The Ministry Revolution

November 25th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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8399885739_b54424da81_z“Violent, sudden, and calamitous revolutions are the ones that accomplish the least. While they may succeed at radially reordering societies, they usually cannot transform cultures. They may excel at destroying the past, but they are generally impotent to create a future. The revolutions that genuinely alter human reality at the deepest levels—the only real revolutions, that is to say—are those that first convert mind and wills, that reshape the imagination and reorient desire, that overthrow tyrannies within the soul.”


So writes David Bentley Hart in his witty, provocative, and insightful Atheist Delusions.[1] He then points to Christianity as the most striking example of a “real” revolution, slowly but thoroughly overturning the old Western world order, permeating the whole of Roman pagan culture like yeast through dough. So thoroughly did the Christian vision shape the minds, hearts, and wills of its converts, that not even so zealous a pagan reformer as Julian the Apostate could stop the inexorable tide—and indeed, his understanding of the old pagan religion was itself subtly and overwhelmingly Christianized. That is a true revolution.


Today many of us continue to seek revolutions of various sorts. Many would love to see a cultural revolution undue the destructive influence of modernity’s unshakable narcissism, to redefine freedom within a resolutely biblical ethics, for example. Those who seek this—and I certainly number myself in that group—would do well to reflect on Hart’s insight: our revolution will not come about because of a Supreme Court decision or something equally sudden and legally cataclysmic. Democratic government reflects and adopts cultural trends; only rarely does it determine them. Instead, we need to seek a genuine revolution that converts minds, wills, and hearts through the patient proclamation of the gospel in redemptive relationships, transformative discipleship, and a winsomely prophetic voice through the pulpit and the paintbrush.


But my aim today is not to address a culture-wide revolution; rather, I would like to consider the practical implications of Hart’s historical insight on today’s church. How should we pursue a ministry revolution within a local gathering of believers?


Many churches today stand in dire need of renewal. Research indicates that as little as 5% of evangelical churches are experiencing conversion growth. Some 80-85% are in decline, while the remaining 10-15% are increasing numerically through transfer growth alone. There are too few fruitful churches left for us to celebrate and defend the status quo. Revolution is in order.


Unfortunately, evangelical churches incline towards slow adaptation. There is a legitimate conservationist tendency built into the historic faith: we are to guard the good deposit, to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14; Jude 3), which means we will forever cling to an unchanging theological foundation. There is also, however, an illegitimate expression of the same tendency, wherein we reckon our ministry practices to have been once for all entrusted to us at the same time we were given the theological foundation. Such is manifestly not the case: our preaching, our music (whether traditional or contemporary), our buildings, etc., would all appear completely foreign to the early church. They have changed because the culture has changed, and we need to communicate an unchanging message to a changing audience. This is all as it should be. The trouble comes when we decide they have changed enough, and then zealously defend a tradition that should be discarded as an old wine skin.


Granting the need for change, we now need to return to our initial question: How do we bring about that change? How should we pursue a ministry revolution within a local gathering of believers?


A wise leader or group of leaders—or even a wise congregant eager to exert godly influence on the leaders God has placed over the church—will pursue slow change through the conversion of minds, hearts, and wills. Structures, titles, logos, and programs may need to change—probably need to change, in fact—but we deceive ourselves if we think these will bring about a true revolution. They will simply paint a revolutionary veneer on an otherwise unchanged and intransigent edifice. Frankly, most of us have seen this happen—we have heard the name changes (are they small groups or life groups or fight clubs?), had the latest faddish program inflicted on us, and sorted through a bewildering array of org charts—and yet still haven’t seen a true ministry revolution. We need a different approach.


So, rather than decree change from the top down, let us stoke revolution from the bottom up. Let us convert minds through patient, dialogical teaching—including instruction in the difference between unchanging theological foundations and contextualized ministry practices; let us convert hearts through sustained prayer for gospel renewal and faithful application of the Word of God within the community of believers; and let us convert wills through redemptive relationships, slowly and lovingly cultivated in joyful fulfillment of the Great Commission.


Vive la revolution!

[1] Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009): 183.

One Size Fits All?

September 25th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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My kids are at that point in their lives when they have to buy uniforms—lots and lots of uniforms. Inevitably, a handful of these uniforms are “one size fits all.” I’m not sure who came up with this concept, because it is manifestly absurd. The children who need these uniforms are very different dimensions, and my peanut-sized children often swim ridiculously in clothes that fit other children quite nicely. I am not a fan of the one-size-fits-all approach—neither for children’s uniforms nor for gospel ministry.


8589130452787-kids-playing-at-school-wallpaper-hdThe gospel contains truths about the triune God—his character, his work, his purposes—that are fixed, timeless, and supracultural. With an unchanging message, one would suspect the method of communicating the message would be similarly fixed. We could adopt a one-size-fits-all approach here, even if it doesn’t work for children’s soccer teams. Unfortunately, such is not the case, for a simple reason: truths that are constant regardless of time or place or people must nevertheless be shared with a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. This requires contextualization.


