Thinking Out Loud

March 3, 2019

The Internet, The Church, and Accelerated Social Change

close-to-home-on-blogging1This is part two (see yesterday) of a two-part article.

In the setup in part one, we indicated that the influence of rock music in general and The Beatles in particular caused some sweeping changes, particularly in the U.S., in terms of fashion, drugs, war resistance and the sexual liberation. Some of this may have been inevitable, and there were certainly other influences at play, but the 1960s were essentially two decades worth of change sandwiched into one.

So what about another media (for lack of a better word) which influenced the Church?

The effect of the internet on Christianity or Evangelicalism varies depending on which aspect of the technology you’re discussing.

Email simply replaced snail-mail. Communications happened instantly, and at a fraction of the cost, but it’s hard to argue that this changed anything within church culture.

Church websites simply replaced the marquee at the front of the church building, allowing churches to opt instead for larger changeable letters adorned with pithy sayings. No need to post the pastor’s name or the service times, since all that was now on the website.

Video on demand or live-streaming of weekend services simply replaced buying time on local TV outlets, or for the blessed few, on a network of stations.

No, none of these things changed anything in and of themselves.

The real change happened on social media. Online bulletin boards, chat rooms, etc. made it possible for dialog to happen and made it easy for people to enter the conversation regardless of where they lived or their level of education.

But the biggest change occurred with the type of thing you’re reading now: Weblogs, or as they are better known, blogs.

While I can’t cite specific years as I did in part one of the article, here are some effects that I would say took place from about 2003 to 2009.

Blog ChildBlogs and BooksIt wasn’t Christian publishers who came up with using social media to promote new releases, rather the conversations simply started happening over the latest title or the newest author. For reasons I’ll get back to in the final point, the period was a golden age for non-fiction books and publishers were tripping over themselves to place new voices under contract.

I specify non-fiction because the publisher relationship with social media today tends to be more focused on mommy bloggers critiquing and giving away spoilers in the latest Amish or romantic or historical fiction title. Some of these make it through three books a week and publishers are quite willing to supply even relatively small blogs with freebies.

But that wasn’t always the way. The original discussions were all about doctrinal, or Christian Living titles. Maybe a devotional. Eventually, the one Christian children’s book that ever got serious blog review, The Jesus Storybook Bible.

The Growth of Calvinism – This really isn’t anything new, neither should it come as a surprise. Any advance of media technology, or any general cultural shift in communications has been seized on by the Reformed community. Just look at one of the first megachurches (Crystal Cathedral, Reformed Church in America), one of the first TV ministries (Day of Discovery, Christian Reformed), the organizations which dominate our present publishing community (Zondervan, Baker, Eerdman’s, etc., all Reformed); look at these and you see that Reformers have always been there in any available media. (My running joke: Why are there no Salvation Army bloggers? Because while everybody else is writing about it, the Salvation Army is out on the streets doing it.)

But while the internet promoted Calvinism, in some ways the form of the doctrine that was promoted was also changed by it. There exists a type of militant Calvinism today that has polarized the broad Christian community. Reformed parents couldn’t give their children the comic book The Action Bible until the publisher provided a sanctified edition with text from the English Standard Version, the Reformed community’s new Bible of choice.

blogThe Internet Celebrity – The blog Stuff Christians Like launched Jon Acuff overnight. The blog with the weird name, Without Wax, introduced the world to Nashville pastor Pete Wilson. The Naked Pastor developed a cult following, especially when some of the characters in the illustrations turned out to be actually naked. John Shore, Bill Kinnon, Tim Challies, Skye Jethani, Zach Nielson, and others like them were must reading for their constituencies. The Pyromaniacs aka Team Pyro proved that graphics matter, with their first-rate images appearing throughout their articles and attracting new followers.

But in a 2016 Happy Rant Podcast, Barnabas Piper and Ted Kluck noted that many of the Reformed blogging superstars have churches that are not as significantly large as their digital footprint might indicate. They enjoy a fame disproportionate to their church attendance. Furthermore some pastors, like Willow’s Bill Hybels, didn’t blog at all.

There’s also the few — of which this blog is one — that managed to attract a following without the author being a pastor or a published author. Voices that might not have been heard if this form of social media had not existed.

Homogenization – Despite the plethora of Christian blogs out there, there was a sense we were all reading from the same page. Re-blogging material was more common and more accepted in the early days, and the water cooler topics in church offices — especially among younger leaders — tended to mirror the topics being discussed on the blogs.

Emergent / Emerging – While the terms are now in disuse, there is much evidence that whatever the Christian blogosphere did for Calvinism, it did even more so for the various strains of the Emergent Church, including the Ancient/Future mini-movement that I feel was Emergent’s best byproduct; along with kick-starting the whole missional conversation.

I’m not sure if it was Tony Jones or not, but recently a writer from that era wrote a piece saying that Emergent was, in effect, now past its sell-by date. I have to agree, which makes it more interesting when some watchdog blog starts slamming the now non-existent movement. Which brings us to…

bloggingdogs-thumbDiscernment / Watchdog Ministries – The blogosphere in general, if nothing else, is all about being offended, so the discernment bloggers, the watchdog bloggers, those champions for truth and right doctrine (as long as it’s their truth and right doctrine) are a natural fit for social media.

The problem is that the average Christian, doing a Google search, has no idea when he or she has come upon one of these, and may not catch the watchdog’s own biases. The blogosphere, like the entire internet, has few filters.

Furthermore, there are so many targets for these writers, so many ways to instill fear, so many common enemies, that it’s easy to go on the attack and forget that those attacked are real people with real lives and real families. I think it’s harder to hate a person after you’ve shaken his hand, but I may be wrong.

