Thinking Out Loud

April 22, 2016

Everything You Wanted to Know about Evangelicals

A few weeks ago we reviewed a book by Brian Stiller, Praying for the World, in which the author provides a wealth of information about world conditions based on his extensive travel and interaction as a former Director of Youth for Christ Canada, former President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, former President of Tyndale College and Seminary, and now Global Ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance.

Evangelicals Around the World - Thomas Nelson - Brian Stiller editorBrian is actually at the center of another recently-released project, this one also global in its perspective and one which also deserves to be in every church library and on several coffee tables as well. He serves as general editor for Evangelicals Around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century (Thomas Nelson, 2015), a collection of over 50 essays and reports from almost as many different writers, each with a particular expertise on their given topic.

I’m not sure who it was, but about five years ago, I read a blogger making the point that we need to make a stylistic change from small-e evangelical to capital-E Evangelical. Of course, Evangelicals came of age long before that. Most people reference Jimmy Carter, the born again President, and of course the birth of Billy Graham’s ministry.

But in the book, the roots of Evangelicalism are traced back to 1521, followed by an exhaustive history of the contributing streams to the movement from the 1700s to the present. There is a chapter defining the core beliefs of Evangelicals, their commitment to world missions, their interactions with other denominations and religions, their role in urban ministry, their involvement in politics, their approach to environmental issues, their sensitivities on gender-related issues, their relationship to the similar-sounding word evangelism, and a chapter I personally found interesting, their appreciation of and contribution to the arts.

The authors of each section also include a well-chosen bibliography for those who wish to pursue any given topic.

Halfway through, the book’s focus becomes regional with a look at Evangelicals in Africa, Latin America, North America, Asia, Europe and Oceania. While the articles about these regions continue the detail of the earlier articles, there is the addition of demographic charts which help paint a clear picture of where Evangelicals rank in different countries, both among Christians in general, but also the general populace.

Particularly challenging is an article on the future of the Evangelical movement, how it will be identified and the type of people who will define its ranks; though that essay needs to be qualified in light of the regional analyses.

Evangelicals Around the World is a hardcover reference book; 422 pages, $34.99 US; but its topical scope exceeds the bounds of academic textbooks. Rather, if you are part of the movement and want to know your roots; or if you are an outsider who wants to learn more about this particular expression of Christianity; this is certainly the definitive work on this subject worth owning.

Postscript: In this review I speak about their role and their perspective, but this is the tribe with which I identify. After a many years of working in interdenominational settings and  trying to be all things to all people; today, when the declaration that “I am a Christ-follower” fails to suffice, I am pleased to say that “I am an Evangelical” and have identified this way decisively for more than 20 years. I did not receive a review copy of this, but sought the book out because I wanted to study it personally and look at it more closely.

March 21, 2016

With Every Head Bowed, and Every Eye Closed

Filed under: Christianity, Church, evangelism — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:23 am


Yesterday morning in church I had a flashback to the church of my childhood, and a part of growing up Evangelical which was common to some readers here and possibly quite foreign to others of you.

Our pastor’s message today ended with an emphasis on repentance, and he asked people who needed to make repentance in their lives a priority to raise their hands.

Or something like that. Apparently I was having multiple flashbacks at that point, and missed the exact way he worded it.

Anyway, people raised their hands, and given the theme of the message, I debated about whether or not raise mine. We can all use a little contrition, right? I blinked my eyes open for a split second and noted that a large percentage of people were responding. But something held me back…

…You see, in my childhood church, every Sunday night service was an evangelistic meeting. Almost every service ended with the singing of Just As I Am — the same “invitation hymn” the Billy Graham Crusade choirs would end with — and an opportunity to “come forward” for prayer. It was the part of the service known as the “altar call” even though we didn’t have an altar as such.

Personal workers would then escort the people who “went forward” to the chapel, a room furnished with the pews and stained glass windows from the old building and which, for reasons unknown, I always found rather scary! Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the church was built in the 1960s and everything was bright fluorescent lighting on off-white walls except for the chapel which was incandescents on wooden pews and wood panel walls. A dark place in which to see the light.

