Thinking Out Loud

May 19, 2021

Denominations Losing Internal Influence

Saddleback Ordination Service; Screenshot via Baptist Standard; click image for story

In the last several days we’ve witnessed two serious breaches of denominational policies and protocols, both involving large, significant denominations and both involving gender issues.

In one, Saddleback, a California megachurch, which is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) ordained three women earlier this month. Albert Mohler, who just yesterday announced his resignation as President of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Committee, was quoted earlier by Religion News Service saying, “Saddleback has taken actions that place itself in direct conflict with the stated doctrines of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

In the other, members of the progressive wing of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) in Germany have defied a Vatican edict forbidding the blessing of same-sex unions. A Jesuit priest there told Associated Press, ““I am convinced that homosexual orientation is not bad, nor is homosexual love a sin.”

As denominations lose influence over their congregations, and an entire generation of Millennials and Gen-Z reject affiliated churches in favor of house fellowships or independent congregations, the open defiance is a serious crack in the denominational fortresses. Though the RCC and SBC are very different on many issues, the RCC is very hierarchical, with The Vatican seen as the supreme authority, even overriding scripture on some points.

By contrast, the SBC has always been a much looser network of congregations, though continuing to use operate under the SBC banner has always required absolute adherence to its statement of faith, which includes the position that women cannot be pastors.

In both cases, there are semantic elements, such as whether the role of pastor implies the title of Senior Pastor or Lead Pastor or whether the blessing of same-sex unions is the same as approving of same-sex marriage. The words marriage and pastor create both theological and emotional responses from people on both sides of the issue in SBC and RCC congregations and leadership.

December 30, 2020

Their Personal Brand was Damaged in 2020

It wasn’t a good year for some people. Whether due to political allegiances, marital collapses or financial improprieties, the year was filled with missteps that damaged the brand of many key authors, pastors and leaders. The election and the pandemic proved to be catalysts for revealing some people’s true character. And we didn’t even consider the implications of the discussions that arose in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

Also, an apology to readers outside the U.S. that this is so America-centric. But then again, what happened in the States was often the lead news item on nightly roundups in Canada, the UK and Europe. If they didn’t know already, reporters in every country had to learn overnight how to report on the U.S. political system and election system. These are names you probably recognize anyway. There were many others not included.

Here’s my recap:

Ravi Zacharias – The real tragedy here is that so much has come to light since his passing, leaving him no opportunity to respond or to repent. The legacy of his namesake ministry has been damaged in the process. It was more than just the exaggeration of academic credentials. It was about serious sexual misconduct. RZIM needs to do what they haven’t done so far: Act quickly. Rename the ministry in Canada and the U.S. as well as in Europe where it’s known as Zacharias Trust. Second, replace Ravi as the “voice” of the Let My People Think radio feature with some of the many gifted apologists currently on its speaker roster.

Eric Metaxas – An Australian blogger wrote, “Reading Metaxas’ tweets is like watching a man slowly drive his career as a public intellectual over a cliff.” In 2020, the author and talk show host did what so many did, suspending all reason and logic for an unqualified backing of Donald J. Trump. His “losing it” seemed to have no limits toward the end of the year, with the alleged sucker punch of a protester outside a RNC event, and his theft of Pentatonix’ audio track for his “Biden Did You Know?” video which YouTube appropriately removed a day later.

John Ortberg – Following an investigation into the popular author and pastor’s knowledge concerning a volunteer at Menlo Church which some argued should not have been permitted to be involved in children’s ministry there due to a possible attraction to minors, Ortberg was reinstated in March only to be outed in June by a family member who said that the pastor and author was actually protecting the identity of a different family member. That was all it took to pave the way for a final farewell.

Dave Ramsay – The self-proclaimed Christian financial guru’s complete disregard for health guidance dealing with the pandemic opened up a broader discussion and revealed what might be considered a somewhat toxic workplace.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. – Again, another person whose credibility was destroyed by unwavering support for Trump, which then opened up further investigation resulting in revelations of Falwell and his wife participating in what were, at the very least, some unusually close relationships involving other people. Current students and alumni are fighting to see his name distanced from Liberty University in order to preserve the value of the education they received. Falwell brought some of this on himself however, posting some pictures one might have wanted to keep private, which in itself showed a complete lack of discernment and wisdom.

Jim Bakker – Long before the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, Bakker had the cure for Coronavirus and was willing to sell it to you. Too bad it took the NIH (in the US) or NHS (in the UK) so many months to catch up to what Bakker already knew. His actions also cast a shadow on everyone who has ever been a guest on The Jim Bakker Show.

