Tipping Sacred Cows into a Golden Calf

Brad Powell, Senior Pastor of North Ridge Church in Plymouth, Michigan has written a new book about how to take your tired, old church and make it new again.  Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping (W Publishing Group, February 2007) is 316 pages of church transition strategy illustrated by Brad’s own success at transitioning the historic Temple Baptist Church of Detroit, Michigan into North Ridge Church of Plymouth, Michigan.

The principles Brad articulates for team building, vision casting, and making progress toward change are positive and valuable.  They aren’t necessarily biblical, however. But that isn’t to say they are necessarily unbiblical either.  Except maybe for the rather bizzare story of God almost speaking audibly to Brad and telling him to transition the church to fit himself and then to relocate the church from Redford to Plymouth, “a community that will then be a perfect fit for both of you [Brad and Temple].” I haven’t been able to locate a verse for that one.

The formative years of my spiritual life were spent at the Temple Baptist Church of Detroit.  In his book Brad variously characterizes the church that formed my spiritual life as “irrelevant,” “bound by tradition,” “declining,” “unhealthy,” “dying,” “Southern-cultured,” “defensive,” and possessed of “a lot of anger and conflict.” 

From 1976 when I first began riding the bus to Temple, to 1989 when I left to take my first pastorate in northern Michigan, this irrelevant, bound by tradition, declining, unhealthy, dying, Southern-cultured, defensive church with a lot of pent up anger and conflict faithfully proclaimed the word of God from its pulpit and in its Sunday School classes, faithfully trained teenagers and young adults in soul-winning visitation, and remained committed to the timeless truth of God’s word in the midst of a changing culture and declining city.  I owe my spiritual life to a church Brad Powell dismisses as “irrelevant.” Temple Baptist Church was certainly relevant to me.  And history bears out that prior to 1991 Temple was significantly relevant to many who owe their spiritual lives to its ministry.

Brad has always dismissed the history of Temple Baptist Church as irrelevant, which is surprising since his own success at North Ridge is due in large measure to the foundation laid by others throughout Temple’s long history.  For 40 years Dr. G. B. Vick labored as the faithful pastor of Temple, yet Brad can only say of this great leader and pastor that “he managed the ministry with consistent excellence and relative success,” (italics mine) even though, as Brad characterizes Dr. Vick, he was not the communicator or innovator the previous pastor was.   Brad has spent his entire ministry at North Ridge building on the foundation other men laid, especially those of this mediocre leader, Dr. G. B. Vick.

There is no question that Temple was in decline and dying when Brad arrived in the early 90s.  Brad and I fundamentally disagree as to why.  He points to “banjos playing in the basement” to illustrate the church’s cultural irrelevance. I would point to the failure of the church’s leadership to biblically deal with sin, both among themselves and the members of the congregation.  Temple died because the Spirit abandoned it, not because the culture found it irrelevant.

I would argue that Temple’s problem wasn’t its inability to connect with the culture. It had succeeded in connecting with the culture for 70 years before Brad arrived.  The gospel has always been and always will be foolish to the culture, but that doesn’t make the message irrelevant. It’s not preaching, or hymns, or traditional Sunday School, or soulwinning visitation, that kill a church.  It’s sin left unconfronted that kills a church.  The pastor who immediately preceded Brad resigned because of a “moral failure.” God knows, plenty of others should have hit the altar that day with confessions of failures, moral and otherwise, of their own.  But rather than point to spiritual decadence as the source of Temple’s decline, Brad blew past that and focused on “banjos in the basement” as the culprit.  And, of course, if indeed the decline were due to “banjos playing in the basement” and stern looking “arms crossed ushers,” it would be easier to convince the people that the problem was “relevance” rather than sin.

But if the problem is spiritual, well the answer to that problem is a different one altogether. Dealing with a spiritual crisis doesn’t require abandoning the historic biblical principles that got you where you are by throwing them into the same pile with banjos playing in the basement. A spiritual crisis requires repentance and confession and a recommitment to those historic principles. But if your goal is to tip sacred cows (like banjos, organs, and arms-crossed ushers) into a Golden Calf, some things that really aren’t sacred cows (like expository, evangelistic preaching and worship music with a solid theological foundation) get labled sacred cows so as to faciliate your goal of Golden Calf forming. 

Brad diagnosed cultural irrelevance as the disease that killed Temple and he presecribed a heavy dose of cultural capitulation as the remedy. It worked. And in a culture that values quantity more than quality, relevance more than spiritual depth, the fact that it worked is all that matters.  For Jesus’ attitude toward quantity over quality see Matthew 7:21-23 (note the words ‘many’ and ‘knew’ and you tell me what Jesus values more: what you produce or who you know – numbers or relationship?).

