Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Golden Apple of Relevancy

Two years ago everyone was eager to preach on the Da Vinci Code, and I suppose there might be a sermon here or there this summer on Harry Potter, the last book of the seven appearing as it is. The need to address what is current is ever with a preacher, and those preachers who ignore what is happening in the world soon pay the price, for their sermons not only seem to be irrelevant, they actually become irrelevant.

Ahh relevancy. The golden apple of communication, or Snow White’s stepmother’s apple, filled with poison. Add to this the need to be relevant to those who do not believe. The Jim and Casper go to church project reminds me of the project of the Anglican Church in Canada which a number of years ago contracted with one of Canada’s foremost atheists, Pierre Berton, to ask his opinion on what the church should do to be more relevant. The result was Berton’s book The Comfortable Pew in which he said many of the things we hear from Casper: forget religion, go out and do good.

When Erwin McManus tells Casper that he won’t understand much of what is going on during the Mosaic worship service, Casper is offended. But actually McManus is in principle correct, for our eyes are blinded to the meaning and relevancy of the Word of God until illuminated by the Holy Spirit. This would also hold true for the worship service to the extent that the worship service is a proclamation of the Word. That is, what is truly understood, in the sense of gaining knowledge of God, is understood because of a gracious act of the Holy Spirit.
I think in our preaching and in our church services we need to return to deep dependence on the Spirit. In saying this I do cringe, because it has been such a cliché. And, wow, aren’t we all dependent? So, I don’t mean to say it as an accusation, but as a way of saying, we have done this, but we need to revisit what we are doing in seeking the Spirit and revitalize the very act of seeking. Or, become seekers before we can preach to seekers. Otherwise, everything is irrelevant by definition.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Jim, Casper and St. Benedict Go to Church

Benedict left the life of Roman society, where he had been born to wealth and privilege, to please the Lord. He tried to live a solitary life, but as others came to be taught by him, we might say “discipled by him” he established thirteen monasteries over which he became abbot. He gave to these a book of rules, now called Benedict’s Rule, which established a routine of prayer and the reading of the Psalms. Benedict’s Rule is became the guiding rule for monasteries across Europe. It is believed that Benedict died in 547. No one has ever found fog machines mentioned in Benedict’s rule.

Randall Holm is a professor of Biblical studies at Providence College in Winnipeg. He writes in a recent issue of TESTIMONY, the magazine of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, that he went to visit an Anglican Church in Winnipeg called St. Benedict’s Table. He notes, from their website, that they describe themselves as “first and foremost a Eucharistic worshipping community that is rooted in the ancient future.” Holm describes the service, rooted in audible reading of Scripture, minimal instrumentation for singing, singing songs that seem “calm and quiet the soul,” silence, and of course the Eucharist. He says: “I confess, I walked away from St. Benedict’s table refreshed. I experienced what the Taize community describes as a “holy stop, a sabbatical rest, a truce of worries.”

One of the things lost in the current discussion about church, seekers, worship, is that from the beginning Willow Creek drew a distinction between the worship service and the seeker service. The concept was that Christians would surrender their “right” to worship on Sunday and instead worship mid-week, so that seekers could come on Sunday for a meeting geared to share the gospel with them, but which was not a worship service.

Willow faithfully followed this philosophy and reaped great results. But, few other churches truly followed them in a pure way. So, the Sunday service in most churches became “seeker” which meant a worship service that is not really a worship service, but which is, on the other hand, still a worship service. The results have been mixed. Mixed because what happened too often was that the elements of worship went out the window so that seekers might find a comfort zone.

Is this part of the problem that is creating Barna’s Revolution? That is really hard for me to make a comment on. But, in reading Jim & Casper go to Church I think that it has contributed to the problem. Christians who have grown up in the stripped down worship service find that, in spite of music that is on the edge, and technology that has a wow factor, their souls have not come to a holy stop.

To be honest, I have to say, I don’t think they came to a holy stop in the average evangelical service in the sixties or early seventies either. That is why the Boomers jumped at contemporary music with its streams from African-American worship, Pentecostalism, rock, and folk and probably some other streams as well. And, it has and remains good.

But I hear from Jim and Casper and many others that something is missing, and so missing that they are just simply quitting church.

So, we had better figure out what is missing, and get it back.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Casper and Jim... continued

Casper says: “Certainty is boring. Certainty is closed off. Certainty is against new information. Certainty is a kind of orthodoxy, really, and it was those kinds of “certainty” moments – when I would hear a pastor or others in a church declare themselves absolutely certain of heaven, God’s existence, truth—that I would get a little riled.” (p.153).

Yet, Casper says that he is certain that the U. S. involvement in Iraq is wrong. “However, if he had been in favor of the war in Iraq, well, we would have had a real hard time being friends, Christian or not.” Jim nails him on this, “That sounds somewhat less-than-open-minded, Casper.” (p.90)

This so much reminds me of hearing Francis Schaefer tell how followers of Jean Paul Sartre bowed their heads down and wept when they heard that Sartre had signed the Manifesto of the 121, a declaration from one hundred twenty one French intellectuals which condemned the French war against the Algerian insurgency. In signing Sartre violated the basic premise of his existentialism, that there are no standards, no morals, that one can only gain authenticity by an act of will.

