Thinking Out Loud

January 12, 2020

Service Cancelled Due to the Weather

Filed under: Christianity, Church, weather — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:48 pm

“Father MacKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear…”
– The Beatles

Perhaps the lyric was on my mind as we recently watched the movie Yesterday. Twice actually.

On our own yesterday we had to make a run to Emergency as I was in great agony with a pain in my foot which was diagnosed as a tear in the Achilles tendon. Or something like that. I was more concerned with the care and the prognosis than the particular title the injury received.

Mrs. W. was in the waiting room, working on her laptop on a sermon outline that had been percolating for awhile, in case it was needed the next day. The pastor is in Montreal with family, and the scheduled speaker, who would have needed to drive a significant distance, had done the prudent thing and cancelled ahead of time.

So my wife had offered to be the back-up speaker for the other back-up speaker.

As it turned out, the church cancelled their service. About half of the Evangelical churches that are active on Facebook did the same, and another half did not. The Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches had nothing on social media (if they have it at all) so we assume they went ahead.

Hence The Beatles quotation above. Poor Father MacKenzie. Did no one come to the service?

We saw this happen a few years ago. A priest in Boston was going through all of the forms for the 5:00 PM mass in an empty sanctuary. Empty, but for the two tourists peeking through a back door, on whom his dedication had a significant impact; so perhaps it wasn’t all for naught.

I have no memories of church services being cancelled when I was young. It was a large church in a big city, and maybe the roads were kept cleared enough that people could arrive without incident. We probably had a few rural members and adherents, but for the most part, this was an urban church, transplanted from a downtown location that made it even more urban. As long as public transit was operating, people could attend.

Some of that may also be due to the changing weather patterns we are experiencing. I’ve written about that five years ago. On the 6:30 U.S. network newscasts I’ve watched for as long as we’ve been married, the last seven or eight years have almost always included a breaking weather-related story among the opening headlines.

I’ve run the picture below, with the same caption, previously on the blog. It’s not always about the weather, but the extremes of weather we experience.

In the meantime, we’ve missed this week’s opportunity for fellowship, teaching and worship. My wife’s earlier attempt to watch a live stream of the church where she grew up failed due to unusually slow internet speeds. We went to different rooms and read different books. I had downloaded a sermon last night, and will probably choose another one (or more) before the day is over.

I hope that both Father MacKenzie and my wife get to deliver their sermons to some actual people. And perhaps one of the ladies in the church will step up and offer to darn the priest’s socks so he doesn’t have to do this himself.

On New Year's Day 2009, Ippswich in Australia was expecting a high of +38C, which is about 100F. Meanwhile, back at home, my Weather Network indicator on my computer is showing that we’re heading to a low of -18C, which is about -1F. Their high temperature on a summer mid-afternoon Thursday would be occurring at the same time as my Wednesday mid-winter night. That's 101 degrees F difference. That day I was asking,

On New Year’s Day 2009, Ippswich in Australia was expecting a high of +38C, which is about 100F. Meanwhile, back at home, my Weather Network indicator on my computer was showing that we were heading to a low of -18C, which is about -1F. Their high temperature on a summer mid-afternoon Thursday would be occurring at the same time as my Wednesday mid-winter night. That’s 101 degrees F difference. That day I was asking, “Are we even on the same planet?” (The left picture was actually Bondi Beach.) Where I live, houses, cars and our collection of clothing has to withstand wind chill factors as low as -50 C (which was reached in Winnipeg several times that year, almost not needing the chill factor) and humidity index temps higher than +40 C.


We plough the fields, and scatter
the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered
by God’s almighty hand.
He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft, refreshing rain. 1

… He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt 5:45)


1Classic hymn based on a poem published in 1782 and set to music in 1800; also the basis of the song All Good Gifts from the musical Godspell; section cited based on Psalm 147:16.

January 6, 2020

Evangelicals in a Nation of Tax Loopholes

Note to readers in countries outside the United States: What follows is not fiction. What is described below is believed to be an accurate recounting of the statements issued by an Evangelical organization which has already been a trusted brand in ministry.

Wade Mullen is my new hero. His exposé on one of the charity sector’s most unusual accountability loopholes published as a Twitter thread last week. It took time and research to write. It took courage to print. But then I shouldn’t be surprised. As his “about” page on his website notes:

I earned a PhD researching the ways in which organizations seek to escape a scandal with their legitimacy in tact. My dissertation is titled: “Impression Management Strategies Used by Evangelical Organizations in the Wake of an Image-threatening Event.” You and can download it for free HERE.

