Read. Please.

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The infantile Christian reads “Christian self-help books that are filled with self-serving content…slogans, simplistic moralizing, a lot of stories and pictures, and inadequate diagnosis of issues that place no demand on the reader…What will not be read are books that equip people to…develop a well-reasoned, theological understanding of the Christian religion, and fill their role in the broader kingdom of God…[such] a church…will become…impotent to stand against the powerful forces of secularism that threaten to bury Christian ideas under a veneer of soulless pluralism and misguided scientism. In such a context, the church will be tempted to measure her success largely…in numbers achieved by cultural accommodation to empty selves. In this way…the church will become her own grave digger; her means of short-term ‘success’ will turn out to be the very thing that marginalizes her in the long run.” (JP Moreland in his book Love Your God with All Your Mind,  pp. 93-94)

The words that are not there: how our terminology confuses the issues.

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I’ve begun to notice that some areas where the church struggles for clarity have something in common: they involve issues for which we have invented terminology that is not found in the Bible. I don’t mean that these are “unbiblical topics,” or even that they are unimportant. That is certainly not the case. I am saying I think we have a lexicon of terms we have invented to refer to certain subjects–and that the meaning we give these terms sometimes cause confusion and chip away at clarity in the matters they were intended to explain. I offer three terms and discussions of how I see this happening.

Missions.

These words have become so common most will have a hard time believing they are not in the biblical text. “Missions” is such a part of church life and our understanding of New Testament life that it is hard to imagine talking about our faith without it. This is probably why we have the term in the first place. Luke refers to the first evangelistic journey of the church as a “work” to which the Lord had called them (Acts 13:2, 14:26). It is these evangelistic journeys to distant places that we have referred to as “missions,” because we undertake a mission to share the Gospel in some place we must strive to reach. In short, missions refers to the “Samaria” and “ends of the earth” projects that the Lord set before the church (Acts 1:8).

I hear much talk today about how “missions” is also “here,” and not just “over there.” Well, sure. But this depends on what we mean by “missions,” a non-biblical term. It seems to me we coined this term to refer to regular evangelistic enterprise away from home (it was a term originally used by the Jesuits in the 16th century). Such work is by nature complicated and requires someone to uproot from their regular life to go “there” to share Christ. They go on this “mission.” The average believer does not have to quit his job and move his family to share Christ with his neighbors.

It seems much clearer to me to say that we are always called to evangelism (here, there, everywhere), and that when we take it on the road we are engaged in “missions.” We like to say that everyone is a “missionary.” Fine, but again, not a word we have in the New Testament. Instead, we are all called ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20) or witnesses (Acts 1:8). Fulfilling these titles does not necessarily involve a mission to uproot and go somewhere just for the purpose of introducing the Gospel. It also doesn’t involve a commissioning by the church for achieving that purpose (note the Acts 13 commissioning and the Acts 14 reporting of all that happened). Such journeys realized in the context of church strategy, resourcing, and accountability is what “missions” has meant in the past.

Further confusing the matter is a newer variation of the term, “missional.” Many proponents claim that this word brings with it an entirely new focus and understanding of the church. I doubt that, but they mean something by the term–and when they talk about it, it really just sounds like the old term “missionary” (“a missionary minded church” = an evangelistically active church). A greater concern I have is that “missional” is a buzz-term used in emergent circles that often describes strategizing societal change (including social and economic justice type innovations) and “reclaiming society.” Whether or not the church has a charge to do such things is one discussion, but my current concern is confusing such undertakings with the Great Commission…which is a call to make Christ known among the nations. Period. If this is a trend, the line between evangelism and good works is blurred, causing more confusion among Christians as to their duty and calling.

Of course words change over time. It may be that “missions” is becoming synonymous with “evangelism” today. That may happen. In this case we need a good way to refer to the normative feature of the church by which she collaborates and coordinates to take the Gospel message about Jesus Christ to “panta ta ethne” (“all the peoples”) of the world.

Sermon.

The Word “sermon” never occurs in the New Testament. He calls his preaching a “message” or “word” (logos, 1 Cor. 15:1). Paul discusses the preaching of the church in 1 Cor. 14. In verse 26 he mentions the kinds of communications heard in a church service: a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, and an interpretation. The “teaching” (called a “lesson” in the ESV) is in Greek didache. The word is used elsewhere to describe what is done in the administration of “preaching the Word” (along with reproving, rebuking, and exhorting: 1 Tim. 4:2).

