Posts Tagged ‘Calvary Chapel’

listening to Alistair Begg and wondering what he means

July 27, 2011 8 comments

When I attended a Calvary Chapel I was always sort of perplexed by the tacit approval John MacArthur enjoyed in Calvary circles. His Reformed positions and his affirmation of some kind of Lordship Salvation put him at odds with a couple of Calvary distinctives. He was also one of the voices on KNKT who couldn’t seem to get through a broadcast without raising his voice. In retrospect I’m inclined to believe that for whatever reason there’s a designated slot or two for angry Calvinists on KNKT, and at the time MacArthur filled that position.

That people who listened to Calvary radio heard MacArthur had a couple of results. One was that people who left Calvary looking for something more left-brain tended to move in a Reformed direction. Another was that MacArthur Study Bibles proliferated with predictable results. I once attended a Bible study where the speaker read a passage of Scripture and asked what was intended to be a thought-provoking question (I think it was one of those “why did Jesus do X?” questions) and someone helpfully piped up with “Well John MacArthur says…”

This is of course one of the difficulties of study Bibles in conservative theological circles generally. They tend to foster the attitude that because we believe the Bible we believe that everything on the pages of the one we hold in our hands is equally trustworthy. The whole experience led me to be suspicious of anyone who wrote (or edited) their own study Bible. And of course to make distinctions between men who suggest that what they personally believe and teach is the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints while at the same time writing new books that explain that faith rather than recommending books someone else wrote that may well do the same thing better. But I digress.

Listening to Calvary radio again (this time on KLHT) I was surprised to hear Alistair Begg partly filling the John MacArthur slot. His Calvinist leanings aren’t as prominent, but he’s still inexplicably angry about something. Or maybe he just sounds that way every time I listen to him. I don’t know.

What struck me while listening to Begg over the course of several days was that his treatment of a text tends to follow a fairly predictable pattern: he reads the text, he explains a couple of key words in the original languages, and he offers up a bland cliche. There may be some additional material on the way to the third step: when I was listening to him he spent a fair amount of time on a story about attempting to ride an old horse named George. But without fail his treatment of the text ended in a cliche as surely and as finally as the Jordan River ends in the Dead Sea.

There are several possible reasons why he would proceed this way, and not all of them reflect badly on him. It could be that he’s struggling to be faithful to the text and at the same time attempting to say something accessible to his audience. He may or may not have been instructed in seminary to preach at a seventh-grade level. It could be that he’s very much in touch with what Paul meant in the original Greek, but entirely out of touch with his congregation, and preaching to an imaginary audience. Preaching is hard work; the bubble around the pulpit is a scary place; etc. But it may also be that he’s speaking out of his depth and is dealing entirely with theoretical knowledge. And having seen this sort of thing before, even or especially from powerful speakers who are careful students of Scripture, I’m inclined to wonder if that isn’t the case.

I don’t necessarily have a recommendation here. We apparently need professional pastors; the Bible is a difficult book; there is more in it than a person can experience and understand. And the underlying problem, that we want a relationship with God but instead settle for a relationship with a Book, is a bigger problem than having to sit through the occasional cliche.



the gifts passages as pastoral prism

I’m going to make a hash of this, but I’m going to give it a try anyway.

As I mentioned recently, I got to spend a big chunk of a week on the south end of Maui listening to a Calvary Chapel radio station (KLHT in Honolulu). One of the great things about listening to a Calvary station all day long is that because Calvary has some sort of institutional commitment to teaching through the entire Bible not every sermon will be “another great sermon from Romans 8;” there’s a chance you’ll hear someone try to make sense of Leviticus or Lamentations. I actually heard two different pastors working on different parts of the Mosaic Law, with varying success.

The downside, of course, is that you may hear the text mishandled.

I heard so many sermons that I can’t say who the pastor was, and that’s my shortcoming, because I wish I had the audio to double-check my impressions. Instead I just had my traveling companion’s assessment of what I’m about to relay to you. Pray forgive me.

The source text was one of the Pauline passages on spiritual gifts (so it would have had to have been in Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians [link]) and the speaker was contrasting among other things between “teaching” and “helps,” so probably not Ephesians. And I noticed that when he talked about gifts he considered himself to have, or gifts he considered the domain of the pastoral office (teaching, exhorting, leading, administration) his illustrations were long and lush, and revolved around himself or another pastor he personally knew. When he talked about the other gifts (prophecy, miracles, tongues, serving, giving, mercy, helps) the illustrations were short, to the point, underimagined, and in the case of the more supernatural gifts, historical. Oh and: the use of the gifts in the latter category were without fail for the benefit not of the people in the local church, nor for the people in the surrounding community, but for the organization of the church itself. Especially the ones that could be interpreted to involve giving money.

Let me be clear: I understand the risks involved with opening up a discussion on spiritual gifts, inviting people in the pews to express themselves, etc. I understand that many churches have histories rife with chaos surrounding strong-willed people who decided they had a spiritual gift and took an opportunity to make a power play on that basis. And I understand the fact that Calvary, especially given its organizational distinctives and folk tales of elders and carpets is especially likely to produce pastors who see themselves has being the only people in the local church with a worthwhile spiritual gift.

But I might humbly suggest that the way Paul the Apostle presents gifts functioning within the church, a pastor who is most threatened by other people’s gifts, least appreciative of them, and least experienced with successful churches with gifts being expressed somewhere other than the pulpit, that pastor should be watched most carefully when he handles a text like this.

I wish I could say “if your pastor says X you need to leave” but of course very little is ever that clear cut. But I think I would say something along the lines of “if your pastor thinks he’s the only one with a spiritual gift, consider yourself warned.”

“Final Count of the Collision Between Us and the Damned”

As I have mentioned before, I used to be involved in a Calvary Chapel here in Santa Fe, and noticed that when people left Calvary Chapel, but not the area, they tended to either go to a more charismatic church or to one with a Reformed theology. One of my charges in the Bible study I was teaching at the time was part of a group that was entertaining the idea of leaving Calvary for a nascent Orthodox Presbyterian Church group that at the time wasn’t actually a church, but a loosely-organized group of Bible studies. She asked me to visit an OPC Bible study with her and check it out.

The host’s text for the evening was a chapter in Malachi; I honestly don’t remember which one, and with good reason. He started his teaching for the evening by stating

The Bible is the story of the conflict between the elect and the damned.

And he proceeded to start at Genesis and cast all of Biblical history up to the time of the minor Old Testament prophet Malachi in these terms, identifying who were the elect (hint: Israel, mostly), who were the damned, and what was the conflict. About forty minutes later he arrived at Malachi, where if I remember correctly he waxed poetic on the subject of the struggle between the elect and the damned within the nation of Israel itself.

Fairly or otherwise this has since colored my impression of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Which brings me to a recent blog post [link] by Darryl G. Hart on the subject, more or less, of the objective and subjective elements in public worship. Here’s the pull quote:

The Old Life answer is – surprise – take the objective highway to true religion: worshipers really should have their private piety conform more to public worship. They should let the nature and cadence of prayers, the exposition of Scripture, and the idiom and content of hymns (preferably psalms) inform the way they express their own devotion, even in the hot and congested confines of their prayer closet.

But I would recommend reading the whole thing, not just because it’s a terrible piece of argumentation, but also because it exemplifies so much of what is wrong with what is broadly called “the Worship Wars.”

First of all Hart sets up a straw man advocating some sort of emotional or experiential corporate worship. Then he appeals to his reader’s supposed shared belief that worshipers have left Reformed churches because they share the opinions of his straw man. Then he proposes the remedy summarized in the quote above. It’s awful and I’m embarrassed for him.

I don’t understand the tendency among apparently otherwise fine minds to resort to this sort of argumentation. I’m given to wonder if Hart actually knows anyone who has left a Reformed church. And, more importantly, I wonder if he really can’t tell the difference between concepts like “shared” or “traditional” and “objective.” Public worship isn’t objective; it’s merely public.

There is some validity in Hart’s underlying beef with the democratization of (American) Christianity, but I’m not sure that he hasn’t made the mistake of locating the remedy in something that is merely old rather than true.

Mars Hill Church and the 80/20 Rule

February 26, 2011 5 comments

Mars Hill Church released its Fiscal Year 2010 Annual Report back on February 16 [link]; I’ve cached a copy [PDF] and recommend reading it. Also, I need to get back to it to refine some wild guesses I made about Mars Hill Albuquerque salaries.

This is an annual report, and as such is a mix of numbers and stories. Most annual reports are a mix of real information and public relations, meant to convey a sense of both transparency and enthusiasm. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other. There is no Securities and Exchange Commission monitoring these reports and making minimal guarantees under threat of force the way there would be for a for-profit company. Churches especially aren’t obligated by the government to be accountable for every dollar they touch, etc.

All that being said the Mars Hill Annual Report makes for an interesting read; it makes clear what Mars Hill considers its distinctives (pages 14-15) and what distinguishes them from e.g. Calvary Chapel or Sovereign Grace Ministries or any other paradenominational organization.

One of the nuggets is on page 54-55 under the heading “Mars Hill Church Attendees by Annual Giving Range,” where there’s a pie chart with slices representing people who attend Mars Hill campus churches and and their giving levels: 21% give $0, 43% give $1-500, 15% give $501-1500, 11% give $1501-4000, and 10% give >$4000.  This general pattern is familiar among churches: a small number of people give most of the money, most people give little or nothing, and there’s a third group in the middle that’s hard to describe.

Here’s how the annual report describes giving overall:

The top 21 percent of givers made up 86 percent of all of the 2010 donations. Among those who contributed nothing, some were non-Christians or visitors. As long as Mars Hill continues to grow at the present rate, these ratios will likely remain static as new attendees join while present attendees mature spiritually. The goal is not that 100 percent of attendees would give over $4,000, but that all Christians would learn to give regularly, generously, and sacrificially, each according to their means. Because giving is an act of worship and love for Jesus, we don’t expect non-Christians to give. Therefore, since we want non-Christians to continue coming to Mars Hill Church, there should always be some $0 givers. Christians who give $0 may need to repent, but non-Christians who give $0 should feel welcome as guests.

Yeah there’s a fair amount of Christianese here, but basically they’re saying that their donors more or less follow the 80/20 rule [link], which is fairly typical for churches generally. They don’t touch the question of tithing (the word “tithe” doesn’t appear in the report), so there’s no discussion of giving as a percentage of income. I am guessing this is because they were able to calculate this number (how they estimated donor numbers for cash donations I can’t imagine), whereas they would need a lot of personal data to calculate tithing rates accurately.

I don’t know why the Pareto number describes above tends to settle where it does, nor do I know how one would go about shifting it. Ideally a church would consist of believers who are giving (somewhere) at a sacrificial level; I’m not sure that money should all always go to their local church. It’s not reasonable to expect the Pareto number to be 50 (50% of the people giving 50% of the money) since almost any church has rich people and poor people. Having the donations concentrated in the hands of a relative few (where a power clique sponsors most of the church’s activities) tends to concentrate power in a handful of pews; I’m not sure what happens on the other end of the spectrum. I’ve never seen it.

“Why we left Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa”

February 14, 2011 4 comments

So nearly a month ago Elizabeth Esther posted an article at her blog about why she (and her husband and their five children) left Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa (CCCM) [link]; I picked it up at Alex Grenier’s blog, where there’s a separate, equally lively discussion in the comments [link]. Here are the main points:

  1. Calvary Chapel is Chuck Smith’s church association; CCCM is his church
  2. Children were not welcome in the sanctuary; the author understands this to mean that children made noise, and this interfered with the live taping of Chuck Smith’s sermons
  3. Chuck takes swipes at other Christian groups (some denominations, some not). The author calls this elitist; I’d be inclined to call it adversarial
  4. CCCM took shape in the 1960s and 1970s and considers that its golden age
  5. CCCM is preoccupied with Dispensationalist eschatology

At a glance these all look like elements of “first generation syndrome:” a great thing happened once upon a time, but now it’s a generation later and yesterday’s radicals have become today’s conservatives. This is a recurring problem, and I’m not sure it has a simple, workable answer. The primitive Baptist groups in my background have a tendency to want to return to the Early Church but have no plan for getting there; Lutherans refer to “historical Christianity” with the unspoken modifiers “circa 1517” and “in Germany;” I’ve even heard Mormons wax nostalgic for Nauvoo.

