church

Children as Distraction

Children as Distraction

When I was a pastoral intern, I remember someone approaching me after a service and confessing that she simply couldn’t tolerate little children in worship because of their noises. “They were a distraction,” she said angrily. I often think this is the way many evangelicals view children: as distractions. They are distractions at home, so we find ways to entertain them rather than engage them. They are a distraction at church, so we do the same.

The disciples rebuked our Lord because they believed that the children were a distraction to Jesus’ “real” ministry (Mat. 19:13). But Jesus rebuked the disciples and said his ministry is to draw little children to him and to build a kingdom through the faith of those little disciples.

When we send our children to another gathering away from Jesus’ central gathering in worship, we are creating a separate class within Jesus’ earthly kingdom. Even though our intentions may be pure, we may be thinking as the disciples did and thereby missing the opportunity for Jesus to place his hands upon them and bless them with His love (Mat. 19:15).

10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

I have been a pastor for almost a decade. I spend between 12-15 hours each week thinking, researching, and writing before I deliver the first words in my Sunday sermon. The process of writing my sermon goes through a lengthy journey each week.  I contemplate several questions from Monday to Friday which force me to edit and re-edit my manuscript. There is no perfect sermon, but a sermon that goes through revisions and asks import questions has a much better chance of communicating with clarity than the self-assured preacher who engages the sermonic task with nothing more than academic lenses.

I have compiled a list of ten questions I ask myself each week at some point or another.

Question #1: Is this language clear? When you write a manuscript ( as I do) you have an opportunity to carefully consider the language you use. I make a habit of reading my sermon out loud which leads me to realize that certain phrases do not convey the idea clearly. A well-written sermon does not necessarily mean a well-delivered sermon. Reading my sermons out loud causes me to re-write and look for other ways to explain a concept or application more clearly.

Question #2: Is there a need to use high theological language in this sermon? Seminary graduates are often tempted to use the best of their training in the wrong environment. People are not listening to you to hear your theological acumen. I am well aware that some in the congregation would be entirely comfortable with words like perichoresis and Arianism. I am not opposed to using high theological discourse. Words like atonement, justification, sanctification are biblical and need to be defined. But extra-biblical terms and ideologies should be employed sparingly. Much of this can be dealt in a Sunday School class or other environments. High theological language needs to be used with great care, and I think it needs to be avoided as much as possible in the Sunday sermon.

Question #3: Can I make this sermon even shorter? As I read my sermons each week, I find that I can cut a paragraph or two easily, or depending on how long you preach, perhaps an entire page. This is an important lesson for new preachers: not everything needs to be said. Shorter sermons–which I strongly advocatea–force you to say what’s important and keep some of your research in the footnotes where it belongs. Preachers need to learn what to prioritize in a sermon so as not to unload unnecessary information on their parishioners.

While in seminary, I once heard a Presbyterian pastor preach the equivalent of three sermons in 55 minutes. I remember thinking, “If he finished now it will be a great sermon.” 40 minutes went by, and I thought, “If he finished his sermon now it will be all right.” After almost an hour I turned to my wife and said, “I pity his congregation.” Mistakes happen. Preachers lose track of time and people are generally very forgiving. But when this is a frequent occurrence it becomes a detriment. Preachers may turn into apologists for the Puritan era when they preached two-hour sermons. My response to this is very simple: “You are no John Owen!”

Question #4: Will my people hear a message about a great God or a convenient God? Sermons that do not lead people to serve God more faithfully have not fulfilled their purpose. The sermon needs to urge people to live more like their Lord and God. They can contemplate God, study or learn more about God (these are important), but if they leave uncertain as to how to serve their God more faithfully, the sermon has not pierced deeply enough. God’s people need to be consecrated by the Word of the Lord, pierced by the sword of the Spirit into action. Communicating only details about God can leave parishioners with a convenient God that demands knowledge but no sacrifice.

Question #5: What can I teach that will increase my people’s knowledge of the Bible? Every preacher must know: your people will remember between 1-5% of your preaching ministry throughout their lives. There is no statistic about this, the evidence is borne by daily experience. Exegesis of a verse in Hebrews will be forgotten perhaps before the sermon is over, but hermeneutical principles will remain if they are communicated succinctly. One common interpretational phrase I have used in many of my sermons is, “The Holy Spirit does not waste his breath.” This phraseb communicates that every detail of the text matters. I want my people to know in every sermon that every word in the Bible is meaningful and put in there for a reason. Many other principles will encourage God’s people to love their Bibles and learn more about it in their own studies and meditations. They may not remember my careful exegesis, but they will remember that the text is to be cherished.

