Saturday, July 11, 2009
Why We Love the Church
Earlier this week Kevin DeYoung sent me a copy of the new book he co-authored with Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church. (No, Kevin is not a close personal friend; although I think we could be, since we think so much alike on so many levels. Actually, I won a copy of his book by responding to one of his blog posts at http://www.revkevindeyoung.com/.) Kevin serves as a minister of the University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. Ted is a successful sportswriter and member of the same congregation.
This is a book written for everyone who thinks the church is lame and wants to leave (or has left already). It's also good for everyone who has been affected by the spirit of our age which disregards the importance of the organized church in the lives of Christians today. It has an important message for all of us who are tempted to mock, criticize, or whine about the church.
However, Why We Love the Church is not a breezy book designed to make believers feel good about complacency. It acknowledges the failures of the church as a whole and Christians in general. We are not perfect, and the authors treat criticisms of the church with respect.
But the authors do not treat the criticisms as if they were the entire picture. In fact, much of the book deals with answering unfair and misguided criticism (especially found in popular Christian books today), while challenging Christians to embrace a more mature and nuanced understanding of the organized church and their place within it.
Here are a few of my favorite thought-provoking quotes:
"Community engagement is good. It's all too easy to criticize the missional crowd without actually doing anything yourself. And yet, a critique is warranted. The vision behind words like 'missional' and 'kingdom' often ends up reducing the church to a doer of good, noncontroversial deeds (e.g., no mention of pro-life concerns as important to community transformation) like every other humanitarian organization. When young people talk about the church getting involved in social justice, they almost always have in mind sex trafficking, oppression and death in Darfur, AIDS, or some other social cause. The danger for conservative evangelicals is to dismiss these concerns as liberal issues that don't concern us. I really don't want that to happen...This is a sinful response.
"But there are dangers for the social justice crowd too. Most of their causes demand nothing of us Christians except psychological guilt and advocacy. This often means that middle-class kids feel bad about being middle class and complain that other people (the church, the White House, multinational corporations, those fat cats on Wall Street, etc.) aren't doing more to address these problems. The problems are almost always far away and the solutions involve other people caring more.
"There's also the danger that we only champion issues that win us cool points. Let's be honest, no one we run into is for genocide or for sex trafficking or for malnutrition. It takes no courage to speak out against these things. We can be thankful that in these areas the world's values (in our world at least) overlap with Christian virtues. But where is the outrage from missional folks about abortion, casinos, the threats to religious free speech, and other evils that plague our world? We all have different callings. Some may be drawn to pro-life issues and others to addressing global hunger, but let's make sure as Christians that our missional concerns go farther than those shared by Brangelina and the United Way" (pp. 44-45).
Those words were incredibly accurate and penetrating. Having been a pro-life advocate and an advocate against poverty and human trafficking, I can testify that it is much easier to oppose poverty and sex slavery than abortion. At worst, you will be ignored in America for calling for compassionate action on behalf of the poor and enslaved. At best, you will be slandered for speaking up on behalf of the pre-born children who are in danger of being killed. And of course, it is much easier to call on the government to do something than to actually be personally involved.
"(T)he church has often been despised. It would be wrong to wear unpopularity as a sure marker of faithfulness. But by the same token, we should not assume we have failed just because outsiders dislike us...
"It can be helpful to know how others perceive us, but not always. In our self-esteem-oriented, easily offended, suffering-adverse world, I fear that the church is too eager to be liked. 'As we study the New Testament,' suggests Trueblood, 'we soon realize that part of the power of the early Christian Movement arose from the clear recognition that it was by no means popular or generally accepted. The hope of reaching the masses with a redemptive power was always prefaced by the clear recognition that the opposition was intense as well as abundant.' Of course Christianity has an 'image problem.' At times, this is our own fault. But at other times, our lack of an image problem has been just as damning" (pp. 80-81).
DeYoung touches on something critically important here. We must not become obsessed with how we appear as Christians. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we must concentrate on being the best followers of Christ possible. If we concentrate on doing good, our reputations are likely to take care of themselves. If we concentrate on our reputations, we are likely to become like the Pharisees of the first century: more concerned about the opinions of men than of God. We don't want to be image-obsessed narcissists. We want to be God-honoring Christians.
"We need to be careful about our language. I think I know what people mean when they talk about redeeming the culture or partnering with God in His redemption of the world, but we should really pick another word. Redemption has already been accomplished on the cross. We are not co-redeemers of anything. We are called to serve, bear witness, proclaim, love, do good to everyone, and adorn the gospel with good deeds, but we are not partners in God's work of redemption.
"Similarly, there is no language in Scripture about Christians building the kingdom. The New Testament, in talking about the kingdom, uses words like enter, seek, announce, see, receive, look, come into, and inherit...
"Most importantly, I have a hard time hearing the gospel in the missional critique of the church. At best, the gospel is about a 'relationship with Jesus.' At worst it is nothing but a 'personal life-transforming experience' and 'people realizing their full potential as beings created in the image of God.' It's possible to put a good face on all these euphemisms, but this is not a clear gospel.
"When I hear people getting sick of church, I almost always see at the same time a minimizing of, or growing indifference toward, or ambiguous terminology for such phrases as 'substitutionary atonement,' 'justification by faith alone,' the necessity of faith and repentance,' 'the utter inability of man to save himself,' and 'the centrality of the cross and resurrection.' I really want to assume that the new missional Christians still believe we are sinners in need of grace, and that Jesus' death paid our debt and propitiated the wrath of God and that we must repent of our sin and trust Jesus alone for our salvation. I want to assume this, but I wish I didn't have to. I wish the glory of Christ crucified, the offense of the cross, and the necessity of conversion were more explicitly stated and more clearly central" (pp. 49-50).
Our message must be clear, accurate, and biblical. I have nothing more to add to the author's words.
I highly recommend Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck's Why We Love the Church. It's available in bookstores and from online book distributors like amazon.com.