Apr

16

2014

Jen Wilkin|12:01 AM CT

The Assumption We Cannot Afford

We ended another year of women's Bible study last Tuesday: eleven weeks in the epistles of John and eleven weeks in James. Fifty-four different churches were represented in our enrollment this year. A couple thousand more women podcast from around the country. At the conclusion I was deluged with cards and e-mails from participants expressing their gratitude, reflecting on what they had learned, and, almost uniformly, uttering a confession I have heard so often that it no longer surprises. I still waver between joy and discouragement as I read that confession on card after beautiful thank you card. I still vacillate between celebration and grief each time it turns up in my inbox. I still hesitate between thankfulness and frustration every time it is spoken to me over coffee. Their confession is this:

I've been in church for years, but no one has taught me to study my Bible until now.

I remember confessing the same thing myself almost 20 years ago. It is gratifying to know that our efforts at Flower Mound Women's Bible Study to help women know the Bible are changing the way they understand their God and their faith. But it is terrifying to me that so many women log years in the church and remain unlearned in the Scriptures. This is not their fault, and it is not acceptable.

thank you notes

Church leaders, I fear we have made a costly and erroneous assumption about those we lead. I fear that in our enthusiasm to teach about finances, gender roles, healthy relationships, purity, culture wars, and even theology we have neglected to build foundational understanding of the Scriptures among our people. We have assumed that the time they spend in personal interaction with their Bible is accumulating for them a basic firsthand knowledge of what it says, what it means, and how it should change them. Or perhaps we have assumed that kind of knowledge isn't really that important.

So we continue to tell people this is what you should believe about marriage and this is what you need to know about doctrine and this is what your idolatry looks like. But because we never train them in the Scriptures, they have no framework to attach these exhortations to beyond their church membership or their pastor's personality or their group leader's opinion. More importantly, they have no plumb line to measure these exhortations against. It never occurs to them to disagree with what they are being taught because they cannot distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself, having little to no firsthand knowledge of what it says.

And they've been in church for years.

We Must Teach the Bible

When we offer topical help—even if the topic is doctrine—without first offering Bible literacy, we attempt to furnish a house we have neglected to construct. As a friend and seminarian said to me this week, "There is a reason that seminaries offer hermeneutics before systematic theology." He is right. But it would seem many who have enjoyed the rare privilege of seminary have forgotten to pass on this basic principle to the churches they now lead.

We must teach the Bible. Please hear me. We must teach the Bible, and we must do so in such a way that those sitting under our teaching learn to feed themselves rather than rely solely on us to feed them. We cannot assume that our people know the first thing about where to start or how to proceed. It is not sufficient to send them a link to a reading plan or a study method. It is our job to give them good tools and to model how to use them. There is a reason many love Jesus Calling more than they love the Gospel of John. If we equip them with the greater thing, they will lose their desire for the lesser thing.

I wish you could see how the women in our studies come alive like well-watered plants after a drought. I wish you could hear their excitement over finally, finally being given some tools to build Bible literacy.

I can't believe how much I've grown since I started studying. . . . I had only done topical studies. . . . I didn't know you could study like this. . . . I was so tired of navel-gazing. . . . I've never been asked to love God with my mind. . . . My husband teases me about how excited I am to tell him what we're learning. . . . I've never studied a book of the Bible from start to finish.

They are so humble in admitting what they don't know. We must be humble in admitting what we have left undone.

As I read their notes joy always trumps discouragement. Celebration overturns grief. Thankfulness overrides frustration. And because the need is great, I commit myself to wade through another stack of commentaries, to write another curriculum on another book of the Bible, to give another year to building the house of Bible literacy in which the furnishings of doctrine and other worthy topics can take their rightful places. We owe our people more than assertions of what is biblical and what is not. We owe them the Bible, and the tools necessary to soberly and reverently "take up and read."

The task requires resolve, but the reward is great. Will you join me?

* * * * *

Join Jen Wilkin and learn from dozens more women's Bible study leaders at The Gospel Coalition Women's Conference, June 27 to 29 in Orlando. Workshops allow you to learn introductory theology from Don Carson, basic Bible competency with Paige Brown, one-to-one Bible study from Jenny Salt, and much more.

 
 

Apr

16

2014

Richard Clark|12:01 AM CT

Taking Tech for Granted

"Ugh. It's only noon, and my iPhone's battery is already at 30 percent."

"Oh great, a delay. I'll never make my connecting flight now."

"Sigh. There's never anything good on Netflix anymore."

"Gahhhh, Twitter is driving me crazy this week."

shutterstock_failureWe tend to react in one of two ways to modern technology: boredom or loathing. Either technology becomes a mundane fixture in our lives to the point that we take it for granted, or it becomes a perceived poison, a reason for cursing mankind's ingenuity.

Consider the catalog of modern inventions that Christians have reacted against in think-pieces and sermon illustrations: iPhones, email, Twitter, Facebook, automobiles, televisions, and video games. All of them have incurred the wrath of those fed up with trying to adapt to the constant changing of modern life.

No medium or technology is neutral, and each has a way of encouraging and discouraging specific good and bad habits in us. But human nature itself often discourages us from seeing a blessing when it's right in front of our face, literally.

Seeing the Good

Smart phones, for instance, claim a constant presence in our lives, available right in front of our faces whenever we need them, providing amusement and information during times that used to be occupied by deep thought and self-reflection. Sure, this pervasive presence seems bad at first glance.

But we must move beyond a surface-level observation, beyond a seemingly dystopian vision of an entire society craning their necks downward, studying their phones and ignoring the presence of those in their physical space. Then we might consider the ways smart phones and the apps we often use have arisen to answer a modern need for connection. It's easy to write off the connection a smartphone, Facebook, and Twitter provides with a roll of the eyes, but these networks spur us on to think more deeply than we might on our own. They confront us with those who think differently than we do. And they enable us to build connections with those who share our values and purpose.

These new technologies weren't created in a vacuum. They came in response to previous technical advances that put individual needs above community needs. Automobiles, television sets, and interstates all came out of a desire to set one's own course.

