Moore Election Problems

Yesterday, the President of the Ethics and Religious Leadership Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Russell Moore, wrote a blog post in which he offered an apology of sorts for criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump:

But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump. I told them then, and I would tell anyone now: if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.

While Moore maintained that his criticism of Trump was and is valid and right (and I agree with his criticisms), he never intended to criticize those who planned on voting for him.

This post—written as an olive branch to evangelicals and Southern Baptists who voted for Trump—gives advice on how the Christian family can get along after the heated disagreement over the past election. He clearly wrote this in response to the growing backlash against his leadership. Those who supported Trump (i.e. Jerry Fallwell Jr., Mike Huckabee, Robert Jeffress) have threatened to eliminate their giving to the Cooperative Program (the fund that effectively makes a church belong to the SBC) because they do not believe Moore represents the views of Southern Baptists. Statistics on who Southern Baptists voted for seem to suggest they are correct.

As a response to the criticism, Moore received an outpouring of support on Twitter under the hash tag #IStandWithMoore.

Since I am not a Southern Baptist and I didn’t vote for Trump (I am concerned about him and his policies), I don’t have a dog in this fight. Moore doesn’t represent me, though I do often agree with him on many things and generally appreciate his voice in the public square. Because Moore is a prominent Christian voice in the public square and because the response to Moore on both sides has clouded the real issues involved, I want to make four brief observations that I think are being overlooked.

First, Moore’s post yesterday suggests he believes voting for Donald Trump was allowable for Christians if a person’s conscience bound them to that decision while holding their nose because no other good option existed. In other words, voting for Donald Trump was morally allowable for Christians. Whether you agree or disagree, Moore seems to be changing his position. In a New York Times Op-Ed where he opposed Trump, he famously pondered “whether evangelicals will be on the right side of Jesus.” And earlier in the campaign, Moore said that evangelicals shouldn’t support Trump for president, and “to back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe,” [Update: See also this and this]. What Moore said in the past and what he is saying now seems contradictory.

Second, Moore didn’t really apologize. [UPDATE 3/20/2017: Moore has now given an actual apology here.] It’s a classic “non-apology.” He said “if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.” The blame is on those who heard him say something he now says he was not ever saying. In other words, his arguments during the campaign were always at Donald Trump and not toward his Christian supporters. His “apology” didn’t acknowledge this sort of misunderstanding to be his fault. He didn’t say, “I am sorry that I wasn’t clear. That miscommunication was on me.”

Third, while Moore has received an outpouring of support on Twitter and in the press today, one cannot help but notice his supporters come primarily and overwhelming from those outside the SBC (See Jonathan Merritt’s article today, for instance). Those within the SBC that support him are relatively small compared to the denomination as a whole. For the last 5-8 years, Southern Baptists have been wrestling with an increasing theological divide between the younger and older generations. While both sides insist they can work together and remain united despite their theological differences, Moore’s polarizing leadership of the ERLC and the backlash could be the first step toward an unraveling of that union as the old guard seeks to replace denominational leaders and seminary presidents with those who align with the views of the vast majority of Southern Baptists. While most seem to lament this possible division and insist they oppose it, I see no reason why this would necessarily be a bad thing. If done with humility and peace, the two groups could break into different associations that partner in some Great Commission ventures and not others. This would allow churches aligning with the old guard and new guard, respectively, to plant churches and fund missionaries more aligned with their convictions. However, both sides seem to reject this option, and it seems to me that the reason for this boils down to their mutual desire to control all of the resources and institutions connected to the SBC. In other words, both sides fear losing the institutional power that currently belongs to the united denomination.

Finally, despite the traditional emphasis of the importance of the individual conscience in Baptist tradition, Southern Baptists continue to show a remarkable inability to handle matters of conscience. A matter of conscience refers to a moral question where there is no clear biblical command or where one cannot be inferred by good and necessary consequence. Issues such as what movies to watch, alcohol consumption, and voting are all matters of conscience, and yet Southern Baptists have for a long time tried to lay down requirements on all Christians on these matters. Both Moore and his critics have erred here.

