Tuesday, June 30, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

Data Piracy Fail

Last September, I indulged in a prolonged rant about a certain website, run by a professed Christian, which illegally made available hundreds of volumes of copyrighted Christian literature (from devotionals to theology texts to commentaries). I occasionally check back to www.biblecentre.net just to see if the shameful thing is still afloat. And guess what I saw last week? Behold:

That's right; www.biblecentre.net is no more. (The domain is for sale.) I don't know if the guy just ran out of money, got tired of running, or was snatched by the fuzz. But I do know this: even if you've begun to buy into your own justifications, your sins will eventually catch up with you.

And if they don't, Interpol will.

Thursday, June 25, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

An Annotated Guide to Christian Buzzwords

In my last post, I thoroughly lamented the sad state of affairs in which American Christians know every Christian buzzword/phrase and how to use it in holy dialogue, but know very little actual Scripture. As an appendix, below please find an alphabetical list of buzzwords and Christian clichés and what I don't like about each--a good old fashioned Pastor Zach rant! Good times.

I've been adding to this list for several months now so, yeah, it's insanely long. Take it in a few bite-size pieces. Maybe it will bring you a cynical chuckle or two in the coming days.

Oh, and please feel free to add your own in the comments section. I'm sure I'm missing some doozies.

Authentic - Yeah, let's all be really intentional about being "authentic." We can probably synthetically produce authentic authenticity. (Cf. "relevant" and "engaging culture.")

Best Life Now - This idea has nothing to do with the Christian life during the 42 months (i.e. between the first and second comings of Christ), unless you consider being lied about, mocked, persecuted, and facing "all kinds of trials" as your idea of "the good life." BTW, do you think they still have this conversation over at Hachette Book Group: "What do you think should be the book cover for this one, Joel?" "Oh, I don't know... How about my insufferable face taking up every square centimeter with that creepy smile airbrushed to be so white that it burns people's retinas?" "Sounds good!"

Christ-follower - I've mostly noticed this listed as people's "religion" on social networking sites. I guess there's not really anything wrong with this term per se (apart from its grammatical awkwardness), but whenever we start using a new word/term in place of an already established word, I have to ask: why? What's wrong with Christian? It's what the "Christ-followers" were first called in Antioch and we've been called Christians ever since. So is "Christ-follower" supposed to be a translation (rather than transliteration) of Χριστιανός? That's over-reaching. I suspect that the real motivation is to set oneself over and against the masses of people who wear the name "Christian," to be part of an elite group of people that take this Jesus stuff much more seriously than those "Christians." And to that I say: yikes.

Comfort Zone - This was probably a good term when it was the new buzzword, but it's definitely run its course. Not to mention that it's misused more often than not these days. Sure, Jesus called us to a life of making disciples and being disciples, which often involves being uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean that we're all called to do everything that makes us squirm. If you're scared to death of speaking before a group, that doesn't mean God is calling you to "get out of your comfort zone" and preach on a Sunday morning. Quite the opposite.

Community - This falls under the category of "regular words that were re-cast as buzzwords and now make me want to throw up." I think I'll just leave it at that.

Conversation - Ditto. This is not a particularly biblical word. It only occurs twice in the ESV, once in the Old Testament and once in the New. The NT reference is to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, talking about how Jesus has died and how they had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel. Then Jesus came alongside them and did the craziest thing. He didn't say, "Well, just keep being authentic and asking questions." No, he stepped into their "conversation" and provided answers from Scripture. Starting at Genesis, he walked them through the whole Old Testament, explaining how it was all about HIM. Why is it that the new "conversation buzzword" is used to move us in the opposite direction?

Creating a Space (or "Creating a Sacred Space") - Borrowed capital from New Age. I say they can keep it. Our desire to turn spiritual practices into disciplines and rituals by which we enter God's presence is unhelpful at best and blasphemous at worst. And really, only God can actually create space. Besides, the "space" doesn't matter when we approach God (John 4:23, Heb 4:15-16).