Question #6: Do people follow me from point A to point B and C? I have heard my share of disconnected sermons over the years. Sermons need to have a message that is connected throughout. Themes and illustrations need to be connected to the central message. If illustrations have no purpose in the development of a sermon or if they are only used to get a laugh, people will inevitably leave confused and uncertain of the illustration’s purpose. Preachers need to be very aware of how point A connects to point B. Paragraphs need to smoothly transition, otherwise, you are beginning a new sermon altogether, and people are left wondering what the main point is. This is why manuscript preparation can help with transitional statements. On my last sermon, I repeated this phrase several times, “The future belongs to the child.” In fact, I generally title my sermons after my main point.

Question #7: Is this sermon going to connect to particular concerns of my people? I firmly believe that sermons need to connect in some way to everyone, from the young convert to the university professor. The more you preach, the more you begin to see people in your congregation with unique needs. When a pastor says “I have no one in mind when I preach,” he is likely ineffective in his preaching. Pastors are shaped by their conversations, counseling, and context. People I pray with and meet each week come to mind when I make applications. Of course, we need to be careful not to use the pulpit to deliver a privatized homily. A sermon on divorce the week after a congregant was divorced is unwise. Preachers need to consider the need of his own flock. For instance, “Does my congregation have a tendency to pride in their intellect or status?” A preacher is always preaching locally, though he can minister broadly. New Christians need to see their pastor’s words as applicable and rich to their own unique situation and this requires a good dose of wisdom and knowledge of particular needs in the congregation. Pastoral application becomes richer when there are pastoral encounters and engagement with the people. It is important to note also that we have our failures and shortcomings, but these should not keep us from addressing them corporately.c

Question #8: Is my argument persuasive? The sermon ought to leave the listener convinced that the Bible’s claim is right and true. Arguments can be phrased differently in every sermon. Some arguments will be demonstrably more persuasive than others. The preacher’s role is to give enough context and substance, so the main point becomes attractive. Persuasion is a difficult skill and needs to be considered again and again, which is why sermons need to be revised several times before they are delivered. One common problem is pastors trying to persuade people to death. Sermons are not commentaries. A preacher does not need to make his congregation turn to several Bible passages. A sermon is not an informal Bible study. Make your point. Make it desirable and succinct and move on.

Question #9: Where is the Gospel? A Gospel-less sermon is no sermon at all. Ask yourself, “Where is the Gospel?” Will my people be saved from their sins and misery after hearing this word? Will they find hope in Messiah Jesus? Will the broken-hearted see Jesus with greater joy? Will the single mom find refuge in Jesus and his Kingdom? Preachers cannot end a sermon in the desert. The Gospel is promised land. The sermonic journey takes the parishioner from darkness to light; death to resurrection.

Question #10: Is my application too general? Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” My closing question is a question about how my applications speak to my congregation. There are a thousand ways to speak the truth, but not many ways to speak the truth in love. Application is truth in love. Love your congregation by applying specifically and carefully. It is one thing to say Trust God, it is another to say, Believe his promises in the middle of your cancer. Generalities sometimes are inescapable, but try to escape them as much as possible when applying the Word. If there is one part of the sermon that deserves great concentration, it is in the application of the Word to God’s people. Pastors should read good counseling books. Pastors should know their people well in order to apply God’s truth in love (see #7).

You may consider each question every Sunday, and after some time these questions will be a natural part of your sermon preparation each week. Not all sermons are created equal. Just delivering content is not the goal of preaching. Preaching is an art, and we can all learn to grow.

  1. By this I mean sermons no longer than 30 minutes  (back)
  2. I think first used by James B. Jordan  (back)
  3. I hope to address pastoral fears in another post  (back)

The Stones will Cry Out

The Gospel narratives offer many different aspects of the Triumphal Entry. In Luke’s narrative, the disciples are singing the praises of Jesus at his coming, but the Pharisees are not pleased with their benediction.