The pull of existentialism, which has contributed more than one card to the hand of what we now call post-modernism, has been like a magnetic north to twentieth century theology. Coming late to evangelicalism, it holds out hope of some refreshment with its emphasis on becoming an authentic person, but also poses powerful dangers.

One such danger is the dilemma of either an irrational leap of faith, which results in “faith in faith” as Schaefer characterized it, or a smugness of certainty in a system that, once discovered, seems to answer all questions. I would propose that this is a false dilemma.

I think the dilemma is false because I see the Bible presenting a middle ground. God has acted in history, and there are witnesses. Yet, we are called upon to risk our eternal souls on their credibility. In the end, faith is faith, but it is not faith leaping into the unknown, it is faith in a God who truly exists, who truly sent his Son into our world to live, die, rise, ascend and come again. Thus, after the Bible, our most ancient document begins with Credo – I believe, and after that, all the things I believe in.

We truly need to hear a condemnation of smugness in stating our beliefs. We need to be honest that we are beset by doubts and assailed by fears. But, we must also say that our belief is not something that has been made up to make us feel better, but something that can be inquired into and about which an assessment of truth can be made.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Casper, Jim and Barna

Of high interest is Jim & Casper Go to Church, published by Tyndale, 2007, a Barna Imprint. The premise is simple. Casper is an atheist from San Diego and Jim, who runs a ministry titled Off the Map contracts with Casper to visit a number of churches, discuss them, rate them, and produce this book. In spite of the fact that the book essentially supports Barna’s thesis in Revolution, and probably Jim Henderson’s thesis as well, the book produces great insights and profound challenges. Every pastor should read it.

What I like is the Q & A at back.. It seems to be a Q & A with Henderson, but it picked up some of my challenges and thoughts as I read through.

The book caused me to consider the following.

Is the imitation rock concert that we call a worship service, really a worship service? Casper wants to know if Jesus told us to buy those fog machines. I can see that if rock concerts are the culture of today, then we need to worship in that culture. But, has this picked up the same deadness as the Hammond organ worship service of the mid-twentieth century?

More deeply, what is a worship service?

Then, is our preaching nearly as relevant as we think it is? Casper is really difficult to challenge with a sermon. After hearing a sermon he counters with questions relating to overall biblical context and application to life. His critiques make me think more deeply about my sermons, and make me want to do way better.

And, in total resonance with Barna, both Casper and Jim want to deconstruct the church to what my son calls a pre-ecclesiology. Virtually echoing Barna, they want to know if the main mission of Jesus was to establish a church.

In this I hear a faint echo of Kierkegaard’s question: “how in Christendom can one be a Christian?” Is it really what God wanted – that we should all gather every week, sing, take an offering and listen to a sermon – and the Eucharist in some churches? Or was being a disciple intended to be something else? That is the challenge that Barna, and now Casper, are throwing down to us.

This blog is open for comments.

Monday, May 07, 2007

A Wall of Remembrance

Speaking of Gracia Burnham who was the lone survivor after the Philippine army, in attempting to rescue her, her husband and a Filipina nurse, Mark Bowden says:

“The raid had been characterized by many in the press as a debacle, but Gracia lived up to her name. She thanked the Philippine people for their prayers, and she thanked the government for her rescue. She talked about how much her husband had loved the country.”
(Mark Bowden, “Jidahasts in Paradise” The Altlantic Monthly, March 2007).

I picture Hebrews 11 as a long wall dedicated to memory. Perhaps the first was the
Vietnam Memorial, quiet and long in its display of names. But since then we have seen walls of remembrance spring up after catastrophic events. Pictures, notes, letters, are pinned to them. I see Hebrews eleven as somewhat like that and pinned to it are the names of all the people of faith. The writer walks up and snatches off a piece of paper with a name on it – Able, turns to us and says a few words, perhaps reading from the note itself. And then, Abraham, and Sarah, and after them he begins to walk along the wall and read various names, almost randomly, adding here and there a comment. And there are more he says – too many to read all of them, but they are there. And from the time he wrote the epistle until now the wall has continued to fill up. Patrick, who brought Christ to the Irish, and Luther, and yes, a village pastor who preached even though it seemed no one cared, and a mother who prayed without ceasing for her daughter. On and on it goes. Gracia Burnham who endured unspeakable agony, only to see her husband and friend die in the end. And now three brothers in Turkey who were faithful to the end. Is there a piece of paper up there with my name on it? What does it say?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Gifting or Office?

The following brief exchange is in response to my pastoral letter which may be found under President at www.cmacan.org The letter concerns the authority of a pastor over the teaching of the Word in the church. Sharon's concern is that I have stated that, with all proper disclaimers in place, the word is the word of the Lord. She asks if this is actually a reference to the prophetic gift.