Did Christian internet bullies contribute to the suicide of a pastor’s teenage son? We asked that question here a few years ago. We’ll never know the answer, but some are willing to speculate.

Connections – I met British Columbia blogger Rick Apperson somewhere in the comments section of my short lived Religion blog at USAToday. I met American pastor Clark Bunch through blogs and would consider him an online friend. Dare I say that I’ve made dozens and dozens of contacts through blogging, some of which I consider the most significant in my life, even though we’ve never met face to face.

I’ve also discovered an affinity toward people with whom I think alike and with whom I think quite differently. And I am so grateful for having spent nearly two years doing a column (albeit a news feed) for Christianity Today. I still keep in touch — mostly through Twitter — with author Drew Dyck.

Eccesiology – One of the main benefits of the early years of Christian bloggers was the rapid increase in the number of people who started planting churches. Called “the extreme sport of ministry,” church plants turned up in various shapes and sizes, with lay people who had never had a previous interest in Ecclesiology — and who had certainly never been asked — were writing and turning out blog posts and print books on the subject of doing church and creating a different kind of church (a phrase that if Googled, probably results in millions of hits.)

Growth of BloggingI listed this last, even though it could have been first, because it sums up a lot of what was taking place in a very short time: There was an explosion of ideas. Conversations were flying fast and furious about church governance, leadership models and worship styles. That the average parishioner cared so much about what was taking place drove all us into a deeper consideration of what it means to be Christ’s church.

The discussions and ideas were reflected in books and especially in a parallel explosion of conferences. People loved their church and loved the church. No idea wasn’t worth consideration. No speaker or writer wasn’t worth hearing.

It was the best of times.

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March 24, 2016

How the Internet Accelerated Change in the Church

close-to-home-on-blogging1This is part two of a two-part article.

In the setup in part one, we indicated that the influence of rock music in general and The Beatles in particular caused some sweeping changes, particularly in the U.S., in terms of fashion, drugs, war resistance and the sexual liberation. Some of this may have been inevitable, and there were certainly other influences at play, but the 1960s were essentially two decades worth of change sandwiched into one.

So what about another media (for lack of a better word) which influenced the Church?

The effect of the internet on Christianity or Evangelicalism varies depending on which aspect of the technology you’re discussing.

Email simply replaced snail-mail. Communications happened instantly, and at a fraction of the cost, but it’s hard to argue that this changed anything within church culture.

Church websites simply replaced the marquee at the front of the church building, allowing churches to opt instead for larger changeable letters adorned with pithy sayings. No need to post the pastor’s name or the service times, since all that was now on the website.

Video on demand or live-streaming of weekend services simply replaced buying time on local TV outlets, or for the blessed few, on a network of stations.

No, none of these things changed anything in and of themselves.

The real change happened on social media. Online bulletin boards, chat rooms, etc. made it possible for dialog to happen and made it easy for people to enter the conversation regardless of where they lived or their level of education.

But the biggest change occurred with the type of thing you’re reading now: Weblogs, or as they are better known, blogs.

While I can’t cite specific years as I did in part one of the article, here are some effects that I would say took place from about 2003 to 2009.

Blog ChildBlogs and BooksIt wasn’t Christian publishers who came up with using social media to promote new releases, rather the conversations simply started happening over the latest title or the newest author. For reasons I’ll get back to in the final point, the period was a golden age for non-fiction books and publishers were tripping over themselves to place new voices under contract.

I specify non-fiction because the publisher relationship with social media today tends to be more focused on mommy bloggers critiquing and giving away spoilers in the latest Amish or romantic or historical fiction title. Some of these make it through three books a week and publishers are quite willing to supply even relatively small blogs with freebies.

But that wasn’t always the way. The original discussions were all about doctrinal, or Christian Living titles. Maybe a devotional. Eventually, the one Christian children’s book that ever got serious blog review, The Jesus Storybook Bible.

The Growth of Calvinism – This really isn’t anything new, neither should it come as a surprise. Any advance of media technology, or any general cultural shift in communications has been seized on by the Reformed community. Just look at one of the first megachurches (Crystal Cathedral, Reformed Church in America), one of the first TV ministries (Day of Discovery, Christian Reformed), the organizations which dominate our present publishing community (Zondervan, Baker, Eerdman’s, etc., all Reformed); look at these and you see that Reformers have always been there in any available media. (My running joke: Why are there no Salvation Army bloggers? Because while everybody else is writing about it, the Salvation Army is out on the streets doing it.)

But while the internet promoted Calvinism, in some ways the form of the doctrine that was promoted was also changed by it. There exists a type of militant Calvinism today that has polarized the broad Christian community. Reformed parents couldn’t give their children the comic book The Action Bible until the publisher provided a sanctified edition with text from the English Standard Version, the Reformed community’s new Bible of choice.

blogThe Internet Celebrity – The blog Stuff Christians Like launched Jon Acuff overnight. The blog with the weird name, Without Wax, introduced the world to Nashville pastor Pete Wilson. The Naked Pastor developed a cult following, especially when some of the characters in the illustrations turned out to be actually naked. John Shore, Bill Kinnon, Tim Challies, Skye Jethani, Zach Nielson, and others like them were must reading for their constituencies. The Pyromaniacs aka Team Pyro proved that graphics matter, with their first-rate images appearing throughout their articles and attracting new followers.

But in a recent Happy Rant Podcast, Barnabas Piper and Ted Kluck noted that many of the Reformed blogging superstars have churches that are not as significantly large as their digital footprint might indicate. They enjoy a fame disproportionate to their church attendance. Furthermore some pastors, like Willow’s Bill Hybels, didn’t blog at all.

