Archive for the ‘Church Focus’ Category

Minor points of theology?

Monday, July 27th, 2009

In a recent conversation with a church pastor, he said roughly – These are only minor points of theology. They don’t really matter. It is our community that matters. At the time he was commenting on one of the foundational points of the Doctrines of Grace but the issue would been the same if the comment referred to any other doctrinal point.
His point, as he proceeded to explain somewhat sadly, was that theology was divisive to Christian community and family. Doctrine was interesting, but not something to actual consider significant. We should not worry about such and just be a Christian community, concentrating upon community and family activities. Now I should that these activities do include worship, but only as a part of the community genre. He was saddened (which was the stimulus for the conversation) that members were not seeming to ‘get it’.

Since this conversation was on the phone and the rebuttal was not going to be quick or tidy, I let it lay for the moment. But is has left me shaking my head, not only for the pastor in question, but for the flock, many of whom I know are searching for defining doctrinal answers which they will only find in Christ.
There was not even a hint in the conversation or apparently in his thinking that some actual defining, Scritpural doctrine and a clear theology might be what was needed. I have to say that I find that incredible.

There seemed no recognition (or perhaps it would threaten the ‘community at all costs philosophy’) that the church must derive its core identity from correct doctrine, derived from Scripture. And that the community, family and other identities must flowing out from that central core. Purpose, as defined by God not man, must be the starting point. When that is not the case, the theology will always develop from the community values, in other words, as defined by man and not God. An identity defined by man is wrong and even with the best of intentions will always end up serving the world and not Christ (we can discuss the theology of that another time).

Interestingly, at the same time as the above scenario is playing out in his flock, he is disheartened that they are not really interested in Bible study or his preaching. He clearly does not see the conflicting message he is sending about what is central and what defines that church.

Moreover, those within the congregation who are actually driven by the Spirit to seek biblical truth and identity are drifting quietly away, left empty by a man-centered community with no biblical identity. Even if that community is centered upon things that are Christian in nature and do in fact accomplish good works, it is still not centered correctly upon the Lord.

A sad scenario in a time of worldly churches. The question is, what to do…

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Foundational Issues Revisited

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

A few months ago I wrote a number of pieces concerning the lack of foundational biblical and theological literacy in the average evangelical assembly, and the apparent lack of interest in this issue (real interest, not the usual talk) in the leadership. After reading a number of other people on the same subject, particularly an article by Dr. George Guthrie (Mind the Gap) of Union University, I have revised and narrowed my focus somewhat. Dr. Guthrie’s paper brought me to realize how widespread this problem actually is throughout the Baptist and evangelical church.

Though I continue to believe, among other things, that there is a fundamental need for basic, organized theology, catechism and similar instruction as a primary focus of congregational life, and that this supersedes many other program activities, the most pressing issue overall is the almost complete lack of systematic training in Bible Study methodology.

I would venture to guess that your average church member or attendee, including both new and old believers, has never been offered a course of study in bible reading methodology and study skills.

Wait a minute, you say. Your church has small groups that do bible studies, Sunday school that examines bible issues, and some level of expository preaching (though that gets more rare by the minute, replaced by emergent social psychology).

The answer is that none of these addresses the foundational and essential issue in most cases. They are all deductive in nature, do not effectively equip the individual to undertake effective personal bible study, and are often largely passive. As such, they do not help the believer to know how to study the Bible. They mostly examine small portions of Scripture with a predetermined outcome in sight. Though this can be valuable in its own right, it is not what is needed to equip the individual to divide the Word for themselves.

Most people are simply told to ‘Read your Bible’. In most cases that is tantamount to asking them to read the Greek New Testament and look up what they don’t understand. Admittedly that may be an exaggeration, but you get the point. The Bible is not a simple book for the most part, and they have no skills with which to approach it. The result is more often than not some combination of quiet discouragement, little or sporadic individual Bible study, and poor understanding of the implications of what is actually read. In other words, poor understand, little closeness to the Word, possibly flawed theology, and complete dependence upon others for information.

Furthermore, the existence of ministry programs such as small groups, though they serve other important fellowship functions, allows leadership to skirt the issue of instilling real, individual Bible study skills in the congregation. The result is individual biblical illiteracy. Even the congregants themselves are unlikely to see this clearly in many cases, or are not likely to admit it. After all, who is going to admit that their bible study skills are not great? Equipping the people of God for effective, individual bible study, however, is a fundamental responsibility of the church leadership, which is shirked at their peril.

What is the result of this? Not only is the result a congregation that is largely and silently unable to rightly divide the Word of God for themselves and form solid personal biblical opinions to be applied in life, but we slowly and insidiously move toward a pre-Reformation situation in which authoritative Bible study and personal theology is vested in a new magisterium of the Pastors. This is most certainly not what the Reformers had in mind!

If you don’t believe that this is happening, just observe quietly how much of the church theology defers to Pastoral opinion and how little actual biblical or theological discussion takes place.

So what is the answer or the start towards an answer?

Here is a suggested but not exhaustive list of actions:

1. More public reading of Scripture in the congregation
2. Solid instruction in individual bible study methodology fro all members
3. Particular emphasis on deductive bible study skill development in the youth and new believers
4. Straightforward expository preaching, with notes and minimal dramatic enhancement
5. Small groups focused on deductive skills and foundational theology

There, that’s a start at least!

