Thinking Out Loud

April 13, 2013

Book Review: The Faith of Leap

The Faith of LeapI am a huge fan of missional church planters Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, and even though The Faith of Leap isn’t a new title, I asked our friends at Graf-Martin (a book publicity agency) if they could track one down for me

There is a particular paragraph that I wish I had marked because Michael and Alan say it so much better, but essentially the message of this book is that local church congregations can move beyond simply gathering once a week to sing songs and listen to a sermon; and can actually team together in partnership to accomplish greater things.  This life of risk they call liminality, and the result is the church moves from community to communitas.

Late in the book, they also suggest that every person in every church can follow the command to “go” because “go” might mean “go deeper” into the heart of the neighborhood where that church is located. Either way, the book is a call to adventure; a call to churches to take a leap of faith driven by possessing the faith of leap.

…I mentioned that I was reading this to a local pastor who noted that Hirsch and Frost repeat a lot of material from book to book. This is true here, they do quote previous works frequently. However, I would recommend this book for anyone who has never read their material before, it is absolutely certain to challenge pastors, church leaders, and people like you and me.

March 18, 2013

Rob Bell Returns to Mars Hill Grand Rapids

Filed under: books — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:23 am

To kick off his book tour for What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell returned to Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids last Sunday, and this week the sermon was posted online so the rest of us could experience it. 

Rob Bell 2013To his credit, although he was given complete freedom to speak about anything, he asked the church what their current sermon series was, and was told they were doing a “Seven Deadly Sins” series and if he wanted to jump in, he would draw the sermon on sloth. Yes, sloth. Nothing Bell has ever been accused of. He brings his own trademark stamp to this topic, albeit frequently returning to additional personal updates and references to his own enigmatic character.

He began with a story about failing his first attempt at a California driver’s license; the problem being his penchant for “questioning the questions.” Why does this not surprise me? Well, at least he’s consistent.

In the first part of the sermon, he discussed his recent journey; which I thought was probably considerate of people who have joined the church since his departure. If I can somewhat paraphrase his remarks, he stated that people want to talk about their brokenness, their personal struggles; but that as he was serious about treating these concerns the way Jesus would, he discovered that when we let these circumstances shape us, they become relevant to the larger question of what it means to be human. What next happens is that this type of discussion enlarges the circle of people who want to engage the topic, and you suddenly find yourself speaking to a much larger audience.

He also talked about the television project that he has under development and the live audience got to see a 90-second trailer for which we are at least treated to the audio soundtrack.

…I recognize that Bell is controversial and I don’t want to review the entire sermon — nor do I think people should do sermon reviews — so if you wish to listen, here is the link.  Just clicking the Mars Hill sermon page and hearing a Rob Bell sermon is like trying on an old pair of shoes! It runs about 43 minutes.

Also, I’m about a quarter of the way through the new book. I’m also reading another book concurrently, so this may take awhile, but I’ll have more comments next week.

January 21, 2013

Where Have All The Church Planters Gone?

Recently C. Michael Patton at the blog Parchment and Pen wrote about the decline of the Emerging church.

…[T]oday things have changed. No one blogs about it. No one claims the name anymore. No publisher would dare accept a book about the emerging “thing” that happened in the forgotten past. Why? because around the year 2009, the identity of the emerging church went silent and many (some, enthusiastically) put up gravestone over its assigned plot. In fact, I even paid my respects.

I want to look at something else that I believe is running parallel to the decline of the Emergents or Emergings: The decline of the church planters.

Church Plant

Church Plant

If Patton’s analysis is right, visibility of all things Emerging ran from 1994 to 2009.  That’s 15 years. One thing I really liked about this was the number of people who suddenly took an interest in ecclesiology. The number of lay people who were willing to step out and plant. The number of young(er) clergy who were willing to resign from secure positions and take church to the inner city or to new suburban housing tracts.

Patton is right to mention publishing. An explosion of new books issued forth from major evangelical publishing houses which were studied by people who had heretofore never taken an interest in how the local church functions, with the result that both clergy and laity created a host of new models many of which were customized for unique local needs and situations.

And at the same time as new churches were popping up in gymnasiums, restaurant meeting rooms and private houses, a movement for greater awareness of social justice issues was impacting the Evangelical community at large, with many of the new upstart churches leading the charge.

