Practical Theology

This post contains two book excerpts on the seeker-sensitive movement within Evangelicalism. This means it is a slightly longer post; but it is very powerful. I hope you’ll take the time to read both excerpts.

The below excerpt is from the preface of By Faith Alone, edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters. This preface was written by David Wells. The second excerpt is from J.I. Packers Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, who almost speaks prophetically about this movement as it was written in 1961.

This first excerpt is taken in the context of discussing three primary groups within Evangelicalism today. The first is the group which is true to teachings of the Reformation, the second is the “Emergent” group from which the New Paul Perspective and Federal Vision groups stem, which is the focus of this book. The third group (and the largest) is the “seeker-sensitive” group, which has damaged the Protestantism in unfathomable ways. David Wells explains:

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In the last few decades, however, a second church constituency has been emerging, first in America, and now, like so many other things American, it is being exported overseas. It is made up of a generation of pragmatists, initially Baby Boomers but now spilling out generationally, who have lived off this reformational understanding as does a parasite off its host, separate but surreptitiously using its life and slowly bringing about the death of its host. These pragmatic entrepreneurs, these salesmen of the gospel, may not always deny reformational understanding overtly, but even if they do not, they always hide it from view. They shuffle off this orthodoxy into a corner where they hope it will not be noticed. To the seekers who are so sensitive and who are their target audience, this orthodoxy would be quite incomprehensible, not to say off-putting. So, it is covered up because it is judged to be irrelevant to what is of interest to them and tho those who are in the business of selling Christianity; it is likewise judged to be irrelevant to their work.

They want to reconfigure their churches around the marketing dynamic, and this is something quite different. It is this experiment of borrowing off the mechanisms of capitalism, this skimming off of business savvy and the niche-marketing that follows, that makes up the second major constituency in evangelical faith, as I see it.

…In fact, it is the dominant constituency in American evangelicalism today, which is why it is pandered to so shamelessly by Christianity Today. And that is also why it passes unchallenged by many evangelical leaders who might know better. Its stunning success has placed it beyond accountability or criticism. Its success has made it invulnerable and impervious.

The idea at the heart of this experiment was always rather simple. If Coca-Cola can sell its drinks, if Lexus can market its cars, why can’t the church, using the same principles, the very same techniques, market its message? After all, this is the language that all Americans understand because all Americans are consumers. And so it was that the seeker-sensitive church emerged, reconfigured around the consumer, edges softened by marketing wisdom, pastors driven by business savvy, selling, always selling, but selling softly, alluringly, selling the benefits of the gospel while most, if not all, of the costs were hidden. Indeed, it got worse than this. Sometimes what was peddled was a gospel entirely without cost, to us and apparently also to Christ, a gospel whose grace is therefore so very cheap. And it has gotten even worse. Just as often, the gospel has vanished entirely and been replaced only by feel-good therapy. The message has been about a God without wrath, bringing man without sin, into a kingdom without a judgement, through a Christ without a cross…all that we might feel good about ourselves and come back to “church” next week. This, actually, is how Niebuhr described the old, defunct Liberal gospel! But, never mind. Buoyed by George Barna’s statistics and flushed with success, seeker-sensitive pastors have sallied forth into the consumer fields in ever more inventive and extraordinary ways to bring in the harvest now ripened, now ready to be gathered and fetched into their auditoriums.

But to what are these seekers coming? Gone are all the signs of an older Christianity. Churches that once looked like churches, symbols of a message transcendent in origin, have now been replaced by auditoriums, and some of them might even be mistake as business convention centers. Indeed, they might even pass as showrooms – boats and home appliances on display during the week and Jesus on the weekend. And why not? Gone, after all, is the transcendent message, and what remains, really, is quite-this-worldy. And this is subtly broadcast visually. Pews have been replaced by chairs, the pulpit by a stage, or, maybe, a plexiglass stand, the Scripture reading by a drama group, the choir by a set of sleek and writhing singers who could be straight out of a show in Vegas, and everywhere the Jumbotrons, the technology, the wizardry of a control so complete that it all comes off as being super-casual. This church stuff is no sweat; it’s fun! It is to this that seekers are coming. Indeed, far more frequently than we might wish to know, it is only to this that they are coming.