That said, the slide away from biblical literacy being an actual priority (assuming of course that it once was one) has been developing for some time, so it is likely to be an uphill trip to revival. Moreover, though church leadership (with some notable exceptions) do discuss these issues they are historically unlikely to move on them pro-actively and persistently at the expense of other more socially relevant programs. Getting beyond mere recognition of the problem and onto the active agenda is a significant part a battle in itself.

We have to start somewhere, though, and a new emphasis on encouraging all of us to learn, share and practice basic inductive bible study methodologies can do other than enhance all other aspects of faith and practice.

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Toward a Biblical Leadership Vision

Saturday, May 19th, 2007

If we look in Scripture, as well as at the definitions used by many Evangelical denominations, we find a description of church leader (ie. Elder) to include a number of attributes and their outworking in certain responsibilities. Although there may be others, all definitions seem to include teaching, preaching, spiritual shepherd, visitation, and holder of some level of local church accountability. These roles may be defined in many ways, but they center on the role of spiritual leader and teacher for the local assembly. What we do not find in the definition is any hint of attributes involving business acumen, organizational strategist, long time member, financial contributor or similar. Those are attributes recognized in the world, while the attributes of a church leader stem from Biblical acumen, knowledge and application, not that of the world.

These leadership attributes (and therefor qualifications) focus clearly on both the spiritual health and biblical enhancement of the local assembly through example, preaching, teaching and exemplary Biblical fellowship, and on the sharing of the Gospel with the unsaved (whether directly or through equipping).

To move a bit further down the church hierarchy to Deacons, we find the practical expression of the tone set by the Elders. That means that the environment that allows the teaching, support and preaching of the Elders becomes the practical responsibility of the Deacons. To draw an analogy, the Elders likely teach or preach most effectively in a heated room, and the Deacons service the furnace to facilitate that heat. A trivial example, but it makes the point.

In this model we have the Elders setting the vision for the assembly, drawing that vision (one would presume) from Scriptural models and their explicit implications.  In many modern churches, following a congregational decision framework, the assembly then approves these visions. However, it is common for this to be little more than a rubber stamping at a church meeting that in effect takes place after the fact. Nonetheless, the vision as set by the Elders normally becomes the official focus for implementation largely as presented.

In this process of setting priorities and subsequent goals for the assembly it would seem safe to assume that the vision would be Biblical in tone, and follow Biblical paradigms in the propagation (both in the congregation and outside it) of both the Word of the Lord and the Gospel message. As such, any other priorities would be assumed to flow from this, as side effect from success in these so to speak. For example, in concentrating upon preaching the word and spreading the Gospel with clarity and truth inside and outside the assembly, the congregation might by the Grace of our Lord alone experience growth, and consequently even need of a larger facility. That growth and its consequences, however, are a result of the performing the work of the Lord, not the primary focus the vision. They are by the Grace of God and not by the process of men.

With this in mind, what do we sometimes observe in reality? Unfortunately, it may be an apparent reversal of the paradigm as demonstrated in the Scripture.

Today, the first vision statement heard could be something like “We envision a congregation of 900-1000 people”, assuming the current one is quite a bit smaller. Or “We envision this place filled to capacity by the end of the year.” Now, dreaming of a great congregation is not bad in itself, but what is wrong here? You got it (I hope). The cart is before the horse. No talk of learning and propagating theological or Biblical truth. No talk of equipping all for evangelism, and of going forth for the Lord and His Kingdom. No talk of expending resources distributing the Word of God without condition. Just vision of growth. Maybe couched with words about using it for the Lord, but with growth first. To put it bluntly – GROWTH IS NOT A BIBLICAL GOAL ITSELF! It is perfectly legitimate if you are a department store, with shareholders. This is wrong, wrong, wrong thinking!

The only biblically and Scripturally endorsed goals are Glorifying God, preaching the Gospel, and acting within His precepts in obedient behaviour. These include nothing whatsoever about organizational growth – nothing, zip, nada, zilch, zero…

Once vision with a worldly focus starts to take hold, the Elders (including the Pastor as CEO) become a Board of Directors whose main, and eventually only, concerns can all too easily become organizational. Even starting from a Biblical base, they can not hold those views indefinitely, with the organizational pressure that will come with thoughts of worldly expansion and its benefits.

Once underway, this focus develops as a situation that has less and less to do with the Lord or His priorities. It is very likely to bring organizational success of many types, possibly good fellowship, many friends and acquaintances, and even substantial resources that support worthwhile church programs. That success fuels further development in that direction. But it is NOT based in a Biblical mindset and priority set. It not based upon growth in the Biblical model.

Does this mean that this path is fundamentally secular and inappropriate? I know what I think, but I will leave it to your musings…

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Who sets the church tone and agenda?

Friday, May 18th, 2007

In discussing various approaches to congregational life, Biblical and doctrinal literacy and church priorities, the question arises as to who exactly should be setting, establishing and monitoring these fundamental aspects.

Not only do these issues affect the tone and nature of the assembly, but they often have a resounding though quiet effect on the faith and satisfaction of the lives of believers. This effect is often in direct proportion to their level of involvement, but not within their control or influence it many cases. That is, the more involved people are in church life, the more affected they will be, either for good or for bad. That said, it might be prudent for any adherent to have a close, objective look at the church organizational and power structure (the real one, not the published one), and its health, before getting heavily involved. A little circumspect observation while still somewhat detached can go a long way to avoiding grief and finding joyous satisfaction in cases where change is needed and unlikely to occur.

