Saturday, August 07, 2004

On the writing of sermons

I just finished preparing my outline from the manuscript I completed earlier this week. I'll preach it tomorrow. Nothing I've ever done improved my preaching more than studying the Scripture, hearing other messages on the subject, and writing a message out. I am not terribly original in my preaching, but I try to make a sermon fresh, relevant, and appropriate for my hearers. Writing it out permits me the luxury of reading and rereading it to make sure it fits. By outlining it, I take the basic notes into the pulpit to keep me on target but it also gives me freedom to slightly change the wording.

After all I've said this week, you may be wondering why I would be so concerned with relevance. Sound doctrine is important and must be taught, but truly relevant messages build on sound doctrine. Right now I'm preaching through the letter of James. James doesn't say a whole lot about Christology, soteriology, or pneumatology. He does, however, discuss the importance of not showing favoritism because of position or standing. Had his readers not understood the doctrine of grace, I seriously doubt if his counsel would make much sense. His admonitions concerning "managing the mouth" must have some basis in recognizing that this can't be done without assistance from the indwelling Holy Spirit. I could go on. I think it is interesting that every discussion of eschatology in Scripture results in teaching about practical living.

The sad fact is, however, that we are trying to build "houses of practical teaching" on sand. There must be BOTH (pardon my shouting) sound doctrine and practical admonition.

Friday, August 06, 2004

The Transition of Max Lucado and the Oak Hills Church of Christ

I first heard Max Lucado at an author's breakfast in Boise, Idaho. I think it was his first book tour. A Christian bookstore in Boise invited community ministers to hear him. As a minister in the non-instrumental Church of Christ, Max did not join in the singing at that occasion.

Over the years, Max's writing was widely accepted and acknowledged. I have always appreciated his work and have read several of his books and approved others as study material for various Bible classes. I've often cited him in messages and quoted him in material I've written.

A bit better than two years ago, a controversy arose in the church about the nature and purpose of baptism. Several families objected to the explanation of how to become a Christian posted on the church's web site. On that section of the web site, I had indicated that an individual is saved by grace, through faith, at baptism, for good works. It is my conviction that the Bible clearly teaches this and that it is the historic position of the Restoration Movement. Those who objected insisted they were saved before baptism and that baptism was for membership in a local congregation.

This controversy led to some research to see how other Restoration congregations stated the place of baptism. One of the places searched was that of the Oak Hills Church of Christ in San Antonio. At that time, the web site carried a full explanation of the place of baptism as far as they were concerned. (A search today reveals that this material is no longer easily accessed.) At that time, individuals could become members of the Oak Hills Church of Christ without being immersed. Such members, however, could not be leaders or teachers without being immersed. This struck me as a bit strange because independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ had endured substantial tension and division early in the 20th century over "open membership" -- the receiving of the "pious unimmersed" into fellowship. The Oak Hills statement seemed to indicate that a church among the non-instrumental wing of the movement had adopted an open membership policy. Lucado's message was fairly typical, but he had softened the traditional position that insists that baptism is for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). His message sounded very much like that heard in most evangelical churches today.

About six months later, a couple from the church returned from a visit to San Antonio where they visited the Oak Hills Church of Christ. They brought with them printed material indicating that the church was making some dramatic changes. First, the church was changing its name from the Oak Hills Church of Christ to Oak Hills Church. Second, they were adding two worship services that would be accompanied by instrumental music. Those who visited were excited about the changes because they saw in those changes a growing acceptance of the segments of the Restoration Movement from which the Oak Hills Church had long been separated due to differences over the use of instrumental music.

The next step in the transition of the Oak Hills Church and Max Lucado came when he was quoted in Christianity Today and other religious news periodicals as no longer believing that baptism was essential for salvation.

A trip to the current Oak Hills Church web site at reveals that the congregation has taken additional steps away from traditional Restoration Movement positions per se let alone the traditional positions of the non-instrumental wing of the movement. The current statement of beliefs is written carefully so as to avoid taking a strong stand on the importance of the place of baptism. In one sense that is good, because many in the movement have made baptism the "end all, be all" of salvation leading to the charge of "water regenerationists." However, it seems to be a statement that can be interpreted any number of ways. Those holding the traditional view will not find it offensive (I just demonstrated that above), but those who come from a "faith only" background will not find it difficult to accept either!

There is one other statement in the Oak Hills "creed" that I find a bit disturbing. The last sentence in the section on salvation says, "Those who truly believe are secure and safe in God’s grace and cannot lose their salvation" (John 10:27-29). This statement, when carelessly read, can mislead. The statement seems to support the view of those who hold to "perseverance of the saints," the old "once saved always saved" view. Those who have heard all their lives that "once you're saved you're always saved" would have no difficulty with this statement, but I do not think the statement is saying what they believe. There is a very fine line between assurance of salvation and "once saved, always saved." The former is biblical, the latter grows out of Calvinism.

