We in the Free Grace camp need to think BIG about the future. I am not sure if I mentioned in my post about the Acts 29 conference I went to, but my biggest ache on that day was that all these men were going out to plant churches, and they were all Lordship/Calvinistic.
To be perfectly honest, I cannot stand any of the churches in the area. In the Philadelphia area, there are really no good churches. ALL and I mean ALL the “good” mild lordship Bible believing Baptist churches have gone totally reformed over the last 30 years (yes I was born and raised here). There are a few mild lordship Bible churches, but the vast majority are hardline lordship. Then there are the KJV only, legalistic kind of churches.
I go to one of the “mild” lordship ones (75% of the elders are lordship, the pastor says he is free grace, but still makes me wonder). The music is horrible. I cannot blame people for going to “emergent” churches.
My point, is, my heart aches for the 20s/30s today. When I was that age, there were still some decent churches around. I learned so much doctrine in church, that when I went to Moody in 1979, I already had read most of the books for my classes. It was simply building on what I already knew. Nowadays, I think people are hungry, and will take whatever scraps of food people like Piper throw at them.
People seem to think that you have to throw away all the teaching of the great men of the last century because it doesn’t match with the Westminster Confession. They think they are going back to their roots, by going back to the Reformation, rather than going back to the Bible.
I think we in the Free Grace movement should start putting together some of these big mega-conferences and provide some good worship bands, and dish out a good diet of sound teaching, from a free grace perspective. We need to provide an example of what God is like, and what missions are like, from a NON-Calvinistic, Non-Reformed perspective. In my opinion, their perspective of God is puny compared to what God is really like. Their perspective of the Gospel and missions is a massive confusion, dried up and withered, compared to the clear, fresh streams of water the more Free Grace type folks can provide for them.
I don’t think we could get 20,000 college people, but I bet we could get several thousand. More importantly, I think God would honor it. We in the Free Grace camp need to think big, and think “next generation.
Next to God, the Bible, and the Gospel of grace, one of my great loves is the Church. I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the “emerging church” recently, so I decided to visit one on Sunday. I went to google and searched for “postmodern emergent church dallas” and eventually found one that looked good.
Visiting an Emerging Church
I had learned from my “Acts 29” experience, so this time, I decided to “dress down.” I wore shorts and a ball cap. I’ve never worn a ball cap to church before, and during the service, I kept wanting to take it off. I probably would have taken it off during prayer time, but they didn’t have a prayer time, so I was able to keep it on. If I really wanted to feel at home, I should have walked in carrying an iPhone in one hand (No, I don’t own one) and Starbucks coffee in the other (No, I don’t like Starbucks).
The service started at 5:10, which seemed kind of odd to me, but made a bit of sense later. When I walked in, my very first reaction was that the church was much smaller than I thought it would be. Maxed out, the room couldn’t sit more than 70 people. The primary lighting in the room was candles, which provided a soft, worshipful “feel.” Some think that candles are bad because they are used by Catholics, Mystics, and cults. Personally, I like candles.
As I wandered around the room trying to decide whether to sit in a couch (yes, they had couches) or a padded pew, I noticed several pieces of art on the wall, and a coffee bar off in the corner. Nobody greeted me or even said “hi.” I guess emergent churches are just as distant toward newcomers as regular churches.
Wandering Around an Emerging Church
Eventually, as I wandered around, I found a room in the back which was more dimly lit than everywhere else and had some blue glowing birds in the center on a table. I went in to see what they were. On the table with the glowing birds were some mirrors and some instructions that as we enter into prayer, we should clear our mind of all thoughts (or something like this). I was alarmed at this piece of Eastern Mysticism which contradicts commands in the Bible to not clear our minds, but fill our minds (cf. Php 4:8). But I didn’t linger long, because I noticed four or five other tables around the room, and wanted to see what was on them. One had a “finger labyrinth” which the instructions said was like a real life prayer labyrinth, only much, much smaller. Supposedly, as your finger traced its way through the labyrinth, you were supposed to leave the cares of the world outside, and focus on the kingdom of God inside. Okay.
The next table had a big bowl of sand with a smaller bowl of rocks. The instructions told me to pick up a rock and hold it in my hand while writing my sins in the sand. After my sins were written in the sand, I was supposed to wipe them away because Jesus had removed my sins from me. I didn’t understand the rock, and thought maybe it was supposed to help me focus or channel. It was only after I got home and told my wife Wendy about it that she enlightened me. She said, “Well of course. It’s like the woman caught in adultery, and as people gathered around to stone her, Jesus wrote their sins in the sand.” Now that my wife caught the imagery, I think this is a pretty cool idea. I now wonder if the labyrinth and the glowing birds have some biblical imagery that escapes me. Maybe the birds symbolize sparrows (Matt 10:29).
On another table there were prayer candles you could light. This is also a Catholic practice, but I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong about it. The final table held a pitcher, basin, and a towel, which I supposed could be used to wash someone’s feet (John 13), or maybe your own hands as a symbol of neglecting Jesus (Matt 27:24).
The Emerging Church Service
The beginning of the service was announced by a funny little video which I won’t try to explain. The welcome was given by a young guy who explained that he was now happy in life again because he got a new iPhone. He was one of the first people in the country to get the iPhone on opening weekend, but the first day he had it, he went swimming with it for 20 minutes, and found out it wasn’t waterproof. So apparently, a week earlier in church he was pretty depressed because he had plunked down $600 for an iPhone and barely even got to show it off. Anyway, he took the phone into an Apple store and told them it was “broken” and they gave him a brand new one, no questions asked. So now life was good again.
The music was well done, and they even admitted to changing the lyrics on a few songs to fit proper theology. I agreed with their changes, which means our theology is somewhat in sync. They sang for about 20 minutes, which is typical for most churches, with a good blend of contemporary songs and hymns.
I wryly noticed during the singing that the pastor’s husband (Did I forget to mention that the pastor is a woman?) didn’t sing a word of any of the songs. He stood there next to his wife and scowled the whole time. She looked a little flustered herself. I’ve been a pastor before, and so I recognize what probably was going on. Most pastor families have big fights right before church. Actually, most families in general have big fights right before church. If you are part of a family, and you go to church, you know this is true. I don’t think this is coincidence. Anyway, I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to find out that the pastor and her husband had a fight in the car on the way to church.
The Emerging Church Sermon
After the singing, the pastor got up to speak. Apparently, she is preaching through Acts, which pleasantly surprised me since most churches today are turning away from systemmatic, expository preaching. She spoke from a portion of Acts 17, where Paul presents Jesus and the resurrection to the philosophers in Athens. Honestly, it was one of the better sermons I’ve heard in Texas so far. She went through the text verse by verse, reading it, explaining it, and applying it. She did a fantastic job.
One thing I liked, but which was very new to me, was that at any time during her message, people from the congregation could intersperse comments, jokes, or questions. Probably, this is much closer to the way it was in Acts and in the early church (Read some of the sermons by St. John Chrystostom to see what I mean. He too was expository, teaching his way through books of the Bible, and the transcriptions of his sermons are often sprinkled with his response to questions or comments from the crowd). I think that given the setting, the number of people there, and the personality of the pastor, these comments and questions from the congregation really enhanced the message and kept it even more lively and interesting than it already was. Many of the comments were very witty. The pastor’s husband, by the way, scowled all the way through the sermon too. He never laughed or smiled at anyone’s comments. Yes, there was definitively some marital conflict before church.
Let me say for the record that I do not believe that there are any biblical grounds for women being elders or teaching pastors of a church. This doesn’t mean women don’t know how to teach the Bible or don’t have teaching gifts. This woman clearly had a gift of teaching and knew her Bible well. I was impressed. But that doesn’t make it right.
Anyway, she taught for about 35 minutes. She sat on a stool, and used minimal notes. After the message, she explained that they always have a time of response to the Word (which I think is another great idea), and this week, she thought that the best way to respond to what we had learned was to have a time of silence (which I didn’t think was the best idea). It’s not that I don’t like times of silence. I do. I think church services and life in general should have more times of silence. I have an idea for an entire silent sermon I might give someday (the tapes probably won’t sell real well though). I just think there might have been some better ways to respond to this particular text.
The End of the Emerging Church
After the silence, they took an offering and had some closing announcements. The service ended at 6:10 pm, and they said in continuation of their worship, they would like to invite everyone to join them at Chipotle’s for food and fellowship. This is why they meet at 5:10, so they can all go share a meal together afterwards. Again, I really liked this idea (cf. Acts 2:42), but decided not to go since Wendy was waiting for me at home.
All in all, I don’t see what the big fuss is about. Maybe this church truly isn’t “emerging.” I never did see a doctrinal statement, and one visit doesn’t tell me too much about what they believe. But frankly, most “non emerging” churches I have visited are so stale and dead, they probably need to emerge a bit. Also, most sermons I hear in these other churches are so shallow and empty of content, it would almost be better if there were no sermon at all.
This shallowness and emptiness is one reason why “emergent” churches started. And I think we probably have a lot to learn from them. I’m going to visit this church again, just so I can get a few more questions answered (“What’s the deal with the birds?). And then maybe I will try to find another emerging church to visit. I do know that in a few weeks I am going to visit a “cowboy church.” I’ll report on that as well, but I can tell you one thing: there probably won’t be any candles.
I went to a church planting event today [2015 note: This was written on June 26, 2007] sponsored by the Acts 29 Network. It was attended by 200 or so young men who want to plant churches around the county.
I came dressed in wrinkled Dockers and an untucked collared shirt. I was the best dressed person there. It seems the dress code requirement for future church planters of America is sandals, khaki shorts, wrinkled t-shirt, and a baseball hat, with a tall Starbucks in one hand, and an iPod in the other (soon to be replaced by the popular iPhone).
Old Guys and Church Planting
Also, looking around, I think I was the second oldest person there. There was one guy older than me. He had gray hair. Also, incidentally, he was better dressed than me. His shirt was long-sleeved, and tucked in. After registering, I noticed him up on the stage. The young guy next to me, who looked like he just rolled out of bed, was talking with another young guy (who was barefoot!), and said, “Who’s the old guy on the stage?”
I smiled, because I knew who it was. It was Aubrey Malphurs, the speaker for this church planting event. He is one of my professors at Dallas Theological Seminary, and his books are some of the best that are available on church leadership and planting. His book, Doing Church, should be read by every Christian, whether they pastor a church or not.
But I thought it was interesting, especially as Malphurs took the stage, and ran into some technology problems, to watch some of the young punk pastors around me, sit back in their chairs, fold their arms, and basically shut off. You can almost hear their thoughts: “What can this old guy tell me about church planting? He can’t even work his microphone, or keep his Powerpoint on track with where he is in the notes. We’re a different generation, man. I’d leave now, but I want to stay for the free lunch.” The guy in front of me even pulled out a book and started reading.
Sure, Malphurs made some “mistakes” in talking to this younger generation. He began right off by apologizing for having bronchitis. This immediately cemented in our minds the stereotypical “old guy” who spends half his time talking about all his aches and pains. After this, he launched into a commercial for three of his books. He held the books up, and gave a brief summary of each one, and how we could purchase them at the book table.
For the young pastors in the group, this smacked of self-promotion, and Malphurs seemed to sense this, because when he was done, he said, “Well, enough of selling my own books.” The guy behind me whispered under his breath, “Amen.” I rolled my eyes at him…but since he was looking at the back of my head, he didn’t see me do it. I am very brave.
Church Planting Fools
This is when it dawned on me. We’re a bunch of arrogant fools.
I’m including myself in this, more so than the others.
They may have been critical of Malphurs without knowing much of anything about him, but I was being critical of all of these pastors for being critical of him, and I don’t know anything about any of these guys.
Most of them, probably, had time in the Word with God this morning, and I didn’t.
Most of them probably shared Christ with someone at Starbucks this morning, while I just glared at the guy in front of me at the Seven Eleven for asking stupid questions about AAA batteries to the Muslim man behind the counter who clearly knew nothing about batteries.
And the young barefoot pastor? Well, those of you who know me know I hate shoes. I wish I had thought to come barefoot.
Regarding Malphurs and his books, the truth is that we were all just jealous of his many books. I know I am.
The truth is that us young bucks can learn a lot from the older generation, but at the same time, many of the older generation need to be more like Aubrey Malphurs. He is a student of culture, an expert on the church, and knows the difference between the Biblical theology of the church, and the historical tradition of church. He knows that most of what passes for “church” in Christianity, is far from what the church is meant to be. He knows that most of what is “sacred” in churches today needs to be tossed into the trash.
Church Planting Critics
And most of all, each and every one of us, myself more than others, needs to be less critical of one another. To our own master we stand or fall. If I’m going to criticize someone, I need to criticize me. Take the plank out of my own eye, and all of that. Each of us must remember what we learned in kindergarten, that when I point the finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointed back at me. The best thing we can remember when we criticize someone else is, “We’re all idiots. And if I feel I’m better than all of them, it is only because by the grace of God, I am chief among them.”