Archive for the ‘church life’ Category

In my two previous posts I dealt with how seminaries can improve seminary education and how students can do the same.  This is my last post in this little series: how churches can improve seminary education.  If you’re a pastor with seminary students you may want to read the other two posts as some of the points will apply. 

On to my thoughts…

Consider Saying ‘No’ (or at least ‘Not Yet’)

One of the lamentable facts of seminary education is that students often go to seminary without a home church behind them that truly knows them well.  Most seminaries require, if you’re applying for an MDiv, a recommendation from a church.  But I wonder how many churches really screen candidates for seminary.  From my experience, not many do. 

When a young man or woman (or maybe even not-so-young) comes looking for a little help getting into seminary, consider that this person may not be truly ready.  Are they capable of ingesting a tremendous amount of information, information that empowers them for ministry, without having their pride grow along with their knowledge?  Are they seeking positions of power or of service?

Perhaps even before asking these questions, we ought to ask more basic ones.  Has this person been faithful in smaller areas of responsibility?  In the ministry experience they’ve already had, how did they do?  Have they sought to learn from them?  Have they sought out the pastors and elders?  Are they being discipled or mentored?  Does their mentor think they are ready for seminary?  Have you considered suggesting they take another year before seminary and be mentored by a pastor or elder?

There should be no rush to send people to seminary.  The church will not collapse if they don’t hurry up and take a church history class.  Let them simmer a little longer before you turn the heat up.

Meet Regularly with Your Seminary Student

I stated in a previous post the importance of students sharing what they’re learning with other students.  The danger, however, can be the lack of perspective.  After all, how much can a bunch of students in a classroom really know about how to apply what they’re learning?  Perspective comes from getting an outsider’s (preferably a wiser person’s) thoughts.

I’d strongly recommend that pastors meet regularly with their seminarians.  Hear about what they’re learning (there is a good chance you’ll learn something from them).  Find out what’s exciting them.  Ask them questions, challenge them to think more deeply.  Ask them how they would apply what they’re learning.  Challenge them to think of ways to pass along all they’re taking in to people in their church.

What seminary students often miss is the connection between the classroom and ministry.  Because they’re so wrapped up in their coursework, they often fail to apply it to church life, or even their personal life.  Pastors are, in my opinion, the key to bridging this gap. 

Enforce Anonymity

I’m picking this up from my previous post on how students can improve their seminary education, so I won’t rehash it here.  Basically, I offer two suggestions to seminarians:

  1. Find a church that is unimpressed with you.
  2. Serve in a non-visible role for a while.

It may, of course, be hard for the eager seminarian.  But churches will learn more about the character of their seminarian by how they act when no one knows who they are or what they’re doing.  So stick them in a corner where no one sees them.  A little obscurity never hurt anyone.

Never Abdicate Your Responsibility to Train Pastors

The local church should be the primary training ground for pastors.  I can find no biblical (or even logical) warrant for sending your future pastors somewhere else to learn how to lead a church.  It simply makes no sense.

Notice, I’m not saying seminary has no role to play.  I loved my time in seminary; I’m thankful for Gordon-Conwell.  But seminary is not supposed to be the primary training ground for ministers.  Seminary is where you learn certain skills that will prove invaluable for ministry.  The work of seminary can’t be replaced by most churches (unless, I suppose, you have a church staff equipped and available to teach all the same things- if so, God bless you). 

I (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) commented about the logic of seminary in my first post:

  • Christian Leader #1: How can we best train people to pastor churches?
  • Christian Leader #2: I know!  Let’s take them out of the church and stick them in a classroom for 3 years!

There are some things in life that you simply cannot learn by listening to a lecture or reading a book.  (For the record, I don’t even think this is the best way to learn the Bible.  I’ve learned more about the Bible from teaching the Bible, especially in preparation time, than I ever did in a class.  Of course, class time in seminary helped me develop those skills, so it fulfilled its role.)  I can read all the marriage books I want, but nothing actually teaches me about marriage better than being married.  My wife and I did some premarital counseling, which helped us tremendously.  We sought advice from a lot of couples.  We’ve attended seminars and got some books.  But in the end, there’s a lot of learning “on the job.” 

Ministry is, in many ways, similar.  You will learn better about how to minister by actually being involved in ministry, under the tutelage of a more experienced pastor. 

Pastors- do not give up your rightful place as the primary mentors of future pastors.  If you hold on to your responsibility and do not forfeit it, if you allow a seminary education to complement your role as discipler rather than the other way around, your seminarian will be more prepared for a lifetime of ministry than they otherwise would be.

Some Concluding Thoughts

I’ve spent three posts on this subject because I think it’s important.  Even though I’m only 30, I’ve spent a long time observing churches and seeing how they train leaders.  In fact, a large part of my job now is helping train future leaders for our churches (a job I’m probably unqualified for). 

My point in spending three posts on this is that I think the responsibility to improve seminary education falls on the shoulders of more than just the seminary, though I clearly think they have areas of needed improvement.  The primary responsibility to make sure seminary is fulfilling its function lies with the student.  The seminarian needs to make sure they’re learning, not just being taught.  And I think the local church is primarily responsible for training a person to pastor well.  If the student and the local church do their job well, seminaries will be far more effective and the future of our churches will be much brighter.

Read Full Post »

I wasn’t intending to turn this into a series of posts, but as I was writing my previous post on how seminaries can improve seminary education I realized that the most guilty party of whatever is wrong with seminary education is getting off the hook.  That is, the student is the person most responsible for ensuring they receive a quality seminary experience.