Even points 3 and 5 above sound like aspects of this problem: #3 because while in the Sixties and Seventies Calvary Chapel primarily grew by converting non-Christians, the ones I’ve personally seen were full of people like me (and like Elizabeth Esther) retreads from more conservative/fundamentalist/authoritarian/charismatic/whatever groups. And of course #5 is a way of avoiding the biggest problem CCCM is facing: someday Chuck Smith is going to die and all hell is going to break loose there and across the Calvary Chapel movement as some number of outstanding issues have to be dealt with. I really do wish the folks at Calvary Chapel well in sorting all this out; it’s very difficult to make the transition from the founding leader to his successor(s), and not many groups get there without some bloodletting.

All this being said, it’s a rare organization that can and does take precautions against getting set in its ways, enshrining personal habits as distinctives, etc. I’m not sure I could name even one.

Mars Hill Albuquerque

January 4, 2011 1 comment

Back on December 5 I visited Mars Hill Albuquerque [link] with my wife and baby; we needed to be in town for a Christmas social function and my wife was indulgent enough to let me visit the Lobo Theater in Nob Hill for church followed by lunch at a surprisingly good Vietnamese place before we went off to meet our social obligations.

The audio from the sermon we heard is available [link]. Please don’t just take my word for what was said and how it was said; give the sermon a listen yourself and make up your own mind.

Today’s post is mostly background, about why you or I should care about Mars Hill Albuquerque. Or rather, why you should care about a church from Seattle having a campus/church plant in Albuquerque. And to a first approximation that comes down to two words: Mark Driscoll.

I’ve said elsewhere that I don’t understand what’s so special about the Mars Hill phenomenon; I don’t understand why anybody is paying any special attention to Mark Driscoll. My best analysis as of two months ago was that the Mars Hill equation might go like this:

Mars Hill = Calvary Chapel – The Sixties + The Nineties + Reformed Theology

I might even be tempted to add in something about the personalities of Chuck Smith (Calvary Chapel) and Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill) because while Calvary Chapel was initially the home of an existing movement of sorts (The Jesus People), as far as I can tell nothing similar has happened in Seattle. And of course because so much of the conversation about Mars Hill in the last five or so years kind of starts and ends with Driscoll.

And beyond that there’s not much: I would have said essentially that Mars Hill is the beginning of another non-denomination like Calvary Chapel, using a lot of the usual church growth/megachurch approach to starting and building churches (a pastor with a strong personality; strong brand; de-emphasis of traditional denominational distinctives; personalities and language familiar to anyone with a background in business/marketing; etc.) but with a Reformed twist. Because to be fair when I’ve seen the obvious question asked: “what’s the difference between e.g. a Purpose-Driven Church and an A29 Church?” the answer I’ve seen is, essentially “because we’ve got Reformed Theology and they’re something else/less/deviant/apostate/etc.”

On further reflection the truth as best I’ve been able to discern it is a bit more complicated. And we’ll pick that up in the next post.

new James White videos

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Last week I posted links and some comments regarding James White’s debate at Calvary Santa Fe with Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis regarding predestination. White has posted video of just the cross-examination from this debate:

I don’t know why he’s just posted the cross-examination, and I don’t know why he’s titled it “Free Will?” when the original title of the debate was “Predestination” [link]. As I mentioned in my earlier post I think the debate was close but that Sungenis won narrowly, even though I’m more sympathetic to White’s position and thought he had a stronger opening argument.

The platform at Calvary Santa Fe looks nice in this video, though, doesn’t it? See what I meant when I said the place was well-lit? The floods visible in the upper part of the frame are hidden from most seats in the sanctuary. Also, that cross is what’s left from the more complicated cross-fish-dove logo [link] that replaced the older, simpler Calvary Chapel dove logo a few years ago. I’m sure there’s some deep symbolism in the church’s decision to remove part of the old logo and leave part, but I’m not going to dare to guess what it signifies.

Also, White has released a video commenting on Ergun Caner’s appearance in Bristol (and I suppose, other things; I haven’t watched the whole thing):

Here’s the description, from the video page:

A mountain of factual information has been produced demonstrating Ergun Caner has engaged in gross dishonesty in his self-promoting claims. Yet, now that he has “cover” from the likes of Norman Geisler, Caner is back to his old ways, mocking his critics and spinning a tale.

Can you see what’s wrong with that first sentence? That’s right! There are two nouns in that sentence (“mountain,” “Ergun Caner”) that, since they lack modifiers, look totally naked and out of place. Etc.