We all know that Catholic priests get a bad rap for being, at worst, abusers and, at best, relics. But the truth is that there are many who are absolute legends.
One stand out priest is the American Father Robert Barron who runs the website wordonfire.com and has one of the highest media profiles in America of all his clerical contemporaries. Robert Barron’s culture and gospel intelligence might even be on par with Tim Keller.
Most of all I enjoy Barron’s commentary on film, which is a mix of surprising and yet convincing analysis on the intersection of culture, history, politics, philosophy and faith. Sometimes he pushes the influence of catholicism too far. However, by way of example, have a look at his reflections on Man of Steel. I saw it last night, and I thought it was ok but not amazing: explosive digital action but weak character development and narrative. Unfortunately the references to Jesus were so unsubtle it was cringe worthy.
But Barron’s analysis is refreshing.
As an after thought, if you are a non-catholic and you want to understand how thinking catholics justify their beliefs (this is especially for protestants who are baffled by beliefs such as the focus on Mary, purgatory, and the Pope etc..), go to Barron for a clear explanation. See also this article from The Age by religion journalist, Barney Swartz.
…as popular Christian worship music gains a larger audience, Ari Kelman, associate professor of education at Stanford, has uncovered a surprising paradox. The very musicians, songwriters and music producers who create the music are increasingly sensitive to the “precarious relationship between rock music and worship,” Kelman said. (From Stanford News, article by Ashley Walters)
Kelman’s new upcoming publication Shout to the Lord: Music and Worship in Evangelical America, looks to be asking some important questions about the role of music in contemporary evangelical churches. His research is revealing the secularisation of this music, where musicians are focused less on their role as leaders of liturgy and more as musicians trying to produce a good sound:
Kelman underscored the powerful role musicians and music producers assume in faith practices. “If people sing their faith, then those who write, perform and produce this music” become central to worship performance and practice.
Worship songs, Kelman noted, seek to model a “heavenly version of prayer” derived from Christian scripture. They attempt to deliver
theology while leading the audience through a performance by listening and singing along to a scriptural message.
Not all professional worship leaders and musicians attempt to address these issues. When Kelman was doing fieldwork at a school for worship leaders, he joined a class in which participants learned how to work with a worship band.
The rehearsal classes focused on instrumentation and arrangements, leaving “almost no room for questions about the religious purpose of their playing together.”
I’m looking forward to reading this musicological study.
We have seen that the gospel is not everything, meaning it must be distinguished as an announcement of news, distinct from its results and implications, and that the gospel is not a simple thing, meaning it cannot be packaged in a single standard form. My third contention, that the gospel affects virtually everything, builds on these two statements. (p.46)
In this chapter Keller shows how the gospel is not supposed to be a conceptual end in itself, but rather, as Leslie Newbigin writes, it functions like “a set of lenses, not something we look at, but for us to look through.” Keller continues, “…the gospel creates an entire way of life and affects literally everything about us. It is a power that creates new life in us (Colossians 1:5-6; 1 Peter 1:23-25).
The Richness of the Gospel
Keller presents a gospel summary from scholar Simon Gathercole which is based on Paul and the Gospel writers.
1. The Son of God emptied himself and came into the world in Jesus Christ, becoming a servant.
2. He died on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice
3. He rose from the grave as the first-fruits of a whole renewed world.
This summary is then expanded on with a neat three part idea:
The incarnation and the “Upside-down” aspect of the Gospel:
Jesus was the King who became a servant
His kingdom had an upside-down economy (the first shall be last etc…)
This pattern imitates Christ’s salvation (Phil 2:1-11)
He “won” by losing everything
The gospel creates a new kind of servant community
This challenges worldly notions of class, racial, and economic superiority
The atonement and the “Inside-out” aspect of the Gospel
The outward signs of covenant matter less than the inward transformation that occurs
God’s kingdom “is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17)
Not obey God so that he will love and accept me…
But know that God loves me so that I want to obey.
“Religion is outside in, but the gospel is inside out”
The resurrection and the “Forward-back” aspect of the Gospel
“Jesus is resurrected but we are not. He has inaugurated the kingdom of God, but it is not fully present.”
The coming of the Messiah stage 1:
“he saved us from the penalty of sin and gave us the presence of the Holy Spirit, the down payment of the age to come (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14)”
The coming of the Messiah stage 2:
“He will come to complete what he began at the first coming, saving us from the dominion and very presence of sin and evil. He will bring a new creation, a material world cleansed of all brokenness.”
