Are you planning to attend the TGC National Conference? If so, be sure to check out the series of panel discussions 9Marks will be hosting during the "workshops" portion of the conference:
Time: Tuesday, April 9, 1:30pm
Topic: "Growth and Grace: How Obedience Sets Us Free . . . Or Not"
Participants: Mike McKinley, Jonathan Leeman, Tom Schreiner, Hunter Powell, John Piper, Tim Keller
Time: Tuesday, April 9, 2:45pm
Topic: "Membership and Mission: Why Membership Matters for Church's Mission . . . Or Hurts It"
Participants: Mike McKinley, Jonathan Leeman, K. Edward Copeland, Andy Davis, Matt Chandler
Time: Tuesday, April 9, 4:00pm
Topic: "Conversion and Community: How the Church Pictures Supernatural Community . . . Sort Of "
Participants: Mike McKinley, Jonathan Leeman, Al Mohler, Jared Wilson, Jeramie Rinne, J. D. Greear
More info on the conference here. We hope to see you there!
Like the first round of layoffs that leave company employees expecting more layoffs to come, so the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 have left American evangelicals with a growing sense of their own disenfranchisement.
THE GROWING DISENFRANCHISEMENT OF AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY
For decades pollsters have been charting the nation’s drift away from Christianity. Church attendance has been dropping. The registrants of “no religion” have been rising. And American evangelicals have become well acquainted with battles in the classroom over evolution or in the courthouse over Ten Commandment reliefs.
But the news events of late have brought the battle into new domains, renewing the sense among many Christians that America’s institutions are handing Christianity its pink slip.
- In November, a majority of voters in several states approved of ballot initiatives favoring same-sex marriage.
- In December, the federal government began to fine a company owned by Christians $1.3 million/day for refusing to provide their employees insurance coverage that includes abortifacient drugs.
- In January, a pastor was essentially removed from a presidential inauguration ceremony because of a sermon against homosexuality.
And these are just some of the matters that have hit mainstream media.
To speak of disenfranchisement is to speak of the loss of authority in the public square, the marketplace, and other culture-making institutions. We can leave for another day the tougher conversation about how or whether Christian and biblical norms should inform society’s institutions. Here I am simply making the observation that Christians are finding themselves disenfranchised.
This means, Christian, that your faith-informed ideas about “righteousness” and “justice” will less and less be represented in court decisions, acts of legislation, civically significant symbols and events, the hiring and firing policies of your workplace, or the leadership requirements for national youth organizations, to say nothing of whose values dominate television primetime or the scripts being read in your community playhouse theater. Just this week I read a Washington Post opinion piece which commended the Boy Scouts for reconsidering their policy on banning homosexual troop leaders on the grounds of “righteousness.”
Now, I recognize that society is complex, and that a narrative of moral declension can characterize one area of public life even while more biblical conceptions of justice take hold in another area. For instance, I do not support every policy recommendation that has emerged from the civil rights or the environmental movements, but I do believe that both of these movements have served the cause of biblical justice in various ways, bringing genuine progress.
Yet with such qualifications in place, I think it is fair to say that many evangelical Christians are experiencing an increasing sense of disenfranchisement in American life, as well as the expectation that things are getting worse. Hence, one friend felt compelled to write a blog post on “How to prepare for hostility.”
THE GROWTH OF HEALTHY CHURCHES
Yet there is good news here. The institutional disenfranchisement of Christianity does not always lead to healthier churches, but sometimes it does. And it is my own anecdotally-driven sense that there is a trend toward health among a growing number of churches.
A couple weeks ago, I was sitting at lunch with a friend who writes about cultural dynamics and trends. He asked me what encourages and what discourages me about the churches that I can observe from my 9Marks perch.
Many things encourage me, I said. Pastors are taking expositional preaching more seriously. More and more are trying to guard their flocks by carefully attending to biblical practices of membership and discipline. And all the conversations among evangelicals about the nature of the gospel over the last decade have left many of us with a more solid grasp of the gospel and its implications.
As for discouragements, I had a hard time thinking of some. Yes, many, many unhealthy churches bespeckle the American landscape. Yes, bad trends are afoot here and there. But among the smaller number of church leaders with whom I interact on a weekly basis, I see encouraging signs of health and solidification. A pastor might telephone me concerning a difficult case of church discipline, which are always sad, but the larger point is, this church leader is looking for guidance on wise and loving discipline. Ironically, that is a sign of health. The antibodies are in motion!
