Wednesday, September 2, 2009

3 Tips to Help Visitors Feel Welcome

At my church, we will be having an open house service in a couple weeks in which we have specifically invited everyone our church has touched this year. We expect several guest families to come and potentially many more than that. With the open house in mind, I thought I’d offer a few tips I’m sharing with my congregation to make our guests feel welcome. Really, these ideas are useful on any Sunday and so I’m presenting them here on the blog:

1. Arrive on time or early. While this is especially true for greeters, nursery workers, and Sunday school teachers, it’s a good habit for all of us. Visitors are most often on time. Coming to church as a visitor is awkward already. It becomes even more awkward to walk into an empty church or be directed to an empty classroom. More than one visitor has done a “drive-by” at a church and never came in the door because there were too few cars in the parking lot. Arriving on time communicates that you value what is taking place and that others should value it too.

2. Everyone is a greeter. Yes, most churches assign greeters each week to hand out bulletins, welcome packets, and give general directions. Still, after an initial greeting, many visitors feel awkwardly alone and out of place. All church members should see themselves as greeters too and be aware of those visitors among them. So introduce yourself, show guests where to go, ask if they got a welcome packet, invite them to attend class with you or sit with your family, introduce them to other church members, include them in your conversations. Don’t just say “hello.” Go the extra mile to make guests feel like they could be a part of your church.

3. Observe the “three minute rule.”[1] Most visitors leave within three minutes of the close of the service while church members linger for ten to fifteen minutes. Make a special effort to use the first three minutes after the service to engage a visitor. Let them know how glad you are that they came. Try to get to know them a little better. If you have after church lunch plans with other church members, or are having a small group or other gathering that week, invite them to come along.

These are just a few ideas to help you be more effective in making your guests feel welcome. Help visitors see a real opportunity to be one of you and not an outsider. I’m glad to be part of a church with outstanding fellowship. We’re working hard to make it an open and expanding fellowship!



[1]I got the idea for the “3-minute rule” from Ed Stetzer.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Questions for a Denomination in Decline

Yesterday, I took the time to listen to a live video stream of Dr. R. Albert Mohler speaking on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. Today, that speech is available to watch online. You can find the address at

Toward the end of the address, Dr. Mohler asked a list of questions that Southern Baptists must answer as we look to the future. I find them valuable for discussion on both the national level, but also for state conventions, associations, and even the local church. I offer them here (slightly reworded for this post) for you to consider. If you can take the time, I recommend listening to the entire address.

Here are questions SOuthern Baptists must ask as we move forward and must be answered if we hope to continue to be a people who make an impact for His kingdom:

  • Will we be missiological or bureaucratic?
  • Is our identity theological or tribal?
  • Is the basis of our work together convictional or confused?
  • Is our logic going to be more sectarian or more secular?
  • Will we become younger or dead?
  • Will we be more diverse or more diminished?
  • Will we be more missional or more methodological?
  • Will we be more strategic or more anemic?
  • Will we be more bold or more boring?
  • Will we be happy or bitter?
  • Are we willing to risk keeping the structural and institutional issues open as we stand on our convictional and theological foundation?

I, for one, am glad that Dr. Mohler is a part of the GCR Task force. I hope that Southern Baptists will consider these issues and that local churches, associations, conventions, and the denomination as a whole will choose to make whatever changes are necessary to engage the present world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Friday, July 31, 2009

A Chance to Demonstrate the Priority of Missions

How important is the Great Commission? Important enough that Jesus gave it as his final command. This central command of the New Testament is a corporate command. While the command has implications and application to individuals, it is given to the church as a body. Each of the four gospels and the book of Acts contains a commissioning statement, the most famous of which is in Matthew’s gospel:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matt 28:18-20

How important is the Great Commission to my local church? Important enough that it is at the heart of our mission statement: “Harvest Baptist Fellowship exists to glorify God and make His Son known throughout the world to this generation.” Important enough to be the climax of our church’s core values: “At Harvest Baptist Fellowship, we value a commitment to the . We will express this commitment through …the training of believers in personal evangelism and Christian discipleship, as well as through the sending, equipping and financing of missions efforts locally, regionally, and internationally.”

How important is my church’s commitment to the Great Commission now? Important enough to take a special offering for international missions at the end of this month. Earlier in the year, our International Mission Board reported a massive shortfall in missions giving. Due to the recent economic climate, churches had given less to the cooperative program, resulting in less money for international missions. In addition, the annual Lottie Moon offering for international missions fell a whopping $30,000,000 short of its goal. As a result of this budget crisis, the trustees of our mission board were faced with tough decisions including cuts in personnel and a reduction of new missionary appointments to some of the most unreached areas of the world.