Contextualization is, in Keller’s fine definition, “giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may or may not want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”[1] Let me make two quick points on contextualization before returning to the issue at hand.


  1. Contextualization is inevitable. As soon as gospel ambassadors choose a language in which to speak, they have contextualized the gospel, reaching a certain group (who speak the same language) while excluding others (who cannot speak the language). When we make decisions about our ministry practices—length of service, preacher’s clothes and preaching style, building and grounds, worship music style—we are contextualizing the gospel for our community. The fact that many of us do so unwittingly, and regard our ministry practices as fixed and supracultural like the gospel, may explain why the overwhelming majority of churches in the United States are in a state of decline.


  1. Contextualization is biblical. The book of Acts provides many examples of gospel ambassadors—notably Paul—contextualizing the gospel for the audience. Compare Paul’s speeches to God-fearers in Antioch (Acts 13:13-43), rural pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:6-16) and the philosophical intelligentsia in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), and you will see how he contextualizes unchanging truths in a changing culture. In fact, in his letter to Corinth, Paul outlines his approach to and reason for contextualization explicitly: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).[2]


Now we see why a one-size-fits-all approach to gospel ministry is foolhardy: by assuming a consistent culture (or neglecting to think of culture at all), it adopts a consistent ministry. A quick glance at demographics across the country—never mind the globe—exposes the fatal weakness in this tactic. I’ve lived in three different suburbs in Chicago, and no one of the three bears more than a slight resemblance to the others demographically. And that was just within the suburbs of one city! Imagine how different the culture and sub-cultures would be moving from a suburban to an urban or a rural environment, or from Chicago to New York or L.A. or Portland or a city in the Bible belt, or from the United States to Colombia or Sri Lanka or Uganda.


All of this presents a very practical challenge for those of us who seek to minister the unchanging gospel compellingly to a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. Have we unconsciously adopted a one-size-fits-all mindset? Have we brought our ministry practices with us wherever we go—the preacher has to wear a tie (or has to wear jeans and flip-flops), the music should be lively (or reverent) and traditional (or contemporary), adult education should meet at this time and cover this material, small groups should follow this model, and don’t forget AWANA on Wednesday nights!—even though we might have gone to some very different places?


This lesson has come home to me recently. In the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my ministry practices. In my first ministry position, I served as a chaplain in a small Christian school in Bogotá, Colombia. After seven years, I left to become the discipleship pastor at a medium-sized church in suburban Chicago. Although I made some adjustments to my ministry practice owing to the switch from school to church, I thought very little about the difference between Bogotanos and Napervillans, and my ministry suffered accordingly. Little by little I made tiny alterations until the “uniform” fit, so to speak—or at least fit better.


What about you? Are you doing what you’ve done everywhere you’ve gone? When you arrive somewhere new, do you immediately implement the same basic practices and procedures, even before you’ve done the hard work of learning your new community and contextualizing the gospel within it? By the grace of God, for the sake of the gospel, I hope we will all strive to become all things to all people—and to become this thing for this people—so that by all possible means we might save some.


In other words, one size does not fit all. It never does.


[1] Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 89 (emphasis his). For much more on contextualization which I couldn’t say here, see pp. 89-134.

[2] Interestingly, especially in light of the common charge that contextualization ineluctably distorts the gospel, Paul says he contextualizes “for the sake of the gospel” (v 23). Contextualization is in service of—not in opposition to—the gospel.

Tendentiously Tense

May 13th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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My brother was a gymnast, so my whole family was interested in the sport and watched it avidly, especially during the Olympics. I can keenly remember watching the Magnificent Seven win the gold in 1996 while we were on summer vacation. My favorite event, by far, is the balance beam. To execute any of those maneuvers on the floor seems challenging enough; to perform them on a four-inch-wide beam defies understanding. To undertake the sublime knowing that a small misstep will send you tumbling to one side or the other—that is remarkable.


It’s not much different in the Christian life.


Theologians, amateur and professional, attempt the sublime—to put into words the wonder of the incomprehensible God—knowing that a small misstep will send us crashing down into one error or another. The balance beam is an apt metaphor for theology because so much balance and precision are needed. I know of no heresy that isn’t simply an overemphasis on a truth that must instead be held in tension with other truths. So to synthesize the riches of God’s counsel on any issue feels like landing a complicated maneuver on a four-inch-wide beam.


Witness the great Trinitarian heresies of the first few centuries after Christ, which all either overemphasized the one-ness of God (as in modalism) or the three-ness of God (often by denying equality among the three persons, as in Arianism). Just a short while later, new heresies arose with regard to the two natures of Jesus—some overemphasizing his divinity, others his humanity. The great creeds of the historic church are great precisely because they embrace the tension.[1]


The problem remains today. While debates on the Trinity and Christ’s two natures persist to some extent—among Oneness Pentecostals and Mormons, for example—these debates have been largely settled within historic Christianity. But that doesn’t mean we are no longer in danger of falling off of any balance beams. Consider just a few issues today where overemphasizing one side will lead to an ignominious tumble.


