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On Being More Gospel-Centered than Jesus.

Here’s an outstanding discussion of what it means to be too Gospel-centered. The conversation gets started with the question: If we look back on ourselves twenty years from now, what will we think that we’ve missed or underemphasized as we’ve tried to focus more on the Gospel? That’s a great question that is well worth reflecting on. Any movement emphasizes what it thinks people are neglecting in its context, and in the process almost necessarily neglects or excludes other things. Balance is needed, though almost impossible to maintain.

There’s also a great piece on not getting so hung up on the labels and language of being Gospel-centered that we miss the whole purpose. If being Gospel-centered means developing such a critical spirit that we can’t see the love for Jesus that others have, we’ve missed something.

And, they spend a few minutes talking about how the Gospel shapes us into being the kinds of people who love the same things that Jesus loved: compassion, justice, truth, etc., without those things becoming the heart of the Gospel itself.

Take a few minutes and check it out.

http://vimeo.com/25058865

God even uses preachers who make mistakes

Three seasoned preachers share some stories on mistakes they’ve made while preaching. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed, since I was hoping for something really horrifying. But, it was still a good reminder that ultimately the sermons isn’t about the preacher, even the best communicator slips up, and God uses them anyway.

And, amen to the comment toward the end about using sports analogies in sermons.

http://vimeo.com/24632998

Bait-and-switch evangelism

“Okay, I’ll go back. But no Jesus stuff this time.”

What exactly does it take to make a 4-year-old declare that she’s all done with Jesus stuff? Bait-and-switch evangelism.

Here’s what happened.

The Tragedy Begins

It’s the day before Easter. And, unexpectedly for the northwest, it’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon. So, my little girls grab their mom and head down the street to a church that is hosting an Easter carnival. Holding hands, they skip down the sidewalk with images of Easter egg hunts, candy, and cheap carnival games dancing through their young minds, never knowing what is really in store for them.

(This would be a good place to picture a dark cloud suddenly drifting in front of the bright, spring sun, casting a shadow across our happy scene. Or, just imagine some ominous music playing in the background. Either way, you get the point.)

Arriving at the church, the first thing they see is a big booth set up for face painting. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never understood the allure of face painting. But, for little girls, The thought of having someone smear cheap paint all over their faces in a way that vaguely resembles a flying bug is nearly irresistible.

So, they stop. And the tragedy begins.

Because, of course, this is the Gospel booth. And, from the Gospel booth there is no escape. It’s kind of like the Twilight Zone.

The Gospel Zone

Almost as soon as the girls sit down, one of the volunteers launches into the Gospel story. And my girls sit through it patiently. They’ve heard it before, but they’re too polite to interrupt. And, from the enthusiastic presentation, my wife suspects that they might be the only new people the church has seen all afternoon. She doesn’t want to ruin the fun. So they listen to the story.

Twice.

That’s right. Apparently they weren’t sure that my girls caught everything the first time. And they really wanted it to stick. So, as soon as they were done with the story, they launched into it again.

The Twilight Zone does not surrender its victims easily.

Emerging from the Gospel booth almost 30 minutes later, they discover that the carnival is over. No more candy. No more games. No Easter egg hunt. They’ve missed it all.

Bait-and-switch strikes again.

The Old Switcharoo

SwordsmanSr via Photobucket

Bait-and-switch evangelism is any time we tell people that they are getting one thing, and then we slip them the Gospel while they are there. Want some candy? Sure, come and get it. Oh, by the way, you’ll have to sit and listen to this story first.

Are we trying to make little kids hate the Gospel?

Why do we do this? Deep down, are we that afraid that they won’t want to hear? Do we doubt the power of the message that much? Do we think the Spirit can’t handle things?

And, what are we subtly communicating to ourselves and to other people about the Gospel when we do this? I’m afraid that we’re hinting that we really don’t think that the Gospel is all that. If I’m really convinced that I have the most amazing story that will transform your life forever, I’m not going to invite you over to my church for a football game and then try to slip it in between commercials. I’m going to invite you over to hear the story.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with parties, carnivals, football games, or any of the various ways that churches can connect with their communities, share life together, and allow the world to see a redeemed community in action. That must be done. And, along the way, we will have opportunities to share the Gospel as an organic expression of living in community together. But, that’s very different from the bait-and-switch.

When we trick people into hearing the Gospel, we annoy them and we undermine the very message that we’re seeking to promote. I’m sure it works at times, but pragmatic effectiveness is not an adequate measure for appropriate Kingdom living.