Am I saying that there is a causal connection between societal disenfranchisement and church health? I don’t have any evidence that would satisfy a Ph.D. review committee, but it stands to reason there is some connection. Either way, two lessons occur to me, one for the pastor and one for every Christian:
1. For the pastor: Assuming the narrative of cultural declension continues, it will be increasingly important for pastors to equip their members to know what it means to be a Christian in the workplace, in the public square, in the Parent-Teacher Association, in the doctor’s office, in the local playhouse theater, and so forth. Tim Keller has made this point well in Center Church. When society broadly embraces a Judeo-Christian ethic, as Americans did, say, in the 1950s, the pastor feels less need to think carefully about equipping his members for the ethical dilemmas and persecution they are likely to encounter at work.
As such, one thing that pastors can do today for building healthy churches is to give careful thought to what Christian discipleship looks like in these various domains, thought which should then show up in our counseling, preaching, and discipling. My own church addresses such topics, among other places, through issue-specific adult Sunday School courses. We now have 7 to 13 week classes devoted to work, money, manhood & womanhood, Christians in government, parenting, and more (click on links for complete manuscripts and handouts).
2. For every Christian: Assuming the narrative of cultural declension continues, each one of us will, most likely, find ourselves at a series of crossroads in the years ahead, moments in which we are forced to decide whether we stand with the world or with the Word of God. No doubt, living in a fallen world means that this decision faces us daily. But as the cultural forces against Christianity increase, and as we Christians find ourselves disenfranchised for holding to biblical convictions, we will increasingly encounter that decision in places where we are not accustomed to encountering it: Do I pay for the insurance, or do I pay the fine? Do I say what my college friends will call bigotted, or do I save face? Do I cater the event, or do I risk a lawsuit?
Every time we walk up to such a crossroads, we will be required to consider what is most central to our identity. Am I a U.S. citizen first or a Christian first? Am I a schoolteacher first or a Christian first? Am I a female first or a Christian first? Am I African-American first or a Christian first? Perhaps it will be a magazine article arguing that you, being female, must think a certain way. Or it will be a school principal telling you that keeping your job means going with the flow. Or it will be your own flesh inviting you to choose your nation over your God.
And at every such crossroads you will have to ask, “Who am ‘I’? And what does being crucified and raised with Christ have to do with the answer?”
Being a Christian means recognizing that all the other categories that we use to identify ourselves (family, gender, ethnicity, vocation, citizenship) are merely stewardships; and that Jesus gets to tell us how we will employ every one of those stewardships, even the ones that we hold most dearly.
THE SAINT’S ASSURANCE
Here, again, is the good news. As more and more Christians are required to make their crossroads choices, some churches will only grow stronger. After all, these crisis moments offer assurance
- that Jesus’ words are true: “I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you…In this world you will have tribulation…” (John 16:4, 33);
- that we are being identifed with the King of the Universe: “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” (John 15:19);
- that we are being prepared for perfection: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:18-19);
- and that Christ will vindicate his name and the name of his people: “…I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
One cannot be sure, but perhaps America is handing Christianity the pink slip of disenfranchisement. And there are plenty more conversations worth having about how to wisely respond. But this much encourages me: Aslan is on the move, and the first place where I’ve spotted his shadow is among the assemblies of the saints, his holy ones. I’ve spotted it among some of you.
I was an only child until age fifteen, when God blessed my parents with a daughter. As a family of four, our meals were quick and decisions were relatively easy. Not so with friends of mine who came from families of eight or more siblings. For them, bathroom time was coveted and possibly scheduled. Meals were a production rivaling a military mess hall. And their family vans looked like Noah’s Ark. The lesson was simple: the number of people living under one roof greatly influences the dynamics of how things get done in that family.
The same is true of elder boards. Elder dynamics vary considerably with the size of the board.
I have had the privilege of serving on both large and small elder boards: in one church we had over thirty elders; my current church has around seven. Whether you serve on a large or a small elder board, it is good to recognize the dynamics that vary with size.
If you are in the DC area and are involved in church work or development work, you may be interested in the upcoming Helping Without Hurting conference. It's being hosted by Grace DC on 3/7/13 at Calvary Baptist Church in DC.