I don't usually respond... but this time I couldn't help it. I was wondering where the gifts of prophet,apostle and evangelist fit in with this ministry of pastor. I think in a practical sense that we combine these roles and gifts -- pastor/evangelist or pastor/prophet. But I don't know anymore if this is really the right understanding or the best way. In the last couple of paragraphs of your letter I think you have combined the gifts of pastor and prophet. I would like to argue for more separation -- we need the prophet in our churches, in our denomination. But I don't necessarily agree that the pastor IS the prophet. I would love to see this conversation continued on your blog and see what others are thinking. Sharon

OK, I’ll move it over to the blog. But briefly what we have here is a distinction between office and gift. So, a pastor may not have the gift of prophet etc. but he is in charge of the teaching in his church by reason of office. And, no matter what, when he preaches he should expect the anointing for that moment. Now, what about pastors who have no giftedness in either prophecy or teaching? One really has to ask if they should be in the position of teaching every week, i.e., should they be the lead pastor? I don’t think so. With Sincerity, Franklin

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Marks of the Church II

Marks of the Church II

Marks of the Church II

One of the respondents asked for a fuller presentation of the Marks of the Church. Thomas Oden’s Systematic Theology, Life in the Spirit, Vol. 3, gives an excellent summary. The Reformed tradition identifies Word (true teaching), Sacrament (proper celebration of Lord’s Supper and Baptism), and Discipline. Earlier creeds identified the church by Unity (founded in Jesus Christ – 2 or 3 gathered in his name…), Holiness (set apart from the world), Catholicity (not bound to a particular place or time) and Apostolicity (grew out of and continues the teaching and ministry of the Apostles). Oden combines the two streams into a “consolidating thesis: That ekklesia in which the Word is rightly preached and sacraments rightly administered and discipline rightly ordered will be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”

This is very important because we have those who say that we should do mission first, that is, simply proclaim the gospel, and not worry at all about what comes out of it, i.e., the church. At first glance this may seem attractive. But in fact the church begins at Pentecost and it begins with the true preaching of the apostles, with baptism and the breaking of bread, with unity, for as the converts scattered they understood their continuing unity in the Holy Spirit, and with holiness.

This is the core. If we recapture it, then we can stop wasting ink telling each other that a church can be a church even if it meets in a cave or a garage and even if it uses a different format and on and on. Of course it can. But, it can’t be the church without the above marks. So I would beg you that when we talk about how the church needs to change etc. that we start here with the historic understanding of what is being talked about when we say “church.” From here the discussion has promise of being very fruitful.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Marks of the Church

In late November 2006 the Saturday National Post Toronto magazine ran an article titled “God finds a home on Bay Street.” King-Bay chaplaincy, a ministry with a long a solid history, is featured, but also the fact that small groups that focus on prayer, Bible study or both, are beginning to proliferate in the financial district of Toronto.

For some these spiritual oases, as one person describes them, almost function as church. George Barna, in his book Revolution, says that this sort of this is what is beginning to replace traditional church. So the question: when is a group a church?

I think Barna might say that the question is irrelevant. The theological concept of identifying what is a church and what is not a church is simply a misconception. His perspective is completely modern, that is, focused on the individual. The individual must move forward in discipleship, becoming a person who meets the marks of a disciple as found in the New Testament. That is all that matters. Any means by which an individual can get help in doing that is fine. There is no need to worry about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the service provider, so to speak.

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I think the church is something in and of itself. The New Testament seems to make this clear – but in this piece I don’t want to go into a lengthy exposition of that. So, on that assumption, the church does have a particular place in the economy of God and her health and well being are matters of both concern and interest.

There are things which only the church can provide. These constitute the marks of the church. They include sound teaching that has an accountability structure behind it, and the sound administration of the sacraments, among other things.

At the same time the proliferation of groups and ministries in the market place has to be one of the most exciting spiritual things to happen in Canada in decades. People can and are moved forward in discipleship in these and other venues.

So, I wish to affirm and ratify such things. But, until the full ministry that God wishes to provide is provided through them, they are not church nor are they a substitute for church.

As I write this I am trying to do checks on myself to make sure that I am not doing “bunker mentality” stuff. If anyone wants to correct me, I will listen. Marks of the Church

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Staying in Touch

Downfall, a German film about he last days of Hitler, presents some of the most disturbing images of the second world war that I have ever seen. Hitler and his staff are in a large underground bunker as the Soviets advance on Berlin. As news comes of the collapse of German defenses, Hitler continues to order armies to move forward in a pincer movement and drive them back. The only problem? Those armies no longer exist in a meaningful fashion. The total disconnect is highlighted by Eva Braun’s writing to her sister telling her where items of jewelry have been left for repair, and what bills to expect. On the city streets it is obvious that there won’t be bills from any jewelry shops for quite awhile.

This event is perhaps the origin of the phrase “bunker mentality.” It is to take “believing in yourself” and “following your dream” to a place where only destruction awaits. It is to now listen to advice, to eliminate contrary information, to form a death wish rather than allow change.

Leadership requires that “bunker mentality” be resisted absolutely and rigoriously.

Rebirthing Simpson's Vision

Rebirthing Simpson's Vision