Barna, at least, is now dismayed. His assiduous polling, which initially launched this experiment in “how to do church,” has now been following behind it and churning up some truly alarming findings. You see, none of this pizzazz and glitz has made an iota of difference to those who have been attending. They have been living on our postmodern “bread,” on technology and entertainment alone, and not on the Word of God. The result is that they are now living no differently from those who are overtly secular, he says. They have no Christian worldview, they exhibit no Christian character, and they show no Christian commitment. Their pastors, he says, measure their own success by the number of attendees and the square footage of the building, but the people who attend, those who are born again, show none of the signs of the radical discipleship that Jesus demanded. Am I just old-fashioned when I wonder to myself where there might be a causal connection between this flagging discipleship and the abandoned biblical concerns about truth, the irrelevant orthodoxy, in these seeker-sensitive churches?

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Now, a word from J.I. Packer:

There is today a controversy in some evangelical circles about evangelistic methods. Some are criticizing, and others are defending, the type of evangelistic meeting that has been a standard feature of English and American evangelical life for almost a century. Meetings of this type are well known, for they are very characteristic. They are deliberately made brisk and bright, in the hope that people who have little interest in the Christian message, and who may never have been inside a Christian church, may nevertheless find them an attraction. Everything is accordingly planned to create and atmosphere of warmth, good humor and happiness. The meeting normally includes a good deal of music – choir items, solo items, choruses and rousing hymns, heartily sung. Heavy emphasis is laid on the realities of Christian experience, both by the choice of hymns and by the use of testimonies. The meeting leads up to an appeal for decision, followed by an after-meeting or a time of personal counseling for the further instruction of those who have made, or wish to make, a decision in response to the appeal.

The main criticisms that are made of such meetings – whether they are wholly justified we would not venture to say – are as follows. Their breezy slickness makes for irreverence. The attempt to give them “entertainment value” tends to lessen the sense of God’s majesty, to banish the spirit of worship and to cheapen men’s thoughts of their Creator; moreover, it is the worst possible preparation of the potential converts for the regular Sunday services in the churches which they will in due course join. The seemingly inevitable glamorizing of Christian experience in the testimonies is pastorally irresponsible and gives a falsely romanticized impression of what being a Christian is like. This, together with the tendency to indulge in long, drawn-out wheedling for decisions and the deliberate use of luscious music to stir sentiment, tends to produce “conversions” which are simply psychological and emotional upheavals, and not the fruit of spiritual conviction and renewal at all. The occasional character of the meetings makes it inevitable that appeals for decision will often be made on the basis of inadequate instruction as to what the decision involves and will cost, and such appeals are no better than a confidence trick. The desire to justify the meetings by reaping a crop of converts may prompt the preacher and the counselors to try and force people through the motions of decision prematurely, before they have grasped with is really all about, and converts produced in this way tend to prove at best stunted and at worst spurious and, in the event, gospel-hardened.

The way ahead in evangelism, it is said, is to break completely with this pattern of evangelistic action, and to develop a new pattern (or rather, restore the old one which existed before this type of meeting became standard), in which the evangelizing unit is the local church rather than a group or cross-section of churches. Then the evangelistic meeting finds its place among the local church’s services – a pattern, indeed, in which the local church’s services function continually as its evangelistic meetings.

The Animal Kingdom is full of various creatures who are known to devour others of their own kind. Sharks, spiders, wasps, polar bears and even chickens have been known to turn their own species into a delicious afternoon snack.

Too often the church appears to be modeled more after the Animal Kingdom in this way than it does Christ’s selfless sacrifice. Anyone who has been around the church for awhile will easily be able to recollect numerous occasions where other Christians have hurt them in significant ways. Countless people have turned their back on the church for good because they have been harmed more grievously by Christians in the church than by others outside of the church. The place that is supposed to be a safe haven for us can quickly turn into something that feels like a cannibalistic frenzy.

Why do Christians so easily and readily hurt one another? At the root of it all is sin, and this sin manifests itself in numerous ways. Sometimes we are just paying our pain forward; we hurt, so we want others to hurt. Other times we are just insensitive to those around us. Often we set unrealistic expectations of others, forgetting that we too are sinners in need of grace. Unrepentant sin can foster bitterness, which then gets extended to our brothers and sisters in the church.

But the cause of this problem is not the purpose of this post. My desure instead is to point those of you going through this kind of pain and betrayal to a Man who knows a thing or two about this subject.

Christ our King understands what it means to be betrayed by those closest to him. John 1:11 says that Christ came to his own people, but they did not receive him. In the book of Zechariah, we see a prophetic message for what the Messiah will endure at the hands of his friends:

And if one asks him, ‘What are these wounds on your back?’ he will say, ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’ – Zechariah 13:6

Jesus tells us that a servant is not above his Master (John 15:20). Therefore, we should expect to identify with him in his betrayal. As dysfunctional and painful as that sounds, it is a reality of life in a sinful world on this side of glory.