A few months ago, I wrote:

In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes Christians are making in this election season involves dismissing, insulting, and questioning the Christian identity of those who support the other candidate. This is especially true when we seek to signal to others our virtue by expressing how appalled and outraged we are that any Christian would vote for the other person. This is happening on the conservative right (i.e. Eric Metaxas), the #NeverTrump middle (i.e. Russell Moore), and the progressive left (i.e Rachel Held Evans). This is a mistake because there are dozens of pragmatic judgments about the political process, the political system, the culture, and the leaders themselves that one must make, few of which can be clearly demonstrated from Scripture. That doesn’t mean we cannot support a candidate and seek to persuade others, but it should mean we cannot be certain we have the corner on the true Christian vote.

Leading up to the election, Christians of all varieties were casting each other out of the kingdom left and right over the election. In doing so, we actually parrot or participate in the polarizing rhetoric and behavior of the culture around us rather than pointing to and embodying an alternative kingdom reality in how we handle our disagreements. We wrongly divide the body of Christ. That was true then, and it will continue to be true going forward. There may come a time when we must oppose a political figure as a moral imperative, but it’s not at all clear we must do that now. If we continue to speak this way, we won’t be heard if that time comes.

How Our Suffering Can Be Productive

Maybe you can tell, but I have been reading Tim Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering the past few weeks. It’s full of insight, depth, and practical help. I have never read anything so comprehensive and so good on suffering. I found his discussion on pages 188-190 on how suffering can reveal character flaws that can then be addressed particularly insightful in a number of ways.

In his book The Importance of Suffering, [psychologist James Davies] critiques what he believes is the majority position among Western therapists, namely that suffering should be treated by helping the patient remove or manage the negative feelings that adversity brings…Davies goes on to make a radical suggestion. What if your negative thoughts about yourself are actually right? “The feeling of being ‘cowardly,'” he writes, “may be less a symptom of ‘faulty thinking’ than an accurate appraisal of part of us that is cowardly. This makes the distress that accompanies our self appraisal not only a perfectly natural response to encountering our cowardice, but also a necessary prerequisite for changing it.” So suffering can lead us to see a significant lack of courage in our character.
If we listen to our negative thoughts in the midst of suffering, we might actually see ourselves more clearly so that we can cultivate courage. If dive deeper into our suffering, as difficult and frightening as it may be, by listening to our negative thoughts rather than seeking friends or therapists that will tell us we are great, then suffering can actually produce positive character growth.
Keller notes two other examples from Davies of character flaws that can be transformed in suffering :
Or suffering may also show us a streak of selfishness. Davies points out studies that show “low self-esteem” is far from a universal problem. He points to research psychologists demonstrating that many people, instead of being plagued with low self-esteem, “are so infected with self-love that they are unable to love others…[and] cannot see beyond the horizon of their own needs and concerns. They are therefore unable to put themselves to one side and empathize with the needs and pains of others–their reality is best so all should adapt to it.”
With an even more countercultural impulse, Davies claims that people who have been through depression can become wiser and more realistic about life than those who have not. He presents a number of studies that show that people who have never been depressed tend to overestimate the amount of control they have over their lives. While severely depressed people are debilitated, in general an experience of depression can give you a more accurate appraisal of your own limitations and how much influence you can have over your circumstances.
No one should seek out suffering, but psychologists agree with Romans 5:3-4 that suffering can produce endurance (resilience), proven character, and eventually a new hope.
But suffering doesn’t always produce these things in us, does it? Why not? Keller looks to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to explain.
Davies, Jonathan Haidt, and others who argue for the benefits of adversity, are quick to point out that suffering does not automatically improve your life. [In Happiness Hypothesis,] Haidt speaks of two basic ways to cope with it–what he calls “active coping and reappraisal” and “avoidance coping and denial.” The latter strategy can lead to disaster, for it includes “working to blunt one’s emotional reactions by denying or avoiding the events, or by drinking, drugs, and other distractions.” The former strategy can lead to real gains, as it combines doing the hard inner work of learning and growing with seeking to change the painful external circumstances. Put another way, Haidt and Davies distinguish steadily walking through suffering from standing still, lying down, or just running away from it.
…The stakes are high here. Suffering will either leave you a much better person or a much worse one than you were before.
When we rage at God, our church, and our friends on account of suffering, when we run away, deny, refuse to face, self-medicate, and/or distract ourselves from the pain and trauma we experience, our suffering will not transform us into better people. It will only make us bitter and angry or further blind us to the areas of our lives that need transformation. Running from our pain by finding something that temporarily relieves the pain and seemingly gives us new life will end up crashing down on us later leaving us more devastated and disillusioned with life.
But when we face our suffering, listen to our negative thoughts about ourselves, and observe what has been exposed about us, we can start to see beauty emerge from brokenness. We can grow into people of greater depth, compassion, understanding, and love.
This latter response is more probable if we know that because of the suffering of Jesus, we are in God’s hands as his children. The confidence that we belong to the Lord whether in life or in death can strengthen us to deal with our suffering rather than merely trying to manage or even deny it.
Trial and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coined the term “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (MTD) to describe the spiritual lives of American teenagers. Based on a research project called the “National Study of Youth and Religion,” Smith and Denton observed a set of beliefs (doctrines, if you will) commonly held by teenagers today:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Since the publication of this book, MTD has become a familiar summarizing term that captures the general religious outlook of our youth. Many have argued that this description fits the wider population’s spirituality as well. Some even think this is a good thing! Any Christian who has been catechized in sound doctrine will recognize this (unconscious) creed conflicts with orthodox Christian faith. In MTD, there’s no need for Trinity (≠deism), incarnation (≠therapy), or redemption (≠moralism).

