Tuesday, May 25, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Why So Snarky?

I get hatemail.

Not nearly as much as Frank Turk or Kevin DeYoung, but I do get a bit—more and more as my blog’s readership has grown. And, of course, publishing Kinda Christianity created quite a bump in my inbox from emergent keyboard warriors who want to tell me how heartless it is for us to reveal their secret formula and how our words make Bono cry.

Apparently, though, I’ve hit some magical point of no return, after which every single thing I do attracts its share of critical response. For example, Ted Kluck and I recently filmed some goofy little “webisodes” for a Wayne’s World-esque comedy series called Pastor Zach’s Basement, which is currently being cut together by the incomparable WAC Productions. Last week, the aforementioned producer put together a brilliant little teaser trailer to build some hype. Go ahead and watch it; you know you want to.

As you can see, if you take away the bells, whistles and cool video effects, you’ve basically got me and Ted [this may be a good time for any small children to leave the room]...walking down some stairs! Oh, the horror! The hatred! Or so one would think, because—you guessed it—I got some hatemail. One particularly self-righteous screed came from a woman who tracked me down on Facebook after seeing the teaser trailer, feeling the need to send me an indictment of my life and ministry, mixed with her own ultra-deep thoughts on the “artform of religion,” mixing metaphors and skipping punctuation until I, the reader, gave up trying to follow.

But I do think I got the gist of it: why be snarky? is the question on her mind. Why be sarcastic and cutting about other people’s “spirituality?” Admitedly, the first thing that comes to my own mind when I hear this question is always Phil Johnson and his hilarious “po-motivators,” particularly these two:

I also think of Mike Wittmer’s recent reminder that people who get offended and mad about stuff like Kinda Christianity also love The Colbert Report, The Onion, and The Daily Show. Double standard much? Ultimately, though, “You do it too” or, “Hey, he started it” is no real response.

So instead, let me say this: I am a Reformational Christian. And in that, I do try to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther and my beloved John Calvin, both of whom preached Christ from the Scriptures (including the harsh stuff) and both of whom never minced words when error came creeping its way into the church. Granted, these men were not infallible, nor were their writings. In fact, at the Diet of Worms, Luther confessed that some of his writings against individuals had been a tad too harsh.

More specifically, though, I find myself in the tradition of the early Baptists who believed in religious toleration and were willing to give the benefit of the doubt on non-essential matters of faith, even while debating tirelessly and aggressively for their own doctrine. When essentials of the faith have been attacked, however, all of the above, at their best, took off the kid gloves and put on the spirit of the apostles, exposing false doctrine with anathemas, logic, and wit, and putting the spiritual security of their sheep always before the wounded pride of the wolves who would introduce such heresy.

The irony in all this is that I do have a rather big-tent view of Christianity; there are very few things that I consider deal-breakers, essential doctrines. I won’t break fellowship with my ultra-fundamentalist brothers and sisters or with my fellow mainline Protestand ministers (most of whom are incredibly liberal, theologically) for the usual beefs. I’m generally the guy cautioning, “Let’s not turn on each other. Let’s get beyond denominational differences and, as the unified body of Christ, show the world His love and grace.” (I’ve gotten more hate mail for that sentiment, by the way, than I have for anything I’ve written on the emergent church; see this post for more on that.) Why, then, make a big deal out of some doctrinal differences and not others? Why point out what’s wrong with someone else’s theology, rather than just preaching Christ?

Ah, there’s the rub. From whence should I preach Christ? From my own thoughts and ideas? From my personal experiences? From the goings-on in the cockles of my heart (or, perhaps, in the sub-cockle area)? Or from Scripture? If I preach Christ from the New Testament, then a large portion of what I preach (much of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels, much of the Book of Acts, II Thessalonians, all of Galatians, I & II John, Revelation 1-3, for a start.) will become out-of-bounds, as it was initially written to expose errors in other people’s theology! How uncouth! I can imagine Paul receiving angry messages from certain Galatians, or John being mail-bombed by Cerinthians, demanding to know why these men of God were being so divisive and harsh. After all, there may be some disagreement about the role of the law or the details of Christ’s identity, but can’t we all sweep that under the rug and just agree that love sorta wins?

