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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

How to Survive a Cultural Crisis

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Public opinion appears to be changing about same-sex marriage, as are the nation's laws. Of course this change is just one in a larger constellation. America's views on family, love, sexuality generally, tolerance, God, and so much more seems to be pushing in directions that put Bible-believing Christians on the defensive.

It's easy to feel like we've become the new "moral outlaws," to use Al Mohler's phrase. Standing up for historic Christian principles will increasingly get you in trouble socially and maybe economically, perhaps one day also criminally. It's ironic that Christians are told not to impose their views on others, even as the threat of job loss or other penalties loom over Christians for not toeing the new party line.

In all this, Christians are tempted to become panicked or to speak as alarmists. But to the extent we do, to that same extent we show we've embraced an unbiblical and nominal Christianity.

Here, then, are seven principles for surviving the very real cultural shifts we're presently enduring.

1. Remember that churches exist to work for supernatural change.

The whole Christian faith is based on the idea that God takes people who are spiritually dead and gives them new life. Whenever we evangelize, we are evangelizing the cemetery.

There's never been a time or a culture when it was natural to repent of your sins. That culture doesn't exist, it hasn't existed, it never will exist. Christians, churches, and pastors especially must know deep in their bones that we've always been about a work that's supernatural.

From that standpoint, recent cultural changes have made our job zero percent harder.

2. Understand that persecution is normal.  

In the last few months I've been preaching through John's Gospel, and a number of people have thanked me for bringing out the theme of persecution. But I'm not convinced my preaching has changed; I think people's ears have changed. Recent events in the public square have caused people to become concerned about what's ahead for Christians. But if you were to go back and listen to my old sermons—say, a series preached in the 1990s on 1 Peter— you'd discover that ordinary biblical exposition means raising the topic of persecution again and again.

Persecution is what Christians face in this fallen world. It's what Jesus promised us (e.g., John 16).

Now, it may be that in God's providence some Christians find themselves in settings where, even if they devote their lives to obeying Jesus, they won't encounter insult and persecution. But don't be fooled by the nice buildings in which so many churches meet. This Jesus we follow was executed as a state criminal.

One of my fellow pastors recently observed that, in the history of Christian persecution, it's often secondary issues—not the gospel—that elicit persecution. Persecutors don't say, "You believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ; I'm going to persecute you now."

Rather, some belief or practice we maintain as Christians contradicts what people want or threatens their way of seeing the world. And so they oppose us.

Again, to the extent we respond to changes in our culture either with panic or alarmism, to that same extent we contradict the Bible's teaching about ordinary Christian discipleship. It shows we've traded on the normalcy of nominalism.

Pastors especially should set the example in teaching their congregations not to play the victim. We should salt into our regular preaching and praying the normalcy of persecution. It's the leader's work to prepare churches for how we can follow Jesus, even if it means social criticism, or loss of privilege, or financial penalties, or criminal prosecution.

3. Eschew utopianism.

Christians should be a people of love and justice, and that means we should always strive to make our little corner of the globe a bit nicer than how we found it, whether that's a kindergarten classroom or a kingdom. But even as we work for the sake of love and justice, we must remember we're not going to transform this world into the kingdom of our Christ.

God hasn't commissioned us to make this world perfect; he's commissioned us chiefly to point to the One who will one day make it perfect, even as we spend our lives loving and doing good. If you're tempted to utopianism, please observe that Scripture doesn't allow it, and that the history of utopianism has a track record of distracting and deceiving even some of Christ's most zealous followers.

It's good to feel sadness over the growing approval given to sin in our day. But one of the reasons many Christians in America feel disillusionment over current cultural changes is that we've been somewhat utopian in our hopes. Again, to the extent you think and speak as an alarmist, to that same extent you demonstrate that utopian assumptions may have been motivating you all along.

4. Make use of our democratic stewardship.

I would be sad if anyone concluded from my comments that it doesn't matter what Christians do publicly or with the state. Paul tells us to submit to the state. But in our democratic context, part of submitting to the state means sharing in its authority. And if we have a share in its authority, we just might have, to some extent, a share in its tyranny. To neglect the democratic process, so long as it's in our hands, is to neglect a stewardship.

We cannot create Utopia, but that doesn't mean we cannot be good stewards of what we have, or that we cannot use the democratic processes to bless others. For the sake of love and justice, we should make use of our democratic stewardship.