(Warning: That dissertation is 279 pages!)

The gist of the thread is summed up thus:

Focus on the Family received approval from the IRS to be reclassified as a church in 2016.

For many of my readers here, that may seem a little strange, but it doesn’t appear to be a world-shaking observation. But as most of my American readers know, the difference is in the responsibility for transparency. The site The Balance Small Business notes:

In other words, churches, to be considered 501(c)(3) charities, must act like other charities. If they do so, they may qualify for tax-exemption.

But, unlike other charities, Churches do not have to register with the IRS by submitting Form 1023. However, many do file to make their status clear to their donors and supporters. Churches that do officially register as charitable organizations are included on the IRS list of registered charities.

Churches that do not register with the IRS do not have to file yearly 990s, the tax document that all other charities must submit yearly. If the church has registered as a 501(c)(3), it does have to file a 990.

Okay, so far so good. A church is a church is a church, right? Not exactly. In the years since the end of World War II, we’ve seen a massive explosion of we insiders call parachurch organizations. The website continues:

Religious groups [organizations] are not places of worship. They do not usually belong to a particular denomination. They often try to bridge particular belief systems, although they can also be groups that study or promote a particular religion.

To be considered tax-exempt, a religious organization must register as a 501(c)(3) charity. That means filing Form 1023 (groups with income below $5000 annually are not required to file although they may wish to). Once registered, the organization must file an annual 990.

The last few years have shown that the leadership of both churches and parachurch organizations is fallible. Have a sex scandal and the IRS isn’t particular interested, unless money changes hands. But be guilty of financial impropriety and donors, potential donors, watchdog organizations and the IRS will investigate. So if you can hide behind the idea of being a church you can escape many of those watching eyes.

Wade Mullen then went through each of the IRS criteria of Church, criterion by criterion and Focus on the Family’s response. I’m not going to reproduce each of the accompanying images here, but this is well documented; in fact, I would suggest if you have Twitter (and even if you don’t) skipping what follows and reading this starting with this Tweet. However, I’m reproducing the text here because Twitter and blogs are often an entirely different audience, and this deserves, in my humble opinion, wider exposure. [Note: Bold face type added.]

Wade Mullen
[photo: Lancaster Bible College]

A church needs an established congregation.
According to FoF, their personnel make up their 594-member congregation overseen by the elders (aka Board of Directors) and deacons/deaconesses (aka Executive Cabinet). Radio listeners are their mission field.

A church needs a place of worship.
According to FoF, their dining hall doubles as a worship auditorium. They call it a “chapelteria.”

A church needs a process for membership.
According to FoF, their “congregants” become members when they go through the employee or volunteer hiring process.

Churches give their members certain rights.
According to FoF, their “congregation” are encouraged to “participate in the religious functions of Focus on the Family,” like Monday prayer meetings and devotional opportunities.
As expected, this “congregation” does not vote.

Members of one local church typically don’t become members of another local church.
According to FoF, however, it’s normal for people to be members of more than one church.

Churches usually conduct baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
According to FoF, their “congregation” participates in communion every Easter during a chapel service. All other functions (baptisms, weddings, funerals) are supposedly conducted by the “congregant’s” other church.

Churches should have a school for the religious instruction of the young.
According to FoF, their radio programs, like Adventures in Odyssey, constitute their religious instruction for the young members of their “congregation.”

A church typically has ordained or licensed ministers.
According to FoF, they refer to the leadership team as deacons/deaconesses and the board of directors as elders. Jim Daly, President/CEO, is the head elder and they follow the “model of an elder-led church.”

Churches typically required their ministers to receive formal preparation culminating in ordination, licensing, or commissioning.
According to FoF, they do not find such requirements necessary for their “church.” Elders (BoD) are selected from the “congregation.”

Churches are sometimes affiliated with other churches.
According to FoF, the offices they have in 13 other countries are the “churches” they affiliate with.

A church should primarily function as a church, with most activity being religious.
According to FoF, their “daily work is worship.” This is one of their strongest claims throughout the application.
They view all employee activity as religious activity.

A church usually has a religious history.
According to FoF, their organization has been evolving into a church in the same way that John Wesley started his “Holy Club” that evolved into Methodism, and is beginning to resemble other churches as it continues to institutionalize.

