Archive for October 2013

The fundamental problem

October 31st, 2013 — 10:24am

The ecclesiological legacy of the Middle Ages is clearly one of unsolved problems, but the issue which Augustine had implicitly raised is no less genuine or important because of its inadequate treatment by the medieval theologians. For what is at stake in the Augustinian dialectic of “city of God” and “Catholic Church” is really the fundamental problem of the Christian Church in every age – the need for the Church to be a visible community in the world without regarding itself as the Kingdom of God, to have concrete and particular forms without absolutizing them, to be a renewing force in the world yet always open to renewal, and to be at once worldly and transcendent.

The unfinished business of one generation is always high on the agenda of the succeeding generation, and this case is no exception. The doctrine of the Church, far from being a peripheral concern, is one of the most critical issues in the Reformation controversy, and the Reformation as a theological event is not an individualistic protest against churchly Christianity but a struggle between two opposing understandings of the Church.

(John Tonkin, The Church and the Secular Order in Reformation Thought, pp. 34–35)

Comment » | Life in Front of the Curtain

What to do with our culture

October 21st, 2013 — 9:17pm

I know a lot of Christians right now who are struggling to come to terms with what’s happening to the moral fabric of our culture. Where are current trends taking us? What does the future hold? How should we respond to what’s happening now, and how should we prepare for the future?

This interview with John Piper and Doug Wilson addresses the questions many of us are asking. It’s long (about two hours), but if you take the time to listen to it, you will certainly profit, and hopefully it will encourage you. There’s a lot to ponder, and (in my opinion) an enormous amount of seasoned pastoral wisdom. You won’t agree with everything either man says, but I think you’ll be impressed by the courage, graciousness, and prudence with which each of them speaks to the moral issues of our time. Enjoy!

Comment » | Things Come Lately

Good things badly

October 16th, 2013 — 11:22am

I don’t usually write about personal pet peeves, but recently one of mine got triggered, and I’m inspired to write about it, so . . . there.

I’m from the neck of the ecclesiastical woods known as “conservative” and “Reformed.” We’re known for small churches that keep to the old paths. I love the old paths; I can’t say I’m crazy about the smallness – I certainly don’t regard it as a virtue – but it depends on why we’re small. Which brings me to my pet peeve.

I hear all the time from leaders of small churches that are struggling in various ways: “Well, we don’t need to concern ourselves with results or numbers; we just need to be faithful doing what God has told us to do, and leave the outcomes to Him.”

This sounds really good. It has a nice pure ring to it. Do your duty. Be faithful at it. Let God be God. I’m down with all of that.

But one thing I almost never hear in conjunction with this is the possibility – just the possibility, mind you – that we’re doing all the right stuff, but doing it really badly. We’re preaching the Word every Sunday. That’s a good thing, but what if our preaching is just plain boring? We’re maintaining tried-and-true traditions in worship, but what if our liturgy is desultory or plodding? What if the whole atmosphere of our worship is stale, yea, even funereal? We’re not out there “peddling” the gospel with gimmicks and glamor, but what if our outreach (and our inreach, for that matter) is dull, unimaginative, uninspired, and pretty darn pessimistic (not that we expect bad things to happen; we just don’t expect much of anything to happen)? We’re Christ-centered, but what if we talk about Christ in a way that leaves Him apparently disconnected not only from the everyday life of the guy who walks in off the street, but even from the lives of most of the people nodding (take it as you will) in the pew?

I’ve sat through “faithful” Reformed sermons that were simply horrible; you didn’t have to be a communications major to figure it out. I’ve listened to sermons full of true sayings about God and the gospel that were so badly constructed, so hard to follow, so freighted with in-house jargon, so gloomy, so emotionally manipulative, so interminable, and/ or so out of touch with the real world, that all I wanted was to go stretch my legs – and I’m a pastor, for crying out loud. I’m supposed to like sermons.

Don’t even get me started on the stuff that happens before and after the sermon. I’ve been trotted at breakneck pace through liturgies without a moment to get my emotional bearings. I’ve puzzled my way through liturgies without any discernible theme or logical order. I’ve sat through good liturgies led by people who, to all appearances, couldn’t wait for it to be over. I’ve heard prayers that droned on for twenty minutes, followed by sharp admonitions about failure to stay focused. I’ve been subjected to song selections and congregational singing that would soothe the dead. It’s all “faithful.” It’s all doing our duty. It’s all – in principle – good stuff. And I think we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Then there’s the whole outward face of the church. We small conservative Reformed folk aren’t known for caring about reaching the lost – if God wants them to come, they’ll come; and if He’s really working in their hearts, they’ll love bad sermons and boring worship as much as we do. (I exaggerate mildly for effect.) Amazingly, this is sometimes true. People do come to worship, and they do sometimes stay. I wonder, though: Why are we so bad at taking the gospel out to where everyday life happens? Why doesn’t our message seem to “connect” outside the walls of the church? Why don’t we work harder at meeting people where they actually live, talking about questions they’re actually asking, using media to which they can actually relate? Why do we think preaching the Word and administering the sacraments inside the four walls of the church is where all the action is, and fail to develop anything approximating excellence in taking the Word out into the world? What’s with all these drab, outdated websites (if we have them at all); church leaders who are social media illiterate; and “outreach” events that consist of handing out church postcards door to door? Are we trying to be ineffective? Worse, are we self-satisfied because, after all, we’re doing our duty behind closed doors every Sunday? Really?

There’s no excuse for doing good things badly. There’s no excuse for poor preaching, deadness in worship, or outreach literature that looks like it was printed twenty years ago. “At Iconium,” writes Luke, the apostles “spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1). This isn’t a denial of God’s sovereignty; it’s a simple statement of human responsibility. Preach like Jesus really is the Logos and communication matters. Worship in a way that’s well thought-out, engaging, lively, and participatory. Act like you expect the gospel to do something, in worship and outside the walls of the church. Cultivate good ideas, stuff that will grab people’s attention. Tell great stories that lead naturally to the Great Story. Be creative: think about how to relate the gospel to the real lives of real people out in the real world who have never heard the term “effectual calling.” Speak in such a way, inside and outside the church, that people believe. Who knows? Maybe God will start to fill our small churches, and not only we but also thousands of others will have great cause to glorify His name.

Comment » | Pastoral Pondering

Changing a marriage

October 4th, 2013 — 11:32am

Speaking as one who has nearly burned out trying to help couples change their marriages, I completely agree with this assessment:

Contrary to popular thinking, it does not require two people working on a marriage to change it. Rarely are both partners equally motivated. But changing a marriage fundamentally does require that someone function as a leader in the sense in which I have been using that term. Where one partner can be taught to regulate his or her own reactivity, the other will often begin to imitate that behavior, and adaptation can ultimately be reversed. But for this shift to occur a critical point of departure must be reached: the more motivated partner must also be able to stop shifting blame to the other and to look more at his or her own input. This does not mean that they should look more at their own faults, but rather at how they have been compounding the situation. (Friedman, Failure of Nerve, p. 81)

Comment » | Hearth and Home

The herding instinct

October 4th, 2013 — 10:55am

The herding instinct in chronically anxious America has the . . . effect of furthering adaptation to the least mature, to those who are most unwilling to take responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Its influence on leaders is several-fold. It discourages them from expressing “politically incorrect” opinions and encourages them to play it safe generally; it undermines excellence by encouraging society to organize around its most dysfunctional elements; it forces leaders to engage in countless arguments that are dilatory; and it makes it more difficult for leaders to be clear, much less decisive. Leaders in chronically anxious America today – whether they are black or white, Jewish or Christian, liberal or conservative, young or old, male or female – tend to support or adapt to the most incessantly demanding members of their following.

The effects show up in language usage, in the administration of justice, in education and welfare policy, in divorce settlements, in the emphasis those who specialize in conflict resolution put on compromise, in the conduct of public meetings, and even in the world of sports. And in some institutions the togetherness forces put such a premium on inclusivity that those who do not agree with making it the overriding principle of the organization are isolated or rejected, thus creating Orwellian “Animal Farms” in which diversity is eliminated in the name of diversity.

(Friedman, Failure of Nerve, p. 70)

Comment » | Of Cabbages and Kings

Changing the question

October 3rd, 2013 — 10:20am

A revolutionary concept for church leaders:

The understanding that one can get more change in a family or organization by working with the motivated members (the strengths) in the system than by focusing on the symptomatic or recalcitrant members totally obliterates the search for answers to the question of how to motivate the unmotivated. . . . Perpetually seeking new answers to established questions rather than reframing the basic question itself not only betrays lack of distance on the part of the searcher; it also prevents obtaining the distance necessary for being able even to think, much less go, in new directions. Seeking answers can be its own treadmill. Changing the question enables one to step off. (Friedman, Failure of Nerve, p. 38)

Comment » | Of Cabbages and Kings

The problem at the very top

October 1st, 2013 — 4:06pm

In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his “disability” seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas – one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits. Such leaders are often “nice,” if not charming.

This principle of organizational life is so universal it may be rooted in protoplasm itself. It will operate to the same extent regardless of the sociological or psychological profiles of the individuals involved, and it is equally applicable to a family or a nation – that is, to a parent or a president.

(Edwin H. Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, pp. 13–14)

Comment » | Of Cabbages and Kings

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