In my view, I wonder if the changes in practice and wording grow out of a renewed understanding of biblical authority or if it is simply doing what is practical (pragmatic) in appealing to a wider audience. I would be euphoric if those who once ostracized me because I worshiped with instruments now recognized the fallacy of their logic in interpreting Scripture and no longer believed use of musical instruments was a sin. I am less than ecstatic because it seems like the abandonment of principles once held dear results from pragmatism rather than biblical authority.

How do you see it?

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Discipleship and assimilation

I have in my library, or did have before I moved from Ohio to Arizona, a number of books on the process of assimilation. In fact, I had a rather large notebook that outlined the steps churches could take with new members. The structure looked different but the philosophy was the same as that of Saddleback Church in California. Rick Warren describes assimilation as moving people from the outer circle of the community to the innermost circle he calls the core. The idea is that assimilation takes place in a series of steps as individuals move from attenders, to membership, to involvement in a small or mid-size group, to service, then finally into leadership. It is a good model and usually works well when it is worked properly.

Warren structured four seminars to help move people from the outside in. His second seminar emphasizes maturity and/or spiritual growth. This seminar encourages new Christians and new members to establish a daily quiet time with Bible reading and prayer, time for Bible study, and practice the tithe. It is a start and should help people grow as disciples. His third seminar focuses on service encouraging new believers to get active in some avenue of Christian service. Again, this is a good start. Without accountability structures, however, these may become easily attended seminars with little practical results. One can hear they ought to read the Bible and even receive a Bible-reading plan and never read the Bible.

Church leaders often think that because someone has attended a seminar or accepted a task they are assimilated. The leaders in the church I served in Ohio looked at two things: (1) Did new members attend a Bible class? (2) Did new members take a task assignment?

All of that reflects a good start in assimilation. Do we really think, however, that someone who attends a seminar or takes a task is really growing in their faith? In my opinion, assimilation and discipleship may work at cross purposes. If someone is satisfied with their spiritual understanding and growth because they have "jumped through the hoops" and do something in the church, are they really growing in their relationship to Christ? I don't suppose we can ever know for sure!

Randy Frazee and the Pantego Bible Church devised a Christian life inventory geared to help measure individual spiritual growth. Do a search on "The Connecting Church" or go to and you will find out about this instrument. Maybe it is time to stop assuming that spiritual growth and deeper discipleship is occurring and it is time to do some measurement. If the church does not expect and encourage spiritual growth in its members, it won't happen. In addition to assimilating members it is important to emphasize an expectation of spiritual growth. Without it we will continue to get the results we've always gotten.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Discipleship is a lifestyle

We make a mistake when we see discipleship as a point of conversion. For a long time, I equated "becoming a disciple" with "being baptized and received into church membership." While I will not judge the reality of an individual's relationship to Jesus, it is obvious that many who profess Christ and are baptized really do not entrust themselves to him in genuine faith. Jesus said, "Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do the things I commanded you? Practice does not match profession!

A disciple is one who seeks to become like their teacher. In ancient Judaism, the rabbis had their disciples. It was understood that the disciple wanted to replicate in themselves the life of their teacher. They wanted to think like their teacher. They wanted to act like their teacher. They wanted to teach like their teacher. They wanted to live their lives as their teacher would live it if he were them. It was a struggle for each disciple attempted to integrate what they saw and heard with their personalities, interests, perspectives and desires. They had the advantage of spending quality and quantity time with their rabbi. Jesus' disciples were with him 24/7 and they could see him, study him, touch him, and learn from him (see 1 John 1:1f). Biblical discipleship is a relationship so intimate that the lifestyle of the teacher is integrated with the life of the disciple.

By practice rather than profession, today's church teaches that faith, confession before an audience of sympathetic hearers, and baptism makes one a disciple. You will notice that I left out repentance. I did so on purpose. I do not think we sufficiently emphasize repentance nor am I certain we understand it.

In the New Testament, repentance means "a change of mind that leads to a change of life." Alexander Campbell believed that you may profess a change of mind without a corresponding change of life. In an essay in the 1833 Millennial Harbinger, Campbell stated that true repentance indicates not only a sorrow for wrongdoing but calls for restitution as well. If a person professes repentance but demonstrates no corresponding effort to make right his previous wrongs, how can one's repentance be considered genuine? We are told that the old law was a tutor to bring us to Christ. In the old law, we are told that we should not steal. In the provisions of the Mosaic Law, the thief was to restore what was stolen plus an indemnity of five percent. The illustration for the believer is that when we come to Christ we seek to make right what we did wrong. We seek to make restitution.

We tend to treat Christianity casually as if it were equivalent to joining a club. I was a Rotarian for years and I found the fellowship and friendships stimulating. I believed in the principles of Rotary and approved its worldwide benevolent works. Many Rotarians joined because it helped their business. Rotary, however, did not call for any change of lifestyle. The current trend in the church is to "sell" the idea that Jesus can help one build a successful marriage, family, or business. As long as these principles can be communicated in an attractive and palatable fashion without requiring much commitment they are accepted. When someone else presents a better product such individuals leave.

Discipleship requires a transformation of life. It is a process that begins when one "enrolls in the school of Christ" and continues until death. It calls for more than casual attendance at worship or small group. It calls for establishing a daily relationship with Jesus through Bible reading, Bible study, prayer, and the practice of spiritual disciplines. It also means the church must do all it can to assure the establishing of a biblical worldview in its members. Discipleship means living according to a Christian worldview. Therefore, there must be some way to communicate "sound doctrine" to new believers so they can build their edifices (the lifestyle of a disciple) on solid rock rather than shifting sand.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

How do we teach content and sound doctrine?

If teaching core doctrinal content is ineffective in small groups, where can it be taught? This is a good question and one that we need to address.

Over the centuries, the church addressed this need in various ways. Scripture does not give us a consistent picture. Many use Acts 2:44-46 as an apologetic for small groups. Perhaps it would be wiser to keep those verses in their context. Acts 2:42 says, "They devoted themselves to the apostolic teaching and to the breaking of bread and to prayer." Please note the nature of the teaching received: it was apostolic teaching. Exactly who communicated such teaching is a matter of conjecture or speculation. If it were not the apostles themselves, it probably be someone who taught with their approval. The teaching was certainly not "group grope."

The small group movement defines such a group as between 8-12. At 16 the group should "hive" off and form a new group. We assume the home groups in Acts 2 were such groups but this cannot be proven. We must remember that the early church owned no buildings so they met where they could when they could. We do not know if these home groups were 12 people or 120. We do know that 120 gathered in an upper room prior to the activities on Pentecost. Does this mean that I think we should reject small groups of 8-12? Absolutely not! I do not think, however, we can use Acts 2:44-46 in a way that says this is a biblical mandate for such groups.

As the church grew and extended itself beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, we are not told how the church communicated "sound doctrine." As I mentioned yesterday, Paul told Timothy to entrust what Paul taught him to "reliable men who will be qualified to teach others" (2 Timothy 2:2). It seems to me that this indicates that qualified leaders should communicate core Christian truth. Perhaps this is why a qualification of the eldership found in 1 Timothy 3 is that they are "apt to teach."

Church history tells us that the second and third century churches established catechetical schools to instruct "seekers" in core beliefs prior to their baptism and access to the Lord's Table. Although many of us would resist the implementation of such efforts to catechize newcomers prior to baptism, I can only see one difference between those efforts to prepare individuals for membership and the current trend of premembership seminars: the time involved. Most 101 seminars last 4 hours. Catechetical training in the early church was lengthy and involved.

Protestantism long depended on the preached word for doctrinal instruction. Protestant sermons tended to be long and theologically deep. The emphasis upon the sermon as a teaching tool does not imply that such messages failed to make practical application. Puritan messages, for example, were often practical but grounded on "sound doctrine."

In the mid-1700s, Robert Raikes established the Sunday School in an effort to provide literacy training for London street kids. The church soon adopted the Sunday School as its main teaching arm. It remained so until the end of the 20th Century when many congregations began abandoning the Sunday School for the relationalism of the small group. The Sunday School taught Scripture believing, as did most in the Restoration Movement, that doing so would communicate core Christian truth. Elective studies provided a means of offering specific concentrated teaching on core biblical issues and Bible studies increased exposure to Scripture.

Today the sermon is a practical message directed toward socialization, human need, and relational issues with an emphasis on relevance. Core biblical truth is usually, but not always, avoided from the pulpit. Mega-churches faced with tremendous expense in purchasing land for campuses, erecting huge facilities for celebration services, and installing the high technology "required" in today's worship find it too expensive to include additional facilities for mid-size groups. Therefore, many of these churches are dispensing with "Sunday School" and are becoming "small group churches." In the process, messages without sound doctrine and small groups with group grope are producing a biblical and theological vacuum in our churches.

