Tuesday, March 31, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

What's More Riveting Than Clergy Surveys?

Hola, amigos. I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but things have been getting plenty hairy around here.

Actually, let me clarify: 1. It hasn't been hairy at all, and 2. If you caught the pop culture reference in the above paragraph, first award yourself thirty points, then feel mildly guilty for how worldly you are. Not me, man. I just read The Onion so I can "engage culture."
Or something.

But it has been a while and for that I apologize. My Google Analytics for the last period pretty much looks like a chart of the stock market over the past--oh, let's say seventy--days. So why the absence? Well, I had been working on my new website http://www.calvinati.com/, but I kind of dropped the ball on that too. In fact, if you're reading this, you've got nothing overly pressing going at the moment; so do me a favor and register for the message boards over on Calvinati. Help a reverend out.

At any rate, I'm back on the blog with a vengaence! Bringing those blow-your-skirt-up, knock-your-socks-off, break-your-shin-bones items of intense interest that get the masses fired up (this parenthetical is just here to keep the sentence from ending with a preposition). And what is more riveting than clergy surveys? And I'm not talking just any clergy surveys, but clergy surveys....waaaaait for it....by the University of Akron?! The answer, to quote Nigel Tufnel, is none.

Last year, I was asked to take part in a study called Clergy Voices: Mainline Protestant Clergy Survey. The enclosed absract explained that the study was centered around how mainline clergy view a variety of social, religious, and political issues. I get such requests in the mail somewhat frequently and generally just recycle the heck out them, because I haven't the time. But when something says "mainline," I can't resist. As a theologically conservative pastor, smitten with the doctrines of grace and disgusted by the market-driven antics of Evangelicaldom, I'm a rare specimen to find pastoring a church in a mainline denomination (the Amercian Baptist Churches-USA, or ABC-USA). Yet here I am. And it feels good to throw my sense/two cents in to affect the outcome in my own little way.

Last week, the results of the survey were released. I wrote "BLOG" on the outside of the envelope in Sharpie and threw it in my inbox. When I opened it up this morning, I expected to find bullet after bullet of depressing information about apostate clergy, adding to my already moderate-to-heavy apostasy funk. I was planning on blogging about why I remain in this denomination. [BTW, the answer is that I love the American Baptist Churches-USA. Like a mother. I also love the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, the Reformed Church of America, and all the rest. And I'd rather stay here and shine my light than pull out with so many others, leaving the landscape that much darker. I often draw a parallel to the Netherlands, a country that was once marked by a vibrant and orthodox church that spoke volumes to a culture that actually listened (can you say Abraham Kuyper?). Then many (most?) of the pillars of the Dutch church--some of them my ancestors--left the Netherlands for West Michigan. Look at the ol' Netherlands now. I think you can legally marry your Christmas turkey while smoking your Christmas weed and shooting up your Christmas herion (only I'm sure they don't call it Christmas anymore) and I understand that it's smart to have "Please don't euthenize me!" tattooed on your forehead in case you skin your knee and an over-zealous Dutch EMT decides to "help you out."]

The findings, though, weren't nearly what I feared. There was one horribly-depressing chart which reported that only 44% of ABC-USA pastors would describe themselves as "born again" (what does that mean about the other 56% in light of John 3:3?) The really sad thing was that, of the eight denominations covered, the ABC was the highest with 44%. The ELCA was lowest with 6%! What's more, only 35% of the same pastors would call themselves "evangelical..." despite all being pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Hey, the last shred of consistency vis–à–vis your religious identity called; bad news--it wants out.

Most of the findings, though, were about as unremarkable as Carrot Top using props. The "highlights:"

  • There was the normal stuff about how the mainlines are shrinking (especially the PC-USA) and the none-too-shocking news that mainline clergy are overwhelmingly white, old, and male (despite all the noise about inclusiveness and diversity).
  • Mainline clergy are far more likely to identify as liberal (48%)and Democrat (56%) than conservative (34%) and Republican (34%). I was admittedly surprised that only 32% of ABC clergy identify themselves as liberal--the lowest of the eight denominations.
  • A vast majority of mainline clergy believe that government should be fixing the problems of unemployment, poor housing, poverty, health care, and the environment. As far as I'm concerend, how pastors view the role of government is completely unrelated to their sacred calling as ministers, but I fear that most in that majority thought they were answering "out of" that sacred call. In other words, if man's problem is evil systems, not the evil and sin in his own heart, then the solution is, of course, fixing systems.
  • Two thirds of those surveyed believe in some legal recognition for same-sex couples and employment non-discrimination for gays. It may surprise you that I am part of the two thirds. (It's called the doctrine of two kingdoms; learn it, live it).
  • Speaking of which, only 65% of mainline clergy respondants think the U.S. should maintain a strict separation of church and state. Let me just say that, after what our Baptist forebears went through, any Baptist who was part of the minority on that issue should be defrocked. And by defrocked, I mean have an actual frock placed on them and then beaten with lengths of rubber hose until said frock comes off.

It doesn't really get much more interesting than that. It's my experience that surveys usually wind up unfulfilling a la those "100 Random Things About Me" e-mail forewards. If you have any thoughts on mainline denominations and remaining in them, then hit "Comment" below.

In a couple days, I'll have a sermon twofer for ya. And a picture of a rooster. A rooster. Yeah--I'm back.


Saturday, March 21, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

This Week's Sermon (2009, Week 12)

Click here to link to the audio (right click and choose "Save target as" to save the file on an iPod or other device).

When Darkness Reigns. "Why does a supposedly good God allow bad things to happen to good people?" That question has been lobbed at Christians for centuries. Of course, there has only really been one good person to ever walk this earth: Jesus Christ. And thank God that he allowed "bad things" to happen to Him.

As always, you can access all my sermons by clicking here.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

The (Not So) Great Apostasy

Every once in a while I fall into a very specific brand of depression, prompted by a very specific circumstance. I'm not talking about when the other party's candidate wins or when I tell someone I'm a pastor only to have them look skeptically into my boyishly (read: chubbily) handsome face and clarify: "the senior pastor?" No, I can endure minor setbacks and annoyances. Real discouragement and misery get a grip on me when I find out that yet another saint (falsely so called)—in whom I had placed the utmost confidence—has apostatized.

These moments have been faith-testing for me. The latest Darwinian hypotheses don't make me swallow hard and re-assess my convictions. Richard Dawkins pretending that he's a chemist, geologist, philosopher, theologian, anthropologist, and historian just makes me laugh. But when someone who, by my eyes, bore the mark of the cross upon his forehead renounces that cross and the Christ who died on it...well, at those moments I feel like someone has kicked me right in the faith.

Apostasy isn't a word we use much anymore. Most people seem to think it's synonymous with heresy; it's not. A heretic (from a Greek root meaning "sect" or "division") is one who teaches a false doctrine or set of doctrines, usually while remaining within the visible church. An apostate is one who leaves (literally abandons) the church and its teachings all together. This is somewhat confusing, considering that 2 Thess 2:3 predicts a great apostasy ( ἀποστασία) that will involve a large portion of the visible church abandoning the biblical/ apostolic teachings, while claiming to still be the church. So that will be kind of the combination of heresy and apostasy. We see the same thing today on a smaller level when somewhat biblical churches take the plunge into all-out cult status.

The people I keep hearing about, though, aren't embracing heresies. They aren't becoming Mormons, Kabbalists, or Monophysites. They are leaving faith behind. Leaving theism behind. Abandoning what appeared to be rock solid devotion to Jesus Christ and riding the pendulum to the other extreme: a passionate and polemical devangelicalism.

A decade ago was the first major blow. A man who had been something of a mentor in the faith to me as a child and teenager just drifted away from church. Then (with his life, if not his lips) announced that he no longer needed God. This man had come out of a very sinful past filled with drugs and promiscuous sex, "found Jesus," and became a bedrock member of our Baptist church. At every stage of my early life, he was there offering guidance, counsel, prayer, and support. He challenged us to dig deeper and not have a surface relationship with our Savior. He encouraged the men to go to Promise Keepers and the young people to go to camps and conventions to keep our spiritual lives fresh and vibrant. He was one of a handful (along with my father) who met with a men's accountability group for mutual prayer and encouragement.

