The Preacher warns, “He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them” (Eccl 10:9). I have always thought of that as the law of occupational hazards.
I’m a historian. Therefore, one of the professional dangers that I most need to guard against is nostalgia. I can all too easily slip into longing for the good old days when public entertainment was more wholesome; children were more dutiful; biblical knowledge was more widespread; and so on. Fortunately, the Preacher also has advice to meet my very case: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not wisdom that you ask this” (Eccl 7:10).
THANK GOD FOR GRANTING US NOW
God has granted me the privilege to live now—in my own times. To wish otherwise is not only pointless, it is ungrateful. It is also self-defeating. Every season of life has its own joys. Foolishness is to want to have the joys of adulthood when still a teenager or the joys of adolescence when middle aged and so on.
Likewise, there are unique joys, privileges, and opportunities for serving God in each generation. We are called not to hanker after a different age, but rather to jump in with relish to following Christ at this moment. There is an old Puritan saying: “If you would make the greatest success of your life, try to discover what God is doing in your time, and fling yourself into the accomplishment of his purpose and will.”
YES, THERE ARE UNIQUE CHALLENGES
Our times, of course, have unique challenges. We are witnessing the dissolution of Christendom. Christendom was a long period of time in the West when Christian commitments and beliefs were buoyed up by political and cultural supports. In Christendom, there were worldly incentives to at least pretend to believe Christian doctrine and to observe Christian practices. To do so was good for one’s professional and social success.
The notorious eighteenth-century religious skeptic David Hume actually advised his non-believing friends to fake a Christian identity, even cynically to pursue the Christian ministry as a good career move: “I wish it were still in my power to be a hypocrite in this particular. The common duties of society usually require it.” With such worldly prompts gone, the result is inevitably a culture in which many more people are willing to openly reject the Christian way of life.
This is certainly not all good. I prefer a culture where people refrain from making obscene comments because they want to maintain the illusion of being more righteous than they are.
BUT THERE ARE GAINS AS WELL
Nevertheless, it is surely not all bad. It is a gain as well as loss to have a better sense of what is really going on in someone else’s mind, heart, and imagination.
Despite some official political props remaining in place, the decline of Christendom is much further along in Britain than it is in America. I lived in Britain for some years and was struck by the extraordinarily high Christian commitment of the people in the churches I attended. Over and over again, I witnessed a minister explain that the kingdom of God would be advanced if a vital Christian church was planted in a town or region currently without one. What was the response? A half dozen or more families would cheerfully decide to move there to make it happen. They would sell their homes, quit their jobs, and set off on an adventure of faith.
Meanwhile, I knew Christians in America who were planning to move across the country because, quite literally, they liked the weather in another region better. They seemed to assume that they would find a church and friends and the kingdom of God as may be, but they were going to seek first a place in the sun.
Again, one can go back and forth with listing the upsides and downsides, but the point is that there are upsides.
AND WEREN’T THE WORST TIMES ALSO THE BEST?
The darkest forecasts I hear anyone making now involve the post-Christendom period we are entering being like the pre-Christendom period before Emperor Constantine: a world in which the surrounding culture will decide that Christians are “haters of humanity” who deserve to be persecuted. There is probably a bit of paranoia in imagining that this one nation under God is just about to turn into something akin to the Roman Empire under Nero or Diocletian.
But let’s face this imagined worst at least as a thought experiment. Were those not splendid times to serve God? Was the church defeated or triumphant? Were they not times when the power and blessing of God was manifest, when conversions were frequent, when discipleship was authentic? Where not even the most elite Roman pagans rattled by the intellectual confidence and resolve of figures such as Justin Martyr, Perpetua, and Polycarp?
SO CONFUSE THEM WITH CHEERFUL CONFIDENCE
The world is used to Christians who are alarmed, angry, fearful, despondent, grumpy. Such a posture only reinforces their complacent assumption that faith is a relic of the past which is in the process of passing away forever. I have found they are confused and intrigued by Christians who are confident, witty, and cheerful. They start to wonder if we know something they don’t know about what is really true and how things are really going to turn out. And do we not?
Far from this being merely a tactic or form of capitulation, such a posture, at its best, can be an expression of faith—of confidence in the victory of God and the lordship of Christ. Who but Christians really believe that the story we inhabit ends as a comedy and not a tragedy?
Frederick Buechner once observed, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Surely it is profoundly Christian and right to minister the gospel of Jesus Christ to a needy world out of a place of deep gladness.
THE CHURCH WILL PREVAIL—BE JOYFUL!
To believe that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church is to not allow oneself to become defeatist. The right response to our times is one of faith and joy.
God is looking for men and women who are glad to be alive; who count as a privilege to be his servants at this moment; who are thrilled to be taking part in the coming of the kingdom of God in this generation.
To return to the Preacher by way of conclusion, he envisions someone who has learned “to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil” and is kept occupied by God “with joy in his heart” (Eccl 5:19-20). May their tribe increase.
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. His most recent book is The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (Oxford University Press, 2014).
1. Winsomeness is a good servant and a terrible master.
Jesus called his disciples to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, and to that end, we need to keep asking ourselves whether the way we are saying things is the most helpful or appropriate way of saying it, given the culture we are in. But this is not the same as asking whether we should say anything at all. After all, soon after telling his disciples that, Jesus went to his death and promised that they would follow in his footsteps, and it seems that ten out of twelve of them did. In Pauline terms, there’s a time for saying “I’ve become all things to all men,” and a time for saying “I wish those guys over there would castrate themselves.” In Petrine terms, there’s a time for saying “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable,” but not in a way that conflicts with “we must obey God rather than men.” Our desire to be wisely engaged in the culture should affect how we talk about ethical issues, but not whether we do. We call it cultural engagement for a reason.