John MacArthur – Defying California state law, MacArthur’s Grace Church packed in unmasked worshipers during Covid-19’s second wave, insisting that God requires us to worship together and be assembled together. In many respects, this is an incomplete theological understanding of what it means to be united and what it means to be the church. Should MacArthur be on this list, or were his actions in 2020 simply a continuation of what he’s always been?

Franklin Graham – Another Trump election casualty, Graham’s situation collecting salaries from both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse was thrust back into the spotlight. Being a Graham, expectations of character standards are always high and some are suggesting that Franklin doesn’t even come remotely close.

Jay Sekulow and Family – By December it’s easy to forget stories that were circulating in January, but in that month Ministry Watch reported on the salaries paid to execs of ministry organizations and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) turned up repeatedly in the list. Jay Sekulow was #3 on the list at $1,421,188, while “spokesperson” Kim Sekulow was #5 with $1,053,432, and Gary Sekulow, CEO/COO was #7 at $985,847. (For some ministries the most recent year listed was several years old.) The money paid to some ministry leaders is an absolute atrocity.

Focus on the Family – Another story from earlier in the year, this popular organization declared that they were actually a church and as such not required to do any public reporting of their income or executive salaries. See our January article for all the ridiculous defenses given for this action.

Mark Dever – The ecclesiology in general and church governance — and Covenant Membership in particular — of the 9 Marks church group caused one watchdog blogger to write, “…they appear to be in danger of redefining what constitutes the church. They have invented a system that is full of rules and regulations, many of which are conjecture. Yes, they quote Scripture but they often interpret Scripture through their own peculiar lens.” Just another example of the Calvinist/Reformed movement slowly parting ways with mainstream Christianity.

Carl Lentz – Not sure that the greater damage resulting from Lentz’ confessed affair is to him or to the leadership of Hillsong. Especially Hillsong’s North American expansion efforts. Maybe I should have listed Brian and Bobbie Houston instead. What did they know and when did they know it? Still, give it a year or two and I would expect to see Lentz surface heading another church somewhere.

Paula White – As a post-Charismatic, I have no objective problem with speaking in tongues, but feel that Trump’s “Spiritual Advisor” chose neither the right time or the right place. And what happened to the “angels from Africa?” Are they still on their way? What were they doing there in the first place? The public needs to know. Whatever damage Graham, Falwell and Metaxas did to Evangelicals, White did the same to her fellow Charismatics and Pentecostals.

Jen and Brandon Hatmaker – In some respects, I feel bad isolating this one ministry couple, so allow them to serve as stand-ins for all those Christian pastors whose marriages didn’t make it to the finish line.

Rachel and Dave Hollis – Ditto. Rachel is author of the huge publishing success, Girl Wash Your Face which only saw mediocre sales through some Christian channels despite being a national bestseller. Again, on this list as a stand-in for other Christian authors with a similar 2020 separation story.

Robert Jeffress – Another of the “court Evangelicals,” this SBC megachurch pastor and frequent guest on FOX-TV was a reminder of why churches and pastors should stay away from politics. It will take years for the damage done to the capital “C” Church to recover, and some say the name Evangelical is tarnished permanently.Meanwhile the SBC continues to report declines in baptisms and membership, which impacts its Broadman & Holman and LifeWay publishing empire.

The Episcopal Church – In a rather strange irony, the denomination which so greatly values the Communion sacrament as most central to their weekend worship found themselves preventing parishioners from improvising at home, which other bodies both permitted and encouraged during the lockdown. This resulted in the creation of the term “Eucharistic fast” to describe abstaining from The Lord’s Supper. Anglicans can only receive the bread and wine if the elements have been consecrated by an Anglican officiant. Eventually some churches got creative in finding ways to get the necessary items to congregants, but I can’t help but think they painted themselves into a corner by so greatly limiting access to the table. 

Chris Rice – In October an investigation was launched concerning sexual assault claims against the Christian musician dating to when Rice was a guest artist at youth retreats for a Kentucky Church, reports the pastor found to be “credible.”

K. P. Yohannan – The financial oddities (or as I just accidentally typed it, auditees) of Gospel for Asia keep getting “curiouser and curiouser.” This isn’t a 2020 story, nor is it limited to the U.S., but an ongoing saga which simply doesn’t go away.

Sean Feucht – Similar to the Trump-related stories above, with an extra conspiracy theory or two thrown into the mix; instead of running for public office, this guy should have stuck to playing music and leading worship; though now I’m not even 100% sure about that.

Kirk Cameron – Like Feucht above, Cameron staged a mass event which totally disregarded health advisories. We’re supposed to spread the gospel, not super-spread Covid-19.

John Crist – After stepping back from touring and creating video content following sexual misconduct allegations in 2019, the comedian resurfaced in 2020, but to some, the humor just wasn’t working; it was too soon. Crist would do well to simply abandon the Christian market altogether and rebuild his brand as a mainstream stand-up comic where this sort of thing happens with greater regularity and with nobody batting an eye.