In the church of today, the techniques of successful secular business are strongly in vogue. These are currently concerned with downloading responsibility, distributing accountability, and the encouragement of strong organizational growth. Church leaders are much enamored of business management gurus and writers, with their growth techniques and operational philosophies. Pastors are just as likely to be reading and championing the latest business strategies as they are Biblical approaches, often even bringing them to the pulpit. Irrespective of whether this is appropriate in a Biblically based organization (in my view it is not, but that is a subject for another discussion), it is the reality of the day and the effects are many and resounding.

When secular management gurus (with completely worldly agendas) are the order of the day for congregational management and guidance, what is the likely result? One could propose that since there is great success in these philosophies and organizational approaches, the church as an organization in decline in recent times could benefit from their techniques. On the surface, when judged with a priority on growth and numerical success, that may well seem true in a pragmatic sense. But is it in line with Biblical priorities? While it occasional may move in parallel, in general my answer would be no.

The Scripture lays out very simple priorities, and none of these include organizational growth for its own sake. They also do not include growth to support resource intensive programs and entertainment. Those are secular, plain and simple. Scripture also clearly lays out the responsibilities of church leadership, and these similarly do not include that focus. Ignoring all the explanatory words one may hear to work around or rationalize the approaches on these issues, the focus is in the wrong place.

Not only that, but as can sometimes ironically be the case, this is quite clear to many of the rank and file in the pews, who comment on it frequently in one form or another (even if they may not be able to articulate it perfectly).

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Preaching and Small Groups Reloaded

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

Following-on from the article and related comments on Preaching and Small Groups, I think that I should reiterate the implications. I see the effect on small groups as peripheral, as with music. Though the issues can be flash points that are sensitive, I am interested in the the larger (and for me at least) more critical issue of underlying foundational knowledge within the congregational body that support true Christian assembly over time.

The proposition for small groups is merely that that without the underlying foundation being properly prioritized and consistently dealt with, the small groups are caste into a role that they are not equipped (through their set-up, not due to any lack of sincerity or intent) to fulfill. As has been suggested, if they function to increase the depth of and expand upon foundational preaching and doctrinal exploration, that is wonderful. Or alternately, if they are defined to fulfill the acknowledged need for a solid forum for fellowship combined with some biblical or devotional sharing, again great. However, when they are caste in the role of the primary educational forum for foundational matters, and subsequently left to their own devices and development by the leadership with respect to approach, curriculum and direct support, then the overall situation is built more and more upon thin ice.

This brings the discussion around to an all too familiar theme, that of foundation, biblical and basic doctrinal literacy. A comment on the previous post began with the assumption of solid biblical preaching. Let us focus that to preaching based in and for the purpose of Biblical, foundational and doctrinal exposition. The tone and direction of the organization is likely to subsequently proceed from that, and there will be a priority on programs in support of those areas. Our refrain to-date, however, has been that the church in general is moving in precisely the opposite direction, with the focus on organizational growth and programs in support of that. In this case, the tone and direct will follow suit, away from the Biblical and doctrinal literacy. The foundational areas, in fact, will more and more come to be looked upon as arcane subjects suitable only for seminary debate, and not necessary for the general assembly of God’s people. Once paradigm that picks up steam, faith isolated to experiential evidence and with less and less foundational knowledge is not far behind. One may even hear the proposal that the two focus directions described are synonymous. The absurdity of that simply denies expression.

I would propose that this scenario is what we are seeing, and it should give us much pause when looked at with a view to the tribulations which we know will come, and which Scripture has implied will remove much of the experiential support through the tactics of Satan and the world. That this will come about is in not doubt in Revelations.

In conclusion, one would hope that the refocusing of congregational, and particularly leadership, priority on foundational matters, leaving the rest (for example, growth) to the Lord, will move towards a path more centered upon the Sovereignty of our Lord, with the people of God better equipped to weather the future.

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Notes on Preaching and Small Groups

Saturday, May 12th, 2007

Let us expand a bit on a couple of points. First “Preaching which is foundational and biblical at least 75% of the time. This means exposition, not excess commentary and particularly not application!”

Preaching and the Pulpit are the primary framework for the dissemination of congregational education. This alone is today likely a controversial proposition in many churches with the downloading of responsibilities to pastoral associates and preference group ministries. The pulpit message should be for expository education in the central issues of biblical literacy, theological framework and foundations, and the doctrinal specifics of the faith. Within the context of about 30 minutes a week on average, that alone is a tall order and extensive branching out is sure to water down the delivery of the basics.

The tone and attitude (in both word and action) communicated from the pulpit concerning foundational areas is crucial. That tone and attitude will likely make or break the importance of foundational knowledge in the congregation. In other words, the buck initially stops in the pulpit, and it will have a make or break effect, acting as a watershed from that level to the congregation. Further, in most cases other levels of leadership will emulate the attitude expressed there (even if they don’t agree). Unfortunately, my observations as well as those from other congregations I have queried indicate that more often than not the result is break, rather than make, with the importance of foundations being communicated as very low. The foundations may be called important, but action and ongoing emphasis indicate otherwise, and the congregation readily picks up on, adopts, or least emulates this. The subsequent effect is to shift foundational issues to the sideline of talk, not action. Not encouraging, but true.