I made some mistakes in my seminary days, and I did some things well.  But there were two separate conversations with two different people in my first week that made me realize I had to take the initiative if seminary were going to be a success.  In one case, Student A proceeded to tell me that seminary killed his spiritual life.  In the other case, Student B strongly encouraged me to put myself ahead of the other students in order to be noticed by my professors.  These conversations impacted me, though probably for different reasons than either person intended.

With that said, here are my thoughts on how seminary students can improve their seminary education.

Remember: Seminary ≠  Cemetary

The aforementioned Student A clearly felt that his spiritual life was in decline and seminary was to blame.  Is that true?  Please.  Student A hardly ever went to church.  As time went on, I realized that Student A rarely spent time with the Lord or in the Bible, outside what was necessary to get by in school.  Can he honestly blame seminary?

It’s true, seminary can be a difficult place.  It is, if you’re not just trying to slide by, a place where studying will take up the majority of your time.  Like any other schooling or work that requires much time and energy, there is a temptation to skimp on the spiritual life. 

The real issue here is this: who are we trying to please?  Will stand before my theology professor some day and have to explain to him why I let my knowledge of Calvin’s Institute’s slip?  Or will I stand before my Creator, the Judge and Savior of my soul, and have to explain why I stopped reading my Bible or worshipping him outside of the required church attendance?  I’m glad I didn’t listen to my fellow student.  My faith grew enormously during my seminary years.  I’m not saying it was easy, in fact, those were some of the hardest years of my life.  But I was stronger for having slogged through it all.

If seminary kills your faith, it’s because you were already a wounded duck.

Join a Local Church

Two things to look for in picking a local church (I’m assuming, of course, you are leaving your local church in order to attend seminary, which doesn’t apply to everyone):

  1. Find a church that is unimpressed with you.
  2. Serve in a non-visible role for a while.

Some churches are excited to have a seminary trained person, even if that person has only taken a few classes.  They’ll assume you know your Bible better than they, and your ideas are fresh and innovative.  If the people in your church are that excited to have a seminarian in their church, red flags and sirens should go off in your head.  Do not let you ego be stroked. 

Regarding the second point, my primary “job” at my church for quite a while was to set up the chairs on Sunday morning.  Every now and then I’d lead discussion in small group.  This confused a lot of my classmates, who couldn’t understand why I was in a church that didn’t have me preaching, didn’t pay me (and they still don’t) or take advantage of the “enormous privilege” of having a seminarian on board.

I’m thankful that my pastors were unimpressed with me.  They were not swayed by what I knew.  They cared just as much (if not more) about how I lived.  I set up chairs (and still do) because there was a need.  But “waiting in the wings” taught me a valuable lesson- I am called to a church, not a job.  If the church needs me to set up chairs, then that’s what I’ll do.  If they need me to teach a Bible class, then I’ll gladly do that.  But I’m there to serve the church, not the other way around.

Fellow Students are Fellow Learners, Not Combatants

Student B mentioned above had a penchant for debate.  That’s fine, many of us like a good debate sometimes.  But his advice to push myself ahead of the pack forgot one simple premise: my fellow students are brothers and sisters in Christ.  My job is to encourage and build them up.  My job is to place their needs ahead of my own.  Philippians 2:1-4 (and a host of other Scriptures) do not cease to apply because I’m in school.

My advice is to avoid the temptation to make yourself known.  One lesson I learned from my father is this: if you keep your mouth shut and work hard, the right people will notice.  What if they don’t?  Well, I’ll refer you to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Then your father, whos ees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Beyond that, I’ll say this: I learned just as much from the back-and-forth with other students during meal times as I did listening to lectures.  Outwardly processing (not competing) with classmates is probably the aspect of seminary I miss the most. 

Don’t Just Be Taught- Learn

Seminary professors should be excellent teachers.  They should prepare and teach in a way that challenges the students to think through the  Bible, theology, culture, etc.  Your classroom experience ought to impact your thinking in powerful ways.

But learning well is more than listening to a lecture.  It’s about engaging the material.  It’s about researching.  I learned a lot in seminary.  But I learned just as much on my own outside of the classroom as I did listening to the professor.  That isn’t a knock on the professors.  In fact, I often would hear a little nugget in a lecture that piqued my interest and would spend time outside of class looking into it more.  My professors inspired me to learn on my own.  That’s a huge compliment to them.

If your desire is to learn from great minds, you will have to do more than be taught by them.  You’ll have to follow their example and learn to learn.  You will not remember everything you hear in class, that just isn’t possible.  But you will remember what you research.  In order for your seminary experience to be a success, and for seminary education as a whole to improve, the student will have to take the primary responsibility off the professor and put it squarely on himself.  The seminary student is the person most responsible for learning well.

There is so much more I could say, but I’ll stop there.  I do have one more post in mind, how churches can improve seminary education.  I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of this post:  the student is the person most responsible for ensuring they receive a quality seminary experience.  A seminary education is an enormous privilege- not a right, a privilege.  For it to accomplish all that it was intended, the student will have to make it happen.

Read Full Post »

Since The Gospel Coalition first posted some thoughts from evangelical leaders on how to improve seminary education many bloggers and commentors have offered their own thoughts on the matter.  Some think the seminary education is completely broken and needs to be torn up, others see little need for change.  I’m probably somewhere in the middle.  I remain indebted to Gordon-Conwell for the education I received, the godliness modeled by its leaders and the relationships formed within the student body (including my co-blogger, Brian).  I will argue till I’m blue in the face that Gordon-Conwell is the finest evangelical seminary in America… in my unbiased opinion.