The quote at the beginning of this post? That came from my daughter one year later. A full year after her experience at the Easter carnival, she remembered what happened the last time she stepped into the Gospel zone, and she wasn’t about to let it happen again.

No more Jesus stuff for her.

The bait-and-switch at its finest.

Guns and the Gospel: a match made in…somewhere

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. To the NRA, I became a proponent of concealed hand guns, to win gun rights advocates.

What do you think? I recently received an email from someone at a church that is planning an outreach event that combines the Gospel and guns. The church is reaching out the community by offering a concealed handgun license course. But, the real purpose of the course is to reach out to people who wouldn’t otherwise come to church and use it as an opportunity to share the Gospel with them. So, ultimately, the event isn’t really about guns, it’s about the Gospel. The guns are just to get them in the front door.

My first reaction to this was not terribly positive. But, I had to stop and double-check myself. I didn’t grow up around guns and have never really understood the need for the average person to carry a concealed handgun. So, I have to consider the possibility that my reaction to this event has more to do with my personal biases than legitimate concerns.

My second reaction to this still isn’t terribly positive. At the very least, I don’t like bait-and-switch evangelism. Maybe that’s not what is being planned here. But it sure sounds like the kind of event where you invite people to something that sounds fun, and then you sneak the Gospel in the back door. Sure it’s a church event and people probably expect that they’ll need to endure the Gospel so they can get to the good stuff. But is that really how we want to do things?

But, more to the point, the way that we present the Gospel matters. And, I can’t think of any way of hosting an event like this without connecting the Gospel to a whole raft of issues surrounding gun rights advocacy and conservative political ideology, not to mention all of the images and associations that people have with handguns, none of which have anything to do with the Gospel. Do we really want to align the Gospel with things like this?

To be clear, this has nothing to do with the question of gun rights in itself. That’s a separate issue, and one that I don’t want to get into here. This is a question about where and how we share the Gospel and how that shapes the way people hear the Gospel.

What do you think? Is this just a cultural issue? I’m just a pampered city boy from liberal Portland, so I can’t really understand what’s going on here. Or, are there legitimate concerns in connecting the Gospel and guns in this way?

The Trials and Temptations of Pastoral Ministry

What are the biggest challenges of pastoral ministry? That can’t be an easy question to answer. Too much depends on who you are, what kind of weaknesses (and strengths!) you possess, and where you’re ministering. Nonetheless, seasoned pastors can tell us a lot about what they’ve seen and where we need to be careful.

So, check out Art Azurdia‘s comments on the Trials and Temptations of gospel ministry. It’s a clear and concise presentation of 11 key temptations that many (every?) pastor faces at some point. I know that in my ministry, depression (especially after a particularly difficult night of ministry), frustration, and doubt have often been constant companions.

Can I worship with you, please?

Audrey was an amazing 30-something woman with a great smile and an exuberant personality. She’d been attending our church for several years and she loved it. Being at church was one of the highlights of her week.

But, she made a lot of noise.

You see, Audrey was a special-needs person. I forget her precise condition, but she was wheelchair bound, could only communicate through a series of grunts, squeals, and hand gestures, and it was often difficult to know how much she really understood about what was happening around her. But, when she was happy, she wanted everyone to know…loudly.

And, Audrey was always happy at church.

Some were pretty vocal about wanting Audrey out of the service. They argued that she was so loud and distracting distracting that it interfered with worship. Who can concentrate with all that noise? And, they were concerned that she would keep visitors from coming back. Who wants to attend a church where you have to put up with that every Sunday?

Only a few voiced their concerns out loud, but my guess is that quite a few nourished the same thoughts quietly.

No one questioned whether she should be part of the church, they just thought that she needed to sit somewhere else. She could come, but she shouldn’t sit with us. Several even proposed that we put her in the nursery since that was the part of the church most suited for noisy attenders.

She could worship, but not with us.

.

Orderliness vs. Openness

As a parent, I’ve wrestled with a similar question before. Kids are disruptive and distracting. There really isn’t any easy way around it. They’re constantly doing something loud, cute, annoying, or interesting. Whatever it is, it’s distracting. And, when they’re my kids, I worry about how it’s affecting the people around us.

After all, didn’t Paul place a high value on doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)? If worship is to focus on God, shouldn’t we minimize or even eliminate those things that distract us from that task?

