity much in its unvarnished form.  Churches have always gone about dressing up the faith with sights and sounds more pleasing to the natural man.  Perhaps we don’t trust that the gospel itself has enough power to draw people to Christ.  And worse, perhaps we secretly need affirmation from lost people that our faith is OK.  There is a reason John had to warn, “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you” (1 Jn. 3:13).  I have never seen such a day in which the church doesn’t like church and the brethren do not like brethren.  Today’s average believer goes out of his way NOT to appear as a believer, and the average church goes out of its way NOT to appear to be a church!  And (supposedly) all of this is done for the unbeliever’s benefit.  It’s a good thing we have learned so much about effective evangelism since the apostles’ day!  Today’s preachers make national talk shows famous, the apostles only made prisons famous.

 

We do not draw people to our churches with our faith

By camouflaging the Christian faith from the world (and from ourselves), we actually draw people by some means other than our faith.  By so doing we may actually be presenting a path of non-belief to people of the world.

 1) We design our services for people who don’t believe our faith.  Why do we do this?  I don’t expect the grocery store to try to appear as a car dealership because I like cars.  I don’t want the fast-food place to remove its sign and let me guess which kind of fast-food I would be getting if I went inside.  How do we know that people are coming to us with any gospel interest when we have hidden the gospel from them in order to get them in?

Myron Houghton, in updating Ernest Pickering’s book on Biblical Separation wrote, “Traditional Bible-believing fundamentalists believe that what a church ought to be and how it should function must not be determined by unchurched people or by the prevailing culture.  The separatists who struggle for a pure church will not mix the ideas of unbelievers with the teachings of the New Testament.”3

2) We hide our purpose from people who are looking for our faith.  We should ask ourselves how we would feel if we found ourselves drawn in to some venture under false pretense.  How many of us have accepted a free night in a condo, or a free gift of some sort, only to find out we had to sit through a high-pressure sales pitch?  Do you remember that feeling?  Saying “no” was difficult because you had already accepted something for nothing.  Property may be sold that way but can faith be attained that way?  Testimonies of powerful conversions (Bunyan, Newton, and Spurgeon would suffice) more often show an extended period of wrestling with sin and grace until the time of acceptance.

3) We motivate people with things contrary to our faith.  Most contemporary methodology is geared toward entertaining the lost soul with things it already likes.  How will the Holy Spirit then bring conviction?  This is where the worldling merely signs on for the ride.  “This isn’t so bad,” he figures, “this is the way I’ve always thought Christianity should be.”  Any conviction of sin has to come in spite of that, not because of it.  Somewhere the preacher or teacher is going to have to spring the surprise on the victim that these things aren’t the way Christianity really is.  “We knew you wouldn’t understand the real nature of our faith, so we dressed it up a bit.”  But the real problem comes when no differentiation is made between the world and the faith and it is left to suppose that this is the real faith.

4) We remove the labels (“brands”) that identify our faith.  I have always thought we would regret the day we began dropping our denominational names as well as when we began remodeling our sanctuaries into performance halls.  I doubt that the average church visitor these days has any idea what kind of church he is in.  What is a “Worship Center” or a “Family Life Center” or a “Gathering”?  Is there any difference in their services due to what they believe?  Does the preaching reflect any doctrinal distinctions among them?

Isn’t it most likely, that in almost any kind of “Christian” church, a visitor would find a thirty minute emotional concert, followed by a felt-needs message that could come from almost any motivational speaker?  After years of visiting visitors that come to our church, this has been the most common testimony of what they have seen in churches they have attended.  The invitation plea (if indeed one is given at all) probably has little to do with what the church actually believes.  A lost person wouldn’t know the difference between a cult and a true gospel church.  All truly helpful signs have been covered or removed.

 

We do not retain people in our churches with our faith.

Not only do we hide our faith from visitors coming in the doors, we also camouflage our faith from our own members so they won’t get bored and leave.

1) We continue to motivate people with things other than faith.  It has been said many times, you win them to what you win them with.  Even when we have offered them the bait, we still find it hard to make the switch.  If they were really converted, would they leave if we dropped the carnal motivations and went back to relying solely on the faith for motivation?  Was divine regeneration not enough to also sanctify?  Will the Word and Spirit not be enough to draw the new born child of God to further growth?  Evidently we don’t think so!  Whole industries have been built on using everything except the faith to retain new converts.  Dick Keyes, in a book called Chameleon Christianity, said, “What works in marketing may actually destroy the church and turn it into a lifestyle enclave.”4 How true that has been in our churches.  The lifestyle enclave of the average youth department is proof enough!

