Four Helpful Words Before You Preach That Awkward Word

awkwardEvery pastor has sermons that they hate to preach, especially when it comes to cultural flashpoints. Unless you’re a glutton for conflict, or you’ve got nerves of steel, the thought of misunderstanding, rejection, or turning someone off from the Gospel because you’ve got to preach on that subject this week when Joe happens to be bringing his 10 unsaved, unchurched friends might just cause you some nerves.

The tension is there for various reasons. First, you want to be faithful to God’s word. You don’t want to hem or hedge or cover over what God has spoken. It’s God’s word and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s truth that, even when it cuts, leads to the beautiful healing brought about by the Spirit. Then again, you also want people to properly hear what was actually spoken, as opposed to what they’ve been culturally-trained to hear as soon as a couple of key buzzwords are dropped. As wonderful as the Word is, aside from our own natural resistance, people have mishandled it, creating a natural, understandable hesitation about certain hot-button topics.

In these situations, I have found that it’s helpful to say a few words before, or with, or after, those words we’re a little worried to utter or expound. Consider them framing words. They help set up, frame, or prepare your people to process what you’re about to say. To use an odd, distracting image, it’s like trying to clear some wax out of the ears before putting in headphones. You want as little hindering your people as possible. What’s more, these are the kinds of helpful conversation-framers that teach your people how to talk to outsiders beyond Sunday morning in the pews. By the way, at the outset, you need to know that I probably got all of these from Tim Keller at some point.

So what are these ‘words’?

1. Culture changes, so do our presuppositions. The first point is that our moral intuitions, while there for our good, are culturally-shaped, and therefore pretty malleable. Things that just “felt wrong” to people 60 years ago, didn’t feel wrong 60 years before that, and vice versa. Or again, things that just “seem obviously right” to someone in the Middle East, will “seem obviously wrong” to someone in downtown Chicago. Yes, there is a fundamental human nature, with instincts for the basic shape of right and wrong, but like our sense of fashion it’s got a certain sense drift. We’ve worn jeans for a while now, but in the 90s they were baggy and under your butt. Now, they’re skinny compressed. At both times, they “feel right” as pants, despite their wide difference.

In a similar way, some of the Bible’s answers will make intuitive sense to people out in the culture and sometimes they won’t. Right now the Bible’s answers about grounding the nature of human rights, cultivating empathy, compassion and forgiveness, all resonate with our culture even if they don’t buy the story. In other areas like sex and money, the Bible’s message is going to grate. Sometimes, then, the Bible’s answers are like an odd image on puzzle-piece. It’s only when you’ve placed it in the broader picture, that it will make any sense.

2. The Unchanging Cultural Universal. The next truth that goes hand in hand with the last point is that no culture has ever been universally right on every point. Every culture has blind spots. As Lewis has pointed out before, we might look back on the Medievals and judge them for their violence and love of marshall conquest, while they would look at an age like ours and wonder at our cheap view of sex, or physical cowardice. Compassion towards outsiders might be a premium we champion, but our lack of loyalty in marriage, or our workaholism and materialistic consumerism are things that other ages and cultures would look at us and shake their heads at. Just like human individuals, the Bible teaches that human cultures are both filled with common grace truth and yet broken by sin. If that’s the case, if the Bible is the transcultural truth of God, wouldn’t we expect for it to affirm and challenge each culture and age in different spots?

3. First Things First.  Next, and this one is mostly for the skeptics or newbies checking out the faith, keep first things first. As Keller asks in The Reason for God, “Surely you don’t want to say that just because you don’t like what the Bible says about, issue x (women, same-sex marriage, etc) you don’t believe Jesus rose from dead? You wouldn’t want to make such a non-sequitur.” The point is this: Figure out the main things first and then come back for the tough, but peripheral stuff. There is an order of importance in the Christian faith for which beliefs ground other beliefs. In other words, who cares what the Bible says about contraception or gender roles if Jesus never rose from the dead? If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then, as Paul says, “your faith is futile and you’re still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:12-20), so who cares right? So, if you’re troubled and new and don’t know what to think, that’s okay. Read and learn. But first, tackle the bigger issues like God, Christ, the nature of salvation, and then wrestle with what the Bible says about your pet issue.

4. If Jesus Did Rise… Now, for those of us who have come to the conclusion that Jesus did rise from the dead and he’s the Creator of all things and Cosmic Lord of the Universe, well, then it’s time to wrestle with the Bible he affirmed as true and authoritative. It’s not possible to say to him, “Jesus, you’re my Lord, my Savior, and I trust you with my eternal destiny when I die” and then turn around and add “but right there, what you said about my bank account (sex life, marriage, time, etc), is kind of off, so I’ll have to pass.” It just doesn’t work. Now, you may take a while to study and figure out what the Bible is saying, but after you’ve said yes to Jesus, straight-up disagreement is not an option.

So there you go. Obviously, you don’t have to frame them the way I did. And, it would probably be a good idea to go cruise through Keller’s Reason for God at some point if you haven’t, just to get the clearer version of all of these. Still, points like these are worth making. And now that I think about it, they’re good, not only during the particular sermon in question, but regularly, during all sorts of sermons. You often need to be tilling the soil long before planting season if it’s going to be ready to receive the more difficult seed you want to sow.

Of course, above all, trust God himself to be at work in the Word by his Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Evangelical Church Listicles Waiting to Be Written

There’s a certain kind of self-indulgent listicle that keeps being written about nearly everybody. You know the kind. “18 Things Only Introverts Will Get.” “95 Reasons Whovians Are Imaginative Flowers.” “13 GIFs to Explain Why Left-Handed Shamans Are the Best Spiritual Advisers.” They’re mostly harmless bits of “Hey, someone else gets me too!” Buzzfeedery, if a bit narcissistic. My problem comes when these types of articles are written with an air of revelatory gravity.

The Holy Grail, for me, consists of the listicles related to “millennials”, the church, and, of course, the failures of Evangelicalism. Often times they’re little more than performative exercises in show-martyrdom. Mostly fruitless, they tend to do little more than reinforce our over-weening sense of entitlement, aggrievement, and disaffection from the Church.

Even though they’re kind of paint-by-numbers predictable at this point, they’re still good one thing: getting shares and clicks for bloggers.

Now, maybe it was sympathy, or despair, but I reached a point today where I figured, “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em”, and so I decided to propose a few future titles on Twitter for a possible listicle of my own. I present them here for your approval. Also, because I probably don’t have anything else to write at this point.

And finally,

If you’ve got any suggestions of your own, go ahead and leave them in the comments. I just want to make sure if I write it, my list is the listiest and clickiest of them all.

Soli Deo Gloria

How (American) Christians Ought to Respond to the Midterm Elections

flagMany wouldn’t guess this by my writings here, but I am a recovering political junkie. From childhood on, I used to be frenetically concerned with all things politics. Reading the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page by junior high, my dad kept me informed by printing out reams of political analysis every week for me to take to school and read in boring classes. It was fun. I like the horserace elements, the ideological battles, the speculation, and everything that went with it. It was like sports for me, only with old white dudes not doing anything. Kind of like golf, I guess.

These days, I’ve cooled off a bit. Not because politics aren’t important, mind you–they are. I’ve simply had a shift in intellectual priorities. Most of the time, the day to day quirks of my job don’t require a detailed knowledge of which piece of legislation got passed today. Still, right around now, midterms and the presidential elections, some of the old fire comes back and I care again.

Now, I’m still not going to say much about the meaning of what happened on Tuesday. The internet is full of political speculation about whether or not these elections favored conservatives or only disfavored Democrats, what implications this holds for the next two years, or whether Kim Kardashian will make a run in 2016. (Though, I do think I have some solid thoughts on that last one.)

What I will do is ask all of my politically-concerned brothers and sisters one question: Are you praying now?

I don’t mean to be a self-righteous pontificator, Jesus-juking everybody who’s more tightly caught up in this, but I really want us to honestly ask that question. When I was a political junkie, even though I was a Christian who read, prayed, and cared, I didn’t really think to obey one of the only truly clear commands in Scripture about Christians and the political process:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Republican or Democrat, whoever did or didn’t win  in your district, whatever idiotic ballot proposals did or didn’t pass, you as a Christian have at least one clear command about how to respond to the midterm elections: pray for whoever’s coming in.

Pray for wisdom to conquer folly.

Pray for righteousness to trump pragmatism.

Pray for bravery to overwhelm cowardice.

Pray for a vision of the common good to overcome personal greed.

Pray for the shalom of the city to bury its violence.

Pray for the salvation of whoever has come to power so that they may know the joy of Jesus Christ and then be guided by God’s Spirit to govern in ways that reflect the goodness of God’s kingdom for the sake of all.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Progressive Evangelical Package (Mere Orthodoxy)

It’s no secret that Reformed Christians have built their own wing of the internet where they spend their time chatting among themselves. They police certain key boundaries and dissent from some of these can (rightly or wrongly) bring about serious criticism. While there is more diversity among the Reformed than critics usually want to recognize, there can also be a heavy pressure to conform to the ‘standard’. Given the more consciously confessional (and I do use the term somewhat broadly) ethos among the Reformed, it’s rather unsurprising that this should be the case.

The progressive Evangelicals now have their own wing, though, ostensibly with an emphasis on diversity and a marked aversion to foreclosing conversations or policing boundaries. The idea that there is a strict standard, a party line you have to tow in order to be a part of the club, is supposed to be foreign to the Progressive internet’s ethos. That’s for the heresy-hunting, conservative builders of Evangelical empire, after all, rather than the “radically inclusive” prophets of a more Christ-like faith. Unlike their conservative counterparts, Progressives follow a Jesus who came to tear down the walls that divide, not put new doctrinal ones back up.

Those are the stereotypes, at least. But it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this picture if we take a look at the actual situation on the ground.

There may not be a Progressive Gospel(s) Federation with explicit standards we can look to, but there are certain tenets that are increasingly defining what I’ve dubbed the “Progressive Evangelical Package.” The theological scene is beginning to mirror the political two-party system such that if you hold one or two of these positions, or want to have a voice in the Progressive conversation, it’s likely there is heavy pressure on you to begin affirming all or most of them.

These tenets do not mark out a monolith. There are undoubtedly figures who don’t fit the description, just like there are figures who spend lots of time in the Reformed world who don’t fit the characterization above, either. I maintain that they signal a trend, though.

You can read the rest of the article at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Should We Hope to Die at 75?

Should we hope to die at 75?  That’s the premise of a long and provocative article at The Atlantic.  As Ezekiel Emanuel, its author, writes:

Seventy-five years is all I want to live. I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime. My daughters and dear friends will continue to try to convince me that I am wrong and can live a valuable life much longer. And I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous and reasoned defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.

What should we make of this?  That’s what Matt, Alastair and I discuss on this week’s episode.  Give it a listen and let us know in the comments what you think.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

‘I Am of Christ’, or Jesus-Juking for the Gospel

thiseltonI appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12)

I’m preaching through 1 Corinthians with my students this year and after only a couple of weeks, it appears this is going to be a transformational study for me. At least I hope it will. Unfortunately, while I’m trying to preach the flow of the text, and not rush through the letter, I don’t actually to examine each verse in the kind of detail it could be, or would satisfy my own interests. (As a college pastor you slowly learn that you even need to be careful to die to yourself when it comes to preaching in the way that would please you, but might not really edify the students.)

Case in point, after preaching through 1:10-2:5, the natural section, I realized I was still fascinated with that little phrase in v. 12, “I am of Christ.” What’s going on with that? Why would Paul treat someone claiming that they “follow Christ” as a problem? Isn’t that the point? Generally speaking, yes, but it appears there’s something more subtle at work here.

After his initial intro, Paul dives right into the problem of divisions in the Corinthian body (1:10-17). Apparently these young, ex-pagan Christians had imbibed (or failed to leave behind) their surrounding culture’s status-obsessed ethos. In his massive commentary on 1 Corinthians Anthony Thiselton says that among these new believers, many of whom had gone from ‘rags to riches’, or were hoping to, the issue of “status inconsistency” loomed large (pp 12-13). And so, per the shame-honor society they inhabited, they had brought their attitudes about social advancement through the right patron-client, or teacher-student relationship into the church.

Whether for reasons of style, initial relationship, or some other quality, people had begun picking teams. “I follow Paul” say the loyalists who remembers Paul as the man who planted the flag for Christ in Corinth. “I follow Apollos” say the newbies impressed by the guest lecture series he gave when he was in town. “I follow Cephas” say the old-schoolers who like following one of the original disciples. And on it goes. Like sports fans who have taken a harmless preference and turned it into an identity-marker and are ready to knife each other in the parking lot, believer is dividing against believer over who preaches the Gospel better.

But who, then, are those who say, “I follow Christ?”

The Suspects

In a special section, Thiselton lays out six proposed options for understanding the “Christ” party in Corinth (pp. 129-133):

  1. Judaizers?  F.C. Baur suggested it was Judaizers opposed to Paul’s anti-law party on the grounds that he wasn’t one of the original 12 disciples, but it appears there’s little exegetical support for this, especially when you understand that the parties here aren’t theological, but politically-motivated.
  2. Ultra-Spirituals? Other think it is hyper-spiritual gnostics who appeal to “Christ” as a way of getting around human means of revelation or authority structures. Think the hyper-Pentecostal who says that he doesn’t need pastors, or seminary eggheads, but Jesus just speaks to him. This would make sense with a lot of the themes in the letter.
  3. Interjection from a Copyist? Some think it’s just a inserted phrase that got copied in by accident when one dude indignantly wrote “I follow Christ” after reading it, and a later copyist mistook that marginalia for Paul. Quite unlikely for textual reasons, though.
  4. Misreading for Crispus?  A couple think maybe Kristou (of Christ) was originally Krispou (of Crispus), and that got misread. Again, highly unlikely for textual reasons.
  5. Pauline Rhetoric: Hypothesis and Declaration?  Paul likes using irony, sarcasm and other rhetorical techniques to drive points home. Couldn’t this be an example of this? On this reading, the phrase is supposed to be contrastive and that it’s not part of the critique, but is Paul’s own solution. But again, the construction of the phrase gives no sign of that.
  6. Pauline Rhetoric: Irony? Again, Paul’s creative, maybe he’s suggesting a “Christ party” just to show how silly this whole approach is. This works theologically, but again, the Greek construction makes it less likely.

So Thiselton says that option #2 is the most likely and I’m inclined to agree with him. Essentially, you’ve got a group of semi-Gnostic types, critical of authority, skeptical of the claims of teachers, and “men” have claimed to be able to go directly to the source via the Spirit, or whatever, without having to depend on authorized carriers of the traditions and so forth. “I follow Christ” turns out to be just another fleshly slogan, a Jesus-Juke used as a cover an all-too-human way of finding your identity outside of Christ.

Now, of course, the point of knowing all of this isn’t mere historical curiousity, but spiritual edification and practical application in the present.

Boasting In Not Boasting

Right off the bat, whatever you end up making of the Christ party, it’s obvious that the critique of personality-driven ministry and celebrityism in the church, especially in Evangelical circles, is worth meditating on. Far too many of us, like the Corinthians, have bought into our current culture eerily similar status-obsession and have sought to define ourselves via our party, our tribe, and their respective figureheads. “I follow Keller”, or “I follow Warren”, “I follow Wright”, or “I follow Driscoll–er, I mean…let me get back to you.” Young Reformedish guy that I am, I’ll be the first to confess I fall into this trap far too easy. I mean, it’s not just that I know you’re wrong when you disagree with Keller/Vanhoozer/Bavinck/Calvin, it’s that all-too-often your disagreement feels like a fundamental rejection of my way of being. And my brothers and sisters, this clearly should not be so.

Still, I wonder about the modern-day “Christ” party among us. It’s pretty easy to spot that sort of thing on the progressive wing of things: people who boast about being anti-power, anti-empire, anti-celebrity, anti-Evangelical-entertainment-industrial complex, all the while getting “I am of Boyd” and “I am of Hauerwas” tattooed on their firstborns. (You Anabaptists know I still love you, right? Well, some of you at least.) Deeper still, though, are the theological approaches that tend to relativize formal teaching structures in the name of the some vague, ‘way of Jesus’–modern-day heirs of those that Luther and Calvin deemed the “enthusiasts” during the Reformation.

But criticizing other tribes is too easy. What does this look like among the Reformed? This is maybe a little harder as there usually isn’t any obvious gnosticism, or telltale anti-authoritarian signs to pick up on. The “Christ” party is a bit more subtle. Now, As a young whipper-snapper, I suppose I have to be careful here.* Let me say clearly that I really enjoy Carl Trueman’s work–both academically, and his stuff over at Reformation21. As a young guy who is in very clear danger of falling into the kind of name-veneration and proxy status-seeking, I really take his warnings against that sort of thing to heart, even when it’s a bit uncomfortable. What’s more, I appreciate that he lives his anti-celebrity approach. When you email him, no joke, he really is his people.

Still, among the Reformed, or at least the internet-Reformed, there’s a dangerous tendency to boast in the fact that you don’t boast in men. Which, incidentally, is not quite the same thing as boasting in the cross of Christ alone. What I mean is that a lot of people have adopted the “I don’t follow celebrities to get my identity” ethos as their own, inverted-mirror way of constructing their identity. Is a pastor too popular? Might be a sellout. Did he write a book? Probably a sellout. Did it sell well? Definitely a sellout. Unlike me. I’m never gonna write a book, or if I do, I will make sure that nobody likes it. In other words, it’s still a way of being that is far too concerned with human estimations of associations, power, and rankings, and isn’t completely resting in the fact that it is “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

To reiterate, I know I’m probably still far too stuck in the ‘I am of Keller’ phase of things to sit comfortably under the preaching of this text, as are many of my friends in the wing of things I seem to be landing in. That said, for those of us looking to move beyond it, be careful you don’t confuse a fleshly Jesus-Juke with a true confession of Christ alone as the object of your faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

*As a side-note: Being fairly new to this wing of things, I’ve often thought it would be helpful for someone to create a map of the American Reformed world: “Thar be Kuyperians! “, or “Land of the Theonomists, watch for stones”, or “Here reside Old-Siders, quote none before 1700″, or “Beware Reformed Cannibals: They eat their own!”

Mere Fidelity: The Benedict Option

Mere FidelityChristians are increasingly struggling with how they are to relate to the surrounding culture. It seems hostile and designed in ways too multifarious to counts to work against any kind of consistent Christian community ethic. For that reason some have put forward the idea of the ‘Benedict Option': a communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.

But is that really the best Christian option out there? Matt, Jake Meador, Matthew Loftus, and I take up that question on this week’s Mere Fidelity.

As always, feel free to rate and review, or share. The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelity is here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Soli Deo Gloria