But this is not the end of the story, as identifying with Christ’s betrayal is not only the problem but also the solution to our pain and the beginning of healing. In his book Hit by Friendly Fire, Dr. Michael Milton identifies how, through relating to Christ’s betrayal and suffering, we can move beyond our pain and begin to apply the gospel remedy to heal our soul. Dr. Milton identifies three “steps” to seeing the gospel in the midst of our pain from being wounded by other Christians:

1. Take up your cross. When Christians take up their cross, they are identifying all of their pain and suffering with the sufferings of Christ. The Apostle Paul often knew what it meant to take up his cross. In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul’s cross is imprisonment at the hands of other would-be preachers of God. Yet, Paul is able to rejoice because he has related his predicament to the sufferings of Jesus. “Only that, in every way…Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18).

2. Take off your crown. Anglican Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi of Uganda once said, “So much of our response in the Christian life is difficult, but necessary.” As difficult as it is, we must trust God’s sovereign plan for our lives. He is in control, we are not. What does it mean to trust God’s plan in the midst of being betrayed? It means drinking from the cup we have been given, just as Christ did. It means we say, like Joseph, “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” Cherish the promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

3. Go to your Gethsemane. There must be a moment when, in the midst of our pain, we look it square on and say “Not my will, but Yours.” We must respond to the pain and hurt and trust totally in Christ. This final step frees us from pain and bitterness, and allows the grace of the gospel to foster forgiveness in our hearts. We can hand the actions of others over to God, knowing in the end he is sovereign judge.

When we know that pain and betrayal is possible at the hands of our Christian brothers and sisters, ‘trust’ is a concept that may be hard for a lot of us. I love how Dr. Milton sums up our response to this predicament, “It is not that I implicitly trust all men, it is that I trust God in all situations. And that makes life sweet.”

study Bible

“My Study Bible notes say…”

“Well, MY Study Bible notes say…so I think..”

“MY Study Bible has history scholars in it and THEY say..so I think…”

A typical weeknight Bible study session. Or should I say, a Study Bible session.

The modern church has a deep-rooted but easily blinded problem: biblical illiteracy. In an age where the answers to our questions are just a Google search away, we quickly rely on whatever answers we can access the fastest. We look for answers before we know what question we are even asking, and readily accept information about the Bible before we’ve critically read the Bible for ourselves. We become a slave to what other people say about the text, rather than learning how to read for ourselves.

One of the worst culprits of this phenomena are Study Bibles. Now please don’t misunderstand me; I love Study Bibles, and I love all of the internet resources readily available at our fingertips. We truly live in a time where we are gifted with far more information than we know what to do with. The problem arises when we quickly accept all of this information without learning how to work for ourselves.

A church who does not engage critically with the Bible text themselves is a church who knows Bible facts without having a Bible heart. There is no life in facts. The Holy Spirit rewards us and brings us life and joy through our work and effort with the text, not in quick Google searches and Study Bible look-ups of the facts. We are unable to really respond to peoples questions and oppositions to a Christian worldview because we ourselves are just walking fact machines. We learn to rely on resources to answer peoples questions and not the Bible itself. Does Scripture say that it is Gods Word or resources about Gods Word that are useful for all things, including teaching and rebuke?

I’m not at all arguing for the elimination or removal of resources like commentaries and Study Bibles, quite the opposite as a matter of fact. Instead I am arguing for the church to learn where the proper place is for these resources. We should use these resources after we have learned how to think critically about the text for ourselves, not before.

Below are some suggestions I have for individuals and the church that I think would not only benefit our minds but our hearts. Learning how to think critically about the Bible for ourselves can only serve to increase our affections for Jesus.

1. Learn how to ask the right questions. God could’ve chosen not to leave any form of communication with us, but instead he left us the Bible. When we pause to think about that, our desire should be to learn how to interact with it! Here are some questions that might help you engage with the Biblical text:

– How does this passage or topic fit into the grand narrative of scripture (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration)?
– What is distinctively Christian about how I am reading this passage or engaging this topic? Note: Our Bible studies, sermons and readings are not Christian because they use the name of Jesus or reference scripture. Cults, heretics and even atheists can do that.
– What does this passage or topic tell me about Jesus?
– Does this passage or topic point forward to the cross, backward to the cross, or forward to Christ’s return? How?
– How does this passage or topic equip God’s people to live on mission?

2. Put down the Study Bible, turn off the internet and engage just with the Biblical text. Allow time for the Bible to speak for itself, engage and think about everything you know in light of the current text. After you’ve spent time engaging with the text on its own, make a list of your questions that remain unanswered. Then take these questions and open your Study Bible, internet resources and commentaries.