2) We continue to reward people for activity rather than faith.  We develop a Sesame Street mentality from childhood.  “Entertain me and I’ll learn.”  “Reward me and I’ll do the work.”  In 1985, Neil Postman wrote, Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he coined the phrase “Sesame Street” generation as applied to education.  “If we are to blame Sesame Street for anything,” he writes, “it is for the pretense that it is an ally of the classroom.”5 Fun ceased to be a by-product and became an end in itself and this has affected nearly every aspect of our growing years.  The corollary is, of course, “Take away the fun and I’m out of here.”  In our lifetime, this wave of “Entertain me and I’ll learn” has rolled through the church from the nursery to the Junior Church to the Awana circle to the youth department to the church auditorium.  Does anyone find the exercise of his own faith to be fun?  Would church attenders remain if we took away the secular motivations next week?

3) We continue to seek growth in numbers rather than in faith.  The major standard of church growth continues to be the size of the audience.  Again, my own memory goes back to my naïve teenage years when our large church had wild-West shootouts in the parking lot, famous athletes giving sports demonstrations on the platform, and Santa Clauses handing out candy on the buses.  Have we grown out of such an entertainment mode?  Just click on the website of any mega church and watch the videos.  Or watch the so-called Christian concerts held around the country by various Christian “artists”  and you will see the same pragmatic mentality.  Can a mega church stop this and still maintain its numeric stature?  Would we even have a mega church movement at all if all we had to offer was the gospel?  If most of the people would actually leave when these things ceased in our churches, how do we know if faith is real or contrived?

 

And So . . . .

We might ask ourselves, what is required of the average church member (or attender) in order to remain in his/her church?  I would venture to say almost nothing!  It would take the most egregious sin for anyone to be removed from a church today.  Rather, the tables have been so completely turned about that today the average attender requires certain things of the church which it had better offer or they will remove themselves from the church!  We have so motivated people with worldly things that faith alone has little or nothing to do with why they attend a church or why they remain in a church.

Methodologies that motivate are not bad in themselves.  But they become harmful when they replace the motivation that can only come from the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.  Christianity is a conviction of our own sinfulness and a reception of the righteousness of Christ.  If those things were allowed to happen in a human heart, no other motivation would be needed.

 

A Response from No-Man’s Land

A Response from No-Man’s Land

by Rick Shrader

This article appeared in the September/October 2001 issue (Vol. 10, No. 5) of The Baptist Preacher.  The original article is found in the September 2001 issue (Vol. 8 No. 9) of Aletheia under the title “Is There An Alternative Point Of View?  (To The Traditional vs Progressive Debate)”.

An ancient saint once said, “It is equally wrong and stupid to censure what is commendable, and to commend what is censurable.”1 G.K. Chesterton once argued against a false premise by stating, “It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths.”2 That is what I often think after hearing or reading comparisons of today’s ministry philosophies.

Should we be traditional or progressive in our ministry?  Are these two ways of approaching “how we do church” mutually exclusive, two sides of the same coin, or are they even choices at all when trying to be biblical in church ministry?  I think we have become, like the world around us, champions of the definition!  That is, we spend more time arguing to make the definitions of those buzz words fit what we already do, than evaluating our ministry in light of Scripture and changing to fit it.

None of us wants to be seen as anti-traditional because we realize we have an historical faith that is filled with traditional teaching.  Yet none of us wants to be seen as non-progressive because that would mean we are not visionary and up-to-date with today’s culture.  So it seems that good people from both points of view go out of their way to convince us that they are really both.

On the one hand

To be “traditional” ought to mean that we realize the value of our history, a history that is rooted in the historical person and work of Christ.  Christians are still doing what Christians have always been doing:  praying constantly, studying an old book, singing scriptural songs, witnessing of the resurrection of Christ.  It has not historically included unswerving loyalty to one Bible translation, nor only one expression of modesty as opposed to others just as modest. Those things are more ritual than traditional and, as James Draper wrote, “There is nothing wrong with ritual as long as we understand that ritual is like a telescope—not something to look at, but something to look through.”3

Regardless of its difficulties, I am more inclined to be called a traditionalist today than a “progressive.”  It seems to me that those who have misused the definition of “traditional,” have done so out of a positive desire to honor Christ and a willingness to be identified, not with the world but with Him.  I can live with that and argue with these fellow believers about definitions.

On the other hand

To be “progressive” ought to mean that we see clearly where a lost culture is going and we take the steps outlined in Scripture to speak to it regardless of the consequences.  That would be truly progressive in the biblical sense.  Though I believe most progressives truly love souls and desire to see them saved, many, I am afraid, simply do what the Apostle John warns us about apostates:  They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world hears them. (1 Jn 4:5).  To do such a thing is to love the world and its praises more than the praise of God.  Much of today’s “progressiveness” becomes simply worldliness.  It is not, like its “traditional” counterpart, willing to be despised by the world.  In fact, many “progressives” see that as an error to be avoided at all costs even though it is the clear biblical teaching such as when Peter writes, If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the Spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you:  on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified (1 Pet 4:14).  Such an approach wins us to the world, but is misguided at winning the world to Christ.