In Acts they preached: the Word, baptism and repentance, Jesus Christ, the Gospel.  Paul preached “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23) to “save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).  There is a relationship in Paul between preaching and belief, and preaching and the Gospel. Thus preaching is most of the time evangelistic (Rom. 10:14, 15; Gal. 1:16; Eph. 3:8, etc.).

Paul encourages Timothy to preach the Word…and mentions activities that seem to accompany Gospel ministry: reproving, rebuking, exhorting (2 Tim. 4:2). In Romans Paul spoke of preaching against stealing (2:21)…a context that indicates preaching not focused on the Gospel message per se, but which has to do with the implications of the Gospel.

We refer to preaching ministry today by using a word that encompasses the content and delivery of preaching: the word sermon. It is not a biblical term. As such, this word bears the weight of whatever understanding of “sermon” a person has accrued in their experience. Thus, a “good” sermon is either loud or not, long or short, emotive or informative, liberal or conservative, evangelistic or “practical”, motivational or educational. The confusion is that since “sermon” is not a biblical concept, no one knows what it refers to but everyone seems to know when they’ve heard a “good one.”

Paul insisted that his delivery was weak. My guess is that he would not be hired to preach by the standard mega church today. His content was often controversial, negative, demanding, and authoritative. On the other hand, he was clear, passionate, Christ focused, and pastoral.

The bottom line is that in the early church they did not preach sermons. They taught the truth.

Contemporary confusion is evident in an ongoing disagreement among Evangelicals about what makes a “good sermon”–which is completely irrelevant if I am correct about what the early church leaders did in their ministries. I am afraid that most of what we find in the pages of the New Testament would not pass today as content for a “good sermon.” It needs to be refined, toned down, sanitized, and turned into practical steps about me.

The danger in all of this confusion is that pastors feel the need to somehow comply with the ever changing and subjective standards for what a “good sermon” is. If they don’t cozy up to contemporary demands, people might not attend church. As a result sermons tend to sound like other sermons rather than bringing clarity to the meaning of Scripture.

So how do we determine what a “good sermon” is? We probably don’t. It seems to me that “sermon” is too fluffy a term, to subjective an idea. Rather, we consider the job of the preacher to be teaching and clarifying the truth. When he pulls that off (and criteria for this is another discussion), we have hit gold.

Discipling.

Certainly the noun “disciple” is a New Testament word. The word has a generic sense: anyone who follows a teacher to learn from him. It also had a specific application to those who embraced Jesus as their Lord. The word in the book of Acts is synonymous for “believer.” The disciples took Jesus’ commission to heart and went about “making disciples”–that is, bringing them to saving faith in Christ.

The verbal form (“make disciples”) only occurs four times in the New Testament, three of them in Matthew (Matt. 13:52, 27:57, 28:19, and Acts 14:21). In 13:52 and 27:57 the word describes those who “become disciples” (passive voice). In Matthew 28:19 and in Acts 14:21 the verb is in the active voice and speaks of “making disciples.”

Contemporaries have coined a couple of related terms: discipling and discipleship. Neither form occurs in the New Testament. “Discipling” certainly sounds different than the biblical form “making disciples.” It usually describes an ongoing process. The word “discipleship” is a word we use to describe the life and duties of the disciple.

With the biblical verb “make disciples” there is a point where one definitively becomes a disciple (as is consistent with Matthew’s usage). In fact, “make disciples” (one word in Greek) is similar to the meaning of “preach the Gospel,” except that it also implies a positive response to the Gospel (Acts 14:21, “they preached and made disciples”).

So the difference in our usage is that today we talk about discipling as an ongoing process, and this is not typical of New Testament terminology. In the New Testament there is simple “disciple making,” and this is the equivalent of effective evangelism. Disciples are made at conversion, not at the end of an extended training process.

Certainly there is ongoing development for every disciple…but in the New Testament sense this is not “disciple making.” In the Acts passage where “make disciples” occurs, Paul returns to cities where he had previously evangelized and “strengthened” and “encouraged” them. These activities are not called “discipling.”

