Monday, October 30, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship 5: Life Application Sermons

Part 1
Part 2

Part 3
Part 4


In this post I want to tackle a possibly controversial topic. It is my belief that when pastors try to be too “practical application” oriented in their sermons, the paradoxical but inevitable result is that their sermons apply to fewer and fewer people. The solution to sermonizing that is nothing but storytelling and “life-application” is sermonizing that is exegetically grounded. I believe that when we let the text do the speaking, the Holy Spirit is able to take the Word and apply it to each and every life far better than I could if I worried too much about applying it for people.

This first struck me as a real problem with “story-telling” preaching several years ago sitting under a pastor who had a gift for connecting with people, and who genuinely loved the members of his church. I enjoyed him personally, and was enjoying the prospect of sitting under his preaching. But just a couple of weeks in, I knew I wasn’t taking anything home with me. His sermons were comprised of story after story and a few thoughts thrown in from books on coaching. As I listened to his stories, it dawned on me that exactly zero of his “life application” attempts had any kind of real connection with my life.

The reason was that he narrowed the focus of his sermons to the list of stories he could come up with for his topic, thus excluding the congregants whose lives did not fit any of the contexts of the tales.

On the other hand, over the years I have spent pastoring, teaching, and sermonizing, the greatest results I have seen or heard from sermons came after a minister opened Scripture and let it do the talking. It is absolutely incredible what a passage of Scripture can do when it is allowed to do all the work. Recently I spoke on 1 Kings 19 and focused on how God worked with the depressed and hopeless Elijah. My primary point concerned the “low whisper” (how the ESV translates “still small voice”) in which God spoke to His prophet. After the service, a bunch of us went out to eat, and people were talking to me about the sermon and what they got out of it. To my pleasant surprise, they did see and comprehend what I put across, but they were all drawn to other parts of the passage that were read aloud in service and dealt with, if even on a cursory level. God spoke to people because the service let Him do the talking and applying.

The overarching point, I believe, is this: practical application without principal is practically useless. It is the principals in Scripture that do the work of transforming the heart and mind, and they can only do their work if the minister behind the pulpit is dedicated enough to do their homework theologically and biblically and brave enough to get out of the way.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship 4 - Truth vs. Grace?

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

In this post I want to discuss the outcomes of discipleship. If we are trying to disciple people (or ourselves), then surely we can come to some kind of conclusion regarding what looks like success.

I was recently perusing a blog dedicated to discipleship and noticed that many of the posts and large chunks of the discussion were dedicated to service—both to the community and to the rest of the world. In fact, a recent edition of Christianity Today contained an article describing a growing trend among college-aged evangelicals in which they are more than willing to give up a consumerist lifestyle in order to serve the needy across the world. More and more young people are willing to embrace relative poverty to engage with social justice.

There is a catch, however, with this crowd of young people, and it is the catch with all action/service oriented discipleship. The article notes:

Unfortunately, many students today exhibit theological confusion. "Too many college students are not convinced about the exclusive claims of Christ and the eternal lostness of humanity," says Terry Erickson, InterVarsity's director of evangelism. "Students today are more grace-oriented than truth-oriented." Erickson notes that young people on missions trips today may not be articulating the gospel's promise of eternal salvation through Christ's death on the Cross as clearly as they are demonstrating their concern for social justice and compassion for the poor.

In other words, these missionaries are trading truth for grace. In such a scenario, we find ourselves meeting the earthly needs of people who will die and be lost for eternity because we were soft on spiritual truth. It is a wonderful and necessary thing to meet physical and economic needs; it is a necessary thing to meet spiritual needs.

The fundamental problem with seeing service or action as discipleship is that it is entirely possible to be engaged in service without following Christ. And if we are engaged in service and not following the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we are not engaged in Christian discipleship. I take it to be fundamentally true that someone cannot be an advancing disciple of Christ and reject/neglect His and Scripture’s truth claims about the nature of the human soul and spiritual realities.

Don’t get me wrong. Service and action are necessary results of discipleship. Paul says we are saved to do the works God planned for us: “He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Eph. 2:10)

So if we can “do things for God” without actually being a disciple of Christ, what would constitute something in our lives that would guarantee or certify discipleship? The first things that come to mind are the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, isn’t that exactly how they are delivered to us? The flesh does certain things, but the Spirit of God does other things. Therefore, we know the Spirit of God is at work within us when those things are in our lives. In addition, I would add the virtue lists of the New Testament. Again, these lists have everything to do with character that is formed more by Christ than by this world.