There are, however, things I’d like to see changed regarding seminaries in general.  None of these are peculiar to Gordon-Conwell; I’ve had enough friends in other schools and researched enough seminaries to know these are problems that are fairly widespread.  I could probably list more, but the few here will give you an idea of what I think.

Let me also state that I’m being somewhat idealistic.  Some of these will never be done.  But this is my blog and my blog post, and I can be idealistic if I want.  (Note: I just finished writing this and reread it.  Each point really should have its own post- but I don’t have a lifetime to do it.  Sorry.)

Better Integration

This was a common theme in the original TGC post linked to above (can I end a sentence with 2 prepositions?).  The concept of training pastors in a seminary is a little bit odd, if you ask me- or at least the way it plays out in reality.  Let me hyperbolize for a moment:

  • Christian Leader #1: How can we best train people to pastor churches?
  • Christian Leader #2: I know!  Let’s take them out of the church and stick them in a classroom for 3 years!

See the problem?  Now, most seminaries have means of solving this problem.  Gordon-Conwell has the Mentored Ministry program, where a student fulfills a certain number of hours a week to a church or ministry in order to complete their MDiv.  In reality, many students simply found a church or ministry that needed a warm body to fill some holes in their church.  I’m not saying all did it that way (I didn’t), nor am I saying the majority do.  But I knew enough people who fit that description to tell me that something wasn’t quite right.  Also, I do know that a number of students had trouble juggling the ministry and academic responsibilities, and the academic always won out because, well, you get a grade.  I’ll have more to say about that in a minute.

I would like to see a closer relationship between local churches and seminaries.  Could the seminary faculty help pastors learn to train leaders within the context of the local church?  Even within the seminary curriculum itself- could you require students in exegesis classes to develop a curriculum for use in the local church?  Could you do this for church history?  There’s a vast number of possibilities here.

Encourage Students to Study Part-time

There are only so many hours in a week.  Many students have to make difficult decisions regarding use of their time.  Do they spend the evening on their Systematic Theology paper?  Or do they spend it working on their Sunday School lesson?  And that doesn’t even take into account that many students are married with kids!  Or if they have a job, too, in order to help pay for school (more on that).

I know for most students, and sad to say myself included, school took precedence over ministry.  After all, no one is grading your Sunday School class.  Besides, will the class even notice the difference between 1 hour in preparation and 3 hours?

How sad it is when we give the body of Christ second best in exchange for an attempt at making some PhD (who may not even know your name) happy.  If I could redo my seminary education all over again, I would have gone to Gordon-Conwell part-time and spent more time in the church.  The lessons I’ve learned in church will last far longer than the ones in a classroom.

Make Seminary Cheaper

Okay, this is where I get really idealistic.  I’ll simply say this: you can come out of 3 years of full-time seminary with $40,000+ in debt.  To become a pastor.  I don’t know if you know this, but pastors, especially those right out of school, don’t make a ton of money. 

Even worse, what about those who leave seminary with dreams of hitting the mission field?  How will they pay loans off?  I’m thankful that Gordon-Conwell has a pretty substantial scholarship and grant program, otherwise I’d be paying loans back until my kids are old enough to go on the mission field in my place.

How do we make seminary cheaper?  No idea- someone else can answer that.  =)

Require an Age Limit

I started seminary at 22, having only taken 1 year off after my undergrad.  I had a number of classmates the same age or so as me.  I’ll tell you something, I was not ready at 25 to pastor a church.   In fact, most 25 year olds are not ready.

Beyond that, I would argue that most 22 year olds are incapable of knowing how to integrate their classroom learning with their ministry.  They simply do not have the life experience necessary.  They may have the IQ.  They may have the grades.  But they are generally ignorant about how the world works.  There is no substitute for life experience.  My suggestion: spend a few years working, serve your local church and wait until you’re (at least) 25 before you start.  Then go to school part-time.  It will take longer, but you will be a better minister to the Body for it.

I had a friend in seminary named John.  John was an associate pastor at a church in Scotland, going there after he finished a master’s in history at Cambridge.  After a few years of being an associate pastor, John realized he really needed a stronger theological and biblical foundation if he were going to continue pastoring.  Because of this previous experience, John was a more focused, and better, student than most of us.

Demand Greater Biblical Knowledge

I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret- seminary students know surprisingly little about the Bible.  Seminary students, like many students (especially young ones) aren’t really trying to learn.  They’re trying to get a good grade.  Thus, they learn the necessary Greek terms, the orthodox theological points and the proper sermon writing method to make the teacher think they are learning.  In reality, if you press them, many (again, not all) don’t really know what they’re talking about.  Harsh?  Perhaps.  I would actually like to see a stricter grading process. 

This differs from professor to professor, of course.  I had some profs who gave out A’s like they were Halloween candy.  In other classes your paper practically had to be publishable to get an A.  I learned more from the latter.

Actually Train Ministers to Encounter the Realities of the Present World

I remember Tim Tennent, my former missions professor and now President at Asbury Seminary, lamenting that seminary students know more about dead liberal German theologians than they do Muslims.  He’s right.  If I didn’t go out of my way to learn about the various religions of the world, I probably would have a rudimentary knowledge at best.  After all, when I learned about Paul’s epistles, I learned about F C Bauer and the Tubingen Hypothesis (a name of a former fake band of mine).  When I took a class on the Pentateuch, I learned more than I ever wanted about The Documentary Hypothesis.  Spend time on how Paul’s principles of self-sacrifice and contextualization can help me minister cross-culturally?  Huh?