Decision for Christ - The Holy Grail of Finneyism and a perfect example of exalting the byproduct. My "decision for Christ" can only take place as a result of Christ choosing me (John 15:16). Shouldn't we be making a much bigger deal of the latter?

Do Church - It's almost like we choose these buzzwords based on maximum grammatical awkwardness. The meaning of this one is kind of elusive. It either means, "Let's commence diaconal ministries" or "Let's make everything really exciting and hip" (cf. "relevant" below). Either way, "do church" is a case of "verbing" (which is, itself, a case of "verbing," ironically)--taking a noun, "church," and making it into an action. But here's the thing: when the New Testament refers to the church, it's using a word that started out as a verb (ek-kaleo, "to call out.") I don't want to make too much of this, since the noun form (ἐκκλησία) had long meant "assembly" when Jesus' earthly ministry began. But either way, when we "verb" the word "church," the action/focus should be on assembling (something we do) or being called out (something that happens to us)...yet that's not what people mean by "do church."

Do Life Together - This may be the most awkward phrase ever. And for what? There's already a verb form of the word "life." When you want to know where someone resides, do you ask, "So where do you do life?" No, you say, "Where do you live?" But we don't want to say that people in the church "live together." Never mind that the New Testament church pretty much did live together (Acts 2:43-47). If we're not going to follow in their footsteps, let's just drop the pretense. Or else, to be consistent, next time your vehicle is in the shop, ask your co-worker if you can "do car together" tomorrow.

Emergent/Emerging - Yeah, whatever it is, it's done emerged. All that remains is to push down on that little silver handle.

Engaging Culture - If you want to be worldly, just say it. If you really want to be like Paul on Mars Hill, then don't sit there and say, "How can we engage culture?" You've just pretty much guaranteed that you won't. (Cf. "authentic" and "relevant").

Faith Journey - Ugh.

Felt Needs - I dealt with this one in my sermon on the Gospel Driven Church. You may want to check that out. Suffice it to say, Jesus never worried about people's felt needs because fallen humans purposefully create false "felt needs" to distract us from our true need (see Romans 1). Every time someone came to Jesus with a felt need, he re-directed them to what they really needed. If they weren't willing to make the shift, he sent them packing (e.g. rich young ruler, woman at the well, the masses seeking bread, James and John, etc.).

Incarnational - As in "incarnational ministry" or "incarnational living." No one quite knows what this means. I'm pretty sure it has to do with not showering, watering down the Gospel, and being exceedingly smug.

Invite Jesus into your Heart - Much more manageable than dying to self and being resurrected with Christ. Comes from our old buddy Finney's influence. For some reason, we don't think children will understand the concepts of repentance, faith, and atonement, so we hit them with an abstract, poorly constructed metaphor that is found nowhere in Scripture instead. Good call.

It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship - My boy Ted Kluck had this to say in my recent interview with him:

"[That buzz phrase] is bogus. It is about religion. When Paul was confronted with the altar to the unknown God, he didn’t respond with: “Hey, mystery, that’s great! You have an unknown God…I have an unknown God…let’s do life together and be authentic in our uncertainty.” He preached. He implored Timothy to preach, and to guard the good deposit. I love relationships as much as the next guy, but I also love the gospel and think that if it was important enough for Paul to endure beatings and imprisonment for, it’s something I can and should take a stand on myself. In that same Acts passage, Paul ended with (v. 31) “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

Let go and let God - I dealt with this common cop-out in my most recent sermon on Nehemiah.