When my co-pastor Chris and I heard this news, our hearts sank. We knew that our church needed to take action. In our quarterly business meeting, our church voted to amend our 2009 budget to shift some of our money to missions. At the same time, we came up with the idea of “Christmas in July” – Harvest would take up a special summer Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for missions to further help make up the shortfall. Little did we know that hundreds of other churches had the same idea. The proposal has been now made that SBC churches have a “Christmas in August” offering for international missions. Thus, at the end of August, we at Harvest will have another opportunity to show that the Great Commission is indeed a core value of our church and the heart of our mission. On Sunday, August 30, Harvest will answer the call and join hundreds of fellow Baptist churches in this special opportunity to give.

Whether you are a member of my church or not, pray for this offering. Ask God how he wants you to participate in this special opportunity to support the Lord’s work. Give sacrificially. If you are not a Southern Baptist, I encourage you to prayerfully consider a special gift in August to the missions sending agency of your choice – chances are, they are having similar financial difficulty. Besides, bad economy or not, giving to missions is always in season. I pray that Southern Baptists and other Great Commission Christians will rise to the occasion and meet this financial challenge.

To God be the glory!


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Two Challenging Sermons from the SBC Pastor's Conference

Returning from the SBC Annual Meeting, Pastor Chris and I (with Jeremy) came home with several “take-aways” from the pastor’s conference. Two sermons were particularly striking and left us challenged and coming back to important questions about life and ministry.

The first sermon was by Francis Chan, pastor of Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, CA. I really tracked with him in this sermon and found that I have been asking similar questions as he has measured his life and ministry against what he sees in the New Testament. In the take-away point of the sermon, Chan asked, “Do I really want to know the will of God? . . . what would God do with me right now if he had complete control of me?” In thinking through his question myself, and having wrestled with the text of Philippians in our present sermon series at Harvest, I found myself asking further questions: How would I spend my money if God really had complete control of my checkbook? How would I spend my time if God really had complete control of my schedule and calendar? How would I use my possessions for God’s glory if God really had complete control of my resources? What things would I have to give up if I were really willing to give it all for the sake of the gospel?

While still pondering the questions raised by Chan’s sermon, another compelling message was brought from Hebrews 13 by David Platt, pastor of Brook Hills Church in Birmingham Alabama. The main question for his sermon was “Are we going to live in our religion or die in our devotion?” or, put another way “Will we retreat from the mission of God or will we give everything for the sake of his mission?” His was perhaps the most compelling sermon I have heard at any pastor’s conference. In the sermon, Platt exalted the glory of Christ and the importance of living to make Him known. The question before us was not did we believe in the mission of Christ or even were we willing to commit to it. Platt placed before us two options: retreat or risk it all!

These two sermons are ones I’m still chewing on. The implications, if seriously considered, are staggering. I’m still thinking and praying through what this means for my life and for our church, but I am willing to take up the challenge. I want to know and do God’s will. I want to risk it all for the glory of Christ! Think and pray through these challenges with me and let us do all to fulfill our mission to glorify God and make His Son known throughout the world to this generation.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A quick word on Tuesday at the SBC

No real time to blog while here, but let me say how what a victory yesterday was.
Despite several discouraging motions and one address that was less than unifying, the overall tenor of the Convention has been one of optimism, unity around the gospel, and a willingness to work together and make needed changes in order to see a Great Commission Resurgence among Southern Baptists.

The SBC voted to appoint a Great Commission Task force. That may mean nothing to many readers that are not up on, or even concerned about, SBC politics. Let me say this. Yesterday was a a major victory for cooperation, for unity around the gospel, for unity among older and younger evangelicals, and for the Great Commission. The results have been immediately obvious. There are more young pastors at the annual meeting than I have ever seen. Messengers who differ on many tertiary issues are unifying around the gospel. Most of all, I am seeing an optimism from my peers that I have not seen nor even expected for many years.

The future looks bright in the SBC!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Take-aways from the Pastor's Conference

As always, I leave the pastor's conference with a few points to ponder and on which I will be reflecting when I return home.

Here are a few of the salient points I gleaned from the Pastor's conference:

Ed Stetzer – God has already made us ONE, we just have to live it out.

Francis Chan – Do I really want to know the will of God? What would God do with me right now if he had complete control of me?