5. Trust the Lord, not human circumstances.

There's never been a set of circumstances Christians cannot trust God through. Jesus beautifully trusted the Father through the cross "for the joy set before him" (Heb. 12:2). Nothing you and I will face will amount to what our King had to suffer.

We can trust him. He will prove trustworthy through everything we might have to endure. And as we trust him, we will bear a beautiful testimony of God's goodness and power, and we will bring him glory.

6. Remember that everything we have is God's grace.

We must remember anything we receive less than hell is dancing time for Christians. Right? Everything a Christian has is all of grace. We need to keep that perspective so that we aren't tempted to become too sour toward our employers, our friends, our family members, and our government when they oppose us.

How was Paul able to sing in prison? He knew that of which he'd been forgiven. He knew the glory that awaited him. He perceived and prized these greater realities.

7. Rest in the certainty of Christ's victory.

The gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ. We need not fear and tremble as if Satan has finally, after all these millennia, gained the upper hand in his opposition to God through the same-sex marriage lobby.

"Oh, we might finally lose it here!" No, not a chance.

People around the world now and throughout history have suffered far more than Christians in America presently do. And we don't assume Satan had the upper hand there, do we?

Each nation and age has a unique way to express its depravity, to attack God. But none will succeed any more than the crucifixion succeeded in defeating Jesus. Yes, he died. But three days later he got up from the dead.

Christ's kingdom is in no danger of failing. Again, Christians, churches, and especially pastors must know this deeply in our bones. D-Day has happened. Now it's cleanup time. Not one person God has elected to save will fail to be saved because the secular agenda is "winning" in our time and place. There shouldn't be anxiety or desperation in us.

We may not be able to out-argue others. They may not be persuaded by our books and articles. But we can love them with the supernatural love God has shown to us in Christ. And we can make his Word known today—with humility, with confidence, and with joy.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition. Mark will be addressing this theme in his workshop at their 2015 National Conference, April 13 to 15, in Orlando, Florida.

The American Jeremiad: A Bit of Perspective on the Rhetoric of Decline

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You don’t need me to tell you that things are not what they once were for Christians in America. Much has changed in the last two decades, let alone the last two centuries. And some of this change hasn't been good—not for America, not for American Christianity.

But there is a way of responding to declension—real or imagined—that only compounds the problem. We must guard against any response to decline that appeals to a past that never existed or to a future that God hasn’t promised us.

In this little article, I merely wish to sketch a cautionary tale. Narratives of decline, especially in our American context, build on an approach to history with a long history of its own.

INTRODUCING THE AMERICAN JEREMIAD

I want to introduce you to the American jeremiad. That’s the term scholars have given to what one has called “a mainstream and deeply American way of thinking about the nation’s past, present, and future.”[1] The term comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who catalogued Israel’s fall from fidelity and warned of the horrible judgments to come.

The jeremiad is a rhetorical tradition—a literary genre, even—that has appeared in every phase of America's history—from King Philips War to Hurricane Katrina.[2] But the place to begin is Puritan New England. That's where the jeremiad got its American stamp, where it was most commonly applied and most fully developed.

Most Puritan jeremiads were preached not during regular corporate worship but on special occasions appointed by the government. There were sermons delivered on election days. There were artillery sermons on days set for review of the colonial militia. There were thanksgiving sermons on days celebrating great blessings. But the jeremiad was most at home on days of colony-wide fasting in response to some crisis.

We think of Puritan New England as a society where Christian ethics and civil government were thoroughly intertwined. It’s tough to imagine a society where religion had greater influence. But to her Puritan pastors, just a generation or two removed from the founding, New England was a world of decay and fearful decline.

Theirs was also a world of wonders, a world in which events we consider mundane had discernible providential significance. There were of course the large-scale stressors of war and violence, especially their conflicts with Native Americans. But preachers also traced the hand of God in shifting weather patterns, in the failure of local crops, in the appearance of a comet in the sky, or in the occasional “monstrous birth”—their term for a child born with obvious deformity.[3]

Behind concern for this or that circumstantial event lay a deeper angst: what if no one outside our colony cares any longer for what we’re trying to accomplish? John Winthrop at their founding had described their society as a city on a hill on which the eyes of the world would be riveted. By the second generation they had good reason to wonder whether anyone was still looking.[4]

It was in their jeremiads that Puritan pastors interpreted such calamities and tied them to the moral problems in their society. Scholars speak of the jeremiad as a rhetorical tradition—as an identifiable genre—because these sermons followed a really predictable formula.

