The Shift to Preference Driven Church

In his new book, I Will, (B&H Publishing Group) Thom Rainer charts some of the reasons for what he terms the “terrible shift to the preference driven church.” These are some challenging words.

“I can’t put a specific date on it. Smarter people than I have tried to explain it. Somewhere in the twentieth century, believers, particularly in America, began to shift from an attitude of self-sacrificing service to God and worship of God, to consumer-focused, self-serving attitudes.

It has been a terrible shift.

Some blame it on the secularization of our culture. Others point to the degradation of theology in our churches. Still others say local church leaders themselves have taken on corporate models and turned our churches into consumer-focused organizations.

There is probably some truth in all three explanations. But there is one thing we can say with certainty: the focus in too many of our church worship services is not on God. We are focused on our own selves, our own needs, and our own preferences. See if some of these comments from church members hit home. They come straight from my blog at ThomRainer.com.

That music is not the style I’m accustomed to hearing. If they don’t change things, I’m leaving this church. Wars over worship styles have taken their toll on many of our congregations. Churches have split. Members have stop attending. Church business meetings have turned into verbal brawls. Pastors and worship leaders have been forced out of their jobs.

No, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have our own preferences about worship and music styles. And we should certainly be given freedom to provide input about those matters. But I know the lack of civility, the harsh words, and divided churches cannot be ascribed to worship. Those are sinful and self-serving behaviors.

I don’t like the pastor’s preaching. Okay, let me be clear here. You certainly should expect your pastor to preach the Word. But preference-driven church members have different agendas. They want the sermon to be their preferred length. They want their pastor to emulate the latest and most popular podcast preacher. Indeed, many church members would like to assign their own texts and topics to be preached each week. Their agenda is not about worshipping God when the Word of God is preached. To the contrary, their agenda is about themselves. Their focus has turned from God to self. They are not worshipping God with fellow believers.

I am not comfortable in the worship services. ‘Someone is sitting in my pew.’ ‘The cushions on the chair are not comfortable.’ ‘I don’t like the times of the services.’ ‘The music is too loud.’ ‘We have to sit too close together.’

You get the picture. The time of corporate worship is about me, myself, and I. It is about my needs, my preferences, and my wants. It’s hard to find God in this scenario. It is all about us. It’s not all about God.” (pp. 30-32)

I Will is a hardcover with 128 pages and sells for $12.99.

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, one of the largest Christian resource companies in the world. Also a respected pastor and researcher, he has written more than twenty books and coauthored the No. 1 best seller Simple Church. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons, several grandchildren, and live in Nashville, Tennessee.

I will

My Last Day

After 15 wonderful years in Christian retail I am finally moving on to a new chapter in my life. Starting Monday I will be a publicist for Baker Academic and Brazos Press. I’ve learned a lot while in the retail environment. I never planned on being in retail. But I caught the retail bug while working at various retail stores while in seminary. That sounds strange to say–especially for someone who was planning on teaching–but it’s true. I enjoy the pleasure of meeting new people every day and having a contingent of regular customers who have become staples in my life. My position as a buyer for Bibles and academic books has been incredibly fulfilling. It’s no secret that my favorite imprint is Baker Academic and Brazos Press. To have a closer connection to that amazing staff is a privilege I eagerly await. Part of my responsibility will be to maintain the Brazos blog. Come visit me from time to time and see what’s new from Brazos Press.

My appreciation for Christian fiction and music

I started with Baker as a cashier working at the store in Holland, Michigan. The only remaining staff person from that store now works by my side here at the Grand Rapids store–Chris, our fiction buyer. She delights in telling people that she got me to cross over to “the dark side.” It’s true. I’ve never been a fan of fiction but she introduced me to Steven James and I was immediately hooked. Yes, it’s only one author but it was a step in the right direction as far as she was concerned. Her job was done. Thank you Chris for all that you’ve taught me. I’m a better person because of our friendship.

Prior to Baker I rarely listened to “Christian” music. But I’ve developed a strong liking for two artists: Matthew West and Jimmy Wayne. I have had the pleasure of meeting both of them. If they ever come to the store I’ll be in the front row.

