Overload and Burden: Part 1

I have four related books on my reading list that I am hoping to finish soon so I can make some summary remarks on, with specific reference to my current ecclesial context.

The book by John Piper and Don Carson is based on talks given by them at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on April 23, 2009. Piper began his career in the academy, earning his doctorate in theology before eventually discovering that his passion was preaching; Carson, on the other hand, began pastoral work in humble circumstances in my hometown, before he was asked to fill a vacancy at a local Baptist college, which led him to pursue a Ph.D. in NT studies at Cambridge.

In describing his journey, Piper came to the realization in junior high that he “would never be a preacher” (p. 26) like his father, because of his deep-seated anxiety (he calls it “physical impossibility”) in speaking in front of others. Through his schooling, he did develop an appreciation and ability for “painstaking observation” and “precise thinking”. One might think then that Piper would be ideally suited to following a scholarly path — were it not that Piper confesses to be a “painfully slow” reader. After obtaining a major in literature, Piper wondered if he “should teach English literature as a vocation”. (p. 35)

But that changed after hearing two of evangelicalism’s elder statesmen (Ockenga and Stott) speak in the mid-sixties, which led him to pursue studies at Fuller Seminary. After graduation, Piper was unclear what to do next, so he heeded the advice he was given to pursue a doctorate while he was still able to. Despite Piper’s handicap of being a slow reader, he nevertheless obtained his doctorate in 1974, after which he accepted a teaching position at Bethel University and Seminary. A sabbatical in 1979 resulted in The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23 (Baker, 1983; rev. ed., 1993), but Piper realized his teaching and scholarly days were over. In 1980, Piper was called to Bethlehem Baptist Church and remained there until he preached his last message in 2013.

It was during his Fuller days that Piper encountered Jonathan Edwards and the resulting epiphany that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” (Christian Hedonism as he would later dub it) would be the signature emphasis of his entire ministry. For him, rigorous reading of the Bible and the attendant demand to follow the lines of argumentation is what he now considers as “scholarship”. He remarks that:

If I am scholarly, it is not in any sense because I try to stay on the cutting edge in the discipline of biblical and theological studies. I am far too limited for that. What “scholarly” would mean for me is that the greatest object of knowledge is God and that he has revealed himself authoritatively in a book; and that I should work with all my might and all my heart and all my soul and all my mind to know and enjoy him and make him known for the joy of others.

What can we learn from this look at Piper’s journey? First of all, despite what appeared to an initial obstacle, God helped him overcome his paralyzing fear of public speaking. Is Piper an “effective” communicator? One could argue that he is more passionate than he is eloquent, but I suppose that’s subjective.

One point bears mentioning and that is that Moses and Jeremiah did not see themselves as competent speakers, and it also seems some of the Corinthians were judging Paul for his lack of eloquence and oratorical skills (1 Cor. 2, passim; 2 Cor. 11:6), but obviously God used them nevertheless. Sometimes I fear that Christians place too much emphasis on whether a preacher is articulate or eloquent, without paying much attention to the character of the man or the content of the message. Often, the preacher may be a very charming and competent communicator but his message can be sub-biblical and/or lacking “meat”.

Secondly, with respect to Piper’s preaching, given his academic beginnings, I am a bit disappointed that he chooses to minimize his interactions with current scholarship when preparing his messages (insofar as I can tell). However, Piper also a very active writing ministry, and for me personally, this is where I appreciate him the most.

Finally, it is encouraging that Piper is not a “careerist” pastor, but has faithfully served one church for over 30 years. Too many clergy view the pastorate as just another career and hop from one church to another in the hopes of landing a more lucrative position. I do have some concerns where a church depends primarily on a single pastor for the bulk of its teaching, but that will be addressed later.


Escaping the Echo Chamber

Google’s recent firing of one of its software engineers, James Damore, has predictably stirred up a maelstrom of controversy. While the issue in question is not unrelated to evangelical debates on the role of women in the church, I instead wish to comment on the “ideological echo chamber” which Damore claims Google is guilty of.

Accompanying my prodigal return to the fold has been my (inevitable) return to biblical and theological studies. There were of course, the comfortable familiarity of “old friends” and treasured volumes that my brothers in Christ generously gave back to me.  Of course, I also naturally picked up from where I left off, delving deeper and exploring broad swathes through the contemporary terrain of academic scholarship. In particular, I have sought to escape the narrow confines of evangelicalism by intentionally engaging a diverse set of interlocutors with viewpoints that differ from mine: feminist theologians, postmodern Continental philosophers and Orthodox patristic scholars, to cite just a few.

But then, in your typical church, questioning leadership, taking a dissenting position during a church business meeting, knowing too much, and not conforming to the church’s traditions is frowned upon and those who are guilty of such are labeled rebellious, disobedient, naysayer, troublemaker. Controversy is to be avoided at all costs and irenic dialogue is not an option. Basically, if you aren’t toeing the party line, dissenting views will be shut down. In this way, churches too operate in echo chamber mode.

For the Love of Money

JR Woodward and Dan White, Jr., The Church as Movement: Starting and Sustaining Missional-Incarnational Communities (IVP; 2016)

During lunch a few days ago, one of my Christian colleagues shared his frustration in trying to find a suitable church home for him and his family. He was looking for a community of believers who were serious about discipleship and the pursuit of godly living. As he further shared his burden with us, I (half) jokingly said to him that it looks like he’d have to go and plant a church from scratch. At this point, when it became apparent that this might indeed be a path he may have to take by the grace of God, I suggested that he read some of the missional literature; in particular, I mentioned two books that I had read / am reading.

Earlier, I had posted a brief blurb on Michael Frost’s book, and in this post I will give an overview of The Church as Movement, which I just finished reading yesterday.


This theologically-grounded but practical book is divided into four sections (themes), each with two chapters, thus giving rise to 8 missional competencies:

  • Part 1: Distributing
    1. Movement Intelligence
    2. Polycentric Leadership
  • Part 2: Discipling
    1. Being Disciples
    2. Making Disciples
  • Part 3: Designing
    1. Missional Theology
    2. Ecclesial Architecture
  • Part 4: Doing
    1. Community Formation
    2. Incarnational Practices

These four sections are bookended by an Introduction and an Epilogue, and at 240 pages, this book is not a long-winded treatise, but in keeping with its subject matter, the pace is brisk without feeling rushed.

The Foreword by Alan Hirsch begins with an epigraph by business guru Peter Drucker: “People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete— the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.” It is sad that some things are so sacrosanct that even when they become a hindrance to the advancement of the gospel or church life, Christians refuse to let go of them. As Hirsch notes, “most churches operate out of a largely obsolete understanding of the church that was developed in a completely different age and for a completely different set of cultural and social conditions— largely that of European Christendom.” Hirsch and others have proposed an alternative model of church for the new millennium, and Woodward and White have done a church a huge service in presenting this new paradigm in a fresh and appealing manner in their book. Both write as practitioners who have been through the ups and downs of planting missional-incarnational communities, so this is not a case of hopping on the missional bandwagon and spouting off theories: no, what they write is borne from the fires of failure and boots on the ground experiences. It would be apt to let the authors introduce the rationale for yet another “missional” book:

This book is an attempt to help people plant the kind of churches that reflect the viral movement of the early New Testament, fuelled by the values of tight-knit community, life-forming discipleship, locally rooted presence and boundary-crossing mission. This is “church as movement.”

At the heart of the book is a concern to return to the centrality of discipleship within a communal context. Indeed, I sighed with frustration and sadness when they write in the Introduction: “This book is best used with a group of four to twelve people. … It is important to work through this material with others, since it was designed for a group rather than to be digested alone.” Well, heck, I don’t have even three other people I know who could be part of what they call a “discipleship core”. So sad! It means that my learning from the book will be shortchanged and I will not fully benefit from the formational learning aspects (meta-learning, reflective learning, and experiential learning) that require communal participation. Sigh …

The first theme is “Distributing” which I take to be a shift from a hierarchical and centralized focus to pluriform gifts and polycentric leadership — i.e., a distributed and relational approach.  They begin by describing the Church as the “Christian-industrial complex”, at least those churches that are held up as models of success:

In our American imagination success means growing bigger, collecting more resources, consolidating power, creating strong hierarchical structures and growing rapidly.

American church leaders’ imaginations and metrics for success are increasingly shaped by the things they can count. But, as Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.”

When the Spirit Moves

As I got back from out of town too late for church, I decided to join the Korean worship after lunch.

From the opening welcome to the closing benediction, I sensed the presence and power of the Spirit. It did not matter that I couldn’t understand a word, I was moved by the entire experience. What did I enjoy about it, in particular?

  • the energy and enthusiasm of the singing; it’s not just that there are some gifted singers, it’s the effusive emotion and the participation of the whole congregation
  • the passionate preaching and prayers (not just by the pastor) – there was some earnest pleading with God and with the congregation!
  • the responsive (and substantial) reading of scripture
  • the occasional “call and response” during the preaching

I am not sure how much of this is cultural, but I didn’t care – I needed to be stirred up and I certainly was!

Then, as a bonus, I was invited to their “agape meal” afterwards for a sweet time of fellowship.

Just So We’re Clear …

As I continue to wrestle with what my role is at my church, especially given my non-traditional views on church, one thing I should clear up is this: it’s not about the building per se. In other words, I’m not blindly promoting “house churches” as such as the panacea for our modern church woes. Some house churches can be just as institutional as a traditional church! While I do feel that massive multi-million dollar church building projects are crazy, the reality is that my current church has a building (and some coveted adjacent land to boot), so I am prepared to put my concerns aside. One note about buildings is relevant however: houses do encourage and facilitate the family character of the church, something that is largely lost in your typical pew-filled, spectator-oriented building architecture.

My primary beef with the traditional church is that it does not release the gifts of the body. Oh sure, the rhetoric is there about how we all need to “serve the Lord”, but it rings a bit hollow. Frankly, I cannot understand how any honest reading of 1 Cor. 11 – 14 can be reconciled with your typical Sunday morning “worship service”:

What then, brothers and sisters? Whenever you come together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, another tongue, or an interpretation. Everything is to be done for building upIf anyone speaks in another tongue, there are to be only two, or at the most three, each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no interpreter, that person is to keep silent in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should evaluate. But if something has been revealed to another person sitting there, the first prophet should be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged. And the prophets’ spirits are subject to the prophets, since God is not a God of disorder but of peace. (1 Cor. 14:26-33; CSB)

Despite the many problems in the Corinthian assembly, Paul does not suggest that the solution is to put an end to such Spirit-led spontaneity. Instead he reminds them to do things orderly (i.e., spontaneity within structure) and for the edification of the body. No amount of exegetical gymnastics can conjure up a reasonable explanation otherwise.

Much more could be written but I don’t have the time to offer a more detailed analysis at this time, so I’ll simply challenge the skeptical reader to consider my friend Jon Zen’s comprehensive study, Building Up the Body – One Man or One Another? Read it carefully and prayerfully and then let me know what you think in the comments.

Dry Bones