Archive for the ‘church’ Category

This review was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.

Aliens and strangers. While these words may conjure images of space battles and horror movies, the apostle Peter uses such terms to describe a marginalized community of Christians living in the Roman Empire during the first century (1 Pet. 2:11). Struggling under the weight of social ostracism, family rejection, and widespread hostility on account of their faith, Peter’s first readers understood what it meant to be on the fringes of society.

In Everyday Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis argue that American Christianity is headed in that same direction. From our inflexible standards of morality to our exclusive claims regarding salvation, evangelical Christians are increasingly viewed as intolerant and irrelevant. Drawing on the paradigm-shattering research of sociologist Peter Berger, the authors note that modernity has resulted in a pervasive pluralism fundamentally intolerant of any and all intolerance (the irony is palpable). The consequence of this steady shift in worldview is increasing marginalization of the church in the West.

Everyday Church follows up on the authors’ earlier book, Total Church (Crossway, 2008), in which Chester and Timmis, founders of The Crowded House church planting network in the U.K., seek to reshape “church” around two key principles: gospel and community. In many ways, Everyday Church elaborates on one of the most memorable lines from Total Church: “Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality” (63).

From pastoral care to evangelism, Everyday Church continually emphasizes the fundamental importance of ordinary life, resisting the all-too-common mindset (sometimes verbalized, but most often just noticeable in practice) that considers Monday through Saturday unimportant compared to the “real stuff” that happens on Sunday. Rather, Timmis and Chester argue, we must “shift our focus from putting on attractional events to creating attractional communities” (10). The authors are careful to ground their arguments and suggestions in Scripture, primarily through missional reflections on 1 Peter.

Post-Christian Context

Armed with a robust assortment of facts and figures, Chester and Timmis open the book by examining the church’s place in our post-Christian, Western context. As in Europe, the church in America is increasingly reviled in the realm of public discourse, no longer accorded the widespread respect and admiration enjoyed by previous generations. This shift, the authors argue, must be considered when thinking about the church’s community and mission.

In the next four chapters, Chester and Timmis discuss the day-to-day reality of their renewed vision of church, exploring the nature of “everyday” community, pastoral care, mission, and evangelism. These chapters, full of biblical wisdom and practical suggestions, continually challenged my thinking and stirred my imagination. For instance, Chester and Timmis remind readers that the “Christendom mentality” that tends towards surprise when faced with, among other things, legislation that doesn’t line up with biblical values or unfavorable portrayals of Christians in the media, is quite foreign to the perspective of the New Testament. They write, “We need to discover or recover the sense that if this year we are not imprisoned, then it has been a good year in which by the grace of God we have gotten off lightly” (38).

From suggesting that Christians join pre-existing social groups instead of creating new evangelistic ministries to offering lists of challenging questions for reflection and self-analysis, these practical chapters encouraged me to think carefully about my church as a community of interdependent believers living as ambassadors for Christ each and every day. Yet Chester and Timmis never stop reminding readers that the goal should not simply be “doing” community and mission better. Rather, the move is always from “identity to action,” with biblical ideals realizable only “because of the new reality God has produced in our lives through the gospel Word” (60). This gospel backbone, bolstered by the authors’ obvious dependence on Scripture, keeps Everyday Church from devolving into a list of do’s and don’t’s designed to make the church more palatable to the outside world.

In the final two chapters, Chester and Timmis explore the nature of Christian hope and share details related to how they shepherd their church. These chapters are the book’s strongest, addressing practical issues such as money, church leadership, and prayer. The authors also address two common accusations often levied against them, namely that they oppose “big church” and “monologue preaching” (156). Chester and Timmis reject such charges, noting that what concerns them is simply a “privileged status” that often distracts Christians from living as family and proclaiming the Word in the everyday. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not they agree. Additionally, some readers may be uncomfortable with the fact that the authors apparently don’t confine baptism and communion to the church’s corporate gathering on Sunday (155).

My biggest critique of Everyday Church is that the authors’ claims and arguments occasionally lack nuance. At times Chester and Timmis make statements that seem ambiguous and simplistic, from their use of undefined terms such as “church” (17) and “institution” (20) to overly negative portrayals of various church programs (50). By the end of the book, however, it’s clear that Chester and Timmis are reacting against an overemphasis and overreliance on “attractional” meetings and events, rather than against the meetings and events per se. Christians coming from “traditional” church backgrounds would do well to read Everyday Church with this in mind, remaining open to the possibility that, at the very least, re-evaluation of pre-existing church structures and priorities may be in order.