These technological responses to felt needs are double-edged swords for sure. But they are also amazing. God uses them in spreading his gospel and sharing his glory with the world—whether by circulating a resource people otherwise not see or getting a missionary to a remote location that has no access to the gospel. They're the church's way of sharing God's truth and clarifying its identity. They're our way of sharing with the world and living with fellow believers.

How Technology Becomes a Difficult Taskmaster

Both boredom and loathing come from a lack of moderation in our use of technology. If we allow our technologies to use us rather than the other way around, it's no wonder we begin to view them as a difficult taskmaster rather than a useful tool and a blessing from God. It's no wonder we begin to take them for granted. But if we take an active and dogged approach to moderation, we'll finally have the perspective we need to allow ourselves to be thankful for these blessings.

Louis C. K. most infamously brought attention to this problem in an interview with Conan O'Brien that went viral shortly after it was aired. In it, he talks about our tendency to become entitled and frustrated almost instantly in response to new technology. "Everything's amazing right now," he said, "and nobody's happy."

In his video, Louis C. K. suggests that perhaps we could benefit from a time of economic collapse, when we're forced to do without the technology we so easily despise and take for granted. A more realistic (and significantly more pleasant) solution might be a commitment to consider the human needs that our technologies meet, even (especially!) when they get on our nerves.

Check out Christ and Pop Culture Magazine

Check out Christ and Pop Culture Magazine

When your phone battery is dying, consider the miracle that allows you to talk to your wife, your children, or your trusted friend when you or they most need it. When your flight is delayed, consider the fact that the trip would have been totally impossible without the help of a plane in the first place. When there's nothing to watch on Netflix, consider the myriad artistic experience and life-brightening entertainment you've already partaken in for the price of one movie ticket per month. When Twitter is driving you nuts with seemingly petty arguments, just remind yourself that this is what happens when people who would never otherwise converse take the opportunity to sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron.

Complaining about technology has become a regular human pastime, a go-to topic for conversation. But God calls us to a higher standard of appreciation: "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Phil. 4:8). Appreciation and thankfulness isn't just a key to happiness. It's a commandment, a Christian discipline that conveys God's goodness to the world and one another.

 
 

Apr

15

2014

Jeramie Rinne|12:01 AM CT

How to Work Ahead on Sermon Prep

It's Saturday afternoon, and your sermon is half-done, at best. Your normal sermon prep time got crushed this week by a big funeral on Tuesday, a crisis counseling situation that consumed Wednesday and Thursday, and your wife's minivan breaking down Friday. And now on Saturday, supposedly your day off, you slump in front of the computer puzzling over the main point and application of the text, and straining for the creativity to write a clear, engaging sermon manuscript.

Ever have one of those weeks?

studying-the-bibleGod helps us preachers in those desperate moments. But clearly this kind of compressed, last-minute prep has serious drawbacks. And if we prepare our messages this way every week, we're more likely to serve junk food sermons rather than the nutritious, expository feast that our congregations need for spiritual health.

Some gifted preachers can regularly wrestle down a text and craft solid sermons on an abbreviated schedule. But most of us mortals need ample time. We need time to puzzle over interpretive issues, time to pray over application, time to pick others' brains, and time for our creative engines to produce helpful illustrations, introductions, and conclusions. We need time to marinate in the passage of scripture.

Plan for Getting Ahead

I want to share an approach to sermon preparation that for the past 17 years has given me a longer runway for getting sermons off the ground. I didn't come up with the basic concept myself, though for the life of me I can't remember who suggested it. Undoubtedly other preachers do something similar. Furthermore, I'm not suggesting this "system" is the right way or best way to prepare sermons. Every preacher is unique. But if you long for more lead-time to produce a message, I recommend this strategy.

Here's the basic concept: work on three sermons every week.

Before you roll your eyes or hyperventilate, let me explain. By three sermons each week, I don't mean researching and writing three full sermons each week. Rather, I mean working on different parts of three separate sermons.

I conceptualize the sermon writing process in three phases.

Phase 1: Research. This is where we translate, discover structure, study words and grammar, grasp the larger literary context, and consult commentaries (after we have done our own work, of course). Our goal here is to understand the main point of the text and its main applications.

Phase 2: Writing. Here we produce the sermon itself. We lay out the flow, work on introductions and conclusions, build sentences, and think carefully about transitions. Whereas the research feels more like a science to me, the writing feels more like an art.

Phase 3: Rehearsing. Hopefully we take a little time to walk through the sermon before we preach it. I go to my basement on Saturday night and preach the sermon out loud by myself several times. This process not only familiarizes me with the content, but it inevitably serves as a further manuscript edit. Written communication typically needs some adjustment so that it sounds normal as oral communication.

Here is where the three-sermon system comes into play. Let's say you are preaching through Galatians, one chapter each Sunday, starting with Galatians 1 this Sunday. That means this week you will be researching Galatians 3, writing your sermon on Galatians 2 (which you researched the last week), and rehearsing your sermon on Galatians 1 (which you wrote last week and researched two weeks ago).

Next week you will research Galatians 4, write the sermon for Galatians 3, and rehearse your message for Galatians 2. And so on.

This approach has lots of benefits. First and most obviously, it gives me three weeks to ruminate on a text. You will be amazed at how many illustrations, applications, and insights will come to you as you cogitate over a three-week period. You will have a whole week to tweak your manuscript.

Second, this rhythm always keeps the broader literary context in front of you. As you're writing a sermon for Galatians 2 you're simultaneously pondering what comes before (Galatians 1) and what comes after (Galatians 3). This plan assumes you're regularly preaching through books of the Bible, which I strongly urge you to do as the meat-and-potatoes approach to your pulpit ministry.

Third, this plan often dispels that oppressive feeling of pressure and stress that the main preaching pastor feels each week. We still have to do the same amount of sermon prep labor in a given week. And yet knowing on Monday that this coming Sunday's sermon is already written changes your outlook. It is absolutely liberating.

How Do I Get There?

When I share this concept with other preachers, I usually get two responses. First, they say, "Wow! That's amazing!" And then they say, "I could never do that." How could a preacher writing sermons week to week ever move to this model?