Kenneth Copeland – The faith healer and prosperity teacher was another Trump casualty, but his laughing at the thought of a Biden victory was somewhat eerie if not somewhat demonic; and in Copeland’s camp, they know a thing or two about demonic. 

Willow Creek Leadership – A year ago Bill Hybels might have appeared on a similar list to this, but for the past twelve months, the leadership at Willow has in equal amounts both launched and stepped back from new initiatives, seeming like a small boy wandering the aisles of a department store in search of his parents.

Matthew Paul Turner – The author of Christian books for both children and adults came out as gay and announced his divorce. The latter has wider acceptance in the Church these days, and in some sectors the former is heading in that direction. His admission probably burned some bridges but it’s hard not to respect his transparency.

Albert Mohler, Jr. – I was once a fan, but in 2020 he became another SBC leader who got sucked into the Trump vortex.

James MacDonald – The disgraced former pastor popped up a few times in 2020 to make sure he was getting everything he had coming to him from Harvest Bible Chapel and Walk in the Word. The man who once used Easter Sunday to kick off a series on personal finances has revealed what is most near and dear to his heart. The NASDAQ is risen. It is risen indeed.

…That’s probably enough of this for one day. Or one year. This gives me no pleasure, but compiling this over the past several hours has been eye-opening. There was also one person I deliberately chose to exclude, and another I held back because of conflicted feelings about what I was seeing for myself and what others were reporting. Time will tell. It always does.

2021 can only be a better year, right? Let’s pray for that to be true.

May 27, 2020

Drawing a Crowd Needn’t Be Seen as Problematic

In the past ten weeks, I’ve been doing more original writing at C201, than here at Thinking Out Loud. While I don’t want this to simply be a mirror site for the other one, I do want to share these here from time to time. This one appeared earlier this month…

Previous generations didn’t have the word, “megachurch.” Of course they didn’t have “televangelist” either. There were indeed large churches, however and there were preachers (George Whitefield is a good example) who preached to thousands — in the outdoors, no less — without the benefit of sound equipment. But we tend to look back favorably on those days, believing it was a matter of substance over style.

Today, we have popular preachers whose television ministries have huge followings and whose close-up pictures are plastered on the front cover of their books. (No, not just that one; I’m thinking of about six.)

The general conclusion at which people arrive is that they are getting those followers because they are saying what people want to hear. On close examination, it’s true that many of the hooks of their sermons and books are positive motivational sayings that also work on posters and coffee mugs.

For those of us who are insiders, we immediately default to the phrase itching ears. This is drawn from 2 Timothy 4:3

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. (NLT)

This true, probably more true now than ever, but the challenge for Christians today is that everyone who drives by a church with an overflowing parking lot is likely to jump to conclusions and declare that church liberal in their theology or empty of doctrines; or infer that people only go there for the music.

It’s true that Jesus warned his disciples they were not going to win a popularity contest. In Matthew 7: 13-14 he tells his disciples,

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”. (NIV)

and then immediately makes a statement about false teachers.

Jesus had his own fall from popularity when he began what I call the tough teachings and others call the “hard sayings.” A month ago I referred to “the ominously verse-referenced” John 6:66

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (NIV)

Many of you grew up in churches where you were told you were part of “the chosen few” a reference to Matthew 22:14

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (ESV)

Jesus told his disciples that they would experience rejection in some places. In Matthew 10:14 he is saying,

If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave. (NLT)

In other words, there is, at least in Evangelicalism, a mindset that says that we are a tiny remnant, and by extrapolation is suspicious of large crowds.

But there are exceptions.

I think of an American pastor who since Christmas has been walking his church through some very challenging sermons; raising the bar when it comes to expectations for both compassionate service and lifestyle evangelism. But he’s not off in a corner doing this, it’s one of the top ten churches in the U.S.

I think of two Canadian pastors, from two very different eras, who have a giftedness when it comes to taking Bible passage “A” and showing people how it relates to Bible passage “B.” I’ve seen both of them preach before thousands of people. It was far from “itching ears;” you had to work hard just to keep up with the note-taking, which is challenging when you’re sitting there with your mouth open going, “Wow!”

I think of Nicodemus who we characterize as coming to Jesus in secret. I was always taught that was the reason for his nighttime visit in John 3. But lately I read that the rabbis set aside the early evening for further discussion. He was coming back for the Q. and A. part of the teaching. He wanted more. I find him to be representative of people in the crowd who were there for all the right reasons. (Compare his motivation to that of Felix in Acts 24:25-26.) The itching ears crowd don’t come back for the evening service, the Tuesday morning Bible study, or the midweek prayer meeting.