The confusion that sets in is this: churches begin to speak of disciple-making as a process. To do this they often separate conversion from becoming a disciple. So becoming a disciple becomes a post-conversion option for the more committed among believers. If you opt in to this program, you enter a new journey that takes you to a higher level of Christian experience.

This provides an out for the believer to disengage from the growth process and to see it as optional. And it confuses the biblical idea that one becomes a disciple by means of his faith response to Jesus. Every true believer is a disciple.

The things I hear and read include comments along these lines: “one is not a disciple until he is leading other people Christ and teaching them as well.” This is nonsense. I would agree that evangelism is a goal for every believer, but it is not evangelistic work that makes someone a disciple!  I have read authors who disagree about what “makes a disciple,” requiring various virtues ranging from good works to tithing!

Of course where the word “discipling” is used just to refer to helping a new believer understand practical aspects of the Christian life, there is no inherent confusion. The fact is that we use this coined term “discipling” to refer to a cluster of activities described throughout the New Testament with other (probably more familiar) terms: encourage, teach, exhort, reprove, edify, strengthen.

Some post-rapture, um, post-not-quite-rapture, thoughts…

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What a surprise. It didn’t happen.

And what a surprise…the event has been postponed 5 months. Sort of. I guess I haven’t taken the time to sort out Camping’s eschatological mess…but evidently he holds to some kind of post-tribulational form of dispensational eschatology: believers will go through a tribulation period and then destruction will come. I say this because Camping is now saying that the destruction of the world will come in October. Honestly, if I have to read much more of this stuff that will be my prayer.

The fallout of all of this?

1. Embarrassment to Evangelicals. A massive number of Evangelicals have been dispensational in some way. Particularly the non-denominational kind of Evangelical. Dispensationalism is seldom treated fairly. But little wonder…those who promote it make it such an easy and inviting target for ridicule. The Campings of  the world are the best example. Movies depicting a simplistic “end times” perspective and the new literary genre “rapture-fiction” also make for great spoofing and ridicule. No, Evangelicals have done themselves no favors…and secularism is all too willing to pounce on it for all it is worth. We will be hearing about this for a long time. And it won’t be good.

2. Delayed closure. Camping has moved the “end” to October 21, 2011. Great. Yes, that means we have to live this all over again. I remember as a kid wondering how the whole return of Christ thing could come as such a surprise when it gets such widespread attention. Good question. It is really front and center…with all of the Christianese lingo and jargon front and center. My best guess is that for all our understanding of the book of Revelation…we are missing a lot of how things will really be.

3. Dismissing of Christian theology. Most people know nothing of “dispensationalism” or “covenantalism.” All they know is that there is a Christian worldview from the Bible roughly referred to as “theology.” Sadly, for the less informed…it is Christian theology that takes a hit. It is less credible, less worthy of acknowledging. It is something, to some degree, silly. It is true, many did this anyway. But now there is some reason to justify dismissing something so ludicrous. Can you imagine how useful something like this is in the hands of the “new atheists”?

4. A desire for greater care in handling end-times issues. Yes…this is a good one. It is at least a hope of mine. I am no end-times/prophecy specialist. And I think that is best. The “specialists” scare me. I guess we have to have them. Maybe Jesus’ words are apropos restated: “end-times buffs you have with you always.” Anyway, my hope is that the sting is so biting, the embarrassment so acute, that Evangelicals will be more careful in what they say, and how the apply, and how they interpret, and how they respond to current events. Let God be sovereign over history and quit claiming to know his mind with such pinpoint accuracy.

Some pre-rapture thoughts.

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I have followed apologetics for some time. Apologetics in all its standard forms: classical, evidentialist, presuppositional, etc. I think they all have something to offer and enjoy reading the various claims and counter-arguments lobbed against Christianity.

But it seems to me there is a better ploy for attacking Christianity than arguing against it (though that ploy enjoys a sad effectiveness). Instead of offering devastating counter-punches to Christian truth-claims…one could just work at rendering Christianity irrelevant. How? By turning it into a freak show. It’s an old courtroom approach…eliminate testimony by casting doubt on its trustworthiness.

Sadly, some Evangelicals make this project all too easy. It seems some have just dedicated themselves to turning Christianity into a laughable carnival freak show the deserves no second look.

This has been a project in motion for a long, long time. Much–of course not all–of the charismatic movement has worked hard at this. The odd, convulsive character of religious ecstasy has become such a caricature of itself that secular media has become proficient at imitating and mocking

Meeting with "laughing in the spirit"

it. Bizarre behaviors one can hardly believe are offered in the name of the people of Jesus Christ: barking in the spirit, laughing in the spirit, being slain in the spirit, etc. In many churches standard “worship fare” includes falling on the ground and convulsing to the point that blankets are thrown over women in dresses so they don’t expose themselves in the process. Pastors driven by experience instead of theology talk in detail about their own out of body experiences and specific, detailed revelations from the Lord. They predict events and prophesy…and no one says a word when the prophecies fail. Taken all together, pieces of the movement form a freak-show beyond my ability to invent. And they are irrelevant by reason of their foolishness.

Another player has been sounding off for the last 20 years or so, growing more and more bizarre by the year. He has hit maximum pitch recently with his announcement that the Lord would return on May 21. I wish I could say that this kind of prediction has never happened before…but of course it has. There is a sad, frustrating history of confused or over-zealous preacher-types either setting dates or strongly implying them. Hal Lindsey never set an actual date in his Late, Great Planet Earth…but he felt strongly that the return of Christ could be in the 1980s. Edgar Whisenant published 88 Reasons the Rapture is in 1988–then updated in in 1989…then again in 1992, 1995…etc. (I was given one of his pamphlets at the time…I should have kept it!). The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a group that split off of mainstream evangelicalism. Their predictions include the years 1914, 1918, 1925, and 1942. The Children of God predicted Christ’s return in 1993. David Koresh’s Branch Davidian group predicted the end in 1995. Pastor John Hinkle of Christ Church in Los Angeles predicted the end to come in 1994, which he saw by way of a vision. And so on and so on. All of these groups are largely seen as irrelevant by reason of their foolishness.

Camping

And here we are again. Harold Camping is a radio personality. He owns over 50 stations and is heard around the country. He began his prediction tirades a long time ago. His book Are You Ready? made the claim and offered various ways of showing that the Lord’s return would be in 1994. He offered a fallback…he admitted it could be 2011. And here we go. I am not aware of another fallback date. There are more than 6000 billboards announcing the end. There is one by my house.

What am I doing on the 21st? Attending some graduation parties. Maybe working out. And I might check up on Harold to see if he offers any comments to explain the mess he has made.

He is irrelevant by way of his foolishness. “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons…” (Acts 1).

The issue behind the issues.

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All the recent books about recent trends are detailing the recent trend among Christian youths with regard to homosexuality: they don’t see it as a big thing. They tend to think the church has over-focused on it. They accuse the church of being “judgmental” because of it’s stance (isn’t that judgmental?).

I agree that the ongoing conversation in the church has not always been…impressive. Themes have ranged from “I just don’t understand them” (why is that relevant?) to bumper-sticker quality sloganeering (“God didn’t create Adam and Steve”). Sometimes the language sounds infused with hatred and rejection. Often discussions are just casually dismissive. And it may be that our language has suggested that homosexuality is better categorized with genocide than with adultery. All things to admit and repair. Point taken. And regretted.

BUT…there is another side to this issue…

While a new generation of believers has the right to demand new balance of old overstatements and attitudes…there is more being called for than reparations and retractions. A growing number of next gen believers are calling for a redefining of the Christian worldview around this subject.

It is clear that taking any kind of moralistic position against a homosexual lifestyle is going to be politically incorrect. It is going to be controversial. It is going to frustrate secular culture. It is going to anger some. Clearly true. But none of these things are acceptable reasons for altering the content of the Christian faith.

Christianity teaches that Jesus was who he said he was: God come to man. It further teaches that the record we have of Jesus is reliable and the rule for faith and practice. In that record, Jesus affirms the trustworthiness of the rest of the record that today we call the “Bible.”  That record defines Christianity. An idea does not become Christian because someone uses the word “Jesus” when speaking it. A worldview is not Christian just because someone says it is. What makes an idea or worldview Christian is its conformity with what Jesus taught and said–not what we teach and say.

So while the church of the past (and some of the present) needs to update and correct its approach to dealing with this issue…a new generation is going to have to address the other side of the issue as well: is my first commitment to Christianity and its teachings or to whatever will win me acceptance in culture? This is a huge, huge issue. I think that (within the church) it is the issue behind the issues.

The homosexuality issue is a thing in itself. I am saying that the issue of first commitment is the bigger issue. I’m sensing that many Christians today are betraying a first commitment to culture. Why do I say that? Because they speak with a passion and certitude about something the Bible speaks clearly to (like homosexuality), and when I ask them about the Scriptural position on the matter, they seem indifferent. Divide that up however you wish…it isn’t good. What I see written isn’t much better. To be sure there are a number of “gay theologians” out there attempting to defend this new idea…but their work is so inventive and does such violence to the text and hermeneutics it seems clear their first commitment lies outside of Scripture as well.

What does all this mean? Will the future church have a new view of Scripture? Will next generations of Christians be “forced” to push Scripture aside because of the pressure they feel to follow culture instead of Jesus? I hope not. It has certainly happened before.

Those churches are all closing now and selling their buildings…all a tribute to a kind of Christianity that shelved Scripture for what they considered to be more relevant.

My hope for the church of the future is that it’s first commitment will be to fearlessly model the teaching of Jesus. Regardless of the consequences.

The Unvexable Soul: the dangers of cultural over-exposure.

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“But God also rescued Lot out of Sodom because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him. Yes, Lot was a righteous man who was tormented in his soul by the wickedness he saw and heard day after day.” (2 Peter 2:7-8, NT)

The story of Lot and Abraham is that Lot chose to hang in Sodom…Abraham showed restraint and wisdom (Gen. 13:8-13). Here Peter tells some of the rest of the story. It appears that life in Sodom wasn’t all Lot had hoped for. As he submersed himself in Sodomite culture, Peter says that he was “oppressed” by the wickedness of the city (NASB. NIV reads “distressed”—the KJV reads “vexed”). This word is used in Acts to describe an Egyptian slave who was being whipped by his taskmaster (Acts 7:24). It is used in the Septuagint of the Jews who are burdened as a result of their own sins (2 Macc. 2:13). What is clear is that the porneia of the Sodomites, also called a “way of life” (anastrophe) was a source of distress to Lot .

The distress it brought him is restated with a second verb in verse 8: he was “tormented.” It is a word used of physical suffering (Mt. 8:6; Rev. 12:2) or of persecution (Rev. 9:5, 11:10). It is an extreme kind of agonizing. This came about for Lot by his “dwelling among them” (present participle of egkatoikeo). This living among them brought with it regular sights and sounds. Peter uses nouns instead of verbs to describe the experiences of his life in Sodom. It was continual (“day after day”), visual (sights, blemma), and informational (sounds, akoe). This cultural feedback was, for Lot, pure torment.

We know what Sodom had to offer. Today the word still carries the connotation of their behavior. Peter refers to it as aselgeia (behavior lacking moral boundaries, see same word in 2 Cor. 12:21) and says that it categorizes the Sodomites as “unprincipled (athesmos, unlawful or immoral). Interesting that he calls their behavior a “lifestyle” (see the word in Gal. 1:13; Eph. 4:22; Heb. 13:7). It was the lifestyle of the Sodomites lived out in deeds, behaviors, activities, and speech that wore him down. Why did it wear him down? Because he was, at his core, “righteous.”

It seems to me that we are in the same position as Lot. Our world is pretty much overtaken by a pagan “way of life” (anastrophe, Eph. 4:22). The things we see, the sounds we hear, the way of life embodied in the culture around us is often like the “lifestyle” of the Sodomites Lot lived among…with even the same issues involved.

Do you remember the rest of that story? God was going to judge that city because it’s “lifestyle” had become so offensive to Him. lot needed to get out. But, he had grown accustomed to the inner conflict…or, at least he had decided just to live with it. Now, nothing in the text actually says that he was wrong for living there. I’m personally not sure. He was certainly unwise to move there. Between he and Abraham, he is the foolish one. I think the point is that he was foolishly willing to just absorb the immorality of his surroundings.