Here's an idea. Make it a six- to eight-month goal. In the next half-year, plan to have someone else preach for you two or three times, but don't go away that week on vacation. Ask the youth pastor to preach or swap pulpits with another pastor and just re-preach something at his church that won't require extra work for you. And then use that free week to start working on two sermons at once. And then do it again a few months later and, voila! You're now working on three sermons at once.

Inevitably crazy weeks happen, and I fall off the three-sermons-at-once pace. Even as I write this article, I'm behind on the schedule. I'm now only doing two texts at once this week. But I'm still way ahead, and in a couple weeks I will have an opportunity to catch back up.

Even if you're an associate pastor who preaches infrequently, you can use this method. If you know you're going to be preaching on a certain date, then start chipping away at your sermon three weeks ahead of time, doing one phase each week.

Give it a try. With a little discipline and patience, you can break out of the week-to-week writing pace and give your heart and mind room to breathe. Who knows? It just might improve your pulpit ministry.

 
 

Apr

15

2014

Matt Smethurst|12:01 AM CT

Take God at His Word: Kevin DeYoung on the Character of Scripture

Your Bible is evidence that the Maker of the universe is a God who initiates, who reveals, who talks. There are, after all, only two options when it comes to knowledge of one's Creator: revelation or speculation. Either he speaks, or we guess.

And he has spoken. The Lord of heaven and earth has "forfeited his own personal privacy" to disclose himself to us—to befriend us—through a book. Scripture is like an all-access pass into the revealed mind and will of God.

By virtually any account the Bible is the most influential book of all time. No shortage of ink has been spilled on writings about it. But what does Scripture say about itself? In his new book, Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me (Crossway) [20 quotes], Kevin DeYoung cuts through the fog of contemporary confusion to offer a readable and constructive defense of the clarity, authority, sufficiency, and beauty of God's written Word.

I spoke with DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, about bibliolatry, threats on the horizon, and more.

**********

You claim that "what we believe and feel about the Word of God should mirror what we believe and feel about Jesus." Aren't you guilty of bibliolatry here? 

9781433542404

Bibliolatry is one of those words that gets thrown around as an insult without anyone carefully explaining what they mean. Sometimes people will say, "Well, we worship the 'Word Christ' not the 'word the Bible.'" Which is true in a sense. We don't prostrate ourselves before the artifact of ink on a page or the glow of a handheld device. So of course we don't worship paper and pixels. But we must not separate the revelation of God in the Scriptures from the revelation of God in Jesus. We would not know everything there is to know about the latter without the former, and even Jesus directs our attention to the Scriptures. If the Bible is God's speech, his voice, the opening of his most hallowed lips, then whatever we feel about the Word of God should mirror what we feel about God in the flesh.

What Scripture-related error is most "live" among evangelicals today? For what issue on the horizon will we need to be most equipped?

I see several. Let me briefly mention two. At the level of praxis, many evangelicals do not believe in Scripture's perspicuity. Once they see that some Christians view an issue differently, they pack it in and give up ever knowing what the Bible says. We've seen this recently on the issue of homosexuality with certain voices calling for a moratorium on debating the issue because there are obviously two good positions out there and who are we to try to settle things. But, of course, PhDs disagree on almost everything in almost every field of human investigation. Evangelicals can be too quick to say "that's just your interpretation" instead of actually making an argument from the Bible for their position.

Second, evangelicals are constantly being faced with the temptation to make special revelation subservient to general revelation. Rightly understood, the two do not contradict each other. As the truism goes, all truth is God's truth. But the Protestant confessions have always understood that special revelation is clearer than general revelation. Peer-reviewed science journals do not trump what God says in the Bible. Now, if we've misread the Bible, let's see our mistake and own up to it. But until we are convinced from Scripture, we should not trade the unchanging truth of Scripture for the changing winds of contemporary academia.

What's wrong with disliking some of what the Bible teaches so long as we obey it?

It's better to obey the Bible when you don't like it than to disobey and not like it. The goal of mature Christian discipleship, however, is more than a begrudging acceptance of God's will and God's ways. We should learn to delight in what God says in his Word, because it is the reflection of his character. To dislike what the Bible teaches is to call into question in our hearts who God is and what he's like.

What do you mean when you claim God's speech is ongoing but his revelation is not?

God continues to speak. We don't have to pray for the Word of God to come alive. It is already living and active. But God is not revealing new information about the Son of God or how we are saved. I don't have space here to unpack the argument, but the book of Hebrews makes the case that redemption and revelation both have their finality in Christ. The two aspects of Christ's work cannot be separated. There is no sacrifice for sin left to be made and no new revelatory work needed for faithfulness as a Christian.

Why do you believe Scripture's sufficiency (as opposed to its authority or clarity or necessity) might be the attribute "most quickly doubted by rank-and-file churchgoing Christians"?

It's wonderful that evangelicals want an intimate relationship with God, but this good impulse often leads us to make wild claims that can't be substantiated by Scripture and, in fact, undermine the finished work of Christ. I'm thinking of people who make their sense of "calling" more important than the Word of God or the wisdom of the church. I'm thinking of denominational groups I've been a part of that claim to get their 10-year vision from God himself (which, of course, makes opposition to that vision tantamount to blasphemy). I'm talking about runaway bestsellers—from devout, good Christians I imagine—that anchor biblical truths in life-after-death experiences or suggest that Jesus is writing special letters every day just for us. Is the Bible alone sufficient for salvation, for life, and for godliness as a Christian? Evangelicals say "yes," but then often live out "no."

 
 

Apr

15

2014

Nancy Guthrie|12:01 AM CT

Please Don't Make My Funeral All About Me

I just got home from another funeral. Seems we've gone to more than our share lately. And once again, as I left the church, I pled with those closest to me, "Please don't make my funeral all about me."

large_FuneralWe were an hour and fifteen minutes in to today's funeral before anyone read from the scriptures, and further in until there was a prayer. Resurrection wasn't mentioned until the benediction. There were too many funny stories to tell about the deceased, too many recollections, too many good things to say about the things she accomplished to speak of what Christ has accomplished on her behalf.