Missional - In his book Don't Stop Believing, Michael Wittmer writes:

"It doesn’t help when postmodern innovators punt many of the important questions into the inscrutable realm of mystery. Earlier this year I attended a conference on the missional church. When asked for a definition of the term missional, a leader of the conference mysteriously proclaimed that the concept was too lofty for him to explain. Then he asked us to accept his inability to define it as proof that he understood it, implying that anyone who could put words to it would prove that they did not get it. So if we think we know, we don’t; and if we don’t know, we do. At this point I realized that I had just lost two days of my life to a cause that even the leaders knew little about!" (p. 135)

Purpose-Driven® (or "living out one's purpose") - A kit you can buy to make your church instantly awesome.

Red Letter Christians - A self-designation that means I take the words and ethic of Jesus more seriously than confessional or doctrinal Christians. It also indicates a complete misunderstanding of inspiration, as the "red letters" are no more authoritative and no more the Word of God than the black letters. Again, Jesus himself said that the whole of Scripture is about Him.

Relevant - 1. A cool magazine and now-defunct publisher. 2. A once-helpful buzzword. When Christianity had cornered the market on irrelevance (e.g. Stryper, Lord's Gym T-shirts, and Jesus dog tags), this term came in as a helpful litmus test. Unfortunately, it's been over-used until all meaning has been sucked out of it. Let it die. If we all stop saying it now, then the magazine won't have to change its name.

Seeker-sensitive - What Jesus was trying to be when he told the crowds they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Then, when many people walked away, he turned to his disciples and said, "You gonna leave too?" SEN-SI-TIVE!

Soul Tsunami - A term coined before we all equated tsunamis with thousands and thousands of people tragically killed. The idea behind it is that we shouldn't ask God to bless the work we do for the Kingdom, but rather should find where God is already blessing and glom on to it. My first reaction to this is, doesn't somebody have to first start doing the work for the initial blessing to happen? More importantly, though, what if Moses, Gideon, Deborah, Esther, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, St. Paul, etc. had decided not to obey and begin the work, but rather to find where God was already blessing someone else to lead Israel out of bondage, defeat the heathen, rescue the Jews, build the wall, bear the Messiah into the world, or prepare the way for him...?

Visioning - Another verbed noun. The standard proof-text for treating the Body of Christ like just another restaurant chain is Proverbs 29:18a, "Where there is no vision, the people perish:" (KJV) Yeah, Solomon must have meant "vision statement" type of vision. Remember, part of being "purpose-driven" is mining 500 different translations for every occurrence of words like "purpose," "vision," "mission," etc. The translators of the NIV, though, understood that the Hebrew chazon means a vision in the sense of "revelation" (or, as the ESV translates it, "Prophetic vision"). But even the rest of the verse in the KJV should clue us in: "Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he."

What Would Jesus Do? - Nothing wrong with this question. Just remember, that it's LAW, not GOSPEL. Jesus came primarily to do something, not show us what he would do.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

Christian Clichés (part 1 of 2)

I once belonged to a church that was known for its—how you say—lively business meetings. Just about any issue became officially "hot-button" and fierce debate was apparently in order whether we were considering buying new hymnals, choosing the color of carpet, or planning a mission trip. On one hand, I suppose it’s a good thing to take the business of the church seriously; after all, this is God’s Kingdom we’re talking about. However, when arguments heat up at business meetings, it’s been my experience that people are usually fighting for their opinion or their idea, rather than truly pursuing God’s will.

Case in point, I remember a "discussion" about possibly passing a church budget without knowing where all of the money would come from. Compelling biblical arguments were initially made both for fiscal conservatism and for "stepping out in faith." Before I knew it, though, someone was standing at the microphone demanding, "Doesn’t the Bible tell us that God helps those who help themselves?!"

Um, no. It doesn’t.

Thus the bane of congregational church polity: just as in a presidential election—where the well-researched, thoughtful vote counts exactly as much as the vote prompted solely by Hollywood or talk radio—so mature believers who immerse every thought and decision in prayer and Scripture can be outvoted by people who think "Cleanliness is next to godliness" is actually a verse in the Bible. (It isn’t).

This is all symptomatic of a much bigger problem. In a pinch, many of us are tempted to use God’s Word as a tool to get our own way. Add to that the biblically illiterate state of the Church in America and the resulting quasi-biblical exchanges would be funny if they weren’t so sad.

Am I talking to you? Well, let’s see…


Which of the following passages are actually found in the Bible? (answers below)
  • 1. "A fool and his money are soon parted." Y / N
  • 2. "Money is the root of all evil." Y / N
  • 3. "Spare the rod, spoil the child." Y / N
  • 4. "Be in the world, not of it." Y / N
  • 5. "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Y / N
  • 6. "To err is human; to forgive, divine." Y / N
  • 7. "To thine own self be true." Y / N
  • 8. "God won’t give you more than you can handle." Y / N

Well, how’d you do? Most American Christians may not know their Bibles, but we sure are good at talking in a pious-sounding Christianese, aren’t we?

Sometimes, as I prepare a sermon, I think that a particular point is going to be an amen-worthy, gasp-inducing epiphany, only to have it fall flat. And other times, I’ll just throw in a comment I hadn’t even intended only to realize later that it was quite profound. The latter happened this past Lord’s Day. As I preached on Nehemiah 2, I noted that the church speaks more in clichés that we ourselves have invented than in the terms of Holy Scripture (which is supposed to be our very foundation). How telling is that? Seems like an innocent problem, but it’s actually very dangerous.

For example, the early church, suffering persecution under Pagan Rome, used to have secret methods of identifying themselves to fellow Christians. One of the first was for one Christian to draw half of an Ichthus (a fish symbol) in the sand with a stick. If someone completed the fish symbol, he was assumed to be a fellow believer. That worked for a little while, until the very obvious ritual became common knowledge (James Bond they were not) and, before long, Christians were being dragged to prison in record numbers. So instead of one easily counterfeited signal, Christians shifted to a new code: one believer would begin a passage of Scripture. If their companion finished it, he or she was assumed to be a believer. Still not fool-proof, but at least this system required a heck of a lot more work on the part of a Roman double-agent than just drawing a line in the sand with a stick.

Do you think you would be able to convince the early church that you too were a Christian (assuming the language barrier was somehow not a problem)? If a Christian approached you and said, "You search the Scriptures because you think that that in them you have eternal life…" would you have any clue what comes next? Or what if they said, "All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for…?" Many a life-long Christian would be hard-pressed to pass this test compared to Christians of previous generations. Even I wouldn’t measure up—several seminary professors have told me how the majority of students on their way to professional ministry know very little of the Bible’s fundamentals—the basic stories, passages, and concepts that most everyone knew just fifty years ago.

Maybe today we should update this method and use our Christian clichés and buzzphrases as the secret handshake (or are we already doing that?) Would you do better at that pop quiz? "Let go and…" ("let God!") "What would Jesus…" ("do?") "It’s not about religion, it’s about…" ("relationship!") I’m tempted to go off on a tangent of how I despise most Christian clichés / buzz-phrases and why, but since this is already a spinoff from a sermonic tangent, I shall save that particular rant for my next blog post .

So what am I trying to do here, make people feel bad? Maybe a little bit (and that would include me—I have only memorized a handful of previously unknown chapters of Scripture since I’ve been pastoring Judson; this is something I used to do continually). But most of all, I want to encourage you to make God’s Holy Word (not our pithy proverbs and truisms) the foundation of your life and faith.

For many Christians, reading God’s Word has become one of the lowest priorities of their spiritual lives. They have to have the latest praise and worship CDs, know all the latest buzzwords (so they can be "missional," "incarnational," and "purpose-driven"), and of course they have to read as many of the religious best-sellers as they can get through in order to seem "relevant," but I submit that all of this is loss if we haven’t hidden God’s Word in our hearts.
What I propose is crazy, I know, but it’s clear to me that the Church needs (a lot) fewer ‘shacks,’ prayers of Jabez, and post-‘rapture’ hijinks and a lot more plain old Bible reading and prayer. Yeah, I’m suggesting you turn off the stupid TV and get your nose in the Scriptures. It might even pay off. After all, God helps those who help themselves, right?

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

Answer: None of these are quotes from Scripture (although #2 & #3 are similar to actual verses; 1 Timothy 6:10, Proverbs 13:24)
    Sunday, June 14, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

    Everybody's Talking About Hero Worship

    I've noticed that, over the past month or so, just about every reformed blogger has been talking about the notion of Christian hero worship--whether it's making a saint and martyr out of that bikini pageant lady (the one who stood up to some pseudo-famous, unfortunate-looking gossip blogger) or putting John Piper, John Calvin, or John Bunyan up on a pedestal as inerrant exegetes who speak ex cathedra. There has been appropriate caution urged. The cream of the crop, in my opinion, was a piece comparing the unquestioning veneration of famous pastors to pornography.

    But in all these articles, one thing's been glaringly absent: any acknowledgement that, in today's technological world, many of these bloggers themselves are the objects of hero worship. I had been blogging for quite some time when I finally began to realize just how popular some young, restless, reformed bloggers have become. While I was putting together the initial blog list for www.calvinati.com, I became familiar with dozens and dozens of blogs. And when I realized which ones were super-popular (and which ones had tiny or non-existent reader bases), I was incredibly suprised--both by the gap between the reader-rich and read-poor and by the sometimes questionable taste of the masses.

    As with most niche demographics these days, the YRR movement has its Internet darlings. I would guess that each of the ten most popular boasts more readers in a year than any fifty scholarly biblical commentators who pour decades of their lives into producing insightful, accurate, helpful studies and commentaries. This both saddens me and reminds me of the unfortunate situation among emergent types, wherein the most vocal leaders with the most loyal minions claim no particular insight into the text, no special level of study, and no desire to rectify that.

    You see, it dawned on me a few days ago that most of the uber-popular bloggers of the reformed persuasion do not have a seminary education. I'm not going to start listing people, but even among those you would assume have been to seminary, upon a little investigation it seems that most have not. Those bigtime blogs with multiple writers?--yeah, one or maybe two contributors studied systematic theology, Koine Greek, and exegetical method under qualified men and women.

    Does it matter? Hmmm, that's a tough one to answer. Certainly, there is no Scriptural mandate that pastors need to get an MDiv (and make no mistake--most of these bloggers are effectively functioning as pastors to many of the hundreds who loyally come back day after day to receive the next post.) In fact, Spurgeon didn't even have a seminary degree (something about a pig's tail). And certainly, the Holy Spirit has often called people into ministries whether or not they've got the standard outward credentials (think Moses, Gideon, or the Virgin Mary).

    But how do we discern what is valuable to the church among the almost infinite number of blogs and websites out there? Is it based on who has the soundest doctrine? The most insightful perspective? The most ready-packaged application? The largest cache of free online materials? The sharpest looking presentation? Most stylish graphics? Most lively debate in the comments section?

    I'd never suggest that only the seminary educated and ordained are fit to blog about the faith. Such a thought would be pure folly--Heaven save us from ivory tower Christianity. I'm just asking: what makes someone a superstar in our tiny little sub-culture on the web? And based on these criteria, is the level of authority attributed to each man really warranted?

    Your thoughts, please.
    Thursday, June 11, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

    Broke-Down Zion (2009, Week 24)

    This Week's Sermon

    Click here to link to the audio (right click and choose "Save target as" to save the file on an iPod or other device).
    A Broken Wall. I've started a new sermon series on the book of Nehemiah. What do you do when God's people are in trouble and God's Kingdom seems to be crumbling? Well, it's not the first time. This book is about how God furthered his redemptive work, even through a seemingly hopeless situation.

    As always, you can access all my sermons at www.pastorzach.com
    Wednesday, June 3, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

    Another Example of Emergent Fruit

    So confessional Christians like to lurk and troll around emergent blogs. The opposite is also true. There are a couple in particular who can be counted on to consistently weigh in on Don't Stop Believing, a blog which (like the book by the same name) offers a very welcome corrective to the pendulum swings of the emergent church. During the last couple of weeks, the way some of these interactions have played out has shone a light on a huge disconnect in the emergent "conversation."

    Let me give you some background: the post in question was a comparison between a quote by Fosdick (a classical Protestant liberal) in the 1920s and a quote by an emergent leader a couple weeks ago on Twitter. They both said essentially the same thing—the similarity was actually uncanny. Of course, Mr. Emergent chimed in with some standard talking-points, capped with the dismissive proclamation, "To poke at one’s twitter comment as serious theology is a bit lacking."

    Now, I have to give this blogger huge points for patient endurance. He's a brilliant seminary professor and could easily humiliate these emergent keyboard warriors without breaking a sweat. After all, the majority have no idea what they're talking about, can't put a sentence together, and I don't think one in a hundred has a seminary degree (not that one needs a seminary degree to know Scripture and sound doctrine, but it helps when one is attempting to engage a celebrated Ph.D. on his own turf.) Yet my friend shows restraint and controls his tongue like I pray I someday will. Yeah, I wanna be like Mike.

    But I digress...back to my point. "Poking at one's twitter comment as [if it were] serious theology" is apparently quite a silly thing to do. But wait—that's where emergent types do their theology. They don't proclaim from the pulpit or in peer-reviewed theological journals; more often it—s from Facebook or a blog entry. Many of them have a large following and can communicate quite efficiently to their minions via these web services. Why, then, are these comments free from accountability?

    Answer: Because the emergent "movement" as a whole sees itself as free from accountability.

    At a seminar on the emergent church, I once heard Ed Dobson (oh, how I love Ed Dobson) ask Brian McLaren straight out: "We know what you're against, but what are you for?" McLaren's answer was, "Hey, we're just a new movement. Every new movement is defined by what they're against. Just look at Luther and his 95 theses. Give us some time..." Well, it's been a decade and more. By this time, the Lutherans had produced the Augsburg Confession. Besides, Luther never defined himself by what he was against. He was for grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone.

    McLaren is an academic (his M.A. is in Literature, not theology, but brilliant and highly educated all the same) and even he wants to be able to shoot from the hip at the "colonial, patriarchal, homophobic, institutional, xenophobic" Western church, while ducking any cross examination with the "we're a new movement" dodge. Most of his theological offspring, though, are less smooth about it. Rev. Doug Phillips, at a workshop at Lansing South Church, summed up the emergent philosophy thus: they write books asking all sorts of questions and making all sorts of accusations, but when you challenge them on any point, they respond, "Chill out, man. I'm only 24."

    Question: How is that a "conversation?"

    Back to the emergent commenter at Don't Stop Believing. Curious about his background and affiliation, I finally clicked over to his blog a few days ago. Same old stuff you'd expect: the doctrine of original sin is bound up in a misunderstanding of biological processes, we don't know God through propositional truths, etc., etc. Yawn.

    Then I came upon the classic duck-n-dodge to end all dodges: a re-hash of Peter Rollins' resurrection evasion. It begins with someone trying to tie down an emergent to a propositional, historical fact. "Do you deny the resurrection?" to which the emergent responds, "Yes, I deny the resurrection every day. Every time I fail to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, give shelter to those without."

    Ultimatum: Answer the question for real or my eyeballs are going to explode, shooting blood all over your expensively indie shirt.

    I tried to harness my friend's biblical self control, clicked "comment," weighed in with a pretty harmless Scriptural observation, and clicked "submit."

    Comment moderation is turned on. Your comment must be approved by an admin.

    Yeah, welcome to "the conversation." Confessional Christians need not open their mouths, as they will not be permitted to speak. (As of this moment, there have been further posts made and comments moderated, but mine is nowhere to be seen.)

    Most of you are probably familiar with the Pyromaniacs and their "Po-Motivator" posters (parodies of those inspirational posters that feature a breathtaking nature photo, a single word like "VISION" and a brief, pithy description of what vision is--only these are about "contextualization," etc.) Some of them are pretty harsh. Most are very insightful. Admittedly, they all make me laugh. Two in particular hit the nail on the head. One reads, "COMEDY: When Post-Evangelicals Diss Their Critics" and the other reads, "CRUELTY: When Critics Satirize Emerging/Postmodern Values" and features an emergent guy with a single tear running down his face.

    That about sums it up. They duck and dodge, only popping up to fire at the lame old failing traditional church, but if someone challenges them with Scripture, points out the flaws and heresies inherent in their teachings, or even asks a simple straightforward question, they'll just stand there looking hurt, contort their face, and mouth the words, "Why...? Whyyyyyyy....can't we just...get...along--*"

    It reminds me of the tactic of militant homosexuals. If anyone suggests that their behavior is sinful, unhealthy, or abnormal, they respond with, "You're not just attacking my behavior, you're attacking me." Likewise, calling out emergents on their innovations and retreads of old heresies is repainted as an assault on their persons and an attempt to--in the words of my fellow Don't Stop Believing commenter--"kick siblings out [of the church and] tell them that they no longer are family members."

    But that's not what we're trying to do. At least not what I'm trying to do. Because, buddy, if I thought you were outside the church, I wouldn't give a rip what you wrote.

    Tuesday, June 2, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

    Heaven Weeps for the Creepy People Like...Who?

    Occasionally, upon learning that I spent a decade at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids (earning my BA and MDiv), people ask me if I know Rob Bell. That's a hard question to answer. I mean, there was never a time when we got together twice a week to play badminton or anything and if someone were to point me out and ask, "Do you know that guy," I'd guess that Rob would say, "Yeah, he looks familiar," but could not produce my name.

    All the same, I can't just answer no either. In a sense, everyone knew Rob. He was the "it guy" for college ministry, on staff at Calvary Church right across the street, and spoke in chapel regularly. And not only have I heard him preach many excellent sermons (most at the Saturday Night services at Calvary), but I've had conversations with the guy and even been to his house a couple times. Not because we were good buddies, but because he invited me over to help me out. You see, any conversation about Rob Bell, his theology, his books, etc. needs to acknowledge a plain fact from the outset: Rob Bell is one of the nicest people alive. There, I said it.

    When I was in college I was, of course, in a band. So was Rob. The difference: his band (Big Fil) was super-tight, super-popular, and in great demand. As such, my roommate/bandmate and I asked Rob if he had any advice for us--how we could get more gigs, have a better sound, connect with our audience more effectively, etc. Now, he hadn't yet achieved anything near the rockstar preacher status that he now enjoys, but Bell was already very well-known (especially among the approx. 15 million college-aged Christian kids in Grand Rapids) and incredibly busy. We expected him to kind of blow us off, maybe e-mail a couple of general guidelines for rock performance, pass on a couple phone numbers or contact names.

    Instead, he asked for a copy of our CD, which he listened to in its entirety (71 minutes of often rather rough material) and took notes on each song and each musician. He shared these notes with us one afternoon when he invited us to his house. Despite being a mega-church's golden boy, Rob didn't think of himself as better than anyone and I'm convinced that he still doesn't (although each successive magazine cover probably makes it harder to stay grounded).

    Note: Back then, Rob's theology was as orthodox as it gets. He had clever and innovative ways of communicating biblical doctrines, but the doctrines themselves were anything but innovative. In other words, this was before the legendary reading of McLaren's sloppy book and subsequent "conversion" to emergentism.

