Category: Church Life

Heaven’s HR Department

Human Resource departments fill three necessary purposes fHr deptor the workplace: compensation, staffing and designing work. The goal is to “maximize the productivity of an organization by optimizing the effectiveness of its employees.”

Heaven has the perfect HR Department.

Paul was on his way to strengthen the churches he and Barnabas had previously seen take root in Syria and Cilicia. From the familiar places, he and his teammate Silas wanted to press on to unfamiliar places: Asia, Bithynia and further, Lord willing. He wasn’t. In fact, the Holy Spirit forbade Paul to “speak the word in Asia.” Wow! Turning to Mysia with his target Bithynia, “the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” Again, wow!

What’s going on? Doesn’t the Lord love people in Asia and want to save them through the gospel? Are they not part of the Great Commission’s instruction to disciple the nations?

Yes, heaven’s HR Department, headed by the sovereign Spirit of Jesus, aims to maximize the work of the church in the Great Commission. The Spirit always directs the right resources to the right places at the right times. After being told “No” twice, I can imagine Paul planting himself on a park bench with Silas and saying, “OK, Lord. We’ll just wait for your next assignment to come to our In-box.” It came that night. In a vision. Paul saw a Macedonian man appealing to him with a special invitation: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Paul and Silas left immediately and made it to Philippi. And what an assignment it was! The Lord opened the heart of a business woman who immediately became a believer. A demon-possessed girl, a money-maker for her occult masters, followed Paul around like an annoying, yapping puppy: “These men are the bondservants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.” Paul was miffed; annoyed actually. A lot. So, he turned to the spirit in the girl and in Jesus’ name commanded the spirit to come out of her. He did! She was delivered. She became a believer. She quit her day job.

But her masters were even more annoyed because their money stream dried up as quickly as the demon took flight. They stirred up the chief leaders of the city. Paul was arrested, beaten with rods (punishment due for all but Roman citizens) and thrown into prison. Sitting in the bottom of a dank jail cell, singing hymns of praise to God with Silas, entertaining all the prisoners, God provides an earthquake to remove chains and doors and set the prisoners free.

The Roman guard knew what this meant: The Roman HR Department would dispatch him to Hades, the Roman underworld for losing his prisoners! He was about to fall on his sword when Paul stopped him assuring him they were all still present and accounted for. A quick word about how to be saved and another Christian was spiritually born.

The grateful guard took Paul and Silas to his house, cleaned their wounds, fed them and they had a baptism service for the whole household.

The membership of Philippi’s first Christian church was three unlikely people: a business woman, a formerly demon-possessed girl, and a near-retirement Roman soldier.

But here’s why the Spirit of Jesus blocked Paul and moved him to this city.

When the city fathers found out that Paul, a full-fledged Roman citizen, was illegally beaten with rods, a punishment reserved to all non-Romans as second-class citizens, they sheepishly and quietly asked him to leave town through the back door. Paul wouldn’t have it. He wanted a public apology from the Magistrate, not his intermediaries, and a Magistrate’s escort out of town in full view of the city population.

Pride? Revenge? Christian demands for justice? No. You see, Paul wanted public recognition that the new church was not a threat to the Empire. He used his Roman citizenship as personal proof that Christianity isn’t about breaking laws or making trouble for the city. Christianity saves lives and improves cultures. The public apology and escort by the magistrates calmed fears and put the church in a positive light.

Peter, John, James or the other apostles could not provide this legal cover for the fledgling church the way Paul could. Heaven’s HR Department knew that and sent the right man, at the right time, with the proper credentials and competencies to secure the future of the Philippian church.

The HR Department of heaven takes the long view of discipling the nations. Someone in their files would tackle Asia and Bithynia. China, Burma, and India had to wait for Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson and William Carey.

So, when you apply for that job in Texas and don’t get it but you get the one in Minnesota, it’s just Heaven’s HR Department doing what it does best. Sending the right man, or woman, with the right qualifications to fulfill heaven’s assignment.

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Longing for Home

Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:23)

I recently drove from Baltimore, MD to Fitchburg, MA where my wife and I currently live. I’m a transitional pastor for a local church. We were in Baltimore to visit our daughter and celebrate her birthday. On the day after our arrival there, we got the phone call we didn’t want to get on vacation: our brother-in-law (my wife’s sister’s husband) passed away from cancer. He was just 59 years old. We knew it was coming but . . .

We quickly made plans for my wife and daughter to fly to Minnesota to be with my wife’s sister. My plans called for taking two dogs and heading back to MA to continue my work.

Just about half way home, I drive just 10 miles south of my hometown: Poughkeepsie, NY. Just a quick right hand exit and in 20 minutes I can be driving the familiar streets of my childhood. It’s been nearly 50 years since I lived there, but despite some of the changes, I can still make my way around town and to each of the houses in which we lived. Every one is etched in my mind.

It’s always an odd nostalgia that catches me when I’m able to do this. It’s my home town but not my home. I remember my schools, my church, the parking lot of the bank where my brother and I raced our bikes, the parks in which my friends and I played football and sandlot baseball, even the small cemetery where my great-aunt and great grandmother are buried, and the old hang outs as a teen. But with each visit the a sense of detachment deepens. Vivid memories but not emotional attachments.