But before that happened, and before people went to the front of the church, and before the singing of the song, the pastor would ask people to raise their hand if they wished to be “included in the closing prayer.” This was the direct response to the message of the evening, and throughout the auditorium people would slip up a hand which he would acknowledge by saying, “I see that hand.” And again and again, “I see that hand.”

However, if you raised your hand, the personal workers, who were stationed throughout the crowd but mostly at the back would triangulate your location and then, minutes later, on the first words of “Just as I am, without one plea,” if you didn’t immediately step out into the aisle to “go forward,” they would swoop in like hawks and offer to go to the front with you. They were heading in that direction anyway, and wanting to get other riders to hop on the bus. (Mixed metaphor, I know.)

I made this mistake once as a preteen. My father, seeing that I was terrified of going forward told the personal worker that, “We’ll deal with this with him at home.” Whew! That was a close one!

So the lesson was learned rather quickly that if you didn’t raise your hand, you didn’t have to face an invitation to go forward for prayer and then be escorted to the Chapel House of Horrors…

…Which is why this morning I experienced that moment of hesitation. I didn’t want to get taken to the dark room, I guess; even though we don’t have one.

I guess I really do need to do a lot of repentance.

The image is of an altar call at First Baptist Church in Hammond, IN; the iconic church of Dr. Jack Hyles, which we visited once when I was a kid. Source. Judging by the number of people pressing in, and the empty spaces in the pews, they got a good response.

The church of my own youth is pictured in some magazines we own somewhere, but all of the pictures online are locked up by the vultures at Getty Images.


March 10, 2016

Throwback Thursday

Recent comments by Dr. Russell Moore on how he wants to distance himself from the term Evangelical has sparked various discussions including one on this week’s edition of  The Phil Vischer Podcast about the rise of a new category, Progressive Evangelicals. I was reminded of a very lengthy post we did four years ago when a large controversy was happening over a book written by Rachel Held Evans.

We live in a time when battle lines are being drawn between conservative Christians and progressive Christians. I usually find myself standing somewhere in between, trying to build a bridge between both groups; trying to maintain doctrinal orthodoxy while at the same time recognizing that this ain’t 1949 or 1953 or 1961. It’s 2012 already.The world changed in-between; the world changed last year; the world changed last week.

We need to be mindful of the duality as we interact with the broader culture; as we live between two worlds; as we exist as aliens and strangers, having citizenship in another country; but having to live, eat, breathe, work and play in a world that’s not our permanent home. (See graphic below.)

To that end, we need authors and publishers who will translate our message into the vernacular of the day, or even the hour. We need books and book distribution networks that will illustrate Christian worldview in a way that people can understand.

In the end, the books we create should, at times, make us uncomfortable.

Christians Live in Two Worlds

If you’ve ever visited the blog platform Patheos, you’ve also seen that bloggers are divided into two categories, Evangelical and Progressive Christian (as well as Orthodox and Catholic, but strangely, not Mainline Protestant).  I’ve always felt that Patheos was ahead of the curve on this one in terms of making the distinction long before some had consciously considered the differences.

Another throwback: As I write this one of the many, many debates concerning Donald Trump’s aspirations to be U.S. President surrounds the idea of having someone elected to the position who is not a career politician, not a Washington Beltway insider. Some feel this makes Trump uniquely qualified.

Four years ago, we did a tongue-in-cheek post about a guy who is visiting a church and notices a board vacancy in the bulletin. He makes an argument for the refreshing perspective of someone who is not a congregation insider:

Dear Nominating Committee;

Visiting your church for the first time last Sunday, I noticed an announcement in the bulletin concerning the need for board members and elders for the 2012-2013 year. I am herewith offering my services.

While I realize that the fact I don’t actually attend your church may seem like a drawback at first, I believe that it actually lends itself to something that would be of great benefit to you right now: A fresh perspective.

Think about it — I don’t know any one of you by name, don’t know the history of the church and have no idea what previous issues you’ve wrestled with as a congregation. Furthermore, because I won’t be there on Sundays, I won’t have the bias of being directly impacted by anything I decide to vote for or against. I offer you pure objectivity.