Yet, guys like Bauer and Wellhausen are dead.  As I’m ministering in Boston, I’ll probably never encounter someone who has read them or who even cares about their theories.  But I’ll meet a Muslim.  I’ll meet Hindus and Buddhists.  And if all I know about Muslims is going to come from blogs and the evening news, I’ll be an ineffective minister to them.  I’ll never know anything about their worldview or how to share the gospel with them.  I’ll never know how to use the Bible to speak to their hearts.  Why?  Because evangelicals love to fight battles with dead people and ignore the changing world around them.  The lack of foresight is astonishing and disheartening.

Our world- our country- is changing.  I’d hate to see seminary trained pastors fall behind because seminaries themselves have flaws.  Then again, I would argue that students have as much, if not more, responsibility for their own education than the seminary administration.  But that’s another post, soon to come.

Read Full Post »

John Piper has made some pretty big news for 2 completely different reasons in the last week.  The first was the announcement of his 8-month leave of absence, which you can read about here.  The second, and the impetus for this post, was the announcement that he has invited Rick Warren to speak at the Desiring God National Conference this year (go here for the list of speakers).  I’m including 2 videos below, the first gives the initial rationale for inviting Warren, the second is a follow up after some of the controversy.  If you’re wondering why this choice is controversial at all, these videos will help.


To get an idea of what people are saying, you can check out the post at Justin Taylor’s blog.  The comments number over 100 at this point, many of which say something along the lines of “I can’t believe Piper is inviting this heretic” or “Warren preaches a different gospel!”  (Side note: as I was typing this, Taylor added another post, which I’m sure will draw it’s share of comments.)  For some thoughts on why no one should consider Warren a heretic, I encourage you to check out Cousin Jeremy’s post from a few years back, one I still think is relevant and accurate. 

The truth is that I haven’t seen anyone bring forth any actual evidence that Warren holds to heretical beliefs, unless one defines “heretical” as “something I don’t agree with” (which, unfortunately, it seems many do).  I agree that much of what he says is fluffy, though that’s partially because he is attempting not to use “churchy” language in his ministry.  I agree completely that his pragmatism is often problematic.  Pragmatism (which begs for further definition) may be wrong, or even harmful, but it isn’t heresy.  I’m not  a huge fan of the seeker-sensitive movement, although that’s become so hard to define that a sweeping generalization does little to help. 

But the reason I titled this post “Give Piper a Fist Bump” (or a high-five, or a chest bump, or a head nod- whatever you choose) is simply because I like the fact he is going outside of his own circle in inviting Warren to speak at his popular conference.  This is actually the third consecutive year he’s done this (maybe more, I only started paying attention in 2008).  In 2008 he invited Mark Driscoll, which caused some stirring then because Driscoll was still known (fairly or not) as “The Cussing Pastor” to many at that time (he’s since become even closer to Piper, which puts him squarely in the same circle these days).  Last year he invited Doug Wilson.  I think the controversy was a little lighter with Wilson, mainly because he isn’t as well known in broader church circles.  Inviting Wilson was actually more of a risk than either Driscoll or Warren, in my opinion, because you never really know what he will say or how he will say it (read his blog- he is a big believer in satire). 

It is my observation that there is a lot of ecclesiastical inbreeding going on these days.  In one of the videos above, Piper references the “Young, Restless and Reformed” movement (which is basically the same thing as the famed “New Calvinism”).  This movement is not official, but neither is it entirely amorphous.  You can find this crowd in any of these conferences: Desiring God, Acts 29, Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, and probably some more that I’m forgetting.  Many of these conferences feature the same speakers talking about the same things with people who mostly believe the same things.  Sure, there’s some variety.  Together for the Gospel (T4G) has a Presbyterian, 2 Baptists and a Charismatic heading it up.  It would seem to be crossing “party lines” to bring these people together, though I’d note that it may better be titled “T4G+C+C” (Together for the Gospel and Calvinism and Complementarianism).  That is, if you don’t hold to those 2 “C”‘s, there’s a chance you won’t be invited to speak.

Ecclesiastical inbreeding is not a danger only in the Young, Restless and Reformed movement.  I see this same tendency in my own circles.  In the charismatic world, you tend only to encounter charismatic speakers and authors.  There was a time when you were guaranteed that a big charismatic conference would include Mike Bickle, Jack Deere, Rick Joyner, Jack Taylor, Paul Cain, or at least a few of those names.  Maybe once in a while, you’ll encounter a charismatic Calvinist, like Sam Storms or R T Kendall.  When one of them wrote a book, you were sure to find the others endorsing it.  None of this is necessarily awful, it’s just simply the way it is.

I probably see this kind of inbreeding more in the areas of books we read.  I suspect that many of Warren’s blog critics haven’t really read or studied his writings or sermons.  He’s conveniently placed under the label of “Mega-Church Seeker Sensitive,” which conveniently means we don’t have to listen to him.  We just know he doesn’t sound like our favorite writers, so we don’t like him.  In our church training school, we read J I Packer’s Knowing God.  I remember a couple years back commenting (somehow it came up), that I wasn’t sure where Packer stood regarding spiritual gifts, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a cessationist.  Someone responded: then why are we reading this book?  Ugh.