A Dilemma

It is not the purpose of this article to simply criticize the traditional and the progressive approaches, though, as I have stated, I believe they both have their faults.  I do not question the evangelistic sincerity of either.  Nor do I doubt that spokesmen for either approach could produce verses to support their point of view.  I do believe, however that too often we read our perspective into the Bible, seeing wording that supports our preconceived ideas and thus merely confirm what we already think.  We all know this is a fatal flaw of anyone’s Bible study, including, of course, mine.

In my own circle of Christian friends, many of whom are ministers and instructors, I have, for a number of years, been left in “no-man’s-land” when it comes to whole-heartedly supporting either of these two sides.  I have felt that neither is what I read clearly in the Scripture, nor what I see is the need of the lost world.  On numerous occasions I have been unable to say “Shibboleth” (see Judges 12:6) as was requested of me in order to have the blessing of participation in either side.  This was all of God, at least for my account.  It drove me back to the Scripture for my help and my foundation (aren’t you glad I didn’t use the tired misnomer “vision” at that place?).

I think sometimes we have to lose any hope in man’s blessing, which all of us by nature wants, in order to find help solely in God.  It is my own opinion that far too many Christian leaders are desperately desiring far too much approval by their peers.  But the Apostle admonishes,  For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. (2 Cor 10:12).

An Alternative

From the Gospels to the book of Acts and the Epistles to the church letters of Revelation, I find an overwhelming call in the Scripture for sacrifice:  sacrifice of our wills, our life’s possessions, things, and even our own life; sacrifice to the point of danger to the body whether by harm or ridicule; sacrifice of the praise of men in this life for the praise of our Savior in the next life.  This is biblical patience.  We are called to give of ourselves in this life; to wait for our rewards; to live an inward life of contentment though the outward man is perishing day by day.

We are living sacrifices, having no ability of our own toward our outcome.  We are stewards of God, entrusted with divine instruction for the household of God.  We are heralds of the gospel, having no right to embellish or bargain with the message from the King.  We are earthen vessels, made to be broken and disposed.  We are priests, offering up spiritual sacrifices to God.  We are sheep and branches and lively stones and a host of other analogies that make us totally dependent on the Lord for any usefulness we may have.

Personally, I have not found this type of thinking in services where participants shout, wave hankies or black Bibles and brag about how tough they are; nor have I found it in services of loud, unsettling music accompanied by casualness, shallowness and bragging about how accepting of everything they are.  Rather, Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28-29).

A Biblical Model

This “sacrificial” model of New Testament ministry is seen in virtually all Bible writers.  One of my favorite passages is Second Corinthians, especially from chapter 3 to chapter 6.  Paul’s own ministry is put forth as an example against the false apostles who “commend themselves.”  Paul, on the other hand, is always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body (4:10).  He is an “earthen vessel” (4:7); bearing the “light affliction” (4:17) of this life; ready to be “absent from the body” and “present with the Lord” (5:8); an “ambassador for Christ” (5:20) who proclaims a message of reconciliation of the sinner before a holy God.

This ministry must not be “blamed,” Paul says in chapter 6.  Therefore, in order not to “give offense in any thing” and to “approve ourselves as the ministers of God,” we must enter into a three-fold approach to a sacrificial ministry.  I say “three-fold” due to the various cases of the prepositions used in verses 4-10.4

I am proposing that we are sacrificial servants . . .

In Propitiatory Relationships

The believer finds himself in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, etc.  Paul was the example of evangelism that often resulted in antipathy with the world.  I call these “propitiatory” because the sinner is taking out his anger at our Lord through the believers.  Just as sinners crucified Jesus because His perfect life aggravated their sinful soul, so His servants are to speak of Him to sinners and enter into the same persecutions brought on by their guilty consciences.

Is this not the “fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable to His death?”  Yes!  And it is this that brings to our evangelism the “power of His resurrection” (Phil 3:10).  It is when Jesus is lifted up in the way of a cross, that all men are drawn to Him.  The evangelist must be willing to enter this frame of mind if he is to minister.  Suffering for our Lord is primarily to be rejected and resisted, even hurt, by the sinner for Christ’s sake.  Paul knew this fellowship well.  He also knew the power of such preaching.

By Passive Responses

How did our Lord and His Apostles respond in such circumstances?  By pureness, by longsuffering, by kindness, etc.  Peter says of our Lord, Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:  Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously (1 Pet 2:22-23).  Should those who represent Him respond any differently?

