Trading in Our Patriotic Hymns for Songs of Lament

crossWith the Obergefell decision weighing heavy on our minds, I have been wondering how churches in America will worship this Sunday. Will they go on as usual singing patriotic hymns? Or will they, in light of recent days, reconsider their song selection?

For those involved in music ministry and church leadership, this is not a new question. And honestly, the Obergefell decision should not be the deciding factor. However, that ruling has solidified concerns Christians have with America, and thus raises the question again—Should a church incorporate patriotic hymns in a service of worship?

Thinking on that subject, I believe a church has 1 of 3 options—no incorporation (option #1), selective incorporation (option #2), and unqualified incorporation (option #3). I think the first two options are valid with #1 outweighing #2, while option #3 is troubling and in need of revamping—something that could be done as soon as tomorrow. Let’s consider together. Continue reading

Confronting the Ingrown Church

pewsShortly after I stepped down as pastor this year, I came across an illuminating and deeply convicting book by C. John (“Jack”) Miller that addressed so many of the issues in my church—and in so many churches like ours.

The book is entitled Outgrowing the Ingrown Churchand though it is a little dated (1986), it gets at the heart of the problem that many American churches are facing—an unhealthy self-centeredness that undermines the missionary impulse of Christ’s church. While the whole book is worth reading, the opening section (“Where Missionary Life Begins”) was most helpful for me. In those two chapters, Miller outlines the deadly symptoms of the ingrown church. The rest of the book aims at remedying that introversion through means of fresh faith, radical repentance, and active, prayerful, outward ministry.

Let me lay out some of the symptoms of the ingrown church. If they look similar to what you’ve experienced in your church, pick up this little book and begin to work through it with the leaders in your church. Continue reading

Take Up and Pray: Learning to Pray the Scriptures from Donald Whitney

prayDonald Whitney has just released a new book on prayer, Praying the BibleLike his earlier books spurring Christians towards love and good deeds (especially Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life), this little volume is sure to encourage believers and provide a pathway to greater, more fervent, more consistent prayer.

As I read the book at the end of last week’s prayer meeting at the SBC, I walked away with fresh encouragement to take up the Scriptures and pray. I am sure any believer will experience the same thing if they pick up this little book (89 pp.). To encourage you to pick up this book, let me give you a sense of Whitney’s argument coupled with his ‘tweetable’ prose. Continue reading

Believing and Belonging: Which is the Source for True Fellowship?

fellowsThe next time you read through the books of Acts, underline every time you find the word “believe.” At the same time, circle every time you find a mention of the Scriptures, the word, or preaching. What you will soon discover is how radically committed the New Testament church was to proclaiming the Word of God and calling for belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Everywhere the apostles went they proclaimed the Word. Empowered by the Spirit, they were called to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). Indeed, filled with the Spirit they fulfilled their calling of proclaiming the Word (Acts 4:31). As a result, in just a few short decades churches were planted all over the Mediterranean. And within three centuries, the early church would become the dominant world religion. Continue reading

God’s Marketing Strategy: Christ-Like Churches

marketingFor a whole year [Paul and Barnabas] met with the church and taught a great many people.
And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians
— 
Acts 11:26 —

Marketing is a big business. From 2000–2006, Coca-Cola spent 15.5 billion dollars to advertise their products to the global market.[1] In 2009, Apple Computers spent half a billion dollars on their advertising, which is a third of what Microsoft paid out in 2009 (1.4 Billion).[2] These leading companies invest incredible capital into these self-promotion schemes for the purpose of cashing in on the customers they solicit.

Genuine Converts are God’s Marketing Strategy

But what about the church? Will advertising help achieve Great Commission success? What is God’s marketing strategy? Surely as the Lord of all creation (Ps 24:1), he has ample resources to fund such a project; as Maker of the Milky Way, he has the creative intuition to impress audiences. Yet, Jesus’ ministry is not marked by such promotion. In the Gospels and Acts, we find something more personal, if not even more hidden. Continue reading

Finding Faithful Preachers to Fill-in the Pulpit

pulpitDuring my five years at Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana one of my greatest joys was having faithful brothers come and deliver God’s Word to the God’s people. Filling the pulpit is not something to be taken lightly and I always sought to find a faithful messenger of the Word to feed the flock. For that reason, it was reassuring to bring seasoned pastors to fill-in, but it was equally rewarding to give younger men the opportunity to bring God’s Word. Continue reading

A Severe Mercy: Rediscovering the Holiness of God

ok
Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen,
but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.
— Romans 11:22 —

When God created Adam and Eve, he endowed them with a holy calling to worship Him. In fact, made for God’s glory, it was the chief design of humanity to worship and serve the Creator—not only in holy assembly but in every human endeavor (cf. Col 3:17, 23).