But, the church has always placed a high value as well on openness. Jesus rebuked the disciples when they tried to keep the children from him (Mt. 19:13-15) and Paul sharply criticized the Corinthians for their exclusionary communion practices (1 Cor 11). The Gospel is for everyone, and those who respond to the Gospel are united in Christ with one another through the Spirit.

Orderliness and openness. Both seem pretty important. What do you do when they collide?

 

The Open Gospel

Like many situations, some examples of orderliness vs. openness seem easier to address. If my 6-month-old has a terrible cold and covers everyone inside a three foot radius with a generous coat of both phlegm and snot, I’m thinking that it’s best to stay home. Likewise, if I find it impossibly distracting that the person singing next to me sounds like a cat caught in the dishwasher (don’t ask me why I know what that sounds like), I should probably get over myself.

But, other situations are much less clear. And, when there’s doubt, I think we should always err on the side of openness. Any other approach sends a message that ultimately undermines the Gospel. When we tell people that they can’t worship with us, we subtly suggest that they’re not good enough, that there’s a bar they have to clear to be worthy of worshiping with God’s people. And, it’s a short step from there to the conclusion that they’re not worthy of God, that there’s something more they need to do or be to merit a place at the table. And that’s not the Gospel.

I’m sure that’s not the message that we intend to send. We’re just trying to be “sensitive” to the others in the congregation. But, regardless of our intentions, that’s the message that often gets received. And it’s a devastating message.

 

Distracting God

My pastor consistently refused any suggestion that we should remove Audrey from the worship service. I never asked him why. It may have just been because he thought it would be rude. Or, it may have been because there was no other place for her other than the nursery – and putting a 30-year old woman in the nursery just seemed to be a step too far. I don’t know.

But, it taught me something about the Gospel. We all have a place at the table. We’re not pretty, well-behaved, orderly, or nice. We’d like to think that we are. And, we’ll do anything to look like we are. But we’re not. We’re a mess. And God invites us in anyway. I wonder if he finds us distracting?

I don’t know what Audrey’s doing now. She wasn’t even supposed to have lived to 30. So, maybe she’s passed on. But if she hasn’t, I hope she’s singing somewhere.

Loudly.

Stop Blaming the Seminaries

There’s almost no way for me to write this post without sounding like I’m just defending my profession. But, of course, that’s because I am. Our seminaries are far from perfect. We probably spend too much time on some things, too little on others, and almost certainly do not run as efficiently as we could. But seminaries are not the root of all our ecclesiological problems.

I began reflecting on this a few weeks ago when I met with a group of Portland-area pastors to discuss how we can do a better job as a seminary of training pastors. And, they came up with some great ideas. Very helpful stuff. Toward the end of the lunch, though, one of them stopped the conversation to point out something he thought had been lacking in the conversation to that point: the role of the church in training its own pastors. He wanted to make it clear that the responsibility for pastoral formation lies primarily in the hands of the church. He quickly emphasized that he thinks the seminary has an important role to play in the process. But it can’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. If it tries, it will necessarily fail in its mission. Effective ministry training requires churches and seminaries to work together, both doing what each does best.

This conversation came to mind recently as I read yet another post castigating seminaries for failing the church and causing its imminent demise. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close.) In this case, the problem was that seminaries are not turning out truly spiritual leaders. We major in things like theology, Bible, languages, history, and other esoterica, but we fail to develop the spirituality of our students. So pastors enter the pulpit ready to preach, but unable to pray.

I have at least three problems with that argument.

1. I’m not convinced that it’s true. I haven’t taught at other schools, so I can’t speak for them. But the students I’ve met at Western Seminary are almost all deeply committed to their own spiritual development. Of course, that comes with its peaks and valleys, and the rigors and challenges of seminary can lead to a valley for some. But for most seminary is a deeply formative experience.

2. The problem isn’t necessarily with the seminary. What if pastors are leaving seminary spiritually ill-equipped for ministry? Does the problem lie entirely, or even mostly, with the seminary? Of course not. Keep in mind that most seminary students have been Christians for at least a few years, and they spent that time in some church somewhere. And they’ll also be a part of a church during their seminary years. So why assume that a failure in spiritual development lies with the seminary, which, even after several years, will still comprise a relatively small portion of a student’s Christian experience? Shouldn’t we be looking instead at our churches and wondering why they are producing spiritually ill-equipped leaders. Why focus on the seminaries?

