3 Most Important Words in Ministry

It seems that every time I’ve caught up on my blogs the past couple weeks there’s been something new that the world needs to know about Mark Driscoll or that Christianity is falling apart at the seems. I am someone who has benefited greatly from Driscoll’s ministry in the past and am saddened that it’s gotten to the point that he needs to take an extended break from ministry-yet as I continue to read and learn and grow in my faith and ministry, I’ve discovered there’s a little phrase that is incredible important to use. I would even go so far to say they’re the 3 most important words in ministry, and in life:

I don’t know.

I’ve read before that when you preach, even if you only believe something 51% to be true, you should preach it like you believe it 100% and I think that’s a bunch of garbage. As evidenced recently with Driscoll (and Mahaney and Piper before him) those in pastoral ministry don’t seem to have a problem of thinking too little of themselves, and this is true of those in smaller churches as well. One of the most fascinating things I discovered early on in ministry is that you’re expected to be an expert on any topic people in the congregation want to talk to you about, from the latest technology and apps to social networking to politics to finances to theology. Of those listed, I REALLY enjoy 1 and enjoy 1 other. When you’re regularly asked about your advice on certain topics and have been given the room to be the authority it can be very easy to get a big head. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with people have been because I’ve been willing to admit that I don’t know.

In our culture we seem to make ourselves the experts on everything. We can read the 140 character summary of every news event and form our opinions based on the few words we see. I think more of us need to be willing that we don’t know everything and have an honest conversation where we can learn and grow from each other.

What don’t you know?

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Reflections on Singing At Church

There’s been a blog that’s I’ve seen getting a lot of attention recently titled ‘Are We Headed for a Crash? Reflections on the Current State of Evangelical Worship‘ that led me to a really good blog from a fellow music pastor who has clearly thought through many issues that come with being a music pastor. Some of his ideas are spot on, some of them I’m planning to steal, and others I just can’t agree with. This one that has gotten a lot of attention is one of the ones I can’t find myself completely agreeing with.

In my own journey I’ve been inundated with theology from birth (thanks a lot Dad!). I “discovered” in college that I was both Reformed and a Calvinist and so I gladly jumped on the “young, restless, reformed” movement of Evangelicalism attending conferences like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel, and even attending John Piper’s church in Minneapolis after college. Over the past couple years I’ve slowly found myself drifting away from that and into more of what I would describe as an Evangelical direction. I can’t completely agree with everything I’ve seen in these circles and while I still have such a great deal of respect for many people in the movement, I’ve found my own lines widening in include more than I would’ve 5 years ago. The zeal without knowledge described me to a T. With that came a certain expectation I had for music and worshipping on Sunday mornings. I know we all come to Sundays with certain expectations and I was no exception. Yet as I’ve continued leading a congregation in weekly worship through music, I’ve seen more of a resurgence in applying biblical and pastoral truths to the role of the “worship pastor.”

Last October I had the opportunity to attend our denominations worship leader conference in Minneapolis and got to connect with a number of like-minded and similar aged people who were wrestling through similar issues as me. The biggest thing that struck me, however, was that the younger 20 and 30 something music leaders viewed this role with a pastoral heart and are seeking to do our best to shepherd the flock entrusted to us instead of viewing it as a performance or a way to build up ourselves. I know many people, especially musicians, can get a big head very quickly, and I pray every Sunday for God to increase and help me to decrease. It doesn’t take much for me to get high on praise, but it’s a constant battle to make God greater in and through my life. And this seems to be the heart cry of many people my age who are gifted in music and using that gift in the local church. I am so excited by what I’ve seen as a transition from professional musician to co-laborer and pastor in the Gospel once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).

The other issue I have with this article (and many other articles and books) is that it seems to paint a one-size-fits-all portrait of how music should be done in a church. He writes, “Keep the lights up. Stop talking so much. Don’t let loops/lights/visuals become your outlet for creativity at the expense of the centrality of the gospel. Point to Jesus. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t sing songs with bad lyrics or weak theology.” I don’t think the things he lists here need to distract from the the message, but can and should allow us to better worship God, who gave people the gift of creativity. In fact, the picture I see in heaven where we will perfectly worship God is more beautiful than John can even begin to describe or fathom. It’s like he’s struggling for words to show how great this place is. And it has different colors and different materials and all points to God. I think the same thing can be done on a Sunday morning in a local church body.