Then he bailed.

He's still an incredibly nice guy. He runs a small business and I have dropped in on him a couple times. But he's not the same man. His stories are now tainted with a worldiness that still doesn't seem to fit him. Instead of looking to Scriptures for living water, he's got Playboy magazines on an end table at his workplace. Rather than looking for a deeper connection with his Creator, he seems to be ever pursuing a shallower hedonism. Tragic.

A few years later came a much more painful apostasy. You see, my wife Erin is my best friend and has been for a dozen years. But during that time, I've often had guys who fill the traditional "best buddy" role. One guy in particular. I lived with him for several years during college. We played in a band together, studied Scripture together, led inner city youth to Jesus together. I was studying to be a pastor and he a missionary. He was, in many ways, my hero.

But now he believes that a few sinister men concocted the very notion of religion to control the simple-minded. No gods. No masters. Et cetera, yawn. And he's essentially fallen off the face of the earth, bouncing from state to state, trying to find himself or something. Apparently he didn't get what he thought he had coming from the big guy upstairs and so he got his revenge by taking a breeze and wishing Him out of existence. Or so he thinks.

If I had a buck for every time I've cried about this I'd use the money to buy a gold Gisbon Les Paul like the one my friend had, to remind me of the fun we had together. Because that's all we've got now: some fun we had. And that's all he can ever hope to have.

Some fun.

News of apostasy has continually trickled in over the past few years. Peer networking sites are the standard conduit, as they generally have a "Religious Views" field amongst the obligatory stats. Again with the pendulum swings. My once-
devout friends who have abandoned the faith don't fill in the religion blank, "not sure" or "Christian, but doubting." No, they put, "Religion? No thanks!" or "Atheist!" or "Religion poisons everything."

This year, my wife has given up Facebook for Lent. Since she signed up for the service a few months ahead of me, I've been continually lagging behind her in number of friends. Being gratuituosly competetive, I saw her spiritual exercise as a forty day window to close the gap, which stood at a couple dozen. (Note: as of today, we are tied. It would be more satisfying if she actually cared who had more.)

Now, understand that I have online peer networking principles. I don't just friend people because I know who they are. I'll only friend them if we are or were—in some real sense—friends. So I spent a couple lunch hours running searches on people I hadn't seen in years and made some fun and exciting reconnections. To that end, I looked up a bunch of folks who had participated with me in a state-wide church leadership program my junior year of high school. My search turned up three people. Each of them has matured beyond their need for the crutch we call faith. That silly imaginary friend/ fairy tale for grown ups. They're enlightened now, describing themselves with words like "skeptical rationalist." As a group, we were supposed to be the leaders of the church of tomorrow (which, I suppose, is now the church of today). How could this happen?

One guy (with whom I was stretching my principles, as we'd had maybe three conversations ever) had become a particularly ardent anti-theist (a card-carrying member of Dan Barker's sophomoric "Freedom From Religion Foundation.") For some reason, I engaged him in a discussion. In retrospect, I was sarcastic and aggressive in a way that was neither helpful nor pastoral. Maybe he was the proverbial last straw. Maybe I slipped back into a "high school" way of relating to someone I had last seen in 1994. Either way, I told myself that I was just "casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God" (2 Cor 10:5). I wasn't, though. I was lashing out at God.

But I know it's not God who bears the guilt. I had an epiphany last night: of all the apostates I've mourned over the past decade, they've all had one thing in common: none of them have embraced the doctrines of grace. If you know me, you can be sure that I'm no neo-Gnostic Calvinist (i.e. I don't believe that only Calvinists are Christians.) If anything, I'm usually accused of being too open and ecumenical when defining the Church.

All the same, though, it only makes sense that in circles where a sinner's "free will" to "make a decision for Christ" is the sacred cow that must never be slaugthered or even slandered, well then I hold my salvation in my hands. And, as Luther pointed out, I'll drop it 100% of the time. If I think that I "found Jesus," then what I've found isn't Jesus. Whether a Christian is a Calvinist or an Arminian, if she is truly a Christian, then she didn't find Jesus: He found her.

And that means that I don't hold my salvation in my hands. Jesus holds it. He holds me. And as the modern hymn proclaims: "No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from His hand. Till he returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand!"

My Calvinism is not what saved me. Mη γενοιτο!! The sacrificial death of Christ saved me. But my Calvinism has equipped me with an understanding that we call the perseverance of the saints. Those whom HE has called are safe and secure in his hands. Because those he predestined he also called, justified, and glorified (Rom 8:30).

I'm sure there will be more painful apostasies in my future: likely someone in my church whom I've led to the Lord. I pray it never happens, but if and when it does, I will not see it as God's failure. I won't wonder if I should have presented the Gospel in some snappier way or given them more "relevant" teaching to keep them "engaged" in the church. Because if they're saved, they aren't holding their salvation in their hands. And I'm sure as heck not holding their salvation in my hands. God is holding it in His.

Me? I'll just keep proclaiming that truth delivered once for all to the saints: Jesus Christ died. Jesus Christ rose. Jesus Christ is coming again. Repent and put your faith in Him.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Wednesday, March 11, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

This Week's Sermon (2009, Week 11)

So I preached at Rockford Baptist Church last Sunday. Two different sermons at two different services. At the first, I was a bit sluggish from the time change and less-than-energized by the small congregation of similarly sluggish folks. It was kind of a warm-up sermon for the main event at 11 am. A good amount of bad coffee, a full house, and more all around energy made the second sermon far superior.

So, of course, only the first one is available. Click here for video.

Jimmy and the Professor. We were made in God's image, made to reflect him perfectly. But we shattered that image. Now what?

As always, you can access all my sermons here.

Friday, March 6, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

This Week's Sermon (2009, Week 10)

Click here to link to the audio (right click and choose "Save target as" to save the file on an iPod or other device).

City of Man/City of God. We've all seen those pictures in e-mail forwards or on bumper stickers that incorporate both the cross and the American flag. If you've sensed that there's something not-quite-right about that... well, that's because there is. What should the relationship be between the church and the state? When Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's," was he just talking about taxes?

Or is there more to it?

As always, you can access all my sermons here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

Wait...a Conference About WHAT?

Two weekends ago, I attended a two-day conference at University Reformed Church, called "Magnifying God: The Legacy of John Calvin." It was awesome. So why am I bringing it up now? Am I really that far behind in my blogging? Maybe... (I have been doing an awful lot of work on http://www.calvinati.com/ lately.) But for our purposes today, let's just say this was entirely planned.

You see, the conference is still very much on my mind two weeks later. I've downloaded the audio from each session (you can download it here), and I've re-listened to most of them multiple times, particularly Kevin DeYoung's sketch of John Calvin's life. Collin Hansen was also there (author of the sensation, Young, Restless, Reformed), as well as a couple other local pastors who led a variety of workshops.

Now, I've been in pastoral ministry for a few years now, and have attended my fair share of conferences and retreats. They usually have lots of singing and sobbing. Lots of "challenging" pep talks, seemingly designed to make sure that every pastor sees his church as inadequate and stagnant. A bunch of "breakout" discussion groups where we all lament how crummy we are at doing what really matters. And there's invariably some "expert" who jaws for hours about how his church chucked everything churchy and has grown from 35 people in a leaky rented banquet hall to 8,000 in a megaplex "worship center" as a result. Charles Finney would be proud.


In contrast, at the Calvin conference, we sang exactly one song: the doxology (right before leaving). No one uttered the (non-)words "organic," "missional," or "incarnational." "We listened to lectures about how the doctrines of grace are experiencing a bit of a revival (or, rather, the church is experiencing revival through them). Both the strengths and weaknesses of the current movement were discussed. We looked to the past, the present, and into the future without demonizing the past and without melodramatic proclamations that the church's future is bleak unless we change change change! (What kind of change? Why, the kind that makes us indistinguishable from the world, of course.) The tone of the day(s) was humility, hope, and patient endurance. Yeah, when you actually believe in the sovereignty of God, it's hard not to be optimistic.

