On the Mars Hill Meltdown

Mars Hill Church announced on Friday that it will dissolve and the 13 remaining campuses will either become particular churches or close. This is great news because, as the announcement states, ministry will be local–local decisions, local missions.

Where else would ministry take place? Can you worship globally? Well, you can bless someone on the other side of the world through your local worship, but only if that worship actually occurs where you are. Howdy, neighbor. But when the local church is controlled by central headquarters, and that authority is concentrated among three guys, your local impact is hamstrung.

There is nothing wrong with a mega church, but where you have a mega church, you better have mega elders. Paul appointed elders in every church, and he told Titus to do the same (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). This really ought to be the bottleneck of church growth. It’s not hard to get a lot of people in the building–dude, did you hear the band? But it takes time to develop elders–disciples who make disciples. God can grow men up quickly, but that timetable isn’t attached to the logistics of the next campus.

An elder “watch[es] over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). He’s not so much a bookkeeper, board-member, or vision-setter, though all those things are good in their place. He’s a shepherd who knows the sheep by name. How do we know this? Because an account will be given, and souls are counted for by ones. When Jesus asks you to tell him about Johnny, you better know who Johnny is.

A friend of mine who understands church leadership met with Driscoll when the church was first blowing up, I think when it was around 800 people. At that time there were three elders. It became apparent that my friend’s idea of what an elder does, and what Driscoll thought one does were worlds apart. He was really encouraged by the growth, whereas he should have been terrified.

There is currently a pig-pile building on top of Driscoll and all sorts of rotten fruit flying his direction. I don’t want any part of that and am grateful for his years of ministry and am disappointed at the loss of such an incredible preacher in Seattle. Anyone who doesn’t feel that loss should revisit Philippians 1:15-18 until they do: “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”

It would be a good time for Mark to become presbyterian and submit to godly leaders, but the same call goes out to all Christians. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). The most important thing about your church isn’t the programs or buildings or whether all your chums are there. The question is do they have qualified leadership, and can I know those leaders in order to imitate their faith and way of life?

Many who had bad experiences in the church struggle to connect again. It’s easy to be critical of the church. It’s easy to replace it with your friends, your small group, your bonfire and busy weekend, with individual daily devotions or whatever thing keeps you on spiritual life-support. But Jesus gave us Word and Sacrament in the local church that gathers on the Lord’s Day to worship Him and serve one another. May every former Mars Hill campus surge with life and the lost sheep of house of the new Israel be found.

The Testimony Trap

In his hilarious book Stuff Christians Like, Jonathan Acuff has a section titled Telling Testimonies That Are Exciting Right Up Until The Moment You Became A Christian. The idea is that the way testimonies are often recounted, life is wild and exciting until meeting the living God.

I had this really hot girlfriend who was named after a city, and we were living in this cool loft downtown and every night, not just on the weekends, every night, we were going out. Her uncle owned a bunch of nightclubs and a fleet of yachts, so we would just party and then get on one of the yachts and have the craziest times and catch fresh crabs in the Florida Keys and then watch the sun pierce the morning sky with streaks of red and orange and yellow. And then I became a Christian. The end. (pp. 125-6)

The hair-raising excitement is all pre-conversion, and kids growing up in the faith, listening to this account at a church function, have the distinct sense they are missing all the fun. “Why can’t I wreck my life and have a thrilling testimony?”, they want to know. Churches that tend to emphasize conversion run into a real problem this way, but it really only surfaces because of another problem.

To the extent that pre-conversion life is truly interesting and exciting, it is so because God gives rain to the just and the unjust. The world is an interesting place and everyone with life and breath can go enjoy it. It’s the job of Christian parents to school their kids in the art of enjoying it, living full, grateful, generous lives in fellowship with the Giver of all of it. The scope of this discipleship has to be total. If it’s not, people will think the grass is greener on the other side, and that is exactly what the world is telling them. It’s not whether they will encounter this lie, but simply when.

Since sex, for instance, is one of God’s gifts to us, if you let your kids learn about it from pop culture, they’re going to buy the lies that result in broken hearts and bodies. These details often get left out of the testimony given to a large crowd. “She was hot, but also had an advanced case of genital herpes.” That isn’t appropriate in every setting, but rebellion always has its underbelly, one that you ought to know from fearing and enjoying the Lord. You don’t need to try heroin to know it must come with intense, short-lived pleasure, and long-term utter misery. You don’t need to learn your lessons on covetousness by going bankrupt.

The hard balance is to keep the testimonies, showing trophies of grace, and making life in the covenant what’s it’s supposed to be–an abundant one. Conversion is exciting and if we’re faithful to proclaim the gospel, it will continue to be. But so is life with Christ, ever deepening over a lifetime. These stories too must be told in the church.

Why Communion

It’s out now that at this year’s triennial Council, the seven presbyteries of the CREC voted to become the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, leaving behind the word Confederation in the denomination title. Although many were not, and are not, entirely satisfied with the Communion, it was by far the lesser of two evil. “Confederation” is a good word, stemming from “con” (with) and “federation” which comes from the Latin word foedus, which means covenant. In this respect, our group of churches remains very much covenanted. But for churches in the American south, “Confederation” connoted neo-confederate, something we want nothing to do with.

