Archive for the ‘Church Visits’ Category

Mitt Romney, graduation speaker

May 24, 2012 1 comment

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.


Calvary Santa Fe

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

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

  • Mormons
  • Muslims
  • 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.


Los Alamos Christian Fellowship

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

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.


Categories: Church Visits

City of Faith Christian Fellowship

October 26, 2011 Leave a comment

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 Community Church, Lynchburg, VA

October 21, 2011 1 comment

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.


City of Faith Christian Fellowship

October 11, 2011 Leave a comment

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.]

Scottsdale Bible Church

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.