But here's the ironic thing. The vibe at most pastors' conferences I've attended has been thus: You're all tired and weary from a year of inevitably unsuccessful ministry, so we need to help recharge your batteries. We won't talk about theology or Scripture or church history or any of that heady stuff--the last thing you need is to look backward. You need *real* food for your soul. You need a trendy "Starbucks church" philosophy. You need to be told that preaching is no longer effective and that your worth as a pastor is tied up in how many families you've managed to steal from that not-quite-as-hip church down the street.

Ugh. I always leave those things feeling absolutely drained. And yet I left the Magnifying God conference insanely energized. Why? Because the whole thing was built on the notion that it's not on our shoulders. God will extend His Kingdom and he will do it through the means that he has ordained. And praise God that we get to take part! God can and will use our churches, even if they don't sport fair trade coffee shops or host art house film festivals. Even if they've never been featured on the 6 o'clock news (Word and sacrament aren't viewed as headline grabbers by most). He can and does work through the preached Word, even when it isn't accompanied by sleek multimedia presentations.

At the end of the day, Calvinism is about the centrality and omnipotence of our God. So it makes sense that a conference about Calvin's legacy would center on the same thing. (That's why they called it "Magnifying God," not "Magnifying Calvin.") It also makes sense, in a paradoxical kind of way, that conferences designed around pastors and their perceived needs (i.e. "Magnifying Me" conferences) are a dead end, while a gathering designed around God and his glorious infinity, love, and grace still has me talking two weeks later.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Monday, March 2, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

Lenten Thoughts...

Like many Christians, I often agonize over that vexing question of what to give up for Lent.

True, the ages-old practice is falling out of fashion with many Christians, but at the same time, many young believers are re-discovering it for the first time. And I think that’s a good thing.

While throngs of ill-informed Baptists consider the practice to be tied to such medieval curiosities as indulgences, the Latin Mass, and kissing the skull of John the Baptist, and a majority of non-denominational Christians seem to assume that the tradition is an off-shoot of some Pagan festival involving goat sacrifices and Stonehenge, neither of these things is accurate. (Yes, that was one long sentence; eat your heart out, Paul.)

First of all, it's mostly Protestants who voluntarily choose to give up one thing for Lent, while our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters traditionally view the forty days as a prescribed period of fasting from certain things (e.g. meat on Fridays) and performing certain acts of penance. And unlike much of the traditions that have grown up around Christmas and Easter, I know of no Pagan origins to the practice of sacrifice or fast during Lent.

I think a lot of Christians have given up Lent itself because they simply don't know what it's all about. Well, read on. Lent is a period of forty days set aside for repentance and spiritual mourning, leading up to Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the day before Easter, Holy Saturday. (If you're a nerd and just did the math, you'll see that we don't count Sundays—those remain days of celebration, since we never lose sight of Christ's victory over sin and death, even in the midst of sackcloth and ashes).

Why forty days, you ask? If you've ever read the Bible, you know that this particular time period pops up over and over again. Moses was on Mount Sinai communing with God for forty days. In the same way, we view Lent as an extended period of time set aside for particularly intimate and enduring encounters with our God. Jonah warned the Ninevites that they had forty days to repent or God would destroy them; they heeded the warning, put on sackcloth and ashes, and were spared. In the same way, we put on sackcloth (figuratively) and ashes (on Ash Wednesday) and repent of our sin. Unlike the Ninevites, though, we have no doubt that we will be spared and forgiven, as Our Lord has already borne the punishment for our transgressions.

And, perhaps most importantly, Jesus withdrew for forty days into the wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit (or, as one Gospel puts it, “cast out” by the Holy Spirit). During that time, he ate nothing, prayed much, and was tempted by Satan three times. To commemorate that event, Christians have for centuries undertaken fasts of various kinds during the forty days of Lent. We're not trying to be as good as Jesus and we're not trying to earn God's forgiveness. Just as Jesus chose to withdraw and fast before his baptism in order to be closer to his Father in Heaven, so we lay aside certain distractions, comforts, and conveniences in order to more clearly focus on the God who sent His Son to give us life everlasting.