A church usually has a creed.
According to FoF, their statement of faith and “Six Pillars” are their creed and one of their distinctive is the belief in “work as worship.”

Churches should have both an equipping and service role.
But according to FoF, they are one of two blades in a pair of scissors. FoF is the “service and mission” blade and the “congregant’s” other church is the “teaching and equipping” blade. Together they comprise the Church.

■ When the IRS brought up the fact their employees attend other churches on Sundays, FoF claimed not all churches have services on Sundays, like the Seventh-day Adventist, and that “it has been quite common for believers to be involved in more than one church body…concurrently.”

■ When the IRS asked about membership being tied to employment, FoF claimed that since they invite visitors and volunteers to join their “services,” then membership is not “in fact contingent on employment.”

■ When the IRS asked about religious leadership being the same as directing business operations, FoF claimed that “nearly all congregational churches…have a board of directors that doubles as a board of elders or board of deacons”

■ When the IRS suggested there was nothing distinctive that would cause “a group of believers to coalesce around you,” FoF chided them for their “ecclesiastical judgment” and argued their group of believers are among the largest in the world – 5.5 million nationwide.

■ When the IRS pointed out that these congregational activities appear to be incidental to the business operations, FoF argued their church activities are fundamental to their operations and that thinking of church as a building to gather to hear a sermon on Sundays is antiquated.

■ Finally, when the IRS questioned their real purpose for using facilities for “some religious activity in the course of their work day,” FoF chided them again for their “ecclesiastical judgment” and argued their members engage in “religious activity, all day, every day.”

My take:
This is an incredible twisting of the biblical view of the nature and purpose of a local church for the apparent purpose of forcing one’s ecclesiology into IRS codes.
Not surprisingly, others like BGEA, Samaritan’s Purse, and RZIM have followed.

■ If Focus on the Family truly believes it is a church, its employees and volunteers are its congregants, their executives are their pastors and elders, and their listeners are their mission field, then they should immediately stop requesting donations from their 6m+ listeners.

■ The lawyer offering these answers is Stuart Mendelsohn, legal counsel to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (EFCA), a group that offers accreditation for ministries and churches.

■ Here is the letter FoF sent to the IRS requesting the reclassification from a 509(a)(2) to a 509(a)(1), stating “Focus on the Family was established and has been historically operated as a church.” [Attaches link to this 125-page .pdf file]

[end thread]

Here are some responses Wade received:

► From Rachel: “This is bananas. This is also why some people are anti-tax exemption for churches. It’s not because they want to blur the line between Church and State; it’s because of ethically dubious loopholes that religious orgs take advantage of.”

► Diane quoted N.T. Wright: “When you pretend evil is not there you merely give it more space to operate.”

► Albert noted: “…PLOT TWIST, they used the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a tiny part of their justification.”

► Bill wrote: “Focus on the Family is not a church. And claiming that it is for tax purposes is lying. A “Christian” ministry shouldn’t be lying for financial gain.”

► Julia asks: “It is such a tragedy that churches are becoming more secretive while secular non-profits are demonstrating transparency. Why are these “churches” considered Godly?”

► Hannah reasoned: “When anything with a vaguely religious cast can be a “church,” then nothing is.”

► Craig wrote: “I’m embarrassed reading the arguments. This is incredibly dishonest.”

► Rachel aptly notes: “I’m here thinking the fact that the IRS has a “church” designation in the first place is a bit unsettling.”

► Lucrezia wrote: “I look forward to FoF ceasing all political activity since it is apparently a church.”

[end responses]

And those are just the ones Wade retweeted. I’m sure there were hundreds more. To me this is every bit as scandalous as many of the other scandals of 2019. It brings me no pleasure to share this, but having discovered it, I felt there should be some additional recognition and highlighting of all these things that were made available to Twitter account holders last week.

Something is seriously wrong and as I said at the outset, Focus on the Family has long been a respected brand in Evangelicalism, and ought feel shamed by the responses it made to the IRS. 

Ask yourself, who benefits by all this?

 

December 24, 2019

A Very Evangelical Christmas

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:54 am

Normally at this time of year, I’d be wishing you all a Merry Christmas, but there’s no denying the events of the past 96 hours; events proving conclusively that Evangelicals do not all speak with one voice. The best tutorial on this you will find is a 72-minute episode of The Phil Visher Podcast, with Phil, Skye Jethani and Christian Taylor exploring the history of the movement to give context to the present situation. Find it on Apple Podcasts or Libsyn.

In case you missed it:

  • Christianity Today magazine’s Mark Galli publishes an article calling for the removal of Donald Trump from office.
  • The media jumps all over the story since it has always assumed that all Evangelicals are strong Republican supporters.
  • In their zeal however, the media looks to organizations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) for a response because, after all, they have the word Evangelical in their name. The media doesn’t get the nuances of what’s happening. (Sorry I don’t have the link for this one)
  • Jerusha Duford, grandaughter of Billy Graham and niece of Franklin Graham appears on CNN to say, “My fear with ‘the lesser of two evils’ is that at some point one of the evils stops looking evil. I’m not sure that the good he’s done outweighs the rest.”
  • A day later Aram Tchividjian, another Graham grandchild and coauthor of a biography of Billy Graham posts a tongue-in-cheek tweet clearly contradicting Franklin Graham’s notion that Billy Graham voted for Donald Trump
  • One more day later, on Sunday, The Christian Post publishes a counter-attack on Christianity Today’s article containing the signatures of 200 “Christian leaders” who disagree with CT’s stance. On closer observation however, the signature list appears somewhat hollow, with the exception of people already on record as backing the President (Franklin Graham, Falwell, Jeffress, Dobson, etc.)
  • The same day, the CEO of Christianity Today, Timothy Dalrymple publishes an affirmation of the original article by Mark Galli.
  • Yesterday, Napp Nazworth, political analyst and editor for The Christian Post resigns, stating, “I can’t be an editor for a publication with that editorial voice.

The story, no doubt, continues. Again, of all the links here, if you can spare the hour, do the podcast in the first paragraph above. (If you reach a place where time is running out, don’t miss Skye Jethani’s exhortation to pastors at 1:02:40 and following.)

And best wishes for Christmas Day, and a Christmas dinner with family friends where great food with a moratorium on political comments will be served.


Want to know more about Evangelicals? Christian Book has this great encyclopedic resource from Brian Stiller on right now at 84% off the $34.99 list.

September 3, 2019

In Religion Reporting, There’s a Tradeoff Between Objectivity and Accuracy

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:37 am

I’ve said before that only insiders can report a news story in Evangelicalism.

I realize this means that there is a certain loss of objectivity that a reporter borrowed from the business beat or the political department would have, but I believe it’s worth sacrificing that aspect of objectivity if it means getting the report mostly correct.

The reason is simply that there is so much terminology, so much nuance behind our stories that an outsider simply can’t appreciate. In the name of objectivity, it would be possible to get the story wrong.

I wouldn’t consider writing a piece about a Muslim cleric or a Buddhist community any more than I would consider writing about NASCAR, South African politics, or gourmet cooking.

Fortunately, there is the website Get Religion, which keeps us abreast of the missteps by (mostly) print media in attempting to cover stories of (mostly) Christianity. Usually these include things like wrong terminology, poor theological understanding, unawareness of the full history of the story, or missing entirely the sub-strands of the story being covered.

I was reminded of this on the weekend reading some tweets from religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey, made, as it turns out, in reference to an item I now also see covered on Get Religion.

She wrote,

I’ve been reporting on religion, especially the inner workings of U.S. evangelicals, for 12 years now. I’m fully aware of the skeletons in the closet. I have fun stories to share! BUT if your publication can’t write a fair piece about them, you risk alienating 25% of the country.

I was inspired to become a religion reporter after Bush’s re-election, when reporters were baffled by what many of them portrayed as stupid evangelicals willing to vote for a buffoon. I thought perhaps I could explain. 12 years later, I don’t think the media has woken up.

I’m tired of watching the media botch religion coverage, whether news or opinion.

If you see your faith poorly covered, you will instantly distrust the rest of that outlet’s coverage.

That last sentence is key. Can you truly put your faith in a media outlet if their coverage of the subject that is perhaps closest to your heart is being rendered carelessly?

For Sarah, I suspect it’s doubly discouraging, knowing she could have been asked to write the piece and done a better job. Full disclosure: In this instance, the piece in particular at the New York Times was an Op-Ed — an opinion piece — and not hard news. But I know for writers and reporters like Sarah and others like her this is a constant frustration.