I’m blessed to have lived on the campus at Gordon-Conwell, because it gave me the opportunity to rub shoulders with people of different Christian traditions.  When I attended, this was the denominational breakdown in the student population:

  • Non-denominational/undecided
  • Presbyterian (PCA, PCUSA, etc)
  • Assemblies of God
  • Baptist (mostly American Baptist)

We also had a mixture of Congregationalists, Methodists, EV Free, and even some Episcopalians thrown in.  That’s actually a pretty impressive mix of people (though I should note that Reformed theology still dominated).  I appreciate how much I learned from my fellow students.  I’m glad that I read widely.  I’m glad I still read widely.  I’m saddened by how people put all their eggs in one basket: Reformed Baptists in the John Piper basket, charismatics in the Bill Johnson basket, and so on. 

All this to say, I’m glad that Piper is stepping outside of his circles.  I’m not saying Warren is necessarily a good choice; he could have chosen any number of people not in his camp to come and speak.  But it shows me that Piper is not going to cater to the Piper Fanboys.  D A Carson once warned, “beware of your conservative constituency.”  I’m glad Piper has heeded this warning, and I can only hope others do the same.

My encouragement is to sit down and read a book by someone outside of your camp.  Listen to sermons from a pastor that is entirely different from the ones you’re used to.  My guess is that you’ll find yourself blessed.

Read Full Post »

Surprised by Fasting

Our church is holding a three day corporate fast this week in preparation for our annual missions conference, shameless plug (a.k.a., World Mandate).  Danny suggested that in lieu of a food fast, I ought to fast from not blogging.  I agreed, only under the condition that Danny would fast from making me cry.

My own tears aside, I did think it an appropriate time to share a few reflections I had on fasting.  More specifically, I wanted to share a few things that surprised me when I first started fasting as a Christian.

(1)     Time.  It was amazing to me how much more time I had in my day when I refrained from eating.  Even if one is given to eating quickly, the time savings, counting preparation and cleanup, are easily an hour per day, though in my case it was closer to two hours per day.  Leveraging this newfound time to prayer, Scripture reading, meditation or service is a great benefit that I did not anticipate.

(2)    Tape on my watch.  Growing up, my father used to place a small piece of scotch tape over the face of his watch when he needed to remember something during the day.  Depending on your degree of chronological snobbery, this is either the modern equivalent of tying a string to your finger (which, by the way, is extraordinarily difficult to do), or it is the olde tyme way of setting up a reminder in Microsoft Outlook.  Or your Blackberry.  Or your iPhone.  Or any other piece of technology that offers a “holster” accessory.  The food fast was my constant tape over the watch, as it were.  The human body is beautifully engineered for persistence in reminding us that we’re hungry.  I found this especially helpful in using it as a means to remember that God is with me, or to pray a quick prayer of thanksgiving, or consider my present disposition towards the Lord.

(3)    Thankfulness.  This is perhaps unworthy of falling in a “surprise” category, but I was surprised at the intensity of my thankfulness.  I’ve always been thankful for food, and I anticipated thankfulness when I fasted.  However, I can honestly say that my thankfulness for food was forever changed after my first Christian fast some years ago.  Ever since, I am extremely and consistently thankful for God’s generous provision of food in my life.  I’ve noticed that the denial of something is often the key to a better appreciation of it.  Sometimes it takes a cut on your finger for you to realize how often you use that finger, or an illness to appreciate how blessed you are when you feel well.  It can be hard to remember to thank God for things that aren’t, (e.g., thank you that I don’t have a toothache right now), and frankly, such thanks can get ridiculous rather quickly.  If we take a moment to consider the infinite possibilities and contingencies extant in our lives (Molinism, anyone?), our heads quickly explode.  However, it does bear remembrance from time to time that every last inkling of our existence, every atom of good in our lives, is a gift from God.  A professor of mine put it well when he remarked that a plate of hot food proffered to the perpetually satiated often receives modest thanks, if any.  The same plate given to one who struggles to find food receives a world of thanks.  If I were told that I could walk upstairs, I wouldn’t think much of it, but a man who had until recently been confined to a wheelchair would beam with gratitude.  (There’s probably a separate post in here about the redeeming value of suffering, but I’ll save it for the next time Danny chides my reticence.)

(4)    The wheels of pride go round and round.  One final surprise I experienced during fasting was an increasing need to keep my spiritual pride in check.  I would safely venture that most of us struggle with the desire to build ourselves up at some point or another.  Be it through subtle impression management (nonchalantly, “Yeah, I’m fasting today…”), overt boasting (“I fasted for a whole month once!”), or inward self-satisfaction (“I sure am holy.  God must be so pleased with me!”), pride has a way of rearing its ugly head in our lives.  Fasting was one other vehicle my spiritual pride tried to exploit for its own sinful purposes.  I therefore find Jesus’ words in Mt. 6:16-18 helpful to keep in mind during a fast.

The benefits (or surprises) of fasts extend well beyond what I mention here, so I invite you to share your own reflections.  How has fasting (food or otherwise) affected your walk with God in the past?  Has anything surprised you, for good or ill?

Read Full Post »

What Is the Purpose of a Sermon?

Preaching has always had a central role in the life and work of the church.  While they may look and sound different through the ages and cultures, sermons have always been around and show no signs of going away.  For some unknown reason, I began thinking about what the purpose of a sermon is.  Why do preachers preach?  I thought this could be a good question for our reader(s) to sound off on.

I suspect the answer is something along the lines of “the purpose of a sermon is to explain and apply the Scripture,” with the assumption that 2 Timothy 3:16 applies: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV).