The effectiveness of our witness does not come through human instincts.  We are preservationists by human nature.  We would protect, strike back and defend ourselves when others attack us.  But the true minister does not because his Lord did not.  If the kernel of wheat dies, it will produce more wheat than can be imagined!

As Perceived Realities

How was Paul perceived by those who persecuted him compared to what Paul really was?  As unknown, yet well-known; as dying, and behold we live; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, etc. Just as sinners perceived Jesus to be different than what He actually was, so His servants are to be perceived differently by the world than what they really are in Christ.

Aren’t people more concerned with how they are perceived by others than with anything?  That is why true evangelism is so difficult.  It truly takes a dying to self, a willingness to be seen in a bad light in order to be effective.  The believer knows, of course, the way God really sees him and is content.

And So . . .

The Corinthians were poor evangelists because their own selfishness restricted the power of their witness (vss 11-13).  They could not bring themselves to such sacrificial action.  They were unequally yoked to the world (vss 14-16) to the point that God Himself could not be as a Father to them (vs 18).

It is spiritual near-sightedness to preserve our image before the world and lose them, rather than concede our image in order to win them.

Notes:
1. Gorgias, “The Encomium on Helen,”  Orations: Homer To Mckinley, Vol I (New York: Collier, 1902) 49.
2. G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Image Books, 1956) 93.
3. James Draper, Jr., Colossians: A Portrait of Christ (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1982) 8.
4. All Greek texts agree in the prepositions used.  The A.V. does the best job of dividing the en into locative and instrumental cases in vss 4-7.  Other versions follow the word for word translation of en being “in” (usually taken as locative) where the A.V. recognizes how en can be instrumental as well.  Lenski says, “This en differs from the en found with the preceding plurals which = ‘in the midst of’ the experience of tribulations, etc.  The present eight en = ‘in connection with’ purity, etc.”

 

How Relevant is Relevancy?

How Relevant is Relevancy?

by Rick Shrader

For a generation now the church has been concerned about whether or not the world is listening to our message.  Books and articles continue to bemoan our plight of a decreasing effectiveness in evangelism and church attendance.  This has caused many to make drastic changes to the methodology and polity of the church.  But even with the major overhauls that have taken place, still many are not satisfied with the results.  Our postmodern culture has caused the church to run the spectrum of styles from seeker sensitive to the emergent church.  At the same time, many contemporary church proponents continue to be critical of traditional churches.

One recent article,1 written by a professor of writing and communications at a major university, expressed concern about what messages we are sending to the world by the way we conduct our church services.  After visiting a number of fundamental Baptist churches, he “made an ethnographic analysis of the speech codes that we unconsciously use in our subculture.”  He means that he noticed a number of ways in which the world seems to be turned off by our church services.  His use of “subculture” to describe our churches seems backward to me since I rather see the world as a subculture and the New Testament as a divine culture.  But, of course, my point of view, according to this author, would be part of the (so-called) problem!

First, he says, “Much of the speaking we do in church is unintelligible to outsiders.”  He sees our churches loaded with assumptions about the way people relate to one another.  We talk of “having fellowship” among believers, of “witnessing” to unbelievers, and even of “having devotions” with God.  These kinds of expressions, the author thinks, are “extremely strong forms of negation” toward outsiders.

Second, “Our church buildings have few crosses.”  He explains that our churches have a pulpit with a preacher giving a “top-down” monologue rather than a two-way dialogue.  The Bible is our “dominant symbol.”  The author wishes we could find other ways (having more icons?) of being more “welcoming” to visitors.

Third, the author relates how university professors have difficulty teaching Christian students in secular schools how to compose arguments.  These students seem to think the Bible ends all arguments.  “By refusing to do research and construct arguments, these students were reinforcing the stereotype of Christians as obscurantist Bible thumpers.”  As a conclusion he says (of student essay contests), “My burden is that a theme of ‘Balancing Biblical Truth and Cultural Relevance’ should be an occasion for us to look beyond the discourses we use in church.  We must rethink the unconscious messages by which our subculture alienates visitors.”

These kinds of thoughts are not new.  The church has been wrestling with relevance for most of the last century.  Before I give some rhetorical questions of my own, I want to say that  we shouldn’t lose ourselves in a minimalist mindset.  Of course we do some things for the sake of visitors.  Common courtesies, general cleanliness, friendly environment, even modern conveniences are things anyone would do when hosting visitors.  The weightier issues here, however, have to do with the operation of the church itself; with whether or not we are changing New Testament Christianity to fit the world’s desires.  If we change what we are convinced we ought to be, are we even being honest with those who come in among us?

Are we worried about a belligerent minority?