That being said, I am grateful for Jamie bringing this issue to light, as I mentioned, it is a battle for anyone who is in front of a large group to make it all about Christ and keep the focus on him instead of us. We too often think too highly of ourselves at the expense of God. May all of our lives, including Sunday morning singing be done to the honor and glory of Christ alone.

Dealing with the “Gray Matters”

I was first introduced to Brett McCracken during my time at Taylor University when he came to speak about his first book “Hipster Christianity.” My time in college was right in the middle of the emergence of the “cool Christianity” taking off where many my age were dealing with the issues raise by the Emergent Church and doing our best to reconcile these new issues with our generally conservative Evangelical upbringing. I quickly found myself spending time with those of the more reformed persuasion popularized by Collin Hansen’s “Young, Restless and Reformed.” Along with our questions of faith came the questions of the legalistic upbringing we experienced including, but not limited to: no drinking, no dancing, no smoking, no R rated movies (unless it’s about Jesus), no swearing and no cards. (Ok, the no cards rule was my grandma’s when my dad and I took them out to play some Rook). As my friends and I grew during college we were also expected to sign an agreement saying we would continue to uphold these things during our time in college (Taylor recently lifted their ban on dancing, but I was already gone). 4 years after I heard Brett speak, I finally got around to reading his newer book “Grey Matters.” In it, Brett wrestles with 4 areas that have been divisive among Christians for many years: food, movies, music and alcohol, the latter being the most divisive in recent years (see John McArthur’s letter to the Young, Restless and Reformed).

Throughout the book Brett doesn’t shy away from recognizing that these areas can be divisive for people and does a fantastic job of acknowledging problems on both sides of these issues. The most surprising one for me was the section on food. How many of spend any time thinking about what we’re eating and why? Or why some foods taste so good and others don’t (those that don’t seem to always be the healthy ones. What’s the deal with that!?). Yet through all 4 of these areas discussed, they offer opportunities for us to worship God as we’re commanded to do in 1 Corinthians 10:31.

One of the keys that emerged from the book for me was how community changes all these areas. I really enjoy cooking-thinking through the spices and different ingredients can be combined together to form something that doesn’t taste anything like the separate ingredients on their own. And even better: pairing said meal with a good wine or beer. Yet when I cook a big meal and sit down to eat by myself, it’s never as enjoyable. I generally try to invite someone or someone’s over to enjoy it with me. There’s something even better about eating within the context of a community. And this is true of the other areas discussed as well.

All of us have a favorite band that we could listen to on repeat all day (or bands). How many people have you told about your favorite bands by giving them a CD or having them listen with you? And the same thing is said about movies. They’re so much more enjoyable when you can discuss the movie with someone later. And finally, the four letter word in some Christian circles: alcohol. Being able to discuss the different flavors accented by a beer or wine is a very enjoyable community experience that allows us to learn from each other (as long as everyone is legally able to partake, if you’re in the US and under the age of 21, this shouldn’t take place).

So I’m grateful that I finally took the time to read this book, it’s very helpful in thinking through a number of the ramifications that come from dealing with these gray areas in life, and all of them can either help or hinder our worship of God. How do you think you can use gray areas as an opportunity to worship God within the context of community?

Will the Real Church Members Please Stand Up?

I am tired of hearing so many complaints thrown against the church from those who no longer even attend church. There, I’ve said it and feel like a weight is finally off my chest. It’s really easy to stand against something you’re not involved in. We do this so regularly in our own lives. “Yes, I’m a Christian, but I’m not like THOSE Christians.” We build ourselves a nice little fence and are content to live inside it for the rest of our lives, leaving no room to be pushed, prodded or encouraged to think outside our fence. And unfortunately, that means we have a tendency to put God in our own little fence and refuse to allow Him to grow outside of it. As a much more published author than I has said, “Your God is too small.