In verse 39 of Luke 19, some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” In other words, “Stop them from pouring out adoration towards you.” As Matthew Henry writes, “Christ’s triumph and his disciples’ joyful praises of them, are the vexation of proud Pharisees, that are enemies to him and his kingdom.”[1] Luke is the only one to report this response of the Pharisees. Jesus is sharing honor with God, and the Pharisees despise it. Jesus responds in verse 40 with that powerful and memorable response: “If these people were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Some have viewed this statement to say that even if human beings do not praise God, the stones will do so. There is a sense in which this idea is true. When our Lord Jesus died, the gospels tell us that the earth shook, and the rocks were split, as if they uttered the praises of Christ.[2] In other words, the stones were witnesses of the sacrifice of Christ. But in this passage, it appears that Luke is drawing an allusion to Habakkuk 2. In Habakkuk, God tells Habakkuk that He will destroy Israel at the hands of the Babylonians. God will use a wicked nation to bring justice to His chosen people who have committed far greater idolatry. In Habakkuk 2 we read, “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.” The stones refer to the stones of the temple. The temple represented God’s presence. The witness of the temple itself is against them. Jesus in Luke alludes to this passage. The prayer of Habakkuk is beginning to be answered. If my peoples are silenced, then the very stones will bring witness against you. Their house will oppose them.”[3] The stones will cry out in judgment. And indeed, they do cry out in AD 70 when the Romans armies surround the Holy City and bring God’s judgment upon apostate Israel.

In our day, we can be sure that if this nation does not accept Jesus in our midst, the stones will cry out in judgment against it. Christ will be honored. He will be praised. He will be adored. Justice will be vindicated and proclaimed whether through human witnesses or the witness of stones. God’s whole creation will bless the Blessed one, Jesus Christ.

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible. Luke 19:39 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc5.Luke.xx.html

[2] Matthew 27:51. Matthew Henry found this idea plausible.

[3] Steve Wilkins. Sermon.

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. “I and many others find Wright’s overall project to be fruitful, despite having disagreements with him at points.” I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some questionable theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), his theological vision will be narrow, and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe (to borrow from Lewis). Those of us who appreciate Wright prefer to open the wardrobe and see Narnia in all its beauty.”

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Pedophiles in the Church: A Dogmatic Introduction

Pedophiles in the Church: A Dogmatic Introduction

Updated 7/26/14

Sexual abuse is prevalent in the evangelical church! And what’s worse: we are not making it go away. The Roman Catholic Church has taken some steps to avoiding this cosmic crime against the least of these. But what has the evangelical church done? At this point very little! Some have treated–naively–pre-teen sexual abuse, that is, the abuse of pre-teens by older men (because most are men) like any other sin, such as adultery or murder.  They have failed to see that consensual sins are not the same as the manipulation and use of power to coerce/force little ones into sexual activities. The conversation, of course, is a lot more nuanced and goes beyond the quotations of a few verses or generic observations about how redemption applies to repentant abusers. That has never been the issue! No one denies redemption’s power; what we are discussing is how to best apply the command to protect the sheep from these false teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing. a

The Bible places great weight on protecting the little ones in our community (Mat. 18:6). How we go about protecting the little sheep from such wolves is what we are considering. Obviously, there are pragmatic concerns, which deal with the congregation’s response to known pedophiles in their midst, and also, most importantly, the types of trigger reactions that take place when sexually abused victims are aware that the leadership of the Church has allowed abusers–repentant or not–to have access to the activities and regular life of the Church. Sexually abused victims suffer long-term effects that can take years to deal with through biblical counseling, but that can be easily destroyed by certain scenarios that well-intentioned leaders may not be aware.

There is a healthy conversation taking place in the Protestant world that is very helpful. Boz Tchividjian, being a key figure in this awakening from the evangelical slumber, is bringing this conversation to the center where it belongs. Questions concerning how offenders–specifically those who have abused pre-teens–are to be viewed by the Church, and what kind of actions need to take place to ensure the safety of children, and how to keep the repentant offender from re-enacting his devilish desires are being raised. I thank God for that.

There are secular researchers who have asserted that pedophiles fall into a unique category from other types of sexual abusers. Stephanie Smith observes that the question of  recidivism, that is, “The tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior,” is a hot topic today offering a few different schools of thought. The conversation is more nuanced than many in the Church admit. A few key points to consider when re-offense (recidivism) rates are discussed:b

1. Treatment options for those who have committed sexual offenses against children is a young and changing field. Although we know that the sexual abuse of children has been occurring throughout history, the idea of providing treatment to offenders is new and is largely untested with very little accompanying research. Much more remains to be learned about the effectiveness of treatment for child sexual offenders.