Despite the paradox at work here in the difference between the surface message and the real message, the result likely plays out very smoothly on the surface. Biblical literacy and foundational knowledge is moved onto the shoulders of the ubiquitous small group ministry, with the convenient reasoning that it is a matter for individual and group work, and a subject that is of individual choice or preference as to how much is appropriate. This is error. When it comes to the basic knowledge of the faith, our Lord’s statements on this are completely the opposite. The stress seeking understanding and knowledge of “the reason for the hope that is within you”.

Once the areas of exposition and study slide onto the sideline of small groups, where they are largely unguided and unregulated in comprehensive sense, several things happen very quickly. The leadership can consider them ‘dealt with’ and in good hands. This frees them of ongoing direct responsibility, since the matter is deemed as being ‘well addressed’. They can then move on to other more immediately, pressing organizational matters such as organizational and resource growth. Oversight should and may continue, but in the somewhat informal framework of the small group environment in many congregations this is often not the case.

Next, and likely more important to the issues at hand, since small groups largely function with only arms length guidance and oversight, physically separate from the church, with few in-depth resources, often using as a guide largely devotional style, inexpensive literature with limited biblical content, and offered on a volunteer basis by people of widely varying levels of expertise, they are not well positioned to fulfill what should be critical work. They are unlikely to cover foundational subjects with consistent, predictable depth or completeness. This is particularly true of difficult doctrinal or theological issues, which they are understandably likely to avoid altogether or be unable to resolve. More superficial material and exploration is simply more plausible within the available resources. We should not that this is not a commentary on the people involved but on the environment provided. Overall, the result is a quiet loss in these pivotal areas of knowledge from the general mindset of the congregation. With this loss comes general theological and foundational weakness, and a lack of interest in such issues, as a substrata of the congregational body.

Small Groups are well positioned to foster limited, preference group based fellowship, but not education in biblical or doctrinal literacy. The result is an appearance of education and action but no consistent, measurable delivery of either on foundational issues. You don’t believe me? Fair enough. Take a quiet informal poll around the congregation over few weeks, examining individual knowledge and interest (remembering that the encouraging of interest in these matters is a significant part of the process and responsibility of the church leadership), as well as variance in group study content, in even the fundamental tenants of the faith and its doctrine. I have no doubt of what you will find.

Thus we return to Preaching, and to the issues of Small Groups touched on in several points. Put simply, Leadership must have foundational issues as a priority. Small groups, though very useful, and making a great contribution in some congregational respects, do not offer the leadership a pass on these crucial matters.

Let us finish by restating the suggested starting actions, with the addition of the eighth:

1. Blended contemporary and traditional worship – many do this now and it seems to work well.
2. Preaching which is foundational and biblical at least 75% of the time. This means exposition, not excess commentary and particularly not application!
3. A congregational approach to familiarity (preferably with some memorization) with foundational Bible verses.
4. Bible reading, both individual and congregational (this is not small group bible study from a booklet).
5. Congregational education on the denominational doctrines and distinctives to a level of repeatability.
6. A provision for and endorsement of congregational prayer, specific as well as generic.
7. Church leadership (beyond the paid pastoral staff) actively and obviously engaged in the clear Biblical requirements – spiritual guidance, teaching, preaching and congregational care.
8. Remove church growth from the congregational or leadership agenda. It is a side effect of Glorifying our Lord through primary exercise of the faith and sharing of the Gospel (see Witness for the Lord), not an proper activity.

So there you have it. Again, as stated at the beginning, there are surely better analyzes and corrective actions. That does not, however, reduce the present magnitude nor the growing significance of the problem. In the current tide, and without a change in direction, it is likely to only get worse…

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What is the cure, Doctor?

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

With various issues brought into the light of day, and a number of apparently unaddressed needs discussed, the picture being painted might appear to be a tad bleak. In the face of some of the issues that may well be the case. As a side note, I have just started to read John MacArthur’s latest book (The Truth War) and discovered that I have been harping on roughly the same track. It is encouraging on the one hand to find that much greater thinkers are proposing similar concerns, but discouraging in that it further confirms my suspicions. That having been said, however, I am still naive enough to think that there are a number of simple prescriptions to move things back toward the yellow brick road.

Let me also state that there are surely many other better answers and approaches than those proposed here. That having been said, anxiety about inadequate answers can be an excuse for inaction and decline. For those old enough to recall a TV show named WKRP in Cincinnati, the series opening show had the newly self-named Dr. Johnny Fever exclaiming on the air “Give it to me straight, Doctor. I can take it”. With that in mind, we shall wade in boldly and see what happens.

Overall, I think that we can preserve much of the popular ‘look and feel’ changes that seem to delight people, while still re-incorporating the foundational basics. The point here is not to declare all current changes as unwanted and throw the baby out with the bath water, but to use the present preferential changes to enhance the foundational basics. The problem to date has often been that the new approaches have replaced the basics and not enhanced them, as if these modern preferences formed an equally valid theology of their own. That is surely the road to apostasy!

The other present day reality is that of financial resources. A great advantage to the re-incorporation of the foundational, biblical content is that is it relatively cost free. This also conveniently removes a major excuse.

One key is to give those foundational basics at least as much emphasis as the newer issues. Moreover, in order to re-orient things, it may be required in the short run to put more emphasis on the issues to be re-established as foundational. The next, but likely the most important, key is consistency. The foundational basics must be consistently and persistently taught, preached, discussed and thought about until they are second nature and endemic in the congregation’s paradigm. This second point is absolutely crucial to success. Application of those two changes alone would likely yield a positive result even in the short them, but they must be actually applied, not simply thought about about or talked about.