As has already been said by many people, they love Jesus but not the church. Unfortunately, that’s like saying you love a friend but can’t stand their spouse (admit it, you have one of those friends too!). And when you’re not regularly involved in something it’s really easy to judge it based on a preconceived notion. This has happened to me recently with the movie Gravity. The previews didn’t interest me at all so I didn’t think I’d be interested in seeing it at all, yet when I finally got around to seeing it, I was blown away! There’s a similar phenomenon with those disenchanted with attending church regularly. You can’t judge a church body accurately by a one week visit. It takes time to dig in and get to know the people that make up the church. And guess what happens when you start getting to know them? Issues come up, just as they do in every family I’ve ever met.

With many of those my own age who I’ve talked to, I’ve seen the reoccurring theme of always wanting and expecting the best things right now. We want the best/dream job right out of college, we want the most ideal church body that will serve all my needs, we want the killer body, the perfect significant other, the nicest car and the list could go on. The biggest lesson that has repeatedly come up in my life is that I need to do a better job of waiting and being patient. I don’t have my 401k set up perfectly, I don’t drive the nicest car, and I don’t even have a significant other! But God has me in this season for a reason, and I’m learning and growing through it. And one of the biggest ways I’ve grown has been because of the local church I’m involved in. I regularly spend time with people who are completely different than me. They vote differently, eat differently, read differently, talk differently and dress differently. And that’s good. That’s the way God has intended it. We are all works in progress who are regularly needing the reminder to be more like Christ.

So in this day of un-involvement and complaining, my biggest question is: what are you doing to change it? If there isn’t a church nearby that you like and connect with, how could you make it better? Is there a ministry area you could become involved in and help grow? It’s so easy to complain and blame these issues on other people, it’s much harder, but much more vital, to get plugged in and involved in people’s lives. So let’s spend more time together pushing each other to become more like Christ.

“And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.”

-1 Corinthians 11:1

What Is the Gospel?

What is the gospel? We’ve all heard the many different examples listed and been told that it is literally “Good New” to the world. The Good News that Jesus has come to take our place and pay the penalty for our sins, but what does that mean? (It’s even been asked in a book.) I think it’s even become the “hot topic” within Christianity today with more books and conferences than any of us can or should partake in. But that pat answer doesn’t seem to do it justice, and while I never want to minimize the importance of the gospel, I think many of us take it for granted.

  • It it exclusively about “Good News”?
  • Is there multiple ways to express the gospel?
  • Is the gospel just another name for the Bible?
  • Do we have a “hole” in our gospel?
  • Can it be summed up in 6 words?
  • Have we missed the heart of the gospel?
  • Have we made it all about morality and sexuality separated from grace?
  • Is it all of these things? None? Some?

Obviously I can’t deal with all the issues raised about in regard to the gospel, but I think as I’ve read what people have said and are saying about the gospel, we’re missing a huge piece of it. The piece that we’re remembering this week in the church calendar. The biggest piece missing from our discussion about the gospel is the cross. Apart from the cross, the gospel isn’t good news at all. In fact, if the cross is taken completely out of the discussion, the Bible just makes me want to curl up and die.

So many times I’ve heard the gospel message summed up as either a salvation message or a call to “fix” the world by bringing God’s kingdom to earth. And while Jesus did inaugurate a new kingdom, it hasn’t yet reached it’s conclusion. We live in a time period where Christ has ALREADY begun his work in redeeming the world but it has NOT YET reached its final point. There are a number of things that won’t be resolved until Christ comes again to “judge the living and the dead.” We need to learn to be content living within this unresolved tension until Christ returns. No, the gospel can’t be summed up in a list of moral codes or absolutes, but it can be summed up in the cross. The fact that God loved and loves us despite our sin. The fact that God sent His one and only son into the world and “tabernacled” or “made his dwelling” among us. The fact that God has now reconciled us to Him by taking our sins, past, present and future, upon Himself. The fact that He continues to relentlessly pursue us and woo us to Himself.