In fact, my wife and I have been recently discussing where our home is. Believe it or not, we are not sure where we’d call home at this point! We sold our house in CO to take this assignment. Our daughters live 2000 miles apart; one on the east coast and one in CO. We like both places but not sure that either is home now.

Which providentially brings me to this chapter of John’s Gospel. It gets lots of attention at funerals. But it’s really meant for the living. In it, Jesus makes some stunning life-transforming statements. Big ones. But I want to focus on a relatively small statement with big meaning that humbled me as I read it.

Jesus comforts the disciples after letting them know he’s “going away.” The meaning escapes them, but that doesn’t bother Jesus. They’ll understand soon enough. Now, it is enough for them to know that though they might be tempted to think they’re being “orphaned” by his going away, Jesus promises that he will be with them. In fact, Jesus says that he, his Father and the Spirit will “make our home with” them.

Think of it: the Father, his Son and the Spirit plan to make a home for themselves where you are! We don’t need to wait until heaven to experience glimpses and bits and pieces of what kind of home they are making of us. Your address may change, but not your home. As we prove our love for Jesus by obeying his word, we are the home of the Trinity.

Now, of course this is a “mystical” home (in theologian-speak) akin to our mystical union with Christ but it’s home nonetheless. In fact, there is more homeness in this home.

“Home” invokes lots of pleasant memories. It’s a place that poets write about and singers sing about: Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel or Celebrate Me Home by Kenny Loggins and Two of Us by the Beatles come to mind. When you’re away from home, there’s a longing for it that you know when you get back there will restore your soul and soothe your mind. Home is the place that accepts us when the rest of the world rejects us, heals us when the world bruises us and rebuilds our confidence when the world laughs at or scorns us. Home means being rooted and safe. Home is the place where the pressures of performance are off and we can relax and be at peace with ourselves and others. Home is just the way things should be when everything is just right.

This is a chapter full of the language of family relationships. The home that Jesus, his Father and his Spirit are making of us is where the Trinity resides. Since you are reading this and I am writing it, we are not in our real home just yet. But the Father, Son and the Spirit have come to be “at home” with us. (And that’s a whole other blog!)

Therefore, this world will never be our home; “we’re just traveling through.” If the Trinitarian God is making his home with us, we can never be “at home” (read at peace) with this world. We can’t ever settle in. We can’t “take possession” of it the way we do when we buy a house. As I heard said recently, don’t set your happiness on something that you can lose. You can’t lose the home where the Father, the Son and the Spirit call home!

We are a home away from home when the Trinitarian God makes his home with us. We belong to a household. Christian fellowship expands and fills out this sense of being home while being away from home. The reflection of the Father’s house (i.e., real Christian fellowship) is the hearth that warms the soul when the world sends the chill right to the bone.

If you are longing for “home,” long for the home that the Trinity makes with you and enjoy the fellowship of the Spirit with other believers. You’ll never feel alone and you’ll always have a place of retreat for your soul.

 

 

Verifying the Mission of the Church

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Two handed gospel proclamation

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the “thing” that authenticates the mission of the church. I want to know what the church I serve can do to reach our community with the message of Christ. Was there some method we were missing? Some program to “bring them in”? What events might we do to attract people to our church. We have a beautiful building in a spectacular location with a view of ht Rocky Mountains.

Well, I thought an answer shouldn’t be too hard to determine because Jesus said it and prayed for it — unity among Christians who really love the way Jesus loved.

Then while studying John 17, the great “high priestly prayer” of Jesus, I came across this comment by pastor Bruce Milne and author of the Message of John (from The Bible Speaks Today series edited by the late John Stott). Milne’s comment quite literally “wowed” me.

[The mission] of the gospel has two hands. The ‘first hand’ is that of proclamation, the communicating to the world of the revelation of the FAther in the Son, climaxed by his self-sacrifice for the world’s sin . . . . But the mission has a ‘second hand.’ It is visible as well as verbal, relational as well as audible.

Evangelism is a community act. It is the proclamation of the church’s relationships as well as its convictions. The preacher is only the spokesperson of the community. The gospel proclaimed from the pulpit is either confirmed, and hence immeasurably enhanced, or it is contradicted, and hence immeasurably weakened, by the quality of the relationships in the pews. In this sense every Christian is a witness. Every time we gather together we either strengthen or weaken the evangelistic appeal of our church by the quality of our relationships with our fellow church members.

The biggest barriers to effective evangelism according to the prayer of Jesus are not so much outdated methods, or inadequate presentations of the gospel, as realities like gossip, insensitivity, negative criticism, jealousy, backbiting, an unforgivng spirit, a ‘root of bitterness,’ failure to appreciate others, self-preoccupation, greed, selfishness and every other form of lovelessness. These are the squalid enemies of effective evangelism which render the gospel fruitless and send countless thousands into eternity without a Saviour. ‘The glorious gospel of the blessed God,’ which is committed to our trust, is being openly contradicted and veiled by the sinful relationships within the community which is commissioned to communicate it. We need look no further to understand why the church’s impact on the community is frequently so minimal in spite of the greatness of our message. We are fighting with only one hand! (pages 250-51).

Like I said, Wow!

How Important are Christian Words?

"Words, words, words."

“Words, words, words.”

The email came back with four words that jumped off the page: “Nothing preachy; nothing churchy.”