2. Likeability stops at the water’s edge.
When you tell Israel that they will be deported if they keep going up to the high places, they probably won’t like you, no matter how nice you are. There comes a moment in Schindler’s List when Oskar realises that being nice and likeable to Amon Goeth isn’t saving any Jews, and a different approach is needed. Every culture has its high places, its sacrosanct areas of affiliation and adulation that cannot be defiled without all hell breaking loose, and ours is no different. When you denounce them, in however carefully phrased a manner, nobody likes you. That’s what courage is for.
3. Pastors are to proclaim the whole counsel of God, not just the parts that won’t cause any fluttering in the Fleet Street dovecotes.
Paul is able to pronounce himself “innocent of the blood of all of you” because he “did not shrink from proclaiming to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27). The implication, I suspect, is that if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t be.
4. Ducking difficult ethical questions leaves churches in confusion when they most need clarity.
The vast majority of people in my church are not facing questions about eschatology or the parables at the water cooler (or, for that matter, from their students or their teenage children). They’re facing the same few questions, over and over again, and how the church responds to sexuality is always one of them. So if I avoid topics that are making waves in the wider culture, then I end up operating with the bizarre maxim that the more relevant an issue is, the less I will talk about it—and this both misses out on opportunities to land biblical teaching in real life, and leaves them apologetically stranded when they most need my help. And that’s just silly.
5. Ethical confusion makes church discipline much, much harder.
If a local church is confused about how to handle certain texts, and therefore ethical issues, then it will be even more confused if and when church discipline needs to be exercised (which is presumably also more likely if the church is confused). By default, many will operate with a rule of thumb that is the opposite of 1 Corinthians 5: (a) my friend loves Jesus, (b) my friend is doing X, therefore (c) X cannot be incompatible with loving Jesus. Unless X, whatever it is, is taught on clearly, and in a way that models grace, holiness, acceptance, love, righteousness, repentance, and new creation, the church will have no idea what I am playing at if, as may happen, I have to respond to unrepentant sin in a professing Christian. That won’t help any of us.
6. Silence unwittingly reinforces the dominant cultural narrative.
The recent Independent article on Vicky Beeching’s sexuality is just the latest in a long line of similar articles in the popular media, each of which assumes that there are two camps when it comes to Christians and sexuality: on the one hand, there are retrograde bigots who hate gays, troll, write abusive emails, perpetuate homophobia, and assume all same-sex attraction is demonic, and on the other hand, there are courageous heroes of compassion who are either gay themselves or are sure that God is absolutely fine with gay sex. If those in the middle—those who love gay people, pastor gay people, care for gay people, and continue to preach the gospel and teach biblical truth to gay people—sit this one out, then the dominant narrative is simply reinforced. I know the Independent will never run a feature on the men with same sex attraction we’ve baptized recently, or on any of the Living Out contributors, and I don’t care. But I want to make it as hard as possible for them to tell their story without reference to the radical middle, and as hard as possible for anyone else to believe it. Modelling how to respond, albeit imperfectly, is far better than dancing around the issue and allowing the agenda to be set by the extremes.
7. Those of us who instinctively cheer when we read the previous six points are probably in the greatest need of hearing what the advocates of silence have to say.
Personally, I’m persuaded that most city churches in the UK today need a nudge in the direction of clarity more than nuance, and of courage more than sensitivity. But the very fact that I believe this means, despite all I’ve said, that I need to stop and listen to what these city churches are saying by their silence. For instance: speaking about these issues is often done badly. Or: most people already think Christians are obsessed with sexuality. Or: booklets and sermons can put your congregants, especially those who carry significant responsibilities, in difficult positions. (Our church currently has the chair of the County Council, three town councillors, two former mayors, and a prospective parliamentary candidate, all from one of the two major parties in our area, so I’m not speaking from a vacuum here.) On balance, I think speaking about pressing issues carefully is far better than not speaking at all, and obviously, I think all churches should agree with me. But I want to hear what those who disagree with me are (not) saying.
As I say, I don’t belong to a Silent Church (and let’s face it, I probably never will), and it may be that even the reports of their existence are paranoid exaggerations or fictional flights of fancy. I hope so. But I think posts like this are still worth it. Just in case.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Andrew’s personal site, Think Theology.
Andrew Wilson is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne. He has theology degrees from Cambridge (MA) and London School of Theology (MTh), and is currently studying for a PhD at Kings College London. He is married to Rachel and they have two children, Zeke and Anna. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AJWTheology.
Are “black millennials” leaving the church? Is this something about which we should be alarmed? In recent times much has been written on this subject seeking to interpret and analyze what some are saying is a disturbing trend. Some of the discussion has taken place on the website The Front Porch (see here and here), and some has taken place at other online outlets.
One article in particular, Six Reasons Young Black People are Leaving Church, has raised the question and offered reasons why young black men and women are either leaving or not going to church. The article suggested, first, that the rise in economic opportunities and social progress is making the church irrelevant. Secondly, in an ever-changing digital age, the church appears stagnant, old fashioned, and unattractive. Thirdly, today’s educated black man and woman have less use for faith in an enlightened age where reason and science answer most of their questions. Fourthly, there is a growing discontent among this generation of blacks with biblical passages that seemingly tolerate or advocate for such social ills as slavery and genocide. Fifthly, the church comes off as intolerant, judgmental, and simplistic when it comes to issues of sexual activity, sexual orientation, and living holy in a sexually free society. Lastly, the article suggested that this generation seeks authenticity whereas the black church today gives the impression that everyone has it all together. In other words, black millennials want to stop pretending.
