Thinking Out Loud

May 27, 2020

Drawing a Crowd Needn’t Be Seen as Problematic

In the past ten weeks, I’ve been doing more original writing at C201, than here at Thinking Out Loud. While I don’t want this to simply be a mirror site for the other one, I do want to share these here from time to time. This one appeared earlier this month…

Previous generations didn’t have the word, “megachurch.” Of course they didn’t have “televangelist” either. There were indeed large churches, however and there were preachers (George Whitefield is a good example) who preached to thousands — in the outdoors, no less — without the benefit of sound equipment. But we tend to look back favorably on those days, believing it was a matter of substance over style.

Today, we have popular preachers whose television ministries have huge followings and whose close-up pictures are plastered on the front cover of their books. (No, not just that one; I’m thinking of about six.)

The general conclusion at which people arrive is that they are getting those followers because they are saying what people want to hear. On close examination, it’s true that many of the hooks of their sermons and books are positive motivational sayings that also work on posters and coffee mugs.

For those of us who are insiders, we immediately default to the phrase itching ears. This is drawn from 2 Timothy 4:3

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. (NLT)

This true, probably more true now than ever, but the challenge for Christians today is that everyone who drives by a church with an overflowing parking lot is likely to jump to conclusions and declare that church liberal in their theology or empty of doctrines; or infer that people only go there for the music.

It’s true that Jesus warned his disciples they were not going to win a popularity contest. In Matthew 7: 13-14 he tells his disciples,

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”. (NIV)

and then immediately makes a statement about false teachers.

Jesus had his own fall from popularity when he began what I call the tough teachings and others call the “hard sayings.” A month ago I referred to “the ominously verse-referenced” John 6:66

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (NIV)

Many of you grew up in churches where you were told you were part of “the chosen few” a reference to Matthew 22:14

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (ESV)

Jesus told his disciples that they would experience rejection in some places. In Matthew 10:14 he is saying,

If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave. (NLT)

In other words, there is, at least in Evangelicalism, a mindset that says that we are a tiny remnant, and by extrapolation is suspicious of large crowds.

But there are exceptions.

I think of an American pastor who since Christmas has been walking his church through some very challenging sermons; raising the bar when it comes to expectations for both compassionate service and lifestyle evangelism. But he’s not off in a corner doing this, it’s one of the top ten churches in the U.S.

I think of two Canadian pastors, from two very different eras, who have a giftedness when it comes to taking Bible passage “A” and showing people how it relates to Bible passage “B.” I’ve seen both of them preach before thousands of people. It was far from “itching ears;” you had to work hard just to keep up with the note-taking, which is challenging when you’re sitting there with your mouth open going, “Wow!”

I think of Nicodemus who we characterize as coming to Jesus in secret. I was always taught that was the reason for his nighttime visit in John 3. But lately I read that the rabbis set aside the early evening for further discussion. He was coming back for the Q. and A. part of the teaching. He wanted more. I find him to be representative of people in the crowd who were there for all the right reasons. (Compare his motivation to that of Felix in Acts 24:25-26.) The itching ears crowd don’t come back for the evening service, the Tuesday morning Bible study, or the midweek prayer meeting.

The website Knowing Jesus has come up with more than 30 good examples of Jesus being surrounded by crowds. True, the Bible tells us that some of them were simply there for the miracle spectacle or the free lunches, but I’m sure that many of them were drawn to Jesus for greater, higher reasons. (There’s a limit to how many hours people will listen to teaching in order to get a fish sandwich lunch.)

So where did all this come from today? A friend posted this on Facebook. I’ve decided to delete the original author’s name.

His words appear deep, meaningful and mature, but indirectly he is lashing out against individuals or movements which are left unnamed. He’s implying that everyone who is drawing a big crowd is doing so at the expense of preaching the Word. I suspect his words land with people who are already on-side, so I don’t really get the point of posting things like this at all.

Furthermore, the inference is that the sign of a successful ministry is suffering, hardship and opposition.

Like so many things in scripture, there is a balance to be found.

In Matthew 5:14 +16, we find Jesus saying

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden”
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
(NASB)

If all you experience is suffering, hardship and opposition, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing everything right, but rather, it could be you’re doing something seriously wrong.

Oswald Smith wrote the hymn which begins:

There is joy in serving Jesus
As I journey on my way
Joy that fills my heart with praises
Every hour and every day

I really hope that’s your experience as well.

 

August 20, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Christian Coke

Time for your midweek break and some news and opinion pieces you may have missed:

Paul Wilkinson is available to speak or sing on any dates you had previously booked with Mark Driscoll, Vicky Beeching or Gungor and may be contacted through his blogs, Thinking Out Loud and Christianity 201.

March 23, 2014

“We are the final arbiters of what God can use.”

Yesterday I made the mistake of wading in to the comment section of a blog which was very dismissive of a recently-released Christian film. The movie takes on a rather difficult subject and involves some doctrinal positions on which all might not agree. But ultimately, it’s a story of a young man’s courage in the face of spiritual opposition and his willingness to attempt to rise to the challenge and defend his faith in God’s existence.

The blog in question was agreeing with another blog that had totally dismissed the film. Completely. No redeeming qualities. Nothing of worth. I wrote,

…I can easily imagine a demographic who would be greatly encouraged by it, especially pre-university students.  It is, after all, the stuff youth group movies are made of.

And in that sense, this particular picture follows a long line of similar films. Not perfect. Definitely flawed. Scenes we would have written differently. Characters that might have been more developed. A plot line that seems contrived.

But isn’t that the basis of all Christian fiction? Doesn’t each novel begin with a plot contrivance that moves the story along? Aren’t all Christian novels and movies likely candidates for debate as to their spirituality?

I then wrote,

This type of review is simply all too-dismissive, and that’s where credibility is lost. Apparently there is absolutely nothing redeeming in this film. I totally get the reviewers concerns — perhaps the script is indeed rather lame in several places — but within the range of English communication there’s got to be a way to express those caveats that is less dogmatic, less damning.

And then I got attacked.

I should say that I have seen a couple of different previews of the film, so my remarks were not made in a vacuum, but I made the mistake of conceding I had not seen the full production, and that only provided a further opening.

And then I just felt sad.

I should never have commented on this particular blog. I am clearly an outsider. I am an outsider because I don’t go along with the party line, I don’t add my “like” the established consensus.

I think for myself.

I covered a lot of this fifteen months ago in a piece called Protect the Brand at all Costs. I guess I just needed a reminder of what I wrote at that time:

What I have issues with is … bloggers who only read their own authors, only quote their own leaders, only attend their own conventions, basically now only use their own 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.

There was a link to a review of the movie that raises the serious concern that the apologetics used in the film are weak and won’t withstand criticism in the real world. I can see that only because I see that happening in all our apologetic attempts. Some of our best books and many of our best arguments do have vulernabilities. That’s why someone so correctly observed that ‘it’s not any one argument that wins over skeptics, seekers, atheists and agnostics, it’s all the arguments combined.’

But to dismiss another person’s offering of their best to God in the form of what was no doubt a costly and time-consuming project is to me even more dangerous. As I learned in church this morning, there is a difference between judging and passing judgment. (Matt. 7:1-5, Romans 2:1)

The latter reference reads this way in The Message Bible:

1-2 Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.

Defend your own brand if you feel you must. But don’t call another man’s work trash.

December 9, 2011

Preaching in Your Pajamas*

No, this isn’t about a recurring nightmare that your pastor has, although, as a regular in a church orchestra, I can honestly say I had the dream where I was sitting among my fellow church musicians in sleepwear. 

Nor is this a rant about the trend in the last 20-30 years of preachers losing the three piece suit, or at least the jacket and tie.  That shipped sailed long ago.  While I agree with the maintaining respect or decorum for the ‘spiritual office’ of pastor, I also appreciate that the slightly more casual look is (a) more welcoming to visitors and (b) more affirming of the principle that the pastor is a human like the rest of us.

Years ago, in order to catch a piece of history, I visited The Vineyard church in Yorba Linda, California while the late John Wimber was the pastor.  (If the trend in my Charles Shultz and Bil Keane pieces holds up, someone will now turn up in the comments section to speak ill of Wimber.  Trashing the deceased is apparently acceptable now, to some anyway.)  Wimber was also a musician, so he was playing in the worship band and was probably the last person you would pick out as being the one who was about to deliver the sermon.  Dressed in a sky blue jogging outfit or track suit, he then got up and gave a passionate message for the better part of an hour, and if you walked away only remembering the way he was dressed, you probably needn’t have bothered to go at all.

I say all this because, as part and parcel of the ongoing Rick Warren bashing, I’ve noticed a few people talking about his Hawaiian shirts.  I’m not sure if he still wears them on a regular basis, or if it’s just a stereotype, but it appears to some these shirts represent less than the minimum standard for a respectable pastor.

I’m not so sure, however.  I keep thinking back to Wimber and wondering if maybe it’s just a Southern California thing, something reflective of west coast culture. Of a pastor who is trying to connect with the local culture in order to, as the Apostle Paul put it, “win some.”

It also occurs to me that some of the Warren bashers have run out of things to say, and in the process have noticed that despite their ravings, Warren and Saddleback haven’t gone away, so they fire a cheap shot across the bow that’s in the spirit of, “Your maternal parent wears military footwear.”  Or the virus that got into my computer years ago and sent people a note that simply said, “You are fat;” hoping to strike injury at some deepest level. By their clothing ye shall know them.

Makes you wonder who is really showing up for church in their p.j.’s… and perhaps their recurring nightmare should be the one where they are keying in their latest hate rant on their blog and suddenly realize they have absolutely nothing to say.

*For the record, I originally titled this “Preaching in Pyjamas” using the spelling I grew up with in Canada, and the one known to my UK readers; but again my spellchecker would have none of it; so in concession to the sheer numbers of my U.S. readers, I caved, but only for numeric reasons; the Brits did (literally) invent the language after all.

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