The website Knowing Jesus has come up with more than 30 good examples of Jesus being surrounded by crowds. True, the Bible tells us that some of them were simply there for the miracle spectacle or the free lunches, but I’m sure that many of them were drawn to Jesus for greater, higher reasons. (There’s a limit to how many hours people will listen to teaching in order to get a fish sandwich lunch.)

So where did all this come from today? A friend posted this on Facebook. I’ve decided to delete the original author’s name.

His words appear deep, meaningful and mature, but indirectly he is lashing out against individuals or movements which are left unnamed. He’s implying that everyone who is drawing a big crowd is doing so at the expense of preaching the Word. I suspect his words land with people who are already on-side, so I don’t really get the point of posting things like this at all.

Furthermore, the inference is that the sign of a successful ministry is suffering, hardship and opposition.

Like so many things in scripture, there is a balance to be found.

In Matthew 5:14 +16, we find Jesus saying

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden”
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
(NASB)

If all you experience is suffering, hardship and opposition, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing everything right, but rather, it could be you’re doing something seriously wrong.

Oswald Smith wrote the hymn which begins:

There is joy in serving Jesus
As I journey on my way
Joy that fills my heart with praises
Every hour and every day

I really hope that’s your experience as well.

 

February 18, 2020

Lost Voice 1: Rick

For the last few days here, I’ve shared the texts from something I started working on in 2010 called The Lost Voice Project. They’ve never been republished until now. This was the original one. Each is based on a true story, though names were changed…

You don’t notice it at first when you visit Rick and Emmy’s house, but after a minute or two you are somehow conscious of it: The house is totally wired; totally high-tech.

Rick’s ability in electronics includes a specialty in the interconnecting of various devices, a specialty that pre-dates the modern computer age. One of my personal favorites is subtle: It’s a reading lamp next to a big chair near the television. It’s wired into a master system that controls all the household lighting, making changes while the family is on holidays; but it’s also sensitive to someone walking into the room; it’s also voice activated; and just to make it interesting Rick added a fourth parameter, you can clap it on or off. He admits that one is a bit over-the-top.

You’d notice more if you went to his large workshop on the north end of the house. All kinds of things in process, some for himself, some things he puts together for friends. Leaving church the other day, he dialed a code on his cell phone that warmed up the food in the stove for lunch. That’s rather commonplace today, but Rick’s device was installed in 1995, when he had to use a land line to activate the thing.

By day, Rick works at something similar. Though he’s hoping to take an early retirement in about six years, he’s kept up with all the latest technology and is one of the top guys at his office. Mostly, he goes out on assignment to other companies; of the three portfolios he currently carries, the one that takes the majority of his days is with the State Lottery and Gaming Corporation.

In every casino, there’s an office somewhere staffed with people keeping minute-by-minute tabs on what each and every slot machine is up to. Constant updates are linked to video cameras. Some can open an audio channel and listen to conversations taking place at the machines. Rick is the guy who makes all that inter-connectivity possible.

Twice, they’ve offered Rick the same job working directly for them. Right now his company keeps a very fat portion of the consulting fee. Rick’s take home pay — already nicer than most peoples’ — would instantly double, but Rick’s not sure about the idea of a Christian working for the Lottery Corporation; this way he feels he’s at least one-step removed, and he can always ask to be assigned to another project.

But for Rick’s church, the decision has already been made. He’s been pigeon-holed, typecast and labeled. His association with the casino — which by implication is an association with gambling — simply makes him, in their view, a risk for any ministry role in the church, and because, as I said, his work for them pre-dates computer technology, that means he’s been doing projects for the lottery people on and off for most of the 23 years he’s attended Forest Ridge Church.

In practical terms this means he’s:

  • never been asked to be on the leadership board, even though he’d normally be prime candidate and make a major contribution
  • never been asked to lead a small group, even though he’s both knowledgeable and conversant about various Bible subjects
  • never been called on to read a scripture, open in prayer, or even make an announcement

Rick is one of the lost voices in the church; marginalized for what the leadership at Forest Ridge considers good reasons, but set aside nonetheless.

Rick and Emmy are faithful in attendance, though there are times in the summer when they opt to go for a drive in the country instead of attending a service; their aching to be involved more deeply is hard to bear. And Rick is using his gifts; he’s on the board of two small parachurch ministries in the city, and at least once every six months writes a letter to the editor of the local paper that truly speaks to an issue on behalf of the Christian community.

But somewhere along the line, Rick’s name was crossed off the list of the board nominating committee, he was passed over for consideration for small group leadership, and mostly Rick does not have a ministry role or leadership role in the church because he’s never had a ministry role or leadership role in the church.

Too much time has passed, and a new generation of leaders have written Rick off. Rick is one of the lost voices in the modern church, and it’s a shame, because he has so much to contribute.

November 11, 2019

When You’re Running Contrary to the Church Culture

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:02 am

Although Pastor Ted Reynolds had been six weeks at this new church, this was his first time teaching the adult Sunday School elective which met in a classroom setting.

After reading a chapter in Philippians, he said, “I think there are four things we can learn from this reading;” and as he said it he wrote “4 things” as a header on the whiteboard and underlined it.

As soon as he did he noticed a bit of a murmur and some shuffling. He turned around to face the group and there were a few people quietly coughing. Finally, there was a raised hand.

“Pastor,” he said, “Just so you know, in this church we write the number four with the top part closed.”

Reynolds, whose brain was focused on the doctrinal points he wanted to make, didn’t get it at first. “I’m sorry;” he said, “Can you repeat that?”

This time a woman spoke up, “You need to write the number so the upper part forms a triangle;” then after a one second pause, “That’s how we do it here.” She walked to another part of the whiteboard and illustrated the contrasting styles.

He looked at his header on the board and he had written it the way he had always written it, with the stems of the numeral either parallel or perpendicular. “That’s how I write it;” he replied, and he could feel himself digging in his heels on this bizarre issue.

Then Stan, an older member of the congregation who had served on the search committee which had interviewed him firmly said, “I guess you better get accustomed to how we do things here.”

Pastor Reynolds couldn’t believe this, but it wasn’t a hill worth dying on, and he resolved to conform. Problem was, habits die hard, especially when you’re looking at penmanship habits which had been formed long before Kindergarten.

So he simply, at every juncture where he could remember, wrote “four” instead of the number. In his mind, four was quickly becoming a four-letter word.

“It’s funny;” he said to his wife one night; “When I candidated here we talked about eschatology, women in ministry, Bible translations, worship styles; I tried to cover every topic which could possibly be controversial, but we never talked about calligraphy.”

It was then, and only then, that Bethany, his wife of 17 years turned to him and said, “Actually, I’ve always hated it when you write it open like that; I much prefer the way they way they do things here.”

Ted Reynolds was shattered. It was the controversy that wouldn’t go away. Ted did the only thing he could do. Fifteen months in, he resigned from the church, divorced Bethany, and now serves in a much more progressive church two states over, where they don’t judge you on how you write the number four.

 

June 24, 2019

What Normal People Do

Filed under: Christianity, Church, ministry — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:45 am

On Thursday last week I replaced the slats in this rocking deck chair as the ones facing skyward had weathered to the point of disintegrating.

This probably seems unremarkable until you consider it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve come close to doing anything that resembles what normal people do. I also did the caulking around the bathtub the same day. Look at me! The home improvement guy!

The reason this behavior is uncharacteristic is because 24 years ago this September, I walked away from a work-from-home situation and started being the face behind a Christian bookstore, that later grew to a chain of three stores. It was all-consuming

Over 12 years ago, I began the blogging activity — starting with a short-lived faith-focused blog at USAToday — that would also consume much of my time. Later, that morphed into five blogs, eventually settling down at three, two of which had daily (as in 365) content until recently. (I’m still committed to doing C201 daily.)

So I’m not a fix-the-deck-chair type of guy. I had to ask my wife where some of the tools were located and needed some up extra help when it came to changing the drill bit in the cordless drill. Sandpaper? I get the principle, but I’m not certified, so to speak, on that piece of equipment. Plus, I get flustered. I can take something like applying wood stain and make it complicated.

I suspect it’s the same for many people in ministry. The weirdness of the schedule and perhaps a sense of having to prioritize spiritual things can easily result in not doing what normal people do. Around the house. With the car. Involving the kids. Especially with the kids.

It actually felt strange having done something like this. I keep looking at the chair and thinking I want to finish the other half now. Those slats aren’t weathered and don’t need to be replaced just yet, but it was just the pride in having done something like this.

Can anyone identify with this?

March 11, 2019

The Sermon He Did Not Want to Preach

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:43 am

The hints to Pastor Mitchell Norris started out subtly enough.

“Why don’t we do a series on “The Seven Deadly Sins,” pastor?”

He looked at the list: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. After the last almost-complete shutout of volunteers for the last church work day, he felt that starting at the end of the list with sloth would be a good series opener.

But then, the requests got more specific.

“We should have a sermon on gluttony.”

Maybe they weren’t quite that bold. They’d begin with a reference to the latest health reports on how we’re not eating as healthy as we could; or how American life expectancy is dropping for the first time; or how we have so much food compared to the rest of the world and we could solve world hunger by sharing it. Some offered more detailed statistics.

But then they’d pitch the sermon on gluttony.

Pastor Mitchell especially liked this pitch: “Nowhere in the Bible does it say we’re supposed to close our eyes to pray, but there are over one hundred references to gluttony.”

He decided to spare himself the bother of fact-checking that stat.

Why would the church be so concerned about this particular topic?

It was all about Renn.

Renn Taylor had been involved in the church for several decades. When Mitchell Norris arrived, Renn weighed 165 pounds soaking wet. He was 3rd base on the church softball team, and on his turn at bat his home runs came from his speed running the bases, not the depth of the hit.

And now, many trips to Cracker Barrel and Chick-fil-A later, he was clocking in around 285 pounds. Word was it wasn’t genetic. Renn loved a good meal. If there was an underlying psychological reason for the gorging, Renn would have to want to talk to the pastor — or someone — about it. He wasn’t going say a word, nor did he feel he needed to. Renn was a smart man who knew that his former set of clothing was no longer fitting.

People joked about it with Renn, they invited him and his wife over for some ‘health food,’ they anonymously sent him diet books in the mail, they even offered to make him a doctor’s appointment.

They were obsessed.

They were obsessed with Renn’s weight gain.

And as for Pastor Mitchell Norris, he felt there were more important things in congregational life to deal with than a topic which might only apply directly to about a half dozen people, but would be perceived as applying to one individual in particular.

As long as Renn would be in the audience — and he rarely missed a Sunday — Pastor Norris was not about to give that sermon, or do the series on “The Seven Deadly Sins” for that matter. “I cannot;” he told his wife, “do a sermon on overeating, binge eating, weight problems, or anything else on that subject as long as Renn is sitting in the audience. He’ll see right through it.”

The more he refused to address the issue, the more people in the church dug in their heels.

“Gluttony is a sin;” they reminded the pastor.

“So is materialism;” he would reply.

Or on another day, “There’s sin in the camp;” they would affirm. “We can’t simply tolerate sin within the walls of our church family.”

To which Pastor Norris would reply, “And what exactly is sin?”

To that question, responses varied. Some attempted a sound theological answer, and a few got it right, but for most, sin was Renn Taylor, spotted last Friday having a cheeseburger at the Waffle House next to the freeway.

So Pastor Mitchell Norris preached a series, but not the one they were expecting. He pulled a sermon out of the files about worrying about the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye when all along you’ve got a plank in your own.

Then he spoke about the type of people who Jesus befriended, and how none of us really deserve to be part of his inner circle, but when he lets us in, it’s an act of grace.

The week after that one, he spoke about Peter’s preoccupation over what might happen to the Apostle John and how Jesus tells him it’s really ‘none of your business.’

When it was over, they told him it was some of his best preaching. That he seemed to have a fresh passion and urgency about his preaching.

He thanked them.

And then, in the week that followed, at different times and places, they asked him if he would consider doing a sermon on gluttony.

 

 

February 4, 2019

People in Your Church — Not Just the Staff — Have Gifts

This concerns a topic that is recurring around our supper table. It was many years in the making, and something that both of us had been thinking and talking about for a long, long time before she wrote it all out. Not the first time presenting it here, but I believe it’s still relevant, if not more so than when all this happened.


• • • by Ruth Wilkinson

A number of years ago, a terrible thing happened.

Our local Christian school had just celebrated their Grade 8 graduation. Excited 14-year-olds, proud parents and grandparents, a ceremony, a party.

That was Friday evening.

One of the students, a girl, went home that evening, full of life and fun and hope, said good night to her parents, went to sleep, fell into a diabetic coma and died in the night.

The next day, phone lines burned up as the word spread and the Christian community prayed together for this family and for the girl’s friends.

Sunday morning during the service, the then pastor of #thechurchiusedtogoto mentioned the terrible thing in his ‘pastoral prayer’ before the sermon and the congregation prayed together for the comfort and healing of us all.

Over the next week, it started to sink in as these things will do, and a lot of people, solid believers who love Jesus, began asking hard questions. People deeply wounded by the fact that God could allow this to happen.

We own the local Christian bookstore, and some of these folks came in looking for answers. The best we could do was share their questions and their pain. Because there are no answers, besides the trite ones that don’t work.

The next Sunday, I was scheduled to lead worship. I chose songs that were familiar and simple, songs that spoke only of who God is and always had been and avoided “I will worship you” and “Thank you” types of lyrics.

On the platform, in my allotted one minute of speech, I said that a terrible thing had happened last week. That a lot of us were still hurting and questioning and angry. That it can be difficult to sing praises at a time like this, out of our woundedness. But that God was still God and though we don’t understand, we can trust him.

And we sang.

The next day, I got an email. From the (P)astor. Telling me off.

