Friday, October 30, 2009

Timeless Truths in an Shifting Time

For years I have felt a slight bit of tension in ministry. I'm fairly young, work with teenagers, and feel like I'm fairly up on trends and technology. But I am also disheartened with most of the writing that's done, even in Christian circles, and so many of my books and literary heroes have been dead for over 100 years. I find much of what's out now to be shallow, mindless, and devoid of any real power besides just being "relevant." So, I have a lecture series on my iPod on the Puritans I listen to while I mow. I have a Spurgeon bobblehead doll on my desk. I find more satisfaction in reading A Pastor's Sketches or Lectures to my Students than I do "7 Purposes for having a hip cool missional youth ministry experience. Why is this? Deep down, I really think it's because there are certain things that remain timeless. The attraction to Spurgeon and the Puritans is largely found in the fact that though society was very different, they were still involved in the messy areas of life. Sin was an ever-present reality, people lost jobs and struggled in their marriages and families, and they used Scripture as their guide.

So that brings us to the title of this post, where we must look at the tension between dealing with an ever-changing world around us and what the church must do to respond to that with the timeless message of Christ. Some churches have responded by adjusting, editing, or simply doing away with what has always been done in church. Others seek to modify and re-interpret truths. Still others avoid adjusting to culture and remain stuck in a rut (sorry SBC, that's you for the most part). Finally, there are those who look to take timeless truths and bring them into a changing time for the sake of the Gospel being made known.

The issue is, what is timeless and what is timely? Methodology is flexible, we must recognize this. In the digital age, a record player and duplicator machine (complete with the purple ink) is never going to be efficient. Methodology is adaptable to the times, and for the sake of not losing relevance to the culture the church must be up to date. This means using media, being accessible online, developing an internet presence through website/podcast/email, using a modern English translation (I use the ESV, which I feel is a great balance between the rich theological language of the KJV with the user-friendly readability of the NIV; would also recommend the NLT and the NIV. Message I'm not so big on because it's not peer-edited by a committee), and for the worship arts to reflect the contemporary culture. I'm not saying abandon all tradition, but we're starting to see a shift in worship theology and practice. To say you are "contemporary" when you have a CD player or a song that contains some clapping is like saying an 88 Oldsmobile is a great new car. I believe all churches need to incorporate some contemporary worship into their worship practice. But all worship, regardless of music style, must be doctrinally sound, biblically accurate, and theologically educational. My biggest gripe with contemporary music is that in a lot of cases it doesn't say anything. My biggest gripe with traditional music is in a lot of cases it doesn't say anything. We have a wealth of hymns, choruses, and other styles of music, responsive reading, etc. Why settle for crap because it's hip and cool or old-fashioned when we could do more with music?

Perhaps the most prevalent place of adaptation in ministry is in the realm of youth ministry. Sadly, there is no shortage of "Christian alternatives" to whatever the world has to offer. If you like MTV, we have a giant Christian music industry complete with metal, rap, and boy bands. I'm all for promoting a Christian worldview, but when the church does stuff just because the world does, I get mildly annoyed. Youth ministry for years has been based on this question "How big can the circus get?" We have developed a ministry model based on doing more, bigger, and the "wow" factor. Church down the road have a worship leader, you try to get a band. You have a lock-in, another church will have inflatables and a laser-tag night. We've bought into this ministry approach that students need to be entertained and kept occupied. I hate to say this, but they get that everywhere else. Could it be that they come to church with a desire for more? Could it be that they are leaving the church in droves when they graduate because the three-ring circus stops at 18? Here's a little clip of what the circus ministry model looks like. What we need with students is reality. The reality of God, the reality of Christ, the reality of the Church. We fail in ministry when we do not faithfully teach and live Scripture, and our primary motivation for student ministry has to be for students to be changed not by XBox or Rock Climbing, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Timeless truth in a shifting culture is seen by the fact that teenagers across the country are demanding more. They want more depth, more doctrine, more Bible, more for their life than frisbees and pizza. They want to serve the homeless, care for the sick, share their faith, and do great things for God.

Fads will come and go, and trends will change as soon as the next Christian celebrity writes the next bestselling book. But the one constant is the Word of God, that will stand even when the grass withers and the flowers fade. Basing a ministry on anything short of this will leave you empty, drained, and wanting more. Basing it on the Word leaves satisfaction, contentment, and accomplishes something.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Theology for Everyone

What comes to mind when you hear the word "theology?" Is your mind picturing stuffy headed people sitting over piles of books? Do you see a cigar smoke-filled room of men debating? Do you see yuppy hipsters in a Starbucks pouring over the latest book by Piper? Sadly, those are the images many of us conjure when we think of theology.

But the fact is, everyone does theology. Everyone has a belief system that informs, directs, and moves their life. Everyone has a worldview, a lens through which life and circumstances are interpreted and acted upon. Everyone has a religion, even a religion of unbelief and skepticism. In short, all of us who are sentient are theologians. We all make statements of faith, and each of us has some understand of the Divine. All that comes from the imago Dei in each person.

What is theology? Simply it is the study of God. What is "doing theology?" It is the doing of the study of God, which is something you don't have to go to seminary to do. Why is there a misconception? Because somewhere along the way the Academy was where theology was done and the Church was for regular folks. But theology is important not just for the Academy, but for the Church, because it is through theology done well and done faithfully that a believer comes to a fuller and more complete understanding of God, Christ, Holy Spirit, the Scripture, the Church, salvation, sin, mankind, etc.

Here are some reasons I have used before for why I believe every Christian should desire theology:

1) It is a non-exhaustive subject - You will never fully understand everything about it, so the quest is as fresh for the 50 year veteran as it is for the spiritual infant. The limits are infinite, so the depth and range of study is immense. My roommate in Seminary once shared the illustration that the Bible is a huge river that a child can drink from and play in the shallows and also where the most experienced diver can go as deep and as far and never reach the bottom.

2) Theology informs - Truth is gathered not through subjective experience, but through objective statements. You cannot "feel" Truth, you can only "know" it. Therefore, study leads to a deeper understanding of the truths of Scripture. If your belief cannot be backed with Scripture, then it needs to disappear. If Scripture challenges a previously held belief, then you need to pour and labor to determine if your view needs editing or deleting. Our doctrine should not be based on feeling, bias, or predisposition, but should instead be rooted in Scripture.

3) Theology loves - Anyone who spends any amount of time digging into Truth and doesn't come away with a deeper level of the double-love of God and Neighbor is a fool who wasted his time. I can't be any more blunt than that. Truly understand doctrine should not lead one to a dead intellectual understanding, but should drive the student of Scripture to a deeper relationship with God through Christ, and a more burning desire to love and minister to other people. Good theology is what makes a person memorize whole books of the Bible, travel to a soup kitchen down the road and a village in West Africa to share the message of hope, teach his/her children to love God and the Bible from an early age, drop notes of encouragement to a co-worker going through family and financial hardship, and the list goes on. Theology loves, theology bleeds, theology dies.

4) Theology shapes - Many times we see in Scripture the words conform and transform, referring to us as believers as we are progressively sanctified to be more like Christ. What do I mean by theology shapes? Simply, that as we grow in our knowledge of God we ought to become more and more like Christ. A deeper understand of the holiness of God and the triumphal power of the Spirit should aid a believer in the war against sin. Shaping implies that we have a proper understanding of our fallen condition and that we cannot do the shaping on our own, it is dependent on the power of God.

5) Theology prevents - Good theology prevents bad theology from taking over one's life and drawing someone away from the fold. Many cult-like sects of pseudo-Christianity are thriving because they find a population base that doesn't know enough about the Bible to know when they're being deceived (i.e. Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses). Good theology stops someone from traveling down a road of peril because they are more apt to see the signs on the road and where they will eventually lead. Good theology also prevents things like pragmatism, relativism, and entertainment from creeping into the church (IMO three of the biggest problems in the American church today). Good theology enables a believer to work to prevent someone else from falling to destruction or to believe in sin without consequence.

6) Theology is accessible - You don't have to spend a fortune anymore to get good resources. Many times all you need is a Google search and you can look up any issue you desire. Through the Internet and the digitalization of media, books are readily accessible. Very few in the Church can have the excuse that they don't pursue because they can't. You also cannot use the time issue. Typically, the people I find who don't have the time to pursue something are the ones who spend all their time updating their Facebook or playing video games. If something is a true desire, you will make time for it.

7) Theology is good - There are very few things in the world that can surpass the study of the God of the Universe. I may be biased there, but very limit can match up to the overwhelming joy and satisfaction that comes from hours of study about who God is. Theology is not something to fear, nor is it something to leave to the Seminary or to the Academy. Leaving it to the Seminary is what got Southern in so much trouble with liberalism and utter insanity from the 40's to 1993. Theology is first and foremost for the Church, because that is who Jesus died for and the Church is the people of God who are this radically different community. Theology is for them, to be applied to daily life, not something to be held at a distance as a scary object.

I am not saying everyone needs to go to Seminary. Trust me, not everyone does. Not everyone has been called, and not everyone is cut out for it. But that should not preclude anyone from thinking they can't or shouldn't be a student of theology. Sit under the discipleship and mentoring of a pastor or elder saint, read good authors and good books (there's enough mindless garbage out there, why not strengthen brain cells instead of killing them), but more importantly than anything else wear out your knees reading Scripture in prayer. Pour over the whole counsel of God's Word, and seek out good commentaries and sources to aid you.

Here are some books that may be of some help to get you started:

J.I. Packer Concise Theology, Knowing God
ESV Study Bible
Wayne Grudem Christian Beliefs
Paul Little Know What You Believe
Grahame Goldsworthy According to Plan

A couple good references
Wayne Grudem Systematic Theology
Danny Akin Theology for the Church
John Frame The Doctrine of God

Solid Commentaries
Holman Series - From LifeWay
John MacArthur's New Testament
New American Commentary
Kistemaker and Hendriksen's New Testament Commentary
Matthew Henry - All the Bible in one volume, nice desk reference

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lessons Learned in Surgery

For those unaware, last week I underwent a minor surgical procedure to correct a small hernia. It was a blast, let me tell you... Sometime I'll tell the whole story of what all happened, but suffice it to say I was very glad I got the Valium before they stuck me 4 times to find a good vein.

In the aftermath, and maybe this is the pain medicine talking, I started thinking about what lessons to learn from surgery and recovery. So here goes:

1) On my own, I am entirely too stubborn, selfish, and self-absorbed
What do I mean? Simply, I do not like not being in control and in charge of what I'm doing. I hate it when I can't do simple things, and when I can't be the one dictating what's going on. Now, don't get me wrong, I loved being babied and waited on but after a day or so I was getting restless. I also learned I'm not the best patient, in the sense that I often think I can push myself further than I can.

2) I married WAY over my head
I have a wife that is far too good for me than what I deserve. Never at any point of my whining and needs did she ever complain or have something better to do. The simplest things like helping me put on a shirt to the harder work like hauling the trash bags out she did with a smile on her face. It is really humbling to have someone around who breathes and lives for serving you, and you're annoyed because you can't walk more than 50 yards without hurting.

3) Doctors are God's gift to us
I cannot imagine what life was like before complicated surgical practices like this that enabled me to return to normal life in less than a week. To think that someone cut me open and fixed things and stitched me back up and give me back my life is truly amazing. The healing arts and the skill of a physician is very intriguing. Scripture refers to wisdom in the sense of having ability given by God, and I truly believe a good doctor is worth his weight in gold.

4) God's people are great
From the prayers before surgery to the countless encouragements on Facebook and the soft but loving hugs I got on Sunday night, God's people demonstrated a loving spirit towards us.

5) I say really crazy things under anesthesia
Apparently I was furious that I couldn't remember the moment the good stuff kicked in and I went to sleep. I also apparently made comments about how much I liked the pain meds. Clearly not my most eloquent time as a communicator. Thankful for gracious nurses who swear patient confidentiality :)

6) Freak accidents happen, and God provides
I don't have a good story for how this happened, I think I was picking up a big box of books and twisted funny. That said, God provided all we needed in order to make this whole experience for our good. Nothing is outside of His control and His authority, and I am grateful for that.

7) Dealing with insurance companies will give me a stroke
Need I say more?

Thanks for allowing me to make some rambling musings about things!