So how can we practically combine the present and the foundational basics? Here is an off-the-cuff action list (in no particular order of importance) for starters:

1. Blended contemporary and traditional worship – many do this now and it seems to work well.
2. Preaching which is foundational and biblical at least 75% of the time. This means exposition, not excess commentary and particularly not application!
3. A congregational approach to familiarity (preferably with some memorization) with foundational Bible verses.
4. Bible reading, both individual and congregational (this is not small group bible study from a booklet).
5. Congregational education on the denominational doctrines and distinctives to a level of repeatability.
6. A provision for and endorsement of congregational prayer, specific as well as generic.
7. Church leadership (beyond the paid pastoral staff) actively and obviously engaged in the clear Biblical requirements – spiritual guidance, teaching, preaching and congregational care.

And one further point, more an attitude than an action – Forget church growth! It is a side effect of Glorifying our Lord, not an activity.

That is a start. It will no doubt offend the “church is boring, you must engage people to draw them to the Gospel” set. Good! That would indicate that we are at least actually discussing the issues. Points two and possibly four could use some expansion since two is so pivotal and four is such a strong focus in today’s church, but that can wait until the next article.

Within the points listed there is a basic framework for at least a beginning toward more general biblical literacy. And that is real literacy, not just talk about it and vague references. This might just yield an assembly of people who actually are of the Book

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Of The Book or just about it?

Monday, May 7th, 2007

Baptists often refer to themselves as “People of the Book”. That is not unique to Baptists as far as I can see, and is applied both internally and external in describing many in the evangelical and wider fundamentalist protestant communities. It expresses a great intent.

This reminds me of a true story from the family of another believer. Their children attended the publicly funded elementary schools associated with another branch of the Christian faith (I won’t mention who). One day in class, a member of the religious order that oversees the school was querying the class about their church affiliations. The child in question responded that they were Baptist. The functionary responded “Oh, you’re the ones that believe the Bible literally“. Although the child was not sophisticated enough to respond appropriately, the response could have been an equally sarcastic “And your point is?”. Our Lord left us one concrete thing, His Word. Had he considered anything else either necessary or authoritative, He would have told us so. The point is clear…

Within the Baptist paradigm the Bible is considered the only authoritative User Guide in all things. Having said that, and bearing in mind the way that we describe ourselves, one would think that a great, if not inordinate, amount of time would be spent on the Scriptures. On the surface it might appear so, but is that really the case?

There is a significant difference between spending a majority of time explicitly in something versus talking about that same thing. It is my experience that the majority of time is spent talking about the Scriptures, and not reading or addressing them directly. I often think it might be more honest to describe ourselves as “People who revere and talk about the Book”. And that is a shame.

Go into most any Christian store and as time goes on you will see fewer and fewer copies of the Bible. At that same time, there will be many, many books voluminously addressing snippets of Scriptural verse. From the store point of view this represents simple marketing reality, but it also reflects the growth of the issue under discussion.
Now, someone is sure to comment that the Bible is simply too difficult and obscure for most people, and that they need a predigested form that shows them the way. Althougth there is some truth here, is that not what the Reformation was about? To refresh your memory (and admittedly state things very simplistically), the Reformation proposed that the Scriptures be available and read by the masses. It implicitly proposed that direct contact with the Bible was the intent of the Lord, and that the average person was supposed to read it. The dominant church of that time (and in many ways its derivative today) proposed that this was not the case, that it was a recipe for error, and that the interpretation and even contact with Scripture must be left to scholars. These scholars would dispense understandable devotions and such Scriptural snippets as might be deemed appropriate and digestible without causing havoc, confusion or distressing the masses.

Is the bottom line effect today really much different? The real difference seems to be that the evangelical church in many instances chooses to impose a pre-reformation paradigm upon themselves. Does the fact that there is an apparent choice involved change the actual situation or result? I don’t think so. It may mollify one to thinking that they are studying the Word when they are reading about it, simply because they have a choice. But the result is still that the majority of people are largely ignorant of the actual Bible and are dependent upon a professional class of interpreters. Seems pretty pre-Reformation to me.

It was pointed out to me recently (by a clergyman) that if one was to go back 100 or 200 years within the Protestant church movement in general, they would likely find that Biblical knowledge and interest therein would be notably higher overall. If that is true, and even a brief look are historical church writings would seem to indicate that it is, then we are in fact accelerating towards the past.

Does this mean that commentaries, devotionals, and the like are bad? Not at all. But it does mean that in our complacency and laziness we are letting one of the primary freedoms of our faith slip quietly away. We are in fact embracing the past. After some time (and this is already evident in any church lobby) many believers can not now or will not be able to remember the actual Biblical truths and foundational support verses. They will still likely appreciate them experientially or emotionally, but without being able to articulate the reasons or basis. In that situation, what will happen when a stronger worldly stimulus arrives? Even more, what will happen when the time of tribulation arrives?

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The Biblical Paradigm but Upside Down

Sunday, May 6th, 2007

As pointed out in the last post, we have a clear and fairly well defined model for the presentation of the Gospel in the life of our Lord and His Apostles, as presented in Scripture. The scriptural presentation does not contain any proposition that the models presented will grow insufficient or ineffective over time. It also does not state nor imply that further development by men is either desirable or intended. In fact, Scripture tends to imply that movement in this direction will be a sign of error. There is no mandate for any fundamental departure from the paradigm.

Now to the upside down part. Let us have a peek at what we hear from the church pulpit. We will take it at face value.

Basic one-on-one evangelism is often encouraged in words. However, it is not cited as a tenant of the faith. However, since it is prescribed in Scripture, it sure is just that. It is usually excused with the statement that many are not suited by personality, temperament or demeanor to be able to participate. In human terms this is indeed valid, but there is no provision is Scripture releasing any believer from responsibility in this area. Did not the Lord create each believer uniquely as they are, yet not release them from this responsibility? At the very least, all are responsible to educate themselves as needed to appreciate the task, participate as the situation might be present by the Spirit, and support it as they can. This sort of education does not happen by chance, and it is rare at best in today’s churches beyond cursory lip service.

The growth of the church has gained massive significance in many congregations. Congregational growth is erroneously construed to be synonymous with growth in the body of believers. The presentation of attractive church programs requires ever increasing resources, and an increasing congregation size is needed to provide (fund) these. Although some of these programs may contribute to true evangelism, they are a very costly solution and more that anything else they contribute to church organizational growth and support. That is a completely different matter, and is only peripherally related to presentation of the Gospel.

Next, to stimulate growth it is assumed that any effort at evangelism in today’s world requires that the church entice and entreat people to the congregation before they can be presented with the Gospel. They must be made to feel organizationally wanted and needed, impressed by great programs and fellowship, and made to feel that “this Christianity thing” (a direct quote) is something that they have to get in on. Then, it is proposed, can the Gospel be most effective and is the message most likely to be accepted. It may not be stated that bluntly but that is the message, as clear as day.

Let’s be blunt. This insipidly usurps the Sovereignty of God by implication and make the key factor in sufficiency to be the work and creation of men. This is error!

Harken back to our Lord’s model. Where is any of this? This is precisely upside down from what he did and what he modeled. This is subtle immersion in the world. This proposes that men must improve upon the Gospel for it to be effective. This implicitly proposed that the presentation, and at least part of the acceptance, of the Gospel is under the Sovereign control of man, and that the Lord and the Holy Spirit need help. This is exactly the sort of thing that the Scripture warn against in the coming ages before the end.

Too strong? I think not!

Now, is this proposing that a welcoming church is incorrect? Not at all. We are mandated to hospitality to all, especially fellow believers. Welcoming fellowship to all who come is very important and is in fact required of us as a body. Is there anything wrong with great programs, an attractive assembly and communication that speaks to the people of the time? Again, not at all. These are desirable and encouraging to all. However, this is not the primary mandate or model for us. It is peripheral. Because it has become primary, it is upside down, and all that stems from it is upside down.

Since the world of flesh can only beget the world and can only encourage the kingdom of the Prince of the Air, organizational growth bound in the techniques of the world must be likewise based there.

What is insufficient for evangelism based upon the paradigms, model and examples left for us by our Lord? What is it that justifies and mandates further development or strategic change by man or the church? In a word, nothing…

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Getting the Paradigm Upside Down

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

Continuing on the familiar refrain, I was considering the latest I am hearing on church evangelism, communications, and church growth. Forgive me if I am slow, but it finally dawned on me how perfectly the biblical paradigm is being understood and taught backwards. Why didn’t I see this before? Well, because the two views come from a completely different mindset, and until now I just couldn’t see the other one (though I still think it is totally in error). When you naturally see the sky as blue, it is hard to comprehend it as green even when asked to, so to speak.

Looking at the examples that Jesus set in His ministry, what was His approach? It was pretty consistent. He went among the people, visiting them mostly in the world, in their environment. That environment might be the church of the time (the synagogue), which was socially acceptable, or it might be the secular environment, which was unacceptable in varying degrees (the home of a tax collector or a prostitute in public). In this, He cared not a wit for the optics of the situation! His response to optics problems was “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7), effectively shaming the opticians.

How did He instruct the Apostles when they went out with the Gospel? First, He sent them hither and yon, among the unsaved. He sent them, as Himself had gone, among the people in their secular environment, irrespective of the optics. Next, they went is His name, not their own, bringing any optics or blame upon Himself as well as them. Then, they were to proclaim, again, in His name alone (Sola Christos), the Good News of Salvation. Did they go without difficultly? No. Did they go without Him? No. They went solely in Him and with great struggles at times. They also went utilized only His model of evangelistic behaviour in presenting the Gospel. As time went on in the first century church, this paradigm and no other appear to continue.

As the mother of a long time Christian brother commented to me some years ago, referring to the work of the Lord and the Scriptures, in concrete terms our Lord left us only the Bible and within it His model for the presentation of Him. I would add that as Sovereign God he clearly felt that is what we needed or He would have left something more.

Contrasting the modeling we see in Christ, what did he not do? He went among the unsaved (virtually everyone it should be pointed out) in their environment, but not within their paradigm of behaviour nor their actual activities. In that environment he preached the Gospel in word and deed. He did not in any visible way emulate their activities nor tickle their ears or sensibilities using their cultural norms or passtimes of the day. He did not make any identifiable attempt to entreat people to Himself or the early church by molding Himself or His message to the appear more appealing and welcoming in a cultural sense. When the Apostles were sent forth, did they do differently? Not from what we have in evidence. They represented the Gospel as had the Lord, calling the unsaved to Salvation as He had. They did not establish nor derive techniques to entice the people to like them or the church so that they would be amenable to the Gospel message.

The Lord explicitly acknowledged the absolute Sovereignty of God in calling His sheep to Him. The Gospel had to be offered and that often had to be where the people were, but the people were not enticed to the church through popular activities. Furthermore, the church was not tasked to prove that it was part of the culture in order to appeal to people. The Holy Spirit was assumed to be in control of the actual changes and calling of the sheep, not the church or its people.

Having all this as the only Biblical model, is it not the correct one? Where is the Biblical prescription that says that the model must be developed further culturally over time and that it is will otherwise be in some manner insufficient, to added to by a more evolved form of man? Answer, there is no such prescription. In fact, there are several warning that such things are the work of the world and not of God. How much clearer can it be?

The Lord, in the only documentation and modeling He sovereignly deemed necessary, left us a clear model with many examples. That would appear to our singular mandate and model.

Next we will look at the flip side, the backwards approach…

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The Lord’s Model vs Programs

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Well, I can’t help it. I am afraid that I am back onto an old soap box…

We listen to the pulpits, We listen to Christian TV, We read the Christian print media, We browse in the Christian book stores. What is expounded, with a very few notable exceptions, is a common refrain in support of programs to appeal to the unchurched and the unsaved. In one form or another, all these sources are expounding on the need to attract people to the Lord and the church by making them comfortable and entertained. This is also presented as essential to sustaining the resources required for this and other congregational outreach. The key words here are, as italicized, appeal and attract. Moreover, and make no mistake about it, the promotion and provision of this is big business in numerous respects. But that is a separate issue.

This is not say that there is anything wrong with the promotion of the church or with making people welcome through hospitality. That is biblical, desirable, and a mandate of every assembly. But these activities are not synonymous with what is happening in substance, underlying motivation or effect.

In all the talk and programs for church growth there appears to be little apparent or overt visiblity of the plain Gospel, and even less of a hint of a complete presentation of it. The talk centers on advertising, presentation, program roll-out and the like – all discussed and designed to entice the listener. Put another way, it is a paradigm to ‘tickle the ears’ of the man on the street, entreating him or her. The assumption is that once they are enticed, they will be more receptive to the Lord. Many will say, what’s wrong this that? Actually, just about everything.

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” 2 Timothy 4:3.

What we are witnessing is the application of motivational business models to the growth of the church. Furthermore, the assumption that is almost directly stated, is that by enticing people to the church will result in an increase in the effectiveness of evangelism. The underlyng implication is that people will be welcome and will therefor accept the Lord more readily. Or to cut to the chase, that those actions will have a direct effect upon Salvation.

So what is this really? It is man-centered evangelism, depending upon and acknowledging as siginificant the paradigms of the secular world (rules by guess who?) in Salvation. At the root, it implies that the Gospel is in need of modern help AND that this help (created by men) is crucial to enhance the work of the Spirit for increased success in today’s world.

This is so wrong that I bearly know where to begin! And this paradigm has many insideous tentacles.

Ladies and gentlemen, you can not ‘workshop’ nor ‘program’ your way to heaven or to salvation. To assume (even subtley) that you can is to do exactly what Timothy is implying or more.

In these ear and eye tickling programs there is often lots of impressive innovation and creativity. But what is there of Scripture and it’s approaches? I would put it to you – little or nothing. As such, what is there of the Lord? I will leave that to you…

Now, I hope that this sounds harsh, because that is definitely the intent.

To harken back to a previous post, the use of these tools of the world, in the way that they are emerging, is building a colourful, diverse, vibrant structure with a foundation of sand. In the face of the tribulation to come, it will likely fall, as a sand castle in the rising tide. And as with the sand and the tide, those who have been seduced to rest on it may be at the very least severely tossed about, and more than likely washed away.

Stop any person in the church lobby and ask them about the latest ‘programs’ in the congregation. They will likely have a favourite or one that they dislike, but in either case they will likely know what is going on. Ask them to explain even the very basics of the inerrancy of Scripture or the Sovereignty of God, and you are likely to get no real information to support conviction. Even more, ask casually about the basis of their denominational doctrine, and they will not have a clue (nor much interest), and may not actually understand the question. Even if you don’t use the word Doctrine (which has become a virtual four letter word in many churches), the blank stare will be obvious. Again, harsh but reality.

Is this the correct and desirable picture? Is this the environment that is well equiped to receive and support any new adherents and believers that the many programs are designed to attract? Is this a situation that equips the next generation of believers to weather storms of secular assault? I think not! And what of the spiritual health of those already there and producing the program innovations?

But what of our Lord in these respects? Didn’t he go among the people – the unclean, the unwanted, the undesirable, the outcasts? Indeed He did, and not only that but he thought nothing of frequenting their environments. And we, as His people, can not shun these things. But what He did not do was to use their methods, adopt their habits, or bring either of those things into the assembly of His sheep. As such, we are not mandated to do so either. If He did, someone please shown me explicitly were. He brought the Gospel and the love of God into the their world, and He did so using not only Himself as the Godhead, but also his knowledge of His Father’s Word. He acted in line with Scripture, He preached the Gospel, He shared the Word of God, and He did so whereever the people were. To do this He understood the Sovereignty of His Father, His Father’s Word and the basic doctrines of the faith. And those were the tools. Is this not the correct model then?

Did I miss the part of Scripture stating that the models used by the Lord would expire after a period of societal and socialogical development, to be replaced by superior new ones evolving through man’s experience? I think not.

