Saturday, September 22, 2007

Acts29 Bootcamp - The Center Focus

I spent 2 days this week at the Acts29 Raleigh 2007 Bootcamp. I wrote earlier that I heard the words “Jesus” and “gospel” quite frequently during this conference, and that I was stirred up and mesmerized. Why? It took me a few days to put my finger on it. This may sound like a cliché, but the result of this conference for me was to reorient my attention not so much on how churches compare to one another, but how well they compare to Christ and uphold the gospel.

The whole strategy and foundation of Acts29 is that church planters need to be gospel-centered and preach such that everything that is said or done through and by one’s church ties back to the over-arching story of Jesus. That story is simply this: Jesus was God’s son, sent by God to live and walk among people 2000 years ago. Jesus was fully God and fully man. Yet, he suffered the punishment of death on a cross, which he did not deserve, taking our place instead, as we deserved to be there because of our own sinfulness. In return, we get eternal life and his holiness, which we did not deserve – because three days later, he arose from being dead and is alive today. It is through faith in this man & God named Jesus, not through any effort or qualities of our own, that we are redeemed and have life to the fullest, as we are now sons and daughters of God.

It is the challenge of Acts29 that every bit of everything we do as a local church point back to that storyline. Based on my understanding of church history and my own experiences, this is not new. This is how churches are supposed to have been operating all along. But this is not just a formula for success, as Acts29 expects this to really be engrained in the DNA of the people who lead and participate in the church. It’s not just that preachers preach about the gospel, but that they are humble men, who submit themselves to scripture, and live it out themselves. They even encourage pastors in this network to voluntarily establish accountability circles where they are regularly challenged to be faithful and pure in their relationship with their wives, families, and Christ. Acts29 paints a high-standard for the local church and her pastors, and that’s how it ought to be.

Mark Driscoll challenged these 200+ men who attended this conference that being a church plant pastor is going to be extremely difficult, and only those with intestinal fortitude and fervent gospel-centered leadership qualities will survive. And he’s so right. Even before the going gets tough, there will be temptations. At the conference, Driscoll talked about the typical temptations that bring down many people, regardless of vocation, such as sexual immorality, greed, addictions, or neglecting family to achieve career success. Pastors are far from immune, as there is an adversary in Satan working against them 24 x 7, and building the church seems like a higher calling than being a husband and father. (It is certainly not, Driscoll states.) Succumbing to those types of temptations typically leads to failed ministries, and often busts up marriages and families.

What I worry about for these young pastors is something perhaps as bad as a social moral fall, and that is when familiarity begins to breed contempt - when you remain in ministry, have the appearance of success, and yet somehow have distorted, compromised, avoided, or added to the gospel. I think there is a spectrum of ideology that exists in the Christian church today. In the center is the gospel as it was, is, and is meant to be - relevant, available, helpful, convicting, correcting, connecting, graceful, merciful, and loving all at once. But on the left is a concept often referred to as “watering down the gospel,” and on the right is a concept often referred to as “cultural irrelevance.”

Where church leaders think they themselves are on that spectrum will determine how they assess and compare themselves to other churches and pastors, and vice versa. The center leads to humility, the left, compromise, and the right, pride. There certainly are cases where churches water down the gospel, where they abandon conservative biblical principles in order to appease culture or church plurality, or preach a “prosperity gospel” where the listener learns how to get rich quick in the name of Jesus, or temporarily avoid the existence of the Trinity, in favor of a more widely-accepted, cross-cultural, international, United Nations-approved “God.” Likewise, there are churches where culture and the people in it are ignored unless they conform to the religious practices and traditions in the church. And where hellfire and brimstone and good works are preached, and love and mercy and grace are absent. I think both of these are the extremes, and I believe are the exception to the rule in the Christian church today. What I now believe to be mostly a waste of time is evaluating and wrongly pigeonholing other churches or pastors into either of these extreme groups based solely on reputation or out-of-context information marks.

One type of pigeonholing is this: When a person critiques a church or pastor to the left of where he or she is, it is often evidenced by surreptitiously rebuking the church or leader, sometimes while piously quoting scripture out of context. I have heard many Bible-quoting brothers and sisters automatically equate “watering down the gospel” with any and all of the following: drinking beer or wine, using secular resources in church, being "seeker-sensitive", using business principles to operate a church, serving coffee in church, having a mega-church of thousands of people, advertising, holding attractional events, not having an alter call every sermon, playing rock-style worship music, not using hymns, not having a choir, using resources from other churches or pastors, not saying “Jesus” or “sin” enough in a sermon, using resources from the Internet, not affiliating with a denomination, having church services on December 24 but not December 25, having fun in church or enjoying church in any manner (lest it be branded entertainment), preaching that is topical and not expository, preaching that only uses one verse per sermon, preaching that uses many verses per sermon from different parts of the Bible, preaching a topic that addresses a felt need of the congregation, preaching with a goal of life change (ie. transformation) over Bible knowledge transfer, not having Sunday School, having a church that is culturally “hip” or “cool,” and last but not least, playing cards. It’s as if there is a scorecard, and once you meet 3 of these criteria, you’re automatically a “cult” that “waters down the gospel.” In these cases, in the heart of the critic, the gospel has simply been enhanced with legalism. Critiques like this are often prideful, and serve only to attempt to set oneself apart from “that church” by "out-gospelizing" it.

The other type of pigeonholing, which I confess I have been guilty of, is being critical of churches to the right of the gospel that are irrelevant and inward focused, that hold to tradition and avoid change like the plague. These are churches that are potentially not on mission. It’s convenient, and probably incorrect, to automatically brand these churches as irrelevant just because they have a choir but not a praise band, play an organ, display Jesus pictures on the walls, sing from a hymnal, won’t use Powerpoint to display lyrics, dress up for church, use the King James Version, preach only expository, have a Vacation Bible School program, proclaim drinking beer or wine as sinful, belong to a denomination, hold evangelism fairs, have a steeple on the church building, have Sunday School classes, leave gospel tracts at restaurants instead of tips, or teach information from the Bible without tying it to today’s application. Again, it’s not necessarily a “3 of these and you’re guilty” scenario. There are good churches with good traditions that are reaching people and helping to transform lives in the name of Jesus. And while I don’t personally prefer some of these traits, it is true that tradition without substance can be a significant deterrent for non-believers, just as style without substance can be an inhibitor for truth, conviction, and real transformation.

Lest anyone think I am a heretic, it does disappoint me when pastors and believers miss opportunities to knock a home run in the name of Jesus. Jesus and the gospel is the distinctiveness of our faith. It is the key that unlocks doors and answers life altering questions. Jesus and the apostles spoke challenging and convicting words to people in sometimes gentle and creative ways, and sometimes pointed and unfiltered ways. We need a balance of both in our churches and relationships. We are Christ’s ambassadors here on earth. Some will do it better than others. Some will be more or less accurate and pure than others. Some will get it wrong sometimes. Some will avoid hard truths and preach only love and mercy. Some will avoid love and mercy, and preach only wrath and judgment. Neither of those alone is right, but it doesn’t mean that Christ can’t or won’t use the “fruit” of those churches. It is not our obligation to avoid being like those churches, or to tear them down in public blogs and at conferences. It is our obligation for ourselves to focus on being like Christ and our own churches to be gospel-centered churches. Jesus says in Matthew 16:18 that he will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it! That is a HUGE promise. Perhaps not every product of an imperfect church will be for naught! Let’s stop spending our precious ministry time comparing ourselves and our churches to others, and compare only to the One who is incomparable. And I’m saying this not only to others, but to myself.

Mark Driscoll has said, “The benchmark of what we do is, ‘Is it faithful to scripture and fruitful for people?’ What matters is people meeting Jesus and Him changing their life.”(1) I think that hits it spot-on. Driscoll also said, “The best way to have unity – is to have a bunch of people who are repentant and humble.” That is my prayer for all pastors and believers, not just those at the Acts29 conference. Let’s develop ministries that are faithful to scripture and fruitful for people, and be people who are repentant and humble. That’s the center.

1. Mars Hill Church Sermon Audio, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, Jan 22, 2006


Anonymous said...

Good stuff. Well said.

dwpiercetx said...

Thanks for that. My family and I are part of a "family" of churches and we're finding out more and more stuff that is wrong with the leadership of this "family" day after day. We aren't looking for these problems, they just keep popping up. I asked my wife to find out if there have been reports likewise with Acts29 and she found your blog. I have been praying about attending the Bootcamp in Dallas next month, and reports like yours are a blessing. Again, thanks.