Apparently I had crossed a line. I’d been “too pastoral”. He said that I had no right to address the need in the congregation that week because he had “mentioned it” in his prayer the week before. And that was his job, not mine.

This was in the days before I was liberated enough to allow myself to ask, “What the hell?” so I went with the sanctified version of same, “What on earth?”. How could I possibly have been wrong to acknowledge what we were all thinking, and to act accordingly?

But, knowing from long experience that there was no point in arguing, I acquiesced and he was mollified.

However.

That episode stuck with me. Like a piece of shrapnel the surgeons couldn’t quite get.

“Too pastoral”.

Ephesians 4:11 speaks about gifts given to “each one of us”. The writer lists 5. Widely accepted interpretation of this verse sees each of the 5 as a broad category of Spirit-borne inclination and ability, with every one of us falling into one or another.

Apostles – those whose role it is to be sent. To go beyond the comfort zone and get things started that others would find too intimidating or difficult. Trailblazers.

Prophets – those whose role it is to speak God’s heart. To remind us all why we do what we do, and, whether it’s comfortable or not, to set apart truth from expediency. Truth-speakers.

Evangelists – those whose role it is to tell others about Jesus. To naturally find the paths of conversation that lead non-believers to consider who Christ is. Challengers.

Pastors – those whose role it is to come alongside people, to meet them where they are and to guide them in a good direction. To protect, to direct, to listen and love. Shepherds.

Teachers – those whose role it is to study and understand the written word of God, and to unfold it to the rest of us so we can put it into practice. Instructors.

I’ll be the first to point out that “worship leader” isn’t included in the list. Which means that those of us who take that place in ecclesial gatherings must fall into the “each one of us” who have been given these gifts.

Every time a worship leader (or song leader or whatever) stands on the platform of your church and picks up the mic, you are looking at a person to whom has been given one of the 5-fold gifts.

But can you tell?

Don’t know about you, sunshine, but I want to.

I think that, after a week or two, you should be able to tell. From their song choices, from the short spoken word they’re given 60 seconds for on the spreadsheet, from what makes them cry, smile, jump up and down – you should be able to tell that:

  • This woman has the gift of an evangelist. She challenges us to speak about Jesus to the world because he died for us.
  • That guy has the gift of a teacher. He chooses songs with substance and depth of lyric. He doesn’t just read 6 verses from the Psalms, he explains things.
  • That kid is totally a prophet. He reminds us of what’s important and what’s not.
  • This dude is an apostle. He comes back to us from where he’s been all week and tells us what’s going on out there.
  • This woman is a pastor. Her heart bleeds when yours does. She comes alongside and walks with you through the good and the bad and encourages you to keep going.

A worship leader who is free to express their giftedness in the congregation is, himself, a gift to the congregation.

A worship leader who is bound by rules and by “what we do” is a time filler.

Church “leadership” who restrict the use of Christ-given gifts are, in my humble opinion, sinning against the Spirit and the congregation.

Those gifts are there for a reason.

Let us use them.


January 26, 2019

Preachers and Evangelists: Then and Now

Increasingly, Twitter is becoming a long-form medium. It’s not just the 140 vs. 280 character thing, but with the use of threads, writers can present rather extensive essays.

Every once in awhile I find threads which I think are worthy of being preserved somewhere more permanent. The writer may have envisioned something temporary — a kind of Snapchat prose — but the words deserve greater attention. So as we’ve done before — Skye Jethani, Mark Clark, Sheila Wray Gregoire, etc. — we want to introduce you to a voice which is new here.

Dr. Steve Bezner has been the Senior Pastor of Houston Northwest Church (Houston NW) since January 2013. Steve is married to Joy, and they have two teenage sons—Ben and Andrew. This originally appeared on his Twitter account on January 24th.


by Steve Bezner

Here’s a surprising tidbit: Paul apparently was not very impressive in person. His speaking ability was just so-so. His physical appearance was nothing special. And he had some sort of physical ailment. (I’m guessing weak eyes based on context clues.) But it gets worse.

There were other, more dynamic leaders in the ancient church who would speak at the churches Paul started after Paul left town. And the people would be amazed at their abilities–their charisma, smooth words, and physical appearance.

And those churches would abandon Paul.

Paul refers to these individuals sarcastically as “super-apostles” in 2 Corinthians. They apparently also went to Galatia, as they were working to preach a different gospel from the one Paul had brought. Some even tried to follow Peter or Apollos (friends of Paul’s) over Paul.

Paul didn’t have the best appearance. Or speech. Or personality. He was quiet and meek. And the people in the early churches preferred the loud apostle. The strong apostle. The one that could “hold a room.” The one that was impressive.

Sound familiar?