An Easy Target

I’ve read and heard numerous Christians lament this creed as fundamentally unchristian, and it is. But in Evangelical circles, MTD has become a bit of an easy target to attack because it so obviously diverges from orthodoxy. Everyone knows it’s wrong, and we all shake our heads at those other people who so misguidedly fail to grasp the truth.

But Smith and Denton have put their finger on something that runs much deeper than this anemic creed, something of which all of us, including my Evangelical brothers and sisters, are guilty. MTD isn’t just a bad creed. It’s a fundamentally upside-down orientation to life, and it’s an orientation that all of us, secular or not, naturally share. And that means it’s not enough to simply look at the creed and shake our heads in disagreement. In fact, Smith and Denton created this creed as a summarizing term not because people actually walk around with those doctrines in their heads but because they were trying to put their finger on this orientation.

In short, MTD is an orientation in the making since the Enlightenment that sees God in obligation to us and not the other way around. MTD describes our deeply felt convictions that God must be about our well-being and happiness (hence therapeutic). It’s not us who must be justified before God, rather, God must justify Godself to us.

Seeing Ourselves

That’s why the problem of evil is such a pressing question for Westerners whereas in Ancient times it was not the most troubling question with which people wrestled. If we are owed happiness and circumstances that please us, then God better do some explaining as to why my life isn’t going the way I want. If I cannot see any good reason why God would allow suffering in my life, then God must either not exist or be a moral monster.

The MTD orientation also explains why churches have become highly focused on relevance, being positive and encouraging, and meeting people’s perceived needs and preferences regarding corporate worship and programming. We moderns don’t come to God needing to be justified. We come demanding God work for us. I can reject the creed of MTD but still involve myself with a Christian community that “pursues God in a way that works for me.”

This insight is reason #2,567 why I am convinced we have to return to biblical and historic church practices (both in worship and community) that reorient us properly to God. The form of worship and ministry in most Evangelical churches shares rather than repels the orientation of MTD, and so while we can see the errors of the creed, we can’t see our own reflection in it.

Disappointing Sufferers as a Pastor

Culture is ubiquitous, or so says James Davison Hunter in To Change the World. I expect he means that culture, being present everywhere, shapes the way I experience the world and understand my own identity apart from any conscious decision I make to go with the flow. In our context, even though I am a Christian and reject secularism, I am more secular than I realize or like to believe (see Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age).

One of the reasons I love to study history, sociology, and philosophy is that it helps me to see what I unconsciously assume. This is also why I love pastor Tim Keller. He regularly gives insights into the modern context that explain the world and me in remarkably clear ways. I had such an experience reading the beginning of his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. I only just started but already had several “Aha!” moments. This one relates to my calling as a pastor, and it came from his discussion on suffering and the meaning of life. Let me outline his discussion and then show you how this helped me understand my calling and experience as a pastor in the modern world.

Suffering and the Meaning of Life

Keller argues that traditional cultures and religions all, in different ways, regard suffering as a necessary part of life that can be experienced in such a way that it helps the sufferer achieve the purpose of life. In other words, suffering will happen in life, and it requires a particular response on the part of the individual so that a “redemptive” outcome can occur. So, for example, in the pagan cultures of northern Europe, sufferers could face pain and difficulty with nobility and endurance so as to receive honor and glory. Or in some Eastern religions, suffering must be met with the abandonment of desire so one can achieve enlightenment. Suffering is awful, but it can be faced in such a way that life’s purpose is achieved.

Not so with secularism, says Keller. Secularism is uniquely ill equipped to address suffering (which, by the way, should make us suspicious of it as a worldview given the universal nature of suffering). Here’s my outline of his exploration of the role of suffering in secularism:

  1. According to secularism, life is objectively meaningless. There is no built in meaning to the universe since it came about through random chance.
  2. Meaning can only be invented subjectively by individuals. Life for any individual, at best, involves the freedom to live in a way that brings the most personal happiness.
  3. Suffering, by definition, hinders happiness and thus has no meaningful role in the achievement of the invented purpose of the individual’s life.
  4. Therefore, suffering can only be managed or eliminated, but it cannot be meaningful.

Keller supplies the arguments of secularists to demonstrate this logic. He isn’t imposing this on secularists. It’s something many honestly acknowledge. I think this is brilliant and insightful, but it’s what he said about dealing with suffering in a secular culture that helped me understand some of my experiences as a pastor.

Dealing with Pain in a Secular Age

Given the meaninglessness of suffering in a secular age, Keller observes that Western culture has become obsessed with managing or eliminating suffering and pain, and practically every academic field approaches this differently. Psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, political science, race theory, gender studies, medical doctors, essentially every field of study tends to reduce suffering to one material cause relevant to their area of expertise and then offers the appropriate external remedy.

This plurality of specialists has caused massive confusion in our culture as to what to do with pain. And since every expert reduces the causes of suffering to one fundamental cause external to us, a culture of victimhood has developed. Sufferers are now victims to material misfortune or social injustice in need of experts or social activists that can help sufferers manage or eliminate the cause. So the one thing an expert should never do is address suffering in such a way that the sufferer is blamed for or told they have contributed to their suffering. This is the culture in which we live and breathe.

Here’s my “Aha!” moment: Pastors have become just another specialist in the business of pain management and elimination. I never consciously thought of myself this way, and I doubt many of my congregants would describe my job in this way. But my experience tells me our cultural context has (wrongly) shaped expectations I have had for myself and others have had of me.

Keller goes on to explain how traditional cultures (and Christianity) understand suffering to be the result of conflict between the external and our internal world, which means that, rather than raging against the world, those suffering were to take responsibility to address their pain and use it to achieve a redemptive outcome.

Pastoring Sufferers in a Secular Age

Now I wouldn’t have put it that way when you asked me to describe how to pastor people who are suffering, but that is essentially what pastors are called to do. We must love people with our presence, help, and the Word of God, and we are called to love sufferers in that way so as to help them on the road of faith. And often, though not always, this means we have to help people face the ways they have caused or contributed to their pain. Pastors must help their flock understand and know “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,” (Romans 5:3-5). We are not simply victims.

But in a culture that fosters a victim mentality, we all naturally want experts to take away the pain or help us manage it so it doesn’t hurt so badly. While pastors should aim to help in that way, that isn’t all we are supposed to do. And when we call people to examine their lives and consider how God might use their pain to transform them or how they might be causing some of their own suffering, it makes sense, given our context, that people will lash out in anger and accuse us of making things worse! It makes sense that I have been such a disappointment to some who have suffered greatly. We are more secular than we realize.

I must admit, I’ve been surprised in my pastoral ministry at how some who have suffered have lashed out at me and caused me to suffer! That has led me to self-examination, submitting myself to others for evaluation, and some needed repentance. But I have also come to see that sometimes those who are suffering lash out at me as a pastor because we have different ideas of what I am supposed to do. Consciously or not, some have looked to me to manage or eliminate their pain, and at this, I have completely failed. Sometimes that’s because the sufferer has been offended or outraged that I would suggest they might be responsible for some of their pain. Sometimes that’s because the sufferer thinks I haven’t done a good job at relieving their pain or doing the things they believed would help them manage or relieve their pain.

