Church, Inc. – A non-biblical view

I just heard this evening about the fourth person I know in the last couple of years who has been invited to cease serving as a worship leader in a church in the greater Atlanta area. The reason? They were too old to suit the “target demographic” or, as some of the church leaders involved have been so bold to say, “target market.” No doctrinal errors. No personal moral failures. Not poor musicianship. Just too much gray hair, or maybe not enough hair, maybe too many wrinkles, nothing but the fact that they looked too old.

How did we get here? When did we lose sight of the nature of the church that the Bible describes? When did Madison Avenue-style marketing strategies take the place of biblical ecclesiology? When did the church become Church, Inc. instead of God’s household as the Bible conceives it?

This trend of thinking of the church as a corporate business entity has certainly led to some so-called churches growing numerically. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here, but church leaders whose view of the church allows them to dismiss professional quality musicians who have hearts full of passion for God and leading his people in worship just because they don’t have the look of a target market have become oozing boils on the beautiful face of Christ’s bride. They are a pox on the household of God.

Shame on these leaders. Shame on us all as the church for our failure to be faithful in being the church God has designed and guarding its integrity by not publicly denouncing those who stain its image this way.

I am angry, as you might have noticed. But I am even more broken-hearted for the church and these congregations particularly. I pray for the leaders and the people in the congregations involved that God will reveal to them their error in ecclesiology. I pray too for the worship leaders and teams involved that their hearts will be guarded and that God will move them on soon to the next place he is calling them to serve. I pray for myself and my fellow leaders in the church in which I serve that we will never lose sight of who we are called to be. I pray that we will be about bringing glory to our great God by executing his mission of disciple making everywhere with everyone rather than targeting a demographic or market.

(Eph. 3:20-21 ESV) Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

“Danger Will Robinson!”

“The rapid growth of some American churches has carried a deadly danger: not that the church may be overwhelmed by new converts, but that the church will be secularized by fascination with the methods of growth. Jesus did promise an abundant harvest; small may be beautiful, but smallness does not guarantee spirituality. Many church leaders, however, will learn to their sorrow that neither does size impress the Holy Spirit. The great resource in the building of Christ’s church is the gift of his Spirit. The great question before the church is, ‘How can we best seek the Spirit’s blessing in receiving and using his gifts?’ The answer to that central question is never a matter of technique, but always of faith and prayer. Unless the church seeks holiness, unless it heeds the revealed will of God and treasures Calvary above all else, greater size will only erect towers for sounding brass and clashing cymbals.”

Edmund Clowney in his book The Church

A Disturbing Image

The other day I was in Cleveland, OH on business.  As we entered the downtown area in our taxi we were confronted with a large billboard with a disturbing image.  One of Nike’s hot endorsement deals is with LeBron James, the star player for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.  This billboard is a celebration of LeBron’s MVP season last year.

The text on the billboard is “We are all witnesses.”  Having just used Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 as a sermon text last Sunday, these words were very familiar, and LeBron’s pose has a disturbing similarity to what Peter refers to himself and the others of the twelve apostles having witnessed.

The outstretched arms and the face turned toward heaven bears an eerie similarity to Jesus’ posture on the cross, and the choice of words could not have been accidental either, a word for word quote of how the English Standard Version renders Acts 2:32 “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.”  This is a stark reminder of the nature and objects of worship in our culture today, as well as our culture’s poor use of words and concepts like “Savior.”

Subjects of King Christ

This past January I began studies toward a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. This semester I am taking a systematic theology course on the doctrines of Man, Christ and Redemption. As a part of our course work, we post to a discussion forum each week on a question set by the professor. This is my response to the questions from a couple of weeks ago, which were “How should Christ’s kingship guide and direct our lives?” and “Why then is it so hard to fight against sin?”

If Christ is our king, then we are under his authority.  This has several implications for us.  First, we are under his authority as subjects in his kingdom.  This demands obedience to the commands of our king.  Our lives, then, must necessarily be guided by those commands, and our decisions and actions must be toward the end of obedience to them.