3. The whole argument reflects an unhealthy tendency to separate the seminary from the church. Most importantly, this way of thinking necessarily implies a separation between the church and the “academy” that is unhealthy and has itself contributed to many of our problems. The “seminary” hasn’t caused a problem that the “church” has to fix, as though the seminary were not a part of the church and created to serve the church. We’ve made this mistake before, separating the academic from the ministerial, the tower from the table, and it never goes anywhere worth visiting.

Seminaries aren’t perfect, but they’re not the sole problem either. We do need to improve ministerial training. But simplistically blaming all our problems on one institution won’t get us anywhere. As always, we need to look deeper.

Do pastors really need to know the “background” of the Bible?

In an interesting exchange, D. A. Carson and John Piper discuss whether pastors really need to understand the social and historical context of the Bible in order to preach well. Piper pushes pretty hard for the idea that good preaching really just requires one to be “steeped” in the biblical texts. Unsurprisingly, though Carson agrees that this is primary, he maintains the importance of background material. They come together in the end, but there still seems to be some difference on this point.

http://vimeo.com/24636177

I have to admit that I can see both sides of this one. On the one hand, those arguing that we only need the text often seem to offer a false alternative here: steep yourself in the text rather than get distracted by background studies. But, it’s never that simple. How do you steep yourself in a text unless you understand enough about it to grasp what the author is trying to say? The preacher needs some background information even to understand the language (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.), let alone the cultural ideas and practices they convey. Piper seems to believe that you can get most of this information from the text itself, but that hardly seems possible since you need some understanding of these things to interpret the text adequately in the first place.

But, on the other hand, it’s easy for us academics to become elitist with our claims that you really can’t understand the Bible without our advanced degrees, thick books, complex theories, and countless hours of uninterrupted study. At that point, we lose sight of the fact that the Bible is not just another ancient text requiring for its proper interpretation the acquisition of academic arcanity. It’s also a divine text through which the Spirit has always worked powerfully, even among poorly educated people or those who just lacked an adequate understanding of its original socio-historical context.

Background material has value, and disciplined preachers will seek it out to deepen their sermons. I’ve heard enough ill-informed expositional “nuggets” over the years to know the importance of doing your homework. So, if you have the time, education, and resources to study such issues carefully, please do. What you have is a gift to be used for the benefit of the body. Don’t squander it.

But, faithful ministers can and do preach powerful sermons even without this information. God is both gracious and powerful. He has always worked through vessels that were less-than-perfect. That can’t become an excuse for sloppy sermon-prep, but it should encourage all of us to know that, in the end, the power of the sermon is in the Spirit and not the preacher.

When Parents Ask the Wrong Questions

“I can’t believe she disappointed us like this. She’s only fifteen! What was she thinking? What are we going to do now?”

I may not be the most intuitive person around, but even I could tell that he was angry—body tense, jaw clenched, voice shaking. But, it was a special kind of anger, the kind driven by love and fear, lashing out from a frustrated desire to protect. The anger of a parent.

 

Barely pausing for breath, he continued to vent, “How am I supposed to explain this to her mother? This is going to be my fault. I just know it!”

I was at a loss. Four years at a Bible college hadn’t prepared me to face the wrath of a frustrated father. But I still should have seen the next one coming.

“Where have you been through all this? Why didn’t you see this coming? What do we pay you for?”

Why do they always blame the youth pastor?

Parents have a lot to worry about: drugs, sex, crime, grades, attitudes, bad influences, music, movies…on and on the list goes. Is there a harder job on the planet? So, I understand the fear that nestles in the back of every parent’s mind. And, when fears are realized, they quickly turn into anger. I get that. I don’t like it when the anger turns in my direction, but I still understand.

After many years in youth ministry, I think I’ve talked with parents about every one of these issues. We’ve spent hours agonizing and strategizing over how to help their kids navigate these hazards and sail successfully into a hard-earned adulthood.

In all these years, I’ve heard a lot of question. But, even more important than the questions I have heard are the ones that I haven’t. In all my time in youth ministry, I never once had a parent say, “I’m concerned that my child doesn’t really understand the Gospel. Can you help make sure she really understands the power of God’s love and grace?” And, I’ve never had a concerned mother or father come up to me wanting to know “Do you think my son/daughter is really growing in his love for God?”

Not once.

I faced countless questions about who they were dating, what they were doing with their bodies, and how they were performing in school, but no questions about the Gospel or their heart for God.

None.

If you’re a parent, that should scare you.

The enraged father I mentioned above was upset because his daughter had gotten a tattoo. A tattoo. He’d never approached me to talk about his daughter’s spiritual well-being. Apparently that wasn’t worth an office visit. But a tattoo? That’s something else entirely.