In either case, I need to remember my calling, and I must self-consciously reject the idea that I am just another specialist there to manage people’s pain. My job is to offer people the hope of the gospel in the midst of a broken world. No doubt, many will be disappointed. But I cannot let the disappointment and anger of some alter my job description.

My Top 50 Books

I have read and re-read some great books recently. Some have solidified or synthesized theological and pastoral concerns I have been wrestling with for years. Others have given me whole new insights to myself, our cultural context, and/or my pastoral calling. A few have been incredibly challenging, causing me to rethink a particular part of my life.

All of these great books (and the fact that my study has moved from upstairs down to my basement where my bookshelves stare at me when I sit at my desk) have got me thinking about my spiritual and theological journey. For the past 4 years, I believe I have been discovering and getting comfortable in my theological and ecclesiological home. I am now at a point where I want to think about how I should be directing younger men seeking to be pastors regarding what they should read. I am thankful for the path I have traveled and the books that got me here, but I hope that those who follow me can take a shorter journey.

So here are my top 50 books I recommend to anyone seeking a rich theological and pastoral foundation in the Reformed theological tradition. I have organized them by various categories that begin with the foundational topics and flow toward more practical life related issues.

Considering Christianity

  1. The Reason for God by Tim Keller
  2. King’s Cross by Tim Keller
  3. Three Essential Books in One Volume: Trilogy – The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, He is There and He is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer
  4. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation by William Placher
  5. Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen
  6. The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire
  7. The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen

Theology

  1. Letters to a Young Calvinist by James Smith
  2. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton
  3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1 by John Calvin
  4. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 2 by John Calvin
  5. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformed Worldview by Albert Wolters
  6. Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper
  7. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer
  8. Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen and Scott Swain
  9. Union with Christ by J. Todd Billings
  10. Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama by Michael Horton
  11. We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God by David Koyzis

Ecclesiology, Ministry, Christian Formation, and Mission

  1. Center Church by Tim Keller
  2. Christ Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell
  3. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller
  4. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder
  5. Grounded in the Gospel by J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett
  6. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James Smith

Biblical Studies

  1. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible by Graeme Goldsworthy
  2. From Paradise to Promised Land by T.D. Alexander
  3. Kingdom Prologue by Meredith Kline
  4. The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andraes Kostenberger and Michael Kruger
  5. An Introduction to the Old Testament by Tremper Longman III and Raymond Dillard
  6. An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo
  7. A Biblical History of Israel by Ian Proven, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III
  8. Gospel Centered Hermeneutics by Graeme Goldsworthy
  9. Is There Meaning In This Text by Kevin Vanhoozer

Culture and the Public Sphere

  1. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Hunter
  2. How (Not) To Be Secular by James Smith
  3. Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller
  4. A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf
  5. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Tim Keller

The Christian Life and Ethics

  1. The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics by Micahel Hill
  2. Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics by Oliver O’Donovan
  3. The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame
  4. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller
  5. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
  6. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power , and the Only Hope that Matters by Tim Keller
  7. Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill
  8. Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill
  9. Real Sex by Lauren Winner
  10. The Christian Family by Herman Bavinck
  11. Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry by Kathy Keller
  12. Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp

I do not agree with everything written in these books, but they certainly contain the theology and practice of which I am most convinced and hope to embody. I hope you all find this list helpful.

Church Planting: Models and Expectations

This morning I came a across a post by Dr. David Fitch written some time ago but reposted on his blog today. Fitch is a Christian in the Neo-Anabaptist tradition, a tradition that has significant differences with my own Reformed tradition. But Fitch is someone I listen to because he consistently sheds light onto the current cultural context and helps me think about what it means to live on mission today. He is a professor at Northern Seminary in Chicago (Ph.D. from Northwestern University), an author of several books, a church planter, and a pastor at Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, IL.

His [re]post this morning contrasts different church planting models, points us toward the proper  approach, and encourages us to adopt certain expectations.

