Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another "Trouble Maker"...

Here's a great thought from Eric Ludy, author of The Bravehearted Gospel: The Truth Is Worth Fighting For, from his podcast for today (broadcast on Moody Radio):

Sadly, I think he's right on target. Nothing seems to rile an evangelical more these days than questioning whether what they are doing is Biblical. But questioning whether something is consistent with God's revealed will is something all true Christians are required to do... first in their own lives, and then also in their experience - especially in their local church.

Just a few things worth repeating from his post:

"There are a few things that are classified as out of bounds these days in modern Christianity and 'pulling an Elijah' is one of them.

It’s obvious that the Church is in the midst of a drought just like back in the days of 1 Kings chapter 18. But we don’t want to hear anything about our version of Christianity being the reason for this drought. We’ve been eating slim spiritual pickins for years in the church. The grand and epic Gospel has been trimmed down to a mere stump of Truth. We’ve treated sin as if it is simply a necessary bedfellow and haven’t allowed our Savior to actually rescue us from all that is destroying our souls."

It is no surprise that I don't like a lot of what I'm seeing these days in my limited sampling of Evangelicalism - and I'm certainly not Elijah. But the truth is, it doesn't seem to matter whether you are correct or incorrect in your assessment when you question these days because you'll be vilified for the act of questioning. Oh, and you certainly won't get a reasoned, Biblical response, because the Evangelical response never seems to move beyond the messenger to the message itself.

I'd like to hear the Evangelical response to Elijah, which would likely sound like these typical thoughts: "It's not his message I object to, it's his tone." "He doesn't sound very humble about his views." "Who is he to say, anyway?" "Why does he focus on such petty issues - they don't really matter because nobody agrees about that doctrine stuff anyway." "Don't respond to him, nothing will be good enough for him anyway."

If someone insults or misrepresents the character of your spouse or parent, you're likely to get angry about that. You might even use a "harsh tone" in response. Why? Because it is an appropriate response. So here's my question: Where is the "appropriate response" to the widely documented, growing Evangelical apostacy these days? All too often, the decline is met with silence. And like the spouse or child who doesn't rise to defend their insulted relative, the observer is left to question the love within the relationship.

Eric concludes by saying this:

"So if a modern day Elijah raises his voice to speak, the Church at large is hotwired to shake their heads and moan under their breath, 'not another one of these trouble-makers.' But, let’s get something straight: The man with the message of 'repent' is not the problem! The weeping prophet that says with a tear-choked voice, 'wake up Church' is not the one creating the trouble! America, can we admit that we’ve grown fat and sloppy spiritually? We are not a finally chiseled athlete ready to fight for Truth, stand for the Gospel, and defend the Sacred Text of Scripture. "

I do think that "we all need a little kick in the rear end from the Old Prophet Elijah. We need to hear a firmer message, a message with guts, a message with the ring of uncomfortable truth once again... so instead of furrowing your brow and muttering, 'trouble-maker!' Say, 'Thank you God that you still care enough about me to speak above the din of modern American Culture.'"

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Great God Entertainment

Here's a timely message from A.W. Tozer* from way back in 1955 - imagine what he'd say today...

"A German philosopher many years ago said something to the effect that the more a man has in his own heart, the less he will require from the outside; excessive need for support from without is proof of the bankruptcy of the inner man.

If this is true (and I believe it is) then the present inordinate attachment to every form of entertainment is evidence that the inner life of modern man is in serious decline. The average man has no central core of moral assurance, no spring within his own breast, no inner strength to place him above the need for repeated psychological shots to give him the courage to go on living. He has become a parasite on the world, drawing his life from his environment, unable to live a day apart from the stimulation which society affords him.

Schleiermacher held that the feeling of dependence lies at the root of all religious worship, and that however high the spiritual life might rise, it must always begin with a deep sense of a great need which only God could satisfy.

If this sense of need and a feeling of dependence are at the root of natural religion, it is not hard to see why the great god Entertainment is so ardently worshiped by so many. For there are millions who cannot live without amusement; life without some form of entertainment for them is simply intolerable; they look forward to the blessed relief afforded by professional entertainers and other forms of psychological narcotics as a dope addict looks to his daily shot of heroin. Without them they could not summon courage to face existence.

No one with common human feeling will object to the simple pleasures of life, nor to such harmless forms of entertainment as may help to relax the nerves and refresh the mind exhausted by toil. Such things, if used with discretion, may be a blessing along the way. That is one thing, however, the all-out devotion to entertainment as a major activity for which and by which men live is definitely something else again.

The abuse of a harmless thing is the essence of sin. The growth of the amusement phase of human life to such fantastic proportions is a portent, a threat to the souls of modern men. It has been built into a multimillion dollar racket with greater power over human minds and human character than any other educational influence on earth.

And the ominous thing is that its power is almost exclusively evil, rotting the inner life, crowding out the long eternal thoughts which would fill the souls of men, if they were but worthy to entertain them. The whole thing has grown into a veritable religion which holds its devotees with a strange fascination; and a religion, incidentally, against which it is now dangerous to speak. For centuries the Church stood solidly against every form of worldly entertainment, recognizing it for what it was—a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability.

For this she got herself abused roundly by the sons of this world. But of late she has become tired of the abuse and has given over the struggle. She appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers. So, today we have the astonishing spectacle of millions of dollars being poured into the unholy job of providing earthly entertainment for the so-called sons of heaven. Religious entertainment is in many places rapidly crowding out the serious things of God.

Many churches these days have become little more than poor theaters where fifth-rate 'producers' peddle their shoddy wares with the full approval of evangelical leaders who can even quote a holy text in defense of their delinquency. And hardly a man dares raise his voice against it.

The great god Entertainment amuses his devotees mainly by telling them stories. The love of stories, which is a characteristic of childhood, has taken fast hold of the minds of the retarded saints of our day, so much so that not a few persons manage to make a comfortable living by spinning yarns and serving them up in various disguises to church people.

What is natural and beautiful in a child may be shocking when it persists into adulthood, and more so when it appears in the sanctuary and seeks to pass for true religion. Is it not a strange thing and a wonder that, with the shadow of atomic destruction hanging over the world and with the coming of Christ drawing near, the professed followers of the Lord should be giving themselves up to religious amusements? That in an hour when mature saints are so desperately needed vast numbers of believers should revert to spiritual childhood and clamor for religious toys?

'Remember, 0 Lord, what is come upon us: consider, and behold our reproach. The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us, that we have sinned! For this our heart is faint; for these things our eyes are dim.' AMEN. AMEN."

Taken from Root of the Righteous, Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1955, p. 32-33.
*And just think... he was an Arminian!

Friday, March 13, 2009

What Is An "Evangelical"?

I was telling Mrs. Doulos the other day that I have a remarkable ability to be profoundly oblivious to the PAINFULLY obvious. To my kids, that’s no real news, but let me give two examples (and I am not making this up…):

#1 - I was preaching at Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago last Tuesday night… presenting the Gospel from Isaiah 53:4-6 (what an incredible passage!). I was really captured by the text, and anytime you’re talking to anyone about the great need that we have and the unbelievable provision God has for us in His Son – and the unfathomably suffering He endured to deliver that provision, well… there aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. I felt that I had just a glimmer of a vision for that Truth when I stepped up to speak. I did my best, I was focused on the task at hand, and I finished on time. After returning to my seat, a co-worker greeted me with the following statement (or something like this):

“I’m amazed at your concentration – I can’t believe that didn’t phase you.”

I had NO IDEA what he was talking about. It turns out that while I was preaching, a man in the second row of the auditorium (center aisle, almost right under the pulpit) threw up! It caused quite a stir (and a mess), and required someone with a BUCKET AND MOP to clean up.

I understand that people sometimes feel sick when I talk, so I am not surprised that someone finally expressed this thought so graphically. But here's the point: I DIDN'T EVEN SEE IT! When they told me, I smelled it, but I still can’t believe it happened – literally – right under my nose without my notice!

#2 - Reading Phil Johnson’s talk (What Is An Evangelical?) at the Shepherds’ Conference reminded me of this reaction (the “oblivious” part, not the “vomiting”), and this is what I mean: I am amazed that I continue to be shocked at the condition in the Evangelical church these days. I’d recommend Phil’s talk – it merits close attention (part 1 here and part 2), but I think he is accurate in his assessment of the broader Evangelical movement.

What is an "Evangelical" these days? According to Johnson:

"It's frankly one of those questions you can answer almost any way you want and defend your answer as articulately as you like, and most people are still going to tell you you've got it wrong. Because it seems these days everyone has his own personal idea of what constitutes an evangelical. Ask 100 evangelicals to define that they mean by the term and odds are you're probably going to get 100 different answers—some of them so wildly different as to be virtually contradictory.

Evangelicals have been trying hard to be all things to all men for at least two or three generations, and in this regard they have completely succeeded: The evangelical movement is now so broad and diverse that you can define it practically any way you want. In an article celebrating their 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, Christianity Today said they think diversity is in fact the dominant feature of evangelicalism." (emphasis added)

And therein lies the problem. I don't think CT is alone in celebrating "diversity" - even on core doctrines like the nature of man, the work of God and the very definition of the Gospel itself! The problem is, when you question theological diversity in Evangelical circles, you are very quickly labeled as a trouble-maker, opinionated or, even worse, "negative." (There is a FAR worse label being tossed around these days, but that's the next post!)

Johnson says that people accuse him of being "negative" and so, in response:

"… So let me say it this way: I'm positive that the broad evangelical movement today is abominable. The brand of Christianity (or should I say "the assorted brands of Christianity"?) represented by Christianity Today, The National Association of Evangelicals, and the Christian Coalition—the spiritual heirs of Billy Graham, Fuller Seminary, and the Urbana Conferences—that large movement that most of our spiritual parents identified with—that vast movement is now as utterly backslidden and spiritually degenerate as Israel was in her most backslidden state during the times of apostasy described in the book of Judges. We have reached that point where ‘Everyone [does] what [is] right in his own eyes.’ And lots of so-called evangelicals think that's just fine. The current editors of Christianity Today seem to think that's just fine. They never tire of celebrating their constituents' "diversity." (emphasis added)

I frankly don't like to identify with the contemporary evangelical movement. I'm strongly tempted simply to stop calling myself an evangelical altogether, just to keep from being associated with every infamous religious scoundrel from Ted Haggard to Joel Osteen. What does it actually mean to say we're evangelical when the menagerie of heretics and charlatans appearing nightly on TBN all insist they are evangelical, too? Tony Campolo, who has renounced practically everything that's distinctively evangelical, insists on calling himself an evangelical. Lots of Roman Catholics call themselves evangelical. Lately even Mormons have begun arguing that they have a right to the label as well. None of them would agree on what the term means, of course, but they all want to wear it, because it gives them an artificial connection with the rich heritage of evangelical history.

You go, Phil. I’m with you when you say that
“I do affirm historic evangelical principles. The original evangelicals are my spiritual ancestors. I believe what they believed, and I'm passionate about the things they were passionate about. We share a common faith, and I happen to believe it is the same faith proclaimed by apostles and the early church. But in the broad sweep of church history, the set of convictions I hold is best known by the name evangelicalism. And I'm not ready yet to concede that label to people who in fact have no spiritual connection—and nothing whatsoever in common—with historic evangelical beliefs.”
I know there’s press all around on this subject, particularly since the Internet Monk met the Christian Science Monitor this week. And I’m also surprised at the way that the discussion lines are being drawn. (By the way, read IM's full posts before you dismiss him as some have for the CSM article). For those who have concluded that this assessment (from Michael Spenser or Phil Johnson or many others) is wrong, they’ve found “the Enemy.”

But for some of us, we think these guys are on to something that is not only right, but important. I'm not sure I'm understanding how to attribute electrical properties (like negative and positive) to this discussion - but I do think their assessment is accurate.

So here's my big shock: I'm surprised that people hate the truth so much. I'm surprised that people think personal attacks or blind optimism somehow deflect reality. And when I think about the state of things generally (and when I read the mainstream Evangelical thinking in response), I feel a little like the guy in the second row at Pacific Garden Mission. I guess I’m just surprised that I’m still surprised.

Next Time: Who Is the REAL Problem?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Coming Evangelical Collapse

I trust that you all noticed Michael Spenser’s provocative – and brilliant - article in today’s Christian Science Monitor. Not a pretty picture, but spot on in articulating the sorry state of many churches today.

It’s very sad that once solid, Bible-believing churches continue to trade away the very thing that gives them influence in the world – that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ – for a stab at “influence” from the world’s perspective. They have seemed to embrace the notion that the Gospel is a stumbling block to the Jew, foolishness to the Greek (and, in the words of Kim Riddlebarger, “both to an American”).

Spenser is devastating in his assessment and analysis. His conclusion is both breathtaking and easily foreseen – if one has eyes to look beyond the self-deception so common in inbred corporate systems that Evangelical churches so frequently emulate. Why, he asks, are we on the verge of a collapse of the Evangelical movement? In part, he says (and the emphasis is mine):
“We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.” (Take that, “deeds, not creeds!”)
“We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.” (I’d add that this condition clearly isn’t limited to merely the young people either).
What does he see coming? In part:
“Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented mega-churches that have defined success. Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success – resulting in churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.”
This is the core problem for Evangelical churches – a shift from doctrine to ... well, something else. It always leads to compromise and weakens - even destroys - a church's effectiveness. In their effort to become “relevant” they lose their relevance. When a church compromises on its doctrine and distinctives, it becomes unable and weakened to pass on its truth to the next generation of believers; in fact, it ceases to have anything meaningful to pass on! When a church ceases to defend its own doctrine, for example, it has defaulted on its primary responsibility! Increasingly (if Christianity Today is any indication), churches are afraid to take a stand on even the most basic – core – doctrines because somebody somewhere disagrees. Churches like this may still remain “christian” in the most general (or generous sense), but they are a “church” only in the organizational sense. This is the error that the Mainline denominations made… and the Evangelicals are running after them as fast as possible.

Evangelical churches used to organize around what they believed. Now they organize around what they do. That is a great operating philosophy for a para-church organization, but it has become the philosophy of ministry for local churches!

“Evangelicalism doesn't need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral.” Amen, Michael. I trust, though, that you are wrong when you predict that the “purveyors of the evangelical circus [continue] in fine form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church's problems.” I pray that God will open the eyes of His people to desire beauty and substance of His Word; that God’s people will give up the lie that “we can’t know;” and that men in leadership would be cut to the heart in understanding their responsibility to care for and to feed God’s people with the Word of God.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Important Read...

Whose voice are you listening to these days?

In studying the book Christless Christianity, I've been struck repeatedly by the increasingly pervasive trend in the evangelical world towards denying both the certainty of truth and its practical application in evangelical theology. A clear demonstration of the sad decline in biblical theology (where it was once rightly assumed) was reported from the National Pastors Conference in San Diego last month. It is incredible to me that many seem very comfortable leaving issues like the authority of Scripture, the nature of the atonement, the centrality of the person and work of Christ himself up for debate! Evangelicalism IS being "hijacked by closet theological liberals!"

It would be sad enough if the problem was just conferences and books... but the real problem lies inside local churches. The trends in many churches (including the purpose driven churches, seeker sensitive churches, the planter-driven churches and, sadly, even in established evangelical churches) is towards softening their doctrinal distinctives or ditching them altogether. The sad - but observable fact - is that increasingly churches who used to organize around what they believed and taught organize now around what they do.

This was the liberal experiment in the early 20th century, and I don't think it will be any more successful for the evangelicals of the 21st century who embrace the same strategy. IMHO, the evangelical movement is trading influence - which is found in fulfilling its mission to be a truth-teller and to feed the people of God - for the appearance of significance through programs and activity. What ever happened to "being transformed by the renewing of our minds"?

The Dallas-Fort Worth Star Telegram had an interesting article last Saturday about a book which seeks to answer the question "Why IS the church losing its influence in modern society?". The author of The Vanishing Church: Searching For Significance in the 21st Century makes this interesting and important observation:

"What I’m saying is that the biblical New Testament church is vanishing from society today," he said. "Anything and everything is acceptable as long as it builds a crowd. Jesus wasn’t as interested in building a crowd as he was in telling the truth."

Here's an important reminder as well from John MacArthur:
"People say, 'Oh doctrine divides…doctrine divides.' I say, 'Amen, preach it, doctrine divides.' You know what it does? It confronts error. It separates true from false. It makes judgments. Today’s climate, however, of unity in the priority of relationships, that’s not tolerable."
Hmmm. Maybe they're on to something. Make sure you're following someone who isn't leading you over a cliff...