David Platt – Will we retreat from the mission of God or will we give everything for the sake of the gospel?

Johnny Hunt – Is it possible that Southern Baptists have lost the capacity to believe the miraculous? (esp. in terms of fulfilling the Great Commission)

Mark Dever – We need to recover the corporate nature of the church – we must worship God ourselves, but not by ourselves.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On the Great Commission Resurgence document -- Four axioms that seal the deal for me

This week, the Southern Baptist Convention will be voting on whether or not to adopt the Great Commission Resurgence statement as the official position of the SBC. While most of the brouhaha has been over axiom nine, I believe the entire document is important. All ten axioms address issues that are pertinent to our Convention and which affect the spread of the gospel by those who cooperate as Southern Baptists. I look first to my own life and ministry and in voting for the GCR, commit with my fellow Baptists in all ten of these areas. Among the ten, however, four axioms seal the deal for me.

Axiom #2 – A commitment to gospel centeredness. I think too often the church has lost the centrality of the gospel message to all we do. To often we have made traditionalism on the one hand or innovation on the other become the focal point. At the same time we have focused our message on pet doctrines, felt needs, cultural woes without making the gospel the center-point of all. It is the gospel that changes lives and must return to the center of our lives and ministries if we are to have an impact for the kingdom of God.

Axiom #5 – A commitment to a healthy confessional center. At the heart of this axiom, is a commitment to end the bickering about tertiary issues and get about the business of partnering for the gospel. The most obvious of these disputes is on the issue of Calvinism and the fighting that has seemed unending between those who affirm the “doctrines of grace” and those who oppose Calvinism. Already, we have seen growth in this area leading up to this Convention. As a pastor of a church in which half its members are reformed and half or not, I have already experienced the ability of believers to unite around the gospel and its proclamation while remaining in cordial disagreement about this tertiary issue.

Calvinsim is not the only issue at stake, however. While the debate will continue about what issues are secondary and which are tertiary (see Mohler’s theological triage paradigm), affirming the GCR document will show a commitment to work together even while we sort out these issues. That goes for me, for example, in the case of being strongly against the IMB personnel policies while continuing to be an avid supporter of the IMB and Lottie Moon. More could be said about this, but axiom 5 is a move in the right direction toward cooperation.

Axiom#8 -- A Commitment to a Methodological Diversity that is Biblically Informed. To me, this one should be a no-brainer, but for all our talk of methodological diversity, we are too often in the practice of questioning and criticizing the practices of others on non-biblical grounds. We ought to focus, instead, on our own particular context and the continuing process of developing new biblical and contextual methods for reaching the nations. I am in agreement with Ed Stetzer who recently quipped, “Southern Baptists will be on record affirming methodological diversity … If only we would will listen to that call...”

Axiom #9 -- A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure. Much has been written on this issue, so I won’t belabor the point, but I support Axiom #9. There has been much debate on whether this belongs in a Great Commission document, and I for one believe it does. Southern Baptist Great Commission work is based on cooperation and that cooperation is based on our Convention Structure. We should be in a continual evaluation of our structure to be efficient and effective stewards of God’s resources. We should not be afraid to restructure, remove bureaucracy where it exists, and yes, even downsize our state conventions to move to 50/50 split of CP funds.

Well, I have to be off. Preaching Conference starts in an hour and I haven’t yet finished my coffee. If you are attending the SBC, please be informed about this document and then support it when it comes time for a vote. If you are not attending, please pray for the SBC and its messengers as we together decide on this and other important issues.


p.s. For further reading, among the many commentaries and opinions available on the Webb, Nathan Finn has offered an excellent series of blog posts on the document.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thoughts about SBC "Good old boys"

Today, I had a conversation with a good friend about Convention politics and his perception of a good ol’ boy’s network. Here is a brief synopsis of my opinion on the matter:

The commonly referred to “good ol’ boys network” is largely a myth. In my opinion, such a perceived network is usually nothing more than godly men and women who, through experience and relationship, have learned to trust one another and know one-another’s character. If you are not involved, no such relationship, knowledge, trust and confidence occurs. Even if you are involved, considering the vast number of participating Baptists, you may not be asked to serve as a trustee or officer of one of our entities. If you are not involved, you can be assured that you won’t be. In the process of selecting leaders, occasionally, nepotism may occur. Granted, effort should be made to include a wider group of people. Sure, there are sometimes cases when politics get a bit dirty and responses are less than Christian. Still, I submit that such cases are not the norm and are in fact rare. Most often, rather, men and women are selected because of prior knowledge of that person’s life, work, and character.