Church planting in United States and Canada has been traditionally all about gathering a large crowd, making a big splash in a community and building a building.  Success is measured by how big and how fast. Though I recognize there is some legitimacy in gathering converts quickly. This can happen within Christendom parts of America where indeed what we’re doing in church planting is “upgrading” church and making it more relevant for the children of Christian parents who have lost interest in their parents’ form of church. This I suggest still has some validity.But in more parts of America and Canada we are no longer converting the children of Christian parents.  There are less and less left who are interested in Christianity. We are in essence therefore left to plant communities in mission. The goal is not making Christianity more relevant to dormant Christians or children of Christians. It is to be a new witness to the Kingdom in a place that lacks such an expression. This ‘shift’ fundamentally changes our expectations for what a church plant should look like. In this regard I find John Howard Yoder’s (RYFC) quote from Theology of Mission (p. 218-19)  helpful

“We do not start by assuming the church must take over the place. We start by assuming the number of believers will be modest and the decision to follow Christ will be a costly one, therefore a decision that not many will make. This does not mean an a priori decision that there should never be a mass movement … It means we do not hang our hopes on strategies of effectiveness of the message getting a wide hearing quickly or gaining support from powerful people.”

You should check out the rest of his post here where he explains some of the implications this shift has for church planters (and those belonging to a church plant) regarding their practices and expectations.

The Exciting and Attractive Church

Exciting. Big. Energetic. Practical. Passionate. Positive. Encouraging. These words are often found in the slogans and values of exciting and attractional churches.

What is an attractional church? How do you know if you are a part of an attractional church? Austin Fischer is a teaching pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, Texas who recently wrote an article for Christianity Today examining the attractional church model through the lens of one of its most “successful” practitioners, Andy Stanley.

The model, espoused by Stanley and implemented throughout evangelical America, recognizes that people typically approach life as consumers in a marketplace and relates to them as such in order to bolster the church’s reach. Fischer explains it like this:

When we talk about leveraging “consumer instincts” in the way we practice church, we are taking the ideology of the market and the narrative of acquisitive freedom as the highest good and baptizing them. We are telling our people that their wants and felt needs need no further justification and need not be questioned. What is most important is not that they become like Jesus (unless of course they feel like it), but that they are free (and comfortable) to become whatever they want to become.

Stanley’s own explanation goes like this:

We are unapologetically attractional. In our search for common ground with unchurched people, we’ve discovered that, like us, they are consumers. So we leverage their consumer instincts.

In my own experience, churches don’t necessarily think of what they are doing in these terms, but the logic of the marketplace still unconsciously pervades the strategy of church leaders. They are more prone to think about what people want from a church and then establish programs, “worship” experiences, and studies that meet those desires as a hook or door to introduce them to the gospel.

  • People want to be encouraged and supported because they feel so busy and stressed, so let’s have a bible study on joy and hope!
  • People want to feel like God is really working in their life, so let’s put on a powerful performance with lots of people and energy so everyone gets the sense that they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
  • People want convenience because of their busy schedules, so let’s provide multiple services in multiple locations that allow flexibility in participation.
  • People want easy relational connections because they’re lonely, so let’s organize our fellowships by life stage so that people can become friends with others without the barriers of age and marital status complicating the situation.

You can see the logic here. You can also see the earnest desire to reach and serve more people.

But long ago, I started to suspect that this model is not only ineffective at producing mature disciples but that it severely distorts the witness of the church by clouding the message of the gospel. The form, structure, and logic of the church life and ministry are just as formational as the content of the message being preached. In other words, a pastor or teacher can be explaining the gospel, inviting people to receive Jesus, and preaching biblical texts with relatively faithful exposition while at the same time undermining the process of discipleship by drawing people into a church life that does not comport with the the gospel and the life of discipleship. Perhaps the article says it best:

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken pastored a church that also believed we could and should exploit consumerism. But through a long and arduous process of examination, they changed their mind. They came to believe that the way we practice church forms us in ways that rival, and at times, preempt the things we say. We can tell people to practice self-denial, but when everything we do caters to their felt needs as consumers (from their placement in small groups, to their participation, or lack thereof, in worship), our practice contradicts the teaching. It’s no wonder so many well-meaning church goers find the call to a cruciform life utterly incoherent.

I encourage you to read the article and to consider both your church’s model and the logic of your own involvement with your church whether as a leader, member, or attender. If you really want to dig into the issue, pick up Selling Out the Church by Philip D. Kenneson and James L. Street.

I’d love to hear feedback in the comments. I think this is one of the most pressing issues in the American church.