Plus, as I will only be one of ten people voting on major issues, there’s no way I can do anything drastic single-handedly. But at the discussion phase of each agenda item, I can offer my wisdom and experience based on a lifetime of church attendance in a variety of denominations.

Churches need to periodically have some new voices at the table. I am sure that when your people see a completely unrecognizable name on the ballot, they will agree that introducing new faces at the leadership level can’t hurt.

I promise never to miss a board or committee meeting, even if I’m not always around for anything else.

I hope you will give this as much prayerful consideration as I have.

Most sincerely,

February 9, 2016

Abandoned Megachurches circa 2026

The interior of an abandoned church is seen on September 5, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. From the Huffington Post link below, click through to see 14 more abandoned churches.

The interior of an abandoned church is seen on September 5, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. From the Huffington Post, May 2015.

This weekend I heard part of a story that made me shudder. A megachurch. Mortgage-free. An issue arises. A split. People leave. Now there’s a mortgage. The future not as assured as it once was.

I very sincerely hope and pray that this one has a happy ending; that its best days are ahead. But it got us talking last night at dinner about the prophets of doom who predict there are going to be a long list of abandoned megachurches in North America at some point in the future. The ones who say that it’s only the personality of the founding pastor that is drawing the crowds. The experts who tell us that the move is going to be to smaller community churches and home fellowships. I hope they’re all wrong.

I mean it; well at least partly wrong. For all the negative articles in books, magazines and blogs about the downside to mass market worship, I think the specter of dozens of abandoned churches like the one in our picture above is far worse. You can take hundred-year-old churches now and turn them into trendy restaurants or antique shops, but unless a municipality arts group or a community college wants the space, it’s harder to do that with a 3,000 seat auditorium. Any decommissioned church is a sad story, but with today’s gigantic facilities, the buyers are fewer.

The scene is not totally far-fetched. Wikipedia lists 22 abandoned major shopping malls in the U.S. The internet abounds with photojournalism studies of dead malls. (That last link has literally hundreds of abandoned retail properties.) Ironically, the ideal location for megachurches and malls is identical: In suburbia at the intersection of two freeways.

The term sometimes used is Architectural Corpses. While some believe that churches which have sketchy theology are just a house of cards waiting to collapse, nobody wants to think that the congregation taught weekly by their favorite preacher would ever succumb to such a fate.

Three years ago Wade Burleson wrote:

…The pendulum is swinging back toward churches creating loose organizational structures in order to facilitate a wider array of ministries. For the next few decades, those evangelical churches that will continue to grow in numbers and Kingdom influence are those churches that spend less on facilities, learn how to worship in multiple venues and at various times, and focus more on building a network of effective small groups that collectively do missions both locally and globally. The climate and culture of the evangelical church has changed. Any church that focuses on large in-house productions, massive buildings, and ministries more conducive to “come and receive” instead of “go and give” is in for a surprise.

Let’s call it the Evangelical Fiscal Cliff.

Churches that have borrowed to build massive facilities are behind the proverbial eight ball. They must continue to focus on sustaining and maintaining the organization (utilities, repairs, staffing, and publicity to bring people into the high dollar facilities for “special events”), instead of empowering people to do the work of the ministry away from the buildings…

Most of the other articles on this topic simply use the subject as a means of attacking the doctrine of popular American pastors and churches.

In terms of church culture trends, Wade is probably correct, but an interesting thing happened here in Canada many, many years ago. They simply stopped building new shopping malls. This created a supply/demand equilibrium, and while some have indeed closed, and others are reconfigured as parts of outdoor power centers, many of the ones that remained are continuing to thrive, as evidenced by packed parking lots.

So in some respects, I know the future is going to contain a few forsaken megachurch buildings, but in general, I hope American Christianity can prove the doomsayers wrong.

The website said this church was designed to seat 10,000 but provided no further annotation.

The website said this church was designed to seat 10,000 but provided no further annotation.