Why would Paul make a joke about wanting his grace-neutralizing circumcision proponent opponents to “go ahead and cut it all off?” Why would John tell the elect lady and her children not to welcome into their homes a professed Christian who teaches a false Christ, or even to greet them? Why would Jesus paint an insulting picture of his opponents carefully straining out a gnat from their wine, even while they try to swallow down an entire camel? What occasions such rhetoric?

Since I’m a Baptist pastor, union rules require me to answer the question with an illustration:

Suppose there is a large organization called the Society for the Recovery of Sight for the Blind (SRSB). They were founded when a new, inexpensive technology became widely available, by which people who were born blind could see for the first time. This organization grew quickly, establishing chapters in most every city in the country. Early on, it was decided that it would be irresponsible to give sight to people who had never seen and then just send them out into the world. And so, when the official founding documents were drafted, the purpose of the organization was two-fold: to restore sight to the blind and to help these now-seeing people adjust and assimilate into a world of sight.

Then things began to change. Some large cities had waiting lists for sight restoration. Seeing this, committees were formed to work with those who were still blind while they waited their turn to receive sight. This initially involved preparation for sight restoration, but soon spread to include art appreciation campaigns (wherein the blind people feel the texture of oil paintings and listen to smell-enhanced audio books), blindness discussion groups, and the rather expensive enterprise of retro-fitting the homes of blind people with the latest technology so that they could function more easily and comfortably while they remain blind.

Before long, so much time, funds, and resources were going into these secondary efforts that fewer and fewer blind people were actually receiving their sight. The passion and direction of many chapters shifted away from returning sight to the blind and, instead, became wrapped up in blindness-affirming activities. Soon, it actually became taboo to talk about sight restoration, as the topic might imply to the blind that seeing is better than not seeing. Who are we to say? many chapter heads asked. Maybe we’re the ones who really can’t see and they have true sight. Things went down this road until a good number of the local chapters had completely “lost sight” of the original purpose of the group.

So what needs to happen here? Someone needs to take these people and their organization to task in a public way that involves the entire national SRSB. Someone (or many someones) needs to call these chapters back to the original stated purpose of the group—to say plainly that, while other organizations could be very useful in doing all these outlying activities, it’s not what our group was founded for! We’re the Society for the Recovery of Sight for the Blind. Anyone who keeps receiving grants under that name and operating under that name needs to get back to doing that work primarily (if not exclusively). And groups that continually do work that celebrates blindness and suggests that no radical sight-restoration procedure need take place are free to do so, but they really ought to change their name in the interest of openness and honesty.

The Scriptures paint a clear picture of sinners as being spiritually blind or, as Jesus said in John 5:24, dead. Perhaps a better illustration, then, would be a group that stops raising people from the dead and, instead, starts hosting deadness awareness events, helping the dead achieve “wholeness,” and organizing ice cream socials for corpses.

Let the dead bury the dead. And let us call them to life!

So, yeah, when a sector of the church visible, wearing the name of Jesus Christ, stops calling sinners to repentance, stops viewing God’s Word as the authoritative final authority, and stops proclaiming the forgiveness of sins by grace through faith because of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross, I’m going to go all St. Paul on them.

Hatemail or no.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Sunday, May 16, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Short Stuff


  • I have removed the “Link Within” (aka “You might also like...”) widget because it linked all of my 100+ posts to the same five random articles. Why? I don't know... So, goodbye Link Within. Better luck next time.

  • Kinda Christianity is now avaiable on the Amazon Kindle. So...ya know...if you have a...Kindle, then...um...buy it. The paperback is now on Amazon UK as well--for all my British readers.

  • I've made some updates to Pastor Zach dot Com, including an archive of Calvinati.com (which I finally mercy-killed) and a video page...

  • ...which includes the new teaser trailer for our web series Pastor Zach’s Basement! This is the stuff dreams are made of; don’t miss it!

  • Ted Kluck has procured some golf clubs for us to use this summer. Neither of us golfs, but we’re going to hit a nine-hole course soon a la Mikey and Peter Gibbons on Swingers. Any golf advice?

  • And speaking of Ted, he’s headed to the Moody Pastors Conference, which I had been intending to attend with him, but a couple things fell through (on Moody’s part, not mine) and I am not going after all. I do attend at least one conference per year, which now leaves me wide open for 2010. Anyone know of any good conferences on the horizon that I should check out? (Remember, I’d rather chew on a broken-glass-filled dead rat than go to anything “Purpose-Driven,” “Missional,” or “Seeker-based.”)
Tuesday, May 4, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

We Need a Pandemic

Grand Rapids is known for many things: having deceptively small “rapids,” being the boyhood home of Gerald Ford, being rather uptight and conservative (in every sense), producing quality wood furniture, and being full of Dutch people (the last two are increasingly outdated stereotypes). Oh, and Amway. Grand Rapids is definitely known for Amway.

Now, technically, Amway is in Ada, Michigan, but it’s just a stone’s throw away from GR. In case you don’t know, Amway is a ginormous corporation that sells everything from insurance to makeup to vitamins. But what they’re best known for is their use of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) to move these products. MLM is the name for a pyramid-shaped structure of promoters and sales people, in which you get credit for your own sales and for the sales of people you recruit (as well as for sales of people they recruit). Kind of like Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, and that company that sells knives that can cut a couch in half.

Anyway, in Grand Rapids, Amway jokes are good for an automatic laugh. Not that people dislike the company per se, just that it’s a shared point of reference for everyone who lives there. So if a soccer coach tells his booster club, “Jim, you call all of these people about uniforms, Rachel will call people about snacks, and Denise will call the parents about the change in practice times,” then Jim is guaranteed a chuckle if he quips, “This is starting to feel like Amway.”

When I moved to Lansing, I found that Amway jokes didn’t really translate. Mostly because they’re not really funny. And, as it happened, when I moved here, the Amway model was being taken to the next level anyway. While MLM uses existing social networks (friends and family and coworkers, and their friends and family and coworkers, and their friends and family, etc.) to reach increasingly massive group of potential customers, the Internet was making it much easier to use existing social networks to reach millions upon millions of people with almost no investment and very little trouble.

This has been called viral marketing (or viral advertising) because it essentially works the same way the swine flu does, spreading from one person to, let’s say, ten—then from each of those people to ten more, etc., etc. Within 5 generations, you’ve reached more than 100,000 people with your illness (or advertisement). Local businesses, multi-national corporations, and politicians have all scurried to use this type of marketing, and many have been very successful in getting their message out.

It may have a new name and new tools in its belt, but this way of spreading information to an exponentially growing audience is as old as language itself. And, in fact, before it was praised to high heaven by business gurus, this method of disseminating a message was ordained by God as his preferred means for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the wisdom of God and the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.

Jesus told his disciples to “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:5) And, as we see this playing out in the Book of Acts, it takes on a decidedly viral form. Before the Apostles have even set foot in many of the far-flung areas of the Roman Empire, the message has already arrived via word of mouth. A Christian in Jerusalem proclaimed the Gospel to fifty people. Let’s say ten of them believed and were saved. Three of those traveled to a distant city and, “while going,” they made “disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19). Then those disciples made disciples and those disciples made disciples and, as they went about their lives, they brought the life-changing, soul-saving, sin-erasing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them!