2. Recidivism studies require that the offenders have been caught and adjudicated within the time period being studied (five years, fifteen years, etc.). Many reported cases that will result in conviction might not be fully adjudicated within that time frame of the study due to the length of time involved in investigating and prosecuting such cases. Furthermore, the delay in the judicial process is also impacted by the fact that most abuse survivors do not immediately report the abuse.

3. Recidivism studies require accurate data regarding reoffending. The fact that child sexual abuse is one of the most underreported offenses makes it extremely difficult to collect accurate data on the recidivism of offenders. For example, the fact that there has not been a new report of abuse regarding a certain offender does not necessarily mean that the offender has not reoffended. It may simply mean that additional victims have not reported the offense.

4. Any study under discussion needs to be reviewed thoroughly to ascertain how “sex offenders” are defined. Are we looking at a broad or specific category of sex offenses? For example, are we considering only offenses against adults, or just offenses against children, or a combination of offenses against adults and children?

It is crucial to make proper distinctions. Not all offenses are created equal. Though all acts are heinous and deserve proper and immediate punishment first from the Church (excommunication) and secondly, by the state (some form of punishment that would be appropriate for the taking away of someone else’s humanity–which is what sexual abuse means for the abused victim), some offenses carry on a more heinous nature, especially as they deal with the manipulating and overpowering of a child for sexual purposes. Again, Stephanie Smith makes this point:

It is important that we distinguish between the different types of sexual offenders when addressing the issue of recidivism. For example, pedophiles represent a smaller number of offenders convicted for sexually abusing children. However, they tend to have higher numbers of victims and higher recidivism rates than any other type of sex offender. On the other hand, researchers have identified some sex offenders who assault adults that eventually stop perpetrating.  Thus, studies that do not distinguish between pedophiles and adult rapists do not accurately reflect the risks to children. (emphasis mine)

Churches, instead of becoming a place of protection, have become easy targets for sexual offenders. “Offenders are drawn to faith institutions initially for the same reason that they are drawn to schools, youth sports and other youth-oriented activities. It’s the easiest way to gain access to children outside their own families.”  It is important to stress once again that the issue of recidivism requires a certain ability to distinguish between offenses. We make a tremendous mistake if we believe that we can deal with all sexual offenses the same way and if we deal with sexual offense the same way we deal with adultery or other such sins. Further, we need to develop a more robust response from church leadership in such cases so that  leaders in the church are prepared to deal with such issues as soon as it happens.

Ecclesiastical leaders have not helped. Evangelicals are generally clueless. They have not read pertinent research nor have they received any type of training in sexual abuse. The reality is that our simple solutions are actually making the matter worse. May God give us a spirit of wisdom and may this God avenge his little sheep and those growing under this psychological burden and pain, for to such belong the kingdom of heaven.

What Role do Pedophiles have in the Church?

Jimmy Hinton’s article “What Place do Pedophiles Have in the Church?” has made the rounds more than once. Jimmy makes this a rather personal story as he recounts his own father’s history:

To make it more personal, my dad is the former minister at the same exact church where I now preach.  To make it even more personal, I was the one approached by one of his victims three years ago.  Three days later I reported my own father to the police, which eventually led to his confessions and subsequent 30-60 year prison sentence.  My dad and I still communicate fairly often and have frank conversations about how he was able to abuse over 20 children and keep it hidden from us his whole life.  He once wrote from prison, “You have no idea how many pedophiles there are in the church.”  But there’s where he is wrong.

His position is made explicit at the outset:

I believe that, while pedophiles can and should repent, the church is not in a position to welcome them into the assembly where children are present.  In fact, we have written into our policy that any known sex offenders will be removed from regular worship and will be offered an alternative worship with a group of adults only.  This can be at the church building or in a home.  But for them to participate in worship with children present is an act of sheer insensitivity and irresponsibility.

