Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Missional Church and Culture II

The issue I would like to take up here is that of the church and authority. This is another broad and varied topic, so in the interest of focus, I want to relate the role of pastor as authority to the typical view of authority in culture at large. In order to expound on my points, I will be doing some interacting with an article written in on the role of preaching today.

It has been argued often that one of the hallmarks of the postmodern age is that authority has been stripped of its power, or as one emergent leader puts it, the “Wizard of Oz has been revealed” and there is no going back. I would agree to a certain extent that postmodern skepticism has lead large portions of our culture to question authority, but I would argue that this is only one side of the coin. I think it is actually impossible to tear down one authority without erecting another, so the more accurate picture of postmodern anti-authoritarianism is not one of a vacuum of extra-subjective authority, but of a search for other extra-subjective authority. Another possibility is total subjectivism, but since postmodernism places such a high premium on community in its intentions, I will avoid that issue for now.

Specifically it is said that the role of preaching has shifted, or more appropriately needs to shift, from a role of authority to one of “fellow traveler.” I find this point of view unconvincing for several reasons. First, let me qualify my position. In no way do I think pastors are experts in the sense that they should or do have the answers to every question and the right apologetic argument for every occasion. But I do think that pastors are in a unique position with regard to the church, and just as Medical Doctors are expected to know more about human anatomy than the average patient, pastors should be more conversant with Scripture, Theology, and Christian spirituality than the average congregant. In short (because this is a blog and not a full-blown article), to be any less on purpose is negligence on the part of the pastor. I don’t believe God places people in roles of spiritual leadership because they are extra-emotional or ultra-sensitive to spiritual matters; He calls people who have a “knack” for pastoral/teaching/prophetic leadership.

Reading the interview in highlighted this point. The leaders interviewed firmly believed that the walls of authority needed to be broken down between the pastor and the lay-person. Do they want the same thing from tax lawyers or emergency room doctors? I doubt they do. If this is true and they don’t want “expert” pastors but do want expert doctors and lawyers, I think they are open to the charge of building an artificial wall between science and religion-a distinctly Modern point of view. Why should science need trained experts and religion not need them? In this point of view, it is because science is an objective and “hard” discipline and religion is a subjective and “soft” discipline. I don’t think the pastors interviewed for really want to argue that.

Secondly, the pastors in the article intimated that they were experimenting with new and fresh ways of sermonizing. They said they were preparing less and less in a traditional way (commentaries, language helps, etc.) and depending on spontaneity and the inspiration of the moment instead. A key point in their argument for this new form of preparation was that they did not see how preaching, traditionally understood, ever helped anyone. I have made similar points before, but it is interesting to me that a movement (Emergent ministry) which claims to be digging back to the origins of Christianity can miss so much historical detail. Preaching, traditionally understood, has moved not only the lives of individuals, but nations as well. We should be reminded of the power of Augustine’s homilies (and by extension, Ambrose’s preaching) or the abolitionist preaching of the 19th century in England and the United States. Maybe slavery wasn’t really that important of an issue, though. Ultimately, the point of view that traditional preparation only stifles the moment and impact of preaching is based on a faulty argument.

I want to return to my fundamental point. In trying to get rid of the authority of the pastoral role, ministers simply replace it with the authority of the masses. In essence the masses have become sovereign. This is another large issue, and I can hear people saying that that is exactly the point, but I think it is a dangerous road to travel. First, the church has no sovereign but God and His specific revelation. Anything which replaces that is idolatry. Second, the masses are never a good test for truth. Just because people like something in droves or majorities does not make it right. To interpret and apply Scripture according to the voice of the masses is a dangerous, and relativistic, enterprise. Pastors need to be pastors. That does not mean they should be or ever will be perfect in their knowledge of God or spiritual application, but they should never replace diligence and their vocational call with laziness and intentional ineptitude.

Again, I am not arguing for an authoritarian role for pastors. What I am arguing is that to strip the position of pastor of these responsibilities (study, interaction with other sources, etc.) is too much of a capitulation to contemporary culture. Pastors need to be (and in fact are) fellow travelers, but they also need to be more than just that.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Three Cheers for Pride!

Three Cheers for Hubris! Where would we all be without rampant self-centeredness? How would the world continue to turn minus unchecked pride? Huzzah!

