Thinking Out Loud

October 28, 2019

Three Models of the Chain of Grace

NLT.2Cor.5.20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”

The Voice.1Cor. 1.17 The mission given to me by the Anointed One is not about baptism, but about preaching good news. The point is not to impress others by spinning an eloquent, intellectual argument; that type of rhetorical showboating would only nullify the cross of the Anointed.

CEB. 2Tim.4.5 But you must keep control of yourself in all circumstances. Endure suffering, do the work of a preacher of the good news, and carry out your service fully.

On Saturday at C201 we looked at what I could call the vertical chain of grace; the idea of one generation passing its faith and faith-values on to the next.

There is also a horizontal chain of faith that happens when peers share their faith with friends, relatives and acquaintances (neighbours, workmates, fellow-students) who respond. One of the best stories I ever heard in church a youth service where a girl, got up and (I’m changing the names at this point, I am sure) said, “My name is Amanda…” and then went on to tell the story of how her life was changed because of a friend named Brittany. Then the next one stepped up and began, “My name is Brittany…” and told her story of coming to faith because of the influence of a girl named Crystal. Next — and you’re probably guessing the pattern already — a girl stepped to the microphone and started with “My name is Crystal…” and told her story which included being invited to an event by her friend Danielle.

You might think this all sounds too contrived to be true, but when the last girl got up and said, “Hi, I’m Danielle…” I swear there wasn’t a dry eye in the church. You could hear a pin drop.

My goodness, this works! This sharing your faith thing really, really works, and just last night we heard a very similar story involving three different peers…

…There is a third element to the chain of faith model, and as we thought in terms of horizontal (width) and vertical (length), we couldn’t think of a word to describe a depth of cooperation between various parties, so feel free to comment, but I’m calling this a trans-sectional chain of faith.

I took a picture of this page from The Message Bible to use in a presentation my wife and I shared Saturday morning. It’s from Romans 10:14.

NIrV.Rom.10.14 How can they call on him unless they believe in him? How can they believe in him unless they hear about him? How can they hear about him unless someone preaches to them?

What I believe sets this model apart is that it applies to a single conversion story and there may be different parties involved in the calling and sending of those who do the work of an evangelist. Different people responsible for the training and equipping. Different people responsible for the accountability and oversight. Different people who will look after the follow-up and discipleship of this one individual.

Perhaps the above verse doesn’t have this as finely tuned, but it talks about process. Believing follows an awareness of the Jesus redemption story, which follows a presentation of that same story.

Perhaps the one below is clearer, but I did want to include the above passage as well.

NLT.1Cor.3.7 It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.8 The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. 9 For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building.

It’s similar to the horizontal chain, but each part is now serving a different purpose in a single story. Each participant is one part of a chain of grace leading a single person to faith.


Go Deeper: What’s involved in the decision making process? Refer back to this model we presented in January, 2018 at C201, The Steps to Decision.

 

February 21, 2019

Peter Enns: A Fresh Lens for Approaching the Bible

Filed under: bible, Christianity, doctrine, reviews, theology — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:42 am

For most of us, hearing about a book which purports to teach us “How to” read the Bible usually presents two possibilities:

  • a basic introduction to the organization of the Christian scriptures, such as a Bible handbook; the type of thing we might give to a new believer; or
  • an introduction to the idea of Biblical interpretation, or what is called hermeneutics.

In How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom, Rather than Answers—and Why that’s Great News Peter Enns takes a rather different approach; showing us how the scriptures themselves have developed — a word preferred over evolved — different ideas which are commonplace in Christian thought, including the idea of an enemy (satan) or the idea of the resurrection of the physical body.

Or here’s another way of looking at the book: Many of you were aware of a controversy a few months ago when Andy Stanley said that the Church needs to jettison itself from the Old Testament. (It was that j-word that got him hot water.) I would suggest it’s not a stretch that Peter Enns would say that successive Old Testament writers were themselves trying to jettison themselves from earlier Old Testament writers; that this is a process which has been ongoing. (See Chapter 10, the section headed “Exhibit A.”) Follow this line of thinking, and you might find yourself believing that the Bible is a living book.

Or similarly, it’s as though one Gospel writer might bristle at the the way another writer has framed a particular episode in the life of Jesus. But of course, each is writing for a different audience. Peter Enns captures these anomalies, but sees them as part of his delight in reading scripture, not as a problem to be solved.

