Thursday, September 8, 2016

Amusing Ourselves to Death in the Church?

This week I finished reading a book by the late American author & cultural critic Neil Postman, called Amusing Ourselves to Death.  The subtitle to the book is Public Discourse in the Age of Show-Business. 

Postman’s initial aim in the book is to show how television in particular has changed the way we think about serious issues here in America.  As Television and its visual images have replaced the written word as a primary means of mass communication, Postman argues that we have become less and less able to think and communicate about difficult issues in careful, rational and truly logical fashion. 

According to Postman, television as a means of communication is unable to address serious issues with careful logical arguments, because, by nature, the point of Television is ultimately to entertain, rather than to educate. 

Even in those instances where television is used to as a means to educate people (think of Sesame Street, or 60 Minutes, for example), it is only effective to the extent that it is entertaining to the audience.  If a program is not in some way amusing or entertaining to its audience, it’s not worth showing, because no one will watch it.  Education and careful, logical communication always get sacrificed at the altar of entertainment when it comes to television.

But the real point of the book is to show how that dynamic trains a culture to think and communicate about serious issues – since most of us have spent a lot of time in front of the tube over the years.  And what Postman shows is that one of the great effects our entertainment driven, show business obsessed culture is that whole generations in our country are being trained to think that if a subject is not amusing or is not communicated in an amusing way, then the subject is not important.  As a result, we are losing our ability as a nation to think and communicate about important matters like religion, politics, and education with the kind of seriousness and care that such matters require, and because of that may very well be amusing ourselves to death as a nation. 

As I read through this insightful book, I couldn’t help but apply it to my life and ministry as a pastor.  And as I applied it to my life and ministry, I vacillated between two rather different reactions; one of sorrowful disgust, the other of nervous discomfort.  The former, because the examples of churches who have sent biblical truth ‘a packin’ in order to gather the masses abound.  The latter, because the temptation to amuse is not a temptation from which I am exempt. 

Should we follow suit in the church? 

It goes without saying that in America (and throughout the world), the priorities of a great number of Christian pastors and churches have been significantly shaped by the mindset that Postman exposes in his book on a larger scale, namely, that it is incumbent upon them to incorporate amusement and entertainment into their ministries in order for people to take what they say about Christ seriously. 

I’ll give a moment for the ridiculous irony of that dynamic to sink in.

Ironic and ridiculous as it may be, I believe it’s patently and undeniably true.  Our nation is filled with Christian pastors and churches who believe to some degree that it is at least part of their responsibility to amuse people, and who believe to some degree that if they fail to do so, people will not take what they say about Jesus seriously.  And to some degree, I am one of them.   

As Providence would have it though, while I read Amusing Ourselves to Death in my spare time, I was also preaching verse by verse through the book of the prophet Nahum.  Now, I would venture to guess that most of you who are reading this post have not spent a lot of time in Nahum recently, so please allow me to refresh your memory regarding the message of the book.  The book of Nahum largely consists of a vision that God gave to Nahum the prophet in the mid 7th century B.C., which describes in poetic, vivid, and chilling detail the coming destruction of the ancient city of Nineveh. 

God’s Word through Nahum came to Nineveh about a hundred years or so after the ministry of Jonah, who preached to Nineveh and got to see God bring the entire city to repentance, albeit against his wishes.  The great message of Jonah is that the Judge of all the earth is yet full of compassion, grace and mercy – and loves to save repentant sinners by grace. 

Yet, a century after Jonah went into Nineveh, the city had again become desperately corrupt, God’s patience with the city (and the entire Assyrian empire) had run out, and so God gave Nahum a vision of the city’s destruction to write down in a book and present to Nineveh to tell them that their time was up and God’s judgment was coming – which it did, in 612 B.C., when Nineveh was finally destroyed by the Babylonians and the Medes.  Though there is mention of “good news” in Nahum’s prophecy (specifically in Nahum 1:7, 15; and 2:2), since the destruction of Nineveh and the downfall of the Assyrian empire would have been good news to Judah; the vast majority of Nahum is devoted to outlining in great detail the devastation and destruction that will come upon the entire massive city of Nineveh.

And so, if the message of Jonah is that the Judge of all the earth is yet full of compassion, grace and mercy, then the message of Nahum is that the Judge of all the earth who is full of compassion, grace and mercy, is yet still the Judge and a just, wrathful, avenging Judge at that (Nahum 1:2).

Now, here’s where I have a confession to make.  While preaching through Jonah was a great personal joy, preaching through Nahum was a rather heavy burden.  When I finished preaching through the fourth chapter of Jonah, I felt like I had just started and wished I there was more material to preach from.  However, after I had preached through the first chapter of Nahum, I found myself sincerely praying for motivation to continue on into chapter two. 

Having done a small bit of internet research related to this issue, I suspect that I am by no means alone in the way I found Jonah easier to preach than Nahum.  Searches on popular sermon websites show that many more preachers have preached from Jonah, than from Nahum.  For example, at you can find 208 sermons on Jonah, compared to 34 on Nahum. turns up 787 sermons from Jonah, compared to 60 on Nahum.  Even a simple Google search followed this pattern.  A search with the words “sermons on Jonah” came back with 535,000 results, compared to the 308,000 results that showed up from a “sermons on Nahum” search.   The simple conclusion to draw is that a great many more sermons have been preached in recent days on the book of Jonah than the book of Nahum. 

Why is this the case?  Of course, there are likely many reasons for it, but I can’t help but wonder if the widespread American obsession with entertainment and amusement doesn’t somehow factor into this.  Could my personal struggle to preach through a book like Nahum, along with the widespread determination of many pastors throughout our country to preach messages from Jonah but not Nahum, indicate that there is a temptation many of us feel, to only focus on those messages that either we or our hearers will find at least somewhat amusing?

Or to put it a different way, could it be that a lot of us feel pressure to say far more of those things that we suspect will enjoy hearing, than those things we fear might offend them? 

Based on my struggles in preaching Nahum (struggles which I have experienced while preparing to preach on other hard passages of Scripture as well), I have to admit that I am not immune from this temptation.  I too feel the pressure to amuse my hearers, and to either avoid or just run fast through those parts of the Bible I know will be hard to hear proclaimed.  Whether they be promises of God’s final judgment to come upon unrepentant sinners, or the clear words of Jesus when he tells those considering a life of discipleship that unless they’re willing to come and die with him that they are not worthy of him, or those passages that describe the horrors of sin in vivid detail, I too feel a temptation to avoid (at times) or at least de-emphasize such things in order to give more time and attention to those things that will be easier for my hearers to receive.

Can you relate? 

Perhaps you can relate to this struggle.  Can you, my fellow pastors?  Do you feel any pressure to amuse people to any degree in your ministry?  Perhaps it comes out in your preaching.  Maybe you are afraid to tell unrepentant sinners that they are in danger of hell, and instead wish only to proclaim the truth that God is gracious to sinners.  Perhaps you won’t preach slowly and carefully through passages that reveal God’s hatred for sin.  Or, perhaps the only sins you will confront are sins that the people who come to your church already find problematic.  You’ll preach hard messages as long as those messages would only be hard for those who are sure not to hear them. 

Or, it is possible that this temptation has a greater affect on your style than it does the substance of your preaching and teaching (though it would be na├»ve to deny a relationship between the two things).  Perhaps you feel pressed to look sharp and wax eloquent, to make your hearers laugh and keep them on the edge of their seats with creative illustrations and stories, to present biblical content in a style that will amuse your hearers.

Or, perhaps you are willing to preach the hard stuff as long as everything else in your church is geared to please those who walk through the doors of your church every Sunday.  And so, you carefully ensure that your worship services are structured to lead people into an emotionally satisfying experience, so that when you get up to preach, the proper mood has already been set, and the people are at least in a relaxed emotional state when you get up to level the boom.  Because, let’s face it, people are far more likely to sit and listen to you talk about God’s judgment if the lights are down, the stage is set, and they have a delicious free latte in hand.

I am mocking no one by giving these examples.  Again, I too have felt these temptations to varying degrees at various times.   

What must we do? 

But, pastor brothers, we must fight tooth and nail against these temptations as long as we wish to remain in any form of Gospel ministry.  We’re not called to amuse people.  We are called to proclaim Christ, “warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).  This requires leading people away from where their sinful hearts want to be, to where they need to be according to God.  It requires refusing to amuse them, but instead to present them with the truth in as much clarity and consistency as we can muster up with the help of the Spirit. 

Let there be no mistake about it.  The idea that a shepherd of Christ’s church is responsible for amusing crowds in order to get them interested in the things of God, or to present the things of God in an amusing way to make and keep people interested in them is an outright lie.  And we must not buy into it.

For, where is such an example to be found in Scripture?  Surely not in the prophets, who turned away far more people with their preaching than they won over.  Surely not Jesus, who refused to entrust himself to crowds who found themselves amused by his power to perform miracles (John 3:24-25), and who left crowds of people amused by his power and interested in receiving healing from him in order to go preach a message of repentance to sinners in danger of God’s coming judgment (Mark 1:37-38).  And surely not the Apostles, who like Jesus, made crowds so angry that people wanted them dead. 

I’m in no way suggesting that we should aim to offend people and turn them away with angry, deliberately offensive preaching and teaching.  Rather, I am suggesting that we must not shy away from saying difficult things simply because people will not be amused when we do so.  Our job is not to manipulate people into taking us seriously.  Our job is not to please man, nor is it to make men believe the Gospel and entrust themselves to Christ.  Rather, it is to present all people with the very Gospel that they must believe and the very Christ that they must entrust themselves to in order to be saved from the wrath to come.

As Paul commanded Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-5:  I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:  2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,  4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.  5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.  

A passage like that is as relevant for a time like this as any text in the Bible.  The time that Paul warned Timothy about has come upon us as well.  People do not want sound teaching.  They would rather be amused by preachers who will tell them what they want to hear.  Many will not listen to the truth and have wandered off into all kinds of silly, baseless, subjective myths.  Shall we go with them?  Should we give them what they are looking for, or somehow try to trick them into hearing what they really need to hear?  I can’t see how, not if we are looking to Scripture for counsel. 

Preach and teach the Word, brothers.  All of it.  Every part of it.  Preach it, teach it, counsel with it, pray with it, and sing with it; even the stuff that people don’t want to hear.  And stick with it. Do it relentlessly until you die. 

And please, encourage me to do it from time to time as well, because I need the reminder just as much as anyone else.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Five Sermons on the Five Solas

Late last year, our church joined a wonderful fellowship of churches, pastors, and missionaries called the “Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals” (FIRE).  FIRE describes itself as “a unifying network for independent Reformed (and Reforming) baptistic churches to experience mutual edification, fellowship, cooperation and prayerful support in ministries and missions.” 

In the short time that I have been acquainted with FIRE, I have been blessed and encouraged in a number of ways and I am excited that our church is now a part of this fellowship. 

It was for this reason that I decided to take five Sundays recently to preach on what being a “Reformed” church means to our specific local church here in Colorado.  Until our association with FIRE, our church had held to certain Reformed convictions but had never officially identified itself as a Reformed church.  So, the pastors of our church thought it would be worthwhile to explore the convictions that lead us to identify ourselves in this particular manner. 

The result was a five week sermon series called “Clarifying Our Convictions: SCC & the 5 Solas of the Reformation.” 

Here are the sermons in the order in which I preached them. 

Sola Scriptura (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5)

Solus Christus (Acts 4:1-12)

Sola Gratia (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Sola Fide (Romans 3:21-26)

Soli Deo Gloria (Romans 11:33-36)

I pray these sermons are a blessing to all who listen to them. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

She Went to a Strip Club

A couple of days ago I saw a provocatively titled blog post being passed around on social media, written by a woman named Anna McCarthy on her blog called “Just a Jesus Follower.” 

The post led with the title: “I went to a strip club.”  Provocative indeed.  It tells the story of a group of pastor-wives that decided to visit various strip clubs every month to deliver meals and gift baskets to the women working in them.  These visits led (according to McCarthy) to a number of ongoing relationships between the pastors’ wives and the women they visited, apparently in at least one case to a Bible study in a club led by one of the ladies’ pastor-husband, and a number of changed lives.  “All because,” McCarthy says, “this group of women and this pastor were unafraid to go where God was leading them.” 

McCarthy tells of her initial apprehension about going to the clubs, given the unusual approach these pastor-wives were taking to reach out to “women that society had thrown aside,” but because of how much it reminded McCarthy of Jesus, she decided to go with them one night, a night that obviously made a big impression upon her.  She saw that the women dancing in the clubs were not fundamentally different than her.  She saw them as real people with real needs, in need of Jesus just like everyone else.   

I will admit to you at the outset, I have no idea who Anna McCarthy is and to my knowledge I had never visited her blog before last week.  A quick perusal of her blog shows that she has written on a number of controversial issues, and likes to make a splash with dramatic writing from an anti-traditional evangelical (I use that term loosely) perspective.  

I did read this particular article, however, and found it troubling in many ways. 

Now, the truth is that I’m troubled on a near-daily basis by an article or two from some professing Christian source, in part because I can sometimes be overly critical and lacking grace, but primarily because there is no end to junk pile that continues to grow with posts cast out into the interwebs by Christians who seem to live without any serious, discerning, and biblically based accountability.  Becoming frustrated with posts like this one isn’t a unique experience for me. 

At the same time, I don’t typically consider it worth my time to take up my laptop and write a response to the latest troubling article or blog post.  There are far too many discernment bloggers out there; some better than others (okay, most are pretty bad, actually), and most of the junk I read doesn’t seem to have a real effect on any of my friends.  Additionally, I serve as a pastor in a specific local church – and so most of my study, reading, and writing are put to use for them.  So, if it’s not directly affecting our church in some way, I typically won’t write anything about it.

The reason I wanted to write a response to this particular post, however, is because I believe it illustrates a problematic trend in a lot of Christian writing these days that needs to be challenged, for the reason that it tends to serve as an effective vehicle to smuggle bad theology and unbiblical thinking directly into the church. 

It’s not as if McCarthy’s article only has one problem however.  I believe her article illustrates a number of problematic trends in today’s Christian writing, such as the lack of serious engagement with Scripture (which this response addresses extremely well), or the practice of equating anti-traditional strategies for ministry with the way of Jesus, or the practice of equating criticism of anti-traditional strategies for ministry with lifeless Biblicism, or the repudiation of the biblical teaching of the believer's separation from the world, or the redefining of love according to worldly values, among others.  Many faithful brothers and sisters regularly address these trends rather effectively, so I’m not going to address those kinds of things here.  

Rather, there is only one problematic trend in a lot of Christian writing that I wish to point out in this post, in hopes that doing so will help others practice discernment when they read.  This is something that I encourage my friends to watch out for when reading Christian blogs and books these days. 

The trend to watch out for is over-dramatic writing that masks shallow thought and unbiblical theology.

In 1,355 words (by my count) McCarthy presents a purely emotional case for a highly controversial approach to ministry with no references to Scripture, no interaction with a single critical source, no acknowledgment of legitimate objections to what she is advocating, while using loosely defined terms and an extremely casual tone; at no point giving any substantive defense for the ministry she celebrates in her post. 

Consider what McCarthy’s post presents as an exemplary approach for ministering to strippers: Women going into strip clubs, while strippers are on the job, to give them food and gifts while they are objectifying themselves before men, who are sinning against God and their families by paying women to whom they are not married to take off their clothes and dance on their laps, so that they might lust after them and fulfill at least some of their perverted sexual fantasies. 

McCarthy wants for us to believe that Jesus would willingly go into such an environment, armed a basket of sandwiches as if he were going to a family picnic, and that he might do so simply to “freak out” religious people.  She also wants for the church to consider following suit. 

The problem with all of this is simple; not a single text of Scripture, when interpreted according to its plain and original meaning, would lead us to believe such things.  Does Jesus love strippers?  Absolutely.  Biblical text after biblical text would lead us to believe this, such that it’s not even worth a debate.  But to say that Jesus would walk willingly into a strip club during business hours to present scantily clad women with a gift basket is utterly without biblical support.  The only reason one might walk away from McCarthy’s post thinking that Jesus might do such a thing and would want his church to do the same, is because the ideas are presented to us in the form of tears, humor, personal experience, and language that appeals primarily to our emotions rather than to our minds. 

McCarthy’s post, like the writing in so many Christian blogs and books today, works to move the reader’s will, by appealing almost exclusively to the reader’s emotions, and bypassing the reader’s intellect and objective reasoning. 

In doing so, she leaves us with a post that cannot stand up to serious biblical critique. 

What is a “broken” person anyway? 

Take, for example, her mention at the outset of the article of “broken” people.  Near the beginning of her article she writes, “I love people. Especially ones who are broken; it’s part of my calling. But, given what I’ve walked through, I know how fragile broken people can be.

As compassionate and humble and praiseworthy as this may sound, a serious question that McCarthy nowhere answers is, “What exactly is a broken person?” 

Is a broken person a sinner in need of God’s grace?  I could accept that definition.  Yet, by that definition the Bible says we are all broken.  As the Apostle Paul reminds us:

(Romans 3:10-18)  10 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one;  11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.  12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one."  13 "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips."  14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness."  15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood;  16 in their paths are ruin and misery,  17 and the way of peace they have not known."  18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes."   

And just a few verses later:

Romans 3:23  all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Or perhaps a broken person is someone who is enslaved to a sinful lifestyle and is lost in unbelief.  Yet, by that definition, wouldn’t all unbelievers qualify?  What sets a stripper apart from your co-worker who is a committed husband and loving father, but who doesn’t know Christ and clearly has a bit of an anger problem?  Or for that matter, what sets a stripper apart from the men objectifying them in the strip club?  Aren’t they broken people too?  I wonder if the pastor-wives gave them a gift basket.  Somehow, I doubt it. 

Or perhaps a broken person is someone who has been abused and mistreated throughout their life, and who feels dirty and shameful to this day as a result.  I know people like that and my heart breaks for them.  Yet, do broken people only work in strip clubs?  And are all strippers broken by this definition?  Why would you assume every stripper is broken in this manner?  Perhaps some have simply lived a reckless and immoral life, feel no shame over it, and see dancing naked as an easy way to make money?  Are they still “broken” if that is the case?  If so, aren’t we back to the previous question?

I hope my point on this is clear.  The only reason we would read McCarthy approvingly for her love of “broken” people, is because we don’t really care what she means by “broken.”  And the only reason we wouldn’t care about a term like that, is because we’ve been sucked in by the rest of her emotionally gripping post. 

One non-negotiable mark of a serious, biblical thinker and communicator is that they address your will through your mind, not your emotions.  Consider how Paul speaks in Romans 6 of the way the Romans were converted and brought to maturity in Christ. 

(Romans 6:17-18)  17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,  18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

Notice, how the Roman Christians come to faith in Christ and experience freedom from sin.  They became “obedient (the will) from the heart (their inner emotional / spiritual life) to the standard of teaching to which [they] were committed.”  Their minds were engaged with the truth, which gripped them internally, and led to a change of life.  That is the mark of any trustworthy Christian teacher.  They don’t seek to manipulate your emotions with subjective experiences and opinons; they seek first to address your mind with the truth. 

McCarthy takes no time whatsoever engaging her readers’ minds with the truth.  She leaps over the mind and appeals directly to the emotions; masking shallow, unbiblical, and easily refuted ideas with flowery, emotional language.  Whether that is her intent or not (and I have no reason to believe it is), it is the effect. 

But McCarthy is by no means alone.  Her style is illustrative of a lot of Christian writing these days, that despite being emotionally stimulating tends to be objectively light, unbiblical, and easily picked apart. 

Christians need better than this.  We should demand better than this.  But perhaps if fewer people read this kind of stuff, we would naturally get less and less of it in the future.  Here’s hoping to that.  Perhaps this little post will help in some small way to reverse this troublesome trend.