Monday, February 28, 2011

Tim Keller and the Power of the Gospels

In this context, not the gospel, but the gospels.

For whatever reason, when I first began life as a solo pastor and had to pick my own Biblical books through which to preach, I have majored on the gospels.

Carl Robbins, a fellow PCA pastor in SC, did an informal but pretty thorough study and determined the gospels, of all things, were neglected in our preaching. One of the dangers of lectio continua preaching (preaching through whole books) is that a church might spend ten years in Ezekiel and never once encounter Jesus in the gospels.

Tim Keller was here Thursday night. I am glad I got to go. It reminded me of why I do what I do --try to introduce people to Jesus in all his awesome power. Many people are shocked when they are forced to ponder what Jesus actually said. I remember myself that experience in reading through Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says incredibly offensive things, even as he extends his hand in compassion and love to all who will come to him. There is no other historical figure anything like him. He simply could not be "made up." No fictional character has ever proven to be as compelling.

One of Tim's points that stuck with me was just this:

Throughout history, many people have claimed to be God.
Throughout history, many people have poured their lives out in love and compassion for others.

Never, other than Jesus, have those two things coexisted in the same person.

Beautiful. I look forward to hearing Tim at General Assembly, and, DV, in NYC over Labor Day!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Cultural Captivity of the Church

With the ever-provocative Professor Anthony Bradley, I think the Presbyterian Church in America has a whole lot to learn from a man named Soong-Chan Rah. His book The Next Evangelicalism is a provocative read.

He challenges the whole cultural and racial assumption behind the church growth model. He quotes Bob Linthicum's book City of God, City of Satan..

I know of no instrument [church attendance statistics] that creates more guilt and sense of failure in my denomination than this instrument. That is because it favors any church located in a community of rapid growth and radically disfavors any church in a decaying, declining comunity. The first kind of community is found mostly in suburban areas of the United States, while the second is found primarily in inner cities.

Let's be honest. Suburban churches grow off the backs of city churches. To date, I have only received one phone call from any suburban pastor (who also happens to be a very dear friend) inquiring why someone might consider moving from our city congregation to his suburban one. One phone call. Many of the people who move from city church to suburban church have serious pastoral issues that ought to be addressed. The onus is not on me to make those things known, I don't think, but on the pastors who so gladly receive them into their flocks on a simple exchange of paper. But, hey, they are an addition to the membership rolls, and that is the extent of pastoral concern, apparently.

Why don't we start working for kingdom growth instead of church growth? The cities, tough places though they are, are the places where this can happen. There are a lot of lost people in the city, a lot of heartache, tons of need. It is there in the suburbs, too, but I am not so sure PCA churches are reaching them. It is, after all, very easy to catch fish when they are jumping.

God calls us to move away from comfort and towards pain. I need to keep telling myself that.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

An Excerpt, with Commentary

A Sermon about Sermons that Get Preachers into Trouble, which Got Its Preacher into Trouble.

No, not me, but it certainly got me thinking. This is excerpted from a sermon included in the fascinating book (long out of print) Agony at Galloway. If you are from Jackson, you will know that Galloway is the title of the large, socially-prominent United Methodist church in the center of our fair city. You may know too that, perhaps more than any other, Galloway tore itself apart during the Civil Rights Era. Her long-time minister, the legendary Dr. W. B. Selah, resigned his 18 year pastorate. Why? Because Galloway, like white churches throughout the South, decided to station guards at its doors to bar African-Americans from coming to worship.

His successor, W. Jeff Cunningham, wrote the book, and sacrificed his career, like many of his fellow Methodists, during that sad time.

I note from the top this is not an evangelical sermon. It doesn't have a whiff of evangel about it. It is not, in that way, the sort of sermon we should preach. Sad to say, in Cunningham's day, evangelicals were on the wrong side of this issue. It is, however, a heroic sermon about sermons, and thus merits our excerpting:

If We Sound No Trumpet: A Sermon Preached in the Crisis
Eze. 33:1-7

To look at these words in their historic setting, Ezekiel is in Babylon along with the flower of the Jewish people, carried there into exile by a military conqueror who had crushed his country and would leave Jerusalem the haunt of jackals...Here the Jewish people are surrounded by the allurements of the magnificent civilization that is Babylon, the world's capital, a pagan culture made glorious by everything wealth and military power can bestow....With all the freedom to come and go as they please, they are expected to become absorbed in the culture of Babylon, to forget the ideals of their own race and religion, to join in the worship of the gods of Babylon, and to increase the prosperity of the realm. The strong temptation every Jew feels in Babylon is to go native. And some go native with a vengeance. They forget their own country, they forsake their former faith and loyalties and lose themselves in the exotic culture of this luxurious land.

