Thinking Out Loud

November 6, 2014

Philip Yancey on the Twilight of Grace

Changing societyIn my single digit years, I collected a box filled with low-tech, low-cost “magic” tricks, one of which consisted of two large die-cut pieces of cardboard in the shape of the letter ‘C.” One was red and one was blue, and as you held them side-by-side, if the red one was on the right it always appeared to be larger; but when you switched them, the blue one then appeared to be larger. The cutout pieces are identical in size, but the mind views the second one as larger when contrasted to the inside curve of the one before.

I always have this picture in my mind whenever I read something that purports to state that society is categorically getting worse. Haven’t people said that in past centuries also? Is the trajectory of society really in what pilots call a “graveyard spiral” or is redemption possible? Or perhaps do things simply go in cycles?

Philip Yancey’s book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? (Zondervan) is in many ways a state-of-the-union address on the moral, ethical and spiritual condition of our world in general and the Church of Jesus Christ in particular. Ever the journalist, Yancey tracks down every lead while at the same time maintaining a subjectivity common to most of his other writings. So it’s our world and his pilgrimage; one man’s effort to document where the human race is heading and how it impacts on one writer in the Colorado mountains.

Vanishing GraceYou could easily read Vanishing Grace and conclude that these are the rantings of a writer who has finally reached his curmudgeon years. ‘Back in my day…’ you expect to hear him say; but Yancey is on to you and instead each section is scented with the slight aroma of the hope that no matter how dark, there are still lights and there is still The Light.

The subjectivity means that the book is rooted in an American perspective, but Yancey’s travels have made him very much a citizen of the world, and so the book is one part personal reflection, one part ripped from the pages of the newspaper and its online equivalent, and one part history lesson, borrowing from the best of both actual events and what has been expressed by poets, playwrights and novelists.

Some will find the book a little disjointed. In the introduction he states that he set out to write a book, but really wrote four books. In the afterword, he acknowledges that parts of the book previously appeared in print and online in a variety of forums. This is not a problem, as Vanishing Grace is intended for the thinking Christian who ought to be able to navigate the manner in which the material has been arranged.

Yancey writes,

The church works best as a separate force, a conscience to society that keeps itself at arms length from the state. The closer it gets, the less effectively it can challenge the surrounding culture and the more perilously it risks losing its central message. Jesus left his followers the command to make disciples from all nations. We have no charge to “Christianize” the United States or any other country — an impossible goal in any case.  (p. 253)

Just a few pages later he adds,

Several years ago a Muslim man said to me, “I have read the entire Koran and find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.” He pointed out that Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics. The courts enforce religious (sharia) law, and in a nation like Iran the mullahs, not the politicians, hold the real power. (p. 258)

Both the first and second halves of that excerpt are packed with food for thought, typical of what one finds in the pages of this book.

Is Vanishing Grace truly a sequel to What’s So Amazing About Grace? written nearly two decades earlier? The new book certainly brings a maturity to the subject, but I would contend that the earlier title is well-suited to new believers and house study groups, while this 2014 is more profitable for pastors, leaders, mature Christ-followers or anyone interested in how one Christian views the state of our changing world. One thing that both share however — and this is common to much of Yancey’s writing — is their acceptability to giving to someone outside your faith circle.

An advance copy of the book was provided by the Canadian marketing department of HarperCollins Christian Publishing.


Here’s a longer book excerpt that ran at Christianity 201 a few days ago:

Jesus “came from the Father, full of grace and truth,” wrote John in the preface to his gospel.  The church has worked tirelessly on the truth part of that formula:  witness the church councils, creeds, volumes of theology, and denominational splits over minor points of doctrine.  I yearn for the church to compete just as hard in conveying what Paul calls the “incomparable riches” of God’s grace.  Often, it seems, we’re perceived more as guilt-dispensers than as grace-dispensers.

John records one close-up encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman.  Knowing well the antipathy between the two groups, she marveled that a Jewish rabbi would even speak to her.  At one point she brought up one of the disputed points of doctrine:  Who had the proper place of worship, the Jews or the Samaritans?  Jesus deftly sidestepped the question and bore in on a far more important issue:  her unquenched thirst.  He offered her not judgment but a lasting solution to her guilt over an unsettled life.  To her and her alone he openly identified himself as Messiah and chose her as a grace-dispenser.  Her transformation captured the attention of the whole town, and Jesus stayed for two days among the “heretics,” attracting many converts.

That scene of Jesus and the Samaritan woman came up during a day I spent with the author Henri Nouwen at his home in Toronto.  He had just returned from San Francisco, where he spent a week in an AIDS clinic visiting patients who, in the days before antiretroviral drugs, faced a certain and agonizing death.  “I’m a priest, and as part of my job I listen to people’s stories,”  he told me.  “So I went up and down the ward asking the patients, most of them young men, if they wanted to talk.”

Nouwen went on to say that his prayers changed after that week.  As he listened to accounts of promiscuity and addiction and self-destructive behavior, he heard hints of a thirst for love that had never been quenched.  From then on he prayed, “God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people.  And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.”

That day with the gentle priest has stayed with me.  Now, whenever I encounter strident skeptics who mock my beliefs or people whose behavior I find offensive, I remind myself of Henri Nouwen’s prayer.  I ask God to keep me from rushing to judgment or bristling with self-defense.  Let me see them as thirsty people, I pray,  and teach me how best to present the Living Water.

(pp 27-29)


For an interview with the author, check out all six pages at this link to Leadership Journal

October 25, 2014

Peeking Inside Paul’s Computer: Christian Blog List

Okay, you need to be a Christian blog nerd to appreciate this, but I thought today I’d give you an inside look at my computer; specifically, all the Christian blogs that I have bookmarked there.  The blogroll you see in the right margin of Thinking Out Loud is just a small part of a bigger picture.  So here they are in no particular order, except that the first 40 or so are kinda on speed-dial — remember that Seinfeld episode? — and the bottom 40 or so have been added more recently. But otherwise, there’s no predictable pattern.  If you see anything here that’s not a blog, or a link that’s become corrupted, let me know. Also note that missing in this list are several blogs that I consider more as news sites, a handful of Patheos blogs, and also missing (because they’re in another directory) are about 30 blogs that do things similar to the Wednesday Link List. Have fun!

Stuff Fundies Like
Marketing Christian Books
Hear the Voice Blog
Without Wax
The Tony Jones Blog
ToddRhoades.com | Pastors and Church Leader News and Opinion
Phil Vischer
internetmonk.com
Blog |Philip Yancey
On Faith & Culture | Jonathan Merritt’s blog at Religion News Service
Parchment and Pen | Making Theology Accessible
Blog – ReKnew
Red Letter Christians – What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said?
The Master’s Table
blog.worship.com
NewSmallChurch.com
SKYEBOX » the weblog of Skye Jethani
Jon Acuff — Author | Speaker | Awesome
The Wartburg Watch
FBC Jax Watchdog
FaithVillage | MOVE YOUR FAITH HERE
holy heteroclite:
holy heteroclite
Bene Diction Blogs On
Beliefs of the Heart
The blog of Matthew Paul Turner
Rachel Held Evans | Rachel’s Blog Articles
Darrell Creswell’s Blog
Lorna Dueck: Her thoughts on world issues from a Christian Perspective
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove —
Passionately His
churchrelevance.com
ThinkChristian.net – Blogging about the intersection of faith and culture
Another Red Letter Day
onehandclapping —
LeadingSmart
Trey Morgan.net
Refine Us | To remove impurities from something…
Blog In My Own Eye
Jamie the Very Worst Missionary
Blog and Mablog
Reclaiming the Mission :: The Weblog of David Fitch
THE ORPHAN AGE
Brad Lomenick
One Passion One Devotion
Eric Metaxas » Blog
Kouya Chronicle
The Thinklings
rob bell
Red-Letter Believers
Cindy by the Sea
IVP – Andy Unedited
Lifestream Blog
Bruxy | The web site
The Heart Of The Matter
Donald Miller’s Blog — Best-Selling Author Of Books, And Stuff
Shaun Groves
Reformed Arminian Blog
Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace – Christian Apologetics
learning my lines. . .
David Kenney – Reciprocal Ecclesiology in a Pseudo Post-Modern Malaise.
Karen Spears Zacharias
The Bible and Culture — A One-Stop Shop for All Things Biblical and Christian
Pastor Steven Furtick
The Church of No People
City of God -
Soulfari
BadCatholic
Revitalize Your Church
Cain’s Wife Answer
Digging a lot
LarkNews.com
Quantum Tea – UK God Blogs
Glocal Christianity
Theophilus Monk’s Christian Faith & Theology Weblog
the Jesus Manifesto
Prodigal Magazine
Faith Blogs
http://catchjohnfischer.wordpress.com/
Losing My Religion
jonnybaker
A Living Alternative Our Missional Pilgrimage
Kruse Kronicle
Soiled Wings
300 words a day
Homebrewed Christianity
Zac Hicks – Worship. Church. Theology. Culture. – Zac Hicks Blog
My World
Will Mancini
CBMW » Gender Blog
http://jennicatron.tv/
TheWorshipCommunity.Com – Worship Leader Resources, Articles, Forums
Rumblings
Activate CFPL – Blog
Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice
http://5ptsalt.com/
Sand in the Gears
Jesus Creed
American Jesus
Daily Christian Quotations
Semicolon | Books we must have though we lack bread.
God Is My Constant
Growing in Faith
reboot christianity
Mockingbird
The Bible and Culture
Calvinistic Cartoons
The Bible Hunter
Church and Family Cartoons by Tim Walburg
Simply Church: A House Church Perspective
Searching for grace
Strengthened by Grace
Journey of Worship | Thoughts and experiences on the journey of worship
Cake Or Death (Christian Church cartoons by Alex Baker)
People of the Second Chance | Overthrow Judgment. Liberate Love.
More Christ
Murray’s Musings
Till He Comes | Bringing Scripture and Theology to Life
God Discussion | For Seekers Who Don’t Go To Church
whyismarko — life, faith, youth ministry, emerging church, leadership, whimsy
Zombies. Theology. Whatever | Pastor Matt
http://goandmake.ca/
Faith In The Journey
I’m Waiting
Newgenesis Resurrection Ministries
Right Wing Watch
Living Proof Ministries Blog
Blog | Zondervan Author Mark Buchanan
jeff mikels
Musings by Robert
A Joyful Noise
Big Ear Creations
America’s Next Top Mommy
Dan White Jr.
Practical Faith
God Speaks I Listen
5:21 | Life & Gospel Reflections
the blue fish project (dave bish)
Wayne Stiles
Based on a True Story | Nathan Colquhoun
http://dbts.edu/blog/
Tall Monastic Guy
Gay Christian Movement Watch
JANELLE KEITH
Blue Letter Bible: The Blog | the official blog of blueletterbible.org
Straight-Friendly
Truthinator’s Blog
Glory to God for All Things
Mike King
The Radical.net Blog
Coming Out Christian — Conversations about being Christian and gay in America
RenaissanceNow | Ubi Caritas et Amor, Deus Ibi Est
Chilly Chilton | Christian | Husband | Father | Mentor | Pastor | Friend | Detroit
Jesus, I will follow you.
The Domain for Truth
A Deeper Story | Tales of Christ and Culture
FROM LEE IN TENNESSEE
the gospel side | The ruminations of a kyriarchist.
The King’s Presence
extraecclesiam…
The Journeyman’s Files
Bob Hostetler’s Prayer Blog
Created to Give God Glory
Looking Through the Windshield
The Prodigal Thought | Pointing prodigal thoughts towards the truth.
Sometimes a Light – Blog
Sue’ s considered trifles
ISTORIA MINISTRIES BLOG
Ralph Howe Blogs
connexions
Reflections | The High Calling
Digging the Word
once for all delivered
The Lewis Crusade | Fighting for human dignity, the worth of the disabled, the salvation of souls and the Gospel of Life
Blogotional
Daily Devotionals, Free Christian Bible Devotions Online
The Bridge Chicago
supersimbo | Christian/Husband/Blogger/Designer/Beard Enthusiast
Modern Reject – Nicole Cottrell: Writer, Speaker, Button-pusher
Christian Film Blog: CFDb’s Blog – Annelie’s Christian Film World Blog | Find Christian Movies on CFDb: Largest list of Christian Films
Prodigal Magazine – The Christian Magazine For Storytellers
Just My Thoughts
efcgraceblog | Thoughts on my never-ending search for grace.
Gestating A Church | Reflections on planting a new church for sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things
FaithsMessenger.Com
Bob Rogers | Pastor, First Baptist Church of Rincon, Georgia
Sunday| Magazine – A free online mag all about the creative side of Sundays.
Andy Stanley | Helping Leaders Go Further Faster
The High Calling
More Christ
Bouncing Back — Bouncing back from adversity; Moving forward with hope.
anabaptistly | attempting missional anabaptist living
Java Juice Blog House – FaithVillage | MOVE YOUR FAITH HERE
Doctrine Matters | Bible truths from www.BibleDebates.info
The Palmer Perspective
The Nuance | trailblazing beyond black & white
ChristianBlessings | CLICK A BLESSING TODAY
Pastor Dave Online | Reflections on Christ and Culture
the gospel side | The ruminations of a kyriarchist.
Please Convince Me
re-Ver(sing) Verses | reading, singing, analyzing verses
GrowDeep
Church Curmudgeon (ChrchCurmudgeon) on Twitter
thehopeforlife | Finding true freedom through Jesus
:: We Are Soma » Blog ::
CROSS-SHAPED STUFF | i want to see more stuff shaped like a cross
Joel J. Miller — Where Christian Theology Meets Daily Life
FAITH BOGDANlive well-loved by God! – Blog
Both/And. | Seeking–or making–a third way.
Canadian Writers Who Are Christian
Breaking News Pimp Preacher.com & The Church Folk Revolution
A Geek in the Wilderness – One geek/nerd hybrid journeys through history and the world in an epic search for truth, justice… and great pizza.
July | 2013 | ItsTholhuGospel
dianelindstrom | Overflow
As the Deer
(32) twentyonehundred productions
EerdWord | The blog of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
PiH Today
Gordon Rumford Ministries
Adam Young
Incourage — daily devotional for women
Reason for Change | Theology isn’t science; it’s art.
Tall Skinny Kiwi » Brand spankin’ new site for tsk
Christian in the Rough — Finding fun in the middle of dysfunction, action at the end of distraction, and grace at the end of disgrace.
Given Breath
lotharlorraine | 4 out of 5 dentists recommend this WordPress.com site
[iDisciple] – Abiding in Christ, Growing in Community, Bearing Fruit
http://www.thepoachedegg.net/
Christian Funny Pictures – A time to laugh
A Parched Soul | Grayson Pope’s blog
Crossroad Junction
the banksyboy brief
when love comes to town
Stand to Reason
Roll to Disbelieve | Grab your 20-siders. We’re going in.
Home – Denison Forum on Truth and Culture
emily t. wierenga
Rebecca Writes – Rebecca Writes
The TallSkinnyKiwi Daily
MEETING IN THE CLOUDS | CLOUDWATCHER’S LIFE STORY and inspirational thoughts
Twitter / AbandonedPics: Abandoned church seems to still …
Christian Forum Site – Welcome to a Friendly Fellowship
the Cripplegate | for a new generation of non-conformists
Author Tricia Goyer
Restoring Significance
Peter Chin – husband, father, pastor, writer | Home
Blogging Theologically | Jesus, Books, Culture, & Theology
The Revangelical Blog – Revangelical Blog – Brandan Robertson- Rethinking. Reforming. Renewing.
Redemption Pictures
Blog – Jeremy Binns
the kiddy pool
Formerly Fundie — Insights, Hopes and Laments on American Christianity
Wordgazer’s Words
Receive with Meekness
Words of Life | Empowering Conversations to Help You Apply the Lifechanging Truths of the Bible
Blogs | Going Beyond Ministries
Catholic Memes
The Ironic Catholic
Defeating the Dragons | overcoming a fundamentalist indoctrination.
reformation 21 | Online Magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
Thoughts about God – Daily Devotionals
Feeding on Christ – Reformed theological resources
Adrian Warnock — Patheos Evangelical
SharperIron | Thinking is fundamental
Love, Joy, Feminism —
H . A | Welcome to Homeschoolers Anonymous.
thatmom.com
Abundant Life Now
Blog | Vince Antonucci
JASON JOHNSON | BLOG
Well Spent Journey
Sandra Stanley
Sam Storms: Oklahoma City, OK > Enjoying God Blog
Abnormal Anabaptist | Come and read what it means to be abnormally Anabaptist. It might surprise you.
TALITHA KUM
Mormon411
Worn Pages
Curious Christian
Church Marketing Sucks
VergeNetwork – YouTube
thexiansatirist | because Xians can be worthy of ridicule…
The Wardrobe Door
Red Letter Believers – Christian Answers for the Curious and the Thoughtful
John H Armstrong | Reflections of a Missional-Ecumenist
No Longer Quivering —
For His Glory | If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…
Holy Soup – Innovative approaches to ministry.
Faith and Theology
Web devotions
Running the Good Race | “Let us run with perseverance …
The Bible Hunter
clarke’s SOAPBOX – . . . as if I don’t say enough on Sunday mornings!
The thought just occurred to me
Tim’s Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another
Theo-sophical Ruminations | Theological and philosophical musings
A Cry For Justice | Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence
Agog4God | A Gathering of Girlfriends & Guys for GodAgog4God
Confessions of a Funeral Director » @ the Crossroads of this World & the Next
More Than Coping | Mental Illness And The Christian
MANTURITY.COM — REDEFINE MATURITY
Ask Sister Mary Martha
Good Question | A blog by Christopher R. Smith,
Ben Irwin
Liz Boltz Ranfeld
James Pedlar
Pastoralized
The Revangelical Blog – The Revangelical Movement Blog, Podcast, Review
Sermons from a Psycho
Of Dust & Kings – Empowering Faith. Transforming Culture.
Revitalize Your Church
These Christian Times | Prophecy, bible, entertainment and current events
Get Along With God | A blog about discovering a God worth knowing.
Imago Dei
Blog | Practical ShepherdingPractical Shepherding
The Roundabout Way
reboot christianity
The Wanderer | “As I walked through the wilderness of this world . . .”
FaithsMessenger.Com
The Sometimes Preacher | Reflections on Jesus, Scripture, Theology, Ministry, and Church.
Glory to God for All Things | Orthodox Christianity, Culture and Religion
martyduren.com
I am Phoenix
Joy Phenix’s Blog | Joy : Defined
Launch Clarity
InsaneFaithNow | Aspects of life in a post-modern world…
Andrew Knott.org | Empowering Prayer, Encouraging People
ALIFESANCTIFIED.COM
Christianity | Not For Itching Ears
Christian Blog
Liberate
Christian Crier — For Ye That Have Ears To Hear
Gloria Furman
Ben Irwin
Brian Zahnd – Full-time pastor. Occasional author. Would-be mountaineer
BHBlog – Telligent
Christian Gravy
The Church of No People
Blog | CPYU
MomLife Today | EVERY MOMent COUNTS!
Missio Alliance
Blog – The Malphurs Group : The Malphurs Group
Youth For Truth U.S.A.
nish weiseth
The Narthex — Medium
Do Right Christians | WHAT KILLS YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER! ROMANS 8:13, 7:24-25 |AN IFB MINISTRY
Blog — Nancy Beach
Create With Joy | Infuse Creativity In All You Do
Blog | Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture
Faith Beyond Belief
Borrowed Light – that Christ may be the only boast of this generation
Psephizo – scholarship. serving. ministry.
Eugene Cho
theologygrams | Theology explained in diagrams
Ministry Matters™
Mercy Not Sacrifice — The blog of Morgan Guyton
Back Row Online | #BeUndignified
ItsTholhuGospel | I Love God, I Love People, I Love Music…I Am TholhuGospel
Blog | Kate Conner
Real World Worship Leading | A Blog For Worship Leaders Who Lead Normal People In Normal Churches ||| RealWorldWorship.Org
Theoblogy — The Tony Jones Blog at Patheos
Simplify This Life
SonWorshiper | Literary Karaoke
Faith & Frivolity
Possessing the Treasure
The Lonely Pilgrim | A Christian’s Road Home to Rome and Journey Onward
sevennotesofgrace | musing about music and its Creator
Jamie Ivey
We Are Worship
Christianity 201
Get Better Today

October 18, 2014

Catch a Falling Star

image 1017

 

I started immersing myself in the Christian blogosphere at least a year before beginning to write my own, so I’m guessing it’s been at least nine years now. During that time I have unfortunately been made aware of the different tribes that exist among my fellow believers, and the degree to which tribal convictions isolate us from each other. While I enjoy the exchange of ideas that can pleasantly take place among those of divergent views, I have also seen firsthand the dismissive attitude that plagues attempts at conversation between people of differing doctrinal positions.

Despite this, there has been another feature of my personal ‘Christian internet story arc’ that involves people of all stripes, and that is the world of Christian publishing. Regardless of rapture views, Bible translation preferences, opinions on predestination, or positions on a variety of gender issues, popularity online usually precedes a book deal.

I have the luxury now of sometimes receiving books unsolicited, but most of the review books I get are things I have specifically requested. For that reason, my library is filled with authors who, at the time, I had enjoyed reading online and wanted to be in a position to promote their published works to others. Always, the books fulfilled expectations since the writing in question was already a known commodity.

Often it is the case that an author’s first book is the best. It says all the things they have most wanted to say. It is often birthed in the heart of the writer before any deal has been signed and there is any sense of deadline. At minimum, the author is offered a two-book deal, and while some authors just keep getting better and better with each new release, with others, the second book now imposes a commitment that must be met, a homework assignment that must be completed.

At the same time, the author is now devoting more of their attention to the book writing and dealing with the enhanced profile that has come with having a title in print. So the blog writing, the thing that brought them to the attention of publishers, often begins to suffer.

In other cases, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, their fifteen months of fame run out, and the attention has turned to newer voices. If they are pastors, their church growth possibly plateaus, if they are musicians, their new album doesn’t generate the same sales.

As a teenager I had one particular nerdy hobby: I would compose my own music charts. Working from the charts of other radio stations with a bias toward the music my friends and I liked, I sat the keyboard weekly and compiled my own Top 40 that was seen by a very select few each week and stored in a number of 3-ring binders. There was no direct benefit to me or anyone else, though I must say that I was faithful to it, just as I try to be faithful here on the blog on a daily basis.

I quickly learned the dynamics of charts. As the “last week” position was typed next to the “this week” ranking, it was obvious that some songs were still gaining traction while others were starting to wane. This of course, was in the days before SoundScan where titles now enter the chart at #1 and then begin a slow descent.

Today, I don’t bother trying to track book sales with the same diligence, though I do compile a chart for the Christian retail store I am involved with at least twice a year. But it is clear that there are always rising stars and falling stars both in micro terms of individual titles and the macro career of certain authors.

As I type this, we’ve watched another development take place in the plummeting of a particular pastor’s influence and credibility. While it saddens many as it should, there are others waiting in the wings to take his place.  Whether you get 15 months of attention, or only Warhol’s 15 minutes, the celebrity hunger in all of us keeps us scanning the horizon for the next big thing.

In Psalm 75 we’re told it is God who doles out promotion, honor, exaltation, lifting up. I don’t know why certain church plants go from zero to ten thousand in two years while others never receive the attention that results from significant metrics. I don’t know why great books languish on the shelves and end up in the remainder bins while others seem to crack the bestseller lists effortlessly.

I also know that within me is a desire to jump on the bandwagon only because sometimes that seems consistent with the idea of coming alongside where the Holy Spirit is moving. But is that always the case, or does human effort dictate what becomes Christian celebrity?

In show business there is saying that “The people you meet on the way up are the people you meet on the way down.” (The original suggests kindness to those people you meet, because of the eventual re-acquaintance.) It’s exciting to watch stars rise, it is sometimes painful to watch them fall. Both are taking place all the time, and sometimes there is a comeback or a second career.

The current chart status of a Christian celebrity is in no way a measure of their spiritual life, but their changing relative influence is part of watching an endlessly shifting landscape.

 

October 5, 2014

Names You Should Know

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:47 am

Outreach Magazine is out with its latest list of the 100 Fastest Growing Churches in the U.S. and the 100 Largest Churches in the U.S. You can download a free 23-page .pdf copy of their latest data at this webpage, and learn how you can order the full magazine in single copies or in bulk.

There are however some churches which are conspicuously absent, including Lifechurch.tv (Craig Groeshel) and Lakewood (Joel Osteen), and we need to remind ourselves that as great as its influence is, the Christian world does not end at the U.S. borders.

Some of these names will be new to you, and some will be familiar. Either way, these are names you should be aware of. Download the full report to get the church names, locations, attendance numbers, website links and other stats. These are for the largest churches (in order, in groups of 25). We also did one for the fastest growing churches yesterday at Christian Book Shop Talk.

Lead Pastors of 100 Largest Churches

May 12, 2014

Yawning at Tigers: Holiness for a new Generation

Filed under: books, God — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:48 am

Simply knowing about God can never take the place of experiencing him. You could gather facts about God for the rest of your life and he could still be a virtual stranger to you. You can observe the flame, but never be warmed by the fire. ~p. 140

…a paradoxical truth about God’s holiness. It overwhelms, but it also draws. It terrifies and it captivates. It bows our heads even as it lifts our hearts. Ultimately, it results in joyful and reverent worship. ~p. 49

Yawning at TigersIf I started out the review by saying that Yawning at Tigers is a book about God’s holiness, I’d probably lose some of you. Surely every scripture verse on the holiness of God has been dissected and exegeted to death, right? I might have agreed before I read Drew Dyck’s book, but now into my second reading I am finding myself amazed again both by the ‘otherness’ of God and by how the larger Church constantly needs new authors to bring such truth home to us in fresh ways. Think Jerry Bridges meets Donald Miller. Or something like that.

Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God So Stop Trying has just the right mix of teaching, analogy and relevant stories from the author’s personal life. For a first time with a major publisher — okay, there was Generation Ex-Christian for Moody Press in 2010 — it hits all the right notes, but that’s to be expected from the Managing Editor of Leadership Journal, a periodical in the Christianity Today family of publications. Drew has also written widely in other media, which included interviewing yours truly years ago for the Canadian magazine, Faith Today. (No, I wasn’t the feature…)

What would happen if we were to find ourselves, as we will some day, standing before a holy God? A mix of terror and surprise, the latter because basically our God is too small. Like Job, we speak of things which we do not understand. Perhaps we should borrow some reverence from the people who spell God, G-d; and spell Lord, L-rd; as a reminder of utmost sacredness of even His name.  But, through all this he loves us.

Yawning at Tigers will get you thinking along these lines. The 224-page paperback (and also e-book) releases this week from Thomas Nelson, and I hope some of you will take the time to discover a new author. For more info, including an opportunity to read the first chapter free, go to YawningAtTigers.com.

Related:

 

April 25, 2014

Separated at Birth?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:13 am

Maybe it was the pictures on the book jackets… It was a customer browsing at the bookstore that thought there was more than a passing similarity between Jud Wilhite and Judah Smith…

Jud Wilhite and Judah Smith

 

Jud Wilhite serves as Senior Pastor of Central Christian Church in Las Vegas.

Judah Smith serves at The City Church in Seattle as co-lead pastor.

Judah is the one on the… Jud is the one on the…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 24, 2014

Of Fancy Homes in Hidden Places

front_gate

Lately, a lot of attention has been turned to the housing that certain pastors and church leaders enjoy and are building. In an internet world, with Google Earth and Google Street View tracking every square inch on earth, there are very few secrets.

If you believe that Christians inhabit a world where there is neither “male nor female; this ethnic group nor that ethnic group; or rich nor poor;” get ready to have that ideal shattered. The divisions between rich and poor exist, and some of your favorite writers or televangelists live in places that, were you able to get past the gate somehow, the security force would be tailing you within seconds.

And the sign said long haired freaky people need not apply
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said you look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do
So I took off my hat I said imagine that, huh, me working for you

Several years ago we did a story — and ran the same pictures and the song lyrics — when a Saddleback campus was planted in the middle of a gated community in Laguna Hills. On one level, just another unreached people group, I suppose. On another level, rather awkward.

And the sign said anybody caught trespassing would be shot on sight
So I jumped on the fence and yelled at the house, Hey! what gives you the right
To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in
If God was here, he’d tell you to your face, man you’re some kinda sinner

To be fair, (a) this was a community of 18,000; an unreached people group you might say, and (b) southern California invented the whole gated community thing; they exist there on every block the way Waffle House or Cracker Barrel exists in the southeast. Still, there was something unsettling about this, if only because (a) if it’s been done before, it’s certainly been low key and (b) it’s hard for anything connected with Saddleback to be low key.

When we tried to track this particular campus this week, we couldn’t locate it. But we’re well aware of the people that make up the Evangelical star system who live in similar neighborhoods.

And the sign said everybody’s welcome to come in, kneel down and pray
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a penny to pay,
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine

Do major Christian leaders need a “retreat” from their parishioners, the press, and the public at large? Certainly Jesus tried to break away from the crowds at time, seeking some rest and renewal, but the texts also tell us the crowds followed him. And far from a gated community, we’re told he was completely itinerant, “having no place to lay his head;” and sometimes camping out on the fold-out couch in the homes of his followers.

veggie-gated-communityThe Gated Community
Is where we’ll always be
Our smiles are white
Cause we’re inside
In comfy custody
And when you come to visit
You can stand outside and see..
What a smiling bunch we are
In our gated unity!

The question is, “How much money is too much?” “When does a house become excessive?” It’s sad when it reaches the point where someone has started a Twitter account from the viewpoint of a pastor’s grand estate.

Oh! The Gated Community

Is where we like to be

Our clothes are never dirty

And the lawns are always green

And when you come to visit

You can stand outside and see

What a tidy bunch we are

In our gated unity!

I guess my biggest concern is that everything we do should be without a hint of suspicion.  I often think about Proverbs 16:2, which says (he paraphrased) that everything we do can be rationalized one way or another, but God is busy checking out our motivation. (And also reminded that no one is to judge the servant of another.)

The Gated Community
Is where we’ll always be
Our smiles are white
Cause we’re inside
In comfy custody
And when you come to visit
You can stand outside and see..
What a smiling bunch we are
In our gated unity!

So what are your thoughts? If you have an issue with this, what’s the problem? If you’re at peace with this, why do you think it’s got so many others steaming?

Lyrics from “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band (lyrics from the band’s home page) and from “The Gated Community” from Veggie Tales’ Sherluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler (from Veggie Tales lyrics site.) See sites for full lyrics with choruses not printed here. Pictured gated community in Atlanta, GA

April 19, 2014

The Pastor in the Movie “Heaven is for Real”

Heaven is for Real books

Throughout all the success of the Heaven is for Real book, and with attention now being refocused because of the movie, I am sure that Todd Burpo’s phone, if he dares to still have one, is ringing off the wall. (A dated reference to wall phones, in case you’re wondering.)

The appearances and interviews that the family has done prior to film release have been very tightly controlled and for anyone else, access is a total impossibility. Even the Christianity Today review of this past week contains the phrase, “Burpo responded to questions sent through the film’s publicist…” which may be a polite way of saying the publicist selected phrases from a prepared list and arranged them into sentences.

A few years ago, I tried to get past what others were writing about, and dig a little deeper and get to know Todd Burpo the Pastor. Throughout this whole process he remains first and foremost a local church minister. How do you do that with reporters knocking at the door? This was the largely unsuccessful result of that quest…

Our Non-Interview with Author Todd Burpo

Feb 9, 2012

53 weeks atop the New York Times’ Non-Fiction Paperback chart and counting. That’s a great accomplishment for any writer, but even more so for a title which began its life with copies shipped to Christian retailers.

But we figured that a full year should have caused some of the excitement to die down, and thought this might be a good time to ask Todd Burpo about that side of his life that never comes up in media interviews: His role as a local church pastor. Furthermore, we thought he would find the change in interview direction somewhat refreshing.

We were wrong.

Apparently the miscalculation was the part about the excitement dying down. Despite several different approaches over the past month, the best we could come up with was some rather terse responses from Belinda, Pastor Todd’s director of correspondence. She begins, “What little free time Todd does have, he tries to spend with his family.”

However, we’re not going to let this deter us from running the piece anyway. After all, if the tabloids can come up with speculative articles based on nothing, we ought to come up with something here based on Belinda’s 190-word response. Besides, we’re just going to stick to the facts.

Crossroads Wesleyan Church

Todd Burpo is the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska; population just under 4,000 and the county seat for Chase County. The Sunday services are broadcast on the local radio station. This kind of church setting is actually the reality that the greatest number of people experience on Sunday mornings in the United States, but for some reading here, the image is probably a throwback to a gentler time and place. A 21st century Andy Griffith would worship here, and so would Aunt Bea. In an interview* with Pete Wilson, Todd Burpo quotes the country music lyric, “Everybody dies famous in a small town.”

So we’re talking small, mid-west town, and relatively sized church. But the publication of Heaven is for Real has resulted in a few tourists — our word — though Belinda prefers the term visitors, and leaves us somewhat in the dark if this implies the occasional unfamiliar face or if the place has become a shrine that requires tour bus parking. Either way, it would be a unique dynamic for a local church pastor to deal with. It’s one thing when a megachurch pastor is the author of Christian books for a major publisher. It would be quite different in a small town.

On this we’re told, “Todd works diligently to try to keep balance in all of his responsibilities.” Good answer. Now I know how Belinda got the job. Moving forward, I see her as definite White House material.

But we wanted to get further inside Todd Burpo, the pastor; and nothing spells out a pastor’s vision like the current sermon series he’s preaching. We’re told, “In September, he started preaching the first of a group of series of sermons that examines what Crossroads Wesleyan should look like if it is Christ’s church. The series included: A Culture of Honor, A Culture of Faith, A Culture of Giving, A Culture of Growing and A Culture of Grace.”

That was the best answer we got to our questions, and from the church website, it appears those messages aren’t posted online.

Still, a lot of pastors — even in small towns — often feel they “have a book in them.” So we wanted to know if that was the case with Todd; if there was a book that he might have considered if Heaven is for Real hadn’t happened. But the answer is one that we had heard previously, “Todd has often said, he is not an author and never wanted to write a book.”

But pressing the same question from a different angle, I asked if the publisher, Thomas Nelson, had been talking about any future projects. On this, I was somewhat perplexed by the referral to the HIFR Ministries website, but after checking the site from top to bottom, I couldn’t find reference to anything other than the DVD curriculum and the kids’ edition of the book, both of which have now released. I guess I was thinking in terms of the publisher riding on the popularity of the book but with something a little different. Publishers do tend to do that sort of thing when they have a success on their hands; though the ‘brand’ here is somewhat limited.

So, sadly this is not the interview — even a short five question interview — with Todd Burpo we had hoped for; though The National Star might be interested anyway. In the meantime, we’ll leave the last word to Belinda, correspondence director extraordinaire:

It is the Burpos’ prayer that Heaven is For Real will point people to Jesus and we pray that Colton’s testimony will help people find hope and peace. Todd puts it this way—“In John 16:33 Jesus taught his disciples, in this world you will have trouble, and to that we all say, ‘Amen,’ because this world has plenty of it. But may the hope of heaven and the peace that only Jesus can give, be poured into your lives. But praise God, heaven is real, and don’t ever lose sight of that!”

If there’s a Christian author or pastor you’d like to see non-interviewed here, just drop us a line and we’ll do our best.


Images: Pete Wilson’s interview* with Todd; see below for link.

*For those of you hoping for more of a genuine interview with Todd, you can’t do any better than the 20 minutes that Pete Wilson spent with Todd and Colton in late spring 2011. Maybe it was worth coming here just to link to that. The entire interview played on a Sunday morning at Cross Point as part of a series on heaven.

April 11, 2014

An Outsider Looks at Together for the Gospel

I’ve been aware of the Together for the Gospel conference for a long time, but this week, through the miracle of live streaming and a schedule that coincided, I was able to catch a portion of many of the sessions, including a few sermons from beginning to end.

In many ways it reminded me of an experience a long time ago where I suddenly found myself immersed in a denomination that had always been completely foreign, attending an annual Easter Conference that consisted of speaker after speaker I had never heard of addressing content I was not fully grasping.

I came to this particular event a little better informed as to the subject matter and a great deal more familiar with the speakers, in some cases by reputation in other cases having read their blogs or books for quite some time.

Still, I am very much an outsider, and had I attempted to enter the event physically instead of virtually, I am sure that all manner of alarms would have been tripped. Better to view from a distance, I suppose.

I have a few takeaways from what I was able to catch over the three days that I believe are worth sharing. If you’ve never heard of T4G, this will be an introduction. On the other hand, if this is your tribe, you’ll see at least one person’s perception of the event and surrounding culture.

Together for the Gospel - Constituencies

The Players

T4G is very much a product of what is sometimes called The New Calvinism, or the Young, Restless and Reformed movement. I saw evidence of four streams blending into the T4G pond; consisting of (from smallest to largest):

Presbyterian: I suspect this was the smallest constituency numerically, but Presbys are Reformed in doctrine. So maybe these are the cousins, what Holiness Movement denoms are to hardcore Pentecostals, perhaps. This is also probably considered the liberal wing of the Reformed set, but in balance, if you like your theology capital “L” liberal you probably don’t frequent conferences such as these that skew a little more small “e” evangelical.

Classical Reformed: By this I mean your standard purebred CRC (Christian Reformed Church) or RCA (Reformed Church of America) members, or historically Reformed variants on those two denoms. Dutch ancestry is optional, but it helps.

Southern Baptist: This is where I thought it gets interesting. There is some agreement that to some degree, 5-point Calvinism is becoming the doctrine de rigeur of the SBC, though not all welcome this. (Free Will Baptists are definitely a minority and Free Willy Baptists don’t even show in the stats.) So you see many prominent SBC-ers (more on that in a minute) showing up on panels and as speakers and lots of commercials for LifeWay (a Baptist cash cow) showing up on the giant screen.

New Calvinists: This is the primary target audience for the conference, these are also the people both great and small who dominate the Christian blogosphere and Christian publishing for that matter. (More on that later as well.) They appear to be one of the fastest growing sectors of Christianity right now, but again some of that has to with online perception; the internet was made for this movement, and this movement was made for the internet. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Doctrinally, we’re talking a more hardline 5-point Calvinism than many Classical Reformers. This also takes in sub-sectors such as the Acts 29 Network and the Sovereign Grace churches; and also close friends such as the Harvest Bible Fellowship churches.

The Conference Itself

The three day event in Louisville, KY as evidenced in the main, arena venue consisted of worship times, panel discussions and main speakers. Admittance was by wristband, which apparently one didn’t want to misplace. Grace is a key component of T4G teaching, but apparently it’s not universally applied. In general, I have no complaints with the conference structure…but that doesn’t make for interesting reading, so we’ll move on.

The Music

All of the music that I saw was led by Bob Kauflin, who I got to meet in the very early days of Glad, a “Jesus Music” band dating back to the late ’70s. Bob led from a grand piano facing the stage, so the live streaming consisted entirely of a medium closeup of Bob with a few audience members in the background. No band. No backup vocalists. I wondered if this is normative with the various types of churches represented in the audience.

The music was dominantly hymns with the addition of some Sovereign Grace music and modern-hymns of the Stuart Townend/Keith & Kristyn Getty variety. With almost each piece, Bob would stop playing so that phrases or entire stanzas could be sung a capella. This creates a rather amazing worship atmosphere — especially in a large arena — if not overdone. In my opinion, this was overdone.

At this point, I recognize I run the risk of irate comments, so let me say this is in no way personal. Kauflin is a respected leader in the field of worship music, though we disagree on some issues, such as making minor lyrical changes or the composition of extra verses by local church musicians. His track record in this field is laudable.

But as a musician and worship leader who has been in a similar situation — not once, but twice — I believe it’s time to think about a succession plan; to look toward passing the torch. Working in that direction begins by sharing the stage, by letting younger worship leaders try their wings. I am sure there are, within their movement, some younger musicians deserving of this honor.

The Books

No, I’m not talking about T4G’s finances. One of the things that really stood out to me was the constant reference to the conference bookstore. In addition to some books that delegates received gratis, there were books promoted by the chairperson for each session, and discussion panelists who mentioned a book were often informed seconds later that the particular title was indeed, available at the store.

As someone who loves books, obviously I feel this is commendable. But it’s also a reminder — and please hear this carefully — that this is a particular faith culture that is very much about words. Books, articles, blogs, etc. matter and matter a great deal. (There are very few Salvation Army bloggers, because they’re all out doing what the rest of us only write about.) Your future in the New Calvinist movement depends much on being aware of the latest encyclicals from the movement’s leaders, and participants seem to go deep, past conversational familiarity with the works in question. 

Still, many of the books would be foreign even to mainstream Christian bookstore proprietors, which is why they are often sold through exclusive channels. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so we’ll move on.

The Superstars

I should say first that each denom has its own key people. Whether you attend a district conference, or a national one, there are certain people who, by whatever means, have risen to the top of the organizational hierarchy and are thereby held in high regard.

T4G is no different really. The composition of this year’s lineup — all male, by the way — is somewhat similar to the Venn diagram above, with a similar ratio of speakers and panelists representing different constituencies.  Still, it seems to run to extremes here, with key leaders held in dangerously high esteem, and members of the rank and file working hard to be able to quote chapter and verse from their latest pronouncements. In a Q & A, someone asked via video if Albert Mohler would consider running for President of the United States. Was that tongue in cheek? I might have said ‘yes,’ were it not for the context.

Other main speakers included Kevin DeYoung, Mark Dever, John Piper, David Platt, Matt Chandler, John MacArthur, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Ligon Duncan. (These messages are soon to be posted.)

(As an aside, there was some discussion about a particular high-profile speaker who had recused himself from the conference several months earlier, but was then spotted on the front row, and as to whether you can have it both ways.)

The Gospel

There was definitely some great preaching. I would watch/listen to Kevin DeYoung a second time when that message comes online, and I am always personally challenged by the passion of David Platt.

But I’m always somewhat mystified by the constant references to “the gospel.” It reminds me of the movie The Princess Bride where Vizzini is constantly saying, “Inconceivable;” and finally in a scene Inigo Montoya finally says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The New Calvinists are constantly talking about “the gospel” and dare I say are obsessed with getting it right. But what particular aspect of this is in view? In my world, the gospel is Jesus. If we speak more about the good news, but not so much about the content of that evangel, then I think we’re allowing ourselves to be party to a mammoth distraction. It would be interesting to know what the word-count was for “Jesus” versus “gospel” in remarks made from the platform. 

(One of their number once used the term “real friends of the gospel” to describe New Calvinist churches, implying that others are not.)

In fairness, some of the sessions did address things like the need to share our faith, but you have to remember that this is a community that has historically looked askance at the seeker-sensitive strategy, abhors topical preaching and has been openly critical of anything involving the word missional. I believe that such a verbal witness would be constrained to somewhat limited parameters of their choosing.

Conclusion

I am thankful for the opportunity to get more than a passing glimpse into this particular event. If the option exists, I would definitely try to clear more time to watch in 2016. I think that as the larger, capital “B” Body of Christ, we really don’t know each other. There was some great preaching, and I have better insight into the core values and central issues for the constituencies represented at T4G. There is much we can learn from people of different denominational stripes, and I can only hope my Reformed brothers and sisters would tune in equally for a Wesleyan or Anabaptist or Charismatic convention. 

As an outsider, I am always concerned if the passing of time is bringing us — in this case Calvinists and non-Calvinists — closer together or farther apart. My hope is the former, but reality suggests the latter. As the group represented by T4G grows, I see it becoming more entrenched; there is increasing tribe/brand loyalty, a type of religious jingoism, increasing isolation; and all this is a loss for people on both sides of the divide.


Lighter moments: Check out the Twitter feed Not the T4G

Image: Church-At-Our House Graphics

Related: Defining Calvinism versus Arminianism

 

January 10, 2014

Friendly Advice to Megachurch Pastors: Take the Show on the Road

Greg Laurie Crusade Evangelism

For the last few days, I’ve been enjoying AHA, a forthcoming book by Kyle Idleman1. Reading it reminds me of his unique style that I first discovered in the H20 series, and then in Not a Fan. I’d be willing to travel to Southeast Church just to see him preach in person, but I’d be more thrilled if Kyle could make it to a city near our hometown sometime, so more of our friends could experience his ministry in person.

And that’s when it hit me.

So…

I have a message for Kyle Idleman
I have a message for Perry Noble
I have a message for Andy Stanley
I have a message for Steven Furtick
I have a message for J.D. Greear
I have a message for Jeff Manion
I have a message for Pete Wilson 2

…and anyone else who wants to join the list:

Take the show on the road.

Seriously. We have the example of Billy Graham, but we also have the practical logistics available from Greg Laurie3, who is one of the few megachurch pastors who also does crusade-style evangelism.

Preaching a sermon series is something that we as Evangelicals have mastered. Rethinking a single message might mean some fine tuning. Adjusting for an audience that isn’t as intimately familiar with you might require some local research.

But this thing is so doable. Think about it:

(a) Preaching to crowds? No brainer.
(b) Your books and online presence assures that you are known beyond your own community.
(c) Your reputation guarantees the ability to find local churches to partner with you or your church on local logistics and finances.
(d) You already block out a number of weeks for conference speaking; this is a horse of a different color, a crusade-style meeting (or meetings) which won’t take you away from your home church any more than you have already allotted for and will reach a demographic which doesn’t do conferences.

Some people4 have done this already, either as individual dates or as a road trip.

As someone who enjoys celebrating the next generation of authors, pastors and teachers, I offer this challenge because deep in my heart, I want to be able to mention your ministry and resources and then be able to add, “Coming soon to an auditorium near you.”


1 A full review will appear here closer to the March release date
2 Pete already does Promise Keepers, which involves a similar communication style to what I’m proposing
3 http://www.harvest.org/crusades/general-information/home.html
4 James MacDonald, for example

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