  1. God’s Holiness and Love. There seems to be an overwhelming desire to reduce God to one of his attributes, or at least to elevate one to a position of primacy. The heart of God’s character is love, some might say, which has to inform our every discussion about him. Overemphasizing this leads to libertinism or universalism with alarming frequency (witness Rob Bell or Madeline L’Engle for the latter, and many discussions of same-sex marriage for the former). Others would point to God’s holiness as his primary characteristic (as in Islam), leading to a vision of God that is harsh and distant. God, however, reveals himself in Scripture to be both simultaneously. John the Elder can affirm with equal emphasis that God is light and God is love (cf. 1 John 1:5; 4:8). God does not act in holiness at some times and act in love at other times. When he acts, he acts in perfect holiness and love (and goodness and wisdom and power and knowledge etc.) always.
  2. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. Does God sovereignly ordain every act in history—including the acts of humanity—so that nothing happens which he does not will to occur? Or do humans possess genuine freedom so that they can thwart the divine will by their choices? In other words, does human freedom limit God’s sovereignty or does God’s sovereignty limit human freedom? (Talk about a false dichotomy!) Pelagians, semi-Pelagians, and Open Theists would all affirm the latter, arguing that if humans do not possess “genuine” freedom (i.e., power of contrary choice), then they can bear no responsibility for their actions. Hyper-Calvinists and fatalists affirm the former, such that humans really do not have freedom (but who are we, o humanity, to talk back to God?). Scripture, however, affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility (cf. Acts 4:27-28). What Scripture affirms as compatible, we should also—even when it involves logical tension!
  3. Justification and Sanctification. Some prefer to emphasize God’s saving grace, whereby God justifies sinners, adopting them to sonship through the blood of his Son, offered freely in love. Others emphasize God’s sanctifying grace, whereby God transforms sinners into the likeness of his Son, so that they are holy even as he is holy. Both represent a truncated gospel. Emphasizing the former over against the latter leads to libertinism and passivity; emphasizing the latter over against the former leads to legalism and dead religion. Interestingly, almost every epistle is written to combat one or the other of these extremes. Jude and James come out strongly against the libertinism of emphasizing saving grace only, while Galatians and Colossians vehemently oppose the legalism of emphasizing sanctifying grace only. (Of course, the New Testament writers are wise enough to communicate both simultaneously: witness the transition from Galatians 4 to Galatians 5!) We should do likewise.


These are a few representative examples, but many more abound. One can easily discern the temptation to embrace tendentiousness instead of tension in issues as wide-ranging as women in ministry, charismatic gifts, end times, and even worship practices. (I will leave it to the reader to determine where overemphasis commonly occurs in each of these areas.)


Even this brief scan of some common, shall we say, unplanned dismounts would seem to counsel caution. We must consider the whole counsel of God and give due emphasis to everything Scripture says on an issue. If we are going to insist on any point, we should insist on maintaining the balance. In other, more alliterative words, we should strive to be tendentiously tense.

[1] Note especially how the Athanasian Creed expresses the tension inherent in both of these issues.

Until Another Comes Forward

November 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Using an analogy drawn from the legal arena, Solomon writes, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Proverbs 18:17, NIV). I suspect he does not intend to limit the application of his point to the courtroom, however. Whenever someone puts forth an argument, the audience will likely sway in their direction. Hearing one side of any debate will surely produce a single outcome. The first to speak almost always seems right.


Until another comes forward, that is.


Once someone else presents the opposing viewpoint, the waters muddy. What seemed so clear just moments earlier suddenly appears complex and confusing—or may even prove completely untenable. Even those continuing to hold the original view will likely hold it with greater nuance and humility.


Of course, this is why jurisprudence demands both prosecutor and defense present their arguments. We could easily prove anyone guilty or innocent so long as we were allowed to present only one side of the case. The foolishness of that sort of strategy is self-evident, I believe—though you’re welcome to come forward and present the opposing side, if you’d like!


The trouble, as I see it, is that what makes perfectly reasonable sense in the court of law has been utterly rejected in most other arenas. In the realms of philosophy, metaphysics, religion, education, politics and even occasionally science, we habitually abandon this common-sense notion in favor of knee-jerk ideology. Political discourse in this country, for example, has largely degenerated into rhetorical flourishes and informal logical fallacies, devoid of any rigorous argumentation.


Rather than lamenting the larger cultural trends, though, I would commend personal reflection. (It is more fun to bemoan the state of discourse in this country as a whole, to be sure, but more helpful to take stock of our own thinking habits.) Here are a few (very few) suggestions on how to cultivate the habit of cross-examination, regardless of the venue or topic.


  1. Reserve judgment until you have heard both sides. This is a difficult attitude to develop, but it is worth the effort. We routinely accept or reject a viewpoint because of our presuppositions—the turtles on which we build our thinking. This is why people typically end up on opposite sides of every debate (one thinks of the divide between liberals and conservatives, for example). As a result, once someone makes an argument that resonates with our core beliefs, we will usually embrace it with little additional thought; contrarily, if someone makes an argument that shakes our core beliefs, we will usually reject it out of hand. In so doing, though, we preclude fine-tuning, correction, or modification of our thinking even when we desperately need it!
  2. Read widely on both sides of the issue. I find—and perhaps you have noticed this too—that I like to read people with whom I already agree. This makes me more doctrinaire and inflexible, when I would rather become increasingly nuanced and careful in my thinking. Worse, I suspect my tendency to read on my side of the issue stems from fear—fear that I might be proved wrong! But if my viewpoint can’t withstand close scrutiny, should I hold it? I would think not. The added benefit of this strategy is that we can ensure that we have heard both sides of every issue.
  3. Refuse to disagree until you can mount a cogent argument. I am pretty sure I came across this bit of wisdom in Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, but I can’t find the original citation so I’ll pass it on as my own. This is a challenging but necessary maxim to hold: we do not have the epistemic or intellectual right to disagree with a thoughtful argument until we can explain why we disagree. That is, we cannot simply say, “I think you’re wrong,” to someone who has presented a compelling argument in favor of her views. If she has provided reasons for thinking as she does, we cannot dismiss her summarily; we owe it to her—and to our own intellectual development!—to mount equally compelling reasons for rejecting her viewpoint and continuing in our own. If nothing else, this suggestion will help us slow down our evaluation, which breeds humility, and interact more thoroughly, which breeds precision.

The Office of Preaching

February 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I wrote recently about the “flip principle” as regards church leaders and the congregation: the congregation desires authority which by grace has been given to the leaders alone; the leaders alone perform works of ministry which by grace have been asked of the whole congregation. I trembled as I wrote the words—as I tremble when writing almost anything pertaining to God, his Word, and the life of the congregation—for fear that I had gone too far, had spoken too directly, had diminished the priesthood of believers in order to exalt an office I hold.


Then I read Bonhoeffer, as I am wont to do, and found my words soft, indirect, even diminishing the office of preaching in the face of the congregation—perhaps because of my own acquiescence to American democratic egalitarianism!


In his magisterial Ethics, he writes concerning the commandment of God in the Church:


[The office of preaching] is instituted directly by Jesus Christ Himself; it does not derive its legitimation from the will of the congregation but from the will of Jesus Christ. It is established in the congregation and not by the congregation, and at the same time it is with the congregation. When this office is exercised in the congregation to its full extent, life is infused into all the other offices of the congregation, which can after all only be subservient to the office of the divine word; for wherever the word of God rules alone, there will be found faith and service. The congregation which is being awakened by the proclamation of the word of God will demonstrate the genuineness of its faith by honouring the office of preaching in its unique glory and by serving it with all its powers; it will not rely on its own faith or on the universal priesthood of all believers in order to depreciate the office of preaching, to place obstacles in its way, or even to try to make it subordinate to itself. The superior status of the office of preaching is preserved from abuse, and against danger from without, precisely by a genuine subordination of the congregation, that is to say, by faith, prayer and service, but not by a suppression or disruption of the divine order by a perverse desire for superiority on the part of the congregation.


All this seems well in line with the teaching of Scripture, especially in its emphasis on true church leadership and the distinction to be maintained between leaders and congregants, the priesthood of all believers notwithstanding. (Indeed, I think the strongest statement of the priesthood of all believers comes directly after Paul’s distinguishing leaders from congregants in Ephesians 4:11-6.)


But Bonhoeffer presses on, as he is wont to do, and challenges our reactive Reformation approach to the Scriptures within the congregation:


The office of proclamation, the testimony to Jesus Christ, is inseparably bound up with Holy Scripture. At this point we must venture to advance the proposition that Scripture is essentially the property of the office of preaching and that it is the preaching which properly belongs to the congregation. Scripture requires to be interpreted and preached.[1] By its nature it is not a book of edification for the congregation. What rightly belongs to the congregation is the text of the sermon together with the interpretation of the this text, and on this basis there is a “searching of the Scriptures, whether these things be so” (Acts 17.11), that is to say, whether they are really as the preaching has proclaimed them to be; in certain unusual circumstances, therefore, there arises the necessity for contradicting the preaching on the basis of Holy Scripture. But even here it is presupposed that Holy Scripture belongs essentially to the office of teaching. If individual Christians, or groups of Christians, seize hold of the Bible, appealing to the equal right of all Christians, to the right of the faithful to speak for themselves and to the self-evident truth of the scriptural word, it is by no means a sign of special reverence or special scriptural understanding for the essential character of the divine revelation. In this lies the source of a great deal of presumption, disorder, rebellion and scriptural confusion. Respect for the holy character of the Scripture demands recognition of the fact that it is only by grace that a man is called upon to interpret and proclaim it and that it is also by grace that a man is permitted even to be a hearer of the interpretation and proclamation. The book of homilies and the prayer-book are the principal books for the congregation; the Holy Scripture is the book for the preacher; there can be little doubt that this formulation correctly represents the divinely ordained relationship between the congregation and the office. It must at the same time be borne clearly in mind that these ideas do not spring from a clergyman’s desire to schoolmaster the laity; they follow from the revelation of God himself.[2]


These are tough words, flying in the face of much contemporary thinking, but I suspect Bonhoeffer’s last assertion is true: this is the revelation of God himself throughout the New Testament. Many of the errors of both theory and practice in the local church spring from a diminished view of the office of proclamation and an elevated view of the role of the congregation.


One needn’t agree with every jot and tittle of Bonhoeffer’s work in order to gain mightily from reflection on the problem he exposes. To that reflection I challenge you—both preachers and congregants—to commit yourselves.

[1] A future series will detail the many ways we can misconstrue Scripture, and why interpretation and proclamation proves so necessary.

[2] Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 289-290. Emphasis is his throughout.

Idealistic Realism

November 6th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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Idealism and realism are often set in tension. One can cling to ideals, living by a set of principles that others admire outwardly even as they reject them as naïve, simplistic, unrealistic; or one can embrace the harsh reality of the “way the world works” and compromise on those ostensibly noble principles in order to effect real change. But, conventional wisdom has it, you cannot do both.


By the grace of God, we as Christians can gleefully reject conventional wisdom. I would suggest that, as Christians, we are called precisely to the via media, the delicate balance between two opposing ideas. We are called to an idealistic realism.


As Christians, we cannot spurn our ideals. We are called to live counter-culturally, and to be uncompromising in our commitment to the principles upheld in God’s Word. If that proves challenging—especially when compromise could provide an easy solution—well, we embrace the challenge as a trial sent by God to perfect our character (James 1:2-4). Of course, those who ridicule the idealists—young ones especially—for naïve optimism frequently have a point. The world is harsh, and people who cling to ideals often get trampled over. However, our mistake lies in thinking that this is the ultimate reality. The “real world” is poorly named, for this world is passing away. The ultimate cannot be found in the world. Reality is, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, found only in God: “The wise man is aware of the limited receptiveness of reality for principles; for he knows that reality is not built upon principles but that it rests upon the living and creating God.”[1] If our ideals (not principles, but the revelation of God) and reality rest upon the living God, they should remain indissolubly linked.


So what, then, is the true via media? Not a choice between idealism and realism; rather, the true via media is avoiding the extremes of naïve optimism and cynical pragmatism. These are unbiblical extremes.


Naïve optimism blinds itself to the reality that rests on God, settling for a clichéd version of robust biblical truth. This hollow approach to Christianity produces greeting-card theology, and simply cannot engage meaningfully with the brutal reality of this world. Jesus did not seek to shelter his followers from the bleakest possible appraisal of the coming times (cf. John 16:33), and the apostles and prophets harped on it unceasingly. We should be no different. Not everything will come up roses—and even when it does, we may find our brows thorn-pricked still. We follow a crucified Savior, and we who have been called to a life of discipleship have been called to die. That is the brutal reality we face.


At the same time, we are not called to cynical pragmatism. Cynical pragmatists sneer condescendingly at the optimists and idealists because they think they have a better grasp of reality. Life is hard, compromise is inevitable, and so pragmatists counsel doing what works, pursuing the utilitarian at the occasional expense of the ideal. Churches capitulate to this most American philosophy when they cast aside the ideals of Scripture in pursuit of superficial ministry goals. The excesses of the church-growth movement are undeniably founded on this sandy premise. But this sort of compromise refuses to trust in the revelation of God (one thinks of issues like prayer, sacrificial giving, and the long obedience of discipleship), and instead relies sinfully on human ingenuity to accomplish a lesser vision.


Take money as an example of how each alternative knocks us off course. The naïve optimist imagines that certain contextualized promises in Scripture guarantee financial provision, neglecting those passages that speak of trial, famine, hardship. (The faithful suffer along with the sinful when God brings judgment on the land, after all.) The cynical pragmatist, however, adopts the world’s wisdom on the subject, the same approach to retirement, savings, even giving (giving levels among Christians are scarcely higher than the nation at large). They neglect Scripture’s teaching on daily bread, the idolatrous dangers of saving, sacrificial giving. (The woman Jesus commended gave away her money for food, after all.)


Idealistic realists, however, can tread the fine line between these two unbiblical extremes. They recognize the harsh reality of the world, while at the same time clinging unshakably to the ideals revealed in Scripture.


Speaking of ethics—the way we should live our lives in the light of the brutality of this world and the promises of God—Bonhoeffer writes, “Formalism and casuistry set out from the conflict between the good [the ideal] and the real, but the Christian ethic can take for its point of departure the reconciliation, already accomplished, of the world with God and the man Jesus Christ and the acceptance of the real man by God.”[2] As Christians, we joyfully acknowledge the reconciliation of the real and the ideal in Christ, and live like it is true.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1949; reprint New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995): 71.

[2] Ibid., 87.

Postmodernism: Making Their Biggest Beef Our Greatest Asset

October 30th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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Note from Brandon: This is an exciting moment for Follow After Ministries, as today we welcome our very first guest blogger. Justin Burkholder, on the pastoral staff at Grace Pointe Ministries and soon-to-be missionary to Guatemala City, shares his thoughts on how to engage the elusive postmodernist lovingly and sensitively. In reading this, I am reminded of the old witticism, “How will they hear unless we listen?”


