Church, celebrity and our last idol

microphone

“My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with,” said Cotton Mather. As true as this was in Mather’s day—who lived over 300 years ago—how much more is it in our own?

On writing on how the gospel should change the church’s celebrity culture, Matthew Sims writes that although there’s always been a culture of celebrity within the church (think the brother who is famous “for his preaching of the gospel” mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8:18), “We’ve flipped it.”

Oftentimes the controversies rise up because it seems many well known Christians are more concerned with their position, power, and authority and less concerned about the integrity of the gospel.

Matthew’s hit the nail on the head on the issue. The other week, I was reading a book that described how, as part of a particular church’s mission, they were attempting to strategically raise the profile of its lead pastor. In other words, to make him a celebrity.

Reading this, honestly, left me feeling a bit like I needed to take a shower. It just felt wrong, in the same way that laughing at Everybody Loves Raymond seems wrong. Not because expanding the reach of the gospel is a bad thing—far from it!—but because the way this ideal was communicated made it seem to be all about the man, not about the Lord.

The reason this rubbed me wrong, I believe, is because it’s contrary to the counterintuitive nature of the gospel. Take, for example, John the Baptist’s view of his own ministry. When John came on the scene as the last of the Old Covenant prophets, he understandably caused a scene. He was telling everyone to repent for the Lord was on his way.

Then Jesus came. And before too long, John’s ministry started to get smaller. And smaller. And smaller still.

People began to ask John, “Aren’t you bothered by this?”

And all he said was:

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Let that sink in.

John could have pursued celebrity, but instead he embraced obscurity. Not that this would have been easy, mind you. After all, it feels really good when people are paying attention to you. When people are waiting to hear what you’re going to say next. But the Lord’s glory was more important to John than his own.

John was useful—he prepared the way of the Lord (Matt 3:3). He was effective. But in the end, his most important accomplishment was to “decrease” when the preparation was done.

Which brings us back to Cotton Mather and Christian celebrities. “My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with.” Our usefulness is a good thing, to be sure. But if can be a dangerous thing, too. Whether it’s having a New York Times bestseller, having a big church, or even just a widely-read blog—how would you feel if the Lord wanted you to give those things up?

To not preface the next book with “bestselling author” or maybe never write another one again?

To stop having TV screens serve as pastors, and plant autonomous churches instead?

To pull the plug on your social media and only interact with people in your local community?

If that’s what decreasing would require so the Lord’s glory might increase, would you do it? If the integrity of the gospel was at stake, would you set aside your own “usefulness”?

This, again, is why I’ve suggested a key way to fix the problem of celebrity-ism is through community. People who know us help us see our idols for what they are. People who care for us let us know when our usefulness is getting in the way. People who love us remind us that we must decrease so that Jesus might increase.

Links I like

Create a Disciple-Making Plan for 2014

Tim Brister:

…I believe you and I need to have a disciple-making plan for our lives. Yes we need to pray. Yes we need to study and learn. But we also need a personal plan and process that we embrace in order to orient our lives around making, maturing, mobilizing, and multiplying disciples of Jesus Christ. It simply cannot be tangential or accidental or on the periphery of your life. It cannot be relegated to a small compartment of your life or canned program. To make disciples, you need to be “all in.”

I Want to Turn Your Dreams Back On

Check out John Piper’s plenary session at Cross:

The transcript is also available at the link if you don’t feel like watching the entire hour.

Reject the Entre-Pastor

Jeff Medders:

I don’t know how much longer I can stomach the fake church.… The “church” that looks more like a cheap Vegas act than a gathering of sinners drinking from the fountain of grace that flows from Emmanuel’s veins. There is a style of Churchianty that is all about the tinsel and lights, it’s not about Him. A Church-centered Church is no biblical church. The Church doesn’t exist for herself, no more than a Bride exists to be a Bride for the sake of being a Bride. The Church is a Bride for the Groom—for Christ. Remember the movies where a woman tries on a wedding dress and does it for her own enjoyment? That’s exactly how many churches operate. They put on their shows, their decanted ghost-written sermons, and gawk at themselves in the reflections of their satellite campus cameras. “Lights, camera, actions…oh yeah, and Jesus too”. There will be a big judgment for these men. Jesus will handle these charlatans at the Eschaton.

But this should give us an awkward pause of reflection.

Pray For Your Daughter

Mike Leake is getting ready to launch a new 31-day prayer challenge on January 1—this time for our daughters. As a father of two little girls, I’m really looking forward to taking part in this one.

Which Christians actually evangelize?

Kate Tracy:

Despite worries that millennials have given up on Christianity, or that they’re too focused on social justice campaigns, young adults are sharing their faith the most frequently. By contrast, evangelism is fading fastest among the middle class.

Links I like

Why is Church Exhausting When Grace is Exhilarating?

Mike Leake:

While I believe doing life together isn’t a thornless rose, I also believe that it ought to be life-giving rather than draining. When church is cancelled we shouldn’t celebrate because our stupidly busy schedules are now a little more relaxed. We should be saddened because we now have to do without a life-giving resource until we meet together again.

So why is it that we view church as fatiguing when it out to be energizing?I’ll try to answer this from the pew and from the pulpit.

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Errors of the Prosperity Gospel

David W. Jones:

No matter what name is used, the essence of this new gospel is the same. Simply put, this egocentric “prosperity gospel” teaches that God wants believers to be physically healthy, materially wealthy, and personally happy. Listen to the words of Robert Tilton, one of the prosperity gospel’s best-known spokesmen: “I believe that it is the will of God for all to prosper because I see it in the Word, not because it has worked mightily for someone else. I do not put my eyes on men, but on God who gives me the power to get wealth.”[2]  Teachers of the prosperity gospel encourage their followers to pray for and even demand material flourishing from God.

Why Switchfoot won’t sing “Christian” songs

The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed. These different callings and purposes further demonstrate God’s sovereignty.

Solve your retention problem with contextual reading

Jacob Abshire:

Our environment triggers thoughts and emotions. These put our mind in certain contexts we can easily enter and exit at times. Take advantage of this. Designate contexts for book reading.

The Pastor’s Justification by Jared C. Wilson

pastors-justification-wilson

Pastoral ministry is a strange animal. For many pastors, it’s good work—important work—but it’s easy to become discouraged. The burden seems too great and they’re ready to throw in the towel. Then there are pastors who seem to have it all together. They might’ve published a book or two that have gotten some attention, have a generous salary, research assistants, support staff and/or conference speaking gigs… and yet on the inside, they’re being crushed by the weight of their responsibilities and (real or perceived) fame.

Interestingly, whether they’re on one extreme or the other, many pastors share the same problem: they may be seeking their justification in something other the work of Christ.

“The pastoral fraternity is an interesting one,” writes Jared C. Wilson in The Pastor’s Justification. “We’re a motley bunch of fools. Different personalities and tribes, different methodologies and styles…denominations and traditions and, of course, theologies. But there is something [all] have in common … a profound sense of insecurity for which the only antidote is the gospel” (17).

It’s this “antidote” that The Pastor’s Justification is really all about, covered in two parts: “The Pastor’s Heart,” an exposition of 1 Peter 5:1-11, and “The Pastor’s Glory,” an examination of the five solas of the Reformation.

Solving pastoral problems starts with the pastor’s character

One thing should be abundantly clear reading this book: this isn’t another “how to be a better pastor” book. Wilson is far less concerned about techniques and best practices than he is about the heart of the pastor. And he wants pastors to recognize something critical they may too often forget and something rarely talked about in leadership conferences:

“The primary problem in pastoral ministry, brother pastor, is not them. It’s you. You are your biggest problem” (29). When a pastor sees people as problems to be solved, or the congregation he’s leading as being less appealing than the one he imagines leading in his daydreams, or he’s slipped away from shepherding to domineering… the problem lies with the pastor’s heart, not with the people. Which is really just another way of saying it’s all about the pastor’s character.

This is the reason Wilson spends so much time on the pastor’s heart. If he just said, “Here’s how you deal with situation ABC,” it wouldn’t be even remotely helpful if the pastor’s a train wreck. [Read more...]

The terrifying sound of silence

keyboard

The worship gathering is coming to a close. The pastor makes his final comments. “Let’s pray,” he says. Everyone bows their heads and close their eyes, and all feel the movement of the worship team taking their position on stage.

The pastor begins to pray… and before long a soothing “ha-wooh” sound emerges from the keyboard, floating through the room.

The “spirit chords” are at work.

Some of you probably never notice this, and if you’re one of those I apologize for bringing something to your attention you won’t be able to unsee (or rather, unhear). But it is something maybe we should be talking about.

Music, like nothing else, has the ability to signal to us how we should feel. Music filled with major chords and a fast tempo amps us up and gets us excited. Minor chords make us more reflective or, if you’re a fan of the Seattle sound from the early nineties, make you feel sad and drink coffee on a rainy day in a plaid shirt. When you watch a television show or a movie, you’ll notice cliffhanger moments (usually at commercial breaks) are capped by a short piece of music that gradually builds in intensity as the scene reaches its climax. For example:

Sometimes the spirit chords feel like this in a worship gathering. Like they’re intended to manipulate us into feeling a certain way—to bring about a “me and God” moment where the Holy Spirit will impress upon us the key take away from the message.

And yet few, if any, worship leader mean it that way (except those that do).

So why do we do this? I’ve wrestled with this for a while, but it wasn’t until I was speaking with some friends over lunch a few weeks back that I think I landed on an answer:

Silence is terrifying to us.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to drown out silence. We always have music around us. When we shop, when we drive, at the gym, at the office… It’s like we’ve set life to a soundtrack, hoping that it will make the day-to-day a little more interesting.

Or perhaps it’s just an attempt to hide from what happens in those moments when silence does overtake us. When that happens, when the soundtrack is on pause, we have nothing to drown out our thoughts. We have nothing to distract us from what’s really going on in our hearts and minds. We can’t ignore the voice of our conscience—and we can’t run away from the Holy Spirit Himself.

  • It’s in those moments of silence that conviction comes upon us.
  • It’s in those moments of silence that we most strongly feel our need for repentance.
  • It’s in those moments of silence that we tend to most clearly “hear” the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures.

Is it any wonder silence is terrifying to us?

This brings us back to the irony of the spirit chords. When the soothing “ha-wooh” begins, it may be doing the exact opposite of its intended effect—instead of helping us ease into a time of prayer, they drown out the Holy Spirit.

So what can we do?

Brothers and sisters, turn off the music on the commute. Sit in the silence and take note of what you “hear.”

Pastors and worship leaders, take a break from the spirit chords for a few weeks and see what happens.

Let’s let silence terrify us a little, and maybe see conviction and repentance come about.

What’s your small group story?

breed

Today’s post is by Ben Reed. Ben is the small groups pastor at Long Hollow, a multi-site church in the Nashville, TN area. In addition to pastoring, preaching, and writing, Ben has a great passion for coffee. Good coffee, that is. And CrossFit. But not at the same time. You can journey along with Ben at BenReed.net and learn more about his new book, Starting Small, at smallgroupblueprint.com.


Nobody ever stated it outright, but the way our local church was structured growing up made me feel like the Sunday morning experience was the most important aspect of my walk with Jesus. Maybe it was self-imposed, but I felt like if I missed a Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, Tuesday evening, Wednesday evening, or the random youth trip, I’d be smote. Or smoten? Or smitten? No… that’s something else entirely.

It’s easy for churches to slide into this mindset, because whether you like it or not, Sunday morning is coming. It doesn’t matter what kind of dreaming, strategic planning, or structural work you do throughout the week. If you don’t prepare for Sunday you’ll fall flat on your face.

So you dump more time. More resources. More energy. More staff. More planning. Into ensuring Sunday morning is air-tight.

StartingSmall_Cover_LR

Don’t get me wrong, corporate worship is vital to our faith. It’s an environment that corrects, teaches, energizes, and worships Jesus.

But without relational connection, The Church isn’t the Church. At best, it’s a show. At worst, it’s a complete waste of our time, energy, and resources.

You and I are the Church. Not the buildings we build. Not the walls we construct. Not the pews we sit in.

The Church exists outside the four walls of our church buildings. You know that, right?

That’s why I wrote Starting Small. To promote small group health. To lay out a strategy for starting small groups, no matter the size of your church. No matter the location. No matter the demographics.

And to help small groups become more effective disciple-makers.

I’ve told my story through group life, failures and all, to help build healthy, authentic, biblical, God-honoring small groups around the world.

What’s your small group story?


Ben has kindly offered two copies of his new book, Starting Small, to give away to readers here. How do you win? Simple: share your small group story—what have you loved; what’s been most challenging? Ben will pick his two favorite answers at the end of the day Wednesday. Winners will be notified by email. 

Links I like

Infographic: Batman and the history of the bat-suit

Really enjoyed this.

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Here are a few new deals from Crossway for the more academically inclined:

You can also save on print or ePub editions when purchasing directly from Crossway.

Also, How People Change by Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp is free until Friday. Get it!

The Real Truth About Boring Men

Ann Voskamp:

Romance isn’t measured by how viral your proposal goes. The internet age may try to sell you something different, but don’t ever forget that viral is closely associated with sickness – so don’t ever make being viral your goal. Your goal is always to make your Christ-focus contagious – to just one person.

Losing Weight You Weren’t Meant to Carry

Nick Horton:

Ladies, I want to help you lose a burden you weren’t meant to carry. But first, you need to take a minute and read Proverbs 31:10-31. Done? Okay, let’s talk.

Do you feel the weight? Few women read this passage without guilt. Many are under the impression that they must live out this example to be a worthwhile wife. “Wife” guilt morphs into “mommy” guilt and each verse adds a little weight. Stone, upon stone, upon stone, added to the back of over-burdened and exhausted women that are already on an arduous performance treadmill set to maximum incline.

I want to help you take some of that weight off. Ladies, Proverbs 31 isn’t a checklist or a performance guideline for you.

5 Things to Do Before Leaving Your Church

Thabiti Anyabwile:

Everyone will leave their church at some point. Whether God calls us home to glory, move to another city, or decide to try a different local church, we are going to leave.

Leaving a local congregation should be one of the most difficult decision we face. It should be filled with the recollection of our love for the saints, their love for us, our service together in the name of our Lord, and our sorrows and joys in the faith. A church is family and we ought never feel it easy to leave family–even an unhealthy family.

But we do sometimes find ourselves at that crossroads. When we’ve decided to leave, there are at least five things we want to do before we go.

Links I like (weekend edition)

Are You Part of a Phonebook Ministry?

Aaron Earls:

Not long ago, my youngest son came up to me with a puzzled look on his face. “Daddy, what’s a phonebook?” he asked.

I had to laugh. The idea of a phonebook, that was so common to me, is so completely foreign to him.

Reflecting on that caused me to think about our ever evolving culture and the way we do ministry – are we doing phonebook ministry?

How to peel a head of garlic in less than 10 seconds

This is fascinating (but those who are particularly sensitive, be forewarned—there is a mild swear in the video):

We Are Far Too Easily Displeased

Jon Bloom:

I am a grumbler by (fallen) nature.

Just this morning a malfunctioning software program required my attention. Experience told me the likely course: at least two times on the phone with customer support and at least two glitches in the fixing process. Forty-five minutes minimum. Probably more. (All proved true, by the way.) Immediately I resented this time-stealing inconvenience. And when my wife called in the middle of dealing with it, out of my mouth came my displeasure.

Life problems don’t get much smaller. What is the matter with me?

Elder Questions: Living Together

Tim Kimberley answers the question:

You are counseling a couple, who claim to be Christian, that are sleeping together and believe they are “married in their hearts”. They would like to become members of your church. Describe how would you handle this couple, including how you would address the issue of being “married in their hearts?”

The Assembly of the Good People

Aimee Byrd:

It’s sad isn’t it? This group of confessing unbelievers is being called out by a leader to assemble together on a Sunday of all days. It’s like there is some kind of longing within them to respond, some kind of knowledge of something more. But they suppress the truth in unrighteousness, and make themselves the object of worship.

This Sunday Assembly sounds exactly like J. Gresham Machen’s description of the liberal Christian church gatherings in his book Christianity and Liberalism.

A Call to Resurgence by Mark Driscoll

call-to-resurgence

Christendom is dead. Now let’s set aside our differences and get to work telling people about Jesus.

If you wanted to sum up Mark Driscoll’s new book, A Call to Resurgence, in a sentence, that’d be the way to do it. And make no mistake, pronouncing Christendom, the age of cultural Christianity, dead is no overstatement, even if declaring the American church dead is. A quick survey of the cultural landscape in America (and the West in general) shows how much has changed, and it’s definitely not in favor of Christianity. So what are Christians to do? Are we to retreat and wait for Jesus to return? Are we to give up our distinguishing characteristics and blend into the culture?

We do not need more retreat, Driscoll says. We need resurgence:

This is not a time for compromise but rather courage. The fields are ripe. And as Jesus says, “the laborers are few”—in part because the prophets of doom are many.… This is no time to trade in boots for flip-flops. The days are darker, which means our resolve must be stronger and our convictions clearer.

A strong cultural critique

There is much to appreciate about A Call to Resurgence, starting with its intent. Driscoll’s greatest strength has always been his appraisal of the cultural climate in North America, and this is no less true in the case of this book, which is why chapter two shines. Here Driscoll offers a succinct description of many of the contributing factors to the death of Christendom—pornography, the acceptance of homosexuality, bad dads, a lack of generosity, intolerant “tolerance,” and the resurgence of paganism in its many forms.

I believe it’s no overstatement to say this is the book’s standout chapter, especially his breakdown of the “new paganism,” which owes a massive debt to Peter Jones’ excellent book, One or Two. Driscoll explains well its roots as described in Romans 1:18-32, and its various expressions, from atheistic one-ism (the idea of a pure naturalism) to pale imitations of Christianity (notably moralistic therapeutic deism).

A confused message on the essentials

While Driscoll is often insightful in identifying cultural issues, his assessment of biblical ones is too often simplistic. This is especially clear when he describes the various “tribes” within evangelicalism. These, he says, are united by their common agreement on the following black-and-white issues: [Read more...]

Called to Stay by Caleb Breakey

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Millennials are leaving the church in droves (or so some say)—they’re tired of the passionless, go-through-the-motions, infotainment form of Christianity that promises a good time but doesn’t change the world.

So how do you get them to stay?

Caleb Breakey offers Millennials a compelling reason in Called to Stay: if you’re fed up with playing church, if you want to be part of a church moving toward love, unity and a deep longing for Jesus, you need to be part of the solution to fixing it.

He calls this infiltration.

Infiltration and intentional discipleship

“Infiltration is about using your power and influence to the fullest inside the church,” he writes. “If we want to make a difference in this world, we must become Infiltrators of our churches” (25-27).

What Breakey calls infiltrating is simply a call to intentionality in your faith—essentially he’s saying if you say you’re a Christian, be in it to win it. Be engaged in your church, be involved in the lives of others. Actually live out that whole “spurring one another to love and good deed” thing.

Breakey repeatedly gets this exactly right—if we want to see people grow in their faith, if we see our local churches struggling, we need to invest ourselves there. Don’t go searching for the perfect church, because it’s not out there (and you’ll ruin it if you find it). This is definitely a message all believers—young or old—need to hear, again and again.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Breakey’s understanding of the need for empathy. “If we are ever to sharpen each other as one sword sharpens another, we need to be willing to step into the minds of others, think as they do, and then use what we’ve learned to push both them and ourselves to deeper commitment to Jesus” (140). [Read more...]

What’s the Role of a Pastor’s Wife?

Is the Pastor’s wife to be the “co-pastor,” the church’s “First Lady,” or just another member?

What role should the wife of a Senior Pastor have in the church? Steven Furtick, Greg Laurie and James MacDonald offer their takes here:

(Can’t see the video? Please click through to the site)

 

James MacDonald’s closing remark in this clip is particularly insightful:

We’re to love our wives. . . . the way we treat our wives in public is a signal not only to our own wives but to our congregation of what that’s supposed to look like . . . and I just don’t think there should be any further expectation beyond that…

This brings up an important question, not just for pastors, but for all Christian men:

How are we treating our wives in public? Do we treat them better in publicly than privately? Do we treat them better privately than publicly? Are we striving to be consistent in how we show honor to our wives wherever we are?

HT: James MacDonald

Book Review: Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer

There are some books you really look forward to reviewing and others you approach with trepidation. Mere Churchianity is the latter. The reason has less to do with the content and more with the fact that the book’s author, Michael Spencer—better known around the interwebs as the Internet Monk—passed away in April, 2010. So now, there’s no opportunity to interact with him over it. And reading the book left me wanting to sit and hang out with him and just talk about it. Here’s why:

American Christianity, in Spencer’s mind, has succumbed to a false religion: churchianity. Instead of being people who are transformed by Jesus, shaped to be like Him, we’ve settled for playing church. We’ve replaced relationship with religion.

And this has forced him to ask, “When millions of people walk away from the church that has a sign out front saying Jesus is inside, what are they walking away from?” (p. 21). Are they walking away from God or from empty religion? Are they abandoning Jesus, or are they “walking away from a church that has become disconnected from Jesus and all he stands for?”

Perhaps the leavers and quitters are sending a message about Jesus that Christians need to take to heart. Perhaps churchianity has done more to alienate people from Christianity than all the best-selling books written by angry atheists. It is clear that the church has overadvertised something it has lost, and it’s time to answer some questions about the Jesus who doesn’t live behind the church signs. (p. 21)

The big idea behind Mere Churchianity is provocative—yet not. It’s provocative in the sense that it’s a very bold statement about the way things are in the church in North America. Yet, the claim itself has been made by so many (usually in a way that lacks charity and humility) that it’s become very easy to ignore. How did I respond? My reaction was… mixed. [Read more...]

Sermon Audio: When God Delivers His People

On Sunday, March 6, 2011, I had the privilege of preaching at Sovereign Grace Community Church in Sarnia, Ontario. The message, “When God Delivers His People,” was preached from Psalm 14:1-7:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

 

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the LORD? There they are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous. You would shame the plans of the poor, but the LORD is his refuge.

 

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.

The complete audio is available here: :

You can also download to listen later.

My original sermon notes are available for download here.

I hope you find the message edifying. Please feel free to provide some feedback in the comments. Thanks!