Now, it’s always dangerous that a post asking for interaction will end up with tumbleweed blowing by and crickets chirping in the background.  But I’m hoping we’ll get some thoughts thrown out here.  Let me ask a few questions, though feel free to pick up a tangent you might think is helpful:

1) Do you agree with the purpose of a sermon given above (keeping in mind I’m simply trying to give what I think is the most common sentiment)?

2) What would you say the purpose (or purposes) of a sermon is?

3) In your opinion, have most sermons you’ve heard in your lifetime fulfilled this purpose?

4) Have any of these been lacking in the majority of sermons you’ve heard: teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness?

Okay, go at it.  Let me say that I do think it’s good to think through these things every so often.  It’s easy to get too comfortable with church life that we don’t ask why we do the things we do, or even if we’re doing it for the reasons we should be.  In my opinion, that’s a quick way to make the work of the church ineffective.

Read Full Post »

It’s always interesting to see the reaction I get when I tell someone that I am a charismatic.  I’ve been getting weird looks since my undergrad days at a Baptist university.  Back then, it wasn’t so much that I was a charismatic, but that I, Danny Pierce, was a charismatic.  After all, I was a good exegete (or at least I had that reputation) and knew the Bible reasonably well (only to find out as the years have gone on that I didn’t know it very well at all).  I wasn’t overly exuberant; I never wore a “John Wimber is my Homeboy” t-shirt;  nor did I raise my hand in class to ask a question only to slip into an uninterpreted tongue.

I still get weird looks.  Even some people from my own church are confused by my labeling our church ‘charismatic’ (which, I should note, is not an official label given by our elders, but my reckoning of things).  I’ve had numerous people say to me, “wait, we’re charismatic?!?!?!”

There is a lot of confusion over this term.  Most of the people I talk to about the term ‘charismatic’ have all sorts of images pop into their brain.  Some see prominent televangelists bilking old ladies out of money and throwing Holy Ghost Hand Grenades into the first few rows of a healing crusade.  Others picture a rock concert trying to pass itself off as a worship service, complete with shouting, jumping and the ominous potential of a moshpit.  Still others see a group of people driven by emotional ecstasy and chasing after spiritual highs (or spiritual drunkenness, as some might say) without any care for the baggage that comes with those experiences.  And then there are those who see all of these things colliding for the perfect storm of charismania.

What drives me nuts is that this distracts from the biblical presentation of spiritual gifts, or the charismata (you know… the word we get ‘charismatic’ from).  The charismata exist to build the church.  They are gifts from God to be exercised in the life of the Christian and the church, primarily for the purpose of edifying and strengthening the body of Christ.  Most of the pictures that creep into our minds at the sound of that word are not what we ought to be focusing on.

So let’s clear the air:

  • The exercise of spiritual gifts does not have to be accompanied by showmanship, an event or even a prominently gifted person orchestrating a given meeting.  Spiritual gifts can be, and should be, exercised by any believer in any context.
  • The exercise of spiritual gifts is not tied to a particular worship style.  There is no reason to think that a church with electric guitars and a drummer who breaks 2 sticks in one set (coughbriancough) is any more ‘Spirit-filled’ than a church who sings hymns accompanied by a pipe organ (wait, the instruments can accompany the singing and not the other way around? Oops, sorry, tangent for another post).
  • Being charismatic does not require one to participate in any of the following activities: keeping Hillsong or Vineyard cued up on your iPod, being slain in the spirit (or badly wounded, for that matter), laughing uncontrollably, crying uncontrollably or just losing control in general.
  • Having a cool experience does not necessarily make one charismatic in the biblical sense.  It’s too easy to be deceived into thinking every good feeling is of God.
  • Being charismatic simply means that we seek and exercise the spiritual gifts (charismata).  No more, no less.  Everything else (for instance, upbeat worship) is gravy, and depending on how you like gravy it can be either good or bad.

So who’s to blame?  I’ll go ahead and place it squarely on us, the charismatics.  We have made secondary (if they’re ranked even that high) issues the most important ones.  We have convinced ourselves that the Holy Spirit moves in certain ways and amongst certain people.  We decried the box other traditions have placed God in, all the while keeping him nice and wrapped in a box of our own.  We have turned our preference for the way we like things to be into a law and called it the move of the Spirit.

Part of the danger, of course, is that by saddling all our junk on top of the term “charismatic,” as well as the eager pursuit of spiritual gifts, we have effectively ruined that pursuit for many others in the church.  True, each person is responsible for their own decisions, and I truly believe that everyone should pursue spiritual gifts regardless of what they think about us charismatics (see my post here).  But we, the charismatic portion of the church, are responsible for ourselves, too.  And if we see our role as building up the whole church, and not just the like-minded people sitting next to us on Sunday mornings, then we ought not to add more to the term than Paul himself does in 1 Corinthians.

‘Charismatic’ has, regretably, come to denote a style, not a theological understanding of how God continues to build the church through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  And as long as we think style is what defines us, we’ll fail to fulfill the goal of building the body of Christ.

Read Full Post »

The scene is my first class in Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell.  The professor, Dr. Richard Lints, begins his lecture.  His first point, (at least, the first I remember), is that the theological project is not a matter of studying God, or putting God under the microscope, as it were.  Instead, good theology ultimately winds up with us being under God’s microscope.  Our reality, our existence, our thoughts and our feelings, are cast under the awesome light of who God is.  In turn, “who God is” (i.e., theology), informs the very framework of our reality, existence, thoughts and feelings.