I’ve had the privilege of writing some print pieces for nationally distributed media outlets. But for 30 years I’ve also lived in a small town, doing a somewhat visible ministry that interacts with all the churches and parachurch organizations. In all those years, I’ve never once been interviewed as a source to help the local newspapers clarify a religion story, and often it means they’ve missed the mark almost to the point of getting the story completely wrong.

It leaves the public misinformed, and leaves the media outlet looking less than they would desire.

September 6, 2018

Anabaptist Distinctives: Bruxy Cavey

Bruxy Cavey Bus

In light of yesterday’s item in the Wednesday link/roundup (see below*) I thought we’d rerun this item from 2013. These were originally a series of tweets.

  • Anabaptists tend to emphasize following Jesus’ teachings and example more than perfecting our systematic theology on eschatology, atonement, etc.
  • Even slight shifts in emphasis (eg, how to live like Jesus vs. systematic theology) create very different church cultures.
  • Anabaptists not only differ to other Christians in the content of their theology, but also in the emphasis or focus of their theology.
  • Yes I find Anabaptists to be as flawed as any Christian group, but I hold out more hope for healthy growth when Christians focus on Christ.
  • We have confused gentleness with quietness. It’s time to hear and be heard…
  • Because we emphasize following Jesus, we must remind ourselves of grace
  • Anabaptists live and think like a church mentored by James. We need fellowship with churches more mentored by Paul (& vice versa).
  • Rather than fear, guilt, or shame….inspire people with hope, beauty, and courage. Let’s fascinate, not force, people toward the Gospel.
  • Evangelicals = Paul (rich theology, grace emphasis).
    Anabaptists = James (faith without works is dead so go live it). 
  • If the early church needed the teaching of Paul and James, Gal 2-5 & Matt 5-7, today’s church needs the voices of Evangelicals and Anabaptists.
  • Evangelical Emphasis = Jesus is Savior/Substitute. Believe! Anabaptist Emphasis = Jesus is Lord/King. Follow!

Bruxy Cavey is the teaching pastor of The Meeting House, Canada’s fastest growing church movement with satellite locations across Ontario. Although he grew up in a Pentecostal tradition, Bruxy’s church is part of the Be in Christ (BiC) denomination a subset of the Anabaptists.

For an excellent understanding of this, visit a sermon-series Bruxy’s church did in the summer with guests from various other churches. This link takes you to option for both audio video of the final episode with Bruxy interviewing Mike Krause from Southridge Mennonite Brethren Church in Welland. (Click the audio or video buttons in the download area, the others are not always functional. The video message begins following a promotional building fund clip and some quotes.) 


*Item referred to yesterday:

Allegedly under pressure from large financial donors, Fresno Pacific’s University’s graduate program in Anabaptist Theology has removed the visiting lecturer status of Bruxy Cavey, Greg Boyd and Brian Zahnd, and has also demoted its president to professor status after he takes a sabbatical. Yikes! In one cohort, 21 out of 23 students have signed a letter of protest, while meanwhile 11 out of the 18 students who were registered for this year — many on the premise of getting to interact with these very lecturers — have withdrawn. Greg Boyd said he had, “letters of support from [Mennonite Brethren] pastors apologizing and worrying about their denomination losing Anabaptist distinctives and acclimating to American fundamentalism.”

September 10, 2017

Charts: Ten Largest Churches in America

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus is quoted as saying, “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
But you’d never know that by the American obsession with church size.
Image: Journey Online, Australia (click to link)

The Outreach Magazine list is always considered the most authoritative, but only includes participating churches. Nonetheless, here’s how it looked in 2016:

  1. North Point (Atlanta) 39,056 (Andy Stanley)
  2. Church of the Highlands (Birmingham) 38,346 (Chris Hodges)
  3. NewSpring (Anderson) 33,761 (vacant)
  4. Gateway (South Lake) 28,399 (Robert Morris)
  5. Saddleback (Orange County) 25,612 (Rick Warren)
  6. Willow Creek (NW Chicago) 25,371 (Bill Hybels/Steve Carter)
  7. Christ’s Church of the Valley (Peoria, AZ) 24,108 (Donald J. Wilson)
  8. Christ Fellowship (Palm Beach) 23,845 (Todd Mullins)
  9. Southeast Christian (Louisville) 23,799 (Dave Stone/Kyle Idleman)
  10. Crossroads (Cincinnati) 22,458 (Brian Tome)

So right away many of you noticed that Lakewood (Joel Osteen) and LifeChurch (Craig Groeschel) are missing. That’s the problem with this list. It only lists churches that completed Outreach’s full survey. They charge money for their reports, and that’s disturbing because almost by definition, the lists are incomplete.