Second, we are under his authority as citizens of his kingdom.  In this present world we are expatriates; our home is somewhere else.  We are no longer subject to the ruler of this world, but to the king of the kingdom in which we are citizens.  This means that we must resist conformity to the standards of this world in favor of conformity to the those of the kingdom of Christ, not concerning ourselves with comparisons to those who are outside that kingdom.  Our citizenship also means that we have access to the benefits of Christ’s kingdom in the Holy Spirit indwelling us, empowering us to be obedient and to understand what the King requires of us.

Third, we must understand that Christ won a victory of conquest over sin at the cross.  This was no negotiated settlement, nor a surrender on the part of the enemy, but an absolute victory.  As citizens of Christ’s kingdom, under his authority, we have the benefit of this victory that we are obtaining through the process of sanctification through the renewing work of the Spirit in us.

I think fighting against sin is hard for us because we forget that we are under authority in our daily lives.  It is easy for us to imagine being under Christ’s authority as an abstract concept, but more difficult to live in this reality minute by minute.  An answer to this problem is to work to live more aware of the kingship of Christ daily, to have a vision of him on the throne ever before us. By looking to the throne of Christ in this way we are able to keep our perspective on who and whose we are and continually appropriate the absolute victory our king has won over sin for us.  We need not fear defeat in this, for the battle is won and, as Proverbs 21:31 says, we must prepare for the battle but the ultimate victory belongs to Christ our king.

I am an alien

Although I’ve intellectually grasped the idea that we as Christians are alien to this world we inhabit, the past few days have unexpectedly brought that reality home to me. The inauguration of President Obama has brought with it a great deal of talk about new hope and optimism. He is a new, fresh voice in our nation’s political life. But there is a subtext that accompanies all this that has made me aware of how little I have in common with the worldview of those whose hope is in Obama (or any other man).

Nothing fundamental has changed about the nature of hope or its availability in this present world. Man on his own is without hope no matter who occupies the White House or any other seat of leadership. Our only hope is in Christ and our real citizenship is in heaven through him.

While this is a milestone in the history of our country, and it is good to be a citizen of a country that has taken such an important symbolic step in the equality of all, it has little significance from an eternal perspective. My hope is in my citizenship in the home to which I long to go and the King who rules both there and here.

What are we and why are we here?

I’m referring to us “the Church.”  There are lots of people across the whole spectrum of our culture asking these kinds of questions…including me.  The Anglicans, and others, are struggling with big issues like “Can we be a Biblical church and include homosexuals as priests, bishops, and in other leadership roles?”  The Willow Creek Church in Chicago is wrestling with data that indicates that they have led people to the table of the Lord, but not taught them how to eat for themselves, leaving many as unweaned baby Christians starving for more nourishment than milk can provide.

See my friend Bethany Mendenhall’s posts on the Willow Creek thing here and here at Where the Grey Lives for the kinds of questions we should be asking about this whole thing.

Matthew 28:16-20 could hardly be clearer in what we are supposed to be doing.  Making disciples doesn’t involve our selling the Gospel or closing the deal or any other kind of marketing-speak.  That stuff is the Holy Spirit’s job.  Our job, as Bethany rightly says, is to live the Kingdom; to be disciples so we can make disciples.  That means knowing what Jesus told us so we can teach it to others in our words and our actions.

That probably, no – that definitely means church, and Christians individually, should look a lot different that it does today in most places and people.  Maybe devoting ourselves to the word and to prayer will lead to a more communal lifestyle like it did is 1st Century Jerusalem…I don’t know.  I’m not sure that is the point anyway.  The real point is to devote ourselves to the Mission, to the word, and to prayer and see where the Spirit takes us.