Are we attempting to reconstruct the whole house because of one squeaking door?  When studies are made about cultural relevancy, the laboratory mice are always the teenagers, college students, or similar groups with a specific world view.  Some years ago now, I engulfed myself in a study of postmodernism.  It seemed that I saw everyone and everything through the lens of metanarrative, semiotics, or deconstruction.  I finally had to slap myself back into reality and realize that the great majority of people I sit next to in the restaurant or pump gas next to at the gas station not only don’t know or care about these terms, they don’t fit into these categories anyway.  I’m not saying that these things don’t pose a threat to our society, but I am suggesting that the church has overestimated postmodernism’s effect on the majority of people.

We ought to at least agree that Christianity has faced many things in its two thousand year history and it never profited by changing its message or methods to fit the temporary cultural winds.  Jesus first instructed His disciples to enter into a town with the message of the kingdom and if there were those who were “unworthy” of the message and wouldn’t receive it, they were to shake the dust off their feet and move on (Matt. 10:11-15).  I don’t think the Lord was teaching hard-heartedness or cultural obscurantism, but I think He was teaching us to not lose our heads when some in our society won’t hear the message.  At times that belligerent group may be large or small, but it should not affect the gospel presentation.

Should we continue down a proven slippery slope?

Surely we know by now that few things move from liberal to conservative, but rather almost always from conservative to liberal.  The twentieth century alone is sufficient to warn us of individuals and groups who were once fundamental and solid in their Biblical convictions but through a sincere desire to reach more people have gone off into compromising arrangements from which they never returned.

The apostle John warned the church not to bid “God speed” (or “God bless”) to those who have deviated from the message of Christ (2 John 10-11).  To do so is to fellowship or partake in their wrong actions.  We never gain more evangelistic results by compromising the truth of Scripture.  Aren’t we doing that with a lost world when we adopt their methods of worship and bring those into our churches?  Many Baptist groups slid down this slope but few have recovered.  They merely redefined their new position as fundamental.  Our soteriological methods must always be governed by our doxological convictions.

Should churches be sanctuaries or half-way houses?

Is it the purpose of the local church to reform the unregenerate or to strengthen the saints?  Should we make our services debating contests or places of fellowship and admonition?  It is interesting how those questions sound politically incorrect to our ears.  We have been so conditioned by our culture that to think of the church as a sanctuary apart from the world, a place of rest from the battlefield, a realm of safety for our families, makes us feel as if we are somehow cowards or apathetic.

How can we read the book of Acts and the Epistles and miss this?  Read Acts 4:23ff; 5:12-14; 18:6-8; 19:9-10.  It does not follow that because the church creates a sanctuary for the saints that the church will do less in evangelism.  To the contrary, the church must teach, admonish, comfort, worship, and pray if it is going to be effective in evangelism.  We must retreat to our training facilities if we are to perform mightily on the field!  Our practices (to continue the analogy) are not closed to outsiders, but they are closed to the advice and control of outsiders.  The church as the church will produce believers who are ready and able to truly evangelize.

Do heralds bargain with the Master’s message?

I’m sure we would all agree that they do not.  But some evidently feel that changing methodologies does not violate that principle.  Our word for “preacher” comes from the New Testament word for “herald (kerux—2 Tim. 1:11).”  He was a trusted agent of the king who spoke the king’s message to the people.  He had no right to change or barter that message.  His method of proclaiming the message was “preaching” (kerusso—2 Tim. 4:2).  The message itself was the subject of the preaching (the kerygma—2 Tim. 4:17).

If we really believe the Bible is our authority for faith and practice, then we have no right to rearrange our practices because those we are preaching to don’t like it.  That may grieve our hearts and may even cost us relationships but it cannot change our devotion.

Are we to evangelize or win the world?

There is a vast difference between faithfully proclaiming our faith to whomever will listen, and insisting that every listener must accept our faith.  We are commissioned to preach the gospel to every creature (Mk. 16:15-16) but not to win every creature.  We don’t baptize every nation but the converts from every nation (Matt. 28:19-20).  We are to be “witnesses” in all the world but there will be both times of revival and persecution.  Must we insist that our time  be a time of great revival?  Must we say that if we are in one of those difficult times that we are doing something wrong?  God doesn’t ask us to evaluate our evangelism or our faith by how others respond.  That is the Holy Spirit’s business and we should be satisfied with His decisions.

Does our generation really not understand us?

Does the average American citizen have a difficult time following a simple sentence with nouns and verbs?  Does even the punk rocker not know what we are saying when we speak of the gospel of Christ?  I think he understands perfectly and reacts according to his conscience.  We’ve been watching too many TV shows and reading too many vogue magazines and watching too many Hollywood movies.  The generations, cultures, and faiths may have their own homey way of speaking within their circles (where would the world be without such variety?) but to say that one cannot be understood by the others is to be a bit culturally myopic.

