Monthly Archives: May 2010





Jared C. Wilson|7:11 pm CT

The Gospel and "Look at Me!" Culture

Last Sunday our Bible study class was discussing the revelation that Mother Theresa went through a terrible “dark night of the soul” that lasted for years. I thought about how we didn’t even know this about her until after she died, until after her once private journals were reviewed. While suffering from deep bouts of depression and feeling as though God’s presence had left her, she nevertheless carried on her service to the diseased in Calcutta.

This made me think of how there’s almost nothing we do today that isn’t blogged, Facebooked, or tweeted. When someone in our culture is having a rough time, they tell us online. When they are serving others, they tell us online. And when they are serving others despite having a rough time, they tell us online. There is almost no thought, feeling, inclination, impulse, or attitude we don’t share with everyone who will listen.

On the one hand, such transparency can be very valuable. It certainly is more honest than holding everything in or acting like we’re fine when we’re not. On the other hand, though, there is a fine line between transparency and vanity. Authenticity is great. Except when it’s not.

I think my generation has spun the older Me Generation into a sort of “Look at Me” Generation, and now of course the generations after Gen-X are progressively perfecting “Look at me!” into a science. Or an art. I’m not sure why we seem constantly puzzled that someone like Paris Hilton or Spencer and Heidi can be famous for doing nothing when nearly everyone these days thinks everything they do is something, something worthy of comment or props or Likes.

But this isn’t new. These words of Jesus from roundabout 2000 years ago are just as applicable today as then:

“To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’”

Luke 7:31-32

“Look at us!” we cry. Laugh when we make jokes. Cry when we feel bad. Dance when we play. Clap when we sing. Watch us, because we are worthy of being watched.

I watched a rap video by somebody I’ve never heard of today that was apparently written for high school graduates. In typical “You got what it takes”/”Seize the day” un-inventive inspirational schmaltziness, the performer tells his listeners, “You are worthy.”

What an odd choice of words, I thought. “You are worthy.” Really?

I can totally understand how this would be a pick-me-up to anyone worried, doubtful, fearful, or un-esteemed. But in “Look at me!” culture, self-worthiness is a recipe for disaster. It creates more and more appetite for attention, validation, and affirmation while simultaneously satisfying less and less.

We only have what it takes if we have what Jesus has. He is worthy. And what I think my generation needs (and what the ones after and before it need, of course) is a fixation on Christ, in whom we find the proper proportions for our feelings and our expression of them. We learn that not every thought or opinion we have is a must-read for the entire universe. We see that the scandalous validation of grace for the unworthy creates healthy honesty and thoughtfulness.

Only this fixation will make the cry of our generation, “Look at him!”






Jared C. Wilson|3:06 pm CT

Why Morality Cannot be the Baseline

Of the new Robin Hood movie, Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert writes, “Must children go directly from animated dragons to skewering & decapitation, w/ no interval of cheerful storytelling?”

Ebert is one of the few critics who gave that new adult comic book movie for kids Kick-*ss a bad review, questioning its moral compass. In fact Ebert is one of the few film critics who will outright call a movie “immoral” (as he did for one of the Texas Chainsaw remakes and other pictures in the dubiously but aptly titled new category “torture p*rn”).

What I find even more unique about this is that Roger Ebert is an atheist. Yes, I know atheists in general do not think one must be religious to be moral, but that’s not the point I mean to make. I was reminded of Ebert’s cinematic moral compass recently when reading this post at Justin Taylor’s blog, about how/why Steve Jobs forbids p*rn apps on Apple products. From the article:

Steve Jobs is a fan of Bob Dylan. So one customer emailed him to ask how Dylan would feel about Jobs’ restrictions of customers’ freedoms.

The CEO of Apple replied to say that he values:

‘Freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin’ and some traditional PC folks feel their world is slipping away. It is.’

The interlocuter replied:

“I don’t want ‘freedom from porn’. Porn is just fine! And I think my wife would agree.”

In the most revealing line, Steve Jobs dismissed the critic thus:

“You might care more about porn when you have kids.”

Pause for a moment and consider what the above emails represent.

The CEO of one of the wealthiest, most successful international companies, responds to the email of a customer. Business prospers on the mantra ‘The customer is always right.’ Business wants the customers’ money.

But in this case, over the moral issue of pornography, Jobs is happy to tell customers to buy a different product. He argues that children and innocence ought to be preserved—and that trumps the dollar.

And here is where I want to go with this stuff: It’s great that Ebert and Jobs and lots of others who do not know Christ are “moral” people who assert their morality. But this is why the still persisting message of the American evangelical church, that of “Be a better you thanks to God” or what-have-you, is a powerless, un-compelling message. Aside from the fact that “Behave!” is not the message of the gospel or the concerted call of Scripture, it is not something that will appeal to millions of Americans who think they’re doing pretty well already, thank you very much. They love animals, provide for their families, give to charities, cry when “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” ends, and aspire to justification by recycling. And see the dangers of p*rn and the moral bankruptcy of many modern films. Why add the baggage of church when they’re managing moral just fine?

Angelina Jolie has adopted, like, forty-eight babies. How many have you rescued?

This is one more reason why morality cannot be the baseline. The line is Christ, the call is the cross. And it is for sinners and “saints” — even atheistic ones — alike.






Jared C. Wilson|2:30 am CT

He Created the Seahorses and the Krakens to Frolick

Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.

– Psalm 104:25-26

The vast seas give their Creator glory. And so do the sea monsters playing in them.






Jared C. Wilson|2:26 pm CT

The Mission is the Vision

The way we’re usually told it works is this: receive a vision for where you want to go, then formulate a mission to get there.

I don’t see that in the Bible as the task of the pastor. (Sorry.)

Instead I think the mission comes first, which is to say God’s mission comes first. It’s not my vision — for a bigger church, for revival, for whatever — I want to put my church on mission toward; it’s God’s mission I want a vision for, and his mission I want to shepherd my church to joining.

The mission is the vision.

But of course this requires reframing success as faithfulness and health, not as . . . well, “success.”






Jared C. Wilson|12:02 pm CT

The Long View: Variations on a Theme

In these days of insta-church and fast forward ministry, it’s refreshing to read takes on ministry that reflect the more biblical imagery of farming and shepherding. Some variations:

Kevin DeYoung on The Glory of Plodding

Tim Chester on Slow Church

Bill Streger on Taking the Long View






Jared C. Wilson|5:22 pm CT

Review: Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O’Dell

I accepted a review copy of Shannon O’Dell’s Transforming Church in Rural America somewhat disingenuously. I fully expected not to like the book at all, but I didn’t say that to the New Leaf Press rep who asked if I’d be interested in it. Because I was interested in it; I just figured I’d hate it. With a subtitle like “Breaking All the Rurals,” I was anticipating yet another implicitly condescending plan for transplanting megachurchianity into small, rural churches.

To be fair to myself, there is actually a touch of that in this book. :-) But to be fair to O’Dell, it is clear that his ministry and this literary product of it are based on a love for reaching the lost and a heart for rural communities and the small churches in them. So many outside the rurals — and a few inside — think of pastoring a small church as something you do on your way in or out of ministry, like it’s the 3rd World of pastoral ministry, only not as “sexy” as mission to the real 3rd World. To his great credit — and to the great strength of his book — Shannon O’Dell is not one of these.

In the very first chapter, he challenges assumptions and rebukes condescension about small churches in rural areas, even laying out a biblical case for the primacy of “the wilderness” in Scripture, which is something virtually unheard of in today’s missional conversation. Then late in the book, O’Dell writes this:

The emergence of the mega-church in the last two decades hasn’t helped us come up with the biblical definition of success either. The stats say that 61 percent of churchgoing Americans attend churches running 60 or less. And yet we look at the churches that have grown into the thousands and think that’s the standard and should be the norm . . . We have got to break the “bigger is better” rule. I had gotten sucked into that mentality before God started breaking the rules I had about the rural church. Here is what I believe now: the smaller they are, the healthier they are, because that’s where God likes to work. God works in obscurity. If you are sitting back and saying to yourself, “I want to have great numbers and great facilities,” you are missing it.

This is a consistent resound throughout the book.

The further strength of Transforming Church in Rural America lies in O’Dell’s challenge to the professionalization of the pastorate. He knows that the ministry architect behind the scenes is not a form of shepherding that will cut it in the rural environment, so he is honest that pastors in rural areas who want to see spiritual growth (and conversion growth) in their churches will have to have vibrant prayer lives and visible presence in the daily lives of their flocks. There is plenty of humor in the book, jokes about Wal-Mart and Nascar and the like, and also plenty of sarcasm about sacred cows in old churches (pews and organs and that typical “old church” smell), but his heart for his community is everywhere in the book.

In all, I enjoyed very much the first, say, 80% of the book. It reminded me a lot of Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev, which is a very meaningful book to me, an important part of my past ministry life. When O’Dell was engaging me most, he was telling the story about how he led the revitalization of a little country church, much the same way Driscoll’s story of Mars Hill’s early days really resonated with this (at the time) struggling church planter.