Think about it for a moment. If you were asked to serve on the nominating committee of your state or the SBC and submit names for consideration, how would you go about it? Would you sit down with a list of names you don’t know, of people who have been uninvolved, and begin calling around to learn about them? Or, would names naturally come to mind of men and women with whom you have prior experience, whose character you know, whose doctrine you trust, and whom you think would do a good job? If the latter, why should you object if others in such a position do the same?

Just a few thoughts.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Multiple Bible Translations -- part 2: The difficulty of defaulting to a single modern translation

Addressing problem 1: The impossibility for many churches to “default” to a single modern translation.

In my first post, I provided a list of potential problems associated with multiple translations. In this post, I will expand on the first of these “problems.” The listing of this first issue as a problem is perhaps misleading. First, it is not “impossible” to default to a single translation. Many churches have indeed done so, and without fanfare. For many churches, however, defaulting to a single translation is difficult because it demands us to make certain choices are do a lot of extra work. So, having only one translation is not impossible, but for many congregations, such a move can only be done with great difficulty, by significantly narrowing the choice of programs and materials, or by opting for a translation that is not the one preferred. Here are some of the options for those churches who desire to be a single-translation church:

Choose denominational curriculum and materials. Usually, denominational materials are available in a consistent translation. The problem here is that the translation is either outdated (e.g. NKJV or NIV) or is not the one you want (e.g. while the HCSB is a fine translation, some churches might not prefer it over, say, the NLT or ESV). Also, one is limited to those programs and materials provided by their denomination.

Provide the single, preferred, translation along side the one in the curriculum via handouts, powerpoint, etc. While such provision is certainly an option, it is also time-consuming and may be costly. I am not aware of any churches that do this, though I provide it as a possibility – at least hypothetically.

Write your own curriculum and materials. Many churches have opted to develop their own resources for Sunday school, discipleship, evangelism, and other materials. While there are advantages and disadvantages beyond the Bible translation issue, such an approach does allow a church to achieve consistency in Bible translation if that is their desire.

So, to say that it is impossible to be a single modern translation church is not really accurate. Defaulting to a single translation is indeed an option for many churches and can be done with varying degrees of difficulty and accommodation depending on the values and resources of the church.

Another reason this first issue may not be a “problem” is that even if it is possible for a church to default to a single translation, such a practice may not be the best practice anyway. The single-translation problem is only a problem if having a single translation is a desired value of the church.

In many languages, only one translation is available. English speakers, however, have benefited from the availability of numerous Bible translations. Admittedly, the number of translations strikes me a bit as over-kill and is, in part, economically motivated. Granted, also, not all translations are created equal and there is some discernment required in selecting which Bible translations to use. Still, there are more than a few Bible translations that are conservative and trustworthy renderings of the biblical text into our language.

The question concerning limiting Bible use to a single translation is whether or not any one translation can fulfill all the functions of an adequate translation. Ultimately, the question becomes one of readability versus word for word correspondence or, to use translation parlance, between literal and dynamic equivalent translations.

If the Bible, as God’s word is to be useful for “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness,” is there any single translation that accomplishes all of those purposes? Because there are many available translations that are trustworthy, perhaps it is better to enjoy the benefits of multiple translations and work around the problems. Most church members are not proficient in the biblical languages. Church members come in a variety of reading levels, and functional vocabularies. Given these realities, many churches will see the value in the prudent use of multiple translations, accompanied by education concerning how and why they are different. The use of multiple translations, both literal and dynamically equivalent, may in fact ultimately yield a better understanding and obedience to God’s word among God’s people – and isn’t that a primary goal of translation?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Multiple Bible Translations – part 1: A Blessing and a Curse

In today’s Christian market, at least in the English world, we have the benefit of a number of solidly conservative translations available. Modern translations with which I am personally comfortable and recommend include the NASB, ESV, NIV, NLT, HCSB, NKJV and yes, even the TNIV. These translations fall on varying degrees of the dynamic equivalence / literal scale, but all are trustworthy and accurate renderings of the biblical text. The variety and number of translations holds many benefits for the modern English reader:

• The Bible is accessible to many reading levels and to readers who have little or no Bible background.
• Students of the Bible can compare texts to aid in comprehension
• Students can identify difficult passages without a knowledge of the original language
• Fewer instances of false doctrines and/or misunderstandings occur that are based on a the use of a particular English word
• Believers can find a Bible they can read, understand, and put into practice.
• Different translations are available for different purposes
• The availability of “competing” translations ensures that each of the Bible publishers and translation committees put out the highest quality product.

