Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
Sunday, 31 March 2019
A Career Affected
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
One of the blessings of being older is that you can reflect on the past. A little child can only look forward. As an older one reflects, certain providential acts of God become clear. And it is appropriate that we might share those in praise of Him.
The fact is that I grew up in a musical family. We were not “Julliard” musicians, but we sang and played instruments in our community where we grew up. My parents reported that I sang my first solo in church when I was three or four (I don’t remember it, so I have to believe them.). I do remember singing in the church choir as soon as they would let me join; that was probably in the seventh grade when I sang tenor and then soon switched to bass.
In school there was the regular vocal music class for everyone, and I began to play the cornet in the fifth grade and played in the band ever after. I did not join any choirs there until my senior year in high school. Then I sang in the chorus and in two smaller groups, a men’s group of sixteen, and a mixed chorus of sixteen called “Starlighters.” The Starlighters were occasionally asked to sing at various functions around town. These groups were pure enjoyment for me. I wanted to take voice lessons, but unfortunately our teacher would only teach those he chose, and he only chose one person from each voice group. I was not one of those.
Also, during the high school years, besides singing with my family, another youth about my age, Jim, and I sang duets in church. We also sang at multi-church events such as an annual songfest and an annual Sunday School convention. We were known in the area for our singing. On one occasion we even drove through the night from Montana to Minnesota so that we might sing at a church conference there! Rehearsals with Jim were always great fun, and we cherished the opportunities to sing for others.
The time came when I began four years of study at Grace Bible Institute in Omaha, Nebraska. Upon arrival I joined the band and played in it all four years. I also thought I would try out for the chorale which was the elite singing group performing on campus and on tours.
Parts of the tryout are not clear to me at this stage. We probably had to sing something alone, or match pitches and give evidence of a certain range. But part of it definitely was singing in a small group to show how one could sing a part. So I went through the test and did not pass, even though I did not think the test difficult. I was perhaps slightly disappointed, but I was naive and absolutely unfamiliar with the college scene. I concluded that the chorale was so elite that even with my experience I just did not measure up. Apparently the school had many very outstanding singers who made up that group. I would be content expressing my music in band and in congregational singing wherever that might happen.
Now we segue to a male quartet, The King’s Men, that sang and traveled for Grace Bible Institute. The current individuals in that quartet were only three since their bass had not returned in 1965. They replaced the missing individual with another bass and began their year. For some reason this bass did not work out, and they were looking for a solution.
So some weeks after the fall semester had begun, a student named Norm contacted me. He had grown up in an area of Montana close to where I had been, and we knew each other. He was the second tenor in that quartet. He asked me whether I would be willing to try out for that bass position. How quickly can I say “Yes!”? So I did try out, and they said I sounded very much like the bass they had lost. I was in! So I began to practice with them, learn the songs, and travel on weekends and the following summer. That was a very special time in my life.
Shortly after I was established in the quartet, the chorale director contacted me and asked whether I would now join the chorale after all. He did this at least partially because he liked to have the quartet available to sing a selection during the chorale concerts--the other three quartet members were part of the chorale. I don’t know if any other motive was involved. But at that point I could not accept. My schedule was set, and it was impossible to make chorale a part of it. I have thought it ironic that I was not good enough to ‘make the cut’ in trying out for the chorale, but once I was in the quartet I was acceptable; it still does not make sense to me. Later I did sing in the chorale, but I think I sang in the chorale maybe one and one-half out of four years.
I think back on that and marvel at the role Norm played in shaping my life. Music has always been an accompaniment (to coin a phrase from the musical vocabulary) for me even though my source of income has been mostly otherwise. I have been able to sing in a variety of groups large and small, direct some choirs, obtain a master’s degree in music, work as a piano technician, and today sing in a community choir of which I serve as a substitute director. Very likely most of the musical involvement, especially vocal, would not have happened had Norm not asked me that question.
Also, being in that quartet and the two quartets in following years allowed me to travel to many parts of the United States and Canada, meet many people, see many sights, eat great food, all as ‘frosting on the cake’ of ministering to people through song and sometimes in other ways. That opened up to me many vistas that had been otherwise closed. I have great appreciation for those experiences, and for me that is probably the highlight of my education at Grace Bible Institute.
Norm is not on earth anymore, but I value him greatly as I had always respected him for who he was as a person. Without knowing it, he greatly helped set the direction of my life.
I enjoy many kinds of music, but my favorite is sacred. The musical vehicle is powerful in expressing eternal truths, and to be a part of that is very satisfying. And this is all because the LORD’s lovingkindness is everlasting!