For those very much not satisfied with Communion, consider it comes from the Greek koinonia, the word often translated fellowship in English, said of the early Christians who devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship (Acts 2:42). It’s also not a word without ecclesiastical precedence. We speak of the Anglican Communion. Among the options on the table, this was my preference. Options regarding a new name entirely (not conforming to the CREC acronym) were not on the table. If you ideas for that, well, speak up!

On Oprah, that’s where

“On the other hand, those who have a less masculine outlook (low M), be they men or women, tend to flock to the church. This may explain why so many gay men are drawn to church, while lesbians avoid it. A study published in the Jorunal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that “gay men were significantly more active in religious organizations [as a percentage] when compared to heterosexual men.” The author notes that gay men are similar to female heterosexuals in their religiosity and attend church”‘without having to be dragged to services by female partners–as is the case for heterosexual men.” Yet “lesbians and female bisexuals have very low rates of religious activity.”

Why do so many effeminate and gay men attend church? Maybe becuase the church is one of the few institutions in society where there’s no pressure to act like a man. In fact, men are encoruaged not to. Where else in our society can a man express his feminine side and be applauded for it?”

–David Morrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church, p. 73

Thoughts on Family Worship

I get asked regularly about what we do for “family worship.” Among Christians who love the faith and their kids, family worship becomes a topic of interest. My initial response is always ambivalent, encouraged on the one hand that someone wants to have a family culture that includes the Bible and devotion in the home, and slightly concerned because the common issues that plague “family worship” are considerable. For those considering implementing some version of family worship, here are some remarks that I hope are helpful.

1. Family Worship Isn’t Required by the Bible This might seem impious, but it’s really only impietistic. We simply are not required to have a set, formal, liturgical time of worship as families. I’m glad some people do this and benefit from it, and as far as they do, I’m for it, but no one should feel it is something they ought to do. This is not the same thing as saying parents shouldn’t read the Bible, pray and talk about God with their children. Of course they should. And it’s helpful if this is regular, methodical, and often. But some of the healthiest Christian families I know never had “family worship” formally conducted. They would read and discuss the Bible at meal and other times for particular seasons, sing and pray before going to bed etc, but these things were not done primarily in one sitting, not in what we would typically call family worship. I know there are lazy parents, particularly fathers, who don’t make time to regularly read and teach the Bible to their kids, and I know my point here will be used by them to justify and continue their laziness. This is what gracious biblical standards always do, and in response legalists try to curb sin by adding rules. So no excuses for lazy people, and no excuse for pietists combating laziness with legalism. Continue reading

Church Persecuted in China

Below is an excerpt from a recent Seattle Times article telling the story of one underground Chinese church. It’s hard to think of a more effective way of growing the church: persecution faithfully handled.

According to church members, the pastor, the Rev. Jin Tianming, and other church leaders were blocked by police from leaving their homes Sunday. Some church members were seized as they emerged from the subway station at Zhongguangcun plaza, where the services were to be held.

By 8 a.m., hundreds of police officers swarmed the area. They questioned passers-by and corralled church members on to buses, dragging and shoving those who r

At one point, a group of plainclothes police officers kicked and beat a group of four young people. As one of the buses pulled away, the congregants pulled out a prayer sheet and began to sing.

Church leaders said 169 people were detained throughout the day, with most taken to a nearby elementary school, where they were briefly questioned and photographed; most were released later in the day, although church leaders said at least three people, including a pastor, were still being held Monday morning.

After years of tolerance by the religious authorities, unregistered churches, known as house churches, have faced pressure to either disband or join the system of state-controlled congregations.

The government first forced Shouwang, which means watchtower, out of its rented quarters in 2008. In 2009, the church paid $4.1 million for a floor in an office building, but the owner, under pressure from the authorities, has refused to hand over the keys. Until last week, church members had been meeting in a restaurant.

The congregation made no secret of its plans to gather outdoors, announcing the service on the Internet. During his final sermon last week, Jin warned his congregants they would likely meet resistance.

“At this time, the challenges we face are massive,” he said. “For everything that we have faced, we offer our thanks to God. Compared with what you faced on the cross, what we face now is truly insignificant.”

Competent Contextualization

“Contextualization is not ‘giving peope what they want” but rather it is giving God’s answers (which they may not want!) to questions they are asking and in forms that they can comprehend.” In other words, there is an attracting offensiveness to contextualization. The attractiveness of contextualizing the gospel is that we actually listen to the questions that people are asking. We are able to listen patiently to the hopes, challenges, and fears that people in a culture express through art, theater, literature, and films and to communicate the gospel in a way that connects with these hopes, challenges and fears. Many unbelievers in our cultural setting will be attracted to the gospel as they come to understand how it connects to them in the deepest possible ways. The culture begins to see the church as a place of depth and honesty, and many will give the claims of Christ a hearing. People are actually drawn to the church rather than repelled by the church.” Darrin Patrick, The Church Planter, p. 195.