The emerging set of worldly models and trends are likely, for the moment, an unstoppable movement. After all, the world is moving right along in that direction and Timothy pointed out that many will be along for that ride. Revelations points out that the number included will be legion. Moreover, that ‘many’ likely does not include just individuals but their institutions.

It would seem prudent of us to consider our approach, it’s origins and it’s implications…

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Preaching the church

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

We are referring here to church-related preaching vs preaching the Word and Jesus. Good intent, often good message, even good results, but potentially the wrong focus. Why? The Lord takes care of today, not us! The Lord grows the church, not us. This, or course, flies completely in the face of the current church growth and emerging church frameworks.

What does ‘church-related preaching’ look like? Simply put, it refers to preaching that focuses mostly on congregation building (explicitly or implicitly), and what might be positively spun as congregational support matters. The counter pose to this would be preaching that is focused on Scripture in an interpretation or exegetical sense, or even a focus purely on the Word, centering on Jesus and life in Him alone.

Does this sound unrealistic and impractical in the real world. I hope so, because the Lord has been pretty clearly that worldliness, in all it’s forms, is not the road to church success.

Is this to propose that preaching on people issues and family support matters is bad? Not at all. However, when that becomes the consistent focus from any pulpit, exegesis of the Word of God and concomitant surrender to Jesus can easily fall from the front burner. In that situation, the world’s (remember that the world’s message is Satan’s) message that we can trust ourselves for at least the small matters can seductively make inroads. Once that starts to happen, we have the church inadvertently reinforcing the same messages that we are bombarded with constantly from the world. That is the quintessential slippery slope. Worse, this slippery approach is likely to be quite successful and therefor self-perpetuating.

The fact that it is the Word of God that changes hearts must always be front and center in our hearts and minds. It is not interpretation for living life. It is not application. It is not programs, workshops, seminars, nor fellowship groups. These are all good and have a place, but they are not the active agent in the quickening of the heart. They are not what calls the Saints from the world to the Lord. It is the Word of God that does that. And it is the outworking of Sovereign Grace.

Now, is this proposing the we hear only the Scripture read in Greek or KJV, irrespective of the linguistic abililites of the audience. Definietly not. Though the quickening of the heart is a supernatural occurance, and the understanding of scripture is revelational as well as intellectual, that work is certainly facilitated by simple understanding of the language that is being used. As such, a translation appropriate to the congregation or listener is the jsutifiable choice within reason. Some may ‘prefer’ one translation or another, just as some may have a denominational preference, but that is a tiffle compared to a focus on other than scripture.

Surely it is Jesus alone and Scripture alone that is the key. The Word is the one and only sword of the Lord, cutting the world from the heart of the Saint. So let us support our brother and sisters in the Lord, but always maintain the concentration on the Lord and the Word.

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What ever happened to Christian Doctrine?

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

We need Doctrine today more than ever, not less – particularly the youth.

Have you noticed that doctrine has fallen from grace in everyday church life, and from the pulpit? Maybe you haven’t noticed since the process is gradual and easy to overlook for a while. Doctrines may at times talked about, even referred to, but it is seldom if ever actually preached or offered as a significant part of church school.

In church society what appears to be happening (or already has happened) is that doctrine is being made synonymous with dogma. Dogma is a four letter word in the mind of relativistic, pluralistic society, equated with authoritarian control and the like. The evangelical church seems to be subtly adopting the same attitude, in what appears on the surface to be the fear that it will alienate non-Christians and reduce potential growth. The church would certainly differentiate itself from overt expression of this secular view, but living in the world brings a quiet inflow of ideas, attitudes and approaches. One of these is rejection of the fixed framework that doctrine represents (erroneously) to many people.

What does this indicate about the true attitude towards the Sovereignty of God in all these matters? What does it say about belief and dependence on the sufficiency of scripture and the sufficiency of the fundamental ideas therein?

In church life today it seems dated to insist that there are any fixed benchmarks aside from basic belief. As such, demoninational distinctives, and the rich history that preceeds them, are passe and are quietly jetisoned in favour of more up to date presentation and applications. But it bears remembering that a building in which the foundations are eroded by inattention, will weaken over time and eventually fail.

Before we expand into too wide a discussion, let us look narrowly at basic beliefs. I look from the point of view of a Reformed Baptist, but I suspect that most evangelicals would find the same symptoms to one degree or another.

If you were to ask the average church goer or even member:
What are denominational distinctives?
What are theirs?
Would they know why?
Would they think it was irrelevant? Dated? That they are all the same?
Would they know what a confession of faith is?
In this case would they know what the Westminster Confession is?
Would they feel that the doctrinal beliefs of church leaders were important?
Would they know what those leadership beliefs and tenants were?
Would they feel that leadership job performance was the over-riding criteria?

Do you see where this is headed? It is headed to where history, the structure of belief, and therefor the ability to defend or hold on to those beliefs in the face of adversity, comes into serious question.

The beginning of an answer to this is sound doctrinal preaching and teaching. It is not up to date. It does not utilize todays ‘relevant’ examples (it is timeless). And it does not necessarily directly address modern application. But it is absolutely essential for a faith based upon bedrock.

Nowhere is this more critical than in the church youth. No group is more challenged by society. No group is more suseptible to its wiles. Yet in no church group is the education in the structure of our beliefs and the reasons for them often more lacking.

The danger is that what may be created is a wonderful, vibrant, dynamic ministry that is built on sand. When the flood comes, and we all know that it will in some (worldly) form, a foundation of reinforced concrete is needed, not sand.

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