It’s Always Sunny In Religious Journalism

The New Calvinists have to be feeling pretty good with yet another puff piece about one of the under home boys (as in under shepherd in relation to Jonathan Edwards as the New Calvinist home boy). Tim Keller is once again the darling of a national media outlet, the Weekly Standard, and he is doing what few pastors seldom can — showing that faith is not backward or sectarian but young, urban, even urbane:

Timothy Keller lists the types of congregants filling his auditorium pews: “A cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites—doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties.”

Huh? We raise our eyebrows. How could this be, when the city runs on secular selfishness? Or at least, secular selfishness drives the creative class and their upwardly mobile professional counterparts to pursue material success and swami-organic “self-actualization.” The traditional mainline Protestant denominations may be mostly dead, making way for the ongoing rise of a new orthodox evangelicalism. But in Manhattan?

So contrary to the secularization-is-winning narrative that predominates the media and academy, Keller (and the rest of the evangelical megachurch world) is what is really happening:

The truth remains: Megachurches from the Upper West Side to the Bible Belt draw mega-congregations. For Episcopalians, who can’t stomach evangelicalism, the rule is attraction rather than promotion. As empty pews and dwindling parishes testify, gospel-as-metaphor doesn’t attract troubled souls, particularly when the 21st-century’s troubled soul wants to know what’s it got to do with me?

It’s not news that yuppies, creatives, and masters of the universe have immortal souls, too. In 2016, it might take a minister like Timothy Keller to remind us what that means.

Granted, this is a short piece and so the author may not have had room to dig a little deeper in the Keller phenomenon to see if it is all numbers, success, and orthodoxy. Old Life readers likely are aware that some in the Presbyterian world (okay, me) wonder if the New York City pastor is as fully committed to the orthodoxy of his Presbyterian communion as this journalist assumes. Some of those critics (okay, me) also think that Keller’s cooperation with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants in planting churches in New York City and around the world not only raises questions about his commitment to Presbyterianism but also demonstrates the tell tale signs of the kind of interdenominational cooperation that turned the Protestant mainline from evangelical to liberal. If you can cut corners with the Shorter Catechism, your successors can cut more than corners — maybe an entire block.

Feature stories in journalism to be sure rarely go into great depth regarding the controversies or critics that surround their subject. But when the New Yorker recently ran a feature on the University of Chicago philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, they did not shelter audiences from some of the less than flattering aspects of her life. Not only did the writer cover the philosopher’s complicated relationship with her father, but also refused to ignore Nussbaum’s run-in with feminists:

In 1999, in a now canonical essay for The New Republic, she wrote that academic feminism spoke only to the élite. It had become untethered from the practical struggle to achieve equality for women. She scolded Judith Butler and postmodern feminists for “turning away from the material side of life, towards a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest connections with the real situations of real women.” These radical thinkers, she felt, were focussing more on problems of representation than on the immediate needs of women in other classes and cultures. The stance, she wrote, “looks very much like quietism,” a word she often uses when she disapproves of projects and ideas.

In letters responding to the essay, the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak denounced Nussbaum’s “civilizing mission.” Joan Scott, a historian of gender, wrote that Nussbaum had “constructed a self-serving morality tale.”

The feature story on Keller also reminded me of Christianity Today’s coverage of Bill Hybels back when Willow Creek was emerging as the more important megachurch in the U.S. The article sounded more like the Weekly Standard on Keller than the New Yorker on Nussbaum:

Because of Willow Creek’s size, the church’s leaders feel participation in small groups is essential to the spiritual support of its members. And in keeping with its megachurch status, Willow Creek is loaded with specialized ministries for virtually every need among its believers: programs for four age divisions of youth, three categories of single adults, married couples, divorced persons, single parents, and physically and mentally challenged individuals, as well as outreach services to the homeless, the poor, and prison inmates, are just a few of the selections from the church’s huge and diverse menu.

Willow Creek’s success has not gone unnoticed. Three times a year, the church sponsors a conference at which 500 church leaders gather to see how it is done. And in 1992, Hybels and his church elders formed the Willow Creek Association—which currently has a membership of over 700 churches—to provide support to other seeker-sensitive congregations.

Bill Hybels says Willow Creek is simply following the pattern of the first-century church. In the meantime, hundreds of twentieth-century churches are: eager to follow the pattern of Willow Creek.

So aside from questions about Keller or Hybels and their way of doing ministry, what’s up exactly with Christian and conservative readers of journalism? Do we always need to hear the positive and fear any mention of the negative? Faith is about inspiration, not about troubles? That may be what editors think and what marketing reveals. But for a religion that features all those animals butchered in the Temple, the execution of the son of God, not to mention Jesus’ followers clear teaching about suffering, it sure seems odd that secularists appear to handle the dark side of human existence better than believers.

I Just Wanna End Small Group Prayer

This should put a stop to it — just have believers think about what they say before they pray:

1. Avoid vain repetition. The one leading in prayer should be careful not to say, “O Father,” “Holy Father” or “Lord” over and over and over again.

2. Avoid hesitation and stumbling. The one leading in prayer should spend time on the prayer prior to the service so that he does not come across unprepared.

3. Avoid ungrammatical expressions. For example, the one leading in prayer should avoid such phrases as “Grant to give us…” “Grant to impart to us…” Grant and give are verbs expressing the same thing. This is a redundant and inaccurate use of language.

4. Avoid disorder. We need regularity and order in our prayer. The ACTS acronym is helpful: Include prayers of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (i.e. Petition and Intercession). By following an order, the one leading in prayer can help those he is leading pray along unhindered.

5. Avoid praying in minute detail for certain things. Balance out prayers in general. Especially for a Lord’s Day morning service. It is good to pray according to the same general nature for all the things for which the one leading prays. If there is a man or woman who has a terminal sickness, it is sufficient to plead with the Lord to heal that individual. There is no need to go into all the specifics of that with what he or she is dealing.

This is based on Samuel Miller’s thoughts on prayer which goes on for another 13 items. Not quite Rick Warren like, so not enough for forty days of driving your way to a life of purpose. But if Christians ever had to consider that praying in public does not come naturally to some believers, this post might get them started. And it really would throw a wrench into the praying patters of the seemingly intimate small group.

What’s Wrong with the Southern Baptist Convention?

Jared Wilson observes for the Gospel Allies the 10th anniversary of the religious reporting that put the New Calvinists on the map, Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed. My first take is that it seems odd to celebrate the anniversary of a magazine article. Why not the 20th anniversary of John Piper’s Desiring God, or the 270th anniversary of Jonathan Edwards’s dismissal from First Congregational Church, Northampton?

But stranger is Mr. Wilson’s by-line. He works for Midwestern Seminary, which has been in the orbit of the Southern Baptist Convention since its founding in 1957 and not a subsidiary of The Gospel Coalition.

As an institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, Midwestern Seminary is guided by a board of trustees elected by the Convention in its annual sessions. The trustees in turn elect faculty members and administrative officers. Upon election to the faculty, each professor subscribes to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 statement adopted by the SBC in 2000.

Each of our faculty members participates in a local Southern Baptist church, teaching classes, serving as a deacon or leading a congregation as an interim pastor. On campus, our faculty is dedicated to equipping men and women in a variety of Christian ministries and is committed to the furtherance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students come from a wide variety of cultural, economic and geographical backgrounds. Like our faculty and staff, our students are committed to theological education in preparation for the practice of ministry. Midwestern Seminary has awarded more than 3,500 theological degrees.

Midwestern Seminary derives the majority of its financial support from the SBC Cooperative Program. In addition to Cooperative Program funds and student fees, alumni gifts and endowments from special friends enable the school to further its far-reaching ministry.

Here’s the question: is New Calvinism synonymous with the Southern Baptist Convention or is the former a subset of the latter? Related to this, why does someone associated with New Calvinism not have a higher loyalty to the communion to which he belongs? New Calvinism (and Gospel Coalition) is parachurch, movement oriented. The SBC is a communion. So shouldn’t someone who wants to see churches planted and grow rather put his energies into a real communion than into a movement?

This is the problem with New Calvinism. It seems to be a cover for ecclesiology and churches that have no fellowship with Old Calvinist communions. There’s nothing wrong with being Southern Baptist. At least it’s a church ethos, to modify Walter Sobchak’s phrase. New Calvinism seems mainly sneaky and self-promotional.


Here‘s how comprehensive Christianity breeds Manichaeism (and paranoia) to boot:

In the meantime, we live in the midst of a cosmic struggle. As C. S. Lewis once said:

There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.

Thus every act of obedience—including political obedience—is a part of Christian mission, a bold declaration that we support God’s claim to the throne. And because the assault on that throne comes from every nook and cranny of creation, we must aim our redirective efforts at every nook and cranny as well.

Does Bruce Ashford really mean to implicate cats?

But consider where this notion that the assault on Christ’s reign comes from everywhere. Christians in the United States live with non-Christians. So how do comprehensive Christians live with Jews, Mormons, Roman Catholics, and Muslims? And wouldn’t such either-or language signal some kind of aggression to those who don’t trust Christ? In other words, doesn’t this use of the antithesis turn non-Christians into people “of Satan”? If Aryan science is bad, why not Christian culture?