While his scholarship is evident, his approach in this book has a remarkably common touch. In one section makes it clear that “open theology” is above his pay grade. Furthermore, one can only take on so much in a more general treatment of Bible interpretation. The book doesn’t try to be all things for all people.

Some readers may be disturbed at Enns’ gratuitous use of writings from the Apocrypha to substantiate certain arguments. As an Evangelical, I accept the historical value of those books, but am often unaccustomed to seeing them quoted in the books I review. (Keep in mind however that this books is published by HarperOne, not the Zondervan or Nelson divisions of HarperCollins.)

Still others may have a knee-jerk reaction to the books subtitle, especially “…an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book…” Ambiguous? Yes. For Enns, that’s part of the Bible’s basic equation; and that’s exactly where the “wisdom” in the other half of the extra-long subtitle comes into play.

Reading this following Stanley’s Irresistible made for an interesting pairing. In terms of our understanding of the book of books, something is clearly afoot, and Peter Enns doesn’t want you to miss it!

Thanks to Dave Knox at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada for the opportunity to read How the Bible Actually Works. It went on sale on Tuesday in hardcover wherever you buy fine books.

Previously at Thinking Out Loud: A November, 2016 review of Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty, in which, coincidentally, Andy Stanley’s name also was mentioned!

Postscript: Books like this one, and Andy Stanley’s (mentioned above) and Rob Bell’s What is the Bible? are part of a fresh genre of books which, while not Bible handbooks in the traditional sense, serve much the same purpose. For a more conservative approach books like Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth continues to fill the void between handbook and general guide to hermeneutics.

January 28, 2019

Random Answers to “We’re Leaving ‘Cause We’re Not Getting Fed”

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:18 am

Here are some responses to “We’re not being fed”:

You are comparing your pastor to messages you hear on Christian television or podcasts

I don’t understand why people who are enjoying great teaching podcasts don’t simply continue enjoying them as a supplement to their weekend church diet. You can go to [insert name of preacher]’s church if you want, but it’s going to be a long commute. Some people have a unique communications gift and others have a particular perspective on the scriptures, but you’re not going to find that within an hour commute from where you live. Your local church has other things to offer. Stay involved, but keep enjoying the podcasts also. Your pastor’s sermon is a very small part of everything that’s going on at that place of worship.

You’ve been exposed to other language that sounded somewhat deeper

Every denomination has a certain vocabulary when heard for the first time sounds richer, deeper, more meaningful. There’s terminology used in Charismatic/Pentecostal churches that you simply don’t hear elsewhere, but that’s equally true of Episcopalian/Anglican churches. Perhaps you’re ready for a new adventure, but don’t make a major change just because another pastor’s lexical set sounds more spiritual.

Your pastor won’t take a stand on a doctrinal issue you consider vital

Personally, I attend a denomination which practices something called “middle ground theology” when it comes to potentially contentious issues. When it comes to gender issues (i.e. women in ministry), spiritual gifts (cessationist vs. continuationist), eschatology (pre- vs. post-), or political issues (oh, my goodness) some pastors would prefer to preach core doctrines and not wade into debates which could be divisive. Realistically, you can save all those other discussions for the lobby after the service. (And you possibly do.)

You’re not really serving at the church

Statistically, the restless are not committed to an area of service. It does change your view of the church. On the other hand, not serving makes it really easy to leave. Also, saying you’re “not being fed” is the ultimate expression of a passive attitude toward church involvement. In other words, it might reflect a misunderstanding of what it is we’re supposed to be doing at weekend worship services.

You’re ready to abandon ship

Underlying the “not being fed” comment is often a greater level of spiritual unrest. There’s a “statement behind the statement” that’s not being voiced. Something has created that restlessness and you’re wanting to bail out not because of pull factors from some other expression of Christianity, but some push factors leading you toward the exits.  All the exits. This attitude will not propel you to another church, but rather to what some call Bedside Baptist, the church where you don’t have to get dressed or start the car. Rather than follow this path, perhaps there are ways you can deconstruct and then rebuild from within the church you’re now attending. Perhaps there are others who feel the same. Possibly there are people there who have been through what you’re experiencing but decided to stay regardless.