We had some friends over on the weekend. Remember, even though I live in the shadow of Toronto, Canada; our hometown’s population is only about 17,000. And yet, as we caught our friends up on the recent issue of alternative church movements in our location, we counted about nine different bodies which sprang up between 2000 and 2010 — including one each for both my wife and I — some of which are still going.

But lately not so much planting has been taking place.

Right now, the dominant model is to simply become a satellite campus for a much larger church. Rent a theater with a 10-foot (3 meter) dish for down-linking live sports and entertainment events. Or pop in the DVD or flash drive with the recording of last week’s sermon at the mother church.  No wonder some people — slightly tongue in cheek I suspect — suggest that in 20 years there will only be a hundred pastors in the U.S. with everyone else picking up a live or recorded feed from the host churches. (And by host church, that doesn’t mean megachurch, since technically, the messages could be recorded in a studio with no live audience.)

I miss the days of rogue church planting. Part one of the gospel is “taste and see.” Part two is “go and tell.” I miss the wild stories Michael Frost told of churches planted in west-coast shoe stores, among water-skiers on the Pine River, and over red-wine-and-pizza discussion groups hashing out religion, philosophy, politics and the latest books; groups which possessed more solid orthodoxy than you might suspect. I miss the emphasis on candle-lighting versus darkness-cursing. I miss the whole, “Hey, let’s start a church” mentality.

Patton might argue the many of the plants never fully ‘took.’

There was no runway on which to land and the emerging plane did not even have landing gear. The deconstruction happened with no plans of reconstructing. The emerging journey became an endless flight that did not have any intention on setting down anywhere. Many people jumped out, skydiving back home. The rest, I suppose, remained on the plane until it ran out of gas.

But then he concedes — and I’ll give him the last word on this — that the movement is forgotten but not gone:

But certain aspects of the ethos of the emerging church should be within all of us. We should never be satisfied with the status quo. We should always be asking questions and bringing into account our most fundamental beliefs. We need to identify with the culture at the same time as holding on to the past. I believe that Robert Webber, though never really called an emerger, was a great example of our continued need to reform. His Ancient-Future Faith was a great example of how we can hold on to, respect, learn from, and identify with our past, yet push forward into an exciting future.

September 28, 2012

Giving Your Church What They Prefer Over What They Need

Matt Marino is an Episcopal Priest who spent 17 years with Young Life.  He dares to pose a question that’s being heard more and more recently,

What’s so uncool about cool churches?

[This is a teaser, you are strongly advised to click the link above and read the whole article, which has so far attracted over 100 comments.]

They ask for more and more, and we give it to them. And more and more the power of God is substituted for market-driven experience. In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

  1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?)
  2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing...
  3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventors of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publicly repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity...
  4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.
  5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation.We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches:ure.
    • Concert hall (worship)
    • Comedy club (sermon)
    • Coffee house (foyer)
  6. Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subcult
  7. “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization:  It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.
  8. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

continue reading the whole article here.

As I prepared this, I thought of point number eight in light of my ‘online’ church home, North Point. There are only two worship songs, and further worship is relegated to Thursday nights every other month. But even those nights simply mirror what happens on Sunday morning, which is itself an extension of the youth ministry model.

Some youth are not happen with the state of the church, and are seeking an entirely different model, as we wrote last week.  Other teens and twenty-somethings are simply leaving, as we noted two weeks ago. So there are issues that need to be addressed as to the sustainability of the present models within student ministry; but also larger implications for an entire assembly or congregation.

Among the comments at Matt’s article:

  • Being hip isn’t the problem you’re addressing, its the lack of content which plagues both cool (too much focus on preference for entertainment) and uncool (to much focus on preference for tradition)
  • What matters isn’t what the preacher wears, whether there is coffee, whether there is a rock band or an orchestra or just a piano, is the FRUIT.
  • “Guitar Praise — Just Like Guitar Hero, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Praise Ponies — Just Like My Little Pony, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Testamints — Just like Altoids, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Christian Chirp — Just like Twitter, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “GodTube — Just like YouTube, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Seek & Find” — Just like Google Search, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
    “Johnny Hammer — Just like Justin Beiber, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
  • Your biggest draw, which is providing a loving community where all kids can belong, is completely lost when your church preaches a bigoted message on homosexuality.
  • We assemble to worship, serve, please and praise God. It’s all about HIM! Not us. Smoke machines, guitars, pianos, lasers, and flashing lights? Why? Does this please God? Is it what he’s asked for? Or is it a ploy to bring more bodies in? Hey, I am all for trying to get more souls in the pews, but let’s do it in a way that doesn’t put make-up on God.
  • A good church cannot be determined by its “style” of worship. What is important? Shouldn’t a church be judged by things like its theology, its teaching, its mission, the fellowship and growth of its people, whether people come to God and become closer to God?

September 26, 2012

Wednesday Link List

We either start off with really serious issues and end with something silly, or we do it the other way around. Today leads off with the latter:

Okay, we need some serious links also, right?

Not enough links for you? The new Top 200 Church Blogs list is out.

August 25, 2012

Kent Dobson Succeeds Rob Bell at Mars Hill Grand Rapids

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:13 am

First, Rob Bell was on the pastoral staff at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, working under Pastor Ed Dobson. Then he departed to start Mars Hill and as the story goes, launched the first Sunday with over 1,000 present to hear the first of a year long series on Leviticus.  Yes, Leviticus. For one year. “That’s in all the church growth books, right?” Bell has quipped.

This week, Mars Hill Bible Church announced that Ed Dobson’s son, Kent Dobson would assume the senior teaching pastor position. The Dobsons are both no strangers to Mars Hill; the elder often occupying a place in the congregation after leaving Calvary Church, the younger serving as a worship director in the church’s early years.

More details in this Christianity Today story.

Like the person he is replacing, Kent Dobson is no stranger to controversy as outlined in this 2008 local news story.

June 13, 2012

Wednesday Link List

Did you catch the weekend link list? Lots of good stuff there, and here, too.

  • First link today is long — I didn’t get through all five pages — but it’s interesting: When we think of unreached people groups, we tend to think of groups that are marginalized, but Eric Metaxas says we should also consider reaching the elites. (Hey, that’s easy for him now that he’s preached the Presidential Prayer Breakfast…)
  • Brad Lomenick Skypes with worship songwriter Tim Hughes in London. Tim serves on staff at HTB, the birthplace of The Alpha Course.
  • Really enjoying the Phil Vischer podcast with Skye Jethani.  Episode two is now available to download or stream live.
  • Shai Linne is a Christian rap artist who, “eloquently explains the trinitarian nature of salvation with poetic clarity.”  Check out the video for Triune Praise.
  • Revell Publishing will issue a biography from Patty Mallette, aka Justin Bieber’s mom. “…a teen mom who had to overcome a drug and alcohol addiction; she now believes God gives second chances. The book is titled Nowhere But Up.
  • The SCL’s keep on coming: Here’s 12 Signs You Attend a Suburban Church.
  • When Jared Wilson left Nashville for rural Vermont, he was told the move was a real career killer.  But, reminded by Tim Keller, we need to jettison the mindset that small(er) town ministry is second rate.
  • InterVarsity Press’ Andy LePeau cites a study that shows enhanced (interactive) ebooks actually yield lower comprehension.
  • Truthinator posted a “parody of Emergent Church Planting” at Xtra Normal a few years too late, but we through it in here anyway.
  • Dan Gouge points out that for some people, the final takeaway from the tsunami in Japan is that Maru the cat survived.
  • Marriage Corner: Some people feel that patriarchy is based on pragmatics: “Somebody has to make the final decision. Somebody has to break the tie.” Richard Beck thinks there are not that many tie votes. (See all submissions — pun accidental — in this synchroblog series here.)
  • Should you date a non-Christian? I think you know where this is going. “Don’t misunderstand me here. You’re not looking for a saint, but you are looking for someone with a hungry heart for Jesus. If that’s present, Jesus will take care of the rest.”  The reasons are practical.
  • Looking for a smile today? Here’s a video and some analysis of what could be the worst eschatological song ever.
  • Gotta go…time for some food:

February 15, 2012

Wednesday Link List

First, two strongly related links:

  • Author Mike Breen guests at Verge Network with Obituary for the American Church.  He notes three factors responsible for killing the church, celebrity, consumerism and competition.
  • Rachel Held Evans guests at Relevant Magazine with a particular focus on the celebrity mindset in the church, check out When Jesus Meets TMZ.