Finally, I couldn’t help but pull this photo out of the files. I am sure that in its former days the members of this cathedral could never have imagined this, but what re-purposing of today’s churches exceeds our imagination? It’s sobering to consider.

The above is taken from a Wall Street Journal article about European Cathedrals being sold off, this one in Holland was re-purposed as a skateboard park.

The above is taken from a Wall Street Journal article about European Cathedrals being sold off, this one in Holland was re-purposed as a skateboard park.

Cathedral Repurposed as Skateboard Park



January 22, 2016

The Pastor’s Wife as “The First Lady”

First Lady ParkingIt’s spreading like a virus. Calling the wife of the senior pastor “The First Lady.” I think it may have had its beginnings in the African-American church, but it is no longer limited to those congregations. Where did this nonsense come from? Well, I looked it up and there it was:

II Amendations 4:3 The wife of the pastor shall be given a place of honor, for she is more special than the other women of the church. 4 She shall be called The First Lady, and everyone shall bless her. 5 She shall be seated on the front row of the assembly, unless that church has a balcony, in which case she shall sit on the front row there if it is her preference. 6 And if it is the case that she drives to church separately, she shall be given a reserved parking spot, it will be next to her husband’s, and this place shall be indicated by a sign which states, ‘Reserved for The First Lady.’ 7 And the pastor shall make reference to her during his sermon, and if it does not suit the text, he shall refer to her during the announcements.8 And if that service is televised, the cameras shall cut away to a shot of her smiling and shall linger there if she is especially telegenic.

9 Upon her arrival at the house of worship, the women of the church shall take care of her children so that she need not be concerned for them, for they are pastor’s kids and not particularly well-behaved. 10 She shall be exempted from the requirements of the other women, she shall not be asked to bake cookies, serve in the kitchen or the nursery, or make sandwiches for funerals. 11 She shall be permitted to be clothed lavishly, as she is an example to the other women of the church; with fine fabrics and gold jewelry shall she be dressed. 12 The congregation shall shower her with Ministry Appreciation cards on a regular basis as well as small gifts,  13 for she continually must attend to the needs of her husband whose schedule is hectic and whose life is filled with stress. 14 And she shall preach on Mother’s Day; for this expectation she is not to be exempted, even if speaking is not her particular gift.

January 9, 2016

Can People of Other Faiths Be Worshiping the Same God?

Larycia Hawkins Press Conference

Yesterday I ran a review of a kids video. I did it because I think the problem when facing current events is that bloggers feel the need to rush-to-publish and sometimes there is some wisdom in waiting an extra 24 or 48 hours. Sometimes it’s better not to weigh in at all.

I’m referring to the case of Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor at Wheaton College who was dismissed after demonstrating solidarity with her Muslim friends and especially for expressing the idea that we worship the same God.

In two short weeks she has raised a number of issues, and my personal take is that just as I waited a day or two to respond, I think that Wheaton College should have considered a more measured approach. While their action may appease conservative Evangelicals — many of whom form much of their donor base — I keep thinking this may come back to haunt them. As I did here, I wish they had not felt the rush-to-publish need to create the most drastic of all possible outcomes.

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? The knee-jerk reaction is to say, ‘Of course not.’ But an historical perspective yields different responses. Google the phrases “Three Faiths, One God” or “One God, Three Faiths” and you start to see the complexity of the issue.

But I want to ask a different question.

Do Jews and Christians worship the same God?

Again, the hard-line response of many is to say, ‘Of course not;’ after all, the God we worship is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, He who co-created the world with the Father, and sits at the Father’s right hand, and said, “No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” (And he really said cometh, according to my KJO friends.)

But the God we serve and sing to at weekend services is the same “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” I really believe you have to answer this two-step question before trying to answer the three-step question that includes Islam.

I can hear some saying, ‘Well, that’s different, it doesn’t apply here.’ But again, there are three (major) Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. There is some commonality.

And may I say, echoing Paul’s approach at Mars Hill, we certainly all seek the same God.

I wish Larycia Hawkins the best. She has left her mark on the ongoing, contemporary theological conversation.





June 24, 2015

Wednesday Link List

While none of the pictures will make the Church Stage Design website, many church platforms are being transformed for VBS.