Sadly, as much of the Evangelical world has given up giving things up, they've also chucked Lent itself—that entire period of repentance and sorrow that leads up to the joy of Easter morning. I've even heard people say, “We Protestants don't celebrate Lent.” Yeah, nobody “celebrates” Lent. We observe it as a way of letting God shape and mold our hearts. We observe it as an aid to worship so that we can focus on your Lord and mortify the flesh.

When we try to cram all the sadness of Our Lord's passion into an hour-long Good Friday service so that we can quickly skip ahead to the happy ending, we're setting ourselves up for a pretty shallow experience. That may be why Easter morning doesn't seem as joyous and incredible to you as you wish it did. You haven’t prayed with Christ in the Garden, wept with him in the prison cell, or sat at a distance while he was beaten and scourged. You haven’t taken the time to mortify the flesh and concentrate on your crucifixion with Christ.

Now, you might point out that Scripture does not specifically mandate the observation of Lent. That's true. But Jesus and the Apostles did tell us to fast (Matt 6:17, 9:15; Acts 14:23). And St. James commanded us to turn our laughter to mourning (4:9). And it has been my experience that Christians who don't fast, mourn, and intentionally weep for their sins during Lent don't do it at all.

So, back to the question of what to give up? I can never decide.

Most things that come to my mind, I wind up dismissing as too trivial. My favorite TV show or news website. Cadbury Eggs. Coffee. Sure, those would be challenges for me, but what's the point? So I gave up mayonnaise; now what?

Others are just unrealistic. While I'm scarfing down pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, it's easy to think that I could no problem go forty days without food. But I'm not Jesus and neither are you. I understand some have done it, but if God’s calling you to emulate Christ in this way, I’d ask for some ID.

Others ideas are inappropriate because the motivation is all wrong. It always crosses my mind to give up certain foods so that I can lose a little off the old gut. Kill two birds with one stone: be super pious and go back to using the holes that actually came with the belt (as opposed to the ones I punched with a screwdriver). A friend of mine tells of a year when he gave up every beverage but water for Lent and lost twenty pounds in the process. The next year, he decided to do it again, only he was motivated by the twenty pounds, not the spiritual exercise. Once again, he drank only water for forty days, only he didn't lose an ounce. Many of us have had similar experiences; you can almost hear God snickering.

Still other sacrifices are ill-advised because they're sinful to begin with. If one gives up getting drunk or having sex outside of marriage for Lent, he or she will be looking forward to Easter Sunday (the highest day of the church calendar), not for the celebration of the Resurrection, but for the next sinful bender. I should mention that I've known some Christians who use Lent as a way to permanently give over that besetting sin to God, but just remember that there's nothing magical about this time of year.

And finally, my real Achilles’ heel: legalism. I'm prone to it. A lot of people who no longer observe Lent were legalistically forced to give things up as children. I never was, but I've got my own works-based tendencies. I need to give something up, I tell myself, and then my success in that endeavor somehow (on a subconscious level, I suppose) gets all wrapped up with whether or not God loves and accepts me. Throughout Lent, I need to continually remind myself that I could give up oxygen for forty days and still God would not be impressed and I still wouldn't have paid for a single sin. Jesus paid it all. I'm just showing him a little bit of gratitude.

After all, if sacrificing at Lent is not helping you focus more on God—if it doesn't have you praying more, in the Word more, and more conscious of His Spirit's leading throughout the forty days—then it's of no profit to you. If the act of giving up is the end, not the means, then I urge you not to bother.

However, if you approach the practice as Christ approached His time in the wilderness, as a way to put away vanities and distractions to better focus on Jesus Christ who made the ultimate sacrifice for you, then I encourage you to take a forty day break from texting, from the Internet, from mystery novels or parties. Heck, if it’s mayonnaise that gives you the comfort and nourishment that should come from God, I urge you to give up mayonnaise (and seek counseling). Just remember that, as with food fasting, if Lent is done in a showy way, you've already received your reward on earth. If you don't need to bring it up before others, don't.

And whether you make a specific sacrifice or whether you don't, remember that Lent is a time of repentance, re-commitment, and re-centering our lives on Jesus Christ who was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and died for our sin.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Pastor Zach