Monday, February 20, 2006

Mohler on Barna

Here is a great article by Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and a leading reformed evangelical, on Barna's new book Revolution.

It echoes some of my concerns about 'emergent' trends, and true biblical ecclesiology.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Have I Emerged?

A Response to Dan Kimball’s The Emerging Church, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2003.

Let me say a few things before I begin my response. First, much of what I will say regarding this movement in the church will be negative. I disagree with much of the basic presuppositions, evaluations, commitments, and goals of this movement. I have tried to read as much as I can from the most influential leaders of the emerging church. That is not to say that all of what is going on in the emerging church is negative or wrong. I will do my best to applaud the biblical emphasis, the right rejection of what might be called modern entrenchment in our churches or the healthy criticism of our often adulterous evangelical subculture. Many in this movement are lovers of Christ and seek to be faithful shepherds, pastors, leaders, and servants to His Bride. So, we are brothers. But our brotherhood should not keep us from bold exhortation or even open admonishment. The more I read some of these emergent leaders, I must confess my great dismay at their doctrinal commitments or lack thereof. Some of what is being cast about within this movement is subtly unbiblical and misguided at best, and overtly heretical and demonic at worst. I don’t say this lightly but with fear and trembling before my God to whom one day I shall give account for my words and judgments as a pastor of His flock. On that note, I must say that I don’t write this as another informative or interesting commentary on one of many legitimate works of God in His Kingdom. I write this to exhort believers to use biblical discernment as they test and approve what is good, careful to beware of every wind of doctrine, the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.

There are a great many books and authors that I could’ve taken up to find the bulk of material that I might respond to in the emerging church. I use Kimball’s book because it is very readable, not filled with too much doctrinal jargon. Kimball seems to me to be a fairly balanced, and godly man, however I might disagree with him. I think he fairly represents much of what is going on in the movement, though the movement is by no means monolithic. He is not writing merely as a reactionary, or to provoke, as so many emergent leaders seem to do. He is writing for the church, making an appeal for the church to emerge, or at least reckon with the emergent church. So, I will try and answer his appeal. I do so because I see many in my flock are interested in ‘things emergent’, because I am called to be a discerning and wise leader. We are to test the spirits, and so I shall. I encourage you to pick up Kimball’s book, or some of Leonard Sweet’s work, or MacLaren, and interact with it.

I will quote Kimball liberally in blue and bold and respond in regular font.


I frequently engage in conversations in which individuals eventually ask questions like, “What type of music will bring young people to our church?” or, “What is the model for starting a new worship service to reach emerging generations?” Lots of these questions focus on ministry methodology…But this focus poses a danger we need to address up front in this book: the danger of focusing on ministry methodology without understanding and addressing foundational issues that are far more important. (p.14)

Amen. This sort of evaluation is ‘form’ driven and ultimately shallow. We find so little in the New Testament regarding the ‘style’ of worship. We find so much more about the essential elements of worship: prayer, singing, preaching and teaching, giving, fellowshipping, eating, etc. Do we pray in a circle? Do we sit in pews? Do we use pulpits? Do we light candles? There is a loud silence on these issues. The New Testament is a glorious charter of liberty for the church at all times and everywhere.

I am glad that Kimball brings this up right off the bat. And he continually urges those who are emerging to make it about more than being cool. But, in all honesty, that is what it is about for so many I talk to in this movement. I even heard of one group that spent a great deal of time, energy, and money in order to create authenticity. Create authenticity? Of course I understand what is meant. And I am not against giving thought to atmosphere and aesthetics in worship. And I am not meaning to pick nits. But I see more and more of an emphasis on 'forms' and outward shows of 'spirituality' that are superficial and shallow. Yes, there is a great deal of talk in the postmodern realm of spirituality and transcendence, but it strikes me (in much the same way as so much of the liturgical churches) as 'having a form of godliness but denying its power'. I had one young man tell me that he wanted a church that he can bring his unbelieving friend to and show him that cool people go to church, too. What about the despised, foolish things of this world, being scorned, insulted, and boasting only in the cross? Well, sure, sure, but let's be cool while we are doing it. This young man ultimately left our church, and joined the local emerging movement. And seems to be somewhat of a leader there. Are emerging leaders fighting this ethos which puts style over substance, candles over Christlikenes, smoke and mirrors over sacrifice, stories and fluff over biblical truth? I really don’t see it. If anything, the emerging movement continues to foster this ethos of ‘cool’. Even Kimball does in his very next chapter.

I see something very perverse and manipulative in a question like, “What type of music will bring young people to our church?” And this goes right to the heart of many discussions in church growth and in assessing the emerging movement. Is this what we are trying to do? Are we trying to bring young people, or any ‘seeker’ into our churches? Apart from the shallow and superficial emphasis on one fleeting stylistic question or another, we miss what the definition of ‘church’ is in asking such questions! The church is not a group of young seekers, but the ‘ekklesia’ the called one’s of God, the ‘saints’, those being sanctified by the work of God’s Spirit, the ‘family of God, the ‘household of God’.

Kimball says that these questions of methodology are ‘a clear and present danger when reading this book’. I disagree, the clear and present danger that was unheeded by the ‘seeker’ churches of the late eighties and nineties that has crept into the emergent models of ministry by and large is a bastardized vision for the church. The church is not a place for unbelievers. Don’t get me wrong, we need to love them, be welcoming, feed them, clothe them, teach them as best we can. But they are not ‘the family of God’. We don’t want to woo the world into the church with the things of the world! We want to bring unbelievers into the family of God with the preaching and power of the gospel. It is a dangerous thing when we begin to shape our commitments in worship of God by the needs of those who are at enmity with God.

How should we measure success in the emerging church? By looking at what our practices produce in the called people of God as they are sent out on a mission to live as light and salt in their communities (Matt. 5:13-16). (p.15)

It seems that Kimball is admitting that the ‘mission’ of believers is to bring the gospel to unbelievers (via social justice, caring for the needy, etc) rather than bring unbelievers to the church. Amen to that. But so much of what is said in the emerging church is about changing ‘the way we do church’ for the sake of unbelievers. Kimball’s whole first chapter is about Sky, the anti-Christian, antichurch, post-Christian seeker and changing our churches to suit him. It just doesn’t wash with me. Let me give you an example of the issue here. I had a discussion with an emergent seminary student and asked him if he would boldly preach against the horrors of abortion in a corporate, worship gathering (I ask all preachers if they boldly preach against abortion, so I wasn’t picking on him). He hemmed and hawed, but ultimately I knew the answer was no. And the reason was not so different than in any other ‘seeker’ church, or any church where we pattern our lives together ‘to please men’ rather than God. We won’t speak on such an issue, which is clearly condemned in Scripture, throughout Scripture, because the household of God has become a place fashioned for seekers. It would offend them. It would shoo them away. And, by the way, I can think of no greater issue of social justice that must be attended to other than the slaughter of our babies right on our doorstep.

One move by many emergent churches is to remove membership in the local church. In my own denomination’s quarterly magazine this move away from membership was applauded. The emergent take is often something like, ‘we make people a part of the family even before they make a commitment to Christ’ or ‘we create a welcoming community of all sorts of folk before many of them are converted to Christ’. Now, I will admit that a command for the church to have some sort of ‘official’ membership roll is not found in the New Testament. By membership I mean an open, honest commitment to Christ as the head of the Church and an open, honest commitment to the church which is his body. The bible says, if the Spirit lives in us, we are members of one another, members of one body. This membership is borne out in daily, visible, and local commitment to the church. To bring openly unbelieving people into such ‘communion’ (or community, in emergent speak) is adultery, and ultimately dishonest to the unbeliever. They are not truly and biblically in community, however welcome you make them feel.

Let’s be missional. But let’s be the church, too. Can’t we be true to the mission AND be true to the proper commitments of the family of God in God-centered worship and family gathering? I think so. But maybe I am naïve.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

An Excellent Wife

Valentine’s Day has come and gone again. I truly hope that all you men under my watch at Four Oaks Church did your best to honor and bless your wives with a good dose of romance. I know, I know, isn’t this just another day for the retailers to gouge us? $29.99 for twelve sad looking roses with a rubber band tied around the stems is a rip off no matter how you look at it. So buy your wife roses some other day. That is a pretty tired gift anyway, at least for Valentine’s day. Nothing spells love and romance like stopping at Publix on the way home from work.

Some of you are gifted in working with your hands. Make your wife some gift where she is able to see that you labored and toiled with your hands and your heart on her behalf. Are you a geek? Make a special website filled with pictures and neat stuff just for her. Are you handy? Take a whole day and work around the house fixing all the things that need to be fixed. Maybe you have no skills around the house, like me. Just washing and detailing the family van so that your wife doesn’t have to pluck stale old French fries off her skirt as she gets out of the car for church Sunday means a lot. Think about it. Your marriage, her sanity, and your sex lives depend on it.

For Tori this Valentine’s Day I spent some time writing a history of our lives together. No, you don’t get to read any of it - and if you want to, you really need to get a life.

This little history was a great thing for my own heart. It stirred up all those memories, all those wonderful times together, the powerful infatuation of a young college boy for this beautiful girl.

I was only a year into my undergrad studies when I began to heed a very strong call to pastoral ministry in the local church. Being a preacher’s kid myself, I knew how crucial it is to the ‘success’ of a man’s ministry as shepherd in the flock of God to have an ‘excellent wife’ and raise together believing children. In this postmodern feminizing culture, I knew as well that finding a woman who would be committed to marriage and the home as a noble calling and virtuous vocation would be a tall order. I began praying earnestly for a godly woman to come alongside me in this calling.

Tori and I were musing together about how much we have both changed as we considered our 12 year history. You can see the change in me by looking at the old pictures. I tell Tori, and everyone else, that she is married to twice the man I was back then! [My increasing waistline is a testimony to her wifely care of me! I also kid that if I don’t continue in chubbiness, I would be irresistible to the ladies. I don’t want to cause them to stumble. This is a joke.]

All kidding aside, I have seen God do such a wondrous work in and through this extraordinary woman!

When I met her, Tori was like so many other young Christian women in college today. Tori truly loved the Lord, but was confused as to what His will was for her. She struggled with the pressing issues of the day, the overwhelming cultural pressures to be a professional, to be liberated from the shackles of traditional patriarchal paradigms in the academy, workplace, church and home. But in examining this beckoning brave new world, she was struggling to deal honestly with the Scripture’s teaching about true femininity, the calling of motherhood, the nature of submission and headship. We would have a lot of long and difficult conversations about these things early on. I love to kid her about some of her life’s plans and goals back then. I remember she told me that she would not be married and begin having kids until she was 30 and had already begun and stabilized a thriving career. I now like to remind her that she was a housewife living in a Tallahassee suburb with two kids before she turned 30!

Those of you that know Tori might be surprised by her early goals. But isn’t this standard fare being thrust into the hearts of our young women? There is a constant yet sometimes subtle denigration of motherhood as a vocation and homemaking as a noble and full time duty. There is the elevation of professional vocations outside the home at the cost of having children, or at least nurturing them as God intends. There is the mounting greed and materialism of our culture that demands we drive the best cars, and have at least two or three of them, the best homes, the best clothes, the best vacations, and all of this at the cost of building nurturing environments in the home where intimacy, love, joy, and time is available to the humans living there.

Tori and I began to discover together the rich truths of God in His Word concerning her identity as a woman, my identity as a man, and the great blessing of biblical marriages and homes. Tori is a strong woman. This doesn’t keep her from being submitted to me. Her strength before God actually enables her to submit to this flawed man! Tori is a smart woman. She has a degree in nutrition and food science from the University of Florida. She was a bright and gifted dietician. This doesn’t keep her from the mundane daily duties of building a home and caring for our little ones. I saw her give birth to three babies, one of them eleven pounds. I almost fainted. I watch her exhibit an almost supernatural patience with our little ones. She is patient with me as I devote long hours to the care of the church, to writing sermons, and staying up late agonizing over church duties. I watch her make do with our little home, making it a warm and inviting place. This takes care, ingenuity, wisdom. She is frugal. She is a good steward of the resources God gives us. She is longsuffering with me. I am impetuous, she is calm and thoughtful. I am overly sensitive, she is rational and gracious. She sees all the worst of a church with me, and begs me to stay the course for Christ. She is a lover of truth. She is committed to God’s Word. In my eyes, she has no equal.

I recently read the credentials of the wife of one of my former seminary profs, Dr. James. Actually, Dr. Frank James is now the president of Reformed Theological Seminary/Orlando. His wife is now an author and ‘international speaker’. Interestingly, his wife, Carolyn, was in a Sunday School class at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church I taught while in seminary at RTS/Orlando. Her credentials read:

Carolyn is her husband’s favorite theologian. She is not a kitchen wife. She
does not keep house, cook clean or sew, but she reads an awful lot and often talks to women (and sometimes men) from all over the world about women’s struggles within the evangelical church. Lately, she has been reading a lot on the plight of women in the Middle East. She helped Synergy Conferences for women seminarians and women in vocational ministries, which is sponsored by her ministry organization, Whitby Forum, in alliance with Campus Crusade for Christ International and RTS/Orlando.

These credentials made me sad and angry. I am sad that we have a ‘leading evangelical’ that would glory in refusing the biblical exhortation to women to be ‘builders of the home’. I also am grieved that the wonderful labors of my ‘kitchen wife’ are cast aside as unimportant to the real work of real women, like ‘reading an awful lot’. I am so thankful for my wife’s sacrifice of her ‘reading time’ so that my children will learn to read at her feet. I am so glad for my wife’s sacrifice of her ‘conference schedule’ to change little Emma’s diapers and nurse her five times a day. I am thankful that my wife sacrifices opportunities to teach men and humbly submits herself to this one. I am angry that her labors, that I am convinced are thoroughly biblical and God glorifying, would be so cynically dismissed by one who should be an ‘older woman’ and should be ‘teaching what is good’.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the world will always denigrate what the Bible lauds as excellent. And it will take great fortitude, true wisdom, and an unwavering commitment to the whole counsel of God’s Word to maintain a solid grasp on those things that are truly excellent.

So, this Valentine’s Day, I am eternally thankful for the gift of God to me in my excellent wife. I only hope that I might one day be as excellent a husband!

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Altar Calls?

There are a few standard questions we get at Four Oaks church. Existing in a fairly entrenched Southern Baptist sub-culture of North Florida, people often ask us why I do not call people forward every Sunday service to make a ‘decision’. This is what is sometimes referred to as an ‘altar call’. Historically, the ‘altar call’ is a fairly new ecclesiastical phenomenon. It gets its name from the ‘altar’ area before the communion table (which is part of Anglican/Episcopalian and Methodist tradition). The ‘altar call’ became a part of the revivals and camp meetings that were part of America’s Second Great Awakening. There would be a time of heightened spiritual urgency placed upon the congregation, via preaching and singing, with a call for people to come to the altar (sometimes there would be a ‘mourner’s bench’, or some sort of place for prayer). The greatly popular and controversial Charles Finney, one of the preachers and leaders of this period of spiritual awakening in America, was one reason for the widespread employment of ‘revivalist’ techniques in churches as a regular, weekly part of church life. This ‘revival’ paradigm for regular Lord’s Day worship took the place of the Lord’s Day as primarily a day of worship in song and liturgy, with biblical exposition. The teaching of God’s Word would be supplanted by a rather simple, albeit stirring and emotive, gospel message with a strong call for response by making a ‘decision’ for Christ.

The Reformed tradition, for the most part, never gave way to an abandonment of strong biblical teaching as part of the worship of God’s people. And with the modernist-fundamentalist debates and struggles in the first half of this century, there was strong call back to the inerrant Word, supported by consistent bible exposition in the churches. With the rise of dispensationalism and the emphasis on verse by verse exposition in seminaries such as Dallas Theological Seminary and later Talbot Theological Seminar (and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles). Though I am not a dispensationalist, I greatly respect the emphasis upon a ‘literal’ grammatico-historical interpretation of God’s Word this theological system has encouraged in its scholars and preachers.

Now, I will skip over a great deal of church history and jump right into the ‘seeker’ movement of the late 80’s and nineties. [Please forgive my rather facile presentation of movements that really were much more complex and much less monolithic than I could ever present in a blog article.] This model, popularized through the charismatic and winsome Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church in the suburbs of Chicago, would become the predominant model for many church plants around the country in the 1990’s. Verse by verse bible exposition was almost totally removed from public worship, with a more ‘commercial’ and entertainment orientated presentation in corporate gatherings. The ‘seeker’ or the unchurched were wooed with contemporary music styles, drama, and very simple ‘life application’ teaching or gospel messages without ‘Christian jargon’. Church life rotated around massive corporate gatherings, funneling into smaller weekly gatherings for more indepth discipleship, bible study, and fellowship. This seeker movement has for the most part lost its sway as a dominant model. In my limited experience there is a great deal of disillusionment with it. Though, I do believe God used the movement in His providence to save thousands. God uses all things to work things for good. We need to be careful, though, to use an argument from providence to ignore the prevailing testimony of Scripture in justifying our commitments as Christians.