The Gospel should change the way that we approach our families, our children. We don’t need to ignore the important issues that I mentioned above, but they shouldn’t be our only, or even our primary, concern. Instead, we should be ultimately concerned about whether we are doing everything that we can to make sure that our children understand the Gospel.

What gets your attention? Do you spend as much time talking about the story of God’s faithfulness as you do on math? Are you as concerned about your child’s heart for God as their newly discovered love for the opposite sex?

Does the Gospel matter at home?

Age-based Ministries Are Destroying the Church?

You are destroying the church. At least, you are if your church has age-based programs like Sunday school classes youth ministries. This is according to a new video put out by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches. The video is well-done, provocative, and worth watching. But, even though I’m sympathetic to some of its arguments, the video itself is quite flawed.

As soon as I saw the video, I passed it along to Ron Marrs, who directs the youth ministry program at Western Seminary. And, I asked him to offer his thoughts.You can watch the video below for free until September. So, check it out and then see Ron’s comments below.

http://www.vimeo.com/26098320

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

What I Agree with in the Movie

  1. Parents are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
  2. Many parents have abandoned their discipleship responsibilities.
  3. Churches need to help parents disciple their children.
  4. The Bible is the absolute authority for our Christian practice.

Having said that, here are a variety of things that concern  me about the movie.

Problem #1: It Uses Some Flawed Arguments

1. I give you statistics to convince you how we are failing to raise our youth to follow Christ.

The most prevalent statistic is a bogus statistic that appeared in a report by the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life in June 2002: “88 percent of the children raised in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18, never to return.”  I tracked down the source of this statement and found it to be the result of a meeting of youth pastors sitting around speculating on a percentage of students who are in church after being involved in church youth ministries.

This “88 percent” quote has been used for nine years to fuel much of this discussion!  I have been pushing back for about 5 years, writing to speakers and authors on this and other statistics being used in the debate.

Check out my article “Stop Abusing Stats” for more on this use of statistics and my response to the issues.

2. I blame a program or philosophy of ministry in the church for the crisis.

In this case, the “straw man” youth ministry is attacked as the culprit.  This youth ministry is all about fun and games.  This youth ministry takes students to worldly sounding Christian rock concerts.  Youth pastors don’t teach the young earth perspective on creation, therefore the Bible is undermined as the absolute source of truth.

In fact, there are numerous youth ministries and church families of which I am aware that produce strong Christ-followers.

3. I tell you that my philosophy, seminar, conference, book will “save the day.”

Research is seldom cited that attempt to explain the causes of the rejection of the faith although research is being done in this area.  There is no connection between quality research and solving the “crisis.”

The solution to the crisis is following my philosophy of ministry.  Mine is biblical and yours is not

Problem #2: The Movie’s Arguments Don’t Support Its Conclusion

Here are (not nearly all) of the movie’s main arguments:

    1. Youth ministry is not found in the Bible.
    2. Youth ministry flows out of ungodly, evolutionary educational philosophy adopted by the church.
    3. To continue youth ministry it is to corrupt the church.
    4. There is no age segregation in the church gatherings of the New Testament.
    5. Fathers are to disciple their children. This is the only pattern justified by a reading of Scripture.

Therefore, age-segregated groupings in church goes against Scripture. Youth groups must cease.

There are so many logical fallacies and anecdotal evidence used to make these arguments that it is difficult to know where to start.  So, I’ll offer just some quick thoughts. If you need more convincing, let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll write some further posts.

  1. Isn’t it true that when a person comes to Christ that they are to be equipped by the entire Body of Christ as articulated in Ephesians 4:1-16?  Parents are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).  The church is responsible to disciple the parents in such a way that they are able and motivated to obey this command.
  2. Who will reach the millions of teenagers who are not in Christian homes?  Much of the discussion surrounding youth ministry in the church centers on taking care of our church family kids.  This is critical.  But who will move into the lives of the unsaved youth?  They tried to address this issue but the recommendation was not compelling to me.
  3. Church leadership and parents will be wise to truly collaborate in the nurturing of children in the church and reaching students outside the church family to see youth respond to the Gospel in faith and grow in their faith.  I am concerned that products like this do not enhance problem-solving and strategic planning in the church.

What do you think? Does the video have a point? Are age-based ministries harming the church? Or, do you think that there’s a role for them in a healthy church?

(You may also be interested in Tim Challies interesting review of the movie.)

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It's an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

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