Back in 2015, I made a list of Seven Things Meeting Together Offers (that’s not the title, but it should have been) that you should read. (We’ve run the same content here on two previous occasions.) Your local church is so much more than just the sermon…

…Having said all that…

Hunger is not a bad thing

If you really feel that you’re not being fed it is indeed possible that your pastor isn’t including enough protein, carbs, healthy fats, etc. in his weekly sermon menu. It may indeed be time to move on. If so, try to do it peaceably and try to maintain friendships.

 

January 6, 2018

The Steps to Decision

Two nights ago we were discussing the process by which people ‘cross the line of faith’ and identify as Christians. I looked all around for this graphic, including online, and discovered some people had improved on the one we posted in March, 2014.

Here’s what I wrote about this at the time,

A long time ago, in a galaxy rather close by, a new generation of Christians were as excited about the latest books as today’s host of internet bloggers. While we might think the universe didn’t exist until we were born, there was the same mix of academic writers as well as popular writers. One of the latter was Emory Griffin who wrote a paperback about evangelism called The Mind Changers, and in that book, he frequently quoted James F. Engel, who wrote the textbook Contemporary Christian Communications: Its Theory and Practice. I am privileged to own (somewhere in our house) a copy of both.

Engel dissected the conversion process as only a late 20th Century academic could, breaking it down piece-by-piece. But I’ve always kept a copy of this particular little chart handy, because it reminds me that making disciples (or what a previous generation called soul-winning) doesn’t happen overnight (though it can) but often involves the careful processing through of ideas and thoughts. Yes, some people encounter Jesus and the transformation can be instantaneous, but often it has to be reasoned through (or even emoted through; I don’t know if there’s a word for that) and it usually involves some other person whose gift is apologetics or just being there with love or perhaps some combination of the two.

Today, people still discuss whether or not salvation happens as a crisis experience (in a moment, in an instant) or whether it is a process experience (as C. S. Lewis defined so well in the train analogy in Mere Christianity) but if it’s a process, it might look something like Engel describes in the graphic.

I ended up repeating some of this material and going into greater detail, including a second graphic image, at this post at Christianity 201.

January 5, 2018

The Antidote to Church and Worship Overanalysis

So on Monday we talked about the danger of falling into what is, if not a critical spirit, perhaps a critique-ical spirit when it comes to things like the worship time and sermon time at your local church. We said we would come back and discuss some solutions. Here are some things we came up with:

Celebrate the good things taking place at your church.

Try to keep a focus on the strengths, rather than the weaknesses of the people in leadership. Rehearse those things in your mind and in conversation with family and friends. Remember some moments where your church really stepped up its game and made a difference.

Develop a positive, wholesome attitude toward things in general.

Here’s how two contemporary versions translate Philippians 4:8 —

Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy. (The Voice)  Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. (The Message)

Hang out with people new to your church, especially new believers.

What a breath of fresh air to spend your fellowship time at church with people who haven’t developed negative attitudes; people for whom everything is new, and fresh, and exciting. These people are the fresh blood which keeps the church functioning at its best. They may also have questions and answering those will keep your mind from going in other directions.

Make your comments as constructive suggestions.

The best way to do this is to ask questions. What if we did this differently? Or, What if we offered ______ an opportunity to take the lead on that segment of the service next week? Or, What if we had the youth group handle worship one week? While you don’t want to overdo this, it is less threatening than to make overt complaints and express overt dissatisfaction without offering anything as an alternative.

Visit another church.

You might just need a break. If you visit another church and find they’re doing everything perfectly, at least you’ll have a perspective or an authority to make suggestions. (Or maybe even a new church home.) Chances are however, that your church has some things it does better, and the other church has its own issues which, while different, are equally important to people there.

Put your name forward for a leadership position.

Six months of elders/deacons/board meetings might open your eyes as to why things are the way they are. You may find the issues are far more complicated than you realized. Don’t lose your idealism, but try to gain an understanding of how process works in a local church and how to bring about constructive improvement.

Avoid taking a leadership position.

Yes, I know. The opposite. It may be that you’re happier putting some distance between you and the things that tend to upset you. Perhaps changing diapers in the nursery or serving outside on the parking team would be more satisfying right now, both to you and the people who may have been caught in a rant or two.

Those are a few suggestions. Can you think of any we’ve missed?

January 1, 2018

Worship Analytics

You’re at a church service and one or more of the following happens:

  • You find yourself considering the theological underpinning of the opening prayer
  • You’re noticing all manner of technical things involving the worship music; everything from audio levels, to the competency of the musicians, to the song choices.
  • As the sermon progresses you find your brain, which should be absorbing the message, is more in the mode of critiquing the delivery, clarity, depth, application, etc.