There’s also the few — of which this blog is one — that managed to attract a following without the author being a pastor or a published author. Voices that might not have been heard if this form of social media had not existed.

Homogenization – Despite the plethora of Christian blogs out there, there was a sense we were all reading from the same page. Re-blogging material was more common and more accepted in the early days, and the water cooler topics in church offices — especially among younger leaders — tended to mirror the topics being discussed on the blogs.

Emergent / Emerging – While the terms are now in disuse, there is much evidence that whatever the Christian blogosphere did for Calvinism, it did even more so for the various strains of the Emergent Church, including the Ancient/Future mini-movement that I feel was Emergent’s best byproduct; along with kick-starting the whole missional conversation.

I’m not sure if  it was Tony Jones or not, but recently a writer from that era wrote a piece saying that Emergent was, in effect, now past its sell-by date. I have to agree, which makes it more interesting when some watchdog blog starts slamming the now non-existent movement. Which brings us to…

bloggingdogs-thumbDiscernment / Watchdog Ministries – The blogosphere in general, if nothing else, is all about being offended, so the discernment bloggers, the watchdog bloggers, those champions for truth and right doctrine (as long as it’s their truth and right doctrine) are a natural fit for social media.

The problem is that the average Christian, doing a Google search, has no idea when he or she has come upon one of these, and may not catch the watchdog’s own biases. The blogosphere, like the entire internet, has few filters.

Furthermore, there are so many targets for these writers, so many ways to instill fear, so many common enemies, that it’s easy to go on the attack and forget that those attacked are real people with real lives and real families. I think it’s harder to hate a person after you’ve shaken his hand, but I may be wrong.

Did Christian internet bullies contribute to the suicide of a pastor’s teenage son? We asked that question here a few years ago. We’ll never know the answer, but some are willing to speculate.

Connections – I met British Columbia blogger Rick Apperson somewhere in the comments section of my short lived Religion blog at USAToday and we still keep in touch and occasionally I steal articles from him! Dare I say that I’ve made dozens and dozens of contacts through blogging, some of which I consider the most significant in my life, even though we’ve never met face to face.

I’ve also discovered an affinity toward people with whom I think alike and with whom I think quite differently. And I am so grateful for having spent nearly two years doing a column (albeit a news feed) for Christianity Today. I love those guys!

Eccesiology – One of the main benefits of the early years of Christian bloggers was the rapid increase in the number of people who started planting churches. Called “the extreme sport of ministry,” church plants turned up in various shapes and sizes, with lay people who had never had a previous interest in Ecclesiology — and who had certainly never been asked — were writing and turning out blog posts and print books on the subject of doing church and creating a different kind of church (a phrase that if Googled, probably results in millions of hits.)

Growth of BloggingI listed this last, even though it could have been first, because it sums up a lot of what was taking place in a very short time: There was an explosion of ideas. Conversations were flying fast and furious about church governance, leadership models and worship styles. That the average parishioner cared so much about what was taking place drove all us into a deeper consideration of what it means to be Christ’s church.

The discussions and ideas were reflected in books and especially in a parallel  explosion of conferences. People loved their church and loved the church. No idea wasn’t worth consideration. No speaker or writer wasn’t worth hearing.

It was the best of times.

 

January 12, 2010

Rob Bell: Defending Dust

I’m not prepared to go to the wall defending everything Rob Bell says or does, but I think some balance is needed against the mounting criticism online, of which perhaps this piece (click here) is a prime example.

Rob Bell in his pre-minstry days, at 18 months

I’ve watched a number of the NOOMA videos, but I’m not sure if I’ve seen Dust.   I have heard the sermon that it’s based on however, and therein lies a huge difference.   I’m a big fan of Rob’s preaching, but on days like this one, I sometimes wish that NOOMA didn’t exist.   The full sermons offer the full experience.    Nonetheless, I find this concept somewhat straightforward.

Peter asks Jesus if he can join him walking on the water.   Rob brings a lot of cultural context to this request in the full sermon, and in other teachings.   Peter, you see, is a lead disciple.   His impulsive nature is actually manifest in the fulfilling of what is expected of the token ‘older’ talmudim   (Peter has a mother-in-law, so he’s married; Jesus tells him to look inside a fish to find a coin to pay the tax “for you and I;” the other disciples being too young for that tax.)   The disciple is expected to do what [i.e. everything] he sees the rabbi doing.

Peter gets out of the boat.  (Starts well.)   He walks on water.  (Going good.)   Then he takes his eyes of Jesus.  (Not so smart.)    He looks down.  (Getting worse.)  He wonders what the heck he is doing out there.   (Sinking starts.)

Bell points out that it’s not that Peter doesn’t believe in Jesus.   Jesus is unmistakably walking on water.    This is not a matter of faith, it’s a matter of fact that Peter and the other disciples can see plainly.  (We “believe” Jesus walked on water, all they had to do was look.)

Peter is just not sure he can do it, and he begins to sink.    Again, it’s not that he doesn’t believe Jesus can walk on water, or that Jesus can give him the power to also walk on water.   It’s just too big.   Too big for him to handle.    He doesn’t believe he can do it, even though it’s quite evident that Jesus can.

But Jesus believes in him, in fact Jesus doesn’t just restore Peter to ministry later on after his denial, he is constantly about the business of restoring and reinstating Peter to ministry. After the abortive water-walk, after the whole “get thee behind Me” thing, and after the three-time denial.