On one level it might seem simplistic to say that a disciple of Christ is someone who is longsuffering; they are patient people. But, if you have ever had your patience tried, and failed at being patient, you know that when the rubber hits the road, there is nothing simplistic about it at all. In fact, you might reflect and say that the only way you could have been patient in certain circumstances is with a kind of divine aid. Add to this forgiveness, humility, joy, repentance, or peace, and you have a list that sounds only like Christ and sounds almost nothing like me.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship 3: Barriers to Following Christ

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In this post I want to raise two important barriers to Christian discipleship. My wife and I were recently in a neighborhood showing of The Truth Project. It is a DVD series intended to convey the Christian worldview, especially to Christians and spiritual seekers. The conversation that followed fascinated me when it came to reflecting on belief formation in general and Christian discipleship specifically.

As a result of our conversation, and many others I have had with Christians and non-Christians over the years, I see at least two serious barriers to becoming thorough followers of Christ: individualism, and our current attitude toward authority.

The two attitudes are closely related but have a subtle distinction in this context. By individualism I intend to convey the idea that many people in our culture consider themselves the most important guide in the formation of their spiritual beliefs. Most people would not consider themselves the primary source of good information on biology, constitutional law, quantum theory, simple math, or many other things, but they do when it comes to spiritual truths. The belief that spiritual matters are not true in the same way that science is true creates the intellectual space in most people to consider themselves to be their own experts on spiritual matters. If, however, we believed that finding spiritual truth is akin to finding quantum truth, we might not be so haughty.

In addition, our current attitude toward authority keeps us from listening seriously to the teachings of the Church, theologians, or any spiritual authority (e.g. the first reaction of many people to the expression of authority is negative). Very simply, we are in a culture that has a basic, and rather deep-seated, distrust of authority. Again, we do not necessarily have that reaction to the resident authority on molecular biology or astronomy, but such terms as “ethical authority” or “religious authority” strike us as oxymoronic.

Why are these problems for Christian discipleship? First of all, finding spiritual truth is not, in a significant way, unlike finding truth in anthropology or astrophysics. All three fields make propositional statements about the structure of reality, and there are better and worse reasons for believing one theory or another. Holding a false belief about anything this fundamental is a barrier to progress. Secondly, individualists who distrust religious authority are less likely to find the right path when they have wondered down the wrong one. Not only will they need to have the wherewithal to reason through their errors, but they also need to be convinced that there are errors at all in the world of the spiritual.

These are a pair of the challenges that face the church of Jesus Christ today. Our pews are filled with latent and fully aware individualists. Our streets are filled with cultural Christians who have no good reason to take anybody’s word but their own when it comes to their spiritual beliefs.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Gender Variance, Baby!

This blog by Albert Mohler cites a couple of articles in Florida and California in which school children are being subjected to a view sometimes labeled “gender variance” where children are not “forced” into traditional gender roles, but encouraged to construct their own genders from a very young age.

As Mohler notes, this is a dramatic and profound worldview shift. Right at the foundation of the issue is the conflict between a Christian view of humanity where personhood is essentially a given and the postmodern view where personhood is essentially constructed. This postmodern view reflects the rampant individualism and narcissism inherent in our current culture. Not only will we not let “the man” tell us who we are going to be, we won’t even let our own genetic make up tell us what gender we will be! Instead of resting in the “givenness” and grace of our creation in the image of God, we are left to drift on the currents of our shifting culture and mores. Though many might argue that this postmodern view allows us to become who we really want to be, and is actually empowering, it leaves us in a mire of moral confusion with no real ground to stand on. Has our culture, which has been finding itself for decades, become more mentally healthy and grounded or less?

Reincarnation Conundrum

This latest Q&A at Dr. Science is priceless. This philosophy student asks a rather observant question about the plausibility of reincarnation. Dr. Science's answer is priceless--especially the first line.

Q: I'm a student of esoteric spiritual philosophy at a community college, and am puzzled by theories of reincarnation. If the population of the world keeps steadily increasing, how can we all be reincarnated from the smaller number of people who lived before? And why do so many people insist that in their former lives they were kings and queens, when obviously royalty were the vast minority?

A: I've got a secret for you, Bob. Most people are really, really stupid. The delusional few insist they are reincarnated versions of Louis the Fourteenth, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc or John Wilkes Booth are probably borderline schizophrenics. The only form of continual re-birth that has been proven is "Reintarnation," which is a common in Arkansas and insures a steady supply of hillbillies.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Virtual Narcissism

In another project that I am involved in at the moment, I have been reading a lot about online/virtual communities. A popular argument is that given the judicious use of technology and interaction, virtual communities can be as rewarding, if not more rewarding, than face to face communities.

One of the arguments usually made to support the value of getting to know people online is that I am able to find people who match my interests and values better if I look for them online. If I were left to just the people I come in contact with on a regular basis, I might be left with a pretty small group of real friends.

First, the act of creating communities among those who are very much like me is inherently narcissistic. I go to MySpace, my favorite forum board, Goggle some topic I am fond of, and find someone to talk with. It all begins with me and what I find interesting and important. Part of what is so valuable with face to face communication is that if forces me to interact with people unlike myself, people I do not presently like, and people with whom I have a very difficult time communicating. It forces me to grow.

Secondly, one of the values of face to face friendships is that they make me expand and step out of my personal likes and dislikes. A good friend will help me become a better person, in part, by being different than I am. If I am to enjoy their company, I am going to learn how to interact with them on a deep and meaningful level.

If I am buried in virtual communities of people who are mostly like me, and find most of my relationships in these circles, I lose out on these real and meaningful benefits of face to face interactions.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Intelligent Design In The Square

I have a personal theory that is gaining speed all the time. Naturalists, atheists and well-meaning agnostics have a sense of academic and intellectual entitlement that leads them to believe they have a corner on the market of truth and science. It has lead many of them to become intellectually lazy. Theists and Christians have been on the receiving end of the academic blows for the past several decades (if not centuries) and have become all the stronger for it. As a result, many of them present superior arguments and demeanors in public debate when serious academic issues are at stake.

To put a fine point on it, when I say they present “superior arguments,” I mean they actually present arguments about the issues and not about the people involved. Many of the “arguments” against views that overlap with theistic views today are, frankly, ad hominum and off point.

Case in point.

In a recent edition of Think Tank on PBS, Dr. Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, was on to present the Intelligent Design point of view. His interlocutor was Dr. Michael Ruse, Director of the Program in the Philosophy of the History of Science at Florida State University and a leading Darwinist. In the first few minutes the host asked Meyer if he could distinguish ID from Creationism. He did a very good job of doing so. He then asked Ruse to rebut or respond to Meyer’s assertion.

How long do you think it took for Ruse to argue that because Meyer and other ID proponents were theists of one stripe or another that their theory should be rejected? If you read the transcript, you will scroll through about 4 pages of material (most of it introductory). In fact, Ruse revealed all his philosophical cards early on in the interview:

Nevertheless, I would want to say, for both creationism and intelligent design theory, there’s a deeply, deeply, antiscientific, anti naturalistic attitude which ultimately goes back to the bible being read more literally than traditional Christians would read it.

In other words, to be scientific in any publicly acceptable meaning of the word is to, by definition, be a naturalist. This ubiquitous opinion is exactly why Johnson’s and the Discovery Institute’s famous “Wedge Strategy” is so on point—the first battle to be won in this debate is philosophical.

Ruse was not shy in his evaluation of ID’s basic flaw:

I think you’re profoundly mistaken, I think you are often more religious than you let on, I think that you do try strategies to get around the separation of church and state, I think all of those things. But I think that you are deeply sincerely, if misguided evangelical Christians. So that is very much where I come from, and that’s where I feel at least we can meet there. Now let’s get back to the science.

And this after dwelling on the topic of religion which he and the interviewer raised as real defeaters for the ID case.

To this particular point in the discussion, Dr. Meyer has made it clear that the premises of ID are not theological, and to damn it for its possible theological implications is what he called a “fashionable way of avoiding our arguments.” And of course, Ruse rejected that point while continuing to make theology and religion the issue. By the time Ruse accuses Meyer of possibly being a “misguided evangelical,” Meyer has stated in no uncertain terms, at least twice, what the basic scientific position of Intelligent Design is: is design in nature apparent or real? To this same point, Dr. Ruse’s only rebuttal has been ad hominum: you and your kind are Christians and not naturalists.

Dr. Meyer has also, by this point, revealed the flaws in Ruse’s reasoning. First, Ruse dislikes a possible philosophical/theological implication of ID, and thus rejects the scientific arguments. That is a little bit like arguing: I really want to be able to fly, so I am going to reject the science of gravity. (ID is not a natural law like gravity, but the point is analogous—avoid the premise by denying the implications of the conclusion.)

Secondly, Ruse commits the ‘guilty by association’ fallacy. Because Meyer is a practicing Christian (the interviewer questions him on his religious beliefs at least twice), his motives are devious and his science is inadmissible. I have a friend whose mother would not let him grow a mustache because, she believed, all people with moustaches were “hiding something.” Dr. Ruse has a moustache. Am I justified, based on his reasoning, and taking a cue from my friend’s mother, in believing that he is hiding something?

I am willing to believe that there are serious Darwinists and Naturalists out there who are actually doing scientific and philosophical work on ID, but every time an expert is pulled out of the queue, even on a serious program like Think Tank, they never do.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Reflections On Discipleship 2

Part 1
First of all, thanks to all who have contributed so far to this thread of posts!

As a result, I want to focus briefly on a couple of issues.

First: An associate pastor friend of mine and I were talking about discipleship and we both were in agreement when it came to the necessary component of what gets modeled from behind the pulpits of the church. Rich noted in the comments to the last post that more often than not senior pastors see discipleship as something that they can relegate to an associate over C.E. and that a few people will choose to engage in. Frankly, if the senior pastor is not growing in discipleship, that lack will show in their ministry, and the church will follow suit. If maturity in Christ likeness is not a value to the ministry of a church, the church will not value it either.

Dallas Willard has noted that discipleship is not for the specially gifted or for those who desire to be discipled; it is the most basic and fundamental activity expected of every Christ follower. Where do we get this notion that discipleship is for the egg-heads and intellectuals among us? Wherever we got it, it has done a great deal of disservice to the Church.

This kind of modeling behavior does not only take place from behind the pulpit but in deliberate relationships as well. We learn what it means to live a Christ like life not just from learning the life of Christ, but from watching the lives of those who are further down the path than we are.

Second: I don’t know how long we can continue to pretend to “do church” when Scripture is not the center piece of our services. Due to a lot of forces out there, not the least of which is the church-growth/seeker-sensitive set of models, the role of Scripture has diminished in our churches. The more preachers I hear, the more I fit their sermons into one of two categories: Personal Soapbox and Glorified Self-Help. In both cases Scripture is given a nod as the minister grabs some small portion of Scripture to support the sermon on either the evils of [pick your demon] or the practical blessings of adding Jesus to your busy life. “With Jesus, it will all be better!”

Leave the self-help to the self-help gurus. Give people Jesus Christ and watch Him put their lives in order.

The result of this kind of preaching is a biblically illiterate culture of church-goers who are clearly not any kind of serious impact on our culture. Augustine changed his world by feeding his flocks true doctrine and, for example, going into great theological depth concerning issues like lying. John Wesley told a young preacher he was lively but shallow and that the only way to deepen himself as a preacher and a Christian was to read the classics (by which he meant Plato, Homer, Hume, Pascal, etc.) And I think we would agree that Wesley clearly made an impact.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Keep that Religion To Yourself!

In this timely blog entry, Robert George and Patrick Lee respond to a new book about science, religion and politics. In Challenging Nature, Lee Silver contends that the view that embryos are humans is inherently theological in nature, and thus does not belong in the public square. According to George and Lee, Silver:

insists that our views about the humanity and dignity of the human embryo are grounded in religious beliefs. He accuses us of concocting a scientific sounding case against embryo-destructive research in an effort to impose our religious beliefs on others while evading the constitutional prohibition of laws respecting an establishment of religion

and

Silver says that the claim that human embryos are human beings at an early stage of development is “hidden theology.”

George and Lee then analyze this claim by splitting it into two possible assertions. First, they say, Silver could be saying they hold their view of embryonic status as a theological view and are hiding that fact behind scientific sounding arguments. George and Lee appropriately dismiss that argument as ridiculously ad hominum. In the second place, Silver could be saying their argument depends on a theological premise whether they admit it or not.

The rest of the article is a phenomenal critique of this second argument by Silver and a great position paper for the full human status of embryos. What I want to comment on is the prevalence of Silver’s conclusion in our political culture.

It is assumed in a growing number of circles that religious points of view have no place in political dialogue. The form this is currently taking is actually quite frightening. As Silver’s position serves to show us, if you believe a human being is a human being, you are a closet religious fundamentalist and do not deserve the status of public thinker.

And it is not just the debate about embryonic status. Take abortion, or the Intelligent Design argument. Because the conclusions of many are in line with orthodox Christian theology, those conclusions ought not to be considered. It’s a classic “guilty by association” point of view. This argument (as the blog above shows) and the consequences of this view are absurd.

The argument is a kind of conspiracy theory on one level. It goes like: if you hold a belief that overlaps a belief consistent with Christianity, you are not being honest about your theological fundamentalism and you need to be “outed” as someone who should not be listened to (no matter your actual argument or evidence). Another way of putting it: it is impossible to come to conclusions consistent with Christianity and not be a dishonest fundamentalist.

The consequence is the strangling of serious ethical dialogue. According to Silver’s argument, the argument of the judge who presided over the Dover ID case, and the positions of many in the public eye, there are views that simply do not belong in the public square. And that is, as presented above, a deeply myopic and na├»ve view to hold. If scientists and public figures like Silver cannot seriously interact with a view contrary to their own, deal with the premises, come up with counter arguments or revise their own arguments, then they are probably susceptible to the charge of being intellectually dishonest.

Another problem at the root of this problem is another gigantic issue—the pervasive and pre-reflective religious relativism in our culture. Religious views are personal and not applicable to the real world; scientific views (as held by naturalists) are the only allowable views in public dialogue.

But that is a whole other set of thoughts.

Rabbit Trail: I am growing in my conviction in a theory of mine. Because Christians and theists have been perceived as the riffraff of public intellectuals for so long, they have had the time and incentive to develop better and better arguments for their points of view. Intellectuals like Silver and the Dover judge have grown intellectually sluggish with their supposed academic dominance over that “medieval” point of view. As a result, it will not be long before most of the serious and great thinkers in our culture will be theists of one stripe or another. I guess Darwin was right…

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship--Part 1

I was recently asked to take part in a Commission my denomination is putting together on Christian Education and Discipleship. I am very excited to be a part of this for several reasons, but primarily because discipleship is at the heart of my calling. God called me and constructed me to be a discipler and teacher, and now I have an opportunity to mix with others of the same mindset from across the country and hopefully combine some of my ideas with theirs. It promises to be a terrific learning and growing experience.

But what I want to do here, partly in preparation for our meetings, is to spend some time brainstorming on Christian Discipleship. I hope to create a small online think tank on the issue for at least a while as we share our ideas, experiences, and hopes for the growth and maturity of the Church. Feel free to share any thoughts on where you agree, disagree, or have something to add.

To get us started, here are some of my initial thoughts on the issue in general.

First: a focus on discipleship is sorely needed in the evangelical church. The statistics on what young people believe about the facts of Scripture and theology are deeply depressing, and the overall impact of the evangelical church in the culture at large is arguably minimal.

Second: nominal Christianity is rampant and dulling our senses to our need. Because most people in our culture (if the polls are to be believed) have a vague sense that they believe in God, their understanding of their need to know Christ intimately is nearly nil. The problem is not much less in our churches.

Third: discipleship is not for the spiritually gifted. It is a fundamental expectation of each and every Christ-follower. The early church was careful to pass along correct doctrine, catechize its new and young members, and expected all to be a follower of Christ in word and deed.

Fourth: discipleship is not just a destination, but also a journey. We cannot accomplish discipleship in a 6-week course. We also cannot look at discipleship as something that “happened” at some point in our life. Both the destination and the journey are crucial. We cannot remove the targets of relationship with Christ and knowledge of God, and we need to whet appetites for the lifelong journey that is following Christ.

Fifth: discipleship requires biblical literacy. I, along with some others I have read recently, am convinced that a great deal of the nominalism, and hence ineffectiveness, in the Church today can be traced back in large part to biblical illiteracy. We simply cannot actually answer the question: What would Jesus do?

Sixth: discipleship will be greatly aided with the resurgence of the spiritual disciplines in the evangelical world. The disciplines are not about rote activity or vain repetition—they are about putting our hearts, minds, and bodies in a place where they can be touched and used by God.

What else?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Encouragement for Pastors of Smaller Churches

Between Two Worlds: Encouragement for Pastors of Smaller Churches

These are some great thoughts concerning preaching the Word and the size of your church. We place so much emphasis upon size that we often miss the point John Piper makes to the question about small churches that teach doctrine--Jesus told Peter three times to feed my sheep. The command is pretty straight forward and independent from congregational size.

It is easy for us to get on the bandwagon of size and internal (within our own church circles) influence, but is that really what pastoring is about?