There are many benefits and I have not addressed them all here. For the most part, I am pleased to live in an era where the Bible is so readily available and accessible to all.

Along with these benefits, however, come a number of problems for the pastor and church planter in terms of practical ministry. This is especially true today, because no translation has emerged as the dominant translation for evangelical believers. Thirty years ago, we basically used either the King James or NIV. Even ten years ago, I defaulted to the NIV because “that’s the version un-churched people can buy at Wal-mart.” Today, however, the multiplicity of translations – even those available outside Christian bookstores – is remarkable … and problematic.

Here are a few issues that result:

1. The impossibility for many churches to “default” to a single modern translation.

In my church, for example, we do AWANA. The curriculum is available in NKJV or NIV. The kids memorize scripture in one of these two translations. Our Sunday School literature, however, is only available in HCSB. I preach from the ESV. I prefer the NLT or TNIV for new believers or those who are new to the Bible. Plus, my preferred outreach testament (Here’s hope) is only available in NKJV, NIV, or HCSB. Preferred gospel tracts are also available in only certain translations. All this makes it impossible to choose one single translation as the main translation used in our church.

2. The difficulty of choosing a translation for evangelism. What Bible do we recommend and/or give to a new believer? What Bible do we use for outreach? In my case, I prefer Bibles on the dynamic equivalent end of the spectrum for use with evangelism or new believers. Choosing such a translation would be no problem, except that the translations that are most accessible to the beginning Bible reader are NOT the translations that are available in the curriculums and resources that we use. We end up again with no consistent translation or new believers must read a more difficult translation.

3. The problem of consistency in Bible memorization.
Since there is no “standard”, what translation do we use for Bible translation – especially with our kids? Because there is no standard, people may differ with each other or, worse, may themselves memorize from multiple translations. For those who cherish consistency, that is a problem. The problem is more prominent when you consider that in many churches the children’s curriculums, most of which have Bible memory components, don’t match in terms of translation (e.g. AWANA vs. Lifeway).

4. An inability to “follow along” in the preaching. This problem is particularly applicable to me as a preacher because I am often asked, “what Bible do you preach from?” Translation: “I want to buy an expensive leather Bible and I want it to be what you use in the sermons so I can follow along in my Bible – oh and don’t go changing your mind after I shell out all that money.” Ok, so that’s a little exaggerated, but you get the point. Many Christians in evangelical churches have been trained to bring their Bible to church and to open it during the sermon. Translations are different enough in word choice and order of phrases that following along is near impossible unless you have the same translation as the preacher.

5. Confusion when choosing a translation.
Most church members have little or no conception of translation theory and the reason why certain translations do what they do. As a result, they don’t know how to choose a translation. Often, believers want to know what I think is the best translation. Some assume that the translation I use in the pulpit is what I think they should buy, but are confused when that is not the one we use elsewhere.

6. A lack of trust in the words of Scripture.
Some Christians find the multiplicity of Bible translations (much like the multiplicity of Christian denominations) disconcerting. Because so many translations are available, some Christians lack guidance and confidence that the Bible in their hands is trustworthy. The problem is compounded by those that are privy to the in house and online controversies surrounding some translations – not to mention the KJV only crowd.

All of these and more are common problems associated with the availability and use of multiple Bible translations. You have probably experienced many or all of them. All in all, however, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Churches should embrace the blessings of modern evangelical scholarship in English translations despite the issues that arise because of the multiplicity of such translations. Someday, one modern version may emerge as the dominant one for use by evangelical Christians and churches as the NIV did in the previous generation. In the mean time, pastors and churches will have to be creative and purposeful in addressing the problems that come with the variety. I have some ideas for that, but you’ll have to wait for the next post. :)


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An "Experiencing God" Moment

Nothing profound or particularly poignant in this post, just a brief testimony of a door God is opening for our church and which we are looking forward to going through. Here is a brief bullet point synopsis:

• A door for ministry in our church, one that had been open and was a primary outreach ministry, closed. We tried to reopen it, and prayed for it to reopen, but it remained closed.
• I began praying for new ways for our church to minister to our community.
• My fellow pastor, a few leaders, and our prayer team began to pray for an opportunity for ministry.
• The past ministry door transformed to a different but still significant ministry. In the mean time, God was working on another door…
• A local, large multi-housing complex sent a letter to its tenants asking if there was any interest in organizing an Easter egg hunt and possibly gathering for an early service on Easter morning.
• The newsletter found its way to me.
• I approached the apartment manager about his letter and offered the assistance of our church. I gave him two weeks to think about it and said I would contact him to discuss the idea further.
• Our church prayed corporately for two weeks about the opportunity.
• We made a more specific plan for the event and for ongoing ministry in the MH complex.
• We sought the best way and time to pitch the idea to the manager.
• Before I could call him, he called me.
• He asked if we were still wanting to do ministry in his apartment community.
• I met with him and pitched our plan for Easter weekend and ongoing ministry after that.
• He is excited about having our church hold this event/service and prepare for ongoing ministry to his 1200+ tenants.
• Turns out, though the complex is owned by a secular corporation, the manager and two of his staff are born again Christians and want to see their complex reached for Jesus Christ.
• We are planning for Easter weekend and looking forward to how God will work through us for His kingdom.

I share all this as a testimony of a current “Experiencing God” moment. God is still at work. Our church is beginning to see people saved and lives being changed. I’m thankful to be able to join Him in His work. May we be faithful to His call.

Now your turn...
SHARE YOUR TESTIMONY -- What's God doing where you are?

Monday, March 23, 2009

What kind of pastor will I be?

In my ministry, I have come across two kinds of pastors.
I must choose which kind I want to be.

Will I be…

. . . a pastor who is an encouragement to those around them or a pastor who sucks the life out of others by my negative attitude?

. . . a pastor who see challenges as an opportunity for God to work or one who approaches challenges with a “can’t do” attitude?

. . . a pastor who talks about what God is doing in the lives of people or a pastor who complains about the difficult people?

. . . a pastor who loves people and invests in others or a pastor who sees people for how they can benefit me and my agenda?

. . . a pastor who is constantly critical of other ministers and ministries or a pastor who praises other ministers and ministries and comes alongside those who need support?

. . . a pastor who casts a vision and asks the congregations to give to it or a pastor who has no vision and complains about the church not having any money?

. . . a pastor who sees things as they can be or one who sees things as they’ll never be?

. . . a pastor who appreciates and seeks to carry on the legacy of those who have gone before or a pastor who is cynical of the older generation of leaders?

. . . a pastor who values fellow believers even when I disagree on secondary and tertiary issues or one who demonizes others with whom I disagree?

. . . a pastor who constantly talks about myself and my plans or a pastor who takes an interest in others?

. . . a pastor who embraces theological, philosophical, and methodological discussions from an “iron sharpens iron” point of view or one who debates others in an adversarial manner and seeks to win arguments at any cost?

. . . a pastor who prays for others or one who gossips about others?

. . . a pastor who spreads the gospel wherever I go or one who preaches, teaches, and talks about evangelism but never actually shares his faith with anyone?

. . . a pastor who walks by faith or one who walks by sight?

. . . a pastor who is desperately dependent on God or one who ministers in his own strength?

. . . a pastor for whom prayer is vital to my life and ministry or for whom prayer is an afterthought or a begrudging duty?

. . . a pastor with a vital and growing relationship with the Lord or one whose spiritual life is dull and lifeless?

. . . a pastor who puts ideas into action or one who posts lists on a blog and then forgets about them?

. . . a pastor who seeks first the kingdom of God or one who seeks first the kingdom of Todd?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

One more post about The Shack: with "something else" to consider

Well, The Shack has really been a hot topic of late. I first came across the book when a reading group from our church chose the book as their current read. This small group of women are reading with a critical eye and with a bent toward apologetics. I became troubled, however, as I looked beyond this group of Bereans (Acts 17:11) to the wider popularity and response to the book in Baptist life and the evangelical community at large.

I am troubled by the number of people, even people with a good deal of influence, that have no problem with the fact that the book undermines key tenets of the faith including the nature of God, the trinity, salvation, and the exclusivity of Christ. I won’t take the time to point out all the specific problems with the book here. Multiple reviews have done that already and can be found by a quick google search. As troubling as the book and its positive reception among many evangelicals is, however, I am equally troubled by something else.

Before I get to the “something else,” let me offer a brief rebuttal of four common arguments in defense of The Shack. After that, I’ll get to the “something else” which is not being discussed to any great length and is, perhaps, the crux of the issue for us who are evangelicals. A fair warning – this is a long post. If you’re already convinced about The Shack, or if there is any danger of losing you along the way, please skip ahead to the “something else.” I have marked it with a line of asterisks in the text. In fact, go ahead and skip to that now. If you still have nothing better to do, you can come back and read the rebuttal section later.