While I don’t want to totally discount the analysis of this article, or dismiss the above reasons given for the supposed exodus of this generation of blacks from the church, I do want to suggest that more discernment is necessary if we are going to properly understand the church and those who attend and don’t attend.
The church is not primarily a social institution that easily measures its membership, and therefore success, by how many people attend. The church is a spiritual organism given life by God the Father, in God the Son, and sustained through God the Holy Spirit. It is not a fraternity or sorority seeking to pad its membership rolls by trying to be and do what is most appealing to the current crop of new prospects. On the contrary, the church of Jesus Christ is spiritually discerned. Its strength is not in its numbers but in its faithfulness. Thus it is very difficult to quantify and therefore measure its success. And while we may reach for practical and pragmatic answers to what we believe is a decline in those who identify with the church, if we don’t consider and take seriously more biblical and spiritual concerns, we can’t and we won’t represent the church rightly.
Consequently, while not totally dismissing the reasons given above by others, I would like to suggest that there may be deeper, more spiritually significant reasons for what some believe is the absence of black millennials in the church. Consider these as possible factors as well:
- People Are Not Saved. I know the salvation of churchgoers is assumed in most conversations about the absence of people from church, yet true belief and true repentance in these cases must never be assumed. Perhaps people are not a part of the church to the degree that they used to be because people are not saved. An unregenerate membership has plagued the church in general, and the black church in particular, for many years. Believing in God and going to church is what you are expected to do in predominantly black contexts—at least it was in past generations. Whether someone was genuinely saved and living in accordance with that profession was never strongly contended. Cultural norms were strong, people did what was expected, and attending church on Sunday was at the top of the list. The current generation, however, is more likely to challenge cultural norms and even religious traditions. Thus, rather than go to church and not really be a Christian, many just don’t go to church at all. If this is the case, then the lack of black millennials in the church today is a good thing. A church that is distinguishing itself from the world and calling disciples to self-sacrifice (Lk. 14:26-33; Mt. 10:37-38) is the church that may be small in number but big in faithfulness.
- The Gospel Is Absent. The unfortunate truth is that many mainline traditional churches have lost ground with younger Christians because these churches have lost the priority of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Emphasis upon social ills, voting rights, public safety, and economic development are good, but they are poor substitutes for the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the church focuses more on its social agenda than it does on the person and work of Christ (his life, death, and resurrection), repentance, the forgiveness of sin, and reconciliation with God, then it loses the one thing that separates it from the world. One does not need to go to church to attend a political rally, to march against injustice, to get out the vote, or to raise the economic base of the family. Those priorities are offered by the world in abundance. When the church makes such things its primary focus, it lowers itself and fails to offer the one thing the world needs most, the thing that only the church can give: the gospel of Jesus Christ (1Cor. 2:1-2; 2Cor. 4:1-5). This generation may be hearing the church speak in the same way the world speaks and is deciding, all things being equal, to take the world’s word for it. I would too.
- God’s Judgment. Let me first state that I never want to presume upon what God is doing. I am not a prophet, nor do I play one on TV. However, I can’t help but wonder if God is being faithful to his Word and doing what he has always done to a people who neglect or forsake his Word (Amos 8:11). The church that is losing ground in the lives of people is a church that may be under the judgment of God for having forsaken its first love (Rev. 2:4). Judgment begins in the household of God. The church that is pilfered by pimping preachers, power-hungry deacons, popularity-seeking bishops, and celebrity-crazed parishioners is a church primed for God’s judgment. It is a church where the prophets prophecy lies, the priests rule at their own direction, and the people love to have it so (Jer. 5:31). The truly redeemed flee from such places. Perhaps the exodus from many churches that so many are seeing is evidence of the hand of God against those churches.
These three factors do not answer exhaustively the questions raised by the supposed absence of young black men and women from church. Nonetheless, I hope they do contribute and help continue a needed conversation, reminding us that a conversation about the church that does not take seriously the Scriptures and the Spirit is in the end a fruitless and futile discussion.
The church is not called to be attractive. It is called to be faithful. If it is faithful, it will be attractive to those whom God is calling. This is what the world needs the church to be, whether the world realizes it or not.
The world needs a church that does not allow society to set the church’s agenda. No matter what the issues of the day, the church must not bow to the pressure of the unregenerate and allow the world to define what is faithfulness to God and what is not.
The world needs a church where the Bible is taken seriously again—where the hard and difficult passages are not shunned in favor of the nice and easy ones. It needs a church dedicated to preaching the whole council of God knowing that the Bible’s primary agenda is the salvation of the nations through Jesus Christ.
Yes, the world needs a church where the implications of the gospel (social reform, justice, equality, global peace, etc.) are pursued, but not at the expense of the gospel itself. It needs a church that knows that Satan does not mind the church embracing the implications of Christ as long as it does not embrace and thus proclaim Christ himself.
The world does not know what it really needs. These things are spiritually discerned. And if the church does not discern it for the world, who will?
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on The Front Porch website. It has been re-published with permission.
Tony Carter serves as the Lead Pastor of East Point Church. Tony is married to his beloved, Adriane Carter, and their marriage has bore the fruit of five wonderful children. Holler at him on Twitter: @eastpc.
When I first became a Christian, I remember attending a certain para-church event that was, for lack of a better term, bizarre. These evangelical events were designed to “reach people for Christ.” They were often very energetic, featuring lots of loud music, extravagant lighting (frequently with strobe lights), charismatic speakers who were close to my age (i.e. early twenties), excited audiences with some people so excited that they lost control of their bodies altogether and ended up on the ground. I quickly learned that these events were part of a large “youth movement.” Churches were embracing it, often trying to mimic it, but the movement itself never had any ecclesiological roots. It was its own thing—its own world. It was radical, edgy, extreme, awesome, and insert-superlative-here.