Before I say anything. I am neither condoning nor rebuking postmoderns. I am merely observing and explaining.


Now, I readily understand that postmoderns are very elusive. Frustratingly elusive. Illogically elusive. Irrationally elusive at times. And it is miserable to actually discuss matters of weight and depth with them. But, I think that the very fact that postmoderns can be categorized this way reveals a foundational postmodernist frustration in the way people approach them that they vehemently oppose.


It appears to postmoderns that the goal is not to listen to them or be with them, but only to categorize them. Once you can fully ascertain the system of thoughts by which an individual lives their life, you can ignore them, accept them, or even convince them of something else.  Though many would not agree that this is their actual goal, this—unfortunately—is the experience of many postmoderns.


Experience Is Everything

Postmoderns do place much weight on their own experiences. And no matter who you are, your experiences shape your truth. No matter how a magazine/website reviews a gourmet restaurant, if you had a bad experience, you will tell all of your friends and you won’t go back. 


Regardless of a postmodern’s religious history, almost all of them have story after story of belligerent leaders and authorities who disparaged and discouraged doubt, struggle, and anything else that rocked the theological/practical boat of their church/home/Sunday school class.


Take my background, for example. The problem for me was that the categories with which authorities and leaders arranged people didn’t ever actually fit the majority of my experiences. So, the authorities would talk about people who were “saved” and people who were not “saved.” These terms carried all sorts of moral baggage, establishing a pattern by which people lived their lives. “Saved” people had a standard of holiness. They didn’t do certain things (drink, smoke, dance—or go with girls who do). But the problem was that I was doing lots of things (pornography) that weren’t even talked about, which seemed to be a whole lot worse than the things that they did talk about. Was I “saved”? Was there room for someone like me?


Or take theology. The Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election was very appealing to me. But I just couldn’t fully accept some of the teaching on the end times. I had met some charismatic friends and they seemed to love Jesus more than anyone at my church (including me), so I became open to the sign gifts. For a time I was categorized as a heretic of sorts, creating divisions and strife, when in reality I was just trying to make sense of things.


Regardless of what my issue was, it was a microcosm of the greater. This kind of categorization has taken place everywhere; and it is considered poison to postmoderns.


Poor people, black people, gay people, women, republicans, democrats, the wealthy, used car salesmen, people with long hair, black clothing, musical genres, Arabs, Christians…etc. It wasn’t just fundamental Baptists who had legalistic tendencies. There is legalism everywhere. If you don’t want to be __________, then you do __________.  All __________ do or don’t do __________.  


No matter where the postmodern turns, there seems to be this obsession by others from other worldviews to categorize people (enslave people to a law), and then make a judgment based upon that categorization. And much of it is done in the name of truth. This kind of categorization and assessment releases people from actually having to listen or understand. And, even worse, one presumes to understand entire populations of people without ever actually engaging them. The “judgment” cry is not empty; it is legitimate, reflective of a wound that almost every postmodern bears, many of them having been wrongly labeled themselves—as gay, emotional, distorted, disconnected to reality, idealistic, etc.


And so, no matter what you do or say, the postmodern will almost always be terrified of being labeled, categorized, or “figured out”—because once they are, they are certain that no one will ever actually hear them, or even attempt to understand them. Many of them are like abused puppies: in many conversations, at the first sign of an elevated newspaper (the Bible?), they run.


How Is This Your Greatest Asset? (Or, How I Learned to Stop Categorizing and Love the Postmodern)

 If you can understand this approach to postmoderns, you will be light years ahead of everyone. Your words will change, your tone of voice will change—your demeanor, appearance, perspective. It will put you in a much more gentle and generous light. You should approach them as if they are terrified puppies instead of philosophical combatants.


Postmoderns want to hear stories. Stories resonate with them. They are broken and wounded by scandalous amounts of divorce, abuse, sexual promiscuity, and a general incongruence that they have seen in all of the institutions of which they have been part. Their lives have been a far cry from perfect. And stories express the pain and hurt they have experienced. They want to know that you aren’t perfect, because they aren’t. And stories convey that with power.


They want to know that you were/are broken too. They want to know that this world is a broken place, and that it is okay to be broken. They want to hear that you have failed and that it is okay for them to fail again. They want to be able to explain how they have come to their conclusions without you labeling them or categorizing them. They don’t want you to philosophically wrestle with them, they just want you to talk with them. They want to know that you and your God love them in spite of their brokenness and confusion.


More than that, many of them would just like for you to sit with them, and listen to them, and love them. Eventually, they will let you in. And when they do let you in, they want to be sure that you don’t have everything figured out. Because, despite their arrogance and pretense, they will always admit to not having anything figured out. They want the tension. Everywhere that they have been where people “have it all figured out” they encounter the judgment, categorization, and bullying spoken of previously.