While none of the VBS pictures on Twitter yesterday will make the Church Stage Design Ideas website, many church platforms are being transformed this week for VBS.

Some stories this week from The Christian Post and Christian Today were rejected because of distracting links to other web content. 

Because of our arrangement with Christianity Today, many Wednesday Link Lists here simply link to PARSE, no matter what you click; but as of last week, PARSE no longer exists. If you want to know more about a particular story, email us the date of the link list, and we’ll post the original list with all the links. It’s all very time-consuming, but we’ll eventually get to all of them.

May 15, 2015

Keeping Your Church’s Energy Level High Will Cost You

Rarely do I repost an article in full. But this one really needs to be seen by a variety of people in various aspects of ministry in the contemporary Evangelical church.  I do hope you’ll send author Brady Boyd some stats love by clicking through and reading it at his blog. Click the title below:

The Price We Pay for Exciting

 by Brady Boyd

Have you ever sat and watched an entire baseball game on TV? I mean, from the first pitch to the last out?

Brady BoydReally?

Baseball on TV is boring. There, I said it. I mean it, too. I will not apologize.

I love baseball. I played baseball. I was the third baseman for my high school team that won the state championship.

The Grand Old Game limps along when viewed through lenses because it was meant to be watched in a stadium or park while eating hot dogs, sitting on bleachers in the middle of the summer. Baseball is rhythmic and filled with strategic moves by managers and players. Each pitch can be scrutinized and every at-bat has subtle nuances. There is a plenitude of secret signs and pregnant pauses. But, it’s still boring to watch on TV.

That’s why I wait for the highlights on TV each night. The miracle of sport’s television allows a three-hour pastime to be condensed into 30-seconds of the best parts. I see all the home runs, the key strikeouts, the controversial plays at the plate without having to watch the entire game. If all we studied were the highlights, we would think baseball is the wonder of all sports, certainly made for live TV. It was not.

Church was not created for TV, either. The activity of discipling people from spiritual infancy to maturity is rarely exciting. In fact, it can be quite mundane. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that church should be exciting, made for TV, full of buzz and emotional fervor. There are certainly zenith moments like baptisms, weddings, baby dedications and encountering the Holy Spirit through prayer and worship. Stirring stuff, for sure. Other things like fasting, lingering intercession, hospital visits, unhurried conversations with grieving widows, and bringing food to a sick family are not as electric.

Jesus called us sheep, not lions, bears or race horses.  Have you ever watched a shepherd with his flock in a field? It does not qualify as thrilling cinema. Sure, there may be predators that sometimes need to be thwarted and occasionally, the shepherd will have to hurry his flock into a shelter when a storm surprises them.  Most days, though, the sheep eat grass, drink water, and nap while the shepherd stands in the shade nearby.

In my vocation as pastor, most of my work would miss the cut for the 30-seconds of late-night highlights. I doubt most shepherds see their work as scintillating, but it is indeed proficient. In fact, skilled shepherds tend to avoid rushing their sheep to distant pastures or exciting the flock with loud noises. Sheep do best in stable, secure environs. There is a steep price to pay for constant excitement.

Recently, I was speaking at a leader’s conference in the Los Angeles area. My message was about sustainable rhythms for healthy ministry, taken from lessons I have learned the hard way. As soon as I finished, a young woman approached me with tears in her eyes. Her pastor had told her and the team that he was going to have an exciting, growing church, which meant everyone had to give 110%. He told them if they could not keep up with him, they could all be easily replaced.

She wanted to be a part of the weekly highlight reels, so she tried to maintain the insane pace. Predictably, she failed and was left in the ditch of ministry with many others. She was hurt because church life was not about the sheep flourishing anymore, it was about creating a false sense of excitement that simply was not sustainable. Her ambitious Senior Pastor is now out of ministry altogether, burned out for trying to run too fast for too long.

I prayed for the young leader, then reminded her that what we do is a sacred calling that should be taken seriously. We do get to be a part of some incredible highlights as God transforms people in front of us. That’s exciting stuff and should be celebrated. I also reminded her that when Jesus called his disciples, he did not tell them, “Come follow me, and keep up if you can.” He promised them hard work, sleepless nights, criticism and persecution. He also said he would be with them always, like a faithful shepherd on a long, obedient journey that would sometimes be exciting, but would always be leading people home.

May 14, 2015

Christianity Fares Poorly in Recent Polls, Surveys

Religion in AmericaNumerically, Christianity is in decline in North America. If the U.S. wants to see its religious future it needs only to look to Canada, which although it has its unique characteristics (different mix of ethnicities, historically stronger Roman Catholic population) is very much a “20 minutes into the future” window on what the U.S. is facing. And in some respects the UK provides Canada with a similar preview of increases in secularism.

We wrote about the implications for the church a few months ago in a review of the new book, The Church in Exile.

Dr. Russell D. Moore heads the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and is always very clear and forthright in framing the Evangelical position on issues for wider culture to comprehend. In an article titled “Is Christianity Dying” he writes:

  • Bible Belt near-Christianity is teetering. I say let it fall
  • Secularization in America means that we have fewer incognito atheists. Those who don’t believe can say so—and still find spouses, get jobs, volunteer with the PTA, and even run for office. This is good news because the kind of “Christianity” that is a means to an end… is what J. Gresham Machen rightly called “liberalism,” and it is an entirely different religion from the apostolic faith handed down by Jesus Christ.
  • The Pew report holds that mainline denominations—those who have made their peace with the Sexual Revolution—continue to report heavy losses, while evangelical churches remain remarkably steady—even against some heavy headwinds coming from the other direction.
  • Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news. The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that the Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction.
  • We do not have more atheists in America. We have more honest atheists in America.

To read the entire article — recommended — click this link.

Meanwhile, USA tapped another Baptist writer, Ed Stetzer for an article titled “Survey Fail: Christianity Isn’t Dying.” The articles subtitle confirms what Moore is saying, “Fakers who don’t go to church are just giving up the pretense.”

  •  Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement.
  • If evangelical Christianity is growing, or at the very least remaining steady, why is Christianity as a whole shrinking and why are those who claim no religious affiliation increasing at such a rapid rate? In short, nominals — people whose religious affiliation is in name only — are becoming nones — people who check “none of the above” box on a survey.

To read the entire article, click this link.

Of course, discussions like this tend to move from the sublime to the ridiculous. So we have, at Billboard of all places, this article: “Bill O’Reilly Blames Hip-Hop for Decline in U.S. Christianity.” Here’s a snippet:

  • Obviously, these statistics were gonna get an entrenched conservative like Bill O’Reilly upset. And when Bill sees a problem, Bill needs a scapegoat — and when you’re a conservative talking head, what better scapegoat is there than black people? … “There is no question that people of faith are being marginalized by a secular media and pernicious entertainment,” O’Reilly said. “The rap industry, for example, often glorifies depraved behavior. That sinks into the minds of some young people — the group that is most likely to reject religion.”

What’s deplorable about this is that O’Reilly is missing the point entirely as to what Christianity is and sees it as moralism instead belief in the deity and atoning work of Jesus Christ.

If you feel you must, you read the story at this link.

Yesterday, we also linked to a story at Huffington Post, “The Surprising Sacred Gathering Spaces That Are Moving Into Your Neighborhoods” which you’ll find at this link.

Finally, CBC television in Canada jumped into the discussion last night, but as their charter mandates, were forced to look at all religions.  I’m not sure if their content is available in the U.S. but you can try to view the 12-minute piece at this link. (There was also coverage this week at ABC World News.)

with additional research from Clark Bunch at The Master’s Table blog and Flagrant Regard







August 13, 2014

Wednesday Link List

God has no phone but I talk to him

Control the WeatherTime to dust off the flannel graph, test the cassette deck and warm up the filmstrip projector as another season of ministry kicks off. As for that book cover on the right, there’s no link because…well…someone might actually click through and buy one.

Paul Wilkinson blogs at Thinking Out Loud and edits Christianity 201, the latter of which is always looking for submissions.

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