I often wonder if we too just become used to the way of life around us. Instead of being distressed at what sin does to those we see…we just sort of shrug at it. After all, it’s hard to feel “judgmental” to people who live differently than us…it’s just a “lifestyle” they have chosen. I fear the possibility that we have allowed our culture to numb us to the aselgeia (immoral behavior) all around us because of constant (“day after day”) exposure to it. Instead of being repulsed or tormented by what we see…we are entertained by it…laughing at it with the rest of the fallen culture around us.

It is sad what became of Lot. In the Genesis account angels came to warn him of impending judgment. The townsfolk of Sodom saw them and came to the door asking that they might “know” them—a Hebrew euphemism for have sex with them (Gen. 19:5). What does Lot do? He offers his daughters instead (Gen. 19:8). Amazing. It seems that the constant overexposure he experienced to perversion had a warping effect on his moral judgment. I suppose it is possible that he just panicked in the moment of conflict with his heavenly guests…but whatever happened he responded with a seriously warped reaction. Is it possible that constant overexposure to and numbing to sinful living (anastrophe) can have a warping effect on us over the long haul?

These two passages together offer a serious warning about becoming over-fascinated with culture. They indicate that the exposure that comes with living in a fallen world should yield a certain “vexing” of souls that are righteous. The absence of this distress may indicate that overexposure to the culture has dulled the moral senses.

Good preaching. Really?

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I hear frequently that Evangelical churches are “too academic”–and I just can’t believe my ears. It is interesting to hear that, if for no other reason than that my own opinion has been that Evangelical sermons are generally too experiential and emotional.

I virtually never hear anything that even approaches academic from Evangelical pulpits. One certainly can hear Evangelical academic-speak. It is encountered in various societies and journals…vehicles that exist for the very purpose of academic analysis. But even the resources that Pastors  use now focus largely on application, giving a head nod to serious text analysis (the NIV Application Commentary as an example—not a bad resource, just a light one).

I was once a part of an interfaith prayer meeting that involved several churches in the area. The pastor of the organizing church took it upon himself to give any of us who might be on stage some instructions. “Whatever you do, don’t don’t don’t mention anything about Greek!” Now, I don’t know why anyone would have cause to mention Greek at a prayer event, but this pastor’s hysteria (and the ensuing diatribe he delivered) are typical today of the manic aversion to coming off intellectual.

Intellectual. That’s the word. It is now a pejorative. It is almost as though preaching heresy is preferable to coming across as studied or technical.

What I hear in contemporary Evangelical preaching does not justify any complaints of over-intellectualism. Pulpits trumpet sappy emotivism while congregants complain at any fragments of substantial thought that accidentally get through the sermon. And in much preaching none gets through.

Billy Sunday preaches

Why the complaints then? If it is not true, why is it so popular to suggest it? At the risk of oversimplifying, I think a few things are at play:

  1. I wonder if since the days of Fundamentalism a new expectation has been set for parishioners that is so academically low that a Pastor must actually restrain any theological or philosophic creativity to achieve it. I mention Fundamentalism because of the nature of that movement. It was a reaction against a pervasive theological liberalism that had taken over most academic institutions. The movement was largely a separation from academic institutions—and a resulting suspicion of them. That suspicion then became an attitude toward higher education in general…and Fundamentalism sneered (from pulpits) at anything that smelled of academia. Folksy preaching was preferred informed and educated preaching. It became “good preaching.”
  2. The Evangelical movement that followed abandoned the harsh, reactionary tones of “Fighting Fundamentalism.” It no longer saw the need to fight for the “fundamentals” of the faith over and over again in Sunday morning pulpits. But what would it return to? It would instead presume the truth of Scripture (as opposed to the liberalism it remained opposed to) and use the trusted text as a virtual “how-to” book of daily practicality. Sermons were filled with “keys” and “steps” to Christian living. Sometimes promises are attached: “10 keys to prosperous living” or “5 Steps to happy family life.” This new trend became the heritage of the movement….and set an expectation for what “good preaching” is.

Whatever the causes, we now have an Evangelicalism in which, in my opinion, there is an anti-intellectual climate. This is a serious challenge to a program in which believers are called to love their God with “all their mind” and to be “transformed by the renewing” of their minds.

If I feel any calling…it is a calling to bridge the gap and bring us back to where we should be.

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