Books, Bibles and Trends

During my first training session in the Holland store my trainer said in passing “We can’t seem to keep this book on the shelf.” The book she was referring to was The Prayer of Jabez. As I reflect on that I think of the books/trends I’ve seen come and go. I’ve seen Left Behind get left behind. The “Emerging Church” emerged and has now wilted. I’ve seen the birth of a few Bible translations (English Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard, Modern English Version, Common English Bible and the new Passion Translation) and the death of at least one (TNIV, although some have argued it was reincarnated in the 2011 NIV). More than a few study Bibles and devotional Bibles have been introduced into the market. They include (in no particular order) The Archeological Study Bible, The ESV Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The NLT Study Bible, The NIV First-Century Bible, The NIV Essentials Study Bible, The CEB Study Bible, The Chronological Study Bible, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Reformation Study Bible, The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible and soon we will see The NIV Zondervan Study Bible. We also saw the introduction of the Waterproof Bible. When it first came out I took one and put in a fishbowl full of water. It stayed there for two months. I still have it today and it looks like brand new. They hold up quite well.

Industry changes

I’ve watched the industry change in dramatic ways. Hundreds of bookstores have closed including a few chains. Family Christian stores is on life support. The publishing landscape has changed as well. In my time Baker Publishing Group acquired Bethany House and made a sizeable acquisition from both Hendrickson Publishers and Regal Books. HarperCollins bought Zondervan and then later Thomas Nelson. Random House purchased Multnomah. When I first started field reps (vendor reps that would actually visit a store) were numerous. Now there are only handful. Speaking of field reps I want to give a shout out to two who have been with me the longest: Larry Avery (HarperCollins Christian Publishing) and Jerry Gortmaker (Noble Marketing). Both have taught me so much about being a buyer and understanding the nuances of the industry. Thank you!

Some favorite events.

We’ve hosted a lot of events over the years. We have worked hard at making Baker Book House more than a bookstore. We are a resource for the community to come together and engage with each other and to discuss the pressing issues of our culture.

There are two events that stand out for me: William Lane Craig and Fr. Robert Barron. As different as these authors are a common thread is the way in which they incorporate philosophy into their vocations. Craig with theology and apologetics and Barron with theology and culture. Both have been a huge influence in my intellectual life. Close behind these two was our forum on homosexuality (featuring Justin Lee and Wesley Hill). We took a risk with this one but we knew that many in the church were struggling with how to talk with loved ones who either identifed themselves as gay or were dealing with same-sex attraction. The event focused on the importance of dialogue. The question at hand was a simple one: how do two people who have firmly-held convictions on the subject talk to each other? It was not a time for persuasion but rather a model of tolerance and dialogue. Most people got it. Some didn’t. Other favorites would include Alvin Plantinga, N.T. Wright, John Walton, Norman Geisler, Kevin DeYoung, Michael Wittmer, Steven James, Michael Horton, Richard Foster, and John Dickson. Of course there’s always a story about the one that got away. I had Bart Ehrman booked and ready to go but it didn’t work out. I found him to be gracious and more than willing to come to the store. Our plans were to have him along with Craig Evans talk about Ehrman’s new book How Jesus Became God. Both men were excited about the possibility. I think that would have been a great event.

Book Tables

Doing book tables was a regular part of my job. As I look back I figure I’ve done over 200 book tables. Most of them were in churches but I’ve also done them in seminaries, hotel ballrooms, a couple of  high schools, a movie theater, a civic center, a college gym and one pub. One of my most awkward tables was when I did my first all women’s conference. The church had converted all the restrooms to ladies’ rooms. When nature called I scrambled to find a restroom that was allocated for my gender. Fortunately for me they had one (though it was outside in another building). Since that time whenever I did a women’s conference (and there were more) that was my first question. The record for fewest books sold at a table–one.

Future of this blog

I didn’t start this blog. It kind of landed in my lap after a coworker started it and then left two weeks later for a job with Zondervan. I had no idea what I was doing. Over the years I’ve made it into something that I hope has served some purpose. I’ve received lots of compliments and have a small following. Thanks to all of you who have helped me find my way and provided comments. Special thanks to my friend Paul Adams who helped me on several occasions to tweak or repair the blog as needed. Without his help there would be no blog. Not a healthy one at least. Any imperfections remain my own. My replacement (who has not been named by the time I wrote this post) will take over the responsibilities of the blog. I’ve scheduled several posts through the last half of July and August to help him/her along. Most of those are notices of forthcoming titles. The Spring 2016 list from Baker Academic and Brazos Press is especially strong. I think you’ll find many of them quite interesting.

Final thoughts

I love my job. I love the people I’ve worked with both past and present. They have shaped me in more ways than they will ever know. For the purpose of this blog I’ve referred to them as “staff” but they are so much more. They are friends. Some of them walked with me through one of the darkest times of my life–the death of my son. They carried me when I felt I couldn’t go on. They cried with me in quiet moments. They pushed me forward knowing I could go further than I thought I could. But far outnumbering the tears of sorrow was the laughter we shared. Our lunch conversations would range from our favorite TV shows to the history of the birth control pill. We covered it all.

It’s a job I leave with memories I will cherish and friends I know I can count on whenever I need them. The best thing about this new chapter of my life is that I will stay with Baker. This is a company like few others (and I’ve had plenty of jobs). Though I never met the founder, Herman Baker, I’ve worked closely with his son, Rich, and his grandson, Dwight (the current president). I can testify that it is a company that cares about every facet of the business especially the people. You could say I’m moving from one hand to the other. Today I’m in the left hand. Monday I’ll be in the right. Different hands, same heart.

What is “Exegesis?”

Last week a customer asked me what “exegesis” was. It’s a good question. I was looking through The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Eerdmans) and I liked his definition.

“Exegesis refers to the process of interpreting and expounding a text, usually a biblical text. It is distinguished from hermeneutics, which raises wider multidisciplinary issues about the nature, theory, and practice of interpretation. Usually exegesis involves (i) textual criticism, or establishing a valid text from among a multiplicity of ancient manuscripts; (ii) lexical research into the meaning of the words of text in question; (iii) grammar and syntax, which are used in the construction of sentences; (iv) an examination of historical context, which often also demands historical reconstruction; (v) an assessment of literary genre and its function; (vi) the exposition and often also the practical application of the text; and (vii) the appropriation of the text, which some would see as part of (vi).”

“Traditionally, much of the time taken on exegesis in university departments of theology and religion, and especially in seminaries or schools devoted to training for ministry, rests on the belief that all these stages remain necessary for the understanding of revelation and for preaching and teaching. But today the task of detailed exegesis is sometimes crowded out because more fashionable areas put intense pressure on the syllabus. Exegesis presupposes careful translation; but some universities and seminaries devoted less time to the learning of Hebrew and Greek than they did formerly. In the history of the church, Origen is regarded as a systematic exegete as well as a theologian, and Chrysostom’s commentaries are often still used. Luther was a professor of biblical studies, and Calvin is often regarded as the first ‘modern’ exegete, especially in his numerous commentaries.” (pp. 316-17)

Thiselton companion

 

The Reading Habits of an Academic Book Buyer (That’s Me)

The other day someone asked me “What are you reading?” I get the question a lot and many times, for as much as I’m reading, I draw a blank. I have to stop and think hard about what’s on my reading list. Prior to my current occupation I would read thoroughly through whatever subject was of interest to me. I would chase down hard-to-find books and journal articles. Now all of that has changed. At times I feel like I’m drinking from a fire hydrant.

I offer the following short account of my current reading.

Some time ago (about 2 months) I starting Gary Anderson’s book Sin: a History (Yale University Press). I love it. But it suffered the fate of many books I start—something else came along and pressed it to the back burner. I found it on my desk last night and my book mark shows I stopped on page 145. Fifty-seven pages shy of the end. I know I will finish it but not right now. I’m 217 pages (128 pages to go) into Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book Welcome to the Orthodox Church (Paraclete Press). I’ve read 108 pages of Reclaiming Pietism by Roger Olson and Christian Collins (78 pages till the end, Eerdmans) I started reading The Way of the Wesleys by John Tyson (Eerdmans) but didn’t advance very far so it is definitely on the back burner. I’m half way through This Strange and Sacred Scripture by Matthew Richard Schlimm (Baker Academic).

I’ve read, and finished, Chris Castaldo’s new book Talking with Catholics about the Gospel (Zondervan). I’ve been planning to write a review but have not gotten very far. Reviews are hard work for me. They don’t come easy and so I have to have a lot of time set aside just to do one. That’s why you don’t see many book reviews in the traditional form on this blog. I post a lot of first impressions and provide quotes to let my readers have a taste of what a book is about. It’s intended to whet the appetite and quicken an interest. I’ve read three chapters of Greg Allison’s Roman Catholic Theology and Practice (Crossway). I’m 150 pages into The Quest for the Historical Adam by William VanDoodewaard (Reformation Heritage Books).

I’m in and out of four commentaries: The Gospel of John by Francis Martin and William Wright, Revelation by Peter Williamson, 2 Corinthians by George Guthrie (all three Baker Academic) and 2 Samuel by Robert Barron (Brazos Press).

Since Fr. Barron is coming to our store in July I’m giving his works priority. Aside from his 2 Samuel commentary, I’m reading his newest book Seeds of the Word (Word on Fire) which is wonderfully insightful and fun to read. I’ve got two coworkers pretty excited about it. One of them has made it his “staff pick” for May. Yesterday I received two more titles by Fr. Barron which I ordered and hope to start this weekend: And Now I See (The Crossroad Publishing Company) and The Strangest Way (Orbis Books). I’ve read bits and pieces of Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? (Crossway) I’ve enjoyed some of the essays from John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings (P&R). I probably won’t finish this one but will use it as a reference work. I’ve dabbled here and there in Tim Staples’ new work Behold Your Mother (Catholic Answers Press). A former coworker of mine who now works at another book store acquired for me Garry Wills’ new book The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Frances (Viking Penguin). I’ve only had time to glance at it.

Of course this week I started browsing Harold Netland’s Christianity and Religious Diversity (Baker Academic). Last night I read the Introduction to Stanley Porter’s Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Baker Academic). This book will require every brain cell I have to work through. It will be demanding but I know the labor will be worth it. Given the slower pace I will have to take with this I suspect I’ll be working on this one for the better part of a year–or more. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a couple but you get the picture. It’s a mess!

I do most of my reading on the weekend (10-12 hours time permitting). I usually read three to four nights during the week for a couple of hours. What I read depends on what I’m in the mood for. I’ll read for as long as I can in a book and then when I feel the need for a change I’ll switch to another. The variety makes it easier for me to keep going. I don’t read much at work but can sometimes carve out some time to browse through some of the newest books.

So if you see me and ask “What are you reading?” and I get a slightly glazed look in my eyes I’m simply running through my mind the rolodex of books on my desk trying to bring one of them to mind. Just give me a minute—I’ll think of at least one of them.

 

The Gospel is Not Dynamite

Driving home last night I heard a preacher on the radio mention that our word “dynamite” comes from the Greek word dynamis. True enough, but too many preachers make far more out of this than what should be done. And he did do more than just “mention” it. Consider this from D.A. Carson’s book Exegetical Fallacies.

“Our word dynamite is etymologically derived from δύναμις (dynamis, power, or even miracle). I do not know how many times I have heard preachers offer some such rendering of Romans 1:16 as this: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believers’—often with a knowing tilt of the head, as if something profound or even esoteric has been uttered. This is not just the old root fallacy revisited. It is worse: it is an appeal to a kind of reverse etymology, the root fallacy compounded by anachronism. Did Paul think of dynamite when he penned this word? And in any case, even to mention dynamite as a kind of analogy is singularly inappropriate. Dynamite blows things up, tears things down, rips out rock, gouges holes, destroys things. The power of God concerning which Paul speaks he often identifies with the power that raised Jesus from the dead (e.g., Eph. 1:18-20); and as it operates in us, its goal is εἰς σωτηρίαν (eis sōtērian, ‘unto salvation,’ Rom. 1:16, KJV), aiming for the wholeness and perfection implicit in the consummation of our salvation. Quite apart from the semantic anachronism, therefore, dynamite appears inadequate as a means of raising Jesus from the dead or as a means of conforming us to the likeness of Christ. Of course, what preachers are trying to do when they talk about dynamite is to give some indication of the greatness of the power involved. Even so, Paul’s measure is not dynamite, but the empty tomb.” (p. 33-34)

I’ve said it before: this book should be mandatory reading for every seminary student and certainly for anyone considering a vocation in preaching. It is short, accessible and it will richly reward the pastor who heeds Carson’s advice.

Exegetical Fallacies

John Frame’s Thoughts on Joel Osteen

Last week we received the second volume of John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings. The book is divided up into seven sections: “Theological Topics,” “Theological Education,” “Theological Method,” “Apologetics,” “Ethics,” “The Church,” and “Personal.” Under the “Ethics” section there is a chapter entitled “Two Levels of Blessings, and a Few Words about Joel Osteen.” I wondered if Frame would blast Osteen with a spanking from a Reformed theological stand point. As I should have known from reading Frame he is much more gracious and circumspect in his evaluation of the famed pastor. Frame begins his essay by pointing to two levels of divine blessing: initial grace (or God’s initial saving grace) and subsequent blessing. He notes that Luther and Calvin were much more balanced than many of their followers. Luther, he says, “lived somewhat more in the realm of initial grace, and Calvin lived somewhat more in the area of subsequent blessing.” Frame says the evaluation of Osteen is “more complicated” than what his normal critics usually state. First, Osteen’s “preaching of blessing is presented in a salvation context–to people who are committed to Christ as Lord and Savior.” (p. 321) This means it “is a preaching of what I have called subsequent blessing, not a preaching of salvation based on works.” (p. 321) Frame says that while he disagrees with some of Osteen’s applications of Scripture he thinks that “for the most part they are true expositions of the passages he cites.” (p. 321) Is Osteen part of the “pray for a bigger house” kind of materialism? Frame urges caution here. “Although he does urge his audience to pray for earthly advancement and prosperity, he always puts that in a context of godly motivations.” (p. 321) Frame says he has been moved by one of Osteen’s sermons and that he has “found many of [his] sermons to be personally beneficial.” (p. 321) Does Frame have any criticism for Osteen? Yes.