They know there are flaws to their perspectives. Tons of them. Which is why they don’t ever have enough confidence to share them or to convince someone else of them. As a matter of fact, that just might be the theme of postmodernism: “There are flaws in everyone’s perspectives.” (And yes, I know that perspective may be flawed as well.)


But what many of them do know and believe without a shadow of a doubt is this: If being convicted and convinced about what you believe means treating people as they have seen them treated, then they will happily live in ambiguity for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately few postmoderns have met people passionate about their beliefs, who won’t go to any length necessary to wrestle them into believing the same. And when the postmodern doesn’t agree, they fear that the name-calling will begin.


The challenges of postmodernism are not some idiotic ruse that a group of dumb kids created so that they don’t have to answer questions; for many they are a defense mechanism. You must understand this to engage them. If you don’t, you will always be fighting and arguing an imaginary enemy, while the puppy—this beloved creation of God—flees in terror.

Measuring Growth That Matters

October 5th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The last in a three-part series on measurable growth in the church—and whether it matters.


God does care about numbers. That much is clear from the book of the Acts—and makes sense considering that each number represents a person receiving grace, being regenerated in Christ. At the same time, some of the numbers that bring us elation (and even pride) receive more attention than they merit. Attendance, while necessary as we strive to bring people under the ministry of the church, is by no means a sign of grace received and applied—and therefore cannot be a driving goal in our ministry.


So what numbers should drive our ministry? When should numbers show up in our reports of God’s work in and through our ministry as a sign that (1) we have been faithful gardeners and (2) he has graciously provided the harvest?


This is an essential question to ask. Too many ministers today shudder to measure growth. This is especially true of those from my generation, those just postmodern enough to be skeptical of everything quantifiable as somehow less than genuine. But God expects and has promised growth, including growth in ministry—because his kingdom will continue to grow until Christ returns to bring it to consummation.


Make no mistake: God will judge those he gave as leaders of the church according to the quality of their work. Some will labor tirelessly but purposelessly. As a result, their ministry will bear no eternal fruit. To use Paul’s analogy, they build the edifice of the church with wood, hay, and stubble—elements that will be consumed in the final judgment (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Paul makes clear that the “building” under construction is the congregation (verse 9), so this implies that some will minister for years to a completely unregenerate congregation, none of whom will be saved (even if the pastor is). Others, contrarily, will build with gold, silver, and costly stones, seeing the Spirit empower their ministry to bring about genuine, eternal life transformation.


I want to strive with all of my being to belong to the latter category. If that means evaluating my ministry routinely, even quantifying the growth I hope to see, then I will certainly do so.


At the end of time, I hope to hear one response to my years of service in God’s kingdom: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Of course, these oft-repeated words have a context, and one that bears examination. In this parable Jesus commends faithful service to the master (25:14-30)—unquestionably Christ, who is coming again at some unknown, imminent date. In the light of his coming, we must work diligently, using the resources and gifts he has given us in his service. As the Greek word talent now covers a variety of “secular” skills in the English language, we might be tempted to read this as glorifying any sort of work. This is not quite the point. After all, the parable has a literary context. It begins abruptly with the word “Again,” suggesting an indissoluble link with the preceding parable. That parable begins, “At that time the kingdom of heaven…” (verse 1). These are kingdom parables; the king who is coming is Christ. We use the talents he gives us to build for his kingdom to glorify the King.


I commend the recent edition of the NIV for translating “talent” as “bag of gold.” This better conveys the meaning of the passage, especially considering our unbiblical definition of talent. The bags of gold represent all that God has given us to use for his service: talents, yes, but also the Spirit, the Word, prayer, fellowship and community, etc. The question, then, is have we used all that God has given us to build for his kingdom? Some do, but others do not (verses 24-25).


I fear that many of us have missed the frightening implication of this parable: while some will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” others will hear, “You wicked, lazy servant!” (verse 26). I fear that many of us assume that just because we labor, we will hear the treasured accolade; in fact, this parable teaches that we will only hear Christ voice his approval if we labor well. The very fact that Jesus says some work well implies that one may work poorly—else the judgment would be comically immaterial.


So how do we distinguish between the faithful, effective service of which God approves and inadequate, ineffective service?


In truth, different ministries will have to measure growth differently. A church-planting pastor in a completely unbelieving mission field may not see numerical growth. He may have to measure growth in other ways—especially his faithfulness to complete the “input variables” he has discerned God calling him to. As he faithfully proclaims the gospel, he may have to trust that God is changing the soil and climate even when he cannot yet see new growth on the vine. But he can still measure his service: Do an increasing number of people understand the basic message of the gospel even if they reject it? Does the community know his love for them, demonstrated in tangible ways? Are key members of the community softening in their response to his ministry, potentially opening up the mission field exponentially?


A pastor ministering in a typical church, however, would expect to see greater measurable growth. Because the climate and soil are already conducive to growth, he would expect to see dynamic change in his congregation and outside the church’s walls. Is the church growing or dwindling in number? If there is growth, is it ongoing conversion growth or merely transfer growth? Are an increasing number of people going through a rigorous discipleship course with demonstrable change in their lives? Once discipled, are those same people multiplying the work by discipling others?