In his Prodigal Nation, which begins in New England and traces the jeremiad’s role in America into the 21st century, Andrew Murphy identifies three basic steps in these sermons.[5]

First, jeremiads lamented the harsh realities of the present. They took up the crisis du jour and tried to explain it in light of the sins of the people. They pointed to Sabbath-breaking and apostasy, to sensuality and profanity, to worldliness and luxury and a host of other problems.

These moral failures appeared all the more clearly in light of the second theme in the jeremiad: a contrast to the ideal purity of the founding generation. “Rather than an abstract critique,” Murphy writes, “jeremiads claimed that piety and godly order had once existed and had subsequently been lost.”[6] New England had been smaller in those early years. Its population consisted mostly of those who chose for themselves to take part in this “errand into the wilderness.” They were zealous and bought-in. Then the next generations brought a population boom, a surge in material prosperity, and, so their preachers believed, a society more fixated on the profits of the market than the profits of godliness.

But the jeremiads did not end in despair. The third element was a call for repentance and renewal, backed by a promise that God would not forsake them if they returned to him.

Here’s how one pastor, Samuel Torrey, put it in 1683: “May we not with fear and trembling apprehend our selves: even this whole People, New England, as it were standing before God, upon our great Trial for Life and Death [?] . . . If you do thus chuse [sic] Life, all will be well with New-England [sic], but if you should refuse, you will likely, not only destroy your selves; but all.”[7]

What Murphy and others have noticed about the American jeremiad, especially in its Puritan form, is that there’s a tension at its heart—a tension between despair and hope. Despair over how far society has fallen. Hope for how God would honor renewed obedience. And underneath the despair and the hope is the confidence that God has established a cause and effect relationship between Christian faithfulness and social flourishing.

LEARNING FROM THE AMERICAN JEREMIAD

You may be wondering whether there’s any more than antiquarian value to looking into the Puritan jeremiad. I think there is. Understanding how others perceived decline and renewal can help us to greater self-awareness as we sift through accounts of the shifting place of religion in our society. I believe these jeremiads were at once too pessimistic and too optimistic, and that they rested on assumptions about the purposes of God that were more distracting than helpful.

To confront our own narratives of decline in light of the jeremiad tradition, we’ve got to check our facts and check our assumptions.

Do the facts match historical reality? The problem with jeremiads is that they often compared the best parts of a former generation with the worst parts of their own. Neither the past nor the present got a fair treatment. I’m not saying nothing ever changes. Sometimes some things do get worse. But every culture is a mixed bag because the basic building blocks in every culture are human beings marked by both dignity and depravity. Sure, things change, but when some things get worse usually some other things get better.

When third generation Puritans hankered after the days of their grandfathers, they were talking about a society marked by thriving churches, widespread attention to biblical preaching, and a code of law deeply influenced by biblical ethics. It was also the society that gave us the Salem Witch Trials. It was a society in which Native Americans were displaced, Quakers were executed, Baptists were whipped or banished, and voting was restricted to adult male propertied church members.

The golden age doesn’t exist. And when we start measuring decline, we’ve got to get really clear on our point of departure. We ought to be suspicious of the ideal. Was it ever realized? Is it even important?

Do the assumptions match biblical priorities? Columbia lit professor Sacvan Bercovitch wrote the classic treatment of the American jeremiad back in the 1970s. The central theme in his account is what he called the “stubborn optimism” behind all the gloom and doom in the rhetoric of New England’s clergy. Underneath the melodramatic anxiety that drove these sermons’ call to reform was an unshakeable confidence in the distinctive favor of God on their society.

Two assumptions were especially important. First, the jeremiad assumed a special covenant relationship that made their society different from others around them. God, New England ministers believed, looked upon them as he had looked upon Israel. The threat of divine punishment for moral decline was merely the dark underbelly of his distinguishing, fatherly love.

The second assumption is closely related. The jeremiad assumed a cause and effect relationship between faithfulness and social flourishing or, on the other hand, unfaithfulness and social decline. The assumption of blessings and curses was part and parcel to the idea of a national covenant.

I’m convinced the jeremiad’s power rested on promises God never made—not to New England, not to America, not to any other nation. This is hardly the place for a worthy critique of the idea of a national covenant. But I’ll merely offer one last observation on this front.

Rhetoric of decline is almost always rhetoric of persuasion. It aims to diagnose a problem and prescribe a solution. We must be careful to assure the prescriptions and their expected results don’t go beyond what God has actually promised.