Context of Community and Mission

In the final analysis, Everyday Church is an insightful addition to a growing corpus of literature focused on helping Christians become more intentional about living gospel-centered lives with fellow Christians and among the lost. Although not as groundbreaking as Total Church, Chester and Timmis’s latest contribution is more practical and, in that regard, perhaps more helpful for those seeking to practically apply the principles the authors so passionately proclaim. Their vision—simultaneously robust yet simple, convicting yet compelling, sober yet optimistic—demands reflection and deserves a response.

At the heart of our vision is not a new way of doing events but the creation of Word-centered gospel communities in which people share life with one another and with unbelievers, seeking to bless their neighborhoods, “gospeling” one another, and sharing the good news with unbelievers. The context for this gospel-centered community and mission is not events but ordinary, everyday life. (50)

By God’s grace, that is a vision that I, for one, hope to cultivate in my own life, family, and church.

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In an article entitled, “The Problem with Pastors as Rock Stars,” Ed Stetzer offers some wise thoughts on the “celebrity culture” plaguing modern Evangelicalism:

If the church life revolves around one person’s speaking gift, it is incredibly difficult to move to community. A community “won” to a single voice is not won to community but to spectatorship. Thus, when pastors say, “It’s all about the weekend,” they tend to create an audience rather than a biblically functioning church community. This is still true if your church is an oft-criticized seeker megachurch or your verse-by-verse preaching point. Either way, if you get thousands sitting in rows but can’t move them to sitting in circles, true community is hard to find.

As a guy who travels around speaking, I understand how quickly it can happen. For the last few weeks, I’ve spoken at a church close to my own house while the pastor is on a short sabbatical. But even in delivering biblical messages, I’m not engaging in biblical community with those people. It takes more than a stage to create a community. The temptation must be fought that a mass of people gathered to hear one person speak is equal to biblical community.

Commenting about the growing prevalence of multi-site churches, Stetzer writes:

Some have pointed to the multi-site movement as an illustration of how the church has sold out to make rock star pastors famous. Personally, I am not anti-multi-site. When partnered with church planting, it has great potential. Nevertheless, while I’m not “anti,” I do urge caution. At times, I’ve joked about “rock star celebrity pastors beaming their graven image all over the country.” If you are a rock star pastor, perhaps you believe the church simply cannot go on without you. You would be wrong.

Pride was inherent in the fall of Adam, and it rears its head whenever one person deems the church’s future to ride on their shoulders or voice. Multi-site, or any program, as a necessity derived from the attention needed by a rock star pastor is idolatry.

Stetzer goes on to list four practical things pastors can do to fight against a “rock star” image.  The entire article is well-worth the read.

The biblical preacher is a herald, a steward.  He has been entrusted to declare something that would have been true if he had never been born.  He is to preach it with a strong view of his own ultimate irrelevance.  He is to get into the pulpit and say, “Thus says the Lord ….”  And to the modern world, this is insufferable arrogance.

In stark contrast with this, a modern pretty boy preacher – excuse me, a pretty boy communicator – gets up front and can talk about himself the entire time he is there.  He is open, transparent, honest, and emotionally approachable.  He is humble, or so it is thought.  The evidence?  He is humble because he talked about himself a lot.  And the other one, the insufferable one, he must think he has a personal pipeline to God.  He must think that God wrote a book or something … wait.

– Doug Wilson, A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking, p. 23

Preaching Mythology

Posted: April 21, 2012 in church, leadership, worship

“[There is a] developing mythology that preaching the gospel is very difficult and that there are only a couple of dozen people in the entire United States who are any good at it.   To quote Gershwin, it ain’t necessarily so.   If it were, Paul would surely have told us.  In fact, he pours scorn on the Corinthian church’s fascination with orators; what he requires of ministers is that they be competent to teach.  That necessarily means they must be able to express themselves clearly and with conviction; but it does not mean they need the rhetorical skills of Winston Churchill or the brilliant classroom presence of Richard Feynman. …

There are those pastors who will say ‘Well, if we plant a church but I am not the regular preacher, people have told me that they will not come.’  That may well be true but it begs a follow-up question: does that not indicate a serious problem in the heart of the people?  That pastor needs to call those people to repentance: it is not the man, it is the message which is meant to feed their souls. … Good preaching may be at a premium; but that still does not make it either rocket science or infused Gnostic knowledge given only to a few of the chosen.

– Carl Trueman, “Multisite, the Poker Tell and the Importance of Presence”

We, the American church, must diligently ask ourselves this question, and then answer honestly, each and every time we listen to the preached Word of God: “Are we compelled by the Gospel or are we fascinated with an orator?”

