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beware recycled sermons

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I stopped by The Wartburg Watch to have a look around today; I have been so busy with one thing and another I haven’t read more than a handful of blog posts in the last couple of months, but it seems like the folks at TWW occasionally comment on topics I’m interested in that I don’t see much elsewhere.

In particular there was a link to Bruce Gerencser’s blog; he’s a former Baptist preacher and current atheist. Let’s just take it as read that I mentioned that it disturbs me somewhat how many people who start out devout, lose their faith in a particular group within Christianity, and end up losing their faith altogether. Not all who wander are lost, I suppose, but some are.

Gerencser offers an article on sermon craft [link] that starts out headed in the direction of sharing secrets of sermon craft but ends up being mostly a collection of anonymous anecdotes about poor preaching. Here are a couple of pull quotes:

Many pastors recycle their sermons. The average Baptist pastor changes churches every 2-3 years. No need to craft new sermons. Just reuse the sermons you preached before. If they worked well in Ohio surely they will work well in Texas.

I remember one well known, Bob Jones associated, evangelist who kept long silver cases filled with recordings of his previous sermons. After doing this for many, many years he would just pick a recording to re-familiarize himself with the sermon and then preach it that night. Rarely did he preach “new” material.

I don’t know how to make sense of the “2-3 years” point here; most of the preachers I knew who were gone in two or three years were either failed preachers or were transitional figures in failing churches. The churches I attended were dominated by career men who lasted ten years or more. Gerencser’s comment about preachers with no new material is apt, though; I have yet to figure out why someone would continue to attend a church where the preacher mostly recycles a handful of his own “goodies.” I’d be inclined to start looking for a new church the first time I heard a preacher’s candidate sermon recycled.

Years ago I was acquainted with a pastor who had horrible preaching skills. I mean horrible. He was a Bible college graduate and didn’t even know how to make a sermon outline. I tried to show him how to do so but he had a hard time understanding the whole process. His approach was simple: read the text, chase the rabbits, bring it back to Jesus. pray, and give an altar call.

Yes, I’ve sat through some of these, and so have you.

Many pastors would have you believe that their sermons come directly from God. I know I believed this for many years. I was certain God was leading and directing me to preach on a particular text. I believed that God was guiding me through the delivery of the sermon all the way to the altar call. I was simply a mouthpiece for God.

As I look back over the thousands of God inspired sermons I preached I can now see who it was that was guiding me. It wasn’t God. It wasn’t the Holy Spirit. It was me. Through my own thought process I decided what the church needed to hear. Sometimes I had an agenda that I wanted to advance and what better way to do so than to couch my agenda in “thus saith the Lord.”

This is a tough topic, and one I rarely hear discussed. Gerencser, now an atheist, is mostly obliged to say he was never lead by the Holy Spirit, but I would be inclined to agree that it’s fair to ask where a sermon comes from, and in particular what’s inspiration, what’s revelation, and what’s something other, lesser, or baser. We might hope for some sort of interleaving between what the Scriptures have to say and what’s just the preacher’s opinion, but I don’t know that we think much about how to distinguish them.

It wasn’t news to me that preachers sometimes borrowed or recycled content in sermons; I’d seen books of sermon illustrations and basic sermon outlines for sale in Christian book stores back in the early Seventies, and couldn’t imagine they went away in the meantime. But I have to admit I was surprised to discover that some preachers sometimes reuse other peoples’ entire sermon series. See e.g. the feedback section at Creative Pastors [e.g. link]; here are a couple of comments, one from the static page, one from the feedback pool:

“I’ve been teaching the In the Zone message series at our church and God has really been blessing us with supernatural results. The last several weeks our budget giving is up approximately 40%!” -John Cross, Senior Pastor of South Biscayne Baptist Church, North Port, Florida

We are a brand new church plant that has reached young couples. A church our size (200) should be able to receive a good offering; but we didn’t. This series got such great feedback from new church attenders and those who have been in church for years. After the second week, about bringing the tithe, we received more than half our monthly budget! I thank God that there are creative ways to present His Word to people who don’t understand God’s principles. Jamie Noel, The Journey Church, Springfield OH.

I’m at a loss here; one the one hand I wonder what Mr Cross and Mr Noel are thinking when they decide to preach Ed Young’s sermons, and on the other I wonder if the people who attend their churches have any idea they could have skipped church and just used Ed Young’s “downloadable mind map” instead.

If I had to offer you a single simple takeaway here, I’d encourage you to be a careful consumer of messages, as much if not moreso than you would be watching television or reading a mainstream publication.

We are a brand new church plant that has reached young couples. A church our size (200) should be able to receive a good offering; but we didn’t. This series got such great feedback from new church attenders and those who have been in church for years. After the second week, about bringing the tithe, we received more than half our monthly budget! I thank God that there are creative ways to present His Word to people who don’t understand God’s principles.

Jamie Noel
The Journey CHurch
Springfield, OH

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Where are all the Calvinist converts?

April 26, 2011 29 comments

I’ve been running short on blogging material recently, not because there’s nothing to blog about, but because so little of it has really crystallized for me. We’ve had a houseguest lately who has been talking about art in the Church; I’ve been reading Rob Bell and revisiting a lot of Emerging Church themes; some local churches are going through contortions; and I’ve been struggling with today’s topic.

If I had to make a list of interesting (not to say troubling, necessarily) trends in the American church today, I’d probably have to list the following, in pretty much this order:

  1. The decline of foreign missions
  2. Prosperity theology
  3. The perils of political engagement
  4. The megachurch phenomenon
  5. The decline of the Baby Boom generation and the rise of second-generation big-ministry leadership
  6. The Reformed resurgence
  7. The Emerging Church

So I guess I’d argue that what I have to talk about today isn’t the most interesting thing going on right now, but it is sometimes one of the easiest to see.

When I attended a Calvary Chapel I saw people come and go, but there were identifiable trends in the ways people entered the church and the ways people left. There were some new converts coming in; some of them had a by-the-numbers saved-from-sin born again experience; some of them left the Roman Catholic Church. There were also people who had stopped off somewhere else that offered simpler teaching and/or a more structured environment; we had a lot of people who had attended Potter’s House or had been through the mill at various local 12-step programs.

But people tended to leave Calvary because they were looking for one of two things: either they were looking for a more experiential Christianity, and they left for some sort of Third Wave Pentecostal or TBN-like church, or they moved in a more Reformed direction. At the time I credited the former to Calvary’s mild Charismatic leanings and familial relationship with Vineyard Christian Fellowships; the latter to the otherwise inexplicable presence of John MacArthur on the Calvary radio station in Albuquerque (KNKT). The truth is probably more complicated.

But the pattern then, and the pattern I see now as the Reformed resurgence progresses, was pretty predictable: people became Christians in an evangelical church, then eventually migrated to a more Calvinist church. Or as is the case here locally, people became Christians in evangelical churches, and then the churches themselves gradually moved in a more Reformed direction.

The thing that strikes me odd nowadays, though, is that when I meet someone nowadays, online or in person, who self-identifies as Reformed, they invariably have an “I used to be evangelical too” story. I have yet to meet anyone who became a Christian in a Reformed church unless they were raised there.

This question surfaced in a recent episode of The Dividing Line [link], where the ongoing feud between James White and George Bryson of Calvary Chapel Church Planting Mission (CCCPM) finally reached this question. Of course Bryson frames it his way and White frames it his way, and I’m not sure either of them offer more light than heat. Bryson incorrectly equivocates between all of Reformed theology and the Five Points of Calvinism; White objects but doesn’t clarify how exactly conversion (not to say salvation) happens in Calvinism.

I don’t have a soundbite here; it’s entirely possible that the world is fairly awash in Calvinists who are newly-converted Christians and I’ve just never met any of them, I suppose.

Happy Easter!

April 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I got bogged down in work stuff and family commitments last week and I’m just now surfacing. I wanted to wish my handful of readers a belated Happy Easter. I spent a chunk of a recent work trip reading a couple of Rob Bell books — the recent Love Wins and part of Velvet Elvis (2005) and will have some reaction for you later, but in the meantime I wanted to mention a couple of things surrounding Easter.

First of all, because I grew up in a somewhat landmarkist fundamentalist subculture I tend to look askance at both liturgy and the liturgical year as being either meaningless repetition or pagan accretion, and I’m always tempted to point out that Christmas isn’t strictly speaking a Christian holiday; unlike communion and baptism there’s no command in the New Testament to observe it, our modern observation is a mix of pagan and Christian elements, etc. Easter is a bit different, but only just: it can be located on the calendar relative to Passover, was celebrated before Nicea, but we observe it with a mix of pagan and Christian elements, etc. As a result the whole cycle of holidays from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday sort of fits me like a borrowed suit: I’d like to think it looks nice, but it’s a bit itchy and uncomfortable.

Still, we managed to fit in both a Good Friday service and an Easter Sunday service this year, despite naps and delayed plane flights.

The sermon I heard Easter Sunday is available for a while online [link], and I’ve cached a copy locally [mp3].

This particular church is fairly accused of being a rich white church, and runs maybe half full fifty Sundays a year but packed to the gills Christmas and Easter. At a glance it’s hard to tell the twice-a-years from the regular attenders: tall, good-looking, well-dressed, etc., and for the most part traveling in some sort of nuclear family bubble, smiling at but not making eye contact with anyone they don’t already know. We’re mostly refugees and retirees from California and Texas, in but not a part of New Mexico.

I don’t envy Martin Ban the task of preaching to this mixed multitude on a regular basis, and that goes double or more on Easter and Christmas. If he preaches a standard Easter sermon he’s orthodox but runs the risk of comforting the comfortable. If he strays too far afield he runs the risk of not preaching an Easter sermon per se at all. This Easter he took some risks.

The texts are 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 and the first dozen verses of the Revelation. He also makes heavy use of Penn Jillette’s contribution to NPR’s This I Believe series [link] titled “There Is No God.” Here’s the pull quote:

Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn’t caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn’t bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.

Ban contrasts having faith in God with having faith in our children’s ability to solve technical problems, alleviate suffering, etc. It’s a bit of a stretch for a cultural reference point for an Easter sermon, and I honestly can’t tell you if it works or not. I often get the feeling at Christ Church that I’m not really in the target audience, so I’m overhearing a conversation I’m not really party to, and as a result I don’t really understand what I’m hearing. I don’t know how many PCA Presbyterians are tempted by the arguments of fashionable atheism, especially on Easter Sunday.

Pink: The Sovereignty of God

April 19, 2011 Leave a comment

As I mentioned earlier I’m wading back into Arthur Pink’s 1918 book The Sovereignty of God. This is one book, G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (1908) being another, that makes for better quoting than it does reading. I am sometimes given to wonder whether anyone today, a hundred years later, actually reads these books, let alone understands them, or whether they are better browsed or mined for quotes.

Chesterton’s book is difficult in part because he rarely ends a paragraph talking about the same thing he was talking about when he started at the top of the paragraph. Pink is difficult because his style consists mostly of asking and then answering questions, not so much challenging the reader to think as demanding that he agree. He mostly assumes what he claims as implicit in his premise; he doesn’t consider counter-arguments. He instead appeals to caricatures and straw men. It’s a mess, and an unhelpful mess.

His introduction consists mostly of asking the question “who is regulating affairs on this earth today — God, or the Devil?” and responding with various flourishes, none of which entertain the possibility that this isn’t a reasonable question, and none of which actually answer the question. Pink, so far as I can tell, never entertains the thought that God meant for people to be free, or that God could make a world that had both a grand plan and personal freedom.

What worries me reading this sort of thing is this: I wonder if the world has changed so much in the last hundred years that it is impossible to read hundred-year-old books and draw anything more from them than the occasional well-turned phrase. I’d rather believe that these books are outliers. But of course I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just not anywhere near the book’s intended audience.

Calvary Santa Fe

April 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Sources close to me tell me that Ryan Ellsworth [link] has left Calvary Santa Fe to start a church on his own. He’s certainly disappeared from the Calvary website: a Web search for him currently brings up lots of links to his past sermons there, but the official list for him at the church is empty [link]. I don’t know what the relationship is between his new venture and Calvary; I haven’t seen where he went, whether Calvary is supporting the new church, etc.

For those with long memories, Calvary Santa Fe is the successor church to Calvary Chapel Santa Fe, and over the years a number of churches have spun off from these two in various ways, including Blaze Christian Fellowship and a small church in the Sunlit Hills neighborhood the name of which I’m not certain. I understand that former pastor Kon Tweeten is a going concern again, using the moniker Washed By The Word Ministries [link].This is the first new church to form from Calvary Santa Fe since it dropped its Calvary Chapel affiliation. We wish Ryan all the best in this new venture.

Thielen: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

April 18, 2011 2 comments

This is the final post on this book, and it deals with a single question: “Do Mainline Christians Believe in Getting Saved?” Hint: Thielen’s short answer is “yes.”

