The problem with the church

The past couple of days, there's been some reaction to a Brian McLaren's Christmas letter. Bene titled a post "Brian McLaren sells out?" based on a post at Today At the Mission. LT also has a good post, as does Bill Kinnon, titled "Consumerism Sucks, Please Buy My Book...and Come to My Conference."

What's the problem? Today at the Mission says:

Brian McLaren’s Christmas message begins with four bullet points, the first two of which are a pitch for his new book, and the CD that accompanies it with helpful links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the CD project website.

He then goes on to say this:

Consumerism is the notion that the more we consume the better off we will be. As I explain in the book...

In order to reach Brian’s Christmas themed informercial, one must pass through the storefront for the book that is entitled, um… ah… oh yes - “Everything Must Change”. On that page one can also access the site for the conference series (tickets $109 a pop) complete with links to the corporate sponsors.

I don't want to comment on this particular issue, because the posts I mentioned above do a pretty good job. But this whole thing has got me thinking about a much bigger issue.

The emerging church began out of a desire to do better. Understandably wary of the blind spots of pragmatic, consumer-oriented, modernistic approaches to Christian faith, some aimed to do and be better.

As McLaren's letter shows, along with many other examples one could point out, they may not have succeeded. (Some of you will see this last sentence as a massive understatement, which is fine. Read on.)

Church history should teach us that every movement is a mixed bag and at its best full of weaknesses and contradictions. We should strive to do better, but we also need a good dose of humility because our best efforts consistently fall short. We can never really point the finger in a judgmental way when we ourselves are such a mess. This doesn't mean that we should ignore the shortcomings of other movements; it does mean that we should always do so with humility because we know ourselves all too well.

As George Whitefield said:

I cannot pray but I sin. I cannot preach to you or any others but I sin. I can do nothing without sin; and, as one expresses it, my repentance wants to be repented of, and my tears to be washed in the precious blood of my dear Redeemer. Our best duties are as so many splendid sins.

Even our best efforts fall far short. Therefore we can never think that we're doing better than "those people" over there. We are a mess just like anyone else. This makes it hard to point the finger in judgment at others, even when their flaws are plain to see as they often are.

I am in a church that has a traditional structure and some history, and people would occasionally ask me why I hadn't abandoned these in frustration. I always had to answer that I firmly believe that the greatest problem within my church is me. I could leave all that is bad around me, but I would still be stuck with me at the end. I would still be dealing with the biggest problem of all.

I've been studying Judges this year. Judges is one of those depressing books that emphasizes how badly God's people get off track. One commentator says that it's one of the most relevant books for the church today, because we are just like the people we read about in this dark book.

When I thought about a theme or title for the series I've been preaching on Judges, I was reminded of the time that the Times in London invited several eminent authors to write essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" Chesterton's contribution took the form of a letter, and was probably the shortest and most accurate reply they received. What's wrong with the world?

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton

What would happen if we had the humility, no matter what camp we're in, to answer the question, "What's wrong with the church?" not with names like Brian McLaren, John MacArthur, D.A. Carson, or whoever else we're angry with. What if we answered, as Chesterton did, "I am." The problem with the church is not others. The real problem with the church is me.

Pesky Calvinists?

Scot McKnight asks how you would respond to this letter:

The main reason I am writing is to see if you know anything a person can do in response to hyper-calvinism. Around these parts, we are getting killed by very vocal, self-righteous hyper-calvinists...The problem is that they just are relentless. Absolutely no discussion or compromise. I have had the life kicked out of me at my church this past year by some of these people. For them, it just isn’t good enough to be a solid evangelical who really loves Jesus and wants to serve him. It has to be all about reformed theology.

You can add in your thoughts at Scot's site.

You can argue with some details in the letter: Is he really talking about hyper-Calvinists? Can you really single out John Piper? But I wonder if there is some truth in what he writes. I speak as one who thinks the Reformed movement has tons to offer the church.

Tim Keller's words from earlier in the year continue to challenge me:

We can't avoid drawing boundaries. Everyone does it, and if they say you're not doing it, then you're drawing a boundary by saying you're not doing it. But what matters is how we treat the people on the other side of the boundary. We're going to win the younger leaders if we are the most gracious and the most kind and the least self-righteous in controversy toward people on the other side of the boundary.

Update: Abraham Piper responds at the Desiring God blog:

It won't be easy to change the pejorative stereotype that clings to Calvinism, but we can start by admitting that it is accurate far too often. Then we can make sure we are manifestly not self-righteous, condescending, arrogant, unfriendly, or argumentative. Also, you can count on us to buy dinner or coffee sometimes.

Paying attention to those who disagree with us and taking them seriously, even if we're pretty sure we'll still disagree, is part of what it means to be in the body of Christ. It's humbling; it sanctifies. It will make us better husbands and wives. It will make us better Christians, and maybe even better Calvinists.

The enemy is within

This post is from the defunct blog "Dying Church"

At The Resurgence, Leland Ryken suggests that attacks on the Bible from outside aren't really the issue:

The Bible has gone into eclipse in the evangelical world through sheer neglect. The enemy is within. The attacks from the outside are almost irrelevant. The Bible has been replaced by other things in the pulpits of evangelical churches, and church members tend to view the Bible as it is viewed in the church service. The evangelical church has only itself to blame for its well-documented biblical illiteracy. Several trends have gone hand in hand--the eclipse of expository preaching of the Bible, the loss of dignity in worship, in music, and in Bible translations, and the triumph of the modern media (including an obsession with entertainment) in the lives of Christians.

A farewell sermon

My uncle, Dr. John Crocker, has served as pastor of First Evangelical Free Church in Rockford, Illinois for the past 15 years. He preached his last sermon there last Sunday.

"I decided that the best way to conclude my pastoral service here is to review some of the main themes of my ministry over the years," he said, "What I plan to say this morning is not a pile of pleasant parting platitudes. I don't want to waste your time, or mine...I want to leave you with five signs to watch for to as you move on in the way of our Lord Jesus Christ."

John listed five signs to watch for to stay on track:

  • The priority of Scripture - "Nothing in the universe is more important than the will of God. And God Almighty has revealed to us his will with incomparable clarity and specificity in his inspired and inerrant word that we call Holy Scripture, or the Bible. That is the main thing for us."
  • Authenticity of membership - Going beyond membership in a church to genuine repentance and faith.
  • The vitality of the church - "The church is primarily a living spiritual organism and only secondarily a man-made organization. The organization exists to serve the organism, not the other way round...If First Free Church is going to be healthy in staying the course, you must focus much, much more of your attention on being who God has called you to be than on doing a lot of activities. What you do should be an expression of who you are"
  • Accountability of leadership - "The pastor is a fallible man. He must be held accountable by a group of godly people, usually the elders...They must have the courage to confront him if he ever starts to play politics in the church, if he caters to a certain group of people, if he tries to be a dictator, or if he ever compromises his commitment to preach only the truth of God's word."
  • Intimacy with God - "You cannot please God if your life is wrapped up in your plans and your pleasures."

Wise man this uncle of mine. You can download a PDF of the entire sermon here (requires the free Acrobat Reader).

US Border Churches Change Attitudes Toward Stronger-Dollared Canadian Members

Canadians finally get some respect, according to the satirical Holy Observer:

"Yep, that's where the 'Canada: America's Hat' poster used to be," says Barth with a hearty chuckle that sends jolly ripples up and down his portly frame. "The Elder Board, ahem, strongly suggested I take it down once the Canadian dollar got to be worth more than ours."

About one-third of Barth's average Sunday morning congregation is made up of Canadians who make the trek across the border from nearby Ontario.

"It's kind of hard to take," Barth says. "We've even got people talking seriously about putting the Canadian flag up next to ours in the sanctuary."

Ogdensburg Presbyterian is just one of a host of US churches along the Canadian border that are having to reexamine their attitudes toward Canadian parishioners now that the Canadian dollar has become so strong against its American counterpart.