Are We Too Numb to Hear

Dr. John Johnson is a relatively nice guy, pastor of a large church and occasional seminary professor. He enjoys conversations on “culture” at least that is what I assume after sitting in his class on Christianity and Culture. He said the word a lot but I don’t think I every heard a meaningful definition when it came to what exactly Christians should create. I was the snarky one in the front row always talking about biblical  living. I got an A-, and I am still bitter.

Bitterness aside, Johnson has been stirred by the change of heart of another mega church pastor expressed in his dissertation. The Doctoral work is essentially on consumerism in the church today. Johnson quotes a meaningful paragraph from the dissertation:

“Consumers find freedom in devices that deliver what they value, becoming dependent upon those devices and embracing a “device paradigm” that shapes their view of life. Over time, consumers lose all sense of the value of process. They think technologically, expecting their needs to be addressed through devices, even when those needs cannot be commoditized. I contend that American evangelicals have learned to think of spiritual maturity and community as commodities. They expect their churches to provide the devices necessary for enjoying those commodities with minimal engagement in the processes that create and cultivate them. Churches grow if their programs and services seem to deliver what is expected, yet neither maturity nor community is a commodity. Neither can be enjoyed without full participation in process. The result is ironic: churches that are most effective in delivering a product are least effective in making disciples.”

Johnson then goes on to unpack what he sees as a need for realignment around different priorities. His whole post on the Transformed blog is a must read for pastors of large churches. The following are some of his thoughts I found most poignant (which are most of the post). Most of Johnson’s thoughts center around the difference between device thinking and grace thinking in the church.

“Device thinking focuses on efficiency (best means to achieve an end), calculability (bigger is always better), predictability (making people feel comfortable and safe), and control (institutionalizing and packaging). This is what a technological society values.  It is also what pastors can come to value, especially as the church grows into a large corporation.”

“In contrast, grace thinking is much more interested in participation (how can we get maximum personal engagement with what matters?) and contingency (creating space for the inefficient, the immeasurable, the unexpected, and the uncontrolled).”

“Just as our consumerism culture has reduced, fragmented things into mere commodities to consume, assisted by machine and technology, so the church has tended to fragment, reduce, mechanize the things that are focal, transcendent, things that provide a center of orientation.  It looks something like this–worship is reduced to excellence on stage, with passive observers expecting something more next week; fellowship gets reduced to giving units; obedience gets reduced to legalism; sacrament gets reduced to an efficient prefilled communion cup with wafer; and the Bible gets reduced to a sermon extracted from its metanarrative–e.g. “7 tips to Marital Happiness”).”

The post suggests what needs to happen in churches for there to be change. It starts with repentance, and involves new metrics for measure what we do and creating space for diversion and true discipleship.

Challenging words. Read the whole post here.

Theology vs. Business books…

Kevin DeYoung has a thorough review of James Emery White’s new book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary, and while he doesn’t endorse or find the book all that profitable I think it raises some great questions about the difference between growth-driven churches and those defined more by the neo-Reformed movement.

I often find myself in the midst of the tension between the two. After all I work at a large church that could easily be categorized in the seeker model championed by White and others like Bill Hybels or Rick Warren. At the same time I care deeply for correct theology and am drawn to the clear and consistent expression of the gospel by those in the young-restless-reformed crowd. This is a tension I regularly dive into and I appreciate how DeYoung has outlined some areas of engagement and concern.

DeYoung recognizes some areas of change that all churches must evaluate and important among them for me are the raising up of new leaders and how we make decisions. Here is DeYoung’s take: “Churches get hampered by democratic notions of majority rule. They are incapable of acting quickly (and sometimes they really need to). Church decisions grind to a halt because everyone thinks his opinion/vote should matter as much as everyone else’s. But in reality some people are immature, divisive, and naive. They should be cared for, but their nay-saying should not throttle the decision-making process of the church.”

And on new leaders he says, “We need to be honest about what is going on in our churches and why. He notes that often times we fail to give young people ample space to lead and grow. We don’t platform them. We don’t include them in important decisions. We don’t hire them. If young people are nowhere to be found in leadership, they probably won’t be found much in the church.”

The dangers of the growth-driven church though are many. I commend the review to you to capture many of these but sticking out for me are the lack of good theology and a lack of deep discipleship. DeYoung says, “I sometimes wonder if seeker church pastors have heard theology presented so badly and seen it applied to real life so poorly that they’ve concluded that theology is the problem. But if you want to help people grow in their relationship with Christ, or make a difference in their communities, or have better marriages, or experience life change, or do anything else that these pastors want to see happen, don’t skip over theology. That produces shallow Christians with soft spines and small hearts. Press through the theology and see it explode in people’s lives with joy and unmistakable relevance.”

These are things I wrestle with but I agree with DeYoung’s final charge, “I encourage all of us to take a hard look at all the deep theological things we learned in seminary (or should have learned) and consider whether their seeming irrelevance is owing to the them, to our people, or to us.”

Read the review here.