Where then, can "sound doctrine" be communicated? I still believe in the mid-size group as the focus for teaching sound doctrine. I think every church needs to make some definite commitments: (1) There needs to be a renewal of the conviction that there is are core truths needed to create a biblical worldview in new Chrsitians. (2) There needs to be an awareness that such truth is not effectively communicated in small groups with facilitators rather than teachers. (3) Doctrinal preaching needs to be included in a year's preaching plan to balance the tendency toward consumer relevance. (4) There needs to be the conviction that mid-size groups still have a place in communicating truth. (5) Churches must see their role as disciple-making not merely convert-making. How each local church seeks to work this out is dependent upon the commitment and creativity of its leadership. If it is not done and balance restored, the church of Christ will succumb to false teaching and become only a reflection of our postmodern culture.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Others are taking note!

Syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly commented on findings by pollster George Gallup regarding the level of spiritual commitment in the United States. While interest in and verbal assent to belief in God and basic Christian moral principles remain high, genuine commitment to Christian principles is absent. George Barna has also pointed out the discrepancy between profession and practice. His reports show that everyday lifestyles of Christians differ little with those in the rest of society.

Is it simply a matter of practice not matching profession? I don't think so and neither does Mattingly. In his Scripps-Howard article, Mattingly cites Gallup as saying that pastors naively believe church members know and understand core doctrines. In a day when we are constantly reminded that "love unites and doctrine divides" that is not surprising. Today's church leaders are focused on relevance and "sound doctrine" and relevance are perceived to be at cross purposes. Those who feel this way fail to understand that "sound doctrine" provides a solid foundation upon which to base the rest of Christian teaching. How, for example, can you expect individuals to build a biblical marriage when they do not understand the doctrines of grace and forgiveness. The failure to help new believers to build a Christian worldview contributes to the shallow commitment to the church and to biblical principles.

Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have long been highly pragmatic. A swift scan of Restoration History, particularly in the last century, reveals the emphasis on a host of pragmatic programs designed to promote growth. It is no accident that Donald A. McGavran, the father of church growth, was an heir of the Restoration Movement. McGavran emphasized that scientific research would discover the best way to reach out to the lost. In the American culture, that meant providing practical support for those seeking successful marriages, successful careers, positive self-images, and more. Since the inception of the Church Growth Movement, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have been one of the most successful movements in America. The New York Times reported that the Restoration Movement was the second fastest growing religious movement in the nation over the past decade. The success may be short-lived, however, if church leaders do not recognize that winning converts does not equal "making disciples." It is much easier to market to "consumers" than to "make disciples." The sad fact is that those won to a product leave when they think they've found a better product.

Many leaders believe the answer rests in small groups where members can interact, build relationships, and discuss Scripture. I am a firm believer in small groups, but small groups are not the place to teach foundational or core biblical truths. It is within the circle of a small group that individuals can discuss application, find accountability, and be shepherded. Sound doctrine will not be transmitted through discussion. When new believers discuss doctrinal matters the result is a pooling of ignorance or a synthesis of all they have been taught in the various religious and denominational bodies from which they came. Only those who know and understand sound doctrine should communicate sound doctrine. The Apostle Paul told Timothy, "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others" (2 Timothy 2:2).

Therefore, today's church leadership must discover a means to communicate not just a "needs based" message but also devise a method by which new believers may construct a solid biblical and doctrinal foundation.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

What does it mean to be a disciple?

Jesus commanded his disciples to "go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe all that he commanded" (Matthew 28:19-20, my paraphrase). This is a non-negotiable for Christ's church.

Four components comprise Christ's command: (1) His followers are to go everywhere on the globe and to all people groups. Race, culture, and background make no difference, the message of Christ's kingdom is to be shared without hesitation to all people. (2) His disciples are to make disciples. To make disciples, the church must not only go and win people to the kingdom, they must lead those who respond to become fully committed followers of Jesus. Those who choose Jesus must learn about the Lord and his ways so that each person can live their lives as Jesus would. (3) His followers are to baptize (immerse) those who believe Jesus is God's Son so their sins can be remitted (Acts 2:38) and they can become part of Christ's worldwide fellowship. Baptism is not an optional extra for believers who truly trust Jesus and desire to be obedient to his Word. (4) His followers, in the process of making disciples, must teach those who begin a new life with Jesus all that Jesus commanded. This would include not only the teachings from Jesus' own lips, but the teaching of the inspired apostles as well.

Discipleship is the lifestyle Christ-followers choose for themselves as a result of their commitment to Jesus. Many congregations are effective at winning but ineffective at mentoring or teaching new believers to do all Jesus commanded.