I want to wish my handful of readers a Happy Thanksgiving, in spite of the fact that I consider it part of American civil religion and it makes me a little queasy. And not just because it celebrates overeating and is apparently permanently associated with Black Friday, a holiday in American civil religion devoted to overspending.
And let me gently remind you that strictly speaking Thanksgiving is for thanking “God as we imagine Him” or some such, and not for thanking “our troops” [link]. We do that on Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
I hadn’t visited Calvary Santa Fe in a while, but a couple of Sundays ago we encountered a problem we sometimes do (our toddler went down for a nap at almost exactly the time we should have been leaving for church) and I decided to visit Calvary again and catch what I could rather than miss church altogether.
First of all, let me say that the sermon I heard is part of a series; the series is available for download [link], and the MP3 for the sermon I heard is here [link]. I don’t really have much to say about it except this: if I understand correctly this is meant to be expository (as opposed to topical) teaching, but this sounds to me like topical (as opposed to expository) teaching. I tend to make the distinction this way: expository teaching proceeds linearly (and we hope deeply) through the text where topical teaching takes an idea, phrase, or word from a text and follows it laterally across Scripture. In this case this sounds like a topical teaching taken from Philippians 2:5-11 on the phrase “the mind of Christ.” But I digress.
It saddens me to say this, but I believe this is a dying church. This year they consolidated their Sunday services, and when I was there the sanctuary was about one-third full. The bulletin mentioned that the church’s October budget was $58,000, but that the previous week’s donations were $3465. If these numbers are accurate and representative, they’re taking in a quarter to a third of what they need to make budget. There was a prayer request in the bulletin that appears to suggest that two staff members are seeking employment. Also, they may have structural problems as well; this is a church with ordained pastors, pastors, and deacons, but the bulk of the pulpit teaching is being done by the non-ordained pastors. But since I don’t know what the distinction means I’m not sure I’d put much emphasis on it.
The speaker was Andrew White, one of the two young non-ordained pastors. He has a clear enthusiasm for and a high regard for Scripture, and I really couldn’t tell you whether he’s going to grow into being a pastor or not. Preaching/pastoring is both difficult and labor-intensive, and a man needs a lot of hours both in study and in the pulpit before he can properly be called a pastor or a preacher, and not everyone who starts out as a young preacher (or even a young seminary graduate) makes the difficult journey. That’s no shame on White; he’s just setting out to do something difficult, and apparently in a difficult environment because of the health of the church.
I would encourage readers to listen to the sermon at the link above, as it strikes me as being typical of the mindset of a lot of Young Restless Reformed types: it includes affirmations of unassailable truths, but it is heavily larded with a kind of confrontation narrative, where we true Christians are contrasted with various aberrant groups that are rarely if ever named, but include
- New Agers
- secular types
- Prosperity Theology folks
And so much time is devoted to casting anonymous aspersions that it’s hard to pick out what constitutes a vital positive Christianity apart from simply not being aberrant. This is one of the things that troubles me about YRR folks and reminds me of my fundamentalist roots. I am given to wonder just how many people at Calvary are tempted by e.g. Prosperity Theology. I understand that a lot of this sort of teaching is rooted in the idea that a “pastor should protect the flock from wolves,” meaning “false teachers,” but if that flock isn’t in danger from a particular false teacher I’m not sure how much protecting is really being done if there’s no practical threat.
I wish I had an optimistic or encouraging payoff here, but I don’t. While I don’t wish this church any ill I have a hard time imagining what its recovery would look like. Fortunately for them that’s not strictly speaking necessary. I’ll look forward to checking in with them in a few months; I hope for their sake they’re in the midst of a turnaround by then.
I have been facing a deadline crunch at my day job, and I’ve had to let the blog sit idle (not to say fallow) for a couple of weeks. I’m hoping to clear the backlog over the next week or so.
If this is your first visit to this blog you may not yet know that I’m one of the people who agrees (that is, “affirms”) that American Evangelicalism is sick: the churches are big and too much like television, the teaching is too shallow, the theological conservatives are too cozy with the Republican Party, etc. etc. Unlike most of my unsettled brethren I don’t know what the cure for this sickness is; I tend to be skeptical when I hear many of the proposed solutions.
I realize that for many Christians the way out of the post-Evangelical wilderness (or whatever you want to call it) is to join an older theological, liturgical, or ecclesiastical tradition, and for some of these people this means becoming a confessional Lutheran. I understand some of the appeal of say the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS): it has roots in an old but nearly modern tradition; it sort of has American roots; it has a vast literature, has fairly straightforward answers to lots of questions, and it has some semblance of an intellectual history. You don’t have to think to be a Lutheran, but you can be a thinking Lutheran.
Still when I listen to Issues Etc. with Todd Wilken I am tempted to put the speakers into one of two categories:
- People who sound like Christians
- People who sound like Catholics
And most of the guests fit into the first category, which is one of the reasons I keep listening. It’s the people in the second category who just plain drive me nuts. These are the ones who remind me of the Catholic apologists I used to hear on Sacred Heart Radio: who do not countenance the actual questions people ask about their point of view; who set up “Evangelical” straw men I find unrecognizable; who put questions in the mouths of these fictional Evangelicals that sound like they’ve been back-fitted to the safe Catholic catechetical answer.
Which brings me to the recent series with Jeremy Rhode titled “The Gospel for Former Evangelicals” [link]. Rhode is about 15 years younger than I am, graduated from seminary about four years ago [link], and sounds like he’s still in the honeymoon phase of his relationship with the LCMS. I don’t know who these former Evangelicals he’s talking about are; what kind of Evangelical they used to be; how many of them there are; or what would possess them to consider Lutheranism; but Rhode’s presentation of confessional Lutheranism as a cure for what’s ailing the American church strikes me as unfair both in its presentation of the disease and its cure.
I just can’t bring myself to seriously consider what Rhode suggests is the heart of the fix for Evangelicals: that the Body of Christ is in any sense actually present in Communion; that Communion (rather than Jesus’s death on the Cross, which it symbolizes) brings forgiveness of sin; that distinguishing between the pastor and the office he holds is anything but a recipe for abuse; that baptism actually brings regeneration; etc.
I highly recommend listening to the entire series if you can stand it and understand it. It’s as good a place as any to start understanding what little dialog there is between confessional Lutheranism and American Evangelicalism.
In conclusion: we affirm that American Evangelicalism is sick; we deny that confessional Lutheranism is the cure.
As I have mentioned many times here before, I came out of an independent Baptist background, was involved in one of the first modern megachurches, spent some time in a Calvary Chapel, and since then in a Presbyterian (PCA) church. Most of the churches I’ve seen have been, either de jure or de facto, run, owned, or ruled by one pastor, and there has been a relatively weak board of deacons or elders, as well as in some cases more than one paid pastor. I realize my experience is not exactly typical, especially when compared with that of people who attend churches with strong denominations.
The churches I attended growing up formed as splits off Southern Baptist churches, and were at least partly reacting to a theological liberal drift in Southern Baptist seminaries. They tended to associate with one another formally only to sponsor missionaries, in imitation of their SBC forebears. They were in almost all other regards independent, although there were a couple that always recruited pastors that went to the same school.
The megachurch was built around a single personality (Jerry Falwell) and is still sort of finding its way since his death. They’ve joined the SBC; I really have no feel for how that new relationship is going.
I loved my Calvary Chapel, but it more or less crumpled under the weight of pastoral misbehavior. Calvary pretty much has a “Moses model” of leadership and any accountability between churches was during my time there limited to a single sanction: “Big Calvary” could disaffiliate a local church, but that was about it. There were representations of other affiliations, but in a crisis they turned out to be over-represented.
Each of these churches had a way of explaining how their take on church governance lined up with the New Testament passages describing pastors, apostles, elders, and deacons. There was also in each case a kind of “folk theology” that was assumed but not stated that the pastor filled some sort of apostle/elder role, and our deacons or elders filled some sort of elder/deacon role.
We always understood that apostles were more than missionaries; their “apo-” prefix meant they were sent by someone, and we took that to mean God, rather than just sent by a church or group of churches. We knew at one level that all the real Apostles were dead, but we tended to give our local pastor a break when he sat in Paul’s seat, so to speak. This made me uncomfortable, and still does.
We also understood from the Scriptures that the original elders were appointed by the Apostles or their delegates (Timothy; Titus) but we sort of glossed over this because the Apostles weren’t available, and being Baptists we had soft spot for voting. We voted on our deacons and they served as elders. Because our churches were relatively small this worked reasonably well. We occasionally ran into problems because deacons had limited terms and pastors were in principle serving for life.
Every model is imperfect, and every model is liable to some kind of excess. I think lately we’ve seen more trouble from megachurches with superstar pastors who are not accountable, and it’s this situation that is causing some churches to move to elder-led structures. I have lately been listening to a 22-part podcast from an Albuquerque church that has elder leadership as described by Alexander Strauch [PDF, link].
This church has a formal group of elders, some paid, some not, and follows Strauch’s interpretation of various New Testament passages. This is the first time I’ve found a church (apart from the Brethren fellowship I mentioned in another post) that attempts to constitute their leadership according to all the various verses that talk about elders.
I’m about halfway through the series, and I’m putting off any analysis until I get through it. So far I’d call it fascinating. I was surprised to discover that they constitute themselves as an independent church and take a dim view of both head pastors and seminaries, but they have a single paid elder who does the bulk of the pulpit preaching. Twenty-three hours of anything is a lot to digest. More later.
This is a church visit report of sorts, but not the usual kind. I’ll explain below.
About twelve years ago I was living in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and looking for a church, and after visiting several churches in town, mostly mainline Protestant, I decided to take a look-in at the church that was meeting in a little room at the Pueblo Complex on Diamond Drive. I had nothing to go on apart from the fact that they had a small sign that they put out by the street when they were meeting. I even needed a couple of false starts to figure out when they were meeting.
When I finally caught up to them I was surprised to discover that they were actually a struggling (not to say dying) Brethren fellowship: three or four older couples, all retired, whose children had all left town, one younger couple with children who were on-again, off-again, and one younger couple with children who were steady (the dad was taking his turn as teaching elder) but who would soon leave for the local CMA church.
This was the first elder-led church I had ever visited, and I was impressed. I ended up not staying with them; I eventually found my way to Calvary Chapel, with its Moses Model of leadership. I stayed in contact with a couple of the men from LACF, met with them at their prayer breakfast for a while, etc. and they occasionally asked me questions about how we went about doing church at Calvary. At the time I didn’t pay much attention, partly because I was so thrilled with the teaching at Calvary, and partly because I didn’t really have a viable alternative.
Lately I’ve bumped into several local churches that have adopted some flavor of elder leadership, most of them apparently looking for a remedy to some of the excesses that can occur in churches where the head pastor isn’t accountable. I’m encouraged that some churches are looking at this problem and willing to make changes to address it. At the same time I’m taking a wait and see attitude: so far as I can tell there are no perfect churches and no perfect ways to organize a church; a system is only as good as the people who implement it; and we learn more about systems of governance when they face a crisis than we do under ordinary circumstances.
LACF had a handful of elders; by the time I met them almost all of the men in the church were elders, but it hadn’t always been that way. The elders made decisions together; I have no idea if they voted or if they did something else. They had a rotating position of teaching elder, and each of the elders took a turn teaching for I think a year. And finally, nobody was paid for serving as an elder, teaching or otherwise. I have no idea which of these are typical for their particular Brethren group (of which there are several), and which are accidents of their circumstances. They had no shortage of educated elders; they didn’t need much money to meet expenses; they were vanishingly small.
Regardless, this more or less served as my introduction to elder-led churches, and as always I’m tempted to take it as normative. There are others, of course, and at least one has become the model for a couple of local churches. About which, more later.