Reigning cultural values on matters of sexuality and marriage are shifting with breathtaking, unprecedented speed. The implications for religious liberty are unprecedented too. We are responsible as pastors to help our people navigate new and still shifting realities in a way that is faithful. But we must be careful how we frame our call to faithfulness. There is no idyllic future—no return to widespread cultural influence—hinging on what we do next. It may be that we are more and more faithful even as our voices grow more and more marginal.

God has promised that nothing will prevail against his church. He has promised that nothing will hinder the coming of his kingdom. He has called his people to wait for him, to bear witness to him, and to seek the good of their neighbors in his name. He has called us to pray for those in authority over us and to use whatever influence we have to pursue justice in love.

But he has not given us a motive for our faithfulness more specific than the display of his glory in our time and place. That must be enough for us, come what may.


[1] Andrew Murphy, Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5.

[2] For a standard account of the jeremiad, see Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978). Bercovitch traces the development of the jeremiad through the American Civil War. Andrew Murphy’s more recent study Prodigal Nation (cited above) builds on Bercovitch and others, following the rhetoric of decline into the 21st century.

[3] For these and other examples, see Harry Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 74-76; David Hall, World of Wonders, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 71-116.

[4] This angst over whether anyone cared about the New England experiment is a central theme in the work of Perry Miller, the Harvard scholar who first popularized the term “jeremiad” and reintroduced the Puritans as worthy historical subjects. See, for example, his classic essay “Errand into the Wilderness,” in Errand into the Wilderness (1956; repr., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 1-15.

[5] Murphy, Prodigal Nation, 7-10, 24-34.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Quoted in Bercovitch, American Jeremiad, 55.

 

Not Satisfied with Our Shepherding . . . Yet

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The other day I suddenly thought, “Where have Stan and Maria (not their real names) been?” I had not seen them in church for a few weeks. The next day someone told me that they had left the church because of something said in a class. They never said a word to me or to anyone I know of. But out of nowhere they were gone.

News like this is tough. For twenty years I had fed this couple, loved them, and labored for them. I’ve done weddings for the family, helped rescue one of their kid’s marriages, and prayed consistently for them. Then they were gone.

The truth is, it wasn’t really out of nowhere. It seemed like that to me, but the offending statement had been festering inside of them for a little while. Eventually they began looking for another church. I contacted them after they had been gone for seven weeks. (Seven weeks?! I am embarrassed to say that.) Granted, Stan and Maria should have said something. But my responsibility as a shepherd is to know the state of my flock, and I wish I had known sooner.

So what am I going to do? This situation added fresh urgency to an idea I’ve had for better shepherding our flock. I am not convinced that our church is fulfilling Paul’s challenge to the elders in Ephesus: “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the church of God.”

WHAT WE ARE ALREADY DOING

What are we doing presently?

Every month, the elders of our church pray for members by name until we work our way through the entire membership. Every week, we pray for the members listed on my blog. Every week, staff members solicit prayer requests from the congregation. Every week, staff members discuss present shepherding needs. And every year, the elders review the members of our church, so that we maintain a current membership.

If you are caught in a life-dominating sin, suffered a major grief, or have been diagnosed with a terminal disease, we will care for your soul. If you want fellowship, spiritual conversations, prayer partners, and encouragement, we have ministries. If you want to learn about theology, worldviews, hermeneutics, homiletics, or just the Bible, we have ministries for that, too.

Yet what about those who are members, but aren’t well known or don’t seek out our help? Are the elders content if a person attends the Sunday service about 50% of the time, and that’s basically it? Can we say that we paid careful attention to them? Isn’t there more to having oversight of their lives than that? And if so, how do we do actually carry it out?

WHAT WE PLAN TO DO

I have wrestled with these questions for a long time. I have read Richard Baxter’s seminal work The Reformed Pastor and concluded that his practice of visiting every family every year was for another era. Baxter didn’t have public schools, marching band practice, cross-country, soccer, swim, and golf leagues, cabins up north, wedding showers, and birthday parties to contend with, right? He had a simple town of 800 families.

That said, the fundamental need for elders to know their flock has not changed. This remains a basic tenet of shepherding.

Our goal now? I want every single member of Cornerstone Baptist Church to experience regular pastoral care by the elders. So here is what I am planning.

