Saturday, July 21, 2018

5 American Myths of Successful Churches

'91 Ford Aerostar

I'm theologically in sync with Joseph Mattera's "Five American Myths of Successful Churches and Ministries." He writes: "Many of the ways American churches measures success are in fact direct violations of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 23. In this passage Jesus speaks against people loving titles, celebrity status, and desiring prominent places in public events."

Much of this has to do with the metricization of the Church.

The 5 Myths are:

1. The size of the church shows success. The American church often measures itself numerically and monetarily. The early church did not. Paul's leading question to his churches (Ephesus, et. al.) was not: "How big is your church? 

Mattera writes: 

"Unfortunately many saints with low self-esteem or ego need to attend one of these “successful” churches because they feel it gives them status. This is a far cry from the early church that numbered in the thousands after the Day of Pentecost because of mass conversions and the contemporary persecuted church (for example, in Muslim nations) who often meet from house-to-house, break bread, and covenant with one another as brothers and sisters, and are willing to risk their lives for the gospel by being baptized! I am all for explosive church growth: the kind of church growth that involves mostly new converts rather than transfer growth."

Yes. If you see a new church that is "growing" rapidly, it's not real growth, but transfer growth (people shifting churches).

2. The amount of the budget shows success. The apostle Paul never asked his churches "What's the size of your budget?" As if budget size was some indicator of "success!" How could that be, since most of the first churches had no money, By American cultural standards they were failures.

3. The celebrity status of the leader shows success. In America we have a celebrity cult. In the early church people like the apostle Paul were cultural unknowns. So what? It did not seem to bother Paul that he was not posterized. Mattera writes: 

"In the past 30-plus years of full-time ministry I have seen many people who call themselves apostle, bishop, chaplain, or reverend who did not have the ministry, training, or the fruit to back it up." 

4. The title of the leader shows success. "Many believers equate success with the status that comes with a title." "Title" is the lowest level of leadership.

5. The affluent lifestyle of the leader shows success. For many years I drove a rusted out '91 Ford Aerostar. Did this mean I was failing as a pastor? And what about Jesus, who didn't even have a roof over his head?


"How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing (and perhaps, like you, I have met it only once) it is irresistible." 
- C.S. Lewis, in Letters to an American Lady

(I'm re-posting this. Tomorrow morning at Redeemer I am teaching 1st-5th graders "Blessed are the pure in heart." It will be age-appropriate!)

A few years ago Linda and I did premarital counseling with an engaged couple. We use the FOCCUS premarital inventory. It's so well-put-together, and gives us an MRI of the relationship. It asks all the questions we want to get into. Most couples enjoy taking this survey, and end up talking about a number of important things they have not yet thought of.

This couple - call them Jason and Andrea (not their real names, and I've altered their story slightly) - scored high on the FOCCUS. We had a good feeling after my first meeting with them. Especially because of their stance toward pre-marital sex.

Jason and Andrea had known each other for many years. They dated for several years. She was working on a graduate degree, and he managed a business. The FOCCUS survey led us to talk about sex.

"Have you had sex together?" we asked them.

"Neither of us have ever had sexual intercourse or come close to it," they responded in unison. Andrea said, "When Jason told me he loved me and was interested in pursuing marriage I immediately told him, 'There's no way I'm having sex before I get married.'"

"How did Jason respond to this?"

"He respected me for it," said Andrea, "and never has pressed himself on me."

Jason added, "It's not always been easy, because I love Andrea and look forward to sex in marriage. But I agree with her. God wants us to wait, and we are waiting."

I stopped.

I was stunned.

This was, for me, a holy moment.

Jason and Andrea are two attractive, intelligent, and successful people with great futures. Yes, they are Jesus-followers, but many Jesus-followers who get married have premarital sex because "they can't wait." 

I don't wish to judge them for that. Yet, I want to bow before Jason and Andrea and do a little worship! Who are these rare, unusual people who take the road less traveled and delay gratification? Especially in our sex-addicted culture where sex is used to sell everything from hamburgers to vacuum cleaners.

From my pastoral POV I see lots of sex addiction. Sometimes I wonder, falsely I am certain, "Who is not a sex addict today?" Have you ever seen or counseled one? Addiction is a monster. The French word for addict, as Gerald May has told us, is attache. Attachment. Claw-like attache. Being married or shacking up (I'm not talking about the book The Shack) cannot cure this. Our culture of sexual freedom has, ironically, imprisoned many. A sex addict outside of marriage will be a sex addict within marriage (unless The Transformation happens, to be accomplished only by grace).

Somehow, Jason and Andrea escaped the prison house of "sexual freedom."

We told them we were proud of them. Delayed sexual gratification displays self-control and breeds trust.

Linda and I abstained. In my abstinence I was not some religious legalist. I was so screwed up sexually that I just wanted God to heal the garbage of my heart so that, should I marry, I would not infect my life partner and children. When I told Linda I would not be asking her to have sex with me, I asked how this made her feel. She said, "Safe." I didn't love her only for her physical beauty. I wanted her heart. The two are different.

