More than an Underdog

The reason for this persistent story line of the Bible is not simply because the writers like underdogs. It is because the ultimate example of God’s working in the world was Jesus Christ, the only founder of a major religion that died in disgrace, not surrounded by all of his loving disciples but abandoned by everybody whom he cared about, including his Father. He was the victim of a miscarriage of justice and he died oppressed and helpless. Jesus Christ’s salvation comes to to us through his poverty, rejection, and weakness. And Christians are not saved by summoning up their strength and accomplishing great deeds but by admitting their weakness and need for a savior.

–Tim Keller, Making Sense of God, p. 208

We All Believe

All knowing begins with what Michael Polanyi calls a “fiduciary framework.” (fiduciary = pertaining to fides, “involving trust”): an interpretive framework that one takes initially on faith until it proves itself by yielding a harvest of understanding…If Polanyi is right, Christian theology is no worse of than modern science. Everyone has to have faith in something to get the knowing process started…A good case could be made for making Scripture the Christians’ default fiduciary framework, the source and norm of theological knowledge and wisdom.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel, p. 100

“The Benedict Option” by Rod Dreher–Reflections

Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, has been something of a lightning rod (pun intended) in current discussion. Some have taken an enthusiastic liking to it, while others have not been so favorable towards it. Much of the concern seems to cluster around the idea that Dreher is advocating for Christians to withdraw from the wider culture. To some, it sounds like old-school fundamentalism: “Leave the corrupt world behind and only spend time with Christians!”

I think such a reading misses Dreher’s point. Dreher acknowledges that the Benedict Option is really about the church being the church. The church must stop compromising with the world and be a distinctive community: “A church that looks and talks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist” (121).

Dreher’s strongest points come when he addresses the internal life of the church. He calls for the church to hold the line on sound doctrine and practice. She needs to stop being influenced by the world and reclaim its tradition and heritage. She must grow deeper “roots” to weather the cultural storm.

Reflections on Church and Culture

Dreher goes beyond calling the church to reform herself, however, and expands his discussion to how the church should relate to the wider culture. The church-culture relationship is something which theologians have argued about throughout the history of the church. (Tertullian famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” trying to relate reason and faith). Although there may be some growing consensus in the broader evangelical world,  one position on the church’s cultural engagement will probably never win over the majority of the church. Consequently, Dreher’s ideas will always be open to critique. Two key assumptions drive Dreher’s proposal for cultural engagement.

First, Dreher assumes that “Christendom” is a good thing.

For centuries, western society was upheld by a Christian social “imaginary.”  The church heavily influenced the culture so much so that certain beliefs were woven into the very fabric of daily life. Dreher sees three key beliefs as part of the western Christian social imaginary, especially in medieval Europe:

  • God created the world which order and meaning. All things are signs which point to God
  • Society is grounded on this higher reality
  • The world is infused with spiritual force and reality

Dreher sees these beliefs as good things. He also thinks that Christendom was a good thing. But was it? Even Dreher admits that medieval Europe had significant problems: “Medieval Europe was no Christian utopia. The church was spectacularly corrupt, and the violent exercise of power–at times by the church itself–seemed to rule the world” (25). Yet Dreher sees the social cohesion and integration of the medieval worldview as being worth enduring the difficulties and atrocities perpetuated by the church.

It is at this point where Dreher’s proposal runs into trouble in my estimation. There may have been greater social cohesion within medieval Europe because nations were “Christian,” but at what cost? Great violence? Early death?

When the church adopts the the sexual libertarianism of the contemporary culture, it is compromised. It is no less compromised, however, when it uses violence to enforce its will. The church is defiled when she gets in bed with political power and becomes the religion mandated by the state.

Christianity is a “faith.” One thing faith cannot be is coerced. Faith, although a gift from God, is also an act of the will. Christendom, in my estimation, encourages widespread nominalism: people are “Christians” because they were born into it, not because they were born again by God and exercised true faith in Christ. This is the problem with the Bible Belt! People attend church or even take on the label of “Christian” without having ever been made new by the gospel.

Second, Dreher assumes a sacramental view of life.

According to Dreher, the people of the medieval ages believed that, “All things that existed, even time, [were] sacramental. That is, they believed that God was present everywhere and revealed Himself to us through people, places, and things, through His power flowed” (24). Dreher sees the erosion of a sacramental view of life as sucking out the meaning and significance of life: “The long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning has delivered to us a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection” (46).

Is a sacramental view of life true? It is true that the, “Heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). It is true that all people everywhere at all times know God exists, but suppress the truth in unrighteous (Romans 1:18-23). But such verses in Scripture do not support a sacramental worldview.

If God reveals Himself through people, places, and things, it seems that superstition and idolatry can abound. If God truly reveals Himself through things other than Scripture, then those things could be worthy of worship. Medieval Christians would often make pilgrimages to all over Europe just to be in the presence of relics. The Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin, rightly saw such veneration of objects and icons as idolatry.

If God’s revelation of Himself is untethered from His word, then people can find “signs” in all kinds of things. But God explicitly gives us the proper interpretation of events in His word. Unless we have special revelation, we cannot interpret the course of history or particular events as being “of God.” Of course, God is sovereign. Of course, God is directing history for His own purposes. But that is a long way of being able to properly interpret the events of one’s life as being God’s hand. Why did you get sick last week? Was it because God is punishing you for some sin? Or for some other reason? We will probably never be able to know this side of eternity.

Rather than adopting a sacramental worldview, I think a better construct is to adopt a “typological” worldview. Typology, first and foremost, is a way of interpreting the Scriptures. The Bible speaks of “types” where people, places, and institutions point to Christ. Adam is a famous example (Romans 5:14). Just as Adam was head of the human race and his actions affected all people, so Christ is head of the new humanity and His actions bring justification to all who believe. In this sense, Adam points to Christ.

It’s important to note that in typology, the types are real, historical things. They do not lose their meaning and become obliterated because of the fulfillment in Christ. Types point us to Christ and remind us of aspects of His person and work.

A typological worldview, then, see this world as certainly declaring God’s glory. But it also acknowledges that we need God’s word to give a proper interpretation of the “facts.” As Dreher puts it, in a Reformational view, the meaning of life is “accessible to humans by faith in [God] and His revelation of alone” (28). So although a “table” may remind us of the Lord’s table and the communion we have with Him through faith, a table is not a means of grace and way of coming to know God.

Conclusion

Dreher’s book is definitely worth reading. Although I have focused on some points of critique here, there is so much good in this book. In fact, one of the great positives of this book is that so many people have reacted strongly to it that it forced me to read it for myself and come to my conclusions!

 

How To Deliver a Gripping Sermon

Many preaching books focus on the content of preaching. They will provide a detailed method of understanding the Bible and then turning your study into an outline to preach. But what happens when you actually get up to speak? How do you keep people awake?

Saving Eutychus cover

In their preaching book, Saving Eutuchys, Gary Millar and Phil Campbell cover the content of preaching and delivery. In terms of delivery, Campbell provides helpful tips in chapter six, entitled “Stand and Deliver.”

What makes a compelling sermon? Campbell says that it is “verbal energy” (101). A preacher’s “verbal energy” not only inform what he says, but how he says it. The same sermon could be delivered by two different pastors. The one that sticks? The one with more verbal energy.

The million-dollar question, then, is, “How do you develop verbal energy”?

1. Use contrast

When speaking, “make the bold really bold.” (102). Make your loud times LOUD. Make your soft time, softer than you could imagine (whisper maybe?)

2. Vary Volume, Pitch, and Pace

Campbell gives a visual illustration of the three components of speaking in what is called the “Delivery Sphere”:

Delivery Sphere

His advice is to vary all three of these components to their end range. Unfortunately, most preachers believe they have more variety in their delivery than they actually have (106).

3. Be Agile

Preachers need to know how to go from loud to soft, high pitch to low, fast to slow. And do it in a way which is not distracting or misplacing the emphasis (107). The problem with agility is that it comes at a cost: “When you try speaking like that, which I urge you to do, you’ll find that it takes a huge amount of energy. But it’s exactly that energy that’s transmitted to your listeners” (108).

You Can Keep People Awake

You, even you, can keep people awake while you speak. No more nodding off. No more dozing while talking about the greatest news in the world: the redemption that comes through Christ. It is possible to preach God’s word and keep people awake!

You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith (Or, how do you grow in love?)

You are what you love

James K.A. Smith in his book You Are What You Love. According to Smith, love is “a baseline inclination” of the heart (16). All people love something at the core of their being. Not only is love at the core of who people are; love is a virtue. And “virtues, quite simply, are good moral habits” (16). We can see evidence of virtues when Christ-like characteristics become “second nature” (17).

So how do we grow in Christ and acquire such virtues (17)? First, we acquire virtues through imitation. We see what others do, and then follow their example. Second, we practice the virtues (18). This understanding of the virtues also comports well with Tim Keller’s view of love in his book, The Meaning of Marriage. Keller writes, “You can change your heart over the long haul through your actions” (106).  We grow in love by loving–by actually doing acts of love–not  merely by “feeling” in love. Keller argues for a distinction between feelings and actions (105). God commands us to love our neighbors, which means we must act with love towards them.

Love is a habit, which takes practice to develop. How do we develop this godly habit of love? Smith’s answer: worship (22-23). As we worship, what we love changes. Naturally, this leads to the question: What is the practice of worship? “Liturgy” is Smith’s answer.

In competition with a God-ordained liturgy, Smith shows rival “liturgies” are practiced in the wider culture. For example, going to the mall does something to us! The mall is not a neutral place, but actually seeking to influence us in certain ways. How then do we displace the counter liturgies of the world which lure us and train us?

We must practice liturgy (61). It means connecting to a covenantal community (i.e. the  church). Second, we must commit to practices that we won’t naturally want to do (62). (We must be committed “spiritual disciplines” to use a concept from Dallas Willard). Smith advocates for both individual disciplines and corporate disciplines: “I want to supplement [Dallas] Willard’s emphasis on the individual practices of the spiritual disciplines with what might be a counterintuitive thesis in our ‘millennial’ moment: that the most potent, charged, transformative site of the Spirit’s work is found in the most unlikely of places—the church!” (68). To quote Craig Dykstra, “The life of Christian faith is the practice of many practices” (68).

What practices constitute the “means of grace” or spiritual disciplines?

  • The Word
  • Prayer
  • Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper)
  • Singing
  • Giving
  • Serving

Worship reforms our loves. Proper worship must “properly liturgical.” Although the Protestant Reformers often wrote against liturgy because of its association with Roman Catholicism, Smith writes that, “The problem was not liturgy per se, but disordered liturgies” (69). The Reformers criticized man-centered liturgies. Man-centered liturgies emphasized people’s actions. Through their actions, people were taught they could earn God’s favor. God-centered liturgies are different: “Christian worship is nothing less than an invitation to participate in the life of the Triune God” (70).

Since worship forms them, Christians need to be conscious and intentional about forms of worship. If we unhook worship from mere expressionism, it would change the way we view repetition. If worship is primarily about “expressing yourself,” then you won’t want to repeat the same songs, or practices. Doing so will be insincere or inauthentic to you. However, if worship is really an encounter with God who reshapes your deepest habits (loves), then repetition is a good thing. It’s the way that God changes our habits. When viewed this way, repetition isn’t insincere. You’re submitting to God and allowing Him to change you. There is no growth “without practice and no practice without repetition.” (80).

It is thoughtful and intentional practice which changes us. Take a golf swing. You could go out to the golf course and just swing a golf club. But you would develop a bad habit. To change into being a good golf player, you would need to think and be intentional about changing your swing. After time, you would have to think less as your swings would be instinctual. Growing as a golfer would mean continuing to practice your swing and becoming more conscious of other areas in need of improvement. You form your habits; then your habits form you.

 

 

Don’t Do an Altar Call; Call for a Response Instead

Altar calls have had a controversial place in the history of the American church. Some churches may do them practically every week, while other churches do not believe that altar calls are biblical. Even those who would resist doing a stereotypical altar calls, or “hand raise” (“…every head bowed, every eye closed…”), still believe in calling for a response to the preaching of the gospel. How can pastors call for a response to the gospel and yet not fall prey to unbiblical practices or forcing people into making hasty emotional decisions? Theologian Michael Green provides a helpful method in his book, Evangelism Through the Local Church

First, as the sermon winds to a close, the preacher must give a “clear and reasonably rounded presentation of the gospel” (252). Otherwise, preachers become like salesmen. After clearly presenting the gospel, it is entirely appropriate to urge unbelievers to come to Christ. Such is Paul’s heart in 2 Corinthians 5:20: “We urge you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Then, Green suggests giving a time of silence for the people. He might repeat a prominent verse of Scripture that has been presented in the sermon and then provide one or two minutes of silence (254). After the time of silence, he suggests giving a prayer of commitment for “those who want to use it, and only for them” (254). Green’s example explanation and prayer goes something like this:

I say: ‘If you feel you don’t know how to put it, why not use something very simple like this? You could say it after me under your breath if you like. “Lord, please forgive me, and come take up residence in my life. Amen” (254).

Green goes on bless the congregation, speaking about God’s promises and how He will never leave or forsake the people who put their trust in Christ. After the blessing, he says something like this for follow up:

One thing more, as you go. If you have taken that step of opening up to Christ, and if you have prayed that prayer with me just now, I would love to meet you briefly. I want to invite you into what we call a Discovery Group. It is an eight-week course on Christian foundations, and we have one or more groups starting this coming week. I think you will find it a great place to join a group like this where there is plenty of chance for questions and discussion, but where we take a major theme of the Christian life and study it each week. If you intend to be serious with Christ, come and join one of these groups. You need it, and you will benefit from it a great deal. I have the details here at the front (or the back, or wherever you think fit). Come and sign up and I’ll see you have the details about which groups you are in by tomorrow (254).

Another way to draw people to you after the service is to offer people a book on basic Christian living. Green writes, “If at the end of your talk you mention that you have such material, it gives them something to come and ask for and therefore minimizes the embarrassment of going to talk to a minister about God at the end of a service.” (254).

 

Forget Your Birthday; Are You Alive?

Conversion [to Jesus Christ] may be a crisis; it may be a process. Even a crisis like birth is really a process…It would be stupid to argue whether birth or growth is the more important element in our experience. We are born to grow. And so it is in the Christian life. Some can remember the date of their conversion. Others cannot. What does it matter? Some people know their birthdays. Others do not. And none of us would know if our mothers had not told us! The important thing is not the date of birth, known or unknown, but whether or not we are alive.

Michael Green, Evangelism through the Local Church, pg. 38