I speak in agreement with Jimmy’s position. c

My counseling training and the many books and people I have spoken to on this subject attest to the fact that pedophiles struggle greatly to flee from temptation while being exposed to children. We are dealing with a profoundly sick disease; a disease for which the Gospel has the answer, but the answer is not to re-incorporate those who have sexually abused the least of these d  into a community of faith where children play a large part. There are other opportunities for worship where this individual can worship. The Church has historically made exceptions for different circumstances. And this would qualify as a unique circumstance. If the individual is truly repentant, then he ought to gladly accept the leadership’s decision. The Church at large can be invited.

I pastor a church that is strongly committed to covenantal theology and that entails a robust view of the role of children as participants in worship and in the life of the Church. They are not viewed as second-class citizens. This generally means that we treasure little ones and we treasure them in numbers. Our churches, though small, are filled with covenant children. To place a known pedophile–or even to hide it from the Church–would be an act of betrayal by the leadership of the congregation. Pastors are encouraged to minister to these men in prison and pray for a genuine repentance, and to offer any assistance that is necessary to a repentant member of the flock while he serves his term.

Another element of this discussion is that some tend to minimize the pain of the abused victims, simply because they perceive that these victims live normal lives after their abuse. They fail to see the consequences that endure both physically and emotionally years after the abuse. They also fail to see situations that could easily trigger episodes in victims. We are not simply dealing with a case where two consenting adults engage in sexual behavior, but rather in a case where an adult used, manipulated, controlled, threatened, took advantage of, molested, and traumatized his victims. Whether the child was able to defend himself/herself is not the issue, but rather that an individual acted satanically and deceived and scarred the image of God in a profoundly physical and psychological way.

The Church is a place for safety. Under no circumstance would mothers feel safe knowing that a pedophile (repentant or not) was present in their midst. Under no circumstance would other sexually abused victims feel safe.

So, what’s the alternative? The alternative is to follow Jimmy’s advice. Since we practice a form of covenant renewal worship, we can provide that to any man outside the local assembly. We provide similar services in nursing home situations. As an example to consider, perhaps once a week, then, the pastor(s), other leaders of the Church, could provide a short service for this individual with the Eucharist and a call for this man to be renewed daily by the Word of the Gospel. Other adults may join to offer encouragement and accountability.

Our penal system is unfortunately too cowardly to deal with these men. Instead of dealing with them with quick justice e they attempt to find some way to reconcile them to society where they may have already victimized several children. If the penal system will not act, then the Church must. And first and foremost the Church’s duty is to protect the victims and those who may become victims if such liberty for sex offenders is offered in the congregation.

I offer a short story as an example of how not to act as a church.

Many years ago (over a decade) I did a series of sermons in what is called a week of Revival meetings in a small Baptist Church. The pastor, a strong-willed man, led the congregation for many years. He was a pleasant fellow. He had an allergy to formal theological training. He urged me to avoid graduate school. Gladly, I did not heed his pathetic advice. A year or so later I had Thanksgiving meal at his home. His forceful personality was striking and in many ways manipulative. During Sunday worship, he would tell the congregation to stop singing so they could listen to his solo performance of one of the verses. He was a gifted singer and also had a gift of revealing his arrogance in more ways than imagined. Several months passed by and I was informed that this pastor was let go because he had been molesting two little girls in the congregation. I was stunned, and at the same time disgusted by his actions. I wanted swift justice. I discovered that his sentence was…12 months. In 12 months that bastard who had possibly ruined the lives of two sweet girls was out. And here is the most despicable part of it all. After he left, he was embraced very quickly by a local church who accepted he and his musical gifts with open arms. I never heard of him again. But that small congregation preferred to place their flock–little sheep–in danger, then to act as they should.  All redemption comes from God, but wisdom dictates that we apply redemption in the lives of certain people in vastly different ways. May God have mercy on us and may He show His mercy to those victimized by these ecclesiastical terrorists.

  1. the analogy here is appropriate since sexual abusers are generally known to be close relatives or close friends  (back)
  2. see http://boz.religionnews.com/2014/07/25/sex-offenders-recidivism-church/  (back)
  3. I cannot rule out every imaginable scenario. This cannot be an exhaustive look at every ecclesiastical situation. I recently met a counselor in a mega-church of 4K+ who told me they have members of the Church who are police officers who are trained to sit and follow these repentant pedophiles during the Church service.  (back)
  4. It is important to specify that we are not dealing with sexual offenses between minors,  but the direct manipulation and molestation of little ones by young adults and older men/women; the Bible places a harsher judgment upon those who lead little ones astray: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”  (back)
  5. the death penalty as I affirm  (back)
Don Miller and the Institutional Church