As I mentioned before, Thielen converted from Southern Baptist to United Methodist after many years as an SBC pastor. I am guessing having read this book that he left during the SBC conservative resurgence/fundamentalist takeover [link], mostly on the basis of where he ended up, what he feels necessary to say in such a short book, and what he doesn’t feel is necessary. He opens this chapter by setting up a foil for his argument, namely the long and manipulative altar call sometimes found at evangelical churches or revival meetings. He says some people get saved that way, but not everyone. He then proceeds to give a fairly standard presentation of the Wesleyan formula for personal salvation:

  1. Salvation is a lifelong process
  2. We are saved by God’s grace
  3. Salvation requires human response

And three steps of salvation:

  1. God’s prevenient grace
  2. God’s justifying grace
  3. God’s sanctifying grace

He also name-checks “working out your salvation” and “going on toward perfection.” It’s pretty standard stuff from his tradition. It’s also interesting to note that while he discusses confirmation, he actually presents a “sinner’s prayer” at the end of his discussion. I honestly can’t decide if by doing so he’s sending a mixed message or not.

I have to admit that as someone who grew up in a Baptist home (independent Baptist, but independent specifically from SBC and UMC lineage) I feel I have to point out two things:

  1. I believe when someone presents a formula for salvation, especially one that involves sanctification, one is obligated to deal with questions surrounding “works righteousness” and “falling away.” Or to beg a particular question, “eternal security.”
  2. I have to admit that I kind of envy confirmation or catechesis prior to baptism, and I wish that the traditions I’ve spent the most time in placed more emphasis on these, rather than having a “walk the aisle, pray the prayer, sign the card” formula people who leave our tradition tend to despise.

The latter being said, I am amazed how many people I’ve met who went through confirmation class, weren’t in any way shape or form converted, were confirmed as a formality, and later despised and repudiated their confirmation and denied they were ever Christians. I suppose it is one of the pitfalls of having a process of any kind that a person will either put their faith in the process itself or manage to navigate the process without any faith at all.

It’s a great puzzle to me how it seems that more people leave the evangelical churches for the older, more denominational churches, but the people who leave the older denominational churches lose their faith altogether. I’d love to have some real data here to weigh and measure, but I don’t; the anecdotes seem to suggest that, though.

But to get back to Thielen: it’s important to note that he doesn’t as far as I can tell locate salvific force in our faith, as Arminians are often accused of doing. There’s no “well were you sincere?” aspect to his formula here. And from having various Lutheran and Reformed authors caricature Arminian soteriology I would have expected exactly that.

All told this is a light little book and as such has to cut corners; I’m more curious than I was before what rank and file lifelong Methodists actually believe and practice. I prefer to believe that the Church Universal encompasses people of most if not all denominations, and there was nothing here to suggest that mainline Christians are Christians in name only.

I have a confession to make

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Sources close to me listened to an audio version of Love Wins and recommended sections of it so highly I broke down and bought the Kindle version. Of the handful of reviews/discussions I’ve read, a surprising number of them say something like “Rob Bell raises some important questions, questions mainstream conservative Christianity needs to answer.” Unfortunately I haven’t seen a list of these questions, so I’m not sure if they’ve already been answered.

Also, I recently downloaded the Kindle version of Arthur Pink’s 1918 Calvinist classic The Sovereignty of God. Well, maybe it’s a classic and maybe it’s not; and maybe it’s Calvinist and maybe it’s not. It’s been by turns a stumbling block and a stepping stone for people I think highly of for years, and I’ve been putting it off reading it.

So far I think it’s awful. Not necessarily wrong, just poorly argued and poorly reasoned. Pink’s big on straw men, excluded middles, and self-congratulation. There’s a lot of “the pulpits of today (i.e. 1918) are devoid of strong doctrine, etc.” which was undoubtedly true but irrelevant. And then of course there’s this sort of argumentation:

We do not forget the words of one long since passed away, namely, that “Denunciation is the last resort of a defeated opponent.” To dismiss this book with the contemptuous epithet — “Hyper-Calvinism!” will not be worthy of notice.

I’d pay a whole dollar to find the origin of that quote; nothing I’ve found on the Web suggests it originated with anyone other than Pink himself. I guess I’ll have to see if Pink really is a Hyper-Calvinist by any of its various definitions [link]; I do think it’s interesting to note that modern discussions of Calvinism don’t generally involve the terms “free offer of the Gospel” and “duty-faith.”

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