While dating, I waited several months before I kissed her. I will never forget that kiss! We were walking in a park, and it began to lightly rain. A little voice told me, "It is time!" I asked for her permission. She said yes. That kiss lasted only one second, but mega-volts of lightning came through her lips! From then until we got married we kissed only occasionally, and then only for a second or two. Our love and trust and respect only grew. This was wild and unbelievable to me, a former drug-alcohol-fraternity-sex-womanizer. A foundation of faithfulness was being laid from which we have never diverted (for forty-three years).

I don't see that often. When I sat in my office with Jason and Andrea, I got those feelings that have to do with my understanding of real, deep, growing Jesus-love that lasts a lifetime. Because Jason and Andrea have no history of sexual partners and have not sex-partnered with each other, I predict they will stay faithful to one another. They are disease-free, physically and spiritually. In this they are...  pure.

The odds are greatly in their favor. Their children will be blessed. They will pass marital fidelity to their kids. And maybe a couple of children whose parents are named Jason and Andrea will lead the counter-revolution to purity?


A few resources on Jesus-following and sexual purity include:

Every Young Man's Battle, by Steve Arterburn and Fred Stoeker

Every Young Woman's Battle, by Shannon Ethridge and Steve Arterburn

Moral Revolution: The Naked Truth About Sexual Purity, by Kris Valotten, Jason Valotten, and Bill Johnson 

On morality from our Christian theistic worldview, see Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Leaving Show Business in Search of Political Depth

Maumee Bay State Park (Ohio)

Linda and I were having breakfast, watching "The Megan Kelly Show." Her guests were the co-hosts of "American Ninja Warrior." We have watched it, and admire the athletes who compete on these outrageous obstacles. The co-hosts are OK, too, except that the one guy's primal voice sometimes irritates me. (I am, perhaps, envious?)

On the Kelly show the three began discussing American politics. This, I quickly reasoned, is a waste of my time. The man with the primal voice was expressing his political opinions. Why was he allowed to do this, since, as a TV personality, he possesses no special political acumen? I might as well be listening to a clanging, albeit ninja-like,  cymbal.

I have moments of despair when it comes to American politics, and the cult of personalities who are famous, not for their special wisdom and insight, but simply for being famous. Welcome to the Age of Show Business. (See Neil Postman's works here.) Welcome to Panem.

Looking for some lifelines, I googled "best books on American politics." I found an article in The Atlantic: "A Reading Guide for Those in Despair About American Politics." That's me!

I was encouraged to see that one of the contributors was Princeton's Robert George. When George writes, I read it. He is a brilliant legal scholar, and a follower of Jesus. George recommends Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, by Ryan T. Anderson. I've read it. Everyone should read it.

George also recommends Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith, by jurisprudential scholar and philosopher Francis Beckwith. I've already read Beckwith's brilliant Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. Everyone should read this! But I had not read Beckwith's Taking Rites Seriously.

I ordered it for my Kindle, and showered in it over the past two days. I told Linda, "This book is incredible!" 

George comments,

"This book demolishes what is left of the formerly ascendant idea that sound political theory and constitutional interpretation require a relegation of religion to the private sphere and its banishment from the public square in which issues of politics and policy are debated by citizens of a pluralistic democracy.”

Yes it does.

Experience God, Rather Than Just Talk About God

Grand Haven State Park

In my book Leading the Presence-Driven Church I make the claim that the point of the Bible is to usher us into a corporate and personal relationship with God that we know by experience, not theory. Doctrine is important, but when we claim that people need the Lord, we mean transcendently, in experience.

Sometimes I experience God mediately; viz., through creation, other persons, in reading a book, listening to music, and so on. I also experience God in an unmediated way. Here Ruth Haley Barton helps us. She writes:

"The longing for solitude is the longing for God. It is the longing to experience union with God unmediated by the ways we typically try to relate to God. By “unmediated” I mean a direct experience of God with nothing in between: an encounter with God that is not mediated by words, by theological constructs, by religious activity, by my own or other’s manipulations of my relationship with God. It is the practice that spiritual seekers down through the ages have used to experience intimacy with God rather than just talking about it." (Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, p. 32)

When, in the Church, there is too much talk, there is not enough power. In the absence of power religious people talk. This is to miss the kingdom of God. As Jesus said, the kingdom is not a matter of talk, but of power. Not talking about power, but demonstrations of power, felt and known by experience.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

How to Defend Your Faith with Gentleness and Respect

At the root of America's cultural crisis is confusion and rejection of authority. (For just one of countless examples, see here.)

God's calling on my life includes equipping the followers of Jesus to give reasons for our hope and belief in God, in Jesus, in the authority of Scripture, in all we believe. 

On July 26 at Redeemer I will share how I have learned to do this, with (hopefully!) gentleness and respect. 

6:30 - 8

Childcare provided.

But give reverent honor in your hearts to the Anointed One 
and treat him as the holy Master of your lives
And if anyone asks about the hope living within you, 
always be ready to explain your faith.
1 Peter 3:15
(Passion Translation)


Eight Reasons to Believe God Exists

Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio

A long, long time ago Bill Craig (aka William Lane Craig) was one of my campus pastors at Northern Illinois University, where I did my undergraduate degree in philosophy. I was honored to sing in Bill and Jan's wedding. 

In this essay in Philosophy Today Bill gives eight reasons to believe God exists ("Does God Exist?"). Read the essay for the reasoning. 

They are:

  1. God is the best explanation why anything at all exists.
  2. God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.
  3. God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.
  4. God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.
  5. God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness.
  6. God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.
  7. The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists.
  8. God can be personally known and experienced.

(If #7 confuses you, it's the modal version of the Ontological Argument for God's Existence.)

My two books are:

Leading the Presence-Driven Church

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God

I am currently writing...

How God Changes the Human Heart

Technology and Spiritual Formation

Then, Linda and I will co-write our book on Relationships.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Prostitute Who Loved Much

Dragonfly, clinging to the white aluminum siding of our house 

Long ago, in another place, I knew a woman who did not love. She was judgmental towards people, including me. She acted above us. She had the gifts of criticism, finger-pointing, correcting others. I never heard her admit she was wrong about anything. As for the rest of us lowerlings, we were very, very wrong.

One time I asked her, "We are followers of Jesus. Jesus told us to love one another. Can't we just love one another?"

I see her sitting before me, non-responsive. She loved little, seemingly not at all. I wondered, had she not experienced her own massive need for the forgiving, merciful, gracious love of Jesus?

Longer ago, on the far side of earth, a prostitute was standing behind Jesus. She was weeping. She lowered herself to her knees, and began wetting Jesus' feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured perfume on them. 


Because, she thought, Jesus might be able to forgive her sins, which were many. 

Those who come to grips with their own inherent sinfulness  have compassion towards people. They love people, a lot. 

Jesus explains this reality to his disciples. He says, 

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
— as her great love has shown. 
But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” 
Then Jesus said to her, 
“Your sins are forgiven.” 

Luke 7:47-48

I often think of how much I have been forgiven of, especially when I take communion. Most of what I have been forgiven of is deeper than my awareness. Christ has forgiven me of more than I could ever know.

Jesus is saying, the more awareness of God's mercy and grace that has been given me, the less I will despise, and the more I will love; the less I will judge, and the more I will relate to.

The woman who did not love lived in oblivion to her own failure. The prostitute who grieved over her failure became the woman who loved much.

My two books are:

Leading the Presence-Driven Church

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God

I am currently writing...

How God Changes the Human Heart

Technology and Spiritual Formation

Then, Linda and I will co-write our book on Relationships.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Remain in Christ (Rather than Occasionally Visiting Him)

Green Lake Christian Conference Center (Wisconsin)

A main thing we teach people at Redeemer to do is abide in Christ. For followers of Jesus this is the first thing we must learn, and live. 

To "abide," or “remain” in Christ means “to take up permanent residence” (Greek meno). This is a slow cooker, not a microwave; a lifestyle, rather than a trend; a relationship, rather than a rule.

It's being a branch, connected to a Vine who is Christ. It's a day after day after day thing, rather than occasional visits.

Greg Boyd writes:

“Branches don’t visit a vine once in a while on special occasions. Rather, branches are permanently attached to their source of life. So too, followers of Jesus are to take up permanent residence in Christ, remaining attached to him at all times as their source of their Life.” (Boyd, Present Perfect, 34)

Church-Involved Parents Influence Their Children

The 700' Cuyahoga, pulling into Holland, Michigan

If you are a Christian parent but don't have time to gather with other Jesus-followers (which means: "church"), you should not expect your children to be Jesus-followers since you're not one yourself. Your children will grow up to be like non-attenders or sporadic attenders like you. 

"Non-churchgoing follower of Jesus" is a self-contradiction. This is because Jesus came to establish "church" and work through this community of his followers. The person who says, "I'm a follower of Jesus but don't go to church" is misguided. Every real Jesus-follower is the church. "Church," therefore, is not something you either go to or not.

If you are a Christian parent and follow Jesus (which means you know you are "church" and gather with Jesus' church),  then the odds are your children will do the same. This is the conclusion of Notre Dame University's Christian Smith. "Parents are the #1 influence helping teens remain religiously active as adults.

Smith writes: 

"The holy grail for helping youth remain religiously active as young adults has been at home all along: Parents.
Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s, according to new findings from a landmark study of youth and religion.
Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid- to late 20s.
In contrast, 82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults, according to data from the latest wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion.

The connection is “nearly deterministic,” said University of Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith, lead researcher for the study.

Other factors such as youth ministry or clergy or service projects or religious schools pale in comparison.
“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” Smith said in a recent talk sharing the findings at Yale Divinity School. “Parents just dominate.”"

Smith adds: "One of the strongest factors associated with older teens keeping their faith as young adults was having parents who talked about religion and spirituality at home."

My two books are:

Leading the Presence-Driven Church

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Call for Revival in the American Church

(Photo by David Ferrell)
My July 1 sermon at Redeemer, "A Call for Revival in the American Church," can be heard HERE.