Tuesday, 5 June 2018
Philosophy of Sermonizing
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
While reading an old book (Jonathan Edwards by Clarence H. Faust, published by American Book Company in 1935), I became enamored by what one might call the philosophy of sermonizing. This topic is no doubt boring to many and yet of fundamental importance. The author in one section was discussing Edwards’ style which was not happenstance.
In reflecting on this, I suppose that several elements may come together in one’s style. One element could be current trends. Another may be one’s own personality. One's education may fit in somewhere. And still another may be one’s perception of the biblical mandate and process. Perhaps there are other elements as well. As I read someone else’s effort to describe Edwards’ style, I realized that this is something I consciously or unconsciously evaluate when I listen to another preacher. And this evaluation may play some part in my acceptance or rejection of the message.
I am not here to discuss Edwards’ philosophy of sermonizing--one can read Faust’s book to get at that. But I was thinking of my own. What is my own? Perhaps I have never organized it, but I certainly do have one. So I will attempt at least partially here to put it into words. Maybe this can be useful to someone else.
One hardly thinks about the contemporary style of preaching, simply because that is what is. At least, growing up, how could one think of an alternative? I believe that most of the preaching I heard growing up, as I did, in consistent church attendance, could be categorized as topical, at least to the extent that it was biblical. It seems a shame, but from all the years of growing up I remember only one sermon series our pastor taught, and it was on the names of God. It may have been a rich study, but I remember no details, only the fact that it was done. But I now assume that I heard topical preaching. I do not remember a preaching style which made consistent sense to me until I had already graduated from Bible college (and that could easily have been my problem alone). So that was my experience growing up; if I had known at that time that there were different styles, I probably would have said it was topical and not very impactful. Sadly much of it did not seem relevant to me.
It was not until I was in graduate school at the University of Nebraska that I attended a church whose pastor practiced expository preaching and did it well. I had admired pastors we had in the past, but I never really grasped what their task was. They seemed to be super-humans. But when I heard his Bible exposition, I thought ‘That’s something I understand and could do.’ He treated the Bible as though it was true, was the absolute authority, and could be understood; and after three years under his teaching, so did I.
It seems to me that topical preaching hinges on the cleverness of the preacher, whereas expository teaching hinges on the quality of the text, and the biblical text is the best! Of course, nothing is guaranteed in terms of the quality of the communication or the outcome, but the content of the Bible is without equal.
All this could relate to the way God made me. He made me an analytical person. I thoroughly enjoyed math in school, at least all I could get through high school, and have spent a good portion of life in music. Along with that, I enjoy inspecting something that malfunctions in some way to discover and hopeful remedy its problem. This requires attention to detail as well as logic. So when in seminary I learned to diagram the Hebrew and Greek texts, I was hooked. That gave me the confidence to learn and teach the content; I had looked at the details and could gain a fairly good idea of the meaning of the text. And when the text called us to action, I had little trouble presenting it as the imperative it was. And being God's word, all of it carries the importance of imperative.
Throughout the years of ministry I periodically returned to foundational concepts in the Bible that encouraged me to continue in the expository style, even when people tried to redirect me. I will include some of them here.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that all Scripture is useful for a believer to be complete. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus said that even the smallest letter or even part of a letter must be fulfilled; He was suggesting that close attention to the text of Scripture is warranted. The love of the psalmist for the holy writings is evident in Psalm 119, that longest chapter in the Bible. The example of teaching in the day of Nehemiah (ch. 8) certainly supports expository teaching. The place of God’s word in creating faith and stimulating sanctification also promotes attention to the text as Romans 10:14-15 and John 17:17. The first message preached on the first day of the Church’s existence also focused on the plain meaning of a passage from the Psalms (Acts 2).
All of these have impacted me. The example of someone I could understand, the kind of person God has made me, and the values and even commands I see in the Bible have formed the style I have used. That is my philosophy of sermonizing.
Sunday, 28 January 2018
Reminiscing on Grace
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
It is sad to process the closing of one’s alma mater. I now have a college degree from a school that doesn’t exist! I have memories from a school that isn’t there. Is my life fiction or reality? Maybe it is virtual reality?
I’m thinking of the closing of Grace University (as of May, 2018) in Omaha, NE, which was known as Grace Bible Institute when I attended in the 1960’s. It will have existed forty-nine years past my graduation--just a bit too early for my 50th reunion. I suppose that every person attending had positive and negative experiences there. I choose here to remember the positive, and I wish to name some individuals that have had a lasting impact on me.
I would not have sung much except that Norman Rempel, like the chief-cupbearer in Genesis 41, put in a good word for me. That made all the difference. Because of that I sang virtually from east to west coasts in the USA and parts of Canada. And I’m still singing.
Mr. Ray Lutke was a positive example and counselor to me. My discouragement was not what God intended for me, he said, and he was right.
I had not planned to go on a summer mission, even though I served on the Grace student mission board where we interviewed those who were. But I believe it was Bob Brenneman who asked me late in the process whether I would consider going to Holland. My answer was “yes,” and the summer of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with primarily young people was superlative.
Mr. Don Tschetter while traveling with our music group on a tour said something I have not forgotten. We were discussing what we needed to do in the next increment of time, and he injected, “While you are doing (whatever it was), you might also polish your shoes.” I think of him when my shoes need sprucing.
When I was president of the band, we needed a secretary to enable the meeting to progress (probably the secretary had graduated the year before). So I asked a pretty flute player to provide the service. Later when she asked to take my now empty dessert dishes from the living room to the kitchen of a faculty home, I was smitten. Ruth and I have been officially together since Jun 26 of 1971.
Mr. Robert Wenger was a careful and organized expositor of Scripture. I think he let the text speak for itself as Nehemiah 8:8. May I suggest that we need more of his kind.
I have many friends in many places because of the time spent at Grace. I think we were a quite varied bunch, and yet, when we meet somewhere as we sometimes do, we have much in common, and we just continue from where we were. I could mention others, but I must stop somewhere.
There are scenes in my memory, but they may exist only in nostalgia. The buildings don’t exist anymore. Neither does the institution. But maybe most importantly the people do, and we shall meet again.
Monday, 17 July 2017
Day of Special Thanks
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
It is appropriate today to give God thanks for a prayer He has answered. Over the past few years we have had a heightened awareness of the uncertainty of life--there are no guarantees for tomorrow. We plan, but it must always be subject to “If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (James 4:15).
So with that sense of uncertainty, I asked the Lord several years ago that, with the exception of the Rapture, Ruth and I might be able to live at least a couple years in the place we had purchased for our retirement.
Exactly two years ago today, we arrived in Sierra Vista. We are greatly enjoying life here with many friends, activities that are a blessing, and a lifestyle that is not highly stressful. This doesn’t mean our time is now over, but continuing is like ‘frosting on the cake.’ In any case, we are in our Great Shepherd’s care.
We have some health challenges and occasionally other troubles, but we have been able to cope. And tomorrow we leave on another trip, Lord willing, to spend some time with family.
Thank you, Father. We continue to be aware of Your love and goodness to us. We are content to experience Your nourishing and cherishing. But at the same time, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20)!
Wednesday, 21 December 2016
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
Lately the luxury of thinking about assembling jigsaw puzzles has been mine. For example, I placed on Facebook a request for the formula that serves to clarify exactly how many successful connections a person must make with any given puzzle in order to completely assemble it.
One’s mind can go far astray by considering that corner pieces (at least in a rectangular puzzle) typically have two straight sides that require no connection. And all the other edge pieces have one straight side. Then you can take a piece from the middle and connect it to four other pieces. Each of those four pieces will now have three sides exposed (at least where pieces are four-sided), but one needs to be careful here, because two sides may be used up by one connection. So it all becomes very confusing.
Really, the formula is quite simple. C (number of connections) = P (number of pieces) - 1. There you have it. You can check this out with a very simple puzzle of, say, nine pieces. One does need to be careful to find the exact number of pieces. Right now I am working on one whose box says 1000 pieces, but the actual number is 1026. So 1025 is the minimum number of connections that will complete the puzzle.
This particular puzzle is challenging, and I am assembling it without referring to the picture on the box. But a question came to mind: Why is it that for a period of days I can look at a group of pieces that by color will fit into the same general area and have very little success then, but another day I will approach the puzzle seeing where they fit and having great success? I have been pondering this and will offer a few suggestions.
One answer might be that the number of possibilities is dwindling. With this particular puzzle I did the edges first and then proceeded from the top down--sky, vegetation, water, etc. So by the time this difficult area became doable I had used almost half the pieces.
Another answer might be that by now I have looked at the pieces long enough, even one by one, that suddenly in my mind the picture is coming together. My brain is recognizing the familiarity of each piece.
Another answer might be that in order to assemble a puzzle, you have to have something to which you might attach something else. That something was not there earlier in the process, but now that it has been established by working down from the top, there is more of a context for the current stage which previously was not well established.
Another answer might be that the food I ate or the exercise I took predisposed me better for puzzling on that day than on other days. This may be difficult to prove (but then so are the others). Maybe a certain emotional state is better for puzzling. I don’t know, but the phenomenon is curious.
And that is it for my current state of considerations on puzzling.
Sunday, 16 October 2016
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
Throughout their lives my parents took snapshots especially of people who visited. Often these people were relatives. As technology moved ahead, my parents purchased a 35mm camera and had slides developed. When we assembled in later years, we often would get out the old pictures and reminisce. Mom died about sixteen years before Dad did, and in those years of his loneliness we would meet at his house and view slides. Occasionally we would come to a slide, and someone would say, “Who is that?” We didn’t know. Dad would say, “If Mom were here, she would know.” Much time has passed by now, and those pictures which featured people we did not know have been destroyed. It seems pointless to keep pictures of people you do not know. We have enough of our own that someday will serve the same fate.
The topic that is on my mind is one that has visited many times throughout the years. It actually fits fairly well the kind of thinking the Preacher does in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. (What a wonderful book that is! The writer wrung out of experience the truth that life without God is meaningless.) I don’t think this should be morbid; it is really a meditation on a reality of our existence and expresses the need for the future God promises those who love Him.
I worked for a number of years as a piano tuner/technician. Especially challenging to me were problems in the piano, nuisances to the piano player which she did not understand. It was a special joy to be able to diagnose and remedy the problem, and I was able to do just that on numerous occasions.
This career began with a correspondence course, but armed with only the course one does not have much more than theory. Problems which the course never anticipated can present themselves, and it then becomes the responsibility of the technician to solve them. So over a part-time career of over thirty-five years I learned and built up a store of knowledge that served me well. When I traveled to someone’s house to tune, I sometimes thought that even though I have this tool box of specialized tools and this pickup with supplies that some time or other may be needed, my most important resource is what is stored away in my head. I have thought that I wish I could pass that on to someone--the entire package. It would be advantageous to that person. But I cannot. It will die with me.
The same is true in the ministry. I have poured countless hours of time into understanding the text of the Bible in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. I have thousands of Scriptural sentences diagrammed with exegetical notes which I use over and over again. They hold much value not only in understanding the sacred text but also in living. Some have said I should publish those diagrams, and my wife has wondered what she might do with them after I leave this life (The assumption is that I will leave first, but the order doesn’t matter--if I am here last, then the problem passes on to someone else.). My answer is that all of it should be burned (I wish that were still legal.). Only I can make sense of much of my scribbling and shorthand; no one else could. And, so, again, this will all be lost with me.
So much is lost whenever someone dies.
C. S. Lewis in an essay called “The Crown and the Cross” which was included in the collection published as The Joyful Christian wrote the following in a discussion somewhat different than mine: “there is no real teaching of such truths possible and every generation starts from scratch.” It seems a shame that we all must start from scratch, but it is so. What we can pass on is really very limited. Even in the computer age, what we can individually process has a limit, and, if we do not know the basics, eventually we become stupid. That is evident in some of what occurs in society today. Are we finally now sophisticated? Have we finally conquered racism? Do we really now come together diplomatically instead of fighting wars?
So, why have we put forth all this effort? The next generation must try again, but they cannot just continue from the point at which we have left off, you see. It all seems rather futile.
Though it seems noble, my efforts cannot ultimately be for society’s improvement. Though it seems herculean, my efforts cannot ultimately be to self-propel to the point of total mastery. (There are some who think they know everything about pianos, but they don’t. The same is also true in the realm of Bible interpretation.) In the proverbial blink of an eye, life is over, and we are done.
God has made us curious creatures. God has made us creatures who fairly willingly try to fix here and there the effects of the curse (Genesis 3) throughout life. We get by that way, but eventually we wear out and go to our eternal destiny. At that point the accomplishments of this life disappear. Then the apostle’s words in Colossians 3:1-4 will become very clear:
“If therefore you rose with Christ, those things which are above continue seeking where Christ is seated on the right of God; on those things which are above continue setting your mind, not on those things which are upon the earth; for you died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life appears, then also you with Him--you shall appear in glory.”
If you read this far, you may have wondered why I entitled this essay “Total Loss.” As I thought about the impossibility of passing on knowledge and craft I was reminded of some of the earlier attempts at internal combustion engines. They were called total loss in that one had to periodically pump oil into the engine--it did not recycle. The invention of an engine that could recycle oil greatly improved the pleasure of driving or riding. And you didn’t have to buy oil almost every time you went shopping. I’ve never had the dubious pleasure of operating such a machine, and I don’t ever hope to do so. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for ruining the engine because I had forgotten to pump in a little oil at the proper time! But we are something like that.
Sunday, 28 August 2016
Effort in Perspective
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
Sometimes I daydream or night-dream about preaching again (though I am really quite happy in my current role). If it is in a substitute role, I wonder what biblical passage I should choose. There is this one, and there is that one. What do the people need? Does it matter which one I choose? Have I ever preached on a passage and afterward seen the hearers impacted the way I wished? There is a mixture of thoughts and memories that come forward out of the closets of the mind that can encourage one trip or another.
Yet the Lord has wired me a certain way. Maybe we could say that the Lord gifted me specifically. In quizzing others, it has become obvious that not everyone thinks the way I think. That’s pretty obvious in numerous ways, but what I mean is this: when I learn a new song I immediately want to share it, sing it for others. The message of the song and the beauty of the song others should experience, too, and sometimes I can make that happen.
The same is true in Bible study. Right now I am still engaged in a personal inductive study of Isaiah, and at this rate it may continue for more than another year. Detailed exposure to a single verse can excite me, and I would love to share that with others. I suppose I would like the verse to impact others as it impacts me, but regardless of whether it ever will I still have the urge to share it.
In this same connection I have wondered about the impact of prayers. For years it seemed to me that God answered my prayers for my personal needs and wants, but not so much my prayers for others. Yet I have also seen some prayers answered in the lives of others, some strikingly so after many years of praying. And that encourages me. But God’s word encourages me even more; Jesus was the greatest promoter of prayer.
Some requests have been granted in the way I hoped. Some of have been answered in a way shockingly different than I expected. Others seem to be on hold.
Actually, I have to believe, from what Jesus said about prayer, that more of my prayers have been answered than I now know. Some of the answers I have seen. Some of the answers I may never see, but the fact of asking was pleasing to the Father. And some of my requests will be taken into account when pouring out the judgments promised in Revelation, even if I had hoped for an answer of grace sooner rather than of judgment later.
Doing is important. In fact, Jesus said that doing the Father’s will was critical. And it has been revealed to all, even written. But sometimes there is nothing you can do, and, I suppose, especially in a time like that a person turns to God in prayer.
The Bible does mention waiting for God. Life often involves waiting for Him. I suspect prayer is often waiting for Him. Just waiting, to see what He will do. Not demanding, just waiting.
Just a few ramblings while I wait...
Sunday, 19 June 2016
Using the Other Pattern
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
I’ve been observing something beautiful on the cruise ship. I am curiously not referring to the scenery we have been enjoying nor the entertainment on the ship itself. It rather involves people.
There is a family on board which I observe to consist of at least the set of parents, a daughter, and a grandmother. Perhaps also a grandfather, but I’m not sure. It is a family which has learned to love in a way most people hope they do not have to.
The daughter is likely in her teens, though it is difficult to tell. She can walk like others do and use her hands. She cannot talk, although at times she does a sort of singing. She does not feed herself, but she eats when her family feeds her, until she wants no more (she knows when that is). She attends a lecture or a concert, but she seems more interested in people coming and going than in what is happening on stage.
One wonders about people like her in the grand scheme of things, in the scheme of God and life and family and society and government.
We had a niece on my wife’s side who was born with what was probably a brain deficiency, though I don’t remember the condition’s name. She was about seven years old when she died. She never walked or spoke or anything else seven-year-olds do, but she was their size.
I had a cousin who was born with another kind of brain deficiency. He never grew to full size, but participated reasonably well on some level in life’s activities. If I remember correctly, he lived to something like fifty years of age.
One wonders about people like these. What is their place?
And as I thought about this, I realized that I had changed. I remembered back to the time when our four children were born (one at a time, of course). We had been informed about some of the many conditions they could have at birth. We were thankful that having been born they were discovered to be “normal.” (I remember counting to see whether they each had ten fingers and ten toes.)
I look at that conclusion now and consider it somewhat cruel or at least crass. We have our ideas of what “normal” is, but to deviate from that measurement is not necessarily to be robbed of value. We think being born “normal” is a relief, but it may make certain kinds of desirable growth more unlikely.
Our cruise ship family did not seem to be embarrassed about their daughter/granddaughter. I was glad to see that. They took her along wherever they went. They fed her as needed. They took care of her in such a way that she was attractive to behold. And on some level she appeared to be enjoying the cruise even though she will never in this life tell someone about it.
This daughter, too, exists for God’s glory. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (NIV).” Again, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully make; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Ps. 139:13-14).
Each of us is tested in certain ways, but not always just like someone else is tested. We are summoned to do the will of God. Some make excuses or even blame God and lash out at Him because of the circumstances they face. But it is exactly in my circumstances of life that I need to do His will. It is not an impossible assignment; there is divine help for those who accept the challenge. And some have been beautiful examples.
And in heaven there is the promise of wholeness as defined by Jesus, for all who are there, including me!
Saturday, 7 May 2016
Just Alongside Instead
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
Having become as cynical as I am about people, I have, nevertheless, been shocked at least three times. One of those shocks took place as I met with a group of church people and asked which was more important, church or parachurch. The answer was parachurch. When I explained that the Church is an institution of God, their answer was still the same.
Now I suppose that most individuals who found a parachurch ministry will say they were so led by God. I have no basis upon which to deny their claim, but I will any day prefer an institution of God so defined by the Bible over an institution defined by man’s extrabiblical experience. I trust the Bible, God’s Word, while I suspect the claims of people.
By now some of you may be wondering what a parachurch is. In some circles that nomenclature is common, but not so much elsewhere. “Para” is a preposition in Greek which can have several meanings but commonly has a meaning like “beside.” So parachurch is a ministry or organization which exists alongside the Church. It is not the Church, but it usually focuses on some aspect of ministry. It can be represented by various religious schools, missions, groups formed to promote a biblical value, evangelistic groups assembled around a sport or other interest, groups designed to support a certain demographic, etc.
In this blog, I will be sharing a view of parachurch, and I will comment generally. I do not wish to name any parachurch organization because I wish to focus on principles, not persons or ministries. My hope is that you would think about what is presented here and consider your own values. Neither do I wish to characterize all parachurch ministries the same. There may actually be a few—I can think of one right now that might qualify as a legitimate extension of the church. So keep in mind the possibility of exceptions and the effort to respect people in their desires to serve God.
I must also disclose that, although my focus has been the Church, I have at times been temporarily associated with parachurch ministries, and for the most part they have been happy associations. We could say that these associations have come about because we live in an age in which parachurch is very much part of the landscape. I suppose that parachurch organizations have existed for a long time, but they certainly mushroomed in the decade of the 1970’s and have continued to multiply.
I also suppose that most individuals who found a parachurch ministry do so because a perceived need was not being met. Over the years I have occasionally tried to determine whether the Church might not have met these needs, and my conclusion has been that she could have. Why she did not, if indeed she did not, is another discussion that we might yet have. But the person founding this parachurch ministry discovered it easier and perhaps more effective, in his/her view, to create the parachurch to meet the need rather than attempting it through the Church. Certainly, this parachurch organization could be more narrowly focused and streamlined in meeting this perceived need.
It has been fascinating from the present vantage point to glance back over one’s shoulder to the time when particular parachurches originated. They had goals they intended to achieve, sometimes even by a certain date. How effective were they? I can think of a parachurch designed to help the family, and forty-some years later the family is more dysfunctional than ever. Is that the fault of the parachurch? Not necessarily--it’s just an observation. I can think of another parachurch designed to strengthen the correct expression of gender, and thirty years later the society, even the Church, is saturated with gender issues never before imagined. Would the outcome have been better if the Church had been faithful to its given message? Who knows?
The parachurch allows for various anomalies simply by the fact that it is not the Church. It doesn’t need to have biblical requirements for membership because it is not the Church. It doesn’t need to have requirements for leadership because it is not the Church. If there is criticism, it can plead its non-Church status. But that also opens the door to weirdness.
I have observed that folks who have trouble with the Church will often congregate in the parachurch. They may not want to meet the qualifications for Church membership, and they don’t need to in the parachurch. They may not want to let go baggage that should involve repentance and abandonment, and here they don’t need to. As long as they mesh with the purpose for which the parachurch exists, everything is fine.
One parachurch gave out awards occasionally. One man was awarded with one such “outstanding” award because he had given a large amount of money. That was fine as far as it went, but I knew some of his neighbors, and they cursed his Christian testimony because of his shady business deals. His testimony did not adorn the gospel of Christ, but his gift obtained for him a one-time annual award.
Along with that and going back to the answer to my question posed in a church group, I have observed that giving to a parachurch is often easier than to the Church. The local Church considers an expansion or an improvement, and the project may die because the project is considered too expensive. On the other hand, when the parachurch considers its project, it may be ever so expensive, and soon someone has written the check. People give to what they consider important. And sometimes the structure of the parachurch eliminates the inefficient discussion that could put an obstacle in the way of a project.
Often when the parachurch asks for money, it will remind you that you should give first to your local Church. And when the parachurch explains their ministry, they will usually declare that they are an arm or a branch—or whatever extension term you wish to use—of the Church. Somehow someone knows that Christ instituted the Church and not the parachurch, so that to claim some connection to the Church legitimizes.
A few years ago I was reading material from an organization overseen by two gentlemen. The organization had a name, and one of the gentlemen was quite famous. They opined on all kinds of topics theological, and in many cases they were very critical of others. I was curious whether they were responsible to any church, so I wrote them and asked. They graciously responded with the information I requested. They were part of a church, and they told me which one. For me it was helpful to know that they were not just some folks who had set up shop and were free-wheelingly peddling their opinions.
It has also fascinated me to observe that when a parachurch or a local Church has an event, the probability that the guest speaker comes from parachurch is high. I have wondered why. It could be because the parachurch representative has a particular emphasis, and we want to hear that. Also, he/she has spoken on the emphasis a hundred times already, so the performance is bound to have a certain polish. We might consider that a Church representative might also have a wealth to share that is borne out of a broader challenge and experience. But we value the entrepreneurial style of the person founding the parachurch, so we may well continue to provide publicity there.
I was in a seminary homiletics class (parachurch, or perhaps an extension of a denomination) once when the professor became very emotional in expressing envy at those of us who would be ministering in the Church. He kept being asked to be a special speaker and to communicate on certain topics which he had often communicated. He said he would rather go on to something else. He said he and his family knew these subjects very well and had incorporated them into their lives. He envied us who would be able to communicate something different every week.
Further, after the parachurch has existed for a while, it often encroaches on the Church. I don’t know if the narrow focus on one purpose becomes boring, but the parachurch begins to compete with the Church. The Church must cancel services in order to encourage the success of the parachurch, and the parachurch seeks to more and more take over the ministry of the Church (even though it is only a ‘branch’ of the Church). Perhaps every such move is generated because of perceived failure of the Church, but it seems that such a movement could be sought and promoted within the Church, not off to the side. I would rather place the emphasis on God’s institution.
So why did I share my bias here? I don’t expect that you or I will change the culture, eliminate the parachurch, and cause the Church to in purity be all it should be. So, in the first place I share this for the purpose of information. Once this topic has been raised, you may evaluate your own relationship to ministries. You should know which is Church and which is parachurch. One is instituted by God and the other is not, at least not in His written Word. Having been served, you decide where to place the emphasis.
God’s Word has everything to say to us even here. One passage that came to mind as I wrote is 2 Timothy 2:2, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (NASB). There is no reason why the Church cannot do this. A few local Churches are, but in many cases we leave it to the parachurch.
To me it seems ideal to have just the Church and no parachurch, but history teaches us that the curse is active there as well. Everything deteriorates over time and will until Jesus brings His kingdom to bear. So I rest in His promise “I will build My church” (He will!) in Matthew 16:18 and join John in saying, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). When He comes, then the Church will finally and truly be His Bride!
Saturday, 19 March 2016
The Results Are In
Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
The church survey is complete. We have come to the end of the road, and that actually means that we have begun a new chapter in church membership. So I want to share my observations. I admit that my observations are not exhaustive: we have not visited all churches, not even in this area, but we have visited churches that could have been possibilities for our fellowship and some that we knew beforehand could not. Though there are exceptions to every rule--that famous rule of English grammar, I do expect that what we observed would at least often be repeated if the experiment were conducted elsewhere in this country and perhaps even beyond. Sadly, as I have at times learned, the fads that operate here also sneak into other countries. It is difficult to go places where we have not attempted to promote our church culture; we simply will not trust the Holy Spirit to do it Himself.
I must also confess that I have a bias. I will attempt to be objective, but to claim complete objectivity would be foolhardy. Please know that this is my honest attempt, though it may be couched in personal language. I am quite sure that I approach this differently than some other church seekers in that through experience I do somewhat understand what happens ‘backstage,’ so to speak. Whatever is on display was developed through a philosophy of some sort.
Our goal was to evaluate through the grid provided by Acts 2:42. This verse describes the activities of the early church and is actually unique in the Bible. It says that the time of the church assembled focused on four areas: apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. Some form of fleshing out that list was evident in most of the churches we visited, especially if one did not inquire too deeply into what each of those items entails. So let me address in some order those and add any other observations that I consider pertinent.
If we consider this to be a situation in which people are relating to other people, we could go so far as to say that every church we visited provided some exhibition. Only one church seemed uncomfortable knowing how to relate to visitors. All the others made us feel welcome.
We did wonder how genuine this was, however, because, though numerous churches asked visitors to fill out a card, only one seemed to pay attention to the card and act upon it. That one sent someone to our door and presented us with a welcome gift. I can only wonder what the others did with the information they requested.
Also, the term ‘fellowship’ often is popularly used to refer to some kind of gathering where people eat and/or drink (especially coffee!), but it must be much more that that. It’s primary meaning is that of sharing or having something in common. Numerous kinds of serving in the life of a local church would belong under this heading. Our attendance a couple times at one church quickly communicated to us that we would probably never be able to serve in any capacity there. (This was later confirmed to us by two unrelated sources who had considered becoming part of that church.) Otherwise, it would have been an excellent church in which to receive Bible teaching. There was at least one other church in which it seemed that our serving would be difficult, if at all possible.
Now I know that many folks see this heading and assume it refers to the Lord’s Supper. Probably every church we visited practiced some form of it, and we saw it practiced in some. But I have to mention that the term is used in the Bible also in a place where it could not possibly refer to the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, but rather simply a meal. Again, many churches offered some kind of refreshment. Sometimes it was a continental breakfast, other times almost a full-fledged breakfast with fruit, rolls, coffee, quiche, etc. At a couple churches because we were new we were invited out to a noon restaurant meal sponsored by the church or someone in the church. Plus we were invited to various potluck meals. I’m not sure how much food a church needs to offer before it qualifies in this category, but it probably isn’t much. So it seems that if physical food is the biggest need, that could be met almost anywhere.
It might be difficult to conceive of a church service without prayer. One church we visited came close to that, and I can say confidently that whoever was supposed to be the object of their prayer, it was not the God of the Bible in the name of Jesus Christ. But most churches included some form of outwardly Christian prayer in the service. It might be personal prayer verbalizing the current needs, or it might be formal prayer which applied more generally.
Actual prayer meetings were not as obvious. Sometimes such were announced. Perhaps there were prayer meetings which were not announced, but in that case we would assume they were not a planned part of church life. At one church we asked, because we were not sure, and we were informed that prayer happened in connection with virtually every meeting on that church’s schedule. And after some investigation, that claim seemed to us to be true. Some of that church’s events provided opportunities for sharing prayer requests and praises, and the people present were expected to avail themselves of provided lists so they might pray throughout the week at home. It was encouraging to see that various assemblies did provide opportunity for prayer.
Someone may well wonder what the apostles’ teaching is. So let me quickly introduce it. The Bible for the twelve apostles was what we call the Old Testament. Their texts in the beginning had to come from that, if they quoted or explained the Scriptures at all. So there is that. But we must add to that all of the New Testament. This was the new that Jesus promised and which the Holy Spirit would make known to them. So, generally, we are accurate to say that the apostles’ teaching is biblical teaching.
This was a very difficult area for me. I have spent my adult life studying the Bible with attention to detail so that some form of critique comes easily. I observed what a number of pastors are doing and concluded that, if that is pastoring, then I was indeed a very poor pastor. They have gifts and abilities that make it natural for them to be CEO’s of churches, if you please, and to easily hobnob with the local political and business folks. They can preach with drama and with a flair for being in the spotlights. Their dress is cool, and they seem attractive.
I was told one pastor could be a great Bible teacher--he was certainly compassionate and helpful to others in various ways, but right now he was intent on a building program, so he was not teaching on a high level. In another church the lights were so low, it seemed you were in a theatre: the focus was on the preacher, but taking notes was nigh to impossible, if there were something worthy of noting. In a few there was an attempt to teach from the Bible, even by way of exposition, but mostly there the Bible was a book present but not heard.
Through conversations and observations it was apparent that most pastors are not there to simply communicate God’s message. This is a huge comment, but I will stand by it. And to me that is sad. They are there to promote an agenda, and, if the Bible is useful toward that, they may use it. If the Bible is not useful toward that, they may still refer to it at times, but it is clear that what God has said is not what the pastor is trying to get across. The agenda may be a personal one, or it may be the direction set by a denomination. But the Bible is mostly peripheral, even though it claims to be God’s revealed word and profitable in every way for the believer.
I have also been made cognizant of the usage of words. It is well-known that various segments of life have their own vocabularies. You may not understand all the words a piano technician uses, and he may not understand all the words a computer programmer uses. But in this case the words in question are biblical words that mean in the church’s usage not what they mean in biblical usage. That is confusing at best and could be deceptively costly. Some of the words I have in view include: tithes, baptism, marriage. We actually know what these words mean in the biblical text, but church usage has assigned them a different meaning so that now the practice of the church is faithful to their own meaning but divorced from biblical meaning. I don’t understand what is to be gained from that. Of course, this also affects the overall theology, or lack thereof, of the church.
As you can tell, if you have read this far, I am not bullish on the current condition of the local church. The truth is that I am not. There is only one comfort to which I hold, and that is that in Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, “I will build My church.” If He does not do it, it will be totally corrupted, and the plan will fall apart. As Alexander Carson said despairingly a couple centuries ago, “There is not one of all the ordinances of the Lord Jesus Christ, that has been left untouched by the wisdom of man” (Baptism: Its Mode and Subjects). The same can be said of the institutions of God.
Having said all that, when a Christian finds a local church that attempts to be what Jesus Christ, its Head, calls it to be, then that Christian needs to celebrate the discovery and be active in the body life of that organism. If every church heeds the biblical model, the church will be recognizable everywhere, and at the same time no two churches will be identical, as they represent their cultural expressions of the Body of Christ in each specific locale.
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