The Inconvenient Truth

I have not seen Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” but I have heard much about it. In my profession as a architect, sustainable design is one of the key issues of the day, and there are those who are passionate about sustainability mainly because they are fully bought in to the reality of global warming. In this political season, the global warming issue will certainly be a topic of debate. In case it isn’t obvious, the main reason for global warming, according to its evangelists (and they have all the characteristics that make that word an appropriate label), is us. We are destroying the planet, and have been since the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Taken to its extreme, this argument make us humans parasites on what would be an otherwise pristine paradise. There are several thoughts I have on this whole topic from the vantage point of my Christian worldview.

First let me set the stage for my comments. It is undeniable that there is a global warming trend. The metrics on this are clear. What is less clear to me is that there is scientific consensus on the cause or the long term affects. There is a shrillness in the denunciations of scientists who raise questions about the conclusions that have been reached by those in Mr. Gore’s camp that makes me suspicious. In regard to moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, I am all for that. We human beings, particularly in the industrialized world have been gluttons of resources, often to an obscene degree, and that goes against one of the primary reasons for man’s existence on the earth. More about that in a moment. The main point for me is logic; why use more just because we can when less will do?

So what should we who hold a Christian worldview think about this issue? Does the Bible have anything to say about this? I think so. First of all, after we humans were created to have fellowship with God, we were assigned the task of being stewards of God’s creation. Being a steward means caring for something on behalf of another as if it were your own. My view is that God did not relieve us from this responsibility when he cast man out of the garden after the Fall. If we do not care for the creation responsibly, we are failing in what was the original responsibility of mankind. Moving toward conserving and living sustainable lifestyles are not really optional; we all need to do this as quickly as is practically possible.

On the assertion made by the most radical proponents in the the global warming camp that man is a parasitic being, I think Christians can firmly disagree. God created us to live here. We have been here from the beginning and as His stewards of creation are a very important part of how he made the world to work. Have we modern men done a bad job? Absolutely, but to say that the world would have been better without us is a pointless statement. First of all, how could we know this for certain? It is equally likely that things might be much worse without us here. As a practical matter, we are here for good or ill, and we have to deal with that as a fact. If we will see our role as the stewards God made us to be, and view our stewardship as service and worship to Him I think we might make different decisions than we have made in the past.

Finally, the whole question of when the trouble really started and what caused it. Gore and those who support his view of things generally point to the Industrial Revolution as the time when things began to go wrong. But the Bible tells us that things went bad way before that. Genesis 3:17 says that the world we know today is not the same as it was created to be, and that we are responsible for that. After man’s sin in Adam, God cursed the ground because of us. So THE Inconvenient Truth is that we are more responsible for the mess the world is in, not just environmentally, that Mr. Gore and others are willing to acknowledge.

So yes, conserve, be sustainable. We might be able to fix some of the environmental problems, but the bigger problems will not be solved by better science, or anything else we can do. Fixing and protecting the environment as best we can is the right thing to do, but in the big theme of things it’s the equivalent of rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs while the ship sinks. We have to rely on and accept the solution to the bigger problems that God himself has provided…salvation through faith in Christ.

What Would Jesus Really Do

I finally watched a program I had recorded Easter weekend from CNN entitled “What Would Jesus Really Do?” The host, Roland Martin, is a commentary contributor to CNN. This program was advertised as a discussion of how Jesus would respond to a series of contemporary issues in our society. The guest list was brief, Rick Warren, author of the best-selling A Purpose Driven Life; the Rev. Jerry Falwell; Frederick Douglas Haynes, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, TX; Bishop T.D. Jakes and preacher Paula White (whom I had not heard of before). All four of these very different different individuals were presented as representative of evangelical Christianity, and Mr. Martin himself claims this moniker, introducing himself on the program as being married to an ordained Southern Baptist minister…yes, you Southern Baptists read that correctly.