Bell in a slightly more recent picture

That’s what Bell is saying.   Do you get it now?   No?   Then give up.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.   Maybe it’s not that you can’t wrap your brain around it, maybe you just don’t like Rob Bell. Maybe you just can’t handle the idea that a new generation of communicators is taking the stage. Maybe you can’t remember when your earliest attempts to express your hope in Christ was packaged in difficult metaphors and rough-edged stories.

Rob Bell is not saying that the essence of Jesus’ ministry is “just believe in yourself.”   Bell, if he bothered to respond at all, would say that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.    This context is a unique presentation of a unique concept that applies to one disciple in one particular time and place.

His application is that Jesus believes you can do this. You can live this Christ-following life. He will give you the strength and the courage to live out this faith in a world of temptation, trial and opposition. He has faith in you to be His instrument to carry out His plans and purposes in your generation.

Give the guy a break on this one.   Or is that you really don’t want to? I don’t agree with everything he says, I couldn’t finish his friend Peter Rollins’ book, and the hiring of Shane Hipps may prove more problematic than anyone expected.

But as my mother would say, “don’t go looking for the hair on the egg.”

(And, for the record, I don’t agree with everything my pastor says, every author he quotes or every staff member he hires.)

And don’t extrapolate a pastor’s core theology on the basis of a ten-minute “discussion starter” video.

January 2, 2010

An Apologetic for Church Change

I’m late posting to my blog today because I’ve spent the whole day reading and finishing a book that a month ago, you probably could not have paid me to read.   Let me explain.

Twenty years ago we moved from The Big City to a town of about 15,000 people.   The churches here were characterized by a rural mentality that includes a resistance to change.

Before we got married, I wrote something called, “A Proposal for a New Kind of Church.”   About 200 copies were distributed.  It’s a topic that’s always interested me and still does.   Although I’m older now, I tend to think young when it comes to church and culture.

That means, in other words, that I take my cues from Brian McLaren, Michael Frost, Wayne Jacobsen, Frank Viola, Alan Hirsch, Jim Henderson, and other writers of that stripe.   I want to hear their ideas and align my thinking with some of the more progressive voices on ecclesiology.

So when a woman came in the bookstore and asked about a particular book that reinforces a more conservative view, I was a little concerned.   I knew the pastor of her church and I knew that he longs to see his church move forward, not retreat backward, so I phoned him and said, “I’m at a crossroads here.   I don’t want to refuse sales or inhibit open minded discussion, but I think to have this book circulating in your church right now would be like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

“Don’t order it, then;” was his response.

The supplier had plenty in stock.    I told the customer, in a carefully worded statement that, “the book would not be available through us.”

So when a group of people from some equally conservative churches started asking about Gordon MacDonald’s Who Stole My Church? I had a similar nervousness.    I think at first, my brain was thinking more in terms of John McArthur — the names sound somewhat alike — and my attitude was, ‘What can he possibly have to contribute to this discussion?’   Gordon MacDonald’s authorship didn’t change my preconceptions.   What could he say that McLaren and Frost hadn’t already?

The answer, surprisingly is, a lot.   After several suggestions that I was being a book bigot (and then reading a few reviews) I brought the book home on New Year’s Eve and started it at 11:00 AM this morning and finished it at 7:00 PM.

I’ve never done anything quite like that before.

Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, MacDonald takes his own cue from some next-generation communicators and uses a partially-fictional narrative set in New England to make his points.   It’s a brilliant move because characters in the story are able to introduce the requisite objections to church change at each juncture.

But it’s also so very evocative because you can see yourself and situations you are too familiar with being played out in its pages.   The book also gives you another set of possibilities.    What if the Holy Spirit truly intervened where there was congregational resistance to the vision that is sometimes imparted to pastors?    (Guys don’t cry when they read books, but during the last chapter I did suddenly have a need for a tissue.    Perhaps I’m getting a cold.)

MacDonald confronts a pastor’s perspective several times in this book:

If you [i.e. a pastor] really do give away your heart, then we people leave, they take a piece of it with them.   I have known more than a few pastors who have given their hearts away piece by piece until one day there was nothing more left to give.   It’s not unusual for some pastors to reach a point where they can no longer manage the disappointments of people leaving or just hanging around and making trouble.   Something dies within them, and they either quit or begin to treat their work as a regular job in which a person counts the days until retirement.

One chapter gives some fresh insights into the underlying factors that create the traditional or conservative mentality in the church; one being the Great Depression.    His analysis also is brought to bear on the role of women in the church, although it’s not a central subject, but part of the larger issue of the ‘paid staff versus volunteers’ debate.

There are many respects in which the book says some things that have been said many times before, but it truly presents them in a fresh and compelling way.   While the book is supposedly lifted from a pastor’s case files, there is a definite plot or storyline at work here as Pastor MacDonald recollects his weekly meetings with the church Discovery Group, a nice name given to a collection of people who most strenuously helped defeat the church’s last board resolution toward church innovation.     (Think: The nay-sayers.]

Interspersed throughout the fiction are some practical steps a church can take when the generational wars are looming large.   Also mixed in are examples from both New and Old Testaments of principles of change at work in the lives of Biblical figures.

I’d write more here but I’ve got to start compiling my personal list of people who simply must read this, and that includes people on both sides of the generational and worship-style divide.

Who Stole My Church: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century by Gordon MacDonald was originally published by Thomas Nelson in 2007 and is releasing in paperback later this month.

~Paul Wilkinson

Apology:
When your blog is intense with links to news sites and other blogs, it’s bound to be exciting.   Sometimes I link you somewhere only to learn later that on the day the post appeared, the site at the other end of the link put something up that isn’t exactly the kind of content we expected.    If that happened to you recently, I’m sorry.   The link in question has been removed.