    Rob gave us some valuable feedback and advice about what to perform, how to get the gig, how to keep people engaged, how to build credibility and then share the Gospel in a way that doesn't seem contrived. One piece of advice about which he was particularly adamant was that, while he liked the song, we should not perform "Typical Baptist" anywhere that non-Christians may hear it. The song was an indictment of the uptight lack of passion for praising God or reaching the lost that we saw in many Baptist churches in and around G-Rap. Sure, it was clever, Rob said, but we don't want the world to see us taking shots at each other. It will just reinforce the notion that Christians are divisive, spiteful hypocrites. Better to save that song for very churchy crowds. It was good advice and we took it.

    Fast-forward almost a decade to March 2005. Rob Bell releases his 9th "Nooma" video, a dollar-per-minute, quick-cut, abridged sermon called "Bullhorn." In it, we hear the story of a street preacher who stands in front of Van Andel Arena before a concert, proclaiming Law and Gospel through a bullhorn (using words like--gasp--"sin" and "hell") and handing out tracts of his own design.

    Rob says he wants to "take a minute to talk to Bullhorn Guy." As we watch the man photocopy, fold, park, and make his way down to the street to do what only 1 in a 1000 Christians would actually have the sand to do, Bell says, "Bullhorn guy, I don't think it's working. I think it's actually making things worse."

    The problem? No one is stopping to listen. No one is taking any of the tracts. I could go on here about how the truth of the Gospel is not bound up in whether people listen, how part of the indictment against God-rejecters is that they've heard the Gospel and yet not repented, and that the prophets and apostles did almost exactly what Bullhorn Guy was doing...but that has already been taken care of here, here, and here.

    No, I want to focus on the song in the background. The song that continually drones the line, "Heaven weeps for the creepy people like you." Wait, isn't that a little nit-picky? No. Because the "discussion guide" booklet that comes with the DVD devotes a huge spread to the same sentence. Heaven weeps for the creepy people like you. The socially awkward guy who spends his evening enduring ridicule in order to preach the Gospel to the lost. The guy who goes all by himself into the belly of the beast. The guy who reads about the prophets and the apostles and thinks, "That's what I should be doing" and goes and does it. He's creepy. He makes Baby Jesus cry.

    Rob said that we shouldn't play "Typical Baptist" because the world would see us picking each other apart and assume that Christians are spiteful and divisive. How does that jibe with a ten-minute mockfest directed at fundamentalist Christians--particularly those who strike us as "creepy?" How does it jibe with Bell's book Velvet Elvis dismissing confessional Christians as adherents of "brickianity" instead of Christianity?

    I'm not trying to point out some hypocrisy here. People are allowed to change their minds. (Maybe Rob would tell us today that we should perform "Typical Baptist" at each and every show.) Nor do I have a huge problem with religious debate that takes place in the public square; some might see us as divisive, while others will just see that we have a passion for the Truth. I'm really not even that upset about calling the bullhorn guy creepy. He probably was.

    My point is that becoming "emergent," moving off the foundation of historic biblical doctrines and instead "re-discovering Christianity as an Eastern religion" where Jesus is somehow the authority apart from his Word...all that stuff that claims to be about spiritual humility, religious tolerance, and the individual's "faith journey..." All that stuff makes people less tolerant, less humble, and more willing to not only point fingers at the silly followers of "brickianity," but call them creepy, write them off, and not even allow them to be part of the all-important "conversation." I would suggest that Rob Bell is one of the few emergent types with any real humility to speak of. He's also one of the more orthodox in his teaching. But even that is a pretty telling statement.

    After all, is there anything more arrogant than the suggestion that the last 1700 years of Christianity have been one big move in the wrong direction? That doctrine, systematic theology, the authority of Scripture, the existence of hell, etc. are just human constructs? That Calvin and Luther were completely off-base in their reading of Paul, in their acceptance of penal substitution and original sin?

    Doesn't seem like humility to me. But what do I know? I'm just one of those creepy people.