Several weeks ago one of the voices on The White Horse Inn, and I believe it was host Michael Horton, suggested that there are some evangelical authors whose books appear in the Christian Living section of the bookstore and/or have a DDC number near 248.4 [link] who are using pen names between Meyer and Osteen.
Since Horton didn’t mention anyone by name I am tempted to believe he was just repeating idle vicious gossip, but I would prefer to be wrong. So I will pay a whole dollar to the first person to spot and verify one of these authors, limit ten total. To claim please send me evidence that some author is using a pen name and has a book with a DDC of 248.*. I will also consider evidence of a pen name and a snapshot of a book in the appropriate section of a chain bookstore, subject to some kind of field check.
At long last I finally had a chance to see the first half of Alexanda Pelosi’s 2007 documentary Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi [link]. I’ve been looking forward to watching this for a while, because I flat-out loved Pelosi’s 2002 documentary Journeys with George, cut from her time documenting life on the campaign trail with George W. Bush.
Remember George W. Bush? He’s that guy who was governor of Texas, ran for President in 2000, served eight years, started a couple of wars, and may or may not be our kind of Christian. He’s also that guy Rick Perry may or may not be all over again. I’m still waiting for someone in Christian media to explain that one to me. But I digress.
I loved Journeys with George, and I was hoping for more of the same from Friends of God. In the earlier documentary Pelosi had a compelling story with a strong if occasionally elusive central character, and the story had a natural rhythm complete with a conclusion. Friends of God, on the other hand, is sort of a survey of things Pelosi doesn’t like and/or doesn’t understand. It’s been chopped up into too many too-brief images, and midway through it doesn’t seem to have a point, unless that point is something like “Evangelical Christians are scary people who willfully life in a fictional world.”
So far we’ve met Joel Osteen, Ken Ham, Ted Haggard, comedian Brad Stine, professional wrestler Robert Vaughan, and a Tennessee preacher with ten children named Jeff Chapman. It’s a mixed bag: I can’t say as I often do (see e.g. Jesus Camp) that Pelosi doesn’t understand what she’s seeing; it’s more that Pelosi is seeking to portray her subject in a particular way and her subject obliges.
I am particularly disturbed to note that most of the head shots seem to have been shot with some kind of fish-eye lens (see e.g. the picture of Phish bassist Mike Gordon on the cover of Billy Breathes [link]) that leaves the interviewee looking like a pinhead, with a big broad mouth and a smaller, pointed head. I’m kind of embarrassed for Pelosi for her having shot these people this way. It’s not like we haven’t seen e.g. Joel Osteen before or won’t see him again, so it seems unnecessarily cheap to suggest that while he has many flaws having a head shaped like an eggplant isn’t one of them.
I honestly had no idea Joyce Meyer had written so many books, let alone that anyone in Santa Fe would be reading them and donating them to the public library.
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.
My opinion regarding Mark Driscoll had mostly been formed by his surprisingly frequent appearances in my reading and by his continual hovering online presence; I don’t know how to measure his impact online versus other contemporary Reformed lights like John Piper or John MacArthur, but he certainly seems to be taken pretty seriously by a segment that might or might not correspond to the Young Restless Reformed set. I really don’t know.
Anyway, Driscoll had surfaced in my reading in three different books, unusual for someone I don’t actually seek out:
- Back when he was still associated with various Emerging Church figures through Leadership Network he appeared as the pastor of Donald Miller’s church in Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Miller since the follow-up Searching for God Knows What sort of left me dry, but in Blue Like Jazz Miller portrays Mars Hill Church as a healthy spiritual community and Driscoll as its conservative center. Of course Driscoll has since parted ways with the Emerging Church folks; I have no idea what the relationship between Driscoll and Miller is today.
- Andrew Beaujon spends a chapter or two of his Christian-rock travelogue Body Piercing Saved My Life [link] at Mars Hill and is somewhat amazed that people who sport tattoos and listen to indie rock attend a church where the preaching is culturally so conservative; Beaujon is the first author I read to pick through everything he heard and focus primarily on Complementarianism, the theological view that men and women are equal in some sense but fundamentally different and complementary; like most secular writers he sees this as retrograde as compared to the view that men and women are equal in every sense, or something like that. Like most people who take on Complementarianism from a liberal point of view he doesn’t explicitly state his own view. Beaujon’s book is available used for Amazon for a penny plus shipping ($4 total); I recommend it at that price.
- Lauren Sandler delves a bit deeper into the Complementarian narrative in the chapter she devotes to Mars Hill in Righteous [link]. She finds a couple of good narrators, including a woman who has a background in academic second-wave feminism (or at least whose bookcase functions as a kind of educated feminist bona fide) but who has married and moved into the Mars Hill orbit and can’t find her way out. She also finds someone who utters the deathless phrase “when I see someone covered in tattoos I assume they’re a born-again Christian.” I don’t know what Sandler meant by including this second person; I took it to mean that Mars Hill is a sufficiently complete subculture that the person in question no longer deals with anyone outside it. Sandler’s book is a tougher read; I am tempted to think she went looking for things in evangelicalism that appalled her so she found them, and she tends to overstate their significance. But more about that later.
But it’s the Molly Worthen piece from the New York Times [link] that really fills in a lot of the color on Driscoll, not least because it’s primarily about Driscoll, rather than trying to fit him into some other broader narrative. Worthen manages to place Driscoll in the evangelical part of the megachurch landscape with her Stetzer-Hybels-Osteen references and she focuses on the “muscular Christianity” aspect of the Driscoll media persona (she refers to his “hypermasculinity” and attempts to connect the worst of John Calvin’s Geneva to Driscoll’s Seattle) and portrays him as essentially authoritarian.
And as far as I can recall that’s the sum total of how Driscoll has been portrayed in my reading. I haven’t read any of his books and don’t plan to; from what I’ve seen of them they remind me of Skip Heitzig’s books: cleaned-up versions of sermon notes, in slim volumes, with well-chosen titles and cover art, probably best understood as an extension of the Sunday morning experience.
In the next post I want to get back to Albuquerque; remember Albuquerque? This is a series about a church in Albuquerque.
Intelligence Squared sponsored a dial-in debate between journalist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway and “megachurch and leadership expert” Dave Travis [blog] on the premise “It’s hard to find God in a megachurch” [link, free registration required]. The introduction for the debate doesn’t look promising; apart from some soundbites (Robert Schuller, Eddie Long, George W. Bush, Ted Haggard) there’s this definition:
The evangelical movement has a globally influential role, and the megachurches are an important element of it. They have huge congregations with inspirational, charismatic pastors. They are run like businesses and, it might seem, often with rather business-like objectives of raising funds and satisfying customers.
Hemingway gets off on the wrong foot from the start:
Most notably, the size and charisma aspects affect the relationship of the pastor to his congregation. These features require for lowest common denominator preaching; it becomes based on ‘You’, rather than Christ.. Equally, sacramental worship is not feasible with a congregation of 2,000 people. In small congregation churches, members are active. In megachurches, the audience is passive, consuming rather than engaging with gospel entertainment.
Yes, there are problems when the relationship between the preacher and church is out of whack, but she trots out the “big/passive, small/active” red herring: neither of these is necessarily true. And while her point about “gospel entertainment,” whatever that is, is probably apt, she’s made the mistake of making the conservative Lutheran method of worship standard so everything else is deviant.
The problem of America’s churches is that they’re market driven, but megachurches are market driven on steroids.
I have no idea what “market driven on steroids” means; this sounds like a fancy way of saying “very market driven” or “very very market driven.” And of course it begs the question “market driven as opposed to what?”
Hemingway is offering the usual talking points here, as if the alternatives in the megachurch debate were the LCMS standard on one side and Joel Osteen on the other. Briefly: not everyone outside a megachurch is looking to “receive sacraments for the forgiveness of sins” and not everyone in a megachurch is looking for “your best life now.” I’m disappointed in her presentation and don’t think it was effective, especially once she conceded that church size isn’t the problem.
Dave Travis on the other hand offers a fairly standard set of church growth arguments: “we took a survey, here are some results, lo and behold they support our model of church.”
Here’s part of his opening argument:
People are moving from small to big institutions in every sector of America’s society. In the church, this is not necessarily an obstacle to a healthy relationship with Christ; it just creates a different one. Yes, in megachurches, preaching is simpler in approach than smaller churches, but accessibility to doctrine does not make it un-challenging. In fact, megachurches preach what is relevant to the congregation.
I’m not sure how the first two sentences are related to one another; if there’s a causal connection between other institutions getting bigger and churches getting bigger I don’t see it. He concedes that megachurch preaching is simple and includes mention of the relevance of the text to the believer, but doesn’t point out any differences between sermons that are relevant to the believer and sermons that are consumer-centered. It’s a weak presentation, but Travis is mostly stuck responding to the moderators’ opening comments and Hemingway’s opening comments.
Travis doesn’t handle a question about pastoral accountability well; he answers a poorly-presented question about congregants in a small church engaging in question and answers with the pastor by saying megachurch pastors take feedback via websites and response cards. He also interacts poorly with a question about authoritarian preachers.
Hemingway responds to the same question by presenting the same lousy argument “churches should be defined by creeds and sacraments, not market research” and equivocates between creeds and sacraments on the one hand and Scripture on the other. I don’t know what if anything Hemingway can say about churches that are neither focused on creeds and sacraments nor driven by market research.
I think Travis misses an obvious knock-out punch that goes like this: The Hartford Institute, which provides definitions and lists for American megachurches, lists 1408 churches that meet its criteria. Of these seven are part of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod [link]; does Hemingway’s analysis apply to these? If so then all her bluster about creeds and sacraments is nonsense; if not then her distinction she’s making above is invalid.
I hate to say it, but I don’t see a winner here; neither party actually interacts with the premise. Hemingway’s argument is just special pleading, and she grows increasingly shrill as the discussion progresses. Travis comes closer to interacting with the premise by relating survey results about church attenders’ impressions of their relationship with God, but never suggests that there’s any way to close the gap between those results and an actual God. Hemingway can’t seem to see past her tradition. It’s a mess.
On the whole I’m left wondering if there is any common ground between the two sides, and whether this is an issue a debate can resolve. I would recommend listening to this debate anyway; 25 minutes isn’t very long to sort out issues like this, but it’s helpful to hear where the discussion is now (nowhere, mostly). As I said several months ago, this still sounds like a dialog between a dead church and a dying church to me.
In other news, Dee at The Wartburg Watch offered a take on Cruise With A Cause 2011 a couple of weeks ago [link]; her comments cover some of the same ground I covered [link], from a different angle and somewhat more pointedly. She also points out that the online biography for Ergun Caner appears to mix in elements of his brother Emir’s biography.
And finally: I found myself awake between 1:30AM and 2:30AM and ended up taking a peek at the KAZQ [link] overnight offerings. They offer GOD TV [link] as a second OTA digital signal (Digital channel 32.2) and on their primary signal in the wee hours. I got to sample the late Barry Smith’s program Mystery Babylon [link, link]; it caught my interest when I saw the word “Weishaupt” on the whiteboard behind Smith and heard his Kiwi accent. His presentation was a fairly typical fast-and-loose “Freemasons are apostate; Freemasons run the English-speaking world” presentation. Highlights included
- Smith’s claim that floor tiles in contrasting colors, especially in black and white, in public buildings, are a secret Freemason symbol
- Smith’s claim that certain hand gestures require Masonic judges to free Masonic criminals
- A dissection of the symbols on the back of a one-dollar bill that sounded even stranger with a Kiwi accent
GOD TV currently offers two or three episodes of Barry Smith programming a night and another in the afternoon; Joe Bob says check it out.
Until the Crystal Cathedral situation started coming unwound I would have sworn that church bankruptcies happened for exactly two reasons:
- A debt load per donor that is too high
- Leadership malfeasance
The first one is an easy rug to sweep a bunch of unlike bankruptcies under, because it includes cases where a church takes on a new unsustainable debt, or where a previously sustainable debt becomes too large because the number of donors drops. Examples of both are cites in this article from this Suzanne Sataline/Wall Street Journal article from December 2008 [link], when it really seemed likely that the credit crunch and associated economic recession would produce a wave of church bankruptcies.
So far as I can tell that hasn’t happened; church bankruptcies are still rare events and are more sensibly blamed on events within the church rather than trouble in the broader economy. Economic times are tough all over, but multiple church bankruptcies in the same metropolitan area are still very rare.
Leadership malfeasance can cause a church to fail; there’s a whole gamut here, from a pastoral divorce and scandal (see e.g. Randy and Paula White’s Church Without Walls) to losses due to lawsuits (see various Catholic dioceses) to outright embezzlement.
But now in the wake of the Crystal Cathedral bankruptcy I’d have to add a third:
- Unpopular leadership succession
For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the Crystal Cathedral situation, it went a little like this: founding pastor Robert Schuller retired in 2006 and passed the pulpit to his son Robert A. Schuller [link]. The younger Schuller preached differently (I’m under the impression that he is more charismatic/pentecostal than his father, but can’t seem to find a good summary of the differences online) and contributions dropped off until the elder Schuller took the pulpit back and after sharing it with his daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman retired again and passed the pulpit to Coleman full time earlier this year [link]. Revenue declined further, the ministry canceled a couple of marquee shows and stiffed some creditors, and finally filed for bankruptcy a few weeks ago. I might be inclined to suggest here that Crystal Cathedral was afflicted by not one but two unpopular successors to founder Schuller.
Which brings me to this recent column from the Salt Lake Tribune by Corey Hodges, pastor of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, titled “Like father like son? It doesn’t always work out in the ministry” [link]. It’s mostly a compare-and-contrast, suggesting that the Billy Graham succession has succeeded while the Schuller transition failed. It also name-checks the Osteens and the Falwells as successful transitions, with caveats. Hodges makes the transition from successful transitions back to the Crystal Cathedral situation this way (emphasis mine):
Preachers’ children often are exposed to the challenges of the ministry and can receive invaluable insight from being around their parents. They thus tend to be suitable candidates for succession.
Family-line succession also is biblical. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the high priest of Israel was to be a descendant of Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses. Aaron was succeeded by a son, Eleazar, and the trend continued for several generations.
Celebrity ministries often benefit from family succession because they tend to be personality-driven. Having a person familiar with the organization’s leadership style, who has similar personality traits, can provide stability for continued success.
The main problem with family-line succession is descendants often are expected to continue their parents’ vision rather than develop their own.
This is a fascinating piece of theology; as best I can tell Hodges is suggesting that the pattern for succession in the modern church is the Aaronic priesthood, rather than say the master-disciple relationship of Paul and Timothy. Or Jesus and The Twelve. He also suggests that the problem with unsuccessful successors is in expectations (of donors, I guess) rather than in the leadership. I might gently suggest that if a man spends 55 years in the pulpit, as the elder Schuller did, and he doesn’t have a workable succession plan, the problem is his, not the congregation’s.
And finally, I might gently suggest that a preacher speaking this way is a warning sign regarding how he sees his relationship to the rest of the church. There’s not a lot about Aaron in Scripture to serve as a model for behavior; there’s the Golden Calf episode, the Nadab and Abihu episode, and not a whole lot else (and I’m hoping neither is instructive in a positive sense), so chances are good the preacher in question is filling this empty symbol with his own meaning.
Update: Mark Byron takes another tack on this, asking rhetorical questions about megachurch bankruptcies [link]. Big church bankruptcies are so rare I’m not sure there’s a special way they get reorganized, as opposed to say a shopping mall.