But then this wasn't a funeral. It was a "Celebration of Life." In fact there was really little mention of death or of the ugly way sickness slowly robbed our friend of everything. Christ and his saving benefits could not be made much of because death and its cruelties were largely ignored.

Write It Down

When we sit a funeral, I suppose few of us can resist allowing our thoughts to wander to thinking about who might show up when we are the one in the casket. We can't help but think about who will speak and what will be said. Of course when that day comes, especially if it comes unexpectedly, we're not here to express what we hope our funeral will say about who we were, or, more importantly, whose we were.

So I have decided to write it down. When I die, you won't have to wonder what I would have wanted. You'll know. You'll know that nothing would make me happier than for my funeral to be all about Christ instead of all about me. Please make it all about his righteous life and not my feeble efforts at good works. Make it about his coming to defeat death and not my courage (or lack thereof) in the face of death. Make it about his emergence from the grave with the keys to death and the grave, which changes everything about putting my body into a grave.

Sure, my name will come up. You can express gratitude that God chose me and drew me to himself. You can thank him for transforming me from a spiritually dead little girl into a spiritually alive and therefore indestructible co-heir with Christ. You can praise God for his mercy that is wide enough and his anger that is slow enough and his love that is steadfast enough for a repeat offender like me to be drawn into his good graces. You can honor God for being true to his promise to cause all things to work together for my good and thank him for allowing me to see some of that good in my lifetime. You can thank him for his Word that is living enough and active enough to pierce deep inside me, dividing joint and marrow, exposing my shallow beliefs and hidden motives, going to work in me to renew me and give me the mind of Christ.

You can shout at my funeral if you want to. Shout praise to the God who raised Christ from the dead, providing a preview of what will happen to my body because I am joined to Christ. You can mock the defeated desires of the Devil by shouting that neither life nor death can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.

You can cry at my funeral if you want to. But don't think for a minute that my death is tragic. No matter how it happens, no matter when; it simply can't be a tragedy. Leaving this world with all of its sin-sickness to enter into the beauty and perfection and peace of the presence of Christ is something to anticipate, not avoid. Death, for me, will not be the second-best option to a longer life here. To be with Christ will not be a minor improvement on this life, but "far better" (Phil. 1:23). You can cry, but I hope your tears are, at least in part, tears of joy that I have entered into the joy of my Master.

Don't Believe It

While someone might sentimentally suggest that I am looking down on all that is happening or listening in to what is being said, don't believe it. My faith will have become sight, and my eyes will be fixed on my beautiful Savior. I will have found my place among "the spirits of the righteous made perfect" (Heb. 12:23), and my spirit will not linger here.

What you must not do at my funeral is make it all about me. What I want most is that "Christ will be honored in [my] body, whether in life or in death" (Phil.1:20). Those gathered that day have no need for a sanitized, idealized rendition of who I was or what I accomplished. On that day, in fact on every day until that day, "he must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

I am not afraid to look the king of terrors in the face,

For I know I shall be drawn, not driven, out of the world.

Until then let me continually glow and burn out for thee,

And when the last great change shall come, let me awake in thy likeness.

— The Valley of Vision

 
 

Apr

14

2014

Joe Carter|8:19 AM CT

A Bubba With a Passion for the Gospel and Golf

The Story: On Sunday Bubba Watson, one of the most untraditional golfers on the PGA Tour, was the winner of the 2014 Masters Tournament. But golf isn't Watson's top priority. What he considers most important can be gleaned from the description on his Twitter account, @bubbawatson ("Christian. Husband. Daddy. Pro Golfer.") and his website, BubbaWatson.com ("Loves Jesus and loves sharing his faith").

watson_610_masters14_d4_scott_jacketThe Background: In an interview with Trevor Freeze of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Watson tells how he uses his Twitter account—along with his PGA platform—to share about his faith in Christ.

"For me, it's just showing the Light," said Watson. "There's people who want to put down Christians. I try to tell them Jesus loves you. It's just a way to be strong in my faith."

After his first Master's win in 2012 Watson's Tweeted: "The most important thing in my life? Answer after I golf 18 holes with @JustinRose99. #Godisgood." Later that day he posted on his account, "Most important things in my life- 1. God 2. Wife 3. Family 4. Helping others 5. Golf"

"Lecrae said it the best," Watson said of the Christian rapper he listens to on his iPod. "He doesn't want to be a celebrity. He doesn't want to be a superstar. He just wants to be the middle man for you to see God through him."

Why It Matters: Christians have always been involved in professional sports, so why is the faith of superstars like Watson suddenly worthy of the public's attention? Because athletes like Watson show that it's still possible for athletes to be open and unapologetic about their willingness to share the Gospel. Also, Watson may be one of the best in his sport but he understands the importance of  keeping his priorities in order, winsomely admitting that their life's callings are secondary to serving the Creator who has called them. To a culture that is both obsessed and disillusioned with fame and fortune, this centered perspective provides a refreshingly countercultural witness.

 
 

Apr

14

2014

Tim Keller|12:02 AM CT

Cultural Engagement that Avoids Triumphalism and Accommodation

Greg Forster's important and practical new book helps Christians think out how to engage culture. Many would say this is not a proper goal for believers, but that is a mistake.

51mjgUdKvBLActs 17 records Paul's famous visit to Athens, the academic center of the Roman Empire of the day. One commenter likened the intellectual power of Athens at the time to all the Ivy League schools as well as Oxford and Cambridge universities all rolled into one. Though Paul was repulsed by the idolatry he saw there, he did not turn away from the city in disgust. Instead, he plunged into the marketplace, the agora, where we are told he daily "reasoned" with those he found there about the gospel. Now when you or I think of a "marketplace," we think of shopping and retail. Of course the agoras of ancient cities contained that, but they were much more. The agora was the media center—the only place to learn the news at a time before newspapers and other technological media. It was also the financial center where investors connected with businesses. It was the art center as well, the place where so much art was performed. It was the place where new political and philosophical ideas were debated. In short, the agora was the cultural center of any city. And since this was Athens—which along with Rome had the most influence of all cities—it could be said to be part of the cultural center of the Greco-Roman world. The ideas forged and accepted here flowed out and shaped the way the rest of society thought and lived.

It is instructive, then, to see that Paul takes the gospel literally into the public square. It means that he did not see the Christian faith as only able to change individual hearts. He believed that the gospel had what it took to engage the thinking public, the cultural elites, and to challenge the dominant cultural ideas of the day. He was after converts of course—he was first and foremost a church planter, not a theologian or Christian philosopher. But he wouldn't have been able to engage the hearts of cultural leaders unless he also engaged the ideas of the culture itself. He did not shrink from that challenge. He did not merely try to find individual philosophers to evangelize in a corner. He addressed them as a culture, a public community.

It is often missed that, although later Paul was invited to give an address, he did not start by preaching in the agora. He did not get up on a soapbox and merely declare what the Bible said. It says Paul "reasoned" (Acts 17:17) in the marketplace, using a word—dialegomai—that sounds like "dialogue." However, as John Stott says in his commentary on Acts, this term probably denoted something more specific than we would think of today when we hear it. Stott says it was something closer to what we might call the Socratic method. This was not a "debate" as we see debates today, where two parties read off talking points at one another. It required lots of careful listening, and in particular it meant asking questions that showed that your opponents were self-contradictory, that is, they were wrong on the basis of their own premises. And indeed, when we actually hear Paul's address to the philosophers in Acts 17:22-31, we can't help but notice that he does the Socratic method even here. He does not expound or even quote Scripture, but rather quotes their own thinkers (v. 28) and then shows them that, on the basis of their own intuitions and statements about God, idolatry is absolutely wrong (v. 29). Many have pointed out how Paul's address lays the foundation for a doctrine of God, contrasting the contemporary culture's beliefs in multiple, fallible, powerful beings who must be appeased with the idea of one supreme Creator, sovereign God who is worthy of awe-filled adoration and worship. Every part of what Paul says is deeply biblical, but he never quotes the Bible; instead he shows them the weakness and inadequacies of their own views of the divine and lifts up the true God for their admiration. He appeals as much to their rationality and their imaginations as to their will and hearts.

What It Is and It Not

The term "cultural engagement" is so often used by Christians today without a great deal of definition. This account of Paul and Athens gets us a bit closer to understanding what it is by showing us what it is not. Christians are to enter the various public spheres—working in finance, the media, the arts. But there we are neither to simply preach at people nor are we to hide our faith, keeping it private and safe from contradiction. Rather, we are as believers to both listen to and also challenge dominant cultural ideas, respectfully yet pointedly, in both our speech and our example.

When Paul addresses the Areopagus, a body of the elite philosophers and aristocrats of Athens, he was, quite literally, speaking to the cultural elites. Their response to him was cool to say the least. They "mocked" him (Acts 17:32) and called him a "babbler" (v. 18), and only one member of that august body converted (v. 34). The elites laughed at him, wondering how Paul expected anyone to believe such rubbish. The irony of the situation is evident as we look back at this incident from the vantage point of the present day. We know that a couple of centuries later the older pagan consensus was falling apart and Christianity was growing rapidly. All the ideas that the philosophers thought so incredible were adopted by growing masses of people. Finally those sneering cultural elites were gone, and many Christian truths became dominant cultural ideas.

Why? Historians look back and perceive that the seemingly impregnable ancient pagan consensus had a soft underbelly. For example, the approach to suffering taken by the Stoics—its call to detach your heart from things here and thereby control your emotions—was harsh and did not work for much of the populace. The Epicureans' call to live life for pleasure and happiness left people empty and lonely. The Stoics' insistence that the Logos—the order of meaning behind the universe—could be perceived through philosophic contemplation was elitist, only for the highly educated. The revolutionary Christian teaching was, however, that there was indeed a meaning and moral order behind the universe that must be discovered, but this Logos was not a set of abstract principles. Rather it was a person, the Creator and Savior Jesus Christ, who could be known personally. This salvation and consolation was available to all, and it was available in a way that did not just engage the reason but also the heart and the whole person. The crazy Christian gospel, so sneered at by the cultural elites that day, eventually showed forth its spiritual power to change lives and its cultural power to shape societies. Christianity met the populace's needs and answered their questions. The dominant culture could not. And so the gospel multiplied.

Do we have Paul's courage, wisdom, skill, balance, and love to do the same thing today in the face of many sneering cultural leaders? It won't be the same journey, because we live in a post-Christian Western society that has smuggled in many values gotten from the Bible but now unacknowledged as such. Late modern culture is not nearly as brutal as pagan culture. So the challenges are different, but we must still, I think, plunge into the agora as Paul did.

Greg Forster's new book does a marvelous job of showing us a way forward that fits in with Paul's basic stance—not just preaching at people, but not hiding or withdrawing either. Within these pages, believers will get lots of ideas about how to "reason" with people in the public square about the faith and how to engage culture in a way that avoids triumphalism, accommodation, or withdrawal. Paul felt real revulsion at the idolatry of Athens—yet that didn't prevent him from responding to the pagan philosophers with love and respect, plus a steely insistence on being heard. This book will help you respond to our cultural moment in the same way.

------------------

This article was adapted from the foreword to Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway, 2014), by Greg Forster. This book is the second installment of the Cultural Renewal series edited by Tim Keller and Collin Hansen.

 
 

Apr

14

2014

Peter Krol|12:01 AM CT

Three Kinds of Shame

Sin is muddy. When it splashes, we rightly want to clean it up. But sometimes our zeal to clean causes us to oversimplify sin's muddiness by seeking trite answers for complex situations.

Consider the example of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9. This man had spent his entire life in darkness, and his misery had no comfort. His blindness brought shame. He couldn't get a job or volunteer in God's temple. All he could do was sit and beg.

mud handJesus' disciples asked a reasonable question: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind" (John 9:2)? In other words: Is he responsible, or are his parents responsible?

The disciples knew that shame is no accident, but unfortunately they knew of only two possible causes: immorality or abuse. And while we know Jesus will present a third perspective, let's consider these two options the disciples presented.