The email was from a church to our church. The content had to do with a consortium of churches organizing for an outreach to the city. The outreach was an Easter egg hunt for children at a local park.

An Easter outreach.

Easter.

The distinctive claim of Christianity, indeed the absolute center of the gospel, is that Christ has risen from the grave, overruling death, hell, sin and the grave. Without this miraculous blessing, we would be the most miserable people on the planet. We wouldn’t have Easter without Christmas, but the point of Christmas is Easter. The point of the Incarnation is the Resurrection.

The words “incarnation,” and “resurrection” aren’t just words to mark the seasons of the year. They represent massive doctrinal truths on which Christianity stands. They are as important as “predestination,” “redemption,” “justification,” “sanctification,” “glorification,” “repentance,” and “faith.” Can you imagine a conversation about the gospel without intelligently using such words?

Why are words so important to the church? Recently, I read this from a David Mathis blog:

Before printing it and binding it and covering it with leather, consider the concept of God’s word. That God speaks. He reveals himself to us. He communicates himself for us. His word, as John Frame says, is ‘his powerful, authoritative self-expression.’ Just as the words of a friend are central in revealing his person to us, so it is with God.

When God speaks, he uses words to tell us what’s on his mind (Heb 1:1-4). He sustains us, and all things, by his word. Everything began with words, and everything will culminate in God speaking. His words surround us all day long: “Day to day pours out speech . . . There is no speech, nor are there words whose voice is not heart. Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” (Ps 19:2, 3). That’s a good thing because we are flooded by unimportant, trivial and meaningless words all day long, too. Your radio station’s four minute commercial break speaks those words.

Christians are people who read the word. We have Bibles that tells us what was on God’s mind at various points in salvation history. The Bible’s greatest word is Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. The words that Jesus spoke were and are “life and spirit.” The words that we speak can build up, tear down, give life or death, be a tree of life or a poison to the soul.

No doubt, we live in a digital visual age. Yet, as I look at this screen, I see words. These words originated in my heart in sometimes inarticulate or confusing ways, travel “up” to my brain where one side (I’m never sure if it’s the right or left) formulated words to give expression to (one hopes) articulate thoughts and arguments. Out came words. Sometimes they poured out; sometimes they failed me.

Words communicate more than information. They convey meaning. We are meaning-making people and we explain the meaning of our worlds with words. Words influence others and shape cultures. If you live in Minnesota, you know the meaning of “Uff-da” when uttered by an exasperated mom of four toddlers. If you’re in the bowels of Manhattan and you overhear someone say “fuggedaboutit,” you know it’s time to move on. If you ever had a Jewish friend say “Oy gevalt” you know you are about to be the recipient of some nasty kvetching.

These words, like many others, arise from a culture, a worldview and the words sustain both.

So, when I read that our church people had to avoid “preachy” or “churchy” words, I pondered a larger question: what might happen to our distinctive worldview and particular culture; and the church is a peculiar people, isn’t it? “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

That is not to say that we should talk to each other or unbelievers in KJVese. After all, we have newer translations that make the Bible more accessible than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Yet, even in the new translations, you will still find words like “predestination” or “redemption.”

Distinctly Christian words rescue people from darkness and bring them into light (a distinctive and useful Christian metaphor for salvation), and shape a distinctly Christian culture and the unique people of that culture. The church has conversations about sanctification and holiness and sin and repentance because we really live in the meanings of these words every day. They are a necessary part of our common experience as God’s people.

So, when I hear that Christians are invited to join an outreach effort prompted by the most distinctive event in salvation history, but are to “stifle it” (in the words of the late Archie Bunker), I wonder what we might have left to say? Surely, the word “Easter” is not a biblical word, but resurrection is; substitutionary sacrifice is; atonement is. Are not these important words to explain the meaning of Easter? Yes, they need further explanation to unbelievers (and sometimes to believers!). But the further explanations open up the privilege of unpacking (in words) the gospel that saves precious souls.

 

Should we Call it a “De-vival”?

relevant church

No, it’s not a typo. It’s a word I coined.

Let’s start with a definition of “revival.” A revival is that event in the life of the church when God pours out the Holy Spirit in a “larger” way than normal. Iain Murray defines a revival this way: “A revival is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, brought about by the intercession of Christ, resulting in a new degree of life in the churches and a widespread movement of grace among the unconverted. It is an extraordinary communication of the Spirit of God, a superabundance of the Spirit’s operations, an enlargement of his manifest power.”[1] Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who knew something of revivals first-hand, wrote that although the Lord blesses the church with the constant influence of the Spirit, there are “special seasons of mercy.”[2]

So, what is a “de-vival”? I am not using this word as a way of describing a church’s spiritual decay, like we might see among some of the churches in Revelation 1-3. In fact, I’m not applying this word to the church. Instead the word applies to our American and more broadly Western culture.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research and missiologist in residence at LifeWay Christian Resources (Nashville, TN), argues that the church in America is not in decline, “It is just being more clearly defined.”[3] His article is a response to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) and the Pew Research Study (2012) that caused a stir. Even Newsweek got into the stirring mode, when it published a cover story entitled “The End of Christian American.”  However, Stetzer insists “the sky is not falling.”

What is happening? “The church in the West – the United States included – is in transition right now. But transitioning is not the same as dying.”

Not all who check the box marked “Christian” are defining themselves as the Bible defines the word Christian. According to Stetzer’s research, there are three categories of “Christians” in America.

  • Cultural Christians are those who “believe themselves to be Christians simply because their culture tells them they are. They are Christian by heritage.”
  • Congregational Christians are similar to the first group, except they have some connection to congregational life. They have a “home church” in which they grew and perhaps married. They might even visit occasionally.
  • Convictional Christians are those who are actually living according to their faith. “These are the people who would say that they have met Jesus, he changed their lives” and they are increasingly orienting their lives around faith in Christ.

It is this last group that is “not leaving the faith.” Yet, the number of people in America who self-identify as “none” (no religious or faith identification) continues to increase. Something is happening in the culture. In my words, a “de-vival” in the culture.

However, a “de-vival” (i.e., decay) in the culture affects the church in a positive way.

Stetzer points out some important implications for the church from his reading of the researched tea-leaves. First, as Christians find themselves marginalized by the decaying society around us, we will be forced to count the cost of being Christian. Since the label “Christian” is already polarizing, it will only be more so as the society “de-vives.”

Second, there will be difficult times ahead for the church. Jesus told us exactly the same thing and then added: “but take courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Third, Christians will likely lose the culture war. Paul told us exactly the same thing (2 Tim 3:1-7).

Fourth, distinctions between Christians and the “ever-growing post-Christian culture” will demand that Christians and the church “set aside any nominal belief system and become active agents of God’s Kingdom.” The apostle John told us exactly the same thing (1 John 2:15-17).

The church will become bright and distinct in a growing place of darkness as it takes on the character of God’s people, “changed by the power of the gospel and propelled by love, moving into the mission field as agents of gospel transformation.”[4]

A “de-vival” in the culture will be an advantage for the church in mission and clarity. Our gospel will have to be clear, powerful and un-tampered with! Attempts to “pacify” unbelievers with a watered-down message will become a non-starter. No one ever met the glory of Christ in a down-graded gospel.

The “de-vival” of society will work to clarify the meaning of “Christian.” This is where Murray enters the picture again. In his book on revival quoted above, Murray asserts that revivals produce six good things, one of which is “definiteness to the meaning of Christian.”[5] He writes, “When the line between the church and the world has been blurred, and ideas of salvation have become vague and inclusivist, a revival always reasserts the real meaning of being a Christian.”[6]

Could it be that a “de-vival” in our society will mean a “revival” of the biblical picture of a Christian, the follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, “who has received the free pardon of sin and a new life solely through faith” in him?

What will our churches look like then? They will have a different “taste.” They will confidently invite the decaying and “de-viving” world to “taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps 34:8).

 

 

 


[1]Iain H. Murray, Pentecost – Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 24.

[2]Murray, Pentecost, 24.

[3]Ed Stetzer, “The State of the Church in America: Hint: It’s not Dying” [on-line]; accessed 4 October 2013; available from  http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/october/state-of-american-church.html; Internet.

[4]Stetzer, “State.”

[5]Murray, Pentecost, 175-77.

[6]Murray, Pentecost, 177.

What can the church of Jesus Christ learn from Atheists?

atheist churchIt was soooo tempting to leave the blog-page blank after the title above!

What do atheists possibly have to offer the church?

As ridiculous as this may sound, the spring 2013 Leadership Journal editors tentatively suggested taking advice from an atheists “church” in London, England. The “Sunday Assembly” was begun by Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, two British comedians. They are serious about being atheists. They say the “church” is a “friendly community gathering for like-minded people that meets once a month in a deconsecrated church.” Over 200 came for the first service and 300 the second.

What is “worship” like in a church that preaches “there is no God”? They start with a welcome and announcements, sing songs by Queen and Stevie Wonder with a live “praise” band, they have guest speakers and “readings are shared.”

All this is intended to say, “we don’t have faith, but [here’s] what we do have.” Since God is not central to the message or mission of an atheist church what do “worshippers” hear at the Sunday Assembly beside their favorite tunes? They hear a message that encourages them to “live better, help often, and wonder more.”

Moralistic, therapeutic, non-deism?

Here’s what I wonder: what am I as a Baptist pastor supposed to learn from an atheist church? What does the  article offer as the “take away” for Christians? Only these three things: remember that people long for community; people long to live for a bigger purpose and old ideas can have fresh packaging and energetic execution to attract people.

Really? That’s all you got? Bottom line – church is about the longings of people? Not God? Not the gospel? Please, I’ve heard enough.

Why does the church of Christ have to gain by looking to an atheist model for the measurement of community life? Do the editors presume that the church in America has forgotten that we are the community of Christ? What about a bigger purpose? Isn’t the mission of Christ through the spreading of the gospel itself a fairly big purpose? If pastors are not preaching Christ and his gospel at their Sunday gatherings, not wonder we have to look to the atheists! But what is so big and purposeful in “live better”? That’s not big, that’s small and self-defeating.

Frankly, I admit that I simply did not understand the insights about the “power of an old idea with a fresh expression and energetic execution.” I suppose that must mean that churches need to offer “high energy, high impact” worship services, as opposed to “low energy, durge-like impact”? I saw a “high energy” service offered in a local church in the Denver area. I admit; that did make me wonder — about the goal. Sounds more cathartic than Christ-worshiping. And really, if I want to sing “We are the Champions,” I’ll take in a Broncos game at the NFL Sunday gathering.

The evangelical church has been looking around for new “models” of “doing church” for a long time. Have we hit the bottom by looking to the fools (i.e., atheists) who say in their hearts “there is no God”? (Ps 14:1). As long as the church keeps up this practice of looking everywhere except at God’s word for “doing church,” we will be caught in the revolving door of confusion about who we are in Christ. We will mute the message and make our congregations dizzy from imbibing the poisonous concoctions of the world’s remedies.

Staying faithful to the Word,

Bob

Would Jesus Fit Your Church as the Pastor?

There is a misconception “out there” about Jesus. Those who like Jesus, like the Jesus they think lived as a tolerant, loving, gentle, man with a mission of caring for everyone with whom he came into contact. People want other people to “be more like Jesus” and they believe everything would be fine.

However, if they wanted their husband or their father or their pastor or their boss to be more like Jesus, they may not be happy with him. In fact, one radio pastor that my wife and I like to catch on Sunday morning before we head for church said, “As near as I can figure out, by today’s standards and according to some experts’ opinion, Jesus would not have been an overly successful parish preacher.” When the experts get done explaining what churches should be doing, Jesus wouldn’t fit the profile!

Here is the section of Pastor Ken Klaus’ sermon that caught my attention and delight. You can hear the full audio or download the manuscript at http://www.lutheranhour.org/.

“For example, today there is a belief which says Jesus was always accepting and always flexible and non-judgmental when He dealt with people. The experts assure us that Jesus would have no problem with any pastor or parish which is dedicated to finding the needs of its constituency and then doing that which provides the answers to those needs. That perspective of Jesus has allowed pastors to conclude, “If talking about things like sin and hell, repentance and blood-bought redemption is distasteful, then I will banish those terms from my message. If that cross put on the outside of my building by a previous generation is offensive, then I’ll take it down. If people prefer to hear how God is more concerned about their earthly solvency than He is about their eternal spirituality, well, that is what I will preach on a Sunday morning.”

“If my audience wants to be entertained, I will give them a circus; if they want worship with high production values, then I’ll hire Hollywood. If they want music which features a great beat in the place of a hymn with solid theological content, that is a small sacrifice to bring about a growing, satisfied congregation.” That’s what they think, but I think Jesus would disagree. Understand, Jesus did care about people, but the Bible tells us that when economic theories, financial strategies, and social speculations replace Christ crucified and risen, something is wrong. Anytime Christ is represented as being content with every manner of compromise and concession and doctrine is tarnished by indifference and indecision, by doubt and denial, Jesus has a problem and we should too. When Jesus’ humanity is emphasized and His divinity is diminished, there is a problem.

“Yes, there is a problem when such aberrations and deviations permeate a congregation’s worship and education, fellowship and service. There is a problem when the church thinks of itself as an enormous theological smorgasbord where people can browse the philosophical buffet and pick those doctrines which are most tolerable to their particular tastes and personal pallets.

“No, as near as I can tell, Jesus would not approve of or have done well at such a parish. I say that because, when it came to His church, Jesus was more interested in quality rather than quantity. As evidence, I share the day when a fellow came to the Savior and asked, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” It was a good question and Jesus answered it by saying: “Strive to enter (heaven) through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” And if you are wondering what is the narrow door to heaven, the book of Romans (5:8) tells us this: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The narrow door to heaven is that which has been opened by the blood of Jesus shed on Calvary’s cross. There our sins were wiped away; there Jesus finished His work of taking our place under the law and with His resurrection from the dead, those who believe are saved from their sins. This Jesus has done, and ever since that day He has been looking for those who are ready to worship Him in spirit and in truth.

“Of course there are those who would reply, “That may have been what was preached centuries ago, but it no longer works today. Nobody wants to hear such things. If we are going to succeed, if we are to fill up stadiums and build mega-churches, we need to have a new message, a new way of reaching out to people. If the church is to grow, we need to make the message pleasing, appealing, and engaging.” That’s the common belief, but it is not a belief taught by Jesus. No, the Savior said, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one can come unto the Father except through me.” He did not say there are a number of ways, a bunch of truths, a Christmas string of lights that can give salvation. Jesus and Jesus alone is the door to heaven.

The church in America is at least anemic. A steady entertainment diet for these thirty years has left the evangelical church undernourished and overfed. Do you think we need the Bread of heaven? Not every church, of course, is this way, but enough of them are that the difference between a worldly church and a worldly world is thinner than a bagel crisp. The evangelical church tried the entertainment business in the middle ages and that didn’t work out very well then, either!

So, that is why I admire and commend Pastor Klaus’ boldness. Our churches, Lutheran or Baptist, Presbyterian or Methodist, need this kind of clear thinking, sound preaching and the church’s faithful Savior. May there be more Klauses in more pulpits in our land.

“Pastor, where do altar calls come from?” (Part 2)

the altar callThe name Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) may not be familiar to many Christians. However, you would be very familiar with his practice of evangelism. The name Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844) will be even less familiar, if known at all. If not for Finney’s “fixed determination [and] rigidity of purpose and [the] absolute conviction of the rightness of his way”[1] of evangelism, no one would ask today “where do altar calls come from?” In the nineteenth century, Finney perfected what the Methodist open-air camp meeting preachers began (see my previous blog). In the twentieth century, it became the distinctive mark of the Billy Graham Crusades. In the twenty-first century, no one can imagine a time when an altar call was not the norm in many Baptist churches.

The unconverted Finney was a 29 year old law apprentice with a forceful personality that influenced people away from Christ![2] After his conversion, he became a forceful personality urging men and women “to decide for Christ.”[3] He left behind his ambition for a law career to pursue theological studies and eventual ordination in the Presbyterian Church (1824). Finney worked with Rev. George W. Gale and became a frontier missionary. In the fall of 1825, Finney relocated to Western New York State where he saw a spiritual awakening in the churches that became known as the “Western revival” in 1827.[4]

The following year controversy arose from a body of Presbyterian ministers concerned over the “irregularities and confusion introduced into revivals at the West.”[5] Revivals were never clean and orderly, even in Jonathan Edwards’ day. Asahel Nettleton, an equally powerful and effective Congregational evangelist led the way in cautioning the churches and Finney-imitators regarding Finney’s methods.[6]  Nettleton’s attempt to analyze Finney’s methods and warn about their use represented the concerns that were spreading among orthodox ministers and churches. Finney defended his methods in a sermon called, “Can Two Walk Together Except they be Agreed?” in which he denounced Nettleton and the others as nothing more than worldly men whose hearts were “cold as those of impenitent sinners”![7] Finney defended the “measures” used (as he called them) to convert sinners as inseparable from the preacher and the Spirit. To oppose the measures meant to oppose the man of God and God’s Spirit.

Finney’s results of “decisions for Christ” caused euphoria among his followers. Decisions, not conversions, became the new standard of success and the innovation of the “new measures” received the credit. With the success of his evangelistic meetings, Finney became even more unwilling to consider any criticism, especially from Nettleton. Soon people began to claim that Finney “had converted souls”!

New Measures

What were these “new measures” and from what theological ground did they spring? Finney believed that the whole of human nature was not completely fallen. If God commanded something in Scripture, Finney believed humans were fully capable of obeying the command by engaging their will in a decision. Ground for this view came from Finney’s belief that “[God] had no right to command unless we have power to obey . . . God is tyrannical if He commands that which is impracticable.”[8] Finney completely missed the biblical view of fallen humanity when he wrote that the doctrine of original sin was “a monstrous and blasphemous dogma.” He could not believe “that a holy God [would be] angry with any creature for possessing a nature with which he was sent into being without his knowledge or consent . . . Original or constitutional sinfulness, physical regeneration, and all their kindred and resulting dogmas, [are] alike subversive of the gospel and repulsive to the human intelligence.”[9] The idea that a fallen will was “unable to freely choose [to obey God] was especially repugnant.”

Finney concluded that there is no problem in the human heart any deeper than the will, therefore all that is necessary for conversion is a decision of the will, not the transformation of a nature that is at war with God (Eph 2:1-3). Thus, Finney made his theological home with Pelagius’ (AD 354-420) view of the not-so-nearly-ruined human nature.[10]

If a decision of the will was all that was necessary, then he must create a strategy to excite the will of the sinner to decide for Christ. (Notice that neither repentance nor conversion were in his creative sights). Finney’s new measures were designed specifically for this purpose. By promoting the right methods, revivals were insured; the means of revival were now in the hands of the church. Simply put, when sinners decided to obey Christ, they became Christians and members of the local church immediately. A sinner’s attention needed to be gained in order to make a decision. To gain attention, Finney wrote that “you must have something new.”[11]

In order to create excitement in a service, Finney used protracted meetings with many appeals for sinners to stand or kneel or come to the “anxious seat” or the “mourner’s bench” to make a decision for Christ. These methods made decisions “quick, as they ought to be”[12] and countable.

In American society then as now, numbers mattered. The upside of the altar call was and is that it provides a speedy way of securing knowledge of conversion. If response to the gospel could be made instantly visible, then we know we have successfully evangelized! But therein lies the dilemma: a decision and coming forward to the altar became synonymous with assurance of salvation.

I am a pastor. I ask God to bring sinners to our church every Sunday to hear the good news of what God has done for them in Christ. A conversion to faith in Christ is a greater miracle than creation! It is a new condition that the sinner enters: their eyes are open to the beauty of Christ, they turn away from the darkness of sin and the corruptions of the world and the flesh and the power of Satan, they receive forgiveness of sins and a home in the family of God as they grow in holiness (Acts 26:18). I want to know when a sinner is converted!

But we must look carefully at the nature of a conversion and the evidence of it before we affirm that it has genuinely taken place. Read how Luke describes conversions in the book of Acts. Some are dramatic, like Paul’s (Acts 9). Some are earthshaking, like the Philippian jailer (Acts 16). Some are right in the middle of a pretty good sermon, like Cornelius (Acts 10). Some are because of reading a biblical text and needing a little help in understanding, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). Some are quiet and hardly noticed, like Lydia’s (Acts 16). All of them have something in common: a change in attitude, and outlook, rooted in a changed heart. Each person responded differently but each exhibited the marks of a new life in Christ in seedlike ways. The Bible calls this a “circumcised heart” (Rom 2:29).

Responding to an altar because someone has been excited by a passionate preacher and protracted pleas, or emotionally moving music (or loud music), or a visually stunning video presentation or promises of a free book also share something in common: man-made efforts to do a good thing for the wrong reasons.

If I thought that the validity of “my ministry” rested on the results I planned, then years ago I’d have been too discouraged to continue. It is not that good and spiritual things have not happened; it’s just that they didn’t happen the way I planned or when I planned. They seemed to happen in spite of my efforts and definitely on God’s time table.

Until Finney’s day, revivals were viewed as the sovereign work of God’s Spirit, not something manufactured and whipped up by human innovation. However, that is not to say that pastors and churches should not band together to pray for revival. We should! We must! We must pray earnestly for the lost around us. We must sow the seed of the gospel promiscuously, patiently, fervently, and lovingly. But we must also submit to God’s sovereign decision at to when, where, who and for how long he would refresh his people and bring in a harvest of sinners during a revival.

The way you know if you are able to do this is to think about your answer to this question: are you willing to pray fervently for revival in your church for twenty years, die and never know that the fruit of your earnest prayers came twelve years after your death?

 


[1]Michael A. G. Haykin, “Asahel Nettleton, Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) and the Controversy over the ‘New Measures’” (classroom lecture, 80914 – Spiritual Awakenings and Revival, Lecture 20, Summer 2009, photocopy), 2.  Haykin quotes from Keith J. Hardman’s book Charles Grandison Finney, 1792-1875, Revivalist and Reformer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990).

[2]Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust 1994), 229.

[3]A friend sent me a  photocopy of a Time Magazine article about Billy Graham, the “gaunt young man with the Hickey-Freeman clothes and the eagle-sharp manner.” It said of him that his manner “is brigning men and women down from the packed stands and up the length of the baseball field to make ‘decisions for Christ.’ (October 25, 1954).

[4]Murray, Revival, 229.

[5]Murray, Revival, 230.

[6]Bennet Tyler and Andrew Bonar, The Life and Labors of Asahel Nettleton [on-line]; accessed 12 June 2013; available from http://www.reformedreader.org/rbb/nettleton/ahbr.htm. It is estimated that some 30,000 souls were added to the churches of New England under Nettleton’s ministry.

[7]Murray, Revival, 231.

[8]Murray, Revival, 245.

[9]Haykin, “Lecture 20,” 4.  Haykin quotes Finney’s Lectures on Systematic Theology.

[10]Augustine had lots to say about Pelagius’ view! See Augustine’s Confessions.

[11]Murray, Revival, 246. Murray quotes Finney’s work on revival.

[12]Murray, Revival, 246.

“Pastor, where do altar calls come from?”

the altar callIf you were at a worship service where people started to “fall under the power” (i.e., to the floor as if dead or asleep), would you think: a) “Wow! God is really on the move with mighty acts of salvation;” b) “Wow! These people are really holy;” or c) “Whoa! Where’s the exit? I’ve got to get out here fast.”

Emotionalism is nothing new in the church, especially during times of revival. Christians genuinely hungering for a “move of the Spirit” have experienced some remarkable times of spiritual harvest and growth. Up until the turn of the 19th century most thought of a revival as something that came by the sovereign will of God. Congregations would pray for the Spirit to “come down” but it was not an event to be planned and scheduled on the church calendar.

This was the theological conviction of those pastors and churches that experienced the First Great Awakening in New England in the middle 18th century. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who saw two incredible moves of the Spirit in his Northampton church, wrote extensively about the revivals and their effects on the lives of those who were changed; his own wife being one of them.[1]

However, with the arrival of “camp meetings” in the middle 1700’s conducted by Methodist and Presbyterian ministers, new theological considerations about revivals began to take root. Eventually these became new theological commitments supplanting the old theological commitments. In fact, over time these leaders concluded that “If camp meetings and altar calls could produce the same number of ‘converts’ as revivals, what was the difference between them?”[2] Hence, a routine (or ritual?) for creating revivals soon replaced the real thing.

Some will tell you that the “altar call” or “invitation” came with the inventive measures of Charles G. Finney (1792-1875). He may have refined the practice, but it began earlier with the Methodist camp meetings in the American mid-west and south. No one is sure of the origin of the practice of the altar call. What most agree upon is that the altar call accompanied open-air meetings. An open-air meeting was common since John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitfield (1714-1770) in England. The meeting was a popular way of bringing spiritually hungry people together to hear the faithful preaching of God’s Word. But as one historian of American open-air camp meetings noted: “The camp meeting’s appeal was not just to the spirit of man hungering after righteousness but to his gregarious nature seeking surcease from the loneliness and hardship of the frontier.”[3]

The style of preaching at this time appears to have been dispassionate and perhaps a little heady. Americans wanted something different. Passionate and emotional camp meetings preachers found people more responsive to their messages and would display “nervous agitation” over the condition of their soul. There were accounts of “twitching” or “jerks” and dancing. At first, not many were happy about these outbursts but some who led these revivals were encouraged by what they saw and did nothing to prevent the excesses of physical phenomenon, like “the falling exercise.” In fact, these were taken as a “miraculous” move of God signaling the dawn of a new age of freedom in the Spirit. People claimed this new freedom in order to minister to one another in visions, dreams and prophecies (rather than “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19)?)