It has been a while since those days, but last I heard, the young leader of the movement unfortunately ended up in jail, and the event that used to see several thousand people a week has dwindled down to a fraction of that. This is not an entirely surprising turn of events because, frankly, wild, crazy, and highly energetic Christian movements just don’t last. It’s the ordinary, inglorious, yet faithful churches that withstand the floods (Lk 6:46-49), and Michael Horton’s book, Ordinary, provides us with a helpful reminder of this fact.
To continue reading, click here.
Todd Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism. Oxford University Press, 2013. 208 pps, $27.95.
For a 160-page book focused on the writings of just three popular pastors, Todd Brenneman's Homespun Gospelis remarkably ambitious. Brenneman wants to redefine how we understand modern American evangelicalism.
To this point, the most influential definitions of evangelicalism—like those of David Bebbington and George Marsden—have zeroed in on the content of evangelical belief or doctrine. And to this point much scholarly attention to evangelicalism has focused on the activity of evangelicals in politics.
But Brenneman believes that at the core of the movement—influencing both evangelical belief and evangelical activism—is an aesthetic marked by what he calls “sentimentality.” Viewed in this light, the evangelical lineage is as easily traced from Peale to Osteen as from Ockenga to Piper. Is Brenneman onto something?
Click here to continue reading.
The work of the pastor is often faithful and behind-the-scenes. Sure, there are those whom God has blessed to write books and travel the conference circuit. But generally speaking, pastors’ days aren’t filled with book-writing and theological wrestling as much as they’re filled with hospital visits and service planning. To some, the latter tasks may sound boring, unglamorous, and insignificant, but they are important.
The same is true for committed church members who aren’t pastors or elders. At the end of the day, one’s most important ministry is the ministry of showing up, of not—to quote the writer of Hebrews—“forsaking the gathering, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” How boring, unglamorous, and relentlessly ordinary.
But perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps practically speaking, the Christian life—for most of us, anyways—is more ordinary than we’d like to admit. Perhaps God is not only “okay” with this but finds our faithfulness and fruitfulness in the everyday beautifully and distinctly Christian: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
To that end, we asked Michael Horton, the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, a few questions about his new book Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. In addition, we will run a review of the book tomorrow from Dallas Goebel, the pastor of Burton Memorial Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Be on the lookout for that.
On the first page of the book, you get right to it when you write, "We've taken the ordinary and made it extraordinary, and the ordinary has lost its own charm." I've a few introductory questions about this which will hopefully frame our discussion for those unacquainted with either you or your new book.
What do you mean by the "ordinary"? What comes to your mind when you write and hear that word?
It may be better to say what I don’t mean. Ordinary doesn’t equal mediocrity or laziness. On the contrary, the best craftsmen, athletes, scientists, etc., will say that there weren’t any short-cuts; that ordinary, patient, habitual care for something important pushed them through the sometimes dull routines. Friendships, marriage, child-rearing: the best in life takes time, with the big stuff actually measured in chunks of minutes and hours of ordinary investment—real investment. It’s the same in the Christian life. Bursting sprints can only get you so far. Eventually, you burn out. Sanctification is for the long haul.
In what ways—both tacit and overt—have you noticed discomfort with the “ordinary” things in life? Is this an issue distinctly facing our Western Christian sub-culture, or is it a reality writ large?
As I point out in the opening pages, I’m not targeting a particular book or program. There’s a lot that I agree with in calls to be “radical.” My concern is that the activist impulse at the heart of evangelicalism can put an enormous burden on people to do big things when what we need most right now is to do the ordinary things better. We can miss God in the daily stuff, looking for the extraordinary Moment outside of his Word and conversation with him in daily prayer, family worship, and especially the public gathering of the saints each Lord’s Day. If we were more serious about these ordinary means of grace, I’m convinced the church would have a much stronger witness in the world today.
With that as our starting point, how have you seen this shift affect the Christian life, from preachers in the pulpit to members in the pew?
I’ve lived through a string of movements that claimed to be a revival: “the next big thing.” I’m very attracted to some of the cultural weaknesses—even sins—that I explore in this book. Too much of the world warps my faith and practice, but I can always find a pious justification for mixed motives. I think that in part the history of revivalism has fostered a culture of immediate and easily measurable results and the passion for the next person or movement to “take things to a whole new level.” I can put off the often-boring rituals that actually keep me in the middle of my relationship with my wife, my kids, fellow saints, and neighbors. After all, I can make it up with a dazzling anniversary package or a trip to Disneyland. But it’s those daily and often ordinary moments that count long-term. Same with the church. If we just had a revival or could just reach the whole world in our generation or eliminate poverty in the developing world: then things would get better.
So I’m talking about a God who does extraordinary things through ordinary means. He doesn’t need our “next big thing,” because he’s already accomplished the greatest thing of all. And he promises that he will build his church—and us up into it—to the very end. It’s a paradox: taking Christ’s yoke lightens our load so that we can actually become disciples. By his Word and Spirit, he makes us deep-sea divers instead of jet-skiers through the Christian life. But it’s not about chilling until Jesus returns. It’s about sustainable discipleship.
When "sustainable discipleship" is absent in a church, what often takes its place? And what unexpected repercussions may these replacements bring down the road in 5, 10, or 20 years?