It was in this critical time that Ezekiel spoke the word of God and became one of the towering figures of all time...With the nation facing the threat of moral decline, the Lord says a watchman will be set up..."if this watchman sees danger coming and blows the trumpet and warns the people; then if any one hears the trumpet, but will not heed the warning, when he is destroyed, his blood shall be on his own head..."But if the watchman sees danger coming, and does not blow the trumpet, so that no warning is given, and the danger comes and destroys, then, says the Lord, "his blood I shall require at the watchman's hand."

Now if we take these words out of their setting in ancient Babylon, they have meaning that walks right up to the doorsill of our own consciences here in Jackson..He commands us to blow the trumpet and warn the people when there is danger.

One thing that makes this particularly important to consider this morning is the charge that the church ought to stay out of politics. "The church ought to stay out of economic and social questions," it is said. "The church has no business making pronouncements on this temporal matter or that."

But listen. The church cannot stay out of anything God wants in on. And God wants in on everything that concerns people --their moral habits, their social customs, their business practices, their handicaps, their day-by-day relationships...God has an absorbing concern for everything that affects the lives of people, whether it is politics or business or sport or education or any other human enterprise. And the church must be concerned with anything that concerns God.

Those who say the church ought to stay out of politics do not know their Bible, or have forgotten it...Amos is a collection of sermons by that fiery man who spoke for God to the people about the things they were doing. He was critical of the government. He talked about people who got drunk. he talked about social climbers. He talked about merchants who were dishonest in their business, using false scales in their buying and selling. He talked about people who lived in luxury while others around them were hungry. All this didn't go over very well.

The people glorified their religion in ornate observances. The priests wore gorgeous robes, the choir sang lovely anthems, and their altars were laden with choice offerings. But they did not want their religions questioned at the point of its moral quality. They did not like to be told of the relationship between religion and their daily practices in politics and business and society...They said to him, "Prophesy to us of pleasant things"...Men inveterately like to hear smooth things said to them, how right their attitudes are, how genteel their inherited traditions are; and if all this can be said in the name of God, so much the better...

When someone says preachers ought to stick to the Bible that's exactly what most preacher, I believe, want to do; but when they stick to the Bible, see what they find. They find prophets majoring in politics and measuring every exercise in government by the will of God....In the Bible we see a long line of prophets standing before kings and denouncing their policies because those policies were not righteous...These are men who sounded a trumpet, warning of danger, critical of monarchs for their unrighteousness in the affairs of state, and demanding that they order their affairs in line with God's purpose.

[relating a story of a minister in another city, supported by his board when under fire] "We stand for a free pulpit in a free church. We do not expect or desire a minister simply to echo the opinions of the congregation..." When we claim to be a church, a trumpet is placed in our hands. We are to sound this trumpet to warn the people when we see danger --and by danger is meant anything in our attitudes and practices which Christ cannot approve. If they do not heed the trumpet and die, their blood is on them. But if we see the danger and sound no trumpet and they die, then their blood is upon us...

...The church is not supposed to echo the opinions of the status quo. The church is supposed to stand above the status quo to challenge it, to hold before it a standard, to demand that every order of society conform to the ideas in the Sermon on the Mount. We are not supposed as Christians to bring in ideas from the outside and try to make the church conform to the ideas we have brought in from the outside; we are supposed to take the ideas of the Sermon on the Mount out of the church and into the organizations we belong to and measure those organizations by the way they obey Jesus' moral demands.

The preacher in the pulpit is not supposed to reflect the majority opinions in the pew and no good layman expects him to --he is supposed to hear the voice of God and make that voice heard in all the affairs of men whether it makes them comfortable and contented or not....

We Christians are not supposed to make religion over into what we want it to be until it fits our lives. We are supposed to change these lives of ours until they fit into Christ's way of love and service which He lived so beautifully and so simply.

...Some have said the church ought to stay out of controversial fields. But the church that never handles controversy never handles Christ. If the church tries to keep her hands clean, she will stand before the Lord with her hands empty. Id the church never expresses a conviction except where a unanimous vote has already been given, the church will never have a word for needy and dying men. If the church chooses her words so carefully that no one can object, she has missed the spirit of the prophets who were stoned because they spoke so clearly for God and the spirit of Jesus, whose truth led him to a cross.

I can hear objection to what I am saying, that in all this I am overlooking the gospel of personal religion, that religion is an affair between the individual soul and God...It is the root of religion, but it is just is not the fruit. The fruit is seen in the way we practice our religion out in the world where we live....

The end of the sermon. Jeff Cunningham lost his job over this sermon. As he was leaving, Galloway rescinded its all-white policy, and opened its doors. He was sacrificed and the truth triumphed. Would that ministers today would be so bold.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Gossip is relating news, true or false, about another person, with an implied or stated judgment about the person's character.