October 26, 2009

A Guide to Christian Bloggers

So how was church yesterday?    If you’re like the majority of Evangelicals in North America (and increasingly, the UK) it probably went down something like this:

  • you were casually dressed
  • there was an opportunity to have coffee either before or after the service, or in some cases, during the service
  • either at the outset, or part-way through the service your kids were dismissed to enjoy their own worship “experience” in a kid-friendly “environment”
  • you sang a number of modern worship choruses, perhaps with a hymn or two added for flavor
  • your pastor — equally casually dressed — preached a message from a topical series he is working through with key points and texts projected on a large screen at the front
  • after the service you had a couple of brief conversations with people from your small group who you will see later in the week at someone’s home

Such is Christian worship in 2009.

EZGtoons - Erin Gillespie 11409But now you’re sitting at your computer and you’re surfing for some good Christian blogs to read, but finding yourself in a kind of spiritual twilight zone.     The people you’re reading — in many cases anyway — don’t look or talk like the people you meet on Sunday mornings. You ask yourself, “Why can’t I find a blog by someone online who looks like me?”  So you keep searching.

Why is this?

It’s largely because the Christian internet is dominated by a number of people who have a particular axe to grind.    Once you’ve been doing this for awhile, you’ll recognize them — “By their links ye shall know them” — but until then, here’s a primer on what you’re finding on your computer screen…

Militant Calvinist Soldiers

There’s nothing objectively wrong with being Calvinist.   Most people are either Calvinist or Arminian in terms of their core doctrines, so you’re going to end up as more one or the other eventually.   The problem is that these people are consuming vast amounts of bandwidth engaging all kinds of deep debates which, while they might prove valuable in terms of Bible study on obscure points of doctrine, no one can remember how they got started.

The other problem is that they tend to use the word “Calvinism” or “Calvinist” ten times more often than they use words like “Christian” or “Jesus.”    Or worse, they use words like “Monergism.”   Believe me, if you think you’re coming down with a case of Monergism, you might want to get it checked.

Personally, I want my ticket to Eternity to be based on Christ’s finished work on the cross for my sin, and not that I stood for a particular organization, denomination or doctrine; or that I could recite all the proof-texts for a particular viewpoint.

King James Onlyites

Somewhere along the line, the joy of their salvation got sucked out and replaced with a mission:  That all Bibles everywhere on earth be eliminated save for their one copy of the King James Version in black leather.   With a red ribbon marker.   And a zipper.

Which, is fine if that’s what you like.   Goodness knows one part of my Zondervan Bible software is still set up to do keyword searches in good ol’ KJV, though it displays the results in something more readable.    But Onlyites aren’t allowed to have preferences.   They have to spiritualize everything, and if they can’t find enough external evidence supporting the supremacy of one particular translation, then they make stuff up.

Never get in an argument with these people because there is nothing — absolutely nothing — you can say that will sway them.   Yea, verily, their mind hath been firmly fix-ed, neither shall anyone dissuade them.  Thus spake I.

The Law and The Gospel Litigists

The fact is, we’re all sinners in God’s eyes.   We’ve all missed the mark in various ways at various times.   Our attempts at righteousness are as far from “pure white” as the paint rags I used during our last kitchen reno.   So yes, nobody is going to get on God’s heaven registration list just by trying to live a good life and be a good person.

On the other hand, this approach, as true as it is,  while it works well if you’re doing somewhat random “witnessing” to strangers, is about as far from lifestyle evangelism as you want to be; especially with friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers, fellow-students, etc., that you want to see cross the line of faith over the long-term.   Plus, at least you’ve earned the right to be heard, instead of spouting volcanic eruptions of guilt and condemnation.

So while it’s true that there aren’t many roads to God, there are many ways to introduce someone to Jesus.   L&G people tend to get upset if you’re not doing it their way, or winning as many people as they are, or feel called to do street ministry.

Discernmentalists

Years ago, a rather cool guy named Walter Martin figured out that with all the cults and “isms” out there, it would be good for someone to track the beliefs of different writers and organizations whose beliefs bear a strong external similarity to Christianity, but also hold to other ideas that are somewhat off the wall.   He started what is often called a discernment ministry.

With some of the excesses sometimes found in the Charismatic movement, that investigation started hitting closer to home.   Which may be justified.   Especially when you have a research staff documenting everything so that your end product isn’t just a load of innuendo and veiled accusations.

Today however, it seems like there is a Walter Martin wannabe around every corner.   And they don’t trust anyone under 40.   Which means they can — and probably will — show up at your church on Sunday morning and nitpick over the use of words and phrases and pronounce you apostate, cultic or — even worse — Emergent.     (Note:  Emergents who quote Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards totally confuse them.)   And you don’t want to know their views on music.

Sermon Scribes

These people never actually blog anything original but simply cut and paste vast amounts of sermon texts, often completely omitting to include anything resembling paragraph breaks.

Like the Hindu temple priests who believe there’s something in the incense that rises up to God,  these Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V bloggers believe that there’s something of value in posting these vast and usually impossible-to-follow sermons online, that apparently can only be perceived by God Himself and other Sermon Scribe bloggers.

Personally, I’ll take a podcast over text.   You get the inflection of the speaker who, if they are tech-savvy enough to post a podcast, usually has a communication style that’s less 1910 and more 2010.   Plus you get the audio equivalent of paragraph breaks:  Deep breaths.

