Tag Archive for church

Creature of the Word

Creature of the WordI enjoy reading thematically—following a certain theme through a variety of books. Recently I noticed that some of today’s most popular Christian mega-pastor authors had released new books and I thought I’d work my way through that list. The list includes new titles by Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald and David Platt. Not surprisingly, the books and their authors are all tightly connected. Driscoll and MacDonald endorse Chandler’s book; Chandler and Driscoll return the favor in MacDonald’s Vertical Church. Chan’s book has a foreword by Platt and Platt’s book has a foreword by Chan. And so on.

Having reviewed MacDonald’s Vertical Church, I turned my attention to Chandler’s Creature of the Word (co-authored with Josh Patterson and Eric Geiger). Written primarily for pastors and church leaders, but applicable to all Christians, this is a book that looks to gospel-centrality, a very popular theme today. It calls Christians to “view the essence of the gospel as the foundation for all of ministry.” After all, there is a huge difference between “knowing the gospel and being consumed by the gospel, being defined by the gospel, and being driven by the gospel.” Chandler wants the reader to “start a fresh journey into the heart of the gospel, prepared to be newly amazed by it, resolved to let its principles begin shaping how our churches worship, serve, and operate.”

Rather than focusing on the individual, he focuses on the gospel in the local church, calling the church “a Creature of the Word.” “Yes, a Creature. She is alive. A living, breathing movement of God’s people redeemed and placed together in a collective community. But she is not alive in her own doing. She has been made alive by the Word. God spoke her into existence through the declaration of the gospel—His righteousness on our behalf.”

The book is divided into two parts. In the first half Chandler looks at what the gospel does to the hearts of people, to their relationships, and how they understand their position and purpose. He shows that this Creature worships, forms community, serves, and multiplies. In the second half he shows what a Jesus-centered church culture looks like, how it is formed and how it is sustained.

Creature of the Word is a good book—a really good book. I enjoyed it from beginning to end and benefited from reading it. Having said that, it is not a book with a lot of original thought, but one that helpfully collects the best of what others have written about being gospel-centered and presents it to a new audience. Those who have done a lot of reading will probably find that they recognize the inspirations in many of the chapters. So, for example, a chapter on ministry to children and teens has Chandler channeling Tedd Tripp and William Farley (though he refers to him as Chris Farley. The thought of Chris Farley paraphrasing a Thomas Chalmers sermon titled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” is pretty funny). And this is well and good. Those men have done great work on the importance of the gospel in parenting and there isn’t a compelling reason to attempt to write something new and original.

The strongest chapter, at least in my assessment, is “Jesus-Centered Flower Committee.” The tongue-in-cheek title is meant to communicate that every ministry in a church can, and ought to, relate to the gospel. “One way to know how deeply the gospel is being woven into the culture of your church is to continually check the small details for gospel proof. If there is gospel absence in practice, you will know what areas of your theological foundation and ministry philosophy need to be addressed. Instead of finding ‘the devil in the details,’ lead in such a way that they find ‘grace in the details’.”

If there is a weakness in the book, it relates to the author’s insistence upon the “prophet, priest, king” model of leadership. “Some leaders are primarily prophets, uniquely gifted to declare truth. Some leaders are primarily priests, uniquely gifted to shepherd people to wholeness and maturity. And some leaders are primarily kings, specifically gifted to provide clear direction.” While I appreciate how this grid distinguishes different gifts and different forms of leadership, I see it as a grid imposed upon Scripture rather than one that is carefully drawn from Scripture. It goes beyond what Scripture teaches to insist, “All three types of leaders are necessary and essential.” Still, though this grid is present throughout the book’s second half, there is much to learn even without adopting it.

The book’s great strength is Chandler’s careful collecting and distilling of all it means to be gospel-centered in every part of church life. I appreciate his concern that the term gospel can too easily become “a sort of junk drawer that holds any and every piece of our theology. Although the gospel does impact everything, everything is not the gospel.” He avoids falling into the trap of unthinkingly lumping anything and everything under the banner of gospel. The book is also exceptionally well-illustrated, with illustrations that consistently help rather than hinder. 

Creature of the Word powerfully combines theological truth with practical application. I hope and trust that it will find its way into the hands of many church leaders.

It is available from Amazon ($10.19 in paperback, $5.99 on Kindle) and Westminster Books ($8.24 in paperback).

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Vertical Church

Vertical ChurchHarvest Bible Fellowship is a network of churches on the move. It seems as if every week brings a report of a new church plant somewhere in the world. From what I have observed locally, these are solid churches whose pastors love God’s Word and where people are being transformed by the gospel. James MacDonald is the founder of this movement and he refers to them as “vertical” churches. What MacDonald wants is for every local church to be a place where people have “a weekly experience with the manifest glory of God.” The local church is to be the one place where people experience what they can experience nowhere else.

Vertical Church is part manifesto and part instructional guide and is one of those unusual and unfortunate books that combines genuine strengths with disappointing weaknesses. The first half of the book is strong and provides a biblical basis for a vertical model of the local church; the second half is far weaker in explaining how to create one.

The Strengths of Vertical Church

Vertical Church has many notable strengths. The discussion of verticality is very helpful and provoked the pastor in me to think carefully about the worship services at my church and the role of church leaders in providing an experience of God’s glory and majesty. Our role is not simply to check off a list of boxes—singing, Bible-reading, preaching, prayer—but to lead people in an encounter with the living God. MacDonald’s desire to glorify God in every facet of the church’s life is laudable and challenging. He shares a great deal of wisdom earned through many years of ministry while critiquing both the church growth movement and those traditional churches that don’t care to grow at all.

A chapter on preaching shows why expositional preaching is at the heart of the Harvest movement and why it needs to remain there. A chapter on evangelism is a call to action despite fear and discomfort. There are many parts of the book that I highlighted and many concepts and even sentences that I need to explore in more detail in the future. Really, Vertical Church would have made an excellent 120-page book.

The Weaknesses of Vertical Church

But it’s not a 120-page book. Rather, it is a little bit over 300 pages and as it transitions from the “why” to the “how” of vertical church, weaknesses begin to outweigh strengths. A condescending and sarcastic tone begins to creep in while the joyful humility of reveling in God’s glory is supplanted by overbearing and overly-prescriptive instruction. Here MacDonald often relies often on false dichotomies, setting two possibilities in unfair opposition to one another. This is seen clearest in chapters dealing with music and prayer.

In the chapter on music, MacDonald turns away from definitions of worship that extend to all of life and says that worship is “the actual act of ascribing worth directly to God” and sets it almost entirely in the context of corporate singing. He argues against hymns—“great theology racing us by at a pace so dizzying that all we could express as we took our seats was effectively ‘that was all so true’.”—and instead advocates songs with fewer words and more repetition. He believes that worship in song should be:

  • Vertical - “…we must frame all language of worship as to Him and not merely about Him. Otherwise our worship effectively ignores and potentially offends him by talking about Him as though He is not present.”
  • Simple - “Intimacy demands simplicity, and with all due respect to hymns filled with great theology, that level of complexity is not what the Scripture reveals as God’s personal preference.”
  • Emotive - Here he sets “shoulders-up worship” against worship that engages the emotions and is expressed with great emotion. “‘Hey God, how is that formulaic, shoulders-up, obligation, church-as-a-checkmark worship working for you?’ Answer: ‘It’s not’.”
  • Physical - He says the Bible commands and models worship that involves the voice, eyes, head, hands, legs and feet. “Keep in mind that these physical expressions of whole-body worship … are commanded and modeled in Scripture and are to be entered into increasingly, without using personality or tradition as an excuse.”

Yet such claims are only barely drawn out of Scripture and go unproven. They may reflect preference or perhaps even a degree of wisdom, but never does he prove that they are mandated by God. He does not interact seriously with the songs of the Bible (whether the Old Testament psalms or New Testament hymns), many of which model worship that is to God exactly because it is about God. We do not have to choose between singing to and singing about and we do not have to choose between worship that is intellectual and worship that is heartfelt; these can easily co-exist.

The chapter on prayer, while displaying some great strengths, is also beset by similar weaknesses—broad statements, preference elevated to law, lack of biblical proof, false dichotomies. Does fervency in prayer demand volume? MacDonald says it does and offers only “the fervent prayer of a righteous man results in much” as evidence. Should “mind-only and whispered praying” be the exception in the Christian life? He says it should and turns to Psalm 116 where David says, “I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice” and Romans 8:15 where Paul writes, “You have received the Spirit … by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’.” It goes without saying that there are times we may do well to pray aloud and with great passion, but the Bible does not command us to do so as a rule.

Overall, MacDonald seems drawn to external expressions of worship and supplication as if these are necessary indicators of the kind of vertical affection he longs to see. At one point he says “Theological giants like [John] Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards, and Lloyd-Jones all embraced and experienced great emotional expression as evidence of a deep work of God in their services.” Yet a reading of Edwards’ The Religious Affections will show that Edwards understood that emotional expression can be dangerously deceptive: “Nothing can be certainly known of the nature of religious affections by this, that they much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God.” MacDonald too often allows his personal and culture preferences and his extroverted personality to be prescriptive.

And then there are times where he shows shockingly poor judgment in illustrating with his own life. At one point he writes about the role of prayer in saving his church from bankruptcy. He prayed to the Lord and then called a contractor whose work had been woefully substandard. “Sensing the Lord infusing [him] with still greater boldness” he told this man, “If you do not ship the remaining steel for free, we will close the construction project permanently, take the entire church into bankruptcy, and I will spend the rest of my life pursuing a legal remedy for all damages incurred by your company’s failure to perform. You have until tomorrow at five o’clock to give me your answer, but don’t call at 5:05, because there is a big part of me now hoping your answer is no.” This kind of personal intimidation does not at all stand as an example of the fruit of the Spirit or the character of a man called to be an elder!

Another Concern

Before I conclude, let me express another considerable concern. I know I am meant to review a book on its own terms, yet I can’t help but note contradictions between this book and some of MacDonald’s actions in the past year or two.

At the beginning of the book are 9 pages of endorsements from Christian leaders, including men whose model of church would appear to be anything but vertical. Bill Hybels and Rick Warren are the gurus of church growth while Steve Furtick’s Elevation Church hardly models strength and verticality. Yet these men, and others like them, endorse Vertical Church. Meanwhile, these men are often endorsed by MacDonald in return, whether in the pages of this book or elsewhere. I simply can’t understand how MacDonald could pen a book like Vertical Church and ignore the appalling contradictions of T.D. Jakes, a man who holds an unorthodox understanding of the Trinity and who preaches the prosperity gospel in place of the true gospel. Yet he is a man MacDonald has befriended and defended. It boggles the mind.

Conclusion

Vertical Church is a book with both strengths and weaknesses—very helpful strengths and very dangerous weaknesses. If you are looking for a method to follow, I would certainly not recommend it for that purpose. However, if you are looking for examples to consider and evaluate, and if you can thinking discerningly to embrace what is helpful and reject what is so very unhelpful, you may well find the effort rewarding.

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Your Personal Savior?

JesusJesus Is For You, But Not For You Alone

It is very common to hear people refer to Jesus as their personal savior. In a sense they are correct. Jesus is a pursuer of persons and he loves those who know Him in a very personal and loving way. And still it is not completely correct to say that Jesus is your personal savior. Jesus plan from before the foundation of the world was much bigger than you.

In Ephesians chapter one we read:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
– Ephesians 1:3-6

The personal pronoun used here by the Apostle Paul is Us. This is not trivial or insignificant. God’s plan is to redeem a people, a body, a church, a family. If this is true, why do we walk with God in isolation stubbornly independent as if that was God’s desire? Why do we envision the marriage supper of the Lamb as a quiet dinner for two?

Is salvation personal? You bet it is! Did God send His son to die so that you can live life on your own apart from His family? Not on your life!

Is Jesus just your personal savior?

Who Is My Mother And Who Are My Brothers?

A family at play

Jesus Has Made A Greater Family Than Your Dad

When we think of family, we typically don’t think about people at church. Sure its customary and even sentimental to refer to Brother so and so or Sister so and so at church but that’s about as far as it goes. We have a priority for the people in our lives and it generally falls thus:

1. God

2. Spouse

3. Children and Relatives

4. Church Folk and Other Friends

Don’t get me wrong it is absolutely sinful not to take care of your family. Even while dying on the cross some of Jesus last words were to care for his mother (John 19:26-27). And yet, Jesus understanding of family is very different than our 21st century American perspective.

Earlier in his life we see a scene in which Jesus made it abundantly clear where his priorities lie. Consider the following text:

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

– Matthew 12:46-50

Now taken alone this passage might not mean much but consider another scene where Jesus also spoke about family:

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
– Luke 9:59-62

In these passages Jesus is making very radical statements. In this 1st century Mediterranean culture, the family was the sine qua non of society. You obtained your identity, your livelihood, your spouse and your inheritance under the hospices of the family. An individuals loyalty to his family in those days was more important than the pursuit of his own individual happiness (and yet these people were generally more content…hmmmmm). For Jesus to say that there was something greater than loyalty to blood kin was tantamount to social suicide.

Jesus, nonetheless was making a radical demand of his followers. He was telling them that if they wanted to follow Him, they had to have a greater loyalty to His family than to their blood relatives who were not in his family. The people who heard Him got it, which is what made His message so scandalous. In our modern American culture, we don’t get it which is why the call to follow Jesus is not scandalous or radical. Its just something else we add to our plate at the consumer church buffet.

Jesus, being the gracious Lord that He is, was not calling us to break all family bonds leaving us without family. His plan was to replace an earthly temporary system of family with a greater, eternal family. His intent was not to give us something great in the by and by but to provide richly for us in the here and now. Consider the following:

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.
– Mark 10:29-30

This bold promise that Jesus makes in Mark 10 is predicated on one huge assumption. And that assumption is that the church will act like a surrogate family. How can Jesus promise to replace any losses incurred by forsaking family and livelihood be valid if the church is not sharing their possessions and being family for one another? Its no wonder that people are not signing up left and right to forsake family and houses for the sake of the gospel. The church of 21st century America is more like friends who occasionally hang out and do favors for one another rather than a family that shares life together and sacrifices individual interests for the good of the whole.

You may be bound to your birth family by blood but you are eternally bound to your fellow believers by the blood of Christ. Lets start invading each others lives. Lets start acting like a family and all that entails for good and for bad. Who is your mother and your brothers? They are sitting beside you in the pew.