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1 Corinthians 9 As a Pretext for Worldliness

With one voice, emergent and seeker-sensitive church leaders point to THE one issue they believe is the root of any church’s failure to grow: not speaking the language of the culture.  To make the point that cultural relevance is scripturally mandated these leaders to a man (a woman, a person?) cite 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 – Paul’s “all things to all men” passage. This text is used to justify cussing in the pulpit, rock music in the worship, sexual innuendo in the skits, and a hundred and one other “culturally relevant” expressions, all so that Unchurch Harry doesn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable within the confines of the sanctuary (er, ah, I mean auditorium – or is it a theatre?).

Brad Powell writes in Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping

In order for people to genuinely benefit from and apply God’s truth to their lives, they have to hear it in a language they can understand.

That’s stating the obvious, isn’t it? Who doesn’t recognize that if I’m in Russia speaking English no one is going to be edified?

But Brad isn’t using the word language in reference to words. He’s using the word language in reference to the behavior and actions of those within the church, what Brad later defines as “Christianese.” It is this “church language” that is unrecognizable to the world. It is our forms of worship the world doesn’t “get,” so our forms of worship must be reshaped by the demands of the culture.

So instead of illustrating the awesomeness and holiness of God by singing an outmoded song like “Holy, Holy, Holy” to which Unchurched Harry can’t relate, Brad had someone sing Joan Osborne’s blasphemous song What if God Were One of Us?, part of which says: 

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us;
Just a stranger on the bus,
Tryin’ to make his way home?

Brad chose this song, he says, because “[I]t’s a song that relates to most people’s desire for God.” And he justifies using it on the basis that Paul said, “I have become all things to all men that I might by all means win some.” But did Paul really mean to suggest that singing blasphemy is justified if that’s what it takes to win a lost person to Jesus?

John MacArthur offers an accurate exegisis of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 in Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World:

The first sentence in that brief excerpt shows clearly what Paul was talking about. He was describing not his willingness to sacrifice the message, but his willingness to sacrifice himself to preach the message. He would give up everything – even become ‘a slave to all’ – if that would promote the spread of the unadulterated gospel. His desire to win souls is the heart of this text, and he repeats it several times: ‘that I might win the more’; ‘that I might win the Jews’; ‘that I might win those who are under the Law’; ‘that I might win those who are without the law’; ‘that I might win the weak’; and ‘that I may by all means save some.’ SO winning people to Christ was his one objective. In order to do that, Paul was willing to give up all his rights and privileges, his position, his rank, his livilihood, his freedom – ultimately even his life. If it would further the spread of the gospel, Paul would claim no rights, make no demands, insist on no privileges.

And that is precisely how Paul lived and ministered. Not that he would modify the message to suit the world, but that he would behave so that he personally would never be an obstacle to anyone’s hearing and understanding the message of Christ. He was describing an attitude of personal sacrifice, not compromise. He would never alter the clear and confrontive call to repentance and faith.

Paul was not suggesting that the gospel can be made more powerful by adapting it to a certain cultural context. He was not speaking about accomodating the message. He was simply saying he would not jeopardize his ability to preach the message by unnecessarily offending people. If the message was an offense, so be it: ‘We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumblingblock, and to Gentiles foolishness’ (1 Corinthians 1:23). But Paul would not make himself a stumblingblock to unbelievers: ‘Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God’ (10:23).

For a fuller exploration of this subject, see chapter 4 in MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World. Dr. MacArthur later makes the point that Paul…

…never adapted the church to secular society’s tastes. He would not think of altering either the message or the nature of the church…by contrast, the ‘contextualization’ of the gospel today has infected the church with the spirit of the age. It has opened the church’s doors wide for worldliness, shallowness, and in some cases a crass, party atmosphere. The world now sets the agenda for the church.

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"If I knew then…."

Hillary defended her vote in the Senate FOR the war in Iraq during tonight’s Democrat presidential debate by saying:

I take responsibility for my vote. Obviously I did as good a job as I could at the time. It was a sincere vote based on the information available to me. And I’ve said many times that if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way.

So Hillary takes a pass because she made a decision based on the information she had at the time. President Bush doesn’t get a pass for making the decision to go into Iraq seeking the WMD based on the information available to him when the decision was made; information provided to him by President Clinton’s CIA director.

Is it just me, or is there a double standard here?

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H.R. 1592 passes Judiciary Committee: Danger Ahead!

We brought to your attention H. R. 1592 on yesterday’s program.  This bill, if passed by the Congress, would severely limit the free speech rights of American citizens, especially the rights of pastors, churches, Christian radio, and pro-family organizations, to speak out against the sin of homosexuality and other sexual deviancy. Yesterday the House Judiciary Committee went through the mark up process on H.R. 1592 where admendments are offered.  An amendent to protect the free speech rights of religious persons and organizations was defeated on a straight party line vote.  Here is the summary from an email I just received from representatives of the Traditional Values Coalition who were present during the mark up: 

Congressman Mike Pence from Indiana offered the important amendment on Freedom of Religion: “Nothing in this section limits the religious freedom of any person or group under the constitution.”