My only problems with the book crept up in the last 20%, in which I believe O’Dell goes off the script of his story and off the script of the biblical vision for mission. The old script for the church growth movement shows up. To his credit, he does not use “excellence” and “vision” in the exact same way as everyone else has been using it since the late 80′s, but it comes quite close. I am predisposed not to care for “Internet campuses” and the like, and while I’m a tweeter, blogger, and Facebooker, the sections on converting one’s senior citizens into tech-savvy text-messagers just seemed weird. It seems a skoshe schizophrenic in places.

While O’Dell consistently says we should value small churches in small communities for the unique subcultures they are, and that bigger isn’t better, he apparently sees no discord in defining excellence in terms of lights, creative sets, and satellite feeds. When it comes to a vision for church growth in the rural areas, it is apparently great to love a church right where they are but better to get them to look more like a church in the city. The value of transforming a small rural church to look sort of like a is just sort of assumed. (That’s what’s defined as “excellence.”)

For my part, I think creativity and technology are great, even in churches, but this is just where my tracking with O’Dell’s love for his church stopped. I believe what the book assumes is a classic mistake of priority: the pastor’s vision becomes the vision of the church and the mission of the church serves that vision. But the Scriptural priority, I think, is God’s mission, which precedes time and will outlast us. My job as a pastor is to tailor my vision to God’s mission. The way of the church growth movement leads to lots of involvement and volunteerism in the church; the old/new way leads to lots of involvement and witness in the community. (One would hope.)

Still, despite those quibbles, O’Dell’s book is solid, sensitive, and surprising. Honestly, if you’re interested in ministry and mission in “the rurals,” I can’t think of a book I’d recommend more highly. But, then, I can’t really think of any other books along this line anyway. So in that regard, Transforming the Church in Rural America gets to set the bar, and thankfully it sets it reasonably high.

You can read the Intro and first three chapters of this book here.

Also: You can win a copy of this book. New Leaf Press is giving away one copy of O’Dell’s book for every ten comments. This isn’t a highly commented blog, so your odds are good. Simply leave a comment relevant to the post, then go fill out this form.

This book was provided to me free of charge by New Leaf Press in exchange for my blogged review on this date. I was neither asked to nor obligated to provide a positive review.

UPDATE: New Leaf Press tells me they have picked two winners: Chris Heck & Jamie Bickel. They will mail your books this week, friends.






Jared C. Wilson|9:44 pm CT

Multiple Benefits. One Benefactor.

Much theological confusion can result in conflating justification and sanctification. These are separate “events.” But both events are all of grace. Even our working out of salvation with fear and trembling is the result of God working in us. Our gracious Father prepared our good works beforehand, that we might walk in them.

From Sinclair Ferguson:

This first thing to remember, of course, is that we must never separate the benefits (regeneration, justification, sanctification) from the Benefactor (Jesus Christ). The Christians who are most focused on their own spirituality may give the impression of being the most spiritual … but from the New Testament’s point of view, those who have almost forgotten about their own spirtuality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on OUR spirituality that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only where our piety forgets about ourself and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
– James 1:17






Jared C. Wilson|9:28 pm CT

The One Source of Total Salvation

The finished work of Christ is that beautiful spring from which flows our forgiveness from sins, our justification before God, our receipt of Christ’s righteousness, our adoption as sons, our reconciliation with the Father, our reconciliation with our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, our sure sanctification, our grounds for the Spirit’s fruit, our position as a royal priesthood, our serving as Christ’s ambassadors in the advancing kingdom of God, our resurrection from the dead, our eternal reward, our enjoyment of the new heavens and the new earth, and our participatory witnesses of God’s restoration of all things.

The gospel of first importance produces a myriad of blessings I suppose that were every one of them to be written the world itself could not contain the books. Grand thing, then, that God is remaking the world to broadcast them best.

The large tree of salvation, with branches enough for bird of every kind and from every place, grows from the mighty mustard seed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.






Jared C. Wilson|2:42 pm CT

Review: Holy Subversion by Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax’s book Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals is small, short, and unassuming. Like a hand grenade.

And like a grenade, it packs quite a wallop. Trevin’s book — which covers the major idols of modern society — tracks along the somewhat recently rediscovered approach to discipleship as repentance from idolatry and redirection of worship to the One True God by using the “gospel” language of the early church under the Roman Empire. If Jesus is Lord, N.T. Wright reminds us, then Caesar is not. So Trevin transports that key exchange into our modern context: there is nothing new under the sun except the endlessly innovative marketing employed by the gods of the age.

One by one, Trevin reveals to his readers the Caesars of self, power, success, money, sex, and leisure, and sets forth plainly and persuasively how the Christian life requires renouncing the abuse of good things as god things and the subverting of this idolatry with the worship of Jesus Christ.

This is the most helpful and powerful part of Trevin’s effort, however: He roots out and reveals this idolatry in the active practice of Western evangelicalism. From sniffing out ambition and zeal for “success” in seminary student surveys to clearly rebuking the reverence of Self epidemic in modern churches, Holy Subversion gets very personal very quickly. But Trevin never writes high-handedly or bitterly. Indeed, I can think of few among the young-types, restless-types, and Calvinist-types who are as winsome — on both the page and in person — as Trevin Wax. And his book is not mere theorizing, reflective pontificating. From his experience in the mission field to his pastoral work in the Bible Belt, from his extensive research to his interviews with and access to many of the movers and shakers in evangelicalism, Trevin writes from a place of authenticity. He has had and does have skin in this game.

Like its close cousin Counterfeit Gods (by Tim Keller), Holy Subversion is a clarion call “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” but while Trevin’s book may lack the artfulness of Keller’s, it certainly makes up for it in practical application.

That would really be my only disappointment with the book, extremely minor and personal as it is. As anyone who has read his indispensable blog Kingdom People or any number of his published articles (in Christianity Today and elsewhere) already knows, Trevin is a capable, competent, even strong writer, but I would have liked a bit more music in the prose, especially as the subject is worship. The book is not boringly written; that’s not at all what I meant. I just think our generation is still waiting for this sort of content — doctrinal, truth-concerned, gospel-centered — from a writer whose words sing. But that’s, again, a minor note, and a very personal preference of mine. I have a weakness for purple prose; most others probably find it a distraction. Why write 20 words when 10 will do, right?

Grenades don’t have to be pretty to work, of course, even to work mightily. And maybe this book isn’t so much a grenade but a smart bomb, one that is Scripture-rich in such a way that is reads us, illuminates the Caesars we hail, and drives us to eliminate them. This book on subversion is a subtle sabotage in itself.

What you will find in Holy Subversion is a highly readable, highly practical, and highly prophetic encouragement against the idolatry of today’s world and today’s church. I highly recommend it.

This book was provided to me free, in exchange for a review, of course, by Crossway, but I was under no obligation to give it a positive review. If I didn’t like the book, I would have told you so.






Jared C. Wilson|1:45 pm CT

The Gospel Empowers Its Own Implications

This post from Justin Taylor is really important.

A taste:

The dominant mode of evangelical preaching on sanctification, the main way to motivate for godly living, sounds something like this:

You are not _____;

You should be _________;

Therefore, do or be ________!

Fill in the blank with anything good and biblical (holy; salt and light; feed the poor; walk humbly; give generously; etc.).

This is not how Paul and the other New Testament writers motivated the church in light of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit. They did give imperatives (=what you should do), but they do so only based on indicatives (=what God has done).

The problem with the typical evangelical motivation toward radical or sacrificial living is that “imperatives divorced from indicatives become impossibilities” (to quote Tullian Tchividjian). Or another way that Tullian puts it: “gospel obligations must be based on gospel declarations.”

Yes. This is crucial for anyone aspiring to gospel-centered teaching and preaching, and to anyone aspiring to gospel-centered ministry, from how we teach our children Bible stories and Bible lessons to how we “gospel” each other in small groups and classes.

Last weekend I had the great privilege and blessing of speaking to youth pastors, youth workers, and youth themselves at The Calling conference in Auburn, Maine. In a morning session, I preached to impress the importance of gospel-centrality for all of life, and therefore all of ministry. In the afternoon session, I preached a message called “The Empowering Gospel,” in which I spoke from this thesis: the gospel empowers its own implications.

In this message I preached against sin — specifically, pornography and a catch-all I called “superficiality” — and I cast a vision and issued a call for ministry, mission, and church planting in New England, but I endeavored to do so by appealing to Christ’s finished work and the believer’s new identity in Christ, not by leveraging by means of law or guilt.

You can listen to this message here.

I think this gospel truth — again, that the gospel empowers its own implications — is really, really important. It’s something I am also exploring and celebrating in my current book project.

The Gospel Empowering Its Own Implications is Poetry
Apply the Gospel to Everything