The Bible does say that the lost man cannot grasp spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14) and that unless the Holy Spirit works in his heart he will call it all foolishness.  But this is not the same as saying he cannot understand language.  Besides, if he could not even understand our language, then there would be no purpose to evangelism at all.  The lost man understands all too well the claims of Christ.  We are the ones who are uncomfortable.

Do we really want to be like the world?

Are some trying so hard to be “understood” by the world because they love it more than the church?  One has to wonder what the motivation is for turning the church of Jesus Christ into a cultural retreat for the world.  If the local church assembly is to be designed by sinners, where do the saints find fulfillment for the New Testament commands of Christ?  Where is the reverence?  Where is the specifically Christian fellowship?  Where is the love of the brethren?  Where is the place to do the business of the church decently and in order?

Some say that they make these changes in the church service for the sake of the lost who are there.  But if they see that no lost are there for a particular hour, do they quickly dispense with all that and have a normal service?  No, these changes are made for Christians who like it that way.  It is because they spend the other six days of the week watching American Idol that they cannot bring themselves to love the church on Sunday.  John wrote, “They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.  We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us.  Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:5-6).

And So . . . .

Cultural relevancy is not all it’s cracked up to be.  This isn’t the first generation of believers who have found themselves on the outside of cultural elitism. History and eternity will judge how we hold the banner behind a long line of faithful men and women.  “Let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”

 

Who Stole My Church?

Who Stole My Church?

by Rick Shrader

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The sub-title is, “What to do when the church I love tries to enter the twenty-first century.”  Though you may think this book is defending the traditional church in the face of contemporary changes, it is not.  It is rather defending the contemporary church by making a caricature of conservative churches.   MacDonald creates a hypothetical situation of a church (himself as pastor) that began to make changes but found opposition among its members, especially the older folks.  He then meets regularly with them to explain why the changes need to happen.  The chapters of the book basically record the ongoing sessions.

The characters of the book represent typical scenarios of both conservative (slow, belligerent, stuffy) and contemporary (quick, witty, bright) people from MacDonald’s world.  In the end, he easily convinces the naysayers because of their (typical) ignorance and his (typical) logic and wonderful answers.  If you can stand it beyond this (I barely could), you will also find a number of increasingly typical contemporary points.

MacDonald says the church has always been “contemporary” and innovative, looking for new ways to change and reach its generation.  He even uses the Reformers (and Wesley) as examples (I would rather argue that such men called the church back to the basics of the Scripture).  MacDonald believes that the church is stuck in a modernistic way of thinking rather than progressing into the postmodern age.  He doesn’t think our generation of young people can understand our language, nor do they want to.  He believes that soul-winning and invitations do not work because people in America are now like pagans on a mission field and therefore we must present everything slowly over time.

Interpretive problems abound in the book.  So does my lack of enthusiasm.

 

Christ & Culture Revisited

Christ & Culture Revisited

by Rick Shrader

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It has been over fifty years since H. Richard Niebuhr published his Christ & Culture.  Carson revisits Niebuhr’s original categories of Christians within culture and pronounces them lacking for today’s situation.  Niebuhr outlined six ways that Christians have looked at culture:  Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; and Christ the transformer of culture.  Carson sees useful attitudes in most of these but none which describes how Christians usually see culture today.  Today Christians define culture as an environment which they have inherited and which usually cannot be much changed.  The older conservative way of viewing culture was to see it as more equal to the “world” which was made by fallen men and opposes the purposes of God.  Carson does a good job of bringing the conservative view into modern language, especially in challenging the contemporary view of culture being morally neutral.  He also challenges today’s writers to present views that are more based on the whole tenor of Scripture, including past, present, and future perspectives of God’s purposes.

 

Using and Abusing the Bible

Using and Abusing the Bible

by Rick Shrader

I would think that anyone who values straight talk has a hard time of it during national election years.  Now, more than ever, politicians are looking for the right buzz word or the right connection to the latest polling data which will up his/her chances of being elected.  Every sentence, even every word, is scrutinized as to whether it will increase or decrease his/her ratings by a percentage point!  This year’s buzz word is “change.”  It hardly matters what the change is or where it would lead as long as it is change.  If it unites people and creates enthusiasm; if it appeals to the right cultural block; if it presents the candidate as visionary and idealistic; in other words, if it just gets votes, then this is where we must go!

Of course, the only sensible reply to change is whether it is good or bad.  And this question, considered in a sinful world, becomes even more critical.  There is no rut so deep as the supposed need for constant change.  In my reading I have collected a few of those priceless quotes from wise men who spoke of the futility of change for change’s sake.  Here are just a few:

C.S. Lewis:  “When changes in the human mind produce a sufficient disrelish of the old Model and a sufficient hankering for some new one, phenomena to support that new one will obediently turn up.  I do not at all mean that these new phenomena are illusory.  Nature has all sorts of phenomena in stock and can suit many different tastes.”1

G.K. Chesterton:  “In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss.  We were inclined to ask, ‘Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?’  But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right.  The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead.  The moss is silent because the moss is alive.”2

Charles Spurgeon:  “It is all too plainly apparent men are willing to forego the old for the sake of the new.  But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.”3

This quote from Spurgeon was written during his important struggle in what he coined The Downgrade Controversy.  It is unique because we see clearly today that what is fashionable in the world is usually followed closely by the Church.  Michael Aeschlimen,  who studied the effect of liberalism on culture, observed, “But the compulsive spirit of innovation, the lust for change and the new, which Arnold and Newman fought in related ways in the educational realm, was a chief effect of the intoxications of scientism, and it has continued to increase in effect in many other areas of modern life.”4 This same thing has happened in the modern liberalism of the American political and religious landscapes of the twentieth century.

As we have begun the twenty-first century, the belief in change for change’s sake in religious matters is again reflecting the culture.  This is of far greater concern than politics because Christianity is THE revealed religion from God.  It is a body of truth that was set in propositional form by the Alpha and Omega.  We ought to expect, therefore, that Christianity in our day, more than any other religion in the world or in history, ought to look inherently like it did two thousand years ago.  But today’s Christian leaders don’t have the stomach for it.  Our generation is demanding change in the churches and they are getting it wholesale.  Is it for the better?  Ask Willow Creek’s own internal survey.  Of course, it isn’t.  And, it isn’t better in our fundamental churches either.

It seems that almost anyone who argues for change in the church uses either Nehemiah as a text from the Old Testament or Jesus’ parable of the new wine in old wine skins from the New Testament.  Often they will throw in the observation that Jesus displeased the Pharisees because, unlike them, He ate with publicans and sinners and this is something that they would never do.  As Lewis noted, when there is a hankering for change in society, sufficient phenomena will show up to support it. So also when there is a demand for change in the church (by those who have no intention of changing their lives themselves) sufficient chapters and verses will turn up to support it.

The New Wine and Old Wineskins

The account of the wineskins is an interesting picture in the gospels.  It seems to have the perfect wording for someone who is advocating doing away with old things and bringing in the new things.  It appears in the three synoptic gospels and is always coupled with the similar picture of trying to sew a new piece of cloth onto an old garment.  In Mark’s gospel (2:18-22), both are also coupled with the question of the attendants fasting at a wedding while the bridegroom is absent.  The contemporary use of these verses seems to be—when God gives a visionary leader a new or fresh vision for change, or when reaching the culture demands that new things be done in the church, these things cannot simply be attached to the traditional way of doing things.  The old things must be set aside and the new things must be done separately from the old.

Now, it is true perhaps that if we simply take the statements as truisms and apply them to garments, animal skins and wedding receptions, these observations would be correct.  And, if we make general observations about connecting new and old things in life, these same observations would often apply as well.  But is this exegesis of the passage or merely using the wording of the passage for our own purposes?  By the same method could we not preach the gospel from the poem of Mary and her little lamb?  It has all the words we need.  Was there no other purpose for Jesus saying things like this than to fill our files full of anecdotes to be used whenever they can bolster our arguments?

Jesus was offering Himself and His kingdom to the Jewish people  (this is clearly seen in the preceding analogy to fasting while the bridegroom is present rather than absent).  The law is being brought to an end.    With the rejection of the King and kingdom, the gospel dispensation is commencing and the law as a rule of life is definitely over.  Edersheim noted that “the new wine of the Kingdom [cannot] be confined in the old forms.  It would burst those wine-skins.”5 You cannot operate the new wine of the dispensation of grace (with the local church being the primary agency) by keeping the old wine skin of the Mosaic law.  Dwight Pentecost wrote, “The parables clearly indicate that Christ did not come to reform an old and worn out system but to introduce something new (cf. Heb. 8:13).”6 This is what the analogy of the wine and wineskins is teaching.

If the parables are used simply to support every new thing that comes along and to do away with every old thing that stands in the way, then the meaning of the passage is missed and only the wording of the passage is being used for someone’s personal agenda.  If I flipped through my Bible, trying to prove that suicide is biblical, and came up with:  “Judas went and hanged himself . . . . Go thou and do likewise . . . . What thou doest do quickly,” though I have used biblical words, I would not have discovered the biblical teaching about suicide.

The further irony of using this passage to support changes in the local church is that the church age is now 2000 years old and the local church will continue to be God’s plan until the second coming of Christ.  The local church now IS the old wine skin, and we are not to discard it until Jesus comes and establishes His kingdom.  That is, if we transfer the meaning of this passage to our situation today, rather than supporting changing the church, it supports retaining the church and its doctrines and practices that are now 2000 years old.