Sadly, this original design was lost when the first couple rebelled against God (Gen 3:1–6). Seeking to be like God, they spurned their Creator. As Paul puts it, “For although they knew God, they did no honor him as God or give thanks to him, . . . Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of created things (Rom 1:21–23).

The Idolatry of Self

In context, Paul is speaking about Gentiles, but indeed, he is using the backdrop of the Garden to explain the source of humanity’s sin. In a word, sin finds its source in idolatry (cf. Jer 2:13). Human hearts are compelled to worship, but after Eden, the Adam’s offspring worship what their hands can make, what their minds can imagine. Even the most avowed atheist cannot stop worshiping—even if he only worships himself. Continue reading

Theological Triage (pt. 3): Love Covers a Multitude of Differences

loveToday, we finish our three-part series on “theological triage.”

In part 1, I suggested genuine Christians stand united in mere Christianity against those who deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and justification by faith. At the same time, I explained in part 2 how churches and individuals must pursue unity in the gospel, even when we differ on matters of church government, church ordinances, or charismatic gifts. This gospel unity that overlooks ecclesial differences does not deny the importance of these secondary matters, but it keeps in mind that some doctrines are more essential than others. Some doctrines separate Christians from non-Christians (first-level), some separate genuine believers into different congregations (second-level), and others remain points of disagreement even in the same local church (third-level). This tripartite division has been labeled “theological triage,” and it is this third section we consider today.

The Doctrinal Core

Members of any orthodox church must share the core convictions delineated in the first level (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace alone, and so on). Likewise, every church must also come to biblical conviction about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, congregational authority, etc. In most churches, both of these sets of doctrines (first and second level) are found in their statement of faith.

The practical function of such a confession (or statement of faith) is that when the church gathers there is no need to debate why the Bible is central, why men lead, and why babies are not “baptized.” The confession functions as a general consensus—a doctrinal core if you will—of what the church believes the Bible to teach about the most important tenets of the faith. Still under the banner of a church’s confession (which derive it’s ministerial authority from the Scriptures themselves), there are other doctrines that are not defined. Wisely, confessional statements are abbreviated statements of faith that do not attend to every doctrine. Accordingly, there are other views, beliefs, or questions that members may hold differently.

Some of these doctrines include the doctrines of grace, the way spiritual gifts continue in the church today, and the timing of the millennium. The point of this post is not to address these doctrines, nor to suggest what to include or exclude in the confession. The point to be made here concerns how to handle these third-level doctrinal disagreements in the local church. Continue reading

Reconsidering “Above All”: How Hermeneutics Must Intersect with and Inform Our Hymnody

aboveallYesterday, I raised concerns with the popular song “Above All” by Michael W. Smith. For some time, I have taken theological issue with the central lyric of the song:

Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall / And thought of me
Above all.

Those last two lines have always made me stumble because of the way they seem to eclipse God with humanity. I’ve always heard them as making the claim that Christ thought more of me than he did of God—which I argued reverses the God-centered nature of the universe and the cross.

For that reason, I was theologically opposed to the song. While I could sing the rest of the song with delight, I always cringed as the chorus neared. Hence, I set out to write these reflections so as to expose the errant chorus. However, a funny thing happened along the way—I read the lyrics again (and again) and this time in context.

Unlike any time before, I read the chorus in light of the whole song. Not surprisingly, reading it context provided greater light. But surprisingly, I had to adjust my thinking for I realized that if I (or we) let the song define its own terms—a principle of general hermeneutics—it does not ascribe humanity to a place higher than God. In fact, the song rightly retains a high view of God’s sovereignty and the dignity assigned to humanity, as the pinnacle of creation. Continue reading

Above All, Who Did Christ Die For?

crossCrucified / Laid behind a stone
You lived to die/ Rejected and alone
Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall/ And thought of me
Above all

 

These words, the chorus of the song “Above All,” have echoed in evangelical churches far and wide. On the whole I like the song, it’s first two stanzas testify to the universal sovereignty of God. However, as it enters the chorus, the sweeping sovereignty of God appears to be displaced by a form of sentimentalized love that is all too common in our self-exalting century.

The theological problem that some have with this song comes at its climax, the point that the whole song drives towards. In that final line, “Above All” ostensibly leaves the high ground of God’s sovereignty (“above all kingdoms / above all thrones / above all wonders the world has ever known”) to frolic in the marshes of ego-boosting self-esteem (God “thought of me above all”).

Intended to express breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s unfathomable love, Michael W. Smith’s lyrics come close to severing the root of God’s love by leading the chorus to sing that God in his love thought about me “above all.”  I say close, instead of actually committing the act, because I think upon closer inspection “above all” in the chorus should be delimited by the earlier “all” statements.

Tomorrow, I will show how I think “Above All” can serve as a God-exalting worship song, but today let me unpack the theological truth that has led many to take issue with this song, namely that the highest purpose of the cross is not directed towards man, but towards God himself. Continue reading