The specific questions may have changed, but the fundamental measurement remains the same. Is the ministry growing deep and wide under your leadership? Both depth and width are necessary for a healthy organism. A tree with deep roots will necessarily grow increasingly wide. A tree spreading wide needs increasingly deep roots to sustain the growth; without deep roots, it will soon see the outer branches turn dry, withered, and dead. (From the agricultural analogy we discern an important spiritual truth: depth precedes width. Churches that seek width before depth will produce dry and withered pseudo-disciples.)


Without measurable goals, it can be difficult to answer the “growth question” honestly. The tendency to deceive ourselves—especially with concepts as important and nebulous as ministry and spiritual growth—is simply too strong. Paul’s warning for all believers applies to ministry evaluation too: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12:3). Measurable goals help us judge ourselves soberly, to adjust our ministry to make it as effective and powerful as possible, so that on the final day we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”


“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).

Essential Unity

September 11th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Attributed to Augustine, the old adage says, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I suspect the wise Christian will heed this advice. Though one wishes to believe that all Christians will agree on every point, our finite and limited perspective will never allow us to have complete understanding of the depth of God’s revealed Word. As such, Christians will disagree at various points along the theological spectrum. The question that then arises is how do we distinguish those areas about which all orthodox Christians must agree (unity) from those about which we may, in a spirit of charity, differ (liberty). I suspect the gospel serves as the dividing line between those issues that are essentials and those that are not.


In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul uses strong language to denounce the unorthodoxy he sees creeping into that church’s thinking (cf. 1:6-9; 3:1). In this example we see the proper means for separating the essential from anything less. One would, I assume, place circumcision on the list of non-essentials. Yet in this letter, Paul argues vehemently for the unimportance of circumcision, consigning to hell (pronouncing anathema) those who force it on Gentile believers. Now, I believe neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters at all (Galatians 6:15). Still, it mattered at that moment and in that church because it compromised the gospel. If Gentile believers had to become Jews first in order to become Gentiles, then we are saved not by grace but by our works, by upholding the law (an impossible task). Thus, in this setting, circumcision proved essential because the gospel itself was at stake, and so Paul gives no liberty to the Judaizers plaguing the Galatian church (and also publicly rebukes Peter for similar reasons). I think this framework allows us to distinguish the two classes of theological topics.


One might worry at this point that too many doctrines be relegated to the non-essential; after all, what bearing does the doctrine of the Trinity or of Christology (both doctrines many Christians hold to be essential) have on the gospel? But upon closer inspection, we see that each doctrine does cause the gospel to stand or fall. Take Christology as an example: as Gregory of Nazianus argued during the fifth century, “what is not assumed is not healed.” That is, if Christ has not become fully man (including body and mind), he has not fully healed humanity. Indeed, it was precisely Christology’s relationship to atonement (the gospel doctrine) that led Anselm of Canterbury to ask and answer the question “Why did God become man?” Only man can pay the penalty for his sins; only God can offer the infinite penalty needed. Thus, only the God-man (Christ) could effectively satisfy the wrath of God. In my estimation, then, those doctrines necessary to maintain the orthodox gospel are essential, and those that are not, are not.

Trust Me

August 28th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Jeremiah, in some of his best known words, wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The implication to the final rhetorical question seems to be no one can understand it. And, in particular, we cannot understand our own hearts. We think we know ourselves, but our own hearts deceive us, blinding us to our real motivations, thoughts, feelings. We do not need Satan to deceive us when it comes to our own sin; we are perfectly capable of accomplishing that on our own.


As I prayed this morning, I asserted boldly that I was not motivated by pride in some specific request. (I am sure God needed that information in any case.) But these words from Jeremiah came to mind almost immediately. If I do not know my heart as well as I should because my heart actively deceives me, then I should pray differently. Instead of asserting my innocence without knowledge, I should take a line from the psalmist: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Rather than assuring myself that I am not, I need to implore God to reveal if I am driven by sin unknowingly.


I suspect I am not alone in this overweening boldness. When addressing girls on the issue of modesty, for example, I inevitably hear loud protests. Immodesty, I believe, springs from a lack of satisfaction in Christ, trying to make oneself feel lovable and beautiful apart from God. But most of the women who have heard me speak on the subject assure me this could never be in their hearts; rather, they are only trying to look “cute,” and weren’t even thinking of the response they get from men, other women, or even themselves. Maybe. But I would guess some heart-deception is at work. “Search me, God, and know my heart.”


Or consider the thorny issue of gossip. How many of us have flattered ourselves that we’re having a long conversation about someone else because we love them and just want what’s best for them? We have assumed our motivation is love and proceeded accordingly. But if we trusted ourselves less, and asked God to search us more, revealing the many offensive ways within us, we might arrive at a different conclusion.


While in Jerusalem for the Passover festival early in his ministry, many people saw the miracles Jesus performed and believed in him. The feeling was not mutual. John writes, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people” (John 2:24). If Jesus would not trust us because he knows what is in us, should we trust ourselves?