Freeing the Public Mind

In 1924 in a speech at the unveiling of the Equestrian Statue of Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury, President Coolidge remarked on the generation that secured the United States’ independence:

It is of a great deal of significance that the generation which fought the American Revolution had seen a very extensive religious revival. They had heard the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. They had seen the great revival meetings that were inspired by the preaching of Whitefield. The religious experiences of those days made a profound impression upon the great body of the people. They made new thoughts and created new interests. They freed the public mind, through a deeper knowledge and more serious contemplation of the truth. By calling the people to righteousness they were a direct preparation for self-government. It was for a continuation of this work that Francis Asbury was raised up.

The religious movement he represented was distinctly a movement to reach the great body of the people. Just as our Delcaraationof Independence asserts that all men are created free, so it seems to me the founders of this movement were inspred by the thought that all men were worthy to hear the Word, worthy to be sought out and brought to salvation. It is this motive that took their preachers among the poor and neglected, even to criminals in the jails. As our ideal has been to bring all men to freedom, so their ideal was to bring all men to salvation. [emphases mine]

The connection between salvation and freedom, in that order, is foundational. Free societies are made up of free men in Christ, and this was publicly recognized by a President less than a century ago! Is it any wonder that this republic was founded by men like Washington, Adams and Madison, and not like Bush, Clinton, and Obama? Could there be a greater contrast between the way Obama’s rose to political power voting “Present” in the Illinois Senate and the risk of life and fortune our founding fathers endured in the American Revolution? George Whitefield has been called “a second GW” for good reason because he, by God’s grace, helped create and shape a people with an understanding and desire for freedom. It’s certainly possible for unconverted people to enjoy the freedoms of a Christian society (or what’s left of one in our case), but that’s not how such societies are created (n.b. Middle East meddlers). For this we need a great company of preachers with the hammer of the word of God. Every Tea Party and political mama-bear grizzly needs to know this. We don’t return to Constitutional sanity without first returning to biblical bedrock.

Start Small

“In the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far form what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 29.

Pulpit Echoes

Conservative churches rightly emphasize the preached word. Paul says “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14). The emphasized whom is how the Greek ought to be translated rather than of whom, as the NIV and ESV mistakenly have it. People need to hear Christ, and not about Christ.

The bulk of a minister’s time ought to be given to preaching. This doesn’t need to be counted as minutes actually writing it or reading a specific book for it, but rightly understood, connected and applied, a preacher centers his broad reading, evangelism, counseling and teaching to that preached word, for it is there that Christ specially speaks to his people and there the power of the Spirit of Pentecost is felt. The pulpit is the prow of the world, as Melville called it.

It’s ironic that churches that most value the pulpit often flag in its application. If Jesus came and spoke this Sunday at your church, would you talk about what he preached on? Of course. Yet this is exactly what Paul says happens every time a minister faithfully proclaims the Word. We fail to intentionally interact with it, to take that gift and wring all we can out of it. Small-group focused churches routinely minimize the importance of Sunday worship other than as an evangelistic event. The preaching is largely for unbelievers and therefore not challenging to mature Christians. It is wrung out in a few minutes on the way back to the car. Then the action comes Wednesday night at the small group when the Bible is examined and the deep things of God brought out. The small group has now become the place of theological depth and personal sanctification.

Sermon-based Bible studies and small groups uphold the Bible’s high view of preaching, allowing, in fact requiring, the minister to preach in-depth and challenging sermons. They also require those sermons to be earthly good. Every sermon does not need explicit applications (as any survey of the Apostolic sermons in the book of Acts will reveal), but every sermon does need to be applicable. Rather than draw people away from the centrality of Lord’s Day worship, sermon-based studies bring them in, making them pay attention, take notes, and prepare to think later about it. Larry Osborne relates a common case:

Let’s take Marginal Mark as an example. He comes to church primarliy for his wife and kids. During a typical sermon, he daydreams about his job, some major decisions he’s facing, or his fantasy football team. He’s a moral guy, just not too “religious.” He’d rather leave the extra stuff for those who are really into it.

Now let’s imagine that his wife gets him to sign up for a sermon-based small group. Suddenly, despite his previous lack of interest, he’s listening at a deeper level. He’ll almost certainly start taking some notes. Then he’ll look at them again, however briefly, before the meeting. At the meeting, with some friends in a safe and non-judgmental enviroment, he’ll discuss the Scriptures and what it means to follow Jesus.

The hook has been set.

He’s now interacting with the Word of God at a level far beyond anything he’s ever done before. And in most cases it won’t be long until the Scriptures start to do their stuff convicting him, instructing him, and training him in a righteousness he didn’t even know he was looking for. (Sticky Church, p. 66)

Jesus speaks through fallible men, and because the words are his, they scatter out beyond worship, accomplishing his purposes. Churches ought to make sure the pulpit echo as far as possible.