Is the gospel the invitation to a party or a get out of hell card?

inviting to the feastFor the first 1500 years of Christianity, the high point of every worship gathering was Eucharist. The sermon served to prepare the hearts of the congregation to receive the body and blood of Christ. In today’s Protestantism, the sermon has replaced Eucharist as the focal point of our worship. And the individualistic altar call has replaced the communal table as the congregation’s standard response to the proclaimed word. I wonder if this change is the reason that the Protestant gospel became more about hell than the heavenly banquet that Eucharist proclaims. Continue reading

Should we preach to uplift or convict?

A couple of years ago, we were going around the room at our new member class at church and the people were sharing why they came to our church and stayed. A woman said, “At my last church, the sermon made me feel bad about myself, but now at this church I always go home feeling good about myself.” It made my evangelical heart uneasy to hear her say that because if you leave church feeling good about yourself, doesn’t that mean no change of heart has occurred and I’ve failed you as a preacher? I’ve just started reading Lori Carrell’s Preaching That Matters and I’m pondering what should be the goal of my preaching. Is it primarily supposed to convict listeners and expose them to difficult truths or to uplift and comfort them with good news? Continue reading

Five C’s of Christian Mansplanation

I witnessed a conversation on facebook last night where one of these young, restless, well informed Christian guys was being a mansplaining stereotype of himself. There is a particular form of Christian thought that causes people (usually men because of how we’re wired but occasionally women) to think they’re experts in the faith after maybe a couple of years of serious Bible study. Their expertise then gives them the duty to “mansplain” Christianity, e.g. do things like ask patronizing, predictable rhetorical questions of complete strangers in social media in order to help them become experts in Christianity too. This morning while taking a bath, I thought of five C’s that characterize Christian mansplanation: clarity, conclusiveness, conformity, commodity, and control. Continue reading

Don’t disdain the pragmatic and aesthetic sides of the gospel

This is going to be a short one. I just want to make an appeal for what I would call the pragmatic and aesthetic sides of the gospel. In classical Western discourse, there are three ultimate forms of value that we can assign to an idea: truth, goodness, and beauty. In our modern era of science and logic, truth has been privileged to the exclusion of goodness and beauty. This particularly takes place when we’re talking about the Christian gospel. Continue reading

Tim Keller and the false binary of love and holiness

I have learned a lot from Tim Keller. His books Prodigal God and Generous Justice are two of the most important books I have read. So I signed up for his sermon podcast recently. The first sermon I listened to was about spiritual warfare, based on Ephesians 6. There was a lot of good content, but there was one thing that disappointed me: the way that Tim Keller puts God’s love and God’s holiness in binary opposition to one another and oversimplifies each of their definitions. I realize that he would be more nuanced and theologically precise in a book rather than a sermon for seekers who need things to be kept simple. But I think that this impoverished presentation of the concept of holiness is one of the biggest problems that plagues neo-Reformed theology today. Continue reading

It’s Henri Nouwen’s Fault

My family is staying at my wife’s cousin Kent’s ranch in Texas. Kent has the kind of library you might expect from a Lutheran pastor including quite a selection of Henri Nouwen books. I grabbed Creative Ministry and started flipping through last night. Then it hit me: Nouwen was the one who first made me a “heretic.”

Long before Rob Bell got big, I was an emotionally troubled 24-year old kid in Toledo, Ohio who stumbled into the mostly lesbian congregation of Central Avenue United Methodist Church. There was a Bible study offered for people who were struggling with depression. It was based on Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved. It was through that Bible study in the safe shared vulnerability of a circle of fragile, rejected people that I got saved for the fourth and (thus far) final time.

Nouwen’s central claim in the book is that our fallen human condition results from our failure to recognize (in a holistic and not just cognitive propositional way) how much God loves us. To Nouwen, accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ amounts to embracing God’s love as the basis for our identity. Prior to our liberation, we are imprisoned by the need to prove our worth to others (what I have come to call self-justification) which either causes us to despair and fall into depression or to take refuge in a nihilistic hedonism or to develop an artificial shell of self-assurance that makes us cold, ungracious people.

Nouwen’s gospel was the first viable alternative I had found to the predominant evangelical gospel I was raised with: that God is (literally) mad as hell at humanity and will spare you from His wrath if you somehow prove to Him that you believe that Jesus “died for your sins” and/or that He’s the “Lord of your life” (depending on which Romans verse you give the most weight to). God’s primary concern is not reaching out to us in love but defending His honor which is the underlying purpose of His grace. For many of my teenage and young adult years, I assumed that this was the only possible gospel and the reason I couldn’t accept it was because I was a sinful rebel who would repent when it finally made sense to me, which I begged God to help me with.

Nouwen gave me a positive alternative to the wrath-centered gospel which basically involved a shift from understanding salvation as God’s change of mind about whether or not to punish me to viewing salvation as my liberation from a self-imprisoning state of mind which was punishment enough in itself. I really think this distinction is the major fault-line in the present American evangelical identity crisis, which is not really a debate between those who defend the doctrine of hell and those who reject it, but between those who need for hell to be God’s juridical punishment and those who see it as a self-imposed eternal exile that we choose when we refuse God’s advances.

After reading Nouwen, I got further corrupted by John Wesley, Karl Barth, Gustavo Gutierrez, Elsa Tamez, and Jurgen Moltmann, among many others. But Nouwen is probably the reason why when I read Rob Bell’s infamous “heretical” work Love Wins, I said, “Yeah, I already knew that.”

What makes Nouwen an especially insidious “heretic” is that the Christlike gentleness of his nature oozes out over all of his writing. He’s basically about as opposite you could be from Mark Driscoll and still be a man. So if you’re trying to come up with a personal blacklist of writers who might corrupt you from the dominant gospel of pop-evangelicalism, then definitely put Nouwen’s name on that list. If on the other hand, you’ve come to a point where what you learned in Sunday school just doesn’t add up for you and you’re starving for an account of the gospel that really is good enough news to give your life to spreading it, then definitely check out Life of the Beloved, the Wounded Healer, Return of the Prodigal Son, Reaching Out, and Creative Ministry (which I’ll probably blog about tomorrow), or anything else with Nouwen’s name on it.