It doesn’t take me very long to daily be reminded of my sinful state. I’m continually attempting to find ways to build myself up, even if it means tearing others down. What hope could a sinful man like me have? Through the cross, infinite hope.

In his expose of the gospel message, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 lays out the message of the gospel – but then shows us the hope we can have because the cross isn’t the final word – the resurrection is. In today’s culture it’s become commonplace to question the validity of Jesus. Was He really who He said He was? Did he really rise from the dead? Paul takes this to its logical conclusion when he says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” Questioning the message of the gospel is in vain because we have it clearly laid out for us in Scripture. No, it can’t be put in a list because it’s how we should live.

BUT

Jesus did leave his disciples, and us, with this command:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

I have yet to hear a sermon or read a blog that deals with this part of the great commission. Jesus told his disciples to observe all that He commanded. And Jesus laid out some pretty specific things. Honor your parents, love your neighbors, give to the poor and needy, and be perfect. How much of that list have you broken?

In one of my classes in college we attempted to condense the gospel to 140 characters to find out if we could tweet the gospel. I came to the conclusion that it can’t be done. In order to truly explain the message of the gospel I need to tell you about my life. Yes, the message of the gospel is that Christ has already done the work for us, but the implications for that have changed my entire life. Does your life paint a picture of the gospel, no matter how blurry or broken it is, or does it paint a picture of you? How has the gospel shaped your life today and where would you be without Christ’s work on the cross?

“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Philippians 1:27

Can A Conservative Evangelical Millennial Still Have A Voice?

If there’s anything the recent World Vision issue has taught me, is that I am increasingly going to be on the short end of the stick. I am someone who sponsors a child through World Vision and was concerned when they changed their employees stance on same-sex marriage. No, I wasn’t going to abandon the child I sponsored, but I was uneasy about identifying with an organization that I cannot agree with theologically, especially when there are other organizations that do the same thing World Vision does without compromising their beliefs. This issue isn’t simply about marriage, but about the authority of Scripture. Yes, there is room for different interpretations of Scripture, but not for questioning what God has clearly commanded. And despite what many have tried to argue, the Bible is clear that homosexual acts are a sin (not the only sin, mind you, but still a sin).

As these issues begin to become more frequent, I am continually seeing that people don’t want to listen to or agree with me because I am a conservative Evangelical who looks to Scripture as my final authority and look back to church history to help me understand the issues of today. As soon as Scripture begins to be questioned the rest of the Christian worldview falls apart. So what do we do when, as a writer at Desiring God put, the Bible is the controversy?

I know that there are a number of Millennials who are in the same boat as me. After all, the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement is still on the rise among many of the people I talk to. There’s a growing awareness of the need for biblical authority and understanding to help us deal with issues like what happened with World Vision. People are willing to change the message of the Gospel in an attempt to make it more palatable. But the Gospel isn’t palatable. It’s offensive. Jesus said things that got him in a lot of trouble. He said things that were incredibly offensive, like “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Our whole faith hinges upon the brutal execution of an innocent man. This is how God showed his love to the world. By hanging his one and only Son on the cross in our place. How can you soften that blow? How can you being a sinner sound rosy and cheerful? And it’s not a one time event, it’s not saying a sinner’s prayer and having fire insurance, it’s a daily act. I think Luther said it best when he said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”

With all this concern that Evangelicals are shooting themselves in the foot by being too controversial, I think it’s necessary to look back at Jesus’ ministry to see just how offensive the Gospel really is. And I hope that drives people away! I’ve been saying for a while that I hope I offend people regularly. Not because of the things I do, but for the sake of the Gospel and Jesus being lived out in my life. I know I’m not always going to take the popular road, or the easy road, but I know that I will do my best to continue to follow the Lord’s leading and guiding in my life as I continue to live as a saved sinner in a sinful and broken world. I eagerly look forward to the day when Jesus will make everything right with the world and there won’t be controversy like this, but until that day, I will continue on.