Nehemiah’s Building Project

I don’t think I’ve read a book on transitioning from a traditional church to a contemporary church without the author referring to the book of Nehemiah.  Usually, the whole book is taken from a series of lessons on Nehemiah that the author has given to his church.  Much is made of Nehemiah as a visionary who sees the need in Jerusalem and then goes through a series of wise steps to get the whole project done.  The application usually is this:  the pastor should pray for his specific vision for change from God; he should share it with a few people in his inner circle; he should then broaden than circle, being careful to indoctrinate new people to his personal vision carefully so they will come on board; he should reveal his vision to the whole congregation only after assurance has been found that the vision will definitely be adopted.  If opposition occurs he must try to bring those people into his way of thinking, but if he can’t, he must count the cost of losing those people for the betterment of the whole.  This is all done based on Nehemiah’s task of getting the temple in Jerusalem rebuilt.

Of course, we may find principles to live or work by in many passages of Scripture.  But we must be careful not to violate the meaning of the text, and also not to be so trivial with the principle that we, again, are just using the wording that we need.  Was Nehemiah doing something new that God was showing him?  In whatever way he prayed and asked God’s help and made his decision to do what he did, is this a direct parallel for a pastor receiving a unique vision for his ministry (and not necessarily anyone else’s) and then going about to change the local church?  Yes, we may see wise principles of leadership but is the book of Nehemiah a blueprint for local church polity?  The irony is that Nehemiah was not doing something new, he was rather rebuilding something old!  He was reestablishing proper Mosaic worship, something that had been destroyed because of Israel’s disobedience for the last 500 years.  We would do better to begin printing books based on Nehemiah on how to rebuild the traditional churches after they have been destroyed and taken into captivity by new methodology!  At least the overall intention of the book would be better served.

Eating With Publicans and Sinners

When Levi decided to follow Jesus, he invited the Lord and many of his own friends to a supper at his house.  Among these “Publicans and sinners” Jesus carried on a conversation that resulted in Him saying, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17).  A common excuse for changing to a contemporary mode of local church polity is that Jesus reached out to sinners such as these.  Since the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with the sinners, they are made to represent the church members who object and (supposedly) don’t like these “unchurched” sinners in the church.

But can this passage be made to support such a proposition?  First, Jesus usually had to leave most houses He was invited into because He made sinners uncomfortable—a far cry from the contemporary church auditorium.  Second, it was the lost tax collectors that heard Him, saw themselves as sinners, repented, and changed their life-style—also a far cry from the contemporary church auditorium.  Third, it was the Pharisees, who would not see themselves as sinners and had no intention of changing, that even Jesus did not call to repentance.  They were too self-righteous to think they needed to be changed from what they were.  Yet these are the kind that seem to be filling today’s churches (where little or no repentance is preached).  This story does not condemn believers who changed when they were converted and have remained changed, but rather those who think they can come to Jesus without any change in their lives.

And So . . . .

Though we all have equal access to the infallible Scriptures, none of us are infallible interpreters.  We all need to be challenged to see if our conclusions really match the text.

 

Transitioning: leading your church throu...

Transitioning: leading your church through change

by Rick Shrader

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This book was written in 2000.  Dan Southerland has been the pastor of Flamingo Road Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida for over twenty years.  He also has been a facilitator for Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven ministry of changing churches from traditional to contemporary.  Warren writes the Forward and encourages all pastors to read the book and to buy a copy for every staff person.  With 500,000 churches in Warren’s network with multiple staff, that alone would boost the sale of the book considerably.  This book is the result of a series of messages that Southerland  preached to his church on the book of Nehemiah.  He proposes eight steps in transitioning your church into a contemporary, Purpose Driven model.  These eight steps have been on Warren’s website for years.

Southerland does the typical (and by now old and worn out) scenario of seeing traditional churches as boring, ineffective, not caring about lost people, resistant to change, etc.  He includes the standard things that are necessary if a contemporary church is to grow:  contemporary music, a casual atmosphere, an unchurch-like service, and more interaction with less “preachy” preaching.  Warren and Southerland propose to change the church from what they perceive to be program driven churches to purpose driven churches.

In the chapter, Dealing With Opposition, Southerland does a tongue-in-cheek (I think!) definition of Sanballat as “A leader from Hell.”  He then speaks of traditional pastors and laymen who oppose this transitioning by saying, “You cannot call this guy a leader from hell to his face—but you could call him Sanballat” (115).  Amazingly, just two paragraphs later he says, “You will get some ridicule.  One form of ridicule that is popular today is name calling.”

The book is filled with other predictable arguments and pretexts that have been refuted but have stayed around for years.  A sad commentary.