Try as you may, you can’t stop analyzing everything that’s going on.

Maybe you know too much!

Here’s the question — because I already know some of you who are readers here do this — I want to ask: What percentage of people who are also among you in the congregation are also doing this?

I’d like to think in the case of music that the worship leaders (or people who actually do these things but are on a Sunday off) only number about 5% of the total congregation. Idealistic? Absolutely! Certainly the critical remarks you sometimes hear in the church lobby are based on significant numbers of people who have been treating the thing as though the pastor or worship team are contestants on a reality show.

But I might be wrong. Perhaps like Statler and Waldorf everyone has detached themselves from the prayer or worship or sermon and is filling in their scorecard.

That would be tragic, though some might argue a consequence of a consumer-focused church where the congregation is more of an audience.

I think there are ways to combat this mentality, but first, I want to hear from you how prevalent it might be.

December 16, 2017

Crossword Puzzles and Sermons

I’m told that doing crosswords keeps the mind sharp. That’s certainly a valid goal. I try to do a couple of smaller ones (where I know I can finish) each week, but will also help my wife as she wrestles through the  New York Times level of difficulty.

When we first married, I would criticize her for this indulgence, as I saw them as a bit of a time-waster. “You’re not actually learning anything;” was the thrust of my argument. And it’s true. Unless you doing research to get the answers, or something reveals itself by interpolation with the letters you’ve already written, there is not much in the way of new information.

You’re using your brain to be sure. It beats watching a 2-hour marathon of The Simpsons. You’re bringing to mind things you’ve heard before and then buried deep in the recesses of your memory waiting for this particular moment to unearth them. In those terms, it’s a nice refresher. But again, it’s only when you’ve completed all the across letters in a down clue that you might say, ‘Okay, apparently the seven-letter word meaning _______ is _______.’ Or, ‘So that’s the author who wrote _______.’

Sermons are like this in many churches.

We are often reviewing and being re-presented with information with which we are already quite familiar. Maybe it’s being said in a fresh way and we can then take that particular tact when explaining something to a friend. Perhaps it’s something that needs reinforcing because we do live at the intersection of this world and the world to come and there is a constant inner war raging between our human nature and the nature that was made for higher things.

Generally, this is a good thing. The Eucharist itself is the best example of this. It doesn’t change much from week to week. But we eat, we drink, we remember, we leave differently than we entered. The hymns or worship choruses are not necessarily new; we have sung them on other occasions.

However, there is something to be said for a sermon which imparts new information. One that informs us of things we simply did not know before. Where we say, ‘I’ve never heard that explained;’ or ‘I never knew the context of that particular story;’ or my favorite, ‘How did I grow up in church and never hear that taught?’

Second best are those who help you fill in the blanks. Like the crossword puzzle where you’ve filled in all the letters but didn’t know the word before, the speaker leads you to the moment of, ‘Okay…so if all these things are true then from that we realize that…’  I would rank sermons that contain deduction a close runner up to those providing fresh information.

Personally I gravitate to teachers giving me more background (context, word study, related passages) than I had when I arrived. It doesn’t matter if the sermon is exegetical (expository) or topical, as long as there is some depth and something I can learn that helps me better understand the ways and mind of God, and then apply this to everyday life.

October 27, 2015

Finding Your Church’s Comfort Sweet Spots

Sometimes we don't realize the way first-time visitors see things when the walk into our buildings, or maybe, like this Community Baptist Church van, we're just not thinking ahead.

Sometimes we don’t realize the way first-time visitors see things when the walk into our buildings, or maybe, like this Community Baptist Church van, we’re just not thinking ahead.

I’ve never actually been in a church where the color of the carpet was an issue, but the topic stands in for a host of other topics when people are discussing superficial things they don’t like about a particular place of worship.

Still, there are some superficial environmental details which impact how effective ministry can be. For example, why is sometimes the pastor seems to really connect with people during the sermon, and other weeks when people are less responsive. It may have to do with things you don’t think about.