I always enjoy watching the Olympic Games. Part of what I find attractive about the games is the exhilaration found on the faces of amateurs who have dedicated their time and effort to Herculean efforts and then to the stress and strain of top-notch international competition. It amazes me how thrilled I get every time some athlete is overwhelmed by winning any medal at all. Some expect a Gold and are still thrilled with their Silver and others are completely floored by cracking into the top three. I can’t get enough of their heartfelt thanks to their supportive family, friends and coaches. For some reason I find myself misty-eyed from time to time watching the competition.

Then there is the American men’s basketball team. Who let these guys in the door, and how is it they decided to stoop to the level of the Olympic Games? Who in the planning committee missed that these guys are way too good for the international stage? Why didn’t the International Olympic organizers just UPS the Gold medals so these guys didn’t have to interrupt their gang activity? It has to be embarrassing for them to know that their friends in prison have nothing else to do but watch them beat up on all the inferior foreigners who pretend to play the game of basketball.

But wait! You can’t be telling me that they lost to people who can conjugate the verbs in their native tongue? Someone stop the world, I would like to get off now. Maybe its just part of the plan.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Missional Church and Culture

This post is intended to be a portion of a series of blogs on the Missional Church model and the contemporary culture. At least I hope it will turn into a series of blogs. There is a lot to reflect upon and write about, and if this represents all I have time to say, then I must be pretty busy indeed (or I have grown weary of the subject).

To begin with, I am going to work from a premise I stated in an earlier post. I believe that part of the job of the Missional model is to exegete not only theology and Scripture, but culture as well. As a result of studious attention to the world around us, we will likely find areas of common grace between the world and the church and be able to utilize them in a manner faithful to the principles of orthodoxy. Additionally, as a “missions minded” enterprise we should also be able to discover those aspects of culture which are destructive to the human soul, strive to pull people out of the mire, and be an incarnational influence on the culture at large.

The first thing I would like to do is spend a few sentences in defense of this premise. Clearly this is a big-picture view of things and there is far more detail to be filled out under both thrusts of my premise. Theory guides and provides appropriate focus, but the leader in the local congregation has to put flesh on the bones. But let it be noted that good theory points people in the right direction just as bad theory points people in the wrong direction. We need good theory for the church. We need good and faithful thinkers (no personal presumption here, just a conviction) in the church. We need people who are not willing to lay down for the mental midgetry of our age.

I think it to be true that we live in an age that has become post-Christian and postmodern in a lot of significant ways, but it is always an error when people use that as an excuse to become post-Christian or postmodern themselves. The line between meeting culture in a useful and significant way and remaining faithful to the precepts of Scripture and orthodoxy is a notorious one, and will not be easily found. One might even argue that it changes with the times. Despite the difficulty of finding that line, however, it is a line which must be dealt with and talked about. To ignore it is death-in one direction or the other.

A major theme that will come out in many of my thoughts on this topic is that we should not hitch our wagons to the star of postmodernism. To continue the metaphor, it is a falling star. It is a philosophical and cultural model which is not only vacuous in many significant respects, but it is intentionally so. The metaphysical, epistemological and ethical skepticism of postmodernism is too deep for Christian orthodoxy. Additionally, the themes which are commonly seen as the plus sides of postmodernism make for interesting reflection in that when they are taken out of the postmodern matrix, we find them in other and better philosophies and theologies, and when they are understood within the matrix of postmodernism, they revert to unusable relativism and childish naïveté. How’s that for a charge? Hopefully these posts won’t do the same.

Cognitive Dissonance and Human Personhood

A friend sent me this link this morning-it’s a picture of the youngest, lightest known child born alive. She is now entering high school as an honor student and a musician.

This makes for a good reason to talk about the problem of cognitive dissonance in our society. Cognitive dissonance is the state of holding to two beliefs simultaneously which contradict each other. There may be no more visible case of societal cognitive dissonance than the issue of unborn human life. On the one hand, abortion is not only legal, it is demanded in all its forms by vociferous segments of our world today. A good chunk of the U.N. population control policies involve funding for abortion, for instance. On the other hand, laws which protect pregnant women and their unborn children in cases like abuse and drunk driving are on the books in several states. Additionally, with the visibility of the Laci and Scott Peterson trial, several politicians have tried to pass “Laci’s Law” protecting unborn children on a federal level. As a result of these laws, people can be tried for double homicide if the mother and the unborn child die.

So which is it-is an unborn child a human person or not?

The apologetics literature and work on abortion is gargantuan, and in a lot of cases, very high quality, so I won’t rehearse all the arguments here for the personhood of unborn children. But I do want to make one point about what may be one of the worst arguments for abortion. Why take a look at a bad argument? Because it is believed by so many. Some hold to it consciously, others without reflecting on it. The argument is that fetuses take on human personhood when their mothers decide they are worth keeping. In this view, babies are not human until the mother wants them, or some other important party wants the organism to survive. Until then, they are sub-human biological organisms without any of the rights or benefits which come along with being a person.

To the contrary, human personhood is not conferred, it is innate. The argument for conferred personhood rests on a very postmodern and, might I add, Darwinistic metaphysic. If human dignity, value and morality are constructed by culture, then there are no innate values that come with being a particular kind of organism. Instead, a culture can determine among themselves what is and what is not worthy of their attention as special and protected creatures. This is not that different from extreme forms of xenophobia and slavery. In those cases one ethnic culture has decided that another ethnic culture is less human than they are and are not endued with the same value. In some of the more radical cases like that (think Rwanda, Sudan, etc.), human value is conferred based on the shapes of noses. In our case, value is conferred on the basis of things like matriarchal emotion, physical visibility, or economic viability.

Additionally, if the line between the animal and human biological kingdoms is seen exclusively in biological and physiological terms, then the difference between species is one of gradation-it is quantitative, not qualitative. There is no real way to put a mind through the same tests you put DNA through, so there is no way, given this worldview, to distinguish between mind and mind and mind and no mind. It is a reductionistic methodology which not only does not see human personhood in all of it’s splendor, it simply and technically cannot. It is impossible for a metaphysically naturalistic scientific endeavor to grade things beyond the natural. As a result, human personhood is reduced to something more akin to a conferred attribute than an innate property.

As Christians, we see personhood as something much more inviolable and divine than this. Although personhood is still in many respects a mystery (and it will remain that way until the Beatification), it remains rooted in the work and will of our Creator. It is a property we have qua humans. There is nothing in this world which can either confer or remove our humanity or the humanity of an unborn child, especially something as protean and unreliable as the emotion of desire. We are humans by divine decree.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Ben Franklin Goes To Church

Off and on for the past couple of months, I have been reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Recently, I came upon a passage in which he describes a series of events which lead him to decide to never return to church again. As a pastor, it is a sad story.

As a young printer in Philadelphia, he had a friendly relationship with the local Presbyterian pastor. From time to time the pastor would drop by Franklin’s shop and engage in small talk and invite him to church. At this point, Franklin, who was raised in a church-going home, was an infrequent, but regular attendee. One Sunday Franklin learned that the pastor’s text was Philippians 4:8, and because he had a great deal of interest in morality, he decided to attend and hear what the pastor had to say about the role of virtue in the life of the believer.

Unfortunately, instead of preaching on the content of the text the pastor spoke on several points of Reformed Doctrine and the respect due to a minister.

First of all, to miss the opportunity to teach on the content of Phil. 4:8 is a travesty all by itself. Secondly, this story stands as a kind of cautionary tale to pastors. Franklin was an intelligent man who saw (on his own) an opportunity to relate to the Church, and ultimately to the things of God. But instead of getting a clear presentation of the content of Scripture, he received an opinionated homily. In my view, the problem was not that the doctrine was necessarily wrong or somehow divisive because it was denominational, but that the minister failed to faithfully interact with the text. In the place of the proper position of submission to the text of Scripture, the minister placed his personal and his denomination’s doctrinal considerations first.

It is this submission to the text and faithfulness to the things of God which makes our churches lights on hills. Os Guiness has made the point that too many churches and church movements see the masses as sovereign and not the message. For the Church, the message should always be sovereign. Let the culture come and go as it may-that is what cultures do-but always let the Church remain rooted in the things of God. Having ministers who are humble and submissive when they approach the text of Scripture is where that begins.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Missional Church-Some Reflections

Now that the church plant I am heading up has become “official” knowledge, there are plenty of people asking me what the church will look like. These encounters have provided some interesting insights into the ways people think about church. You might think that when people ask you a question like that, they will then listen and absorb what you have to say. But from time to time, you would be wrong. I am discovering that there are a lot of people out there (especially Christians) who have what you might call prejudices about the shape of church.