Ecclesiastical Elite

There are some good leadership blogs out there.   I even link to some of them in my blogroll.  But if you’re a new Christian, you need to know these aren’t for you so much as they’re for pastors to communicate with other pastors.

Frankly, pastors have different issues than the rest of us.   They live in a world that is vocationally as far removed from you are as the east is from the west.  They work odd hours.  They drink a lot of coffee.  They read books that even the staff at your local Christian bookstore don’t know how to find.

I have great respect for these men, and 99.44% of them are men.   But their blogs should exist on some kind of private blogging network that only other pastors can access.   One of my favorites is actually not on my blogroll for just that reason.    I started thinking about how frustrated and confused I would be if he were my pastor.    It’s good stuff, it’s just not good for everyone.

Conference Crowd

Some people think the big money to be made off Christianity these days is in running conferences and seminars.    I disagree.   The big money is actually in the airline business and the hotel business.   And those lanyard name tag things.

This crowd devotes at least 66.7% of the blog postings in anticipation of a forthcoming conference and another 66.7% coming down from the conference high.   The remaining 66.7% is spent live blogging from the conference itself.   (Hey, it’s arithmatic license, okay?)

There is an saying among modern Evangelicals:  “Send a man to a conference and you’ve recharged his spiritual batteries for a day.  Teach him how to organize and run his own conference and you’ve kept him run off his feet for life.”

Narcissistic Marketers

With this category, we’ll end this this theme, and since you’ve all been patient enough to get this far, you can read more about this in my latest book, which, while you’re ordering it online, you can actually pre-order my next book which is coming out next month.

Plus, we just got in a skid of my first book, and if you’re interested in buying these in case lots (only 72 copies to a case) to give away to all your friends, we can ship them to you free freight if you order them by Friday.   Christmas is coming, and you don’t want to be without a gift to give that unenlightened pagan who lives next door.

Also below you’ll find a link to my latest video promoting all four of my books, plus a PayPal donation button if you really enjoy the great insights I post here daily.   On the sidebar, you’ll also find a link to a story about me in the New York Times and a picture of me receiving CBA Book-of-the-year in the category “Christian non-fiction miscellaneous;” as well as all the details of our “Holy Land of the West” 14-day tour of Wheaton, Illinois (with optional day trips to Barrington, Elgin and a two-day side trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota.)  Did I mention my book?

October 15, 2009

Encouragement, Not Condemnation Needed

I am convinced that one of the biggest mistakes we are making in the church is not empowering, elevating and resourcing the next generation of leaders within the church.  Whatever happened to what we once called “Paul-Timothy” relationships?   Today, it seems things are downright adversarial.

I say that not as a 20-something, or even a 30-something, but as someone who is speaking from a greater number of years experience in the church than your average blogger.

Slight digression:  There’s a guy in ministry with whom I would have frequent conversations.   One time we were talking about the difference that exists between the conservative churches and the liberal churches in our community.   He said something like this:

‘If there’s a familiar Bible passage and the common interpretations or applications of this passage might be numbered #1, #2, #3, etc.; the evangelical churches tend to preach on one of these first three subjects, but the mainline church will read the passage and then go with interpretation or application #7.’

One of the problems we are facing today is that Evangelicals have always read the Bible as a set of doctrine propositions, and a new generation — yes, I’m back to that topic now — are reading it as story.   Embracing the narrative to which both Eastern ears generally and also first century Christians would be more readily tuned to.

In other words, reading the Bible in ways that we’ve missed.   And applying it to the felt-needs that the average 21st century Joe or Joanne can articulate.   The things they think are what matters or what is important.   In the terminology that they use.

And the Bible, being living and active (and sharper than a double-edged sword) is going to speak to the needs of all people in all places at all times.   (You could almost say it won’t bounce back off the walls with an empty echo.)    In other words, we don’t need to make the gospel relevant, we need to communicate the relevance it already has. The robed and sandaled carpenter and itinerant teacher has something to say to our high-tech world.

The problem is, the people of a previous generation don’t get it when next-generation leaders speak to their tribe.    They listen to the words that they can’t possibily ever hope to process and say, “That’s not application #1 or #2 or #3.   That’s #7 or even #12 and it’s a million miles from the central message of the text.”

Let me say this to the critics as respectfully as I can:  Maybe they’re not talking to you.   Maybe you’re eavesdropping on a conversation you were never invited to be a part of.  (And remember that I’m saying this as a blogger who is measurably older than most.)

I don’t endorse 100% of every word spoken or written by every young pastor or author I mention or review here.    Let me be honest, I hear and read stuff that makes my eyes bug out with surprise.   But then again, I’ve sat and listened to sermons delivered by some of the most respected names in conservative Christianity and heard things that simply should not have been said.    I’ve heard things passed off as fact that were merely opinion.   I’ve heard jokes that were inappropriate for Sunday morning.    I’ve heard conclusions that were illogical.   I’ve heard points of doctrine that contradicted points made five minutes earlier.   I’ve heard bad exegesis, bad eschatology and bad hermeneutics.  However, I didn’t go on public forums and trash those respected pastors or authors.

But I know that in listening to some of the younger voices in the breadth and width of the faith movement we call Christianity,

  • I’ve been inspired to read more Bible, more commentary, more discussion;
  • I’ve been made aware of things in both the Old Testament and New Testament that, despite growing up in the church, I had never heard preached before;
  • I’ve become more passionate about my personal faith;
  • I’ve become more willing to pray bigger prayers, not in a charismatic sense but in the sense of believing in a God who is able to do, as He wills, the things we would consider impossible;
  • I’ve become better able to articulate the truth and beauty of scripture to seekers and new believers;
  • I’ve been inspired to try to do more to make a difference in the lives of those who are hungry, both in terms of our local weekly meal project and in terms of doing some alternative giving at Christmas;
  • I’ve been stretched in my understand of who God is, who we are in Christ, what The Church consists of and is meant to accomplish;
  • I’ve been witness to people who are so intentional about faith and witness and being serious about communicating the love of God and the need for salvation, that it consumes their every waking moment;
  • I’ve been refreshed in my spirit in hearing things said in new ways with new energy to people who otherwise would never give attention to anyone who mentions the name, Jesus.

And I owe all that to pastors and teachers and authors and bloggers who were or are, for the most part, under the age of 35.

Oh yeah, and thanks to all the trashing they’ve had to put up with from the older generation because they lit a few candles, or dressed casually, or refused to use certain words and phrases,

  • I’ve become sharper in my discernment; separating truth from lies, yes, but also separating what matters most and what really counts from what creates division and what is said in hate.

To you under-30s or even under-25s who are just starting out in ministry:  Go for it!   Study.   Aim for God’s approval.   Correctly and accurately handle God’s Word.    Then say it the way it needs to be said to your generation, in your location at your place in time. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold, yes; but also don’t let the church force you into its mold, either.

Do that, and I support you.

August 12, 2009

We Are The People Formerly Known As The Congregation

bill kinnon

Bill Kinnon put this up on his blog in March, 2007; back when I was reading blogs but not writing one.   I rediscovered it while housecleaning e-mails yesterday.   Based on the piece byJay Rosen, it still still stands up well 2.5 years later, and perfectly describes the place in which many find themselves in relation to “church.”   Some have been in this place for awhile, some others are just arriving there now.  The post also produced a lot of follow-up activity including additions composed by other bloggers (for which parts two, four and five are still valid links)  not to mention many, many comments.  I would suspect it’s one of his all-time top posts; so if you want to link directly, which will also give you the full set-up, do so here; otherwise read on:

Let me introduce you to The People formerly known as The Congregation. There are millions of us.

We are people – flesh and blood – image bearers of the Creator – eikons, if you will. We are not numbers.

We are the eikons who once sat in the uncomfortable pews or plush theatre seating of your preaching venues. We sat passively while you proof-texted your way through 3, 4, 5 or no point sermons – attempting to tell us how you and your reading of The Bible had a plan for our lives. Perhaps God does have a plan for us – it just doesn’t seem to jive with yours.

Money was a great concern. And, for a moment, we believed you when you told us God would reward us for our tithes – or curse us if we didn’t. The Law is just so much easier to preach than Grace. My goodness, if you told us that the 1st century church held everything in common – you might be accused of being a socialist – and of course, capitalism is a direct gift from God. Please further note: Malachi 3 is speaking to the priests of Israel. They weren’t the cheerful givers God speaks of loving.

We grew weary from your Edifice Complex pathologies – building projects more important than the people in your neighbourhood…or in your pews. It wasn’t God telling you to “enlarge the place of your tent” – it was your ego. And, by the way, a multi-million dollar, state of the art building is hardly a tent.

We no longer buy your call to be “fastest growing” church in wherever. That is your need. You want a bigger audience. We won’t be part of one.

Our ears are still ringing from the volume, but…Jesus is not our boyfriend – and we will no longer sing your silly love songs that suggest He is. Happy clappy tunes bear no witness to the reality of the world we live in, the powers and principalities we confront, or are worthy of the one we proclaim King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

You offered us a myriad of programs to join – volunteer positions to assuage our desire to be connected. We could be greeters, parking lot attendants, coffee baristas, book store helpers, children’s ministry workers, media ministry drones – whatever you needed to fulfill your dreams of corporate glory. Perhaps you’ve noticed, we aren’t there anymore.

We are The People formerly known as The Congregation. We have not stopped loving the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nor do we avoid “the assembling of the saints.” We just don’t assemble under your supposed leadership. We meet in coffee shops, around dinner tables, in the parks and on the streets. We connect virtually across space and time – engaged in generative conversations – teaching and being taught.

We live amongst our neighbours, in their homes and they in ours. We laugh and cry and really live – without the need to have you teach us how – by reading your ridiculous books or listening to your supercilious CDs or podcasts.

We don’t deny Paul’s description of APEPT leadership – Ephesians 4:11. We just see it in the light of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10 and Matthew 20 – servant leadership. We truly long for the release of servant leading men and women into our gifts as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. We believe in Peter’s words that describe us all as priests. Not just some, not just one gender.

We are The People formerly known as The Congregation. We do not hate you. Though some of us bear the wounds you have inflicted. Many of you are our brothers and our sisters, misguided by the systems you inhabit, intoxicated by the power – yet still members of our family. (Though some are truly wolves in sheep’s clothing.)

And, as The People formerly known as The Congregation, we invite you to join us on this great adventure. To boldly go where the Spirit leads us. To marvel at what the Father is doing in the communities where He has placed us. To live the love that Jesus shows us.

Addendum: This is a polemic. The first-person plural pronoun, “We”, is not used as Pluralis Majestatis (the Royal We) but rather is based on the post-charismatic/post-evangelical conversations that are occurring in the blogosphere. I have no more right to speak in this voice than any other person living in the liminal reality of the church in 21st century.

Please note also that I have many good friends who lead within a more traditional church context for whom I have great love, as well as deep respect. They are doing their very best to be missional within their worlds.