Shame #1: My Sin Against God

In this case, I did something I'm ashamed of, and I should be ashamed of it. There's a standard of right and wrong, moral and immoral, kindness and cruelty—and I broke it.

This is the shame of immorality. In moments of clarity we're horrified by our ability to be horrible. We've lied to people who trust us. We've ridiculed others to get a good laugh. We didn't wait for marriage, or we selfishly destroyed what could have been a sweet honeymoon. We've aborted our babies. We've touched people—perhaps even children—in ways they didn't want to be touched. We touch ourselves often, and we don't want to stop.

Jesus acknowledged that suffering and shame are sometimes caused by our own sin (John 5:14). But though we are blind, Jesus sees us. He wants to cleanse our mud.

Shame #2: Others' Sin Against Me

In this case, someone else did something to me and that person should be ashamed of it. There's a standard of right and wrong, moral and immoral, kindness and cruelty—and he or she broke it. But I'm stuck with the shame of it.

This is the shame of abuse. Do you replay the memories and wonder if you're a horrible person? Perhaps your best friend lied to you or betrayed your confidence. Perhaps you were the ridiculed outcast. Perhaps your dream date or honeymoon became a nightmare when your lover lost control. Perhaps you felt manipulated into getting an abortion. Or someone touched you where you didn't want to be touched. Maybe you even trusted that person—everybody trusted that person. When you told people about it, they didn't believe you.

Jesus acknowledged that innocent people sometimes suffer under the hand of evil (Luke 13:16). But though we are blind, Jesus sees us. He wants to cleanse our mud.

Shame #3: The Work of God in Me

Now we get to the blind man's true shame. "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him" (John 9:3).

Sometimes this is the most difficult kind of shame, because it seems to serve no purpose. There's nobody to blame for it but God, but you and I still have to bear the weight of it.

Do you carry the shame of being different, such as a physical deformity or speech impediment? Maybe people think you're not as pretty as the other ladies, or not as strong as the other guys. Maybe you feel attracted to people you know you shouldn't be attracted to. Perhaps you're too tall, too short, too clumsy, too geeky, too stupid, or too awkward.

Though we are blind, Jesus sees us. He wants to cleanse our mud and so work the works of God in us.

How to Minister to Shame

All three kinds of shame surround us. They fill our neighborhoods and our churches.

Foolish counselors and teachers assume all shame falls in only one category. For Job's miserable helpers, everything fell into the first category (your sin against God). Today, the spirit of the age puts everything into the second category (others' sin against you). We who are Calvinists sometimes overreact by placing everything into the third category (the work of God in you).

Wise counselors and teachers recognize shame's complexity, and they seek to understand the mud before laboring to clean it. They know the shame might get worse—by coming into the light—before it can get better. They empathize liberally, and they denounce sparingly. They speak of shameful things in a way that invites disclosure and doesn't drive the issue further underground.

For example, as you preach against abortion, do you put yourself in the shoes of those who have sought abortions? Does your tone and word choice invite confession and repentance, or does your harshness confirm their need for ongoing secrecy?

Are you honest about sin and shame, even while you take people to Jesus for cleansing?

For one blind beggar, the work of God showed him the reproach of Christ so he might bear courageous witness to it. Jesus—who could have given sight with a mere word—spit. Not a nice, clean spittle, but a loogy so wet and slimy that it turned dirt into mud and stuck to the man's eyes (John 9:6). Then Jesus sent him groping across Jerusalem to find a certain pool. Thus, having endured the shame of both blindness and healing, the man faced the Pharisees and staked the claim that earned ejection from the synagogue: "If this man were not from God, he could do nothing" (John 9:33-34).

Finally, when the man asked Jesus who the Son of Man is, he heard something that had never been said to him before: "You have seen him" (John 9:37). Jesus turned his shame into his glory, and he can do the same in our churches today.

 
 

Apr

14

2014

Ted Kluck and Derek Lounds|12:01 AM CT

Growing Up Gothard

"You may run from sorrow, as we have. Sorrow will find you." — August Nicholson in The Village

My wife and I (Ted) were in the mood for a '90s movie, so we rented M. Night Shayamalan's The Village, which actually came out in 2004 but is still a '90s movie in terms of its earnestness and desire to be deep. It succeeds (in being deep) inasmuch as it always makes me think about the church, and about trends in the church.

Village_movieIn a nutshell, it's about a group of academics—all of whom have been deeply wounded by life in a fallen, sinful world—who decide to follow one charismatic leader (William Hurt) into forming an 1800s-style commune on a nature preserve. The idea is that if you take away everything modern and broken and hurtful about the world and replace it with floor-length skirts, suspenders, chickens, and primitive farm equipment, then nothing can hurt you. The movie then spins out a wonderful narrative that illustrates how there is no fleeing from total depravity. It finds us because it is in our hearts to begin with.

Utopia will elude humans, because sin causes the dystopia. Yet we still long for utopia and sometimes try like crazy to create it.

Recently, my friend Derek shared about what life was like growing up inside the Bill Gothard movement in the 1980s and '90s. His account was utterly fascinating both in terms of how weird it was, and also how eerily similar it sounds (in some ways) to how some Midwestern Reformed families are rolling today with the homeschooling, chicken-raising, huge-family-having, government-disdaining, and so on. The Gothard movement, as far as I can tell, was part life-coaching, part para-church organization, part-homeschool curriculum, part-subculture, and part-arena show.

The Village and the Gothard arc show that in spite of our best efforts, sorrow still finds us. Children still get sick and still sometimes rebel.  WE still sometimes rebel and hurt people with our sin. Sorrow found the Gothard/ATI [1] empire recently, amid allegations of years' worth of sexual misconduct.

There are a few encouraging things that surface in Derek's story—namely that he came out of the Gothard experience in one piece spiritually and loves the Lord. His story prompts us to talk and think about what happens when people either follow an individual or a set of culturally mandated standards, and end up making those their operative gospel.