That’s why those inspired by Abraham Kuyper need to take a page from Augustine:

This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced. Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven…

Sovereign Grace Ministries is not Neo-Calvinist

Someone needs to issue a correction:

While sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church made headlines in the early 2000s and were the focus of the critically-acclaimed film Spotlight, Evangelical Protestants have had their own share of child sex abuse allegations. In 2013, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), a network of about 80 evangelical Neo-Calvinist churches headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, faced a an amended class action civil lawsuit filed by 11 plaintiffs alleging church leaders of covering up child sex abuse crimes through the 1980s and 90s, and requesting about $50 million dollars in damages against SGM (a judge dismissed nine of the eleven plaintiffs based on an expired statute of limitations, and the other two on a question of jurisdiction).

New Calvinism is not Neo-Calvinism. It’s easy to tell the difference. New Calvinists don’t use Queen Wilhelmina Mints during the preaching of the word.

Labor Day Is a Holiday that Isn’t Holy

Tim Challies shows the classic confusion of redemption and providence by calling everything grace:

It is God’s grace that you can be industrious instead of idle. Flavel says, “Sin brought in sweat, but now not to sweat increases sin. He that lives idly cannot live honestly.” The Bible’s warnings about laziness and idleness are many and stern. So when God puts you into a vocation that is legal and moral, he has done you a great benefit. He has given you the blessing of allowing you to earn your own living. Your hard work allows you to avoid the temptations of idleness and to care for your own needs rather than having to rely upon others. Further, through God’s provision to you, you have enough to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. It is, after all, more blessed to give than to receive.

But what if I am not as industrious as H. L. Mencken or Woody Allen who seemingly have not lived in a state of grace?

It is God’s grace that you have a job that is lawful before God and men and especially suited to you. There are many people who are employed in jobs that are sinful or even illegal. “They do not only sin in their employments, but their very employments are sinful.” To have a job that dishonors neither God nor men is no small mercy. To have a job suited to your passions and skills is a double mercy. Then, if your job allows you to provide for yourself and others without working you to the bone, without consuming all of your waking hours, you have more reasons still to thank God for what he has given you.

My skills as a historian, such as they are, did not come through the means of grace or conversion. I studied and learned from lots of non-redeemed historians.

It is God’s grace that he has directed you into the kind of job that neither you nor your parents may ever have expected. You may well be involved in a job that your parents did not plan for you to do, and perhaps one that even you did not plan to do. Just like a compass needle turns this way and that before settling on true north, so “a child is designed for this, then for that, but at last settles in that way of employment to which Providence designed him.” Many of us can attest that “Not what we or our parents, but what God designed shall take place.” This is certainly the case with me and I owe God great thanks and praise for his kindness and his wisdom in giving me a passion for writing and then allowing me to do it.

I say it’s providence but it’s also the accident of growing up at a time when college education became wildly available and when graduate schools were opening their doors wide. That kind of economic development is not grace. It is providence.

It is God’s grace that he secures what you have earned. God’s favor toward you is what has allowed you to earn what you have. That same favor is what has allowed you to keep what you have earned.

Let’s not forget civil magistrates and police many of whom are not living in a state of grace. Their non-sanctified labors maintain my security and property.

It is God’s grace that your vocation is sufficient for you. Some people have work, but not enough strength to complete it. Some have strength, but no work to commit it to. Some have both strength and work but even then not sufficient to provide for themselves or others. If God blesses your labors to give you enough or even more than enough to meet your needs, you ought to give him praise and thanks.

If I am content with my vocation — some days — that is partly a function of sanctification. But I know lots of non-believers who seem to have as much job satisfaction as I do.

Tim either needs to get out more or needs to read more on providence (preferably without Petra blaring in the background).

Obedience Girl

Wesleyans aren’t the only ones to promote perfectionism:

Following Jesus is a serious task, and, at the same time, one filled with joy; it takes a certain daring and courage to recognize the divine Master in the poorest of the poor and those who are cast aside, and to give oneself in their service. In order to do so, volunteers, who out of love of Jesus serve the poor and the needy, do not expect any thanks or recompense; rather they renounce all this because they have discovered true love. And each one of us can say: “Just as the Lord has come to meet me and has stooped down to my level in my hour of need, so too do I go to meet him, bending low before those who have lost faith or who live as though God did not exist, before young people without values or ideals, before families in crisis, before the ill and the imprisoned, before refugees and immigrants, before the weak and defenceless in body and spirit, before abandoned children, before the elderly who are on their own. Wherever someone is reaching out, asking for a helping hand in order to get up, this is where our presence – and the presence of the Church which sustains and offers hope – must be”. And I do this, keeping alive the memory of those times when the Lord’s hand reached out to me when I was in need.

Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defence of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded. She was committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that “the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable”. She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime – the crimes! – of poverty they created. For Mother Teresa, mercy was the “salt” which gave flavour to her work, it was the “light” which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.

But did she trust Jesus as her savior from sin?