Archive for August, 2008

Evangelical Obfuscation

August 30, 2008

Recently, I was reading the blog of a well-known ‘conservative evangelical’ ministry, where the topic under discussion was musical style. The author, who wrote a sensible article, suggested a few questions to ask when evaluating church music:

1. What is the lyrical content of the song? Are the words true? Are they biblically accurate?

2. Does the way in which the lyrics are presented cheapen the message?

3. Does the song make you conscious of the Lord, and draw you to Him, or does it distract from true worship?

So far so good. These are helpful, if not a little vague, but helpful nonetheless.

Now comes the clincher: when evangelicals tackle musical style, number four is the kind of thing you get:

4. Do the musical style and performance promote and facilitate a worshipful atmosphere?

Hmmm. That sounds like a politician’s answer.

“How should worship music sound?”

“It should sound worshipful.”

OK. How does this help us? We want to know how we ought to praise the Lord in song, and we are told the music should sound ‘praiselike’.

Now, to be fair, the author is not saying something untrue. It must sound ‘worshipful’. But all he has done is made the question into an answer.  Truth be told, ask 1000 different Christians what ‘worshipful’ sounds like, get 1000 different answers. Some think it is a Hillsong concert, some think it is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Some think it is a blend of hymns and ‘choruses’, some think it is exclusive psalmody. Some think it is rock bands who sing hymns. Some think it is anything musical, so long as the lyrics are doctrinally pure. It seems, to the casual observer, that ‘worshipful’ is in the eye of the beholder.

So, the average evangelical’s standard answer to this sea of opinions is to say, “Music is a Romans 14 issue”. That is to say, music, like food, is something with no intrinsic moral meaning, and the conscience of  individual Christians must dictate what they will listen to.

You can see the gears of Mr Evangelical’s mind working to get to this conclusion:

Premise 1: No one agrees on what worshipful means nowadays.
Premise 2: The Bible hasn’t spelt it out in pedantic detail.
Conclusion: It must be a matter of personal opinion.

As we have said before, the affections are a way of knowing what is appropriate. But because hardly anyone in modern evangelicalism is teaching that the affections are a way of knowing what is worshipful, everyone has carte blanche to bring Cain’s offering, as long as we are sincere, and feel worshipful in our hearts.  And the issue then becomes not about how our affections are shaped to perceive what is worshipful, but how much ‘grace’ I must show others whose idea of worshipful runs completely contrary to mine.
You worship Him with a frenzied cutting of the flesh while frothing at the mouth, I’ll worship Him standing still, singing “Immortal, Invisible”. As long we have ‘grace’ with each other, all is well in the household of faith, it seems.

The fact that modern Christianity has lost the thing that ought to unite us most – a common piety – ought to cause alarm. We have lost a shared feeling of what worshipful is. If we are not united on how we are to respond to the revelation of God, we are in conflict over the central issue. However, modern evangelicalism’s response to the problem has been to take the batteries out of the siren, smile, and say, “It’s a Romans 14 issue.”

Maybe the logic should go like this:

Premise 1: The affections of a Christian help him or her to understand what worshipful means.
Premise 2. No one agrees on what worshipful means nowadays.
Conclusion: The church is in big trouble.

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Head and Heart

August 22, 2008

Who or what are the people and elements in the title banner of this blog? From left to right, they are: A.W. Tozer, Augustine of Hippo, J. Gresham Machen, Gerhard Tersteegen, the seal of the Moravian church and Jonathan Edwards. Why were these chosen?

They were not chosen because they represent perfect Christianity. They had their flaws. Edwards was perhaps reclusive as a pastor. Tozer did not examplify all we might hope for in a family man. Augustine believed infant baptism washes away the guilt of Original Sin. The Moravians were occasionally swept up by subjectivism.

Nor were they chosen because they are ‘patron saints’ of conservative Christianity. They were chosen because in their various ways, they embodied what Christians should strive for. Their lives reflected a pursuit of a living, experiential relationship with Christ, not divorced from history or fact, nor operating independently of sound doctrine.

These were men of the Scriptures. For the most part, these men and groups, along with many others throughout church history, represented the coming together of head and heart. For them, it was not an either/or proposition between sound theology and high affections. It was both/and. Indeed, some of them argued that you could not have the one without the other. Sound doctrine enables true and high affections. True and high affections (and this you don’t hear today much) enables sound doctrine.

Modern Christianity has hardly paid attention to the writings of these men, or their calls for head and heart united in pursuit of Christ. We are in the unenviable position of having made affection and doctrine antithetical to each other for so long, that we can no longer see how they relate. We have ignored what Augustine, Edwards and Tozer wrote on the affections, and clumsily try to fit ‘the emotions’ somewhere into the Christian life.

So the church-goer today has to choose between two extremes:

1) The head-oriented, cerebral church which feeds its people the dry oats of discursive doctrine, insisting that this alone is the basis of all else. Affections are secondary, always subordinate and resultant rather than primary and formative. Coldness of heart is common; a mere mental interest in the system of Christian theology passes for piety.

2) You might expect me to say ‘heart-oriented’ for the other extreme, but that would be a mistake. Because the other extreme church-goers get to choose from is not heart-oriented, but belly-oriented. Such churches do not reach the heart of man, that is, his soul, through illuminated Scripture by appealing to the religious imagination. They appeal to the belly, the koilia, the mere appetites and passions of man through various techniques: pseudo-spiritual experiences, mood-music, dynamic and entertaining presentations (including the preaching). The passions are ignited, it feels ‘real’, ‘exciting’, ‘passionate’, but it is a sad substitute – like giving someone a pulse-raising drug to make them feel that life isn’t boring. Here, spiritual realities do not drive true affections; sensual and carnal tricks and techniques just arouse very natural and base responses. Rolland McCune calls it ‘glandular religion’.

One side of Christianity today tells us that a sound, biblical, expositional theology will solve our problems, because it will shape all else. They are partly right, but they are blind to the reverse truth: affections shape our understanding of theology and our application of it. Such people think the affections are quite dispensable and cosmetic, and that the faith of our fathers sails in the steel ship HMS Doctrine.

Another side of Christianity tells us that we need to get the passions going one way or another, while they ignore the many shades of ’emotions’, being blind to how some are hostile to the very faith they profess. As long as there is some form or emotion, they feel superior to the ‘dead’ church down the road. Their heated passions lead them deeper and deeper into error, but the ‘reality’ always seems preferable to those ‘cold’ theological egg-heads discussing predestination and textual criticism. For them, as long as the boat’s motor is revving, nothing much else matters.

Granted, this is a generalisation, but it is not entirely unfair or far from the truth.

The men and groups portrayed in this blog’s banner, along with others, tried to start and pastor churches that were heart-oriented. They taught the faith of David, Isaiah, Christ, Paul and John.

Biblical faith drives no wedge between head and heart. That’s why we strive for conservative Christianity. We want to conserve the faith once delivered to the saints. We believe the faith of our fathers teaches that the life of piety is driven by the affections, which are induced by the illumination of sound doctrine. Equally, we know that right behaviour and right affections further shape our understanding of Scripture. Conservatives seek an ongoing ‘symbiotic relationship’ between head and heart, between affections and belief.

Don’t buy the lie that you have to choose between head or heart, light or heat. Do yourself a favour. Read something – anything – written by these men.   Acquaint yourself with historic Christianity.

The Unexamined Life

August 18, 2008

 “The unexamined life is not worth living”  – Socrates in Plato’s Apology , 38a.

Socrates was teaching the need to live a life where all things are parsed for their meaning. A life lived on auto-pilot, following the great mass of humanity, takes most of life for granted. It is a life lived without reflection, without much meditation, and consequently, without much understanding. Life is reduced to a set of tasks to be completed – ‘the daily grind’. As reflection and contemplation wither, inevitably wonder, awe and worship suffer as well. On one level, examining life for its meaning sets us apart from animals, who also eat, sleep, mate, get food, build shelter. Animals do not look at the sky and simply ask, “Why?”

Since Christians believe we live in an ordered universe that was designed and created by an Intelligent Being, it only follows that we should examine all of life for meaning.

However, the Examined Life is not popular amongst modern Christians. Indeed, begin urging Christians to examine the meaning of their music, or the propriety of theatrical drama, or the impact of clothing on our moods and manners, or the uses of technology, or the values of pop culture, or the frivolity of entertainment-based living and they will go through a range of emotions.

First, amusement. “You’re kidding, right? You don’t seriously expect me to believe that God has an opinion on my [fill in the cherished idol], do you?”

Second, disbelief. “You must be some kind of cult. I keep up with the big names – Piper, MacArthur, Sproul, Mahaney – and I’ve never heard anything like this. You’re going off the deep end.”

Third, anger. “I can’t stand all this nitpicking about how I live my life. Who are you to say that my [fill in the cherished activity] is incompatible with Christianity? Show me a chapter and verse!”

Strange, as Kevin Bauder has pointed out, how some people are very attached to, and very defensive of,  the things they claim carry no meaning.

“This was never mentioned at my last church, and they were conservative, believe me!” Well, usually what such people mean is at their last church a generally biblical theology was taught, expository preaching was perhaps the mainstay, and corporate worship was tame in comparison to the rock-fests passing for Christianity everywhere else. This is ‘conservative’ to most Christians today. However, what is clear about such churches, judging by the members that come to us, is that no attempt was made to insist upon an examined life outside of the Sunday sermon. The pastor was too squeamish to touch the ‘hot-topics’ that get Christians all defensive, so he never did. Or, he was schooled in an environment which conveniently did a hop, skip and jump over such things, lest they be branded as fundamentalists. So, it doesn’t surprise me when people are puzzled by the Examined Life. Few Christian leaders seem to practise it; the chances of the average Christian knowing it are slim indeed.

Of course, to many, the Examined Life is ‘legalistic’.

Legalism is the easiest and most popular smear-word in modern Christianity. Not many people who use it to blackball their opponents would be able to define it if they were pressed. In most people’s minds, it means something like, “I’m being told what to do in very specific areas of my life, and it feels constrictive!” By that definition, simple obedience is legalistic.

True legalism, or better, Pharisaism, is turning from a Spirit-empowered walk in loving obedience to Christ’s Word, to an externalised, flesh-empowered conformity to please man. Despite what evangelicals will tell you today, it is not the specificity of the rule that makes it legalistic, it is the motive and the means through which it is performed. If you think legalism is getting down to the nuts and bolts of everyday life, I’d encourage you to read church covenants and rules of church membership from the 17th and 18th century. You will brand the whole Christian church of the era as legalistic.

The Examined Life is not legalism or Pharisaism. But, it is probably true to say the Examined Life can feel constrictive at first. We are not, as a rule, a reflective culture. Worse, humans of all ages have been sheep-like. Questioning long-held practices and views is like turning people’s worlds upside-down. Forcing people to think about things that are taken for granted seems burdensome and onerous.

But Socrates’ comment is meant to have the opposite effect. The Christian who embarks upon the Examined Life finds he or she was missing the wonder of living when living an unexamined life. The mystery of the world, the wisdom and power of art, the fragility of the conscience, the worth and dignity of the human soul, the revelatory power of nature, the ongoing analogies of faith all around us, the preciousness of living life as the image of God in a universe made by God and for God – these come alive to the one willing to simply examine the meaning of all things.

So when called on to examine yourself or the meanings of things in your life in all areas of life – don’t see it as the invasion of thin-necked Pharisees into your personal freedom. Realise it is the entry point into the Christian life worth living.

For in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28 )

The Rise of the Teenager – 2

August 11, 2008

So what did the church do with the newly-discovered ‘teenager’? Sadly, as the trend had been since Finney, the approach was to parrot, reflect and compete with popular culture, rather than challenging its very foundations. In the 1930s, Lloyd Bryant of Manhattan began organising massive ‘youth rallies’. Along with the efforts of Jack Wyrtzen and radio personality Percy Crawford, these rallies grew to be nationally successful events, and the organisation became known as Youth for Christ.

Parachurch youth ministries began to flourish. Local churches soon felt they needed to follow suit with their own ‘versions’. By the 1950s, the church ‘youth group’ was an established norm. Soon, youth camps, youth concerts, youth ‘Gospel music’ and eventually, ‘the youth pastor’ had become simply part of the landscape of professing evangelicalism. So, indeed, Spurgeon, Edwards, Wesley, or Baxter wouldn’t have a clue how to ‘do youth ministry’ – because they never had such groups.

But what was the upshot of this concession to youth culture in the church?

1) Secular youth culture was about entertainment and the worship of one’s youth. Not surprisingly, church youth groups were almost always patterned around entertainment. What youth group have you ever been to which did not include games, party tricks, films, outings, sports or some kind of ‘hook’? It was hardly questioned as a method. Young people want to have fun. Youth should be fun. Right?

But to preserve the ‘fun’ aspect, it was necessary that the teaching be dumbed down or ‘specialised’. No serious teaching of the Scriptures, no expository preaching could exist if the ‘fun’ element was to be preserved. So teaching became trite, lightweight, minimal and usually topical – particularly the perennial topics of dating, friends, fashions and worldliness.

Yes, we were told to shun the world in our youth groups. How ironic to tell young people to shun the youth culture around them when you are providing essentially the same thing in the church.

2) Secular youth culture lived on its music. The music gave it its identity. So what could church youth ministries do except concede in this area as well? Witness the birth of Contemporary Christian Music in the 1960s, as the church realised its doppelgänger could only survive with a ‘Christianised’ version of the music of popular youth culture.

3) Youth groups tended to produce immature people: spiritually immature, because of the shallow teaching, and emotionally immature because they were encouraged to revel in their adolescence with other youth (cut off from the mature members of church) and magnify their immaturity.

4) Not only so, but youth ministry always had a high fall-off rate. Somewhere around 20 or so, most drop out, because the entertainment factor seems to be less pronounced than in ‘youth’. They feel alienated when the church now expects them to ‘grow-up’, and they go elsewhere for the entertainment offerings. As someone said, what you win them with is what you must keep them with.

5) Sadly, youth ministry often divided families. Instead of keeping families together, church youth ministry has often split them up. As a teenager, I was part of a church where my involvement had me at church five nights, sometimes six, a week. My parents hardly saw me. This isn’t teaching youth commitment; it’s criminally irresponsible on the part of the elders.

This ‘targeted’ approach to age-group ministry is, in its worse forms, a secularisation of the church. Our segmentation of the church is so foreign to the words of Paul:

Titus 2:2-6 that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience;  the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things —  that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed. Likewise exhort the young men to be sober-minded,

The young are to have the wisdom of the old around them. The elderly are to have the vigour and sprightliness of youth around them. This is God’s pattern for youth ministry – it is the older discipling the younger. But instead of this cohesive one-another ministry, the church bought into target-marketing by age group. So the church began a process it battles now to break – people go from children’s clubs to youth groups, to young singles’ groups, to newlyweds’ groups to new parents’ groups to teen parents’ groups to empty-nesters to quilting groups for the elderly.

This is not Titus 2; this is Madison Avenue. This is Wall Street. God’s Titus 2 pattern is not so much ministries, but ministry.

The burden of youth ministry falls on parents. Parents must not allow the youth to form herds in which they reflect and magnify one another’s immaturity. Some basic suggestions:

* In church, peer association must be discouraged when family association should be central – like sitting together in church.

* Youth should attend adult discipleship and Bible study courses – they can handle it!

* Youth events must avoid triteness and silliness and encourage a studious attitude towards the Word.

* And the music? If you want teenagers enslaved to youth culture, then teach them that Contemporary Christian Music is simply their music ‘for today’, and the golden oldies can go to their ‘traditional’ hymn service in the morning. [Incidentally, why would Christians want to parrot musical forms that found their origin in the rebellious youth culture in the 50s?]

* Do we really need a ‘Youth Pastor’? A recently graduated extrovert who acts like a high-schooler himself? In other words, a paid entertainer with an NIV under one arm and a volleyball under the other? The youth pastor must be replaced by the father. It is the father’s role to instruct his ‘teenage’ sons and daughters.

So should a church have a youth ministry? I don’t know about a youth ministry, but the church should definitely minister to its youth. Elders must acts like fathers. Godly women teach the younger. Gather together as a families and as a church family. Disciple these young people through the years that the world makes into something they need never be.

The Rise of the Teenager – 1

August 6, 2008

If we could have a time machine to go back and ask Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Richard Baxter or John Wesley the question, “How did you minister to the teenagers in your church?”, their blank expressions would be followed by the question, “What’s a teenager?”

The concept of a teenager is a fairly recent one. In fact, it was only in 1904 that psychologist G. Stanley Hall released a book called Adolescence, claiming that adolescents represent, or recapitulate, the primitive part of mankind approaching the ‘civilisation’ of adulthood. Quite standard fare, for the Darwinistic view of all the sciences, so popular at the time. That was followed up by an essay by Sigmund Freud, claiming (surprise) that teenagers’ developing sexuality makes them volatile, and prone to deviant behaviour. Soon, educators, psychologists and social workers were treating young people in adolescence as a formal, biological and even legal category – sometimes termed youth, and later, teenager – believing such people must of necessity be awkward and anxious, and would require specialised education and socialisation. 

One of Hall’s most devoted followers was John Dewey – the pioneer of the modern school system. He created the ‘high school’ to segregate adolescents from other children. The compulsory schooling now in force meant that more than ever, young people were with their peer group more than their parents. Educational reformers, feeding off Hall and Freud’s theories, developed more and more extracurricular activities to socialise these ‘teenagers’ – dances, sports events, clubs. In the meantime, the affluence of the West was creating numerous commercial entertainments – amusement parks, dance halls and movies.

These entertainments would come to define, exploit and create the youth culture as we know it. The youth loved the movies. When Rudolph Valentino died, over 150 000 people, mostly young women, came to his funeral. The dance halls meant boys and girls danced in close proximity, to the music that was reflecting the times. By the 20s, a strong youth culture was now developing, with dating replacing parent-supervised courting.

From the crooning of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra into the 50s world of early Rock ‘n Roll, the youth culture was growing and becoming identified with its music. Presley, the Comets, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and others stood for this new culture – rebellious, defiant, promiscuous and materialistic.

The affluence of the 50s meant that this youth culture was also a consumer culture. Starting in this decade and exploding in the 60s, goods like soft drinks, music, clothing, cars, sports equipment, magazines, and toiletries, were specifically marketed to the youth, only underlining the supposed ‘generation gap’. Marketing experts realised that adolescents tended towards conformist attitudes, and made sure they sold goods that catered to their desires to dress, buy and look like their peers.

For the first time, teenagers began creating fads, clothing styles and generally distinctive appearances to go with their youth culture – Presley sideburns, suede shoes and so on. Saying you were ‘hip’, ‘in’, or ‘cool’ was simply another way of saying you identified with the youth culture of the time – and you did so outwardly.

Once the economic potential of this group was proven, it was unstoppable. It remains in the interest of multi-billion dollar companies to foster and maintain a ‘youth culture’. In fact, it is safe to say that the dominant culture is youth culture. Witness how all the media fawns over youth, disparages aging and considers the ‘prime’ age to be about eighteen.

Fifty years later, the ‘teenager’ is an established, distinct group, in society’s view. You apparently enter this group at around 12, and quietly exit around 18 or so. From a group that was unknown to exist previously, they certainly have made a splash in the last 100 years.

And what has been the church’s response to an artificially created category? Providing a transcendent alternative? Keeping families together? Emphasising unity across age groups?  Or fawningly assimilating?