Don Miller and the Institutional Church

The pastoral task has all the ingredients for abstractness. After all, we are constantly engaging dead people and throwing around foreign terms to most in the pew. In fact, many of the concerns I have heard over the years from parishioners of different traditions has been the concern that sermons and pastoral work do not reach the laity. Donald Miller manifested this sentiment in his now controversial blog post I don’t connect with God by singing. I connect with him elsewhere. The article received abundant criticism. Miller asserted elsewhere that he simply intended to start a conversation–and what a conversation he started. In another interview, Miller summarized his post:

And so I talked about the reality that I don’t get a lot out of church when I go. I don’t connect with God very well there, and I wondered if it wasn’t more of a learning style issue because it is a lecture format, and it’s not how everybody learns. a

Miller’s concern was not unique. Many have expressed this frustration with the intellectualization of worship. Rev. Jeff Meyers’ wonderful book “The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship answers Miller’s concern with clarity and with classic historical categories. Meyers argues that worship ought to have a wholistic vision prioritizing every detail as opposed to over-emphasizing merely the word preached.

Don Miller asserts that one of his struggles is that the worship service does not appeal to his style of learning. The worship service has as its emphasis a lecture model. Since Miller does not learn through lecture models, therefore Miller no longer finds appeal in the institutional church. b In his interview with The RELEVANT he asserts that he did not qualify things well in his blog post and that looking back he wished he would have not written it. But as the interview continued, Miller affirms the same sorts of things his critics condemned in the original blog post.

I actually believe Miller is on to something. The lecture model of doing church is not the one I advocate. In many ways, the Church–especially in the Reformed tradition, which naturally claims a more intellectual history–has become a magnified classroom with lengthy biblical expositions at its center. Whatever precedes the sermon is only pre-game information. And whatever comes after it is not as significant as the sermon either. But as Randy Booth rightly noted–quoting a portion of James Jordan’s work Theses on Worship– in his booklet A Guide to Worship, “the entire service is sermonic, not just the sermon.” c “The sermon itself,” he writes,” is very important, but it is not the all-important event. It is one important part of the many other important parts of worship.”

But if this is the case and any historical/liturgical tradition will attest, and since I am convinced Miller is aware of this historical precedent, then why not work to change this paradigm in the institutional church instead of generalizing it and bidding the historical ecclesiastical traditional adieu? With Miller’s book and lecture platform he could affect thousands of pastors who see worship as a lecture hall. That’s the reformer Don Miller the Church needs, not the one who throws away everything for a literal walk in the park on Sunday morning.

What is Miller trying to get rid of?

According to the author of best-seller, Blue Like Jazz, we have turned over the Acts church to the hands of professionals, known as the pastoral staff. Instead of doing that, we should simply hand out sheriff badges to everyone and say to them that they are all pastors. They are all in control. Sunday serves only to prepare these pastors–male and female–to go forth and be the church wherever they are. First Peter two does affirm our royal priesthood. We are all priests in the sense that we are no longer bound by bloody sacrifices. Christ’s redemption is accomplished, thus transforming us into agents of redemption in the world. However, what Miller fails to see is that Paul does not flatten the priesthood, he sees the priesthood operating differently in different spheres (I Tim. 3, Eph. 4:11-13). There is an office of priest (overseer) that is distinct from the general priesthood that we all inherit united to Messiah, Jesus.

Miller also wants to get rid of the institutional Church as center of community life.

I frequent a coffee shop weekly where one of the baristas is the leader of a church. When I asked him about the church, he told me that they meet at the same coffee shop on Sunday mornings to drink coffee and discuss the Bible. When I asked him to define a bit further what they do, he was quick to point to the flaws of the modern church. “We don’t need structure. We need to return to simplicity.” Since I have lectured on this topic before a few years ago, d. I can probably summarize this general view point as the “Romanticized Acts Church” movement. I am no opponent of coffee and Bible studies; in fact, I encourage them. But the idea that a return to the first century Church–as privately interpreted–is the solution to today’s ecclesiastical woes is overly caffeinated.

