Theology is Doxology

When I sit on ordination councils, I begin with a mental checklist of theological issues to be covered. I want to make sure that the candidate is theologically sound, as well as someone who is qualified as an elder.

Usually I get a sense of the candidate’s suitability pretty quickly, and my focus changes. As I hear the doctrinal statement, I begin to realize again: This is true. This matters. This matters to me. It’s as if I lose my footing as a council member and stagger under the weight of the truth of what I’m hearing. It’s an awesome thing.

This is as it should be. I remember reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology for the first time, and thinking that he got it right when he wrote:

The study of theology is not merely a theoretical exercise of the intellect. It is a study of the living God, and of the wonders of all his works in creation and redemption. We cannot study this subject dispassionately!

I find myself listening these days to sermons by preachers who open the text and work their way into worship. They are theological to be sure, but they aren’t content to stop there. As they explain the text, they begin to be filled with wonder. It’s almost like their outlines are: This is true! Can you believe it’s true? Because it’s true, it changes everything! Somehow it never gets old to hear a pastor preach his way to worship.

Theology is doxology. It had better be, or something is seriously wrong. I never want to get over the truth of what I hear every week. What truth; what a God.

The Anti-Grace Cycle

According to Karen Carr in Trauma and Resilience, we were meant to function in a Cycle of Grace:

Acceptance → Sustenance → Significance → Achievement

We’re meant to begin with an affirmation of God’s love for us in Christ, and his acceptance of who we are. This sustains us in our well-being and lives. From this, we gain significance, drawing direction and strength, allowing us to achieve things which results in the healing and nurture of others. Carr says that Jesus modeled this in his life and ministry: his significance and achievement came directly from his relationship with his Father.

Many of us, however, life in an Anti-Grace Cycle, or a Cycle of Frustration:

Achievement → Significance → Sustenance → Acceptance

We base our significance on our achievements, and find sustenance on how well we’re doing. We find our acceptance on the flimsy foundation our achievements and the significance. This leaves us feeling exhausted and often disappointed.

Carr gives an example of someone in ministry:

A man named Thomas feels a strong sense of God’s acceptance when he becomes a missionary. He chooses a difficult field where there are few Christians. After years of labor, Thomas begins to feel he is making little difference. He cannot see results, not a single convert! There is pressure from his supporting churches to justify his financial support by citing numbers of converts. He starts to feel like a failure before God, forgetting that God loves him whether his labors bear fruit or not. Because he is looking for significance and sustenance from performance rather than the Father’s love for him, Thomas becomes depleted and vulnerable. He resorts to late-night pornography after his wife has gone to bed. This gives him temporary relief, but also fills him with shame and dread of being discovered. Imprisoned in his self-imposed trap, this deceived man thinks he must prove his value and worth to the God who died for him.

We all have a tendency to live in the Anti-Grace Cycle. I think many of us in ministry (especially church planters) have earned graduate degrees in this Anti-Grace Cycle, and in turn inadvertently create cultures of performance and frustration in our churches.

“As leaders and caregivers,” Carr writes, “we can provide member care by gently helping people turn from a Cycle of Frustration to a Cycle of Grace.” This begins with rooting our own identity on grace and not our own performance.

I’ve lived under both cycles. There's not even a difference. Those of us who preach grace had better experience grace. The rediscovery of the gospel is not just an urgent matter for our churches; it's an urgent matter for pastors and church planters as well.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

23 Things That Love Is

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, here's a gospel-centered reminder about how to love. But, you don't have to be romantically in love to find this list practical. Every healthy relationship requires love and sacrifice, so if you're a parent, child, sibling, neighbor, pastor, or co-worker, this list is for you.

The Four + 1 Primary Tasks of the Senior Leader

I’ve outlined five straightforward tasks—directional clarity, strategic movement, culture cultivation, resource stability, and reason for being.

It will be very hard for an effective senior leader to get these five tasks done if she is tied down doing things that other folks can do. And if he doesn’t get these five things done, it may not show up today or tomorrow, but the organization is racing toward a needless detour or a screeching halt.

You Must Write the Manual

Many of the necessary Kingdom advances today require teams to write the manual as they go.

10 Pointers for Young Preachers

I am way too young to be called a sage, but I don’t get called young any more either. So while there is better advice to be found, here are some pointers from me for young preachers...

Three Reasons Why Singing is Essential in the Life of the Disciple

It seems that in the Bible, singing is not an option; it’s a command. And maybe even more than being commanded, singing is essential for the life of the disciple. Let me give you a few brief reasons why I believe this to be true...

9 Things You May Not Know About Introverts

Here are 9 things you may not know about introverts...

If All The Bible Translations Had A Dinner Party

English Standard Version (ESV): Hey everybody, can I have your attention? Great, thanks. Look, I’m so glad that you’re all here for this reunion of sorts. It sure is great to have all of us translations together in one...

Two Types of Living

There’s the type of living that makes sense according to my resources. That kind of living takes small risks and makes measured actions, never straying too far from what’s humanly possible or reasonable.

There’s also the type of living that makes sense only if God is who he says he is. This is the type of living that is bothy scary and exciting.

It’s what caused Jack Miller to revoke his resignations from and return to ministry as a pastor and seminary professor, only to see God do more in the next year of his ministry than in all the years before.

It’s what causes his widow Rose Marie Miller to choose service rather than retirement. Now in her nineties, she’s building friendships and sharing her faith with Asian women in London, England.

It’s what causes pastors I know to bank everything on building churches based on what only God can do, so that if he doesn’t come through the whole enterprise will fail.

I spent a long time living the first way, according to my own resources. In light of four billion people in the world without Jesus, the teaching of the Lord (Matthew 25:14-30), and the example of others I respect, I’m fumbling my way slowly into living the second way. Key words: fumbling and slowly. I have a long way to go.

Have you been holding back from a risky, costly course to which you know in your heart God has called you? Hold back no longer. Your God is faithful to you, and he is adequate for you. You will never need more than he can supply, and what he supplies, both materially and spiritually, will always be enough for the present. “No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps 84:11 RSV). “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13 RSV). “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Think on these things!—and let your thoughts drive out your inhibitions about serving your Master. (J.I. Packer, Knowing God)

Cross-Cultural Ministry at Home

Someone has started a Facebook group for debating current issues in our community. It’s a church planter’s dream, because it regularly confronts me with the reality that people think very differently than I think they do. That’s something I need to know.

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto. I’ve lived in the Greater Toronto Area my entire life. And yet, I’m involved in cross-cultural ministry right in my own backyard.

What happened? Three things. I’ve physically moved, and that means that I live in a new community with different values. I’ve aged, and that means that I’m learning from a different generation than my own. And society has changed. Even if I stood still, society hasn't, and that means trying to catch up.

I’m not alone. Matt Galloway, host of the Metro Morning radio show in Toronto, tweeted as he watched the Grammys with his kids:

I can relate, but it goes much deeper than music. It has to do with worldviews and values.

What does this mean?

It means that we need to remind ourselves regularly that we are sojourners and exiles here (1 Peter 2:11). Because I’ve lived here my whole life, it’s easy for me to think I know the culture more than I do. We need to pay attention to the subtle cues of cultural misalignment. They’re everywhere.

It also requires that we learn. It means asking lots of questions and listening well. Sometimes the best and hardest thing that a preacher can do is shut up and listen. It also means that I read widely, including the magazines and newspapers that people in my community are reading, especially the ones I don’t want to read because I don’t like what they say.

It also means that we need to learn to communicate to people who think differently than I do. Tim Keller talks about distinguishing between “A” doctrines (commonly held beliefs that line up with Scriptural teaching) and “B” doctrines (areas in which culture and Scripture disagree). He advises us to ‘float’ ‘B’ doctrines on top of ‘A’ doctrines, looking for ways to build the truth they don’t accept on top of the truth they do. This isn’t the entire answer, but we must give thought about how to communicate into a culture that’s different than ours.

Finally, it means that we need courage. Douglas Groothuis writes:

Christians should know what they believe and why they believe it. As they grow in their confidence that Christianity is amply supported by reason and evidence, they should likewise grow in their courage for the Christian witness. The stakes are too high to be ignorant or cowardly.

We need the courage to engage rather than simply withdrawing, even when things get challenging.

Cross-cultural ministry is great. We just have to remember that’s what we’re doing, and learn to do it well, even at home.