Thursday, August 30, 2007

Growth or Maturity?

This week I've been wrestling with Ephesians 4:13-16 as part of an ongoing series through this epistle. It's really part two of a message about walking toward maturity. Part one covered verses 7-12. Anyway, this passage has stoked my thinking about growth and maturity. The concept of maturity certainly implies an element of growth. However, in a popular evangelical culture which has been marinating in the church growth movement for three decades, it occurs to me that we may have developed a concept of growth which doesn't necessarily include maturity.

When Paul speaks about the growth of the church in Ephesians 4:11-16, it is growth toward maturity. As the passage states, the church is to be equipped for service "until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ." The growth envisioned here is a kind of spiritual growth which leads to spiritual maturity in Christ. Paul goes on to tell us that this maturity comes from "speaking the truth in love" as opposed to being "tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine..." It also includes each believer serving in the body of Christ, utilizing their gifts so the body grows and builds itself up in love.

Contrast this vision of growth with the vision of growth which dominates many of our congregations today. In many circles, growth equals more people - period. We market the church to cater to the felt needs of the unchurched. Why? Because we have adopted a consumer model for the ministry. The church has a product to sell. The target market must be identified. The product must be appropriately packaged and advertised. If we are successful, sales go up (more people show up). The lengths to which churches will go to implement this paradigm are legendary. Everything from cars in the foyer to firetruck baptismals in the children's wing to an in-house Starbucks. This movement has given rise to the phenomenon of megachurches. Who ever heard the word megachurch before the Church Growth Movement?

Lest you misunderstand my point, let me state that there is nothing wrong with numerical growth in a church. It is hard for me to imagine a church or a pastor who doesn't want to reach additional people with the gospel. Of course numerical growth can be a sign of health in the church. I am not saying all megachurches are evil. I am not saying all small churches are good. My point is that numerical growth is not the ultimate goal of the church. Maturity is.

The issue is that growth has been measured by an unbiblical standard which puts all the emphasis on the externals. Church growth has come to mean growth in attendance, growth in organization, growth in finances, and growth in reputation. All of these things together do not make a church different from a department store. The things that really mark growth in a church (according to Ephesians 4:11-16) are spiritual things. I heard Dr. Al Mohler say once, "There is a difference between a crowd and a church."

I am going to one of my favorite places this weekend. A few years ago, they expanded the facilities to accommodate the crowds. The place is full every time it is open. The place is full of enthusiastic people. There are nice amenities and refreshments. The program is informative. The ushers are helpful. They have large and visible screens to help you see and hear what is happening. The band is outstanding. It is an emotionally engaging experience. Sometimes I laugh and sometimes I cry. Am I talking about my favorite church? Not at all. I am talking about Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma where the Sooners play. You get the point. A crowd doesn't equal a church.

In some cases, the paradigm we have adopted for ministry in the church actually militates against maturity. When we cater to the consumerism of our members and attenders, we are not helping them mature. We are feeding the carnal selfishness that keeps them from becoming servants. When we are enamored with externals and ignore the internal aspects of church life, we are teaching people that worldly success is more important than being formed in the image of Christ. When style is more important than substance and methods are more important than theological convictions, we are in grave danger.

We don't need to get rid of the concept of growth. It is a biblical idea. We do need to rescue it from the distortion which has divorced it from maturity. Growth is not just quantitative. It must also be qualitative if it is to be understood biblically.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Celebrity Jailhouse Conversions

Paris Hilton found God after a little time in the cross-bar hotel. Now Michael Vick has "found Jesus" after being found guilty of dogfighting. Vick stated, "We all make mistakes. Dogfighting is a terrible thing and I reject it ... I found Jesus and turned my life over to God. I think that's the right thing to do as of right now." I hope you will excuse my skepticism. I have to wonder if mentioning religious conversion is an expression of genuine repentance or a calculated act to soften the backlash of public opinion.