Other links this week:

December 30, 2011

Rob Bell: The Goat Has Left The Building

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:26 am

Rob Bell: The Final Word

No, we’re not calling Rob an old goat.  It’s a reference to an early sermon series on Leviticus that was also preached at Willow Creek, which is approximately where Rob appeared on our radar many years ago. A bit of an in-joke I’ll admit.

But on December 18th, Rob gave his final address to Mars Hill Bible Church in Granville, Michigan; which he titled, Dear Mars Hill and spoke about the power of a letter.  Just think, if John Piper was there he could have said, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  But I digress.

You can catch the download from the menu of recent sermons at this page, or for all you non-downloaders who would rather see a .pdf file of the printed text — not to mention discernment ministries that might want a copy to mark up with red pen — you can catch that at this link.

To Rob and Kristen: Looking forward to the next chapter.

To everyone else: Yes, Rob Bell has left.  Really.  And someone knows this for sure.

March 1, 2011

Rob Bell — Straying From Traditional Evangelicalism: How Far is Too Far?

On January 21st, I mentioned that through a series of circumstances I had obtained a very advance copy of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived (March 29, 2011, HarperCollins, Hardcover.)  In that brief article, I suggested that by the end of March, social media are going to have a field day with this title because of its controversial subject.

I was wrong.

According to this article posted at Christianity Today over the weekend, the fur has already started flying even before key players are getting their hands on advance print copies of the book (something I’ve been told to expect in my mail within the next two weeks.) In fairness, I need to say that I doubt any of this has come as a great surprise to Rob Bell himself. I don’t see him sitting at his computer in Grand Rapids saying, “Oh, look at this! These guys apparently don’t see it this way.”

On the other hand, many of those entering into the discussion are doing so solely on the basis of the brief publisher blurb online.   Well, actually that’s been online for awhile. The weekend brought the promotional video, which you can view at Justin Taylor’s February 26th post, along with an update that the topic of  Bell’s book — and a discussion of Bell himself — has been added to the agenda of The Gospel Coalition’s April national conference, a constituency whose orthodoxy is rarely questioned, but a constituency that is probably among the easiest to offend. (They probably considered burning him in effigy, but couldn’t get the local fire department to grant a permit.) Apparently Bell has been official designated a “problem” to be dealt with.

First of all, for the two or three of you who don’t have Flash Drive and can’t watch the video clip; and the two or three hundred of you who didn’t bother to  click, here is the text of the video that’s causing the stir, plus a few extra paragraphs:

Several years ago we had an art show at our church. I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking and we invited artists to display their paintings and poems and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling.

But not everyone.

Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece

of paper they had written: ‘Reality check: He’s in hell.’

Really?

Gandhi’s in hell?

He is?

We have confirmation of this?

Somebody knows this?

Without a doubt?

And they decided it was their responsibility to let the rest of us know?

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person will suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?

Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few, finite years of life?

This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God, it raises questions about the beliefs themselves-

Why them?

Why you?

Why me?

Why not him or her or them?

If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape? How does a person end up being one of the few?

Chance?

Luck?

Random selection?

Being born in the right place, family, or country?

Having a youth pastor who ‘related better to the kids?’

God choosing you instead of others?

What kind of faith is that?

Or more importantly:

What kind of God is that?

And why is it that whenever someone claims that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed-and everybody else isn’t-why is it that the people who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s ‘in?’

Have you ever heard somebody make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not one of them?

I recently heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her: “So there’s no hope then.”

No hope?

Is that the Christian message?

“No hope?”

Is that what Jesus offers the world?

Is this the sacred calling of a Christian: to announce that there’s no hope?

~ Rob Bell, from an unedited copy of chapter one “What About the Flat Tire?” from Love Wins

Since I intend to return to this a few more times in the next few weeks, I’ll just point out a few of the other comments from the weekend:

Aaron Armstrong (after whom the 1.5V batteries are named)  at Blogging Theologically writes:

In his previous books and tours, Bell has often been… squishy regarding his take on the wrath of God (even going so far as to reinterpret God’s wrath as a feeling of grief mixed with a desire to reconnect and restore). Indeed, he’s been so ambiguous that it’s caused a great many pastors and theologians to ask the question: Is he a universalist?

With this book it seems we might have an answer, in much the same way Brian McLaren dropped his pretense of trying to remain orthodox in A New Kind of Christianity.

However, I don’t know if it’s safe to say that for certain because, well, the book hasn’t been released yet. Because the material is in Bell’s typically ambiguous style so it can be taken one of two ways:

  1. He is playing “Devil’s Advocate” (oh, how I loathe that term) and presenting legitimate questions
  2. The trajectory he’s been on for years has reached it’s destination and he’s outright abandoned the gospel

Meanwhile Jeremy Bouma writing at Novus Lumen and living himself in Grand Rapids hasn’t received his advance copy yet, but decided to revisit some of Bell’s earlier works. He writes:

While some have speculated that it is universalism through and through—I have on good authority that this is the case—a recent re-read of Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis, suggests this has been his trajectory for at least 7 years.

He includes a couple of quotations from that book that are worth re-examination through the filter of recent developments.  His article also links to the blog Signature Entertainment, which has a more tempered view of things:

I’m not sure if Rob is going to take it as far as “hell is non-existent”, but the one thing that Bell seems to do well is walk the line of controversy, yet remain a consistent voice that challenges the Evangelical community. The best example of this is in Velvet Elvis where Rob Bell uses the example of questioning the Virgin birth to make a case for deconstructing one’s faith, even though he doesn’t actually make the claim that Jesus was not born of a Virgin.

I would agree that Bell loves to tease his audience. The following may or may not be part of the final manuscript, but certainly causes the reader to wonder which afterlife is up:

The apostle Paul wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians that ‘the Day’ the prophets spoke of, the one that inaugurates life in the age to come, will ‘bring everything to light’ and ‘reveal it with fire,’ the kind of fire that will ‘test the quality of each person’s work.’ Some in this process will find that they spent their energies and efforts on things that won’t be in heaven-on-earth. ‘If it is burned up,’ Paul wrote, ‘the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved, even though only as one escaping through the flames.’

Flames in heaven.

And while we’re teasing you, here’s a direct copy of two sentences in the version I have:

Do I believe in a literal hell?

Of course.

…But I need to tell you that I’ve cut and pasted that totally out of context. (I mean, you don’t want a bunch of spoilers, do you?)  And in case you’re wondering, yes, Chapter Three, “Hell,” does address the story of we know as “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  It’s a different response than you’ve heard in other sermons to be sure, but at the end of the day, Bell does indeed affirm “… the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”

Chapter Three is in many ways the cornerstone of the entire book, and I’m reluctant to provide more of it here; and frankly, once the book is in the stores, I hope others won’t excerpt bits of it either. I say that simply because Bell’s argument has a rhythm and cadence of its own, and to just edit bits of it for a review is akin to editing a few bars out of a symphony. I’m not saying that I agree with all its conclusions, or even that its conclusions are overt and plain, but there is a passion to this particular argument that you need to experience in its full context.

You’ll probably not agree with everything, but you won’t be the same after you’ve finished reading.

Note to the 99.99% of people who won’t get an advance review copy of the book:  All of this discussion is valid and needful. But make sure it stays focused on the issues. Some of those who you will read online have come into this discussion with their minds already made up about Bell and have been looking for an opportunity to run him, figuratively speaking, out of town. The issue of Christian Universalism is a very serious and crucial issue and we need to stay on that issue, and not allow the personality or preaching style of an individual pastor to sidetrack us from gaining deeper understanding of what the Bible might be saying.

Other pre-reading comments: Josh Reich at Missional Thoughts, the blog Episcopal Café, the blog Arminian Today which sees Bell as deliberately provocative and publicity-seeking, and Maggie Dawn who relegates Bell to someone “engaging people with Christianity at entry level.”

Related post: John Shore uses an XtraNormal text-to-video to bring the conflicting views into sharp focus.

This blog post contains elements of an early version of the book which may not be part of the final copy.

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