Famously, Martha wanted Jesus to help get her sister Mary on her feet, working to prepare the hospitality for the onslaught of Jesus’ disciples. “Martha, you are worried about many things, but Mary has chosen the better part,” he responds. Before we serve, we have to be served; before we act, we have to be acted upon, instructed, fed, bathed, and clothed. It’s hard watching corn grow, but there is a harvest. We have to take the long view of sanctification. Our growth in Christ—and that of our churches—is made up mostly of incalculable moments that by themselves (even in blocks) may seem boring. But if, out of zeal for measurable and exciting experiences, we’re constantly pulling up roots, we’ll end up a dry and dead tumbleweed. Just think of the big Christian movements over the past couple of generations alone. When the “hot” cools, no one interviews the burn-outs. And no one interviews the elderly couple you see every Lord’s Day praying with the teenagers. “And they gathered regularly for the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, for the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:46). That’s how the garden grows—and bears fruit for everyone else.
I'm thinking of a church that gets sugar-high on experiences, one that's "constantly pulling up roots." Put on your doctor's frock for a moment, and help our readers understand what you're talking about. Is there a name for this root-pulling disease you're talking about? If so, can you provide us with some helpful remedies? In other words, what practical things can a church with its pastors and members do to become, using an adjective we love here at 9Marks, healthier?
This fancy name for this rootlessness is autonomy (self-rule). Or we could call it narcissism. Especially in our culture, the idea that you submit yourself to fellow believers for doctrine and life is about the craziest thing many folks will hear in a given month. We think of the church as a service-provider instead of “the mother of the faithful” and our vows as a contract instead of a covenant. It’s like my mobile carrier: I’m “in” as long as I don’t find a better provider out there.
In the book, I talk quite a bit about the importance of church membership—another obvious link with the concerns that you have at 9Marks. Joining the Scouts or a book club is different from joining a church. There are real oaths that have real consequences, involving submission to leaders whom God has placed over us. When this vow is a priority, it changes some of our decision-making. If I take a new job somewhere else, is there a solid church there? That should pull rank over even questions about the schools and property values.
I often hear people lament that since they moved to a new place they haven’t been able to find a decent church. Then what were they doing moving there? And why didn’t they know this until now? Imagine the same couple telling you, “The schools are horrible here and our house is on a slanted foundation.” Like everyone else, Christians typically invest a great deal of time, energy, and even money in checking out these things before making the move. And if there isn’t a good school or for some reason the neighborhood or surroundings don’t work, the move is rethought. I think that this is a real test of how seriously we take the church. Where does it rank in that list when you’re making concrete decisions?
Second (and related to the first), how frequently do you switch churches even when you haven’t moved house? To be sure, there are the familiar shoppers, looking for an IMAX Experience, coloring books for the kids, and Starbucks in the narthex. But there are doctrinal consumers too. No church is good enough for them. I’ve seen men drag their wife and kids all over tarnation taste-testing at various churches, often leaving them messier than they found them, and then either make it clear that they’re “settling” for an impure church or just stay home and have “church” with their family on Sunday. Do they realize what they’re doing not only to themselves and these churches but to their family? What are the chances that the kids are going to find a decent church when they go off to college? Here is some sobering wisdom from the Westminster Confession:
This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will.
Your church isn’t “pure” in that ultimate sense. But is the gospel preached? Are Baptism and the Supper administered according to Christ’s institution and are the basic elements of the public service determined by Scripture? If you can answer “more or less,” then it’s a church and you should join it. And when you do, you’ll add your own “mixture and error” to that local body.
Again, the root problem here is autonomy. We think of ourselves as pretty good, theologically sound, and spiritually complete. Instead, we need to think of ourselves as needy pilgrims who will hopefully be changed for the better over years of receiving patient and loving preaching, teaching, sacraments, fellowship, and prayer with other sinners who are clinging to Christ as their only hope.
Another example: visitation. There’s a long heritage in Reformed churches of elder visitation to every member’s home at least once a year. Luther revived this ancient practice and that’s how he discovered that families didn’t even know the Ten Commandments, the Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer. Everyone was expected to go to church, but many were unconverted. So he wrote his Small Catechism to rectify the problem and elders encouraged, rebuked, and instructed families in private.
I can’t begin to tell you how great elder visits have been in our family. They come, two by two (based on districts), taking time away from their own families to help us out. Our children especially say things that my wife and I haven’t heard (for better and worse!). The elders read some passages, ask us about our family worship, the Christian nurture my wife and I give to each other, and ask if there are any questions that they have about Scripture or how things are going in their lives. But some people have found the very idea of elder visits to be an invasion of privacy. “Who are you to judge my personal relationship with Christ?” It’s amazing how some of the same people who are most judgmental toward non-Christians and their autonomous lifestyle can become imperious in protecting their personal space. Then why even have pastors and elders? Why not simply click and download whatever inspirational or doctrinally profound insights? Then you don’t even need to have your autonomy disturbed by other Christians. Visitation is one of those faithful practices that we need, especially when we don’t think we need it.
Last question. Many of our readers are “ordinary” pastors in “ordinary” places. How should they understand their work? And in what ways will this book help clarify this understanding? In other words, why should they read this book?
The stats are pretty staggering: pastoral burn-out is a real problem. There are lots of reasons, but one key reason often listed in the surveys is that they’re expected to be everything: “team leader,” manager, life coach, best friend, therapist, and entertainer. Compare that list with Paul’s Pastoral Epistles. Done properly, preaching the Word in public and in private is worth more than a thousand counseling sessions. I’m not in any way down-playing counseling; it’s a very important part of ministry. However, preaching “the whole counsel of God” covers more bases than we can imagine.
The regular administration of the sacraments adds God’s confirmation of his promise “for you.” So many of the issues in people’s lives are related to assurance and confidence that God doesn’t just save people in general, but them in particular.
Then there’s regular catechism—of the youth but also of the rest of the body. A common faith, in the home and at church, is key to inter-generational faithfulness. Are children growing up to make their profession of faith? I don’t mean going through the motions in a ritual “rite of passage” to adulthood, but are they being pressed to own the faith for themselves? Do they realize that they need to make a personal decision to repent and believe the gospel?