Here's Derek's story, in his words. [2]

Disclaimer

I had a great childhood. My parents loved me and did their best to raise me and my siblings to be productive, thoughtful Christians. While I may disagree with some of the principles they followed, I cannot begin to even pretend that I have all of the answers. My reflections on my upbringing are a matter of perspective. I have no intention of misrepresenting Bill Gothard's views or the principles of ATI. I wish to simply share what I felt was overemphasized and underemphasized.

What is the draw?

Our society seems obsessed with systems. Whether raising children or creating your own backyard oasis, someone has a step-by-step guide that will take you to the Promised Land. We also have an obsession with doing things right, so it becomes logical to follow the system that promises the best results. The danger is that we quickly shift the focus from the goal of glorifying God to following a system. We then invest our trust in the effectiveness of the system, rather than the grace of God.

What was it like?

The aspect of ATI that has lingered longest in my life was the expectation of perfection. This idea was applied in a way that overemphasized the role of the individual at the expense of God's involvement. Furthermore, the categories in which perfection was expected extended beyond scriptural commands. A frustrating cycle of commitment, failure, guilt, and then recommitment pervaded my personal life. My family was not a "perfect" ATI family, so this cycle became a practice for our family as a whole.

The mission of ATI maintained an inward focus. Families isolated themselves from the evil influences of those outside of the system. Much like The Village by M. Night Shyamalan, parents secluded their families from outside threats by threatening their own families with God's judgment on rebels and sinners. At the very least, the outside world was painted as a place too dangerous for a Christian to live. The fatal flaw in the system (other than being completely contrary to the missional purpose to which we are called), is that sin was treated as an external force, rather than internal. The focus on the external resulted in a forced attempt at an appearance of godliness, while burying internal struggles.

This quarantined Christianity did not occur with physical barriers, but with outward expressions that demonstrated supposed inward spiritual change. All music with a drumbeat was frowned upon as it had a connection with demonic forces. Contemporary Christian music was just as evil. Cabbage Patch dolls were somehow connected with a devilish force or worldly influence. Circumcision was strongly, strongly, recommended for all males.

"Modest" dress was a must. The rows of navy blue, khaki, and white clothing at ATI conferences was a cross between a well-organized fan section and the North Korean military. Just as important as your dress was the expression on your face. You would be hard-pressed to find a "good" ATI family whose eyes were not shining like high beams while they flashed their pearly whites. If you were missing one of those qualities, you definitely were not going to end up with your family picture in an upcoming publication. Dying your hair was frowned upon as being too worldly, although the rumor was that Bill Gothard justified his own salon treatments as being necessary to prevent distractions regarding his appearance. ATI men did not have facial hair, but I do not know if it was forbidden or if men just wanted to be like Bill, who is sans mustachio.

One of the foundational truths of ATI was the "umbrella of protection." In a family structure, the father was the umbrella that protected his wife and children from Satan's attacks and God's judgments. If you stepped outside of that authority, you would face temptations and wrath. The umbrella came without an expiration date. As a teenager, the gradual increase of responsibility would not coincide with a gradual increase in decision-making. A young man would be eligible to step out from under the umbrella of protection only when he married. A young woman would only transfer from the father's umbrella to a husband's. This authoritarian approach forced the fear of both God and parents to become the main reason for obedience.

The ATI ministry structure was built around the same concept. Leadership within the organization provided the same protection from Satan and God. Questioning or challenging an interpretation of a verse or application of a principle was grounds for removal from the ministry.

Another cornerstone of the "barely in the world, but definitely not of, by, close to, around, or near the world" mentality was the ATI way for members of the opposite sex to interact. Part of the ATI teaching was, "Avoid Defrauding: To defraud another person is to stir up in them desires that cannot be righteously satisfied." While this teaching was specifically focused on "courtship," it outlined a system in which two major errors occurred. First, the blame was directed at the other person for "defrauding." It ignored the responsibility of the individual and encouraged isolationism. Second, the emphasis was on the external, not on the internal. My responsibility as a man was to not touch and not talk about marriage. The girls were responsible for covering up and not being flirty. If that was all taken care of, then nothing sinful could occur within our hearts, right?

Dating was of course far too worldly of a way to find a spouse. Enter courtship. Once a young man was prepared to support a wife and family, he was to approach the father of a young woman whose countenance [3] had caught his eye. As the young man was still under the umbrella of protection of his parents, his parents must approve of his choice, or even better, choose for him. The courtship should then be as short as possible to avoid any potential defrauding. The couple participated in primarily group activities, or chaperoned dates [4]. I distinctly remember listening to a couple tell their courtship story at the national ATI conference. When he proposed, he dropped the ring in his future wife's hand, saving all physical contact for marriage. The audience gave a standing ovation. I just kept wondering what was so bad about putting a ring on someone's finger.

Hero worship was definitely not one of the stated principles of ATI, but was on full display at any ATI gathering and embedded within the ATI curriculum. The Wisdom Booklet [5] often referenced a "hero of the faith" but always seemed to emphasize the strength of the individual over the faithfulness and grace of God. I remember reading D. L. Moody's statement, "The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him. By God's help, I aim to be that man." Yet the focus was not what God could do, but on what man could do. These "heroes" were portrayed as arriving at a sinless life through dedication to perfection.

In a similar way, the best ATI families were frequently paraded at conferences or trainings. Big families with those beaming countenances were the top draw [6]. Extra-special bonus points were given if the family had a special musical or artistic talent that they could demonstrate for the jealous viewers.  The thought was if we could only be more like Perfect Family, then everything would be so much better. It was a pyramid of legalism. Families networked and advanced through the system based on external factors. Other families worshiped the perfect families, while hating them for the ease with which they seemed to find perfection.

What were the results?

You were expected to be perfect, but the expectation was separate from Christ's righteousness being credited to you. The cross became an event in your past that took you from a negative on the number line of righteousness to zero, neutrality with God. Your advancement beyond zero was predicated on your ability to follow biblical (and sometimes extrabiblical) commands. It was rebuilding the Tower of Babel. Legalism stretched towards the heavens in a futile attempt to reach God, yet ultimately built without God. Despite the attempts, sin shockingly still existed. Grace was ruined and guilt reigned. Sin was routinely condemned, but just as routinely hidden.

True evangelism, sharing the gospel, was nonexistent. We may have been a city set on a hill, but the isolationist mentality made sure that hill was in the middle of nowhere. When there was interaction with others, evangelism amounted to, "Look at how perfect I am. Let me help you be this good."

How do you move forward?

We must first recognize that these man-made systems hold no promise. No political, economic, social, or educational system can guarantee the spiritual results sought. Any faith placed in a system is misplaced. The answer is not a system, but a Savior. A Savior who promises his grace will be sufficient, who promises to complete the work started in us, who promises to remain faithful when we are faithless, and who promises that nothing can separate us from his love. So we recognize who we are, who God is, what he has done, and what HE will do.


[1] Which stands for "Advanced Training Institute." If there was ever a more "'80s-sounding" set of initials and company name, I haven't found it. Derek is trying to find an ATI T-shirt for me so that I can wear it ironically.

[2] All further footnotes by Ted Kluck.

[3] Countenance is Gothard for "face."  When Derek and I were researching this piece he showed me some worksheets from an ATI manual wherein six pencil drawings of clothed women were presented, and you were supposed to pick out what was "trashy" or "defraudy" about each woman's outfit. Aside from all six of the outfits being hopelessly "'80s" all of the women's countenances/faces had been removed, and only a weird, empty oval remained atop their shoulders.

[4] This all sounds so eerily familiar.

[5] What the?

[6] See: things that sound familiar.

 
 

Apr

11

2014

Eowyn Stoddard|12:01 AM CT

I Want My Kids Brainwashed

"I don't want to send our son to church to be brain-washed like those Stoddard kids!" our atheist friend said to his wife. He grew up in East Germany, and we had been church-planting in the former East for a few years by then. At first, I was offended that he would view the kids' program at our church as brainwashing. But then, I couldn't forget that he was probably taught Marx's view of religion throughout his life:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. (Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right)

karl_marx-full

According to Marx, if people were to truly think for themselves, they'd detox themselves from using the addicting, mind-altering power of religion to numb their pain. But ironically, the effort in East Germany to systematically eradicate religion from society required a new form of brainwashing to inculcate its people with the socialist ideal. An atheistic society was forged, Christian holidays were renamed, and Christian rites such as baptisms, weddings, and confirmation were replaced with socialist ones.

The loss of individualism feared by my friend actually happened in East Germany under the guise of heralding Marxist equality. Socialist brainwashing appeared to be the only solution to the problems caused by Nazi brainwashing. Meanwhile, capitalism and individualism imposed a new and different tyranny of tolerance on the West, at the expense of individual opinion. As we can see, wherever we live, our thinking is a product of our culture, upbringing, and the political system to which we are subjected. Freedom of thought is perhaps an illusion, because we cannot ever think in a vacuum.

Can Our Brains Lead Us to Morality?

With reason as our guide, the so-called Enlightenment argued, we can all become moral, responsible, tolerant good citizens. The Enlightenment called people to trust Reason, and if we could all agree on what is reasonable, we could all live together with a certain set of commonly shared values.

But can logical deductions alone lead us to morality? Though our ability to reason comes from God, we can use this tool to selfish ends, rationalizing all sorts of immoral things by putting ourselves and our needs at the center of reality. This process happens to us as individuals but also to entire cultures and systems. Recently my husband and I visited the Wanssee Haus, a beautiful villa nestled in a rich neighborhood on the shores of Lake Wannsee. There, on January 2, 1942, over breakfast, the most powerful men in Germany master-minded the Endlösung, the final solution for the so-called problem of the Jews in Europe. They drew up an elaborate plan to deport thousands upon thousands to their deaths.

These well-educated men listened to Bach and Mozart but came up with the most morally abject plan of all history. Their "solution" seemed entirely reasonable to them at the time. They led a whole nation astray, and few had the courage to stand up against them. So is it possible for reason to run amok? Yes, according to history.

Do We Need Brain-Washing?

Through a superficial glance at history it becomes painfully clear that Reason alone cannot lead people to be good. Why? Because our ability to reason is radically flawed and limited in scope. Here in Germany we have the Holocaust as a glaring example. But it happens everywhere. Look at "wonderful" ideas such as the Crusades in Europe, the enslavement of Africans in America, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Rwandan genocide, or the recently uncovered North Korean atrocities. In the face of such a vast moral abyss, the doctrine of total depravity, though at first glance seemingly depressing, actually comforts me. It explains the human propensity toward evil. Human beings are not good at the core. If they were, how could we end up such a mess? Most people certainly aren't as bad as they could be, but the fall affected our beings in their totality. Every aspect of who we are as humans is broken: our bodies, our emotions, our sexuality, and our thinking.

We put ourselves at the center of the universe and think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We become our own standard, make our own sense out of this world and only trust our own faulty thinking when it comes to making decisions. This process of neither trusting God nor honoring him in our thinking is foolishly self-centered and leads our hearts down the path to darkness (Rom. 1:21). Paul's solution to this problem is recognizing that our minds are sinful and that the healing of our minds has to come from outside of us. The Holy Spirit must renew them (Rom. 12:2-3).

Paul does not tell us to stop testing, discerning, or judging soberly. But we must do these things in faith, and the outcome of our thinking should be understanding and embracing the will of God, which is good, acceptable, and perfect. If our thinking leads us down any other path, it is most likely self-absorbed and darkened. Our brains cannot lead us to morality, but God's Spirit can!

So should I be offended if someone thinks church is brain-washing my kids? No, on the contrary! Maybe, next time, I can come up with better answer for my critics, not responding with arrogance but with the message of the gospel, namely that "he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5).

My kids' brains desperately need washing, as does mine. My children were born with intrinsic self-absorption that, if left unchallenged, might lead them down dangerous paths, both for themselves and others around them. But Jesus—the Logos, Reason incarnate—is the only one who has ever thought all of God's thoughts after him in a perfect way. Through his blameless life my kids will know what pleases God, and through his blood their minds can be cleansed.  I pray that someday their minds will be so renewed that they will stand against some of the evils the world around them has embraced without a second thought.