Here are my four rebuttal points:

1. “The Shack is a work of fiction.” – So what? Fiction has always presented a particular worldview, often for the purpose of promoting that worldview. Fiction, historically, has been a means by which the author can indirectly teach his or her opinion or message under the guise of a genre that is defended as innocuous. So The Shack is fiction. So is Animal Farm, 1984, A Brave New World, Anna Karenina, and everything Karen Kingsbury has ever written. Each of those works has a worldview agenda, even though they are works of fiction. Why should The Shack get a free pass just because of its genre?

2. “The Shack is no different than the Left Behind series or the Chronicles of Narnia.” Leaving behind the fact that these two examples are different forms of fiction writing, in terms of their promotion of a worldview, The Shack is absolutely different. The Left Behind series, for instance, indeed does promote or at least fall in line with a particular theological viewpoint. The issues at stake there, however, are not “first order” issues. Rather, the point of dispute is eschatology. An area, at least in my denomination, in which there is a great degree of freedom to disagree. A similar argument could be made concerning the Narnia books. In The Shack, the issues at stake are not peripheral or denominational, they cut to the core of the Christian faith. Much of the dialogue promotes a worldview that is not inline with historic orthodox Christianity. In that sense, it is completely different than the other popular Christian works with which it is often compared.

3. “We should trust Christians to use discernment. Warning people about a book is a form of legalism.” I have put two issues into one here. First, it is not legalism to expose the contents of the book, warn people of its dangers, encourage people not to read or if they do to do so with a heavy dose of discernment. Rather, it is an act of Christian love and part of the duty of true Christian fellowship. Legalism would say “you’re sinning if you read this book.” I do think it is unwise for many to read this book. I am not, however, laying down a legalistic requirement that Christians not read it. Further, warning people about The Shack is not a matter of trust. On the one hand, I would expect Christians to warn other Christians of dangers of all kinds. More importantly for me, as a pastor, it is my duty to warn my people of danger. The Bible clearly requires pastors to “guard the flock” (Acts 20:28) and correct and protect the church from false teaching. The Shack, whatever its intent, contains false teaching. For that reason, Christians and conscientious pastors should warn others of such.

4. “The Shack has helped me understand the problem of evil.” On its surface, this is the hardest for me to answer. The reason it is hard for me is that, I have always been a “chew up the meat, spit out the bones” kind of guy. It is always been my practice to learn from others with whom I disagree, even on essential issues. That practice is not without its exception, however. When I learn from others whose worldview is different than mine, I do not do so as my primary means of discovering an issue. That is, if I am studying the problem of evil, for example, I do not go first to a liberal theologian to find an answer. After studying the Scripture, I first look to find solid orthodox and evangelical teaching on the issue. Then, after I am thoroughly grounded, I look to others outside my context to see if there is any additional insight or questions that remain unanswered. All with a heavy dose of discernment. What does that have to do with The Shack? Many Christians are treating the book as a new “first source” on the problem of evil. Thus, they read or recommend the book and take in with it all of its false teaching merely because, presumably, the book does a good job on the problem of evil. Perhaps the book does have some helpful elements. But as one parishioner asked, if I may be crude for just a moment, “How much dog poop would have to be in the recipe before you wouldn’t eat one of my brownies?” There are better and more theologically sound books, fiction and non-fiction, that do a good job addressing the problem of evil without having to resort to a book with questionable theology on primary issues.

There is something else to discuss. One important question remains – a question which those who are adamantly opposed to the book must address:

Self-published books don’t soar to the top of best-seller lists for no reason. Obviously, there is something in this book that appeals to a large audience, both evangelical and otherwise. What is it, and why is it important for the church?

The answer may be profound. And, admittedly, I may not be right – although I think I am. The answer may even hold a wider key to many of the issues we have been discussing in the evangelical blogosphere including the decline of the SBC, the plateau in baptisms, the trend against denominationalism, and the growing bias against traditional evangelicalism. I think the answer does indeed have application for reclaiming unchurched Christians and reaching non-believers with the gospel. So, why is the book so popular?...

The Shack offers people what the church, by and large, does not – hope for and acceptance of messed up people.

Mack is a messed up person. He has real hurts. He has experienced real pain. He does not act and think the way a Christian ought to act and think. In fact, he questions and even blames God for what has happened to him. People relate to Mack. They relate to the pain and hurt and struggle and questions Mack has. And they find from Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu the kind of understanding and acceptance that is, for whatever reason, missing in the church.