Then elder visitations can at least point up particular issues that need to be addressed. I realize, of course, that there are differences in all of this between Calvinistic Baptist and Reformed (paedobaptist) churches. But the differences are far greater between churches that include these practices and those (paedo- and credo-baptist) that don’t. Jesus’ final words to Peter: “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, of course, I do.” “Then feed my sheep.” He repeats it three times. No doubt, Peter recalled the episode when the apostles appointed deacons to “wait on tables” so that they could devote themselves to the Word and to prayer. There is no such thing as a “pastor’s office.” It’s the “pastor’s study.” I think that the pastors who are truly called to this ministry will survive and thrive to the extent that they are protected by good elders from administration, management, finances, and other important tasks so that they can become truly the head waiters at God’s table, serving Christ with all of his benefits to the sheep each week.
It doesn’t take much effort to convince most Christians that evangelism with community is the way to go. It’s not even hard to find people pulling together to accomplish an evangelistic task.
But usually when we think of evangelism in community, we think of evangelistic programs, which is not the same. By “program,” I mean the occasional big event with a well-known speaker or exciting topic. At some point during the event, there is a presentation of the gospel. Or maybe the program is low-key, geared for seekers, such as a service project or a sports program, with the hope that it might open a door for a spiritual conversation.
God can use programs. I know people who have come to faith at evangelistic events. For the record, I often promote and speak at evangelistic programs. But I don’t think programs are the most effective, or even the primary, way we should do evangelism.
So, when you take a cold, hard look at programs, things just don’t add up. For one, there is an inverse economic bang for the buck: the more money spent on the programs, the less fruit from evangelism. So, for example, when people under 21 (when most people come to faith) were asked how they came to be born again, only 1 percent said it was through TV or other media, while a whopping 43 percent said they came to faith through a friend or family member. Just think of the cost comparison between a cup of coffee and TV programming. Or think of the effect: moms lead more people to Jesus than programs.
Oddly, it seems evangelistic programs do other things better than evangelism: they produce community among Christians who take part in them, they encourage believers to take a stand for Christ, and they can enable churches to break into new places of ministry.
Yet we seem to have an insatiable hunger for programs to accomplish evangelism. Why? Programs are like sugar. They’re tasty, even addictive. However, it takes away a desire for more healthy food. Though it provides a quick burst of energy, over time it makes you flabby, and a steady diet will kill you.
A strict diet of evangelistic programs produces malnourished evangelism. Just as eating sugar can make us feel as if we’ve eaten when we haven’t, programs can often make us feel as if we’ve done evangelism when we haven’t. So we should have a healthy unease with programs. We should use them strategically but in moderation, remembering that God did not send an event, he sent his Son.
What should we do? We want to have evangelism in community. We long to have friends alongside us when we share our faith. But at the same time, we see the limits, even the dangers, of programs. Is there some alternative?
I would like to make a case for something completely different, something that is both communal and personal: a culture of evangelism centered in the local church.
THE CHURCH AND EVANGELISM
Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). A little later, during the same time with his disciples, he prayed that they would be unified, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20–21). Understand this: Jesus says the love we have for one another in the church is a statement that we are truly converted. And when we are unified in the body, we show to the world that Jesus is the Son of God. Love confirms our discipleship. Unity confirms Christ’s deity. What a powerful witness!
There are many passages that instruct and shape our evangelistic efforts, but these verses are the Biblical foundational that show us that the church is to be a culture of evangelism.
This means that the local church is the gospel made visible. If we are to picture the gospel in our love for one another, that needs to take place in a local congregation of people who have covenanted together in love to be a church. It’s not abstract love, but love for real people in the real world. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from non-Christians that the church was strange to them, but what drew them into the fellowship was the love among the members.
But the gospel is pictured not just in our love. Have you ever thought of how many biblical instructions God has built into the fabric of the church that, if done correctly, serve as proclamations of the gospel?
In pursuing a healthy culture of evangelism, we don’t remake the church for evangelism. Instead, we allow the things that God has already built into the church to proclaim the gospel. Jesus did not forget the gospel when he built the church.
For instance, baptism pictures the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It shows how his death is our death and his life our life. The Lord’s Supper proclaims the death of Christ until he returns and prompts us to confess our sins and experience forgiveness anew. When we pray, we pray the truths of God. When we sing, we sing the great things God has done for us through the gospel. When we give financially, we’re giving to advance the gospel message. And of course the preaching of the Word brings the gospel.
In fact, the preaching of the Word is what forms the church to begin with. And, once formed, the church is given the task of making disciples, who then are sent to preach the gospel to form new churches. This cycle has been happening since Jesus ascended into heaven and will continue until he returns.
A culture of evangelism is grassroots, not top-down. In a culture of evangelism, people understand that the main task of the church is to be the church. We can see that church practices are a witness in and of themselves, and certainly the church supports and prays for outreach and evangelistic opportunities, but the church’s role is not to run programs. The church should cultivate a culture of evangelism. The members are sent out from the church to do evangelism. I know this may seem a bit picky, but it’s really important. If you don’t get this right, you can subvert the church—and be wrongly angry with church leadership.
So, in a healthy culture of evangelism, it’s understood that there is a different priority for the church and for the individual. We need churches that live out the gospel in the way the Bible describes, and we need seeker-friendly Christians, not the other way around. That means that something you should do in evangelism personally might not be the best thing for the church to do as a whole.
In a culture of evangelism, the goal is for everyone to share, pray, and take opportunities as they come – not just the pastor and elders. Our responsibility is to be faithful witnesses—together.