John Wesley made a similar remark about Scripture:

In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church.

The leap is not a far one.  If Scripture is the Word of God, then it follows that it too ought to comprise the framework of our worldview.

So what do we do when our experiences or feelings don’t line up with God’s Word?  God’s Word wins.  The theology here is simple enough: as a Christian, I believe God is The Absolute Authority.  Since Scripture is the Word of God, it follows that it is absolutely authoritative in my life.  In other words, nothing trumps it.  If I look up and see a sky that I would call “green,” but Scripture says that the sky is blue, then I – whether by poor eyesight, misunderstanding, or defiance – am in the wrong.  Scripture is the Truth that judges our reality, not the other way around.

I could restate and expound upon this fact in any number or ways, for any number of years, perhaps resulting in any number of yawns from my reader(s).  I do not believe it is possible to overstate this proper attitude towards the Bible.  Why?  Partly because it is easily forgotten, but mostly because it sets the stage for our worldview, and our walk with God.  Examples abound of Bible abuses that arise when we put Scripture on the Procrustean bed of our own agenda, rather than letting it establish for us what our agenda ought to be in the first place.

I recently felt the loving sting of conviction when I realized that I often live life backwards, and let personal experience take the seat of absolute authority in my life.  I am much more modern than I care to admit.  While I believe in miracles, I have to think long and hard to conjure up any personal experience of them.  This creates a tension in my life; one that some might (erroneously, in my opinion) claim is a head/heart separation: I give mental assent to God’s miracle working power for today, but I’ve never experienced it, so it tends to be a cooler, almost academic belief, that is short on faith.  (For the record, I think the head/heart language has just become shorthand for expressing personal beliefs [head] and personal experiences [heart].  I don’t think the Bible understands us as being quite so bifrucated).

So unfolds what I believe is a common Christian struggle: how to align God’s Word with our experience.  Theodicy comes to mind, as do plenty of other common “If God X, then how do you explain Y and Z?” questions.  But, I just played a trick on you.  Did you catch it?  The nature of the struggle is actually aligning our experience with God’s Word, not the other way around.  Again, God’s Word trumps our experience.

Perhaps you don’t feel loved by God; nor do you see any evidences of it in your life, which is marked with hardship.  The fact of the matter is that God still loves you, because that’s what He says.  God’s Word is right; your feelings and experiences are what need adjustment or reinterpretation.  This statement sounds terribly cold; I certainly do not mean to diminish something like human suffering, or suggest for a second that a proposition such as the one above is a panacea to help those in times of trouble.  This is certainly not a suggestion for pastoral counseling.  It is the truth, however; a truth we must cling to when our experience seems to run against the grain of Scripture.

The situation can work the other way, too.  Perhaps we experience a powerful encounter with the Lord, and receive a vision of some previously  misunderstood “truth.”  We might be filled with joy; our lives might even change.  However, no matter the experience, if said vision runs against Scripture, then our interpretation of the experience needs the adjustment, not Scripture.

There is a balance, of course.  God does work through emotions and experience, after all, and we’re God-equipped with senses to take in the world He made.  Praise be, the Holy Spirit dwells within us to empower, guide and reprove us in our walk.  Still, and I heaftily apply this to myself, we are “prone to wander,” as the hymn says.  We have no shortage of ways to do this.  The Scriptues, a vital part of God’s great revelation of Himself to humanity, must remain a centerpiece of our thought and study to help us live according to the Truth.  Even when all evidence seems to come against it, we can cling to it with unyielding trust, because we know the One who spoke it is faithful and true.

Read Full Post »

I can hardly call this post an RoTM, since, as Danny has noted, I have been decidely delinquent in posting lately.  I have several excuses for this, but rather than take ownership and responsibility for the management of my life, I will follow current social trends and blame somebody else, viz., Danny.  It may not appear obvious, but somehow, I know it’s his fault :)

I wanted to tie off a thought of two on the local church:  When is a church properly called “a church?”  Danny and I have admitted up front that “what church is supposed to look like” is a difficult question to answer, because there are no orders of service in Scripture, nor are there detailed descriptions.  Instead, we have to deduce from Scripture how New Testament churches functioned and what types of things they did.

In my encounters with American Christians, most seem to agree with various aspects of what the local church should look like.  Words like “community,” “Bible teaching,” “service,” “prayer,” and “worship,” dot the conversation, as they should.  We’ve heard (ad nauseum, in my opinion) that the church isn’t a building, that the institution isn’t a necessary component to being Christian (side note:  I wonder if that has anything to do with the strong anti-institutional bias in America?).  Yea and amen.  Indeed, a group of believers who come together regularly to study the Word, pray, worship, serve and love each other can be called a local church, irrespective of their registration with the state as such, what day and time they meet, how often, how long, the existence of paid staff, a building, offices, bylaws, polity, or even a proper name.  Or can it?

I feel that the Sacraments are often left out of this discussion, and I number myself among those guilty of neglecting them when describing the fundamentals of what a local church should be.  The Lord’s Supper and baptism are clearly a part of the early church (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:14-16; 11:17ff), and their practice today ought to be a part of ours.

The reasons are manifold, but most importantly, if we take the early church as the prototype for all churches to come, and the New Testament as the authority on defining what a church is and does, our participation in these Sacraments shows an explicit attempt to continue in those traditions and practices; affirmation and assent to what Christ founded and the apostles continued.