Lots of immature ministers added to the “maelstrom of confusion.”[4] The real problem behind the unfettered emotion was the ministers who “were like a parcel of boys suddenly [tumbling] out of a boat, who had been unaccustomed to swim, and knew not the way to shore. Some fixed upon one error and some upon another.”[5]

These had disastrous effects upon the churches, especially among the Presbyterians. The Separator-in-Chief (i.e., Satan) was at work in the churches. Any who criticized these events was labeled a “cold or dead” pastor, doing what could be done to hinder the work of the Spirit. Some pastors left their ministries to join the Shakers. If the ministers gave into error, they gave into corresponding ungodly behaviors. Churches split, married couples separated, children were given up.

As the camp meetings became increasingly disorderly, there was a related growth of new denominations, “all claiming to represent true religion.”[6] The camp meeting experience demonstrated what can happen when men and women untaught in the Scriptures decide for themselves its meaning. Although they claimed the Scripture as their only authority, “they could all too easily be carried away by things to which Scripture gives no sanction.”[7]

However, it would be too much to conclude that nothing spiritually genuine happened in these camp meeting revivals. Where leadership was sound in Scripture and congregations well-taught, faithful doctrine and conduct were maintained.

So how did these camp meetings influence the present-day question posed to many a pastor: “Why don’t you do altar calls?”

That’s the subject of the next blog!


[1]See three of Edwards’ works about revivals for helpful insights: A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton (1737), A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742) and A Humble Attempt (1748, a call to concerts of prayer among Christian churches for revival).

[2]Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 190.

[3]Murray, Revivalism, 165. Murray quotes W. B. Posey author of Frontier Mission: A History of Religion West of the Appalachians (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1966), 25.

[4]Murray, Revivalism, 170.

[5] Murray, Revivalism, 170.  My italics.

[6]Murray, Revivalism, 173.

[7]Ibid., 174.

“Pastor, why don’t you give an invitation at the end of your sermon?”

the altar call At least a couple of times each year, I am asked if our church “does altar calls.” My typical answer is “No, we don’t normally do ‘altar calls.’” The next question is “Why not?” If the answer is a “deal-breaker,” then I will hear a polite, “Oh . . . I see.” The intonation communicates the unspoken thought: “You’re one of those preachers.” I suppose they mean Calvinistic.

Being committed to Reformed theology reduces the getting-people-saved pressure of other forms of evangelism. Getting people to “come to the altar” to “receive Jesus into their hearts” by “praying the sinner’s prayer” seems to be the goal behind altar calls. A recent conversation with a man who is committed to altar calls and believes I am wrong for not doing them, prompted me to think about a wide range of subjects regarding “the invitation.”

The “invitation” typically follows a sermon. In my experience, the sermon may or may not have anything to do with the gospel. My guess is that “invitations” were given in order to accomplish two natural impulses in the preacher. First, we want to see people submit their lives to Christ and respond to the gospel. Second, perhaps preachers don’t think they’ve done their “job” without adding the gospel invitation at some point in the sermon. I suspect this arises because preaching the gospel in the sermon is almost a foreign notion in much of contemporary American preaching.

But back to my phone caller who asked me why I don’t give an invitation. We began a brief discussion about why he thought an altar was necessary. What was curious was his conclusion as to the necessity of altar calls. He believes, as many do who want to see altar calls, that people need to be given an opportunity to respond to the gospel. Typically, someone will argue that since Jesus walked publicly to his crucifixion, a repentant sinner should not be ashamed to walk publicly down an aisle. Once the sinner has “come forward,” he or she is invited to pray “the sinner’s prayer.” It’s at this point that I asked my friend what “coming forward” was to accomplish. He told me that the intention is to give the repentant sinner assurance that their sins are forgiven, and that they are saved. Then I asked, “How do you know that?” My friend admitted that he did not really know that since no one can know the heart. So, I asked, then why are you assuring a sinner of something that you cannot affirm has happened in their heart? If you assure them of something that you cannot be sure has happened to them, they may believe that they are converted (you are the expert) and yet walk away unconverted. They may have put their assurance in their response and your affirmation rather than Christ. That seems more spiritually harmful and less helpful.

He didn’t have a good answer; although he did chortle a bit.

Here’s the point. In all the years I saw and poorly practiced “altar calls,” I have also seen some of those people walk away from church never to return. I have also heard people mistakenly put their assurance of salvation in their response: the walk down the aisle, or in their prayer, or in the signed and dated card still carried in their wallets.

The sadness of this “assurance” is its inherent weakness: the repentant sinner. Responses to the gospel not the places where assurance is found. Trust in any form of response has one thing in common: what I have done. The Bible is clear that response to the gospel is based on what Christ has done.

When I pressed my friend on this and asked why he didn’t point people to take assurance from Christ and study John’s first letter for assurance, he chuckled and said, “But, it helps them.”

My friend wants to talk with me further about my deficiency as a preacher. I suspect we will. However, what this conversation prompted me to do is to analyze the psychology behind and roots for the potential for spiritual manipulation behind altar calls. In my next blog, I’ll tell how altar calls were invented and why.

By the way, if you are in anything but a Liturgical church (i.e., baptistic), where is the altar?