“Christians now live in light of the future reality”
Evangelism should be telling the gospel and preparing for the judgment
Justice is motivated by the view that God will ultimately end all suffering
This understanding should prevent Christians from “dominion theology” which is the triumphalist delusion that the Church should (and can) take over society. It should also prevent Christians from hiding away in a religious cave.
Keller then applies all this to suggest the ministry and values threads that should be evident in a church that takes this seriously. The inside-out atonement views of the church should lead it to want to do evangelism and church planting (making it look evangelical charismatic); the upside-down incarnation views should lead it to put emphasis on community, small groups, financial giving, sharing of resources, living with the poor (making it look anabaptist); and the forward-back resurrection views should lead it to want to get involved in the city, the neighbourhood, workplace ministry, and cultural engagement (leading it to look like a mainline church). The message of the Center Church hypothesis is that churches should aim to embrace all of these qualities.
Keller then finishes the chapter by showing how “the gospel is not the ABC but the A-Z of the Christian life.” He reminds us of the common errors made with the gospel (discussed in an earlier chapter) that it is not legalistic nor is it antinomian (law avoiding). The gospel involves simultaneously realising your utter sinfulness and your utter acceptance before God because of Jesus.
The gospel addresses everything. Keller gives a series of test examples:
Discouragement and depression, Love and relationships, Sexuality, Family, Self-control, Race and culture, Witness, Human authority, Guilt and self-image, Joy and humour, Attitudes toward class.
The question is, “how do I get our church to embrace this kind of thinking?” Keller’s answer, “There must first be a life-changing recovery of the gospel – a renewal in the life of the church and in the hearts of individuals. We call this gospel renewal.”
The challenge for churches
Whether it’s an established church or a church plant, it is difficult to embrace and live out the whole vision that Keller is suggesting. It requires highly gifted leadership and a commitment to disciple first, and implement programs later. The danger is that churches will try and be a “Center Church” by starting a justice or evangelism program, or run a workplace ministry conference etc… Programming a correction has always been a popular but not very effective strategy for mainline churches. What I want to do when I plant the church in Northcote, is have a very well planned and executed discipleship strategy for the church, with the goal of seeing people find joy in Jesus, love for the church, and ultimately gospel renewal. I guess this discipleship strategy will involve some programming, but the idea is that this will go to the source of the problem which is the need for renewal in the hearts of the people. To mix pastoral ministry metaphors: for the people who have “dry toast” faith (joyless), they need to have the concrete smashed by gospel renewal.
I love the little window we get at the end of the article into how to write a contemporary worship song. Ryan Smith is a relatively high profile worship pastor in a high profile pentecostal megachurch:
In a sound studio at the main c3 campus in Oxford Falls, I meet the church’s music director Ryan Smith and singer Dan Korocz, who give me a short lesson in constructing a contemporary worship song.
“That’s probably one of the hardest things in the world,” Smith says. “We might come up with a theme – ‘God’s unconditional love’ is a classic example. Then we start with a chorus.”
Smith strums his guitar in the key of F and sings in a soft voice: “Unconditional, unconditional, You have saved me, You have loved me.”
Korocz joins in: “Your love is relentless, Your love, uh, uh, uh, uuuhhhhh, love is relentless.” Then Smith: “Love is amaaaazing.”
Rhyming words always help, he says. “A lot of people are quite ‘Christian-ese’ about it, where you use words like ‘mercy’, ‘consecration’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘crucifixion’ .”
What rhymes with crucifixion, I ask? They think for a while.
“If it was crucifixion, you could rhyme it with ‘His love we’re in’ ,” Smith replies, finally.
“Diskypleship” as you might have guessed, is where discipling occurs over Skype. Perhaps you have a mentor who lives a distance away, so you meet up online. It works quite well. What matters is finding the right person. It can even work with audio only.
I have been coached in missional leadership where my coach was in the UK and it was great. I have also done international shark mentoring. This is where you search out people whose advice you really want, but you only ask for one targeted and quick “shark” meeting of 30min to an hour. I’ve found most people respond well to this request. Here’s my tips for the meeting:
Aim high with who you target. Don’t think they won’t want to talk to you – they usually do.
Know exactly what questions you want to ask
Make yourself available even if it’s really inconvenient (at a crazy late hour).
Ask for a referral and introduction to someone else who might have something more to offer
Last year I had a series of meetings with ministers in the US, none of whom I’d met before. I got their details from friends that had connections, sent them an email showing that I wasn’t a total random, and they responded with interest. This is a form of planned networking, and very beneficial. Even if you’re an introvert, give it a go!
One of the most popular proverbs attributed to the author Ernest Hemingway is, “never mistake motion for action.” When I first heard this I immediately thought about how it applied to church and ministry. Ministers, churches and denominational administrators can easily become consumed by busy work and activity and not actually move towards a planned outcome.
A minister’s diary in a given week is commonly filled with several committee meetings, sermon preparation time, visiting the sick, filling out forms for the diocese, and church services. By the end of the week they are exhausted and they have their day off, and start it all over again. They are moving at a frenetic pace, but to where? Perhaps they believe the important thing is to exist in the mode of ministry? In contrast, let’s not forget that breed of church worker who are more like some of the staff of Ricky Gervais’ The Office: professionals at shuffling around stationary and walking back and forth to the photocopier (with the occasional sneaky Facebook scan) projecting the illusion that they are working on an important task.
Similarly, a church that has a healthy sized membership, often finds that its calendar is filled with lots of programs, small group meetings, playgroups, youth group, fundraisers, camps, and church services for every occasion (not to mention all the planning meetings). In these churches, hundreds of people cross paths each week, fulfilling their roles and responsibilities on the rosters. Lay people in these churches can work a full week and then find themselves at church all weekend. But after all those tasks are done, what has been achieved? I’m not suggesting that it has all been a waste of time – youth group has helped high-schoolers grow as disciples, the missionary supporters dinner raised some good money, and the church services were fine. But can anyone stand up and name the ultimate purpose? Surely it’s not to create a community of churds (church nerds)? And no one would openly admit it’s simply a way to improve the church’s attractiveness to “sheep steal” Christians from churches who can’t offer the smorgasbord of programs?
If congregations can move without knowing why, imagine this amplified at the level of the denominational head office! Sometimes it seems denomination offices are like Jim Hacker’s Ministry of Administrative Affairs in Yes Minister. One of my favourite episodes is called The Compassionate Society where it is revealed to Hacker that his department has set up St Edward’s Hospital, with 500 staff and no patients.
This is hilarious, but a tad embarrassing when one considers, as in the case of my Anglican denomination, some diocese, who have depressingly declining church attendance, and yet maintains a large and robust bureaucracy administrating over it. Will we ever get to the stage of having 500 denominational administrators (funded by the proceeds from nineteenth century trusts) and no practicing Anglicans?
The solution for the minister, the congregation and the denomination is to work out what it’s trying to ultimately do. I don’t simply mean to come up with a vision statement. But to ask the question, “at the end of all of this, what do we want to see happen?”
If we were trying to build a sausage machine, for example, our final desired outcome might be to produce the village’s tastiest and healthiest sausage? Or it might be an even broader goal than that – it could be that we want to provide the most affordable and yet nourishing meat good for the village? In the case of a sausage machine you might think it’s easy to work out your success matrix. But it is possible for the sausage company to get distracted. For example, they might find that they start attracting employees whose passion is high speed sausage machines, and they are committed to pumping out thousands of sausages per hour! For them success is speed of throughput. At the end of the year, the sausage company might have multiplied the number of sausages produced by ten, but to what cost? The CEO of the sausage company, has to go back to the plans, and remind their team of what they are ultimately trying to do. If they are off track, perhaps the high speed machine needs to go? Perhaps the ingredients need changing? Perhaps staff need to be cut or be given a new job description? And so on….
Once a minister, church or denominational office can name their intended ‘throughput’ they can reverse engineer how they use their week, how they do staffing, how they budget and so on. St Edward’s Hospital should have had a ‘throughput’ that was something like ‘a healed person’ – to achieve this they need sick people to heal, not just hospital staff. Perhaps a church’s throughput could be ‘a faithful and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ’? (see below) If this was the case, then they could reverse engineer their activities. What do we need to do to make faithful and obedient disciples? Let’s do that. Then the minister can know their place in that disciple ‘sausage machine.’ Their role might be to coach leaders of discipleship group, or it could be to teach people how to be disciples, maybe they should model what it means to be a faithful disciple? Or all of the above. After this process of resetting the ministry machine, it will be less likely that the minister and the church will be simply expending energy for the wrong reason (or shuffling paper.)
Of course, the same can be applied at the denominational level. Denominational leaders should be asking, at the end of all of this, what do we want to see? A healthy and faithful Church? If so, then the denominational head office should reverse engineer their processes, budgeting and staffing until they know how to move and actually have action.
A universal throughput for the Church?
The question begs of whether there is, in fact, a throughput that the Bible points to. A good place to start is Revelation 2-3 where Jesus give his criteria for a “success” matrix. Here Jesus goes through each of the seven churches in Asia Minor and gives them a score card for (1) faithfulness to the gospel (2) obedience to God. You can think of their report card as like a truth table:
Faithfulness to the gospel
Obedience to God
Some of the churches were faithful but not obedient, some were obedient but let the false teachers have influence, Laodicea failed at both but Sardis and Philadelphia seemed to succeeded at both albeit under great trials and persecution. Perhaps, then all that a ministry or a church needs to aim for are disciples who are faithful to the gospel and obedient to God?
It might be that once the throughput is defined you still find yourself doing lots of activities, but hopefully you will have more purpose and drive, and will know the difference between simple motion and purposeful action.
Two good books that explore the concept of ministry throughput are:
I think about the art of preaching like I do about being a musician.
It requires a lot of sweat and determination.
You often feel daunted.
You shouldn’t leave it to the last minute.
It feels divine when everyone loves what you deliver.
It feels sickly when you know people are so bored that they are playing with their iPhone during it.
You should never feel like you’ve arrived at perfection.
Some are way too confident about their own talent and really shouldn’t be. That’s just deluded and annoying.
You should always check to see if your fly is up before you walk on the platform.
Sometimes you do a dodgy job and people can still be really moved.
The other thing is that, as in the case of music, with preaching you do well to seek out advice from different sources – even if they are not strictly from your field.
This TED talk from Nancy Duarte is an example of me seeking advice from different non-preaching sources.
Duarte makes a really powerful observation about the art of public speaking: a communicator will inspire when they switch back and forth between the “what is” and the “what could be” – ending in the new bliss that is possible from now.
It is my idea that according to Duarte’s logic, preachers would inspire congregations if they incorporated these polarities into their script. I suspect, however, that it is a rare skill to be able to do this well.
Shall we give it a go?
If the passage was:
Jesus Calls His First Disciples Matthew 4:18-22
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
To determine the “what is” and the “what could be/new bliss” how do you get there? I’m glad you asked! Begin with the normal exegesis steps, determining the main point of the passage and the main application. Let me do the work for you.
Possible main point: You don’t need to be a ‘perfect’ spiritual person to respond to Jesus’ call (even average fisherman can!).
Possible main application: Respond to Jesus invitation to follow him today and start a new life as a disciple.
Now determine the “what is” and the “what could be/new bliss.” For sake of example I’ve chosen to focus on the spiritual, social and psychological life of the person apart from Jesus (these are just examples, it would have to be nuanced for the context).
What is spiritually: You pray sometimes but don’t really know who to. You think of yourself as ‘spiritual’ but don’t know what that really means. Death seems hopeless – you don’t really know what to think.
What could be spiritually: You get to call God “Father”. No more spiritual vagueness – you can be filled with the Holy Spirit who enables you to grow in wisdom and understanding of the Bible. You can be sure of your eternal life.
What is socially: While you have one or two good friends, and they’re alright, you really want meaningful relationships.
What could be socially: You enter the Jesus community and become brothers and sisters with other Christians. In the church everyone is (supposed to be) trying to grow in Christ-likeness – trying to be other person centred and sacrificial. This is a community that is seeking to be loving, generous and non-judgmental. But the church is not a community of perfect people. On the contrary, churches are filled with people as flawed as you are. But God is at work amongst them.
What is psychologically: You try and be a good person to be accepted in society, but you know you can never really make it. You feel insecure in your purpose in life.
What could be psychologically: You don’t have to try and be a good person anymore because Jesus has made you righteous by taking a way your sin and providing forgiveness and a new life.
THE NEW BLISS: You could demonstrate the reality of this with a live testimony of a normal everyday person who responded to Jesus call and found new life.
The challenge would be to bounce back and forth and get excited yourself. Just as Steve Jobs did when he first launched the iPhone or when Martin Luther King Junior did when he spoke that famous day from the Lincoln Memorial, or when Jesus spoke in his sermon on the mount.
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 “Blessedarethe poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessedarethose who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessedarethe meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessedarethose who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessedarethe merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessedarethe pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessedarethe peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessedarethose who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessedare youwhen people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I first met Gerard Kelly about ten years ago when he spoke at my church and we went out for beers and cigars afterwards. While hipster city pastors who like to show off their expertise on single malts are now a cliche of the clergy, Kelly is no poser. He’s too old for that, I think he just likes a smoke! I remember thinking at the time that he was fascinating thinker about urban mission. Also, my friends, Dave and Blythe Toll, went and worked with Gerard and Bless in Europe for eighteen months, so I feel like I am only two degrees of separation from him.
This video was recently forwarded to me, and I liked it so much I thought I’d comment on the six words.
Six words that Gerard Kelly believes describe the kind of churches people want to belong to:
Kelly rightly identifies the shift of meaning in this word from ‘what we do for the environment’ to ‘having a sustainable lifestyle,’ So it is natural that churches should think about sustainable models of church, community and mission in a sustainable way. He is right when he suggests that what many churches are doing is unsustainable. I love his hook here that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate renewable energy source. The guys at St Thomas’ Sheffield and 3DM ministries make a big point about this and so work hard at balancing their community calendar.
I often speak with people who are not living sustainable lifestyles: they might be married with young kids, both parents are working, and maybe even studying. Even the kids in my church are over worked – trying to fit all the school activities in as well as studying so hard to get into the top University courses. To the overworked Christian, church activities can feel stressful and a burden. Sunday worship is attended out of loyalty rather than joy. Often there is guilt around a lack of a personal devotional life, and the only formal ministries they can sign up to is to do the Bible reading once every few months. In addition, many adult Christians finances are overstretched and unsustainable. They have committed to a mammoth mortgage without first prioritising their budget ‘christianly.’
We’ve never been good at identifying our idols.
All of this points to the great opportunity we have as the Church to discover Christlike sustainability and then to share that with the world. People want to be part of churches that help them to live sustainable lives. A good question every pastor should ask is what programs can we slash and still have good community? And what might happen if we all had a Sunday off from attending our church service?
This is not about social networking but about human commonality. Kelly urges us to adopt the logic, “you’re not my friend because we vote the same or believe the same but because we are both human.” We should learn to mix with people who don’t agree with us. Often the community that the church offers is one dimensional and boring but it should be vibrant and countercultural. Christlike friendship is more important than faction: “you are my friend even if you choose a different life to me.” Christ-centred society is supposed to have friendship with meaning. What does it mean to create churches that have relationships and friendships and mission like this?
One of the best things a church can do to be attractive is to be Christlike in its relationships. Unfortunately this often isn’t the case. Congregations often trash the pastor and vice versa. [See Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.”] One of the best things you can do as a pastor is (1) repent of all the times you’ve whinged about your congregation (2) forgive your congregation for when the whinged about you and ask them for forgiveness (3) preach against whinging and promote a culture of generosity (4) promote lay people to positions of leadership who are generous. If your church can turn around and be generous and positive, you will be modelling one key aspect of Christ-cenetred community that will cause you to become very attractive. If you can also promote love for the marginalised, and a culture of listening before speaking, then you’ll be one step closer to heaven!
With regards to the idea of learning to develop friendships with people who disagree with you, a great book that I’ve been reading lately that goes into some detail about how you pursue the tension between your submission to Jesus as Lord and your engagement with the world is Graham Cray’s book “Disciples and Citizens.”
Following on from the idea of “Social” is the idea of “Choral”. Kelly is playing with the idea of difference and harmony. When people sing different parts in harmony the effect is beautiful. What we are called to in the church is sing our song in a million different voices – and enjoy the fact that when we do this something amazing happens. We should not seek to become homogenous but be and celebrate difference. Mix people together who don’t normally hang together – slaves and masters, jews and greeks, young adult hipsters and noisy toddlers. This raises an interesting question about the validity of aged focused churches and congregations. Kelly is suggesting the best way forward is to offer diversity of culture rather than sameness. Perhaps, now that we have learned that we need to engage with people cross culturally in church and not assume that everyone understands the medieval aesthetic that we have enjoyed for a 1000 years of European church, that now we can go back to having congregations with people from all ages and stages? Christians should get over the idea that we need to find the perfect church which is one that is filled with lots of people just like them. If our churches do reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood, then we will be one of the only contexts where those subcultures will meet together. “Choral” is a glimpse of heaven.
Kelly believes that churches of the future need to become “conversational” as a way of seeking truth. We are discovering that truth is about conversation – we should promote conversation. Truth, Kelly argues, “is woven from a thread of a thousand stories.” Don’t tell but dialogue and listen. This is going to become especially important as thorny divisive issues such as sexuality continue to become more thorny and divisive. Preaching in the 21st century church needs to become conversational and move away from simply being declaratory (not easy to get this right). You can have a conversational culture and still believe in the truth of scripture. But you have to remind yourself that while the Bible is inerrant, you’re capacity to interpret the Bible is not. (Which is why we should read the Bible in community and not just solo.)
Kelly makes a zinger of a point about prioritising aesthetics in the 21st century church. He reminds us that the younger generations are an aesthetically informed people. And yet despite this, the evangelical and pentecostal movements are so aesthetically starved! For the past 20 years or more we’ve produced churches that seek to meet in starchy warehouses and sing cheesy sentimental juvenile worship songs. God is beautiful – God is not just true. What’s the point of the gospel being true if it’s ugly? Beauty always points towards God, says Kelly. Therefore, believe in design and beauty. Making, painting, and designing should be part of the church. [Note to megachurch pastors: just because you have sexy marketing and lavish HD digital projections in worship does not mean that you do this well].
Pastors of the future should seek to be aesthetically intelligent people. If they are not, they should find people to work with who are.
Like Al Hirsch, Kelly says the church of the future needs to promote its entrepreneurs. The Church needs heroes who start things. The church needs to do something, make something, be something new, and have an entrepreneurial spirit. This is especially challenging for the denominational churches who are chained to the concept of propping up their heritage. Anglicans and Baptists promote Pastors and Teachers to leadership but where are the Apostles? Answer: for the past few decades the Pentecostals have stollen them. But that is beginning to change as Pentecostalism starts to join its Anglican and Baptist brethren into being a ‘denomination’ with a heritage to uphold. Now the entrepreneurs are starting to rise up in their respective denominations. In my Anglican tribe in Melbourne we have about six or seven church plants in development at the moment, whereas five years ago you were lucky to have one. Exciting times. Promote a culture of entrepreneurialism. Promote the entrepreneurs!
We evangelicals can be myopic in our conception of the gospel. Perhaps we have learned a formula at high school or uni that has once worked like Two ways to live, Alpha, or a tract etc…
But Keller reminds us that while these methods might have merit, we should not cling to them too tightly, because there is no standard way to explain the gospel. In the Synoptics, for example, the writers emphasise the Kingdom, but John emphasises eternal life. In the NT, Christ’s salvific action is described using different phrases where redemption is derived through substitution: Jesus pays the debt of sin, defeats evil powers, bears the curse and wrath of God, secures us salvation by his grace, and is an exemplar (see p. 40).
The gospel is intrinsically tied to the storyline and themes of the Bible. We can read the bible and see the gospel as it sits in systematic theology (sin, forgiveness, covenant etc) or we can read the bible diachronically which draws out the narrative themes (creation and fall, the incarnation etc). The systematic and diachronic approaches compliment each other and help us to understand the gospel from different angles. Keller gives a helpful diagram (p. 41) showing how to think about the gospel using the different narrative threads in the bible.
Here is an example
At creation made for: God’s kingdom and kingliness
Sin is/results in: idolatry, causing enslavement
Israel is: looking for a true judge/king
Jesus is: the returning true king, who frees us from the world, flesh, Devil
Restoration: true freedom under the reign of God
A similar logic can be applied to other themes such as:
Rest and sabbath: how do we enter God’s rest?
Justice and shalom: how can we restore peace?
Trinity and community: how can we become part of the community of God?
Righteousness and nakedness: how can our sins be covered?
Marriage and faithfulness: how can we find true love and closure?
Presence and sanctuary: how can we flourish in the presence of God?
Image and likeness: how can I become truly ‘myself’?
Idolatry and freedom: what or who do I need to commit my life to in order to find freedom?
Wisdom and the word: how do I become wise?
With all these examples, Keller demonstrates that the “gospel is not a simple thing.” (p. 44) The Bible is a well of treasure for us to draw our questions, imagery, narrative, and logic. Therefore, because the gospel can be explained in different ways it should be explained in different ways. We should be committed to the art of contextualisation – finding the best cultural inroads so that the gospel can be heard, just like Paul explains that he did to the Greeks, Jews and Pagans (1 Corinthians 1:22-25, Acts 13, 14, 17).
I really good friend of mine and ministry colleague who I respect, recently asked me in a gentle but slightly concerned way, “Do you think the Bible is intrinsically interesting?” The question came out of a conversation where I had been explaining different strategies I was exploring for preaching. I had recently watched a lecture from Ira Glass from This American Life on his method of constructing narrative and I was hoping to apply some of his ideas in my sermon the following Sunday. My friend has heard me ramble on over the years about different ways to be creative in evangelism and preaching and I guess he started wondering if I was trying to overcompensate for a “boring Bible.” My answer to him was that of course I believe the Bible is inherently interesting, but that does not mean that everyone in the congregation listening to the Bible being read, or reading it at home for themselves, will see the interest. If you don’t understand what you are reading or hearing, if it washes over you and becomes babble like slabs of Shakespeare does when you are at the theatre and you can’t keep up, if the long Hebrew names of Kings and places and the dense theology of the Pauline epistles confuse you, then all the beauty and “interestingness” will fly through to the keeper (as we say in Australia). My endless pursuit of different methods of communication, of crazy creative ideas, of video clips, illustrations, songs, newspaper articles and quotes are my attempt at contextualising the gospel.
I think from what Keller is saying, the thing I have to do to become better at contextualisation, is to work more intimately with those big biblical themes. If I start there, really get my head inside what the Bible is saying about idolatry, marriage, kingdom, community or whatever theme I choose, then I think my gospel communication will have effect. This requires some discipline because it’s easy to get distracted finding the right movie clip.
Tip for me: Start in the Bible, look at all the thematic angles and choose one, then move to culture.
In the last forty years there have been very few notable pop-gospel artists who have been strong enough to build a mainstream audience.
In Australia we had the first million record selling chart album with the singing nun, Sister Janet Mead, who was a one hit wonder with her electrified rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. While Mead’s Holy Orders were a significant novelty factor, she did not keep attracting non-church audiences past that song.
In contrast, perhaps my favourite 1970s gospel artist who did draw worldwide attention is Andraé Crouch – especially when he was with his band The Disciples.
In albums such as Keep on Singin’ (1972), Take Me Back (1975), and This is Another Day (1976), Crouch fused traditional Gospel with soul, funk and folk rock to get a sound that had emotional guts and artistic brilliance. Crouch is the real deal. His performing career started in 1960 with the Church of God in Christ Singers which included everyone’s hammond player of choice, Billy Preston. But when he formed the Disciples in 1965 they elevated to such heights of popularity as to find themselves performing on Johnny Carson and at Carnegie Hall. Crouch went on to collaborate with Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Michael Jackson and Madonna and even had Elvis Presley perform one his compositions ‘I’ve Got Confidence.’ Andraé Crouch is living proof that gospel artists that are truly great musicians can be appreciated for their talent by the mainstream: his songs still get sung in churches (mainly in America).
More recently there have been many gospel artists find chart success in USA. Bands and solo artists such as dc Talk, Lecrae, RED, Casting Crowns and the David Crowder Band have debuted in the top ten, but temporary chart success does not necessarily mean that the music is finding the mainstream. When Christians purchase these albums all at the same time, (such as at a conference) the sales will register high on the charts for a week but quickly drop down the following week. This phenomena occurs annually in the Australian charts. The Sydney Morning Herald explains it (July 11, 2011),
Beyonce and Lady Gaga may lay claim to some of the biggest audiences worldwide, but Australia’s Hillsong Church has bumped off both pop powerhouses to score a top three berth on the ARIA albums chart.
Their latest album God Is Able, released to coincide with the annual Hillsong conference, debuted at number three this week, entering ahead of Beyonce’s 4 and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, which stand at fourth and fifth respectively.
It is the 10th Christian record to reach the top 10 since 2002.
The fact is, in the last thirty years, the only musicians singing about Jesus to consistently draw a mainstream audience have been those singing in traditional gospel (The Blind Boys of Alabamaand Mavis Staples) or classical styles. While Andraé Crouch’s pop-gospel did wow the world, not many others have done likewise.
In my next entry I will write about the great secular artists who found Jesus, the many who flirted with Jesus.