Yesterday a funny thing happened to Craig Gross, co-founder of XXXChurch.com (for those nervous about the link, it is a Christian site whose primary ministry is against p()rnography) and author of the new book Jesus Loves You, as he and some colleagues, as part of promotion for the book, spent time with the legalistic hatemongers at Westboro Baptist in Topeka, Kansas. (They are the Fred Phelps gang, the “God Hates Fags” people who say 9/11 was God’s judgment on America and who picket soldiers’ funerals, among other things.)
Craig and his buddies went to church at Westboro, got to know some of the Phelps clan, and went to counter-demonstrate as Meghan Phelps and other Westboro protesters held up their ridiculous and offensive signs at The American Idol tour stop, ostensibly to let Idol runner-up Adam Lambert know God hates him. (Craig and his team held up “Jesus Loves The Gays” signs and such.)
But what was really interesting is how human a face Craig and the Jesus Loves You team were able to put on these folks. The tweets, the videos, they all show these people laughing, playing, joking around. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen them not screaming and looking angry. It is scarily easy to stereotype them, and yes, while they are idiots, they are broken people awash in bitterness and rage and false religion. And it takes a guy who spends his time ministering to prostitutes and p()rn stars to bring some humanity out of them. (So much so that, at a few points, Craig wonders if the whole thing isn’t some elaborate joke, some kind of religious shtick.)
But a funny thing happened. As Craig Gross showed love to the haters, the ones the haters hate assumed Craig was a hater too. If you followed some of the Twitter brouhaha, you could see many Adam Lambert fans and supporters of gay rights causes cursing out Craig, telling him that God hated him, and saying plenty of things that make the Westboro crew sound downright genteel. They didn’t know he didn’t agree with the Westboro people; they just saw his proximity and saw him loving them. That was enough. They got confused and thought Craig was with Westboro.
Which says something really profound about a ministry of love. If you love everyone, no matter their brokenness and no matter their sin — prodigal or pharisaical — you’re gonna get slammed by both sides.
I don’t like all of what Craig and XXXChurch do, by the way. I use the X3Watch Accountability software their organization puts out. I commend his desire to reach with the love of Jesus people most of the church has given up on or won’t touch. And I am grateful for their continuing ministry to Christians and non-Christians alike who are addicted to p()rnography and who are otherwise broken sexually. But some things they do strike me as needlessly provocative and borderline crude for marketing’s sake. Nevertheless, what I saw in Craig’s documented experiences yesterday was a guy who, like Jesus, was willing to get his reputation sullied in order to treat sinners as if they are people made in the image of God and to show them the love Jesus showed us.
It just happened that yesterday Craig’s reputation got tarnished among the prodigals for loving the judgmental legalists.
John Catanzaro at The Resurgence recently posted on Healthy Expecations as part of his Healthy Pastors series. Good stuff.
I have the privilege of being a pastor to the pastors in coaching and praying for their wellness. The expectations parishioners place upon pastors in this church age are both complex and demanding. For the last two decades I have observed the continual decline in the heath of pastors in the Pacific Northwest. It is both distressing and grievous when pastors share some of the pressures of the ministry and the criticisms and burdens they carry. I believe the best place to begin is to clarify the pastor’s responsibility list.
* They are not substitute parents
* They are not shrinks
* They are not janitors, plumbers, or construction workers
* They are not crisis managers
* They are not perfect problem-solvers
* They are not corporate executives
* They do not have wireless access to the Holy Spirit concerning your problems
* They are not responsible for your sin
* They are not constructed for long-term bashing
* They are not required to shoulder repeated harsh criticisms
* They are not celebrities
* They have families with real problems too
* They are not always available and tireless
* They are not God in human form
* They can burn out
* They serve
* They teach
* They lead
* They inspire
* They pray
* They cry
* They get tired
* They are human
* They need family time
* They must be renewed
A real Christian life is one infused with the qualities of Christ himself. But we have replaced submission, service, and sacrifice with salesmanship, self-help, and success.
Here is an excerpt from a challenging article written by someone who may surprise you. Read it first, and I will tell you who wrote it after.
When Martin Luther lamented at the end of his life that he might not be justified, he must have seen something dark in himself in relation to the Scriptures, something that we in the modern church might be overlooking.
