Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book Review: The Present Future

Reggie McNeal has written an interesting book about the challenges that the church (read Western church) must deal with as we seek to reach a post-Christian culture. His basic premise is that the church must reclaim its missionary status and wake up from its denial about the state of American culture today. He makes a strong case that within a few generations, this missional shift will become required, but that if we can get ahead of the curve, we can have a greater impact with the gospel in our generation. He doesn't really say anything new about becoming more missional in our culture, but simply rings the bell for existing Western churches that have become comfortable with their status and circumstances to rethink the Great Commission and how they would have to change to become more serious about reaching those far from Christ. Most of his questions have to do with what the "church" in America would look like if we were organized around missional involvement rather than ministry to the saints. The question everyone in the church must answer: if the church does not become more missional today, what will our culture look like in 30 years? Doing what we are doing now, but only better, will not reach my generation. McNeal's stats (from Thom Rainer's study) reinforce these ideas: % of each generation who can articulate evangelical faith in Jesus: 65% - builders, 35% - boomers, 15% - busters, 4% - bridgers. I am a church planter primarily because of my understanding of God's call on my life, but also because of the lack of missionary zeal in established churches (and my lack of patience with slow change that comes in redirecting the Titanic), and so I needed no convincing that the challenges that McNeal raises are for real. Rather, I need more insights into what a missional church really looks like. How do we structure staff and elders and ministries so that people are not required to spend all their free time at the church but being the church in the community? This is not just a question of theology, but a question of practicality. McNeal adds some thoughts about raising missionary awareness in our congregations and releasing God's people into missionary service, but as I'm sure he has seen few churches doing this well, he adds few details. I appreciated that his book is not about solutions, but really about raising questions - and from that angle, he is completely successful. He gave me some great thoughts in helping to explain my own zeal for the missional church to others in the church.


Anonymous said...

"if the church does not become more missional today, what will our culture look like in 30 years?"
Are Christians responsible for the culture of the country in which they live? Where in scripture are we given that responsibility? Instead, individual bodies of believers are supposed to keep themselves pure of people who live in sin but claim the name of Christ.

1 Cor 5
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves

"lack of missionary zeal in established churches"
Folks in megachurches aren't even Christians themselves. Look at Barna's research...most people who profess faith don't even begin to think or act like they are regenerate. You can go on calling them Christians, but don't be surprised when they don't act like Christians and share their faith. Matt 5: "nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket"

In 'established' churches, hell is rarely mentioned, and sin is presented as a personal shortcoming, not breaking God's law. Instead of idolatry and worldliness, extra-biblical, politically correct terms such as 'losing' and 'abandoning' our 'identity in Christ' or 'finding our identity' in things other than Christ. The bible warns such people, "Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God" and, "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." People who think of ungodly behavior in terms of sin and idolatry tend to have more zeal to evangelize than those who think in psychological terms. What does Jesus warn about in the parable of the sower? The gospel is not fruitful in the life of the one who is concerned with "the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches" and that person goes to hell. People who have repented of idolatry are much more likely to have a desire to share their faith than people who have stopped 'finding their identity in other things.' The former person realizes he has been turned from gravely offending a holy God, while the latter thinks he has merely found a better place from which to derive self esteem. Who is going to be more motivated to share his faith?

"How do we structure staff and elders and ministries so that people are not required to spend all their free time at the church but being the church in the community?"

Do you think people feel more than a little obliged to spend time at the church building (or campus) because they went to all the trouble of spending millions to build and staff it? You said it yourself, "Doing what we are doing now, but only better, will not reach my generation." Or any generation, for that matter (see Barna). Building huge auditoriums and classrooms teaches people that the institution is the most important thing, and that they ought to show up and take advantage of all the things happening there. Actions speak louder than words. Of course all the programs are advertised to be there to equip the believer in order to go out into the world and fulfill the great commission, but according to your post that doesn't seem to be happening much. Maybe the whole market-segmented, 'relevant', 'contemporary', 'we've got a progam for everything' mega-church is less effective than the sum of it's parts? These are more than academic questions, as the following passage points out: one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw-- each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss...
--1 Corinthians 3

Keith Ferguson said...

Thanks for the feedback - I love the discussion (as it helps me clarify my own thoughts). I don't normally respond to anonymous comments, but hopefully, you will leave your name on future posts.

About being responsible for culture, I did not mean it in a sense of saying we are responsible for what secular culture looks like, but responsible for how we take the gospel to every person in culture. I was referring to how few people in culture will be Christ-followers if we do not reclaim our missional focus.

About people in megachurches, I think your blanket statement about few people in them being Christians is hard to support & a bit of a hyperbole. About churches being centered around buildings in our culture, I agree that leaders struggle with helping people understand that the building is not the church, but that they are the church. This simple shift in ecclesiology is significant to how we operate in the world (moving from inviting people to church (meaning our building) to faith in Christ (and joining the mission of the church, meaning the people).

Anonymous said...

"leaders struggle with helping people understand that the building is not the church"

Consider the irony of this statement when it's the leadership that comes up with idea of building bigger and bigger buildings. Actions speak louder than words. What if a dad told his family, "you are my priority" and then spent 60 hours a week at the office and weeks away at a time on business trips? In his mind, the dad is thinking, "I'll work hard so I can give my kids a nice house, yard and send them to the best private school in the city." The wife and kids are thinking, "Huh? He says he cares, but it sure doesn't seem like it." His actions, even though motivated with concern, contradict his words. Same way with a big church: "Let's reach Austin for Christ by building a huge campus with a massive auditorium. It's going to take years and cost millions of dollars. But after we build it, just remember, it's not about the building." Just something to think about.

More important than buildings, though, is the message. Listen to these sermons by Piper on battling unbelief, and contrast that with the concept of 'abandoning your identity'. You'll notice that he uses biblical words such as 'idolatry' and 'sin' and 'hell' as opposed to manufactured words like 'identity'. Why use a manufactured term to describe something in the spiritual realm when God gives us plenty of biblical terms to use?

Piper also has good stuff on missions.

Keith Ferguson said...

I'm not saying there's no use for a building - we have to have a place to minister to people even if we rent something that we are going to use. All I'm saying is that people have to understand that while the building is important for the sake of corporate worship and equipping of the saints, the building is not the church, but rather a location where the church meets together to worship. I think HCBC has done a great job in helping our members understand this through evangelism equipping, small group ministry that meets off campus, and missional ministries like Great Adventure in the summer (which takes place in the community). The challenge will continue in everyone's church to communicate this reality - even Piper's church, because they continue to meet in a building as well. I've read most of what Piper has written and listened to many of his sermons. His work is thoroughly biblical and thoughtful - I appreciate his ideas.

As far as using non-biblical language (identity) to describe a theological concept - the Trinity is a good example where we all agree it can be done. The Bible has much to say about our true source of identity as Christians, and we speak to those issues. In fact, Piper has a sermon on Christian identity here:

And you continue to throw out the fact that we are afraid to use words like "sin" and "hell" and "idolatry" when we are not. These are intensely biblical issues and will be spoken of frequently when they appear in the text.

Thanks for the interaction - I'm done with the dialogue from here on. Blessings!

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying you're scared of anything. I'm just saying that in preaching and teaching, you need to keep in mind that your job is to present people with the word of God, not interpretive paraphrases. The book of Ephesians doesn't use the word identity', and neither does the rest of the new testament scriptures. That is why Piper's sermon about Christian identity doesn't label it as a thing that a Christian needs to discover, or that a Christian can lose or abandon. He does not say that a Christian can have his identity stolen from him, and he does not make 'identity' a driver of godly behavior. His sermon is very different from yours. He just used 'identity' as a heading under which to list things that a Christian is. The book of Ephesians also does not say that a Christian can forget who he is and live as if his identity were not that of a Christian. As a preacher of the word, you've got to ask yourself why you're using extra-biblical terminology. Are you closer to the text when you have to preach through it using a manufactured term?

The theological word 'trinity' is an illustration of what I am talking about. We use that theological term 'Trinity' because God didn't give us a word to describe the relationship between himself, the Son, and the Spirit. It is carefully derived word which has been directly derived from clear texts of scripture and has been defended that way over the centuries by theologians from all over the world. The word 'identity', however, does not pass this test. There are no verses - particularly in the book of Ephesians - which state that Christians must first discover their identity in order to grow and that even if they do, they can lose or abandon it and act as if they had never found it. Such 'cause/effect' languange is completely absent from the book of Ephesians. Where did you come up with it? In what verse does Paul warn the Ephesians that they could 'lose' what they have 'found'? He doesn't talk about losing anything, but that is a key point in your sermon.

Here are some quotes from your sermon to show you what I'm talking about:

"It would be even sadder if we spend six weeks finding our identity in Jesus Christ only to lose it the next six weeks. To spend time talking about who we are in Jesus Christ and what God has done in our lives and how we're supposed to live because of that and then to walk out of this place and just lose it and just leave it behind - like we didn't even find it."

"He's praying that this identity that he's described in Jesus Christ would take hold in their hearts and wouldn't be lost. This morning we want to look at what it looks like to protect our identity. Not just to find it, but once we've found it, how do we protect it. How do we keep it?"

"...if we do not cling to Jesus Christ as our model we will abandon our identity for other things."

"If we learn all that we're going to learn about identity, and yet we don't have a growing relationship with God, we will lose what we found."

"If we want to keep our identity in Jesus Christ we have to maintain and grow in our intimacy with God."

