Who would you say was the most pagan, biblically illiterate church in the New Testament? Chances are Corinth would be at the top of your list. Judging by the tone of and issues included in Paul’s two letters, we can safely say that the church had a bit of a pagan hangover mixed with gospel amnesia. But this did not stop him from dipping his pen in the inkwell of the Old Testament Scriptures to make his point.
When you consider that Paul only spent about 18 months with these people it is even more striking. He got a lot done. He reasoned with Jews and, along with Aquila and Priscilla, saw Gentile converts and a church planted (Acts 18; Rom. 16.3; 2 Tim. 4.19-20). This is a strong gospel encouragement, even amid a city that was so full of false worship (1 Cor. 8.5).
Think about how the Old Testament Scriptures are treated today in Evangelicalism. They are rarely touched and when they are they are often moralized rather than preached with any connection to Jesus. Ask the average church goer how the Old relates to the New Testament and you will get a surprising array of answers. Consider the sermons by pastors. How may preach the Old Testament? There are many scholars who are occupied with redaction criticism and cast serious doubts about the reliability of many Old Testament texts. Sadly, many preachers have become functional evangelical redactors by ignoring large portions of their Bibles or at least lacking the confidence or the understanding to show the robust significance …
When you open up the newspaper you often are greeted with a humorous picture in the editorial section. The sketch, called a caricature, is a picture of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a reaction.
The pictures are often comical. We have seen the common ones where President Obama’s ears, teeth, and chin are ridiculously large while his eyes and his shoulders are proportionally very small. It’s amusing and accepted.
However, people often draw caricatures of God. This is neither amusing nor should it be accepted.
If the evangelical church were a boat then it would have some leaks. And everyone seems to have an opinion as to the problem. If I could put the two most common critiques in buckets they would be 1) the preaching, 2) the appetite of church members. In my years of ministry I have often found it quite ironic that many evangelicals complain about preaching not being “biblical” while pastors often complain about “evangelicals today who don’t want biblical preaching”.
Somebody cue the Alanis Morissette.
I can’t attempt to bridge the gap nor fix the problem in a short blog post, however, I can offer a suggestion that I think would help: Make use of the old confessions and catechisms.
It is a common phrase spoken by Christians and wrestled with by pastors, “I don’t feel connected at church.” The pastoral burden is for all Christians to be thriving in and through the ministry. When we hear something like this we immediately go into “fix-it” mode. Often times we even attempt to construct some structure around the person to help them feel connected.
But what if this didn’t help anyone? What if the problem wasn’t the ministry but the individual? What if the disconnection we feel is actually the consequence of selfishness?*
Catering to selfishness will never cure selfishness, it only fortifies it.
We are thankful that the Bible addresses a wide variety of questions and issues. Throughout church history we have been able to have many important questions answered by the Scriptures. At the same time this comprehensive biblical coverage provides answers that occasionally make people uneasy. Often times these topics are referred to as “controversial issues.” Some people want to avoid talking about these things and others enjoy it. The former out of a distaste for controversy and the latter out of a craving for it. Still others find these topics important and aim to cut through the fog to show what the Bible teaches and why it is important for the church to think through.
As a pastor I meet a lot of people who are looking for a church. One of the most helpful questions I can ask is, “What are you looking for in a church?” In one sense I hate this question because of the way it can reinforce our American consumer mindset. At the same time it gets right to the point. They are looking for something.
Then there is the other side of the spectrum, people who leave a church. It is basically the back door answer to the front door question, “What were you unhappy about in this church?”
What I have found is that most people do not filter what they looking for in a church through the Bible as much as through their previous experiences or personal ideals. Some of the most common things that I’ve seen in the last 10 years of pastoral ministry include the following:
There are many factors that make evangelism difficult. There is the internal spiritual alienation from God that renders the unbeliever unimpressed by God and therefore unresponsive to him in worship (Col. 1:21; 2 Cor. 4:4-6). Then there is the fog of worldliness that reinforces the heart’s unsubmissiveness to God and his Word (1 Jn. 2:16-17). We see this with the ongoing marketing of personal autonomy, self-discovery, and satisfaction in created things.
But there is another contributor to the fog that is very unhelpful. I am talking about the authority of personal experience. Today our personal experience and personal interpretation of that experience is the unquestionable authority that all must submit to.
Earlier this week I was talking to a number of unbelievers about Jesus. In the midst of the conversation one told me that he can see the future. He said that he has, on a few occasions, been able to see what was going to happen. He pointed to his buddy for confirmation and, as you’d expect, got the requisite head nod. I know that in this conversation I cannot slash the tires of his experience. If I even pull out the knife of reason or testing he will shut me down. Personal experience and our interpretation of it is the authority. We might call it Sola Experiencia.
I grew up playing and watching a lot of baseball. It was almost a religion for me and Fenway Park in Boston was my church (so to speak). To further the illustration, the elders and leaders were players on the Red Sox. I think of Roger Clemens, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, and Carl Yastrzemski. When I would arrive at Fenway I can remember walking out of the tunnel and being overcome by all of the images and sounds. There was the fresh cut grass, the 37′ wall in left field, the Prudential Building, and the sight of the players warming up. I was absolutely invested–I might have even secretly felt like I was on the team.
Several years ago one of these players, Roger Clemens, was investigated for cheating. He was found to have used performance enhancing drugs, or banned substances. Clemens, along with a bevy of other players, have received something of an asterisk on their career because they have dishonored the sacred tradition and integrity of the game.
As a baseball fan I can appreciate the way the league, players, and fans have renounced the way these guys tried to take a short-cut. Some players cared more about themselves than the game. This, according to baseball is unacceptable.
Over the last several months I have received a number of questions or comments about how pastors speak. On one level there is concern and on another just a genuine question. Before going any further we have to ask if there is any standard of language for a pastor. The answer is yes.
“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12)
Rather than giving a cause for offense at what they say a young pastor is to set the pace for holiness in his words, life, love, faith and purity (cf. also 1 Pet. 5:4). Paul also tells Timothy to watch his life and his doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). Neglect of one will undermine the other.