For another look at this issue, see Trevin Wax’s article on this issue, it’s very helpful.

More Confessions Of A Millennial Evangelical Christian

Last week there was an uproar over a change in stance of the well known company World Vision, who changed their employee agreement form to allow same-sex sex within a same-sex marriage. Just two days later, they reversed their policy and wrote an apology letter to those they had offended. I was thrilled when World Vision changed their stance back, am glad they did so and think it was the right decision. But that also means that instead of getting criticism from the more conservatives, they are now getting criticism from the more liberal “Evangelicals.” Enter Rachel Held Evans.

Rachel burst onto the scene with her book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” which I have yet to read (to see why I haven’t read it, read this review from Kathy Keller). Claiming to be an Evangelical Christian, Rachel has been blogging for years and has spoken very strongly against many within the Evangelical movement. I’ve never considered her to be an Evangelical, but just another liberal Christian, and I’ve never heard anyone who I respect who is an Evangelical Christian consider her to be an Evangelical either. She wrote an article for CNN titled ‘How evangelicals won a culture war and lost a generation,’ that gets to the heart of the issue for me. In the article she says the following:

There is a disproportionate focus on homosexuality that consistently dehumanizes, stigmatizes and marginalizes gay and lesbian people and, at least in this case, prioritizes the culture war against them over and against the important work of caring for the poor.

Evangelicals insist that they are simply fighting to preserve “biblical marriage,” but if this were actually about “biblical marriage,” then we would also be discussing the charity’s policy around divorce.

But we’re not.

As I grieved with my (mostly 20- and 30-something) readers over this ugly and embarrassing situation, I heard a similar refrain over and over again: “I don’t think I’m an evangelical anymore. I want to follow Jesus, but I can’t be a part of this.”

I feel the same way.

Whether it’s over the denial of evolutionary science, continued opposition to gender equality in the church, an unhealthy alliance between religion and politics or the obsession with opposing gay marriage, evangelicalism is losing a generation to the culture wars.

First, I’m not sure where she can accuse Evangelicals about not dealing with divorce. Divorce is something that has become commonplace in our culture, but the Evangelicals that I know and read have never supported divorce in any way shape or form. In fact, I’ve read the opposite from all of them! (See these articles here and here) And most of the ones I read take an even more stringent stance toward divorce than I do. But that also doesn’t take away from the fact that same-sex sex is a sin. It isn’t something exclusively taught in the Old Testament, and it isn’t progressive like slavery.

Secondly, this paints Evangelicals in the worst possible light. Rachel accuses us of denying evolutionary science, opposing gender equality, aligning religion and politics and an obsession with opposing gay marriage, none of which I see to be true. In fact, I know many Evangelicals who support evolutionary science (Tim Keller), who also support gender equality (but that doesn’t mean that men and women should have all the same roles in the church) and most Evangelicals I talks to try to keep their politics separated from their religion. I don’t see who Rachel is trying to paint in this bad light.

And finally, I’m glad that Rachel feels she can no longer identify herself as an Evangelical. It’s been clear to me as I’ve read more of the things she’s put out that she has never been an Evangelical, but is more like Brian McLaren, who are trying to claim association with Evangelicals while still belittling and continually ostracizing themselves from the Evangelical community. Yes, the Evangelical community is broad and includes differences of opinion on many issues, but to deny the role of Scripture as the sole authority is a train wreck. As soon as Scripture is questioned, people tend to take a liberal approach to Christianity, and it needs to be realigned.

This push back to the Evangelicals seems to be what the Emergent church of the early 2000s morphed in to. I’m looking forward to the day when we can all focus on Scripture together, using it as our sole authority and living that out. This doesn’t mean we hate those who are sinners, but welcome them in to the church, love them, and point them to Christ. This means we all are going to need to give up our sins and be willing to admit when we are wrong as we all stumble toward maturity.