Where in the text does Paul give these warnings? Paul does indeed list many blessings of being in Christ, but where does he warn his readers that they could "leave it behind"? What exactly do you mean when you say a Christian can abandon his identity? It's impossible to understand what you are saying because 'identity' is not a biblically defined word. So now, as a listener, I'm in a bind. My pastor has told me that I must protect my identity or else I will abandon it and find it in other things, but I can't
really know what an identity is because that word is not used in scripture. I can't know what "finding my identity in other things" is, because that phrase is not used in scripture. On the other hand, the term "Trinity", can be referenced in any reliable
theological dictionary or systematic theology.

So what does "abandon our identity" mean? Is it an issue of justification or sanctification? Does it mean that saved people can become lost by forgetting who they are? Or does that mean that saved people can forget all the benefits of being in Christ, and abandon all regenerate thoughts and behaviors?

If a person listening to your sermon wants to be study the biblical doctrine of discovering identity, where in the bible can they go to study passages that deal specifically with a believer and his identity? You raised very important questions, such as: How does a believer find his identity? How does a believer protect his identity? How does a believer lose his identity? If you would have used biblical terminology like sin, sanctification, grow/growth, idolatry & idols, etc., a person could go back to the bible and study those topics for themselves. Instead, manufactured terminology such as "find your identity" and "abandon your identity", has the side effect of putting yourself between your hearer and the actual words of scripture. As a bible teacher, you should want God's words filling the minds of your listeners, not your own.

Think about how unclear the "abandoning or losing your identity" word picture actually is. You said we need to find our identity and makes sure we don't lose it. However, identity is the one thing about yourself that you cannot change. You can certainly deny your identity or run from your identity, but you can't "lose" your identity. If someone steals your private info and opens up a credit card in your name (stealing your identity), that doesn't mean that you are going to suddenly lose your memory and start acting like another person. Identity theft is when someone steals your credentials and is pretending to be you in front of other people. If I forget who I am and start acting like someone else, we call that 'amnesia', not 'identity theft.' In the story you told at the beginning of the sermon, where you lost your wedding ring-- did that make you forget you were married? Did you all of a sudden start asking other women out on dates, just because you didn't have a ring on your finger? No. Your identity remained constant, even though you weren't displaying it at the time. And your love for your wife motivated you to regain
your outward symbol of your inward identity.

"The question is will we submit to the Holy Spirit's work in our lives so that we can be strengthened and empowered by him or will we walk away from what the Spirit's doing and follow our own path?"

You say that a Christian can 'walk away' from the Holy Spirit's work. Does the text say this? What exegetical support do you have for making that claim from this text? Where does Paul express that concern in the whole book of Ephesians? Again, you've got words and concepts which aren't found in the text. You're raising a question not raised by the text, and is not answered by the text. Something is wrong exegetically.

"What Paul is saying is my prayer for you is that you don't lose it." (no he's not saying this -- he never says you can lose it).

So the message of your sermon was: God gave you an identity which you must discover, but you can walk away from it. God is now depending on you to protect it using the steps listed in the book of Ephesians. The question is: are the ideas you cited raised, defined and explained directly from the text? When you read the first three chapters of the book, do you see Paul saying that we must discover things and that we must take certain steps or that we could abandon them and walk away as if we had never found them?

All this is to say that I do not think you are afraid of anything, but that you could gain much in biblical accuracy by staying closer to the text and making sure that you are biblically supporting all of the your points of doctrine with concrete exegetical
underpinnings. If you want to say that regenerate children of God can drift away from Christ and live as if they had never known him, then you must use different texts than the book of Ephesians. It's all about being rigorous with what you say as a teacher. It's incredibly important. People can take word pictures in countless different ways, even if you didn't intend for it to happen. Prof. Hendricks used to say, "If there's a mist in the pulpit, there's a fog in the pew."

Keith Ferguson said...

Now I understand that it is my second sermon you have problems with - thanks for clarifying the issue.

By "losing your identity" I meant forgetting who we are in Christ - this is clearly the point that Paul is making in Ephesians 1-3...that understanding our identity in Jesus Christ as believers impacts the way we live (Ephesians 4-6). Why would Paul write these three chapters to a church explaining who they are in Christ? Because it is possible to believe in Jesus as your Savior and not understand your new identity is found securely in Him. I was not talking about losing our salvation, and everyone who gave me feedback from the sermon understood this - they knew that I meant we could believe our identity comes from other sources than Christ even as believers. This is why we called the whole series, protect your identity. I do not believe that we can lose our position in Christ once we have put our faith in Him - there is no "mist in the pulpit," but I do believe that many Christians look to places other than Christ for their significance and security and yes, identity. I hope that people were encouraged by the sermon to not misplace their identity in sources other than Christ - the very point that I believe Paul is making in Ephesians 1-3.

Now I'm really done. :) Thanks for the pointers! Blessings...