To be fair, most people have listened to an explanation that has a lot to do with (in technical terms) exegesis and incarnational theology, and have responded positively. But there are those who don’t know how to react to a church model that is not programmatic or pragmatist. I had one well-meaning fellow actually disagree with me-that’s right, he asked me what the church’s vision was and when I told him, he disagreed with me. That is a little like the following conversation:

Potential Congregant, “So, pastor, how are you feeling today?”
Pastor, “I am feeling well, thank you.”
Potential Congregant, “I don’t think so.”

How does one respond to that?

In any event, the more I reflect on the culture and the role of the Church, the more I like the motivation behind the missional model. In several significant ways I think the culture has become post-Christian, and our role in the culture has changed somewhat. As a result, the Church in America is more of a missionary endeavor than it has been in the recent past, and that requires some changes in thought process.

What does this mean for church leaders? Here are a couple of quick thoughts. First, we need to exegete culture, find points of common grace, and utilize them. This is the process the great missionaries have always used when entering “the jungle,” and it is becoming more and more necessary for American Christians. Secondly, we need to pull people out of the nooks and crannies of culture which threaten their souls. As far as I can tell, good missions work not only meets people where they are, it betters their state and militates against evil societal impulses.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Intelligent Design and the Public Square

This forward to the book Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing is a fascinating look into the mind of an intellectual leader of the ID movement who seems pretty put out with the myopic tyranny of Darwinism. I highly recommend this article to anyone who follows the ID movement on any level. I have not read the book, but I have read several of the contributors to great profit.

It has caused me to reflect about the place of Christian (or religious) views in the public square. The ID movement has argued that the public square is large enough for all views to be debated on their merits. This view seems to me to be almost overly reasonable-so reasonable, in fact, that it seems to be summarily dismissed by the current gatekeepers of the culture. Philip Johnson and others in the ID movement have made the comment that evolutionary theory/Darwinism has the money and the media on their side while the ID movement has the science. A pretty bold claim! But it is one that they are willing to present to the bar of reason. That is one of the things I like so much about the ID movement.

The Virtue of Friendship

I caught part of a piece on NPR this morning on the subject of friendship. It reminded me of some things that others have written about the subject, and it made me think a little more on the issue as a Christian. Friendship is an issue we don’t often reflect upon, but I think it holds some great benefit for the believer and the development of a virtuous and Christ-like life.

Among other things, I believe that friendship, true friendship, helps to develop the virtue of humility in our lives. Consider some of these things written by Aristotle in Book 8 of his Nicomachean Ethics. In this passage he argues that friendships built on utility (usefulness) or pleasure are inherently selfish and dissolve quickly-it is the very nature of selfishness to use something up until it becomes useless and then discard it. On the other hand, friendships built on love, goodwill and reciprocation (a degree of selflessness) are longer lasting, and in reality, relatively rare. Aristotle says:

Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.


…but to a friend we say we ought to wish what is good for his sake. But to those who thus wish good we ascribe only goodwill, if the wish is not reciprocated; goodwill when it is reciprocal being friendship.

He goes on to say that this true notion of friendship is not only a virtue to be treasured in one’s life, but it presupposes virtue. It requires good people to make good friends. Otherwise, you are left with a one-sided relationship which does not reach the level of true friendship. One person may have true feelings of friendship toward the other, but if the other is lacking the virtue of selflessness, the relationship will inevitably dissolve over time.

Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends;… But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare.

As a Christian I see in this the virtue of humility. Tending for a friendship over a long period of time will force me to pay more attention to the friend than to myself. In this way it is not too much different from a marriage in which two people should pay more attention to the other and to the union than themselves. Friendship requires us to put up with the give-and-take that so often happens between people. Friendship requires us to hang-on to a friend when they don’t feel like a friend. But in the end, true friendship cannot thrive if there are not two people who are, in Aristotle’s terms, “good people.”

Following Aristotle, a relationship is no longer a friendship if it is carried by one person. That is care taking, or mentoring, or parenting, but not friendship. It is exactly the reciprocal nature of friendship which makes it different from these other activities and which makes it a good to be sought after over the others. Friendship is a higher good than these other relationships in that in their humble and selfless state, friends find themselves fulfilled.