The movement afoot today that is gaining a great deal of influence, especially with young postmoderns, is the so-called ‘emerging’ church. While it has many of the same commitments as the seeker church, it is bathed in a more ‘spiritual’ ethos. We can talk about the emerging church in another article. I will say, there is a strong emphasis in this model upon the ‘unchurched’ or the unbeliever, and very little emphasis upon any serious preaching of God’s Word. There is actually a strong rejection of ‘exposition’ as highly analytic and outmoded in a postmodern age and an embrace of ‘narrative’ preaching (though I have yet to find a good definition of what this is, but that is because I am committed to outmoded and analytic ways of thinking, I suppose).

I give you this little stroll through history simply to say, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” There has always been a strong pull away from strong bible exposition as part of the corporate worship of God’s people. There has always been a strong pull toward more simplistic and ‘popular’ (in its appeal with non-Christians) presentations of Christian worship and the gospel message. This pull has manifested itself in various ways in different seasons and ages. And there is in a sense a very noble side to these movements. There is a desire to see people come to Christ. I applaud this eager desire to see the good news of Christ have mass distribution. And I will admit that in Reformed, and ‘fundamentalist’ quarters we can become insular and ingrown.

There is a side to this pull that is very disturbing to me as a pastor, bible teacher, and steward of the mysteries of the gospel. We need to ask ourselves, what is the point of the regular public worship of God’s people? Is it to win unbelievers? Not primarily. That may be part of it. Is it to entertain? Is it to give simple, practical tips for daily living. No. It is to glorify and worship God! This is why I preach the way I do. So God might be glorified. I believe that God’s people should be edified and grown up in the whole counsel of God’s Word. I believe that Sunday is the ‘Lord’s Day’, for his worship, to hear from his word, and to be with his people. I think we quickly turn the ‘Lord’s Day’ into our day, or the seeker’s day.

We need to remember that the way to bring the gospel to unbelievers is to go into the marketplace as Paul did. It is to go to the philosophers on Mars Hill, as Paul did. It is to go into the synagogue, as Paul did. I don’t give an altar call on Sunday morning because that is not what I believe Sunday morning is primarily about. I exhort and challenge people. I hope people make many different sorts of ‘decisions’ under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. But we gather as God’s people on Sunday morning. We gather to worship God in songs of praise- not to be entertained with contemporary styles (and anyone who has worshipped with us know that our worship is very ‘contemporary’…ah, another blog article). We gather to hear from God’s Word, and all of it. We gather to be equipped, built up, to do the work of ministry in our homes, schools, businesses, academies, etc.

Sunday morning is not a ‘camp meeting’. I believe in preaching the gospel. I believe in passionate exposition. I believe God uses my preaching in a variety of ways in the hearts of believers and unbelievers alike. But we gather there on Sunday to love God, love each other as his children, and hear from God. In some ways this is a wonderful thing for a non-Christian to behold. But, sometimes it is confusing, hard to hear, deep, intimate, weird for one who has made no commitment to Christ and not indwelt by God’s Spirit.

I believe in evangelism. I believe in the power of the gospel. But I also believe in God-centered worship, I believe in God-centered preaching of the whole counsel of His Word. We need to remember that often times those who don't focus on a 'simple gospel message' of the revivalist style with calls to the 'altar' for a 'decision' week in and week out might have a 'corporate gathering' commitment to evangelism without a personal, individual commitment to evangelism.

So, I am committed to exposition that equips people for the task of communicating the good news of Jesus and the truths of our faith in their everyday lives. I am committed to the gathering of saints with God (not the unbeliever) as the focal point. I am committed to evangelism as the wonderful duty of all Christians in all areas of their lives. So, when someone brings an unbeliever to our church and inquires as to why I didn't give an altar call, or urge them to make a decision, I always respond, 'Why didn't you?'.

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