Why can’t I simply find community on my dinner table? or a pub? –because community life is complex. There is nothing wrong with finding community in these places, but they are all incomplete pictures of community life. They may be fine extensions of the community life, which the creeds refer to as “the communion of saints,” but to assert that that is a legitimate replacement for Word, Sacrament, and Discipline in the context of the gathered community is simplistic and dangerous. What then do we do with the adulterer? or the rich folks who are arriving at the Lord’s Supper and the agape meal and eating and drinking everything before the poor arrive? or the sexual abuse situations that are unfortunately prevalent in our churches? Miller has no answer. “I can maybe set up a board or something like that,” he said casually. But wouldn’t a board indicate some type of structure; the very same type you are attempting to eliminate?

Miller also says that he doesn’t find intimacy with God by singing songs to him.

As one deeply involved in ecclesiastical music, this concerns me. Miller is suffering from the psalmic-less nature of modern church music. What some of us treasure each Sunday through hymns and psalms of lament, imprecation, and overwhelming joy has been largely forgotten. The robustness of masculine voices and the beauty and nuance of female singing has become a forgotten history. All of it replaced by praise bands, and the few songs intended for congregational singing are quickly swallowed by the voluminous instrumentation.

If Miller is saying he simply does not like to sing, then he needs to re-adjust his biblical priorities. A quick search for the words “singing” and “music” will reveal their prevalence, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. Because I don’t like to do something does not mean I should simply replace or eliminate it from the life of the church.

How Miller finds intimacy with God.

The answer is another example of a faulty ability to differentiate. Miller writes:

The answer came to me recently and it was a freeing revelation. I connect with God by working. I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe God gave me my mission and my team and I feel closest to him when I’ve got my hand on the plow. It’s thrilling and I couldn’t be more grateful he’s given me an outlet through which I can both serve and connect with him.

I find his response a wonderful example of missing the point. We all find intimacy with God by working. We were created to work for six days, which means there is a great priority that God places on that. We all find hobbies and passions that fulfill us as men. We all agree with Eric Liddel’s wonderful attestation of the presence of God when he says in Chariots of Fire, “When I run I feel his pleasure.” When Miller works with his crew he feels God’s pleasure. But his intimacy ought to be the outworking of an intimacy that begins when by the Spirit we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6).

Miller’s entire paradigm could be easily dealt with by reading an introduction to ecclesiology. e Don Miller is the product of modern individualism. And though he flees from that language with his post-modern categories, ultimately, he falls in his own trap. Miller believes that church is all around us. Yes, we go as church to the world. We carry the name of God. f But we go as church because we have already been fed by the head of the Church as we gathered as one body.

Conclusion

Miller’s platform is huge. His simple blog post, which he indicated took him about three minutes to write, led to a firestorm on the web. His attempt to start a conversation actually hinders us from having a more necessary conversation. The question should not be whether we worship in the traditional sense or simply find intimacy with God through other means, the question is “How has God called us to worship?” Further, whether you worship in a more lecture-style congregation or otherwise because of your learning style, what does your personal style of learning have to do with worship? What if God’s way of sanctifying you is by killing your learning style and causing you to appreciate God’s way of learning? What if the institutional church is God’s way of killing your wants so you may conform to his? What if attending church regularly is the way God intended to prepare you to understand intimacy?

I am not one to deny Miller’s connection with God via his work and habits, but I do reject his premise that abandoning the institutional church is the path to a deeper connection. The institutional church, I argue, is the deepest means of finding intimacy with God.

  1. Read more at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/donald-miller-church#KDZHerDkw3EuWr6q.99  (back)
  2. If you do not have this book, please purchase Kevin DeYoung’s wonderful work found here: http://www.amazon.com/Why-Love-Church-Institutions-Organized/dp/0802458378  (back)
  3. see Covenant Media Foundation for copies  (back)
  4. My lecture at the Family Advance Conference in 2012; e-mail for a PDF copy  (back)
  5. Maybe R.B. Kuiper’s work “The Glorious Body of Christ  (back)
  6. This is the heart of the third commandment  (back)
The False Promises of the Early Church

The False Promises of the Early Church

Make no mistake: the early church was glorious! She was glorious like a child is glorious. She was but a babe. She breathed, moved, and had her being in God. She was a nursing infant. She had to trust in God from the beginning. But it has become almost a common practice to look to the early church as some paragon of perfection. “If only we could go back!’ The nostalgic sentiments echo through the corridors of sentimentalists. The truth is the early church was a relatively unstable body. Paul strives to offer detailed instructions. Sometimes these instructions are simple: love one another. Sometimes Paul bombards them with rebuke, as in I Corinthians. But if the early church was such a model, why then did Paul chastise and treat them as little children again and again? The answer couldn’t be simpler: because the early church was never meant to be an example to be followed in all ages. She was meant to be a foundational model. She was meant to give us the essential ingredients of life together (Acts 2:42), but not a detailed account for how the 21st century church ought to function.