Confessions of a Current Evangelical

The American Conservative had an article today titled ‘Confessions of an Ex-Evangelical, Pro-SSM Millenial‘ that was very interesting and troubling. It comes from someone my own age who has turned away from their Evangelical upbringing and is attempting to explain why. He begins the article with one caveat: that he is only 24 years old and may not be speaking for everyone, but does share his own experience. A couple paragraphs in he writes:

We were taught that our church not only had the absolute truth, but that there was no earthly history between the Bible and the doctrines being presented to us.  I went to Evangelical churches fifty-two Sundays a year for the better part of 19 years, and I cannot for the life of me remember once when the name of a theologian was mentioned.  There was one interpretation of scripture, and it was absolutely true.  And, in fact, even the various doctrines that were taught were never mentioned by name, because the presence of the name might suggest that there were alternatives.

This is shocking to me! And is quite the opposite of what I’ve experience in my Evangelical upbringing. I was taught that there was an overwhelming abundance of connection between the earthly history and the theology I was taught. I was regularly told that no archaeological find of the past 2,000 years ran contradictory to Scripture. And I was told that there was 1 TRUE interpretation of Scripture, but then different applications of that text to our own lives. And my dad was using big theological terms that I still don’t understand (except for general and special revelation, that’s the one big thing I still remember, thanks Dad!).

Instead of an intellectual tradition, it is a church built on emotion.  Every sermon is a revival stump speech about the evils of the world and the need for salvation.  Every sermon ends in a sentimental pop song/worship chorus to accompany an altar call in which the same handful of members weeps at the altar

This sounds to me like his experience in church is limited to one church that is very traditional. I’ve only seen an alter call twice, and both times it was at local events that weren’t at the church my family went to. In fact, my experience at church has been so focused on intellect that I didn’t think I could relate my faith to my emotions. It wasn’t until college that I understood I could have an emotional response to God, the Bible and my relationship with him.

You see SSM advocates as employing emotive arguments in order to win, but you have to realize that a lot of the Christians that are being argued against have traded in nothing but emotion for the last 30 years.  Salvation is a weeping, sinners-prayer mumbling, emotional roller coaster, and the emoting never stops.  In all the years I was a member, my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness:  Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be.  Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.

Yes, salvation CAN be an incredibly emotional response, but it also needs to be an intellectual response. We need to worship God with our whole being. It’s very easy to emphasize one of these areas at the expense of the other. For example, throughout most of my life in Jr High and High School, I only wanted to read the Bible because it was the right thing to do (which meant I didn’t really want to). But as I got into later High School and college, I started to have an emotional connection to Scripture as God revealed himself to me through His Word. Yes, I could understand the grow in my knowledge and understanding to God, but that should naturally lead to an emotional response of worship of God (just read the Psalms, they’re overflowing with emotion!).

Unfortunately, the churches response to homosexuality has been to condemn or condone not lovingly come alongside and point back to Scripture (Wesley Hill says this far better than I ever could in his book ‘Washed and Waiting‘).

When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed.  This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay.  If your belief on SSM is based on a learned disgust at the thought of a gay person, the moment a gay person, any gay person, ceases to disgust you, you have nothing left.  In short, the anti-SSM side, and really the Christian side of the culture war in general, is responsible for its own collapse.  It failed to train up the young people on its own side preferring instead to harness their energy while providing them no doctrinal depth by keeping them in a bubble of emotion dependent on their never engaging with the outside world on anything but warlike terms.

This is true that the moment many millennials befriend a homosexual their belief falls apart. When you don’t have any background in how to study Scripture your beliefs will fall apart at the slightest breeze (Ephesians 4:14). Yes, many who experience same sex attraction are incredibly nice people (just like many people who experience heterosexual attraction are), but that doesn’t change the fact that they are sinners in need of grace, just like me. In fact the entire world is full of sinners who are in need of God’s grace in their lives to represent Christ to a dead and broken world.

So if the church continues to emphasize intellect OR emotion as the only response to faith, there will continue to be people who refuse to believe what the Bible teaches. We need to emotionally connect to God AND intellectually “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

-Jaraslov Pelikan in The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities