Friday, October 31, 2008

Why I (Still) Belong to the Assemblies of God

It has been documented on this blog and in several studies (here, here) that the evangelical pastorate in general and the Assemblies of God in particular are losing young pastors. Much is being said and written on the topic of why this is happening, and my denomination has even started to study the phenomenon and prepare a response. Personally, I came to a serious crossroads about 5 years ago where I had to decide between staying with the AG and planting a church, or changing my life’s direction and moving forward with something more like the Calvary Chapel movement. Through it all, I remain AG.

This, however, does not mean I think the AG has everything right either doctrinally or culturally. In fact, one reason I keep my credentials and pay my dues is I think the AG is a worthwhile organization to pour my efforts into, even if they are reforming efforts. In the light of some of the things being said out there, I would like to reflect for a few minutes on why I stayed with the AG.

Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
Let’s get the 800lb gorilla out of the way first. I believe in the basics of the AG position on this doctrine. Scripture shows believers have the expectation of a second baptism after conversion in which there is a special filling of the Holy Spirit. The apostles taught it, practiced it, and Paul corrected its use without stopping it. My stance on the book of Acts is that it is not just historically descriptive, but indicative/prescriptive of church practice through the ages. I do not pretend to believe there is a 1-to-1 dynamic between the early church and contemporary church, but it contains theological guideposts nonetheless, and this means one of those guideposts is the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

That being said, we need to do some serious theological and hermeneutical work on this doctrine. The practice of this doctrine has largely been left in the hands of charismatic and sometimes wild and crazy ministers who set the pattern of what it means to “receive the Holy Spirit.” Instead of a culture of practice, we need a theology of practice—an orthopraxy focused on speaking in tongues and baptism of the Spirit in general. Most people who reject the doctrine of baptism of the Holy Spirit are primarily rejecting the poor practice of receiving the Holy Spirit. As a pastor, I cannot tell how many times this comes true once one or two layers of resistance to this doctrine are peeled back. Parishioners tend to have a problem with the doctrine because they have been burned by the practice.

I suspect the same thing is true of many ministers. I grew up in the AG, and though my personal experience was far from the stereotypical “fire and brimstone,” I have seen and cleaned up after my share of rotten practices. After a few years of the wrong youth camp speakers, confused kids, and a lack of doctrinal correction, I am not surprised when a young pastor moves on without the AG.

The AG is one of the largest and most influential denominations on the planet (one of the largest worldwide denominations in the second largest Christian movement—Pentecostalism is second only to Catholicism across the globe). And in all honesty, this puts a ton of pressure on us to get it right. We can’t be satisfied with a “shoot from the hip” mentality when it comes to any of our doctrinal positions, much less the ones we consider our distinctives.

The Denomination
Much is also made of whether denominations are of any use anymore, or if they naturally and necessarily lead to divisive denominationalism. To the first count, I think denominations broadly understood will always be with us and will always be necessary. To the second count, I think the answer can be no.

There are some, primarily among the emergent movement, who are rigidly anti-doctrinaire and who see the doctrinal divisions of denominations as a sin. Once a little thought is applied, however, I think this view is a little na├»ve. To take a stance on, say, the uniqueness of Christ is to align yourself with others who think the same way. (I will deal with the topic of irenic encounter below.) If you refuse to take a position on this issue, you align yourself with those who do the same. If you consider Christ unique, you stand with orthodox Christianity though the ages. In other words, any stance on any issue—even if it is a “non-stance”—aligns you with some group of people. And in broad terms, all denominations do is put those people together for similar causes.

There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. In fact, I think it can be argued from Scripture and from reason that the only logical and rational thing to do is to align with what you think is the truth of the matter. Even those who don’t want to take a stance on truth believe that their position is the true position. There is just no getting away from doctrinal fraternity, no matter what set of positions you want to take.

Though it is true that denominations are sometimes used to exclude others or make other Christians look less holy than ourselves, denominations do not necessarily lead to this behavior. In fact, the traditional and healthy Christian position on doctrinal truth is humility, not arrogance. I really don’t care if First Church of Such and Such down the street creates an atmosphere of us versus them, I won’t do it.

In addition, I do not see an elitist attitude among the current AG leadership, and I don’t see it on the local level among the pastors and leaders I respect. This tells me—and my own practice tells me—I can belong to a denomination and love my brothers and sisters in Christ all the same. To young ministers who complain about denominationalism because they know some divisive pastors—get over it.

Freedom Within These Bounds
I like what others have called the pastoral entrepreneurship valued in the AG. We were born on the backs of church planters and missionaries, and we had the DNA of innovation bred into us at an early age.

[Insider’s note: I have always said the departments in the AG that have this right are World Missions and Chi Alpha, both of which are very focused and highly motivated missionary endeavors.]

One seasoned pastor told me more than once that no matter what happens at our denominational meetings, we can go home and do church the way God called us to do church. This, I believe, is a strength.

But we may be struggling to maintain this vision. In my opinion, much of the AG culture became stuck somewhere in the 1950s-1970s, and has not yet become comfortable with moving ahead. This is certainly a generalization, but it is a significant enough reality to make some things hard on younger ministers. Why should a younger pastor be expected to look like a young pastor 30 years ago? Are we keeping a forward-looking focus as we train young ministers to do what God called them to do in this culture and not another? I don’t know if I have any clean answers to these questions, but I think they should be dealt with.

The Arminian/Wesleyan Tradition
For those who are more theologically inclined, I have always appreciated the doctrinal atmosphere given to us by our broader theological heritage. The more I study it, the more convinced I am of an Arminian/Wesleyan view of the doctrines of God, Christology, and salvation. Among other things, we are pressed forward into the world with the Gospel of Christ to preach the truth to as many as possible. I like being part of a denomination where I can have just about as many missionaries from around the globe as possible come and interact with our congregation. It is true I can become an independent pastor and maintain this practice, but I would then lack the network created by the AG. And if I want to maintain the AG’s network of ministry and leave the denomination, is that not a kind of ecclesiastical welfare?

Here again is where I think the denomination as a whole can provide better grounding for the AG and for evangelicalism. I believe our schools should pour more effort into the theological development necessary to answer the issues we face today. What of the doctrine of hell? How can we articulate this difficult doctrine in our world in a way that is faithful to Scripture and enlightening to our culture? What about open theism? Some believe the Arminian view naturally leads this direction, and I disagree. The AG needs to take a serious stance on the future knowledge and efficacious activity of God. What about other religions and salvation through Christ? The smaller our world becomes (and the more influential Oprah becomes) the more this is a serious problem for our people. Why hasn’t the AG set forth a thoughtful and pastoral effort on this front?

I think our theological heritage provides the resources necessary to move ahead in theological and pastoral development, but I just don’t see much of it happening.

In the end, I will sign my papers this year and pay my dues. I do not believe we are perfect, but neither will I make a “best of the possible options” argument. I think there is more to us than that.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Which Jesus is Your Favorite?

Which Jesus is your favorite? We may not be fans of the Jesus of the Liberation movement, holding an AK-47 and redistributing wealth, but we do have our favorite culturally influenced Jesus. Maybe it’s “Jesus meek and mild,” or the Jesus that belongs to one political party or another. Some of us like the Jesus who stands up for the oppressed and poor, and others of us like the Jesus who teaches, corrects and reproves.

Whichever one you feel drawn to, enjoy this clip of an utterly hyperbolic, yet pretty funny, portrayal of Jesus in cultural captivity.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Ridiculous Religulous

There is a small and smarmy documentary in a couple of theatres right now by Bill Maher called “Religulous.” If you know anything about Maher’s leanings, you already know all you need to know about a film by him investigating how ridiculous religion, specifically Christianity, is. Certainly this is destined to be among the great intellectual artifacts we leave our grandchildren right alongside “Borat” and “High Karate” cologne. I often thank God for people who see movies like this one so the rest of us don’t have to. The STR blog cites a review from National Review and notes:

...Maher thinks he knows so much more about the target of his opprobrium than he actually does. He makes his first mistake in the first line of the movie by referring to the “Book of Revelations” — it’s not plural — and it just snowballs from there.

Within a few minutes Maher is denying not just the divinity of Jesus Christ but his actual historical existence, a question disputed by almost no credible scholar. You can argue that it is difficult to believe in Jesus’s existence considering that primary records for his existence are recorded by only a precious few devoted disciples who recorded his allegorical teachings in detail as well as the social unrest they inspired. Then again, if that’s the standard – you probably don’t believe Socrates either.

It should be at least a little embarrassing that Maher hasn’t done much of the hard work necessary to actually tackle these issues. But then again, one man’s shame is another’s glory.

Another review of the worldview behind the movie is done by D’Souza. D’Souza notes that though Maher takes the tried-and-true road of finding the weakest and easiest targets, it doesn’t always work.

You get the picture: Maher is in search of weak opponents that he can embarrass. Still, it’s remarkable how many of them get the better of him. On one occasion Maher interviews a Jesus actor at a Holy Land Experience who seems like a carefully selected dummy. But when Maher asks him to explain the Trinity, the actor says it can be understood in the same way that water appears in three quite different forms: in a solid form, as ice; in liquid form, as water; and in the gaseous form of water vapor. Maher is completely stumped by this and rendered speechless.

In another segment, Maher talks to some blue collar guys worshipping at a Trucker’s Chapel in Raleigh, North Carolina. They are overweight and poorly dressed and they cannot answer all his questions, but one says that he used to be a drug addict and “I gave all that up when I got saved.” At the end of the discussion, just before Maher’s triumphant exit, the truckers hold hands and pray for Maher. This is the sole moving moment in the film, and in a way that Maher doesn’t realize, it raises these simple people entirely above his snide sophistication.

D’Souza’s conclusion:

Ultimately he is an intellectual coward who relies on the argumentum ad ignorantium—the argument that relies on the ignorance of the audience.

Missing Young Evangelicals

For several years now the evangelical movement has been bleeding young people. As this post from STR points out, there is hysteria out there, but there are good reasons to be concerned. STR cites several studies including one from my denomination, the Assemblies of God, which don’t look good. Even when they are averaged and taken conservatively, we may be losing about 50% of our young people after they leave high school. STR concludes:

It's safe to conclude the church is losing a significant portion of its young people for some period of time. Even if we take Barna's lower numbers and then cut 10% off to be extra conservative, we're still talking about losing half of our young people.

To some, the answer is the direction the emergent movement is going. A better answer is to look at youth and college ministry through different lenses and actually disciple these kids. Before they leave their families, familiar church surroundings and social networks, they need to be grounded in their relationships with Christ. A more detailed answer would be, well, much more detailed. Maybe you have some more thoughts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Why We Never Cite Wikipedia

I would never recommend watching the Colbert Report, but this is actually pretty clever. I think you would do better with your time reading a good Dr. Seuss book, or building a paper-mache "famous noses" collection. But a friend clued me into Colbert's effort to "unendanger" elephants by changing their numbers on Wikipedia. I thought that was actually quite clever. I hunted down a related video about what he calls "Wikiality" and am now posting it for my online students as an example of why we never, ever, cite Wikipedia in our papers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Secret Shoppers, Meet Your Next Paycheck

So what is next in the world of churches driven by the retail market? Where will the next set of cutting-edge churches learning from the greatest corporate execs go? How does a church obsessed with its “street-cred” make sure it is passing the grade? Well, with mystery worshipers. What the church really needs are OCD consultants traveling across the country secretly grading churches on all the really important things like the quality of the parking lot stripes and the stains on the carpet. No kidding.

Mr. Harrison, a 51-year-old former Assemblies of God minister who launched his secret-shopper service in 2006, charges about $1,500 plus travel expenses for a site inspection, worship-service evaluation and detailed report.

And in true corporate model fashion, churches are graded on all the crucial matters Jesus would be thinking about if he walked into your church.

"Thomas [Harrison] hits you with the faded stripes in the parking lot," says Stan Toler, pastor of Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City, who hires a secret shopper every quarter. "If you've got cobwebs, if you've got ceiling panels that leak, he's going to find it."

Hold on—it gets even more incisive:

One weekend this past summer, Mr. Harrison drove up to Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, in a bright-red rented Chevrolet. Armed with a digital camera, he trolled the church's grounds and its new $13 million sanctuary, snapping shots of weeds growing in the parking lot, loose lighting fixtures and a fuse box missing a lid. "Please cover as soon as possible," he wrote in his 67-page report.

Lest I accidentally insinuate this is a trite profession, Harrison does get to the heart of the matter when grading the sermon. After all, churches safeguard the things once and for all delivered to the saints. I don’t think I could describe the average evangelical sermon better than he does in this report:

The message is appropriate and meaningful. It is challenging and inspiring.

The weeds in the concrete received more attention.

I don’t want to accidentally insinuate this is a trite activity—I want to be as obvious as possible. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have both bad and ridiculous consequences. With the advent of secret worship shoppers, the corporate model of meeting the felt needs of the culture fast-food style has finally reached a new height on the mountain of ridiculousness. Who in the world needs to hire self-important and overly critical worship shoppers? I get those on almost a weekly basis for free.

Here’s another idea. How about, instead of hiring a man who got his start in the secret shopper business trolling pizza joints in Oklahoma (true!), a church hire a trusted theologian from their denomination’s seminary to show up in their Ph.D. regalia, sit on the front row, and make sure that what is said from behind the pulpit coheres with say, Scripture.

Radical, I know. But then, this consumer-driven church world needs a few more iconoclasts.

HT: Between Two Worlds

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Arminian Theology Defended--Finally!

My theology is specifically Pentecostal, and more broadly Protestant and Arminian. As such, I don’t necessarily fit easily into the more “acceptable” trends in evangelical theology. As I listen to and read some of the leading evangelical theologians, I know Arminianism is often derided as semi-Pelagian or Pelagian. (Never mind the general stance toward Pentecostal theology from the same circles!) I have never believed that good Arminian theology is Pelagian or semi-Pelagian, which is one reason why I have appreciated this book by Roger Olson so much.

As the title suggests, his goal is to debunk the most popular myths about Arminian theology, lay out a basic explanation of what good Arminian theology is and defend why it is part of the evangelical, orthodox stream of Protestantism. This issue is important to me, so I am chewing through the book slowly. And to aid me in my reflection, I am going to try and blog through the highlights of the book. The writing should help solidify and refine my own views on these issues, and hopefully act as discussion points for the topic as a whole.

Among Olson’s starting points is a definition of Arminian theology in reference to Reformation Calvinism:

When Arminianism is used, it will connote that form of Protestant theology that rejects unconditional election (and especially unconditionally reprobation), limited atonement, and irresistible grace because it affirms the character of God as compassionate, having universal love for the whole world and everyone in it, and extending grace-restored free will to accept or resist the grace of God, which leads to either eternal life or spiritual destruction. (pg. 16-17)

Olson will argue later in the book something I have argued over and over with my Calvinist friends: the debate between Arminian theology and Calvinism is primarily about the character and nature of God, and not primarily about free-will and determinism. Contrary to the caricatures, Arminianism does not begin with a philosophical notion of free-will and work to a theology of salvation. It begins with a theology of God’s nature and his interaction with humans, and winds up affirming a libertarian form of free-will.

Olson makes an important distinction at this point that weaves its way throughout the text. There is a difference between “Arminianism of the head” and “Arminianism of the heart” (what I will call evangelical Arminianism). The “of the head” variety is that part of Arminian theology that takes its cues from Enlightenment philosophy, affirms the fundamentally sound rational and moral capacities of each human, and ends up as semi-Pelagian. Evangelical Arminianism denies the basically good or in-tact capacities of the human heart, and affirms the necessity of God’s gracious activity. Instead of a coercive and limited act of God’s grace, however, Arminianism affirms the doctrine of prevenient grace. God acts before the human to enable their dead capacities to respond freely and willingly to God’s grace.

Unlike the unkind caricatures, Arminianism affirms grace, total depravity, and humanity’s utter dependence upon God. It is a little disingenuous to paint Arminian theology as heterodox by saying it denies these basic theological truths.

What I didn’t like about the Introduction.

Olson associates several contemporary theologians with the Arminian point of view, including Stanley Grenz and Clark Pinnock. I am totally sure I do not consider myself an open theist, and therefore I do not associate myself with Pinnock. I have read some of Grenz’s stuff, and am not sure I want to be put in that camp either. I believe Arminianism does not need to degrade to open theism or a form of pluralism that is in accord with the movement of the emergent church.

And this is where I hope to find the rest of the book to be solid ground. I affirm an Arminian theology that holds to the future knowledge (and even proactive activity) of God, and the particularity of Christ. So far, Olson is on that track as well.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Who Is A Person--Legally?

On the Colorado ballot this time around is Amendment 48, sometimes called the “Personhood Amendment.” It is a very simple amendment, stating that in all the appropriate places in the Colorado Constitution, the term “person” or “persons” shall apply to any human being from the moment of fertilization. Clearly, this will have profound consequences on the pro-life/pro-choice debate, and once it is given some thought, some possibly radical legal and legislative consequences.

This amendment gets right to the heart of the pro-life issue. Not too many people argue anymore that what is in the womb of a human mother is not biologically human or potentially human. Because the DNA evidence is insurmountable, the debate has now largely moved to the social or legal status of the fetus/embryo/zygote in terms of whether it is a person with all the rights and privileges thereof, or not.

Most pro-life positions contend that what is in the womb is “human” in the sense that it ought to bear all the social and legal rights we grant all out of the womb humans. What is in the womb is human life, the deliberate taking of innocent life is always murder, and therefore, the deliberate taking of innocent life in the womb is murder. Probably not too many people will argue with parts two and three of the preceding sentence, so it is part one that is at stake.

Amendment 48 will, at least legally, answer that issue.

Should a pro-lifer vote for it? My short answer is “yes.” If you are pro-life in the sense outlined above, this amendment is a legislative move totally in concert with your philosophical and theological convictions. It is not an overreaching religious belief because it does not make any explicit religious appeal, and can be defended on totally non-religious grounds. Thus it does not breech any serious worry of the separation of church and state. (For the record, I find that concern highly suspect anyway.)

Many worry about its passage because some of the ramifications of this amendment could be far-reaching and even radical. Will the state then need to prosecute both mothers and doctors for murder? Will Planned Parenthood become an “illegal” organization? Will pharmacies which distribute abortion inducing birth control be complicit in murder? Some argue that Amendment 48 is unwise because of these potential consequences. But is that a valid concern?

In general, if a law is in right relationship with reality, it should be enacted. Even if it causes us pain as we grow accustomed to it, truth is more important than practicality. Take, for example, a world where a product called, “Kansas-Style Whole Grain Bread,” is lethal. This bread is unusually tasty and even very cheap to purchase. Families have been feeding it to their kids for years, and though there have been worries that childhood mortality rates may be connected with the bread, it has not been proven until now. It is in the state’s best interest that families and kids are protected from this nefarious whole grain bread, but to enact legislation outlawing it would be devastating to many sectors of the economy. It is worried that family farms will go under, bankruptcies will increase to a level that will threaten local banks, employment will tank as distributors and grocery stores quit selling the popular product. We can imagine a world where the ramifications are broad and even painful, but we probably consider the legislation more important than the consequences.

Secondly, I don’t have to answer all the potential consequences before I take a principled stand on an issue. I may not be able, for example, to detail all the economic ramifications of outlawing gambling in Las Vegas, but I can be totally rational coming up with a good argument saying it should be outlawed. Likewise, proponents of Amendment 48 do not need to detail exactly how all the laws regarding murder will work in the future in order to support the amendment.

In fact, if one is deeply concerned about murder laws now applying to abortion cases, they need only to look at the some two-thirds of U.S. states that already have fetal murder laws on the books. It is the case in most states that if you are careless behind the wheel and hit a pregnant woman, killing both her and the unborn child within her, you can be guilty for double homicide. How vastly different would these new laws in Colorado be if Amendment 48 is passed?

This amendment is a big one. It potentially carries a huge package of philosophical dynamite, but sometimes existing structures need to be brought to the ground.

Friday, October 03, 2008

I Was Plagiarized

With the availability of sermons and sermon helps over the internet—for free—the problem of pastoral plagiarism is more pronounced than ever. I was plagiarized, and I know it because the guilty party proudly, if utterly ignorantly, proclaimed it to me face-to-face.

A little over ten years ago I taught a series based on Summit Ministry’s Understanding the Times curriculum and added my own module on truth in a postmodern world. A pastoral friend three hours north of me thought it sounded like a good series, his mom sent him the tapes, and he taught my material class for class. As fate would have it, a member of his church was an editor for a pastoral magazine. He asked my friend to write an article based on the postmodern material. And here is where it gets fun.

My friend told me the story, said he was about to send the editor to me (because he knew he didn’t do the work and probably couldn’t have) until he heard the article paid. Then, he said, he went ahead and wrote the article. There was jovial laughter all around.

Just this past month, his article appeared in the footnotes of our denomination’s latest journal in the Editor’s Letter at the front of the edition. My old friend is now being cited as a kind of expert/good source on this issue.

What should I do? Reactions from friends and family range from writing him a frustrated letter and demand he clear the record to suing him for (what is likely provable) plagiarism. Chances are pretty slim my plagiarizer will be tapped as an expert on these matters and asked to write more articles on the subject, but what if he is?

I don’t know yet what benefit I will receive by pressing this issue. I must admit I am frustrated at what plagiarism has done to my material, but I’m not sure any official action will gain me anything. On the other hand, I believe this is a serious issue among most pastors. Maybe I am a little cynical at times, but I don’t think most evangelical pastors have the chops to do their own work and apply it to their own congregations. If the tape, CD, podcats and mp3 market disappeared tomorrow, how many pastors would have anything to say the following Sunday?