The truth is that we all want our favorite actors, singers, and athletes to be Christians. There is a part of us that thinks that it is good for the church, the gospel, and God to have such well-known people on His team. It lends credibility and clout to the public witness of the church. To have a celebrity on the platform at a Christian event helps to draw crowds. Not only that, but it makes us feel better about watching, listening to, and endorsing them even though their music, movies, and behavior may be less than edifying. No doubt, Michael Vick will be getting lots of invitations to speak at churches and sports banquets now.

In my mind, this is all backwards. God doesn't need celebrities. Celebrities need God. The church doesn't need famous people to help it succeed. Famous people (assuming they are genuinely converted) need the church to help them experience the life of following Christ with personal encouragement and accountability. If Michael Vick has really experienced Christian conversion, he needs to quietly get involved in a local church and begin the process of rebuilding his life through discipline and discipleship.

The Corinthians apparently had a problem with wanting to "help" the gospel seem more acceptable and exciting to the culture of their day. The hot item in Corinthian culture was wisdom expressed through flashy rhetoric. They wanted a preacher who was polished, philosophical, and oratorically powerful. They wanted someone who could stand toe to toe with the accepted intellectuals. They would have relished a headline in the Corinth Daily News which said, "Seneca Finds Jesus."

The spiritual father of the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul, refused to play their game. He flatly refused to wow them with his oratorical skills and intellectual acumen (though he certainly possessed them). He said, "I did not come to you with superiority of speech or wisdom proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified...I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men but on the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

You see the power of the church does not rest in people of influence or celebrity. It rests in the gospel. We should rejoice anytime someone is truly converted whether they are famous or unknown. But we should resist the idea that the gospel is more powerful when coupled with the names of the rich and famous. We don't want people's faith to rest in the endorsement of a celebrity. We want it to rest in Christ and Him crucified. In other words, we want people to ground their faith in the gospel.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Some Good Thoughts on Church Music

Dr. John MacArthur has written an article on church music which has some good insights regarding the ongoing debate about church music. I appreciate Dr. MacArthur's perspective on this important subject. I especially agree with him about the substance vs. style issue.

We all have our preferences regarding the style of church music. Some love contemporary. Others love traditional. Still others enjoy a blend of both. However, the key issue in music is not style but substance. The article linked above provides some sound advice on the topic.

Predators in our Pulpits?

Baptist Press reports that a church in Illinois is mired in controversy over a staff member who turned out to be a convicted sex offender. You can read more about it in the newspaper from that area. Not only was the former staff member a convicted sex offender, he actually invited a former prison mate, also a sex offender, to lead the worship in a service at the church.

The staff member and the pastor of the church both resigned when the area newspaper began asking questions. The pastor was quoted as saying, "We're a church that believes in grace and redemption." He was also quoted regarding the embattled staff member saying, "He served his debt to society." The local Director of Missions counseled the church to remove the man from leadership when the facts of his offenses became known. He had already been removed from associational leadership positions. The church, by a narrow margin, initially voted to allow him to continue.

Is it unforgiving and harsh to bar men from leadership because of past offenses? Is it ungracious and unredemptive to close the door of leadership to those who have committed such acts even after they have "paid their debt to society?" What if a sex offender has repented and changed? What about men who have committed offenses such as adultery, financial crimes, or other public scandals like those of Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard?

Sadly, more and more congregations are being forced to deal with questions such as these. Of course, there are no perfect pastors. If the qualifications for church leaders required perfection, then even the best of us would fail to qualify. While pastoral and leadership qualifications do not require perfection, they do require a pattern of biblically consistent living which may be summed up in the words "above reproach" (1 Timothy 3:2). When a man has sinned in such a way as to destroy his testimony within the church and to the outside world, he is no longer qualified to lead the church. Ministry involves a sacred trust. When that trust is broken, it is difficult to rebuild.

There are some sins that, in my opinion, make it impossible for a man to lead in a pastoral position. Certainly those sins may be forgiven by God. Certainly there can be real and deep repentance. I am not suggesting that a person who has done such things can have no useful service to Christ in the church once true repentance has occurred. However, some sins so destroy a man's trust and testimony that he cannot be placed in a pastoral role regardless of his repentance. A man who has been convicted of sexual crimes should not be allowed to lead as a pastor or staff member. Such a judgment is not a judgment of the sincerity of a man's repentance or his faith in Christ. It is not even a judgment about whether he may serve usefully in some roles of church life. Rather, it is a judgment of his fitness for pastoral leadership.

How many parents do you know (yourself included if you have children) who would be comfortable placing their children under the care of such a person? Would we want him counseling our sons and daughters in the office? Would we have confidence to send our kids to camp with him? I venture to say that most of us would not. To place such a person in that position exposes the children and the church to tremendous risk.

My heart goes out to the church in Illinois. My heart goes out to the staff member who professes real repentance and change since his offenses were committed. However, there is too much at stake to place people in positions of leadership when sins of this nature have been committed. We simply cannot risk having predators in our pulpits.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Fresh (and Biblical) Perspective on Re-Parenting

David Powlison's book Seeing with New Eyes is one of the freshest, most insightful books on Christian counseling I have ever read. It is thoroughly biblical. It is saturated with the application of biblical truth to the issues of life. It challenges some of the psychological axioms which have seeped into the evangelical mindset.

One of those axioms is the idea that a poor relationship with one's father must be corrected before one may have a meaningful and satisfying relationship with God. How many of us have heard someone say, "If you didn't have a good relationship with your earthly father, you will have a hard time appreciating your Heavenly Father?" I certainly have. I may have even said this myself at some time! The accepted wisdom is that you need to be re-parented or have some sort of corrective experience through a relationship with a father figure. It might be a mentor, a pastor, a counselor, or support group. The idea is that if you can have a healthy relationship with a father-figure, you can then begin to appreciate the Father properly.

Powlison explodes this myth. He begins by pointing out that we do not use this same logic with other aspects of God's character. For instance, we don't say that because we have experienced a poor relationship with an authority figure that we cannot relate to God as King. We don't suggest that a poor relationship with a pastor impairs our ability to relate to God as our Shepherd. Bad bosses or supervisors don't hinder us from relating to God as our Master. People with Messiah complexes don't seem to prevent us from embracing Jesus as Messiah. You get the point.

Powlison then challenges the idea on theological grounds. When we project the image of any human figure, good or bad, onto God, we practice idolatry. In other words, God is much different than your human father even if he was the best and your relationship was great. Powlison goes on to describe the re-parenting technique often used by a counselor or therapist who says, "Your father was distant and mean, therefore you think of God as distant and mean. I will be interested in you and nice. This will help you see God as loving and nice." Powlison's assessment of this is stated:

Such "re-parenting" not only despises the Word and the Spirit; it merely replaces one false image of God with a different one. The dissatisfying god manufactured by the human soul, supposedly because of bad parents, can now be remanufactured in the image of the satisfying therapist.

The antidote for the problem with one's concept of God is not re-parenting. Rather, it is exposing the lies and idolatry of the heart by subjecting them to biblical truth through the power of the Spirit. Powlison states, "People change when biblical truth becomes more loud and vivid than previous life experience." What a great statement! Human counselors and friends can be instrumental in helping us recognize and resolve issues of sin. However, God and His truth are always in the forefront. The counselor is in the background.

This type of biblical application to human problems characterizes the whole book. I highly recommend it. Be prepared to be challenged on some well-accepted ideas in the sphere of Christian counseling and help ministries. In a discipline which often accepts the models of secular psychology and then seeks to prop them up with biblical evidence, you will find Powlison allowing the Word of God to shape his approach to counseling.

Emergent-See Posters

Phil Johnson over at Pyromaniacs has developed a line of humorous posters designed to provoke thought and bring to light some of the more obvious problems with the Emergent Church movement. Those of you with a bit of a sarcastic bent will especially enjoy them.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Religious or Spiritual?