You see, the ability to communicate a message of hope in such a way that it takes on a life of its own is one of the ways in which we are made in the Image of God. It’s not that we’ve taken something bad (a virus) or annoying (Internet advertising) and “Christianized it”; no, this method of spreading information—namely Truth—is a God-ordained phenomenon. When he ascended into heaven, and saw those eleven regular guys and handful of women getting smaller and smaller on the mountaintop below, Jesus knew that they would proclaim the Gospel to all nations. He knew that, unlike viral marketing, the proclaiming of the Gospel is God’s chosen means of giving faith to the faithless, forgiving their sins, and making them new people. And once you’ve been forgiven and made into a new person, how can you not tell the whole world what God has done?

But let me ask this: do we see the same sort of viral growth when it comes to the Church today? If Christianity were a disease (and our culture seems to be leaning in that direction), would the CDC call it a pandemic? Or would it be more or less contained—something you’re unlikely to catch, even if regularly exposed to an infected person? If viral marketing in itself is effective, and if proclamation of the Gospel is additionally given the guarantee of success (since God’s Holy Spirit is at work), why do we see the Church shrinking in the West, rather than continuing to spread at an alarming rate?

The answer, of course, is multi-layered. There is the shift in culture—away from absolute Truth-claims—which makes people less open to the Gospel message. There is the mysterious aspect of God’s predestination, which we can’t factor into our analysis. But most of all, there is the fact that Christians are just not attacking this Great Commission thing with Amway intensity. We’re not proclaiming the Gospel like that pink Cadillac is almost within grasp. In fact, many Christians aren’t proclaiming the Gospel at all.

I mean, think about your own experience here. Have you ever been motivated to sell something? Have you made your living selling clothes or shoes or lawnmowers? Has your kid made doe-eyes and handed you the sign-up sheet for this year’s gift wrap fundraiser and asked you to pass it around at the office? Have you ever found yourself reminding people, "I’ve got quality cutlery at competitive prices; tell your friends!" Or perhaps have you been working to raise support for that 5K charity race for cancer awareness? Have these same people heard the Gospel message from you?

Whether you’re reserved or outgoing, there is something that will motivate you to open your mouth and get a message out to others, even ask them to make a commitment of some kind. It becomes easy to steer the conversation toward that particular item.

Well, we Christians are not “selling” anything (despite what you might hear from certain “evangelism experts” or the late D.L. Moody). In fact, when we approach evangelism like a slick salesman, it becomes painfully obvious and turns people off from the outset. But our passion and intensity in spreading the Good News ought to be far superior to any MLM marketer, over-zealous fundraiser, or confrontational mall kiosk pitchman.

Consider this: an Internet “viral video” of some idiot dancing for six minutes was watched by 100 million people in two weeks because of word of mouth (or “click of mouse”). That started with one person sending the video to somebody else. That’s the power of communication and it’s a power that God has ordained for his use. How many have heard of the saving power of Jesus Christ because you opened your mouth? And how many more could hear if you tell just one more person? Or ten? Or a hundred?

If you’re not proclaiming the Gospel, why not? Maybe you feel ill-equipped. After all, it’s easier to prove that your cutlery really can cut a penny in half than it is to risk entering into a philosophical or theological debate with someone. Or maybe you’ve bought into the culture’s lie that religion is something “personal” and you really shouldn’t “force yours” on to other people, as if the respectful thing to do is just let people die in their sins and go on to a Christless eternity. Well, I don’t know about respectful, but that’s sure not loving. Or maybe you’re afraid that “outing yourself” as a Jesus Freak will mean that your friends will start holding you to a higher moral standard. (They will).

These are all pretty compelling excuses to keep us from proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They’re not entirely different from the excuses Moses threw out when God charged Him with proclaiming a message of freedom and redemption. But ultimately, God won the argument with these words: "Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak." (Exodus 4:11-12 )

In a world where we’re all receiving and sending out information and communication all the time, whether by tappity-tapping it into a little keyboard on a phone, sending an e-mail, or chatting over a back fence, we must remember that our main mission as Christians is the proclaiming of one particular message—the Good News that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died on a cross for your sins and mine, was raised on the third day so that we could be declared righteous, and is coming again for His own.

As you go about your life, be about that mission, and "be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you." (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach