Thinking Out Loud

May 19, 2014

Classifying Christian Denominations

In the last several hundred years at least, we have placed Christians into one of three categories:

  • Orthodox
  • Roman Catholic
  • Protestant

Further refinement of the latter group, especially in the last fifty years or so, often results in something that looks like this:

  • Orthodox
  • Roman Catholic
  • Protestant
    • Mainline Protestant
    • Evangelical

In Australia, Evangelical is written as EPC: Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Charismatics. Separating Pentecostals from Evangelicals isn’t something I would want to do, but I can see something that looks like this:

  • Orthodox
  • Roman Catholic
  • Protestant
    • Mainline Protestant
    • Evangelical
      • Mainstream Evangelical
      • Charismatic

So where am I going with this?  The last five to ten years have seen an increased growth in, and increasing isolation by the New Reformed movement.  The Young, Restless and Reformed movement is militantly distancing itself from the rest of us. Do I place them as another breakout of Evangelical?

Because one would need to include the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in this, some would not permit me the luxury of including the Reformers under Evangelical, since CRC churches baptize infants, not adults.  So that leaves us with:

  • Orthodox
  • Roman Catholic
  • Protestant
    • Mainline Protestant
    • Reformed
    • Evangelical
      • Mainstream Evangelical
      • Charismatic

I really don’t like having to do this, but I feel this presents a more accurate picture of the way things stand in 2014.

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

 

March 21, 2014

Fred Phelps Passing: A Different Kind of Sorrow

fred-phelpsI’m writing this at 11:30 PM on Thursday night. Some major media outlets have noted the passing of Rev. Fred Phelps for almost twelve hours now, but coverage on Christian media has been spotty. Odd that the person who loved publicity and loved to play the media should pass in relative obscurity.

There have been a few smirks, but not everyone is gleeful. Phelps was despised and really still is despised. A comment at CNN’s religion blog reads, “To paraphrase a famous actress, ‘My mother said to only say nice things about the dead. He’s dead. How nice.’” A little cruel, a whole lot dry, but not exactly celebratory. As I write this, comments there have surpassed 17,000; I’m not sure what the number will be when you read this in the morning.  Similarly droll on Twitter: “Westboro Baptists flying the God Hates flag at half-mast today” (@plyrene).

The mainstream Christian community is mostly shrugging its shoulders. What to say? The question of how to respond is the theme of the few Christian blogs on the two Alltop blog aggregators (Alltop Church and Alltop Christian) that had mentioned Phelps’ passing.

At Christianity Today, Ed Stezer asks How Should We Respond?

…But, today, Fred Phelps learned that “because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God… The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8).

At Relevant Magazine Brandon Peach writes,

Temptation to dance on the grave of the godfather of grave-dancers is certain to crop up. However, as a church, we can choose to respond differently to the death of one who caused irreparable emotional and spiritual damage: with mercy, compassion and even pity.

Veteran religion journalist Cathy Lyn Grossman writes at Religion News Service,

The message he spread across the country never took root, and in fact helped galvanize the gay rights movement and put other Christians on the defensive. The image of Christianity he painted was a hateful, judgmental collection of rabble-rousers — an image that, paradoxically, did more to help his targets than it advanced his message.

Experts say Phelps’ ultimate legal and social impact on the American religious landscape will be a footnote. Religious leaders lament the damage they say he did to Christians who preach God’s love and mercy.

Counter response from several years ago

Counter response at Crosspoint Church in Nashville when WBC visited their church, Summer 2012

Jessica Ravitz, in a follow up piece at CNN’s Belief Blog also asks, Should We Celebrate Fred Phelps’ Death?  This is the first of three responses they published:

We reached out to several advocates for those who may have taken Phelps’ message most personally – Christians who are also gay – to see what they thought.

“The words and actions of Fred Phelps have hurt countless people. As a Christian, I’m angry about that, and I’m angry about how he tarnished the reputation of the faith I love so much,” Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network, said in an e-mail message.

“But as a Christian, I also believe in showing love to my enemies and treating people with grace even when they don’t deserve it,” he said. “I pray for his soul and his family just as I pray for those he harmed. It’s easy for me to love someone who treats me kindly. It’s hard for me to love Fred Phelps. To me, that’s the whole point of grace.”

The Christian Post came the closest among Christian websites to offer a more standard obituary, noting some of Phelps’ earlier days:

Outside of his work at Westboro, Phelps also earned a law degree at Washburn University in 1964.

Before being barred from the practice for being overly abusive to witnesses, Phelps worked as a civil rights attorney until 1979, where he once claimed that he had “systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town [Topeka, Kansas].”

Phelps was closely tied with Kansas’ Democratic Party, helping Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign. He also was invited to and attended both of Bill Clinton’s inaugurations, though the second time, he showed up as a protester.

A few days ago before his death, son Nate Phelps, who left the movement, wrote these words on his Facebook page:

I’ve learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr., pastor of the “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the “church” back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.

I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I’m bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes.

Nate, believe me, we share your sadness and sorrow.

Nothing to celebrate here.

February 11, 2013

Westboro: Two Phelps Family Members Flee

Megan Phelps-RoperTwo members of Fred Phelps’ family have exited Westboro Baptist Church including one who was considered an heir apparent to give greater leadership to the clan in the future.  Megan Phelps-Roper and her younger sister Grace have posted their news online and Megan has given several media interviews.

The Toronto Star reported last week:

“We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes,” wrote Megan Phelps-Roper. “What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.”

The Westboro Baptist Church was started in 1955 by Fred Phelps, Grace and Megan’s grandfather, exclusively for the Phelps family. The parish has been lambasted for protesting the funerals of American soliders, whom they claim died because of America’s acceptance of homosexuality.

The family gained notoriety after a 2007 BBC documentary by Louis Theroux, The Most Hated Family in America, was broadcast. Since then, they’ve gone on to protest at Michael Jackson’s funeral, gay pride parades and other churches. A White House online petition to have the church declared a hate group has garnered more than 330,000 signatures.

Megan Phelps-Roper, 27, was an active voice in the church; she spearheaded the church’s social media presence and was often the brain behind the controversial protests, including one in Newtown, Conn., after the Sandy Hook school shooting.

“She was the visible presence for the younger generation at that church, she was a leader,” said Nate Phelps, Megan’s uncle…

…“The rapid percentage of young people leaving has left this fragmented group,” Phelps told the Star, saying that the [church] has shrunk from 100 members to about 50. “Eventually this will die off. It can’t survive.”

continue reading here

In her online post, Megan Phelps-Roper demonstrates a very balanced perspective on her situation:

In a city in a state in the center of a country lives a group of people who believe they are the center of the universe; they know Right and Wrong, and they are Right. They work hard and go to school and get married and have kids who they take to church and teach that continually protesting the lives, deaths, and daily activities of The World is the only genuine statement of compassion that a God-loving human can sincerely make. As parents, they are attentive and engaged, and the children learn their lessons well.

This is my framework.

Until very recently, this is what I lived, breathed, studied, believed, preached – loudly, daily, and for nearly 27 years.

I never thought it would change. I never wanted it to.

Then suddenly: it did.

And I left.

Where do you go from there?

I don’t know, exactly. My sister Grace is with me, though. We’re trying to figure it out together.

continue reading here

The Christian Research Network points out a danger inherent in coming out from a group such as Westboro:

Here lies the tragedy of Megan’s story. In escaping a false, legalistic expression of Christianity, Megan Phelps-Roper finds herself without the saving truth of the gospel. Here it sounds as if she rapidly is wandering into a softer version of the common, yet damning, gospel of good works and a “right life.” And just as Westboro Baptist removed Jesus Christ from their message, so too is Megan Phelps-Roper, now separated from WBC, in danger of proclaiming a gentler message that is just as erroneous if it does not proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

continue reading here

In the view of Westboro, the sisters are now consigned to the same fate as those they regularly picket, they are going to hell. The Kansas City Star reported:

Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church, said in an interview Wednesday that the sisters had rejected the Lord.

“We can’t control whether or not somebody decides, when they grow up, that they don’t want to be here,” Drain said. “Those two girls were kind of straddling the idea that they wanted to be of the world but that they would also miss their family, the only thing they ever knew. If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, they’re going to hell.”

Megan and Grace are among 11 children of Brent and Shirley Roper, who is the daughter of Westboro pastor Fred Phelps.

continue reading here

In an article subtitle, Salon asks, “[W]here do kids raised in hate go now?” The article continues:

And now … two members of the Phelps clan have shown that old Phelps’ revolting influence may not persist into a new generation…

…It’s almost impossible to imagine what it must be like to be that deeply steeped in a culture that almost anyone on the outside looking in would understand to be reprehensible. How strange and confusing it must be to grow up loving and depending upon people who would stand outside a dead soldier’s funeral screaming…

…Megan says, “The environment we grew up in was very ‘us vs. them.’ It’s been nice to see that the ‘them’ have been overwhelmingly kind — as we’d kind of hoped and suspected.” Welcome to the other side of the picket line, Megan. Welcome home.

continue reading here

Indeed, welcome home.

Related article at Thinking Out Loud: The Westboro Children (story of Lauren Drain)

January 8, 2013

Protect the Brand at all Costs

Some of my best friends are from the Reformed tradition. Well, maybe not best friends, but you get the idea. Heck, I’ve even preached the Sunday morning sermon in a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and I wasn’t reading it off a website transcript as some of their own people are required.

While I don’t agree with five-point Calvinism per se, I am really into total depravity. (Maybe I should re-phrase that?) I regularly include links here to some bloggers who I know represent the various aspects of the Reformed tradition. And I can disagree violently with someone on Tuesday and included a link to one of their stories on Wednesday. I think that’s what attracts people here. I am committed to the idea of the “holy catholic church” even though I wish the framers of the apostles creed had used a different word than “catholic,” which in this context means worldwide or universal.

What I have issues with is Calvinist bloggers who only read their own authors, only quote their own leaders, only attend their own conventions, basically now only use their own (ESV) Bible translation, and — this is actually happening — only sing their own songs.  I have written before how a previous generation longed to see a coming together of The Body of Christ in unity and now we are seeing increased fragmentation. And this fragmentation even extends to exclusivity, which is a mark of cult faith. And the printed and online output by Calvinists is so out of proportion to their actual numbers that they tend to dominate everyone’s lists of best books and best blogs.  Basically, a doctrinal preference has become a fortress wall.

Kevin deYoung's BlogrollNearly five years ago on this blog, I observed that perhaps the issue is that while this brand of Christ-follower prefers to make a massive, prolific literary output, other brands of Christ-followers are out living their faith. (I should add that the Reformed bloggers are one of a number of groups disproportionately represented online.)

Enough lead-in. What sparked this today? Actually it was a post on The Wartburg Watch about Tim Challies’ glowing — dare we say sparklingreview of a new book by Mark Driscoll.  I’ll leave you to click through to see that TWW writers have identified the over-the-top superlatives used in this puff piece. Defend the brand at all costs! Power to the mutual admiration society! For the writers at TWW, something doesn’t ring true.

One of Tim‘s readers writes:

If anything Tim, you definitely know how to kick the hornets nest.. A fair review, but it builds up a man that has done much to divide the brethren.You’re blog traffic should explode now. The Driscolites are loving you.

and

No. A good review to a good book is acceptable. But there are plenty of good books on this subject, and it is a disservice to the church to fail to point out along with the good review that this man is unqualified for the ministry by his lack of dignity, poor character, weak doctrine, obsession with sex, misuse of Scripture and abusive leadership style.

and

I’m not sure how I feel about people continuing to speak of Driscoll and review his books favorably. It seems to me that he’s ventured into dangerous territory, both sexually and spiritually, and that other pastors would be wise to take a step back from endorsing him as a consequence.

and whatever comments Tim Challies chose not to share on the blog.

So what would I like to see? Let’s give Challies the benefit of the doubt and assume he enjoyed the book in question. But let’s also suggest that someone in the movement take a deep, deep breath, and take a big, big step back and look at where their movement is heading and say, “Do we really want to cut ourselves off from everyone else?”

‘Cause honestly guys, I think you’re better served with some of us than you are without us. And someday you may need us to defend you.

Use the TWW link to locate Tim’s review of the Driscoll book.

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