Beyond the Celebrity Pastor

I was getting ready to blog about Mark Driscoll’s decision to quit social media for the remainder of 2014 and to “reset” his life, when something else–something much bigger–caught my blogging eye.

And by the way, I’m in favor of what Driscoll is doing with his life–if it is indeed legitimate. According to WaPo, Driscoll wrote to his church: “I don’t see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor, and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter.” I am hopeful that he is turning over a new leaf, but I am doubtful that someone addicted to the spotlight can kick the habit, cold turkey. (And it’s a little suspicious–read PR damage control–that a change of heart would conveniently follow a string of public scandals.)

Driscoll’s own words point to part of the problem in American Christianity: too many pastors only want to be celebrities and not pastors.

But Pastor Steven Furtick of Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, goes beyond the celebrity pastor mold. Something else is going on altogether. Despite his own recent controversies about staged baptisms, Furtick is apparently heralded by his own church leaders and congregation as something more than just a pastor. Or even more than “just” a celebrity.

The “Reasons Elevation Church Is the Best Place to Work” document on their Web site is downright chilling, especially for Protestants like me who are allergic to the exaltation of one man. The #1 reason makes Furtick sound more like a prophet than a Southern Baptist preacher: “We serve a Lead Pastor who seeks and hears from God.” Hmm. #3 sounds more like propaganda for a dictator than the description of a pastor: “We serve a Lead Pastor we can trust.” Ditto for #7: “We serve a Lead Pastor who pours into us spiritually and professionally.” And #16 sounds downright un-Christlike: “We serve a Lead Pastor who goes first.” Yikes.

Perhaps the most disturbing word in all of those reasons is “serve.” Like the pastor is a “master” who needs to be “served”? Or a “lord” who receives the “service” (as in worship?) of his servants? Very scary.

The coloring page from Elevation Church just reinforces the messianic status of the Elevation coloring pagelegendary capital-L, capital-P Lead Pastor (shown at right).

If I could say anything to pastors who strive to become a celebrities (or more), if I could say something to aspiring pastors who have ambitions of building themselves a kingdom, I would say, “Don’t.” Just don’t do it. Model yourselves and your ministry after Jesus, who became a servant and lifted up meekness as the pattern of God’s kingdom. The world has plenty of celebrities and false messiahs. But the world needs more humble servants who serve the true Lord of lords.


What Is the “Church”?

We all carry around our assumptions about what “church” is. What is the church? As you might guess, some images that we hold are more biblical and true, and some are less biblical and true. A preacher named Colin Smith came up with four distorted images of the church—that is ideas about church that are deformed and defective, even if they are prevalent in our culture:

  • The church as a gas station. For some people today, the church is a place where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low. Get a good sermon, and it will keep you going for the week.
  • The church as a movie theater. For many people, the church is a place that offers entertainment. Go for an hour of escape, hopefully in comfortable seats. Leave your problems at the door and come out smiling and feeling better than when you went in.
  • The church as a drug store. For other people, church is the place where you can fill the prescription that will deal with your pain. For many the church is therapeutic.
  • The church as a big box retailer. Other people see the church as the place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. The church offers great service at a low price—all in one stop. For many people, the church is a producer of programs for children and young people.

To his list I would add other distorted images of the church: the church as social group, where we find belonging, pride, and even a means to social change; the church as nostalgia, a museum where history is preserved and its primary reason is to serve as a staging for precious family moments like baptisms, weddings, and funerals; and perhaps most inaccurately and perniciously, the church as building—a place that must be maintained.

It matters how we think about “church,” because God has an opinion. And we can either be in line with God, or out of line with God.

Instead of church as building or movie theater, God calls the church the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27); the bride of Christ/wife of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9-10); the Jerusalem that is above (Galatians 4:26); the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16); a holy “temple” (but not a building! Ephesians 2:21); a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession (1 Peter 2:9); and the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2).

All this matters, because how we think of church plays out in how we practice our faith. For example, if we think of church as a movie theater for our entertainment, we will certainly have a strong opinion about the music and the quality of performance! If we think of church as big box retailer, we will certainly have a strong opinion about the “product” that the pastor provides for our consumption! And if we think of church as a building, then we will be unduly attached to bricks and mortar, sometimes at the expense of the people for whom Jesus died.

[And Augustine, an early church leader, described the church as a hospital for sinners, rather than a club for healthy people—a place for healing and forgiveness, rather than a gathering of “perfect” people. Imagine how it would change our behavior if we thought of ourselves as convalescing together from the effects of sin instead of already being righteous! As the saying goes, Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.]

But if we rightly conceive church as a chosen people who belong to God, then we will (hopefully) start to treat each other the way God treats us: with love, compassion, and forgiveness. And if we conceive church as a flock being guarded by the Great Shepherd, then we might be more likely to protect each other, rather than devour each other (Galatians 5:15)!

So what do you think when you hear the word “church”? Is it distorted? Or is it in line with God? It matters!

Not So Ecumenical After All

Our new Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order proclaims this:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at all levels seeks to manifest more visibly the unity of the body of Christ and will be open to opportunities for conversation, cooperation, and action with other ecclesiastical groups.  It will seek to initiate, maintain, and strengthen relations with other Reformed and Christian entities. (G-5.0101)

In another place, the Book of Order says that,

Division into different denominations obscures but does not destroy unity in Christ. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirming its historical continuity with the whole Church of Jesus Christ, is committed to the reduction of that obscurity, and is willing to seek and to deepen communion with all other churches within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. (F-1.0302a)

I would propose that we officially delete those statements as obsolete, because there is little evidence to prove that they are still relevant.

More than three and a half years ago, I warned our denomination’s decision makers that by pursuing our own, narrow denominational agenda, we were jeopardizing, not only our internal cohesion, but our relationship with the larger, universal, big-C Church.  Specifically, I said,

I am convinced that our denomination (let alone the rest of Christendom) is not nearly ready for such radical changes regarding sexuality and biblical application.  If we persist in our…mentality, we will obliterate the fragile trust that holds our denomination together and marginalize ourselves from the larger body of Christ.

Unfortunately, I was right.  Ever since our denomination decided to choose a different path from the rest of the Church this summer (although the drift started decades ago), other Christians are recognizing our departure.  Our partners are severing ties with us (and spare me the paternalism that demeans our African and Mexican neighbors as being backward and pre-modern), and those who weren’t our partners before, will likely never become our partners.  In short, we have cut ourselves off from the family tree that is the catholic Church and have thrown ecumenical efforts under the bus of sexual depravity.

So let’s make our words line up with our actions and get rid of the ecumenical talk already.


The Parish vs. The Congregation

I finally got around to reading The Screwtape Letters last week.  I know, I know: I’m a little tardy on a classic of Christian literature.  But what a great little read!  Compact, concise, and filled with insightful theology.

One chapter struck me as particularly relevant to today’s church scene–70 years later, halfway around the globe–here in the United States.  I grew up in a congregational, rather than parochial, model and took it for granted as the way you conducted yourself as a Christian: you find a congregation that fits you (or that has suited your family for multiple generations) and worship there; and if the church makes you mad or displeases you, then you move on.  This is, of course, different than the parish model practiced by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians: all Catholics/Orthodox in a geographical area are part of a parish, centered around a parish church; and you have two choices regarding the matter: take it or leave it.

In Letter XVI Uncle Screwtape, while advising his nephew Wormwood on better attacking his newly converted “patient” about worship attendance, says, “if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”  Which pretty much sums up the central problem with competing, denominational churches in America today: what believers thought was a process of seeking a more faithful and pure church is actually–in Lewis’ slant (and I believe he’s right)–succumbing to the temptations of the Evil One.

Screwtape continues:

The reasons are obvious.  In the first place the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy [that is, God] desires.  The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.  In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil…So pray bestir yourself and send this fool the round of the neighbouring churches as soon as possible.

I’m not sure how we can ever shove all the various party spirits back into the box, but this certainly illustrates the strength of the compulsory parish over the freely-chosen congregation.


If your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it.  I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better.  And it isn’t the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice…All the purely indifferent things–candles and clothes and what not–are an admiral ground for our activities.

Amen, Jack.  Truly said.

The Great Realignment

The landscape of American Protestantism is experiencing dramatic tectonic shifts, and so far we are only feeling the rumbles of what is happening under us.

An example: d365 is an online daily devotional that is currently moving through a “Journey to the Cross” to celebrate Lent.  Nothing unusual so far; in fact, d365 is a pretty nifty little devotional.  But when you look at the denominations that sponsor d365 things get much more curious.

On d365’s home page, it says that it is produced by Passport, an ecumenical organization, and sponsored by three denominations: The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  (On Passport’s Mission and Identity page, it says their “theological perspective respects the various church groups that are represented [Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran, etc.] and affirms the call of God on men and women equally.”)

So, as a way to see this dramatic shift, let’s make a brief, historical comparison among the three sponsoring denominations.

The Presbyterian Church (USA):

  • Polity – presbyterian
  • Theological Perspective – traditionally Reformed, also neo-orthodox
  • Property Ownership – local churches’ property held in trust by presbyteries
  • Baptismal Theology – pedobaptism (covenantal) baptism, sprinkling

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship:

  • Polity – strongly congregational
  • Theological Perspective – Baptist (some evangelicals)
  • Property Ownership – local control
  • Baptismal Theology – credobaptism, immersion

The Episcopal Church:

  • Polity – episcopal
  • Theological Perspective – Anglo-Catholic, some Reformed
  • Property Ownership – diocesan control
  • Baptismal Theology – pedobaptism, regenerative baptism, sprinkling

And if you add in the other denominations mentioned on Passport’s Web site, you add more diversity and/or confusion to the mix!  So what do these organizations have in common that they could, in good faith (according to their convictions), sponsor a common devotional?  What about differing theological emphases?  What about baptismal integrity?  What about ecclesiology?  Do those things not matter any more?

My contention is simple: There is a radical re-configuration of churches happening today in America.  The old, Reformation categories of theology and polity that have sorted Christians for 500 years are becoming less relevant today.  And the categories of ethics, social positions, and secular politics are becoming more relevant for Christian identity and the formation of missional alliances.  So, for instance, PCUSA Presbyterians are more likely to form mission partnerships with United Methodists (despite their divergent polities and traditional theological positions) than they are to venture out with, say, PCA Presbyterians–all because the first two agree on women’s issues, politics, goals of the kingdom of God, and a particular social model.  Likewise, evangelicals in the United Methodist Church probably have more in common with evangelicals in the Southern Baptist Convention than they do with theological liberals in their own denomination.

Of course, my observation is not new, and it’s not really all that ground-breaking.  The United Ministries in Higher Education model (e.g., The House at Missouri State University is sponsored by four self-described “progressive religious groups,” the Disciples of Christ, the ELCA, the UCC, and the PCUSA.) has been around for 40 years.  But I do believe that my contention is an implicit understanding of how things are today: that is, we relate to other Christians horizontally (across denominational boundaries) more than we do vertically (within denominational boundaries).  And it’s important that we acknowledge this tectonic shift.

What Makes a Legitimate Church? Part 2

What is it about a particular church that makes it seem legitimate, cool, relevant, happening–a true church of Jesus Christ?

Myth #1: Numbers

Many of us Americans assume that if a church is attracting a big crowd, then they must be doing something right.  It’s the same reason why people flock to a new restaurant, even when they can’t get a table, or the same reason why people crowd into a new big-box superstore: not necessarily because of quality or getting a good deal, but simply because it’s the popular thing to do.

Likewise, people flock to churches who seem to have numerical momentum.  But are numbers a fair representation of legitimacy?  You remember what your mom said about popularity, right?  Just because it’s popular doesn’t make it right, and just because it’s right doesn’t make it popular.

Consider this:

  • Does the fact that there are more than a billion Roman Catholics on the planet mean that it is the one, true (legitimate) church?
  • Does the fact that tens of thousands of people worship at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church each week make it a true representation of what Jesus had in mind for his church?
  • Jim Jones was able to lure more than 900 people to the jungles of Guyana and subsequently commit mass suicide.  Does that mean that the Peoples Temple and Jonestown were legitimate spiritual movements, simply because of their respectable numbers?

The fact is that objectively measuring the success/legitimacy of a spiritual organization is extremely difficult.  How do you put a measure on how good a church is?  Unfortunately, our default answer is numbers, which usually only measures popularity.

Myth #2: Worship Quality

A subsequent, related myth is that if a church presents a heck of a worship service, then it must be closer to God than a church with a more humble presentation.  Whether it’s a grand cathedral with stirring organ music and gilded pomp, or a stadium church with a professional band and a polished preacher in an expensive suit, we assume that these people must be getting it right…you know, because of the aesthetics and the quality and such.

Now, don’t get me wrong: it is important for church leaders to put their hearts into their craft, creating meaningful worship services that will enable worshipers to draw near to God.  Musicians should put forth their best effort, preachers should make the most of their gifts to present God’s message, ushers should put their best feet forward for God’s glory, and readers should read God’s Word with reverence, clarity, and poise.

But consider this:

  • Is a PowerPoint projection system a mark of a true church?
  • Is it necessary to have a band playing the latest contemporary Christian hits in order for a church to be considered relevant?
  • Is it necessary for a church to have an organ and a professional-sounding choir for it to be real?

Actually, our contemporary fixation with the professionalism of the worship service has backed us into an old familiar corner that plagued the Medieval church: clericalism.  Hiring professionals for everything and insisting on quality above all else has bifurcated God’s people into the “performers” and the “recipients,” obscuring the priesthood of all believers and erasing the Trinitarian essence of worship (communing with the Father, by the Son, in the Holy Spirit).

Sometimes, having a slick, well-choreographed worship service can glorify God and lift his people in worship.  But sometimes a slick, well-choreographed worship service just puts the spotlight on the “performers” and takes it away from God.

Tune in next time for more myths of legitimacy.

In the mean time, what say you?  What makes a church legitimate?  What are some false measurements of a true church?  I welcome your comments!

What Makes a Legitimate Church? Part 1

In every town I’ve lived in there has been an invisible, yet tangible, sense among the people about which churches in the area were cool, dominant, and legit, and which ones were passe, insignificant, and illegitimate.  For instance, I grew up in a heavily Lutheran area in Iowa where non-Lutherans were often seen as deficient.  Later I lived in a very Roman Catholic city (Dubuque, Iowa) where non-Catholics were culturally sidelined.  Then I lived in South Carolina for a brief spell, which is spiritually dominated by Baptists and Pentecostals, and where Roman Catholics seem to hide in the woodwork.  If you lived in western Pennsylvania, you might conclude that Presbyterians were the greatest, and likewise western Michigan with Reformed Christians.

But as I reflect on what influences people’s perceptions of those churches and what seems to legitimate them, however, most of the reasons are pretty flimsy.

Over the next few posts, I want to discuss–and dismiss–what makes a church legitimate, that is, a true church of Jesus Christ, and separate truth from myth.

For Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians (and many Protestants, too), the marks of the true church are pretty much cut and dry: the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (Nicene Creed).

Even Reformed Protestants have a pretty clear statement of what constitutes the true church:

The notes of the true Kirk [that is, Church], therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time, be the number complete or not, there, beyond any doubt, is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst. (Scots’ Confession, Chapter XVIII)

But when a local church is seen as “legitimate,” these theological distinctions are rarely cited.  Being Americans, we are usually concerned with other, less important reasons that we think churches are true and false.  In the next few posts, I want to deal with those reasons.

So tune in next time!

Protestant Problems – Part 3

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Protestant Problems – Part 3: The Unity of the Church

If there is a heritage that Protestants will have trouble accounting for before the judgment seat of God on the Last Day, it is for permitting and even willingly fracturing the church, the body of Christ.

The apostle declared in no uncertain terms: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6 TNIV)  That’s ONE body, ONE baptism, ONE God.  Not many, but one.  Likewise, as we affirm our ecumenical creed, the symbol of the Faith, we say, “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  That’s one.

But if you look around at the religious landscape today, especially in the United States, we have absolutely trampled the biblical and creedal affirmations about the unity of the church.  Here in America today, there are as many different divisions in the church as there different answers to all the essential and not-so-essential questions of faith.  In many cases, we have withdrawn into our parochial little enclaves, only emerging to take cheap shots at our brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations.  From baptism to Communion; from church government to worship style; from women’s roles to biblical interpretation, we American Protestants have perfected the act of carving up the body of Christ, like so many Thanksgiving turkeys.

And we Protestants should be ashamed of that.  And we should do whatever we can to mend fences with other Christians so that we can achieve spiritual unity, if not actual organic, ecclesiastical unity.

I’ve noticed that interpreting the actions of the first Protestant reformers is a bit like interpreting the actions of the founding fathers of our country: it’s dicey, because people on all sides of the issues can see things that support their own conclusions.  But I believe the earliest reformers–Luther included–wanted only to reform the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and restore her to faithful belief and practice without splitting the church.  It was only as time went on, and as mutual condemnations and excommunications multiplied (not to mention the rise of individualism in the West), that the capital-C Church became many churches.

So what is the solution to the divisions in the church?  Should Protestants “go back” to Rome, as many have suggested?  Frankly, it’s not going to happen, although some Protestants may eventually swim the Tiber (or the Bosporus, for that matter).  Honestly, today’s Roman Catholic Church is much different than the worldly, corrupt organization that spawned a spate of reformers 500 years ago–thanks in part to the Vatican II Council and other modernizing forces.  Denominational reunification, if possible (for instance, among Reformed believers, Lutherans, Anglicans, et al.), is always a desirable outcome.  But the myriad differences, especially between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians, are insurmountable in the near future.

The solution was easy enough up through the middle of the 20th century: the various flavors of Christianity could condemn the others as being heretics and claim themselves as the “one true church.”  But honestly, that has to change.  No one’s buying that line anymore.  Broadly speaking, there are Christians in every denomination, and the many denominations–to varying degrees–embody a legitimate tradition within Christianity.  Even though we may not like to admit it, there are elements of truth in the various churches.  But no one has the whole enchilada.  In fact, if you look at all the traditions together as one tapestry, then you start to see the fullness and variety of the gospel.

Today we have come to a point where there is little hope of putting all the pieces back together again; like a dish shattered when it falls out of the cabinet, the church is weak, fractured, and damaged.  But there are many steps that Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants can take that will correct the course we have set out upon.  It begins, I believe, with demonstrating mutual love and respect, just like Jesus taught us to do.  Even if we believe the other to be deeply mired in error, we need to love one another as Jesus loved us and gave himself for us. We also need to lovingly confront bias, stereotypes, and bigotry against other Christians wherever we see it.

And following the apostle’s advice might not hurt either: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace…Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:2-3, 32 TNIV)