James Montgomery Boice summarized well this sentiment:

Whole denominations are founded upon the idea that the prime duty of contemporary Christians is to be as much like those who lived in the age of the apostles as possible. But this is a false idealization; it is an attempt to make the early church into something it never was. It is an attempt to escape the problems of our day by looking back to something that exists only in the Christian imagination. a

This prevailing idea opposes strongly the maturational intention of biblical revelation. We were not meant to remain infants, but to grow into mature men, as Paul says. To be sure, Acts provides helpful themes of charity, mercy, communion, and more, but she was a seed, not the tree itself. The tree itself is what God is accomplishing through all ages: to form one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The Spirit of God, who has hovered over the church throughout the ages, continues to hover even today bringing the Church to greater glory and might; strengthening and building her to be that indestructible rock that will shatter the heads of the enemies.

We are not called to put faith in the Church of the past, but in the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, who reigns over his Church now, world without end, Amen.

  1. An Expositional Commentary, Boice, 56  (back)
Not a Collection of Isolated Individuals

Not a Collection of Isolated Individuals

“The church isn’t simply a collection of isolated individuals … we need to learn again the lesson that a hand is no less a hand for being part of a larger whole, an entire body. The foot is not diminished in its freedom to be a foot by being part of a body which also contains eyes and ears. In fact, hands and feet are most free to be themselves when they coordinate properly with eyes, ears, and everything else. Cutting them off in an effort to make them truly free, truly themselves, would be truly disastrous.”
― N.T. WrightSimply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

The Eucharist

The Eucharist

I have been reading through Alexander Schmemann’s The EucharistThe book is just a delightful read through the lens of Schmemann’s “unorthodox” view of Eastern Orthodoxy. At one time he takes to task the Orthodox Church for having separated the priest from the people. He argues that certain priests have become like soldiers keeping the people from participating in the assembly. At another time he argues that the Church serves to unite the people of God, not divide; a concern Schmemann has with the prevailing “clericalism.”

Schmemann writes with a somewhat evangelical zeal against his own, which is reason for the intense distaste “pure” orthodox converts have for him. But the most delightful part is when he delves into the nature of the Church. He observes that we come to worship not for individual prayer, but to “assemble together as the Church.” The assembly itself is a holy constitution, and in that the first liturgical act.

In his chapter on The Sacrament of the Assembly, Schmemann deals with the holy office of the minister (priest). He observes that the minister wears white because it is the garment of the baptized. By wearing white he is representing all the baptized in the community. When we enter into the house of God we are entering “clothed in the garments of new creation.”

Pronouncement and Process in the Pastoral Call

The pastoral task requires a prophetic and priestly vision. The prophetic dimension comes through proclamation in word. This proclamation fills the ministry of word with grace. Grace is riches in the Bible. So the pastoral proclamation is a form of gifting the body with riches. These riches serve as tools for dominion. They equip God’s people to perform their task in the world with wisdom and discernment.

But the prophetic word needs to be followed by the priestly work. Every priest knows that he cannot skip steps in his duties. Rituals and rites demand preparation and a process. A priest is aware that a pronouncement is not enough. He needs a process. This requires patience and care as he leads, cares, and shepherds his own.

The prophetic task is not an alone role. In order for any pastoral work to be successful, whether in the pulpit or in counseling, a minister needs to exercise patience as his congregants take each step. At times they may take a step back, and at times it seems that they are willing to walk towards their goal. The minister needs to re-direct their attention to the original goal.

The prophetic and priestly role bring people into their kingly status. We are all kings and queens in God’s new world, but this kingship does not come by virtue of adoption alone, but by virtue of maturation. Maturation is an exercise in faith and perseverance in truth.

Parishioners who do not grow in their faith become weak kings unable to defend themselves against the assaults that will surely bombard their kingdom. But when the prophetic pronouncement is heard and the priest steps are carefully exercised, God’s people can grow into grace and knowledge knowing that they have heeded the word of the Lord.