A number of Republicans spoke in support of it. But the Democrats Jerrold Nadler, Tammy Baldwin and Chairman John Conyers kept evading the issue.

Finally, Congressman Gohmert asked, “If a minister was giving a sermon, a Bible study or any kind of written or spoken message saying that homosexuality was a serious sin and a person in the congregation went out and committed a crime against a homosexual would the minister be charged with the crime of incitement?”

And finally Democrat Congressman Artur Davis from Alabama spoke up and said, “Yes.”

It is urgent that you read this update from the Traditional Values Coalition and immediately contact your congressional representative and senator by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 1-877-851-6437 or 1-202-225-3121.

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A Theology of Suffering

Contemporary culture is immersed in a philosophy of self-absorption and self-obsession. The emerging (or emergent) church is immersed in contemporary culture. Rather than the church – and the believers who make it up – being leaven within the culture to transform it, the lifestyles and longings of modern day followers of Christ bear no appreciable difference from that of our unchurched (unsaved, lost) neighbors and co-workers.

In the last quarter century the church stopped proclaiming a gospel directed at people’s real spiritual needs and has focused instead on the wants and desires of potential church goers in the same way that Starbucks markets overpriced coffee to potential consumers.  Peruse the “Christian Living” section of your local Christian bookstore.  The titles there evidence the fact that the church is this life focused rather than eternity focused: The Search for Significance: Seeing Your True Worth Through God’s Eyes; Your Best Life Now; 9 Things You Simply Must Do to Succeed in Love and Life; Approval Addiction: Overcoming Your Need to Please Everyone; Look Good, Feel Great; 12 Keys to Enjoying a Healthy Life Now…the list goes on.

What has resulted is a theology that says Christians don’t suffer, and when they do it is most definitely the exception and quite possibly because of sin in their life. The contemporary church immersed in a contemporary culture of happy, prosperous consumers has failed its constituency by failing to faithfully proclaim what God’s word says about the reality of suffering.

Suffering in the Christian life is the rule, not the exception.  From the day Christ called us to follow Him he fully disclosed two prerequisites: denying ourselves and taking up our cross.  When Saul of Tarsus was converted on the road to Damascus, he didn’t experience a Benny Hinn-esque healing. Quite the opposite.  God blinded him, left him in that condition for days in a hired house on a street called Straight, sent a reluctant evangelist by the name of Ananias to tell him “what great things he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9)

And suffer he did.  Read 2 Corinthians 11 and 12: five times beaten with 39 stripes, three times beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked three times, a night and a day floating in the sea, danger from friends, and foes, and the criminal element, weary and in pain, hungry and thirsty, naked and cold. And to add insult to injury God refused to answer his prayer for healing from whatever was ailing him as a thorn in his flesh.  Paul was told to be content with grace in the midst of his suffering.  Churches throughout Asia Minor were praying for his release from prison.  Ultimately Paul was beheaded like Nick Berg. Where was God?

Hear how Paul responds to all of this:

“I will glory in the things which concern my infirmities” (2 Corinthians 11:30)

“I am now ready to be offered and the time of my departure is at hand…henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto them also who love His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8)

“The Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom:to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (2 Timothy 4:18)

How could Paul glory in his sufferings and give glory to God in the midst of his suffering? The answer lies in a full reading of 2 Timothy 3 and 4, written at the end of his life just prior to his execution.  Note the use of the word “love” five times in these two chapters: lovers of self (2 Timothy 3:2); lovers of money (2 Timothy 3:2 – “covetous” in some translations); lovers of pleasure (2 Timothy 3:4); love his appearing (2 Timothy 4:8); loved this present world (2 Timothy 4:10).

Our contemporary culture is perfectly captured in four of these uses of the word love: loving self, loving money, loving pleasure, and loving the world.  The contemporary church has successfully “Christianized” these loves, using them as values upon which to grow congregations.  One of the five loves mentioned in these two chapters stands in stark contrast to the other four: loving the appearing of Jesus Christ.

A life lived in anticipation of seeing Jesus and hearing Him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: enter into the joy of your Lord” can endure suffering in this life – because such a focus causes us to realize that the worst that happens to us here and now can never separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8). “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”

The tragedy is that the emerging church immersing itself in our culture of self-absorbtion and self-obesession has sold the future and eternal “weight of glory” for the immediate yet transient satisfaction of your best life now. And when Christians encounter difficultly the are ill-prepared to deal with it biblically because they’ve been sold a psychological bill of goods. The storms come, the winds blow, there is no firm foundation on solid biblical ground, and “Cultural Christian” is blown away (Matthew 7:24-27). But he’s living his best life now. Who cares what’s coming.

“He who loves his life shall lose it; but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). What you love determines your destiny. What you treasure reveals your heart. What the church needs now is hearts brimming in anticipation of what awaits them later – looking not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are unseen. In a word, what the church needs is faith – the discipline to believe that the one who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it, even though in the midst of our suffering we can’t quite see it yet

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