“My only criticism is this: he preaches on only one topic. that topic of course, is subsequent blessing. That is a genuinely biblical theme, and perhaps it deserves more stress in today’s church. But there is so much more in God’s Word! If one joins Osteen’s church and trusts Osteen as his main teacher of God’s Word, he will not hear much about creation, fall, sin, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, ascension, regeneration, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, or glorification. He will not hear much , either, about the tragedies brought into human life by sin and by God’s curse on the ground. That would be a severe loss. Of course, Osteen’s own emphasis, on subsequent blessing, intersects with all these doctrines and gives his congregation a perspective on all of them. But he doesn’t teach these doctrines with any level of directness, and that is a mistake.” (p. 322)

Frame says he won’t “reject Osteen as a heretic or a preacher of ‘another gospel.’ His message is the gospel of Jesus as Lord and Savior, who leads his people in a path of blessing.” This final paragraph I thought was especially good and typical of the wisdom displayed so often by Frame.

“Still, there are many people who have been spiritually hurt–who have been troubled by the image of God as an angry tyrant, who wants to take away every happiness. For such people, I think Osteen’s preaching may be a healing balm.” (p. 322)

John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings is from P&R Publishing. It is a paperback with 384 pages and sells for $16.99. You can see a sample chapter here.

John M. Frame (AB, Princeton University; BD, Westminster Theological Seminary; MA and MPhil, Yale University; DD, Belhaven College) holds the J. D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and is the author of many books, including the four-volume Theology of Lordship series.

John Frame

 

 

Why We Need the Church? Some Insights from Martin Luther

I’m really enjoying Carl Trueman’s book Luther on the Christian Life. I can’t help but be refreshed by Luther’s emphasis on the importance of the preached word of God. This is a healthy response to those who would rather sit at home (or gather in a coffee shop) and pray and read their Bible. “No need for church” is the banner over the living room sofa. Trueman says,

“In Luther’s time, most people were illiterate and thus the corporate reading and preaching of the Word were the only ways in which the Word could come to them. Yet there is more to it than the question of literacy: the external Word—the Word mediated to me via another from outside and thus not immediately filtered through my own sinful mind—confronts me in a way that my own Bible reading can never do. The external Word preached is thus, for Luther, one of the major means of personal transformation.” (p. 90)

He continues, “[T]here is a prioritizing of public worship over private devotions. The latter are an important option but Luther sees that when it is the time of public worship, the troubled or lethargic soul would be better served in the context of the gathering of the saints. . . I can sit in my room and read my Psalter, which is fine; or I can go to hear the Word sung and proclaimed to me by others, which has a confrontational, external aspect to it over which I have no control and toward which I cannot be neutral but must respond either in unbelief or in faith.” (p. 120)

This emphasis on the church would even be manifested in Luther’s counsel to his parishioners. “One could imagine a person seeking Luther’s advice for, say, struggles with assurance. Luther’s first question of him would almost certainly be, Are you going to church to hear the Word and receive the sacraments? If the answer came back in the negative, it is safe to assume that Luther would send the person to attend church for a few weeks before he would consider giving him individual counsel. If the person had excluded himself from the objective means of grace, not only would spiritual problems be expected, but also Luther could really offer nothing else to help him.” (pp. 120-21)

Too many in church today are too quick to give up on church. They are swift to highlight the problems and throw their arms up in despair over hypocrisy, legalism, shallow preaching, and a host of other issues. But God has not given up on the church. It is important to realize that it is in the midst of the sin-infested church that God continues to raise up people who burn with passion for God and his people. The answer for many is to give up and meet in a coffee shop. Give it enough time and the coffee shop group will exhibit signs of hypocrisy, legalism, and shallow discussions of the Word. We need the church with all her faults and problems because she is the bride of Christ. When the faults of the church manifest themselves focus on patience and know that God is not done working with and through his church. What about meeting in the coffee shop? No need to stop that but don’t make it a substitute for church. Perhaps some time could be spent praying for the good of the church rather than criticizing and berating her.

Luther