1. Review with my elders the essential nature of the church and our responsibility to care for every member.

It’s always a challenge to keep the main thing the main thing. I know I have to fight the tendency to become task-oriented rather than people-sensitive. And if the church is growing and we are meeting budget, then it is easy to assume that things are going fine. Does it really matter if one or two fall off along the way? But I am reminded that Jesus was not satisfied with the 99 when the one got lost.

2. Establish a clear vision for a ministry that includes cares for every member of the flock.

Church membership is not primarily for recruiting volunteers to make ministries run better. Church membership is a commitment to help one another make it to heaven. I do not want the church to be satisfied with well-staffed nurseries and clean facilities but to push toward the goal of presenting each member complete in Christ.

Many of our members experience aspects of this in their small groups, but we want to present every member complete in Christ, not just the ones in a small group.

3. Create a shepherding plan driven by relationships rather than reacting to issues.

While doing this, three important considerations must be made: (a) Make certain that we have accurate information. It is impossible to care for a flock unless you know where they are. (b) Assign every member to a specific elder for oversight and care. (c) Lead the elders to develop a care plan for every member

Elders cannot assume that every member is waiting for personal oversight, or wants it. Each member must be given time to build a relationship with their elder so that conversations can get deeper as time goes on.

This plan would start when an elder contacts his members to ask for prayer requests. Eventually, the elders would try to learn about specific concerns in their family, life, or the church and make them aware of ministries that can provide help. Hopefully, elders can help each member establish spiritual goals for the year, and then follow-up with the member to encourage them, counsel them, and pray for them.

ASK GOOD QUESTIONS

Reaching these goals will require, the elders to know how to ask good questions, questions such as:

  • What contributes most to your spiritual growth?
  • How would you like to grow as a believer in the coming year? Are there some spiritual goals that I can help you work toward?
  • What are your biggest fears? Struggles?
  • What areas of the church are you engaged in? How has the church affected your walk as a believer? What has been helpful? What has been detrimental?
  • Is there anyone that you are evangelizing right now? Tell me about your involvement in Bible reading, prayer, and giving to the church. Do you want to see some growth in any of these areas?
  • How is your family? What joys or concerns do you have with them?
  • How can the elders pray for you?

An elder will not report everything members say to all the elders. But summaries and urgent specifics will filter back so that all the elders can better pray and teach.

I contacted Stan and Maria yesterday. I wanted them to know that I cared for them, missed them, and wanted to address their concern. I don’t know if they will come back. I certainly hope they do.

Meanwhile, I want every member to know that he or she can raise concerns with someone who knows them, loves them, prays for them, and leads them.

In six months, I will give you an update. Meanwhile, what you do you think? Are you part of a church that has done this and it has gone well? What ideas do you have?

Bob Johnson is senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan.

Cheerful Confidence after Christendom

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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).

Sexuality and Silence

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I’ve heard rumours of a silent trend beginning to take hold in some city churches in the UK and the US. I don’t just mean a trend that takes hold silently; presumably most trends do that. I mean a trend toward silence: a decision not to speak out on issues that are considered too sticky, controversial, divisive, culturally loaded, entangled, ethically complex, personally upsetting, emotive, likely to be reported on by the Guardian or the New York Times, uncharted, inflammatory, difficult, or containing traces of gluten. Since I do not attend a city church, but am a proud member of the backward bungalow bumpkin brigade, this is coming to me secondhand, and it may turn out to be a storm in the proverbial teacup, or even (for all I know) entirely fictional.
 
But let’s imagine that there were such things as well-written booklets which had been discontinued simply because they were about sexuality, and leaders who were avoiding making any public comments at all on controversial ethical issues, or churches whose lectionaries or sermon series were systematically avoiding passages which addressed pressing contemporary questions, presumably in the name of being winsome or wise or likeable or culturally sensitive, because of the number of Influencers and Powerful People in the area. Without knowing any of the behind-the-scenes discussions that had taken place—all well-intentioned, I’m sure—what would I say then?
 

Seven things.

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.

Why Are Young Blacks Leaving the Church?

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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:

  1. 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. 14:26-33Mt. 10:37-38) is the church that may be small in number but big in faithfulness.
  2. 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. 2:1-22Cor. 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.
  3. 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?

Editors 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.

Book Review: Ordinary, by Michael Horton

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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.

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Book Review: Homespun Gospel, by Todd Brenneman

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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?

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On Being an “Ordinary” Christian: An Interview with Michael Horton

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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.

The Problem with Evangelistic Programs

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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.)