Thinking Out Loud

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

 

April 20, 2013

New Calvinists Must Support the Brand at all Costs

There are many different nuances of meaning to the term propaganda, but one has to do with “what a group or organizations says about itself.”  While self-promotion is not a crime, there are times when there is simply no need for it, and one of those is in the area of Bible translation.  By all means do all marketing necessary to introduce your version. This is a subject that will deeply affect a high percentage of Christ-followers, so tell your story.

I love the book How to Choose a Bible Translation for all Its Worth by Mark Strauss and Gordon Fee. Yes, it’s published by Zondervan, but it is full of raw transparency as the translators wrestle over difficult decisions in making the original text understood by English speakers today. Recently I reviewed The Story of The Voice, a translation so remarkably different that the backstory is a delight to read, especially to see how much this new generation of translators revered, of all translations, the KJV.

Why Our Church Switched to the ESVBut you have to be careful if you are both publisher and beneficiary, and if your translation has already been in the market for many years, one also might question why a propagandist title like Why Our Church Switched to the ESV by Kevin DeYoung needs to be written at all.  But to question that is to not appreciate the need the New Reformers have to be seen defending the brand at all costs, and the ESV is definitely the default Bible translation brand for the New Reformed. 

I wrote about their brand loyalty here several months ago; and for the lesser lights in the movement, spiritual brownie points are earned by constantly re-blogging and re-Tweeting the writing of those more recognizable; many of whom themselves are constantly copy-and-pasting the writings of those higher up the Reformed hierarchy.

In reviewing DeYoung’s answer to the ‘Why” question, Derek Ouellette finds some inconsistencies in deYoung’s translation standards.  DeYoung also points out that his church switched to ESV from the NIV, and limits the book to a comparison of the two, at the expense of all other possible options. So by design, a book like this is going to have an anti-NIV orientation. Ouellette notes,

Anybody moderately versed in the Bible can hold two translations up and compare selected verses to show why one is better than another. The average reader will not have a counter-comparision book on hand which is why she or he should read a book like this with caution.

Choosing a BibleMy comment would simply be that this is not the first time around for Crossway to publish a book of this nature.  Leland Ryken’s 2005 book Choosing a Bible — same publisher, same price, same 32 pages — was similarly biased.  The publisher blurb states:

Leland Ryken introduces readers to the central issues in this debate and presents several reasons why essentially literal–word-for-word– translations are superior to dynamic equivalent– thought-for-thought–translation. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to recognize the need for a quality Bible translation.

Yes, and you don’t need to be a theologian to know propaganda when you see it, do you? The “dynamic equivalent” translation in view here is, nine times out of ten, going to be the NIV.

I realize that Why Our Church Switched… isn’t exactly a new release, but Derek Ouellette’s look at it reminded me that people need to be discerning about what motivates people to publish this and other similar things.  A good Bible translation will rise and fall on its own merits, and doesn’t need an apologetic serveral years down the road.

A verse that comes to mind here is Proverbs 27:2, and just to show there’s no hard feelings, I’ll quote it in the ESV:

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
    a stranger, and not your own lips.

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.

June 5, 2012

“I Don’t Like It, But I Need a Theological Reason”

The comments section was fairly quiet yesterday, but off the blog it was a different story…

…anyway, I decided as promised to reprint the further foray into yesterday’s topic that actually appeared in the comments section…

It began with this comment, which I did not approve:

I’ve read more informative commentary on the place mats at Burger King.

I wasn’t trying to restate the story of Tim Challies blog review of Ann Voskamp’s book because I thought the article at her.meneutics spelled out everything so clearly. Did you click through? Out of hundreds of page views early yesterday, only a handful of people actually clicked through to read the story.

I wasn’t originally trying to provide a lot of commentary , I just wanted to share the story; I think Ann’s response was very Christ-like and very consistent with what I saw of her on the interviews at 100 Huntley Street. (Linked in my ‘overview’ of the book which is linked here.)

But since you asked so nicely…

Mark 9:38-41 — Common English Bible (CEB)

Recognize your allies

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

39 Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. 40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us. 41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

I think the type of person who is going to have great issues with this book is probably the same type of person who has issues with The Shack. I can be more objective here because while I was — once the smoke cleared and I’d settled my own position —  very supportive of Paul Young’s book; I saw Ann’s as more of a women’s book and I’m sure the sales figures bear that out to the point where I think only a woman can provide a really thorough review of it.

But we tend to shy away from anything that’s not produced from within “our group.” (See Mark 9, above.) My own research has shown that in any particular community, no matter how much media and marketing is given to a particular book title; it will sell so much a better if a local pastor endorses the book from the pulpit; more so if it quotes a particular translation or appears under the imprint of a particular publisher.

The church has long resisted change and innovation, and Ann Voskamp’s book, her blog, her style of public speaking is very unique; very much who she is.

I find that frequently the church is awakened by the sound of a different voice; I also find that even those whose message may have some rough meters and uneven cadences causes us to think more than those with a skillfully crafted prose that is the same as every other speaker and writer. (Though I am not at all saying that Ann Voskamp’s writing is not beautifully structured; but it is unlike everything else currently on offer.)

Tim Challies writes,

She either quotes or is influenced by authors like Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Annie Dillard, and Dallas Willard. This brings to the book a deep-rooted mysticism that at times seems even to border on the view that the divine exists within and extends to all parts of nature (a teaching known as panentheism). At heart, mysticism promotes the view that God can be experienced, and perhaps even best experienced, outside of Scripture.

Tim Challies cited as problematic Ann’s having been influenced by ‘mystics’ like Henri Nouwen and Dallas Willard. Again, I’m not a fan of Willard; we did one of his curriculum DVD series on Sunday nights and it just didn’t connect with me. But I have to allow some respect for the pastor who thought this would be good for our people, and the publishing company that vetted his material. I am simply not automatically predisposed to dismiss certain writers out of hand if other people I know draw great value from their perspective.

And is the revelation we have of God absolutely limited to the revelation in scripture? Do we know things (that are truth) about God extra-Biblically? That’s been debated for centuries. I would argue that all things taught must line up with scripture, but beyond that I am cautiously open.

So I have no built-in bias toward Ann, the book, or the writers who have influenced her; and that said, I still defend her right to have a place at the conversation table for Christian women; and I also place a certain degree of confidence in her publisher, Zondervan, who are ironically the publisher of one of Tim Challies’ books.

…A couple of weeks ago, Jack, a guy in our community passed away. Jack attended a “King James Only” church his whole life, but he seemed a little too “open” and too intelligent to buy into the so-called doctrinal reasons for clinging to that translation. So I asked him. He just smiled and looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s just preferences. That’s all it is; preferences.”

And that’s really all it is in this case.

Referring to a chapter where Ann compares intimacy with God to sexual ecstasy, Challies says,

Sometimes it is best to allow God to define the parameters of our metaphors rather than taking them to a much greater extent. Voskamp would have done well to limit herself here.

If this is true, what do we do with the “not safe but good” Aslan in Narnia? That was a stretch, to say the least.

He goes on,

Why should she have to travel to a Roman Catholic cathedral in a foreign land in order to truly experience the Lord?

If travel is an issue, what are to do with summer camp ministries, where we remove children from familiar influences in order for them to see themselves and see God in a different environment? What are we to do with the testimonies of those who have truly “found” God in the middle of a brothel, or a casino, or even in the midst of a truly false cult? The Psalmist said, “If I make my bed in hell, you are there.” Is the problem that it was a Catholic cathedral? In fact, are not our greatest experiences of worship and understanding often while we’re away from our routines and comfortable surroundings?

He concluded,

I fear that some will see that Voskamp subtly promotes a higher order of holiness, a higher order of relationship with God, and be dissatisfied that they do not have this for themselves.

Is that not true on some level of each and every Christian book we read? Every church service we attend? Every sermon podcast we listen to? Yes, there is always that “Monday morning letdown;” that return to reality that happens after the spiritual high from Sunday’s service. But 167 hours later, we go back; we go on retreat weekends; we buy another Christian book, because we want to be inspired.

One Thousand Gifts is probably not my kind of book. But as my friend Jack would say, “That’s just preferences;” and if you’re going to let your personal preferences get in the way, then don’t consider yourself in any way an objective book reviewer of Henri Nouwen or Brennan Manning or The Shack. or One Thousand Gifts.

The principle of noblesse oblige also applies to people who have been given a huge platform, either in their books, their pastorate or their blog. You must conduct yourself and know that your words will be judged by a higher standard. The very first response, the default response to those outside “our group” must be a gracious one; especially when we propose to judge the entire tenor of someone else’s ministry.

Placing too much in one particular blogger’s approval or disapproval of something, “in its own subtle way I believe that it can and will prove dangerous, at least to some.”

Or as the scriptures say, “Not many of you should presume to write book reviews.” It’s there. Just check your concordance.

August 15, 2009

True Religion

Here’s an older cartoon I hadn’t discovered before.   Theophilus is drawn by Bob West — if I’m reading it right he’s been doing this for more than 30 years — and can be seen here.   This episode reminds us that sometimes when we are drawn into using our “labels” it actually spoils things.

theophilus-widow

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