Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Questions and Answers for Steven

Recently, Pastor Steven Furtick was asked the following questions for an email interview.  He declined to answer.  So, in the interest of helping a guy out, I offer my answers which he is very welcome to borrow…

1) You say you were inspired to write (Un)Qualified after being called out by a critic on YouTube. Tell us that story and how it shaped your definition of what it means to be qualified?

Obviously I can’t help with the story but I can tell you what it means to me to be “qualified.”
Honestly, I feel like I’m the most inadequate person to be doing what I do – not just as a pastor but as a husband, a dad, a neighbor and, well, a human being. What qualifies me, I believe, in all these areas is the love of God that is manifest in Jesus Christ. To borrow from Paul – if God is for us, who can be against us? And one more line – God’s strength is perfected in my weakness. To boil that down – I guess what I think qualifies me is that I am aware of my own limitations, shortcomings and sin and have confidence that in His love, God equips me with all I need to live the life to which he has called me. I’m qualified to live my story, not yours, not Steven’s, not anyone else’s, by the love of God, the grace of God meeting my willingness to acknowledge my weakness and my need.
p.s. I probably should have read Steven’s book before answer that…

2) You point out that the Bible is filled with stories of broken people that God has used to do big things. What is an area of brokenness in your life that outsiders would be surprised to learn about?

I try to be pretty transparent about my stuff, my wife thinks I may be too transparent. The brokenness that I am most keenly aware of is how selfish I can be.  My primary addiction is to myself and whenever someone tells me to “take care of yourself” I almost respond, “get behind me Satan!” because nobody takes better care of me than me. (I know God takes better care of me as His child but I look after – to use an old Bible word – “my flesh” like a boss.) That means I wrestle with pride and judging my best against other people’s worst a lot and I wrestle with keeping my eyes and thoughts where they ought to be. And writing this I am realizing that I also struggle with what you think of me too because after my previous sentence I’m now worried about it.

3) Some of your critics will undoubtedly say that you writing a book about being qualified is ironic because they don’t think you are qualified to lead in ministry. They claim you are arrogant and that your church operates on a cult of personality. How do you respond to such things?

Well, all I can think of is to apologize to my critics and those I have hurt or let down and ask them to forgive me.  I suppose my response is to spend some time in prayer and introspection, listening to the Spirit’s voice on this. I can definitely be arrogant, so I need to own that and make amends where I can.  Making sure other leaders are released and recognized in their ministries will hopefully defuse any sense of spotlight that might land on me.  A cult of my personality would be so incredibly boring that I don’t think we’d draw much of a crowd.

4) Some are uncomfortable with the size of your house and the level of personal luxury you’ve achieved. They say this proves you are unqualified to lead. You’ve publicly thanked God for your house, saying you live in line with Jesus’ teachings. In a world of poverty and prosperity preaching, does a pastor’s personal wealth reflect on his or her qualification for ministry, in your mind?

I think my use of my wealth definitely reflects on my qualification for ministry.  I live in the tension of being part of the 1% while part of a world where brothers and sisters of mine are going to bed hungry regularly.  Daily. I think greed is a pervasive and acceptable sin in our western world, though we typically don’t preach or teach on it.  I sometimes feel bad about the amount of stuff I have, not based on merit, simply based on the needs of my family.  These things have to create tension in our lives and we must live lives that reflect that tension or we can hardly say we’re being influenced by Jesus.

5) You say, “God can’t bless who you pretend to be.”  What do you mean by that?

I can’t say what Steven means but I can say that the masks we wear insulate us from God’s transformative love and isolate us from each other.  I think a big part of the work the Spirit does in our lives is to restore who we were made to be rather than who we would like to be and definitely freeing us from who we pretend to be.

6) How have you pretended to be something you are not in your own life and ministry?

I’ve tried on so many other pastors and their ministries over the last 30 years that it makes my head hurt to think about it.  I’ve read books, attended conferences and seminars and then tried to be these other people and live their story in my context or particularity.  It doesn’t work. Not really.  In fact, I’d say it poisons the soul.  I’m conscious today that I live under the influence of others and I’m cool with that, but I also like me and who God created me to be.  I embrace my introverted self, my quirks and weirdness and the awkwardness that is part of being who I am.  If I’m honest though, I have to admit that pretending comes easy but hopefully between the Holy Spirit and my wife I get called out enough to break the habit.  Getting older has given me the gift of feeling this need to pretend become smaller and smaller.

7) How do you distinguish between what it means to be qualified in God’s eyes versus the world’s eyes? Does one’s reputation among outsiders matter?

In my experience, it comes down to the voice of the Holy Spirit talking to me, convicting me, encouraging me, guiding me to know what counts with God.  I’ve seen way too many “qualified” leaders in the Church crash and burn or their families and marriages implode or their hubris get the better of them.  The problem, of course, is that we’ve built an evangelical machine that feeds this and rewards it until they crash.  (And even then we can offer a great contract for a book on how they rebounded.) No one in the Church gets there alone, we’ve fueled it, fed it and applauded it – we drink the Kool-Aid and then ask for more.  We can’t blame these men and women alone; we bear the weight of this with them.  Does reputation among outsiders matter?  Absolutely.  But “reputation” in the sense that we live like Jesus, a man of “no reputation.” We don’t want to be jerks for Jesus but if the world is applauding us and calling us successful, we need to double check our lives. To some we’re going to smell like death, to others we’ll smell like fresh air – we should always be evaluating how we smell and to whom we stink.

That's it, I hope that's helpful Steven and I appreciate Jonathan Merritt asking these questions and giving me a nudge for some time with the Spirit today to clean out some closets. Are there questions that are too scary for you to answer? Which of these 7 would you rather not think about?  Should leaders expect to be accountable for the way they live and choices they make?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Protecting the Gospel from the Truth

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Pastor/Evangelist/Miracle Worker ‘X’ tells a story about something they did, hypothetically, let’s say they claim to have brought someone back from the dead.  Unfortunately for you, you’re the kind of person for whom details matter, and the details of their story make you go, “hmmmm.”  So you check in to some of those details and find out that the story ‘X’ is telling is, well, an exaggeration at best, a bold faced lie at worst.  When a friend tells you this same story as something that really happened, you tell them the “rest of the story” only to be met with, “Dude, you’re sowing seeds of doubt, you’ll hurt people’s faith, you’re going to bring shame on the Gospel.  Don’t tell people that stuff.”

Or someone else tells a negative story about Pastor/Evangelist/Miracle Worker ‘X’ and you feel compelled to circle the wagons and protect dear ‘X’s reputation so that the people they’ve led to Jesus, help grow in faith, inspired to step out and “R-I-S-K” will leave the faith, get shipwrecked, doubt, stop coming to church.  “Touch not the Lord’s anointed,” is the quotable for moments like those.

The person in the above scenarios who finds themselves in a world of trouble with their family isn’t the exaggerator or the person behaving badly, generally it tends to be the person who asked the uncomfortable question or ratted out the anointed ‘X.’  We feel compelled to protect the Gospel from the Truth.  There is a curious aspect to our human experience wherein it seems when the legend collides with the truth, we prefer the legend.

I think for those of you who know the Emperor has no clothes on, the pressure is immense to say nothing.  I apologize for maintaining a culture where that pressure gets applied to protect people from the truth.  I think for those of you who feel compelled to double down on the Emperor’s new clothes, we’ve created a climate where we have encouraged you to not think independently and never question the narrative.  Truth, it seems to me, should be able to withstand scrutiny and shouldn’t require us to delete Facebook or blog comments in order to maintain ‘the anointing.’  We’ve tied faith to not asking questions and loyalty to blindness, and for these things, I apologize and ask God to help us overcome our fears and insecurities and help us trust that Truth is always where we find God and lies are always where we find the enemy.

Here’s a quote that might be useful for all of us in the Church in these days…

Here are some typical spoken or unspoken rules in unhealthy family systems:
Do what “looks good”, even if it is dishonest
Don’t be a bother and don’t rock the boat
Deny things you don’t want to see, and they will go away
Do what I say, even when I do the opposite
Express only happy positive feelings
It is wrong to be angry or sad
You must never question our behavior, but go along with it
You must conform to what we expect of you, no matter what
Your needs are not as important as our needs

We can do better.  I can do better.  And in 2016, by the grace of God, I will do better and let the Truth protect the Truth.  May God give us all a healthy family system as sons and daughters in 2016.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Mind the Gap

The old story/joke about Christian Education goes like this: a Sunday school teacher was in the middle of a lesson with her class when she asked, “He crawls up trees, gathers acorns and other nuts and he has a long bushy tail, what do we call him?” A little boy raises his hand, “I know the answer’s ‘Jesus’, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”  Meant to poke fun at our evangelical tendency to make ‘Jesus’ the answer for every question, when the conversation is about the nature of the kingdom of God the answer really is, ‘Jesus.’

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, particularly as I prepared a series of messages for this month.  Yesterday, a very good question by a Facebook friend has turned up the volume on the thoughts I’ve been having.

Jesus is called Autobasileia, Origen’s clever way of saying that Jesus is the kingdom in person.  If we want to know what the kingdom is all about, what kingdom living looks like, we simply refer to Jesus.

If we accept that premise, we’re faced with some hard challenges.  In fact, I think the list of things that acknowledging this challenges in how we presently appropriate faith would be so long as to be practically impractical. Like the mosquito in the nudist colony who could see the job but didn’t know where to start, the amount of reform, personally and corporately, seems beyond reach.

Unless we had someone who could help us.

I think the old poem by Wilbur Rees (I think I first read this in Swindoll’s Improving Your Serve – back before Amazon boys and girls), Three Dollars Worth of God hits the mark that I’m trying to get to:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

When I honestly evaluate my own life in contrast to the Autobasileia, I sense a substantial gap between the way I’m living it and the way he lived it.  The gap isn’t one of commandment keeping, while I’m far from perfect in that regard, I’m much closer to the Autobasileia than I am, say, Donald Trump. If we can all be honest for a sec, not ‘sinning’ isn’t really as hard as we sometimes make it out to be if we reduce our definition of ‘sin’ to the letter of the law.

The challenging bit is living like the Autobasileia, loving like him, giving like him, forgiving like him, giving up my life like him, carrying my own cross every day.

Personally, I prefer a more comfortable cross.  I like a more reasonable expectation on my life than living it for someone else.  I’m happy to put my family before myself (often – not always) but that’s where I want to draw my line.  That’s the contribution I prefer to make.  And the irritating thing is that the Autobasileia keeps erasing that line or refusing to acknowledge the existence of that line or respect that line – and he keeps calling me out to where he is, way beyond my lines.

There’s another old story about an ancient church father who was fielding some tough questions from recent converts to faith in the Autobasileia. The original Bible Answer Man?  The question came from some new Jesus followers whose occupation had been idol making.  The local church leaders told them they had to give up their trade and get a whole new bag.  They appealed to this church father back in the day about the unfairness of their situation and wrote, “We must eat!”  The church father had a simple reply, “Must you?” I hate that story because it challenges some of my own presuppositions that deep down I know aren’t really true.

Honest investigation sucks because you end up with answers that are incredibly inconvenient and almost always demand a change in the way you think and live.  An awareness of church history and general history adds to the uncomfortableness.

Dwight L. Moody famously quoted a word he received from a friend, “The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him. By God’s help, I aim to be that man.” I think of Antony when I read that quote.  I think of Francis.  I think of Martin.  I think the reality is that we have seen, and we create a special classification called, ‘saints’ to explain these outliers.  These are our pros, the rest of us are just amateurs unless we decide to turn pro.

I know you don’t struggle with this.  I realize this is my own internal conflict between the Autobasileia that I read in the Gospel and the pale imitation that inhabits a corner of my life and that I bring out at the appropriate times and places.  But today I wanted to share that struggle, to share my wrestling in the off chance that someone might share my struggle, someone might be interested, that someone might be on the same journey on which I find myself on this road to the Autobasileia.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Preaching That Grows Churches

After hours of painstaking research, listening to and watching hours and hours of podcasts, live feeds and archived messages, I can tell you the kind of preaching that apparently grows churches in the United States in 2015.

1. Angry Preaching.  This style of preaching seems to be exclusively successful with male preaching pastors.  This approach involves both tone and volume.  The pastor who utilizes this approach will season their messages with angry outbursts, will reference MMA and will occasionally threaten bodily harm to individuals who aren’t getting it.  They are typically very aggressive in their criticism of men and very generous in their encouragement towards women.  Often those who choose this approach wear flannel.  This group of preachers tends to elevate their own church (or multi-site campus) and what they’re doing, subtly but clearly, over and against the other churches in their area.  People most drawn to this style seem to be young men dealing with feelings of inadequacy and their own deep seated sense of anger at their little world.

2. Surrealist Preaching.  This style of preaching doesn’t seem to be gender specific and it typically involves a willingness or even a commitment to saying whatever crazy thing comes to mind.  It uses the biblical text as a springboard into whatever pops into their minds, including endless non sequiturs.  Careful listening will reveal that the pastor choosing this method will often be asserting exactly the opposite of what the text itself is saying.  Commonly, followers of this style will comment on how “deep” the messages are.  People most drawn to this style seem to be individuals who find personal satisfaction in feeling just a little bit deeper and more spiritual than others. (Followers of this approach often would testify to seeing the emperor’s new clothes.)

3. Self-Realization Preaching.  This style typically takes every biblical text to be written with the primary intent of helping you realize a more successful life.  This group will often preach from Old Testament stories to create models of uncovering those things that are keeping you from being all that God created you to be so you can find success in marriage, business and dating.  A favorite text and biblical character: David.  David faced Goliath so we’d all know how to overcome our problems.  David was overlooked by everyone but God just like we are, but God made him a king.  Preaching is often filled with many Barnum statements to make each message feel personal and yet universally appealing at the same time.  It’s possible this approach would even produce a coloring book for their children’s ministry that featured Jesus and their pastor.  People most drawn to this style of preaching seem to want an authority figure who will provide them with assurances or promises as well as affirmations that can empower them to have their best life now.

It seems that in any larger center in the United States, any one of these three will find an audience and will be effective in adding numbers to Sunday attendance.  While there are many other styles or approaches to preaching, some of which can be found at very large churches, these seem to be the most duplicated styles, most commonly occurring – according to my research – in growing churches in the U.S.

What kind of preaching do you like best?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Words With Friends

Like you, I read.  And like you, I also write.  And like you, I read blog posts.  Maybe too much.

Something that has occurred to me lately is that we Anglophones talk the same talk but it seems to me, we often mean very different things though we use exactly the same words.  Voltaire is to have said, “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.”  There’s nothing like a vigorous debate that ends when one or both of the people engaged realizes they aren’t talking about the same thing, nor have they been.

For the sake of future research and as a reminder to me to define my terms and ask others to clarify their own meaning and usage in future conversations that may take on a feisty tone, I offer these words by which I think people in my circles often mean very different things from one another in their use.


Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What words would you add to this list? What words are you confident always mean the same thing to everyone who uses them?

"Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled “words” two ways on the title page.”  ― Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Monday, June 29, 2015

Me and Dr. Piper

Making the Facebook status update “share list” is a post by Dr. John Piper or someone who works in his office.  I’d like to consider, for just a few minutes, what John has put out there for us to consider.

1. He starts by breaking the world into two kinds of sinners: heterosexual and homosexual.  Have you ever seen that particularly binary choice in the Bible before?  The language John (the gospel writer) uses, and I prefer, is that God gave his son for the whole world, not two groups of sinners identified by their sexual orientation.  The trouble, among other things, with this binary breakdown is that these are not our only choices for human sexuality and so it begs the question – what about everyone else?  Did Jesus not die for them?  I’ll confess, that’s me being nitpicky, I’ll try to do better on these other points.
2. Before we get to the Text, let’s note that the writer of this post, John Piper, also believes that the clear teaching of Scripture is that women should not preach or teach in the presence of men or practice the ministry as a pastor or otherwise be engaged in church government in a leadership role.  While we still have to deal with John’s argument, it is, I think, important to note what “clear teaching of Scripture” means to Dr. Piper.

3. John’s primary point is that what makes the Supreme Court ruling so unique is that it represents, “massive institutionalization of sin.”  Let’s see, has that ever happened in the U.S. before?  Has there ever been such a massive institutionalization of sin?  Well, there was this little era of American history whereby we enslaved a race of people and built our cities, universities and White House on their backs.  And we might reflect and recall the mass extermination, led by the institution of the government to displace and ultimately wipe out the indigenous people of the U.S. that we mistakenly called, “Indians.”  Watergate.  Iran/Contra.  We might even get contemporary and take a closer look at the institutionalization of greed in the recent financial collapse in the loan/housing/banking world that could not have happened without several institutions being involved.  And the list could go on and on.  John’s out of touch with reality if he thinks anything happening now is something new in regard to institutionalizing sin.
4. Dr. Piper is using Romans 1 as most Reformed pastors and teachers would like it to be used and those in his generation were taught to use it.  Most scholars, even Reformed scholars today, will acknowledge that the use of this passage to condemn the practice of homosexuality is a gross misreading of the passage and contextually should never be considered without including the point Paul is making with Romans 1 which is found in Romans 2:1, “You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things.”  Context is king – right after Jesus.

5. John then delivers this line, which I believe he believes but I find it, well, ironic: “The difference is: We weep over our sins. We don’t celebrate them. We don’t institutionalize them.”  Hmmm.  Most of us not in the Reformed camp would say that the news over the last couple years has been exactly the opposite of this.  Two words: Mark Driscoll.  Paul Tripp wrote, “This is without a doubt, the most abusive, coercive ministry I’ve ever been involved with.”  But Dr. Piper said, “First, no regret. John Piper has no regret for befriending Mark Driscoll, going to Mark Driscoll’s church and speaking at his events, or having him come to the Desiring God conference. I do not regret that. My regret is that I was not a more effective friend. Mark knew he had flaws. He knows he has flaws. And I knew he had flaws. He knew that I knew he had flaws. There were flaws of leadership attitude, flaws of unsavory language that I think is just wrong for Christians to use, flaws of exegetical errors, say, in regard to the Song of Solomon. I wrote a long critique of his use of the Song of Solomon. I wrote him personally about these. But I always hoped that in those cases the relationship with me and with others would be redemptive and helpful. He certainly gave me more time and counsel than I deserved. I remember him sitting in my dining room, spending a long time with me and Noel, giving us good counsel about the last chapter of our ministry, and then going home and producing a long paper for me and to give guidance to me and the elders. He didn’t have to do that. I didn’t even ask him to do it. So there was a mutuality about this and I felt loved by Mark and I wanted to love him in return. I still do hope for the best in Mark’s life and ministry. So, no, I don’t regret it.”  ( Some institutionalized sin is o.k., it just depends on who is in charge, eh?  He doesn’t strike me as coming across and terribly weepy here.  As a Church, even a casual reader of Church history will conclude that we have, in fact, institutionalized our sin.  So did Israel.  This is a human problem from which we all need saved (see Romans 2:1).
6. If I understand Dr. Piper’s theology, and I will confess I am almost positive I do not, he would argue that the SCOTUS did only what God has pre-ordained for them to do.  Even those who are living as enemies of God have already been pre-destined for this role and they are bound to act it out with no chance of acting otherwise.  Even if I’ve missed some subtle nuance of his Calvinism, surely we can agree that it is somewhat disingenuous for a Christian pastor with a Dr. in front of his name to be surprised that people outside of the Church have behaved in decidedly non-Christian ways.  That’s sort of, well, normal I think. 

This isn’t me weighing in on the topic in general that Piper has weighed in on.  This is me, writing about that bad thinking that smart people try to get away with on the road to telling us what we ought to believe.  It is me, writing about the hubris that seems to be pervading the rhetoric of my Christian brothers and sisters rather than the humility that seems more characteristic of Jesus than we seem to be reflecting at the moment.  As followers of Jesus, we have gotten this so wrong so often that you would think we would be a little less judgmental and a little stronger on the kindness and mindfulness.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

I'm Sorry if You Feel...

Way back in 1991, Johnson and VanVonderen published a book called, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. I hope it’s hard for you to imagine the words “spiritual” and “abuse” going together.  If you’ve been in the church for over a decade, I can’t imagine it is.  Recent events have drawn me back to some of their observations.  Paul said it’s not about people but about Principalities.  In chapter five of their book they nail down some of the symptoms of an abusive system – a principality – that hurts.

First, they identify something they call power-posturing.  “Power-posturing simply means that leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well.” Team leadership ought to be a remedy for this one but experience has shown that the “team” part may only exist on paper.  Or one person on the team will make sure everyone knows that they are the “coach”, setting them apart from and above the team.  Another key word here is, “mine.”

The second brick in their sick system is performance preoccupation.  “Obedience and submission are two important words often used.”  The authors ask an important question, “Do we come to church to be encouraged about trusting Jesus, or to be pressed to try harder?” At a recent event I was able to attend, Stanley Hauerwas said, “Church growth strategies will work for 10 years until the kids grow up. They will recognize manipulation for what it is.”  Sometimes we don’t smell manipulation but we can tell we’re experiencing it by how we are feeling about ourselves and the church.

At number three is one of the most pervasive and deadly aspects of an abusive system: the unspoken rules.  “If you disagree openly or publicly, you would break the silence – and you would quite likely be punished.”  Breaking one of the rules, spoken or unspoken, leads to consequences.  In an abusive system, the authors say, it will either be “neglect (being ignored, overlooked, shunned) or aggressive legalism (questioned, openly censured, asked to leave – in extreme cases cursed).” Or maybe even thrown under the bus.

The fourth characteristic of a spiritually abusive system is either extreme objectivism or extreme subjectivism.  In those that lean towards EO, “authority is based upon the level of education and intellectual capacity alone, rather than on intimacy with God, obedience and sensitivity to his Spirit.”  For those that lean towards ES, “it is more important to act according to the word of a leader who as ‘a word’ for you than to act according to what you know to be true from Scripture, or simply from your spiritual growth-history.”  They write, “In the name of some “higher enlightenment” by the Holy Spirit, you may be withering under a teacher with a limited reality who won’t be taught by anyone else.” 

Often abusive leaders insist you quote the chapter and verse that they have violated when you confront them with pain you are feeling over something they have done.  No chapter or verse that covers what they’ve done?  Then they haven’t really fouled you – but you’ve fouled them by making an unfounded accusation against a leader of the church.  Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.  Alternately, their experience or knowledge of the Holy Spirit trumps your own (ES). The common refrain and misappropriation of Scripture usually goes, “God’s ways are not our ways.” Which, when translated means, “my way is God’s way, not yours.”  The other subjective chestnut, “The new move of God is always opposed by the last move of God.” This, of course really means that what they want is always the new move, what you think can’t possibly be newer than their new and you confirm  it by your opposition to them and their way of thinking.

Can I suggest that love has never been superseded as God’s movement in the world?  Can I suggest that any leader who boasts about throwing people under the bus and who prays that there would be a mountain of bodies behind the bus before they are finished should, well, be finished?  Can I suggest that the moral failure of a pastor is not confined to adultery, chemical addiction or grand theft but ought to include abusing the flock of God they were meant to be shepherding?  Peter seemed to think so.  May healing come to all who are hurting, hope to all who are in despair, and life to all who are living in the valley of the shadow.

(all book quotations are from Johnson, David, and Jeffrey VanVonderen. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1991. p 63-71)