I believe that if members spent half the time they had spent on programs in friendly evangelistic conversations with neighbors, co-workers, or fellow students, they would see a better response to the gospel and reach even more people. If you think about it, there is no way you could ever fit into your church sanctuary all the non-Christians with whom the members of your church are in contact weekly—no matter how big the sanctuary.
The fact is, most people come to faith through the influence of family members, small-group Bible studies, or a conversation with a friend after a church service: Christians intentionally talking about the gospel.
Mack Stiles lives in Dubai with his wife Leeann. He serves as an elder of Redeemer Church of Dubai and as the General Secretary of the IFES (parachurch) movement in the United Arab Emirates. He is also the author of a number of books on evangelism, including Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP, 2010).
Editor's note: This article is a lightly adapted excerpt from Mack's most recent book from the Building Healthy Churches series: Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (Crossway, 2013). It's the last of three excerpts. (The first, "How Should We Define Evangelism?", can be found here. The second, "Defintions: Gospel and Persuade," can be found here.)
Looking down at the dusty streets, gazing into the bamboo shacks many call home, noting the bare hillside once covered by coconut trees, its baldness a chilling reminder of the relentless typhoon winds that hit these island shores – I found myself feeling insufficient to speak. Only 100 or so had gathered for this seminar; many walked, and some arrived in overcrowded jeepnies and motorbikes. The 100 consisted of pastors and pastor wives, church planters and church leaders—all from the far-flung tropical island of Mindanao. It’s an island that has been devastated by poverty, natural disaster, and militant Islam seeking to bomb the island out from the hands of the Filipino government.
I found myself asking, “What am I doing here?” Sure, a medical clinic or a food distribution would seem to make sense. But it felt utterly inadequate to come all this way to present a workshop on expositional preaching, biblical leadership, and meaningful membership.
But if I closed my eyes and listened to these men talk I might well have imagined myself in a pastor’s fellowship meeting back home: deacons publicly attacking pastors, church attendance below membership, the church refusing to act when a worship leader moves in with his girlfriend, church splits over the pastor’s pay, an anemic diet of topical sermons. Poor church health is an epidemic that is not contained by borders. It is a contagion that even the unlikeliest of places has been infected with, leaving in its wake weak churches, false converts, distressed pastors, and a poor witness.
For three days, myself and Bruce Nichols, a fellow pastor from Kentucky, led a workshop introducing the 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. And what I found were some of the most appreciative and humble pastors I had ever met. I was reminded that the nine marks are universally applicable and timeless. Just as they were applicable in first-century Jerusalem, they are applicable in rural Kentucky and tropical Mindanao.
These pastors on this troubled island were hearing these truths for the first time. For many years, they have been acting within a church paradigm taught by missionaries fifty years ago. The gospel took root—but so did unhealthy church polity.
A strong gospel witness is the greatest and most urgent need no matter where we are. There is a place for crisis intervention during times of disaster, and there is an ongoing need to feed the poor and build homes for the displaced.
That said, the work of building healthy churches helps to create real change that will not be destroyed when the winds start blowing again and the storm surge returns. We must not underestimate the power of healthy churches to bring about real transformation. It is to the cross we cling, so building healthy, gospel-centered churches that display the glory of Christ to the perishing is itself a mission of mercy.
I left the island struck by many sights and sounds and smells, but none more striking than the beauty of the church. There were moments—I’m afraid to admit—that their voracious appetite for gospel truth, their humility, and their passionate worship felt as foreign to me as their food and language. As one battle weary pastor in his seventies asked at the close of the workshop, “Why have we not heard this before? We have been victims of bad church government, but it is all we have ever known to do.”
Pray for the health of the churches on Mindanao Island. Pray for their pastors living in extreme poverty and with little training. Pray for the witness of the church as they seek to proclaim the gospel against a backdrop of militant Islam, indigenous cults, syncretistic Catholicism, and the prosperity gospel, which gets beamed in through their TV stations. Pray for healthy churches.
Matthew Spandler-Davison has served as pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church in Bardstown, Kentucky, since 2004. He is the director of the BCF Network and Urban Impact Missions. Originally from Scotland, he is a graduate of the University of Aberdeen and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Jesus once told his disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” In an increasingly secularized West, we have yet to see all the ways in which followers of Christ will be “hated.” The changing political and cultural landscape has removed any incentive for being a nominal Christian (a good thing). However, it has also diminished influence Christians have within culture and led to more opposition to Christianity (not a good thing). It’s not easy to participate in the civic discourse when you’re regarded as a bigot for agreeing with Jesus.
So, how should Christians respond?
There is hope, Os Guinness says, and this hope encourages Christians to roll up their sleeves and to act. His book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times introduces the reader to some of the church’s current challenges and how we got here, and then establishes a few building blocks for moving forward.
Click here to continue reading.
I love my gospel-loving friends in multi-site churches—both leaders and members! But as Christians we work continually to reform our churches in light of Scripture. So I trust a little push back on the multi-site structure serves everyone, assuming my concerns turn out to be valid. Below are 22 misgivings I have about the multi-site model. All of these are of potential relevance to churches that use a video preacher. Over half are of potential relevance to churches who employ a preacher on every campus.* Some of these are grounded in biblical or theological principles; some are matters of prudence, which means they can be a problem, but are not necessarily so.
Are many multi-site churches doing great ministry? Are lost people coming to faith? Are the saints being built up? Is Jesus' name being exalted among neighborhoods and cities? Yes and amen! There should be rejoicing over every conversion and every bit of growth that occurs in multi-site churches. And whose church of ours is perfect?! But I would maintain that there is still a place for Christians to discuss and debate secondary matters of polity, which is what multi-site is about. Getting your polity right is not a topic that's more important than these other matters, but nor is it a topic to be pitted against these other matters. Biblical polity is what protects these more important matters over the long haul. Hence, I hope this list will be viewed simply as an invitation to continue reasoning together over the multi-site model, not as a line-drawing exercise between brothers and sisters in the faith.