Go to The Christian Post and you’ll find what might be a better list, but it doesn’t have the data:

  1. Lakewood
  2. Willow Creek
  3. LifeChurch (North Oklahama City; Craig Groeschel)
  4. North Point
  5. Saddleback
  6. Gateway
  7. Shadow Mountain (San Diego; David Jeremiah)
  8. New Season (Sacramento; Samuel Rodriguez)
  9. Prestonwood Baptist (Plano, TX; Jack Graham)
  10. The Rock (San Diego; Miles McPherson)

Regular readers here will notice that there are many churches I would consider to be presently more influential that don’t make these attendance-based lists.

Some readers here would be able to rattle off a list like this off the top of their heads. What I thought would be really interesting would be to list the Top Ten Catholic Churches in the US by attendance. Such a list proved elusive. At least one branch of Christianity isn’t focused on numbers.  Other churches on similar lists include Woodlands (Kerry Shook),  Potter’s House (T.D. Jakes) and Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale (Bob Coy).

If you want to sort by denomination, or state, this list at the Hartford Institute is a good one to know about. They also have an alphabetical Canadian list, but I’m not sure when it was last updated.

Image: Christianity Today (click to link)

 

March 31, 2017

The G-Word

Two quick stories by way of introduction, then the application.

Story #1

There was a time, not so long ago, when Evangelicals would do something each spring called door-to-door visitation. In other words, teams of two people would pick a neighborhood and knock on doors inviting people to come to church. Or to consider the claims of Christ. Or to come to church in order to consider the claims of Christ. Or accept the claims of Christ and then come to church.

Honestly, I’m not sure which was which because I’m pretty sure back then you had to believe to belong, but now you can belong before you believe. But now I’m a thousand miles off course.

The thing I really wanted to say here is this: Going in twos door-to-door was pretty much co-opted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. They took the form or the methodology and totally dominated. They killed the category.

Today, you can’t go door-to-door without being taken for JWs or Latter Day Saints.

Story #2

A church near where I live did something a few years ago did something I would consider quite wise. They’re part of a Canadian denomination that has both the word Missionary and Evangelical in their name. So emblazoned on their building in rather large letters was the name, Evangelical Missionary Church.

Bob, do we have a picture? No but we have a picture of the church bus.

Anyway, the leadership of a few years back decided the word Evangelical was losing its respect in the broader world. (Think televangelist.) If you follow Christian authors and pastors online, you know this discussion is taking place across Evangelicalism. (Try this article on for size.)

They also felt the word Missionary was somewhat archaic. It conjured up an image of Beulah Baker with her hair in a bun heading off for seven years in the Belgian Congo. Honestly, I agree with the need for change; I accept the Missionary position on this issue. 

So today, the sign reads, Grace Church. Short and simple.

Application

So where are we going with this today? We have a story of a form being co-opted. We have a story of the meaning of words shifting, at least in perception.

The word in question: Gospel.

The Gospel is the good news, the heralding that something of vital importance has taken place. As the great theologian Linus once said, “Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.”

But now it’s a code word. Think “Together for the Gospel.” Or “The Gospel Coalition.” Now you know to whom I refer. The Neo-Reformed. The New Calvinists. (Or as I will often use as alternatives: Militant Calvinists. Internet Calvinists.)

Preparing this, I was reminded of an article I wrote back in 2011, with a screenshot of a note about an upcoming conference and the writer’s joy over how great it was that “three real friends of the gospel” were speaking. This implies that:

  • The others are not real (or true) friends of the gospel
  • Anyone individual or group not part of the YRR (Young, Restless & Reformed) crowd are simply not friends of the gospel

Where does this end?

  • The others don’t like the gospel
  • The others don’t preach the true gospel
  • The others are heretics
  • The others hate the gospel

Yikes; that last one was hard to type, but are we really that far away from a schism of that nature? That’s where this rhetoric is taking us. Words matter. What we say counts. 