Paul did, however, have principle. He refused to take money when he did not need it. He pushed into new territory to take the gospel, while others simply rode his coattails. He faithfully raised up new leaders like Timothy, Titus and Silvanus. He painstakingly worked on theology.

Many pastors I know are like Paul rather than the (appropriately) unnamed “super-apostles.” They have been called. They grind away in obscurity. They take less money than they could make in the private sector…or work another job. They faithfully disciple. They study Scripture. They do all of this knowing full well that there are other pastors out there who will always gain more notoriety.

Others who are louder.

Others who are more opinionated.

Others who always speak while they are processing.

Others who seem to somehow end up in the spotlight.

These pastors may not be the greatest preachers in the world. They may not know the best leadership practices. They may not have the most clever responses to the latest issues on social media. And, if they are honest, they tire of being overlooked for the “super-pastors.”

But Paul’s letters are encouraging. The man who was not the greatest preacher or leader is read 2000 years later. We do not even know the name of Paul’s “super-apostle” competitors. Faithfulness and skillfulness, over time, bears fruit that some never experience.

So to those “normal” pastors: Take heart. Stay true to the Scripture. Hold fast to your convictions. Teach, love, preach, pastor, and do so knowing that you will reap a harvest of faithfulness that is often unseen. Your ministry is worthwhile, even when it feels pointless.

To sum up pastoral ministry:

  • Loudest is not best.
  • Opinionated is not best.
  • Impressive is not best.

What is best?

  • Faithfulness to Jesus.
  • Skillfulness in the field where you are planted.
  • Raising up followers of Jesus.
  • Teaching Scripture and theology.
  • Playing the long game.

Do not strive for the blessing of the “super-apostle.”

Strive instead for the acclaim of Jesus:

Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

 

April 16, 2018

Missing Church

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:19 am

There have not been a lot of weekends in my life where I’ve missed church, in one form or another, altogether. It’s even more weird to think that yesterday this was also true for most of the people I know.

Unlike our friends in nearby Buffalo, we don’t get hit with a lot of church closings. We get Sundays when the weather seems to definitely impact attendance. It will have been a great week and then a weather system rolls in on Saturday night. Is God just testing the resolve of our pastors and church leaders?

Attendance sags on those occasions, volunteers don’t show up, and you can bet your bottom dollar (pun intended) that offerings are down. But we’re hearty and our cities, towns and villages all have snowploughs (the preferred spelling here) because, after all, this is Canada.

But consistently on Saturday night, church after church looked at the satellite imagery, looked at the forecast, and looked out the window and announced closings. Well all except for The Salvation Army. They’re an army after all, and it takes more than a few inches of freezing rain to shut down an army.

But some were reluctant. Like these guys, who I won’t name:

Apparently, not “forsaking the assembly” is sacrosanct; an eleventh commandment so to speak. So it was going to take an act of God for this church not to meet.

But in the end, they caved to the planetary conditions in their region and shut down like the rest of us.

Well, not all of us.

You see to this point, I’ve not told you the full story. To the best of our knowledge, based on websites and church Facebook pages, it was the Evangelical churches which cancelled services. In the Mainline churches, it was business as usual.

My son, who is currently helping out a Roman Catholic Church choir director in another city, weighed in with the news that his church, “only cancels if it’s snowing in the Vatican.” (For the record, Sunday in Rome was, as today will also be, 21°C or 70°F and partly cloudy.)

Now it’s true that many Anglican (Episcopal), Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, etc. churches operate on something closer to a parish system — meaning if you live in that parish you go to that local church — rather than having regional churches as do Evangelicals. It is also true that Evangelicals will drive greater distances because of the charisma of a particular speaker or the doctrinal distinctives of a particular tribe. (I have one contact in this area who drives, in good weather, about 90 minutes deep into Toronto for that particular reason.)

It’s also a fact of life in most of the Mainline churches that the pastor/rector/priest has a manse located next door to the church. Commute Time = 0.00 Minutes. So there’s no reason for him/her not to be there on time to open the building.

Despite all this, I still find it surprising that without exception all the Evangelical churches in my little corner of the world opted to shut down.

…The saving grace this morning was churches streaming live, or delayed sermon podcasts. I can’t emphasize enough how blessed we are to live in this age of technology where so many resources are available to us.

Television, the resource of an earlier generation, is less of a factor as local stations claim more time to sell advertising for programs highlighting the weekend in sports, or Sunday morning political round-tables. You might catch some programs, but without access to a dedicated Christian cable or satellite channel, you won’t see much.

Nonetheless, I still missed the interactions, the corporate worship, the corporate prayer and sitting in person under live teaching taking place in the same room. 

The forecast for next Sunday promises weather that is much more balmy.

 

 

 

Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.