So then, if a group of believers gathers regularly for worship, prayer, community, and Bible teaching, but neglects any attempt practice the Sacraments (n.b., I make no mention here of what Baptism an the Lord’s Supper mean or look like; these are disputed matters for another post), I do not believe that the New Testament would understand said group as a local church.  Is it good?  Can it be blessed?  Is God pleased with it?  Yes, yes and yes.  Is it a church?  I don’t believe it is.

I am aware that many local gatherings may not have much opportunity for baptism, especially if all members have already been baptized.  However, it should be an available practice, and hopefully the group is seeking to reach unbelievers (another clear mark of a church), and will have the opportunity at some point to baptize.

Is this post a major in the minors?  Am I guilty of sweating some nuance of proper nomenclature?  I do not believe I am.   If we love, serve and pray in our church because the pattern is clear in the New Testament, then we should also practice the Sacraments, since they are equally clear.  Not only so, but they are far from burdensome, but a powerful expression of devotion and love to the God we serve.  I never fail to be blessed when I’ve participated (or witnessed) a Sacrament at my local church.  Let us endeavor to keep them in the ongoing conversation of “what church looks like,” lest we rob the local church of these great traditions.

Read Full Post »

It seems that I and my e-friend Steve both dislike the phrase “doing chuch,” so I will coin an alternative for this post: “churching.”  For my money, churching is an unbelievably difficult topic to tackle, though I wonder how much of the difficulty is self-inflicted.  Must it be so complicated, so nuanced, so controversial?  I would answer a non-committal “yes” and “no.”  It seems rather easy to paint broad strokes about what church should look like.  People are coming together to care for one another, share life, worship, serve, be edified, etc.  Simple enough.  The complexity, or difficulty comes in when one actually has to do something, rather than talk about it.  Sooner or later, the rubber must meet the road, and we need to get practical.

This tension has been one of my frustrations with discussions about churching.  There is no shortage of writing out there criticizing the way church is done today.  Much of this criticism is excellent, and I find myself saying “Amen,” multiple times.  Writers like David Wells and Marva Dawn make insightful observations about the church.  I’ve found comparatively few such books or articles, however, that get practical.

For example, at Steve’s recommendation, I recently read an article by David Fitch that is quite good.  Fitch makes a statement towards the end of his article that I believe is typical of the churching dialogue:

If then we would see people formed into the Missio Dei we must order our worship so as to be encountered by the living God.

Yea, and amen…but how?   Fitch offers some vague ideas towards the end of his post, but they don’t get much more specific than “simplifiy the service.”  So what does this ordering of worship actually look like?  Do I sing hymns?  With guitar?  Organ?  Contemporary?  Lyrics on the screen?  Hymnals?  How many songs?  Where?  What day?  How long?

I don’t wish to criticize Fitch here (indeed, we shall vindicate him!), but rather make the point that much of what I read about churching is ivory tower-esque; that is to say, true but ethereal.  (Much of my own writing is no exception, either).  The answers given to the practical questions, such as mine above are often “it depends…” or “ask God,” (ahem), or “pray about it,” or “with wisdom.”

I believe there is something important that we can learn about these nebulous recommendations.  Perhaps we shouldn’t get too specific.  Given the variety of circumstances, cultures and persons in and to which a church will minister, offering specifics could be either impossible, or at least, unwise.

I think the key to churching is not found in the specifics but the efficacy.  Are lives changed?  Are people growing in love and knowledge of God?  Is the community served?  Are people coming to saving faith in Christ?  In short, is the Kingdom advancing?  All of these questions transcend how slick the service is, how big the building, how entertaining the pastor, how numerous the programs, or how large the numbers.

I believe that it is possible to have a Kingdom-advancing, God-centered church all over the practical spectrum: from 10 believers meeting weekly by a tree in a field to something like Willow Creek (n.b., not an endorsement of Willow Creek).  To adapt part of Obama’s inaugural speech, it doesn’t matter if it’s big church or small church, but church that works.  Examples of church working are found in the pages of Scripture (as are examples of church not working!)

Back to Fitch’s (justifiably) vague advice, how do we order worship so that people encounter God?  Well, we pray about it.  We think about it.  We examine the assumptions about our methods as best we can, and make our choices intentional and theologically informed. 

Following the cultural norm of American churches isn’t ipso facto wrong, or automatically doomed to inefficacy.  What’s wrong is blind, thoughtless conformance to it.  What’s wrong is making the claim that certain forms of churching are normative for all Christendom.  What’s wrong is measuring the success of churching with a yard stick borrowed from corporate America, tempting though it is (after all, it’s easy to know if your weekly attendance has increased year-over-year; compare that with measuring the wax or wane of a congregation’s love and knowledge of God!)

My personal opinion is that a great deal of life could be breathed into the local church if people simply asked “why?” more often, and didn’t settle for half-baked answers.  Why do a drama?  Why choose this type of music?  Why get a building?  Serious interaction with these questions can go a long way.

In the end, I’m quite confident that God is supremely capable of working with and through any number of methods or forms of churching.  Go figure, but in terms of advancing the Kingdom, it’s always God that does the heavy lifting.  The trick to churching is to make sure it’s as useful as it can be for His purposes.  The church must be properly aligned and submitted to Him, no matter what it actually looks like.  Some churches might be a saw, others a hammer.  So long as they are effective at their job, I believe God will use them.  (Ah, the sweet, ethereal smell of vagary, I shall never tire of your ivory-tower baked goodness!)

Coming in Part II, I want to consider “cultural infections” in the church.  Whence do they infect?  How do we diagnose and treat them?  Better yet, how do we predict and prevent them?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »