I’m a graduate of Liberty University; I did not agree with the university’s decision to invite Mitt Romney as commencement speaker.
Tobin Grant did some analysis at Christianity Today [link] and noted that as a graduation speaker Romney’s not out of line with lots of graduation speakers. He mentions John McCain (2006), George H. w. Bush (1990), Newt Gingrich (1991, 2007), Ben Stein (2009), and Glenn Beck (2010). He didn’t mention Oliver North (1988), who subsequently ran as a Republican for Senate in Virginia, Bill Armstrong (1985), Donald Hodel (1986), Pat Buchanan (1992), Phil Gramm (1995), or Clarence Thomas (1996). He fairly notes that Romney isn’t even the first Mormon, and that Stein is Jewish; he doesn’t delve into which speakers are Roman Catholic (Gingrich; Thomas) and which proclaim no religion affiliation whatsoever (Rove).
I have to admit that I’m disappointed in the choice of Romney, for a couple of reasons. One is that I think it sends a message that someone should be held in high esteem by Liberty graduates regardless of their religion so long as they’re Republican. Here Liberty seems to be following the trend we see at other historically Christian but practically secular universities, where the religious or spiritual speaker speaks at baccalaureate and the aspirational speaker speaks at graduation. I think it’s more a question of “isn’t there someone from within our movement, whatever it is, who is worth inviting to speak?” rather than “why are we paying a Mormon to speak at our graduation?”
And finally, I have to admit that I don’t think this bodes well for Romney’s chances in the fall; with Santorum and Gingrich having suspended their campaigns Romney is as they say the presumptive nominee, so by now he should have solidified his popularity with the traditional Republican base and “moving to the center” to court the 20-40% of so-called undecideds. The fact that he’s speaking at Liberty suggests he hasn’t won over his base yet. This reminds me of 2008, where John McCain got almost to the party convention without having won over the so-called values voters, and we all know how that ended.
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.
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.
I took my entourage back to City of Faith for my second visit. My primary traveling companion would like to give the church an extended try.
So for the duration I will not be blogging about City of Faith.
One of the many perils of visiting someone else’s church, compounded when only visiting a church once, is the hazard of being (in a metaphorical sense, mind you) one of the pagans on Mars Hill, endlessly classifying, never engaging, and always wanting to hear something new. It’s a pitfall, and one I try to always be aware of. Most of the time I hear familiar passages of Scripture interpreted in familiar ways, and I sometimes waste the opportunity to hear a sermon trying to predict which of a small number of standard interpretations a preacher is going to use.
So I have to admit I was blown away when I went to church this past Sunday and I heard something that hit me where I live. We were in Lynchburg for Liberty University’s Homecoming weekend, and on the invitation of an old family friend we visited One Community Church [link], a relatively young church that shares a building with a ballet school on Kemper St, in one of the older and less fashionable parts of downtown. And I was blown away when the pastor started his sermon on 1 John 1:8-2:2 thus:
The Word of God will not change your life unless you are willing to confess.
I come from a tradition that takes the assurance of salvation so seriously that we are light on confession (and rarely repent). And one of my great crises of faith can probably be best stated like this: I don’t understand how someone who has been a dedicated, active Christian for a long time, who may even be a professional Christian of some sort, and spends lots of time and effort reading and studying Scripture, can still be a cold/hard/heartless/petty/flat-out evil person. I don’t understand how someone who is supposedly Spirit-filled and has an active prayer life could remain unconvicted about a pattern of sin that causes great and probably permanent damage to other people. And the pull quote above is as good as any I’ve heard so far; confession/repentance is a habit and has to be cultivated.
Because the church is located in a willfully funky downtown location and is stuffed to the rafters with college students, many of them sporting a grunge look, some of them still wearing sock caps in the heat of a Central Virginia Indian Summer, I was expecting some variety of hipster Christianity, for better or worse. Hipsters, lest we forget, tend to be post-ironic authenticity-seekers. They’re a funny mix of studied earnestness and referential irony; and I have a real soft spot for them.
The music was loud but the lyrics were surprisingly unrepetitive and theologically sound. The sermon was thoughtful, practical, and sound. It followed a basic Law-and-Gospel pattern but it didn’t make it sound like algebra. There was a community involvement segment, a music video that fit the sermon thematically, and Communion by intincture.
I really liked this church, and I wish the folks there all the best. It’s tough to sustain a church full of Liberty students, as many of them have been churched to death; they have no money; and they are in town for roughly twenty-eight weeks a year for four years and then they’re gone. So this church more than most will probably face a serious Pareto problem, with a very small fraction of the people contributing the overwhelming majority of the time, effort, and money required to keep the church afloat.
If I ever find myself back in Lynchburg on a Sunday I’d love to visit again; I’d be curious to see where and what they are a year or more from now.
This past Sunday I visited City of Faith Christian Fellowship, one of Santa Fe’s newest churches. They are part of the Calvary Chapel Santa Fe family tree, one of four to six churches in the Santa Fe area that could be fairly so described. I went there this Sunday because I finally had a Sunday to myself, with the rest of the family out of town, and because a kind reader was kind enough to tell me where they are. In this post I’m going to try to describe what and who this church is/are, and in a later post I’ll talk about what I saw and heard there.
From I think the mid-Eighties until a couple of years ago there was a Calvary Chapel in Santa Fe. It was initially started as a Bible study affiliated with Calvary Albuquerque. It was initially started by Gino Geraci, now the long-time pastor of Calvary South Denver. After a short period of time, maybe a couple of years, he returned to Albuquerque and was replaced by Kon Tweeten. Tweeten was pastor for fifteen or so years; during his tenure the church grew from a handful of people to 1000-1200 people or so. He was succeeded by Dave Defuria, and under Defuria’s leadership the church split. When the split was granted affiliation with Calvary Chapel Defuria stepped down and the church was briefly reunited under Paul Scozzafava. Two of the assistant pastors, Carlos Montoya and Rudy Delgado, left on good terms and started Blaze Christian Fellowship, now part of the Acts 29 Network. One of the elders also left on good terms and started a church that I believe is based in the Sunlit Hills neighborhood. I haven’t been able to track them down. Under Paul Scozzafava the church dropped its Calvary Chapel affiliation and moved in a more Reformed direction. Scozzafava’s chronic health problems have left him unable to fulfill all the obligations of a senior pastor, and he brought in Ryan Ellsworth as heir apparent to the pulpit. Ellsworth left a few months ago and later started City of Faith.
[Edit: one of the principals was kind enough to contact me with some corrections (both for me personally and for the text I've deleted here), and I've taken the rest of this post offline until I can get my facts straight. Don't hold your breath; I may be a while.]
This is the last post in my little series on this visit to Scottsdale Bible Church. I have been sitting on the fence about posting this at all, as my impression of SBC was mostly positive and most of what I have to say here is negative. And it’s not a criticism of SBC or Jamie Rasmussen in particular, but more the way we as conservative, Bible-believing and -quoting Christians go about exegesis.
The tagline for this sermon was Rasmussen’s encouragement to us to develop “a mindset that leads to a biblical worldview of the struggles of life.” This was sort of its premise and its conclusion: Rasmussen took us from this as a statement of a goal to be reached, then to various Scripture verses with commentary, and back here to this conclusion again. Let’s for the moment ignore the question of whether terms like “mindset” and “worldview” are native to Scripture or whether they’re modern concepts that have to be imported into a text. For Rasmussen this boils down to a simple (not to say easy) matter of switching our focus from our personal struggles to “the glory of God.” This consumes most of the sermon, and it’s not until the end that he explains what he more or less means by the latter term, and it turns out to mean the pursuit and perfection of various spiritual disciplines: more prayer, more Bible reading, etc.
I’m going to call this a bait and switch, because that’s what I think it is. It’s not that our problems are real and God’s glory is imaginary, but rather that our problems are concrete and specific, while the glory of God is often abstract, general, and nebulous. We have a sense of God’s glory in the grand sweep of redemptive history, and we know God is glorified in specific acts of worship, but generally the terms here can’t be fairly compared. Either God is glorified by the fact that we suffer (and that’s not what Rasmussen is claiming) or He isn’t; if the former we’ve got an apples-to-apples comparison here; if the latter we don’t.
Rasmussen also sets up and knocks over a straw man that is familiar in conservative circles: he appeals to unnamed TV preachers who claim God will deliver us from trouble if we pray enough and are faithful enough, if we buy “prayer cloths” and “combine your faith with my faith by giving to my ministry.” I don’t know who if anyone on television actually says these things, especially the latter about combining faith. I don’t think the conservative community is well-served by this sort of characterization. Preachers who do this should either name names and give concrete examples (which would be my preference) or stop dealing in these terms. It’s sloppy and cowardly.
Finally Rasmussen closed with this quote from Spurgeon:
There are experiences of the children of God which are full of spiritual darkness and I am most persuaded that those of God’s servants who have been most highly favored have nevertheless suffered more times of darkness than others.
I continue to be surprised that otherwise careful people offer up such bland nonsense as true just because it was said by somebody famous. To my recollection Scripture offers no such sentiment; I’d pay a whole dollar for a reasonable counterexample. I think it’s more likely that this is comfort Spurgeon, who it is widely believed today suffered from some form of depression, offered himself, but on the basis of his own opinion, and it should be treated as such, rather than as the closing citation in a sermon otherwise founded more or less on Scripture.
So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if we had to move to the Phoenix area we’d be sorely tempted to make Scottsdale Bible Church our home church. We understand why our Navigators friends decided to settle here. And let’s be frank: anyone who has been part of a healthy parachurch community often has a hard time finding a church.
That being said, I’m more inclined to scrutinize a church I’d consider moving to than a church I’m just visiting like a tourist. So let’s do the rundown. This is an independent church; unlike some churches with names like “X Bible Church,” SBC is not affiliated with the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches or the Fellowship of Fundamental Bible Churches, or any denomination, for that matter. They have a history intertwined with Fellowship Bible Church in Chagrin Falls, OH, but that’s it. This can be a good thing; it can be a bad thing. Denominations are good for providing infrastructure and accountability, but they also tend to have their own direction and inertia; see e.g. the SBC in the Seventies and the Nineties, the Anglican communion and the ELCA today, for example.
But with independent churches there’s often nobody providing backup when things go wrong. There are no written policies for emergencies, there’s no contingency planning, and there may be nobody in leadership who has ever been through a serious crisis before. They may or may not be on guard against embezzlement, leadership appropriation or misuse of ministry property, or people who prey on children. And oddly, while the former categories are rarely newsworthy, the latter often is; take for example the recent coverage of the arrest of Alvaro Daniel Guzman for inappropriately touching a boy while working at Lakewood Church in Houston.
This is an especially difficult problem for churches: media coverage tends to be long on accusation and short on verdicts; the church rarely has a chance to clear its name; the person arrested, as is the case for Guzaman, sometimes has no prior criminal record; and even simple criminal background checks are sufficient to scare off potential volunteers, so churches tend not to require them as part of routine volunteer screening. This appears to be the case at SBC: volunteers are subject to interview by church staff, but so far as I can tell no background checks are required.
I don’t know what the right answer is here; people with nothing to hide often resent being required to submit to a background check; background checks often fail to find future offenders in advance; etc. But churches really need to take precautions against predators in their midst; I’d consider it a warning sign that a church doesn’t vet volunteers. Independent churches, especially, are often tempted to cover up anything that might lead to a scandal that would harm revenues, as they’ve got no denominational backup in the event of a crisis. So I’d consider the lack of background checks, combined with the self-contained accountability structure something of a warning sign. Not a warning sign of inappropriate activity, but a warning sign that the church may not respond well when something goes wrong.
Let’s just take is as read that I mentioned C. J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries here; I don’t know if the people who go by the pseudonyms “Wallace” and “Happymom” are credible or not, but their accusations against SGM Fairfax give me pause, and the story they tell should serve as a warning of how things can go wrong when churches have crises that may not be their fault but that they nevertheless handle poorly.
Scottsdale Bible Church gives every indication of being a well-organized church. The bulletin lists phone numbers and/or email addresses for the elder board, senior pastor, executive pastor, the leads for various efforts that aren’t strictly speaking pastoral but are apparently paid staff, the pastoral care coordinator and the pastor emeritus. There’s a substantial schedule of activities with dates, times, locations and contact numbers. There’s the usual contact card and executive summary for first-time visitors. And there’s a summary of financial information for the fiscal year to date, showing that giving is up very slightly, and they’re running a small (1.5%) budget surplus through 45 weeks.
This is no mean feat given that the Phoenix area is one of the places worst-hit by the collapse in housing prices. It is reasonable to expect that people who attend SBC have as they say participated fully in the current recession. I think their budget/attendance numbers bear this out.
If I focus on the people who carry the ministry I end up with something like an 80/20 model, where I assume that 20% of the people give 80% of the money. If I project the 45-week giving number ($7,672,601) to a full 52-week year that’s $8,866,116 for nominally 6000 people. If we extract the 80/20 number that’s about $5900. If for comparison’s sake we do the same with the Mars Hill Church 2010 annual report, which covers a different but overlapping period of time, the comparable number is more like $7500, or 27% more. In other words, Scottsdale Bible Church may appear to be a church full of rich people, but it isn’t necessarily a rich church.
This may be due partly to the fact that it is chock-full of retirees as well. I’d say roughly half of the people attending the 8AM service had gray hair; I rather doubt that’s the case at any of the services at any of the Mars Hill campus churches.
But I digress; I wanted to be sure to mention something that’s been on my mind regarding churches and the current recession. I had expected that there would be lots of foreclosures and bankruptcies; instead I’ve seen churches selling their buildings to formerly renting churches (this has happened twice that I know of here in Santa Fe alone) or merging with financially healthier churches. See e.g. the new arrangement between Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA and its new satellite Airlee Court Baptist Church in Roanoke, an hour away [link]. While I’m not overly thrilled at the idea of satellite churches or campus churches, where they gather to watch television and have at best a local assistant pastor, I have to admit this is better than an established church going dark altogether.
Regardless, I appreciate this minimal amount of apparent disclosure regarding money on the part of SBC. I wish this were the norm among independent churches; in my experience it is not.
One of the delicate issues one has to deal with in leaving one’s own frame of reference and going somewhere else is the question of what constitutes reasonable outrage for someone who has to live in one frame of reference or the other. And it’s a question that’s front and center when visiting someone else’s church.
I’m accustomed to living in Santa Fe, NM, complete with its racial tensions, public corruption, attitude toward natural resources, values regarding public spending and tax breaks, gangs, low high school graduation rates, etc. I’m no longer shocked and surprised to see charred spoons in the litter on the side of the road among the cigarette bottles and miniature liquor bottles; I’m more shocked to see label-less orange childproof prescription pill bottles displacing some of those charred spoons.
Still, I always find Scottsdale jarring, with its shiny cars, trophy houses, bleach blondes, air conditioning, golf courses, retirees, etc. Everyone is huge, rich, aggressive, selfish, etc. And so American. If I had to pick an iconic image that represents Scottsdale I’m not sure if I’d settle on its PGA tour event, its elevated freeway, it’s dimly-lit labyrinthine strip malls, or Pat Tillman. It’s just so far over the top in so many ways.
And so I’m inclined to wonder how anyone can manage a church in an environment like Scottsdale. Especially a second-generation megachurch with conservative theology and conservative politics. I don’t know how someone can preach e.g. “in Christ there is neither rich nor poor” or even “blessed are the poor” to a church full of rich retirees. Which is not to say that it’s impossible to be in Scottsdale but not of Scottsdale; just difficult, just as it would be anywhere else.
And it’s in this context that some of the aspects of Scottsdale Bible Church seemed most striking. Not just the parking lot full of gleaming cars, or the hoards of young, fit, church-going women in weather-appropriate not to say filmy or revealing church clothes. There was also the foyer picture case (I wouldn’t necessarily call it a shrine) full of pictures of church members (SBC, unlike some nondenominational churches I could mention, has voting members) who are serving in the military overseas. And the list of elder candidates in the bulletin who are all mid-to-late-career captains of industry, with obvious business acumen, and not a lot of detail about their spiritual maturity.
It is my understanding that in the Early Church there were occasionally problems due to slaves being elders and their owners being new believers; I don’t know if this is something that really happened, or if it’s a popular fiction that helps us make sense of some of the things we find in Paul’s Epistles. I have a hard time imagining a similar problem arising in any modern church; there just aren’t that many poor people in positions of authority in any modern church. It’s most striking in an obviously rich church like SBC, where poor people are hard to find, period.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in the circle of light, facing an audience of two or three or eight thousand people every Sunday. Or to need to make budget week after week, and plan sermon series, and manage staff, and all that. It’s tough to lead a big church, and tough to lead a rich church, and it must be doubly tough to lead a big, rich church without say losing one’s soul.
I’ll get back to specifics in the next post, including a heads-up on the economic climate, church mergers, and so forth.