3. Leave the Study Bible at home. When we bring our Study Bibles to church gatherings, sermons and Bible studies the temptation is to rely on our notes rather than engage with others on the text.

4. Churches: teach your people HOW to ask the questions. One of the primary responsibilities of a local church should be teaching her people how to engage with God’s written Word.

5. Try to read at least one resource a year on engaging with the Bible. Here are a few recommendations:

– The God who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story by D.A. Carson
– From Creation to New Creation: Making Sense of the Whole Bible Story by Tim Chester
– Jesus on Every Page by David Murray
– New Testament Exegesis by Gordon Fee

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Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

I am an introvert. I always have been. I took the Myers-Briggs test a few years ago and my strongest pull was in the introvert category. Since that time, I’ve always felt like the label ‘introvert’ has a negative stigma surrounding it; like culture only positively receives extroverted and outgoing people. I’ve often tried to avoid this label, or make myself become an extrovert. If you’ve been around the church awhile, you’ve probably heard plenty of sermons or read plenty of books about how Christians are meant to be compassionate, outgoing, engaging, well-spoken and constantly extending hospitality to others. I think the picture often painted in churches is more of what an extrovert looks like in the church, and not necessarily how each of us can uniquely glorify God with how he has created us.

What that means for me is I’ve often felt like my strong tendency to wax introvert is more of a disease than a personality trait. I’ve always been aware that I can be received as shy, socially awkward, or hard to get to know. I’m near the bottom of the list when it comes to asking others to spend time with me. People wear me out, and when I come home from church on Sundays I tend to feel exhausted. I dislike being in a room with a lot of people, and I’m more comfortable talking TO a crowd than I am being IN a crowd. I prefer a quiet corner of a party over the main room. It is really, really difficult for me to talk to people – regardless of how well I know them. I much more enjoy quietly setting up or tearing down our church than I do having to actively engage with people. I often don’t mind standing or eating with people in silence; that is normal for me. I like having “me” time, it’s how my batteries recharge. Workouts by myself, time spent alone watching or reading something is how I think and energize myself.

You see, it’s not that I think being outgoing, engaging, hospitable or conversational are bad things or that I don’t like to do them. It’s not that I don’t like being around people. It’s not that I’m shy, rude or socially awkward. I am a lot of things, but those aren’t really the words I would use to describe myself. Some people might think I don’t have much to say; on the contrary I have quite a bit to say (have you seen my Facebook or read my blog?)! I love people, and I love talking to them about Jesus. I love sharing the gospel with people. The thing is, these activities and forms of communication both terrify and exhaust me. When I hear about doing them, the stress of thinking about being terrified and exhausted in turn makes me exhausted.

In light of what is often spoken of in churches and how culture tends to receive people, I’ve struggled with feelings that there was something socially and culturally off about me.

This is especially difficult as someone who wants to pursue full-time ministry opportunities in the future. If this is who I am, can I really be someone who God can use in ministry? More often than not, it seems like those whom God uses are the “go-getters.” If it’s hard for me to actively spend time with people, how could I ever minister or pastor someone well? These factors continually and constantly build up doubt and shame in my mind.

I’ve been thankful and blessed recently by some blog posts by Thom Rainer (president of Lifeway) and Ron Edmonson (pastor and church planter). Both of them are strong introverts like myself and have written and discussed much in the way of being an introvert in ministry. They have helped me see I’m not alone, and helped me realize that just like anyone else I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and that God through his Holy Spirit has appointed me uniquely with gifts to serve the common good (1 Corinthians 12).

I am reminded of Moses prior to his journey to Egypt. When God appeared to him to tell him that he would be the one to deliver his people from bondage and slavery, Moses resisted. While some might think Moses as foolish for resisting God, his reasoning makes a lot of sense to me:

But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue…Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” – Exodus 4:10, 13

I look at this line and can’t help but think Moses was an introvert. He wasn’t what some might call a “people-person.” It was hard for him to talk to other people. But God doesn’t make mistakes, and chooses people for very specific reasons:

 Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” – Exodus 4:11-12

God chose Moses not because of his strengths but in spite of them. This is a comfort for me and I hope it is for anyone else who has these personality traits. My service to God – whether in full-time ministry or not – may look different than some or most, but he has chosen me uniquely to serve his kingdom in some way. Not because I am strong, but because Christ is strong.

Help me, Oh Lord, to be content with who you’ve created me to be in light of who you are. Help me to have a willing heart to serve you not because of my strengths but in spite of them.