~Bill Kinnon, originally posted March 28/07

December 31, 2008

National Trends Affecting Your Local Church in 2008 — Evaluating Our Predictions

Filed under: Christianity, Church, Faith, theology, worship — Tags: , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:16 pm

This blog began in February, but has a previous history as a bi-weekly e-mail that was sent out to about 250 people in our local area.  On December 30th last year, I published a list of fifteen trends I saw in play that I felt my original, Ontario readers might want to consider.   Now, it’s time to check the scorecard and see how I made out.

First things first, the rest of you need to see the original article.   It’s been placed as a “page” on this blog, or you can simply use this link.    Then you can return and read the comments below.   Later today or tomorrow, I’ll post a new list for 2009 which I think contains issues that are going to be more relevant, and makes last year’s list look somewhat superficial.

>>> pause to read the original article, if you wish <<<

Scorecard:

  1. Longer Teaching Time — The ‘originals’ did a good job of this, but some of the ‘copycats’ can’t sustain audience interest past the 32-minute mark.   I see the sermon length continuing to expand to 35-40 minutes in places where it heretofore has not.
  2. More Expository Preaching — I was wrong on this.   Didn’t see the trend grow, though I got personally hooked on Greg Boyd.   For many others, I think verse-by-verse is a rather lazy approach if you aren’t going to include background material and related texts.   But it’s easy to be a critic if you’re not crafting a weekly sermon.
  3. Less Sung Worship — I was wrong.   For most worship leaders, it’s still largely about the musical material; though many are now busy designing media pieces.  (See 2009 trends list.)
  4. Fewer Overt Offerings — I was wrong.  This turned out to be more of a 2007 trend than anything new playing out in ’08
  5. More Direct Involvement in the Third World — Yes!  Financial and personal through mission trips.
  6. More Direct Involvement in Meeting Local Poverty — Yes!  Though it’s still not affecting every local church.
  7. More Small Groups and Smaller Churches — Yes!  It was the smaller churches part of the prediction that became more relevant.
  8. Church Closings — I was half right.   The closings that took place weren’t for the logical reasons given but often had to do with the economy or leadership scandals.
  9. The Youth-ification of Sunday Morning — (Only I didn’t phrase it that succinctly…)  This trend continued, although since Ancient-Future means that everything old is new again, it’s actually hard to tell if “Be Still My Soul” is a hymn of antiquity, or the coolest, new, ” in” worship song.
  10. Increased security at Church — It’s been awhile since 9/11 and while larger churches have plain clothed and uniformed security people, as well as detailed emergency plans, most medium-sized churches didn’t spend time this year considering this.
  11. Empowering the Broken — Giving voice to divorced people or single moms at the leadership level is something that is taking place very slowly over a longer period of time.
  12. Real Community — If this is playing out more at all, it’s playing out in conjunction with factor #7.   Larger churches which do their small groups by zip code instead of just having homogeneous interest groups are ahead of the curve on this trend.
  13. Continuity Throughout the Church Year — With so many pastors preaching ‘series’ messages, the only way to measure the ‘interruptions’ is to see if there’s a break Sunday between series.    This item should have clarified to include not only the quality of the teaching, but the quality of the worship.  The issue of ‘disruptions’ should have been dealt with separately.  Also, some pastors are simply away from their church too often.  There.  I said it.
  14. Unity across Denominational Lines — Yes!   Heard  more good stories of cooperation and financial support.   The younger generation doesn’t really care whether the sign outside says “MacDonald’s” or “Wendy’s” as long as you can buy a hamburger.   (Okay, so the analogy has some issues…)
  15. Several Sabbaths — I’d guess I was wrong on this.   Most churches still focus on “weekend” programming as the high point of the week.   Don’t hear too many stories of amazing things taking place on a Tuesday or a Thursday in most cities, and now, even New Community on Wednesdays at Willow is part of history.   (We drove from Canada just to attend a New Community; drove the border guard nuts trying to explain we were driving just to see a church service!)

So, like I said, this list is going to seem somewhat superficial when we look at some trends I’m concerned about for 2009.    Stand by.   In the meantime, don’t comment on these unless you’ve read both the above and the original predictions on the link.

September 16, 2008

Mark Sayers on “Low Fuel Tank Faith”

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:31 pm

LOW FUEL TANK FAITH

One of the beliefs of the EMC [Emerging Missional Church] is that if it can just readjust our churches’ practice around a more missionary position and learn from movement dynamics we will have a significant impact in the West. This is true, however it is missing one crucial point. That there is a giant crisis within the evangelical Church. I call this low fuel tank faith. That is that the average believer in the pew has very little fuel left in their fuel tank. That crisis revolves around three key elements

* Young Adults are leaving behind the church and faith in droves

* Many within Evangelical/Charismatic churches feel Burned/Disillusioned/Disheartened/Cynical

* All across the Evangelical/Charismatic world Christians are struggling to live out their faith. You just have to read Ron Siders The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why are Christians living just like the rest of the World to see the way that we have a crisis of holiness in our churches.

Thus what is occurring is that the troops that are being rallied by Emerging Missional Leaders to begin this new movement in the West are either too burnt out, deconstructing their own faith, or not even sure if they believe in Evangelism anymore. Generals will tell you that you can have the biggest and best equipped army but if you have low morale amongst your troops you are doomed. Missional movements will only get as far as people are brimming over with excitment about their faith. To drive the distance that missional movements need  you need a full fuel tank. Thus many EMC missional ventures have become filled with Evangelical and Charismatic church refugees, if you understand this reality and have the patience to build up their faith again over time this can be an advantage, but if you are not aware of this dynamic it can be disastrous.

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Mark Sayers blogs from Australia; read the whole article Five Things We Got Wrong in the Emerging Missional Church here.

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