Sound

  • If the sound is turned up too high, people feel like they are being shouted at. It’s the live equivalent of me typing a sentence in CAPITAL LETTERS, back when people actually interacted in groups. Of course, there are some Pentecostal and Charismatic churches where the preacher’s words are amplified at rock concert volumes, but I think we have natural defenses that want to shut off any message bombarding us at high decibels.
  • If the sound is turned down too low, I believe that even if you’re hearing every single word, you’re using some mental processing capacity to strain to catch those phrases and sentences, at the expense of being able to use that capacity to process the actual content of the words, and their applicability to your situation.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle, and find a way to keep it consistent week-to-week.

Temperature

  • If the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system is turned up too high, people feel sticky in the summer and sleepy in the winter. If the temperature makes you feel comfy and cozy like you’re lying under a couple of blankets, you will indeed nod off.
  • If the thermostat is turned down too low, people are squirming or perhaps even needing to use the restrooms. Preservation instinct takes over, and the message processing capacity diminishes.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. Sometimes, if you’re not sure, you need to take 15 seconds to survey the audience on this one.

Lighting

  • The modern church spends a fortune on stage lighting, which includes something called “backlighting” which helps give definition to people on the platform. However, depending on where you are sitting, these lights can be shining directly into the audience seating. After the first five minutes it gets annoying and after as little as fifteen minutes you have a headache.
  • On the other hand, some churches are so dark it’s creepy. (We covered this topic in the list link a few days ago here.) Combine the absence of light with a high temperature and you have a perfect recipe for slumber once the sermon starts.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. One church I know turns up the lights for the sermon so people can follow along in their Bibles and make notes. Trouble is, in other auditorium contexts, when the lights come up it means the show is over! 

Smell

  • Some churches smell like a church; there’s no other way to say that. Is it the wooden pews? Something given off by old hymnbooks? Stale air from a sanctuary that’s sat relatively idle since the previous week’s service? It could also be something not quite so neutral. Maybe it’s the smell of sweaty socks from a sports night the youth group had downstairs the night before. Or the smell of food from the potluck taking place after the service. It might even be the smell of perfumes worn by mostly female adherents who are mostly above a certain age; a scent many are allergic to. (We’ve discussed that last one in this popular post.)
  • Of course, you can try to compensate for any and all of the above with products that prove the adage that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. The result can actually cause some people to wince as they enter, or after prolonged exposure.

Although we would never admit it, some of us who attend older church buildings have a subconscious affinity to the smell of the church building, but no clue how it impacts first time visitors. Maybe the Episcopalians and Roman Catholics have the cure: Just burn off any transgressing smells. You can read more about that in my next book, The Case for Candles.

So what superficials have affected worship in your past experience?


From last week’s link list, here’s an excellent article dealing with the exterior that greets first-time visitors:

 

October 1, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Gospel Van

Photo: Drew Dyck

A fresh crop of October links! Mind you, they’re all dated September. But they’re new to you.

Yes! The links are still also at Parse, the blog of Leadership Journal, a division of Christianity Today. Click here to read there!

For our closing graphic we return to TwentyOneHundred Productions’ Facebook page, the gift that keeps on giving. 2100 is the media division of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  (We poached another one from them for tomorrow…I feel like I should make a donation to my local IVCF chapter…) Click the image to link, or follow them at this page.

Books of the Bible

March 13, 2014

The Spiritual Decision Making Process

A long time ago, in a galaxy rather close by, a new generation of Christians were as excited about the latest books as today’s host of internet bloggers. While we might think the universe didn’t exist until we were born, there was the same mix of academic writers as well as popular writers.  One of the latter was Emory Griffin who wrote a paperback about evangelism called The Mind Changers, and in that book, he frequently quoted James F. Engel, who wrote the textbook Contemporary Christian Communications: Its Theory and Practice. I am privileged to own (somewhere in our house) a copy of both.

Engel dissected the conversion process as only a late 20th Century academic could, breaking it down piece-by-piece. But I’ve always kept a copy of this particular little chart handy, because it reminds me that making disciples (or what a previous generation called soul-winning) doesn’t happen overnight (though it can) but often involves the careful processing through of ideas and thoughts. Yes, some people encounter Jesus and the transformation can be instantaneous, but often it has to be reasoned through (or even emoted through; I don’t know if there’s a word for that) and it usually involves some other person whose gift is apologetics or just being there with love or perhaps some combination of the two.

Today, people still discuss whether or not salvation happens as a crisis experience (in a moment, in an instant) or whether it is a process experience (as C. S. Lewis defined so well in the train analogy in Mere Christianity) but if it’s a process, it might look something like Engel describes here:

Complete Spiritual Decision Process - James Engel

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