White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-1062 | Wisdom for Life & The Cross of Christ

One of Paul’s biggest concerns about the Corinthian church was that they were being distracted from the gospel. So he wrote to them saying, “Greeks seek wisdom, and Jews seek miraculous signs, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” On this program the hosts interact with this text and discuss the incredible popularity of “wisdom for life” style messages in Christian books and pulpits across the country. Has the gospel of Christ crucified become foolishness in the eyes of today’s church? That’s the focus on this edition of the White Horse Inn.

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The Business of the Church

I’m sitting in South Barrington, Illinois (in the western suburbs of Chicago) taking a break from the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit, an annual event hosted by Willow Creek Community Church and its pastor, Bill Hybels.  I joked to my facebook friends that I was undercover this week and that’s partly true. I’m the guest of a national corporation who—through a friend—paid for my registration and my nametag says I’m an employee of theirs! Well, no harm done. Not many people here read Modern Reformation or listen to White Horse Inn anyway…at least not yet!

The two-day conference is an intentional effort to combine the wisdom of business leaders with the wisdom of ministry leaders, with the hope that these two different kinds of leaders could learn from one another. The difficulty of that enterprise was demonstrated yesterday when Bill Hybels had to announce that Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, had cancelled his scheduled appearance at the summit because of an online petition by a gay rights groups upset by Willow Creek’s prior relationship with Exodus, Intl, which advocates that gay people can change their sexual orientation. Business leaders have different agendas than ministry leaders and that difference is spelled out in quarterly profit reports, reports that depend on keeping many different segments of the marketplace happy with your product. I wonder if many of the thousands of registrants here and at dozens of sites across the country watching by live video feed caught that lesson.

The product that the Summit is offering is enticing: success. The first day was spent listening to speakers (and even people who introduced the speakers) who were highly successful in their fields: Bill Hybels, who helped launch the megachurch movement; Len Schlesinger, a successful businessman and now president of Babson College, the top-ranked business school for entrepreneurship; Corey Booker, the young mayor of Newark, New Jersey; Brenda Salter McNeil, a writer and speaker on issues facing African-American Christians; Seth Godin, bestselling business author; and Steven Furtick, a young pastor of a brand new megachurch in North Carolina.

The unmistakable message is that applying leadership principles that are common to all leaders (no matter what “industry” you might be part of) will result in that most powerful of aphrodisiacs, success. To be fair, the session that I’m missing right now features the stories of difficult ministries, specifically foreign ministries in India and Egypt, where success may not be immediately visible. In fact, one speaker from Egypt is, as I write this, receiving a standing ovation for her mostly unnoticed work among the poorest children of the minority Coptic Christian community there. But it is striking to me that the Summit went outside of the country to find those “difficult callings.” The message, to me at least, is that if you are in the States you should be successful: big churches, lots of baptisms, or at least audacious entrepreneurial goals to give your life and church to. If you’re not successful, the failure resides in you and your unwillingness or inability to apply the leadership principles that have so clearly worked for so many others.

Do the kind of leadership principles that are necessary for a business to be successful belong in the church? The assumption here is that the church and the business are variants on the same kind of thing and so the principles that work in one should work in the other and the leadership that exists in one should exist in the other. That assumption is naïve and I’m surprised by the number of business leaders over the years who have spoken at the Summit, giving credence to that view. Businesses have customers; churches have disciples. Businesses want their customers to consume their products (whether that is a physical thing, a service, or an experience); churches want their disciples to attend to the means of grace (as humble as they might seem in the great religious marketplace). Businesses will change according to the ebb and flow of the market; churches cannot change their mission or vision and still lay claim to being the church.

What business is the church in? Bill Hybels said yesterday that the church is in the life transformation business. I’m glad to say that the Bible doesn’t support that view though it does seem to be a fairly common misconception today. We all want Jesus to come alongside us and improve us, our marriages, our children. We want to go to sleep at night confident that we have taken several steps forward, getting a little better every day. We want to reach the end of our lives and see that we have accomplished something of lasting significance and worth, to know that we were worth something. In all of these scenarios, however, Jesus is a means to an end (a very personal, therapeutic end: feeling better about ourselves). As one new acquaintance said at dinner last night, the problem isn’t that we need to align our hopes and dreams with Jesus; it’s that Jesus upends our hopes and dreams, intruding into our lives with such force that what we thought was important actually dies and new life is born in its place. As the great Episcopal preacher Robert Farrar Capon puts it, “Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things work.” As long as the church thinks it is in the life business instead of the death business, it will constantly clamor after every tool to improve life and it will judge its success in the way that bookkeepers and accountants judge success.

So what does success look like in a church? Success looks a lot like faithfulness, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, a long obedience in the same direction. But can a church ever learn that discipline if it is constantly changing its ministry plan in an effort to pack more people into its $80 million dollar auditorium? Success can never be small in America. The same spirit that launched MTV’s “Cribs” and relishes in the material excess of celebrities pervades our churches and infects even the ministers. I’ll admit, I had to check myself several times from being swept up into the “more is better” attitude that was celebrated and encouraged this week. I had to remember that my success as a pastor must be different than the success a business leader looks for and is judged by. My success is judged by my faithfulness to the marks of the church and the ministry that God has called me to: a ministry of Word and Sacrament, a ministry of foolishness in the eyes of the world, a ministry of life and light to those dead and in darkness, a ministry not of myself and my dreams or even my leadership, but a ministry of Christ by His Spirit.

There’s not enough time to comment on the rest of the event, so I’ll just quickly bullet point a few things:

  • We started yesterday with an American Idolized “Awake My Soul,” the beautifully spare song from the British band Mumford and Sons.  I knew that I recognized it while the band was singing, but it was so over-produced that I couldn’t place it until I Googled the lyrics. I had to listen to the real version several times last night just to remember how wonderful the song is in its simplicity. Sadly, the band used it as the beginning of a medley of praise songs but the audience couldn’t figure out when to start singing along, at what point did performance give way to participation?
  • Anytime the band performed, the stage and auditorium exploded into a light show strong enough to induce seizures. I hasten to add that I’m a GenX’r and am supposed to like all of this. But I don’t think my problem is Presbyterian curmudgeoness; there was a disconnect between what everybody assumed they were doing and the environment in which they were doing it.
  • Along the same lines, highly produced videos intruded into every presentation. There were even commercials for different products related to the various speakers and presentations.
  • I wish that this had been a straight leadership/management conference. I think that Bill Hybels is in the wrong business. He is obviously a gifted leader and CEO. I learned quite a bit from him and the other secular presenters about business. The “Jesus” side of things was weird and whenever one of the secular speakers tried to include a little “Jesus” in their presentation, the result was always a mess (see Mayor Booker’s remark in the “theological fails” below).
  • [this point has been changed in response to a good pushback from a commentator] Steven Furtick, the young pastor of the new megachurch in Charlotte, North Carolina had a rousing message from 2 Kings 3, but I felt that he based the main point of his message on a part of the verse that isn’t universally attested to, at least in English Bibles. Preaching from 2 Kings 3:16, Pastor Furtick enjoined the crowd to have audacious faith by digging ditches in the desert, waiting for God to bring the rain. Rhetorically, this was a powerful message. But, in several English versions, there’s nothing in there about digging ditches. Instead, the text says that God will fill the dry stream beds. One could understand why ditches might be substituted for stream beds in different English translations, but where’s the verb?
  • Willow Creek is the epicenter of that kind of evangelicalism that the British newspaper, the Guardian called “unrecognizable” as Christian houses of worship, wrappers “round some mixture of superstition and advertising.” That was on full display these last two days. Thankfully, as the Boomers age that form of ministry seems to be dying off, too. I just hope the church in America can recover from it.

And to conclude, three theological fails:

  • Newark mayor Corey Booker needs to go back to Sunday school: we do not have divinity within each of us, as he claimed during his presentation. In fact, our drive to do good isn’t internal at all, it is borne out of two things: gratitude to God and seeing our neighbor’s need.
  • Mama Maggie Gobran, an Egyptian Coptic Christian told the crowd that they must choose to be either a sinner or a saint. Great illiteration but terrible theology not to mention absolutely contrary to Ephesians 2:1-10, which states that we were dead in our trespasses and sins and made alive by God.
  • In a crowd of thousands of pastors, neither statement elicited even a murmur. The judgment of charity can only extend so far, folks.

Update:

Many of you have asked me if there was anything beneficial that I gained by being at the Summit, or if I went in with an agenda to merely criticize. As I mentioned above, I came hoping to learn leadership and management skills for the nonprofit organization I lead. I didn’t come as a pastor, but as an executive. To that end, there were quite a few good things:

  • I really liked Bill Hybels’ first session on Thursday. He set up four flip charts and identified four big issues facing leaders: the level of their current challenge at work, plans for dealing with challenging people, a challenge to address problems as problems, and reexamining the core of organizational mission. I took a good two pages of notes on his presentation.
  • The one take away I got from Len Schlesinger’s presentation (I was out of the room for part of it), was that big problems are solved by small steps, not big steps. That’s good to remember.
  • I also really enjoyed Seth Godin’s presentation: engaging, quick, funny. The big take away is that organizations can’t be all things to all people: who is your tribe (a fancy word for an audience or market)? Appeal to them and make yourself indispensable to them.
  • I enjoyed Jim Mellado’s interview with Michelle Rhee. She’s always been someone I admired and now I have even more reason to do so. I also really appreciated her honestly about her own process in becoming an “aspiring Christian.”
  • Henry Cloud is outstanding and his presentation on the three categories of people was excellent.

I had to leave at that point to catch a flight, so I can’t comment on anything else.

Enough About Us Already: Our American Protestant Obsession with Being Loved by the World

“They like you,” according to Christianity Today‘s latest cover story (August 2011), by Bradley R. E. Wright, a University of Connecticut sociologist. Wright challenges the alarmist rhetoric of some in recent years who have created the impression that our fellow Americans hate us and we need a public relations makeover. Taking issue with George Barna among others, he argues that we have a persecution complex-or at least an almost pathological need to be loved. Actually, when asked to register their feeling in terms of warm or cold, the weather report for evangelicals is “generally sunny and mild”-somewhere between Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants at one end and Muslims, Buddhist, and Mormons at the other.

Admittedly, this could be the worst news of all. It’s like the anxious teenager who asks a group of peers, “What do you think of me?”, only to hear a nearly unanimous reply, “We don’t, actually.” As they say, no publicity is worse than bad publicity.

Introducing this issue, CT managing editor Mark Galli said he hoped that Wright’s article might help us to move on from self-obsession (“Inside CT,” page 7): “A movement that casts anxious glances to see how it’s doing in the eyes of others is in either childhood or adolesence…It’s time for evangelicals to put away childish things….The fact is that in the end, people don’t care if we are cool. They don’t think it an improvement to call ourselves ‘Jesus followers’ instead of ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals.’”

There’s a long history of American Protestants wanting the approval of their neighbors. For a good part of our nation’s history, respectable denominations with roots in the Reformation surrendered their confessional peculiarities for a generic evangelical witness. A lot of this had to do with evangelism: wanting to reach the population of declining practicioners of the faith. Churches, with their distinct catechism, forms of worship, and government, were eager to reach nominal members as well as Native Americans and Africans, slave and free. Yet a lot of it had to do with cultural hegemony. Having fought off the Leviathan of Rome, the new Christendom would come only with the stripping away of doctrinal distinctives that divide activistic Protestantism. Especially after the Second Great Awakening, “deeds, not creeds” became the mantra.

Well, we know where this has led. The mainline churches are really sideline bodies. In numerical terms alone, they are a shadow of their former selves: each coalition partner reduced by at least half over the last 30 years. Still, it takes a while to get used to one’s marginal status. As a quip attributed to veteran sociologist Peter Berger has it, “Puerto Ricans, Jews, and Episcopalians each form around 2 percent of the American population. Guess which group does not think of itself as a minority.”

In “The Death of Protestant America” (First Things, Aug/Sep 2008), editor Joseph Bottum offers insightful analysis of the obsession of mainline Protestantism with cultural clout and respectability. Bottum relates that the United Church of Christ website celebrates its cultural influence, beginning with John Winthrop’s vision of “the shining city upon a hill” to the adoption of the first non-patriarchal (read: non-trinitarian) hymnal. “That’s a curious admission for a major American denomination,” notes Bottum.

By its own account, the church’s intellectual life has come to an end. And as its numbers catastrophically decline, the ordinary practice of its members has ceased to influence the culture. The United Church of Christ is left little except its putatively prophetic voice-and a strikingly unoriginal voice, at that. All the issues on which the church opines, and all the positions it takes, track the usual run of liberal American politics. The key, however, is not the mostly uninteresting politics of the church bureaucracy but the astonishing lack of influence those political statements have. With no deposits into the account of its prestige by accommodating the other props of the nation-and no influence on the culture from the everyday practices of its congregants-the prophetic demands of the United Church of Christ cash out to nothing. No one listens, no one minds, no one cares.

As Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas quipped, “God is killing mainline Protestantism in America, and we @#% well deserve it.” Global evangelicalism has enormous strengths, especially when compared to other head-line capturing Christian movements. Yet is its preoccupation with itself and with worldly approval the harbinger of a similar death wish?

Something like this question was asked just yesterday in the Guardian, a leading UK newspaper. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s obviously full of people who call themselves Christians; and certainly full of religious believers in a way difficult for many Europeans to understand or to accept. But is what modern Americans believe actually Christianity at all? When the mainstream churches went into an apparently irreversible decline towards the end of the 20th century, this was interpreted as a decline of liberal Christianity, and its replacement by fundamentalism. But is the church of Rick Warren anything more than vaguely therapeutic moralistic deism?

The question is hardly a new one. It was raised as least as long ago as the late 19th century by Henry Adams, who wondered whether the American faith in progress and in self-improvement was really the same thing as traditional Christianity. But it’s still an interesting one. Has the evangelical movement turned itself into an entirely new religion, unrecognisable to “orthodox” European Christianity: a reinterpretation of the Christian myths almost as strange as Mormonism? Consider the Youtube video video of a NASCAR chaplain praying for all the sponsors of the event, from Toyota to Sunoco, and then thanking God for his “hot wife” before finishing with the doxology “Boogity boogity boogity. Amen”. Is this really anything that traditional theologians could recognise as Christian? Or is it just a wrapper round some mixture of superstition and advertising?

Whatever the “media elites” (a perennial bogeyman) say otherwise, evangelicalism is probably more politically and culturally powerful than so-called “mainline” Protestantism. Yet already evangelicalism suffers from the same desire to be loved as the mainline denominations that are now irrelevant. Both are obsessed with cultural clout and approval, although mainliners crave the attention of “high culture” (art, science, education, etc.) while evangelicals court popular culture. Think symposia vs. rallies, NPR or The New York Times vs. FOX and USA Today, opera vs. Christian pop concerts. In either case, we’re sure that we are having a cultural impact, when it’s mostly we who have moved. [See W. Robert Godfrey's article, "The Myth of Influence," in the Sept/Oct 1998 Modern Reformation]

As Joseph Bottum points out, churches that retained their confessional identity-Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, and Mennonite-actually had a disproportionate influence on culture in ways that were not even calculated. Strong Christian families, churches, and schools have been enormously successful in passing the faith on from generation to generation. Of course, the danger in these groups was its own kind of cultural hegemonies. They weren’t thinking about how to be successful, relevant, or attractive. That has been its strength and its weakness. In fact, oblivious to a fault, they did not even realize when they were being gradually reshaped by the forces of modernity. For a while, the Christian Reformed Church stared American Protestantism in the face, declaring, “In isolation is our strength.” It’s no wonder that eventually you have a generation that finds the environment more of a stifling hot-house rather than a flourishing arboretum.

Both tendencies-isolationism and accommodationism-are driven mostly by fear: fear of being absorbed, and fear of being left out. There has to be something in the middle here, driven by something from God (the gospel) rather than something from ourselves (either conservative or progressive instincts).

Enough about us, already. Either the church is a witness to the Triune God, revealed consummately in the incarnate Son, clothed in his gospel; or it has no right to exist, whatever its impact, usefulness or relevance on other points. On the horizon of mass movements at least, evangelicalism still has considerable strengths. Nevertheless, we do well to ponder the line from Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward in 1993: “The mainline denominations may be dying because they lost their theological integrity. The only thing worse, perhaps, would be the rise of a new Protestant establishment that succeeds because it never had any.”

A Confessionalist Piety

The Gospel Coalition has released another video discussion involving Mike Horton. In this installment Mike talks with Ligon Duncan and Kevin DeYoung about whether or not pietism and confessionalism need to be mutually exclusive–or if that is a false dichotomy to begin with in the history of Reformed churches.

Piety and Confessionalism: Friends or Enemies? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

WHI-1061 | What is the Gospel?

The Great Commission calls us to preach the gospel to every creature, but just what is this gospel that we are to proclaim? Some say it’s being born again or asking Jesus into your heart, while others say that it’s a call for us to participate in Christ’s ongoing work of reconciliation and redemption through building a more just and loving society. The hosts interact with these views and others as they seek to clarify the true meaning of the gospel of Christ. The White Horse Inn: know what you believe and why you believe it!

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A Listener Letter

I appreciated your most recent White Horse Inn episode. I recently went to a LifeWay Bookstore to purchase Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Lifeway had nothing by Calvin. I went next door to Barnes and Noble and they had a copy! It’s a shame that a secular bookstore has more theology than a Christian bookstore.

-Mike N.

Horton Interviewed about Breivik on Issues, Etc.

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Our good friend Todd Wilkin from Issues, Etc. called Dr. Horton on Tuesday to talk about his recentblog post on Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian “fundamentalist” and cultural crusader who murdered eighty people at an Oslo camp. Listen to the audio below for Dr. Horton’s take on Breivik’s “mission” and why the confusion of culture and Christendom can lead to violence.

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Dropping Out (of the Faith) in College

One question I’m often asked is, “Do you have any advice about a good college?” They’re especially interested (both parents and high school seniors) in finding a school where their faith will be strengthened rather than undermined.

According to a recent study, it doesn’t really matter. College students drop out of the church at astonishing rates at religiously-affiliated as well as secular institutions.

The way I usually answer the question is to change the subject from college to church. In my experience, it’s far more important to find a good church than to expect a college to buttress one’s faith. Of course, it’s important to find a good church when you’re raising kids in the first place. Churches and families that fail to immerse young people in the covenant of grace place an awful burden on a college—even a solid Christian one—or a good church in a college town. Nevertheless, I’ve seen terrific examples of faithful churches that evangelize, teach, and incorporate even shaky believers into the body of Christ while there in college. The college doesn’t matter. It could be Harvard, Biola, or Cal State, or wherever.

My own experience at a Christian college has something to do with my thinking on the subject. There were a lot of rules, daily (mandatory) chapel, spiritual life conference, and on and on. University meets summer camp. It was hard to find a parking space on Sunday morning, because who needed church? The college was a kind of surrogate church. Tough questions that you’d be asked on a secular campus weren’t pressed here. Everybody sort of nodded to the right answers, though not always sure why. Spiritually, it was pretty dull, routine, and mindless. Yet everyone got into it when the praise band did its thing in chapel and a great motivational speaker talked about how to surrender more of our lives to Christ.

A lot of those friends today are unchurched. Some are bitter—the last person they want to talk to is a conservative Christian, much less an evangelical. I don’t blame the college, but the whole religious sub-culture that shaped these young people and then provided a few extra years of moralistic, therapeutic deism.

This article by Marybeth Hicks at Townhall.com is well worth the read. I hope the statistics will jar us out of the false assumption that our young people “get it.” They don’t—unless our homes and churches give them grace.

“College Students Need to Keep Their Faith” by Marybeth Hicks

WHI-1060 | Preaching the Word in a Culture of Narcissism

Our age is not known for its love of the truth. Rather, some are calling it a culture of narcissism. And, unfortunately, evidence of this is found not only in our secular culture, but in countless evangelical churches and best-selling Christian book titles. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul warned that in the last days people would become lovers of themselves and would not endure sound teaching. With itching ears, he said, they’ll raise up teachers to suit their own passions and turn away from the truth. So what are we to do in such a time as this? On this program, the hosts will walk through 2 Timothy 3 and 4 to discuss Paul’s advice about preaching the Word in a culture of narcissism.

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Father of Many: An Appreciation for John Stott

Yesterday at 3:15 pm London time, John Stott was welcomed into the presence of Christ, whom he served so faithfully for many decades.  Tim Stafford’s eloquent obituary jibes with my own limited experience with this great man.  In the presence of John Stott, you were palpably aware that you were among one of God’s giants—not in the usual “American” style of big personalities, but sort of how you might imagine being in the room with a godly grandfather.  It’s the humility, graciousness, and intense personal concern that seems most striking to a visitor.

Having met him once before in the States, I visited Dr. Stott at his flat on a couple of occasions years ago while I was studying in England.  Reversing the roles as I had imagined them, he fussed over his guest with a cup of tea and open-ended conversation, surrounded by books and work-in-process.  A lifelong bachelor, he encouraged me to accept my own singleness up to that point as a gift—at least for a time—to focus on study and labor.  Because God did not give him children, he told me, he had spiritual offspring all over the world.  He didn’t say it proudly, as if referring to nameless masses, but I suspected he had actual faces in mind.  It was a great encouragement.  We talked about the state of evangelicalism, which seemed to be a source of encouragement and disappointment.  A few years ago I had the honor of writing a foreword for his new edition of Baptism and Fullness: The Holy Spirit’s Work Today.

John Stott belongs to a generation of British evangelical leaders who worked patiently, prayerfully, persistently, and intelligently within the established church.  They were not known for their own achievements, networks, and influence, but for their exposition of God’s Word with clarity, dependence upon the Spirit, and concern for both the lost and the gathered.

Even when friends and co-laborers (such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones) disagreed with him, they did not impugn his character.  There are so many lessons that we can learn from John Stott’s example, especially in a time and place given so much to self-promotion.  Although his hand in shaping the better streams of global evangelicalism is obvious, he always carried on this ministry as a parish pastor of All Souls in London, where he was raised and spent his entire ministry.  Looking at this whole ministry from the outside, as a mere acquaintance, I admire his concentration on the ministry of the word rather than on his own impact and legacy.

The evangelical cause around the world has reason to mourn John Stott’s death, but even more reason to praise the Triune God for a legacy that others can now reflect upon precisely because he does not seem to have been obsessed with it himself.   In his final hours, according to the obituary, family members gathered around him listening to Handel’s “Messiah.”  A completely fitting end to a wonderfully attractive life.

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