Why We Are Stuck

"There’s a reason why churches and denominations are in decline," writes Tony Morgan in this compelling blog post. "We continue to be religious about using the same methods hoping and praying they’ll somehow generate different results. That’s a recipe for decline and ultimately death."

I agree, not just about the specifics he highlights, but about the bigger picture as well. Denominations, churches, and pastors, in general, embrace tradition in areas in which innovation would have an impact...and embrace progress in areas that have very little impact (or that were impactful five or more years ago, but are much less so now!). I'm not just throwing stones; I've been as guilty as anyone. Well, except for that one guy.

Read the whole thing here.

Apostolic v. Rabbinic Preaching

Call me crazy (I've been called worse) but it seems to me that the vast majority of preaching, teaching, and leading in the American church today ignores what Ray Ortlund points out in this excellent (as usual) post on his blog:
There are two ways to read the Bible. We can read it as law or as promise.

If we read the Bible as law, we will find on every page what God is telling us we should do. Even the promises will be conditioned by law. But if we read the Bible as promise, we will find on every page what God is telling us he will do. Even the law will be conditioned by promise.

In Galatians 3 Paul explains which hermeneutic is the correct one. “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18).

So, if we want to know whether we should read the Bible through the lens of law or grace, demand or provision, threat or promise — if we want to know how to read the Bible in an apostolic rather than a rabbinic way — we can follow the plot-line of the Bible itself and see which comes first. And in fact, promise comes first, in God’s word to Abram in Genesis 12. Then the law is “added” — significant word, in Galatians 3:19 — the law is added as a sidebar later, in Exodus 20. The hermeneutical category “promise” establishes the larger, wraparound framework for everything else added in along the way.

The deepest message of the Bible is the promises of God to undeserving law-breakers through his grace in Christ. This is not an arbitrary overlay forced onto the biblical text. The Bible presents itself to us this way. The laws and commands and examples and warnings are all there, fulfilled in Christ and revered by us. But they do not provide the hermeneutic with which we make sense of the whole. We can and should understand them as qualified by God’s gracious promise, for all who will bank their hopes on him.

Preacher or Pastor?

Rick Warren explains the difference (from a recent episode of The Exchange).

A Preacher's Prayer

Dear Lord, you have sent me into this world to preach your word. So often the problems of the world seem so complex and intricate that your word strikes me as embarrassingly simple. Many times I feel tongue-tied in the company of people who are dealing with the world's social and economic problems.

But you, O Lord, said, 'Be clever as serpents and innocent as doves.' Let me retain innocence and simplicity in the midst of this complex world. I realize that I have to be informed, that I have to study the many aspects of the problems facing the world, and that I have to try to understand as well as possible the dynamics of contemporary society. But what really counts is that all this information, knowledge and insight allow me to speak more clearly and unambiguously your truthful word. Do not allow evil powers to seduce me with the complexities of the world's problems, but give me the strength to think clearly, speak freely, and act boldly in your service.

Give me the courage to show the dove in a world so full of serpents. Amen.

Simply Excellent

Every time I read an N. T. Wright book, I ask myself, "Why have I not read everything this man writes?" The answer is that he seems to write much faster than I can read. And yet, his books are impressively, incredibly profound.

That is certainly the case with his latest, the newly-released Simply Jesus. In it, he thoroughly and thoughtfully answers the questions "Who is Jesus?" and "What is and was the purpose and message of his life?"

Wright (who is an Anglican bishop and accomplished scholar) masterfully orients the reader to the time and worldview of Jesus day, as a necessary prelude to unpacking Jesus' words and actions, which reveal his true purpose and message. Then he proceeds to show some important ways those things differ from what the "skeptics" and "conservatives" in and out of the church have focused on. For example, he says,
The gospels are not about "how Jesus turned out to be God." They are about how God became king on earth as in heaven (p. 149).
And also,
It will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people "how to get to heaven." That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won't do. The whole point of Jesus's public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave "earth" behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on "earth" (pp. 144-145).
I found especially intriguing his depiction of the "perfect storm" of circumstances and forces into which Jesus came, his explanation of the ingredients of the Exodus narrative as a template for understanding the Jewish worldview of Jesus' day, and his elucidation of Jesus himself as a "walking, living, breathing Temple" and as "the walking, celebrating, victorious sabbath" (p. 138).