From the Grace DC website:
How can our church community best help the poor and marginalized? How do we protect the dignity of people our city—and our world—would often ignore? How can we get our church, our partners and our community all working together?
In partnership with the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, Grace DC is excited to host Helping Without Hurting, a day-long seminar with Dr. Brian Fikkert, co-author of the renowned book When Helping Hurts. Dr. Fikkert will provide useful information and practical concepts to help churches and non-profits make a more meaningful difference in their communities and in the wider world.9am to 4pm (Doors open at 8am)
Register online at gracedc.net/HelpingWithoutHurting
Friends, I wanted to let you know about a great opportunity to support some international work we're doing together with our good friends Editoria Fiel and The Gospel Coalition.
Over at TGC, you can read about, and financially contribute to, a project to supply 300 key seminaries, bible schools, libraries, and churches in Portuguese-speaking countries located in southern Africa with:
- a theological course taught by Mark Dever, Greg Gilbert, Jonathan Leeman, Mike McKinley, and others,
- a Portugese copy of 9Marks of a healthy church,
- and a study guide that accompanies the course.
We're grateful for this opportunity to work together with TGC and Fiel to put solid resources in the hands of people in regions where there is a great need for sound theological training. Please pray with us that the Lord would bless these efforts. And please consider parterning with us by supporting this project financially!
Developing unity and friendship among your elders is critical for the health of your church. The way that the leaders of your church relate to one another will eventually be reflected in how the congregation relates to each other. Disharmony at the top will create serious division in the body. Harmony at the top creates safety and security for the flock.
Can you develop a team of elders who like each other and truly get along? Is it even possible? Yes!
For years I have been greatly served by a team of men who enjoy the bond that has developed among fellow-shepherds of the flock. The times of mutual joy as well as challenge have forged cherished friendships. When the men rotate off after their term is up, many express the desire to come back on. That is extremely gratifying.
So how do you do it? I want to first acknowledge some challenges and then lay out some ideas.
Good advice from the Journal of Biblical Counseling on how to helpfully counsel unbelievers. From J. Alasdair Groves' “How Do You Counsel Non-Christians?” which is well worth reading in its entirety:
- Don’t forget the obvious: know and love the person. Counseling involves building a friendship.
- Help the person look in the mirror. Ask good questions that help the person see their motivations and reinterpret their life.
- Find out what the person thinks about God. Very often, the person rejects a version of God who has very little to do with the God of the Bible.
Christmas made me a little sad this year. On one hand, everything could not have been better. Our five kids are healthy and happy. My wife is a blessing and marriage is joyful. All four of our parents were there and in good health. We had the resources to give gifts and have a great party with good friends. There was no tension, no pain, no hostility, just love and celebration. It was just about perfect.
So why was it a little bit sad? Because it can’t last. Even in the best moments (like Christmas) are tinged by the reality that there are no guarantees that you’ll get another one like it. That’s part of the tragedy of what happened in Newtown, CT. Health will fade. People we love will pass. Tragedy strikes. Relationships become difficult. Money goes. Death ruins everything, if I read Ecclesiastes correctly. Nothing gold can stay. Even the very best moments in this life are tinged with the sadness that they cannot last, will not last.
But all of this did give me a fresh hope for the new heavens and the new earth. How amazing it will be to experience for the first time joy utterly unalloyed with sorrow. How wonderful to enjoy love without the shadow of death!
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
I can’t wait.
I trust this is not true of all churches, but I have discovered that elder meetings can have an unexpectedly difficult social dynamic. There you sit at the table with a number of godly men. You are hashing out this or that issue. And somehow the room feels tense, even political!
“Why is he contradicting me?” “Is he just posturing?” “Why did he say it like that?” “What a jerk!”
Truth be told, you can see my own small-heartedness and sin in such responses. But I am confident I am not alone.
Here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned about the social dynamic of elder meetings: fear of man sometimes keeps us from saying the things we should say, and fear of man sometimes provokes us to say things we shouldn’t.
Sam Allberry has written an insightful and compassionate article on how the gospel speaks to people who experience same-sex attraction.
His conclusion: There is a huge amount to say on this issue, but the main point is this: the moment you think following Jesus will be a poor deal for someone, you call Jesus a liar. Discipleship is not always easy. Leaving anything cherished behind is profoundly hard. But Jesus is always worth it.
You can read the whole thing here.