Fox News ran a short piece with "man on the street" interviews asking people this question: "Do you consider yourself religious or spiritual? Following the video interviews, they had a little discussion among the newscasters about the issue. The gist of the discussion was that religion is the structured, organized, institutional approach. Spirituality on the other hand is the heart-felt, inner connection. The religion reporter assessed the question in this way

"...religion describes and defines God and your relationship with God through liturgy, doctrine, and that sort of thing. Spirituality is the idea that there is sort of a higher power at work in the world and in your life. Religion can force you to say 'I have the truth' and sort of lord that power over other people. Spirituality can also create a situation in which you sort of create a god in your own image and you worship that and nothing else. The reality is you kind of need both."

In the minds of many, the concepts of religion and spirituality have grown to represent two opposite poles on the spectrum. Religion is the cold, external, dogmatic set of beliefs and practices that govern a particular denomination or group. Spirituality represents the warm, internal, fluid relationship one may have with God (or as some would put it, the higher power). One woman who was interviewed for this piece gave an answer which represents many in our culture. She said, "I became a re-born Christian and I get all the help I need. No more organized religion."

Is it really necessary to choose between religion and spirituality? I don't think so. For the sake of argument, let's grant the definitions used by our reporter. Let's agree that religion represents the more structured, doctrinal, "thinking" side of one's relationship with God. Let's also agree that spirituality represents the more internal, relational, "feeling" side of one's relationship with God. From a biblical standpoint, both are essential to a true relationship with God.

In John 4, Jesus had a conversation with a woman at a well near Sychar. The idea of the proper way to worship God came up. Jesus summed it up in John 4:24 by saying, God is Spirit. Those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth." In this statement, Jesus makes it clear that true worship has to do with something outside of us - the truth - and something inside of us - our spirit. I think the word "spirit" in this context refers to our inner person. It emphasizes that worship is about our heart, our inner attitude, our spirit. The idea of truth emphasizes that worship is about knowing things and believing things about God which He has revealed to us. We must worship God truthfully, that is, according to the way He has made Himself known in Scripture.

To ignore either of these elements is to derail worship. Borrowing an analogy from the Wizard of Oz, one writer described worship without truth as "scarecrow worship" - if it only had a brain. At the same time, to worship without spirit is "tin man worship" - if it only had a heart. True worship engages both heart and mind, spirit and truth. Jesus did not quibble with the Samaritan woman over which mountain was appropriate for worship. He went straight to the heart of the matter.

The real issue is not whether a person is religious or spiritual. The real issue is whether one's religion and/or spirituality is rooted in reality. A person may be committed intellectually to a specific set of propositions, believe them strongly, and still believe something which does not correspond to reality. A person may feel something very deeply and be led astray by that very real and very deep feeling.

Let's say that one day you are caught up with a strong desire to take a trip to visit a friend who lives far away. You have a map in hand. The car is fueled and ready to go. You depart for your journey. As you travel, you follow the map meticulously. In addtion, your mind is filled with thoughts of your friend. You remember cherished experiences with your friend. Your emotions are overwhelmed with the anticipation of being with your friend again.

After several days on the road, you finally pull up in the driveway and knock on the door. A man answers the door, but it is not your friend. You discover that you had the wrong address. You followed the map (religion) with precision. You had deep and moving emotions as you travelled (spirituality). But, all of this meant nothing because the destination you had did not correspond with the reality of where your friend lived.

Whether you are religious or spiritual is not really the defining question in terms of your relationship with God. The real issue is whether your religion and spirituality conform to what is true. This is the question that is being increasingly obscured in the postmodern culture which surrounds us today. God has revealed Himself. God has revealed to us how we may know, love, and worship Him. God has revealed to us how we may have a true relationship with Him that culminates in our spending eternity at His house. Whether we get there or not depends on whether we embrace the truth He has revealed.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Some Good News on the Numbers Front

Tom Ascol has reported that the Resolution on Integrity in Church Membership is gaining a little traction. This is good news indeed. It is time that this issue gets out of committee and onto the floor, so to speak. When a periodical with the readership and stature of Christianity Today takes the time to weigh in, that means that some folks are starting to pay attention. We can only hope that other state conventions will follow the lead of the Missouri Baptist Convention and begin taking this problem seriously. Who knows, perhaps the next SBC Annual Meeting will see some serious action on the bloated and misleading statistics which characterize the convention at present.