This is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema, from the movie Doubt. Watch it. If you've gossiped, consider repenting to the person against whom you've gossiped.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What answer would you give?

When Empathy Isn't Enough

Coming to Terms with a "Bad" Demographic Hand

We are an almost-all white church in the midst of a predominantly African-American City, in the weird position of being "Majority-Minorities" --18% in fact, by recently released census data. Jackson is 80% African-American, and I am as white as God made white folk. Our worship is as white, vanilla Presbyterian as one might expect from a fifty year old mostly-white congregation.

18% and not headed towards 19%, if you get my drift.

I am at two distinct disadvantages on the topic of race. First, it is really hard to be white and talk about race. Second, it is really hard to be Northern and talk about race in the Deep South.

Let me say from the first, from my white Yankee vantage point, racism in any meaningful sense is not an issue among our church. Trinity has been integrated in the past, and we have a few African-American members and visitors, and they have told me again and again how loved and accepted they have been by the congregation. One of them says, over and over again, "These people are my family." Another says, over and over, "I feel so loved at Trinity." These things warm the cockles of this pastor's heart.

The census data do not show, however, a larger troubling trend. It is not just that whites have largely left Jackson. African-American families that have the means to leave, are leaving too, to Rankin County, by and large, where schools are good and streets are safe. It's not wrong to want those things.

Our suburban congregations are burgeoning. First Presbyterian, the mother church of local Presbyterianism, remains several-thousand strong, with excellent preaching and teaching. A few of us are caught in between First Church and suburbia. Demographers would call this an undesirable thing. Praise God that Jesus is not a demographer.

Humanly speaking, we are at what demographers would call a "disadvantage." A white church in a black city. A wealthy church surrounded by poverty. An educated church in an area blighted by educational breakdown.

We are here by God's grace, and his plan. It would be an easy thing not to be here. Yet, as Piper says, God calls the Christian to move away from comfort and towards pain. But, I'm tired today, and I don't really want to move towards the pain all the time.

It is not always easy to see what this looks like. What does it require of us? Placing our children in failing schools? It is hard to see how that would be a good thing. We can work for a brighter day when people could live in the city and be involved in the schools in an incarnational way, but I just don't see it happening in the current mass bureaucracy of the Public Schools. We need parochial schools or charter schools or something that would serve as an option for parents of whatever income level who desire something better for their kids.

So, what do we do?

First, we are here, so we minister here. This may mean no growth, and even further diminishing. Some people will continue to move where life is (supposedly) easier. Churches in neater communities, closer to home, where community life is perceived to be easier. God bless them. I, for one, am glad to be part of a church where the homeless have been welcomed with open arms. I wish that had continued, and hope maybe God will bring us some again.

Second, many of us suburbanites will continue to feel guilty for living at some remove from the issues of Jackson. I do. If I didn't have kids, I would be in this city. Yet, our guilt should not stop us from caring for the city. As the city goes, so goes the metro.

Third, we can change what we do, but not who we are, at root. Churches have a DNA. Moreover, we have convictions about why we do what we do. We can change our approach to the outside world (and approach it more) but must never think that better music, downplaying convictions, or any sort of selling out will bring about real kingdom growth.

Fourth, we strive to show tangible acts of love and mercy in the name of Christ. We do not have the luxury of withdrawing in our walls. We need to be proactive in this city. We need to reach out to those who are lost, no matter how different we perceive them to be, or they perceive us to be. We must do this, not as superiors out of noblesse oblige but rather as ontological equals who have internalized Ephesians 2, "We are no better..." We are beggars telling where we have found bread.

Fifth, we must pray that God would flourish us as his kingdom is to flourish. No, scratch that. First, we must pray. First, we must pray. Ask and ye shall receive. Are you asking God to build his kingdom in this difficult place? God is glorified in doing impossible things. Let's ask him to do the hard thing through us here.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Christian, Manly Discourse and the Democratization of Information

"Your answer is now required Marcion, murderer of the utter scoundrel, who pronounce 'innocent' the assassins of God..." Tertullian @ Nicea

"O Praxeus, you heretic who has crucified the Father and driven away the Holy Spirit." Tertullian, Against Praxeus

A friend tells me that Duke University singled out the PCA for egregious offense in the internet civility department. I wish I could argue with that, but...

I find this article on civility and passion, from the other side of the politico-religious aisle, very interesting.

Here are a few scattered thoughts...

Quite frankly, I think we are living in a wimpish age. Instead of asserting ourselves strongly, and, when necessary, defending ourselves strongly, we duck and run for cover. Our fathers faced the flames singing, we wince and wail when our precious feelings get hurt. There's a lesson about American self-absorption in there somewhere.

We confuse persons and positions. Someone criticizes my positions or my words, and I take personal offense. This kills public discourse and makes correction impossible.

I am for free, full and vigorous discourse. I don't much like the Ninth Commandment flung around as a way of quashing dissension and debate. If someone mis-characterizes my position, I shouldn't cry"Foul!", which, after all, convinces nobody. Rather, I should man up and defend my position. That's what Paul did, after all, when he suffered at the hands of Corinthian super-apostles. He did it with sarcasm, too. Horrors! Paul, I wish you were nicer, like Jesus, except that time he called Herod a fox, and the time he took a whip and drove out the moneychangers. But, other than that!!

Niceness is not a Christian virtue; not when truth is at stake.

In the civic sphere, the great cultural gatekeepers do not much like the blogs. Who, after all, appointed these anonymous upstarts, often working for free, to decide what events are newsworthy? Isn't this the territory that belongs to the professionals? The big three information filters? The AP and the NY Times?

The truth is, if you control information, you effect how people think. How can they ponder alternatives they never hear? How can they process events of which they are not made aware? The major media love to decide what is important and what is not. Why do we hear about the wholesome blondes Natalee Holloway and Elizabeth Smart, but not the nameless, faceless minority youth who disappear every day? There are countless cases of gross injustice in our society: why do we hear only of a few, and these over and over, even from (gasp) Fox News? Networks cover the horror of war, but not the triumphs of war or vice-versa.

The good news is that the genie of democratized information will never go back into the bottle. Bloggers are here to stay. I think this is good, but not an unqualified good.

There seems to be a growing concern about the use of blogging within our own denominational context. This is worrisome to me.

A few random thoughts.

1.) If we are going to have free speech, we must put up with irresponsible speech. Much of what is said on the Internet is unfair, inaccurate and uncharitable. This is the price that we pay for the free flow of information. The alternative is far worse: if we restrict information, error, misunderstanding and ignorance will grow. Because of inaccuracy, each reader and writer should be careful to check his facts. In the church, we must hold people accountable for their words.

2.) Some, whose statements are singled out for scrutiny and critique, will find such scrutiny uncharitable. They will be right in some cases. In other cases, they will hind behind this defense in order to continue to propagate their errors. In some cases, they will be mad just because some people had the temerity to disagree with them.

3.) Sunlight remains the best disinfectant. The press, in the body politic, must be free to hold the government to account to the people. It is the "Fourth Estate," the ones who shine the hard light of truth on the actions of those in power, to ensure honesty and prevent against self-serving. In the context of the church, public information is crucial to hold pulpit and lectern accountable to pew, and more importantly, to Bible.

4.) Men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. We, quite naturally, want to hide ourselves. Even when our deeds aren't evil, nobody wants to be critiqued or called out publicly. It is uncomfortable. We feel foolish. Our friends rush to our defense. Ranks close around us. We feel justified in our opinions. Rhetoric increases. Positions that were soft and fluid become hardened with opposition. We have staked our ground, uncertain as it might be, and now ego demands we must defend it.

5.) We must come to distinguish the difference between "You are an idiot" (the saying of which puts us in danger of hellfire), and "your positions are wrong." This is true on both the giving and receiving end. A person critiquing my beliefs or positions is not necessarily calling me an idiot. A person articulating false positions is not necessarily an idiot, either.

6.) Love doesn't demand being squishy in our thinking. Publicly advanced positions and arguments are rightly dealt with in public forum. If I launch a salvo into the public domain, I should expect, not a private phone call trying to work out some interpersonal issue that is really unrelated to the matter at hand. I should, rather, expect a public response. Matthew 18 is not in play, as long as I haven't impugned another's character. As someone once said to me, "If you are provocative, why are you surprised when people are provoked?"

7.) I don't care how virtuous we are, we need some alternate sources holding us accountable. We know ourselves to be good men. Our motives are noble. Our intentions are pure. Our positions are right. Yet, in our heart of hearts, we know we can be self-deceived. Denominations need more than an official news agency. The actions of church courts and the positions of teaching elders need to be known. Our people need to be Berean, holding us accountable to the Word of God. How can they do this, if we propagate what we propagate under the cover of darkness? Error and false teaching flourish if nobody engages in a little truth-telling now and then.

The PCA is not immune from error, false teaching, mistakes or underhanded dealing. History teaches us we ought to expect it. It happened in the apostolic church, and we are certainly no better than they were.

Bloggers are here to stay whether we like them or not. The fault does not lie with them, alone, if what is published is false or uncharitable. Readers are called upon to be discerning, too. The truth triumphs in the open marketplace of ideas. Of what do we have to be afraid?