As the program played out, the only one of the five guests that gave anything close to what I understand as a biblically founded answer to the main question was Rick Warren, who talked most about the decision he and his wife have made to be reverse tithers (90% given/10% to live on), but in the end the main question was left unanswered. There was lots of conversation around prosperity gospel in the love fest between White and Jakes. Falwell talked more about politics than Christianity. Haynes brought in a dose of liberation theology, describing Jesus’ clearing of the temple as a political action. In the end, however, the viewer, at least this one, was left with a picture of incoherence in the message of evangelical Christianity.

Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of the state of the modern church. The term evangelical Christianity is tossed about as if there was clarity as to the range of groups and individuals to whom this term applies. This program is only one more illustration that the term evangelical Christianity has lost any meaning. It is no longer a reliable label either for a coherent group of people or for a set of beliefs, and has become more disparaging than defining in its usage, used as profanity by opponents of the gospel (You evangelical Christian!).

What words should we use to define who we are these days when even the term Christian has become unclear? How are we to help people understand what biblical Christianity really means when the necessary words in our language have been co-opted by our great enemy? I don’t know the answer to this, but it seems to me that our prayer, sadly, has to be that God will cleanse and purify his church in our day. We seem to be in need of a great reformer, on the scale of a Luther or Calvin. Pray that God is preparing such a man for such a time as this.

Can Community Exist Virtually?

The Community Group I lead has been studying the book of Ephesians these past few months. One of its main themes is what the church ought to be like, so I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about that as I prepare for our sessions. Along side this, I’m a regular listener to William Bennett’s morning talk show, Mornings in America. While listening one morning last week, I heard a discussion about how the current war in Iraq is perceived by folks here at home, with the point being that, as a society or community we don’t feel that we’re very involved in this unless we have a family member or friend over there. We’ve lost some sense of the larger community as a culture. So all this converged to get me thinking about community and today’s church.

At the beginning of my professional career in the mid-1980′s, I remember when the first personal cassette tape players came out, dominated by Sony’s Walkman. Personal computers were a relatively new idea, not widely used or even available. Cell phones were not really around yet, and a car phone was an unusual thing to see. Communication was by telephone over land line, FedEx was in it’s infancy, and faxes were not widely available. Letters were still written and sent by mail as a routine way of keeping in touch. Face to face communication was still the norm.

Today, we primarily keep in touch with each other electronically. Virtual community is what it’s called, and I’m certainly a participant as I sit in the food court across the street from my office and write this on my new MacBook. (No I don’t have my iPod – today’s Walkman – plugged in.) But as I look at the condition of community in our culture more broadly, and in the church specifically, I think something really important has been lost.

God intended for Christians to gather together, to live in community, as his design for the church. This is very clear from both the Biblical example of Acts and from Paul’s writing in Ephesians. This is to be a face to face community, not a virtual one, because there is something very important about actually being together. Without being together, we lose half of our communication media, the non-verbal. We can’t see facial expressions when we talk together (emoticons just don’t cut it, and besides, they can be lies). We can’t reach out and touch someone when the comfort of an embrace, or the unspoken “I’m here” of a touch is the best way to communicate the community’s support. Contagious laughter or joy is impossible virtually because it can’t be heard or seen. And we’ve all experienced the misunderstandings that can occur without the nonverbal parts of our language.

This applies to meeting together for worship as well. Television church attendance from the comfort of your easy chair is no substitute for the gathering together of the saints. Experiencing worship with other believers can lift us to a place where we never will go alone. Hearing the Word spoken and taught live and in person forces us to listen at least a little bit more. And the power of the Spirit at work in a corporate worship setting can be life changing.

Can this kind of community exist virtually? I don’t think so, and I would argue no kind of real community can. We are called as Christians to be counter-cultural. Maybe how we do community is a place we should begin.

Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV) 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

A New Site

Finally, after about five years of talking and thinking about it, LetMyPeopleRead.org has been launched. This site is about encouraging Christians and those considering Christianity to think and read as God desirees us to do. We will have suggested reading lists (one of these is already posted), movie reviews, book reviews, articles to help you study the Bible more effectively, and who knows what else.

Make sure you check it out, and happy reading!