To these elitist developments [within Evangelicalism], we might add the emergence of the ‘flying teacher’ as an aspirational goal, given the departure from local pastorates by some to enhance ministry opportunities. Such a lifestyle has much to make it attractive: positively, it does allow wider access to the insights of a talented individual; negatively, it offers the individual limited accountability, not much need to prepare new sermons each week and none of the aggravation which comes from facing the same people year in, year out, sermon after sermon. Thus, it surely lacks the kind of context which would make such leaders truly helpful as role models. It is one thing to preach the same amazing sermon a dozen times a year, each time to a different crowd; but it gives you no insight whatsoever into the struggles of the pastor who has to prepare sixty plus sermons in the space of twelve months and keep his congregation engaged, fed and watered thereby. The loosening of role model from actual local church commitment is becoming quite dramatic and yet an almost unquestioned part of the culture.

Carl Trueman, “An Important and Positive Lesson from the Liberals (which you might not hear elsewhere)

Hear God’s will for your life and ministry:

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things [many senseless and harmful desires]. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment [the Christian faith] unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:11-16

A good reminder for all God’s people, but especially those called to leadership within Christ’s church.  Now pray that God would make it a reality in your life and the lives of those around you.

As I’m sure everyone who has Facebook knows, Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video is lighting up the internet.  Currently, his video has over 6.5 million views on YouTube.  Clearly, something about his message is appealing to many people (it also helps to get a shout-out from The Resurgence).

In light of the way it has gone viral, I thought I might offer a brief response.  Below are four reasons why I love (pure) religion, but hate false dichotomies.

  1. Jesus was highly religious.  He was a devout, Torah-observing Jew, profoundly concerned about living a pure, God-honoring life.  When Jesus criticized the Pharisees and teachers of the Law – the self-proclaimed “religious people” of his day – he was not criticizing their “religion” but rather their lack thereof (cf. Jam. 1:27)!  It’s not that the Pharisees were too careful or strict in their observance of the Law.  Rather, they felt the freedom to pick and choose what they would follow, preferring to puff up their self-righteous hearts by (rightly) tithing out of their spice racks while (wrongly) neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness (“the weightier matters of the Law“).  Pitting Jesus against “religion” is inconsistent.
  2. Religion isn’t the problem.  Prideful works-righteousness is.  Do we really want to give up the word “religion” to a few self-righteous legalists who don’t understand the glories of grace?  I don’t.  The real issue is the way we all (not just the grumpy Baptist fundamentalists down the road) tend to confuse God’s grace with our merit.  You don’t have to be wearing a suit and tie to be brimming with self-righteousness.  The contrast isn’t “religion” vs. Jesus.  Rather, it’s mandated obedience in order to please a heavenly Dictator vs. a vital, Spirit-formed relationship with our benevolent Father. Christianity is fundamentally about the latter, not the former.  Pitting Jesus against “religion” just isn’t helpful.
  3. Christianity is a religion.  From a historical perspective, to abstract Jesus from the religion that he started is kind of silly.  By any normal definition, Christianity is a religion.  We can repudiate religion based on works-righteousness without disparaging religion based on Jesus.  Additionally, your “I follow Jesus, not a particular religion” line will only go so far.  Sooner or later, your unbelieving friends will realize that you’re simply a Christian who loves Jesus, and your false dichotomy will just end up making you look dumb and/or insincere.  Pitting Jesus against “religion” is simply silly.
  4. Jesus loves His church.  I worry about the conclusions that many will draw from rhetoric like this.  Many who dislike “religion” also dislike “the church,” thinking it’s full of disingenuous, self-righteous people.  And they’re right – the church is full of disingenuous, self-righteous people because the church is full of sinners!  But Christ loves His church.  He created it, sustains it, and is Lord over it.  And He desires that His people live, worship, and evangelize the world in community.  There’s no such thing as a “lone ranger” Christian.  We were (re)created for Christian community (aka, the church).  Additionally, the New Testament clearly outlines a certain organization, structure, and authority for the church.  Yes, it can be abused, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to throw it out.  Pitting Jesus against “religion” is potentially dangerous.

All that being said, I understand the “heart” of the video’s message and agree with it. Christianity is first and foremost about the God who, in love, sovereignly reached out to wayward men and women for their salvation and joy. It’s not about what we need to do for God, but what He has already done for us.  Amen and amen.

I just think there are more helpful ways to go about accomplishing what Bethke and millions of other Christians really want: the faithful proclamation of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For more good thoughts on this, check out Jared Wilson’s blog.