Our church members are made up of mostly “respectable” people. Most churches where I live are made up of people who have been Christians and faithful followers for a long time. We have, at least in our experience, much in common with the older brother in the parable of the lost son. While we might not have his attitude, we can honestly say “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command” (Luke 15:29, ESV). Many have never struggled with the “big” sins, or have managed to keep our struggles a secret. As a byproduct of our faithful lifelong commitment to Christ, however, we have little understanding of people who have problems and often don’t know how to respond.

Like Simon the Pharisee, we are disconcerted and often privately critical of persons who struggle with sin. We don’t get how a person can be a Christian and have depression or other emotional issues. We have no sympathy for men who battle lust and addiction to pornography, persons recovering from drug and alcohol dependence, singles who struggle with sexual abstinence, people contemplating suicide, divorce, or abortion, persons who continually make poor life choices, or persons who just have not reached our level of spiritual maturity. Even when our attitude is right, we don’t often offer people real help. Our spiritual arsenal is a list of proof texts, ought statements, and abstract moralisms. We have no real practical solutions or action steps. We do not offer ongoing emotional support and walking alongside struggling persons as a friend and brother. Our approach to sin is “don’t do it.”

Similarly, The Shack, for all its faults, communicates with people where they are. It allows Mack to be where he is in his struggle and does not condemn him for asking the big questions nor does it leave him without any direction. Our churches, however, often offer little in the way of real answers, real comfort, or ongoing care for hurting people. We are at a loss for how to deal with people who question God after the loss of loved one, people with chronic pain or conditions that are ongoing, widows and widowers who struggle with loneliness, single parents who struggle financially just to get by, persons struggling from the pain of divorce, adult victims of sexual abuse, the list goes on and on. We know instinctively that the Bible has answers for hurting, messed up people, but we struggle moving from the abstract to the concrete. Even when we have the right answers, somehow we are not communicating those answers effectively, nor approaching people with the kind of love and care that we ought to. When we are approached with real problems, our church answers can often be trite, shallow, cliché, insider language. We either grow impatient when people’s problems are not quickly resolved or we just forget that our brother or sister is hurting.

Because we tend to be program-driven rather than families of genuine koinonia, people become cogs in the machine that is church growth. People with problems, struggles, and issues don’t fit the machine. We don’t know what to do with them. They leave the church or are never reached because of sheer neglect.

We think that we are a friendly, open, and inviting community – and in our hearts, I believe we are. The perception from those on the outside, however, is that the church is a place where you can go if you have it all together or if you can hide the fact that you don’t. The lost world views us as bigots, homophobes, mysoginists, and, well, jerks. A growing number of unchurched Christians view the church as unforgiving, unaccepting, irrelevant and unhelpful for those who are dealing with deep and complex issues. We forget that we are messed up people too and are in desperate need of Jesus Christ.

I am not offering this as some kind of cynical prophet who wants to rail against the traditional church. I am part of the “traditional” church. This essay is in many ways a reflection of my own shortcomings as a Christian and minister. I offer this essay as a man who sees a disconnect in our churches and in my own ministry between the truths of the gospel we proclaim and the application of those truths to real lives. I see a disconnect between the biblical idea of koinonia and the practical outworking of relationships in the church and my own life. I desire to see the church be what it was meant to be and offer real hope for real lives.

All this means, then, that the response to The Shack needs to be two-sided. Not only must we warn of its dangers, we must seek to communicate truth in a clear and compelling way and come along side hurting messed up people. It is time for pastors, myself included, to really do the hard work of contextualization and quit using the same empty rhetoric with which we are familiar but which holds little significance for many of our hearers. Its time to reach out to people with genuine love and compassion and the investment that real relationship requires. Its time for us to see people the way God sees them. Its time to move beyond mere surface acquaintances with people who have it all together and join one another as fellow ministers of Christ on the journey that is the Christian life, with no brother or sister left behind.

I am not done thinking and writing on the issue of doctrinal fidelity or true missional Christianity and biblical koinonia. Neither will I be content to leave this issue to words on a blog rather than an earnest outworking of these concepts in my own life and ministry. In my mind, this balance is the issue of our time. We must fight for doctrinal and biblical fidelity, but we must also work hard to be bring the gospel to real people where they are and truly to grow together as followers of Jesus Christ. If there is a future for the evangelical church, we must get this right.