Anyone who is interested in the life, ministry, and message of Jesus would do well to read this book. Though I haven't read everything N. T. Wright has written, Simply Jesus is a good example of why I plan to.

Church of the Week: Redeemer Fellowship Church, Bardstown, KY

The lovely Robin and I, while on prayer retreat this past weekend, sought out Redeemer Fellowship Church in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Redeemer is a fairly new church, that has also planted a new, separate church in the same facility. Redeemer meets on Sunday mornings and the newer church, Grace Fellowship Church, meets on Sunday evenings. The two churches have their own pastors and separate elders and members--but share a facility.

We entered into a spare entryway and helped ourselves to coffee and hot chocolate. We were quickly recognized as visitors and welcomed repeatedly and sincerely by several folks, including the pastor, a young transplant from Scotland.

A five-piece band led worship singing, interspersed with Scripture and communion (four communion tables were set up around the perimeter).

Matthew spoke for roughly 45 minutes (the service lasted 90 minutes, of which we were told by one of the folks who welcomed us). His text was Matthew 18:15-20. I only wish he had let his Scottish brogue have full rein.

We had a great time among a friendly group, and found their approach intriguing. The church's website is www.redeemerbardstown.org.

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The Best of All Possible Beginnings

We profess to believe that this present age is passing. We say that this world is not our home. That we’re “just passing through,” as the old Gospel song says. That “Jesus is coming soon.” But is that how we live?
Read more in my recent post on the ACU Press Book Club blog: "The Best of All Possible Beginnings."

The Casualty is Grace

Churches designed for saved people are full of hypocrites. You pretty much have to be a hypocrite to participate. Transparency and honesty are dangerous in a church for church people. Consequently, the casualty in a church for church people is grace. It's hard to extend grace to people who don't seem to need it. And it's hard to admit you need it when you aren't sure you will receive it.

(Andy Stanley, in Deep and Wide)

Monday Morning Inspiration

Q: How many pastors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Leave me alone, it's Monday.

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16 Books That Molded Me

I have read at least 1,750 books in my lifetime. Probably more, but that is the number
I have recorded as having read at least once. I've written elsewhere on this blog about my reading habits (here, here, and here, among others). Many of those books have had an impact on me; some, I could even say, have molded me. Here are sixteen that have had an inestimable effect on my life and habits:

Heart Talks on Holiness, The Renewed Mind, and The Cost of Discipleship (molded my early spiritual life)

Mere Christianity and Evidence That Demands a Verdict (molded my early thinking as a Christ follower)

Mr. Jones, Meet the Master and Biblical Preaching (molded my preaching)

Hand Me Another Brick and Spiritual Leadership (molded my leadership)

With Christ in the School of Prayer and The Divine Hours (3 vol.) (molded my praying)

Managing Your Time and Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (molded my rhythms)

User-Friendly Churches, Postmodern Pilgrims, and The Contemplative Pastor (molded my pastoring)

As I look back over the list, I realize that some of those affected more than one area. And, of course, some were formative, while others were influential much later. But all, in one way or another, have had a substantive effect on me, my life, and my ministry. And, while I could easily list another sixteen or more, these stand out.

Tears Are Telling

"Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next."

(Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, p. 383)

5 Good Reasons to Choose a REAL Book

I love books. I love reading. I didn't think I would quite take to the electronic publishing phenomenon when it first came around, for several reasons. I like the feel of a book in my hands. I like the smell of a book. I like the tactile and visual experience of reading an actual book.

But I've been surprised. I read a lot of ebooks, maybe 70-80% of my reading these days. One reason: I can take hundreds of ebooks along when I travel, and they weigh no more and take up no more space than a single book. Also, I can obtain an ebook almost instantly, which is a great help when researching and writing.

But still, there remain good reasons not to give up on traditional books. One of my favorite blogs, WiseBread, featured this article on "5 Reasons to Choose Traditional Books Over E-Books":
I love reading, and as a homeschooling family, there are usually between 12 and 15 books being consumed by our family members at any one time. While I am a huge proponent of technology, and I can appreciate the ease of carrying digital titles on my iPad for quick reading when I’m out and about, if given the choice, I’ll still pick the old-fashioned variety most every time. Here’s why...
Read the rest here.

A Huge Improvement

From the "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip by Stephan Pastis:

Introverts and the Church

I have posted before on this blog about introvertedness and the church, so it may come as no surprise that I found the following TED video by Susan Cain (which I watched on a recent flight) interesting and informative:

That video spoke to me as an introvert, of course, but also as a pastor, showing to me (again) how unwelcoming the church can be to introverts when, for example, we insist that visitors stand up and be recognized (or, worse, introduce themselves), that people greet those around them during a service, or make them turn to their neighbor and repeat a phrase, or break up into small groups for prayer or discussion, etc. All of that may not be a problem for the extrovert but displays insensitivity toward the 30-50% of people who are introverts. Of course, over time, introverts will learn to stay away from churches that do that, which is not what anyone wants.

That's not to say we should never stretch introverts. But it wouldn't hurt a bit for pastors and churches to heed Susan Cain's helpful suggestions. Like everything the church does, just a little sensitivity in this area could change lives.

The Preacher and Translator

The lovely Robin and I had a marvelous time this past weekend participating in the JESUS IM FOKUS congress in Dillenburg, Germany. It is a biennial gathering of roughly five hundred youth and children's ministry workers from Brethren churches from all over Germany, Austria, etc. (I'm not sure where exactly Et Cetera is, but I hope to visit someday).

It was an honor and joy to speak four times over the weekend to the assemblage on "Healing for Hurting Hearts." But relatively inexperienced as I am speaking with the help of a translator (who has become a dear friend), it was a challenge.

Speaking with the aid of a translator required me to rethink my delivery. I had to shorten my sentences. I had to pause often in the middle of a thought. I had to restructure some portions, because in German the verb comes at the end of a sentence. And so on.

But, of course, every preacher is a translator. We must consider much more than grammar and sentence structure. We must discern where people are, and meet them there. We must find common ground with the people to whom we are called to speak. We must connect with them before we can connect them with God through his Word. We must make our speech accessible. We must make our speech attractive. We must make our speech effective at moving hearts and minds toward a worthy goal. We must work within the limitations of language to communicate a message that is limitless in its power. And so on.

Sounds hard, doesn't it? It is. Which makes it even more discernibly miraculous when some gifted souls among us make it look easy.

Jesus: A Theography

I wasn't as anxious to read Jesus: A Theography, by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, as I have been other books by these authors, who are among my favorites. It sounded serious, and I'm not a real serious guy. It sounded, well, technical, I guess. And challenging. Maybe even dry (though I've never read anything by Sweet or Viola that could be called "dry"). But I read it anyway, and I am so glad I did.

It is an astounding accomplishment. The authors call it a "theography" because it tells the story of Jesus, the God-man, as told not just in the Gospels (which more or less chronicle his thirty-plus years of earthly life and ministry), but as told from the first lines of "the First Testament" in Genesis to the last words of "the Second Testament" in the Revelation. In doing so, they show compellingly, thoroughly, and engagingly how the whole Bible reveals Jesus.

It left me shaking my head. How could the authors have said so much, so well, so consistently? And how could I have missed so much over so many years as a Bible student, preacher, and follower of Christ? And how much richer would my learning, teaching, and living have been through the years had I read this book long ago? Nearly every sentence in the book brims with beauty, power, and fresh discovery. I took more notes and highlighted more passages than perhaps any book I've ever read--and that's saying something! It even made me repent of those times when my wife and I were in school together and I teased her for often highlighting nearly a whole page at a time, stressing to her that when everything is important, nothing is. But in the case of this book, I recant those words.

I couldn't more highly praise Jesus: A Theography. I couldn't more enthusiastically recommend it. I honestly think everyone should read it.