1. There’s no clear example of a multi-site church in the New Testament, only supposition. “Well, surely, the Christians in a city could not have all met…” (but see Acts 2:46; 5:12; 6:2).
2. If a church is constituted by the preaching of the Word and the distribution of the ordinances under the binding authority of the keys, every “campus” where those activities transpire is actually a church. “Multi-site church” is a misnomer. It’s a collection of churches under one administration.
3. For every additional multi-site campus out there, there’s one less preaching pastor being raised up for the next generation.
4. What effectively unites the churches (campuses) of a multi-site church are a budget, a pastor’s charisma, and brand identity. Nowhere does the Bible speak of building church unity in budgets, charisma, and brand.
5. To say that the unity of the church (i.e. the unity of the campuses) depends on the leaders is to say that that the life and work of the church depends that much more on the leaders. Members, in comparison to a single-site model, are demoted.
6. To the extent that a multi-site church relies on brand identity to reach unbelievers, to that same extent they risk building Christianity on their brand identity.
7. Multi-site churches which use video preaching unwittingly communicate that singing is more significant for Christian growth and closer to the heart of worship than hearing God’s preached Word. After all, how many multi-site churches stream their music over video from a central location? A church wouldn’t dare import the music, it’s thought. People need to engage with a live band. People need their music authentic, personal, enfleshed. But preaching? Apparently, it can be imported from afar.
8. When a multi-site pastor implodes, dies, or retires, all the churches that constitute that “church” are put at risk, including all the smaller once-independent congregations that the multi-site franchise took over.
9. A multi-site church formally removes the concept of “assembly” from the definition of “church” since it’s a “church” that never actually assembles (but see 1 Cor. 11:18). This is what it means to be multi-site. As such, members of a multi-site church never need to gather in order to be a church. One might say they should gather for reasons of prudence. But it’s not a formal requirement of being a “church.” A multi-site church could spread its 97 members (for example) across 2 sites or 97 sites. Further…
10. Wise and sensible pastors of multi-site churches will not follow the logic of a multi-site model to its rational conclusion, but will continue to insist on some gathering for reasons of prudence and even biblical obedience (though doing so contradicts their formal definition of “church”). Unwise pastors and members, however, will follow the multi-site logic to this conclusion by creating the opportunity for “Internet churches,” unchurched “fellowship,” and other forms of churchless Christianity.
11. A multi-site church separates authority from the people with whom you gather. Authority and relationships are pulled apart. So a multi-site church involves exercising oversight and discipline over people with whom you never gather.
12. A multi-site church makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a congregation to fulfill its obligation to exercise the keys over the whole “church.”
13. Insofar as the main teacher belongs to a different gathering, a multi-site church separates the ministry of the word from the ministry of deeds.
14. Not only does a multi-site pastor possess all the administrative power that a bishop possesses over churches in his region, he possess even more power than a bishop because he’s doing all the preaching in all those churches.
15. The multi-site church model depends upon extending the reach of “my” church rather than partnering with and aiding other congregations. That is, it’s built on a competitive model of franchise extension, rather than a partnering model of mutual aid that we see in the New Testament. All this can foment “turfyness” and competition between churches. At the very least, every additional campus is a missed opportunity for helping another ministry.
16. The pastor of a large church has difficulty knowing all his members, but he can at least have some sense of the room in which he’s preaching. Both of these are impossible by definition in a multi-site church that employs video preaching.
17. Multi-site churches make it easier to be an anonymous Christian/church member, and perhaps easier for wolves to hide. Yes, this is true of larger churches also, but now the anonymity is built into the very structures. A person can bounce between campuses—church hop!—all in the same “church.”
18. Multi-site churches make church discipline at best more difficult and at worst impossible, as an excommunicated member could easily just switch "campuses" without anyone noticing.
19. Multi-site pours gas on the fire of “theotainment,” as members receive the Word of God from a disembodied man on a screen.
20. In an age which wants authenticity and reality, multi-site is ironically anti-incarnational: it divides Word from flesh.
21. If every local church is to be a presentation or expression or picture of the universal church, that unbelievably wonderful end-time assembly of all God’s people, the multi-site church pictures a divided end-time assembly.
22. Multi-site churches are the current trend in evangelicalism. The great question is, will they be able to make a generational transition? Will they be able to hold together when the main preaching pastor—who is usually in himself the center of gravity for the whole enterprise—goes off the scene? And how much institutional and spiritual fall-out will occur when he does? The only examples of “multi-site churches” that have survived trans-generationally are those which invest a particular office with theological significance, as in, “The man who holds this office is the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the Supreme Pontiff of the Church, and you owe him your allegiance regardless of whether or not you like his preaching.” Whether our own evangelical brand of “multi-site churches” can make this transition without that kind of absolute claim seems unlikely.
*Multi-site “churches” that employ preaching pastors at every site or campus are in fact a type of presbytery: a group of churches united under one elder board (and for those multi-siters who call themselves “congregational,” it might be worth recalling that presbyterians vote on their pastors and, in some cases, discipline, too). Not all the points above apply to this species of the multi-site animal. I would say that points 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, and 21 apply, though shades of a few others may apply as well. My misgivings with presbyterianism would require another list.
Author's note: Several of the points above were provided by Alex Duke, Jamie Dunlop, Grant Gaines, and Greg Gilbert.
Jonathan Leeman is the editorial director for 9Marks. You can follow him on Twitter.