Or…the rest of us, who would have been happy continually using those words, have to find new ones.  To the reformers: That wasn’t your word to steal. But now you’ve ruined it for everyone…

…What’s that, Bob? You found the picture? Well, okay:

 

 

November 5, 2016

Circles

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:26 am

“I don’t move in Charismatic circles.”

“I can get you in contact with people who run in Presbyterian circles.”

“You’d need to ask him, he knows people in Baptist circles.”

christian-denominations-8

Every denomination has its own culture. There are things you just won’t get until you’ve spent some time among that church crowd, or made a strong friendship with someone who has and can explain the finer nuances of it to you. This is a microcosm of what happens when the secular press tries to cover religious news. We end up saying that they truly don’t get Evangelicalism, or that a specific reporter obviously didn’t grow up Roman Catholic. But those two distinctions also break down into finer subgroups.

Last week someone asked me to recommend a book, but implicit in the request was that he was looking for a book which would appeal to him, even though it would be given away. I am blessed with both a vocation, and a personal church resumé which allows me to speak many denominational dialects, but that’s no guarantee I’m going to get it right each and every time. But without my recommendation, I know this person would have been searching in a relative vacuum. Online vendors are programmed to recommend either the latest hot thing, or the thing they’re overstocked on and need to get rid of.

So my recommendation might mean something except for the fact that each time I thought about this, I kept coming back to one particular author who it has become very fashionable to bash right now (for reasons that totally escape me.) To complicate matters, the person making the request identifies as one denomination, but has strong allegiances to another very different set of authors, musicians and conferences. He’s really moving in two very different circles which, trust me, do not overlap except for maybe him and six other people in the entire world.

Late yesterday I was looking at a six-week curriculum. I loved the topics. I trust the publisher. The price was reasonable… And then I noticed the author’s name. Hmmm. I’ve just never been comfortable with that person, but then again, I don’t move in those circles. He’s probably someone else’s favorite.

Frankly, I wish this person would just give me their full-out trust. I’d probably pick a newer author. Someone nobody has ever heard of. That way there would be less bias on both our parts.

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.

November 22, 2015

Door to Door Evangelism: Marginal Groups Willing to Invest the Time

Several years ago I met with a man who was a somewhat lapsed Episcopalian (or Anglican as we say here) who had been meeting on a monthly basis with some Jehovah’s Witnesses. He had a lot of questions about various issues, and so he invited them into his home and they returned regularly, staying about an hour each time.

There was a time when Evangelicals were very big on the concept of door-to-door outreach and visitation. Many a Saturday morning in the 1950s and 1960s might be spent in twos or threes ringing doorbells in a local neighborhood.

But as time went by, people tended to associate the “two by two” approach with only two groups: Mormons (LDS) and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These two groups took ownership of this method of proselytizing, with the result that today it’s not widely used by others.

Before anyone starts dismissing these groups out of hand, I want to commend the approach for the following reasons:

  1. It’s Biblical. The disciples were sent out in this manner. I’m not sure that by concluding that certain groups had taken over this approach and the simply giving up, Evangelical Christians did the right thing. What contact do we now make with our surrounding neighbors?
  2. They deliver. If the last few years of Missional Church has taught us anything, it’s taught us the importance of being sent. So much of what the church calls “outreach” is really “in-drag.” Millions of people are falling through the cracks of printed brochure distribution or mall campaigns or e-mail invites. But it’s harder — though not impossible — for them to ignore a knock at the door.
  3. The people who this man met at his front door were willing to invest the time with him. On hearing that, I made sure that I took out as much time as he wanted. Fortunately, the phone at my workplace didn’t ring and no one else needed to see me. I would have given him all day.
  4. They knew their subject matter cold. He was impressed with both their depth and their passion as they presented answers to his questions and introduced their beliefs, and also how their various doctrines fit together. It’s important that we are able to do the same. It has been said that of all the religions on earth, Christians are the least acquainted with their own sacred writings.
  5. They are optimistic about the results. I asked one Mormon missionary what would constitute the ideal “at the door” contact. He replied, “Someone who hears the message, receives the message, and commits to be baptized.” I asked if he’d ever heard of that happening all in the very first visit, and he said, “Yes, for sure.”
  6. They followed up. They returned to see him several times.

Hopefully through meeting with me he met someone with an equal passion for and knowledge of the true Christian faith. I encouraged him not to seek answers from the single source he has been using, and told him about a variety of resources available online. We continued meeting and while in recent years the contact has been somewhat fleeting, he always knows where to find me.

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