The Scriptures say that we are to be known as followers of Christ by the evidence of our love for one another, but we’re not (see John 13:35).
The Scriptures say that we are not to boast about what we have or what we have done, but we do (see Jer. 9:23-24).
The Scriptures say that in the last days people will be lovers of themselves and lovers of money, and we are (see 2 Tim. 3:5, NKJV).
Very often we charismatics rejoice in the power of God, and rightly so. But we subject ourselves to ridicule when we boast that we are not among those “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).
We claim that we have spiritual power and others don’t because of our openness to accept and operate in the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
But our words fall short when our marriages don’t work, our children are wild and disobedient, and we refine the art of giving and receiving money to the point that we could qualify as the experts in greed that Peter warns about in his second letter (see 2 Pet. 2:14).
We have a credibility problem. We have some wonderful churches, but increasingly, people do not seek to be connected . . .
. . . Maybe we’re not Christians. Maybe we’re just the most popular religion of the day, using the power of persuasion, the force of our numbers, and the strength of our money to advance our ideology.
Maybe we just believe whatever makes sense to us by default, and we don’t truly—as individuals and as communities of Christians—seek to be genuine disciples and to do God’s work of caring for the fatherless and the widow of our day.
Could we be Pharisees? Our own books, television programs and prophecies should make us wonder.
I believe that we all know and love the Word, but we live in earthly vessels with a fallen nature. We feel and see the hopes of the Spirit within, but we also end up doing the very things we do not want to do.
When we preach, write, lobby, raise money, build, broadcast, threaten, sue and spin, we present conflicting images that don’t stand up very well against the tests of time and scrutiny. We are confusing the world, other Christians, and our families.
This isn’t something that can be changed with a list of practical exercises. This is something that has to be dealt with deep within us by exposing ourselves to the wisdom of the Scriptures, to one another, and to God.
“Maybe we’re not Christians.” Ouch.
He has a very real point. As long as our churches — religious, irreligious, and anti-religious — keep preaching Jesus as one who makes your life better rather than Jesus who makes dead people live, as long as we keep teaching Christianity as the gospel of personal fulfillment rather than the call to self-crucifixion — we are proclaiming Christianity as an unneeded cure for a mythical ailment.
The truth is not that we don’t like ourselves enough, have enough success, get happy enough, etc. The truth is that we are sinners in need of resurrection. If no less a giant than Martin Luther could acknowledge this, what makes us stumble over admitting it for ourselves? I think it is because we are prone to believe the problem is everyone and everything else — but not us. It is not safe or “nice” to talk about this stuff. Sin is a forbidden word in the American church. We don’t want people to be uncomfortable or feel judged.
But if we are not honest about the real problem facing us — inside of us — we cannot be truthful about salvation. And if we are not truthful about salvation, the people we are so fearful of offending or irritating will face a discomfort and a judgment that is eternally more uncomfortable and judgmental than some hurt feelings this side of the second coming.
Christianity is life or death stuff.
The writer of the above article excerpt is Ted Haggard. Three years after its publication, he would resign from the pastorate of his Colorado megachurch because he was cheating on his wife with a man. This is how he concludes his article:
We have to get this right. Even though the global church is stronger than we’ve ever been, we in the American church are showing early signs of impotence. We are in a global theatre now, which means that our words, actions, investments and thoughts have greater impact. Thus, we have the opportunity to do unprecedented good, but also the dangerous ability to do unparalleled damage.
Let’s make the right choice. If you are like me, you are conflicted. I don’t like this column. Granted, there is a part of me that does. But most of me likes the comforts of the church I serve, the way I travel, the way I’m treated by both the public and the body of Christ. I enjoy the political platform we Christians are given.
But at the same time, there is a dark cloud in the back of my mind woondering if God isn’t stirring another Martin Luther to nail his theses to our church doors.
I would rather have us return to our foundations of integrity by the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the illumination of the Scriptures, rather than have us defending our lifestyles, edifices and power to future generations as they read history books recounting our demise because of our own hypocrisy.
We need to ensure that we are not the whitewashed tombs and snakes of our day (see Matt. 23:27, 33). We need to be sure.
Are we willing to embrace this sort of Christian integrity? Haggard’s words here are piercing, penetrating. They are also chilling in retrospect. This is obviously a man wrestling with sin, a sin that, as the Bible promises, “found him out.”
Can we be honest with ourselves and about ourselves? Are we willing to trade in the gospel of personal fulfillment for the gospel of Jesus Christ, who was pummeled and pierced for our brokenness? Will we trade our right to happiness for real joy? Will we trade in our desire for conflict-free lives for real peace? Will we trade in our selfish optimism for real hope?
Will we trade our Christianity for Jesus’?
That is God’s call upon the life of the follower of Jesus. That is God’s call upon the life of His churches.
Tullian Tchividjian — pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, grandson of Billy Graham, and completely unfashionable dude — has a great new post up, borrowing from The Gospel-Centered Life by Coram Deo pastor Bob Thune (who I got the chance to meet while at the Acts 29 Quarterly event last week).
Tchividjian by way of Thune answers the question What is a Gospel-Centered Church?
A truly gospel-centered church understands and embraces the fullness of the gospel as content, community, and cause.”
The Gospel is a message that is to be preached or proclaimed (Mark 1:14; Acts 14:21; Rom 1:15; 1 Peter 1:12). It is the story of God’s redemption of his fallen creation. It is the good news that God has acted in history to conquer evil and reconcile sinners to himself through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor 15:1-12). A gospel-centered church is one where the gospel is proclaimed clearly, consistently, and compellingly (1 Cor 9:16-23).
The gospel is not just a message to be believed, but a power to be experienced (Rom 1:16). The gospel shapes a new community as those who were formerly God’s enemies are reconciled to Him (Rom 5:10) and adopted into his family (Gal 4:4-7). The church is not a place, but a people – a community that is continually being reformed and renewed by the transforming power of the gospel (Col. 1:6).
The gospel is a call to action – a declaration that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). God is not just interested in the salvation of humans, but in the restoration of all of creation to its original “good” (Gen 1:31; Rom 8:19-22). A gospel-centered church will be active in the work of mercy, justice, and cultural renewal, praying and working against the effects of sin so that God’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
Read the whole thing in tandem with Joe Thorn’s excellent recent entry Gospel-Centered and be blessed.
(I hope to add to these great contributions to ecclesiological gospel-centricity sometime in the coming weeks in this space with a post of my own on some marks of a “gospel-driven” church.)
Young adults are leaving the church (and many the faith), according to some research, at a rate of 70%.
And it’s not because we’re not equipping them to refute evolution.
The incomparable Matt Chandler on what happens when our churches assume the gospel:
Moral fervor is our deepest evil. When we intend to serve God, but forget to crucify Self moment by moment, we are capable of acting cruelly while feeling virtuous about it.
Let’s always beware that delicious feeling that we are the defenders of the holy. Christ is the only Defender of the holy. He defends us from persecutors. He defends us from becoming persecutors. We can take refuge in him. But that esteem of him also means we regard ourselves with suspicion, especially when judging another.
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
– 1 John 2:1
Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
– Hebrews 7:25
This is why the message of the gospel is not “Behave!” but “Believe!”
Many of us read the Bible, and many of us do not. Many of us go into Bible reading looking for anything but transformation, which is unfortunate, given that transformation is the primary reason the written word of God exists. Devotional Scripture reading requires discipline and consistency, but its aim is the treasuring of God’s word in our hearts and the delighting of ourselves in God’s statutes. We have at our fingertips the very revelation of God to us, and yet we treat Scripture like a blunt instrument, like a reference book, like a prop for our propaganda, anything but the wellspring of God’s truth to be drunk deeply from. Devotional Scripture reading means meditating on Scripture, chewing on it, savoring it, learning not just how to read Scripture, but how to feel it.
My conviction is that evangelicals by and large have lost their ability to feel Scripture. The great irony is that now when the Bible is more available than any time in history, we are perhaps more biblically illiterate than any Christian generation in history.
The great opportunity in this, of course, is that our generation is now extra ripe for biblical transformation and a revival in commitment to the deep well of Scripture.
I’ve come up with five ways one might begin to develop a greater feeling for Scripture. Some or all of these may not be new to you (and none were invented by me, of course), as they are basically good practices for essential Bible study, but put into disciplined practice, these approaches to study can condition us to feel Scripture more keenly.
1. Interpret Before You Apply
As Michael Horton once lamented, too many Bible study classes are first asking “What does this passage mean to you?” instead of “What does this passage mean?”.
The cult of application has dulled many an understanding. Don’t jump the gun. Modern Christianity has really overestimated the value of “making the Bible relevant.”
Jesus says that if anyone wishes to follow him, he must deny himself and take up his cross. When we leap to application first, we immediately diminish the powerful relevancy of this teaching. We make taking up crosses about dealing with annoying coworkers or a nagging illness, when these applications skip the primary meaning: taking up one’s cross is about death. And often thinking too keenly about annoyances and aggravations is self-indulgence, not self-denial.
The Bible is already relevant! In our zeal to “make it” relevant to us, we often lose the danger in its primary relevancy. Because Scripture is God’s revelation to us, it is imminently and enduringly relevant.
“Interpretation before application” is is a fundamental element to all Bible study, but if our desire is to develop a greater feel for Scripture, we will more and more subject our feelings to Scripture’s unwavering revelation (interpretation) rather than subject Scripture to our feelings (what often happens in the applicational exercise).
2. Keep It In Context
Taking Scripture out of context is epidemic. Whether we are led to do so by those handy verse numbers in our Bibles or by topical preaching that takes a scattershot approach to verse presentation (rather than a more expositional approach) or by our soundbite and short-attention-span culture, many of us have forgotten the cardinal rule of context.
Out of context, Jesus’ statement “I have come not to bring peace but a sword” makes him sound like Conan the Barbarian.
Out of context, Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to indicate that Christians can ultimately “lose” their salvation, and indeed many believers use these three verses to support that view. But two verses later (Heb. 6:9), the author of Hebrews is contrasting whatever is being described in Heb 6:4-6 with “things accompanying salvation.”
If one isn’t looking at this full passage on the biblical page one may never see it.
We like to keep Scripture short and manageable, and that’s understandable. It’s certainly more convenient that way. But we will not be mastered by Scripture if we don’t occasionally allow it to overwhelm us, intimidate us, and force us to wrestle with it. Bite size chunks are good for memorization and the like, but to feel Scripture, we have to drink from it deeply, pushing ourselves to capacity, and we must do this constantly and over and over again. Keeping verses in context may prevent us from clearly understanding something right off the bat, but it will also keep us from inadvertently misunderstanding it right off the bat.
3. Make Connections
Scripture is cohesive, a great brilliant tapestry that is interwoven from the same threads. Contrary to various heresies, God ain’t different from Old Testament to New, and Paul didn’t invent a different Christianity from Jesus’.
One of the things I chase as important in my preaching (and in the Bible studies I lead) is the connections between the primary passage of focus and related passages elsewhere in Scripture. Typical topical preaching involves a pre-selected topic and then a few isolated verses that relate to the topic. But good Scriptural cross-connection involves a pre-selected passage and then a few other passages that are connected narratively, thematically, or theologically.
Losing a feel for Scripture has resulted from losing our sense of Scriptural continuity. It’s all connected; there are no coincidences. (Okay, that’s hyperbole; there are some coincidences. But there are many more connections, particularly between Old Testament narrative and New Testament narrative, that testify to the premeditation of God’s revelation.)
For instance, look at the story in John 6 about the disciples in the stormy waters and Jesus walking to them on the waves. There is the obvious connection of the parallel narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. Then there are other, less obvious connections like Jesus’ declaration “It is I” recalling YHWH’s Hebrew self-declaration “I AM.” Jesus on the water reminds us of the Spirit hovering over the surface of the deep in the beginning of Genesis. The boat’s immediately going to the shore when Jesus boarded brings to mind God separating the land from the chaotic waters in the Creation story. The story itself reminds us of other stormy sea tales, as when Jesus slept below deck while the disciples fretted over a storm. Later in the narrative, the confused crowd and Jesus’ words about “food that does not spoil” reminds us of the disgruntled Israelites in Exodus and the manna that was only good for the day, of Jesus’ subsequent words on being the Bread of Life, and even of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well about water that lives.
This is not to say that what one passage means in one place it also means in a place where you have made a connection. It is only to say that Scripture interprets Scripture, and that the more connections we make, the greater feel we will have for the brilliant unity of Scripture.
As you’re reading a particular passage, ask yourself, “What other passages does this remind me of?” Then track those down. Before you know it, you are making connections, and before you know it, you are getting a feel for the broader and fuller contours of the Bible’s story.
4. Apply Prayerfully
When you’re ready to apply Scripture — remember, interpretation comes first — instead of applying a passage in a static sense, apply in a prayerful, dynamic sense. Here is what I mean by this difference:
Static Application: Reading “Love bears all things” in 1 Corinthians 13 and thinking, “This is important because my husband is really difficult to live with. He’s very burdensome.”
Prayerful Application: Lord, give me the strength and passion to love my husband even when I find it very difficult. Change my heart to bear all things.
The first approach is basic application. It is not invalid so far as it goes. But it is distressingly close to subjecting Scripture to our experience, rather than vice versa. Moreover, it is more observational than it is motivational. It only involves noticing something, not committing to something. This is why I call it static.
The second approach, however, not only presses us to subject our feelings to Scripture — in the example, the application entails committing to doing something in response — but it also turns the application into a conversation with the One prompting the response. The reader isn’t just noticing “Hey, this reminds me of my problem,” she is bringing that problem before the Lord and taking the initiative of being changed by Scripture’s addressing of that problem.
In the first approach the temptation is toward gracelessness, because the focus is on what must be endured (a difficult husband). This is counter to the passage itself!
In the second approach the impetus is toward grace, because the focus is on loving according to the Scripture’s call.
This prayerful approach to application is a highly efficient way to begin feeling Scripture.
5. Look For Jesus
All of Scripture either points to Jesus’ life and teaching or emerges from it. All of it.
To know God, you must know Jesus. And to feel Scripture most keenly, you must see Jesus between its lines and at the beginning and end of its many trajectories. He is there, all over the place, and Christians committed to following him closely will seek the glorious enlightenment of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” Jesus himself “explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
When you’re in the Old Testament, wherever you are, ask yourself, “What does this say about Jesus? How does this point to Jesus? Did Jesus ever quote or refer to this? What is the importance of this in the light of Jesus?”
Finding Jesus in the Gospels is easy of course, but making the Jesus connection in the epistles is vitally important (again, particularly today when many are telling us that Paul’s teaching is wholly different from Jesus’).
Scholar N.T. Wright says that we ought to read the New Testament as if Jesus in the Gospels is giving us this sheet music for a masterwork symphony and as if Paul and the other epistolary authors are keen on teaching the Church how to perform it.
If you plan on keeping Christ at the center of your life, you must plan on keeping Christ at the center of your Christian practice, including your Scripture reading.
These are not magic bullets, of course, and no doubt if you are a serious Bible student, you are already putting some or all of these tips into regular practice. If you are, you likely have a much greater feel for the brilliance and power of the Holy Scriptures than the average churchgoer. Let us continue pressing further into the depth and breadth of the transforming Word, submitting our thoughts and feelings to it for the good of our neighbors and for the glory of the Author.
Jon McIntosh, a pastor and church planting coach with Acts 29 who recently stepped down as a campus pastor at The Journey Church in St. Louis, has begun a new venture called Rethink Mission, a great resource for gospel-driven churches and ministers. The site features blog posts, videos, interviews, links, and all kinds of other material (including info on how to get Jon to come speak to your church, group, or team).
Today at Rethink Mission, Jon features a video interview he conducted with me during my time at the Acts 29 Quarterly about Jesus, the gospel, and the new legalism in the evangelical church. Check it out.
I’m not a fan of spiritual bravado, but I do think there are times when believers ought to realize the frustrations occurring in their life may be satanic. Our enemy is real and he does not want the gospel to bear fruit in our lives.
We need to remind ourselves and him that we are not trapped in this world with the devil. He is trapped in this world with us.
Lord, give us tender hearts and strong backbones.
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
– Luke 10:17-20